The Del-Crustaceans

"Music for Parties or Brawls"

THE DEL-CRUSTACEANS HISTORY

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        The Del-Crustaceans were formed in the summer of 1971 by Robert Van Sant (vocals), Rick Telander (guitar, vocals), and Paul ``Pablo” Lundberg (guitar, vocals), all of whom had met in a poetry class that spring at Northwestern University. Almost immediately members Ron Berler (vocals, tambourine), formerly of the pre-punk bank Chicken Unknown, Tom ``Gabby” Gavin (bass and saxophone)—formerly a member of the Beta Theta Pi house band which featured longtime fraternity chef, Archie, on vocals-- joined, as well as a succession of drummers, including Gregg Fusaro, Matt Formato, Jack Dustin, Bill Blair, Tony ``Timepiece” Pods, Bob Larsen (also a soulful singer and owner of a skull tattoo on his upper arm) and, upon occasion, virtually anyone who thought he could play in a rock band and hold two sticks while banging on a tom-tom.

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        The band name itself, though seemingly nonsensical, if not ridiculous, has a somewhat rational explanation. In the beginning, when the need for a band name was barely a blip on the brain radars of Telander and Van Sant, the pair started tossing out suggestions to each other while seated on the porch steps at their house, in between nips on a whiskey bottle and off-key a capella renditions of old doo-wop songs they had heard on AM radio as kids, Van Sant in Darien, Connecticut, Telander in Peoria, Ill. ``There’s the Temptations, the Hesitations, the Ovations, the Sensations,’’ said Van Sant. ``How about something like that?’’ The young men thought. Nothing came to mind except absurdities like constipations, deviations, prostrations. Van Sant suddenly said, ``Crustaceans!’’

They both nodded.  But Telander was slightly troubled by the nautical implication of the crab/lobster/crawfish catchall term.  This was a Midwestern band—or pair, sometimes trio, of drunks—not a fishing ship, after all.  He suggested a prefix that might make the title more musical sounding.  Both youngsters loved the 1950s mixed-race Del-Vikings, and ``Come Go With me’’ was one of their favorite porch tunes. Telander even owned the original 45. Plus, there were bands named the Delfonics, Dick Dale & the Del-Tones, the Del-Aires, even the Dells.

``How about Del-Crustaceans?’’ said Telander, thinking this whole thing would last about another week. The name meant nothing, but also, in its way, everything.  Done deal. Onward it went.

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        The Del-Crustaceans had many early adventures, including playing at the infamous ``Demolition Party’’ at Latham House on the Northwestern Evanston campus in 1972. Though the old residential building was scheduled for destruction, it was not scheduled to be torn down anytime soon, and the damage done from sledgehammers, ruined walls and exposed electrical wiring, and even severely compromised support beams in the basement (an axe had been used) during that rowdy, drunken debacle made the dorm unsafe for human dwelling.  Some students were thrown out of school, others disciplined, and all had to be relocated. The Del-Crustaceans’ reputation (they had luckily avoided legal consequences for the mayhem) as a fun party band was building.

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        The lack of a fulltime drummer was problematic, however, and it wasn’t until Jack Lau joined the band in 1973 that the D-C’s reached their full potential as a raucous, hard-partying group ready to play any venue as long as a good time was mandated.  The band, briefly and quaintly known as ``Pablo and the Del-Crustaceans,’’ simply because of the saucy ring to it, became the Del-Crustaceans once Pablo Lundberg joined the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad as a worker and moved back to Massachusetts.  The addition of former NU students Drew Hannah (a much-needed lead guitarist, as well as  vocalist; formerly with Lucky Mud) and Mike McDonnell (keyboards) made the band complete for years to come. Moreover, Peter ``Coach’’ Johnson, an NU alum and grad student who had started working at an Evanston bank, was also a key pickup, as he had been singing and filling in randomly on the skinny, red Farfisa organ (which the band had acquired somehow) almost since the beginning. Johnson had sung in his Milwaukee high school choir and played offensive lineman for the Bayview Red Cats football team.  His band pay in the early days consisted of a fifth of Jack Daniels at the end of each gig.

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        The Del-Crustaceans played at many venues and in many cities and states, including memorable stands at the Bull & Whistle Tavern in Key West, Fla., the Water Club in New York City, Lake Geneva Country Club in Wis., and some fancy bar in Los Angeles, plus countless taverns, frat parties, and weddings throughout the Chicagoland area.  

All bands pay their dues in the early years, and the Dels were no exception.  They once played at a bar mitzvah where only soft drinks and potato chips were served, in the basement of a small house in Skokie. They played in the basement of the Evanston YMCA (among their very first gigs) in front of no more than half a dozen people. They also played—some believe for the first time as a real, read: invited, band, though no drummer had yet joined—in the summer of 1971 at a campus house called ``Big Pink,’’ where numerous hippies and students lived.

Since several band members and numerous friends—including a number of active and graduated Northwestern football players-- lived in an old, huge, decrepit, three-story, two house at the corner of Emerson and Asbury called ``Sleepy Hollow’’ (named for the wooden subdivision sign someone had stolen from a western suburb and planted in the front yard), the early Dels often played in that building’s front living room. These open parties at ``the Hollow’’ were attended by an assortment of campus guests and strangers, and, as one might expect, the affairs were not well regulated. The music was often shut down by Evanston police.

It was obvious to the Dels that they needed a home base, away from home, and they soon found a welcome hosting site at the Buckhorn Bar off Howard Street near the Juneway Terrace apartments, a notorious crime locale where south Evanston and northern Chicago meet.  A hillbilly and Mexican bar, the Buckhorn was the site of rowdy drinking and occasional fights, but was generally a goodtime venue when the Del-Crustaceans played.  The band’s standard pay was $10 a man, plus all the tap beer they could drink. At one party during this time, Van Sant sang with both arms in slings, having broken each elbow after tripping over a low chain fence in front of an apartment building and landing on the sidewalk.

         The band gradually increased its repertoire from Ricky Nelson, Dion & the Belmonts, the Rolling Stones, and Buddy Holly songs, and added tunes by the Animals, Charlie Pride, Alice Cooper, Carl Perkins, Smoky Robinson, the Rivieras, and the Doors, among others, to their catalogue.  They tinkered with writing their own material, but a lack of musical skill and the studied belief that the best rock songs had already been written, made them stick with fashioning their personalized covers of the best party music around.

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        In time they became more proficient with their instruments and dance routines (running wildly through the crowd while playing ``Runaway’’ and leading conga lines to ``Locomotion’’ were standard), and they began to command decent pay for their performances. Though they continued to play at low-rent bars and drunken frat parties, the band also appeared at places like the posh Streeterville Casino Club and the members-only Saddle & Cycle Club on Chicago’s North Side. Indeed, the band played at ``The Saddle’’ many times, doing one memorable, sweltering summer night gig under a massive tent while clad only in gym shoes and Speedos. And the beer-sodden St. Patrick’s Day parties they fronted before huge crowds at the regal—now torn down-- Germania Club on the Gold Coast continue to be the stuff of lore.

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        In 1987 founding member Robert Van Sant died of a heart attack at age 38 after having moved to New York.  In time Gabby Gavin would leave the band, after moving to Michigan. Not long after, drummer Lau would leave the band for business and personal reasons, eventually ending up in Hawaii. 

        Still, the Del-Crustaceans carried on. New bass player Dave Bradshaw—who had been there with his older brother Bill recording the Dels in the Bradshaw home basement studio in the late-1970s --would succumb to cancer in 2008, and Drew Hannah and Mike McDonnell, who had moved to Boston and New York, respectively, would gradually ease out of the band. Early member Ron Berler, too, moved to New York, and the difficulty and cost of flying everybody in for Chicago area jobs proved too hard for the band to maintain. Other members of the band picked up the dancing and vocal parts vacated by those who had left.  Ron Stein, an excellent lead guitar player who had played in many bands, including for a spell, in Japan, and who met Telander at a local rec center, took Hannah’s spot. Brian Mott, former multi-instrumentalist leader of the Young Hats, and longtime friend and fill-in player with the Del-Crustaceans, took over on keyboards. Mott, now living in Madison, Wis., once had been the soloing pianist at Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel lobby bar. At times, notably the Del-Crustaceans’ epic 2008 ``Deer Camp Tour’’ of Upper Peninsula bars in Ontonagon and Bruce Crossing, Mich., Mott added the bass lines on his organ—ala the Doors-- and the Dels played as a foursome.

        Shortly after that winter trip, Fred Koch, from the Chicago band the Hellhounds, became the bass player for the Del-Crustaceans, taking over the void left by Bradshaw’s passing. In 2015 Giray Emsun, a friend of lead guitarist Stein’s from another band, would replace Koch on bass. Koch, who was playing in a Lake Bluff church group and a ukulele band, as well as with his Hellhounds, simply could not keep up the musical grind. Emsun, a painter and salesman, was a godsend and perfect fit for the Dels and their roots party act.

        Shortly after that winter trip, Fred Koch, from the Chicago band the Hellhounds, became the bass player for the Del-Crustaceans, taking over the void left by Bradshaw’s passing. In 2015 Giray Emsun, a friend of lead guitarist Stein’s from another band, would replace Koch on bass. Koch, who was playing in a Lake Bluff church group and a ukulele band, as well as with his Hellhounds, simply could not keep up the musical grind. Emsun, a painter and salesman, was a godsend and perfect fit for the Dels and their roots party act.

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        Through the years the band has played with a variety of musical guests, including Bill Murray and his brothers, the cast of the rock musical, ``Million Dollar Quartet,’’ and Chicago blues legend Lonnie Brooks.

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        While waiting to go on at the band’s ``Next Year Day Party’’ in Wrigleyville in 2010, Brooks sat with some of the band members and talked about driving a truck between jobs and about playing with blues greats like Jimmy Reed, who had to be so drunk to play, said Brooks, that he couldn’t remember lyrics and often was off tempo on his songs. Louisiana-born Brooks—who only needed his trusty guitar and a Fender quad-reverb amp to perform--also told about coming up to Chicago from St. Louis with his friend, Sam Cooke, perhaps the greatest singer in rock’s history. When the Dels backed up Brooks and sang the choruses on  ``Hey, Bartender’’ and ``Sweet Home Chicago’’ with him that night, it was one of the highlights of their collective careers. Brooks died at 83 in April, 2017. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel eulogized him as a ``Chicago blues legend with a towering talent and soulful style’’ whose ``career inspired generations of music lovers…from the clubs of Chicago’s West Side to the concert halls of Europe and beyond.’’

        The Del-Crustaceans preferred performance setting these days is to have all six of the current players together on stage, regardless of travel issues—Telander, Johnson, Stein, Mott, Emsun, and drummer Mike Gassman—and to play the rock tunes they have played forever and love with a passion. (A word about drummer Gassman: the former owner of a drum shop in Evanston, the local musician had long filled in with the Dels when there was a void at drums, and his cheery personality and long history in many bands (he once played with Muddy Waters at the Checkerboard Lounge)—as well as his occasional standup joke orations on stage, entitled ``Drum Schtick,’’—have made him the heart of the band. At times, Telander’s son, Zack, has filled in or even taken over for Gassman on drums in longer night sessions, and that has been joyful, too.)

         The Del-Crustaceans have now been playing for 46 years, and as long as there is a place to store their equipment, and the mates have not succumbed to dementia or the many ravishes of passing time, and people still want to hear their music, the guys intend to play forever.