“Rick Nielsen simultaneously inhabits, parodies and deflates the guitar-god pose with trash-loving impiety, wielding his exceptional musicianship as a jester's gesture, not a melodramatic symbol. Prancing around, shouldering a different guitar for each song, mugging and flicking bag-loads of embossed picks into the crowd as souvenirs, he wings out amazing licks between self-effacing shrugs.”
Ira Robbins (Trouser Press), 1996
“He looks like an over-amped reject from Our Gang, a Spanky gone skanky, an Alfalfa with a sever thyroid problem.”
The Drummer Magazine, circa 1977
Born in 1948 in Elmhurst, Illinois and moving to Rockford as a very young boy, Rick Nielsen was destined to be a musician. His parents, Ralph and Marilyn, were both accomplished opera singers and Rick often traveled to Ralph’s gigs on the family’s private airplane. Sometimes Ralph flew and sometimes he was the co-pilot, as Marilyn also earned a pilot’s license. Rick worked at Ralph Nielsen Music, his parents' retail store, where he learned to play a wide variety of music with skill.
In 1962, despite showing early promise in the Lincoln Junior High School band and occupying its first clarinet chair as a seventh grader, Rick was expelled from band for insubordination to his music teacher. One day, in response to a particularly poor practice, he told his teacher he was “a drunken, incompetent fool who had no business teaching music to me or anyone else.”
In 2012, he was reinstated by Lincoln principal Jason Grey and interim superintendent Robert Willis in an elaborate ceremony during the grand opening of the 6,000 sq ft Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair With Guitars & Music exhibition that celebrated his successful life in music.
His exile from Lincoln’s band hurried his ascent as a rock musician as Nielsen quickly launched his musical journey in a succession of bands such as the Phaetons, the Grim Reapers, Fuse and Sick Man of Europe.
Nielsen’s musical skills have always belied his goofy appearance and antics. He and Carlos were the perfect visual nerd foils to Zander’s and Petersson’s rock star good looks. Reaching back for inspiration to the noted comedian Huntz Hall for the flipped-up brim of his baseball hat and bowtie, he honed his stage look in thrift shops across the Midwest.
But, one place he has never skimped on is guitars; Rick Nielsen is one of the world’s greatest guitar collectors, credited by George Gruhn of Nashville with playing a key role in the very creation of the idea of the vintage guitar market. As a guitar designer, he is best known for two instruments: his signature checkerboard Hamer Standard and the world-renowned and back-breaking five-neck guitar.
Among his favorite personal accomplishments is having recorded with John Lennon at the urging of producer Jack Douglas on the former Beatles’ seminal Double Fantasy record. The energetic and edgy guitar riff that is the kinetic engine behind “Losing You” is Nielsen’s creation. Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos also joined Nielsen in the studio with Lennon in that fateful year of 1980.
Largely on the strength of Nielsen’s songwriting drive and genius, Cheap Trick released four masterpiece albums in less than three years between 1977 - 1979: Cheap Trick, In Color, Heaven Tonight and Dream Police. Capping off a flurry of creative output was the 5X platinum live album Cheap Trick at Budokan.
Another accomplishment of Nielsen and his Cheap Trick mates is the influence they’ve had over countless younger musicians. Thanks to their amazing creative output and relentless decades of touring, they have deeply influenced bands from Def Leppard to Nirvana to Foo Fighters to Guns N’ Roses to Pearl Jam to the Smashing Pumpkins to Stone Temple Pilots to Green Day to MOE and hundreds of others.
As a result, Cheap Trick can be Real. Original. prophets in their own home town of Rockford, and just about any other town around the world, as well.
Outside of short stints living in Germany and Philadelphia, Rick Nielsen has always called Rockford home. He still resides here with his wife of more than forty years, Karen (the inspiration behind the fan favorite tune “Oh, Caroline.” His eldest son, Erron and his family live nearby in a suburb of Chicago. Sons Miles and Daxx and daughter Scarlett also reside in Rockford. It gets crowded at Rick’s house on holidays thanks to a bevy of grandchildren and more on the way.
“Robin, the thin man with a thousand voices - some say he is related to Lon Chaney - was born in either Boston or Kansas City, depending on which day you approach him.”
The Drummer Magazine, circa 1977
Rick Nielsen has been introducing Robin Zander in exactly the same way way for decades: “my favorite lead singer in the whole wide world.”
It’s a fitting description as Robin Zander is a Real. Original. force of nature whose voice never seems to weaken. In fact, it never seems to age. Like the best wines, Robin’s vocals keep getting better with age.
Born in 1953 in Beloit, Wisconsin, he moved to Loves Park, Illinois when he was eight years old. His interest in music was kindled here and he was a proficient guitar player by the age of 12. He sang in many Harlem High School musicals and, like many young musicians, performed in many bands (The Destinations, Butterscotch Sundae and The Hoods, for instance) For a short time while attending Rock Valley College, he played with Bun E. Carlos in a band called Toons.
Longtime Cheap Trick fans know Robin wasn’t the lead singer of Cheap Trick in the very beginning. In Cheap Trick’s inaugural year of 1973, Randy “Xeno” Hogan manned the microphone. After completing a contractural obligation to perform with Zander & Kent at the Piccadilly Club in Wisconsin Dells, Zander finally joined Cheap Trick and its soon-to-be-famous lineup was solidified.
Robin Zander’s powerful, versatile vocal instrument has influenced generations of singers and contributed to the fact that while Cheap Trick is undoubtedly one of the most influential bands in rock history, they are not all that often covered. The band’s music is deceptively difficult to play - and nearly impossible for many vocalists to sing credibly. Nielsen and Zander are in the lap of luxury when it comes to writing vocal parts and they take advantage of it at every opportunity.
Locally, Zander famously performed An Evening With Robin Zander, a live show at Rockford’s downtown Midway Theater, March 4 1983. The evening included a choir and orchestra conducted by none other than Rick Nielsen’s intrepid and deeply talented father Ralph, a noted musician in his own right.
Zander released a solo rock album, Robin Zander in 1993. In 2011, he released an album of country music entitled, Countryside Blvd, after a street he once lived on as a boy in Loves Park.
Robin Zander currently resides in Florida with his wife Pamela. He has four children: Robin Jr, Robin-Sailor, Ian and Holland. Ian Zander and Holland Zander-Jutras are residents of Rockford, Illinois and accomplished musicians in their own rights.
“Tom, the picture of the bouncy British-style rocker of yesteryear, was pounding like a mad, a frenzied Entwistle, a contradiction in terms if there ever was one.”
Phonograph Record Magazine
Born as Thomas John Peterson in Rockford, Illinois in 1950, Tom Petersson began his musical career as a rhythm guitarist but fairly quickly adopted the bass guitar and never looked back. When he did, he did it in style, eventually becoming the “inventor of the 12-string bass guitar,” as guitarist Rick Nielsen always introduces him during Cheap Trick’s live shows.
Falling in with Rick Nielsen early in life led to countless shared experiences in precursor bands to Cheap Trick: The Grim Reapers, Fuse and Sick Man of Europe.
At the height of Cheap Trick’s success (and just before the 1980 release of All Shook Up, produced by Sir George Martin of The Beatles fame) Petersson left the band to found Tom Peterson & Another Language with his then-wife Dagmar, producing an album that was released in 1984. He also played shows with a short-lived resurrection of Sick Man of Europe at CBGB and the Cat Club in New York in 1987. The new Sick Man included Hall & Oates co-writer Janna Allen.
Later, in 1987, Petersson accidentally spilled a pitcher of beer on Rick Nielsen’s lap at a Duran Duran birthday party. Nobody took offense, and he rejoined Cheap Trick for the apparently aptly named Lap of Luxury. It was Lap of Luxury from which The Flame became a US #1 single in 1988. It’s no secret that while the pop ballad never fails to get fans fired up, it is not Cheap Trick’s favorite song by a long shot.
Petersson, who now lives in Nashville with his wife Alison and two children, Lilah and Liam, is co-founder of Rock Your Speech, a foundation that serves as the couple’s creative response to Liam’s autism. Rock Your Speech seeks to lend support and education to families with autistic children and help them find their unique voices through music. A key tool of the foundation is the wonderful rock music Petersson writes and records specifically for autistic children.
As a bassist, his smooth sensitivity to drama, harmony, rhythm and melody offer the perfect counterpoint to Nielsen’s rocking rhythm and lead guitar licks. Needless to say, the extra eight strings on his bass play important roles of their own. Petersson’s mother, Marge, sister Jane and two nieces reside in Rockford.
“He’s Bunzuela Carlos - his forbears were instrumental in building the Panama Canal. That’s why his parents named him after Venezuela.”
Creem Magazine, circa 1977
“He was nicknamed after Paul Bunyan. He was a big little kid. I’m not supposed to talk about it to the press, but you ask anyone and his real name is Brad.”
Vie Carlson, Bun E. Mother (R.I.P.), circa 1977
Bun E. was born Brad Carlson in Rockford, Illinois in 1951 and grew up in a musical family. A treasure trove of pop culture and musical history, he served as Cheap Trick’s drummer and de facto musical archivist for decades.
When he was a child, his brother and sister played music at home and gave him his first exposure to rock & roll. His mother, Vie, who played piano from age four, continued to play at Anderson Japanese Gardens and in other public performances until shortly before her death at 87 years old in 2012.
Bun E. said of his mother, “she was my biggest fan,” and it was she who purchased his first snare drum in 1964 at Ralph Nielsen’s music store. Under the influence of an evidently persuasive salesman named Mark Hood, the snare became an entire set of Sonors. Carlos has lent that same kit to his little brother as well as several nephews over the years, but it’s safe to say it has only produced one internationally acclaimed rock star to date.
Carlos was in several local Rockford bands as a young musician, including the Paegans, Probe and Lost Souls, which was later renamed Albatross. He then relocated to Philadelphia with Tom Petersson and Rick Nielsen, where they formed Sick Man of Europe, a precursor band to Cheap Trick that also featured Robert “Stewkey” Antoni (Nazz) on lead vocals. Sick Man also featured, at a later time, Rick Saluga, also of Rockford, on bass.
Carlos is known in drumming circles as an extremely physical (many people don’t realize he played high school football) and loud, yet swinging player. Without question his unique style contributed to Cheap Trick’s signature sound.
In 2010, Carlos, Taylor Hanson (Hanson), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) formed the supergroup Tinted Windows which played their first gig at SXSW.
Carlos is a noted vintage drum collector and a man with broad musical interests and tastes that range from the roots of rock & roll to Americana to alt country and everything in between. You can hear him play most first Mondays of the month with Bun E. Carlos and The Monday Night Band at local bars like Rockford’s Mary’s Place on Madison Street downtown. The Monday night band features Dan McMahon of Miles Nielsen & The Rusted Hearts on lead guitar and vocals. On the setlist? It’s highly unlikely you’ll hear any Cheap Trick. It’s highly likely you’ll hear music by The Allman Brothers, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and others.
We couldn’t find any quotes about Daxx from 1977 because he wasn’t born until 1980.
In 2010, Rick Nielsen’s talented son Daxx took over drumming duties for Bun E. Carlos, who remains a voting member of Cheap Trick but no longer tours or records with the band. Daxx’s drumming hero was none other than Bun E. Carlos, and in fact Carlos coached and encouraged Daxx as a young man.