My old friend Johnny Pitts passed away this past Saturday, July 2nd. He was 81 and had been in ill health for years. I met Johnny as a friend of The Sundowners in the mid-90s, likely at the Dec 1st, 1993 event where Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley declared Sundowners Day in the City of Chicago in tribute to the influential local country band. The Sundowners brought the history forward and welcomed young punks like me into their RR Ranch bar live country & western music world. Johnny Pitts, despite his hard living and poor health, managed to outlive his friends in The Sundowners, Bob Boyd, Curt Delaney, and Don Walls.
Johnny was always full of colorful stories about playing pedal steel and guitar with the greats, DJing on a country radio station in Michigan, hosting his radio show live from his music store in Uptown until arson burned it down, working as a Hollywood stuntman, and as a pilot flying private planes. He was a real character and always entertaining. Many of his fabulous stories were bigger-than-life tales; he once gave me a pair of black cowboy boots that he said had been Johnny Cash’s. He was on a set with Johnny Cash or sharing a stage with him, when Johnny said that his feet hurt because his boots didn’t fit. Pitts gave Cash his own boots off his feet; they traded. I have that pair of boots, and they're too small for my average woman's sized foot, so it's not likely Cash could have ever got them over his toes – but it was one of many Johnny Pitts tall tales that likely began with a resemblance to the truth.
He often talked about his beautiful wife Marie who’d passed, and how much he missed and loved her. He hoarded thousands of LPs, 7”s, cassettes, 8-tracks, reel-to-reels, as well as guitars and model trains, in his big old rundown Ravenswood house he refused to leave for years. He talked proudly of all his friends and neighbors including those who were gay or African American, a progressive view for someone who lived when he did and was an integral part of the hillbilly Uptown neighborhood in Chicago. He regularly texted me bad jokes and sweet notes of how much he appreciated my friendship. He’d frequently sign off as “Your Man of Radio, Records, Aviation, and Movies, Johnny Pitts."
Here’s a typical Johnny Pitts message:
SQUALL & BAWL & CLIMB UP THE WALL & YELL "GOOD MORNING" YOU'ENS ALL--- THIS IS JOHNNY PITTS & FOR THE NEXT 4 HOURS I HOPE TO BRING YOU SOME OF THE FINEST IN GOOD OLE COUNTRY MUSIC---SOME OLD & SOME NEW & WE'RE EVEN GOING TO OPEN THE VAULTS OF COUNTY MUSIC WITH HIT'S OF A FEW YEARS BACK IN THE CONCRETE CANYONS OF CHICAGO---LETS OPEN THE VAULT NOW WITH A BIG HIT OF 1951---HERE'S HANK SNOW & I'M MOVING ON-----
Hello Princess, That was one of the ways I used to open my Radio Shows on WEAW AM & FM many years ago. It is now WOJO. I never used a Script as I would AD-LIB my daily 4 hour DJ Program!! At the time WEAW-AM was 10,000 Watts & WEAW-FM was 150,000 Watts-The most powerful FM Station in the Midwest. My Shows aired on both AM & FM & I used to get Fan Mail from all over the Midwest!! When I Backed up Legendary FRANKLIN MacCORMACK ON THE ALL NIGHT SHOWCASE playing CHORD GUITAR behind his Poetry Readings I would get Fan Mail from as far away as Ireland as WGN was a 50,000 WATT CLEAR CHANNEL STATION at 720 on the Dial. I Backed "MAC" up on Fridays & Saturday's. Also, I had a 2-hour LIVE RADIO SHOW ON SATURDAYS ON WEAW-AM&FM FROM MY MUSIC STORE THAT FEATURED LOCAL TALENT & BIG NAME STARS LIKE HANK SNOW, FLATT & SCRUGGS JUST TO NAME TWO---I also had a Show on WJJD on Wednesday nights---The Arson Fire on April 8th 1969 put an end to almost everything including my WIFE & 2 CHILDREN!! GOD BLESS, JOHNNY PITTS
I raise a high Chicago country & western toast to you Johnny Pitts, The Man of Radio, Records, Aviation, and Movies!
Cheers to a life richly lived,
And the Sundowners album that Bloodshot released in 2004.
This handwritten note, plus a collage made by Johnny's wife, hang proudly in Nan's Bloodshot HQ office: