From The Beatles to The Blues:
My Life in Music, 1965-????
By Billy Hamilton
(© Bill Coleman/2007)
Dear Reader--What you are about to read is a serialized memoir. That means the research upon which it is based was done, primarily, inside my head. While my memories of the last 40 years are reasonably clear, it is certainly possible that I have misspelled someone’s name, written the wrong date, or committed other such minor errors here. I have asked for input and correction from friends and fellow-musicians who shared these times with me, and some have provided helpful information. Many who have lived to tell about the times during which these events took place, however, claim to have little or no recollection of those years. They are walking exemplars of the old saying: “If you can remember the 60s, then you were not really there.” So I welcome feedback from anyone who WAS there, remembers, and finds historical inaccuracy herein. Despite any such flaws, I hope that what you find below might enable you to share a little bit of my musical past--the times, the people, the places, and the songs—for better or for worse. BH
Chapter One: The Morticians
In 1964, there were no such things as “air guitars,” but they were the first instruments that we played as we stood in the
Eventually, some of us got more serious and started hounding our parents to buy us real instruments. In the summer of 1965, at the age of 13, I managed to persuade my dad, though he probably couldn’t afford it, to get me a big Harmony acoustic guitar at Rink’s
I never took any guitar lessons. (“Yes, we can tell!” some listeners might concur, even today.) I don’t think my father could afford them. Maybe he wanted to see if I was serious before throwing away any money on my early interest in music. Also, reading musical notes off paper just didn’t seem all that cool to me. I couldn’t imagine the Beatles or the Stones doing that. So my fellow musicians-to-be and I learned to play “by ear,” though I always thought “by memory” was a more accurate phrase. We taught and learned from each other and from records. At
We all had cheap instruments then. Most parents would not or could not buy the expensive and beautiful guitars at which we gazed through the windows of Weaver’s and Imfeld’s music stores. The guitars themselves cast a spell over us with their special beauty—the symmetrically curved and cherry-stained Gibson SGs, the flat, cutaway bodies and beautiful sunbursts of the Fender Stratocasters. The reverse design of the Gibson Firebird guitars and Thunderbird basses, the space-age shapes of the Vox guitars—teardrops and hexagons--would hypnotize us. Usually, the salesmen in the stores would let us come in to hold these precious wooden sculptures that spoke music. Upon them we played the paltry chords we knew, which seemed unworthy of such guitars. To own one was beyond our reach. We could not afford even the modest, second-hand instruments at Morris Loan down the street, where there were Harmony Rockets, for example: red semi-hollow bodies that were halfway respectable but less expensive than the Gibsons and Fenders. We did buy picks and strings there, and I think my first harmonica—a Hohner Marine Band in D—came from the gruff but kind old owner of Morris Loan, who put up with our coming in to waste his time on Saturday mornings, browsing and touching and asking questions about the instruments we dreamed of owning.
Carmine Isgro, who lived across the street, next to the Bells, was the first kid in the neighborhood to get a new, real electric guitar. It, too, was a Harmony, a solid body with a tortoise-shell pick guard and silver, easy-to-play, flat-wound strings. He would sit outside on the porch-swing with it, effortlessly strumming Herman’s Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” He also had a small Harmony amp, which he personalized by putting his first name, in black letters, diagonally across the grill cloth. The rest of us did not dare to ask if we could play his guitar. We knew he would say no. Carmine eventually switched to bass and became a good bass player in a local band called the Durations, with drummer Chuck Farkas, rhythm guitarist Steve Crank, and Dean Arno, an excellent musician, playing lead. Later on, Carmine joined the Air Force, as I recall, and made a career of the military, an unusual choice for a musician in those days, but ultimately a wiser one than the choices many of our fellow guitar-strummers made.
The feeling we all shared about playing music, the magical thrill that spurred our first and ever-so-humble efforts, is very hard to convey. It was a chillingly beautiful obsession that claimed our hearts, minds, and souls. When we watched the long-haired British invasion bands on Ed Sullivan—or new American acts like the Righteous Brothers or the Shindogs (featuring Rick Nelson’s guitar player James Burton and Delaney Bramlett of Delaney and Bonnie) on “Shindig” or “Hullabaloo” (music TV shows of the mid-60s), we were positively overcome with an excruciatingly painful excitement. Girls screamed and cried and fainted. We gladly would have died to be the boys who made them scream and cry and faint, but it wasn’t just that—wanting to impress the opposite sex. The amazing coolness of those slim, long-haired young British guys (we had never seen or heard any English band before), the chemistry that poured from the TV screen and out of the speakers of our tiny transistor radios when they played and sang (in American accents because of the 50s rock and roll from which they had learned), became a very important part of our existence. To be like them was to be supremely cool.
Of course, young people today are awed by and obsessed with their own musical heroes, from Eminem to Britney Spears to 50 Cent, but can their excitement now possibly compare to ours then? I’m sure they would say yes, it can. But we had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Hollies, the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, Them (featuring Van Morrison), and many others, plus a growing contingent of American artists—The the Young Rascals, the Byrds, the Doors, Mitch Ryder, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Kingsmen,--that sprang up to reflect the guitar-group lineups coming to us from England. Ironically, these British groups had, in turn, been influenced by American blues music that they had reconstituted and were feeding back to us, unbeknownst to most Americans. Also, during these years, the air-waves were drenched in 60s soul music from Stax and Motown and King Records (in Cincinnati): James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, the Temptations, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smoky Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Solomon Burke, and so many others, like Ray Charles, who was really in a class of his own. Although there developed a certain rift at that time between the soul fans and the rock disciples in my hometown, today I revere the 60s soul music and still play some soul covers of that time in my shows.
So, at the risk of offending today’s young music fans and sounding like an “older person,” I have to say there is no comparison--in terms of the songwriting and the “realness” of the recordings and performances--between most popular music of today and that of the mid- to late 60s and early 70s.
I cannot fail to add that 50s rock and roll and doo-wop, by which I was bewitched during my pre-teen, elementary school years, had been equally full of good singing and songwriting, just a step away from the blues and black gospel music. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Rick Nelson, Gene Vincent, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Drifters, the Coasters, The Isley Brothers, and many others made great pop music, though it was recorded on only one or two tracks, essentially live, in the most basic and primitive way. Thus, it was very real, and that realness, along with the singing and songwriting values, is what made it so good. It was not just pleasing to the ear and not just something to dance to; it reached inside and grabbed the listener by the heart. Once music takes hold of one’s heart in that way, it never really lets go. At least that has been my experience.
One of the moments that stamped itself in my brain and instilled in me the desire to play music in front of people occurred on a summer evening, sometime in the late 50s or very early 60s. I had been sitting outside on the porch with my parents at
Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks were not well known in America, and I heard nothing more of them until 30 years later, when I learned that Ronnie Hawkins was Canadian and that his band, the Hawks, had later evolved into The Band (Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, et. al.), who played with Bob Dylan, after he went electric, and then went on to make excellent records of their own. So the mid-50s through the early 70s, I think, were very good years to grow up and absorb the popular music being played in
Of course there are good young and talented musicians and songwriters today. I have worked with good young players in my Lowriders band in
When we do find good and talented young artists today, they are likely to be more obscure than ever. This has always been true to a certain extent in any art form. The common taste is generally low, and the artistic cream usually does not rise to the top except for a handful of artists who manage to be commercially appealing and artistically respectable (and sensible and persistent and focused and lucky and in the right place at the right time). But today that common taste (with strong encouragement from industry professionals who feed us the worst of the worst, rather than take chances on the best of the best) is lower than ever, in my opinion. Some of the mindless, computer-made “dance music” I now hear, for example, seems to me not to be music at all. Of course, our parents said the same of our music; but much of it has stood the test of time. Yes, the Beatles, Stones, and other pop-rock or “beat” groups started out with somewhat lightweight, formulaic songs of love, catchy rhymes and predictable lyrics and chord structures, but they quickly developed into more serious and progressive artists as they moved into the late 60s and early 70s. Those who remained “lightweight” we dismissed and ridiculed as “plastic” or “bubble gum” bands. But even the most commercial acts of that time brought more to the table in terms of songwriting and real singing and playing than do many of the most popular teen idols of today. If I were forced to choose between The 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “1-2-3 Red Light”—a truly vapid “bubble gum” song of my time, which we young “musicians” turned off every time it polluted the airwaves—and the stuff I hear pouring out of the headphones of my students’ I-pods today, I’m afraid I would have to choose “1-2-3 Red Light” every time. It was bad—silly and trite and blatantly commercial--but at least it resembled real music in some way.
Technology was much less sophisticated back then, thank G/god. What was played in the studio was more or less honestly reproduced on vinyl. There were studio effects like echo and reverb to beef up the sound a little, but there were no computer programs to make someone who could not sing or play at all sound as though he or she could--not that all of our heroes were great musicians. They were not. In the case of the Beatles, though their vocals and songwriting were good, their playing was adequate for their material and no more. And nobody ever claimed that Jagger had a beautiful voice, but it was unique, his alone, boldly expressive, shamelessly angry and proud—like nothing we had heard before—largely because we were ignorant of our own blues tradition. We knew Elvis and 50s rock and roll, but we did not then know anything about the American blues that had spawned it. Most importantly, the songwriting of the 50s and the mid- to late-60s was just so good. Yes, it was only popular music, not Beethoven, but so many of those songs were popular classics in the making, work that is still listened to today, almost a half-century later. Though it was simple and simply recorded (by today’s standards), it was, I think, far better than most (sophisticatedly recorded) pop music of today, and we watched the artists grow before us as we followed them. The Beatles went from “She Loves You” to “A Day in the Life,” for example, in just a few years, before our very eyes. The Who went from “My Generation” to the rock opera “Tommy” in the same time-period. The Stones went from “Satisfaction” and “Under My Thumb” to “As Tears Go By,” “Angie,” and “Ruby Tuesday” and went on to create a huge body of work, to which they are still adding today. Even as I write, they are out on their “A Bigger Bang” tour, with original members Jagger, Richards, and
So, though I’m sure today’s young music fans are as excited as they think they can be by their musical heroes, I would like to drop them into 1964-65 and let them hear the Beatle’s first sing “Please Please Me” or the Stones first do “The Last Time” or “Heart of Stone” over a pocket transistor radio. Then, I think, they would know what true musical excitement is. Will Hilary Duff or Justin Timberlake or 50 Cent or Britney Spears display impressive musical development and staying power over the next few decades? Will their songs still be listened to by new generations and performed and recorded by the musical artists of 2060? Will these artists, themselves, still be writing, singing, recording, and touring in their 60s as the Stones are today? Well, time, at least, is on their side; time will tell.
While most kids of our time were audience members content to watch and listen, for some of us—blessed or cursed—consumption was not enough. We wanted to be those musicians up on the stage and screen. Talent? Most of us—certainly I—had very little, but of confidence and the egotism necessary to take center stage and command it, I had plenty. When I first saw the Rolling Stones on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I was thunderstruck. They were described as rebellious, rawly sexual in their image and delivery. Some critics of the day called them “dirty” (compared to the clean-cut, pompadoured heroes like Rick Nelson and Frankie Avalon--and even compared to the Beatles). To me, the Stones were so far beyond cool that it could not be described. Every sound they emitted and every move they made spoke to me directly. I immediately set about becoming the Mick Jagger of Hamilton, Ohio.
The seeds of musical aspiration had probably lain dormant in me for a few years already, anyway. As a pre-teen, I had fancied myself a local combination of Elvis, Rick Nelson, Fabian, and the Everly Brothers, whose music thrilled me in the 50s and very early 60s. Even then, I was not content just to be the audience. I wanted to do what the performers did and was not shy about it. I remember getting up in front of my 4th-grade class at
In my first band, the Morticians, a trio consisting of two brothers, Tim and Kenny Koger, and me, I was not the singer/frontman, however. I was, very laughably, the lead guitar player. At that time, I could strum a few open chords-C,D,E,A,Am, and G—but F was difficult, and I certainly had not mastered B, nor had I learned yet to play bar chords, the rock/pop guitarist’s stock in trade. Any kind of solo was far beyond my abilities. A couple of choruses of the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” or “Wipeout” respresented the peak of my abilities. I was the lead player only because I had an acoustic guitar. Tim Koger had come up with a second-hand Kay electric and a small Kay ampflier. By setting all his tone controls at the bass levels and playing notes, not chords, only on his lower strings, he could mimic a poor-man’s version of a real 4-string bass guitar, which we did not have. His brother Kenny had a three-piece red-sparkle drum set of some kind, and together we banged away at songs like “Louie Louie,” by the Kingsmen; “This Diamond Ring,” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys; “Pipeline,” by the Chantays; and a few others we had learned from books or from older, better musicians or figured out—often wrongly--for ourselves. On Saturday mornings, when the Kogers’ parents were gone shopping and running family errands with most of Tim and Kenny’s siblings, we would meet early and set up our meager equipment in front of the big picture window in the Kogers’ family room to flail away at our humble repertoire. Of course, we hoped people might see us through the window and know that we were “in a band.”
In this family room, the Kogers had a wooden console stereo hi-fi, which included a turntable, a radio, and a small reel-to-reel tape recorder. So it was there on a Saturday morning in the Koger family room that we recorded our first music. We played our instrumental versions of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” theme, the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” and the Stones’ first big hit, “Satisfaction.” Since my guitar was un-amplified, I stood closest to the tape recorder’s little microphone. We placed Tim’s louder, amplified pseudo-bass a few feet away and Kenny’s drums, the loudest instrument of all, in the next room, where we could see him through the doorway. In this way, we tried to achieve a balance of volume levels. Then we turned on the tape and played. To this point, we had been only an instrumental band, since we had no microphones or PA system and could not be heard singing over the drums. But I knew all the words to “Satisfaction,” and now I hit upon the bright notion that I could sing directly into the tape recorder mike and be heard over the music behind me. Anyone who hears his voice recorded and played back for the first time is usually shocked to find that he does not sound on tape as he does in his own head. Certainly this was the case for me. Sounding to myself just like Jagger as I poured my emotion into the microphone, I produced a very breathy and overly dramatic version of “Satisfaction” that made my band-mates laugh. I was embarrassed by the way I sounded, but not quite embarrassed enough to give up singing on the spot. Fortunately, that tape was probably erased and recorded over by the Koger kids long ago. It might be interesting to hear now, but it’s probably a blessing that it no longer exists.
The Morticians continued to rehearse whenever we could get away with it, but I lived in a housetrailer, so there was no room, and the Kogers’ parents didn’t want to hear the noise when they were home. Thus our practice sessions were sporadic, but we were in love with music, and love will always find a way. Sometimes, when my girlfriend Marilynn’s father was working second shift at Fisherbody, her mother would allow us to come over after school and rehearse in her living room. Recalling this from an adult point of view today, I am amazed. Would I ever allow a bunch of very bad aspiring teenaged musicians to drag drums and amplifiers into my house and bang away loudly at something that must have sounded like G/god knows what? Never. And we probably did not even thank Marilynn’s mother properly. I am retrospectively grateful today, though, because there was no thrill better, then, than making music. Hearing something even remotely similar to what we had heard on radio and records actually being reproduced by us was amazing. That’s what made us continue playing, as bad as we were. Like most things in life, playing music gave us the biggest thrill when we were new to it—and thus very bad at it. After 42 years of experience, I hope I am a little better at it today than I was then, but I don’t think I will ever experience the pure joy of just playing for its own sake—for no money and no audience--as I did in 1965.
Sometimes Tim and Kenny would get into trouble, and their dad would threaten to sell the drums and guitar, which officially belonged to all the kids in the family. Once, I think, he actually did sell them, to a guy named Bill Sams who lived nearby and fancied himself a singer/musician just as we did. Then, somehow, they were gotten back and we were able to continue practicing.
The Morticians played only one job—a party in the basement of my friend Steve Schmitt, who had a rival fledgling band in a different part of town. He was a graduate of St. Veronica’s elementary school, in his freshman year at Hamilton Catholic High, and had players from his school and neighborhood. So his band did the few songs they knew, the Beatles’ “Boys” and a couple of others, then took a break to make out with their girlfriends in dark corners of the basement while we played our big three tunes—instrumental again of course, since we still had no mikes and no P.A. system. The kids from Hamilton Catholic, Notre Dame High (the girls’ Catholic school), and St. Veronica were thus spared my early vocal efforts--not that they would have noticed, since they were busy fondling one another passionately in the dark. We were innocently girl-less at the party, but developed an interest in the St. Veronica’s girls, who seemed a little racier than their public school equivalents--probably the result of all that repression by the nuns in those days. When the public schools had a day off and St. V’s was still in session, we would wander over to the Catholic school grounds around lunch or recess time. I would comb my hair down from its 50s pompadour into a Beatle-like style. Thus I won the attention of a St. V’s eighth-grader named Juanita. I began to walk the long distance from my house to hers on weekend afternoons. Together, chaperoned by her family, we would watch music shows on TV, but managed a fairly passionate good-bye kiss or two out on the porch most evenings when I left. One day, a British band called The Pretty Things, the first to have hair all the way down to their shoulders, was on television. Juanita liked the Beatles’ hair, but she and I agreed that shoulder-length tresses on guys were a little too much and that I would never let my hair get that long. I’m sorry, Juanita, but in later years, I’m afraid, I did breach our agreement. I hope you can forgive me.
Hanging around St. Veronica also led me to meet Mike Mills, who turned out to be the best guitar player of our age that we knew. Mike’s older brother Jim was the lead player in a local band called the Out of Sights, so Mike had learned from Jim and had plenty of natural talent all his own. Their father, Don, had been a trumpet player in his youth, and musical families often produce good musicians, obviously. When Jim wasn’t around, Mike was allowed to play his brother’s Fender Stratocaster through his Gibson amp. Then one day, Jim switched to bass and joined the Has-Bins (formerly Jerry and the Mustangs) and more or less gave Mike that guitar and amp. Many evenings we sat up in his room in his parents’ house on
I don’t think he and I ever really played together in a band. With him playing lead, I could hope to play only rhythm, and didn’t I even have an electric guitar. Another friend of ours, Dee Brenneman, usually seemed to be his rhythm player. Of course I wanted to sing out front, but was not considered that good a singer, so that job went to a guy named Juan Boggs. I recall coming over to Mike’s one day to find this lineup rehearsing in his basement, which made me feel rather left out. But Mike and I remained friends, and he continued to teach me.
Mike transferred to
None of the Morticians knew anything about “the nightlife” in 1965. We were still interested in sports and all went out for the
--To be continued. Please check back regularly for further installments of
From The Beatles to The Blues: My Life in Music, 1965-????
by Billy Hamilton
(© Bill Coleman/2007)