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Erik Kish, local rockabilly artist, dies

Erik Kish founder lead rockabilly bHifi   Roadburners

Erik Kish, founder and lead of the rockabilly band Hifi & the Roadburners

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:44AM

“American Graffiti” took hold of Erik Kish when he was 13 and never let go.

After seeing the movie, he started greasing his hair with Three Flowers Brilliantine pomade. He drove a 1958 red-and-white Chevy. And he wore a leather jacket, pegged black pants and pointy-toed leather boots.

Thanks to a film that came out in hippie-trippy 1973 about teenagers cruising around California in 1962, he was all greased up and ready to go.

He could not get enough of rip-snorting musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. He loved doo-wop, rhythm & blues, and New Orleans boogie-woogie.

But things always come full circle, and his retro look became hip again.

He formed the rockabilly and roots-rock band Hi Fi & the Roadburners. They opened for the Stray Cats and the Blasters and performed in England.

Mr. Kish wrote 200 songs, and one, “Hellride,” typical of what the band dubbed its “grinding gutter rock and roll,” was featured in a McDonald’s commercial.

Mr. Kish, who also customized motorcycles at a business he co-founded, Fear City Choppers, died Thursday night after a motorcycle accident. Police said he was riding his Harley near Division and Elston when he lost control of his bike, hit a guardrail and injured his head. He was 51.

His family agreed that he would donate all his major organs. “Let’s say a new mother with three children who just needs [an organ,] or a father supporting a family, maybe it will help for extra years” for them, said Mr. Kish’s mother, Britta Mulligan.

His relatives are not sure whether he was accepted as a skin-graft donor. He had around 80 tattoos. He did not know how many — whenever he tried to tabulate them, he lost count.

Mr. Kish grew up in Lombard. As far back as kindergarten, he was protecting the underdog, his mother said. Every once in a while he would come home looking disheveled, and she would ask what happened.

“Well, mom,” he told her, “there was this bunch of boys that were bullying this little boy, and what can I do but scare them off?”

He attended Glenbard East High School and later ended up in the Carpenters’ Union, which sustained him between music gigs. He often worked at McCormick Place setting up for shows.

At 23, he placed an ad in the newspaper seeking musicians for a rockabilly band. Erik played rhythm guitar and his brother, Hans, played bass. Erik Kish borrowed the nickname “Hi Fi” from a Flintstones cartoon where Fred’s alter ego by the same name became an undercover rock star.

The band performed songs with titles like “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Minister’s Daughter,” “Chicago Greasers on a Rampage,” and “Dead Bug.”

They had some magical nights.

In the 1980s, they were invited to an event at Fitzgerald’s to back up “all the old black artists we’d been listening to our whole life,” said Hans Kish. They accompanied Joe Houston, described as “a honking R&B saxman of wallpaper-peeling potency” by Bill Dahl in the All Music Guide.

“Guys from the Coasters and Platters were complimenting us on our music. Ahh, at that age, it was just unbelievable,” Hans Kish said. “You walk out of there, and you’re 10 feet tall.”

They opened several times for those rockabilly resurrectors, the Stray Cats. After a 30-minute set before the headliners came on at the Park West, Hi Fi & the Roadburners had the audience eating out of their hands.

“They were stomping the floor. They were screaming at us for an encore,” Hans Kish said. The road manager for the Stray Cats wasn’t happy when a Park West honcho told him: “Listen to that crowd — there’s no way I can’t not let them do an encore.”

But afterward, Stray Cats guitarist Brian Setzer gave them the thumbs up. “Man,’’ he said, “you guys were rockin’.”

The Blasters asked Hi Fi & the Roadburners to open for them at Metro and House of Blues, Hans Kish said.

The band had a blast, but the grind of the road was difficult. “I know he loved playing the music,” said Mr. Kish’s friend, Tony Christoffel. “It just wasn’t worth going all the way to California, and then blowing it [the paycheck] on hotels and food.”

Though they went on hiatus from time to time, they played at the Brauerhouse in Lombard on Sept. 23 (

Erik and Hans Kish and Billy Favata started Fear City Choppers, crafting one-of-a-kind motorcycles from period parts. Gleefully, they never forgot they beat out a bunch of competitors in their first customized-bike contest with a chopper they rebuilt for $2,000. Meanwhile, “There were guys there with bikes for like $100,000,” Hans Kish said. “Somebody said, ‘who let these hillbillies in?’ ’’

Mr. Kish also is survived by his life partner of 27 years, Dorel Dittman; his father, Frank, and his stepfather, Keith Mulligan.

A party in his honor is being planned Saturday at a warehouse at North Avenue and Elston that served as the band’s rehearsal space and the workshop for Fear City Choppers.

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