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Revered Central Illinois Music Icon Denny De Bourbon Dies

Central Illinois musicians and music fans are mourning the death of longtime band manager, booking agent, and event manager Dennis "Denny" De Bourbon, who passed away Saturday at age 69 after a long illness.

Recently, in addition to running Stormbrew Booking and Management, De Bourbon taught with the West Central Illinois Special Education Cooperative, became a children’s book author and artist, and coached youth basketball. But it was his involvement in music, his life's passion that he's most remembered for by many in Bloomington-Normal. It would probably take a book to document the impact he had on the local and regional music scene. But when local musicians and friends were quieried, his inner decency and how he treated others bubbled to the surface.

De Bourbon was born in St. Louis and raised by a single father. He worked with many bands familiar to Bloomington-Normal music fans from the 1970s through last year, including the blues-rock/R&B flavored Mojo Stew. Founder/guitarist Bill Porter was drawn to De Bourbon’s sense of fairness after discarding a number of managers he found exploitive.

His generosity and kindness was beyond anyone I've ever known.

“He was always the one guy I could count on in the business who struck the balance between meeting the expectations of the venue operator and also taking care of his band’s needs, including food, clothing, and a place to stay,” said Porter, who met De Bourbon in the late 1970s. “Central Illinois and the music scene in general has lost a passionate voice and advocate for music.”

Long time friend and early business partner Tim Piper echoes Porter. 

“His generosity and kindness was beyond anyone I’ve ever known,” said Piper. “Also, he was loyal to a fault. He’d give you the shirt off his back … he was so lovable. Almost no one other than a venue manager he got the best of has anything bad to say about him. He was a great friend right to the end.”

Piper was a partner for a short time with De Bourbon, Dennis Longwill, David Byers, and Scott Duffield at the Bloomington music booking and promotion agency New Age Entertainment in the late 70s. Piper and De Bourbon also managed the popular rock band Kool Ray & the Polaroids. They quickly became what turned out to be rest-of-life friends.

“It was because of his friendship and inspiration I made the jump from the corporate world into the music business,” said Piper. “It was working with him at New Age that allowed me to at least scrape by. We got to be such close friends that when Kool Ray began to unravel, he knew what my frustration was and understood why I wanted to go back into the corporate world.”

No grudges?

“He didn’t hold a grudge against anybody in the music business world, at least that I was aware of, even the people that did him wrong. He just had a way,” said Piper.

On his Facebook page, De Bourbon credits his father for instilling in him an even keel and sense of fairness.

“ … (he) was awe inspiring and challenged me to be big hearted and to think big, and always make the right choices. He would often say, ‘Consider the opposite of what you are told.’ He taught me to avoid using superlative comments and getting hung up on dogma.”

Marc Boon created and fronted the legendary central Illinois R&B/Blues ensemble Hip Pocket for over two decades beginning in the 1980s. He too had a close relationship with De Bourbon, whose personal touch made their professional relationship that much better.

“He always had the best interest at heart for the musicians he worked with,” said Boon. “Sure he got the cut for booking and managing. However the relationships he made were always more important. He loved what he did.”

Denny De Bourbon, center, circa 1986.
Denny De Bourbon, center, circa 1986.

De Bourbon was introduced to the legendary Bloomington-Normal rock band The Something Brothers in the late 1980s because of his relationship with Kool Ray. That relationship continued after the band dissolved in the 90s, and rekindled professionally when members reformed two years ago. In a 2017 GLT interview, Something Brothers band members Edwin Pierce and Tommy O’Donnell recalled De Bourbon’s grounding influence.

“We were a pretty motley crew (at that time),” said Pierce.

“He was able to kind of focus us and get us some showcase dates in front of record companies, something we couldn’t do,” said O’Donnell.

Something Brothers lead singer and lyricist Scott Wilson hinted at that benevolence when he eulogized De Bourbon in a Jan. 5 Facebook post.

“Denny loved music. He loved our band. He loved us as people. He loved the boneheads. He was Den Mother, father figure, big brother and pal. But as much as he loved music, what brought him the most happiness was his years as a special education teacher, working with at-risk & disadvantaged kids. Teaching, coaching basketball and helping those in need were his true loves.”

Tim Piper recalled De Bourbon going back to school in 2006 to study special education after stints with the Something Brothers, and as the event manager and talent buyer for the Madison Theater in Peoria. It was the time in between when serious health problems began.

“He had an aortic aneurism and went to Texas to have surgery,” said Piper. “He later developed an abdominal hernia. The recovery was long and painful. Physically he was never really the same after that.”

Indeed, before and after pictures of De Bourbon are pretty striking. But according to those who knew him, his (at times) disabling health issues never altered that loyalty and caring nearly everyone gushes about.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Jenny Bratcher-Crafton can speak to that. Known as Jeni-B “That Folkin Girl” professionally, she has known of him since her freshman year of high school, but didn’t really connect with the older De Bourbon until later. When they did, she said he was as much a cheerleader as a mentor during their semi-frequent phone conversations. And as someone who also deals with debilitating diseases, Bratcher-Crafton said they were also able to relate on that level.

“He was a big kid in an aging, breaking body. When we would speak you could tell he felt a shell of himself. We were like two old friends who sat on our phones and he shared the vast cavern of incredible knowledge he had collected with me to use myself. He was so open and giving of his knowledge. Now he is boundless again, as he was always, and now always will be. He was the sweetest badass I ever met as a 15-year-old aspiring musician/pest,” she laughed before again turning somber. “This is a huge loss. He loved big and lived loud.”

Piper is managing De Bourbon’s affairs. He said De Bourbon wished to be cremated and that memorial arrangements are pending. 

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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