Watertown — In opting to write a music review rather than a film review nearly 50 years ago, movie critic Roger Ebert likely didn’t realize he was helping to launch the career of a legend.
He walked into a Chicago nightclub called the Fifth Peg to grab a drink after leaving a movie theater in October 1970. He found himself mesmerized by the young performer at the microphone.
“He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,” according to Ebert’s review, published Oct. 9, 1970, by the Chicago Sun-Times. “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
At the time, John Prine was a 23-year-old mailman living and working in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. He was born and raised in that area, but he was drawn to the country/western culture as his parents were originally from Kentucky. After serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, he took up performing folk songs that he had been writing.
“While ‘digesting Reader’s Digest’ in a dirty book store, John Prine tells us in one of his songs, a patriotic citizen came across one of those little American flag decals,” Ebert wrote in his music review. “He stuck it on his windshield and liked it so much he added flags from the gas station, the bank and the supermarket, until one day he blindly drove off the road and killed himself. St. Peter broke the news:
“Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore;
“It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war.
“Lyrics like this are earning John Prine one of the hottest underground reputations in Chicago these days,” Ebert continued. “He’s only been performing professionally since July; he sings at the out-of-the-way Fifth Peg, 858 W. Armitage; and country-folk singers aren’t exactly putting rock out of business. But Prine is good.”
Numerous music-lovers over the past five decades have agreed with this assessment of Prine’s talent. Ebert’s article on the Fifth Peg performance was the first review of the musician’s long and distinguished career in the music industry.
Along the way, he won two of the 11 Grammy Awards he was nominated for (1991 and 2005) and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award this year. Among many other accolades, in 2005 he became the first singer/songwriter to read and perform at the Library of Congress.
Prine died April 7 due to complications from COVID-19. He is survived by his wife, Fiona, and his sons, Jack, Jody and Tommy. At the age of 73, he left behind an extraordinary body of work.
Prine credits Ebert for widening his base of fans. He said he always performed to packed venues after this review was published.
A few days after Ebert wrote about Prine, the Chicago Tribune printed a blurb promoting his performances:
“John Prine, back from his Army Reserve duty, is singing folk music at the Fifth Peg on Fridays and Saturdays. Fleming Brown, a folk singer whose opinion we respect, says: ‘We’ve got a genius on our hands.’”
It wasn’t long afterward that others began taking note of Prine’s considerable skills.
“Mr. Prine was a relative unknown in 1970 when [Kris] Kristofferson heard him play one night at a Chicago club called the Earl of Old Town, dragged there by the singer-songwriter Steve Goodman,” according to a story published April 7 by the New York Times. “Mr. Kristofferson was performing in Chicago at the time at the Quiet Knight. Mr. Prine treated him to a brief after-hours performance of material that, Mr. Kristofferson later wrote, ‘was unlike anything I’d heard before.’ A few weeks later, when Mr. Prine was in New York, Mr. Kristofferson invited him onstage at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, where he was appearing with Carly Simon, and introduced him to the audience. ‘No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy,’ he said. ‘John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.’ The record executive Jerry Wexler, who was in the audience, signed Mr. Prine to a contract with Atlantic Records the next day.”
Reading of how Ebert publicly highlighted Prine’s brilliance before anyone else intrigued me. This is a good example of people who make their living in the arts supporting each other.
On a higher level, it tells the story of one genius opening doors for another genius. Ebert used his literary gifts to enlighten his readers about an up-and-coming artist.
Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, died in 2013 after a long bout with cancer.
Prine, a cancer survivor himself, outlived him by seven years but became a casualty of the health care crisis we’re now confronting.
Both men helped us make sense of life’s senselessness in ways few other people could. It’s times like these that we need such individuals the most and suffer their absence the worst.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.