Last spring, I took a class that focused on literary journalism. We were instructed to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. My subject made that quite easy. Meet Cody Sokolski, the CEO and founder of Champaign, Illinois’ One Main Development and singer, songwriter and guitar player for the Delta Kings.
“I’m not feeling the Holy Spirit tonight,” Cody Sokolski says as he sips a drink before taking the stage with the Delta Kings at Urbana’s Rose Bowl Tavern.
Feeling the Holy Spirit is Cody’s way of describing a musical out of body experience. In these moments, he is gone, somewhere else entirely. He becomes just a guy singing and playing guitar, nothing else. Thoughts of his day job disappear. Remembering the chords and lyrics, gone. When feeling the Holy Spirit, he becomes utterly unselfconscious and becomes his music. Tonight, he feels like a guy not only playing in a bar, but working in a bar, like a hired hand.
“Here I was going to a place that I thought was going to be the home of a grand slam,” he says. “And it is like, ehhh.”
Cody did not book tonight’s Rose Bowl gig with hopes of walking out with money bulging from his jean pockets, nor does the 54-year-old have delusions of grandeur about being part of the next group featured on MTV’s Total Request Live. In fact, most times he and his band mates will walk away with nothing more than $100 to $200 among them and the satisfaction of a job well done after a performance. He knows this is not enough to put food on the table for his wife and two kids, which is why he gave up his dream of being a professional musician. That decision made years ago allows him to live two separate lives today: CEO and founder of One Main Development and singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Delta Kings.
“I was desperate to make a living in rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “It just didn’t pay any money. If I’m going to work, I should get paid.”
The last time the Delta Kings, a four piece blues rock band, played at the Rose Bowl, the place was packed. Now, half-full tables are scattered amongst a crowd accessorized with leather and tattoos. A section close to the small stage fills itself with impromptu line dancers and clinking glasses. Cody is just as restless onstage as he is off. His hands fidget and his foot taps. When he has a guitar and an audience in front of him, the fidgets and taps are given a pulse and a beat to follow. He closes his blue eyes behind purple, John Lennon circular style frames, and shakes his head of grey and white hair back and forth to the hum of the music. He turns to the lead guitarist and stands in a face-off position as the two of them play separate guitar lines. Here and there, he walks off stage and play closer to the audience. He dresses his 5’10” frame in darker colors, mostly black, for gigs because it gives him a rocker look. Cody will have no visit from the musical gods tonight. After the performance, he grades it a B or B-.
“I can play in the crappiest places and feel the magic,” he says. “But I felt like I was working in a bar.”
For 19 years, Cody was a “musician.” He played with multiple bands, worked in guitar or record stores, and drank a cup of coffee or a glass of wine until 4 p.m. in hot spots in the music scene, just to be in the right musical hangout. When he was 38-years-old and living in a part of Manhattan that was a heroin supermarket by day and hookerville by night, being a full-time musician transformed into a less than ideal life for him and his wife. The poverty wore him out, and he needed a change. The journey to that realization was not a boring one.
Cody knew he had to play music after seeing The Lovin’ Spoonful perform live in Central Park in 1967. As he began to enter the inevitably awkward preteen years of his life, music acted as an equalizer (he was no high school jock) and as a way to meet girls. His first instrument was a snare drum, a crappy Asian import that produced nothing but loud, tinny noise. A drum and two sticks in a boy’s hands is a recipe to drive parents crazy, and such was the case for the Sokolski family. His mother and father, an architect designer and a contract and real estate attorney, who couldn’t stand to listen to the noise, gifted Cody with a Zim Gar guitar from Japan. It was cheap and poorly made, but it was a guitar. He quickly learned to play by ear and began delving into all things rock ’n’ roll.
As a high school student, Cody stuffed t-shirts into his backpack so he could change out of his prep school grey trousers and blazer as soon as the final bell rang. He began sneaking out of his parents’ apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at night to hang out at hipster clubs in New York, where he found himself at tables with Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop. Cody’s teachers yelled at him for being tired the next day, but he didn’t care.
“I was hanging out with Iggy Pop last night,” he would think. “Who the hell are you?”
Cody enrolled in Goddard College–then a “hippie school” that aimed to offer a progressive education for creative minds. At Goddard, he jokes, students tripped with their psych professors. Cody and his creative mind dropped out of Goddard to tour the East coast with Southern blues artist, Mississipi Fred McDowell. Cody then took off to England for a year with Peter Green, the founder of Fleetwood Mac. After Green lost his mind from living the life of a rock star, Cody became a roadie for an English band. Deciding to give formal education one more chance, he headed back to the states and studied jazz at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He dropped out again and joined an African-American gospel band and a funk band for two years. Cody’s parents, both successful in the world of suits, ties and briefcases, thought their son was ruining his life by trying to pursue music as a career–and told him so incessantly.
Yet Cody did everything he could to keep music in his life. He became a member of The Dictators, one of the first punk rock bands in the country. He was offered a deal by Capitol Records without the rest of his band but he declined it. At that point, music began to feel like work. He decided that if he was going to work, he needed to get paid. In 1990, leaving his dream behind in New York City, he and his wife, Marci Dodds, moved to Champaign, her hometown.
“I did it way past my sell by date,” he says.
At first, Cody tried to keep performing out of his life. It made life simpler, quieter. He had more time to himself and his wife. When he first settled, he found it refreshing. Having the stability of a job in Champaign was nice, but it wasn’t enough. Marci knew that the lack of music in his life was an issue before he did. She told him if he didn’t get into a band, she’d kill him. That same year, Cody opened a record store called Periscope Records and Tapes. It became the first store in town to sell CDs, and it was a good business. Cody kept his guitar behind the counter, and one day a couple of guys walked in and asked if he wanted to jam. “What the Hell, ya know,” he thought. That quickly, Cody Sokolski became a member of the Delta Kings, and welcomed rock ’n’ roll back into his life.
“I tried not to and I couldn’t,” he says. “I’ve always been a member of the community of rock ’n’ roll.”
That was sixteen years ago. What started as a band that did blues and rock cover songs with a few originals, is now a well-known, local group, driven by the strength of the group’s original songs and solid chemistry. Cody writes a vast majority of the songs. He is the lead vocalist and believes being a part of the Delta Kings is the most success he has had musically.
“We keep getting better,” he says. “We have a fan base, we play a lot and our new record is going to be great.”
In addition to all of their gigs, the Delta Kings are also promoting their album “4 Chords and the Truth.” Cody hopes to sell 5,000 to 10,000 copies. Their previous albums sold about 1,000 copies each.
“I’m still impressed with how many people buy it now,” he says. “I ain’t got that many cousins.”
Yet, this album is different. He is very proud of it, and he wants people to hear the songs. Cody wants to get the group’s new music up on various music viral sites and hopes the band’s effort becomes something more than a conversation piece.
He and his wife have talked about moving to Austin to be closer to their son, a freshman at the University of Texas-Austin, or packing up and heading to Paris, London or even back to New York. The conversation always seems to end with them deciding to think about it when the Delta Kings break up. Until then, Champaign is their home.
Despite the musical journey Cody has been on for a majority of his life, a Friday night performance in a bar requires a drink or two to get out of his work head. He strives to separate his two lives: CEO of One Main Development and rock ’n’ roller. In 2004, he founded and became CEO of One Main Development, a company that focuses on bringing excitement to downtown Champaign. The company has been nicely profitable, but Cody’s love is making music
“When I wear a suit, which I wear every day, I can’t play guitar,” he says. “As soon as I get home, I put on my jeans and either my high tops or my motorcycle, cowboy boots.”
Even with the release of a new record, Cody’s vision is no longer clouded with hopes of becoming the next big thing. He doesn’t plan on quitting his day job in order to promote “4 Chords and the Truth.” But Cody’s life is incomplete without music. Although the Holy Spirit doesn’t make a stop at the Rose Bowl Tavern tonight, simply playing reminds him why he can’t live without it.
“If I couldn’t express myself, I don’t know what I would do.”
Click here to learn more about the Delta Kings.