Jo Mapes, influential Chicago folk singer, dead at 86
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Singer-songwriter Jo Mapes was an influential queen of the folk music scene who performed at Chicago’s Gate of Horn, the Playboy Club and Poor Richard’s, as well as clubs in San Francisco and Greenwich Village and at Carnegie Hall.
“She was a bohemian and a beatnik,” said her daughter Hillary Mapes Levine.
“She was very much an original and someone who influenced others who came along and did better” in terms of industry and popular acclaim, said Jimmy Tomasello, a manager of the guitar program at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
A native of Chicago, Ms. Mapes was a former roommate of Mary Travers of Peter Paul & Mary and wrote “Come On In,” a song covered by The Monkees and The Association, and “Come and Open Your Eyes,” performed by Spanky & Our Gang.
In the early 1960s, she and her guitar were featured on bills with stars including Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers and comics Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory. She appeared on TV’s “Hootenanny” with Johnny Cash and Woody Allen. She’s included on the record “Midnight Hoot” with Miriam Makeba.
Her friends included singers Bob Gibson, Odetta, Richie Havens and Harry Chapin, as well as Shel Silverstein, author of the classic children’s book “The Giving Tree,” and a composer of hit songs including Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.”
A longtime Deerfield resident, Ms. Mapes, 86, died Friday at the Brentwood health care center in Riverwoods, according to another daughter, Mimi Mapes McCloy.
“She had been ill for a while,” she said. Despite macular degeneration, “She was on Facebook for a while, and that brought her a lot of joy because her fans found her.”
“She was really a pioneer in terms of women folk singers,” said Eddie Holstein, a singer-songwriter and mainstay of the Chicago folk scene who with his brothers operated the Lincoln Avenue club Holsteins. “She goes back to the mid-’50s, just before the folk music thing broke out about 1957, ’58 [with the] Kingston Trio. And what was unique about her was she was a really good guitar player and singer, a great entertainer and just drop-dead gorgeous. She was like Marilyn Monroe with a guitar.”
Ms. Mapes worked at the Gate of Horn at Chicago and State, one of the first folk music clubs in the country.
“It was owned by Albert Grossman, who went on to be Bob Dylan’s manager, the Band, Janis Joplin,” Holstein said. “Jo was one of the stars.”
Born Joanna Shanas in Chicago, she was raised on the North Side by her grandmother, Rose Shanas, said Levine. Later, they moved to California.
In the mid-1960s, she married and settled in Chicago, Levine said. She taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Roughly 30 years later, she would perform with Bonnie Koloc, Fred Holstein and Corky Siegel at a celebration of the school.
In 1974, she played at what was billed as the First National Women’s Music Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with Labelle and Janis Ian.
Later in life, she reinvented herself as an entertainment writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, for which she interviewed B.B. King and Bette Midler, said Levine. She also worked as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson.
“The one we lived off for 13 years was a Raisin Bran commercial,” Levine said.
Ms. Mapes wrote it and sang the part of the sun, she said.
In a 1987 interview with the Sun-Times, Mapes said she didn’t own the rights to any of the eight records she recorded for the Kapp, Reprise and F.M. labels in the 1960s.
“I hate them,” she said. “I’m on albums I didn’t even know existed. I was a regular on a show called ‘Hootenanny,’ and, when that became famous, they took outtakes right off the floor and made ‘Hootenanny’ albums.”
Asked if she had any regrets, she said, “Jac Holzman of Elektra Records wanted to sign me as their ‘new girl’ singer. . . . I said I’d sign but only if I could do my material. He said no. Instead, he hired Judy Collins, whose first hit was ‘Someday Soon,’ a song I had taught her. They took my arrangement and everything. The thing that made it more difficult for me is that I was the only young woman singer at the time who was supporting three children. Judy didn’t have children then. [Joan] Baez didn’t have any children. I was trying to combine a career with supporting three kids. I missed some things because of that.”
Her four marriages ended in divorce. In addition to her daughters, Ms. Mapes is also survived by her son Michael David Mapes, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Arrangements are pending.