Route 66 Song Of The Week anniversary edition:  Teri Thornton Sings Open Highway

Hello again, fellow road music lovers!  This being the end of the week of Route 66’s 89th birthday, we thought we’d treat you to something special:  a rendition of Nelson Riddle’s classic “Route 66 Theme” sung with lyrics.  To our knowledge, there is only one vocalist who ever recorded Riddle’s theme:  the late Teri Thornton.  It was the title track to her third solo album, Teri Thornton Sings Open Highway.  And courtesy of our audio clip below, you get to hear it!  (Sorry, there is no music video for this track.)  It has that just-right rhythm for road music, with Riddle’s swinging, sophisticated style – the epitome of 1960s cool.

One unabashed admirer remarked that Teri Thornton was probably one of the best-kept secrets of her time.  I heartily agree.  While in her prime, Thornton was no less than Ella Fitzgerald’s favorite female vocalist (that’s what Ella told Down Beat magazine) – and that’s really saying something.  Famed saxophonist Cannonball Adderley called her “the greatest voice since Ella Fitzgerald.”  Trumpeter Clark Terry worked with Teri on several projects early in her career.  Even better, the liner notes for this original vinyl LP album, her third and the only one for Columbia Records, were written by another jazz great and fellow Columbia artist – Tony Bennett.  Here’s what he had to say:  “Teri sings with life, feeling, intensity, intelligence, and taste.  She’s the first singer in years who doesn’t have any gimmicks, any tricks.  Instead, she’s endowed with perfect pitch, a three-octave range, solid training, and years of invaluable experience.  All this has made her create here a great album.”

With that intro, she sounds almost like Sarah Vaughan, doesn’t she?  But Thornton’s life and career, which began decades later in the history of jazz than “Sassy” Vaughan’s did, took a vastly different turn.

Teri Thornton (photo courtesy of Verve Records, Universal Record Group)

Teri Thornton  (photo courtesy of Verve Records, Universal Record Group)

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Route 66 history: Frank T. Sheets made the route possible in Illinois

Happy Route 66 Birthday Week!  And happy birthday to Route 66:  today is the 89th anniversary of the day our favorite U.S. Route opened for business, providing all us roadies with that most iconic American road trip … but not right away.  It took years for the route to reach all the way to Los Angeles.  Illinois was the one place in which Route 66 was actually up, running and being driven on Day One.  In other states, the route was mostly theoretical, a line on a map and not much else.  Even two months later at year’s end, only about 800 miles of the route were paved, and half of those were here in Illinois. So it seems only fitting that we celebrate the man who made Route 66 possible in Illinois – and helped to bring the rest of the route system into being.

How is it that Illinois alone was 100-percent operational when the route came into existence on November 11, 1926?  It was largely one man’s doing:  state highway engineer Frank T. Sheets.  He had already been engaged in a very active program of road building within the state for several years by the time the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) asked the feds in late 1924 to help create a real network of interstate and transcontinental highways.  Sheets would be a key figure in that process, too.

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More Route 66 food history:  the real Aunt Jemima

Last time, we introduced the game of Six Degrees of Daniel Burnham (eat your heart out, Kevin Bacon!) while discussing Chicago cuisine.  It’s time for Round 2, this time with someone who appeared at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition and was a big hit:  the original Aunt Jemima, aka Nancy Green.

Portrait of Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima by A. B. Frost

Portrait of Nancy Green by A. B. Frost  (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Although born into slavery on a plantation in 1834 in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, Green had become a young nurse by the end of the Civil War.  After 1865, she moved up to Chicago to work as a cook and maid for the prosperous Walker family (their children grew up to be Judge Charles M. Walker and Dr. Samuel Walker, the latter a wealthy physician who lived on the city’s North Side).  It seems Ms. Green was known for her warm personality as much as for her cooking.  She didn’t become the first woman to portray Aunt Jemima until 1890, at which time Chicagoans were busily preparing for the upcoming world’s fair.  But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Cut to St. Joseph, Missouri, 1888 (i.e., suburban St. Louis).  Two friends, Charles G. Underwood and Christian L. Rutt, who was then editor of the St. Joseph Gazette, bought a flour mill that they dubbed the Pearl Milling Company.  Because there was a flour glut at the time, they sold their excess flour in white paper sacks as a ready-made, self-rising pancake mix.  Rutt was the one who came up with the recipe, a surviving handwritten copy of which, dated November 1, 1889, still exists at the Patee House Museum (a former luxury hotel in St. Joseph listed on the National Register of Historic Places that is now also a National Historic Landmark).  It’s clear the recipe is his, despite other claims.

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Route 66 side trips:  Canal Origins Park

Hello again, fellow roadies!  Yes, we know:  up here in Chicago, it certainly looks like the Dead Season is approaching post haste; but never fear – there are still plenty of things to do and see on or near Route 66 if you happen to be in or around Chicago.

And on that subject, our Twitter pal Max Grinnell has a recent post on the Choose Chicago blog, Chicago Like A Local, about Canal Origins Park in the Bridgeport neighborhood, which is right where the South Branch of the Chicago River ends and the Illinois & Michigan Canal (now replaced by the Sanitary & Ship Canal) begins.  Plus, about half a mile west is the Marquette monument that marks the place where intrepid French explorer and Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette wintered in late 1674; he and his small party stayed there at the eastern end of the Chicago Portage until that spot (on the north bank of the Chicago River’s South Branch at what is now Damen Avenue) flooded and he was forced to move further down the portage through Mud Lake to higher ground at Summit, overlooking the Des Plaines River at the western end of the portage (Marquette and his companion, Louis Joliet, were the first whites to discover the portage, which they did a year earlier toward the end of the summer in 1673).  There’s also a monument to Marquette in Summit, and we’ll be writing about that shortly in one of our next posts.  But for now, do check out Max’s post.  We hope you enjoy it.

Until next time!
your Route 66 scribe,


Route 66 food history:  Chicago’s Shrimp de Jonghe

Hello again, fellow roadies!  Here it is October and autumn.  Are you missing the Route 66 road trips already?  You shouldn’t be: road trips are still in season here and autumn color is plentiful on the northern part of the route, though not quite yet (no decent overnight chill yet to prompt the color change, darn it; but it’s coming).  Never fear, we’ll keep you busy and entertained:  it’s time for another installment of foodie fun on the route!

We do love history on this blog, and we see no reason food history shouldn’t be included.  Lucky you:  I’ve just researched the oldest known recipe that originated in Chicago.  It’s more than 120 years old, and its history dates back to – wait for it – the 1893 Columbian Exposition, without which we wouldn’t have the lovely Classical style original Art Institute of Chicago building that stands right at the Gateway to Route 66 at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue.  The great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was, of course, director of construction and the man most responsible for organizing that world’s fair and getting it built, and he chose the architects of that building – Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the successors of Boston architect H.H. Richardson.

Why do we mention that?  Well, you could call this Six Degrees of Daniel Burnham:  there are so many things in Chicago that tie directly or indirectly to Burnham and/or to the buildings he designed – several of which are at or very near the Gateway to Route 66 – that even though he had no hand in designing some of them, he can still be tied to them.  And, through him and his buildings, to Route 66 because of its starting point at Jackson and Michigan.  Which brings us to restaurateur Henri de Jonghe and his famous shrimp.

Chicago-style Shrimp de Jonghe in individual ramekins

Chicago-style Shrimp de Jonghe, laced with butter, garlic and sherry, in individual ramekins

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Route 66 this weekend:  Berwyn Car Show and CineFest

Hello again, fellow roadies!  This weekend, route roadies in Chicago are blessed with a full two days’ worth of worthy events (that’s in addition to everything else going on in the immediate area, like the special exhibits at the Art Institute and the usual tours at the top of the Sears Tower, etc.).  First up today is the annual Berwyn Route 66 Car Show, a don’t-miss, no-admission event in Illinois as it is second in size only to the Mother Road Festival in downstate Springfield.  Flashy vehicles, food and fun, and did we mention it’s FREE?  Yessir!  Be there, or be square.  Berwyn is the second suburb you encounter outside Chicago when traveling Route 66, one whose civic leaders very consciously promote Route 66 – and Berwyn’s history on the route – all year long.  It’s also home to the Berwyn Route 66 Museum, which is one of the co-sponsors of the car show.

Then there’s the first annual CineFest in the Douglas Park area of Chicago, a weekend-long celebration of feature-length movies and TV series filmed in Chicago (many of which have been at least partially produced at fest sponsor Cinestage Chicago).  And perhaps the best part of that festival is that the beverages of choice will be brewskis supplied by next-door neighbor Lagunitas-Chicago brewery, Chicago’s largest craft beer producer.  Cinestage Chicago occupies the historic former Ryerson Steel campus, which is located between Western Avenue on the easternmost end and Washtenaw Avenue on the west, Route 66/Ogden Avenue on the north and the railroad viaduct that runs on an angle roughly between 17th to 18th Streets and parallel to Ogden.  In fact, Lagunitas itself is in a former Ryerson warehouse that the brewery rents from Cinestage under a 99-year lease.  So you have history all around you at both of these events this weekend.

In fact, our suggestion is that you attend the car show today and CineFest tomorrow – work them both in, if you can, then dine somewhere on the route afterwards.

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Route 66 Song Of The Week:  Louis Armstrong’s “Gut Bucket Blues”

[Due to technical difficulties, this article didn’t post on Friday they way it should have, which means that Louis Armstrong’s birthday was last week.  Ooops; my bad.  Sincere apologies for the delay.]

Happy birthday, Louis Armstrong!  This is the birthday week of one of the greatest figures in jazz, if not the greatest.  Born August 4, 1901, Armstrong would have been 114 years old this week.  Louis had always claimed his birth date to be July 4, 1900 and proudly celebrated his natals on the nation’s birthday, but recent research into New Orleans baptismal records indicates that he was really born 13 months later; in fact, he may not have known the correct date himself.  Jazz, on the other hand, may have been born in New Orleans among the whorehouses and saloons of Storyville, but it grew up in Chicago – during the Roaring Twenties – and the young Louis Armstrong was its greatest co-creator, performer and exponent.  He did that here, right in the middle of the Prohibition years, even as Route 66 was being born.

Known in his youth as ‘Dippermouth’ or ‘Satchelmouth’ for his big embouchure (the way a trumpeter’s or trombonist’s lips and facial muscles wrap around the stem of a brass instrument) and his even bigger smile, later as just ‘Satchmo’ or ‘Pops,’ or just plain Louie, Armstrong was a seminal figure in both Chicago and New York in the mid-to-late part of the decade.  The conscious evolution of his own playing style set the direction and shaped the development of jazz during its formative years and heavily affected other jazz musicians for decades to come.  Even now, Armstrong’s music remains strongly influential: nobody becomes a jazz musician or jazz vocalist of any worth without knowing and being influenced by the music of Louis Armstrong, even if indirectly.  The innovations he brought to jazz make it impossible to do otherwise.

What we have for you today is a recording that helped launch that big change in the direction of jazz:  a classic 12-bar blues that Armstrong improvised on the spot during a recording session for Okeh Records in Chicago on November 12, 1925, almost a year to the day before Route 66 came into existence in November 1926:  “Gut Bucket Blues.”  Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr described it as “a low down blues.”  In fact, we have two takes of the same song, recorded 32 years apart, for comparison – the original 1925 recording with a 24-year-old Armstrong and his newly formed Hot Five, and a 1957 version with his All Stars, made for the vinyl LP album set Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography on Decca Records (the latter has been remastered and reissued on CD within the last decade).

Louis Armstrong in 1953

Louis Armstrong in 1953  (Photo via of Wikimedia Commons)

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