By Todd Houston
Exclusive to TRRT
Rockford Rocked Interview: I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some people about the music scene and what it was like in Rockford back in the ’60s but haven’t really touched that much on the 1970s and early ’80s. Take us through the later part of 1970s Rockford and what was going on musically and otherwise.
Jim Lawrence: During the first part of the ’70s I was in college in Rockford (Rockford College, now Rockford University). Being from way out of town (Massachusetts), I knew nothing about the local music scene. We had some name acts come to the college for dances and concerts – Baby Grand, just before they changed their name to Head East, did a dance for us.
In 1971 I became a member of the local music scene. I met a guy at college, Don Arbuckle, who was also from Massachusetts, and we formed the folk-rock duo Lawrence and Arbuckle. We played a couple of summers at the Ground Round on E. State and a few other gigs around town, as well as some trips up to Rhinelander, Wisconsin with Dave Remington’s band.
The late ’70s/early ’80s were a great time with all the local bands – Ropel Ash, Wheezer Lockinger, The Names, Armed Vision … there were so many. You could go to almost any club in Rockford/Beloit and hear a good band.
RRI: Tell us about the band Cheater. You guys were on a roll for a few years and recorded some great demos. Did you ever get any national airplay?
JL: No, never any national that I’m aware of. We had several songs that were played on WYFE Y-95, and were included in the first (only?) Rockford Hometown Jams album that the station put together. We developed a relationship with Y-95 that lasted several years until they switched formats. We did get some interest from Epic after we sent them a demo tape but it didn’t result in a contract. Our best gigs were here in the local area at places like the Purchase and Waverly Beach.
RRI: The annual Mother’s Day concerts here in Rockford were a big deal back in the ’70s and ’80s. Cheater headlined on a couple of occasions and played to hundreds of young people throwing Frisbees and having fun. Is there a difference between today’s concert goers as opposed to back in the day?
JL: I have to admit, the only concerts I go to nowadays are classic acts, usually in smaller venues, like the Foxwoods Casino MGM out here in Connecticut. So yeah – a big difference, since most of the attendees are older, grayer, and heavier, just like I am.
RRI: Your band was supposed to open for Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult at the Rockford Speedway but things fell apart at the last minute. What happened?
JL: You know, I never heard that rumor until years after the concert. All I can say is, the concerts out at the Speedway at that time were being co-produced by our management, so if in fact we were ever considered it would have been through that connection. We did get preferred seating though to both the Black Sabbath and BOC concerts.
RRI: Here’s fun a scenario – It’s 1978 Rockford. You and a couple guys from the band are out about town and need to grab some guitar strings and a new microphone for a show later in the evening. You guys are also getting hungry and need to stop for a bite to eat. Where do you go first and how does the night end?
RRI: For gear, Guzzardo’s on Charles obviously. I bought my first “good” electric used there in 1980, the 1969 LP Deluxe Goldtop that I still have. For food – we were always going to Taco John’s, usually on a “you fly, I’ll buy” arrangement.
RRI: I’m going to say a word or a phrase and you reply with the first thing that pops into your head.
JL: Great bars in Beloit to play in. Waverly Beach, City Limits, Sgt. Pepper’s are the ones I remember best.
RRI: Star Trek (Television show).
JL: Groundbreaking, especially in its treatment of racial/species tolerance and understanding. Still one of my Top 10, along with M.A.S.H., Babylon 5 and Firefly.
RRI: Hartford, Connecticut.
JL: Well, it gave me a reason to move back closer to my parents, and a good job for almost 33 years. Although I don’t spend a lot of time there, it has one of the best regional theaters in the U.S.
RRI: Clark Colborn (Lead guitarist with Cheater).
JL: How much space do you have? I met Clark when I was jamming with Don Chorak and Steve Laputa in the loft of Don’s dad’s business. Don brought in Clark. The first time I met him I was a bit taken aback. Not scared exactly, but definitely wary! I’d never known a biker before. Clark and I put together a couple other bands after Cheater (Rogue and Sleight of Hand), and even after I moved out here we stayed in touch. We’ve been great friends now for something like 40 years. Maybe one of these days we’ll do something together again.
RRI: What’s next for Jim Lawrence?
JL: I still do a lot of singing. I sometimes play in a band with a bunch of demented doctors. Usually when we play it’s just for fun or because somebody needs a band for an event for a charity or nonprofit cause they’re involved with. I’ve also been singing for the past 21 years with a choral group; we do three concerts a year and every few years a Broadway show. I also do some acting; just this past weekend I did a comedy murder mystery with a theater group that’s an affiliate of the choral group I sing with.