The Tasty Force of Tom Piekarski

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The bass player is known for being in the background.

He or she is the steady heartbeat, unassuming in the shadows, but often the glue that binds a country or rock band. So it is not surprising that Friday’s sudden death of bassist Tom “Pickles” Piekarski stunned the Chicago music community. Tributes were posted throughout social media. Tears were shed.

Mr. Piekarski’s empathetic playing and warm personality iluminated thousands of fans since the late 1970s.

He was 61. He had suffered a heart attack while on the couch of his parent’s McHenry home. Mr. Pierkaski had moved into the home in 1997 to take care of his parents. 

He died on the same sofa that his mother Dorothy “Dodo” Piekarski died on in May of 1999. 

When his sister Linda found Mr. Piekarski, his beloved dog James Jamerson was curled up at his feet. The Golden Lab was named after the late Motown session bassist.

Mr. Piekarski was bassist in the Bad Examples and the Famous Potatoes. He was bassist for Mike Jordan and the Rockamatics, the best “bar” band Chicago has ever seen, an off shoot of John Prine’s late 1970s touring band, of which Mr. Pierkarski was also a member.

Bad Examples founder Ralph Covert remembered driving to a 1992 gig in Sioux Falls, S.D. Mr. Piekarski had  spent the day cooking up a batch of his award winning jambalaya. Time simmered and the band began talking about which one of the members would expire first. Mr. Pierkaski was expected to outlive them all. 

But, just in case, he said he wanted a New Orleans style funeral that featured his jambalaya recipe.

And that is what will happen at 7 p.m. Wednesday at FitzGerald’s, 6615 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn. Members from all of Mr. Piekarski’s bands from John Prine forward through Betsy and the Boneshakers and the Bad Examples will perform. A video montage will be shown. There will be a celebratory chorus.

Mr. Piekarski did not miss a note.

In 1994 he started FitzGerald’s annual jambalya cookoff on a bet that he made the best jambalya. 

And Mr. Piekarski  won by deploying a chicken stock that took 8 to 12 hours to prepare. 

“I always looked forward to seeing Pickles,” club owner Bill FitzGerald said on Saturday. “Because anything he was involved with were the best times at FitzGerald’s.”

Mr. Piekarski was known for a  tilted beret he began wearing at age 12 and dark sunglasses. He had a playful smile that opened doors at long gone Chicago honky tonks such as Mr. Kiley’s on West Belmont, P.J. Flaherty’s in Evergreen Park and Lounge Ax on North Lincoln Avenue. When the Beat Kitchen opened in 1990 on West Belmont, his acumen as a chef was so well know he became a consultant in the kitchen.

He had focus.

“I’ve always preferred bass players that played what they were supposed to play,” Mr. Piekarski told me in a 1987 conversation over coffee at Orphan’s on Lincoln Avenue. “I firmly believe you’re supposed to hear bass playing a certain way. Guys who are tasty, like Leland Sklar [James Taylor’s bassist], really overplayed early in their careers. Throughout the years they got tastier and tastier. I remember hearing Sklar when he first started out and he played like a lead player. Throughout the years, there were less and less notes placed in more and more of the right places.

Pickles, far left, 1967

This is why Mr. Piekraski was such a beloved bandmate.

Mr. Piekarski was born and raised in Humboldt Park. His father was a postal worker, his mother was a supply clerk. Mr. Piekarski originally wanted to play drums but he remembered the rich kid in the neighborhood was the only one to have money for a drum set.

His first guitar teacher was of note.

He was the Rev. Ian Douglas Mitchell, the composer of the genre’-bending American Folk Song Mass. Mr. Piekarski and his sister Linda took lessons from Rev. Mitchell at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Humboldt Park–when the activist priest wasn’t appearing at the Earl of Old Town. After his Chicago church burned down Rev. Mitchell was transferred to California, which was more in tune with folk music in church. Rev. Mitchell wound up appearing on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”  with his pal Steve McQueen.

Mr. Piekarski’s  first musical break was as bassist for the American Highliters, a hillbilly soul band that toured Korea between 1972 and 1974 courtesy of Uncle Sam. The band’s lead singer and saxophone player was a former sideman with the soul dance group Archie Bell and the Drells. Mr. Piekarski was a clerk-typist during his two-year stint in the U.S. Army.

Archie Bell & the Drells.

After his discharge, Mr. Piekarski returned to Chicago and played with the late Mark “The Blues Cannon” Hannon in 1976. In 1977 he joined the John Burns Band—led by the son of Jethro Burns of Homer & Jethro fame–before joining the John Prine backing band. 

The group began touring with Prine for his 1977 “Bruised Orange” album. Besides Mr. Piekraski, it featured Burns, Angelo Varias on drums (who had played on a Jethro Burns Flying Fish album), Bob Hoban on keyboards, and for the first year Howard Levy on harmonica.

Mr. Piekraski loved the freedom the group was given. “John (Prine) isn’t really like Doc Severinsen in telling guys what to do,” he told me.

On Sunday Varias said, “I didn’t know him until the auditions for the Prine band. We hit it off. I’m a spontaneous player and he’s a real right- down- the- road player. With that band and any succeeding bands he was the force everybody would pivot off of. He was the guy who held stuff together. You always knew Tom was going to have a big sound and be real strong. If I had to categorize it musically, he was sort of a Charlie Watts. Not too many frills, but invaluable because he was solid and keep it chugging along.”

One of the band’s crowning moments came in 1980 when they played Carnegie Hall with Prine.

Mr. Piekarski joined the Bad Examples in 1988 and remained with the popular pop-rock band until his death. Covert said, “I was having a long conversation with Corky Siegel about musicians and he was telling me all the reasons bass players are nightmares. He said, ‘Who’s your bass player again?’ I said, ‘Pickles Piekarski.’ Corky said, ‘Never mind what I just told you.

There’s Pickles Piekarski and there’s all other bass players.

Bad Examples (Pickles far right), stepping up to the plate at Wrigley Field.

(Courtesy of Waterdog Records)

Covert continued, “He always held down everything that was supposed to be there but at the same time always creating, always making musical choices. He’s the only bass player I’ve ever listened to–maybe Paul McCartney and James Jamerson–who always surprise me with the musicality of their bass parts.” Covert’s voice broke. He said, “He was just profoundly musical and had such an intiuitive grasp.”

When John Prine was off the road his group appeared as the Famous Potatoes, which became the unofficial house band at FitzGerald’s in the roadhouse’s nascent years. “They were really key in the development of our club,” FitzGerald said. “They’d play every eight weeks and it was like hitting a home run in a championsip game. The crowd would cheer real loud. You don’t hear that at concerts too often. 

“They made it feel like a club where people felt they were part of something.”

In 1984 the band splintered when Mr. Piekarski, Varias and Jordan formed Mike Jordan and the Rockamatics. Jordan was killed in a 1992 car crash outside of St. Louis, Mo. at the age of 37.

Mr. Piekarski shall always play on in my heart.

We had hired Mike Jordan and the Rockamatics to play our 1986 wedding reception in Oak Brook. Jordan passed on singing the dramatic low parts of our selected wedding song, the Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Mr. Piekarski smiled and graciously took the lead. He watched us dance in our red Chuck Taylors. Our audience loved it.

He did not miss a beat.

This bass player knew the best music comes from the bottom of your heart.

Mr. Piekarski is survived by Ed and Linda Marron, (sister), and nephew Ryan and Yola Marron, and their two kids Daniel and Michael. Also nephew and niece Ben and Corinne Golzer and ex-wife Kim Berez. He was godfather to Ryan and Ralph Covert’s daughter Fiona Grey Schenkelberg, He was preceded in death by his mother and his father Harry “Peanuts” Piekarski.


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