Crystal Bowersox’s Chicago Years

Before ‘Idol’ fame, she sang at clubs, L stops and street corners

By Mike Thomas
Chicago Sun-Times (IL) | May 10, 2010

The last time Gabriel Chapman saw “American Idol” finalist and former Chicago resident Crystal Bowersox in person, he helped duct-tape the dangling bumper back onto the “beater” she planned to drive back to her native Ohio.

But first, Bowersox — who’d showed up at a video shoot with a bouquet of sunflowers and her infant son in tow — wowed onlookers with her performance in support of Chapman’s young organization, Chicago Street Musicians.

“When she opened her mouth and sang, we were all like, jaws to the ground,” says the group’s co-founder, Sarah Barnes. “Like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is sick.’ ”

Bowersox has enjoyed similar reactions from admirers around the globe for her emotional and soulful performances on “Idol.” She and the three other remaining competitors will take the stage again Tuesday — and try to avoid getting booted.

Not that being dismissed would necessarily crush Bowersox’s budding career. Whatever the final outcome, her jalopy days probably are over.

“Honestly, whether she takes it all or not I don’t think matters at this point,” says local photographer and open-mike impresario Kat Fitzgerald, who booked Bowersox at several Chicago clubs and nonprofit events between 2005 and 2009. “I think she has made a name for herself, and people would be foolish not to book her and not to sign her for doing CDs and contracts and so on. I know she’s going to make it, but she’s also not going to become some sort of super-stuck-up bitch.”

Fitzgerald will be sitting in the “Idol” audience Tuesday (in a section reserved for Bowersox loyalists) to cheer on her friend in person. Other pals, including Chicago musicians Mark Brink and Brian Walker, will be on hand as well.

“The whole thing is a crazy, surreal experience,” Walker says of Bowersox’s sudden rise to stardom. “Because it’s not like I just play with her. I’m close friends with her. So you hear all the insanity and the media. And it’s bizarre anyway to turn on the television and hear the ladies on ‘The View’ talking about her. All these weird little things that don’t quite sink in, and then you’re starting to get hit with them from every direction and you go, ‘Wait a minute. This is still Crystal, right?’ So it’s freakish.

“But it’s nothing that we didn’t talk and dream about,” he adds, “and it’s amazing to see it unfold.”

The tabloid media’s scrutiny of Bowersox is so intense that publications such as the National Enquirer have repeatedly tried to contact Walker and other intimates for purposes of dirt-dishing. He’s keeping his trap shut.

“I only spoke to one [reporter] one time for about 10 seconds, and I realized who I was talking to,” he says. “And the truth is, I just made up a really silly excuse and I left.”

It was the nosy e-mail questions from journalists that really stunned him.

“You read them and you go, ‘Oh, man! This stuff’s true! They really ask these kind of ridiculous, awful questions.’ I mean, just anything derogatory. They just want to find anything, any connection.”

Having played alongside Bowersox at Loop L stops and such street-level venues as Uncommon Ground coffee shop on North Clark (she also gigged at Kingston Mines on North Halsted, Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn and the Kinetic Playground on West Lawrence, among others), Walker has witnessed her mesmerizing effect on spectators.

“She played a festival on the South Side, and I just remember the section of the stage where she was playing was empty when she started. As soon as she was about a quarter through her first song, it was really clear that all of the people were starting to mill over to where [she] was. And by the end of that song, that whole area was full.”

Afterward, a line formed as Bowersox sat onstage hawking CDs with handmade covers and liner notes. She even signed some of them for admiring fans.

“I remember her looking over at me with this smile, like, ‘Can you believe this? This is so cool,’ ” Walker says. “People were drawn to her.”

Drummer and guitarist George Banks, a veteran Chicago street musician, recalls meeting Bowersox while she strummed and sang on the State and Lake subway platform. Sensing something special, he handed her his card. Not long thereafter, she subbed for him while he took a break from busking at Clark and Diversey.

“She’d always make tip money,” Banks says. “There’d be people watching when she played, which isn’t always the case when you’re a street performer, especially outside. People keep walking by. But they’d stop what they were doing and watch was she was doing.”

When she had to leave, to start a waitressing shift at the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park, she insisted Banks keep the tips she’d amassed. He wouldn’t hear of it.

While Bowersox likely won’t busk again anytime soon, some of those she gigged with in Chicago wouldn’t be surprised if she eventually returns to jam at venues that featured her in pre-“Idol” days. She’s loyal like that, they say, and every bit as genuine as she appears on television.

“You feel that when you’re with her live. You really feel that,” Walker says. “She just belongs onstage.”

Copyright (c) 2010 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.