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LOCAL SCENE with Tom Lounges

When first sitting down to write this week's column, my intent was to follow up last week's column on the increased focus on original region music by addressing my Top 10 favorite locally produced CDs of 2002.

Then the phone rang. Jim Hillegonds of the local AC/DC tribute group, Bonfire, dropped the bomb on me. In a choked voice, he reported that Paul Elliot Callaway III had died earlier that morning at his parent's home in Highland. Other calls soon flooded in from other area musicians whose moods were equally somber.

The 26-year-old man who weighed so heavy on our collective hearts and minds had been the former frontman/vocalist of Alison's Mailbox, a talented teenage band who roared out of a garage on LaPorte Street in Highland in the early 1990s to create a local frenzy the likes of which had never been seen before nor after.

Hundreds of kids came to follow Mailbox from show to show, filling halls like the Musician's Guild in Hammond, the American Legion in Highland and the Am-Vets Hall in Whiting, and mouthed the words right along with Callaway.

Record stores booked them to play in parking lots, because they knew where Alison's Mailbox was, the kids would follow. Woodmar Mall's security lost their minds when the band's massive teen following jammed into the Hammond shopping center in 1995 and the congestion of bodies brought shopping on that end of the mall to a virtual standstill.

In the past, teen bands often have enjoyed large followings among their hometown peers, but Alison's Mailbox broke that mold by surpassing the geographic boundaries of its Highland turf.

Mailbox got so popular so fast among the region's under 21 crowd that it ignited a whole teen band movement in the area.

It inspired other youth not only to pick up guitars, but to write their own songs.

Suddenly, the area was teeming with teenage bands armed with original songs and bearing names like History's End, Krooked Minds, Felix and Underwhelmed whose members all were under 21.

At the center of this hurricane was Paul Elliott Callaway III, a former Highland High School prom king who parlayed his good looks and popularity into being a local pin-up boy. The former swimmer/football player morphed into some kind of new world Elvis for the post-Grunge rockers of the region.

This writer first got to know Callaway and his Mailbox mates -- Jason Tarka, Jeff Tarka, Billy Mayer and Steve Stasny -- when they won a "Battle of the Bands" I helped put together on behalf of the Highland Parks Department at Main Square Gazebo. It was the first of many times my path would cross with this amazing young band.

Their prize of recording time at Sheffield Studio in Hammond, resulted in a four-song, self-titled cassette. That 1995 cassette is what fueled what I then termed "Mailboxmania." It was the in-store "release party" for that cassette EP that clogged the arteries of Woodmar Mall.

Alison's Mailbox carried on for the next five years despite some membership changes and eventually crossed over into the club, festival and college concert markets, where it opened for national artists and headlined. A couple of original tunes landed on national compilation CDs, getting the band's music played on radio stations around the country. Even had RCA Records and other labels were sniffing around door for a spell, though nothing developed.

In a 1997, the band paid tribute to its hometown, when it released a 12-song CD aptly titled, "Highland." Alison's Mailbox, like all good things, came to an end at the turn of the century. The boys had become young men and life called to them in different ways.

Over time, I came to know all of the Mailbox boys quite well, but it was Paul with whom I bonded most. He was an exceptional young man with a quick wit and a

warm smile, who could make a really mean cup of coffee. Paul went from being

musical fodder for my pen to being a dear friend who I proudly asked to

be godfather to my son.

Though he had been away from the music scene for the last couple of years while attending school at Columbia and getting his life in order, he had been busy writing new songs and making surprise appearances at acoustic open mic nights, looking to return to the music scene that had been such a pivotal part of his young life.

It breaks my heart to know that Callaway's voice has been forever silenced and the wonderful songs he was sure to write lost to us.

I know I am not alone in feeling his loss. Hundreds of people mobbed Kuiper Funeral Home in Highland for his wake. His musical peers were out in strength and the fans who once waited in line to see the band, waited in a line that often went out the door to say goodbye. The funeral procession that pulled out of St. James Catholic Church on Monday was one of the longest these eyes have ever witnessed.

While I still plan to get to writing about my "Favorite Local CDs of 2002" (better late than never), I somehow got lost in the ‘90s last weekend as Alison's Mailbox tunes blasted out of my boom box.

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