Turk’s Head

For over a decade I searched for a photo of the Turk’s Head building every time I went back to Urbana to no avail, but finally, some have arrived, thanks to the founder, Steven Simon and Bugsy. Turk’s Head was the center of gravity for the counterculture in central Illinois— until they demolished it around 1968. We assumed it was torn down just to destroy what had become central station for the emerging hippie culture. And the day after it was bulldozed, I went through the rubble in great sadness and found a silver ring with some Native-American-like etchings on it. That ring became my most powerful and longest-lasting magical possession. When I finally proposed at age 50, I passed it over as my engagement ring. That’s how much it meant to me.

It was an ancient 3-story hotel built far from the railroad tracks and downtown areas so certain people could keep a low-profile. Al Capone’s gang supposedly stayed there, for example, when they came down-state to hunt pheasant. There were two major gangs in Chicago back then, and once they crossed paths on Henry Sansone’s property and turned the shotguns on each other. My family was well-versed with the mob since my mom’s uncle ran the numbers racket in Gary, Indiana, and paid skim to Capone. Uncle Freddy wisely paid his way out of the game and went straight after the Untouchables came to town.

The Turk’s Head had a wide set of stairs leading up to a deck. The staircase and deck became the hangout (along with the balconies above it), and since the building fronted Green Street, which was the main drag through campus, just sitting on the steps was like being on display for all the passing traffic, and when you had a big group of hippies, there was a lot of rubber-necking going on. There was an advertising placard on the deck like the type used to update daily menus, only it said: “If I owned Champaign and hell, I’d rent out Champaign and live in hell.”

On the left side was Turk’s Head, a bohemian-style, beatnik coffee-shop that served food at people’s prices and often had free movies, like “The Wild Ones” with Marlon Brando, or a similar counterculture classic—with free popcorn. They also had a wide selection of exotic beers available. On the right was Mary Shirley’s business venture, In Stitches, and also Bob Nutt’s business venture, Blytham Ltd. (a name suggested by Jim Cole, for it’s British flavor). Downstairs was The Leather Shop, created by a jazz drummer who would briefly join the Finchleys. His name was Glenn Cronkhite.

Bob Nutt (wearing hat) and Irv Azov with long hair.

Bob Nutt had a business partner named Irv Azoff. Originally from Danville, IL, Azof was a fraternity brother of Nutt, and they decided to hook their wagons to the garage-rock movement to see if it would take them to the stars. Only one would make it. Blytham had the bands completely under their thumb because they invested thousands in equipment and paid the band members nominal allowances until the cost of the equipment was paid off. In Stitches was probably the most fashionable rock’n’roll boutique in the world at the time. Mary’s designs were always daring and spectacular. She was so far ahead of her time. The bands were all outfitted in her clothes (if they could afford it, that is).

Nutt would be yelling to someone on the phone, threatening to never let some venue book the Finchley’s again unless they took all of Nutt’s other bands, like the Seeds of Doubt, or the Knight Riders (the band I briefly played bass in), and they also had to promise not to book any band not affiliated with Blytham—since they had cleverly signed every competent high school and college band around. Blytham was establishing a virtual monopoly on live rock music in the area. Irv seemed like a nice guy. I bought some buttons from him and he was fun to talk to. Blytham had a huge collection of anti-establishment buttons for sale. Buttons were really big back then, as this was before t-shirts carried any messages.

Guy Maynard of the Seeds of Doubt was blossoming into a real revolutionary and had a big confrontation with Azof at the House of Chin. Guy evolved into a world-class novelist and will probably release the story himself some day, but the upshot was that the money from the rock entertainment business belonged to the people, not the rock stars and their managers. Irv really exploded when he heard that line. (I guess you know Azoff turned into the most powerful person in the music industry?)

44 Replies to “Turk’s Head”

  1. Great work Steve!

    Turks Head was one of the real centers for the counter-culture forefront at that time and it had a reputation going far beyond that area. I even met a guy at Woodstock who knew about it and had been there.

    One thing though, I may be confused, but I always thought that Irving came from Decatur.

    1. Irving was from Danville for sure. His senior year in high school he walked up to me when I was with the One-Eyed-Jacks playing Danville and asked about the music industry. I think I told him I didn’t see a future in it.

      I have also wondered about pictures of Turks Head. The iconic item being missed here besides it’s architecture and it being the mecca for the youth sub-culture because of the Shirley Sisters/In-Stitches was the Guillotine on the sidewalk out front. It would be great if anyone had a picture of the building and the Guillotine.

      After the breakup of playing in a band with Terry Luttrell, poor and broke, I walked into In-Stitches and Bob Nutt says you want a job. Sure! A band called the One-Eyed-Jacks is looking for a crew guy. That was the beginning of my life as a sound guy.

      Kudos to The Finchley Boys, Seeds of Doubt, Bob Nutt, the Shirley Sisters, and many others for the vision and influence they had on all of us.


    2. World take notice. Steve Simon, my beloved uncle, died on Saturday May 18th, at the age of 92. Still living independently, never surrendered, engaged in the battles he fought, with wit and history and righteous indignation, until the very end his own man. Heart of gold and will of steel. I will post a follow up. For now, if you have anything to share please post it here.

      1. i was told this by another family member. sad news. a great man who dedicated his life to justice and peace. i learned more working at the turks’ head than in school. steve was surrounded by intelligent people, including most of the staff. the conversations were illuminating and rarely trivial. in 1964, there was a poster on the wall about a secret war in a country many had never heard of. vietnam. it became known in 65. there was also a poster on the cigarette machine by the cancer society warning about the dangers before the gov’t required a warning. steve lectured some youngsters out of starting smoking and was later able to quit, which may partly explain his long and productive life. we always stayed in touch and he will be sorely missed. i’ve had some good bosses , but steve was the best ever. only one of 2 who insisted i take breaks and the only one to offer free food. his brilliant intellect was undiminished until the very end. was going to call him the day i heard of his unexpected death. a sad day for many.

  2. Steve,

    All these Urbana-Champaign in the ’60s posts are bringing on a powerful flashback. They were amazing and special times in a special place. Thanks for telling these stories. Irving was definitely from Danville.

  3. I worked at the Turk’s Head when I was 16. Can’t remember the owner’s name but he was super cool. He used to tell me about Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got HIs Gun” and other neat stuff. Gave me keys to the place – so I could sneak in late at nite and have one of his exotic beers.

    Does anyone out there in Hagerland know what the owner’s name was? Jagger, who I used to see drinking beer everyday at the Turk’s Head (found out later he was 16 then, too 😉 told me years later he ran into the Turk’s Head owner in San Francisco.

    1. Thanks, Don. I’d almost forgotten about Jagger, he was a little like Eric, in that he had total freedom from the time he was around 15. He could also buy beer at that age as he, like Eric, already had a full beard at that age. Sure wish we could find a photo of the Turk’s Head with Jagger on the steps!

      1. Jagger was apparently thrown out of the Champaign County Jail, I believe sometime in early 1967. There was a letter in one of the local papers by him protesting his release.

    2. i thought i answered this years ago,but, if still there, you may know by now that he’s s. steven simon. samuel is his given name. he wishes well to all the employees . i was a dishwasher there from about 63-66. remember woodie and roger, the cooks ? i still have a phone # for 1. haven’t spoken in a few years over the phone.

  4. i worked as a dishwasher and spaghetti maker at the turk’s head for the last 3 years of high school, 63-66, where steve, roger ebert, and others went. i don’t have a photo but will ask the former owner in about an hour, if it’s o.k. to give his name. he’ll like hearing that people remember. he may even be able to send a pic of the turk’s head. i remember one he took of the guillotine that said, “in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king “.

    1. Hello Brother John. You were a pioneer and somehow fell into the orbit of the most advanced milieu in Urbana at the time. Congrats. Following that came everyone else including me who wound up next door sweeping floors at In Stitches where I met some of the world’ greatest people. Of course I didn’t know many people at the time 🙂 But they were the greatest. You led the way, we all started doing things we’d never imagined! Pete.

  5. i just talked to steve. it’s s. steven simon and he said it was ok to give his name out. he’s going to try to find some pics and when they arrive i could post them. he remembers don. spanish civil war album ring a bell don ?

      1. steve also talked me into reading johnny got his gun. i bumped into a relative of dalton trumbo recently and told him ,when i gave that book to a friend , he applied for a c.o. status and got it, even though he was a catholic and they had helped start the war. steve and his wife maralyn are still married and live in chicago. we have stayed friends ever since i left urbana for ca.

    1. Jeeves: Yes, I remember I sold the spanish civil war album and I think a Sun Ra album to Steve Simon when I was sent away to a notorious Summerhill type school in Florida I also was a spaghetti maker at the Turk’s Head. Tell Simon I remember him fondly – just forgot his name till you mentioned it. — Don

        1. s. steven simon lives in evanston now. i washed dishes and made spaghetti every 2 weeks. we always made enough to freeze for the between week.i think it was only served on sundays or something like that.the black guy in the photo is tim smith who also washed dishes there. he moved to watts but when i went to l.a. shortly after him, i was unable to find him at the forwarding address. we both had motorcycles. i had a capriolo 100 and he had the honda super 90 that had just come out.

          1. It’s amazing there are three of us ex-employees of the Turk’s Head in Hagerland. And, interesting to hear that Steve Simon had a profound effect on each one of us.

      1. It was Green Valley School – it was advertised in The Realist and the guy who ran it had a column in the magazine for awhile. William Burroughs son was also there. I think Krassner supported the school’s effort to open a branch in North Carolina earlier but it was brunt out by the Klan.

        1. Don H, is it true that you are working on a biography of Eric Swenson, and many the old Schwafford stories will be included? I wish I could remember more of them. They alway had a pithy elegance and imparted a bone-jarring moral.

          1. I have been trying to put some stuff together remembering Eric. If you remember Swoff stories or good Eric stories get in touch with me at demonrho@gmail.com

          2. i sent some pics of the turk’s head that have been put up before here. steve simon wishes all well who were ever associated with it. he’s still politically involved in many ways. there’s a good movie script just a’waitin to be born from anyone who remembers this ancient era. if only i were a writer.

        2. used to be in touch with paul but lost all my addresses when yahoo got hacked. have every issue of the realist .

  6. steve says hi to everyone. he’ll be busy marching down michigan avenue this weekend and will send the photos in the mail as soon as he can find them. he’s still a peace activist . i have many good memories about the turk’s head ale hse. steve, hooked on 6 packs of viceroy’s a day, would angrily lecture young smokers about getting addicted like him. he was about the only one nearby who carded kids and wouldn’t let them get cigarettes from the machine forced on him.he pasted a british cancer association poster of , like, old wrinkled woman, big white letters,”smoking is very glamorous”, or pictures of black lungs after autopsy.over the ad on the front of the cigarette machine. i smoked camels at 15 and he strongly disapproved . endless lectures, among other influences, finally convinced me to quit at 21. he’s had that kind of influence on people and finally quit himself many years ago. i wonder how many people were inspired to read trumbo and avoided getting killed and injured , and having to remember about killing others, 80-90% women and children, later in life.

  7. steve found some photos and i tried to send but it didn’t work.

    e-mail me and i can send them to you.

    1. i’m having scanner problems but will get a pic of steve and part of a menu if you like, in a couple of days.the computer doesn’t want to see the usb of the printer.

      here’s 1 more shot for now.oops. yahoo froze. will try later.

  8. The other side of the sign on the guillotine out front said “if I owned Champaign and Hell, I’d rent out Champaign and live in Hell!”

  9. It’s coming up on July 4th again. Every year as many of us as can gather at John Mies’s house in Urbana where he always hosts a party for the Retired Boneyard Navigators. Mostly we sit around all day and into the night swapping the old stories. Big Sue is usually there, and Buzzard usually makes it in from out-of-town. But it’s not the same anymore with so many of the regulars gone. Paul Tyner, Scotty Stevens, Rasta James, Kenny Stratton. All my old tripping buddies seem to be gone except for Larry Green, John Kappes, and you, Steve. It would sure be good to see a bunch of the old gang if they’re around Urbana on the 4th.

  10. Leather Shop was started in spring of 1967 by local jazz percussionist/drummer Glenn Cronkhite. His for-fun, experimental band (throw a jazz drummer & bassist in the mix, add two blues-rock aficionados and one folk-rock vocalist and see what happens) rehearsed down there till it got too cold. I’ve looked for years for a photo of the TH with Cronk’s sign but never found one…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.