James F. Curley is living proof that you can take the person out of South Philly, but you can’t take South Philly out of the person.
Some 20-plus years after settling down in Chicago, the 46-year-old is paying homage to his old neighborhood as he forges a second career as a successful singer-songwriter.
Curley has been on a public relations and promotional blitz ever since the independent release of his debut album, Tom’s Caf�, in early January, and relishes in explaining the story behind the title.
Tom’s Caf� is a fictitious name — the picture on the album cover is actually of Steeley’s Bar, which used to be at 34th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue.
"I grew up listening to all of my family members talking about the good times they had at the bar, so I wrote a little ballad about those memories," Curley says during a phone interview.
Like so many others of his generation, the former resident of 27th and Mifflin said he picked up the guitar for the first time at age 13 because of the Beatles. He and his friends spent the next few years trekking down to FDR Park with guitars in hand, content to spend an afternoon peacefully strumming away in the sun.
"The worst thing we did was grow our hair long. We stayed away from drugs and all of that stuff because we were focused on our music. Well, that and my dad didn’t take any crap," Curley says with a laugh.
His first brush with fame — or infamy, as it turned out — came a few years later during a senior week talent show at St. John Neumann High. Decked out in overalls, Curley and his friends took to the stage intent on treatingfellow students to some bluegrass music. The students, who at the time were following the likes of a spaced-out David Bowie and an obnoxiously bespectacled Elton John, greeted the bluegrass boys with stunned silence.
Undeterred, Curley went on to La Salle University, and later left Philadelphia to pursue his musical dreams in Colorado and Texas. While staying in Austin, Curley found the native accents to be nearly unbearable until he finally came upon someone who spoke discernible English.
"I met my wife while I was in Austin. I think we took solace in the fact that neither one of us could understand their accents," he recalls. "She was from Chicago, and spoke often about being homesick. After a while, I figured I might as well give the city a try."
After moving to a working-class neighborhood in 1981, Curley quickly found the Windy City to his liking. Like Philly, Chicago is a big pizza town, Curley says. "Philly is definitely better, though. I’ll tell you another thing — you can’t get a decent hoagie out here."
As punk music became the dominant genre in the early ’80s, Curley set aside his dreams of making it big with his style of Americana music and focused instead on having a paying career as an independent business consultant in the food industry.
He continued to write songs over the years, but never gave a serious thought to recording or selling any of them — until recently.
"Over the last few years, I had more and more musicians — guys I was friends with, guys I respected — tell me that I needed to get into a studio and record these songs. Then I started to think to myself, you know what? Maybe I can do this."
So in 2001, Curley sat down with Larry Clyman, a friend who also happened to be a studio engineer, and plotted out his course. Over the next seven months, Curley and a team of friends and musicians put together 12 songs for Tom’s Caf�, and found themselves on the fast track to underground success.
"I looked at the music industry and realized that a record deal was not really necessary. The proliferation of Web sites like www.MP3.com and www.PRWeb.com enabled me to reach as many people as I wanted to at my own pace," Curley says. "I sent out CDs to local radio stations and put songs up on those Web sites, and next thing I knew, I was getting airplay and feedback from people."
At the same time, he decided to try his hand at the national John Lennon Songwriting Contest. The prestigious contest encompasses a variety of genres and costs only $30 a song to enter. Curley entered four songs from Tom’s Caf�, including Flies, a whimsical ditty that the musician just thought of as a laugh. He was utterly surprised to hear that Flies had placed in the top 10 in the children’s category; the single was picked up by a record company in San Diego to be included in a children’s CD sold in Wal-Marts across the country.
With the John Lennon prize under his belt, Curley pushed forward with club gigs in and around Chicago and used his years of business knowledge to further his musical endeavors.
"Whenever I call a venue up about a gig, I know what they’re looking for from a business standpoint — they need X amount of dollars to break even on a given night," he explains. "So I guarantee them that money on my credit card and go out and sell the show on my own. They know that no matter what, they’ll have their money, and I have incentive to sell the place out."
While his musical career just seems to be taking off, Curley has his feet planted firmly on the ground. With a wife and a 13-year-old daughter, extensive touring is out of the question. Also, Curley has no desire to share in the horror stories of former recording-company favorites.
"I was at a folk music alliance in Nashville last year and I sat on a panel with [former folk singer] Janis Ian. She told me that her record company dumped her because she wasn’t selling albums anymore, but she still owed the company over $800,000. It made me realize that for every platinum-album-selling Bob Dylan, there’s thousands of people who just don’t make the numbers work," Curley says.
The musician finds greater enjoyment doing things the grassroots way, playing small venues and acting as his own salesman. He also appreciates the uniqueness of his situation, as none of his daughter’s friends’ parents seems to be discovering new careers along with their midlife crises.
As album sales go up and letters of support and admiration pour in, Curley is set on returning to the studio to record another album. He also plans to start a mail-order catalog featuring independent acts like himself, a move that would cut out the middleman. Curley is, however, keeping his goals fairly modest.
"Look, any musician worth his salt has a career of bunts and singles. It’s not all home runs," he says. "I watched Paul McCartney play for the Russian president on TV the other night. I’m lucky if I get to play for the president of the PTA. I just hope to have my fair share of bunts and singles."