Dusting off an Old Chicago Gem: The Story of the Earl of Old Town

Hello and welcome back! This time around I’ve taken another look back into a chapter of Chicago history, specifically to Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood decades ago. For many Chicago residents, the walk up Wells Street near North Avenue in Old Town is a familiar one: Second City on your left, Wells on Wells on your right. If you peel back the pages of history a bit, you’d find that Old Town used to look and sound very different. What is now Cocoran's Pub was once home to a legendary folk music club called The Earl of Old Town. 

I first learned of The Earl of Old Town when I found a recording of 1970’s “The Gathering at The Earl of Old Town”.  I became enthralled with the performances song writing of Jim Post, Steve Goodman and other famed Chicago folk singers, and immediately grew curious about what exactly this place was on the front cover. After digging deeper, it was clear there was a story to tell and I didn't have to look hard to find help telling it.

To compliment the story below, I offer my own attempt at injecting new life into The Gathering's opening track called “Prepare for Invasion” by Jim Post. The original song features Post’s remarkable voice without accompaniment, so I thought I’d do my best to lend a hand. A special thanks goes out to Ed Holstein, Chris Farrell and Patti Rain for all the wonderful stories and insight they shared with me.

A look at The Earl of Old Town circa 1970, as shown in the liner notes of "The Gathering at the Earl of Old Town".

The Earl's Early Days

Earl Pionke was a proud Chicagoan through and through. Born and raised on the city’s south side, Earl held his city close to his heart. After jumping between jobs to help support his family, Pionke tended bar at a few local saloons before taking aim at opening his own.

Chicago’s famed Old Town neighborhood had become the epicenter of Chicago’s emerging music scene and Earl  knew there was an opportunity to join the movement and make something special. When Pionke first opened The Earl of Old Town 1962,  he was confident he could get people in the door. He just didn't yet know how.  

Earl Pionke at the Earl of Old Town in 1982. (Photo via the Chicago Tribune via ChicagoTribune.com)

Earl Pionke at the Earl of Old Town in 1982. (Photo via the Chicago Tribune via ChicagoTribune.com)

A colorful and boisterous man, it was Earl’s infectious personality that helped first build the reputation of his club. As longtime Chicago folk mainstay Eddie Holstein recalled during Earl’s 80th Birthday Celebration, “You don’t meet Earl Pionke, you hear him coming”. After inviting a few local folk singers to play, the unexpected rousing success of their performances set Pionke off: The Earl of Old Town was destined to showcase the emerging talent and songs of the times. 

Once the spark was lit, it didn’t take long before The Earl of Old Town quickly became the hottest club in Chicago for emerging folk music. Famed Chicago singers and songwriters including John Prine, Bonnie Koloc, Jim Post, Steve Goodman, Fred & Eddie Holstein and many others all got their start playing to the warm audiences and bare brick walls of The Earl. For Eddie Holstein, The Earl was the perfect venue for new emerging artists.

Ed Hostein in 1970 via "The Gathering at The Earl of Old Town".

Ed Hostein in 1970 via "The Gathering at The Earl of Old Town".

“You’d really learn how to deal with an audience, what songs work, what didn’t. It was a great experience”, Holstein remembers. Holstein currently teaches at The Old Town School of Folk Music and still performs around Chicagoland.

The Earl of Old Town featured live music on a nightly basis, and consistently the crowds piled in.  It was a welcoming place. The Earl was refined enough to catch your eye while still holding enough charm to make you feel at home. The intimacy of the room created an unmistakable and important sense of presence for both the audience and the performers.

“It was a listening room,” says Chicago folk veteran Chris Farrell, “you came to hear the music.”

Chris Farrell performing at the Earl of Old Town in 1975. 

The music at The Earl thrived for years and the relationship between Earl and his performers became an atypical one. They were more family than hired talent. He more a fan than a benefactor. As quoted in the liner notes of 1970’s “Gathering at the Earl of Old Town”, Pionke insists “They’re my kids, my pals, I love ‘em”.

The Magic Continues

Throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s, Earl Pionke maintained his reign atop the local folk music scene in Chicago. So many artists depended on consistent sets at The Earl, and the club’s reputation only grew over time.

As the careers of Prine, Goodman and Koloc took off nationally, their successes helped put The Earl of Old Town on the map. Soon during the mid-to-late 1970’s, musicians were flocking from all over the country to try their hand in Chicago’s folk music scene. And, as Chris Farrell remembers, “It was soon clear that The Earl of Old Town was the place to be”.  

It was a listening room. You came to hear the music.
— Chris Farrell

Inspired by the evolving career of Bob Dylan, Patti Rain was one of the many young artists looking to find their niche in the thriving Chicago music scene. A Chicago native, Rain returned to her hometown to pursue her music after spending several years in California and New York. in 1978, Rain saw an ad in the front window of The Earl looking for help serving. Primarily a painter by trade, Rain was just beginning her career as a musician and saw a glowing opportunity to get her foot in the door. Soon she began performing opening acts and sets of her own, all the while absorbing as much as possible from the musicians making their regular appearances at The Earl.

Patti Rain's 2001 Release "I&I". Patti was awarded as the LA Music Awards Americana Artist of the Year in 2010. The Album also won album of the year.

“It was my graduate school,” says Rain. “It was where I learned how to write and play”. Rain became a regular performer and still reflects fondly on her time at the Earl as the catalyst of her music career.

“The beautiful thing about The Earl was even towards the end, amazing musicians would pop in. You never knew who might stop by,” says Rain. “You’d be on the stage singing, and here comes Jackson Brown”.

When I asked Patti about some of her favorite memories from The Earl, she immediately recalled a special impromptu tribute concert she organized the night John Lennon was killed on December 8th, 1980. Along with the rest of the music world, the news of Lennon’s passing came as an unthinkable tragedy. She quickly organized a group of performers of all genres and types to come together to celebrate and pay tribute to Lennon's life.

“The room was overflowing that night, it was truly incredible,” she remembers.

The End of an Era

The music played on and the fun continued at The Earl for the next few years, but as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. After business slowed and Pionke grew older, he closed up shop in 1984, closing the books on 20 years of Chicago music history.

“It was heartbreaking,” remembers Rain.  

Pionke stayed very involved and active in the local music scene, having also been a partner in a club called Somebody Else’s Troubles on Lincoln Avenue for many years. Later, after briefly running a bar in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood, Pionke sadly fell ill to pancreatic cancer. Earl Pionke passed away in 2013 at the age of 80.

The legacy of The Earl of Old Town depends on those who continue to tell it’s story. As time marches on, stories  like that of The Earl of Old Town become more and more difficult to preserve and share. When I first asked Eddie Holstein to help illuminate what the early years of The Earl of Old Town were like he joked, “Well they’re aren't very many of us left alive, these days”. While in many ways Eddie is correct, the ripples of Earl Pionke and his beloved Earl of Old Town will hopefully continue to be resonate for years to come.

Check out my retooling of Jim Post's "Prepare For Invasion", originally recorded in 1970 at The Earl of Old Town!