Composer, Singer, Performer, Pianist, Guitarist, Multi-Instrumentalist, Producer, Arranger, and Bandleader, Skafish is a musician who was highly trained in classical and jazz. He began piano instruction at age 6 and was regarded as a child prodigy/musical genius . He has been active in music ever since.
From age 6 through graduating high school, Skafish’s musical training was extensive. That included classical piano, classical organ with Dwight Davis (professor at Indiana University Northwest), music theory, voice, and jazz piano with Willie Pickens at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.
The period from childhood throughout high school was also a journey of musical exploration for Skafish. He composed music and lyrics, made his first record at age 14 in 1970, and continued to make recordings. Skafish’s work as a musician included playing in rock, blues and jazz bands, at church, in the pit orchestra for musicals, and accompanying various high school choirs. He also worked extensively with his mother, Violanda, who was an operatic coloratura soprano, soloist and classical voice teacher.
In 1973, Skafish formed his first original band, Jim Skafish Group, a jazz trio. At the same time, Skafish became immersed in the avant-garde and became increasingly driven to change music forever. By January 1976 at the age of 19, he put that task into motion when he formed his original rock band. The mission of the project was nothing less ambitious than to revolutionize the musical world.
Skafish has been acknowledged as creating punk, new wave and alternative rock in Chicago and a co-creator of these art forms internationally. His shocking February 1976 performance at Club B’Ginnings is considered to be the birth of Chicago punk.
Skafish and his band went into the studio to record a 4-song demo in August 1976. Some who heard the results not only had problems with the unusualness of the music, but also with the subject matter. Knuckle Sandwich was one of the first songs to confront gay bashing and bullying, while Executive Exhibitionist told the story of a pedophile who masqueraded as a conservative businessman/family man.
The demo was given to Scott Cameron, who had recently witnessed a performance by Skafish in his basement. Already managing Stan Kenton, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Mighty Joe Young, Cameron agreed to manage Skafish by the fall. (Kenton referred to Skafish as a genius after hearing the 4-song demo; Waters and Dixon became noteworthy Skafish fans).
The first task at hand was a two-month Chicago area club tour in November and December 1976, which was often met by violent reactions. The local press began to take notice.
…And what has proven to be the most bizarre act to arrive on the scene in years, SKAFISH has mesmerized audiences with his wild stage antics, unorthodoxed music and indescribable visual effects.
– Illinois Entertainer – December, 1976
Just how “out there” Skafish was became glaringly apparent when he opened for the mainstream act, Sha Na Na, on February 4, 1977 at The Arie Crown Theater in Chicago for a crowd of 6,000. Skafish’s unusual music, bizarre appearance and rebellious performance led to a near riot, including a report of an audience member who directly pointed a gun at Skafish. While Skafish was willing to continue his performance, in order to contain the violence, the Chicago police forcibly halted his set. Billboard wrote a story about the concert, giving him his first national press.
Skafish was the first Chicago punk/new wave artist to play CBGB in April 1977, and then again in December 1977 . In the summer of 1977, Skafish’s Chicago club dates included his fans rioting in pandemonium.
Skafish performed nationally in the US throughout 1977-78, including headlining the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles. He received his first international press in April 1978 in a story titled, New Messiah Scores With Deviants in UK rock magazine, New Musical Express.
No one goes to Gary, Indiana. People just drive through and roll up their windows on the way. The city stinks of steel mills and the sky is perpetually grey. The smog is so thick you can taste it. From this pit belches forth SKAFISH; the newest, weirdest, ugliest – and possibly the best new group in rock and roll.
– Mykel Board – “New Messiah Scores With Deviants” – New Musical Express – April, 1978
Sid Vicious’ last public event, a violent brawl he caused was at a Skafish concert at Hurrah in New York, December 1978. The actual circumstances of that night have been consistently and repeatedly misrepresented in accounts for decades. Skafish set the historical record straight by appearing in the 2016 film, Sad Vacation: The Last Days Of Sid And Nancy.
Skafish became the first American artist (second worldwide) to be signed to the groundbreaking IRS Records. His first LP and related singles were released in the spring and summer of 1980. To promote the LP, Skafish extensively toured the UK, Europe and the US, playing club, concert hall and outdoor stadium shows, with the largest dates having up to 45,000 in attendance.
Skafish appeared in the international concert film Urgh! A Music War, performing the first blatantly sacrilegious rock song in history, Sign of the Cross, to a crowd of 20,000 in France. He also joined the Police, XTC, and UB-40 for the film’s finale song, So Lonely.
IRS Records was considered to be one of the most progressive and groundbreaking record companies of all time. Yet, they couldn’t handle the second album that Skafish originally turned in. Recorded in November 1982 and tentatively titled I Might Move In Next Door, the album was vehemently rejected by IRS Records who considered it too controversial and offensive to be released.
The second Skafish album that ended up being released in September 1983, titled Conversation, was a collection that was censored by IRS Records. The accompanying video to the album, Wild Night Tonight, was only aired once on MTV that fall and immediately banned due to a gunshot/death scene early in the clip. At the time, the video became one of the first to ever be banned on the channel.
From 1983 through1994, Skafish extensively performed a theatrical, controversial solo show where he sang and played keyboards and guitar live over backing tracks that he created. The demands of being the only performer on stage dramatically increased his physicality, performance and dance.
Skafish also briefly formed two bands, the first in 1987 and the second, named Jim Skafish and Aliennation, in 1994. Skafish released the EP Limited Series Cassette, which featured future Ministry/Nine Inch Nails drummer Jeff Ward, and future Aretha Franklin backing vocalists Nadima. The EP was followed by Best Kept Secrets, where Skafish virtually performed, produced and recorded the entire album.
He’s a fucking genius!!
– Miles Copeland – IRS Records CEO
IRS Records CEO Miles Copeland requested that Skafish attend and perform at the label’s 10 year anniversary party in Los Angeles in September 1989. The party was intended to celebrate the release of the IRS Records compilation, These People Are Nuts, which featured the live Skafish track, Sign of the Cross, from Urgh! A Music War. For the event, Skafish performed his solo show alongside such artists as Concrete Blonde, Door’s guitarist Robby Krieger, and guitarist Steve Hunter (Lou Reed/Alice Cooper).
Skafish returned to his jazz roots when he issued the holiday album, Tidings of Comfort and Joy – A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas. A complete departure from any of his prior albums, the record was released out of season in May 2006, and it revealed Skafish’s skill as a jazz pianist, arranger and composer to a broader audience. It was the first record on Skafish’s newly formed label, La Befana Records.
Skafish released two albums that historically documented the birth of Chicago’s punk, new wave and alternative genres. The Skafish collection What’s This? 1976-1979 was issued in 2008, and featured the first recordings of these genres by a Chicago artist, from August 1976. Rock legends Cheap Trick, who attended many early Skafish shows, authored the project’s liner notes and referred to the album as, “the music that started it all.”
Despite being released 30 years too late, the songs on this CD should finally convince Chicago punk rockers who’s their daddy.
– Jake Austen – Extreme Behavior — Jim Skafish was too punk for Chicago to handle. Will he finally get his place in history?
Time Out Chicago / Issue 162: April 3-9, 2008
Bootleg 21-35, released in 2012, is a live bootleg of Skafish’s 21st birthday performance in Chicago. Its unvarnished recording captured the non-revisionist historical truth of the original Chicago punk/new wave scene, showcasing the frenetic, rebellious energy of Skafish, his band and his fans, many of whom were from La Mere Vipere , Chicago’s first punk dance club. Both albums were launched on another Skafish-owned label, 829 Records.
Even today, the first Skafish album remains a fan favorite. IRS Records refused to keep the record in print after its original release in 1980 and it was never issued on CD or in any digital format. Fans repeatedly asked for the record to be re-released. Skafish, frustrated that his work was unavailable, took it upon himself to secure the legal rights to the album in order to re-release it. After decades of effort, Skafish secured those rights in 2015. The meticulous nine-month day-by-day re-mastering process was completed in 2017. Plans are currently underway to re-release the album.