Co-owner of North Side club was the heart
of folk music

By Rick Kogan
Tribune staff reporter

January 14, 2004

Fred Holstein was the first to tell you he lacked the talent and grace of such contemporaries as John Prine,
Bonnie Koloc, his younger brother Ed, the late Steve Goodman and some of the other talents that defined the city's folk music scene in the 1960s and 1970s.

But those performers and thousands of fans would have told you that no performer symbolized the heart of folk music more soulfully than Fred Holstein.

Beset in recent years by various maladies, Mr. Holstein, 61, died of heart failure Monday after undergoing emergency abdominal surgery at Swedish Covenant Hospital.

"I always had such great affection for Fred," said Koloc, who will dedicate songs to Mr. Holstein at one of her rare local performances, Friday night at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn. "He was the authentic folk singer on the scene. He sang with such truth and conviction."

Born and raised on the city's South Side, where his family ran a drugstore at 79th Street and Michigan Avenue, Mr. Holstein got hooked on music after attending a Pete Seeger concert at Orchestra Hall. He purchased his first guitar for $14.95 and taught himself to play by singing along with records and studying songbooks.

As a teenager he began to sneak into and then play at the folk clubs that dotted Wells Street in the Old Town neighborhood. His rich baritone and charming, if rumpled, stage presence made him a favorite.

When a bar called the Earl of Old Town decided to feature folk in 1966, Fred was on the opening night bill and became, along with Prine, Goodman, Koloc, Jim Post and others, a familiar presence at the club, which became the capital of the folk music world.

As folk music had a burst of popularity, Mr. Holstein never begrudged the record deals and big concert success of some of his colleagues. He admitted to a reporter that he "could never get the hang of writing my own songs" but regarded himself as "an interpreter. What I do is about the songs, about the art, about the work."

When the folk boom went bust in the 1970s, he still found places to play and supplemented his income by booking various clubs and tending bar at others.

In 1981, Fred and his younger brothers Ed and Alan--"the herd of Holsteins," as folkie Art Thieme always fondly referred to them--opened Holsteins, a music club on North Lincoln Avenue.

"He was one of the most generous people in the world," said Alan Holstein, who is in sales and manufacturing. "I am always proud to say I am his younger brother."

"He's the one who go me into music, my life," said Ed Holstein. "He influenced so many people, not just with his music but with his huge heart."

Holsteins had a good long run, closing its doors on New Year's Day in 1988, with the crowd accompanying the "herd of Holsteins" in a rousing rendition of "For All the Good People."

Mr. Holstein later worked as a bartender at the Lincoln Avenue tavern Sterch's, but his performances were infrequent. He was genuinely surprised by the interest and enthusiasm generated by the 2001 release of a two-CD release, "Fred Holstein: A Collection." It was his first CD, combining remastered tunes from his only two LPs, songs from the archives of WFMT-FM, and even snippets of interviews.

The CD seemed to reinvigorate him, and he performed every few months at the Abbey Pub with his brother Ed. "I never knew so many people still remembered who I was," he told a reporter after one of the packed-to-the-rafters shows in 2002.

Never much for exercise or a regimen of healthy living, Mr. Holstein was too sick to do much of anything over the last few months. But with characteristic optimism, he recently told friends that he hoped to return to the stage soon because, he said, "That's really where I feel the most alive."

In addition to his brothers, Mr. Holstein is survived by his mother, Sally. Funeral services will be private. A musical memorial service is being planned.

Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune