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Thirsty Whale Reunion

| September 30, 2009

In The Belly Of The Thirsty Whale


It was more than 20 years ago that I last set foot inside the Thirsty Whale. The band was Holland, on the eve of their Atlantic Records release, Little Monsters. Former B’zz singer Tommy Holland had assembled a new outfit, and I was excited to see what they were like on the crowded stage. Joey Cetner’s bass and Brad Rohrssen’s drums pummeled the low-ceilinged, brick-walled space under Michael Angelo Batio’s flashy guitar riffs, as Tommy’s rough and tumble voice rasped, “Wake up the neighborhood.”

Thirsty Whale weekend begins October 23rd at Shark City in Glendale Heights. For more memories from the bands that played, click here.

That’s what the Thirsty Whale was all about, loud rock music for the party people. Owner Jimmy DeCanio took his experience running the old Rusty Nail and the High Society disco on Belmont in Chicago and put it to good use at the corner of Grand and River Road in River Grove. What used to be the Red Steer, complete with oversized bull head outside, became the Thirsty Whale, home to live rock music from the era of Jerico, Pezband, and Sherwin Spector And Sparkle, to Cheap Trick, Survivor, and Off Broadway, and on to Holland, Paradoxx, Hammeron, Cuttlass, O’Dette, and Diamond Rexx, and then to the harder rock of the ’90s like Zoetrope and Trouble. Following a weekend of Enuff Z’Nuff, the last show at the Whale featured Radakka and Stonehenge on Sunday, June 2nd, 1996.

DeCanio’s gone now, retired to Las Vegas, and so is the Thirsty Whale, replaced by an Amoco BP gas station and McDonald’s restaurant, but the echoes of national bands like Ratt, Lita Ford, Dream Theater, Foghat, King’s X, Savatage, Alice In Chains, Deicide, Nuclear Assault, and so many more still rebound off the new Golden Arches.

The bands had their fans, but the Whale had its fans, too, and thanks to Illinois Entertainer Promotions Director Tony Labarbera, the Thirsty Whale reunion show will be held on October 24th at Shark City in Glendale Heights, preceded by Whalepalooza the night before. “It was the one thing I still wanted to do, and do right,” says Labarbera, talent buyer and entertainment manager during the Whale’s last decade. “At the Thirsty Whale, you joined the club.” Some 40 of the bands that made the Whale infamous will be performing on two stages into the wee hours of the morning, and how could it be otherwise? There’s even the Web site, something that didn’t even exist back in the day, and it has all the details about tickets, bands, and Whalers, as the club’s fans are known.

DeCanio wanted to wish everybody well. “I want the reunion to go dynamite for Tony. Tony worked his tail off for the club and a lot of bands gave Tony a hard time, but Tony tried to work with so many of the locals, to try to help them, that these guys never ever would have been anywhere without Tony.

“You know what?” he continues. “The Whale was a fun place. My wife, and she worked for me for awhile, too, she said, ‘You had long-haired guys, short-haired guys. You had girls that wore spiked hair, and then you had the little preppy girls.’ The Whale was just a combination of everybody that enjoyed music. That’s all it was.”

But the Whale was much more than that, as Shadows Of Knight founder and singer Jimy Sohns points out: “The Whale consistently gave local heavier bands in the Chicago area a chance to play and gain a fanbase more than any other club that there was going.”

In 1987, Labarbera started doing all-ages shows at the Whale featuring bands like Holland, who drew 1,000 for the first one, and they proved to be a boon for the club, and for the bands like 7th Heaven and Smash Alley that got their start there. Labarbera’s experience promoting these kinds of shows at his little local church circuit, Holy Cross High School, and later at Snob’s on Grand Avenue, paid off for the Whale by creating future club regulars.

Not only did the Thirsty Whale provide local acts with a place to play, it gave them inspiration when they came and sat in the audience. As Shady Daze/Hounds guitarist Glen Rupp puts it, “Anything could happen. I remember at the Whale, Jonathan Cain would come and sit in. Jonathan Cain later joined Journey and co-wrote a lot of big hits. And Kevin Cronin came and sat in, and he used to play acoustic guitar by himself before he was in REO Speedwagon. I thought that was inspirational for guys that are young musicians, thinking that you play a place like the Whale, which is just a neighborhood spot, but a lot of the big stars would come and sit in.”

Survivor/Ides Of March founder Jim Peterik also has a place in his heart for the Whale: “It just seemed like our homebase, ground zero for Chicago bands and for the Jim Peterik Band. That’s when I started playing the Whale, back in about ’75, ’76. Always had a good crowd. Management was always very accommodating. Sound system was good. And then, gradually, as I got together Survivor, that was kind of our homebase, too, from ’78 to about ’81. We built and built and built, just like the club kept building the stage out, Survivor kept building their fanbase out of the Thirsty Whale.”

Things changed over the years, as Tommy Curran gaveway to DeCanio in 1981 after the legal drinking age was raised from 19 to 21, and the music changed, from glitter rock to more melodic fare, and then onto the heavy metal of its final decade. Billy Corgan, Sr., father of the Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman, played the Whale during the glitter years. “Those are pretty hazy days. We always packed the place, I mean, all the way down the block around the corner kind of thing. We had a good local following, mostly with Crystal.”

Corgan found a way to make the Whale a regular gig: “Because bands were all wanting so much money, and the more popular we got the more we would ask for, and we said, ‘Give us a week a month and we’ll keep this price through this block period.’ Wednesday through Saturday, five sets during the week, six on Saturday. We’d start at 9:30.”

“Jade 50’s in those days was the only band allowed to take the money at the door. We charged five bucks a head, which was two dollars more than anybody else charged to get in. This was the late ’70s early ’80s,” says Jade’s Joe Cantafio, now working for military veterans with his band the 101st Rock Division. “We played four New Year’s Eves in a row at the Thirsty Whale. That’s how you knew you were their top draw.”

Whisper/Trillion drummer Bill Wilkins concurs with most of the regulars: “The Thirsty Whale, that was a fixture, and I remember Mickey Scully having his trailer out on the side. He would always have that mobile home for the bands to party in right next to the clubs, so I always enjoyed that, because you had all the women and all the other bandmates, and everybody would just hang out there, and it was like our own little living room next to the living room. It was fun.”

Tommy Holland, whose House Of Holland headlines the reunion, was even more of a regular. “The Whale, that was my living room. That was my home, apart from just playing there so often. All the people, from Jimmy DeCanio and Billy Caputo, all the guys there. It was a family thing. It was the place you had to be,” he remembers.

Dirty Dan Buck, of the Boyzz From Illinoizz, gives it a more detailed perspective. “That room carried a certain attitude, different from the other rooms, different from the Haymakers, the Monopoly’s, the B. Ginnings. Those kind of had a different thing going on, a level of sophistication or whatever. I don’t know what it would be called. But when it came to the Thirsty Whale, man, everything was just down and dirty. I mean, it was just great. And everything about it exuded that, you know? The attitude of the people when you walked in, just the way you were taken care of up in the dressing room, it was just different. And the audience carried that in, too, with them.”

No matter whom we called, the memories flowed. Mark O’Dette, of Vengeance and O’Dette, says, “The Whale was the club to play in Chicago”; Paradoxx guitarist Jon Dobbs thinks of it as a father, “The Whale played a huge part of my early years, not only as a struggling musician, but as a person”; and Prism/Europe vocalist Dave Matthews remembers it like the center of the universe: “All paths crossed at the Thirsty Whale.”

Illinois Entertainer founder Ken Voss has a fond place in his heart for the Whale. “The thing I remember most about the Thirsty Whale was how long the bands had to play.” Former Ad Director Ron Ramelli adds, “I always knew that I’d run into some of the old gang at the Whale.” Thirsty Whale house soundman Jim Tsicouris sums it all up: “It was the wildest ride of my life.”

— Guy C. Arnston

For more memories from the bands that played, click here.

Category: Features, Monthly

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Comments (32)

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  1. Maria says:

    Wow Guy, thanks for the memories. I spent many weekends at Thirsty Whale in the ’80’s.
    Your article is like an acid flashback!!

  2. Glad that my ol’ pal Billy Corgan Tweeted this; I haven’t been reading IE since moving to LA in 1998! (Miss y’all!!) Both the Entertainer & the Whale were formative stomping grounds, for those of us in the entertainment biz (surely, many thousands!) — thanks to everyone who made it great!!

  3. The Thirsty Whale was truly the Plymouth Rock of the band scene. If you didn’t land a show there in your band career, you never made it.

  4. JR says:

    I wish they’d bulldoze the McDonalds and BP gas station and build a new club there. I know it wouldn’t be the same, but anything would be better than what we have now — a corner with no character. At least Gene and Jude’s is still going strong though!

  5. bez says:

    Wow – really cool story. I feel like
    its 1986 all over again. Thanks for the memories – long live The Whale

  6. Bill M says:

    Very well written. So cool to mention Sparkle and the late, great Sherwin Spector. Saw them there so many times as a youngster and they really inspired me more than any live act to get on a stage.

  7. Matt Kissane says:

    I actually video taped the second to last show at the Whale with Enuff Z’nuff! The band had several special guests join them onstage including Nash Kato from Urge Overkill and Jim Ellison from Material Issue. If you ever go to the McDonald’s that is there now they have a poster near the counter for this show. Matt Kissane

  8. George Millspaugh- Big G says:

    It was nice reading about all the bands and good times at the Whale, but you forgot about my band, The Pearl Handle Band. We Played there alot during the late 70’s and early 80’s. I hope the reunion goes well. Say hi to Dan Buck from Big G.
    Thanks, Big G

  9. Scott says:

    The Whale was a dark dank smelly place. The only good view of the stage was right in front of it and there wasnt that much room right in fromt of it. It was one of the premier places to play but I dont know why everyone is making it out to be more than it was. The ceiling was way too low and the sound was louder than it was quality. I remember saying to the sound man “Hey we would rather have good sound than just loud sound” You never got anything unless you greased some palm! I do give the owner and management credit. They took a crappy place and made it the place to be…with all its downfalls! The Beatles came out of a club in Europe, I think it was the cavern. They played that club 8 hours a day, that’s how they got so good at their craft. I dont think if you asked if they particularily liked the club they would say yes, but they did use it as a launching pad. Did I have fun there?? I guess so mostly. Yeah mostly, but it was more the people that hung out there. The staff was tired of putting up with attitudes of everyone, bands and patrons. They were never in that great of a mood. My band played all over chicago the suburbs, indiana, iowa, and wisconsin. We were always treated with respect at all of those clubs; Avalon, China club, standing room only, stay out west, interactions lounge, Chances R,(just to name a few) but the Whale always treated everyone like sh*t. That’s what they did, it wasn’t directed at any one individual it was directed at everybody. Hey they were in it to make money and I dont blame them…I still had fun. Take the awesome bands and the awesome fans out of a sh*tty venue and put them in a decent place like Shark city and it will be better than any night at the Whale. I miss the fans, and all the friends I made from all the other bands. Tribe of none, The plague (Troy “roach” Coach) Time Beings, Imagine That!, Johnny Chainsaw, Daisy Chain (Mind Bomb, captain lovejoy and the love rockets, Pivotman, SuperMercado) Meat Puppets, Bob Pucchi and everyone at Metropolis. I dont label any of the music or people that hung there, but I do miss them. Even Tony Labarbera. (edit: admin). I loved to p*ss him off!!! Hey Shelly G how are you???

  10. bez says:

    Great show last night. Felt like a family reunion. Lots of friendly and not-so-friendly faces :) – I have not seen in 20 years. Many of us have survived and even thrived since the Whale closed. 7th Heaven sounded great, miss that original line-up. Mark O’ Dette’s voice is better than ever. Holland, Dirt, Mike – The Boyzz – I could go on and on. I hope there’s a sequel.

  11. Roger says:

    Loved the Thirsty Whale!! It was the beginning and ending spot for so many acts. This is one of those places you played on the way up and on the way down. Saw Holland there along with InfraRed. Other bands I saw were; Kashmir, Brick Shithouse, Precipice, 7th Omen, Turbulance, and many many more.

    Played there in a few bands too – Terminal Illness and Turtle Hurd.

    Got to see The James Young Group there a few times. Like I said – the place to be on the way up and the way down.

    Miss the Whale. Now that it’s gone I go to Gene and Judes a lot less.

  12. Yvonne says:

    I had no idea that Sherwin Spector had passed. What happened to him. I used to know him quite well.

  13. Joe says:

    Hey! For all you ROCK fans from the Whale days! If you are going to KISS tonight at United Center (or coming from the South Side) check out the afterparty at …. (admin: you guys should consider taking out an ad)

  14. Dennis says:

    Great memories from this article. I was one of the bass players who played in both Sparkle and Spector. Real shame about Sherwin…we had some great times both on and off stage. The Whale was always one of my favorite clubs to play along with Beginnings in Schaumberg. Jamming with Jimmy Sohns was always a blast…the only time I got to play guitar instead of bass. Sure do miss those days and all the great players that I had the honor to be playing the circuit with. God Bless. Dennis

  15. David Lacher says:

    Thanks to this post I do not seem like an idiot. I had an argument with my wife and this proves I was right, The Whale was in River Grove, NOT in River Forest. Thanks!

  16. Mike says:

    Sherwin Spector and Sparkle were the best band I have ever seen at the Whale, or any of the local bars for that matter. Great memories reading about the Whale, sure makes me miss the 70s, and even more so when i am sitting at Gene & Judes having a hotdog and seeing a McDonalds where the Whale used to be.

  17. MuscleHead!!! says:

    hello people,musclehead here!!!
    I had a great time working there and working with the bands.i wish the whle was still there because,I would be there working the sound or lights.that is the place where i learned how to run sound and keep the bands on a time slot. I do miss the employee’s and the people who showed up to watch the bands.I even let some people see on the side of the stage when they couldn’t see infront or on the sides.i did see some fights happen there and i know if i got into a fight, my back would be covered!! thanks for the memories and I MISS YOU ALL!!!

  18. Damon says:

    I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who have such kind words to say about my father ( Sherwin Spector ). Although I was too young to appreciate his talent, I love to hear from those of you who did!

    I love and miss you very much Dad!


  19. Dennis says:

    Damon, I had the pleasure and honor of playing bass with your dad Sherwin. He was a great talent and one of the best singers and front men to ever take a stage. You should be very proud. Keep the faith and remember him with a smile. I know I do. Best to you and the family. Dennis

  20. patricia says:

    is this a club for whales ?????

  21. ralph says:

    the best: paradoxx, hammeron, smash alley, widows rose, diamond rexx, hexen.

  22. Paula says:

    Sherwin Spector beside being talented, also left behind 3 sons, that all have that Sherwin charm. I should know I’m a mother to the youngest one Easton. Damon if you see this please try to find Easton on face book, he has been trying to locate you and Ryan. We’d really love to see you both, and see how the rest of the family is doing. The Whale might have smelled like a dead whale, but bring back those days, the bands, the music, Loved the whale!

  23. Dennis says:

    Are you the Paula that lived with Sherwin and I in a house in Bartlett?? If so, look me up on Facebook. Dennis Szot

  24. Jayne and Bob Hasselroth says:

    Looking forward to seeing the show with Scarlett Fever on October 6th. They are my favorite cover band in the Chicagoland area. We are planning on bringing our birthday party for Adam Simonsen to the Thirsty Whale that night. Scarlett Fever is always a good time. See you there!

  25. Ronnie Laas says:

    I was the founder of Sparkle, those were some good days. Sherwin was quite
    a talent. Too bad his career didn’t develop -but we had good times all over the country…

  26. Alex says:

    Always enjoyed the times spent at the WHALE. Especially when The KIND played there. Another dark, dank, smelly, fun as hell rock bar was The ROCK GARDEN in Elmhurst…

  27. Bari Tarmon says:

    I was the soundman for two bands that frequented Thirsty Whale: Love Craft and Emerald back in 1978 and 1979. The place was not music friendly and acoustics were terrible, but the place typically packed them in.

    Emerald broke up and was picked up as the backing band for Sherwin Spector at one point, and I was asked by the keyboard player Scott Kaufman to set up his B3, Baby Grand, Leslie and synth for their opening show. Jim Sohns was the sound mixer as they were using his PA system. I can’t remember where that show took place, perhaps at B’ginnings.

  28. JR says:

    I had the great pleasure of helping the Spector crew when they played many of those old venues. Beginnings in Schaumburg, Rock Warehouse in palatine and of course the Whale. They were a great bunch of guys, Dennis, Scott were fantastic musicians. Only wish we had some of the recordings to listen to. Lions & Tigers and Bears, I know you, one hell of a show only a few of the great songs I miss hearing. Thanks for the memories RIP Sherwin you are missed.

  29. Mike DeFoy says:

    Ah yes, the old Sky Pilot days. We played The Whale right after I hired the Nirvana/Smashing Pumpkins studio to record our tunes. We had a great time there.

  30. Rich says:

    Hey to beri T, Dennis and Paula.
    Well if anyone wants that recording and also live one, I do have both. Reach out
    Rich K

  31. Mike M. says:

    Rich — I would love to get a hold of the recordings. How do I reach out to you? Thanks! Mike

  32. Mike says:

    Hey Rich I would also love to get my hands on that recording and any others you may have, and would be happy to pay for them, please let me know how to reach out to you?