Tom Dundee

1946 - 2006

Musician found inner peace in song

Singer who found fame in the '70s folk scene never stopped inspiring his fans and friends

By Josh Noel
Tribune staff reporter

April 20, 2006

He grew up with banker parents in a Rogers Park apartment where little live music was played, but somehow Tom Dundee heard the calling.

As a child, he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a radio hidden beneath his pillow. Then he taught himself to play the guitar his father bought for him as a teen.

His music peaked in the 1970s, when Mr. Dundee became a mainstay of the Chicago folk scene and penned a song that still makes his fans' hearts flutter.

Even as folk music's star fell by the end of that decade, Mr. Dundee pressed on, promoting concerts and performing when he could, including a sold-out show this year at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

A colorful and eclectic showman, Mr. Dundee, 59, died Tuesday, April 18, in St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, three days after a motorcycle accident near his Rogers Park home. After what appeared to be successful surgery, he may have suffered complications from a stroke, said his girlfriend of eight years, Roni Perkins.

Hours before the accident, from which he never regained consciousness, Mr. Dundee had been--no surprise--listening to live music at a North Side cafe, Perkins said.

"He was a talkative guy. He was so sensitive, so romantic and had a great sense of humor," she said. "Everyone said, `Tom is my best friend.' At the hospital we realized that he made everyone feel the same."

Born Tom Callinan, he graduated from St. George High School in Evanston before attending DePaul University.

In an era when rock 'n' roll was king--Bob Dylan had long since plugged in his guitar--Mr. Dundee turned to wanderlust and music.

By 1969, he had settled in Albuquerque, working in a pizza parlor, a job he loathed, according to a 1974 Tribune profile.

When the restaurant's regular entertainer, a banjo player, didn't show, the manager offered Mr. Dundee a shot at the stage. As he took his place before the audience, the young guitar player kept to himself the fact that he knew only three chords.

After working the next summer at a girls camp in Wisconsin filled with "nasty children from Chicago" and playing guitar at a weekly church mass, he moved home and took his talent to open mike nights at renowned folk clubs like the Earl of Old Town and Orphans. By then he was using his new surname, which he chose while driving down Dundee Road, his girlfriend said.

Impressed by his song writing and style, the owner of Orphans offered Mr. Dundee a weekend performance slot, which he used to cement his place in the nation's most thriving folk scene, led at the time by John Prine and Steve Goodman. Before long he was opening for such stars and sometimes sharing the stage with them.

Most fans agree that Mr. Dundee's finest three minutes is "A Delicate Balance," a gentle plea for inner peace and living in the moment, which counsels, "To worry does nothing, but steals from the loving and robs from the pleasure that's there."

Among the song's biggest fans is his girlfriend.

"Everywhere we went, there were so many people that came up to him who said it helped them through such a crisis in their life," she said. "It's helped me in my life as well, and it's helping me now."

His girlfriend said a memorial tribute concert is planned for 5 p.m. May 14 in the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune