I'm riding to a wedding downstate when I find out about Tony. It's about 80 degrees outside, and a Louis Jordan CD is on: "Caledonia! Caledonia! What makes your big head so hard?" My friend Dan is driving, and Tony is in the back. It's pretty quiet in the car. I don't know Tony that well, but I've heard he knows a lot about music, so I idly ask him if Martha and the Vandellas ever had a top-ten hit besides "Nowhere to Run."
It's as if I'd asked him his middle name. He says, "They had 'Dancing in the Street,' 'Nowhere to Run,' 'Quicksand,' 'Jimmy Mack'--that was their fourth biggest record..." He stops for a minute. "'Heat Wave'! 'Love is like a heat wave,' that's the other one. I knew I was forgetting the fifth one. Yeah, they got the name Vandellas from Della Reese and Van Dyke Street, where [lead singer] Martha Reeves lived."
When I recover, I say, "Can you give me the dates for those?"
He says, "In the order that you got 'em? '64, '65, '63, '67, and '63."
Tony, as it turns out, is known for two things: his ability to sleep sitting up in a chair with his shoes on for eight hours, and his ability to recite the number-one Billboard Hot 100 single for nearly any date since 1955. The first talent rose out of necessity--he doesn't have his own place, and not all his friends have spare beds. The second started, more or less, with one 45, the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."
He was in fifth grade in Harvey, Illinois, when he first started to dive in deep. His household was already in thrall to the blues, jazz, and big band albums that played on his grandmother's turntable all the time: B.B. King, Oscar Peterson, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Glenn Miller. But then he heard the Jacksons--"They were the coolest thing," he says. "That's what everybody in school wanted to be, you know, Michael Jackson when he looked really cute." He started bothering his mom and grandma for change to get his own records. His mom gave him her old Sears Silvertone. And then, from listening to Casey Kasem on WCFL, he found out about something called the Billboard Hot 100. Before long he found that he could memorize it, too. He's not perfect (Martha and the Vandellas actually had one more top-ten hit, "I'm Ready for Love," in 1966), but boy, is he good.
"For some odd reason, I've got that kind of hit or single 45 mind-set. The things that are easiest to remember are the songs and the artists that have a certain quirk about them. Daryl Hall and John Oates had tons of hit records, you know. They had 'Rich Girl' and 'Sara Smile,' 'I Can't Go for That' went to number one, 'Private Eyes,' 'Kiss on My List,' 'Out of Touch'--but man, for me, if you were to ask me about Zager and Evans's 'In the Year 2525'? OK, yeah. It was an RCA record. It was recorded originally on Truth Records in Nebraska, and they were just handed out at their personal appearances, and a representative from RCA Records got ahold of it and bought the master from Zager and Evans, 'cause they owned the recording, and within six weeks of its release it was at number one the week of, I think, July the 12th of 1969. It was number one for six weeks. But that's easy, because it was the only record they had."
I point out that this doesn't sound easy. He just says, "You would be surprised. Give me another one."
Tony is 38 and on the slight side. He's extremely polite, and sometimes refers to himself seriously as an "urchin." When he talks about music, which is most of the time, he has a hard time sitting still--he has to pace, or at least stand up. He's bagged groceries at Jewel, done survey work over the phone, and put together circuit boards. At the moment he's doing construction work for a temp service in the city and staying with a friend in Crystal Lake. He also works sometimes at Full Cyrkle Records in Crystal Lake, helping the customers who come in with half-remembered song lyrics. And he makes occasional appearances on the cable access show Cool Clown Ground. He takes calls from viewers trying to find out who played Buster Bloodvessel in Magical Mystery Tour ("A guy named Ivor Cutler, he's probably dead now") or asking his views on Christian hip-hop ("Whatever it takes to make your point").
Tony is pretty egalitarian when it comes to genre, but he will admit preferences under pressure. "There's a lot of stuff I hear nowadays when I turn on the radio that makes me feel really kind of maladjusted. For instance, there was this one song I heard by R. Kelly, 'Feelin' on Yo Booty.' I'm like, OK, where's the love at? It's just--I don't know, I need that element of real and warmth. When I hear Pet Sounds, I hear someone who wants to be loved. If I'm listening to a record, I like to feel like whoever's giving me the music gives a fuck." Then he apologizes for swearing.
Moving between other people's houses all the time strikes me as a hard way to live, and I ask him if he thinks he'll ever settle down. He says yeah, probably, but doesn't say when or how. After a minute he says, "I want really desperately to be happy. Particularly as times are the way they are now. There's only so much of our lives that are actually ours. Some of it someone else has control over, and that can be gone like that." He snaps his fingers. "So I want to make sure that if anything goes down, I'm doing something I like to do. If I'm in a record store listening to Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and I look outside and I see a missile coming--" He leans forward and looks at me hard; he doesn't shrug. "Oh well."