There weren't many places for kids to hang out when Jim Welton was growing up in Arlington Heights in the 1960s and garage bands were springing up everywhere. Welton was a senior at Arlington Heights High School in '64 and was in one of those bands when a teen music club called the Blast opened in temporary quarters in the local VFW hall and changed things in a big way. A year or so later, when the club was attracting national acts like the Beau Brummels, making the northwest suburb a hot teen destination, Welton's band was an opening act. By then the club was known as the Cellar.
Welton and a classmate, Dan Baughman, had started out as a folksinging duo. But Baughman had a brother a few years older who "was always trying to convince him that folk music was not the way to go and we needed to have a rock 'n' roll band," Welton says. "So around our junior year, we electrified. We had a bass, two guitars, a set of drums. We played at school dances. We weren't very good." Eventually they found a new bass player and drummer, developed a Byrds-like sound, and began calling themselves the Raevns. With this group a "really nervous" Welton auditioned for the club's boss, Paul Sampson.
Sampson worked at the Arlington Heights post office and ran a record shop in the heart of town. A decade older than the teens, he liked rock 'n' roll and knew the kids were experimenting with stuff beyond the Top 40. Guessing the scene was ripe for a soda-pop club that would showcase local bands, he rented the VFW hall for a few Saturday-night stands. The club was an instant success, but not with the VFW. Sampson moved it to a country club in Mount Prospect and an empty Jewel Food Store before finding a semipermanent venue in the basement of the former Saint Peter's School. The basement was low ceilinged, hot, and steamy; it inspired the name change that stuck even after the club moved a final time, to a brick factory building west of downtown that it shared with a Firestone tire shop.
In its last and longest home, the Cellar was open every weekend. Admission was $2 to $5 and the place sold out regularly. Inside there was an office and dressing room and the large, dim performance space with a stage and a small snack bar. Decor consisted of nets hung from the ceiling and graffiti-covered walls. If there were any seats, no one used them. International acts like the Who and Cream made it a stop in their early touring days, and the club's regular local bands like Saturday's Children and the Mauds developed regional followings. But the thing everyone remembers is that the original Cellar house band, the bluesy Shadows of Knight (with lead singer Jimmy Sohns), had a national hit in 1966 with its version of Van Morrison's "Gloria."
Cellar alumni say there were no real problems at the club, but the village was never comfortable with it. When it started attracting kids from Chicago and distant suburbs, things got tense. "I think the police got more and more concerned about the outside people that were starting to come in," Welton says. A patron, Jeff Platt, recalls, "We were the scourge of Arlington Heights. There was the myth that all this evilness was going on. It was almost a constant battle. They had licensing problems and he [Sampson] did what he could. It probably would have lasted a lot longer if the town would have embraced it, realizing there was more good than harm." The club closed in 1970.
Welton's band never progressed beyond its opening-act status. When Baughman was recruited by the Shadows of Knight in his junior year in college, it put an end to the Raevns. Welton performed professionally until a management opportunity turned up at his day job in the late 70s, by which time he was 31 and married with children. He's now a customs broker with two sons in the music business. Baughman owns a fine-art foundry in Wisconsin.
Last fall Platt and a few other Cellar alums decided to see how many of the original musicians they could get together for a reunion. It's Saturday, 6 PM to midnight, at the American Legion Hall, 121 N. Douglas in Arlington Heights. Tickets are $30 at the door; call 847-255-2847 for more information. Five of the Cellar bands will play, including Saturday's Children, the Mauds, the Same, the Shadows of Knight (represented by two original members, Joe Kelley and Jerry McGeorge), and the Raevns. Welton and Baughman will be joined by bassist John Kehe and drummer Doug Hidding, just as they were when the Raevns last played the Cellar more than 30 years ago. --Deanna Isaacs
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.