Precious Cargo

Bill Quateman takes a break from his shipping business to sing of love.

In a suburabn home strewn with pictures, there is no hint that California businessman Bill Quateman was once king of the Chicago folk circuit with a Billboard Top 40 hit and four critically-acclaimed albums. The candids crowding his end tables, bookshelves, mantelpiece and baby grand are of friends and family. No band shots, no 8-by-10 promotional glossies.

The wild, raven-curled Quateman of the '70s is now, he says, the "inner child" to whom he strives to be true. But today, Dylan 13, and India Rain, 5, the children he's raising--single--are the only stars in the house. And that, Quateman insists, is as it should be.

"When my son was born, in 1987, I became far more fascinated with being a father and raising my son than crawling through the bottom of the LA club scene," Quateman says. "So I basically became a housewife and stayed home with him. I was enraptured by the miracle of life unfolding before me--as all of us in our right minds are. So I effectively gave up my music."

His babies are his obsession. "We must commit," he insists. "If we are truly with our kids when we are with them, they will be nourished in the most basic of ways. We will have laid our bodies on the line and communicated the most important message: You are important and unique to me."

To feed his family, he traded show business for a most uncommon shipping business, transporting everything from Keiko the killer whale to Britney Spears' stage lights. But even as he works, he's surrounded by reminders of his "real" job. On desks, tables, everywhere: intriguing Miro-esque doodles, accompanied by the little stories India dictates to Daddy at bedtime. At least one publisher has expressed interest in India's scribblings and her father's uncommon parenting insights.

But that may have to wait. Quateman's past, thanks to a core group of die-hard fans, is catching up with him. Big time.

It began with a stream of plaintive e-mails to the only Quateman then online--brother Neil. Today, there's, a site sponsored by Ruth McCartney--yes, Paul's sister. Another fan, Andy Francis--consultant to megastars like David Bowie and Garth Brooks--is steering the Quateman comeback. Founding member of the Amazingrace Cooperative, a student activist group that established a favorite Quateman venue back in the '70s, Francis scored Quateman's recent Chicago "reunion" club dates.

Each appearance was an SRO lovefest; fire marshals were called to turn away angry overflow crowds. Former manager Stacy Haines--now a teacher and renowned tennis coach at Tucson's own Desert View High School--understands this dedication.

"I was the William Morris agent in Chicago when Bill was performing at the Fifth Peg," Haines recalled. "I remember how excited I was that night. The lyrics were poetic and unique, the music harmonious, and the crowd was filled with sighing young females--obviously a marketable combination."

Lighting wizard Jeff Ravitz, who went on to work for Springsteen, among others, was just as impressed with the offstage Quateman. "I was 24 years old and for me this was a foot in the door of big-time rock and roll," he explains. "The thing that set Bill apart was his grounded outlook on life. He searched for deeper meaning in the works of philosophers. He was articulate and sensitive."

Legendary star maker Clive Davis soon came calling. And once signed to CBS, Quateman would somehow entice Davey Johnston and Caleb Quaye away from Elton John. Stars like David Sanborn and Ron Wood also contributed to two highly touted albums.

Old friend, TV personality and comedy writer Bruce Vilanch called him "the most exciting pop musician Chicago has produced since the twilight of the jazz era." Icons like Mac Rebenack (Dr. John) and Otis Redding clamored for Quateman songs. And then, like another legend--the Titanic--he hit an insurmountable obstacle, and sank slowly beneath the waves of the Clive Davis payola scandal.

"It was disheartening, to say the least," Haines remembers. "Bill was on the charts and had developed a terrific core following. But because of Clive's mess and corporate politics, our support dried up."

When a producer set out to make Bill a "boy toy" for the teenybopper set, Quateman and Haines fought over a release from RCA. Ravitz was impressed. "When Bill took a stand against what he saw as abusive control over his artistic output, I was both shocked and amazed," he says. "Here he had the world by the tail, on the most powerful label--and he actually walks away from it! Over a principle! It was a major lesson in values."

Today, a closet Buddhist, Quateman retains those values. "What has drawn people to my songs, I feel, has, at its root, to do with who I am, who I've been becoming, not how other people regard or regarded me," he declares. "So I've been deeply satisfied being who I am, rather than acting out of a need to be important in their eyes. That leaves the music to be what it is: the magic that makes life make sense."

But for Quateman, the magic that makes life make sense comes from moments like the ones immortalized in an e-mail to friends, chronicling a "date" with daughter India. His passion and his playfulness spill across the page--a torrent of tenderness:

"Standing in the lines, her holding both of my hands, nestled against the front of my legs, soaking in the life; just noticing, thinking on our own with intermittent exclamations, we made a 'hands in the air on the roller coaster' lifetime memory out of watching the carnival together, on date night."

In the end, "the only measure of a life is love," he says. If that is so, then truly his own cup, like his prose, runneth over.

Bill Quateman will perform Saturday, March 10 at 9 and 11 p.m. at Plush, on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street.
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