Howard Bedno


Music promoter in '50s, '60s

A pitchman without any musical talent of his own, he aided jazz, Motown, and pop groups through radio contacts, his own record label, and a club


By Brendan McCarthy
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 19, 2023

A consummate pitchman, Howard Bedno promoted for decades the music that energized Chicago.

He couldn't play a lick and couldn't sing the slightest bit, but he used his charm and a bevy of contacts to put jazz, Motown and pop music groups on the map, friends and family said.

Mr. Bedno, 87, a record company co-founder, music and concert promoter, died of a heart attack Monday, May 15, at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago.

In an age of music downloads and radio conglomerates, friends and former associates considered Mr. Bedno to be one of the city's last truly independent record promoters.

He is perhaps best known for launching Cobra Records with Eli Toscano in the mid-1950s in a television shop on the West Side, friends said. The label went on to record Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam.

The company lasted only from 1956-1958, but it is memorialized in a CD boxed set, "The Cobra Records Story," released in 1993 by Capricorn Records.

Mr. Bedno grew up on the West Side and graduated from Marshall High School, his family said. He fought during World War II with the Army in Normandy and set his sights on the music industry shortly after returning from service.

After Cobra Records folded, he worked briefly for Vee-Jay Records and then went into the music-promotion business, family and friends said. Record companies hired him to get radio stations to play their songs.

"Howard knew all the players," said his close friend John Iltis, who heads an entertainment marketing firm. "He knew how to get his stuff on the radio in Chicago and Milwaukee. When Howard called, they said, come on in."

During the early 1960s, Mr. Bedno co-owned the Brown Shoe, a short-lived downtown nightclub, his family said. He also promoted rock groups like the New Colony Six and the Buckinghams.

In 1966 he married Catherine Jergovich, and they had two children. The couple lived in the Lincoln Park neighborhood for more than 30 years.

"He gave the nightlife up when the girls came along," his wife said. "He'd always be home in time for dinner. Music and family really was his life."

Mr. Bedno typically carried around a portable record player and played any record pushed his way.

"He always went with his gut feeling," his wife said. "If he liked it, he'd back it. If he didn't, well that was it."

Despite his long career in the industry, Mr. Bedno wasn't one for collecting music himself. He had a small collection, his wife said.

He particularly loved Motown music, and switching from vinyl albums to compact discs was a "big process," his wife said.

One of his beloved hobbies was meeting with his lunch crew--a mix of Chicago powerbrokers and media makers who patronized downtown steakhouses for decades, said Marc Schulman, president of Eli's Cheesecake Co.

Regulars in his group included radio executive John Gehron; Bernie Judge, former city editor of the Chicago Tribune; Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet; Bears owner Ed McCaskey; journalist Steve Neal; and Schulman's father, Eli, Schulman said.

"He knew rock stars, but he preferred to just hang and eat lunch with his buddies," said his daughter, Rebecca Bedno.

For decades Mr. Bedno, the proclaimed captain of the lunch crew, held court in the former Eli's The Place for Steak in downtown Chicago, Schulman said. The irony was, Mr. Bedno eschewed red meat and didn't eat steak.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Bedno is survived by another daughter, Sheryl Bedno; , and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Memorial Park Cemetery, 9900 Gross Point Rd., Skokie.







Chicagoan started Cobra Records

May 16, 2023


The West Side of Chicago was the window to the world of Howard Bedno. The city's last true independent record promoter died Monday of an apparent heart attack at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago. He would have been 88 on May 26.

Mr. Bedno was born on the West Side and lived his entire life in Chicago. He was best known for starting Cobra Records with Eli Toscano behind a television repair shop in the 2900 block of West Roosevelt. Between 1956 and 1958, Cobra recorded Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and others. Mr. Bedno also did marketing for the gospel-soul-blues label Vee-Jay Records.

"Howard came up with [Vee-Jay President] Ewart Abner when they brought me the first Beatles record," Chicago radio legend Dick Biondi said Monday. When Biondi was working at WLS-AM in 1963, he became the first disc jockey in America to play the Beatles when he took a chance on "Please, Please, Me."

"Howard was a real straight guy," Biondi said. "But what made him special is that he got real close to everybody. He knew if something was bothering you. In recent years we'd go to Eli's three or four times a week. He was one of the best record promoters this country has ever had."

Mr. Bedno attended Marshall High School, 3250 W. Adams, and he fought in Normandy on D-Day. After the war, he was persuaded to pursue music.

He liked to get away to Cuba before the 1959 revolution. During the 1960s, Mr. Bedno ran a nightclub called the Brown Shoe, which featured acts like Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne.

'Treat Her Groovy'

He also promoted popular 1960s Chicago rock groups like the Buckinghams and the New Colony Six. He produced the New Colony Six hits "I Will Always Think About You" and "Treat Her Groovy." The New Colony Six were born at St. Patrick's High School, 5900 W. Belmont.

In 1963 the Rivieras recorded "California Sun." The fact that the surf group was from South Bend did not deter Mr. Bedno. He brought the record to WLS-AM, which became the first station in the country to play what was to become a smash.

In 1993 Capricorn Records reissued a box set of Cobra's music. At the time Capricorn president Phil Walden said, "The wonderful thing about small independent labels like Cobra is that they did not have the strong financial footing to make more complicated records. So they left us with these simple but straight-ahead recordings." Walden died on April 23 after a long bout with cancer.

In 1981 Mr. Bedno, who was then 63, called on WLUP-FM with friend and Chicago publicist John Iltis.

Former WLUP-FM general manager Jimmy DeCastro recalled, "Back in those days we had 'Record Day' when we would play a record it would become an amazing hit. Howard was in our lobby promoting local records."

DeCastro added: "After seeing me Howard and John [Iltis] would go to Eli's for a piece of liver and cheesecake. Howard was still effective. He had a great knowledge of music. His Rolodex and the people who he knew and who trusted him were legendary."

Mr. Bedno is survived by his wife, Catherine, and daughters Maj. Cheryl Bedno, who is stationed in Kenya, and Rebecca, and a grandson. Services are pending.


More on Howard Bedno at Gone But Not Forgotten