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Legendary Sundowners leader Donald Clinton Walls Sr. dies at 80

The Sundowners perform 1985. From left are Curt Delaney Bob Boyd DWalls. The group was one most important come out

The Sundowners perform in 1985. From left are Curt Delaney, Bob Boyd and Don Walls. The group was one of the most important to come out of Chicago in the middle of the 20th century. | Sun-Times library

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Updated: July 29, 2011 2:16AM

The last of the Sundowners. It sounds like a cowboy campfire song.

And that would be just fine with Donald Clinton Walls Sr.

He was lead guitarist-vocalist of the Sundowners, one of the most important musical groups to emerge out of Chicago in the mid-20th century. Mr. Walls died Tuesday morning of heart failure at his home in Mount Prospect. He was 80 years old.

Sundowners bassist Curt Delaney died in 1997, and rhythm guitarist Bob Boyd died in 1999.

The fun-loving trio was known for gentle harmonies, flashy Western stage wear and an affinity for working-class country music.

Mr. Walls arranged the Sundowners Western harmonies, derivative of the original 1933 version of the Sons of Pioneers with Roy Rogers. The trio learned more than 15,000 songs during its 1959-89 run in dimly lit Loop honky tonks. They played about 7,000 songs annually.

Everyone smiled, often times until the sun came up.

Mr. Walls was born on a farm in Rita, W. Va. His father, Dock, was a coal miner and his mother, Ava Marie, was a half-Cherokee who reared six children on the barebone land.

Mr. Walls reworked “Appalachian,” “Tin Pan Alley” and traditional Western melodies for an urban audience. Boyd gave Mr. Walls all the credit. “I can’t sing harmony at all,” Boyd told me in 1997. “I had to sing deep lead a lot. But Curt and Don had it together so well that they switched harmony parts in the middle of a song. I didn’t know it. But it sounded so natural.”

It was their lack of pretension that attracted generations of Chicagoans and tourists to their music.

New Orleans piano legend Fats Domino requested Merle Travis’ “Steel Guitar Rag” every time he stopped by to see the Sundowners in the early 1960s. New York Yankees legends Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin liked to drink to Sundowners music. In the early 1980s, actor Robert Duvall jumped on stage at the underground Bar RR, 56 W. Randolph, to sing with the Sundowners.

Mr. Walls and his cowboy compatriots shaped today’s thriving alt-country scene in Chicago.

Echoes of the Sundowners can be heard in urban honky tonks ranging from the Hideout on the Near North Side to Carol’s Pub in Uptown to FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. Jon Langford and the Mekons used to jam with the traditional Western trio, although the Sundowners were almost twice the age of the punk band from Leeds, England.

Also an accomplished artist, Langford did the cover portrait on the 2004 Bloodshot Records compilation “The Sundowners: Chicago Country Legends.”

“I looked all over the country for something interesting in country music,” Langford said Thursday. “I couldn’t find anything until I found them in Chicago. They were comfortable in their own skins. They were very inclusive. If there was a chance for them to get off stage, have a drink and throw some English punk rockers into the band, they would take that chance. But Don always wanted to stay.

“He loved to play that much.”

Chicago multi-instrumentalist John Rice replaced Mr. Walls in the Sundowners after a 1992 stroke left his right arm and leg paralyzed.

Mr. Walls never again played guitar.

More than any other member of the band, Rice was the closest to Mr. Walls. He requested that Rice cover for him until his comrades were no longer able to play. Rice recalled his friend’s unique approach to the Echoplex tape delay effect, popularized by guitarists Chet Atkins and later Joe Walsh.

“You had to have a special cartridge of tape that fit into the machine that Echoplex made,” Rice said Thursday. “Don had cut out the back of his machine and retrofitted it so he could use 8-track tapes he stole from his kids. The first time I met him he had Santana’s ‘Abraxas’ plugged into his Echoplex like a fresh tape he was recording over. So any time he let up on the switch you’d hear shreds of ‘Jingo’ playing faintly in the background through his amplifier.”

Rice learned to keep his ears open when playing country, swing and pop with the Sundowners. “When I finally figured out who he reminded of as a guitar player, it was [acclaimed jazz-country-artist] Bill Frisell,” Rice said. “Listen to Frissell. You will hear Don’s vibrato and an awful lot of what Don did with single strings sliding around.”

Like the Merle Haggard tune, the Sundowners took a lot of pride in who they were. They figured they had worn 360 different Western outfits in 30 years.

In 1986 Mr. Walls told me, “The Sundowners are a Western name, but we are not only doing Western music, we are also the only group in Chicago all these years that have worn matched clothes. We’ve taken a lot of pride in that.”

Mr. Walls was a U.S. Air Force veteran, a Master Mason and a major Chicago sports fan. He is survived by Jeannie, his wife of 50 years; his sons Don Jr. and James, and daughter Tammy (Mike) Sebben, as well as three grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

Services will be private.

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