Fourteen years ago, guitarist Pete Special and saxophonist Terry Ogolini of Chicago were playing rhythm and blues in Carbondale, Ill., when Ogolini decided Special should meet a drummer and vocalist friend named Larry Nolan. Six feet 4 and 300 pounds, Nolan was better known as "Big Twist."
Special hasn't forgotten that night. "We had to travel about 20 miles to a town called Buchner, Illinois," he recalls. "Twist was playing in this real rough club. He was just about the only black man in the area at the time. Chicken wire was strung up in front of the bandstand and the moment you entered the place, you knew why it was there. It took about five seconds to size up the club. It was the kind of place where somebody might throw a beer bottle at you because you played a song they like. I mean even a positive response from this kind of crowd could be dangerous."
Special survived the experience and was so impressed by Big Twist's performance that he suggested the three musicians form a band.
Twist was cool to the idea at first, but after a year of persuasion Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows began playing the joyful and brassy brand of rhythm and blues they'll display tonight at Friendship Station on upper Wisconsin Avenue.
Special says what really attracted him to Twist was more than the drummer's love of singing everything from R&B to country, pop and blues. "It was really seeing him put so much of his own personality into his songs," Special says. "Whatever he sang, it was Big Twist up there, not someone trying to emulate another singer who may have had a hit with the same song."
If Special was knocked out, Twist remembers being less impressed with the guitarist's offer to start a band. "I heard it all before," Twist says with a chuckle. "Two young white boys talking . . . I just let it go in one ear and out the other."
Later, after everyone got to know each other better ("Twist would sit in with our band, and we'd sit in with his," recalls Special), the big singer with the smooth but imposing baritone decided to go along with the idea.
A soft-spoken man who sports a fedora and a three-piece suit on stage, Big Twist grew up in Terre Haute, Ind., one of 14 children. His father was a musician "who could play just about any instrument he wanted to play."
In the early 1950s, Twist moved to southern Illinois with intentions of going to college. Instead, he found himself leading a house band at a thriving nightspot -- "The New Orleans Club."
"It was about the only black and tan (integrated) club for miles and miles," Twist recalls. "I guess outside of Chicago those clubs were unheard of in those days. Anyway, Illinois was wide open back then. You'd run into dice tables the moment you hit the door, and some of the biggest acts would come into town. James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, Jimmy Forrest -- I'd back them all up on drums and maybe sing a little before they came out."
Once Twist teamed up with Special and Ogolini, it wasn't long before the group moved to Chicago, added some new band members -- it's seven pieces strong now -- and won a measure of both critical and popular acclaim. The band landed a record deal in the late 1970s and began to attract a national audience with music that celebrated the R&B tradition without aping its heroes.
"We're not a revival band," says Special. "Why do a Muddy Waters tune the same way Muddy did it? Who could do it better than Muddy? We change the tunes around, make them fresh and different, put something of ourselves into the music. And, of course, there's plenty of our own tunes as well."
Special is proud of the band's recordings, particularly its 1979 debut on the Flying Fish label and the most recent Alligator release, "Playing for Keeps." He coproduced the latter with Chicago blues producer and A&R man Gene Barge. Even so, Special readily concedes that the kind of excitement the band generates on stage has yet to be conveyed on its recordings.
"One of the problems, of course, is trying to convey the kind of stage performer Big Twist is. He's just so charismatic, so physical on stage, that it's hard to put all that personality into a record. But believe me, we intend to do it one of these days."