Robbie Stokes Day: Local Music Legend Gets Resounding Recognition

Robbie Stokes Day: Local Music Legend Gets Resounding Recognition

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Venturis: 1960s Power Pop in Carbondale

Who: Robbie Stokes
What: Robbie Stokes Day
When: 2014-02-09
Robbie Stokes remembers a lot of local-music folklore. Among many other stories, he mentions the nig
Leah Williams

Robbie Stokes remembers a lot of local-music folklore. Among many other stories, he mentions the night Woody Harrelson sat in on a Jungle Dogs gig.

“You see a lot of things when you have been around as long as I have and you been at a sound board for as long as I have,” he said. “I have seen a lot of wild and crazy stuff.”

This Sunday, February 9 at 6 p.m. at the Hangar 9, Carbondale’s legendary resident, musician, and sound man gets his rightful place among the musical elite with the proclamation of Robbie Stokes Day by departed Carbondale mayor Joel Fritzler.

Stokes said at first he was hesitant to take any accolades for his years of service to the community. It was his son Robby who convinced him to take the honor.

“He was like, ‘Dad, just be humble and accept it,’” Stokes said.

Born in Anna and moved to Carbondale as an infant, Stokes has been a part of Carbondale’s music scene for decades. Both Stokes’s parents, Rip and Gloria, worked at SIU and have since retired. His grandfather wrote songs and was a major influence on him growing up, but Stokes said he first noticed the appeal of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle when he saw the frat bands in town in the early sixties.

“We kind of noticed that they had pizza, guitars, convertibles, Playboy magazines, girls,” Stokes said. “And somewhere in there was college, and I’m using the word college in the Animal House sense. And all of us kids were like, ‘This is how you do it.’”

Stokes quickly became an extraordinary guitarist, playing in high-school bands the Satellites and the Viscounts. Stokes’s 1960s band Devils Kitchen made a big splash on the local scene before moving and trying their luck on the West Coast. From 1968 to 1976, Stokes mostly lived in California. One of the gigs he picked up was as a session musician for the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, on whose solo album, Rolling Thunder, Stokes played.

After he escaped the Golden State lifestyle, Stokes came back to the ‘Dale, where he started a string of local popular bands— Coal Kitchen, Doctor Bombay, Four on the Floor, Saint Stephen’s Blues, and the Venturis, among them. He started doing sound for the Hangar and by the early eighties he was mixing sound for bands on a nightly basis at that club and at Gatsby’s down the Strip.

Stokes also started developing his own company, Robco Audio, and because of family life, he adds that he became “happily stuck” living in Southern Illinois. His son Robby Clark-Stokes works with him at Robco now and is a second-grade teacher at Thomas School in Carbondale. His daughter Carly Clark-Stokes is in Texas as a rehab science tech at TIRR Hermann Memorial Hospital in Houston, the same institution where Gabby Giffords and last year’s West Texas explosion victims rehabbed.

Today’s musical climate, Stokes said, has created an overflow of material because methods of marketing and producing from home are easily accessible, thanks to the internet. He adds that people have now come down with what he called “technology-induced collective attention-deficit disorder,” where the shorter attention spans make it harder for quality bands to break through.

“For every great band that makes it on their own in their bedroom, there are twenty other guys fooling around,” he said. “People who make a living listening, they want to book or something, they are so flooded with product. It used to be hard to make a record. You used to have to save up money from gigs to make a record. You used to have to go to a professional to make a record. And if you still want a good record, I recommend still going to a professional. But with that said, there is something to be had about the D-I-Y method, but you need to be good at what you are doing.”

The Robbie Stokes Day commemoration is not Stokes’s only special event of the weekend.

This Friday, February 7 at 7 p.m. at the Carbondale Community High School auditorium, Stokes and his son Robby Clark-Stokes have organized a tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America. Local bands the Venturis and Soul Glo will cover the Fab Four’s legendary oeuvre.

Stokes said he wanted to honor the important mark in American musical history because he can pinpoint it as a defining moment in his life and those of many others.

“That changed the whole game when that hit,” Stokes said of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearance. “I stood in front of the TV with my acoustic guitar and was like, ‘Okay, this is definitely what I want to do.’ Not just me but thousands of boys and girls across the country.”

From the initial chord exchange on their earliest hits, Stokes said the Beatles commanded attention and set the bar for every rock band that followed.

“That first blast that comes out the radio from ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’” Stokes said, “if you were there from the beginning you know— it was pretty amazing.”

Even the construction of their songs was genius, he said.

“Their use of harmony, orchestration, odd chord signatures, exuberance, was unmatched prior [to that] for the most part,” Stokes said. “They filtered all the good stuff— Buddy Holly, Elvis, all the early rockabilly greats, [rhythm and blues] greats, and they honed it in the bonfire of English and German bars. Dives, you know? They not only had the innate talent but they had the drive and determination....”

Stokes and his son teamed to write a song for the late George Harrison, and when his sister Louise, who lived for years in nearby Benton, heard the song, she was so moved that she invited the father-son duo to perform at a big Beatles convention in Chicago.

“I always remain grateful to Louise for inviting us there,” Stokes said. “It was really cool.”

When asked who would top his short list of musicians he would like to work with, Stokes is quick to mention Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band.

“We are the same age, within days, and he has always been an inspiration to me,” Stokes said. “Like the Beatles, there are some people who just don’t get it because they have short memories or they have a lack of respect... but I like him a lot.”

Stokes, who graduated from SIU in 1998 with a degree in University Studies, mixes sound at the Hangar 9 at least three times a week, as well as at other venues. Many great musical acts are lining up for gigs in Carbondale, Stokes said, including Jason Isbell and Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers.

Carbondale is also seeing a steady rise in the latest country acts stopping by on their way to stardom. One example is Florida Georgia Line, which packed a weeknight at the Hangar and several shows at the Copper Dragon a year and a half before striking it big on national airwaves.

Stokes knew during that Hangar show that he was seeing something special.

“I knew they were really nice guys,” he said. “I smelled it coming. I told the front guys, ‘See ya, because I won’t be seeing you again, probably.”

Given time and effort, Stokes said he believes the fire can burn again in Carbondale. The potential in the club circuit is there, and the music scene is healthy, Stokes said— all it needs now is the right push to make that a reality.

“It’s still cooking, but it’s more a nice, slow slimmer now,” he said of the local music scene. “It is not as red-hot as it used to be, but I fully intend to do whatever I can to try to heat the iron back up, if you will.”

Stokes said he believes the community and university should tout the accomplishments of alumni who have build impressive careers outside the area. He adds that he has had former interns of his company go on to work with musical acts fun. and Kayne West, among others.

Whatever works, Stokes adds, could only help the budding artistry survive.

“I am really hopeful the music scene can build on a what is a really strong base right now and can weather a sticky economic climate for another year or two so we can get things rolling,” Stokes said. “All the local clubs and wineries will be working as hard as we can to bring [the] talent we can.”

Otherwise, you can find him on almost any given night behind the board.

“I’m an audio technician through and through,” he said. “That’s who I am.”

who: Robbie Stokes

what: Robbie Stokes Day

where: Hangar 9

when: Sunday, February 9