URBANA – In the years before Dan Fogelberg became a major star with "Leader of the Band" and other hits, his own "band" usually meant the singer and his guitar or piano at the Red Herring Coffee House.
The Peoria native, who died Sunday at 56, was a University of Illinois student from 1969 to 1971. He admitted he didn't study much, but did have a good time playing folk music and drinking whiskey at the now-defunct Red Lion in Champaign.
The Red Herring, which is still housed in the Channing-Murray Foundation just east of the Quad, was a "hippieish" small space then, where budding musicians could also smoke a certain bud.
It was there that Rich Warren, a stereo columnist for the Chicago Tribune and The News-Gazette, heard Fogelberg and put him on the radio at WPGU-FM.
While at the UI, Mr. Fogelberg wrote many of his early hits, which were released on a 1972 debut called "Home Free" and did not attract a great deal of interest at the time.
Warren, who now hosts WFMT's "Midnight Special" radio show, said he "practically lived" at the coffeehouse. The first time he heard the singer was in Mr. Fogelberg's Neil Young phase. It took a while for the singer to find his own voice, Warren said.
Many of the songs are lovelorn, Warren said, including "Stars" and "Anyway I love You," which Warren recorded at a Channing-Murray Folkfest. Warren's recording of the latter song was played constantly on WPGU until the singer's agent called to complain, Warren said.
It later found its way to Clive Davis at Columbia Records, who signed Mr. Fogelberg to Epic Records.
Another important UI connection was Irving Azoff, who signed him, REO Speedwagon, and, later, the Eagles.
Mr. Fogelberg, on the Web site, www.superseventies.com/ssdanfogelberg.html, recalled that he was "a folk singer in a coffeehouse, with moccasins and waist-length hair" when "an ex-girlfriend of mine dragged me out of bed and said, 'Irving Azoff is out at this bar in Champaign, and he wants to hear you.'"
The place was the Chances R in Champaign.
"It was a fraternity bar, on a Friday night," Mr. Fogelberg recalled, "and the place was going nuts. I'm in the lounge, and a band is playing in the main arena. But Irving listened to me. I mean, people are throwing glasses. One guy smashed his head, and it was all bleeding, and an ambulance came.
"Police were throwing people in jail. Total fraternity madness, and I'm up there singing my sensitive little art songs at 2 in the morning. Irving was the only one in there who was listening. And he did listen. He heard every note and every word, and after I finished, he came up and said, 'Yeah.'"
That led to a career that included such hits as "The Power of Gold," "Leader of the Band," "Illinois" and "Longer."
Some of his fans started to turn against him in the 1990s, accusing him of sappiness, and the records slowed down. His last was in 2003.
Mr. Fogelberg played at the Assembly Hall in 1981 and 1993.
At both concerts, he reflected tersely about the origins of some songs. "Same Old Lang Syne" was about a Champaign girlfriend, whom he ran into at the old Eisner's Grocery Store at Green and Neil streets. He paused during the song when it referred to being "back at school."
Warren said the girlfriend might have been an old flame on whom Mr. Fogelberg had a desperate crush.
"Crow," he told the 1981 audience, was about a bicycle trip he took in the South Farms, where he tried to outrace the bird.
But despite calls for "Illinois," according to a News-Gazette article at the time, he never sang the song with the chorus, "Illinois, I'm Your Boy." Instead, he praised his new home in Maine.
Before the 1993 Assembly Hall appearance, he talked to a News-Gazette interviewer about studying art at the UI, after turning down a scholarship to the Art Institute because Chicago was too big for him.
He recalled war protests at the time of the Kent State shootings, which radicalized him. In his last years he was an environmentalist and an ardent supporter of Al Gore.
He met a guitarist named Eliott Delman, the interview continued, and together they played at the Red Herring nearly every night.
"When I first got there, it was a very left-wing political scene," he said. "And all of a sudden, we just took over. It became less of a beatnik place and more of a hippie place. I got to the point where I was playing music all the time and I wasn't going to art classes. I just quit going."
On his official Web site, www.danfogelberg.com Mr. Fogelberg reminisced about telling his father he was dropping out of college.
His father, band leader at a Peoria high school, finally said quietly, "OK, I don't agree with this, but if this is really what you want, you go try it for a year. If it doesn't work out, you come back and go back to school."
That inspired the singer to write the line "Thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go," in his tribute to his father, "Leader Of The Band."
The 1993 interview ends on a sadly prophetic note, where Mr. Fogelberg talks about how he wanted to do less music and more painting in the future.
The last paragraph quotes him saying:
"I don't want to be 56 years old out there playing 'Leader of the Band' and 'Same Old Lang Syne.'"