The air was thick with tension, fierce whispers bounced between the huddled groups hunched in corners, scribbling on notepads, heads in hands; all waiting, waiting, waiting for some word, some sign. It was hard to believe they were there after so much anticipation, sitting now in churned anxiety, the future uncertain and no way of rushing it. It was too much for one and tears began. Before long, others joined (there were lots of girls). It was not a happy night for any of them and dread loomed.
Who could have expected this? After weeks of discussion about what to do, tense and sometimes emotional decisions about who would do it, late night meetings about how it would be done, what order to do it in, what placement in the lineup, it all came down to this:
Would TOOU or Megan McDonough be singing “Leaving On a Jet Plane” at the Mudaco Talent Show at Crystal Lake Community High School in the year 1970?
This was not a minor question nor a minor event. Mudaco (Music Dance Comedy) was the premiere talent show of the school year and we, TOOU — The Organization of Us — viewed it as a pivotal performance to cap a year of folk singing success and that song, “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” was our signature number. To have it snatched from us moments into dress rehearsal was unfathomable. By a girl who no one in that school could possibly compete with, a girl who was a bona fide celebrity by virtue of having won the WLS “Big Break Contest” at 14, subsequently scoring a record deal, then just continuing on in high school as the gorgeous guitar slinging, singing/songwriting phenomenon with her soulful eyes and long, swinging brunette hair, and well…who could compete with that?
Not me. Not us. We were from a another planet. Like the “Glee” geeks without the choreography. The Organization of Us, or TOOU as we were acronymically known, was just a loose band of earnest teenagers originally gathered to folk-sing along to the new and somewhat controversial “folk Mass” about to debut at St. Thomas Church in Crystal Lake, Illinois. It was the vaunted Summer of Love, 1968, with its ubiquitous mix of flower power, draft card drama and lentil-soup fueled protests against the Viet Nam war, and TOOU became safe harbor for those of us too young to fully embrace the hippie lifestyle but aware enough to rebel against…something. Launching the Folk Mass with its banging guitars, bouncing energy and unconventional repertoire would have to do. So while my oldest sister marched with political fervor in her John Lennon glasses and Janis hair, I spent that summer reveling in Summer Blonde, Sergio Mendes and my first boyfriend. But more than anything, that summer I fell in love with this eclectic group of singers and guitarists who met in the church basement to pound out folky versions of “Holy Holy Holy” and the “Our Father.” That boy I liked was one of the movers and shakers and I was lucky enough to have him and the vocal chops to move up quickly in the TOOU performing hierarchy. It was an unforgettable summer.
Our success with the folk Mass, which ultimately became the most attended service at the church, led to a burgeoning slate of outside engagements, not least of which was our first non-secular gig at some business or school event (can’t remember). As if breaking out of church mode wasn’t heady enough, it was also our first paying gig…$50 to split between a group of 15 or so. And we were delighted. I think it was then that we realized we needed a name; we couldn’t just be the “St. Thomas folk singers.” We needed a moniker, something with heft and buzz. It’s my recollection that I came up with the very era-centric name of The Organization of Us. Or maybe I just came up with the rather clumsy acronym TOOU, but whatever the history, the name stuck. Before long we were performing at parties, beach gatherings, other church events, anywhere we could squeeze into a corner or a picnic table and start singing. TOOU became a formidable performance behemoth that sometimes included up to 25 kids, many of whom played guitars, tambourines, penny whistles and various other percussion instruments and, quite frankly, we took up so much space we simply began to require bigger venues! There were the performers from my family – sisters Peg, Mary and me and, in later incarnations, brothers Paul and Tom. There were the O’Reillys, 14 siblings, most of whom could sing like birds, all of whom were enthusiastic performers: Chris, Beau, Cecelie, Gloria, Dorothy, Beth Ann, Jamie, well…there were lots of them, some of whom joined later. Then there was our guitarist extraordinaire, Pete Swenson, who we’d force to play “Classical Gas” as often as we could because he was simply brilliant at it. His sister Patti, Ken Polnow, Andi LeBlanc, Wendy Treptow, Karen Tefft, Tom Mooney, Joe Haase, Kent Tarpley; Cris Vosti. Occasionally Ed Csech would show up with his rocker edge and cigarette smoke and I’d sing songs like Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Boxer” with him. He played 12 string better than anyone I ever knew, then or now. People came and went (check the many names under these photos), it was an ever-fluid line-up, with some of us — the core group — always there to anchor the show. And with our excellent musicians, clear voices, and tight harmonies that stacked up high, sweet and all Phil Spectorish wall-of-sound, we were often very, very good.
Then came Mudaco, a kind of primitive “American Idol,” with the prestige and excitement to attract every star-struck, exceptionally talented, marginally talented, freakishly not talented but always entertaining high school ham to its roster and we were right there at the top of the list. Also at the top of the list? Yep. Megan McDonough. I didn’t know Megan well; in fact, I barely knew her at all. She was royalty. You have to understand: WLS was the premiere rock station in Chicago with DJ Dick Biondi and his playlist of songs that made every kid within the broadcasting area dance around dining room tables, and that WLS had given Megan McDonough a prize. A big prize. She got a record deal with Wooden Nickel Records. I sang Peter, Paul and Mary songs in a church. She was quite literally of out of my league and I knew it. But it was high school and what she had in fame we had in sheer numbers and so we both carved our niche and peacefully coexisted in the fertile folk-rock zeitgeist of the times. Until that Mudaco.
Here’s the thing about “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” We sang it at every gig, we sang it with a variety of harmonic components, we sang it well. To this day, if I’m anywhere near my mother and a guitar, she begs me to sing it for her. I usually do. And that year at Mudaco, TOOU was to sing two songs: one I can’t remember; the other: “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” Our headliner. We rehearsed it ad nauseum, we honed it to a spit-shine finish and suddenly, late into dress rehearsal and one night before the big performance, we were informed that Megan McDonough, the big ticket item of the show, had decided to sing — you guessed it — “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” There are no words to describe our horror. This was our song, our signature number, our literal musical identity as a group. Why didn’t Megan just sing one of her hits? One of her original songs? What the hell? THIS WAS HUGE.
Much tense negotiation ensued, lots of copious high-school-girl weeping, more mature discussion of what we could perform instead; the adjustment period was savage but we were trying to be troupers. Then word came down: Megan was willing and prepared to sing a different song. “Leaving On a Jet Plane” was all ours. The erupting roar was shattering. We were beyond grateful. We were emotionally exhausted, exhilarated, and we kicked “Leaving On a Jet Plane” ass. I don’t remember what Megan sang; it was probably on the radio before we got to the 10:00 Folk Mass that Sunday.
We went on to perform at the McHenry County Fair’s Talent Contest that summer, all funky cool in our god-awful 60’s patterned jump suits and jumpy-jittery stage moves (you should see the tape from which this picture, above, was pulled!) and on that stage, we were the stars…we snared first prize in front of a crowd of family, pig farmers, 4-H kids hugging their ribbons and our many fans from all over McHenry County. It was a seminal moment of sweet victory, one that is unmatched in its youthful, exuberant joy. For some of the group heading off to college, it was a last, perfect performance. For those of us remaining, it was a feat we would never replicate. Though we continued throughout the next year, it felt like the original incarnation had peaked and the younger kids that came in and took over ultimately formed their own version of TOOU.
When I left for college the next year I continued my folk-singing ways for a while, most notably with the folk/country trio of me, Fred Koller and my dear friend, Fred Rubin. It was with these fellows that I did my first recordings, cutting two memorable tracks with the titles “Rome Didn’t Fall In a Day” and “Our Love Is Just Like an Old Pinball Machine (the Kind That It Don’t Take Much To Tilt”)…I never did get copies, which is unfortunate; I’m sure they were impressive!
From these folky beginnings I embarked upon my enduring career as a singer over many decades (even now occasionally finding my way to a microphone), one that included musical theater, 50’s rock, 80’s new wave/soul and, more recently, singer/songwriter blues rock. And it remains that TOOU will always be the irreplaceable starting point. The moment of realizing what it felt like to bond so deeply and musically with a group of like-minded artists. To experience the rush of opening my mouth and letting sound and breath and emotion pour from inside and be heard by a welcoming audience…it was, and is, a feeling like no other and one that compelled me for the next 30 years.
Many from the group went on to artistic careers, though I’ve lost track of most. Cris Vosti, now Cris Carroll, is a brilliant writer whose blog (http://cris-cafeimagine.blogspot.com/) is truly one of my favorite reads. Many of the O’Reilly clan continue in Chicago music, art and theater; Google any one of them and surely there’s a play being put up or a record being put out. Jamie O’Reilly, singer extraordinaire, keeps me posted on events and her very active role in Chicago art and women’s issues (http://www.jamieoreilly.com/); I hear the talented Mr. Pete Swenson is still playing guitar with her and many others. Some of the members that followed, particularly my brothers Paul and Tom, have also gone on to amazing careers, Tom as a successful actor and director (“Everwood,” “Parenthood,” Brokedown Palace, etc. – www.tomamandes.com) and Paul, who teaches theater (Columbia College in Chicago), and writes and performs on stages all over the midwest. I don’t know what Ed Csech is doing these days but I hope he’s still playing that guitar. As for my college folk era mainstay, Fred Rubin, he had a tremendously successful career as a writer/producer of many hit TV series (“Family Matters,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Night Court,” “Step by Step,” etc.), some of which he cast me in and still pay (small) residuals. He is now a respected speaker and screenwriting instructor at UCLA. With a killer sense of humor and a penchant for comedy, he makes frequent appearances on www.oldjewstellingjokes.com.
And Megan? She became Megon (with an “o”) at some point and continues to have a stellar career as a songwriter, performer, actress, etc., appearing in venues around the country (though still very much based out of Chicago), both acting and singing. Her lengthy discography, from that first Wooden Nickel album to her latest CD, lays proof to her enduring talent and I suggest you visit her site: (www.megonmcdonough.com).
As for the events of that night, I’m probably making too much of it, maybe I don’t even have the facts straight. I doubt Megon remembers me or TOOU or the details of the drama and odds are, if she does, it holds no special memory, just a simple change to her set list. But it stuck with me. It was gracious. She was the famous girl who generously conceded on a song, the same girl who would later open up for John Denver and probably got to sing “Leaving On a Jet Plane” with the man who actually wrote it. We’re both grown women now and have enjoyed our separate careers, but I see her as a compatriot of sorts, a fellow traveler on this journey we artists take. It’s a good one, a hard one, sometimes one that turns out far different than we imagined, or ends too quickly, or leads us in directions we were not expecting to go, but it’s a journey that’s always an expression of some essential part of who we are…which is why we take it in the first place. And when, on this twisting, turning road, we meet fellow travelers who touch a chord for one reason or another, it just seems worth a nod.
Megon McDonough photos @ www.megonmegon.com
Collage photos with permission.
All other photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.