Larry "Big Twist" Nolan heartily epitomized the image "300 pounds of heavenly joy." Based in Chicago, the huge singer and his trusty R&B band, the Mellow Fellows, were one of the hottest draws on the Midwestern college circuit during the 1980s with a slickly polished sound modeled on the soul-slanted approach of Bobby Bland, Little Milton, and Tyrone Davis.
Twist started out singing and playing drums in rough-and-tumble country bars in downstate Illinois during the late '50s and early '60s (chicken wire-enclosed stages were a necessity on this raucous scene). Young saxist Terry Ogolini jammed often with the big man at a joint called Junior's in a Prairie State burg called Colp. Ogolini and guitarist Pete Special spearheaded the nucleus of the first edition of the Mellow Fellows in the college town of Carbondale during the early '70s, with Twist doubling on drums. After taking southern Illinois by storm, the unit relocated en masse to Chicago in 1978.
Their eponymous 1980 debut album for Flying Fish accurately captured the group's slick sound, while the 1982 follow-up, One Track Mind, attempted to be somewhat more contemporary without losing the band's blues/R&B base. A move to Alligator in 1983 elicited an album co-produced by Gene "Daddy G" Barge, whose sax solos previously enlivened R&B classics by Chuck Willis, Gary (U.S.) Bonds, Little Milton, and countless more. The group's final album with Twist up front was the Live From Chicago! Bigger Than Life!! Numerous personnel changes over the years failed to scuttle the band, and neither did the death of Twist in 1990 from diabetes and kidney failure. Martin Allbritton, an old singing buddy of Twist's from downstate who had previously gigged around Chicago as frontman for Larry & the Ladykillers, had already been deputizing for the ailing Twist, so it fell to Allbritton to assume the role full-time. Barge shared the singing duties at selected gigs and on the band's 1990 album Street Party.
Special left the organization not long after that, taking the name Mellow Fellows with him when he hit the door. That's when the remaining members adopted the handle of the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings. With Ogolini and longtime trumpeter Don Tenuto comprising a red-hot horn section, they're still a popular, dance-friendly fixture around the Chicago scene. ~ Bill Dahl