This man of many talents—a touring singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, historian and storyteller—is living the life he loves.

In the 1960s, young couples like my wife and I would go to dinner some place in town, then go to a “piano bar” with friends, and that was about it. Once kids came along, we were lucky to get out very often.

Jim’s Steakhouse on North Adams was a good place to eat. When we arrived for our reservation one night, we sat next to three teenage kids and talked a bit with them. Then a pretty lady standing in front of a mic pointed to those three kids, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome The Forty-Second Street Auxiliary Choir!”

We thought it was a joke, but they scrambled onto the little stage with their stringed instruments and stood up there, grinning at us for a moment before they started singing. Well, they blew us away, and we have been friends with them ever since. This “choir” was, in fact, a trio—consisting of Bob Applegate, Tom Burton and the subject of this article: the man of music himself, Barry Cloyd.

The Early Years
Barry was all of 14 at the time, and he likes to talk about his experience playing a place that served alcohol—where he learned an awful lot about making a living as an entertainer. “Norm, I remember you and your wife and friends coming into Jim’s. I will admit: it was a strange environment for kids, but we usually only played until 10 at night.

“I remember one night—right in the middle of one of our sets—a man came running in from the front of the place. We learned he had been over at Suzie’s, a bar next door. Well he ran right past us, followed by a very irate, scary lady carrying a pair of scissors, and both heading for the kitchen. We just kept singing… Not long after that, the restaurant was loaded with police officers. We soon learned that she had stabbed the man to death. We kept that little trio together for about a year, and being kids, we loved that wild nightlife scene, I can tell you that.”

Music has been a major part of Barry’s life since he picked up his first guitar at age six. “I played during my Hines grade-school days, and when I was very young, I wrote a song that my mother had copyrighted. I thought I was a big shot over that! I liked to play in front of people and enjoyed the little plays we put on at Hines. I learned to yodel at that time and taught my friend Rob Pyle to yodel. I would play the guitar, and we would yodel and sing. We were a big hit.”

Barry attended Richwoods High School, appearing in a lot of plays and active in the assemblies the staff put on. He loved the choir and especially enjoyed his role in How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. He was also a member of The Young Folk, a touring show group made up of high school students from all over the Peoria area.

“That was a lot of fun—there must have been 50 kids in that group. It was directed by Dirk McGinnis and choreographed by Gene Holmes. We played the Heart of Illinois Fair and opened for a number of national acts that played the Grandstand. After the fair ended, we toured around Illinois to a number of other venues. I learned a lot about presentation, music and entertainment… and still have friends from that group.”

Pursuing the Dream
Barry went on to Millikin University, majoring in music education, but left after a year and a half. “I was No. 17 in the draft and the Vietnam War was still going on. I decided to enlist for three years so I would have some say as to what I would do while I was in the Army. I ended up in Germany as a missile crewman in the mountains… driving a massive truck with a nuclear Pershing missile that could carry a 10-megaton warhead. I was not crazy about the Army, but I had my guitar and my music… so I lived pretty well.”

Once out of the Army, Barry went to Los Angeles to see if he could make it out there as an entertainer. He made a demo record and went around to studios and clubs to see if he could get some bookings—and maybe a recording contract. “I played at some pretty good places out there, but I got shot down. Later, [my wife and I] had a daughter named Ashley, and I realized that I had to get some work—but I never gave up my dream to be a full-time entertainer.

“I worked at Montgomery Ward, sold new and used cars, and drove a concrete truck for five years. I spent a lot of years in marketing as an executive, but you know, Norm, I was never really a happy person. After my divorce, I decided that I was finally going to break free and put forth all my energy into making a living as a full-time musician, singer and songwriter—and that is exactly what I did. I feel fulfilled today and realize that I made the decision that was best for me. I owe a lot to folks who helped me, and I am very grateful for my time spent with Corn Stock and Peoria Players. I had great support from my parents, and the early encouragement I received from them drives me to this day.”

Labor of Love
“One day, I met Mr. Brian ‘Fox’ Ellis, and my fate was sealed. We have written a ton of songs, plays and shows together with the Prairie Folklore Theatre and the riverboat. We both love to entertain, and I have lived my dream for 16 years, doing at least 175 shows a year… I have an agent now, but do my own bookings and a lot of self-promoting to keep busy. It is, indeed, a labor of love.”

Barry Cloyd, a true man of music, is still out there, traveling much of the United States and from Ireland to the Caribbean, playing fairs, colleges, concerts and riverboats. “Norm, my latest CD, which is my 10th release, is called Southland and is available. The life I chose can be arduous, with long trips in lonely cars and second-rate motels, but it is a life I love. Truth is, it is the only thing that I have ever wanted to do.” a&s

Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and true crime writer. He can be reached at [email protected] For more information on Barry Cloyd, visit barrycloyd.com or prairiefolkloretheater.com.