Val’s Halla: My Musical Education
The Reverend Kirk “Chief” Kubicek
In the beginning there was Little’s Music on Lake Street. Bins of 33rpm albums and 45 rpm singles, and listening booths where you could throw them on the turntable and listen. It was there that I first slipped Kinda Kinks out of the paper sleeve and gave it a spin. Step into the fantasy world of Ray and Dave Davies! The birth of fuzz guitar from the now infamous “green amp.” Little did we know then that to get that sound they had taken a knitting needle and ripped the speaker cone. “Who’ll be the next in line,” “I need you,” “Tired of waiting,” and the mind-bending and genre-bending “See My Friends.” I had to take it home and to this day I listen to all those songs and the entire Davies songbook every day. It should not go without mention that Chicago’s own Flock did a definitive cover of Tired of Waiting For You – and played at our Junior Prom at OPRFHS. Ray’s recent releases, Storyteller, Kinks Choral Collection and See My Friends are all worth running down to Val’s right now to get them all.
Meanwhile, my uncle Lee was schooling me on early Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Huston, Leadbelly and more. I would spend the night at my grandparents, sleeping in his room while he was away at Northwestern. There were those old pocket copies of Sing Out! And the Folk Box on Folkways (now from Smithsonian), a virtual seminar in American folk music. Lee kept introducing me to new music throughout his life, including the likes of Michelle Shocked, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Art Tatum, Bill Evans and more.
Soon there was a new game in Oak Park – Discount Records on Ridgeland under management by this amazing woman with a big Italian Fro. The albums all had “Demo” stamped on them, or had a hole cut in the corner. I am thinking my first purchase with Val was Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, with a hole in the corner. The price was right – and who knew I was getting my first taste of Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko for whom I would be manning the follow spot when The Band played Trinity College in Hartford, CT! It also featured Al Kooper on organ (!), and the solid time keeping of the incomparable Kenny Buttrey, Nashville session drummer extraordinaire. Discount Records was just the warm-up act for what would become the legendary Val’s Halla.
During the Discount Record years, since I was already spending lots of time near Adams and Wabash for Frank’s Drum Shop (“Franks for the memories”), we would sometimes stop in Rose’s Records to find something new. One afternoon a few of us Cellar Dwellers went home with The Mothers of Invention Freak Out and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in our hands – totally changing our understanding of what the possibilities of what rock music could be!
Then it happened! Life changed forever. Val opened Val’s Halla. No need to dwell on the Elvis Shrine –that is something you had to experience first-hand, on your own. First I bought all the Vanguard Chicago Blues Today volumes. Then it was John Mayall and early Buddy Guy and Junior Wells discs. Eventually Val would steer me toward some vintage Limelight recordings of Roland Kirk: Rip, Rig and Panic and I Talk With The Spirits (with the original Serenade To A Cuckoo). Saw Tull open for Kirk, then Kirk came out, furious at having had to wait for what really did seem like forever, and then he blew the night away, and Ian Anderson with it! I first knew Kirk’s music thanks to Val. (How does a person get all those reeds into one mouth at the same time?) I also picked up the entire Siegel-Schwall catalog, including their collaboration with the CSO on the 1973 William Russo Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra. And my mom would eventually give me the Corky Siegel Chamber Blues CDs for Christmas, also purchased at Val’s. And all of the “singing mailman” John Prine’s output, Steve Goodman, and Bonnie Koloc; those white Dylan underground releases; endless Grateful Dead underground releases; the Who, early, middle and late Clapton, anything with Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel (The Snake!); and my first recording of the Mahler Ninth, a two disc box-set, under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli (Angel Records) that has sent me on a yearly Lenten discipline of listening to every Mahler Symphony (including the Baribirolli Ninth!) at least once during the forty days. All this and more could all be had at one place and one place only – Val’s Halla.
Let’s face it, Val has been my longest term and most important music teacher. She schooled us all, effortlessly, and at the same time promoted every single local musician who passed through her door. Mimi Betinis, Cliff Johnson, Jimmy Z, Bob Eul, Corky Theusen, John Pazdan, Dave Spence, Jim Erickson, Peter Constantine Cutsivitus. More than just a music store, it became a community gathering place, that long, narrow, barely more than a door’s width shop that might easily have fit inside an El car – how cool that would have been! A rolling rock and roll emporium making its way out of Oak Park downtown, rounding the Loop and back again all the day and all the night!
Val also led the first wave of selling used, that is “previously listened to” LPs, cassettes, 8-track carts(!), and eventually CDs, thus leading the way for the current vinyl revolution. Any serious collector could start right there, especially when the shop expanded into the room next door to house an entire universe of the history of music!
We all kept coming back for more. And the more was not more music. It was to be able to spend time with Val herself. She and Loki were Val’s Halla. The merchandise was just a front. Val is the main reason for going. She took and continues to take a personal interest in each of our lives. She not only wants to know how I am doing, what I am doing, always offering encouragement, always offering affirmation for budding young music careers, but she would ask how my mother and father were doing every time I came back to River Forest to spend time at home. She would ask about my sister. See, the whole family used Val’s Halla as the go-to spot for serious music.
Throughout my 40+ years playing with The Outerspace Band (“the band that played the East Room in the White House” for Susan Ford’s Senior Prom) in New England, Val was interested in every twist and turn of our time on the road, recording, where we were living, what was it like out there in the east. She always wanted to know. She always remembered to ask. At Val’s you are not a customer, you are a part of her life – she is a part of yours.
If it was not in the store Val would thumb through Swann catalogues until it could be found. Eventually the books of endless listings would give way to internet searches. You only needed the sketchiest of information before Val would nail-down what you were looking for and get it. “I heard a cut on the radio – a country singer – doing Christian music he had written – I think his name was Marty something…..” “You’re probably looking for Marty Stewart. Let’s see….here he is. How about Soul’s Chapel? Would that be it?” His singing Move Along Train with Mavis Staples, with Marty playing Pops’ Staples guitar, is a Gospel must to hear at least once in your life time.
When it hit the news that Val’s was closing, I first got word from my mother, who clipped a story out of the paper and sent it along. How could that be, I wondered? Forty-plus years of time returning over and over again to Music Mecca, forty-plus years of walking up and down that narrow aisle surrounded on both sides by everything one could ever want to hear, surrounded by promo posters, hand-lettered signs, a virtual history of music covering every available inch of wall space. I still have some hand-lettered signs on day-glow orange cardboard from Val’s announcing Beatle Tickets – 5$. Kirk Jr. has them hanging on his bedroom wall alongside a smiling picture of Bob Dylan off the cover of The Chicago Seed, an early underground culture journal of the emerging hip music scene in the City Of Broad Shoulders that could be picked up bi-weekly at, yes, Val’s Halla. I had to make one last visit. I photographed the store inside and out, taking pictures of Val seated at the counter as she has greeted every one of us countless times throughout the decades, Val in front of the window on the street, “the Aisle” of music, the used LPs.
It seemed the end of an era was really upon us. She had weathered the competition of the big-box stores, the invading chains, to the point that when a customer at Barnes and Noble at the corner of Lake and Harlem could not find what they wanted, the staff at B&N would simply say, “Have you tried Val’s?” Val’s had withstood every commercial trend and all the competition, only to be driven out of her iconic location beside the rumbling iconic El track by some silly development scheme which itself would founder on the rocks of typical suburban red-tape and protest. Despair had set in for every girl and boy, mom and dad, sister and brother who had made the pilgrimage, the hajj, to music Mecca over and over and over again.
But then! Turns out the obituaries were premature. And I of all people should have known that, yes, there is Resurrection! There is New Life! There is another chapter to be written in the history of music. Joining the emerging Arts District in South Oak Park on Harrison, Val’s Halla was to be reborn! With O What A New Look! Wide open spaces to roam. Light, light endless light to replace the cozy womb-like darkness of the original store. A performance stage in the front window! Kirk Jr. and his indie-pop sidekick Sarah Fridrich played that stage summer of 2011! Vintage Vinyl is now the Rage. The trends have caught up with the leader of the band that was made for you and me - Val Camilletti. It may be a new look, but the heart and soul of Val’s remains, because she remains one of this Earth’s most wonderful people. She has been the Musical Mother for us all – the true Mother of Invention when it comes to musical knowledge and musical love - which is the operant word to describe Val’s – love. It shines through her endless smile. It is Val’s love for all things music, all things Chicago, all the things we would grow up to be – she wants to know us, has known us, in our many incarnations, and has been the mid-wife for so many of those of us who call Val’s home. For Val’s Halla is not the covered-over alley-way that defined the physical presence of the Val Universe in Oak Park for so many years. Val’s is not the endless rows and stacks of merchandise – if one can call music merchandise at all. Val’s in the end is Val – and her trusty sidekicks Halla and Loki – loving what she does and loving all of us who continue to make Val’s Halla our home away from home. We are all thankful to be a part of one of music’s great stories. To quote the incomparable late Sonny Bono, “The beat goes on….” Thank you, Val!
Epilogue: None of us ever considered the possibility, but of course it was bound to happen sometime. Last night, July 23, 2018, Val Camilletti moved on to join the Pantheon of musicians she had loved, mentored, promoted and archived for most of her mortal life. Thousands are in mourning. Yet, we rejoice in having our lives enriched by a true living legend. Val wrapped us all in her love for music, for all God’s creatures, and for humanity. We are grateful for all the moments she generously shared with us all. She brought us and will continue to bring us all closer to the light, dispelling all darkness the rest of our living days. Every note I play on my drums and guitar have been informed and infused with the life and spirit of Val Camilletti. She is now, as always, an eternal and foundational part of the history of music forever and ever. Amen.