Mary Ann Milam loves history. She keeps scrapbooks and has traced her ancestry back to the Mayflower. Now she is preserving the history of Golden Voice Recording Co. with a documentary.

She and her husband Jerry started Golden Voice in South Pekin in the early 60s. A fire that was believed to be arson gutted the recording studio in 1978. Terry Jamirson was purchasing the business from Jerry Milam, contract for deed, during this time. While the business may no longer exist, its history is still of interest to people in the community, said Mary Ann.

Mary Ann plans to finish the documentary this summer in conjunction with the 100-year anniversary of South Pekin. She began her project by starting a Facebook page.

“The more I put on Facebook, the more responses I got,” she said.

As she got deeper into the project, she learned it was a huge undertaking, one that turned out to be four years in the making.

“It is hard work, locating people, talking to the individual, trying to find somebody to represent someone,” she said.

Another issue, Mary Ann said, is that many of the musicians she wants to interview are passing away. For example, she said she was in touch with Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon fame but did not get the interview before his death in 2015.

A band called The Suburban 9 to 5 is featured in the documentary. Richrath played with this band in his early days.

“Everybody played with Gary because Gary loved to play,” she said.

Another band called The Coachmen is featured in the documentary. Local music legend Dan Fogelberg came from that band. Mary Ann said she has notes from Fogelberg, who died in 2007. 

“We have Dan Fogelberg’s Greatest Hits, a copy of that gold record, because one of the songs we recorded was put on that greatest hits record. … Who do you know in Pekin who has a gold record?” Mary Ann said.

Another musician Mary Ann never got a chance to interview was country music legend Marvin Rainwater who died in 2013, just about the same time Mary had tracked him down.

“I found out I’m losing these people faster than I’m actually able to discuss it with them,” Mary Ann said.

However, Mary Ann was able to interview many musicians who were connected to Golden Voice, such as Cristy Lane; Tom Byler; Tom Kane; Craig Moore; brothers Scott and Mike Somerville; and her husband and his band mate Gary Little, among many others.

“These people went out of their way to come and help me with this documentary,” Mary Ann said.

Local music promoter Jay Goldberg is the narrator on the documentary. He talks about the roots of the business and weaves the tale of the years in which local musicians got their start at Golden Voice, many of which would go on to have successful careers, such as Head East.

“Some even made fun of the idea of making records in the cornfields of Illinois,” Goldberg said. “(However) many future world famous people passed through the doors of the facility, (who) some said could not possibly succeed in south Pekin, Illinois, a railroad town in central Illinois.”

Golden Voice began during the “garage band era” of the 1960s. Jerry Milam was a local musician who then became interested in recording. 

“I had no audio background or any electronics background," Jerry says in the documentary. "I just had this burning desire to have a studio."

He and his wife started the business in their home on Monroe Street in Pekin.

The Kokays were the first band to be pressed on the new Milam record label.

After some of the bands that recorded at the Milam’s home - such as Norton Wilson and The Shades - got hits on the local music charts, Jerry decided to build a studio. 

“We knew that we could now draw a crowd and the interest was there in the industry locally,” Jerry said. 

In 1963 and 1964, the Milams began searching for land. They met with  Frank Fogliano, the mayor of South Pekin.

“He decided to sell us 1 acre right at the first corner next to town at a very reasonable price,” Jerry said.

It took a year to complete construction of Golden Voice Recording Studio.

Ron Volz, a long-time friend of Jerry’s, sent musicians his way. Volz had his own successful career playing with bands in the mid-60s on American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin shows.

One of these musicians was Tom Byler. He was in a band in Metamora in 1965 called The Wombats with Volz’s brother Greg. On the documentary, Byler talks about the excitement surrounding the startup of Golden Voice.

“(The Wombats) went into the studio," Byler said. "As you can imagine, what a thrill that was for a bunch of high school kids to be in a recording studio. We never dreamed we would be in a recording studio.”

The Wombats were the first band to record in the new studio. Ron Volz’s cousin John Briggs, a member of The Wombats, recalls his initial impression of Golden Voice, which was still under construction in 1966.

“When we first drove up to the studio, we were really surprised," Briggs said. "It was in a little bitty town, across the street from a cornfield, but it was a big building, built especially as a studio."

Briggs and many musicians after him would recall the special reverb room.

“I remember being particularly impressed with the natural reverb room that Jerry had built," Briggs said. "We stuck our heads in it and said something and everything you said echoed about 15 times. He would send the music signal in there and record it back out so we got a really great reverb sound."

Mary Ann said it cost about $250 to record an album in the 60s. She still has some of the receipts.

Over the next 13 years, the bands that recorded at Golden Voice were numerous. Some were The Standells, The Third Booth and The Shags.

The Shags went on to play with national acts, such as The Who, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and The Hollies. 

Many of these national acts that recorded at large city studios, such as Columbia and Chess in Chicago, commented about how good the Golden Voice recordings sounded. This was good advertisement for the little South Pekin studio. 

Other growth for the studio happened after Gary Richrath began playing with REO Speedwagon in 1970.

Another famous musician — Jonathan Cain of Journey — did his first recordings at Golden Voice, Mary Ann said.

“He’s the keyboard player and writes most of their hits,” Jerry said. “Him and his brother came down from Chicago and recorded. I think John was 17 or 18 at the time and his brother was only 16. His brother played drums. John played everything and sang. He was like Fogelberg. He could do all that stuff. I sent his tapes off to Nashville and got him a record contract right off.”

In 1972, a Pekin-area musician Mike Sommerville and his brother Scott started a band called Ricky Spitfire. That band only lasted a year, and Mike moved back home with his parents. Out of the blue he received a phone call from a member of the band Head East. They asked him to audition and he got the job.

“We played the first job at The Green Bean in Joliet," Mike said. "From there we went to Colorado, and I had never been anywhere in my life. I had never been more than four hours from Peoria. That was quite an experience."

After a year, Head East borrowed money to record a record, which took 10 days. In January 1975, Mike said he received the first copies of their record “Flat as a Pancake.” It sold over a million copies, earning gold record status.

Mike quit Head East in 1980. He rejoined the band in 1994 and played until 2003. Head East still tours today and recently played in Peoria. Mike will never forget his time with the band or his time at Golden Voice.

“I have nothing but good memories of that place,” he says in the documentary.

Mary Ann is hoping her work on the documentary will spark many other good memories and preserve the history of the recording studio.

“This is not a money project for me,” she said. “It’s strictly historical.”

After the documentary is complete, Mary Ann plans to release it on YouTube.

“There’s so much connection here rolling around here," Mary Ann said, "it’s almost a book rather than a documentary."

For more information, visit goldenvoice
recordingco.com.