The arrival of 1964 found most of America in complete disarray; a state of shock, fear and melancholy having recently enveloped the country. This was particularly true of its youth. Lost adolescents struggled with everyday life, suddenly stripped of the innocence and the sense of security we had taken for granted our entire lives. We had lost our beloved President, and within that tragedy, our confidence and direction. It would take something incredible, even magical, to come along and snap us out of our dreary existence. And something actually did. On the night of February 9th, a single television event would electrify and forever unify a certain element of young America. The live performance of four young British musicians would be the inspiration for millions of teenage boys to pick up a guitar and begin their search for a drummer who had witnessed the same event and been affected in the same way.
The Beatles would be the catalyst for an epidemic of garage bands, which suddenly began sweeping the country. Garages and spare bedrooms in virtually every suburb of America were soon infested with teenage boys, for the expressed purpose of forming a band, each with the hopes and dreams of someday achieving local, regional, or perhaps even international fame and fortune. This was a dream of mine, as it was for many of the people I grew up with. Some were schoolmates, while others were close friends. One was my younger brother. But in Jacksonville, Florida, we were all brothers in one very significant way. While we all certainly looked forward to the opportunity to outperform each other on stage, we became a fraternity of sorts, a brotherhood of young musicians committed to helping each other to grow, to get better, and to eventually make it out of town.
Guitarists from rival bands getting together to learn from each other was commonplace. If a group had an important gig coming up, the first call you made was to a rival band, to borrow enough equipment to get the job done. This convention crossed all barriers without regard to age, social status, or your current station as a musician. Naturally, there were the veterans, those considered your betters, who in any other situation may not give you the time of day. Yet, you could walk right up to the same guy while he was trying out a new guitar at Marvin Kay’s Musicenter or Paulus Music, and say, “Hey man. Show me that riff?” The answer was always the same. “Sure, kid!”
We grew to depend upon each other, to set our goals by, and as a means by which to measure our own progress against that of the competition, which was each other. We all hoped to someday be as tight as 4 Plus 1, and to eventually have the polish and the stage presence of the fabulous Dalton Gang. This was pretty much the only shot we had. It was Jacksonville after all. Your other options were to work for the railroad or join the Navy. If your parents were loaded, perhaps you might someday go to Gainesville, in hopes of becoming an accountant, or another half-assed attorney. But, for this collection of young talent, the sky was the limit, and the way of life was rumored to be a hell of a lot more fun.
As we grew older, many fell by the wayside, while others continued to push forward. The reward seemed well worth the risk, despite the scorn and ridicule of those who had once pretended to wish us well.
Perhaps these are some of the reasons why so many bands emerged from this same small area, all during the same period of time. While some theorize that Lynyrd Skynyrd started it all, and everyone else simply followed along, a few minutes alone with the music blows that theory all to hell. And while Skynyrd themselves were certainly influenced by Gregg and Duane Allman, one would be hard pressed to find a single one of their songs that bears any resemblance to anything ever produced by the Allman Brothers Band.
Another Jacksonville band that was a major inspiration for all of us at a time when many of us were just learning to play was the Classics IV. And who had inspired them, but guys like Johnny Tillotson, who in the early ‘60s had proven that it really didn’t matter what you played, or where you came from, as long as the music was good. The point here being, that while we never paid much attention to the other guys’ music, we never lost focus of the individuals responsible for it. They inspired us, not to be like them, but to be good – like them.
As a child, my parents, and one very special aunt, saw to it that my life was filled with music, from Eddy Arnold and Marty Robbins to Elvis Presley and James Brown. If I had to say who or what it was that first provided the allure, the real desire to perform, I would have to say it happened at age 10, when my aunt took me to see James Brown at the old Jacksonville Baseball Park. Though Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and Roy Orbison also come to mind, I have never seen an entertainer, before or since, who took such command of an audience.
I loved songs like “Jezebel” and “Cathy’s Clown,” because they were haunting, expressing an element of fear and emotion, while “I’ll Go Crazy” added a sense of rage, raw power, and urgency to this formula by which I was already captured. This formula would serve as my template for recognizing and appreciating the better songs of that time period.
Still, it was the Beatles who started the fire that would burn within me for the rest of my life, while local guitar heroes saw to it that the light never dimmed. Guys like Auburn Burrell, Jimmy Pittman, Jerry Zambito, and Duane Allman were but a few who were constant reminders that the dream may actually be attainable.
I suppose I always wanted to play in a band; to be a “rock star.” Maybe I just never had the work ethic that such an extraordinary goal required. Or maybe it was because I was so insistent on having my own way that I was unwilling to work through certain disparities with my bandmates. My own shortcomings notwithstanding, I was fortunate enough to have worked alongside many musicians who did put in the hard work, and did work through the many obstacles and distractions that stymied the careers of those of less conviction.
Over the years I have enjoyed books, interviews, documentaries and many conversations about the subject of “Southern Rock;”–the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and certain venues of the South. While I have always detested the term, largely because the majority of the bands classified as such were never rock bands to begin with, I’ve found most accounts to be fairly accurate depictions of what actually took place.
So too have I run across those that were not at all accurate, and in my opinion should never have been published. Then again, few of us see things from the same perspective.
Because much of my own account documents a period long before anyone had achieved any real success, it does not include gory details of trashed hotel rooms, internal fighting, drug overdoses and car wrecks, which too often accompany financial success. It does, however, provide an accurate and chronological depiction of what I was able to witness first hand between the years of 1964 and 1987.
While some of the content may contain references and scenarios which may be less interesting to those who have never worked in the rock music industry, I implore you to follow along as best you can, as this material is most relevant to the overall story.
It is my intent to provide more fact and clarity to stories you may have already heard, while establishing a complete understanding of things you may never have been aware of.
And while this writing should by no means be construed as a guide or recipe for attaining monumental success, it should be enjoyed as an inside look into a world where dedicated artists were doing exactly that. This is the story as I lived it, exactly as I recall.
An old friend once made a statement which rang very true:
“No one wants to live looking in the rear-view. But if you occasionally take a glance into yours, you have quite the view.”
The following is my tribute, and my “Thank You” to all those in the mirror.
Larry Steele – 2016
From the Top
My great, great grandfather, Henry William Steele, of Conecuh County Alabama, served the side of the Union during the Civil War. Angered by the commandeering of his oxen, wagons, a couple of cows and all the meat from his smokehouse by Confederate troops, he enlisted as a blacksmith in the Union Calvary at Tallahassee, at the tender age of forty-three. Talk about brother against brother–Henry had seven of them to explain himself to.
One of my fondest recollections is of my cousin, Elton Wallace, strumming his guitar before an open fire in the middle of the woods surrounding Henry’s old homestead. I sat on a log beside my dad as he and his brothers passed around a jar of shine which had miraculously appeared from beneath the log. Too young to determine how good he actually was, I could only assume by the number of requests Elton obliged that his repertoire was, at the very least, extensive. What really struck me, however, was the joy he seemed to have while playing, as did those of us who watched him perform. While I suppose it could have been the liquor that produced some of that elation, for me it was the guitar that left the memory indelible in my mind.
My early education included growing up before the television on Saturday mornings, where the good guys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, both played the guitar. Desiring to be just like them, I hoped someday to have a guitar of my own. On Christmas day, 1957, I was delivered a genuine Roy Rogers model, compliments of Santa himself. Though I never learned to tune the instrument, let alone play it, I would spend countless hours before my mother’s dresser mirror, where I was able to magically become Elvis, Johnny Cash, or whomever else I wanted to be.
My parents met in Atlanta, Georgia in 1949 and married in nearby Stockbridge a short time later. It was in Atlanta that I was born in 1952. About twenty years later I would return there, to witness first-hand the launch of the career of a band co-founded by one of my closest friends. In fact, I had believed at the time that I was a member of that band. But it was not to be.
A lot had happened within that 20 year period, and would continue to happen for years to come. And the whole story began in a tiny southwest section of the North Florida town that no one ever spoke of.
The family moved to Jacksonville in 1956, my dad having taken a job there with an electronics distributor after serving in the Air Force, while my mom was transferred there by Southern Bell. Had Daddy moved us to any other part of town, or even across the river, I would not have had this story to tell. Nor would I have lived the extraordinary life with which I’ve been blessed because of it.
With both parents working, the majority of our rearing was administered by a black woman, Sallie Mae Thomas, who would remain with our family for twenty six years, caring for and helping to mold two generations of Steele children during that time.
My mother came from Screven, Georgia, the youngest girl of seven children and the only one to bear children of her own, designating my siblings and myself the center of attention for some seventeen aunts and sixteen uncles. As a result, we were raised with many different influences and opinions, without which none of our lives would have been complete.
Upon our arrival in Jacksonville, the family rented a house at 4716 Palmer Street, in the Lake Shore area of the Westside, where my dad repaired radios and televisions at night as a second source of income in our small garage.
The house was at the edge of an alley, which ran behind a block long strip of various stores and businesses. It seemed no time at all before my Aunt Evelyn moved into the house directly across the street, while my Aunt Edith and her husband lived on San Juan Avenue at Stimson Street, one block over. Here they also provided a home for my recently widowed aunt, Annie.
The first friend I made was Carl Johnson, a kindly black gentleman who drove a white, Willys Jeep, delivering prescriptions for Easterling’s Pharmacy. Carl wore a full blown khaki uniform, complete with a cap much like that of a policeman or a milk man. He dressed as though he expected a detailed inspection at any moment, with a starched shirt, creased pants and a polished visor. Carl was relatively tall, thin, and always wore a big smile. He took his job very seriously, was a devoted family man and a man of the Lord. He taught me things like honesty being the best policy and how important it was to appreciate all the things with which God blessed us. He considered his job just one example of the many ways in which he himself was blessed.
Eventually I was allowed to ride along on Carl’s deliveries, during which time he might point out someone on a street corner with a sour look on his face. He’d say, “Reckon what that man’s got on his mind?” Carl never could understand why everyone didn’t carry the same, seemingly perpetual smile as himself. He’d say things like, “You know?…If a man stacked up all the good things that happen in a day against the bad, the bad things don’t usually amount to a hill ‘a beans.
You remember that, young Steele!”
Carl loved to sing gospel hymns while he worked, which was in stark contrast to the kind of music preferred by his co-worker, Calvin, who relieved Carl every afternoon at four o’clock.
Calvin was shorter and much stockier than Carl. He also wore the same Easterling’s uniform, though not quite the same way as did Carl. Calvin wore a cabbie’s cap, a lid, as we refer to them these days. He wore black loafers, always shined to perfection, with taps on the heels. He had a swagger to his walk, always had a big fat stogie in one corner of his mouth and he grinned rather than smiled. Though Calvin wasn’t as approachable in the beginning as Carl, we too eventually became friends.
Calvin carried a transistor radio at all times, which he kept tuned to the local R&B station. He loved his music, his cigars, and his car; a 1951 Chevy, with a Packard “Silver Swan” hood ornament. He also sported chrome skirts, baby moons and a large pair of dice, which hung from the rear-view mirror. Calvin was the epitome of cool, and as soon as I was old enough to get away with it, I too would wear taps on my shoes and listen to the same R&B station, WOBS.
What the Hell?
At the insistence of my Aunt Evelyn, I was enrolled in kindergarten in 1956 at the age of four, much to my surprise and dismay. Miss Bagley’s School was housed in a huge Victorian style house near the corner of Stockton and Oak Streets, in the Riverside area, and specialized in such subjects as dance and etiquette. Having no idea what the value of either of these things were, I had little interest and showed even less enthusiasm. We called our teacher ‘Auntie Sister’. To this day I do not know the lady’s real name. Nevertheless, I remember her as a very sweet person who told interesting stories, and wore weird, yellow-tinted glasses that I would later associate with Roy Orbison. It was under her tutelage that I first learned that life could have its rough spots, as her curriculum was obviously geared strongly toward the girls.
We hardly ever went outdoors, and when we did we had to hold hands, walking along the St. Johns while Miss Bagley and Auntie Sister went on and on about how beautiful the sky and the river were. But this was Jacksonville, where blue skies and water were pretty much the order of the day. We don’t want to hold hands! We want to play!
It was here, however, where I would meet people who would play key roles in my later life, and with whom I remain friends to this day. One was Ricky Mathews, who is most responsible for my getting into music. Another, Mary Lee Johnson, later became my wife of 13 years, and is the mother of my three beautiful children, who have since blessed me with ten equally beautiful grandchildren.
In 1957 my education would continue back in my own neighborhood, at Lake Shore Kindergarten, on Colonial Avenue. I would miss my new friend, Rick, though the separation would turn out to be temporary. There was little else I would miss about Miss Bagley’s school.
Lake Shore Kindergarten offered the kind of program where a boy could start the day with the Pledge of Allegiance, eat some paste, then go outside to play. After an hour or two we’d go back inside for lunch, usually consisting of Welch’s grape juice, Ritz crackers with peanut butter, and a bologna or banana sandwich.
Our teacher, Mrs. Scott, was a sweet, grandmotherly type with horn rimmed glasses and a perky, high pitched voice. Her manner and tone were such that we were confident of every day being a good one. At the end of each day she would load her station wagon full of children and drive us home so safely that we didn’t even need seatbelts. Good thing, as cars didn’t have them.
Here, the children were seated four to a four-foot- by-four-foot table. The boy who sat across from me always seemed to be mad at the world, never smiled, and never had anything to say to anyone. As shy as I was at the time, I was reluctant to attempt to engage him in any conversation. But there was something about him that was both intriguing and perplexing.
Allen wore black, high top sneakers, which indicated to me that his family was probably poor.
Somewhere along the line I had come by the notion that rich kids wore white sneakers, while poor kids wore black. Where I got that is beyond me, but this boy’s situation really had me confused.
While his shoes were black, they were actually PF Flyers, which did not come cheap, as these were the shoes that enabled you to run faster and jump higher than anyone. Everybody knew that. But how could a poor kid have PF Flyers? After contemplating this for several days, I was finally able to summon up the courage to ask.
“Hey. You got PF Flyers.”
The sleepy eyed kid with slumped shoulders looked up.
“Well … Can you really run faster and jump higher than anybody else?”
That was as far as my initial conversation with Allen Collins got. It would not pick up again until days later, when he caught me admiring one of the little girls in our class. Her name was Mary Ann, and I couldn’t seem to look away from her big brown eyes.
“She’s pretty, ain’t she?” Allen giggled, breaking my spell with his devilish grin. I first wanted to deny staring at the girl, but it was apparent that Allen liked her too. We already had something in common. We were probably the only two kids in kindergarten who were already checking out the little girls. Little did I know at the time that over the next thirty-three years we would share so many other common interests.
In September, 1958, I attended big boy school for the first time at Bayview Elementary. I recall that the floor in the classroom was tile, shiny and slick, not unlike the hallway I had traveled for what seemed a lifetime, in search of my class. Small desks were placed in groups of six, one group in each corner of the room. Spotting my name right away, taped to a desk before me, I took my seat in the corresponding chair, so as to avoid any attention from anyone. Still the shy little tyke I was at age five, I dared not look anyone in the eye, but rather scanned the general layout of the room where I would be imprisoned for the next nine months.
A long row of windows ran the length of the back wall, allowing the sun to shine in, creating a prism effect which rippled across the freshly polished floor. Just outside were the biggest swing sets I had ever seen, complete with seesaws, monkey bars and the works. On the top shelf of a bookcase, in one corner of the room, was a beautiful birthday cake, with white icing that shined like glass and was rumored to never grow stale.
I recognized the teacher, Miss Rosalie Powell, as a lady I had seen in my Aunt Evelyn’s beauty shop on more than one occasion. It suddenly occurred to me that this was exactly how I had been railroaded into my first kindergarten, at Miss Bagley’s. Quickly turning away to avoid eye contact, I scanned the classroom floor, just below desk level, now checking out the shoes that everyone was wearing. Most of the girls wore black patent leather, like at Sunday school. Some of the boys wore lace-ups, a few wore penny loafers and the rest wore tennis shoes. But it was one pair of black, high top, PF Flyers that grasped my attention. My heart raced as my eyes darted from the shoes to the face, which, much to my relief, belonged to my old pal, Allen.
Unlike the other students, Allen had pulled his chair out from beneath his desk, where he slouched as low as he could possibly get to the floor, his skinny legs dangling like cooked spaghetti out into the aisle. He had a look on his face as though someone had shot his dog, and as the bell rang out, signaling the start of our first day of school, it was apparent that Allen was not at all pleased with the program.
There didn’t seem to be an awful lot to learn in first grade, as I had already learned most of the reading and writing stuff in kindergarten and at home. I could count and print pretty well, and spelling was something my mom had quizzed me on since I learned to talk. The best I could make of it, first grade was more about learning manners, protocols and procedures, and how to make it easier for grownups to tolerate us. Things like keeping your mouth shut and raising your hand, waiting to be called upon in the event you did have something to say all seemed to be at the top of the list. Asking permission to go to the bathroom, waiting in line, and taking a nap after lunch were apparently more of the fundamentals of improving oneself.
Looking back, it is my belief that the first step in this program should have been teaching us how to accept and embrace the changes and new ideas, else you were bound to encounter a student or two along the way who might resist, perhaps even rebel against such behavioral modifications. Someone like Allen Collins, for instance. Simply put, Allen wasn’t ready for school, nor was the school system ready for him. The first words I ever heard Allen say, pertaining to school were, “I hate this shit! I hate this shit!” While I understood the hate part perfectly, I wasn’t real sure at the time what “shit” was. It occurred to me that this was precisely the reason for teachers wanting us to keep our mouths shut.
With every opportunity Allen was hell bent on proving to Miss Powell and everyone else that he didn’t belong in school. Sitting up straight, raising your hand, nap after lunch? He was having none of it.
Over time I would learn some of the reasons for his attitude. For one, he didn’t like to talk at all about his parents or his life at home, only that he had an older sister, Betty, who, according to Allen, picked on him all the time. He felt that his family didn’t really like him, and that school was their way of getting rid of him. Besides that, he was planning to be either a jet pilot or a race car driver when he grew up, and could not understand how any of the stuff he was supposed to learn in school was going to help him fly higher or drive any faster.
This seemed a legitimate argument to me, as did the question as to why we had to sit perfectly straight in contoured chairs. It was as if they intended to teach us the joy of being uncomfortable, but unlike Allen, I had never considered spitting in the teacher’s face for attempting to correct my posture.
Despite our obvious differences, we were buddies, probably because we were all each other had at that point in our lives. Over the years our friendship would endure many tough and tragic times, along with many, many good ones.
During our first year at Bayview I discovered there were several other kids I had known from kindergarten, and from around the neighborhood. Along with Ricky Mathews, Julie Williams was the first friend I ever had who was a girl. Having Julie and Allen in the same class was sort of like the old Andy Panda cartoon, where the angel sits on one shoulder and the devil sits on the other. Of course, Julie was the angel.
Entering second grade, I was very disappointed to learn that neither were in my class, though Allen and I still got to see each other at recess, in the cafeteria, and when we punched each other as we passed in the hall.
As I recall, it was also during second grade when they began teaching us the “Duck and Cover” drills.
In the event of an atomic blast, the threat of which loomed daily in 1959, there would be no time to evacuate, hence “Duck and Cover” was the prescribed method of survival. Made sense to me. I was right with the program. As soon as that alarm sounded, I was ducking and covering my ass off, making damn sure I would be one those to survive. But Allen wasn’t buying any of that either.
One day the alarm sounded two shorts blasts, indicating a fire drill. We all immediately stood up and formed a line. At the teacher’s direction we marched single file out into the hallway, then through the nearest exit, to the safety of the schoolyard. Here we were to stand quietly until we were given the all clear, to march back into the building.
As we stood there waiting some of us were whispering back and forth, sort of celebrating the fact that it was only a fire drill, rather than the dreaded “Duck and Cover,” which could be pretty terrifying. Since the school was within a mile or two of the Naval Air Station, there was always the sound of jets flying overhead. One couldn’t help wonder from time to time who exactly those jets belonged to. A fire, on the other hand, was something we could actually see, or smell, and quickly determine the best route to make good our escape. But bombs? Nobody wanted any part of those.
All of a sudden I could hear Allen, hollering from the next line over. “That ‘Duck ‘n Cover’’s a bunch of bullshit anyway! Don’t y’all know what an atomic bomb is? That’s radiation! That stuff sneaks up on you and fries your guts from the inside out! All that duckin’ and coverin’ is gonna do is keep you from getting cut up when the glass starts flyin’. Who cares about a little glass when you’re all burnt up like a chicken? Hey! We’re all gonna be fried chicken, y’all!”
It was my teacher, Miss Daly, who tried to get there fast enough to shut him up, but the damage was done. Everybody within range of Allen’s voice was now in a complete state of panic. Girls were screaming and crying, and the boys were trying really hard not to piss on themselves.
“Miss Daly, Is that true?!” “I want my mama!” “Oh God! They’re gonna kill us all!” “I wanna go home!!”
About that time Allen’s teacher, I believe it was Miss Prom, grabbed him by the arm and jerked him out of the line. As he was being dragged off to the principal’s office he looked back with that shit-eating grin that only Allen could deliver. Now he was having fun.
For Christmas, 1960, I got two Channel Master transistor radios–a small, 6 transistor “pocket radio” from Santa, and a table model for bedroom listening, from my dad. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Cobb, allowed me to bring the pocket radio to school, so long as I surrendered it to her each morning. She would keep it in her desk drawer until class was dismissed, at which time she returned it to me for the walk home. I couldn’t wait to tune into “The Big Ape,” “The Mighty 690 in Jacksonville.” My favorite program was “Dan’s Dusty Discs,” an oldies program, featuring Dan Brennan. I was eight years old and already had a preference for the older stuff.
By now I was pretty much addicted to music. R&B artists like the Coasters, the Drifters, the Four Tops and Sam Cooke flooded the airwaves with hit after hit, along with the rockabilly stuff of the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins and Jimmy Dean. While I loved everything Elvis did, the songs like “Cathy’s Clown,” Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy,” and Orbison’s “Crying,” were the ones I just couldn’t get enough of. It seemed nothing but music could truly affect me emotionally in those days, revealing an intense love and respect for any song with that kind of power.
Country music had the same effect, and there were several local country stars that I loved to watch on television with my dad, including Jimmy Strickland, Glen Reeves and a singer named Wendell Griffin. In fact, Jimmy Strickland’s pedal steel player, Bill Echolls, worked for my dad at one time, and owned the first “black face” Fender amp I ever saw.
When the instrumentals came along, “Apache” was our official introduction to electric guitars and amplification, an affliction Rick Mathews and I were immediately stricken with. Next, we discovered the Beach Boys, and by the end of 1962 they were the shit. As students at Bayview Elementary, we didn’t know a lot about surfing, or girls either, but sixth graders knew plenty about badass cars. We glued them together all the time. Of course, I would be an Elvis fan for life, but the Beach Boys were so damned electric. It was rock and roll with Fender guitars through Fender amps. The sound was “steely,” and very, very cool.
Rick and I, along with our buddy, Windy Salter, ran straight to Rick’s house after school on most afternoons, to sing along with Surfin’ Safari. All we needed now were some guitars. What we got instead were the “Missiles of October,” a.k.a. the Cuban Missile Crisis, which would put a hold on our music and everything else.
It seemed the bombs would surely fall now; not a good time to make a pitch for a guitar.
At the end of 1962 there came two more instrumentals that had a profound effect on me and, apparently, a lot of other people. “The Lonely Bull,” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, and “Telstar,” by the Tornados were both getting heavy airplay, and I was one kid who could not get enough of either. In fact, “The Lonely Bull” was the first recording my dad and I could enjoy listening to together since “Mack the Knife.”
By 1963 the Beach Boys were making the charts with just about everything they released. When I got their Surfer Girl LP for my eleventh birthday, the song “In My Room” was one I wore the grooves out on. It was about me, as I suppose it seemed to be for every other kid in America. But, of course, there was a lot of other good music during this time.
On Wednesday nights my dad always took the family out to eat, at a place called Brownie’s Drive In, where he would walk straight to the jukebox and play “Hello Walls,” by Faron Young. It was country blues, and I loved it. There was other cool stuff on that juke box, from Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare and Lonnie Mack, as well as “Rhythm of the Rain,” by the Cascades.
But by now the battle lines were being drawn. The local radio stations all wanted to know: “Are you an Elvis fan, or a Beach Boys fan?” Though I voted for Elvis on the Big Ape’s phone-in survey, and never missed his movies, it was actually my Beach Boys album that now played non-stop in my bedroom.
Like most sixth-graders, Friday had always been my favorite day of the week. But that would all change on November 22, 1963, when the day turned into the longest, darkest, and most terrifying time I had ever lived. The plan that morning had been to go to school, knock out my assignments and return home at about three-thirty, to begin another warm November weekend. The following week would bring four days off, to celebrate Thanksgiving, while two weeks later would begin Christmas vacation. The remainder of the calendar year was all downhill from here, and life couldn’t have been better. What no one could have known that morning was that all hell would break loose before the day was over.
We had just returned from lunch, to Mrs. Claremont’s classroom, where the students were just beginning to settle down. Our teacher was handing out copies of the Weekly Reader, which was our regular reading material for Friday afternoons.
The messenger buzzer suddenly sounded, prompting designated class messenger, Darby Adams, to report to the main office. There, she would retrieve a message to be delivered right back to the teacher. But we knew right away that this wasn’t one of your typical, “Timmy Brooks, your mother is here to get you for your doctor’s appointment” type messages. No, this time you could hear every classroom door on the wing open and close, meaning all the messengers had been summoned at the same time.
As I sat in my desk, wondering what the message might be, I glanced inside my Weekly Reader to see if there were any pictures of President Kennedy. There had been photos for the last few weeks, documenting the President’s travels throughout Europe and Ireland. I had made the comment in class, just a week or two earlier, that the President must be a very brave man, “to stand up and speak in front of all those Germans,” as depicted in one of the earlier photos. Mrs. Claremont had responded, “Larry, I am ashamed to say that the President is probably much safer there than he is here, in his own country.”
The statement had given me chills, and caused me to reflect upon when we had held our own little election at school. This had started all kinds of arguments, and even fights among the students, who were merely parroting what they had heard about the candidates at their own dinner tables. Even my own uncle didn’t want Kennedy in the Whitehouse. “He’ll hand everything over to the blacks!” he warned.
Just then I heard a teacher’s voice echo from the south end of the hall. “Oh my God! No!!!” I looked up to see Darby standing at the teacher’s desk, clutching a small slip of paper. Mrs. Claremont snatched the message from her hand as she made her way out into the hall, to see what the commotion was about. Darby stood there for a moment, eyes wide open, and her face pale, as if she had just seen something horrific. She finally began walking slowly down the aisle, back to her desk, which was directly behind my own. As she walked by she whispered, “Somebody shot President Kennedy.”
A second message would soon follow, announcing that all the patrol boys were to prepare to go to their posts, as school would be closing early for the day. We were all gathered around the raincoat rack, discussing the events now taking place, when one of the guys said, “Kennedy should have never been President anyway! I hope he dies!” I wanted to punch him in the face, but fear and good sense got the better of me. The fear was that I could have my badge taken away, while the common sense reminded me that he was about six inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than I was. I think I was mad enough that I could have taken him, but it would’ve taken too long to get him down. Instead of swinging away, I said, “He did, asshole! He’s dead!” The effect was as if I had punched him in the face. This was the same effect the news would have on pretty much everyone for the next few months.
This was the day when all the rules changed. Or was it the day that we learned there were no rules? For me, the whole world seemed to lose its color. Nothing would ever be the same again. There was no longer that sense of security we had all become so accustomed to. Even our parents would become frightened, lost in a deep state of paranoia. How the hell could something like this happen?
Sleeping was no longer routine, and it seemed the days would never return to any state of normalcy. All the TV channels, which totaled two in the Jacksonville area at the time, showed nothing but the same clips–Dallas, the motorcade, the motorcycle cop ditching his bike and running up the grassy knoll, and interview after interview with the same bewildered witnesses.
Instead of Paladin, or the Cartwrights, the face of Lee Harvey Oswald was everywhere. This weasel of a man, this slime ball had in a matter of seconds taken the most important man in the free world completely out of the picture. Every time I shut my eyes I saw his face, then the face of the President, then Oswald again. The whole thing terrified me, probably because it was so obvious that the rest of the country was living the same nightmare. No one laughed, or even smiled anymore. Christmas was coming, but no one cared. People walked around with blank expressions, as if they were no longer living.
After a few days much of the adult population seemed to still be of the opinion that this was all the work of the Communists, and that Russia could attack at any moment. Oswald, after all, had “Communist ties,” and had even lived in Russia at one time. Later we would hear suggestions of possible Mafia involvement, and of a “conspiracy,” which included more than one shooter, as no single shooter could have possibly gotten off the shots in such rapid succession. “Bobby and Jack had really been giving those guys the business!” was a popular comment heard in the barber shops and elsewhere, in reference to the Mafia angle.
In the following weeks the atmosphere remained one of doom and gloom. It seemed the sun would never shine again, and even if it did, no one would notice. Even with the conclusion of the President’s funeral and the coverage of Oswald’s, the TV networks continued to run the same footage and interviews.
Once regular programming finally did resume, I kept expecting another “Special Report,” announcing yet another tragedy, murder, or assassination. It was now so fresh and clear in our minds that no one was safe, and nothing was out of the realm of possibility.
Christmas wouldn’t be much different than any of the other dark days since November 22nd. Everyone seemed to go through the motions. Lights were hung, trees were trimmed and wreaths were placed. Still, nobody seemed to have a smile for anyone.
The one good thing I remember happening was that I received my first real guitar for Christmas, a blonde, Stella, along with three picks and an instruction book, The Mel Bay Guitar Method – Volume 1. This was the one gift I really wanted, and needed.
Four days later one of Jacksonville’s two luxury hotels, the Roosevelt, caught fire, killing 22 people, including the assistant fire chief, who died on the scene. It was the morning after the annual Gator Bowl game, between Air Force and North Carolina, which I had attended. What could possibly happen next?
What the country needed at this time, particularly its young people, was something to bring us out of this state of darkness we seemed to be living in. We needed something big. Something big enough to really shake things up. Something to believe in. The last thing I could have dreamed was that such a thing was actually possible.
The first indication I had that something was happening was shortly after we returned to school from Christmas vacation. There was a student named Phyllis in Miss Howard’s class who never had anyone to talk to. In fact, everyone seemed to go out of their way to avoid this particular outcast, as she did not seem to be in line with what most of us considered normal. The girl would see two dogs locked up with each other on the playground and run screaming out of the classroom to interrupt their encounter, shaking her finger and lecturing them about what “naughty doggies” they were being. Of course, the dogs would pay her no mind, continuing on with what they were doing, which made for great comedy for those of us watching from the classrooms on the east side of the building.
But on this day she was surrounded by girls rather than dogs. Girls who previously would not have been caught dead in her presence were suddenly lining up to have a word or two with her. Later in the day I passed Phyllis in the hall and, without the mob surrounding her, was able to see what the sudden attention might be attributed to. It was the white sweatshirt she was wearing, the front of which depicted four weird looking young men with what appeared to be their autographs beneath each of their likenesses. Across the top it read, “The Beatles.”
It was obvious that this had to be the name of some new vocal group, but having never heard of them, or their stupid name, I gave it little thought. Over the next several weeks more and more of the Beatle sweatshirts began to appear in various styles and artwork. Parents suddenly began talking about these “longhairs” they had seen on the Jack Paar show. One of them was my dad, who had not been very impressed. But within a month Beatle paraphernalia was everywhere you turned. There were Beatle lunchboxes, tee shirts, sweatshirts, magazines, dolls, bobble heads, book covers, plastic guitars and countless other items. The whole “Beatle” thing had gotten crazy.
One very cold Friday morning the classes all attended a special concert in the school auditorium. During the introduction one of the teachers had gotten a little carried away, introducing the band as “The Beatles.” Because there were only three of them on stage, and none were left handed, it was obvious to the older students that this was not the case.
The band began their performance with one of the obligatory hits, which I’m pretty sure was “I Saw Her Standing There.” Though I was already sick of hearing the song on the radio, I recall being very impressed with how they sounded. It was when they played a song I had never heard before, “All My Loving,” that the whole thing started getting to me.
The musicians were guitarist/vocalist Lester Langdale, guitarist/vocalist Gary Tubbs, and drummer Ted Vaughn. I would later learn that the name of their band was the Yo-Yos, which they would later change to The Deep Six. Along with Maurice “Mouse” Samples, they would eventually become key contributors to the Jacksonville music scene.
The Beatles landed in America the following Friday. I attended a party that night, where all the conversation was Beatle this and Beatle that. I tried to avoid the conversations, as I knew nothing about them except that I really didn’t care for them.
It was at this party that I was eventually forced to listen to the entire Meet the Beatles album. I had heard “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” until I could have thrown up. The whole “Yeah, yeah, yeah” thing just seemed stupid to me. Maybe I had just heard it too many times. Still I could not understand what all the fuss was about.
It was when I heard the song, “It Won’t Be Long” that everything changed. This was the turning point. Two minutes later, there was that song again, “All My Loving.” By the time the song was finished I was screaming right along with the girls, “Turn it over! Turn it over!”
February 9, 1964
When Sunday night rolled around I was parked directly in front of the TV, which must have seemed a bit unusual to my parents. “Don’t tell me you’re going to watch Ed Sullivan with us.” my mom quipped. “It’s those damn Beatles,” Daddy explained. “Every kid in the country will probably be watching Ed tonight.”
As I reflect upon this experience I have such deep appreciation for memories, as this is where is stored the single most life changing event of my childhood, and with few exceptions, my entire life. Without any need or desire for drink, popcorn, or candy, my little butt was planted firmly against the living room floor, in anticipation of what everyone at school defined as the greatest thing since Elvis.
This was a group I knew little about, except that they had at least two pretty cool songs. A band that, according to the rest of the world, was “the greatest singing group ever,” supposedly better than the Beach Boys and even better than Elvis. My dad had just walked over to turn up the volume when I heard Ed’s unmistakable voice, “Ladies and gentlemen ….The Beatles!!”
As Paul counted off the first song, the sight and sound of screaming girls immediately corroborated the fact that I was witnessing something extremely special. By the time it registered that they had actually begun with “All My Loving,” I felt myself falling into some deep, mystical trance that I have, to this day, not fully recovered from. That was it. In little more than twenty seconds, I was completely captivated by what would come to be known as “Beatlemania.” From this point forward, there was nothing else in the world but me, the Beatles, and the sound coming out of that television set.
After the song I turned to my parents, who were sitting on the sofa behind me. I suppose I was looking for some sort of confirmation that they too had witnessed this unbelievably magical performance. My mom looked very puzzled by the whole thing, while my dad just continued shaking his head. “I don’t get it.” Daddy finally said.
“What?” I questioned. “You don’t think that’s the coolest song you ever heard?”
“I couldn’t tell ya,” he answered. “I couldn’t hear it for all that damn screaming.”
I knew it would take some time for the parents to come around, if they ever did. My mom still believed that Eddy Arnold and Johnny Cash were the best entertainers to ever draw a breath, while my dad was on this Herb Alpert thing that wouldn’t go away. For me, life had just begun.
As I tried to get to sleep that night, the rhythm still pounding in my head, I realized I had just witnessed something I would never forget; something that would have an everlasting effect on my life. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it would have the same effect on virtually every kid in America who ever dreamed of playing a guitar. Suddenly the world was looking pretty damn good again. It was the first time in eleven weeks I wasn’t thinking of our fallen leader.
The next Friday night my dad came in to give us our allowances. He pulled something from behind his back, which was the Introducing… The Beatles LP. This was one I hadn’t seen in any of the stores. Its cover was brown and unappealing, the guys looked weird, and I first thought it was some kind of bootleg, although I didn’t know what a bootleg was.
I placed the vinyl on the turntable, very carefully lining up the needle before slowly lowering the tone arm to the start of the record. Not until I heard “Four!” (Counting off “I Saw Her Standing There”), was I sure it was the real deal. Though the record contained mostly covers, the Beatle sound was unmistakable. It would be weeks before I ever got to Side Two, however, as I could never get past “Anna.” This was the song that taught me to appreciate the distinct differences between the voices of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. It was almost like getting three bands in one. There was John, there was Paul, and there were the Beatles.
Within weeks I would attend another party where the hostess debuted yet another Beatle album. The Beatles’ Second Album was instantly my favorite yet, primarily because of “You Can’t Do That.” Now I wondered how many songs these guys had. How long could this possibly last? As it turned out, the Sullivan performance had made a favorable impression on my dad after all. One morning I heard him remark over breakfast, “You know, I saw in the paper the other day that the crime rate in New York City dropped down to almost nothing last Sunday night, because everyone stayed at home to watch the Beatles.” It was estimated that more than 73 million people had done exactly that.
Lake Shore Junior High School
EXCERPT from the book, “As I Recall…” Page 38 – 50,
No one ever said the transition from sixth to seventh grade would be an easy one. In fact, pretty much everyone I talked to guaranteed it would be the most horrific experience of my life. I never quite bought into all that, but it was probably among the top five.
In the fall of 1964, Lake Shore Junior High School (#69) had a student body of about 1800. Some of those who attended school here included Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Bob Burns, Gene Odom, Dave Hlubek, Steve Brookins, Rick Doeschler, Taylor Coarse, and Rick Mathews. In fact, Lake Shore’s “Most Talented” title would be awarded to Doeschler, Mathews, and my brother, Gregory “Bo” Steele in successive years, all for music.
The school was fed by several elementary schools, including Bayview, Fishweir, Hyde Park, Ortega, Stockton and Venetia. In addition to trying to adapt to the nuances of rigorous schedules, lockers located in different buildings than where you attended classes, along with the diverse personalities of six teachers per day, there also existed a great social divide, the likes of which most of us were not familiar.
While the families of the students from Fishweir, Stockton, Ortega and Venetia were the more affluent, professional types, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and real estate executives, the students from Bayview and Hyde Park came more from blue collar, lower middle class, modest income households. Consequently, the students of Lake Shore were divided into two distinct and diverse groups. The “Hoods,” who lived west of U.S.17 and north of the Ortega River, and the “Ortegans,” who lived south of the river and east of Roosevelt Blvd, (U.S.17). This division had been in place for many years and may still exist today.
Naturally, each group was groomed to carry a traditional, almost hereditary animosity for the other. In fact, legend held that there be an annual rumble at the end of each school year. Though the threat was ever present, I never actually saw one take place. It is my belief that the notion began to fade as more guys from both sides of the tracks became more involved in team athletics, instilling a camaraderie in which the teammates could not, and would not be divided.
Once I became friends with some of the rich kids, the “Ortegans”, I never had a problem with, or even recognized any of the social barriers I had heard so much about.
There were assholes on both sides, as with any school, but certainly no more from one side of the tracks than the other. I also believed the arrival of the Beatles had much to do with this. With so many of the guys now in need of players to form bands with, it no longer seemed to matter where anyone lived, nor what their family’s social status might be. These days, the ability to play guitar was just about as important as your ability to play football.
Most of us had spent the majority of our lives in Jacksonville, the Florida city that no one ever talked about. The “Gateway City,” as Jacksonville was called, was little more than a gas stop for vacationers on their way to see Florida. When the Today Show came on each morning the weather report would usually include Miami and Tampa, but never so much as a mention of lowly Jacksonville. Some of us had resented this for much of our lives, and were getting to the age that we were determined to do something about it. We would either find some way to get the hell out of town, or somehow get Jacksonville on the map. After all, who had ever heard of Liverpool?
On September 10th, 1964 the Jacksonville area was hit head on by Hurricane Dora, which did over $200 million in damage. More than 20 beachfront homes sank into the Atlantic, along with the entire Jacksonville Beach Pier. Houses and cars were twisted and turned upside down all over the city, while downtown businesses were left under several feet of water. Practically no one had electricity for days, and the Beatles were scheduled to play the Gator Bowl that night.
Because the concert had originally been scheduled for a school night, I realized my chances of seeing them were non-existent, and never really pushed the issue. However, when the concert was moved to Friday night, September 11th, due to the storm, I was pushing the hell out of it. But by this time there was no one available to take me.
There were other factors working against me as well. Because our house was the only one in the neighborhood with a generator, thus the only home with electricity, it had been designated by neighbors and friends as the ideal spot for a hurricane party. And what a party it was.
Drunk adults danced and told salty jokes, played poker, and listened to loud music all night long. Some were singing, laughing their asses off, and handing out wads of cash to us kids each time a naughty word slipped out.
Throughout the night, my dad tried to comfort me about not being able to attend the concert, assuring me the show would likely be cancelled, or at least postponed again, due to continued high winds and power still being out over much of the city. After seeing the Coasters, the Drifters, the Miracles, the Marvelettes, and James Brown, this would have been the first white band I had ever seen.
As I drifted off to sleep that night I thought about President Johnson being in Jacksonville that day, to assess the damage from the storm. I was relieved that no one had shot him, possibly making Jacksonville another evil city, equal to Dallas.
James William Rice 1952 – 2001
James Rice and I became friends in the fall of 1964 when I began 7th grade at Lake Shore. James was in my first period math class and just about all the rest of my classes that year. I sort of knew him, he and his faithful canine companion, “Rebel,” from around the neighborhood, but we had never really talked before ending up in the same classrooms together. We immediately hit it off, I suppose because we were alike in many ways. We both loved music, baseball, wrestling and girls, in no particular order.
All the girls thought James was “cute.” He was barely five feet tall, his long blond locks probably weighed more than he did, and he had big, crystal blue eyes. If Carly Simon had written that song of hers in 1964, he probably would have thought it was about him. He knew how to talk shit and how to keep the girls following him around. James was cool, and he didn’t mind telling you that you were not.
James was also a bully, (for his size), and couldn’t give a rat’s ass about someone else’s feelings if he could get a good laugh at their expense. In that regard we were polar opposites. This would sometimes get James into trouble, when he picked on someone who wasn’t having any of his bullshit. It was for this reason that he needed me to be dragged into the middle of things when he was about to get his ass kicked. It should be noted here that I wasn’t much bigger than he was, so I wasn’t necessarily happy with the arrangement. But he was my buddy. James needed me and I needed him, because I wanted to learn from him how to take about half those little girls off his hands. This was how we started out. But, all joking aside, he was my very dear friend until his death in 2001.
One morning James came skidding into math class. He was running late as usual, but this wasn’t why he was moving so fast.
“You’re friends with Allen Collins, right?” he blurted out.
I just nodded my head, as our teacher was already staring a hole through us. His sarcasm came quick and thick.
“Mister Rice… If it’s okay with you, I would like to get started with our quiz.”
As James scurried to his desk, Mister Gerding continued walking the aisles, distributing our tests along with very specific instructions. “As you finish your test, please leave it face down on your desk and kindly wait for me to pick it up. Do not raise your hands. Mr. Steele, Mr. Rice… You may resume your conversation in the hall upon completion of your tests.” We met in the hall about twenty minutes later.
“Man! Allen Collins got a new electric guitar!” James began.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure he can really play it.” I replied.
“It’s his second one, and he’s been learning from Donnie Ulsh!” James said.
“Who told you that?” I inquired.
“Allen told me!” James answered. “He’s been learning from Donnie Ulsh!”
“Donnie Ulsh? … The guy with the flattop? … Plays basketball? He plays guitar?”
This was extremely exciting news, as James and I had been talking about getting something together since the school year began. James already had a drum set, and I had wanted to start a band since Rick Mathews turned me on to the Beach Boys. After seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, that was it. It had to happen somehow. The only thing stopping us before had been the same problem that many other kids faced at the time. Either you knew someone who could play, but had no guitar, or the kid had the guitar, but couldn’t play it.
Immediately after class, James and I cornered Allen in the hall. I asked Allen if he really could play, and if he wanted to start a band. Allen said yes to both, but insisted that he would only play rhythm guitar, that he had no desire to play lead.
“Hey! I’m getting a new Gibson!” Allen boasted. “It’s a Melody Maker, cause that’s what rhythm guitar players play!”
“Well, who can we get to play lead?” I asked.
“Donnie Ulsh! This guy’s the best I ever heard!” Allen said without blinking.
“Donnie Ulsh? The basketball player? The guy with the crew cut?”
“That’s him, swear to God!” Allen said. “He may not look like it, but he can play shit outta lead!”
“You think he’d play with us?”
“Hell yeah!” Allen quipped. “He wants to get in a band too!”
That night I announced to my mom and dad that James, Allen and I were planning to put a band together. “Well, what are you going to play?” my dad inquired.
“I’m going to play bass, like George Harrison!” I announced proudly, having incorrectly assumed that George had to be the bassist, as his guitar had the largest body.
“But you don’t have a bass guitar.” I was reminded. “What do you plan to do about that?”
Damn! I was completely stumped. I had been so preoccupied with finding others who could play, I hadn’t even thought about myself. All I had was my old Stella box guitar, which was great for strumming chords and picking out melody lines for “Tom Dooley,” or “Greenback Dollar,” but it sure as hell wasn’t going to help me with this new profession I had chosen for myself. Come to think of it, I had no idea how anyone would even go about playing bass.
Later that night, I was wide awake, contemplating my dilemma, when my dad’s rather large silhouette appeared in the doorway. “I’ll tell you what,” he almost whispered from the open door.
“We’ll get Rick (Mathews) to stay over Friday night. We’ll get up Saturday morning and hit the pawn shops. Since Rick’s already in a band, he should be able to help us find what we’re looking for.”
When Saturday arrived the three of us went down to West Bay Street, checking out the shops, a couple of which were owned by friends of my dad. I was definitely excited, but found myself in a precarious position. It was already obvious to me that my dad would prefer doing business with one of his Shriner buddies. It was equally obvious that Rick, the experienced musician, was naturally going to side with my dad, the grownup. If one of dad’s buddies didn’t have what I wanted I was screwed!
After barely escaping a yellowed, once white, Kay hollow body, with a headstock twice the size of my own head, and various other monstrosities of equal ugly, we ended up at American Music Store, where we met a really nice young salesman. David Griffin was polite, friendly, funny, and most importantly, a bass player for the Jokers. He and my dad immediately liked each other, and I could tell Daddy was going to buy whatever David recommended.
“Well you’re just the guy we’re looking for,” my dad said. “My son here is just starting out.”
“So you want to play bass, huh?” David asked, turning his attention to me. “Well, let me show you what I have,” he said, already walking to the back of the store. He returned shortly, carrying a brown, vinyl, gig-bag type case. He unzipped the bag and produced a shiny, red Kent bass. It was exactly the body style I had envisioned myself playing. He handed the bass over to me, then turned back to my dad. “Now sir, I want to make it clear that this is not an instrument of the highest quality, not by a long shot. But I believe, for the money, it’s the best beginner’s bass that anyone can offer.”
I had already fallen in love with it. The neck was thick, with no action at all, but the body was small, like me, and it had a single chrome pickup and matching chrome machine heads that were pretty close to standard size. It had a little silver sticker on the back of the headstock that read “Made in Japan,” which was a bad thing in those days. I didn’t care. Brand be damned! I didn’t know how to play it anyway. This was all about looking cool, truth be told.
About ten minutes later we left the store with the Kent bass and a Silvertone 1483 bass amp, just like the one I’d seen in the Sears catalog, all for $125.
That afternoon we all met up at James’ house, Donnie Ulsh, Allen Collins, James and myself. By dark we had decided we’d call ourselves “The Mods,” after the well-dressed, musical subculture in England that we had read about in Tiger Beat magazine. And we would also have a repertoire of 3 songs, “Louie Louie,” “Wipeout” and “Green Onions.” Here we go!
The Mods – 1964-1966
When I arrived that Saturday afternoon for our first rehearsal, my enthusiasm had reached the level of a small child getting his first puppy. It was 1964, and our little group of twelve-year-olds was out to conquer the world.
The two guitar players, Donnie Ulsh and Allen Collins, were all set up, Donnie with a Cherry Gibson ES -335, a Hummingbird and a Gibson Invader amp. Allen had his brand new Gibson Melody Maker, as promised, and a tiny Truetone amp with an eight-inch speaker. Along with James’ Oyster Pearl Ludwig drums, (sans floor tom), it was already an impressive little setup, though among all the Gibsons, I was already feeling a little weird about my selection of a Japanese bass.
Once we got settled inside, we talked for some time about who our favorite groups were, (Beatles, Stones, Animals), the songs we wanted to play, and who could or could not sing. Some of the songs suggested hinted that these guys were considerably more advanced than myself, causing me to wonder if I would be able to keep up with them. While I could play chords, and had damn good rhythm, I was now supposed to be a bass player, whatever the hell that was. But if I didn’t play bass, who would?
As Allen, James and I continued to talk, Donnie pulled out his Hummingbird and began playing a Bob Dylan song that I had never before heard, “Chimes of Freedom.” Once he began to sing there was no question about who our singer would be. It would become equally obvious who would lead the band, when Donnie strapped on his 335. The rest of us would be doing pretty much whatever Donnie suggested; that is, if we could ever get him to say anything.
Practicing in the beginning would be limited to Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Saturday mornings were reserved for riding the bus downtown, to the music stores, where we would drool over new instruments and amplifiers that we could never afford. Sunday mornings were reserved for those of us who attended church regularly, specifically Donnie and I. We decided also that the next thing we needed, (that every band had), was our own business card. Because I was the only one who had his own phone number, I was selected to have my name printed on the card. This rock and roll thing was already providing excitement, and maybe even a little prestige to our lives!
Allen, right from the get-go, was wound up to a hundred miles per hour. He had been this way for as long as I’d known him, but with a guitar in his hands, you could tell he would be hard to keep up with. Allen might be playing a C chord when he was supposed to be playing F, or vice versa, and would frequently make mistakes, sometimes playing chords that didn’t even exist. But no one worked harder to hone his craft. Allen knew he wasn’t very good, but would stop at nothing to better himself. He was interested only in becoming one of the world’s best rhythm guitarists.
James was a pretty decent drummer and had a lot of ideas of his own, though they weren’t always in line with the rest of us. One good example was his two-month crusade to have a sax player.
James and I, along with Bob Burns, who was also looking to start a band, spent more than a few Saturday nights at Westside Teen Club, checking out the older, better bands who played there. Some of our favorites were Tiny & the Surfers, the Deep Six, and The Vikings, who featured the first singing drummer I had seen, Butch Trucks. Because two of these bands had sax players, James believed we needed one too, though we didn’t play a single song that included sax and didn’t plan to. As for my own contribution to the band, I was clearly the weakest link in the chain. I could play by ear, but if you told me what note to play, I rarely knew where to find it. Without Donnie and Allen there to help me figure things out, I would likely still be lost today.
One Saturday night, after a particularly frustrating practice, I was sitting on my back porch, listening to local country favorite, Wendell Griffin, on the Jimmy Strickland Show. In the distance I could faintly hear the sound of electric guitars. Realizing it must be my friend, Tommy Crenshaw, and his brother-in-law, Billy, a couple of blocks over, I decided to head over to join them. This was always a lot of fun, as they were old enough to drink and did so. They’d ice down a case of beer and sit out in the front yard, with no shirts on, playing away until either the beer was gone or the law arrived. They had this Chuck Berry thing, with a lot of bar chords going on when I pulled up on my bike. When they finished the song, Tommy began to show Billy the next tune he had in mind, beginning with a barre on the twelfth fret.
As he strummed along he sang out each chord he was playing. “E-E-E-E-E-E-D-D-D-D-D-D-A-A-A-A-A-A-E.” It was as if a window suddenly cracked open, and light was trying to seep in. There seemed to be some pattern here that I could somewhat understand. I pointed to the sixth fret of Tommy’s guitar.
“What’s that?” I inquired.
“That’s A #, then B, C, and then C# ,” Tommy said, moving up the neck.
“There’s no B# or E#, but that’s how it works.”
Handing his guitar over to me, he said, “Make an E chord without using your index finger.” This was awkward, and not the way I’d learned to play a bar chord, but I did as I was told.
“Now move up one fret and bar it. That’s F, the next one’s F# and the next one’s G. It just keeps on going from there. But remember, there’s no E# or B#.”
Amazed at how incredibly simple it all seemed, I was overcome with relief. I suddenly felt less stupid. This one little session had opened up a whole new world to me, where everything was now so much clearer. I may not know my scales quite yet, but I now at least knew where to find the notes. I couldn’t wait to apply this newly acquired knowledge at our next rehearsal.
Look Ma! I’m playin’ bass!
One of the major challenges of having a band has always been getting together enough of the right kind of equipment. Even in the 60s, your public address system was the largest and most important financial commitment your band would ever make. Most everyone had his own amp, guitar, or drum kit, usually provided by the parents in one way or another. But a key element of the whole “band experience” was the group commitment to contribute to the PA acquisition. In some parts of town this contribution was typically made in the form of cash. On our side of the tracks, however, it was sometimes necessary to put the system together a piece at a time, by whatever means necessary.
For the Mods at this time, the needs were quite extensive in this area, while Priority One was an additional microphone of some quality. Beatles and Byrd’s covers required harmony vocals to back up the lead singer, which were impossible to deliver without quality mics. One of those big, wide Shure models, like Paul and George sometimes shared would do nicely.
One morning, all the students were herded into the school gymnasium for some kind of presentation, about what, I can’t remember. What I do recall was that the announcements were being broadcast over a Bogen Challenger public address amp, with gray, detachable speakers. The microphone connected to that Challenger amp, which made the announcements so crisp and clear, just happened to be a Shure Synodyne, and the whole little system was being transported on a single metal push cart.
Instead of paying attention to the program, Donnie, Allen, James and I, were discussing how this little outfit was all we needed to allow the band to step up to the next level. Because our parents had already come through for us with the purchase of our individual instruments, we felt it was up to us to get our sound system together without again running to them for help.
That Friday, James and I were sitting in the school library, looking up something we needed for Ms. Taylor’s English class. We were sitting across from each other at the same table when James began nodding his head in my direction, as if something was coming up behind me. With my back to the wall, I knew this wasn’t likely, but the spasmodic head bobbing continued until I was forced to turn and look behind me. Someone had left the supply room door open, revealing the very cart which contained the much desired public address system. The cart was positioned right up against an outside jalousie window. All any skinny person, (Allen), would have to do was slip through the window, ease up front to unlock the main door, and we could roll the cart right out; amplifier, microphone, the whole damned works.
I had never stolen anything in my life, nor had I considered it. Allen, on the other hand, had once stolen a ten dollar, low gain, ribbon microphone from a Parts Unlimited store, leaving me at the counter, swearing I’d never seen him before, while James would steal anything that wasn’t nailed down. But desperate times called for stupid measures. And before everything, including good sense, came the band.
We agreed that Donnie should be left out of the caper altogether. The risk of losing him to military school was too great. I considered trying to get out of it myself, but my house, being in close proximity to the school, made that impossible. I reasoned that the school could better afford to replace the equipment than we could afford to buy it. Besides, our parents had paid the tax dollars used to procure the shit to begin with, right?
Because the system was chained to the rolling cart we had somehow convinced ourselves that it would be possible to maneuver the beast over about fifty yards of soft sand, before reaching Cambridge Road, our planned route of escape. Once there we would simply roll the cart down to Bayview Road, then down the nine blocks of busted sidewalk to my house on Palmer Street. Of course, none of this would look at all suspicious–three teenagers pushing a cart full of electronics down the sidewalk on a Saturday night.
On the night of the heist, the three of us sneaked onto the school campus by way of the track, behind the school, as this was the approach with the fewest number of surrounding homes. The library was in the center of the campus, surrounded by the rear of the main building, the adjacent cafeteria, and two portable classrooms, which had once been army barracks. The two portables perfectly shadowed the library building, providing great cover by which to make entry through the library window.
As we settled into position we noticed a family, cooking out in their front yard on the far side of Cambridge Road. We could clearly hear them laughing and talking, so it was obvious that they would be able to hear us as well. Realizing we could no longer consider breaking the window, our only option was to use leverage to somehow force the window open. The problem with that was we had brought along no tools. Adding to our difficulties, Allen had now disappeared.
The key to the success of any mission is your selection of the right team. This is especially true when undertaking such a covert operation as ours. But, while we would have been hard pressed to find another bandmate as good as Allen, he was certainly not the guy to have around when stealth was imperative.
James and I eventually decided to abort the whole PA idea, opting instead for just the microphone and stand. Even if it was physically possible, there was no way we were going to push the cart away from the building, through the soft sand and past the neighbors without being detected. James had suggested wrapping his shirt around his fist to punch out the glass, insisting it would make no noise, but I knew better. What we would do was take our time, giving the roll out window short, steady jerks, gradually separating it from its framework a quarter inch at the time.
I was eventually able to provide just enough clearance for James to slip his hand through the open space and remove the mic stand from the cart. As I continued to pull on the window, James shoved his arm through the small opening, bumping the cart and pushing it farther away from the window. Now even the microphone was out of reach.
Suddenly, every light in the library came up, illuminating the night sky. It looked like high noon over the entire courtyard, with our dumb asses standing right in its center. “Grab the mic! Grab the mic!” I heard James holler, not knowing who he could possibly be shouting to. As I peered through the window I could see Allen, casually strolling across the library floor with a cardboard box under one arm. “Hey, Y’all!” He hollered. “I found a shitload of ice cream sandwiches over there in the cafeteria!”
“Allen!! Grab that mic and get the hell out of there!” I screamed, now running to the front of the building, to the door where Allen had apparently entered.
The Cambridge Road escape no longer an option, I grabbed the mic stand from Allen and took off down the sidewalk, fleeing past the shops, the music building and the weight room, right back to the track where we had come in. I was crossing the infield when James caught up with me, Allen running close behind, carrying the box of ice cream sandwiches with one hand and feeding himself with the other.
We made our way across the track, through an opening in the fence and across the Optimist football field to Hamilton Street. The mic and stand were already getting heavy. As we cautiously and nervously made our way home, Allen made a comment between bites of ice cream.
“Hey, y’all … Look at that damn plug. We ain’t never gonna be able to hook that up to anything we got!” He laughed. I looked down at the plug to discover he was right. I had seen the type before, but had no clue as to what it was or what it was used for. Besides committing my first, (and last), burglary, this would turn out to be an educational experience as well. For now we would be forced to learn about Low Impedance and XLR connectors. This rock ‘n roll business was getting tougher by the minute!
EXCERPT from the book “As I Recall…” : Part II, Page 53 – 57
With 1965 came more bands, and a lot more songs to be learned. “Satisfaction,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “The Last Time,” “For Your Love,” “My Girl,” and “Ticket to Ride” were just a few of the songs that would become monster hits, yet were simple enough for us newbies to learn.
Once school was out, The Mods began rehearsing every day. Listening to records on James’ living room hi-fi, we learned each song by continuously lifting the needle up and down from the turntable, allowing Donnie to figure out his guitar breaks while the rest of us attempted to write down the correct lyrics. We were now doing more Animals and Stones songs, and had switched from Tarrytons to L&M cigarettes, because that’s what the Stones smoked. But shortly before the end of school, an American band came along that suddenly stole our attention.
For me it was Hullabaloo where I first witnessed the Byrds. From the opening verse of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” this was who and what I wanted to be. Their songs were different, but very appealing, as they spoke of things other than love and heartache. Instead, their songs were about youth, war, politics and protests. The harmonies, the Rickenbacker 12-String, Gene Clark’s hair, and the fact that they were an American band were all contributing factors to my intense desire to be exactly like them. Their music was referred to as “Folk rock.”
I had been scheduled to go with my dad for a haircut at nearby Roosevelt Mall, the day after seeing the Byrds. By the time he came home to fetch me, at around 3:30, I had climbed a tree in our back yard, where I intended to stay. Thinking he would eventually give up the search and go along without me, I would remain in the tree for hours.
As it turned out, several of the Byrds’ tunes, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” were written by Bob Dylan, who was Donnie’s favorite musician. Because Donnie and Allen had both seen the same show, and been equally impressed, the Mods would now begin learning every Byrd’s song we could possibly play.
On the first Friday night of summer vacation, Allen Collins, James Rice and I were at a dance at The Church of the Good Shepherd on Stockton Street. This was the place to be, particularly for the junior high school crowd, and always had the very best bands. We were there, of course, not to dance, but to check out the finest band in the Southeast at the time. The Dalton Gang featured guitarist Auburn Burrell, whom everyone believed would be next to hit the bigtime, and bass player/guitar salesman extraordinaire, David Griffin.
While it was still daylight, the three of us and Bob Burns decided to walk down to the Little Brown Jug on Edison Avenue to cop some beer. I should point out here that, contrary to popular belief, Lynyrd Skynyrd, nor any other white band, ever played here, nor was it a place where Ronnie Van Zant ever “cut a rug.” This was simply one of a few places on the Westside where young white boys had a connection for acquiring adult beverages.
Just behind LBJ’s lived an old black man everyone referred to as “Shaky.” The common practice was to knock on Shaky’s door, give him the cash and the order, (ours being a six pack of Colt 45 tall boys), and wait for his return with the brew, minus one for his trouble.
We were standing around an empty lot behind LBJ’s, drinking malt liquor and discussing bands, when Bob mentioned that he was pretty sure 4+1 was playing just a few blocks away, at Green Street Youth Center. We decided that after the Dalton Gang’s first set we would high tail it over to Green Street for a few minutes to check them out.
We had watched most of 4+1’s second set, when we decided we’d better begin the walk back to Good Shepherd. On the way out the door, however, James hit upon some scuzzy little blonde who had been all over everyone the last time we had played there. Before we could say don’t do it, James was dragging ass behind us with a big ass grin and his arm wrapped around this little thing’s waist.
As Allen and I discussed how neither of us would be caught dead with such a whore, James and the girl were busy trading slobber and giggles, all the while severely hindering our progress back to see the Daltons.
We were about two blocks down Myra Street when I recognized the distinct sound of shoe taps, echoing down the road behind us. I turned to look, catching the outlines of six or seven neighborhood toughs beneath the streetlight. They were now beginning to pick up speed, and it was obviously us they were after.
I hollered back to James that it was now time to haul serious ass, but he was much too involved with his little girlfriend to pay me any mind. The gang was now gaining on James fast, and none of them looked like their intentions were good. I turned to Allen, “Come on, man! We gotta do somethin’!” Allen stood there for a second, assessing the situation as the gang continued to close in on still unsuspecting James. He shot one quick glance back at me and took off like bat out of hell.
I couldn’t help thinking of PF Flyers as I watched Allen, ass and elbows, round the next corner and disappear into the night. The next thing I knew, there were fists and feet flying everywhere, punches to the face, to the kidneys and to the head, with James and I being the recipients of most of those blows. In the midst of the chaos, I could have sworn I could still hear Allen, pickin’ ‘em up and puttin’ ‘em down, from a couple of blocks over, while James and I took what at that moment seemed the beating of our lives.
A few seconds later it was just James and I continuing our walk back to Good Shepherd. All we had to show for ourselves were busted lips, bloody noses, and wild declarations of certain vengeance. Neither of us were seriously hurt.
All I could think about was Allen burning up that pavement. Now that it was all over with, the whole thing seemed funny as hell to me, though James didn’t seem to get it. Now I was trying to imagine what kind of story Allen would tell to everyone back at Good Shepherd.
As it turned out, he had been completely truthful.
“I hauled ass as soon as I knew they were gonna try to fight them guys.”
Pretty sound logic, with which I could not argue.
Because the Mods were scheduled to play the same youth center the following weekend, it was decided that we should take along a few of our older and larger friends as reinforcements.
Ronnie Evans, about 6′ 2″, 240 lbs, who usually hauled the band’s gear around for us, suggested that we take along a couple of his buddies, one of which was home on leave from Marine boot camp.
The plan for Friday night was to simply climb into the van and disappear, once we were through playing. But on Saturday night we would load our equipment into the van, then hang around, allowing the van to leave without any of the band members aboard. We would then begin the same walk as the week before, while Ronnie and the others were just around the corner, lying in wait.
Long story short, they walked right into the trap. The guys who had a chance to do so hauled ass immediately upon sensing the setup. Others suffered minor, but nonetheless incapacitating injuries, which left them laying about the street. We actually got the last laugh for a change.
As the end of summer neared, there were even more songs to play, as the British Invasion continued to provide. By now we had been introduced to the Who, The Kinks, and the Yardbirds, while the Beatles and Stones continued to produce more music than they ever had before.
EXCERPT from “As I Recall…” Part II – Page 63
I suppose it was because Allen, James and I all had morning paper routes, which took us out into the world at three o’clock each morning, that our parents had become fairly comfortable with their boys being away from the house at all hours of the night. This also seemed to make the notion of extending our night hours to accommodate the band’s working schedule more palatable, and eventually acceptable. My dad was pretty much the father-figure for all three of us by now, and the deal at our house was all about honesty, and my dad knowing where we were. If I told him I we were playing somewhere until two in the morning, that was fine. But there’d be hell to pay if he heard that we had quit at 1:30 and fucked off for the other 30 minutes before coming home.
Mod’s lead guitarist Donnie Ulsh’s dad wasn’t quite so trusting, however. In fact, his perpetual state of paranoia seemed to be based on the theory that someone was out to hijack his son, with the specific intent of corrupting his mind. In retrospect, this is understandable. But this man really took suspicion to the extreme. A simple smile to him was an indication that something evil was certainly in play.
After being together for little more than a year, playing mostly parties, teen clubs and various auditions, we were hired for a big New Year’s Eve party at the Springfield Lions Club, downtown. At issue was the party possibly continuing until two o’clock in the morning. Of course, Donnie’s dad wasn’t having it, while we couldn’t very well turn down a gig to which we had already committed. Besides that, it paid 60 bucks. That was $15 apiece! Luckily, Allen knew of a kid at school who was supposedly pretty good on guitar. His name was Taylor Corse. But there were some problems. No one really knew Taylor, as he was a ninth grader, a year ahead of the rest of us. He was also an Ortegan. The chances of him agreeing to play with us seemed slim at best. Nevertheless, he agreed to play the gig.
We only had one rehearsal, but because most bands played the same songs anyway, that was all that was necessary. Taylor had come as advertised. Not really an accomplished lead player, as Donnie was, but he was certainly talented enough to impress the adult audience that we would be playing for. Besides, it was common knowledge that when playing to any group of people who were drinking, all you had to do was hit on one song that they really liked, and you could get away with repeating the same song three or four more times throughout the night.
Our only problem now was that we were short one amp. Because Donnie was not there, neither was his Gibson amp, which both he and Allen normally played through. But without even knowing our situation, my dad came through again. Just days before the gig he came in from work, and said, “I picked up a used Fender amp today from Fred Bible. It’s not a Bassman, it’s a Tremolux, but I thought you could probably use it for something.”
(My first Fender amp was the Oxblood Tremolux, beginning a lifelong love affair with Fender.)
The gig came and went without a hitch. Taylor had done a tremendous job, as expected, and other than an inordinate amount of time between songs, we had come off as very professional. Donnie would return for our next gig, but we would be seeing more of Taylor in the very near future.
Shortly after playing the New Year’s party we were surprised to learn that we were not the only band in Lakeshore Junior High after all. Word had it that there was a new band called the Squires, who were supposedly really good. These guys were a year older than us, now ninth graders, and three of the four were Ortegans.
The band consisted of Ricky Doeschler, lead guitar, (pronounced Dash’- ler), Steve Rosenbloom, drums, Taylor Corse, rhythm guitar/vocals, and Jimmy Parker, bass. I had known Parker for years, from the neighborhood, a great guy who could bring a smile to any room just by showing up. I felt like I knew Taylor as well, after working New Year’s Eve together, though he had failed to ever mention having his own band. But while I knew who the other guys were, we really didn’t know each other, despite the fact that the drummer, Rosenbloom, was the older brother of my girlfriend, Beverly. What I did know for certain was, if Taylor Corse was playing rhythm guitar, Doeschler must be one hell of a lead player.
Battle Lines – Mods vs Squires
To this day I’m not sure how it all came about, but our school decided to sponsor a “Battle of the Bands,” pitting the Mods against the Squires in early 1966. There was no actual award for the winning band, as this was more about the school making some money during the annual St Patrick’s Day Festival, while giving us an opportunity to get our names and faces out there, with bragging rights on the line. The event was to be held in the gymnasium, where students would vote for their favorite band after each had performed two full sets.
This would be the talk of the school for the next month or so, but as the date approached word came down that the installation of a new gym floor was running way behind, so they were considering cancelling the battle. A day or two later it was announced that the event would be held after all, but the bands would now play one set, and it would be held in the school cafeteria.
On March 18, 1966, the entire student population and most of its teachers were packed tightly inside the school cafeteria. Following a short introduction and some announcements from Mr. Jack Watson, math teacher and cafeteria enforcement guy, all the fun began. The Mods were up first.
Sporting our trademark baby blue, Gant shirts, over baby blue Levi cords, and suede Beatle boots, we blasted through our set of Beatles, Stones, Animals and Byrds tunes with everything we had, ending with “House of the Rising Sun.” The whole thing was over with in what seemed a minute. Everyone applauded, cheered, and patted us on the back, telling us how great we were, which was nice to hear. As for ourselves, only James was pleased with how we had performed. After a very brief intermission it was time for the Squires.
I couldn’t say exactly what they wore or even what song they started with. But it seemed their uniform of choice was dark blazers over white turtlenecks, while their song list was nearly identical to our own. In a recent conversation with my old friend, former Squires guitarist Rick Doeschler, we discovered that our recollections are much the same on this subject.
Doeschler agreed that most of the songs played that night were performed by both bands. And why not? Both bands listened to and tried to emulate the same bands and the same music because we were under the same musical influence. It mattered not where anyone lived, nor one’s proximity to the river and Roosevelt Boulevard. Hell, it didn’t even matter what grade anyone was in. We all loved the same music, so we all played the same music.
The Squires ran through their set much like we had. Rick and Taylor Corse, with their perfect Beatle haircuts, each played Gretsch Tennesseans, presenting that endearing Beatle image with which everyone had become so captivated. At the conclusion everybody clapped and cheered and slapped them on their backs, much the same as they had done for us. But it was my opinion that the Squires had not performed any better or any worse than we had.
The room was buzzing with conversation, people danced and mingled about the cafeteria as we all huddled together, awaiting the results of the voting. I was pretty convinced there was no way in hell the Mods could win this thing, and I could tell that Donnie and Allen had much the same opinion, as Donnie had become very talkative and Allen wasn’t saying a word. It was as if they had suddenly traded personalities.
When the results came back it was announced that the Mods had won. I was so surprised by the decision that I couldn’t even enjoy the moment. I questioned the decision of the voters and began trying to determine how this was possible. While we were all quick to embrace the thrill of victory, I couldn’t ignore the possibility that we hadn’t really won. Weren’t they even listening?
THE SQUIRES: (L-R Rick Doeschler; Taylor Corse; Jimmy Parker; Steve Rosenbloom)
The Rematch – Mods vs US
Sometime around mid-April, the administration of Lakeshore Junior High School announced there would be a second Battle of the Bands, between the Mods, and the band that used to be the Squires. Word had it that the Squires had changed their name to “Us,” and would be featuring a new singer. The first I heard of the singer was from my girlfriend, Beverly Rosenbloom.
“They’ve got some new guy who lives near you, named Ronnie Van Zant, or something like that.”
This information came like a shovel to the head. While I was very familiar with the name, I had never before heard it associated with music. I only knew of Van Zant’s reputation as a tough street fighter, and of stories which included a guy having his ear torn off for insulting Van Zant’s girlfriend at the Lee High Shop; he beat him with the heel of a Beatle boot, it was said. From all I’d heard, I was convinced this was the meanest sombitch to ever draw a breath. But a singer? No way could this be the same guy.
The second battle was scheduled for May 27, 1966, the winner of which would be booked to play the Ninth Grade Prom in early June. Because the Lake Shore gymnasium was still under construction, the event was initially to be held again in the school cafeteria, which was not at all satisfactory to any of the participants.
I’m not sure exactly how word reached me, but the message I received was, “Ronnie Van Zant wants you to meet him at the cafeteria after school tomorrow.” I didn’t even like the sound of that. I’m thinking maybe this guy’s a little mixed up about how this “battle” thing is supposed to work. Of course, I agreed to meet him, but not without some reservation. After all I’d heard, I was expecting a monster; some big, ugly, six foot two, two hundred pound stoned killer.
It was about 3:15 the next afternoon when I spotted a candy apple red, 1964.5 Mustang, with Cragar mags, pulling up in front of the school. I watched intently as the driver got out of the car and began walking in my direction. The guy wasn’t big at all. His long, blond hair almost reached the base of his neck, and as he drew closer I detected a slight grin above his dimpled chin. No way could this guy be the dreaded Ronnie Van Zant.
“Hey, man… he said, extending his hand. “You must be Larry.”
“You must be Ronnie” I replied. “Good to meet you, man.”
Ronnie had several questions to ask as he sized up the exterior of the building.
RVZ: “So this is it, huh?”
LS: “I’m afraid so. It’s even smaller inside than it looks.”
RVZ: “I don’t guess there’s a stage.”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
Because the cafeteria was locked up, we walked all around the building, looking through the windows, so I could point out as best I could where each band had set up during the last event.
RVZ: “Well, what do you think about us playing in here? You think we’ll fill it up?
LS: “I hear it’s already filled up. At least that’s what a girl in the office told me.”
RVZ: “Well, what’s it sound like in there?”
LS: “The last time we played in there it was pretty bad, but that could’ve just been our band. Neither band really played very good that night.”
At some point I confessed how surprised I’d been to hear he was a singer. I asked how long he had been at it, to which he replied, “Well, I realized about a year ago that this was what I had to do.” The statement would stick with me, not because it was an impressive answer, but because it was fresh. It was something I’d never heard. While most guys would have said they “wanted” to be a singer or a guitar player, Ronnie had said this was what he “had” to do.
As we wrapped up our meeting, Ronnie asked if I needed a ride somewhere. I told him no, not because I didn’t need a ride, but because I was really looking forward to that huge sigh of relief that would come once he left. Things had gone well, and I wanted to make sure they ended the same way. I had been apprehensive about the meeting to begin with. I had expected a bully at best, but found Ronnie to be a perfect gentleman–quiet, soft spoken and polite. Still, there was something in his eyes that expressed a confidence and a fortitude that only a fool would question.
I liked Ronnie Van Zant right from the start, and hoped for many reasons that we would always be friends. But he worried me a little, as he seemed wise beyond his years, and he already had four of those on me.
Over the next couple of weeks I became very curious about how good a singer Ronnie was. I had been invited to a party at a friend’s house in Ortega, where Us was playing, so I decided to check it out. After listening to “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown,” and several other songs, I came away thinking Ronnie’s voice was very average. What impressed me though, was the way he handled himself and the small audience. He definitely knew what he was doing. But even while there, what continued to stick with me were the questions he had asked back at the school. He had wanted to learn all he could about the room he would be performing in, and how many people might attend. He was “advancing” the gig, much like road managers and production managers would begin doing in the late ‘60s. In this regard, he was a pioneer.
Due to ticket sales beyond anyone’s expectations, it was decided by the school that “Battle II” would be moved to the gymnasium of Forrest High School, (now J.E.B. Stuart Middle School). Here the bands would set up on two different stages, with the Mods starting off, and Us playing last. Ronnie’s strategy was, “He who plays last will be best remembered.” My own thinking was, in the event of them somehow being better than we were, votes for the Mods would have already been cast. Playing first was fine with me.
In preparation for the big showdown, the Mods had pulled out all the stops, including asking our friend and mentor, Jerry Zambito of 4+1, to coach us through our final rehearsals. Jerry would help us select the order of our songs and give us pointers as to how our performance should look to the audience. By the night of the contest Allen and I both had new Fender amps, Allen’s, a Fender Super Reverb and mine, a Fender Bassman. Instead of his Gibson Invader amp, Donnie would play through Zambito’s Fender Vibrolux Reverb, giving the stage a more uniform and professional look. The Invader would serve as a spare, in the event of one of the other amps going down.
As luck would have it, the rains came, but this didn’t seem to have any effect on the turnout. The gym was packed to the rafters and electricity was in the air by the time the Mods took the stage. We started out with the Stones’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” and continued with several more Stones songs, along with covers of the Beatles, Byrds and Animals. Our entire set was strong, loud, and pretty much flawless. Each of us were very much pleased with the performance, as was our coach. We were like, “Okay. Follow that, bitches!”
At the conclusion of our set, many of the students were already lined up to cast their votes. This was a good sign to me, deducing that Us could now only receive the votes of those who had not previously voted; the leftovers so to speak. In the meantime we had learned that Us guitarist Taylor Corse was having problems with his amp. We loaned them one of ours–Allen’s Super as I recall–and after a brief delay Us took the stage.
Just as we had done, they played pretty much flawlessly. But there were a couple of other things that occurred during Us’ performance that bothered me. As they began, much of the audience immediately swarmed to center stage, where Ronnie stood. Some might have chalked this up to mere curiosity. But what I saw was the bad boy image commandeering the favor of every young girl in the room. There it was, in living color–the older guy, the longhair from the wrong side of the tracks, with a go-to-hell stage presence yet unseen by so many youthful eyes.
While this was troubling, I still believed we could win. After all, we came from that same side of the tracks, that “hoody” part of town that Ronnie was from. It was then that it hit me. This may very well have been the underlying reason for the Mods winning the first contest. Now I really was beginning to worry.
While I cannot recall everything that Us performed, I’ll never forget the song they closed with, which brings me to the second and most bothersome occurrence of all. As they began their last song, “Sloop John B,” I looked over at the rest of my band. What I saw was the look of defeat. I suddenly felt sick, realizing that they had drawn an ace in the clutch.
They had clearly outsmarted us, by playing a song that every person in the building was familiar with, instead of sticking to their most well-rehearsed material, as we had. They were playing a crowd favorite, rather than a favorite of their own, one which also was a current Top 10 hit. To make matters worse, they were playing it well.
Us ultimately won Battle ll, but not without some controversy. To this day I sometimes wonder about both battles. Though I’m not at all sure how the Mods won the first contest, I am equally confused about the outcome of the second. As stated earlier, my belief was that neither band had outperformed the other, on either occasion. Choosing “Sloop John B” to close with, however, was a brilliant move on their part, and one that I strongly suspected Ronnie had everything to do with. As I would be reminded time and time again through the years, Ronnie had a natural ability for choosing the right song and the right time to play it.
To put this night into perspective, the outcome of the battle would provide countless hours of entertainment for the next eleven years, especially for Allen, Ronnie and myself. Arguments about who kicked whose ass could spring up out of nowhere, sometimes very late at night. Early one morning in 1975 I received a thousand dollar phone call from Allen that went something like this:
Allen: “Tate! Wake up, motherfucker!”
Larry: “Man, its 3:30 in the morning!”
Allen: “Not in Paris France it ain’t! …Man, I’m looking at the Eifel Tower right fuckin’ now, right outside my window! You believin’ that shit?!”
Larry: “Wow, man. I’m so honored you’d wake my ass up for that. You alright, man?”
Allen: “Yeah, man! But me and Wicker’s got this argument going. I need you to straighten this motherfucker out right here! Here he is!” (Allen hands phone to Ronnie)
RVZ: “Tate! I know it still hurts, buddy, but you know who won. We were all there.”
Larry: “Yeah, I know who they said won. But you know we kicked your ass!”
While the Mods and Us were immersed in intense competition against each other in the mid-sixties, there was another band of fledgling musicians who lived and practiced right there in Ronnie Van Zant’s own back yard. In fact, one of its members lived in Ronnie’s house.
Donnie Van Zant was the lead singer of the group, the Sons of Satan, which also included drummer, Steve Brookins, and guitarists, Del Sumner and Ronnie Lee, all of whom resided with their families on Woodcrest Avenue. Because the name of the band wasn’t exactly revered by the boys’ parents, one Marion “Sister” Van Zant in particular, the spelling was changed to S-U-N-S of S-A-T-I-N, though the intended pronunciation remained.
I had seen the Suns of Satin for the first time at the Lake Shore Junior High Halloween Carnival in 1965. Though I don’t recall how good they were, I do remember being very impressed with their equipment trailer. Brilliant shades of red and orange, with black trim, neatly adorned each side, depicting their demonic logo, which appeared more mischievous than intimidating. I actually wanted the name, the trailer, and the logo for myself.
Steve Brookins: I remember the first gig we played was at the Biff Burger at the Venetia Shopping Center, on Roosevelt Boulevard. We played for all the burgers we could eat. Then, we were in a battle of the bands, in some grocery store parking lot. Donnie got so nervous he threw up at the end of the set and had to go home. We had to call him at home when it was all over with to tell him who had won.
Not unlike the rest of us, these guys didn’t start out making much money, but took great pride in the fact that the proceeds were sometimes enough to purchase sandwiches from their favorite barbecue joint, Smokey’s, on nearby Cassatt Avenue. One Saturday night sandwich run would result in the discovery of yet another young Woodcrest Avenue musician who, along with Van Zant and later, Brookins, would form the band that would become 38 Special, eight years later.
Brookins: I was coming back from Smokey’s, there on Cassatt, riding my bicycle by Del’s house, where we had the trailer parked. I saw the back door of the trailer was half open as I rode by and thought, ‘Now, that’s weird,’ because we had just finished playing somewhere.
I went to my dad and Mr. Sumner and said, ‘Hey! I think somebody’s in our trailer!’ We went out there, where my dad, with his flashlight, shines it into the trailer and says: ‘Hey! Who’s in there?’ Then I hear this kid’s voice, say, ‘I …I’m just looking for my guitar.’ The kid was Don Barnes.
The truth was, Don Barnes knew exactly where his guitar was. The white, Kingston dual pickup, along with a Decca amplifier, had been acquired earlier when his older brother Jim traded away his Kent 12-string to a local sailor who was preparing to be shipped out.
Don Barnes: I remember the logo, the brand name on the headstock was broken, leaving only the last two letters, the o and the n. I told everybody it was a Gibson.
These were the measures a kid would resort to in order to better his chances of hooking up with a quality band. Consequences be damned. To be taken seriously you had to at least show up with a quality instrument. The extremes some would go to, just to be able to play, were without limitation. In fact, original Skynyrd drummer Bob Burns was rumored to have “found” his first drum kit in someone trailer, which is probably the reason for the kit not including a mounted tom.
Though I was one of the lucky ones, whose parents did whatever they could to support me in my musical endeavors, I was definitely among the minority. Most parents were either having too much trouble putting food on the table as it was, or simply believed their barely teenage sons had completely lost their minds. “Gee-tar? Boy, you must be crazy!”
This story, besides being funny as hell, has always confirmed for me, not only the persistence of Barnes from a very early age, but the fortitude he must have possessed to set out alone, determined to create a better opportunity for himself.
By the summer of 1966 word was going around that Us had either split up or was just about to. This left me feeling pretty good about the fact that the Mods were still together at the time, playing music, running our paper routes and chasing girls. But James and I also shared a deep appreciation for professional wrestling, and attended the matches whenever possible. We knew what we were watching, and we loved it.
One Friday afternoon, toward the end of band practice, Allen had been on the receiving end of some good natured razzing from the rest of us about playing a bad chord. This led to laughter, followed by some pushing and shoving. As things got a little more physical, eventually spilling out into the front yard, there were some punches exchanged, mostly to the upper arms.
As was his modus operandi, Allen soon began relying more and more on his skinny but powerful fingers as weapons, thumping our hands, ears and foreheads, inflicting a great deal of pain upon whomever his target happened to be. What was particularly evil about one of Allen’s attacks was that you could never catch your breath from laughing at the absurdity of possibly being thumped to death. Once you began laughing, there was no way to stop him. The more you laughed, the more trash he talked, resulting in even more laughter as he attempted to thump you into submission with his fingernail.
After suffering as much of the abuse as I could stand, I had become too weak from laughing to continue pushing Allen away. He was like a little sand gnat that just kept coming, despite my repeated attempts to swat him away. Recalling one of the moves employed by my favorite bad guy, Big Bob Orton, on the night before, I knew what to do.
We were all laughing hysterically when I grabbed Allen by the head, placing it in between my legs, just above the knees. I lifted his body parallel to my own and down to the ground we went, with the dreaded Pile driver. What I hadn’t realized until halfway down was that I had left Allen’s head exposed to the hard ground. When I felt his head hit the dirt I was scared to death that I had broken his neck. To my surprise and great relief, Allen got right up, apparently feeling no ill effects at all. What hurt was the look he gave me as he got back to his feet.
This was not a look of anger, but one of confusion and disbelief. His eyes seemed to beg the question, “Why would you do that to me?”
Of course, I had no answer to offer. It was an accident. We had done this sort of thing to each other countless times before, without anyone getting hurt. It had always been in fun, just as this time was intended to be.
As Allen turned to walk away, I called out to him. “Allen! Where’re you going, man? You know I didn’t mean for that to happen! Come on, man!” Donnie and James called out to him as well, but Allen ignored us all and kept walking.
I spent that night at James’ house, so we could catch the early bus downtown on Saturday morning, to hit Marvin Kay’s, Paulus, and the other music stores. I confided in James that I was very concerned about how Allen had reacted to the incident. James assured me that Allen was just acting like a baby, and that all would be forgotten by morning. Still, I couldn’t get that look out of my head.
On any other Saturday Allen would have already caught the bus just a few blocks earlier on the route than where James and I would board. On this morning, however, he didn’t show. Seeing things more clearly now, I tended to agree with James, realizing there was no way Allen could believe I would ever try to hurt him. We had been friends for more than eight years, and had only been alive for fourteen. I figured he was over it by now, and had simply missed the bus. He would meet up with us after catching a later one.
When James and I returned from town, around 2:30 PM, everything seemed normal. James was first through the door, turning immediately down the hallway to grab a ringing telephone. When he returned, having missed the call, he found me staring at the floor. “What’s wrong with you?” He asked.
As I pointed to the empty space, all I could get out was, “Somebody must’ve broken in.” James looked down to see that I was pointing to where Allen’s new Super Reverb amp was supposed to be. “Oh shit!” he exclaimed. “What else is missing?”
That was when it all hit me. There was nothing missing but what belonged to Allen. I then noticed that James’ front door wasn’t damaged. This was no break-in at all. Only Allen knew where the key was. He had obviously come by and picked up his own gear.
“Oh, he’s probably over at Bob’s (Burns), playing with those guys,” James reasoned. “I’ll give him a call over there.” Recalling how hard Bob had been trying to get something going, I replied, “Oh! Bob finally got a band together?”
“Well… It’s just Bob and Gary right now.” James said. “They play around out in Bob’s carport. You know how Allen and Gary are always getting together, trying to teach each other new shit. They’re probably teaching Bob some new stuff too.”
I sat down in the living room, now with a sense of relief coming over me. James was right. Allen got together with Gary Rossington pretty regularly, to teach each other new songs and share whatever tips one or the other may have recently picked up, though I couldn’t imagine Gary being very good. I knew he had a Firebird and a Fender amp, I had no idea he could actually play, having always believed that it was Allen who was doing the teaching, bettering himself in the process. As I sat there contemplating the whole situation, I heard James screaming into the telephone from the back of the house.
“You can’t quit! What the fuck’s the matter with you?” James screamed. “No you’re not either, you skinny little sombitch! Larry says if you and your equipment aren’t back here in fifteen minutes, he’s gonna come over there and whip your ass!” James continued, following with: “Yeah, well we don’t care who’s over there! Your ass is grass, you little motherfucker!”
By this time I was on my feet and headed down the hall.
“Hang up the phone!” I demanded.
James slammed the receiver down.
“You know how he is!” I hollered. “He was already pissed off about yesterday! Now you’re gonna try to scare him back? We’ll never get him back over here by threatening him!”
“That little fucker just pisses me off!” James exclaimed. “He says he’s joining up with those guys. Oh! … and he says Ronnie Van Zant’s gonna be their singer!”
With that, I figured Allen coming back wasn’t likely, especially after all the things James had just said to him. The two of us sat there in the living room in dead silence, neither of us having a clue what to do next. I finally suggested to James that he give Donnie Ulsh a call, to let him know we wouldn’t be rehearsing today. I told him not to tell Donnie why, as I still held out some hope that Allen might somehow have a change of heart.
As I stood up to collect my cigarettes from the coffee table, I heard a car pull up outside. When I looked through the screen door I saw Ronnie Van Zant and Gene Odom climbing out of a black Mustang. Noticing the interior of the car was uncharacteristically red, I wondered for a second if Ronnie had painted his red ’64.5. It actually took me a couple of seconds to realize why they were even there, suddenly recalling the threats James had screamed at Allen, supposedly on my behalf. I remember thinking. “I’m gonna kill that little bastard, if I live through this!”
I held the door open as Ronnie and Gene stepped up onto the front porch, both dressed in regulation faded jeans, white tee shirts and wraparound Foster Grants. Removing his shades, Ronnie said, “Larry, I thought you and I should sit down and have a talk about this thing, man to man. That sound alright to you?” I took a hard swallow, nodded my head and said, “Come on in.”
When we sat down in the living room Ronnie was as calm as could be, while Gene was more like a Doberman on a short leash. Gene Odom wasn’t as mean as his brother, Richard, but plenty mean enough. And, as always, he was ready for whatever the occasion might call for. As was typical of James, he entered the room only briefly, quickly retreating back to the rear of the house, once he discovered who our company was.
I began the conversation with, “I don’t really have any argument, Ronnie. If Allen doesn’t want to play with us, that’s pretty much it. It’s his decision.”
“Well yeah, that’s true,” Ronnie began. “It’s his choice to make alright, but I want to make sure you understand my way of thinking. I want you to realize that you’re still getting the better end of the stick. You know, Donnie Ulsh is easily the best guitar player on this side of town. Everybody knows that. Allen and Gary, well, neither of them is very good. We all know that too. But if I can get those boys to work hard, and keep learning from each other a little more every day, someday I’m gonna have at least one fine guitar player. Maybe two. All you’ve gotta do is find yourself another rhythm player.”
To borrow an Al Kooper quote, “Ronnie could be a very persuasive man.”
Once again, he was right. I couldn’t have disagreed if I’d wanted to. Finding a new rhythm guitarist shouldn’t present any problem at all. But losing Allen as my friend was something I had never considered, let alone prepared myself for.
When Ronnie and Gene got up to leave, we all shook hands. I asked Ronnie to do me a favor, by telling Allen that none of the threats James had made had come from me. Ronnie said Allen probably already knew that, but that he’d give him the message just the same. When he and Gene drove away I would have bet the ranch that Ronnie would be back within a week, trying to trade Allen back for a microphone or something. But, as I would continue to learn, Ronnie always seemed to know what he was doing, and when to do it.
The following week we began looking for a new guitarist to replace Allen. As was typical of the day, we saw a lot of nice guitars during the process, but very few owners who could actually play them. We finally hit on a business card one day at Paulus Music. The name on the card was Johnny Pittman, who was supposedly the younger brother of renowned Florida guitar super hero, Jimmy Pittman. When Johnny showed up the following Saturday to try out, he wore really cool leather Beatle boots that we all drooled over. He also had a really nice guitar, a solid body Gretsch, as I recall.
We couldn’t help being excited about the possibility of actually having a Pitman in the band. I don’t think we ever determined if he really was Jimmy’s brother, but the guy was a pretty good player. The problem was, he didn’t own an amp, and he lived way out near the beaches. I had a feeling that even if some kind of transportation arrangement could be worked out, he wouldn’t be sticking around for long.
By summer’s end the whole thing was getting very discouraging, and that was when the worst that could happen, did. As if losing Allen wasn’t bad enough, I now learned that Donnie Ulsh’s dad was moving the family to the Arlington section of town, which to us might as well have been Long Island. There wasn’t a chance in hell of our working out any means of transportation to continue practicing. Much like the Squires, and Us, the Mods were no more.
The only reason I can give for not joining one of the other bands at that time was that James was my friend, and friends were supposed to stick together in those days. Come hell or high water, that was what I intended to do.
James and I spent the month of September hanging around the teen clubs, to see who was playing where and what they were playing, pretending all the while the band was still together. One night we caught a band called the After Five, at Woodstock Youth Center. These guys were pretty good players, but their repertoire was all over the place. I was most impressed with the drummer and the bass player. The drummer lived in the neighborhood adjacent to mine. His name was Kenny Thurston, and he played the coolest looking set of blue swirl Olympic drums I had ever seen. I had never heard of the brand, but Kenny’s bass drum sounded like a damn cannon. The bass player played one of those imported basses, like Navy kids usually brought back from Guam, through a Gibson Atlas amp. Regardless of the brand(s) he was playing, this guy could flat lay down some bass. His name was Larry Junstrom.
The Pretty Ones
Toward the end of October, rumor had it that Ronnie, Allen, Gary and Bob would perform for the first time ever at the St. Matthews Fall (Halloween) Carnival. It seemed pretty crazy to me that they would actually make such an attempt so fast, not yet having a name, or even a bass player. When the Sunday night carnival rolled around, James and I went to check it out, fully expecting to see them fall flat on their faces. We imagined that we would be walking away at the end of the show feeling much better about our own situation and all that had recently taken place.
The band was just coming up onstage when we arrived, the stage coming in the form of a flatbed truck. There was a fairly respectable audience crowded around the front of the stage, where an impressive array of Fender amps lined either side of Bob’s aqua sparkle Ludwig drum kit. In lieu of a bass player they had a friend of the band, Billy Skaggs, as an additional rhythm guitarist. I never understood the reason for this, but his presence did provide fill, as well as an additional Super Reverb to the amp line.
As they began with the Byrds’ version of “Hey Joe,” Ronnie clutched his trusty Shure Commando microphone. As any veteran musician can attest, the Commando was a pretty sorry, inexpensive mic. As far as I knew, nobody had ever been able to use one as a vocal mic with any success. But somehow Ronnie made it sound good from the outset:
“(Chink) – Hey… (chink)- Joe … (chink)- Where ya goin… (chink) – with that money… (boom!) – in yo hand?”
It was apparent from the start that Allen had made the right decision after all. And while I hated to admit it, it was damned difficult containing the enormous smile that kept trying to come across my face. These guys were going to be pretty good.
While their repertoire included many of the old songs played by the Mods and Us, there were a few songs I hadn’t expected to hear. One of these was “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” another Byrd’s number that featured Allen playing lead for the first time ever. I was shocked, sick, and very proud, all at the same time. By the time they concluded their set, which also included a cover of Marvin Gay’s “Can I Get a Witness,” I was pretty much a fan. They had played pretty damn well, and there was every indication they would only get better.
As promised, I called Donnie Ulsh as soon as I got back home, to give him my review of the debut of whoever they would eventually become. It was obvious that he too was proud to hear of Allen’s accomplishments and had some good news of his own. His father, now having apparently given up on him, had agreed to allow Donnie to move in with his natural mother, back on the Westside. Now we could put together a band — to kick Allen’s ass with!
I tried to stay active in the meantime, playing various parties and such, with bands who had either lost a bass player, or just didn’t have one. There weren’t many of us around. I continued trying to keep up the pretense that the Mods were still together, with Johnny Pittman as our new rhythm guitarist. The last thing I wanted was for Allen to know he had caused us to breakup.
Meanwhile, Ronnie, Allen, Gary and Bob continued to practice, getting better all the time. It wasn’t long before they added Jimmy Parker, former bassist of the Squires and Us. They had settled on a name as well. For the time being they would call themselves the “Pretty Ones,” and would practice in an upstairs apartment off Mc Duff Avenue, along I-10. I would drop by whenever I was in the area, though Allen still didn’t have a lot to say to me, nor I to him.
I don’t recall the Pretty Ones actually playing anywhere, other than a Christmas Party for Ronnie’s boss and brother in law, Bill Morris. It was shortly after they changed to the Noble Five that they began working the city’s youth centers, primarily Southside and Brad Tredinnick, as well as the few privately owned teen clubs around town.
Late one Saturday afternoon I was sitting at my kitchen table, listening to the radio, when I heard an ad announcing that the Noble Five were playing at Westside Teen Club. I was pretty amazed and a little jealous, as playing there had been a longtime dream of mine and Allen’s. This place was the real deal. Not one of the city youth centers, this was a real club; a great big place, with a real stage and everything. People actually got drunk here on occasion and got into fights.
As for my own status at the time, I had played a gig the night before at some little teen club I didn’t even know the name of, with a band whose best song was “Winchester Cathedral.” Where the hell had I gone so wrong?
The radio ad had just finished as I began pondering how I might get to the club, to see how the guys were progressing. Suddenly, the phone on the kitchen wall began to ring. When I picked up the receiver it was Ronnie. “Hey, Larry. This is Ronnie… Van Zant”
Trying to act as though I was half expecting the call, I said, “Hey, man. What’re you doing?”
“Look, man, we’re in kind of a jam.” Ronnie began. “We’re supposed to play up at Westside Teen Club tonight, but we don’t know where Parker is. He went out fishing early this morning and nobody’s heard from him since. Think you could fill in for him on bass tonight?”
“Yeah, man. I ain’t doing nothin’. Do I need my amp?”
“Nah. Just bring your guitar. I’ll send Speedy by to get you in a few minutes.”
I jumped in the shower for about a minute, threw on some jeans and a shirt, and grabbed by bass. Speedy and Bob Burns were already waiting in the driveway, with Speedy’s ’64 Galaxie loaded to the max. Amplifiers and drums filled the trunk and most of the back seat, where I carefully slid my bass into the only opening I could find. Seconds later we were all three in the front seat, headed down the road. Bob had us rolling with laughter all the way to the club, giving Speedy a hard time about recently getting married. “Hey! How late are you allowed to stay out tonight, old man?”
Two years earlier, when the Mods auditioned here, the manager said we were too young, and to come back in two years. Well, here we were. At least two of us were right on schedule. The place didn’t seem nearly as big or as cool as it once had, but that was okay. And so what if I wasn’t playing here with my own band. This was a milestone, at least for the Noble Five it was, and I was pretty damn proud to be a part of it.
We performed that night as if we had played together for years, though a couple of us actually had. I knew every song they did, and despite my loyalty to my own drummer, playing with Bob Burns was something I had always looked forward to. Unlike James, Bob played straight forward, with plenty of power and excellent meter. He never resorted to excessive drum rolls, or the tedious cymbal crashes characteristic of so many drummers of the time. Bob had never been about flash, but about providing the beat. He always got a great sound out of his snare, and particularly his kick drum, and always put his full weight behind the bass drum pedal. He was an absolute delight to work with for any rhythm-conscious bass player.
As for Allen and Gary, the progress these two were making was undeniable. They were both now able to play pretty good leads by simply remaining within the confines of their abilities. The energy between the two was also noticeable, providing additional confidence for the band overall.
1967-68 The Comic Book Club
By 1968 there was no shortage of good bands working the Comic Book. A group called Tangerine were definitely the best of the lot at this time. Tangerine were a three piece band consisting of one of my all-time favorites, and mentors, Jerry Zambito on guitar, drummer Jack Spires, (Living Ends), and Dewitt Gibbs, (Living Ends), on the Hammond B-3.
One Percent, now with keyboardist David Knight, had finally come into the fold, becoming an instant favorite at the club, playing Doors, Yardbirds, Creedence Clearwater and Blues Magoos covers.
Just downstairs a new band called Fresh Garbage was being assembled, which included Rickey Medlocke on drums, Charlie Hargrett on guitar and Greg Walker on bass. Some of the others playing the Comic Book at the time included The Metrics, The Chosen Few, and The Proverbial Knee Highs, a younger group from somewhere in Ohio.
As it started getting closer to summer, Rick and I were considering the possibility of getting the Male Bachs back together and returning to work at the Comic Book. While we had enjoyed a pretty good run with the Ilastic Staircase, Calvin was now talking about getting married, and Charlie was getting tired of the whole band thing. The time seemed right to do something else, and because we had remained close to Comic Book management during our time away, we were pretty sure that door remained open to us.
The first person we approached with the idea of getting back together was Mike Kinnamon, who was immediately on board. But there was another problem that only Mike was aware of. It seemed at about the same time that Jimmy Pitman had departed their band, the Leftovers, for the West Coast, Donnie Ulsh had vanished again. It wasn’t immediately clear if Donnie had left with Jimmy, or gone back up to New York. Assuming, (incorrectly), that Donnie would eventually resurface, we decided to begin rehearsals without him.
My dad had co-signed for Rick to purchase a Hammond organ of his own, some months earlier, so Rick was encouraging me to play guitar in Donnie’s absence, while he played the bass parts on the pedals of his organ. This was exactly what Tangerine were doing. The difference between us and Tangerine, however, was that they had a great guitarist in Zambito, while I couldn’t play lead guitar if my life depended on it.
The experiment was short lived, as we ended up working up our song list with keyboards, bass and drums only. We would eventually add a guitar player and singer, once we had given up on Donnie returning.
A month later, the Male Bachs were working both the teen club and the bottle club, averaging about ten hours each night. From 8 P.M. until 1 A.M. we played the teen club, followed by an hour long break. We then played the bottle club for another four hours. As exhausting as it was, the schedule enabled us to get very tight in a very short period of time. As a three-piece, we were also making more money than we ever had. It wasn’t until we heard that Donnie Ulsh had ended up in California that we decided to add singer Joey Verdecisi, and guitarist Kim Williamson to the band.
Kim started out not much better on guitar than I was, but because he had such a strong desire to play, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. He was a quick learner, and once he learned something could be depended upon to play the same thing the same way, night after night. The only problem we ever had with Kim was that he would sometimes become a little too enamored with himself, allowing his ego to get the best of him. Before long, both he and Joey would begin demanding more money, which they were never going to get.
Once we had the complete band all set, Art and Bob sent us back to Sound Labs to record another couple of songs, mainly for promotional purposes, to get us through the summer. Because we were trying to get two songs cut in a single day, only Rick, Mike and I played on the recordings. One of the songs, “Canyons of Rocks,” was immediately picked up by WAPE radio and got pretty decent airplay, which I’m sure was due largely to Art’s influence. Whatever the reason, the song and the airplay served its purpose, attracting interest from booking agencies outside the Comic Book.
Another thing the new songs did for us, was to secure a job as the backup band for Len Berry during some of his tour dates in the southeast. Berry, a very successful singer, writer and producer, had a monster hit with “1-2-3” in 1965, reaching #2 in the U.S. and #3 in the U.K., followed by the slightly less successful, “Like A Baby” in 1966.
The billing was “Len Berry, with Special Guests, The Male Bachs.” We would be the opening and closing act, with Berry’s set in the middle. This was the first big name we had ever worked with directly, a true professional who was still pretty easy to get along with. Not at all the prima donna that many artists with his credentials seemed to be.
In June, 1968, One Percent loaded up their green, Ford Econoline van and set out for St. Louis, to seek work in the clubs of Gaslight Square. The band was getting more into the blues at this time, and hoped to benefit from experiencing the music first hand.
Of course, the Comic Book Club publicized the departure as though it were permanent, with ads erroneously stating that the band was “headed to California,” as they had “reached the big time!” How all six of the guys, along with their gear, survived the mileage and the cramped quarters without killing each other was beyond me. But they returned home a few weeks later, no worse for wear, and seemingly even more dedicated to playing the blues.
On July 1, One Percent opened for the Bitter Ind to a hero’s welcome at the Comic Book. Ronnie’s “absence” theory had worked to perfection, as the regulars quickly swarmed the band after they finished their set, to hear all about their recent tour of California. The band, unaware of how Art and Bob had sensationalized their trip to St. Louis, didn’t seem to have any idea what anyone was talking about. Still, I believe this was their first taste of what “reaching the bigtime” might actually be like.
1968 – The Hour Glass in Jacksonville
On Friday, July 12, 1968, Allen shocked me yet again, by showing up in my driveway in his mom’s ‘64 Chevy Impala. Allen was old enough to drive by now, though I’m pretty sure he was not yet licensed to do so. More importantly, his mom, Eva, would have died dead away if she thought for one second that her only son was presently behind the wheel of her pride and joy.
“But this is a special occasion!” Allen reasoned. And indeed it was. The Hour Glass was coming to the Comic Book Club for three glorious nights, and we would be the first to greet them. Better still, my band, the Male Bachs and One Percent would be their opening acts. That is, if we made it through this day.
We were cruising along I-95 amidst a light rain on our way downtown. So far, Allen was driving like a normal person, surprisingly attentive and cautious. But, as we reached the peak of the railroad viaduct just before town, he couldn’t help himself. Just as we reached the metal grating, Allen suddenly downshifted and popped the clutch, sending the car into a 360* spin, across three lanes of interstate highway, down the other side of the bridge. By the time the car came to a rest, we were both in the passenger side floorboard of the car. As soon as I realized we were still alive, I was screaming bloody murder.
“You stupid sonofabitch! Get off of me! You wanna die? Well that’s good, cause I’m about to kill your ass!” I screamed.
Allen’s response was calm, almost a whisper, “Hey… I don’t think we hit anything.”
Still on all four wheels, we climbed out of the car to assess the damage. There was none to be found. Miraculously, not a scratch, nor a single blemish appeared anywhere on the car, though it did take some time to maneuver it back onto the hard road. By the time we finally reached the club, Allen had decided to drop me off and get the car back home while it was still in one piece, and before Eva discovered it missing. I was still shaking so badly it took several tries to fit the key into the lock of the club’s front door.
Once inside, I took a seat on the shoeshine stand in the front lobby, my body still trembling from the near miss, my mind racing a mile a minute. Why had I even gotten into the car with that crazy fucker? I knew damn well that sooner or later he would have to do something stupid. But this was the way Allen was, and the way he’d always be. How could I have possibly believed that today would be any different? Now I wondered if he would make it home okay.
Just inside the door of the club was a framed 8 x 10” glossy of the Allman Joys, the band Ronnie Van Zant had claimed to be the best in the business; “… even better than the Bitter Ind,” he’d said. The picture was easy to locate among the other bands’ photos, hanging just above the hole in the carpet, worn there by starry-eyed musicians such as myself.
The band who would be performing here tonight was not the Allman Joys, however, but the Hour Glass, a California-based national recording act that had evolved from the AJ’s one year earlier. It was my intention to watch every move they made, from arrival to departure. I would study the unloading and setting up of their gear, paying particular attention to the way they walked and talked, the jokes they told, the brand of cigarettes they smoked, the clothes they wore, and every song they would eventually perform. By the time they ended their show on Sunday night, hopefully I too would know what it took to become the best in the business.
It was around 10 o’clock when a white, late model Chevy Super Van pulled up in the loading zone in front of the club. I stepped down off the stand to greet the three sturdy looking longhairs who were now coming to the door. I was confused for a moment, as none of the three bore any resemblance to the photo on the lobby wall, nor the pictures on their album covers. Equally confusing was the fact that these guys were burly, and walked upright, their chests bowed up, unlike guitar players, who usually leaned into their steps, a residual effect from years of carrying guitar cases in and out of venues.
“Hey! Is Mike around?” the driver asked.
I explained that Mike Kinnamon had not yet arrived, but should be there in short order. He said that his name was Mike also, and wanted to know if the stage had been cleared for their arrival. Referring to him now as Big Mike, I assured him that it was, introduced myself as one of the opening act, and volunteered to help get their truck unloaded. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of equipment the van contained.
Ronnie had told me they used all Vox Super Beatles, the dream amplifier of practically every young guitarist who ever lived. I found this hard to believe, simply because the average musician at that time couldn’t afford gear of such quality. As we approached the van, however, I realized these guys were obviously not average musicians. With the exception of a couple of Fender power heads, a Leslie tone cabinet, and some drum cases, Vox gear was all I could see. As I watched the covered speaker cabinets being rolled down the sidewalk, I tried to think of baseball to avoid getting an erection. Among some of the other gear coming off the truck were a couple of Wurlitzer electric pianos, a 3X15 Kustom bass rig, and an old ’59 Fender Bassman. I was very much surprised to see several Super Beatle power heads being left on the truck.
“Want me to grab a couple of those tops?” I inquired.
“Nah … They don’t use those anymore. Duane don’t like the way they sound.” somebody said.
By now Mike Kinnamon had arrived with a large bag of breakfast burgers from the corner Quick Snack. He was immediately recognized and greeted warmly with laughter, shoulder punches, and the frequent use of the word “sombitch” by all the Hour Glass guys.
“So, where’re the guys at?” Kinnamon asked.
“They were still asleep when we left Daytona.” Big Mike said. “I don’t imagine they’ll be getting up for a while.”
As the conversation turned to the subject of some ‘crazy women’ the band had encountered the night before, I pulled Mike Kinnamon to the side and asked,
“These guys aren’t part of the band?”
“Nah. These are their setup men,” Mike replied.
“Roadies!” Big Mike corrected, introducing a word I had never before heard.
Inside the club, most of the band gear was now spread across the dance floor, with the exception of the four Super Beatle enclosures. I watched as one of the guys carried the old Fender Bassman straight up to the stage, picking up a chair from beneath one of the tables along the way. He placed the chair at stage left and put the amp in the chair, tilting it slightly against the back. At the same time the other two roadies were pulling tables together, off to each side of the stage, upon which they would eventually place two each of the Super Beatle enclosures. At this point I was really confused.
“Who plays through that beat-up Fender?” I inquired, pointing to the old tweed-covered amp.
“That’s what Duane plays through!” the guy on the stage hollered back. “You won’t believe the tone he gets out of this thing!”
I was repulsed.
“Duane Allman plays through that piece of shit?” I protested. “With all these Super Beatles, he plays through that?”
“Yeah, he won’t play through the Vox. Those heads are solid state, man. That’s okay for bass or keyboards, but Duane won’t play through any of that shit. Besides, he really likes Gregg’s voice coming through those Beatle bottoms.”
I suppose the confusion in my eyes must have given me away, as the guy sort of snickered,
“You’ve never heard Gregory sing, have you?” I confessed that, other than on their records, I had not, to which he laughed.
“It’ll all make sense to you when you do.” He said.
As they continued to work, I continued to ask questions, determined to learn all I possibly could. While some of what was said actually did make sense to me, coming from a “roadie,” I still wasn’t completely sold. Hell, I hadn’t yet accepted the idea of Super Beatles being wasted on vocals.
When the time came to unload the Hammond organ, I was expecting to see a B3 in all its splendor; shiny smooth, walnut finish, pristine snow white keys and drawbars, etc. What I actually saw was indeed made of wood at one time, but bore no resemblance to any Hammond I had ever seen. In fact, still wrapped in moving pads, strapped to a dolly, it looked more like a small casket.
“What the hell happened to that organ?” I begged.
“Oh, we had to cut away the legs and some of the desk to fit it on the truck.”
“You destroyed a Hammond organ… To get it in the truck? ”
“Well, kid, unless you can carry it around with you, having one don’t do a helluva lot of good.”
Okay. Here was something I could understand.
It was straight up nine o’clock, and we had just finished our set, when five guys suddenly came storming through the front door, as if they had suddenly remembered they were supposed to be somewhere. These guys did walk slumped over, and four of them carried guitar cases.
Two of the guys had long blonde hair and, despite the humidity of mid-July, one wore a black leather jacket. To me, and many like me, these dudes were the coolest of the cool. They were Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, Pete Carr, Paul Hornsby and Johnny Sandlin. The Hour Glass.
The sudden presence of the band gave me chills as I looked around for Ronnie, who was now standing alone at the center of the room, arms folded across his chest. When I took my place beside him I already had the feeling, just by the aura that had followed them into the club, that something very special and exciting was about to take place.
“Better than the Bitter Ind, huh?” I teased, reminding Ronnie of his earlier statement.
“Best in the business,” he said with a grin, recalling every word. “You’ll see.”
The band members gathered for a few minutes around the left side of the stage, where they laid their guitar cases out across several tables, reserved there for them and their entourage. Duane strapped on a Sunburst Stratocaster before walking on stage, while Gregg had a Gold Top Les Paul. Paul Hornsby wore another Les Paul Standard, though I don’t recall the finish.
Having owned the two Hour Glass LP’s prior to their arrival, and spending considerable time studying the content, I believed myself to be fairly knowledgeable of their style of music. I even believed I had some idea of what to expect. But I wasn’t even close.
I had just turned to Ronnie to ask why he thought the keyboard players were wearing guitars, when I heard Duane count off “Two-three-four…” Suddenly, I felt as though my entire body was being driven into a concrete wall.
The rhythm section of Carr and Sandlin was dominant, as the Hour Glass immediately began hammering away at the unsuspecting audience of mostly musicians. The opening number was the Moby Grape song, “Can’t Be So Bad,” its delivery powerful and unrelenting.
As Duane began the opening lead, I found a sudden appreciation for the sound of the old Fender amp, and by the time Gregg delivered the opening lines, I understood perfectly everything I had learned earlier in the day.
“From across the room, I went to ask her why……
Holy shit, man! This was what Ronnie had been talking about.
By the time the song ended I felt like I had been snatched up, wadded up like a wet piece of paper, and thrown against the wall. I could have been set afire while that song was being played and never even realized it. I felt like I’d been on the losing end of a long, grueling fight, and couldn’t imagine what the look on my face might divulge when I turned again to look at Ronnie.
“Da-a-a-yum….” I said, the only word I could get out.
“I ain’t even gonna say it, man.” Ronnie said with a grin.
Though I can’t recall every song they played, one I remember very clearly, during their second set, had been a huge hit for Dionne Warwick, of all people: “Anyone Who Had a Heart.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as the song began, and, judging by the number of gaping mouths in the room, neither could anyone else. And while I know it might be very difficult for people who were not there to imagine Gregg Allman singing this particular song, I believe it was during this number that I realized what an incredible voice the man possessed. Ronnie had again been right. These guys truly were the best in the business.
The Male Bach’s would open again for the Hour Glass two nights later, during which time I would become an even bigger fan, having the opportunity to actually talk to and interact with the guys. We had played using their equipment, right down to Duane’s Fuzz Face pedal, to avoid the need for any intermission. Once we finished our set, they began theirs, which was what the room full of aspiring musicians, including One Percent, had come to hear.
On Sunday night, they again opened with all guitars. But this time they would begin with their own version of the Dobson-Rose song, “Morning Dew,” with all the power and energy they had dispensed the night before.
Gregg’s face was barely visible as he leaned over into his microphone, blond hair flowing, glowing beneath the red stage lights, as he belted out the opening line.
“Walk me out in the morning dew… my honey….
At one point in the show, Duane, wearing a ten-gallon hat, stopped a song in mid-verse, when a scuffle broke out on the dance floor.
“Now, you boys lookin’ for trouble can just take it on outside.” He said into the microphone. “Cause the only trouble you’re gonna find in here, is me and this here Stratocaster.” As the two servicemen stood down, the band jumped right back into the same song.
By the end of the night, Mike (Kinnamon) had been able to sit in alongside drummer Johnny Sandlin on a medley of blues numbers which brought the house down. The Hour Glass had been nothing at all like their albums. With the exception of Gregg’s unmistakable voice, neither record was in any way indicative of the style, the power, nor the level of talent possessed by these guys.
Throughout the week I had pestered club manager Bob McClain about how much the club was paying for a group of this caliber. I never got a straight answer. Art, however, was a little more forthcoming.
“Well, if it’s anything like the last time they were here, it won’t cost me anything. The boys like to play their poker, you see. The last time they were here they had to borrow gas money to get out of town by the time I got through with ‘em.”
After the show, when I went into the office to fetch my bass, they were all sitting around the table, cards in hand. I don’t know who was holding what at the time, and it may have only been the heat, but Gregg was already without his shirt.