Rest in peace to Chicago drummer Joe Camarillo 

Categories: Chicago Reader

The beloved musician and collaborator extraordinaire built a long resumé, which includes decades playing with the Waco Brothers and Hushdrops.

By Mark Guarino

Joe Camarillo, an intuitive and potent drummer who played with dozens of Chicago bands for more than 30 years, died Sunday following a stroke. He was 52.

Among the bands and solo artists with whom Camarillo toured, recorded, or performed are the Waco Brothers, Hushdrops, Kelly Hogan, the Renaldo Domino Experience, Bad Luck Jonathan, Kevin Tihista‘s Red Terror, NRBQ, Bucky Halker, Dollar Store, and the Webb Brothers. He could bring his musical instincts to bear on an entire song, not just its beat, and his huge stylistic range made him “the holy grail of musicians,” as Hogan posted to Facebook on Monday. “A versatile monster drummer who also sang perfect backing vox like an ace.”

Camarillo began his musical life idolizing Ringo Starr. His father, Cipriano, who was employed by the Atlantic Richfield refinery in Harvey, often brought records home after work to share with his children. When Camarillo turned four, Cipriano bought him a toy drum set, and when he entered grade school, his father upgraded him to a professional kit and began paying for lessons. Every year, father and son indulged their shared love and attended the Chicago edition of Beatlefest, launched in 1977 and held in its early days at the Palmer House downtown. “That was their ritual,” says Rose Camarillo Bodie, Joe’s sister.

Camarillo continued to play drums while at Bremen High School in south suburban Midlothian, and his group Andromeda won a battle of the bands at a local Catholic church. After he graduated in 1986, he dove into the north-side punk scene, fronting Gear and other bands.

In 1993 he met John San Juan, a musician and kindred soul who was just starting to perform under the name Hushdrops. Camarillo joined the group that same year, a development San Juan likens to “when the Beatles got Ringo—everything was a lot better, instantly.”

“He had a really uncanny innate musicality. He played rock ‘n’ roll in a very creative way that made everything three-dimensional,” San Juan says.

Camarillo quickly made clear to the people he played with that his musical intelligence wasn’t confined to his instrument of choice. “As a drummer, I dig writing songs that don’t need drums,” Camarillo told an interviewer in 2011. “I like the sound of well-recorded acoustic guitars. Nick Drake was a real revelation to me.” Bandmates frequently turned to him to shape rough ideas into songs. Camarillo also played guitar and keyboards and could sing sweetly, sometimes adding upper-register harmony vocals to an arrangement. “It was like John Bonham opening up his mouth and Carl Wilson coming out,” San Juan says.

Camarillo began his 23-year tenure with the Waco Brothers when he was invited to fill in for drummer Steve Goulding, who couldn’t make the band’s 1998 New Year’s Eve show at Lounge Ax. After Goulding eventually moved to New York City, the band tried out players from around town, including Glenn Kotche of Wilco and Fred Armisen from Trenchmouth (now better known as a comedian), but it was Camarillo who had the chemistry. Front man Jon Langford credits him for pushing the Waco Brothers from irreverent country music toward more sophisticated rock. He says their 2016 album Going Down in History was specifically designed to showcase “what Joe did.”

“We wanted to make his drums the lead instrument,” Langford says. “It was a very different kind of swinging style of playing—I don’t want to say avant-garde, but he could play things you wouldn’t expect at all.”

San Juan likewise considers Camarillo a full collaborator, not simply a timekeeper. For “Summer People,” Hushdrops’ best-known tune, San Juan wrote the chorus and the melody, but he says that “the entire hook of the song is [Camarillo’s] drumming.” He was, San Juan says, “an alchemist who turned ideas into art.”

The open-minded, open-hearted spirit that made Camarillo so good at collaboration also shaped his life beyond the studio. “People just immediately took to Joe” on tour, says Waco Brothers guitarist and singer Dean Schlabowske. “Half the time I wasn’t even aware of how many good relationships he made everywhere we went.”

Camarillo was an eager music lover with a sensitive ear and an encyclopedic knowledge of musical eras and genres, and he considered himself a fan as much as an artist. His longtime girlfriend Dawn Greer remembers a dinner with singer-songwriter Will Oldham where Camarillo talked excitedly about how amazed he was by the Louisville underground scene where Oldham had gotten his start.

Oldham, dumbstruck that anyone would know so many details from so far back in his history, asked if the two of them had gone to high school together. “No, I just read a lot,” Camarillo said.

“He loved seeing what everyone was capable of,” says Schlabowske. “And he really loved that he could be part of the audience as much as he loved being onstage.”

Though Camarillo maintained an upbeat demeanor and a wide smile, in private he dealt with several chronic health issues. He had a genetic heart condition and lived with diabetes. He’d broken both knees in a fall early in life, and in 2006, a car accident shattered his entire left leg, requiring (among other things) a shin-bone replacement.

Like many musicians, Camarillo was isolated by COVID-19, cut off from the life he’d had before the pandemic. He lived in the family home in south-suburban Posen as a caretaker to his 84-year-old mother, Mary, who suffers from dementia. He hadn’t sat behind a drum kit since January 2020. “It hurt him to have to abstain from the things that gave him joy,” says San Juan. “Specifically, congregating musically and congregating with friends. Which at this stage in our lives, are one and the same.”

Camarillo was born September 3, 1968, at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey. On Sunday, his life came full circle, and he died there too. He called for his own ambulance on January 5, after one side of his body went numb. Once he was admitted, doctors told him he’d suffered a stroke and a heart attack. Last Wednesday, January 20, he was moved to the hospital’s rehab center for speech and physical therapy. But on Saturday he suffered a brainstem stroke and was put on a ventilator. Sunday was also the first anniversary of what had become his final show, with the Waco Brothers at FitzGerald’s.

Greer and Camarillo’s mother and sister stood at his bedside during his final moments. Outside his window, his second family—members of the Waco Brothers and other musicians—waited in the parking lot. Others moved by his music or his friendship publicly mourned online, all over the country and beyond.

The response was fitting, says Camarillo Bodie. For her brother, from the beginning of his life to the very end, “Everything was music.”

Camarillo’s wake starts at 3 PM on Friday, January 29, at Adduci-Zimny Funeral Home, 14522 S. Western in Posen. A chapel service will begin at 7:30 PM that evening. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, attendees must register in advance, which they can do here. A GoFundMe to benefit Camarillo’s family is underway at this link.

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