1984: A Singer Whose Raw Talent Was Brought Out by Cancer Death Sentence, Dies

Steve Goodman survived so much longer than expected that he even married before leukemia claimed him at age 36.

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Steve Goodman, songwriter, black & white photo, clean-shaven and wearing a baseball cap and white button shirt, top button undone.
Steve Goodman, whose major talent emerged after his diagnosis with cancer.Credit: David Gans, Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

On September 20, 1984, the songwriter and singer Steve Goodman died, at age 36. His death came some 15 years after he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia and told he didn’t have long to live.

Goodman, determined to make the most of whatever time he had, began to write some of the best folk-rock songs of the era – most notably “City of New Orleans,” and left behind a musical legacy that remains fresh and unique more than three decades later. He also married and had three children.

'Piggy' the temple choir boy

Steven Benjamin Goodman was born on July 25, 1948, in Chicago, the first of two children of Joseph Bayer Goodman, known to all as “Bud,” and the former Minnette Erenburg.  Bud had been a flyer in the Pacific during World War II, after which he was a car salesman. Minnette, a public-school teacher, had been raised in Chicago.

In his nearly 800-page biography of Goodman, Clay Eals traces the family’s progression from the Chicago neighborhood of Uptown through successively better-off middle-class neighborhoods, until arriving in the suburb of Park Ridge.

With two short parents, Steve was diminutive too. That  and his upturned nose led to his nickname “Piggy,” which he accepted with equanimity. He sang in the choir at Temple Beth Israel, and while in high school, he began taking guitar lessons, writing songs, and playing in bands. He also had a regular show on the school radio station at Maine East High School, where a classmate was Hillary Rodham (though she was redistricted to another school before her senior year).

After graduation, in 1965, Goodman enrolled at the University of Illinois, in Champaign, where he joined the Jewish Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity, and organized a band called the Juicy Fruits. He began school as a pre-med student, to please his parents. But after a year, Goodman transferred to Lake Forest College, and began spending much of his time playing music. Eventually, he headed east for New York, where he busked in Washington Square Park and tried to break into the local club scene.

The diagnosis

In early 1969, suffering from chronic fatigue, Goodman was tested and told he had leukemia, for which at the time treatment was nearly non-existent. He checked into Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, and for a half a year, underwent experimental chemotherapy, before going into remission.

Back in Chicago, that summer, he fell in love with Nancy Pruter, who was working as waitress at the Earl of Old Town club where he was performing. They married in early 1970. He was now writing prolifically.

In 1971, after Goodman opened for him during a Chicago gig, Kris Kristofferson arranged an audition for him with Buddha Records, which would produce Goodman’s first two albums. That was also the year he met Arlo Guthrie and asked to play him a song.

Guthrie reluctantly agreed, in return for Goodman buying him a beer. Thus he received the song that became one of his biggest hits, “City of New Orleans,” an evocative ballad about the last days of a Illinois Central train route from Chicago to Louisiana.

Goodman could write poignant, and he could write funny, whether it was “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (written with John Prine), an attempt to stuff every known Country-Western cliché into a single song; “Chicken Cordon Blues”, the lament of a fresser whose girlfriend has become a vegetarian, so that now, “all you ever give me is seaweed and alfalfa sprouts/And sunflower seeds and I got my doubts”; or “Lincoln Park Pirates”, an unlikely sea chanty about a notorious Chicago firm that towed away illegally parked cars, and some legal ones as well.

Chicken Cordon Blues -Steve Goodman Credit: YouTube

Goodman never attained the level of stardom he wanted, but his fans were legion and loyal. He didn’t share his illness with them until it couldn’t be hidden anymore, and he remained sharp and acerbic to the end. One of his late-career songs was the very funny “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request”, about having his ashes scattered at Wrigley Field, the home stadium of his beloved but hapless baseball team, the Chicago Cubs.

Eight days after Goodman’s death, the Cubs played their first post-season game since 1945, the last time they had reached the World Series.