Aorta was an American psych-rock band from Chicago that released a self-titled album on Columbia in 1969, followed by a second on Happy Tiger Records in 1970. Between 1964 and 1967, the band recorded several local-press singles as The Exceptions, adopting the name Aorta after bassist Peter Cetera left to join Chicago Transit Authority.

Members: James Vincent Donlinger [aka James Vincent] (guitar, vocals), Billy Herman (drums, 1967-?), Bobby Jones (bass, 1967-?), James Nyeholt (keyboards), Michael Been (bass, guitar, vocals), Tom Donlinger (drums)


Aorta had its roots in the Rockford, Illinois, pop combo Kal David and the Exceptions, formed in 1962 by singer/guitarist Kal David, bassist/singer Peter Cetera, drummer Denny Ebert, and saxist/keyboardist Marty Grebb. In 1965, David jumped ship to The Rovin’ Kind and later split with its other guitarist, Paul Cotton (later Poco), to form the blues-rock Illinois Speed Press, produced by James William Guercio (Buckinghams, Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago). He was replaced by singer/guitarist Jim Donlinger (b. James Vincent Dondelinger). 

As The Exceptions, they released three 1965/66 singles and the EP Rock and Roll Mass, the latter on Flair Record Productions. Grebb moved on to The Buckinghams, replaced by Jim Nyeholt. After bassist Billy Herman stepped in for a departed Ebert, The Exceptions cut two 1967/68 soul-pop singles on Capitol, including the jaunty, brass-laden “My Mind Goes Traveling.” When Donlinger, Herman, and Nyeholt expressed a collective interest in psychedelic rock, Cetera departed for The Big Thing, which soon became Chicago Transit Authority (later simply Chicago).

With Bobby Jones on bass, the band changed its name to Aorta. They briefly included saxophonist Dan Hoagland, later associated with fellow Chicago-area band The Flock. Their first release was a cover of the Nuggets staple “The Shape of Things to Come,” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and first recorded by the fictional group Max Frost and the Troopers for the 1968 exploitation film Wild in the Streets. It was backed with “Strange,” a Hoagland original with lengthy, oblique jam sections.

1969: Aorta

Aorta signed with Dunwich Productions (Shadows of Knight, American Breed, HP Lovecraft). Under the management of Dunwhich founder Bill Traut, they signed to Columbia Records, which issued their self-titled debut album in early 1969.

Columbia issued Aorta simultaneously with Chicago Transit Authority and the debut albums by The Flock and the Illinois Speed Press, all in an effort to market a “Chicago Sound,” analogous to the San Francisco Sound (Santana, Steve Miller Band, Sons of Champlin, It’s a Beautiful Day) and the manufactured Bosstown Sound (Chamaeleon Church, Earth Opera, Ford Theatre, Listening, Orpheus).

Aorta features 10 songs and four occurrences of the “Main Vein” opener, composed by Dolinger along with “Ode to Missy Mxyzosptlk.” He contributed to all the in-group co-writes except the Hoagland/Nyeholt “Sprinkle Road to Cork Street.” The album includes two covers: “Catalyptic,” originally recorded by Colours on their 1968 debut album; and “Sleep Tight,” co-written by future Little Feat mastermind Lowell George. “What’s In My Mind’s Eye” is credited to Ginna Donlinger, also credited with two songs on the Jim Donlinger-produced Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls by Coven, released concurrently on Mercury.

Aorta was co-produced by Traut and Donlinger with assistance by Bryce Roberson (Sonny Stitt, Fontella Bass) and Skeet Bushor (The Troll, Crow). Nyeholt arranged the orchestration on select tracks. The torso x-ray cover is credited to designer Ron Coro, who also did album visuals for Chad & Jeremy, The Electric Flag, Dreams, and the Chamber Brothers.

Aorta toured the album as an opening act for Led Zeppelin and The Mothers of Invention. Soon thereafter, Herman left for the New Colony Six and Jones departed to the Space Choir in Joe Cocker‘s backing band. Donlinger and Nyeholt, along with Donlinger’s drummer brother Tom, briefly joined soul-psychsters the Rotary Connection (with singer Minnie Riperton). The Rotary’s third album, Peace, features cuts by Donlinger/Nyeholt (“Santa’s Little Helpers”) and Donlinger/Donlinger (“If Peace Was All We Had”).

1970: Aorta 2

Nyeholt and the Donlinger’s reformed Aorta with bassist Michael Been, formerly of Windy City garage rockers The Troys. In 1970, they released Aorta 2 on California small-press Happy Tiger Records. It features 10 songs, eight of them J. Donlinger/Been originals, including “Blythe Spirit,” “Beg for His Forgiveness,” and “Sandcastles.” Tom Donlinger contributed “Egypt.” The album starts with a band arrangement of the Hoyt Axton composition “Willie Jean,” also recorded by The Byrds. In contrast to the tripped-out experimentation of its predecessor, Aorta 2 takes a rootsier, countryfied approach.

Later Activity

Soon after Aorta 2, the band split. Jim Donlinger and Been, together with ex-Exceptions keyboardist Marty Grebb, joined Love Craft, the second iteration of HP Lovecraft. Been cut a 1976 album with Fine Wine and later formed The Call, which released seven albums on Mercury, Elektra, and MCA between 1982 and 1990.

Donlinger reverted to James Vincent and appeared on the 1972 self-titled debut by Latin rockers Azteca. In 1974, he guested on Skinny Boy, the debut solo album by Chicago keyboardist and songwriter Robert Lamm. That same year, he went solo with the Columbia release Culmination, followed by the 1976 release Space Traveler on James William Guercio’s Caribou Records.

Grebb played on ’70s-era albums by Bonnie Raitt, The Fabulous Rhinestones, Jackie Lomax, Leon Russell, Jade, Gary Ogan, and Olivia Newton-John.


  • “Shape of Things to Come” / “Strange” (1968)
  • Aorta (1969)
  • Aorta 2 (1970)


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