How an Unplanned Roger Ebert Review Launched John Prine’s Career
One random night in Chicago in October 1970, film critic Roger Ebert left the movie he was supposed to be reviewing because his popcorn was too salty.
He went to a nearby bar seeking a beer, and was encouraged to check out the unknown singer-songwriter performing in the back room. That musician's name was John Prine, and the unplanned and rapturous review Ebert wrote about the performance changed the singer-songwriter's life forever.
"I never had an empty seat after that," Prine told NPR in 2018. "I was still making my living as a mailman. And I was singing after that (review) three nights a week and two shows a night. And there was a line outside. And things just got better from then on."
"Through no wisdom of my own but out of sheer blind luck, I walked into the Fifth Peg, a folk club on West Armitage [Street], one night in 1970 and heard a mailman from Westchester singing," Ebert wrote while looking back on the fateful review 40 years later.
"That night I heard 'Sam Stone,' one of the great songs of the century. And 'Angel From Montgomery.' And others. I wasn't the music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, but I went to the office and wrote an article. And that, as fate decreed, was the first review Prine ever received."
"(Prine) appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight," read a key section of Ebert's review. "He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you."
As Prine gratefully acknowledged, his career took off quickly after Ebert's review was published. In addition to his new busy show schedule, Prine scored his first recording contract a few months later. He released his acclaimed self-titled debut album in the summer of 1971.
Three years later, Bonnie Raitt brought Prine's songwriting talents to a wider audience by including a cover of his "Angel From Montgomery" on her 1974 album Streetlights. She was just one of many famous peers to champion and cover his work over the years, alongside Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and R.E.M.
Decades later, after Prine had survived a 1997 cancer battle, and with Ebert in the midst of his own ultimately fatal fight with the disease, the now-famous movie critic attended another one of the former postman's concerts. "This was after my surgery," Prine told NPR. "And we got to talk a little bit. But obviously it was a social situation... it was more like we looked at each other like we were members of the club - you know, both having been through our surgeries - him even more so."
Prine died on April 7, 2020, due to complications from the coronavirus.