In the early 1970s, strange noises echoed down the Gaass third- floor hallway. They issued from the men’s bathroom, where five male students gathered with guitars and other instruments to work their way through Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”
The band, of course, was Third Floor John.
A favorite campus act in the 70s, the band recently reunited and released Songs of Love, their second full-length album and the first since 1973’s self-titled LP.
Composed of ’74 grads Terry Van Zee, Ted Grubb, Steve McCombs and Todd Shusterman, along with Steve Huisman Mark ’76, Third Floor John reunited in 2004, 30 years after disbanding. Since then, the band has gotten together once a year to record new music for the Songs of Love Foundation.
While they were Central students, the five men used their various talents and influences to build a large campus following. “It was a huge span of musaic that influenced us and that we played at shows,” says guitarist and songwriter Steve Mark, now living in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in Texas. “But I think one of the things that made Third Floor John a favorite was that you never knew what any of us would be playing on any song.”
The band members prided themselves on trading instrument duties. The song choice was always a surprise, too. They played everything from John Denver and James Taylor to Chicago and Stevie Wonder. They also performed original songs, the signature sounds of which were Van Zee and Grubb trading lead vocals and singing harmonies.
The quintet was a regular feature at Rap, the venue in the student union basement, and headlined a larger show in Douwstra Auditorium. But despite their faithful fan base, the members always knew that Third Floor John would end with the graduation of the four elder members. “After those guys left in 1974, I had very little contact with them,” Mark recalled. “It left a huge void in my college life.”
That void persisted for 30 years, as the bandmates saw each other only sporadically. They never played together in the intervening years. Though Van Zee, Mark, Grubb and McCombs returned to campus in 1984 for a battle of the bands performance, Shusterman was unable to attend.
“There’s something about the chemistry of the band, that it only works if all five of us are there,” Mark says about that performance. The four members parted ways knowing the experience hadn’t been a true reunion. “After that, it was 20 years before we even saw each other again,” says Mark.
In 2004, the full band finally reunited when they were invited for a reunion show during Central’s homecoming weekend. Mark calls it “one of the most magical things I can recall in my musical career.” The members met at McCombs’s home in Pella the day before the performance for just one rehearsal. “After five minutes, you would have sworn it had only been two weeks, not 30 years, since we had been together,” says Mark. “That amazing electricity we felt in the 70s was immediately back in place.”
During their reunion, Mark—a music recording professional—mentioned a charity he worked with called the Songs of Love Foundation. Since then, the band has been recording songs for the nonprofit. They have compiled that music for their new album “Songs of Love.”
The Songs of Love Foundation provides personalized songs for kids and teens facing medical, physical or emotional challenges. For one week each summer, Third Floor John meets at one of the members’ homes and records two new songs for the foundation. They are given a profile sheet listing the child’s favorite music style and personal information. “Everything in the song is based on bright spots in their life, from names of family and friends to activities that they like to do. Really anything that is important to the child and makes them smile. That’s what’s important to us,” says Mark.
The quick turnaround is challenging at times. “A lot of people don’t understand how much work goes into taking a song from scratch and getting it finalized,” Mark says, noting the need to write music and lyrics, decide instrumentation and arrangement, record each part and finally mix and master the track.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” says Mark. “We really work hard to make these songs sound like something these kids could hear on the radio. The songs make a major difference in these kids’ lives. That’s why we do this.”
Third Floor John’s 1973 album is available as a free download on their website, and “Songs of Love” is available for purchase, with proceeds going to the Songs of Love Foundation.