Growing up in New York City, I remember always riding the subway. And once I was old enough to ride by myself (at an age I’d NEVER let my own kids ride alone!) it was like a whole new world opened up.
As a Milwaukeean that visits Chicago as much as possible, I spend a lot of time there on the CTA lines that fan out across the Windy City, and the voice announcing the stops and the transfers and the closing doors has always felt comfortingly familiar.
Then I realized, in part, why.
The voice belongs to Milwaukee’s Lee Crooks, who used to own and operate Breezeway Recording Studios in Waukesha, where I recorded on a number of occasions in the late 1980s.
When I learned Crooks was the voice of the CTA, I reconnected with him after a few decades to talk about how he got the gig, what the job entails, his other voiceover jobs – of which there are and have been many – and his Milwaukee connections, including running the now-long-gone Breezeway studio.
First, here’s a fun little video to set the scene:
Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Lee Crooks, the Milwaukee voice of the Chicago Transit Authority (and other clients).
OnMilwaukee: You had the studio first, right? Were you a musician originally?
Lee Crooks: Let's just say I wanted to be a musician. When I was in high school, my two main things were acting and music. I grew up in Wausau. Played guitar, keyboards, was in a stage band and was in choir ... very heavily into music. I also did a lot of plays, that kind of stuff.
When it came time to make a decision for college, I had to decide whether I wanted to do music or acting or law, which is what my parents wanted me do, but I had zero interest in doing law. I'm the only non-lawyer in my family. I'm like the white sheep in the family. That's a lawyer joke that we all tell.
I first went to college in Wausau; there is a University of Wisconsin campus, and I studied classical guitar there with an excellent musician out of Hong Kong. Then when it was time to move on I went to Berklee College of Music for a while.
So you were not a wannabe musician. You were an actual musician?
Well, no. I'm still a wannabe.
But you didn't just dabble. You studied.
I studied, and I didn't have the finger dexterity that’s really required. I also didn't have that many great ideas, so I kind of came to terms with that. I went there for a while, and then I came to Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. In Berklee, there's 1,000 guitarists, and you just can't compete. I learned a lot, and I learned that I probably wasn't going to make a living as a guitarist.
So that’s when you came to Milwaukee?
Yeah. I came here. My mom's side, they were from here. So I moved down here, lived on Farwell Avenue for a while. My grandparents were down here.
And so, then I went there for a while and got in with some guys. We formed a band, and then one day one of the guys said, “You've got to go see this band. They're doing what we're trying to do, and they're doing it way better than we are." I'm like, "OK." That was Arroyo.
Which was Paul Wehrley's band. (Wehrley worked as an engineer at Breezeway. -ed.)
Paul Wehrley's band. And I said, "OK. Let's go see them." And it took me about one set before I said, "Yeah. I'm kind of done with the whole music thing." I wasn't, actually. It was more like I wanted to be around these guys so I could learn what they were doing.
So I became not a groupie, but I became a really big fan, and I would go see them all the time and got to know the guys in the band. Fall, winter of '79, I ended up becoming a roadie for them. The whole point was I wanted to be in the business and learn from them.
I was living in a house in Menomonee Falls and (Arroyo guitarist) Jason (Klagstad) moved in with me, and we were roommates for a while along with a couple of other guys. Somewhere along the line, I was roadie-ing with him, and they were playing at Orville Bean’s. It's Buffalo Wild Wings on Mayfair Road now.
They would play Tuesday through Saturday. Basically, there were like four bands they would rotate. It was them, Sierra, I forget the other two bands, and so. Arroyo was playing, and they're cooking – but nobody is dancing. Nobody is standing up. And I just thought something is wrong with the sound.
I didn't know what it was, and I didn't know sound. I didn't know any of that stuff, and I went over to Gus, who was the sound guy, and I said, "Turn up the bass. Something is not right. Just turn it up." And he's like, "Why?" And I said, "Just turn up the bass. It feels thin." He turned up the bass, and everybody got up and started dancing, and I went hmm. I had developed my ear without knowing it.
And to make this part of the story short, I really started working with Gus. And then there was another sound guy that worked with him, Tim King, and I tried to learn everything I could about sound. And then I found out you could become a recording engineer.
So, I went and studied in Ohio at a place called the Recording Workshop. Got a certificate in recording engineering, and then tried to get a job. Couldn't get a job as a recording engineer. They're hard to get. I hadn't finished college, so I took the rest of my college fund and started a recording studio.
And why did you start Breezeway where you did? Had there been a studio there already?
No. I started it there because my sister was friends with a guy named Jim Finn. He's a lawyer, and he owned this building in Waukesha.
So there was a connection through my sister, and he said, "I have this building, and it would be perfect for a recording studio." I looked at it and said, "Yeah. I can make a studio out of this."
I don't know how much was me being naïve, but it looked like a serious studio to me.
Well, I tried. I looked at what studios looked like in L.A., and they were all that cedar on an angle and whatever. And I tried to emulate what that was.
I got a designer out of Chicago who helped me put together a plan for the studio. And so, he may have been influenced by L.A. studios. It really wasn't as good as an L.A. studio, but it was good enough for what we were trying to do.
I kept the studio until the end of, I can't remember if it's '86 or '87. I got tired of being a studio owner. I was spending all my time in the office while my friends Paul Wehrley and Mike Hoffmann ... everybody else was doing stuff in the studio.
And that's how I remember it because I remember you popping in once in a while, but not doing the engineering.
That's not why I got into the business. I wanted to be in the studio. And so, I got the idea: All right, I've accomplished what I wanted to accomplish; how about if I sell the studio, and I will stay on as chief engineer. That was a condition of selling the studio.
And that's what happened. This husband/wife team came in and bought the studio. They really injected a lot of money into the studio, and I was thrilled. It was just great, and they said, "Well, you know, what kind of recording console do you want?" And I'm like, "Really? Yeah, OK, cool." I wanted a Neotek console out of Chicago because those were supposed to be the cleanest consoles. In hindsight, I should have gotten an Neve, but that's neither here nor there.
So I wanted a Neotek console, and they didn't give me carte blanche, but they really said, "What do we need to make this a really good studio?" And did. And then they started a small record label. Then they got busted for drug smuggling. They were using Breezeway for money laundering.
That's why they were willing to give you anything you wanted...
Yeah. I sold it on a land contract, and they stopped making payments. I repossessed the studio. According to the court, my only remedy was to sell it off for parts. There were a string of debtors. So as soon as I got my part of the debt paid off, I had to then turn it over to the next in line. We did the repossession in January 1990.
So then how did you get into what you're doing now?
If you recall, I said in high school I had always done acting, and it was really a coin flip between wanting to do music or acting. If I had really done what I wanted to do, I would have chosen acting, but I actually thought I had a better shot at music.
So it turns out, though... (laughs)
So it turns out ... I've got to think of the timeline here. I had already started working at Hal Leonard Publishing as an editor. And somewhere along the line, Derrick from Arroyo, he was doing jingles work in Chicago. And for one of the spots that he'd done they said, "Do you want to try doing a voiceover?" And he said, "Yeah. Sure." So he did the voiceover and ended up transitioning into doing a lot of voiceover work. Well, my wife, god bless her, said, "You know, you've got a good voice. Why don't you try doing voiceover work?"
I'm like, "Oh. I hadn't thought of that." So I did some research and found out that there were some teachers in Chicago. Voice coaches. And so, in October of '89, I started coaching.
Was it hard for you to get work?
After I did the classes, I made a demo tape with my first coach, and once we had the tape, the next thing you do is you go to talent agents.
And you say, "Hi. I'm Lee Crooks. I want to do voiceover work." I gave my tape to Lori Lins, and she signed me right away.
And is it almost sort of like magic when you get a good agent? Does the work just start to come?
No. Initially, it trickles in. They'll book you on something that is low profile to see how you do. And then if they get good feedback, they'll maybe try you on something else. And I went through that process.
Do you remember your first one?
I don't remember my first gig through an agent. I do remember my first gig was actually at Hal Leonard. Because what they used to do is they would create these compilation tapes that they would send out to schools for, you know, "Hi. Here are the new pieces we have." And they would always record the pieces. They would record them up in Toronto. They had a recording studio and kind of like a band. So they record choral pieces, marching band pieces, all this stuff, and then they would have somebody announcing the stuff, and they had a guy who sounded, almost dead on, like Peter Jennings.
Well, for one project, this guy wasn't available, and they said, "Well, why don't we have you do it?" I'm like, "OK, cool." I had done my coaching. I had the demo tape, whatever. But hadn't gotten any gigs yet.
Do you remember your first big one? What was the first one where you hung up the phone and said, "Honey!"?
That was the Coca-Cola spot. I'll say in '91. It was a radio spot.
So tell me about how the Chicago Transit thing happened?
Oh, that's fun. It was an audition. The audition was in '97, and I want to say fairly early in '97. I'm not positive about that, but we had just gotten back from Disney World. My family had been vacationing, and I get home, and there's this email from my agent – Karen Stavins Talent in Chicago – saying, "The Chicago Transit Authority is doing auditions. They want to go to automated messages because Americans with Disabilities Act kind of requires it."
So, before that, was the conductor was making announcements?
Yeah, and nobody could understand what they were saying. CTA still does that for certain on the fly things.
Did you understand at that moment how big a thing it would be? That every single person that ever gets on a train in Chicago would hear you?
Not a clue. I kind of went, "Oh, this would be a cool gig to get," but that was about the extent of it. And so, I did the audition. I just recorded something.
And what did they say? Were you recording like, "Next stop, State and Lake"?
Yeah, it probably was. I think I probably had to say all of those.
The Disney World thing is kind of a key thing because we had just gotten back, and they said, "We want a train." I'm like, "I don't know what a train voice would sound like ... well, let's see. You were just on the monorail and there was a guy doing announcements on the monorail. I'll do an imitation of the guy on the monorail." Which is what I did, and sent that in. It was like, "Welcome to the Disney monorail. On the left is the contemporary resort." So I just did sort of an imitation of that.
And crickets. Nothing. Six months later, I get a phone call from my agent going, "You're not going to believe this, but you may have that gig. They want to hear a little more, but you may have this gig." I'm like, "You're kidding."
And after six months, you don't even think about it anymore. And so, I recorded a little more, and they said, "Yep. Let's do it.”
So then what was involved? Do you have to say all of those things – station names, et cetera – individually, and then they program them in, or do you just say all the names of things, and it generates combinations of them, or am I giving the technology too much credit?
No, no, you're actually pretty close. It's all computerized. I had these lists of things, and they had probably about 10 to 12 announcements per page. You would think, well, just list them all up, but they had specific code numbers that were involved with what was going into the computer. And it also had to do with what (train) line it was on.
I had literally pages of this stuff, and, initially, we did just the trains. That took two and a half days of recording.
And what we did was because we were establishing how we were going to do this, we didn't know exactly how it would all fit together, and some things are in sections. They've since changed how they do it, but the "transfer to green, purple, blue, brown and pink line trains at," or whatever it is, each of those things would be separate, so we had to make sure that all that matched up. We recorded every line at least three times, so they could have things that would kind of match up.
So it wasn't just record this line, record this line. It was like, record this three times. Listen to it, see if that's right ... Do we need a couple of others? And then at the end of it because every train run has a number, I had to count from one to 999.
Oh my god. And did you do those individually or did you have to do those multiple times, too?
Because I had already recorded, "Welcome aboard red line run." And then I had to go, "1. 2. 3. 4, 37, 68." And so, we just did it, and we didn't record those because we knew sort of how it had to sound coming out of, you know, "Welcome to brown line."... We knew the inflection. How it had to be.
So it took me an hour and a half. I literally sat in front of the mic, closed my eyes and went, "One. Two. Three."
And the engineer, god bless him, he listened carefully and about every 50 to 100, we would stop and listen to lead-in line to make sure I hadn't drifted, and of course I had drifted because it's hard to keep that exact same energy. And so, we would listen, and he was like, "No. No. You're getting soft or your pitch is dropping," so we would fix it up.
Was there anything after you do that initial batch of things that the CTA wanted you to re-say?
Oh, sure, we had revisions. In fact, we have revisions about three or four times a year now still.
So you did the initial two and a half days or whatever In '98. And in the intervening 22 years, how often do you go there to do more?
Yeah. I'd say about three or four times a year. It's things like, let's say, if a train line is under construction, while they're doing it, "the so and so station will be closed from now until whatever. Please use this station instead. Bus service will be available." If there's, for instance, like the Chicago Marathon. They always have to re-route the buses.
And you do bus announcements, too?
I do. Just CTA, not Metra or Pace.
When did you start to realize that every single person that gets on the train or the bus knows your voice?
When WGN called me to do an on-camera interview (about four years later). I hadn't really thought about it until then. They called me up and wanted to do an interview, and I said, "You know what. I really don't want to do an on-camera interview." Because I'd already been doing voiceovers for almost 10 years at that point. I didn't want to be pigeonholed as that voice because that's a very specific style, and I do a lot of other stuff.
I do high-energy stuff. I do a lot of narration. So I didn't want to be pigeonholed as that voice. And so, that became the angle for their interview where they wouldn't show my face in the thing. They'd show my shoes, they'd show the back of my head. They didn't ever see my face on the thing, and they didn't use my name or any of that.
When were you willing to do on-camera?
I want to say it was the first time that I decided that, "OK, I'm done playing anonymous," was I think for DNAinfo in Chicago. Kyla Gardner called up and and she said, we'd like to do an interview. I figured at that point I was pretty established. And, actually, it turned out to be a stroke of genius if I may say so, by not saying who I was because that created this weird mythology around the whole thing – like who is this guy? Agents knew who I was, and people within the industry knew who I was, but the average public didn't have any idea.
And my favorite thing was The Reader down in Chicago, they had not a contest, but kind of an ongoing bit. They would ask people what they thought the guy who did the CTA voice looked like. And they put a new one in every issue for a while. My favorite was a 6-foot 7-inch German who dances the night away or something. And I was every race, every height, every weight. So, it really became fun, but anyway. So I finally just said, "OK, I'm done with this."
Do you get an unlimited free rides CTA pass?
(Laughs) Excellent question. No, I do not. Not that I have the opportunity to ride the CTA much anyway. I typically drive into Chicago, in case I have to get back to Milwaukee quickly for a last-minute session.
So, if you're in Chicago and you start talking to people, are they like, "Wait. Say that again." Do you get any of that?
No, I don't. I've had people say, "You sound like you're in radio" or "You sound like you do voiceovers," or that kind of thing.
But nobody ever said to you, "I listen to you every morning on the way to work"?
I've had people say that after they knew who I was. The only time I've ever had somebody really recognize who I was, but they couldn't place it, was in a recording session. I was doing kind of a weird Denis Leary sort of read.
But in between, I was just talking in my normal voice, and the client was like, "You sound really familiar." And I knew where it was going. But we finished the spot. And (the producer) knew, but she didn't say anything. And then afterward I said, "Yeah. By the way, I'm really the voice of CTA. That's where you recognize me." I'm not kidding you, Bobby. She jumped out of her chair. She did what looked like a cartoon thing with her legs going.
She was just, "Oh my god. Oh my god." And I had to do cell phone pictures with her and the whole bit. So for me, it's just amusing.
My wife is constantly amazed when people call me up and go, "I want to do an interview." She's like, "Again?" It's just a human interest story.
Absolutely. And here, it's just kind of cool to think that this guy from Milwaukee is doing the Chicago...
Yeah. They didn't like that. There was some controversy about that. I love Chicago. I love going down there. I haven't been down there since December because of this stupid pandemic.
And plus I do all the stuff from home in the studio so I don't have to go down there. But I'm doing work for Chicago. I just haven't been there (physically).
But people were not happy that they did not hire a Chicago talent. Through my agent, we sort of put it out there like, "You know what? He is a Chicago talent. He works down here all the time, he just happens to live north. But he is Chicago listed talent." They didn't go outside the market.
At that point, I had two agents in Chicago, and one of them actually put me up for the audition. I won the thing fair and square.
Didn't ask for your birth certificate when you auditioned, or your driver's license? (Laughs)
They didn't ask for my birth certificate. They didn't even ask where I was from. They just said, "Yeah. He's the voice we want." So, sorry.
When people find out that you did the voice, was anybody ever surprised that it wasn't just sort of a technological voice? That there was an actual person who does it?
I've had a couple of people say that. I was trying to do something that did sounds a little bit like that because if I recall, the initial specs for the campaign was friendly, faceless and benign. Meaning they wanted information dispensed in the least annoying way possible, I guess.
And so, that's what I went for. I hear myself when I ride the train and I go, "Oh, I could have done that differently."
It's just like being a musician, always wishing you could do another take!
Oh yeah. I did get another take because they just bought new trains, and the technology on the new trains is better than the train technology from before. The engineer told me that he had to squish it down to I don't know if it was eight-bit files or four-bit files, but they were this weird format called (dot)L3. Never heard of it. I found one program that will play them. Nothing I could find will encode those.
But that's what they required. And so, there's a Mac program called VLC that would play them. So here's the problem. Yeah, they could have taken those and somehow converted them for the new trains, but why would you take something that sounds real low quality, when you could have high quality.
So did you have to go back and redo everything?
I just did that earlier this year.
And how long did that take? Two and a half days again?
No. Because I engineered it. It took me much longer because my agent and I, we set a flat rate for each section. There's four sections to this. We set a flat rate for each section, and then I just took my time, and I would record several takes of something and go, "Nope. No. Yeah, we'll take that one." So it took me literally months, but that was on me.
That was just me being incredibly picky. And I'd work for an hour or two a day, kind of just getting it the way I wanted to hear it. When I did the other stuff, remember we said we recorded it several times, and then they would choose? (This time) I was the one choosing. And they only wanted one take. They didn't want to be provided with options. They wanted a finished product.
And so, that's where my past engineering skills came in. And we had 623 files that we had to deliver, including all the, "Please stand clear of the doors." Well, actually, that's the 623 files, plus the 900 (individual numbers).
Do you find yourself in other cities listening to the subway voices?
Oh yeah. Last year I went to Boston, and somewhere on this phone is my recording of those announcements. The woman who is doing it, I was like, “I really like the way she's inflecting that.”
It's a small group of people who do this, right? Worldwide. I mean, even if it's a different person in every city, how many subways are there? A couple hundred, tops?
Probably. I'm also the voice of the Buffalo (Metro Rail). Just Chicago and Buffalo.
So tell me about some of the other stuff you do.
A lot of the stuff that I do is actually training films. Most of my work is narration in the corporate world. So, for instance, it's got to be 17 years now, I've been doing the training and repair videos for Navistar for all their trucks.
Are you familiar with a company called Accenture? They're logistics and they are one of my bigger clients.
Earlier this year, I did something for Anheuser-Busch. I've done stuff for Halliburton. Just did a video for Microsoft Teams for them. I've done a bunch of medical stuff.
For six months, I was the voice of Chevy, back in 2000, but I think I was little young sounding for what they wanted. The guy who replaced me had more of a macho sort of voice. And that's fine. But it was nice to be the voice of Chevy for a while.
Do you do commercials and things like that a lot or do you do that less?
I do less commercials. What's funny about commercial work is that's the work that everybody goes after because, (while) it's not easy, you only have to be good for 30 or 60 seconds. Whereas with narration, you have to be good for pages and pages and pages and pages. And it's hard. And as I'm getting older, it's getting harder.
For a given job, commercial is going to pay better probably. About four years ago I had a Froot Loops spot that ran, and I made, on that one day's work, $25,000. (There are) residuals.
You don't just get a flat payment and out the door?
Well, you do get a flat payment out the door. That's called a session fee.
But you're not done at the session fee?
Right. They'll buy it for let's say 13 weeks. They may change their mind to go two weeks or then they'll have what they call wild spots where they're just going to run it one time.
And do they have to renegotiate with you if they go beyond the initial agreement?
They'd negotiate with the client, or with the agent. Typically, up front they'll say, "We're going to use this for a year," even if they're only going to use it for 13 weeks. So when things do come up they don't have to keep calling the agent. But after a year, a lot of times if they're going to keep using it, then the agent will say, "Well, great. Can we get 10 percent more." Something like that.
But with narration, it's more you get paid a flat fee for the narration. But if the client likes you, they tend to use you over and over and over and over.
So you don't get a residual, but you get a residual in the sense that they'll keep bringing you back?
Yes, and so I figured out really early on go after the narration market because it was less crowded. There is a fair amount of competition for it now, but there was less competition then, and people would just keep wanting to use you, and it was like, "Okay, great."
I'm more interested in the Gillette model, where you have to keep buying razor blades.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.