Route 66 people:  Lou Mitchell’s Heleen Thanas remembered


Back after Thanksgiving while we were still partying with our friends and families over the long weekend, we were on holiday hiatus and missed something.  Mind you, it wasn’t at all well publicized; in fact, it happened in the background, under the radar.

Yesterday, I ran across the news while searching online for something else:  Heleen Thanas, doyenne of the famous Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant in Chicago, had died on Halloween last year of complications following a catastrophic stroke.  There hadn’t been a death notice under that name in the local papers, only a Chicago Tribune obituary in late November for a Heleen Thanasouras-Gillman, nearly a month after the private funeral.

Thanasouras-Gillman … That might be the reason I wasn’t the only one who missed it.

Heleen Thanas was her work name.  Even though Thanas is the surname her mother, Kathryn, and brother Nick use at the restaurant – the one on the deed and other legal documents – Thanasouras-Gillman was the name by which Heleen’s immediate family and close friends knew her.  She was proud of her heritage and her accomplishments.

Lou Mitchell's Restaurant on Jackson Boulevard (Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman; all rights reserved)

Lou Mitchell’s on Jackson Blvd.  (Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman; all rights reserved)

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Route 66 Song Of The Week:  Louis Jordan


Happy birthday, Louis Jordan!  Cooler and hipper than Cab Calloway, who covered a number of Jordan’s many hits, Louis Jordan was one of the biggest black musical stars of the 20th century.  Those of you who don’t know about Jordan obviously don’t know about jump blues, either, in that case.  Jump blues, aka Jump Jive, was a genre of blues that led directly to rock ‘n’ roll.  Wikipedia’s bio of Jordan describes jump blues as “a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie” that often involved fast-talking, hip lyrics about black urban life.  It’s true, as Muddy Waters claimed, that blues begat rock, but it wasn’t Muddy’s style of blues, nor Bessie Smith’s, nor even that of B.B. King – it was jump blues, which makes Louis Jordan, as jump blues’ most successful exponent and innovator, at least the granddaddy of rock ‘n’ roll if not the actual father.  Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized him as such in 1987.

Louis Jordan, circa July 1946  (photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons)

Louis Jordan and his alto sax, circa July 1946  (photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons)

However, Jordan’s music crossed musical lines, from blues and jazz to swing, big band, R&B and even comic ‘novelty’ songs.  He also crossed color lines:  Jordan was one of the first black entertainers whose records did well on the pop charts, and he did duets with several of his Decca Records label mates, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.  A gifted instrumentalist as well as a vocalist – who could sing a ballad as well as he could jive lyrics – he played piano, clarinet, and alto, tenor and baritone sax, though his instrument of choice was the alto.  He was also a bandleader and a clever songwriter, though he didn’t get credit or royalties for some of his songs (that was his own doing:  in an attempt to get around an existing publishing contract, he credited some songs, including the famous “Caldonia,” to his third wife, childhood sweetheart Fleecie Moore; but as that marriage was tempestuous and, thankfully, short lived – Fleecie stabbed Jordan on two occasions during domestic disputes, once near fatally – they soon divorced, but she retained ownership of songs she’d never written, much to his dismay).

Some performers come to music by accident or by desire, but not Jordan – he was born into it on July 8, 1908 in Brinkley, Arkansas, to Adell and James Aaron Jordan.  His mother died when he was young; his father, however, was a musician, music teacher and bandleader for two local groups, the Brinkley Brass Band and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and young Louis was surrounded by music before he could walk.  His father taught him music, starting with the clarinet, and as a youth he played in his father’s bands whenever school was out.  Jordan briefly attended Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, where he majored in music.  He also played piano professionally early in his career and played with other local bands, including Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings.  When he moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1932, he played clarinet in the Charlie Gaines band and also did gigs with pianist Clarence Williams.

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Route 66 Song Of The Week, bonus edition:  Nat ‘King’ Cole


Hello again, fellow roadies!  Welcome to the holiday bonus edition of the Route 66 Song Of The Week.  Only a few days ago, we treated you to Natalie Cole’s take on her daddy’s big hit and our favorite road anthem.  But no sooner had we posted it than a hue and cry went up for Daddy Dearest.  Well!  This being the ultimate All-American Weekend, what with The Fourth, and it being the height of the road-trip season as well, how could we refuse? After all, who could beat the guy who held the title of King long before Elvis?

So:  by popular demand, we give you the definitive Nat King Cole and King Cole Trio’s YouTube version of “Route 66,” as uploaded by Gene Vincent’s Official Nat King Cole Fan Club.  This is clearly a filmed/videotaped version meant to look like a club date but is most likely a performance the group did for television.  It may even be from Nat Cole’s own brief TV show, which ran in 1956 and 1957.  It seems Cole was much more popular as a guest on other people’s TV shows and specials, at least where TV sponsors were concerned.

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Route 66 heroes:  Joliet’s native son John Houbolt, whose big idea got us to the moon and back


Unless you’re from Joliet, IL or are a big fan of the space program, you may never have heard of John C. Houbolt.  He was a man with a Big Idea, and without it – and him – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might never have stepped on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

Engineers are perhaps the least glamorous of all the techies and ‘geeks.’  The public sees them as the most narrowly focused, least creative of the STEM professionals, but that need not be the case.  Houbolt was certainly imaginative enough.  When President John F. Kennedy told the world that we were engaged in the feat of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s and returning him safely to earth, JFK took his space program people by surprise.  Nobody in NASA knew by which mechanism that was to be accomplished. There was no plan; no process had been discussed.  They had no idea what kind of spacecraft was needed or even where to start.

John_Houbolt_and_LOR2 (NASA photo)

The late John C. Houbolt explaining his big idea, the lunar orbit rendezvous, which the Apollo moon landing program eventually adopted.  (Photo courtesy of NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

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