For nearly four decades, anyone driving past the eastside Chicago Bar has seen a marquee that features Tucson reggae band Neon Prophet. The band has been playing at the bar since the 1980s.
Author Harvey Burgess documents that enduring legacy in the new book Reggae Night: Neon Prophet at the Chicago Bar.
The longtime band has produced a unique combination of reggae, funk, hip-hop and soul. This spirit, as well as a massive number of local shows, has made them a Tucson mainstay.
“It’s been a blessing for this project to fall into my lap. I embraced it wholeheartedly and the reggae community welcomed me with open arms,” said Burgess, who has also published a collection of short stories based around Tucson.
The idea came to Burgess through his close friend’s father, Denny Graham. As a longtime fan of the band, Graham suggested the book.
“It only took me a nanosecond to say yes. I was quite surprised no one else had written a full length book,” Burgess said.
Beginning his work on Reggae Night in October 2019, Burgess was still in the middle of writing in Costa Rica when COVID-19 struck. Due to those unprecedented events, including Chicago Bar closing for 10 months, Burgess was forced to make several revisions and push back the release.
“It took me a while to get back here, I just got back seven weeks ago and I was finally able to launch the book,” Burgess said.
Reggae Night demonstrates the authenticity of Neon Prophet that has allowed the band to endure for more than three decades. Jamie Cirrito, the band’s bassist and back up vocalist since 1986, believes their differences strengthened the bond of the core members: Cirrito, lead vocalist David Dean and percussionist Plato T. Jones.
“I’m an East Coast guy, David is from the South, and Plato was from the Midwest, so really we represented the extremes in our country. We didn’t have a lot in common, just music,” Cirrito said.
In addition Dean is widely known for a voice and personality unlike most of your typical front-men.
“There’s certain traits that go with your typical singer; they’re the boss, the guy that’s looked at and wants to be. Dave never went looking for any of that,” Cirrito said. “It’s part of the chemistry of the band, it comes down from David and his personality. He’s a mellow dude.”
Coming down from Dean, Burgess says the band practically oozes humility.
“Part of their ethos is community. The fact that they welcome other artists onto the stage, which is very unique, I think that sets them apart from any other group,” Burgess explained.
Coupled with this, the band often does unseen and unpaid work. Burgess recounted a story keyboard player Scott Anderson told: While teaching in Eloy, Anderson brought the band to play for three hundred kids in the gymnasium on a Wednesday morning.
Aside from telling the story of the band, Reggae Night also delves into the history of Chicago Bar, interviewing former employees and clientele, as well as mapping the broader Tucson music scene around Neon Prophet. The book also includes a whole photo chapter with images of Chicago Bar throughout the years and major characters in its history.
While the heart of the band’s success comes from the members themselves, Neon Prophet has recognized that it would not be where it is today without Chicago Bar, its prime Tucson venue.
“Very important figures in the story are the [former] owners Cathy Warner and Bill Shew. They acquired the bar and it was a very insignificant place with a small amount of people and they turned it into something very special,” Burgess said.
Known as a jazz and blues destination, Neon Prophet’s success as a reggae band was an unexpected but welcomed surprise for Chicago Bar.
“Chicago Bar is like one big family,” Burgess said. “It’s one of the most diverse clientele in Tucson and has been for four decades. Everybody rubs shoulders at the Chicago Bar, and it’s a non judgemental space where everyone is happy in their own skin.”
Reggae Night also explores how Neon Prophet often subverts expectations.
“It’s all a very unique situation and Harvey put it all down for posterity,” Cirrito said. “The thing about music is you could have done the most amazing incredible thing on a given night, but if you weren’t right there it’s gone. Harvey has given us a little bit more permanence.”
“Reggae Night: Neon Prophet at the Chicago Bar” is available for purchase at darkspringpress.com.