Pete Bartkus: Rockford’s Tru Tone king
By Todd Houston
As a kid growing up in the Rockford area, I was extremely interested in music at a very early age. As soon as my buddies and I were able to drive, we would visit the local area music stores to gawk at electric guitars and “cop” licks from the older musicians.
In those days there were still plenty of Ma and Pa type stores to choose from and we knew them all, including the ones in the Beloit and Janesville region. Even though we seldom made any big purchases, the store owners and clerks generally tolerated us, and we were just happy to be there.
There was one music store in particular that stood out from the rest, located on Charles Street across from East High School. It was called Tru Tone Music. Now, if there ever was an epitome of a Ma and Pa store this was it: the store was owned by Peter P. Bartkus Jr., a graduate of East’s first class, and his wife Norma Jean. Oddly enough, Tru Tone was located just a block or two west of Guzzardo’s Music (but that’s another story).
I’m not 100 percent positive who was there first, but it was great for us as we could kill two birds with just one stone, so to speak.
It was sort of strange visiting Tru Tone at first because it was connected to the house that the Bartkus family lived in. Sometimes when you would walk in you wouldn’t see anyone for 5 or 10 minutes! Usually, by then Norma would come out followed by Pete eating a sandwich and drinking a glass of milk.
Always smiling and jovial, Pete Bartkus was a very personable fellow and loved talking to us kids. He would go on and on about all the latest products that were showcased at the most recent NAMM show, the best pickups for your guitar and the proper way to have it set up and cared for. If you weren’t careful, it was easy to lose 2 or 3 hours of your afternoon engaged in conversation. Certainly, there were a lot of worse ways for a bunch of 16-year-old kids to spend their Saturday.
Pete passed away at St. Anne Center here in Rockford, Oct. 31, at the age of 94, having served the musicians of his town for decades after serving in the Army during World War II. I thought it only fitting to pay some sort of tribute to one of the guys that helped this teen stay out of trouble—if only for a few hours, knowingly or not. R.