Age has treated Lenny LaCour better than the record business ever did. The 70-year-old musician-promoter wears a pressed gray suit, accented by a maroon tie, as he sips coffee in a booth at a pancake house near his Melrose Park home, and a full head of jet-black hair complements a thin W. Clement Stone mustache.
LaCour currently runs a small label called Magic Touch. He figures it's at least the sixth such operation he's set up since 1960. That's when he started his first business, Lucky Four, where he served as songwriter, arranger, producer, and main artist, recording singles such as "Have I Stayed Away Too Long?" under the name the Big Rocker. By then he'd already cut what would be his biggest record, "Rock 'n' Roll Romance," which was given away free with six-pack cartons of Orange Crush soda in 1956.
"It's the only million seller not on the Billboard charts," LaCour says sadly. Since he doesn't have any copies of the record to play (a Canadian collector cleaned him out years ago) he tries to describe the song--"pop upitty" is the phrase he comes up with. Then he snaps his fingers and sings. "Hmnnnn... what a doll / Well I met a little girlie in a record shop / We listened to a platter that was real bebop / I looked at this cutie and I knew at a glance / This was a rock 'n' roll romance." LaCour stops and smiles. Our waitress walks away.
"In Chicago, Lenny was one of the early pioneers of pushing and creating rock 'n' roll," says local soul historian Robert Pruter, who has written about LaCour for the British magazine Now Dig This. "Lenny recorded vocal groups and the approximation of rockabilly we had here. Some of his records got considerable play here and nationwide. But no one really recognizes the guy."
"Lenny was more outstanding than his artists," says Herb "the Cool Gent" Kent, who was DJing at WBEE when he met LaCour in 1960. "He was creole and had pretty hair. He was soft-spoken, but intense about producing his records. He was a classic example of a local record promoter."
LaCour's biggest claim to fame may be the result of a chance encounter with Elvis. The two met just once, at a television studio in Fort Smith, Arkansas. "The Colonel was trying to get Elvis records played," LaCour says. It was a historic meeting, according to LaCour. For years he'd been using the name King Creole, a moniker he came up with because he has both Italian blood (he's what Louisianans call "King") and French Creole blood. He trademarked the name in 1952 and still signs his correspondence that way. Elvis, of course, starred in a movie called King Creole in 1958. LaCour claims he was the inspiration.
These days LaCour's promoting a disc of strange, kitschy tunes recorded over the past two and a half decades called Lenny's Back With a Dance Attack! Highlights include "The Worm," a funky salute to Dennis Rodman, and "Binta Jua," a tribute to the Brookfield Zoo gorilla that left a three-year-old boy unharmed after he slid into the gorilla pit in the summer of 1996. "If I don't kill your children, why then do you?" LaCour sings in the voice of the animal, before launching into a swaggering chorus of "Gorilla! Gorilla!" atop a cacophony of cowbells, police whistles, and cracking whips. On the cover of the CD he's pictured smiling and playing a piano. Lenny LaCour does not know how to play the piano.
LaCour's parents, Benny and Ernestine, were corn and cotton farmers on the Isle of Bredelle in Louisiana. "Did you see the movie Steel Magnolias?" he asks. "The end of the movie has a shot right down the riverbank where we used to live. It's the Cane River." His folks were big fans of Hank Williams, and as a boy LaCour heard a lot of country music on the radio.
He first came to Chicago in 1950 and fell for a girl named Beverly Goldstein while they were both singing at the Club DeLisa on South State. "She was Jewish," he says. "My dad was strict Catholic. When he found out I was dating a Jewish girl he came and got me and brought me back to Louisiana." He returned to Chicago in 1952 and married Goldstein. He started to sing at out-of-the-way joints like the Hangout at Augusta and Ashland, and at lightweight boxing champion Barney Ross's Ringside Ranch, on North Clark, which later became the country mecca Bar R.R. Ranch.
LaCour's creole heritage enabled him to move freely between Chicago's black and white nightclubs during the early 50s. "There were only two people doing that," he says. The other was Leonard Chess. "When [Chess] started pressing records, I wanted to get on his label. I brought him demos of 'Alligator Man,' 'Rockin' Rosalie,' and 'Old Fish.' He dropped his glasses down his nose, looked over the top of them, and said, 'Want me to play these?' He played the demos, looked at me again, and said, 'I like "Old Fish," but I don't see anybody walking down the street calling their girl "Old Fish." And I don't put white boys on my label.' Muddy Waters was in the room. He said, 'Mr. Chess, he's got a whole lot of soul in his voice.'"
"Rockin' Rosalie," a hard rockabilly number, finally saw the light of day in 1957 when it was released on Chicago's Academy Records. Around the same time, LaCour produced the Eddie Bell & the Belaires hit "The Masked Man (Hi-Ho Silver)" for Mercury. Eddie Bell was born Eddie Blazonczyk, the name he now records under as a successful polka artist. "Lenny talked a lot of shit, but he came through," he says. Blazonczyk credits LaCour with jump-starting his career. "When I was fading out in rock 'n' roll Lenny said, 'You ought to go back to polka music. Your mom has a place [the Pulaski Village Ballroom], and you can play there. I was 22 years old. I took his advice and never regretted it." In 1987 the bandleader won a Grammy for best polka recording; he received his seventh nomination this year.
LaCour moved to Milwaukee briefly in the late 60s, where he recorded R & B saxophonist Harvey Scales, who'd later coauthor Johnnie Taylor's 1976 hit "Disco Lady." When he returned to Chicago in 1970, Scales came along. A few years later, the two popped in at Enterprise Recording Studios in Maywood. The cavernous second-floor studio, built in a 1920s cinder-block bank building, was owned and operated by Bob Kaider and drummer Tom Sparks. (It was renamed Lake Studios in 1980, then shut down at the end of 2001, ending a 31-year run.)
"Lenny walked in one day and talked about how he had been a producer at Mercury and was looking for a place to base his own label," says Kaider. "He had been distributed by Atlantic, and he showed me records to prove it. We agreed to set up office space where he operated Magic Touch."
Scales recorded there with his band, the Seven Sounds. "We did a thing called 'Groove On Sexy Lady,'" says Kaider. "This is 1976. Lenny calls up WVON, where he had a friend from his Mercury days. [Program director] Rodney Jones said to come on over and he'd listen to it. So I cut an acetate and Lenny took it down there. He brought a fifth of Chivas Regal along with the acetate. He knew Rodney liked Chivas Regal. So they sit down, and Rodney likes the song. He calls over one of their DJs, and he puts it on the air. This wouldn't happen today.
"I'd call Lenny a cross between Sam Phillips and Colonel [Tom] Parker," says Kaider. "But he doesn't have the attack thing they did. We never made any money. Lenny is too nice a guy for the business he's in."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.