Jim O'Donnell: From 'The Cellar' to his final encore, Jimy Sohns knew no other way but to rock on
IN THE END, ROCK 'N ROLL is all about attitude and energy.
Somewhere on his path from Prospect High School to "American Bandstand" and beyond, Jimy Sohns was gifted with an overload of both.
He didn't just sing songs. He defiantly summoned all of the suggestion of dark siding that a white suburban teen of the 1960s could.
With Van Morrison's "Gloria," he told us about his baby.
You know, she come around.
Adolescent imaginations could fill in the rest.
SOHNS DIED FRIDAY, July 29, at age 75. Forty years ago, it was even money that he'd make 40.
The Prospect Heights native did, with a relentless élan. His later life knew bumps and bruises. But his onstage attitude and energy held to its final coda.
The classic backdrop of Sohns was a decade pulverized by LBJ, Vietnam and the political resurrection of Richard Nixon.
The British invaded in large part because America needed some sort of distractive social Librium to enable it to crawl, catastrophized, away from the horror of JFK and Dallas.
Two years later, with four mates from the Northwest suburbs collectively known as the Shadows of Knight, Sohns helped the nation kick-start a part of its restitched rock 'n roll heart.
"Sohns ... James Sohns," he was fond of offering as punctuation during live performances.
Ian Fleming -- the creator of "Bond ... James Bond" -- would have approved. The singer had that sort of holstered swag and compelling charisma.
HE DABBLED IN BASEBALL at Prospect High (Class of '64). But his enduring playing field would instead involve thumping bass lines, three guitar chords and a cock's strut.
The great professional booster of Sohns' ascent was a fellow named Paul Sampson.
Sampson worked at the Arlington Heights Post Office. He also had the prescient ambition and good fortune to open the Arlington Record Shop on Miner between Dunton and Evergreen just before the Beatles hit.
By the summer of '64, Sampson didn't need a weatherman to tell which way the local teen musical winds were blowing. He rented the main hall of the Arlington VFW on Northwest Highway to hold weekend teen dance sessions called "The Blast."
Sohns and the Shadows became a favored band. Under old guard heat at "The V," "The Blast" was moved to temporary sanctuary at the Mount Prospect Country Club.
Finally, Sampson rented a basement space at Eastman and Vail in downtown Arlington Heights and called it "The Cellar." By popular consensus and Sampson's business intuition, Sohns and the Shadows were designated as the house band.
AS A LOCAL TEEN IDOL, his primary rival was a charmingly talented singer/guitarist named Ray Herr (St. Viator, '65).
Herr played in bands called Second Story and Orphanage. He was Jerry Mathers inside of a Paul McCartney mien. Herr eventually advanced on to Berwyn's Ides of March in time for their national hits "Vehicle" (1970) and "L.A. Goodbye" (1971).
But at "The Cellar," teen girls were torn between Sohns and Herr.
Years later, one of those young ladies -- by then AARP-eligible -- said: "Ray Herr was the guy we all wanted to cuddle with. But Jimy Sohns was the guy we all wanted to wind up in the back seat of a car with."
SOHNS GOT FIRST RUN on Herr when he and bandmates Joe Kelley, Tom Schiffour, Warren Rogers -- the son of a Paddock Publications pressman -- and Jerry McGeorge were summoned by Michigan-based Dunwich Records to record a sanitized version of Morrison's "Gloria."
Morrison's 1964 release -- in America, on Parrot Records -- included a line that suggested the protagonist's belle du jour was coming by his room to do more than compare Cliffs Notes. Major radio stations across the nation took a pious pass on playing that recording.
For Dunwich, Sohns and the Shadows softened the passage. WLS-AM (890) -- a massive hit maker in those days -- added the tune to its playlist. Deejay Art Roberts, then doing 9-to-midnights, was a particularly fervent pusher.
"The first time I heard our song on the radio was in the parking lot of McDonald's across from (Arlington Park)," Sohns later recalled. "Nothing in a 19-year-old's life prepares you for a moment like that."
For the next year or so Sohn and partners were major rock stars. Their "Gloria" reached No. 10 nationally and No. 1 on a whole lot of regional record players.
Their first album with Dunwich included the hit, a slew of covers from Delta-Chicago blues types and a clever tip of "Gloria" structure and tempo by Sohns and Rogers into a song called "The Dark Side."
To this day, the album is considered an enduring early influence on the genre later labeled "garage rock." It was punky, tight and totally teen-willed -- Prospect's answer to Mick Jagger trying to climb the water tower at Randhurst.
BUT THE ROCK COMET was difficult to sustain. By 1968, the band was splintering. Sohns began spot performing with a string of subsequent iterations that continued deep into the new millennium.
Decades later, towering stars such as Steven Van Zandt (Bruce Springsteen), Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) and Jim Peterik (Survivor after the Ides of March) would call on Sohns to juice concerts.
Along the line, one of his more modest appearances -- in tandem with his own enormous heart -- touched the soul of The Daily Herald.
IN AUGUST 1988, sportswriter Keith Reinhard walked off the face of the earth while on a 90-day sabbatical in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver.
A few months later, a concert at Ditka's Trackside was organized to help fund the involvement of a private detective in Colorado and sustain other Reinhard-related matters.
An array of regional sports and media celebrities agreed to appear. Two very good local bands, directed by the late Thom Walls and Jim Lutz, were enlisted. Red-hot Kevin Matthews, then of WLUP-AM (1000), co-hosted for nothing more than a limo ride.
THE ORGANIZER NEEDED a killer rock band to anchor the evening. He called Sohns, then little more than a casual acquaintance, in part hoping to inject some of the lingering spirit of "The Cellar."
All was explained. Sohns -- not exactly living in a French tax haven at the time -- was offered a four-figure fee for the night.
"But isn't this all going toward finding (Reinhard)?" he asked.
The answer was "yes." His response was: "Then forget about money. Make this our contribution. Just make sure the sound system is good and we all get treated OK."
THAT SATURDAY NIGHT -- Jan. 7, 1989 -- Sohns and the Shadows of Knights slayed.
His band included: Mike Gothshall, Bruce Gordon, Cindy Gothshall, Laith Alani and Chris "Bean" Weng.
They were phenomenal. He was 42 years old and it might as well have been a spring Friday evening back at "The Blast," when the Brits may have ruled the rock skies. But Jimy Sohns and the Shadows of Knight were helping to restore the ribald spirit of American hot wax.
AS REPORTED BY ALICIA FABBRE in The Daily Herald, public visitation is 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Michael's Funeral Home, 800 S. Roselle Road, Schaumburg.
Survivors include his only child -- daughter Rachel Sohns Stebbins; grandsons Jimy and Justin Stebbins; longtime partner Kathy Strahan of Roselle; and ex-wife Susan Stone of Chicago.
To the end, whatever the inner state of his energy or attitude, Sohns -- James Sohns -- knew no other way but to rock on.
Rock 'n roll will never forget.
• Jim O'Donnell's regular Sports & Media column appears Sunday and Thursday. Reach him at email@example.com.