The history of rock and roll is littered with lurid stories about the abhorrent behavior of male musicians. Chris Doolittle, who set aside a promising music career to help provide for his wife and children, is one of the good guys.
Born in Burbank, California, Doolittle moved to the Kansas City area with his family when he was 13. In 1983, with his Center High School classmate Michael Franano, he co-founded a popular band called The Front, which played a Midwestern variation on the melodic, guitar-driven rock of bands like INXS and the Cult.
Doolittle quit due to personal differences a few months before The Front signed a contract with Sony Records in 1988. MTV played the video for their single “Fire” and the band had a national tour slot opening for Alice Cooper, but The Front’s lone studio release for Sony peaked at #118 on Billboard’s albums chart.
As he monitored all of this from Kansas City, Doolittle played with the less heralded indie-rock band Frank’s Dream while working an assortment of part-time jobs at places like Penny Lane Records and UPS. The latter gig grew into a career, and Doolittle has stayed with the shipping company for almost 25 years. Now, with his youngest child set to graduate from high school and the option to retire less than two years away, Doolittle has made a belated return to the Kansas City music scene with a new band.
Edison Light’s impressive debut album, "Bright Ideas/Dark Matters," is a fascinating portrait of a man who’s eager to make up for lost time. The record's politely defiant barroom rock and power-pop is imbued with the sense of a dream deferred. Though it's uplifting, the music also contains a rueful awareness that the era in which rock dominated pop culture ended a while back.
Complementing Doolittle’s vision on "Bright Ideas/Dark Matters" are younger band mates Eason Pritchard, a bassist who is Doolittle’s primary artistic collaborator, and drummer Scotty Rex. At Edison Lights' live performances, Todd Yarrow and Nate Juraschek’s supplemental vocals and guitar allow Doolittle to focus on delivering a dynamic presentation.
Meanwhile, the type of conflict that compelled him to quit The Front has not been typical in Doolittle’s life.
“Most people think of me as a nice, safe guy — the guy your mom or dad would approve of dating their daughter,” he acknowledges.
The courtship of the woman he’d eventually marry was correspondingly gracious.
When he first met the Montessori teacher, Doolittle remembers, he “bragged about being a singer and guitar player.”
She requested that he perform for her students and he complied, entertaining them with ditties like “Wheels on the Bus” before concluding with a rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” that, he says, “had the whole class screaming ‘Go Johnny go’ over and over.”
His performance had the desired effect. He and the teacher were soon wed.
While he readily embraced the commitment of marriage and fatherhood, Doolittle was eager to let loose on "Bright Ideas/Dark Matters."
“This album was definitely about us wanting to let people know we were rock-and-rollers even though we had jobs and raised families and were responsible, sound citizens,” Doolittle says. “All the songs are tips-of-the-cap and nods to our heroes of rock and roll."
His passion for the Replacements and the Beatles is obvious on the album’s ten songs, starting with an instantly memorable guitar riff on the opening “Trippin’ Through,” which evokes both the Replacements’ “I Will Dare” and the Beatles' “Day Tripper.”
“When I play that riff I think of how music has changed, how popular music isn’t guitar riff-based any more,” he says.
“I truly believe rock and roll is living and dying with my generation," Doolittle says. "I don’t believe my kids will save it, and certainly not my grandkids.”
His lifelong connection with the music deepens his sadness about rock’s decline.
“I was born a month before the Beatles first played on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' and my house was filled with my parent’s Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly records,” he laments. “This rock thing started with my parents and is ending with their children.”
His new project's vitality, however, belies his argument that rock’s days are numbered.
“I can remember being a child and listening to the car radio while driving with my dad,” Doolittle notes. “I can still hear Johnny Cash’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’ blaring out of the speakers and I can still see how much joy it gave my Dad to hear that song. I wanted to make people happy the same way ‘A Boy Named Sue’ made my Dad happy.”
With "Bright Ideas/Dark Matters," he has another chance.
Chris Doolittle's Edison Lite (acoustic show) with Eason Pritchard, 7 p.m., Thursday, November 30 at the Martin City Brewery, 500 East 135th St., Kansas City, Missouri, 64145; Edison Lights, 5 p.m., Saturday, January 13 at the Riot Room, 4048 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111.
KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.