Q & A with Bill FitzGerald
Owner of the landmark nightclub for American roots music in west suburban Berwyn
Close to 40 years ago, when a young house painter, just out of high school, spotted a run-down building with good bones on Roosevelt Road in Berwyn, not in his wildest imagination did he believe that this would one day be a landmark. Yet club owner Bill FitzGerald, with the help of his family, succeeded in turning his early passion for rock & roll into the Chicago home of American roots music, hosting national artists in everything from rock, rhythm and blues, to Louisiana jazz and Cajun zydeco. FitzGerald’s also runs the American Jazz Festival, now in its 37th year. WSL talked with FitzGerald as he plans the sale of the club and his own retirement.
What brought you to the Chicago area?
BF: I grew up near Cleveland — a little town called Rocky River — then Cincinnati. My dad got job as editor of a fledgling magazine, Nuclear News, in Chicago. We ended up moving to Oak Park when I was a junior in high school. It was a nice part of town, with older homes and good schools. I think it was 1969 — I’m 65 now, so do the math.
And you attended Oak Park-River Forest?
BF: Yes. I got put back in my classes immediately — I was so far behind. It was a much better school, but it was a big shock to lose all my friendships.
What were your first impressions?
BF: It was very, ah, depressing, to have to move and start anew. By my senior year things turned around for me and I had a good group of friends. And I was doing better in school than I had been. Chicago just had so much going for it, you know?
What got you interested in music?
BF: I got to go to concerts at Cincinnati Gardens — Jimmy Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead. It was pretty cool. Then just out of high school in Oak Park, I started a house painting business, just to make money. It was a good kick-around kind of job to have. I had the freedom to pursue what I really enjoyed — live music. Living close to Chicago and owning my own car, I started going down to the city to go to concerts or to bars that had live music, and blues clubs. I remember seeing Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the Auditorium Theatre — I bought a single ticket. What a great thing.
Was there anything going on in the suburbs back then?
BF: No, not so much, with Oak Park being dry. There were a couple of local bands that made a little noise. I was interested in national acts that I was listening to on LPs. I was that guy at Val’s Halla, the longtime record store here in Oak Park. I would buy one or two albums almost every week — looking for something great to listen to. I’d ask Val to suggest something to listen to and I learned a lot from that.
What led you to open FitzGerald’s?
BF: I was a big fan of music environments — the different places you could see live music. I loved the excitement outside of a club. I thought it was part of the deal. And I kind of got into old buildings. My father was into restorations — every house was a fixer upper. We had a New Year’s Day brunch — hung over, talking, starting to drink again. We were talking about live music — and wouldn’t it be fun to open a bar? Then I said, ‘Hey, I know this place in Berwyn.’ The building kind of spoke to me, but you’d never have thought of this area being able to support a night club.
And the place was up for sale?
BF: Yes. After that conversation we started making enquiries — me, my dad and my brother, Chris. The owner was anxious to sell and we were able to buy it very inexpensively and assume the mortgage. It was a wreck of a building! It took a good nine months to rehab and we did most of the work ourselves. And the place had a history with music — famous jazz musicians had played there back in the 40s and 50s. That gave us a little spark.
What do you recall about the opening?
BF: Andy’s Jazz Club in Chicago helped us put a band together to open with. They called it the Six Year Old Jazz Stomp Band and it featured really high-quality musicians you’re only going to find in Chicago. It was a crazy opening and great fun. In that first year we had music seven nights a week. We had Blind John Davis from the blues scene in Chicago. We booked the Marcia Ball Band from Austin, Texas, our first out-of-town booking. Marcia turned us on to a lot of stuff — Gulf Coast blues, rock and roll, zydeco and Texas guitar. She ordered me to go to the Jazz Heritage Festival in New Orleans that spring. It was something else — total immersion in what a club could be. From there, it seemed it just kept rolling and boomed. We did all kinds of great things. We had Clifton Chenier and other musicians from Alligator Records. I’m so proud of that — he’s a legendary character.
Were you surprised how fast it took off?
BF: It was great timing. It’s just not supposed to happen in the suburbs. But we proved them wrong. Once people discovered the club — the atmosphere, the layout, how good the sound was — it wasn’t long before they made the trip out from Chicago. Pretty much right off the bat we were embraced by Chicago music journalists and that helped us bring great artists out here.
What are some of the acts you’ve had?
BF: It’s really nice to be able to say that we were probably the first venue to book Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was right before his album came out and he just took off. Los Lobos played our club. XRT broke their album “Will the Wolf Survive?” here. Johnny Reno just tore it up at FitzGerald’s.
Tell our readers about the American Jazz Festival, now in it’s 37th year.
BF: It’s totally unique. It’s small — almost like a yard party. But what you’re getting is a very condensed experience. There’s room for about 1,500 people on the property, but I get a line-up that you might see in a park that holds 10,000 people. The quality of the music we present is outstanding.
What’s next for you?
BF: My wife Kate and I are moving into retirement. I’m pushing to sell our house in Oak Park and use that money to fix up a couple of properties we bought up on the Mississippi River in Iowa. People tell me FitzGerald’s really is a landmark — going forward, we hope our family and staff can help guide it into another era here.
Do you play an instrument? No. I always knew how to play the stylus and the turntable (laughs) . I was good at that. I had pretty good long-finger-and-thumb action there.
An early bird or a night owl? A night owl, but as I get older I want to see those birds in the morning.
How do you think people describe you? I ‘d say people feel I’m easy-going, friendly — but be careful!
What music do you listen to in the car? I listen to a lot of NPR. I’ve really gotten to love the programming — roots, blues or folk — from some stations in the place we’re going to retire to, the Wisconsin-Iowa area. It just feels like a fresh deck of cards.
Best spot for a quick bite? A lot of the places we used to love are not there any more. I like Goldyburgers in Forest Park. That was a favorite spot.
What will you miss most about FitzGerald’s? I think I’ll miss the excitement, the feeling that something’s building.Edit Module