Saturday, April 26, 2008

Blues Inc. (1967-68)

3. Blues Inc. (1967-68)

During my ninth-grade year at GW Junior High, I got together here and there with different people who were learning to play. Randy Blades was a classmate of mine who had a Gibson EB-3 bass, with the cherry SG-style body, and an old blond Fender Bassman amp—good equipment compared to our Harmony and Silvertone stuff. Randy was learning to play bass and piano with the help of his father, Emery Blades, who had been a local country singer in his youth and made a few singles. (One, I remember, was called “I Feel Like a Million.”) Another friend, Phil McKenzie, had a Gibson Firebird guitar and Fender amplifier. Up to this point, only some of the older bands who played at Open House had had such good instruments and amps. (Ron and the Sabras, from slightly more affluent Fairfield, were especially well equipped with Rickenbacker and Fender guitars and a wall of Magnatone amps), Randy and Phil were among the first kids I knew well, aspiring musicians of my age, to get quality epuipment. I, meanwhile, was still trying to sing and play guitar on my big acoustic Harmony with the attached pickup. A few of us would set up a Saturday practice session in somebody’s basement, get together, and play some songs. One person might know how play “Dirty Water,” by the Standells from Boston; another might know “Land of a Thousand Dances” by Cannibal and the Headhunters. We would teach each other the songs we had learned. Mike Mills had shown me how to play the Beatles’ “Daytripper” and “Money,” a classic Barret Strong tune recorded by both the Beatles and the Kingsmen. When “Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding, came out, Mike showed me how to play that, too. He had seen Redding do it on television, with Steve Cropper on guitar, and proudly told me he had picked up every lick that Cropper had played.

At one point, my friend Phil McKenzie and I got together in his garage with the former Inversions drummer, Bill Thomin. I remember playing and singing a song called “Little Black Egg” by the Nightcrawlers that day. But most of these sessions were one-time events that led nowhere in particular. Nothing seemed to gel. We were learning to play a little, trying to get better. We might form a band for a week or two. Soon it would change members or be abandoned. This pattern continued as we “graduated” from junior high school and went on to Garfield Senior High. Then, one Saturday afternoon during our sophomore year, Warren Wright took me to a rehearsal of his current band, Blues Inc.

I don’t know if they had intentionally copied the name of Alexis Korner’s British band, in which future household names like Eric Clapton honed their skills in London before achieving worldwide stardom. However Warren’s band had gotten the name, it was a misnomer because they played no blues of any kind. They played “Shout” by Joey Dee and “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd and a Byrds instrumental called “Captain Soul” and a variety of pop rock hits of the time. They practiced at the home of the rhythm guitar player, Gary Hisey, at 3959 Hammond Blvd., in a part of Hamilton called Lindenwald. Hisey lived there with his mother and his sister, Linda, who was a few years older than we were.

Hisey had a Gibson SG and a Silvertone Twin-Twelve amp. Warren, who had fallen in love with Rickenbacker guitars, had come up with a Rick copy made by Crestwood and his own Twin-Twelve, as well. His guitar looked authentic, just like a Rick 330 with a “fireburst” finish, even though it was not of the same quality. The action and the sound could not compare to those of a real Rickenbacker, an American guitar of great integrity for the best part of a century now. But the Crestwood was a step up from Warren’s first guitar, a humble Kay, and his second, an old black Silvertone, which now became a backup. (We did not know then that Warren would one day have a basement full of real Rickenbackers.)

The Blues Inc. drummer was Charlie Henry, also our age, a sophomore at Taft High on the West Side. The bass player was Danny Paul, who had a red Gibson EB-0 to match Hisey’s SG. They were both still in the ninth grade at GW Junior High. At the time I met them, they had played at a GW dance and a horse show and a couple of other jobs, including one at Nichting’s Restaurant, a Hamilton institution for decades. Hisey’s stepfather, John Cook, even had a van he sometimes let them use, and they put “Blues Inc.” signs in the windows when they used it. (John would not let them actually paint the name on the side.)

Since Blues Inc. already had two guitar players, I was invited to practice with them as a singer only. This was my move from behind the guitar to center stage, out front, which is where I wanted to be. I still couldn’t sing much, but I had plenty of show, and I guess they thought it would be cool to have a showy singer out front. There weren’t so many bands who did back then. Among our local bands, the Rockers had Wayne Perry singing, and he was a very good front man. His size and coloring were not so far from those of Jagger, who set the standard for us, of course, and Wayne had all the moves and style you could ask for. I watched him with admiration at Open House, just as I watched Danny Riley of the Dayton Sound at LeSourdsville Lake. Always a self-centered, egotistical, vain child, I instinctively felt that I had the combination of image, physical coordination, presentation and shamelessness necessary to be a dynamic front man/lead singer. And, with precious little attention to developing and improving my voice (I sounded great in my own head), that is exactly what I became, starting with Blues, Inc.

At that first rehearsal, I sang only a little, though, and spent a lot of time demonstrating how to play a feedback lead, a la Pete Townshend, with Warren’s old Silvertone guitar. There in Ohio, we were only beginning to get a whiff of what was going on San Francisco and permeating the music world. “Psychedelic” music was just starting to reach us, and I was extremely hip to it. One feature of early psychedelia was the sound of feedback, the high-pitched squeal that results when open microphones are turned up too high and placed too close to speakers through with they are amplified. In general, feedback was to be avoided, but guitarists like Hendrix and Townshend of The Who had begun to incorporate it into their solos, turning their guitars up loud and facing their amps to create a feedback loop between the guitar’s pickups and the speakers. I instructed the members of Blues Inc. to play some continual riff in a certain key, then I turned up Warren’s guitar and amp, dropped to my knees and played feedback guitar in front of the speakers. This required knowing just a few notes in the scale because each note would sustain indefinitely and feedback would fill any silences or holes. Very long songs were a trademark of the psychedelic groups, and I played a good half-hour guitar solo (a terrible one, I’m sure, since I don’t consider myself a guitar soloist even today, 40 years later) while the band repeated two or three chords underneath me. Hisey, who was easily bored, almost fell asleep as he played the same chords again and again. Somehow, though, I become part of the band that day. After that, I played guitar only at home (thus my failure to really develop as a guitar player). At the age of 15, I was the lead singer/front man for Blues Inc., and we began to rehearse regularly there in the Hiseys’ basement.

Hisey’s older sister, Linda, who had just graduated from high school the year before, became very important in our development into teenage musicians. Linda did not do most of the things other girls her age did, as far as I could tell. With only a couple of girlfriends and no boyfriend, she did not seem to have much of a social life. She loved animals and always had at least one or two; she was a Beatles fanatic and made a trip to England with her cousin Judy Greathouse to see Liverpool, where it had all started; and she took a great interest in her little brother’s band. The relationship between the two siblings was often like a master-servant kind of arrangement, with Hisey in the master’s position, though he was the younger. If he called for a “dippied egg” at breakfast time, Linda would make it for him. (The recipe for this special dish was known only to the Hiseys). If he needed to go someplace and was too lazy to walk, Linda, who had a driver’s license and a car, would take him there. Occasionally, his selfish demands would make her angry, though, and the roles would reverse, with Linda spewing a big sister’s wrath at the spoiled little brother. One time, for example, she had taken us all in her car to the Acme Drive-In movie theater. We used to put one person in the trunk before we drove in, to save money on admission, then let him out after we had parked. So Hisey had volunteered or been elected to get into the trunk that night. He felt, though, that Linda, once inside, had been too slow about finding a parking spot and opening the trunk to let him out. He was a nervous child and had probably suffered an attack of panic and claustrophobia. When he finally climbed out of the trunk and into the front seat, he was angry and continued to verbally abuse his sister as the movie began. After apologizing and then listening silently for a while to his continuing tirade, Linda finally gave him what he was asking for. She turned and slapped him across the face so hard we thought his head would come off. “Now just shut up and watch the movie!” she said (or something to that effect). We were all shocked into silence. Hisey flushed scarlet, his mouth dropping open and tears jumping to his eyes, completely unable to believe Linda had hit him. He said no more, but watched the movie. Later, I’m sure she bought him some popcorn to make up.

Linda was like a sixth member of the band. In her brown ’66 Chevy Nova, she transported us everywhere. She would pick us all up in the early evening for band practice, and, when we had finished around 9:00 p.m., she would take us all home. On the way we would stop to eat at Miller’s Drive-In, a local 50s-style hotdog stand where the carhop brought the customer’s food on a tray that she attached to the car window. Warren always ordered the “Elephant Ear” sandwich, a jumbo hamburger of some kind. Others of us would have “foot longs” and chili dogs, fries and root beer. When we had finished eating, Linda would take us to King Kwik, a convenience store in the style of 7-11, for dessert: peanut M&Ms and Mountain Dew (then a new soft drink sold in green bottles with the monogram “bottled by Bessie and Earl” or “Jed and Henrietta”). Then she would drop us all off at our respective houses (#61, Dixie Trailer Park, in my case). How many times she did this I could never count. When we had our little band jobs, she would take us and our equipment in her car, run our “light show” or take money at the door or do whatever we needed her to do. Then she would take us out to eat at Jerry’s, another local drive-in, after the show. We usually made just enough money to pay for our late dinner. Without Linda, Blues Inc. probably would have been a short-lived affair, but thanks largely to her, we were able to continue playing (with different lineups and different names) more or less throughout our three years of high school.

Linda worked “uptown,” in the office of a furniture store called Lady Sylvia, and she sometimes had to go back there to do some work in the evenings, after dinner. If we were not rehearsing, she would often take Hisey, Warren, and me uptown with her and drop us off to wander around while she worked. We would look into the music store windows, then go over to the Post Office, the lobby of which was left open 24 hours a day at that time (hard to believe now, when it’s shut up tight at 4:00 p.m. to keep out the homeless and the crackheads). There we would sit on the stairs inside the building, eat peanut M&Ms, and talk about music and bands and instruments and amplifiers, etc.

Then we would sometimes wander over to the studios of WMOH-AM, where a DJ named Bob Zix would let us come up to visit him in the studio and give us promo singles he had lying around. We thought we were very cool, sitting up there in the radio station while Zix broadcast music to Butler County.

The first job that I played with the band was also thanks to Linda. It was the Lady Sylvia Christmas party of 1967. Since Linda worked there, she had gotten us the job. Her boss had rented the cafeteria of Taft High School, on the other side of town, for the occasion. There I remember playing a very long version of “Shout” and giving the Lady Sylvia employees all the show I could give as our blue and red light bulbs flashed slowly off and on.

Blues, Inc. also played at the Millville Roller Rink, which held dances on Saturday nights. The skating stopped at 10:00, and the music was supposed to begin at 10:00 and continue until 1:00. Of course this left no time for setting up equipment. We had to be there waiting near the side door of the rink a few minutes before 10:00. When all skaters had been cleared from the floor, the door would be opened, and we would rush in to set up our equipment on the rink floor as fast as we could. As soon as we got everything hooked up and plugged in, we began to play. (We had never heard of a “sound check” in those days.) Only the band was permitted to wear shoes on the rink floor. For the audience, it was a “sock-hop.”

Millville was semi-rural then, a village between Hamilton and Oxford, and the kids out there were a good audience. Always appreciative, enthusiastic and excited about the music, which was moving in a more psychedelic direction under my leadership. Our payment for the night was $35 for the whole band, so we made $7 each—enough to give Linda some money for gas, eat out, get some Mountain Dew and M&Ms afterward, and maybe have a dollar or two in our pockets when we went back to school on Monday. Much greater than the monetary reward was the thrill of having actually played music in front of people, of being in a band, standing on a stage (although neither the Taft cafeteria nor the Millville Rink had one) and creating music that the audience actually listened and danced to.

For better or worse, I have always been the leader of almost everything I have ever been involved in, and I quickly took control of the Blues Inc. repertoire and show, leading the band in a much hipper, freakier, somewhat psychedelic direction, much like that of my local heroes, The Dayton Sound. I cut out what I thought were uncool or burnt out old songs like “Shout” and put in songs by new hip bands like Cream, The Doors, The Animals, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Yardbirds, and the Chocolate Watch Band. I was determined to have the coolest possible band in town.

Linda took us to see Jimi Hendrix at the Xavier University Field House in Cincinnati in March 1968, as I recall. The admission fee was $3.50, and I’m sure Warren still has the poster advertising the show. The supporting act on the tour was the Soft Machine--a very progressive forerunner of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer-- and the show was opened by Cincinnati’s best and most popular “psychedelic era” band, The Sacred Mushroom, featuring Larry Goshorn on lead guitar and vocals. The Mushroom was a very cool band that opened most of the big shows in that time—Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service—and played their own shows at places like the Black Dome and the Ludlow Garage. They always sounded and looked great, had some good original songs, and lived together in the “Mushroom House” in Clifton near the University of Cincinnati, the hippest part of town in those days. The Mushroom made one album, Parallax View, while they were together. Then Larry Goshorn, along with his younger brother Tim and a guy named Craig Fuller, played in Pure Prairie League, a “country rock” band of the 70s that had a pretty big hit song called “Amy” and another called “Two-Lane Highway,” both of which I believe Larry Goshorn wrote or co-wrote. The Goshorn Brothers today are a very good blues-based band that still plays around the Cincinnati area, and I think Larry still sells the old Sacred Mushroom album on their website.

For us, junior freaks from a very uncool, redneck town, being at the Hendrix concert was like having front-row seats in heaven. The last thing we expected to see there was someone else from Hamilton, which did not have many hip music fans among its residents. But, lo and behold, we spotted Bonnie Farmer, who was a sophomore at Garfield High along with Warren and me. She and I had gone to elementary school together for a few years before I moved to the trailer park in a different school district, and we had “liked” each other in the fourth grade. At the concert with her sister, Bonnie had exchanged her “school clothes” for tight blue-jean bells, an army fatigue jacket and Indian moccasins. That night, we identified each other as fellow freaks in a redneck environment and soon rekindled our childhood romance. We had seen Hendrix together—a bond not to be taken lightly. She was my girlfriend all through high school.

Seeing Hendrix further strengthened my resolve to have the coolest, most psychedelic band possible. As anyone who has known me well throughout my life will testify, I am by nature a bossy, judgmental, impatient, intolerant, demanding and unforgiving person of the worst sort. A spoiled (not with money but in every other way) only child, I am self-centered, egotistical, and cynical. Today, I try to soften the rough edges of my personality with a certain amount of diplomacy, politeness, and positive energy, but as a teenager, I was without any of those three qualities. So I took over the band by sheer force of intimidation. At practice, I got a very long mike cord and sang from one end of the basement while the band played at the other, so I could hear and see everything the other members were doing. If I heard or saw something I didn’t like, I made them do it until it was right. I was harsh, critical, and mean and expected everyone to do exactly as I said, which they did. (Of course no one would dare criticize my singing, which probably needed the most work of all.)

Not only did I change our repertoire; I also went to work on our light show. Previously, we had had only some red and blue bulbs with flasher buttons that made the lights blink on and off slowly. First we added a “black light” that we bought from Marshall Electric. But that was not enough for me. I had seen The Dayton Sound playing under their real and expensive strobe light and insisted we should have one, which we made by ourselves with the help of Steve Sandor, a classmate of Hisey’s who was something of an electronic genius. He hung around our practices a lot and could fix any technical problem like shorted-out cords or dirty volume controls. He also played bass in his own little band called the Fiberglass Rowboat, which featured another friend, John Orme, on guitar and Mike Browning on drums. Mike was not permitted to take his drums out of the house, though. So all they could do was rehearse in the basement, with no hope of playing out.

Sandor helped us to make a strobe light from an old record player. We took everything out of the cabinet except the turntable. On it we mounted a circular piece of cardboard with a lightbulb-sized hole in it. We cut a similar hole in the cabinet itself, and installed a socket for the very brightest bulb we could find at Marshall Electric. When the hole in the cardboard wheel came around to line up with the hole in the cabinet, the bright light inside flashed through the two holes. Then Sandor added some device to control the speed of the turntable with a rheostat. We experimented with different speeds and finally found one that set the flash at the right frequency to create a strobe effect—one of moving in a dreamlike slow motion, for those who have never seen a strobe light. When we finally got it right, we turned out the lamps in the Hisey living room and jumped around in the beam of our new strobe. But we couldn’t leave it on too long because the bulb got so hot we feared it might burn or melt the old record player cabinet. We first used our new strobe at the Millville Roller Rink, and the country kids went crazy. They wanted to move their hands in and out of the beam to see the effect. The new light gave me even more confidence and enthusiasm, and our show improved significantly. So, although I was a teenaged tyrant of the first-degree, I maintain that our band became a lot cooler under my direction. We never were musically great, but we were not boring to watch, as some more talented bands were.

One of those more talented rival bands from our high school was called The Ladds, who also played sometimes at the Millville Rink. They were a good soul band, better musicians than we were, and very intolerant of hippies and freaks, which we were trying our best to be. We had begun to espouse peace and love, burn incense, and wear beads. But the members of the soul crowd were fledgling beer drinkers and ass-kickers, and “kicking some hippie ass” was one of their favorite pastimes. So some of the Ladds, in their standard soul garb (three-quarter length, black leather soul coats, high-waisted pants and “thick-n-thin” socks), might show up when we were playing at the rink, to stare at us menacingly and threaten to beat our asses outside after the dance. So we instructed Linda to pull the van up close to the doors when she came back at 1:00. (She was not allowed to say through the dance; admission was restricted to band members and teenaged patrons, only.) We hustled the equipment out, jumped into the van, and rushed to get out of Millville alive.

Another “job” we played was at the Boar’s Head, a college bar in Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami University (of Ohio), which was just a few miles up the road. The older brother of my junior-high-school girlfriend Marilynn had gone to Miami and hung out at the Boar’s Head, and from him we knew that some of the cool bands like the Lemon Pipers played there. We boldly called to ask about getting a job ourselves, and someone told us we could “audition” by playing on a Saturday afternoon. That was good enough for us. We packed up Linda’s Nova, and she drove us up to Oxford, where we crept tentatively into the Boar’s Head. Like most college bars, it was a primitive sort of place with a concrete floor and rough wooden tables and chairs. It did have a somewhat rustic atmosphere, and there was, as I recall, an actual boar’s head mounted on the wall. There was a two-level stage, which allowed us to place the drums higher than the rest of the band. We set up and played awhile for the handful students devoting their Saturday afternoon to drinking 3.2 beer. We got no particular response, one way or another, and no one who appeared to be in a management position spoke to us. After a couple of hours we went home. Our audition did not result in a job at the Boar’s Head, but I suppose that was my first barroom music job—though very, very far from my last.

Around this time, we had a personnel change. Drummer Charlie Henry got in trouble at home because of bad grades at school and was not allowed to play with us until he improved his marks. He had to pack up his pink-champagne sparkle Ludwig set and take it home. He was replaced by Warren’s former Pierce Elementary schoolmate and former OK’s drummer Jimbo Powell. As the others of us had fallen in love with guitars and given ourselves to music, Jimbo had given up everything to play drums. He had been a good baseball player as a kid and was the catcher on a team in the Champion Paper’s (where his dad, Mac, worked) youth baseball league—a sort of large but privately sponsored Little League. When he heard his calling to play drums, though, he lost interest in baseball, and his father never really forgave him for it.

He had started out with a red-sparkle Pearl drum set, then moved up to a blue Slingerland set. I don’t know how he ever managed it, because there were six kids in the family, his grandfather was now an invalid, and Mac spent any spare money the family had on fishing trips to Canada, but somehow Jimbo had gotten a pretty decent Slingerland drum set. He had no drum stool (or “throne,” as they say today), though, so he used his little brother’s high chair (with the eating tray removed, of course). If he broke a drum head, he might just have to tape it up, because he had no money to replace it. He played very hard and his drumsticks were always chewed up and ragged. At some point, some new metal drumsticks appeared on the market, and Jimbo, thinking them the answers to his prayers, scrounged up enough money to get a pair, but they were hollow metal (solid ones probably would have destroyed the heads), and were literally broken in half by the time he completed a couple of practices with them. So he went back to his chewed-up wooden sticks.

Jimbo was a decent drummer for his age and the time, powerful and energetic and definitely into the psychedelic scene. He was a huge fan of Hendrix and his drummer, Mitch Mitchell. Jimbo was a natural comedian, too. He regularly cracked us up with perfect impersonations of all our teachers. When he finally made it to Garfield High (after spending an extra year GW Junior High), he immediately began to mimic all the teachers there, as well. Often I would go into the restroom to find him surrounded by a circle of black guys (GHS had a significant black population and thus a lot of soul influence; we few psychedelic hippies were definitely the minority) who gave him cigarettes in return for entertainment. “Ol’ Powell, crazy dude!” the brothers would laugh as Jimbo adopted the persona of our principal Abe Hammons and ordered each one of them to the office for disciplinary procedures.

An occasional member of Powell’s restroom audience was Roger Troutman, who would graduated with me in 1970, but had some classes with underclassman Powell, as well. Roger was a well-known soul guitar player in Hamilton long before he ever reached high school. He had played guitar from the age of six, when his father would take him around to different venues, bars, dances, any place there was music, to let him play. People would give him tips, of course, and he had many of those coins laminated into the finish of his Fender Jazzmaster, which he played for the rest of his life. By the time he got to Roosevelt Junior High, he was fronting Little Roger and his Fabulous Vels, playing dances at the Booker T. Washington Community Center and at Open House and many other places, though he was just a kid. He traveled around the region some and recorded a few singles of cover tunes at an early age, as well. His band always included members of his family. His brother Lester and his cousin Ronnie both played drums at different times. He had a sister who sang, and another of our classmates, Ralph Shepherd, was his bass player for a while in high school. Roger’s older brother Larry was also usually involved somehow, playing percussion, singing backup, or something, though Roger, an advanced player for his age, was the real show. After high school, he began to shift his base to Dayton, an hour north of Hamilton, which was a town with more soul influence than Cincinnati to the south. Roger and the Human Body was what he called his band of the mid-70s. They made an album featuring a song called “Freedom” that got some local airplay. Then Roger went out to California and ultimately was signed to a contract by Warner Bros. I think he was around 30 and had been playing for almost 25 years at that time. The band was called Zapp and toured nationally as openers for bigger acts and as headliners in cities like Atlanta and Detroit. Some of their songs, like “Computer Love,” “More Bounce to the Ounce,” and Roger’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” are still played today. Most feature the electronically synthesized vocal sound that Roger developed—starting with a “talk-box,” but taking that style a step further than others had--and combined with his fine guitar playing to create his distinctive modern soul sound. Today Roger is credited with having had great influence on some of the 80s West Coast rappers. When I listen to early work by Prince, I think he, too, might have listened to some of Roger’s music in his formative years.

So Roger became successful enough to buy his parents a house in Dayton and build a big studio and offices for his music business, Troutman Enterprises, there. He continued to record and tour into the 90s. In 1999, at the age of 47, he was shot and killed by his older brother Larry, who had remained in Roger’s employ as a “manager” after he stopped actually “playing” with the band. The reason for the shooting, as it was told to me (I was out of the country when it happened), was some argument that had started in a recording session at the studio and continued out in the parking lot. After shooting Roger, Larry escaped in his car, then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide, writing a tragic end to Hamilton, Ohio’s biggest musical success story.

So back in high school, Roger, the established black soul guitar prodigy, and Powell, the much less experienced psychedelic/acid-rock drummer found common ground in Jimi Hendrix. Powell loved Hendrix because he was Hendrix, and Roger, who had neither love for nor interest in psychedelic music, was turned on to Hendrix because he was a good and increasingly famous black guitarist working successfully in what was then a very white music market. So the two students would spend the time in the psychology class they shared talking about Hendrix. Of course Powell knew every song by heart, down to each drum fill and guitar lick, which he could mimic just as he mimicked our teachers. Powell’s devotion to the black guitar hero delighted Roger. When his black friends tried to interrupt his baffling conversations with this crazy, long-haired white boy, Troutman wouldn’t respond and didn’t care what they thought. “Get on back with the rest of the niggers,” he would shout at the intruder. “Me and Powell jivin’ ‘bout Hendrix!” I’m sure Jimbo kept Roger entertained with a barrage of jokes and teacher impersonations, as well.

Always one to seize the moment of comedic opportunity, Powell could be counted on for entertainment in any situation. As we rode around town with Linda in her Nova, he might thrust his entire upper body out the back window, throw open his arms and scream a warm and friendly greeting—“Uncle Frank!”—at someone he had never seen before in his life. We would guffaw at the shock and confusion on Uncle Frank’s face as he squinted into the car to see if this lunatic yelling at him really was some long-lost nephew. Some of Jimbo’s shenanigans bordered on tastelessness, howoever. Once when riding back from Cincinnati, where Linda had taken us to visit some big music stores or hippie head shops that we did not have in Hamilton, we all heard her giggling and noticed she was flushing red for some unknown reason. After a moment of confusion, we all turned to Jimbo, who was suppressing a laugh himself. Sitting directly behind Linda, he had slid his foot under her seat and was pushing up into the springs with his toe to see if she could feel it. “Knock it off, Powell!” Hisey snapped at him.

Jimbo added a lot to our stage show. Whereas Charlie Henry had been kind of a heavy guy without much show or flash, Powell was a maniac. He would play without a shirt, peace symbols painted on his skin and a bright orange strip of highway reflector tape wrapped around his neck and glowing in the black light. He sometimes wore an old leather aviator’s helmet that Warren had in his collection of military artifacts. He painted his tennis shoes with many different shades of day-glo paint and did everything he could to be as hip and freaky as possible, which came pretty naturally to him. Like the rest of us, he was trying to grow his hair as long as he could and to dodge teachers who would send him to the school office for violation of the dress code. He had to dodge his father as well because, just as his hair reached a cool length, Mac was likely to get mad at him and march him down to the barber shop to get it all cut off, which would be a tragedy of the highest order.

Jimbo sometimes had trouble getting to practice, because he would be charged with watching his invalid grandfather while his parents and five siblings went out shopping, to Frisch’s Big Boy, to K-Mart, etc. If he left before they got back, he might suffer punishment by haircut. But he was a good addition to the band, and Charlie Henry never came back (though Warren and I would play with him again two decades later). Jimbo, though his timing probably was not perfect, added power and drive to the band. He attacked and flailed at his drums with the energy of The Who’s Keith Moon. Powell fit into my program also because he would do anything and everything I told him to. If I said play faster or slower or play your solo longer, he would do so. When he protested that he was playing a song as fast as he could, I told him he was not; he must play faster, and he did. Of course he would talk about me behind my back (and about everybody else’s behind theirs while kissing their asses in person), but at least he did what I said. He also spent a lot of time with me at the trailer where I lived so that he could get away from home, caretaker duties, and the wrath of Mac.

It was after Jimbo started playing with us that we finally got to play at Junior High Open House. It was a big thrill to pull up at the back door of the ‘Y’ in Linda’s Nova and haul our equipment down the stairs. Warren and Hisey both had their Twin-Twelve Amps, and Danny Paul had traded in his small Kalamazoo bass amp on a bigger Silvertone amp as well. Jimbo said it made him feel good to set up his drums behind a wall of “good” equipment. (It was far from the best, but two guitars were Gibsons, and Warren had his Crestwood Rick copy. Only another musician would have looked at the headstock and seen that it wasn’t really a Rickenbacker. Then again, only another musician would have cared what kind of guitar it was. Warren had by now covered his old black Silvertone guitar with round dots of orange reflector tape. He used it in our finale (The Animals’ “Inside Lookin’ Out”) and dropped in on the floor like the poor man’s Pete Townshend before he walked off stage.

At open house we were played the impressive sum of $20 for the whole band for the whole night—two one-hour sets with one break between. (On some nights, there were two bands that made $10 each.) On stage we could wear whatever we wanted, but when walking around on break, we had to have our shirts tucked in. Of course we were striving now to look as cool as we could onstage. One of Jimbo’s favorite outfits was a pair of tight scarlet corduroy pants with a black satin shirt and wide floral tie. Warren sometimes wore his old Inversions doughboy jacket, and he and I both proudly sported our suede “Dukes,” a rakish, streamlined shoe from Thom McAn. Mine were golden brown, and I think Warren’s were green. He had developed a hairstyle that allowed him to part his hair on one side during the week and remain in compliance with the school dress code. But on the weekends and for band jobs, he could part it on the opposite side and make it flow down over at least one ear in distinctive Beatle-esque fashion. Linda, meanwhile, in addition to her other duties, had started to make some stage clothes for Hisey. I can still see him standing beside me at Open House one night in a day-glo yellow and orange psychedelic print poncho and skin tight black bell bottoms festooned with bright white polka dots. (He wore no shoes, but only his socks, because his penny loafers would not have looked right with his outrageous new bells.) Linda had just gotten them sewn up in time for our Open House job and had not had time to install a zipper, button, snap or belt loops at the waist. So Hisey’s pants were held together precariously by a big safety pin that was hidden under his long poncho. At one point during the night, he dropped his guitar pick and asked me to pick it up for him between songs.

“Pick it up yourself,” I said.

“I can’t!” he hissed frantically. “My pants’ll rip open and fall down!” I guessed that we didn’t want that. So I condescended to retrieve his pick.

Danny Paul, our bass player, as I remember, remained somewhat normal in appearance—straight leg jeans, penny loafers, button-down-collar shirt, modest Beatle haircut—not too long. Always a ladies’ man, Danny probably wanted to avoid too much weirdness in order to appeal to the greatest possible number of nubile Open-Housettes.

I, of course, had no such reservations. Overkill has always been my forte. I had hippified my wardrobe by getting my mother to sew triangles of bright paisley material between the lower seams of my “flared” hopsack (pseudo-burlap) jeans to make them into bigger bell bottoms. (Eventually “elephant bells” would come into being, and I maintain that I started this fashion trend.) I also often wore an old army fatigue jacket I had borrowed from Warren. I decorated it with peace symbol buttons, and from one epaulet there dangled a long, thick chain of gold plate, tied together with a rawhide thong. Resplendent in my hip apparel, my hair and sideburns growing long despite the efforts of Garfield High to keep all its students looking clean cut, I trod the YWCA stage with more flash and confidence than ever, screaming out the lyrics and melodies to the songs I had chosen for us. Now we were doing a couple of songs by the Chocolate Watch Band, an obscure California band who had been in the movie Riot on Sunset Strip. We had discovered them by listening to The Dayton Sound. We also did the Yardbirds’ version of the old blues song “Smokestack Lightnin’” (still knowing next to nothing about the blues tradition in America, which was largely the source and inspiration for all the British music we tried to copy).

I used a $10 microphone that belonged to somebody else in the band, but we still had no P.A. system through which to sing. In those days, even for those who did have P.A.s, they were nothing like what we have today. Their development really lagged behind that of powerful guitar amplifiers. The standard P.A. for most of the open house bands was a small system made by Bell. It included a tiny 20-watt amplifier with a couple of inputs and two 8-inch speakers connected by long cords that unwound so they could be set upon the high sills of the basement windows in the ‘Y.’ The best P.A. in the Cincinnati area belonged to a couple of guys from Hamilton called the Taggart Brothers. They were twins—Merle and Gerald (Appalachian pronunciation: “Jerle,” to rhyme with Merle)—who had a Lawson system, maybe a 100-watt head and a couple of cabinets covered in beautiful gold grill cloth with a couple of 12- or 15-inch speakers and a green metal horn in each. They did sound for all the WSAI dances at LeSourdsville Lake and elsewhere, and they did even concerts like the Supremes and others who came to Cincinnati Gardens, the biggest venue in the area at that time. The Taggarts even had monitors, speakers that face back to the stage and allow the band to hear the vocals coming out of the front speakers. But we had none of the above. At first, like most other young bands of the time, we plugged the mike into the second channel of a two-channel amp. So while Hisey played rhythm, for example, through one channel of his Twin-Twelve, my vocals would come through the other channel. This meant we could not turn the mike up very loud because, with the speakers behind it, it would feed back easily. So, like most young vocalists of the time, I was forced to scream over the drums and guitars blasting behind my back. Without a good mike, PA, or monitors, I could never really hear myself, which I’m sure made it much worse for those who could.

Then we got the bright idea that my Silvertone single-12 amp—and another identical to it, which had been Hisey’s first amp before I knew him, could somehow be linked together to make a pseudo-P.A. We could place once small amp on either side of the stage. Steve Sandor probably figured out how to do this. We took him along with us whenever we could to solve any technical problems that might arise. When my mike cord shorted out at Open House (probably the result of swinging it around as I had seen Roger Daltrey of The Who do), Sandor could grab it, take it back to the dressing room, where he had a soldering iron, find the problem, and fix it, all while we played an instrumental song that required no vocals and thus no mikes. The mike shorted out once at Open House when we were trying to play “Dock of the Bay.” (This was before I replaced all popular soul tunes with more psychedelic material.) I insisted that the band just keep playing the song instrumentally until Sandor fixed the mike. Then I left the stage and ran with him to the dressing room, so I could get back onstage with the mike as soon as possible. Of course, this was kind of weird for the audience—a popular song to which everyone knew and expected to hear the lyrics became nothing but verse after verse of guitar chords, which must have gone on for at least 10 minutes before I got back to the stage to sing again. Afterward, Hisey was livid. He said he had been so embarrassed that he would never play the song again. So we dropped it from the list.

The next personnel change we had was at the bass position. Danny Paul decided to leave the band. He might have grown tired of my bossiness, he might have disliked our increasingly psychedelic repertoire, or band practice might simply have been interfering with his love life. Whatever the reason, we replaced him with Randy Blades, who was in the same class with Warren and me. Randy was a serious student of the bass and was also teaching himself to play piano and harmonica. His Gibson EB-3 was a step up from Danny’s EB-0, and his old Fender Bassman amp definitely spruced up our all-Silvertone backline. The Bassman had two twelve-inch speakers, and Randy and his father were building in their basement a second speaker cabinet with two fifteens, which would be upholstered to match the Fender. Then Randy would be able to stack one cabinet on top of the other, which would be super cool. We had seen Hendrix with his two Marshall stacks, each as tall as he was, and the larger and louder our equipment, the better, as far as we were concerned.

With this new lineup—Warren and Hisey on guitars, Randy on bass, Jimbo on drums, and me out front—we played our occasional jobs at Open House, the Millville Roller Rink, and possibly a few others I have now forgotten. We also started to decorate our rehearsal space to reflect our increasingly psychedelic orientation. Linda had covered one wall of the Hiseys’ basement with pictures of the Beatles, and we now got permission from her mother, Ruth, to paint the other basement walls as we liked. We had to stop practicing by about 9:00 to prevent the neighbors from calling the police on us, so when we stopped playing, we would all take brushes and day-glo paint and go to work on our growing psychedelic mosaic. It was totally free-form, each person painting his own thing, ankhs and peace symbols abounded of course, along with eyes and paisleys. Jimbo would draw crazy faces with funny captions. What had been a dull green basement slowly evolved into an underground hippie den where we listened to Hendrix and Cream and Canned Heat and Paul Butterfield (Randy was aware of and interested in the blues before any of the rest of us were) while we painted.

One weekend afternoon we wanted to rehearse but for some reason could not use the Hisey basement. So we transferred our practice to the basement of the Lutheran church that Warren’s family attended. There was a stage there upon which we could play, so Linda brought her movie camera to film us. And there was a reel-to-reel tape recorder, with which we recorded ourselves as we struggled to learn The Who’s new song, “I Can See for Miles.” The tape, as far as I know, no longer exists, but Linda still has the eight-millimeter film she shot that day 40 years ago, in 1968.

That summer, some rival musicians from the West Side asked me to play a one-time job with them at the Butler County Fair. One of them was Greg Wingfield, a guitar player who was the boyfriend of my girlfriend Bonnie’s niece. Greg went to Taft High and was in a band (possibly called the U.S. Male) with Bill Beasley on rhythm guitar, Jan Meyers on bass, and Jim Hipp on drums. Their singer, Ross Franciscus, was somehow out of the picture, the show had already been booked, and they asked me to do it with them. We learned some tunes, one of which was Vanilla Fudge’s slow, rocky cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” I was flattered to be asked to sing. No one ever had any particular praise for my vocal efforts then, but I thought I could sing, and this invitation seemed to validate that notion. It was actually the result, I imagine, of their need for a replacement frontman (there weren’t so many around) and Greg’s recommendation because we were almost like “pseudo-brothers-in-law.” I said nothing to my Blues Inc. bandmates about the invitation. I rehearsed a few times and then played with the other band one evening during the fair, out on the horse track, facing the grandstand, where there were quite a few people. I was especially proud of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and wailed it out with full force and plenty of show.

“Little Roger” Troutman was there, I learned later. He had probably played that day at the fair and hung around to watch the other acts. Or maybe he was going to play later. He was evidently not impressed with the Vanilla Fudge version of the Supremes’ song. A soul devotee, he probably felt the Fudge should have left the classic soul hit alone instead of trying to rock it up and “whiten” it up. For quite a while after the Fair, he showed his derision, whenever he saw me in the hall at school. Mockng me and the Fudge, he would sing in a deep, overdone parody of the Fudge version, “Set me freeeee, why don’t you baaabe?”

The other members of Blues Inc. eventually heard I had sung with another band at the Fair and reacted with a certain degree of jealousy, like a cheated-on spouse. Why was I playing with another band. Was I planning on quitting Blues, Inc.? Of course, I was not. The Fair job had been just a one-time thing, and after it, we carried on as before.

Shortly after this time, though, Warren decided that he wanted to leave the band. He too might have become dissatisfied with my leadership, though I think he and I were in general agreement about the material we should play, judging from our late-night phone conversations. We would talk on and on about Hendrix and Cream and other psychedelic-era bands we were discovering, like Big Brother, Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Arthur Lee’s Love, until we actually fell asleep with the phones to our ears.

His real reason for leaving, unbeknownst to us, might actually have been a “love life” issue, since he and Linda began quietly to “date” around this time. Through her involvement with the band, they had gotten well acquainted and developed, it seemed, a certain mutual attraction. They now began a long and unique kind of courtship that went on for at least five years before they finally got married. As of this writing, they have been married for more than 30 years and live together in Hamilton with Linda’s ever-growing, ever-changing menagerie of cats, dogs, birds, and an occasional fish. Over the years, due to our history together, they have been the closest thing to some kind of “family” that I have had.

When Warren left the band, we advertised in our local newspaper for a new lead guitar player. One of the few respondents was a high-school junior from Fairfield (just south of Hamilton) named Steve Hershner. When he showed up at Hisey’s house to try out for the band, he didn’t really look like much of a musician. He was tall and lanky, with red hair and glasses that were always sliding down his nose. And he was wearing ankle weights, which were sort of small canvas belts, weighted with lead, that athletes wore around their ankles to strengthen their legs, build their speed, etc. “You going out for football or something?” we asked Hershner.

“No, just trying to build up my legs,” he answered, pushing his glasses up to the bridge of his nose.

We had him pegged for some kind of dork and didn’t hold out much hope that he would be our new lead player, but he did have good equipment: a real sunburst Fender Stratocaster and a blond Fender Tremolux Amp. This was a step down from a Bandmaster, which was more commonly seen then. The Bandmaster had two twelve-inch speakers, whereas Hershner’s Tremolux had only two tens, but it was a nice amp and would match Randy’s blond Bassman, giving us two name brand amps and only one Sears Silvertone—Hisey’s. So we thought we’d give Hershner a try.

Our mouths dropped open as he ripped into Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” “Fire,” and “Foxy Lady,” then Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Outside Woman Blues”—songs that we longed to play but could not because no one in the band could approach the guitar prowess of Hendrix or Clapton. Hershner played their guitar solos note for note—exactly as they were on the records. We couldn’t believe it. Bursting with excitement over how good we were going to be, we invited him to join the band that day.

He began to come to practice regularly, sometimes showing up with his ankle weights, sometimes wearing fisherman’s hip boots. Yes, he was a little weird, but so what? He could play everything we wanted to play exactly as the original artists played it. (We were not yet thinking of writing our own original music in those days.) We set about adding all these great new songs to our repertoire.

Hershner even bought a Vox fuzztone, which made his sound that much more sustained and psychedelic. Occasionally, he would stop us in the middle of a song, though, claiming he had to “review” a guitar part. He would go to the record player, put the needle on the guitar solo of the song in question and listen a little while, playing along quietly. Then we would start the song again, and he would play it note for note. We didn’t think too much about this until we got a last-minute job at the local American Legion post in Hamilton one night. We had actually been practicing, I think, when someone called to say there had been a cancellation that evening. Blues Inc. had played some event there before I was in the band, so the Legion had called us to see if we could be there to play within an hour or two. As I recall, Hisey didn’t want to play the job because he felt we weren’t ready. We had rehearsed with Hershner only a few times. I said we were taking the job. I was anxious to play our new songs with our great new guitar player—not in the basement, but in front of an audience. Hisey and I argued about it, I pushing everybody to pack the equipment into Linda’s Nova and get ready to go. With the stress of last-minute rushing and my arguing with Hisey over whether we should play, the atmosphere became pretty tense, and Hisey finally said that he was quitting the band. We would have to play without him. (Yes, players seemed to be dropping like flies under my leadership, but the band as a unit was moving forward; why couldn’t they all see that I was right?) I told him he could quit tomorrow. Tonight he was playing so he’d better get dressed and get ready to go right now. He did.

We rushed to the American Legion, where there was some sort of function for the members, who were adults, many of them middle-aged. They probably were not so interested in Cream and Jimi Hendrix and the Doors—but that’s what we played for them. We would not have thought of doing anything else. As we ripped into our new songs, we couldn’t wait for the solo verses, where Hershner could show off his blazing guitar ability and replicate Clapton’s and Jimi’s leads, note-for-note.

When it was time for a guitar solo, we would look expectantly at Hershner, but more than once, he balked—started to play the solo, then abruptly stopped looking confused and pathetically pushing his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. “What’s wrong?” I hissed at him venomously. “Play!”

“I forgot,” he mouthed. “I need to review.”

“You can’t review now! Just play!”

But he could not. He did not really know anything about scales and could not improvise a guitar solo that would be in key with the song. He played purely by rote memory, one note leading him to the next, and if he forgot just one of those notes, he didn’t know what to play next. He was paralyzed, and we were paralyzed with embarrassment, standing there playing rhythm for a lead solo that did not materialize because the lead guitarist stood frozen, needing to “review” before he could play one more note. I don’t know whether any of the people there knew we were having a problem. They just knew we were playing too loudly and kept asking us to turn down. Hershner, nervous before the audience, I suppose, kept forgetting his leads, and it turned out to be a disappointing night all around.

That was the only job we ever played with our great new guitar player, Steve Hershner—not because we fired him; we did not. We had seen in the basement what he could do with his guitar and thought that if we just kept rehearsing, he would be able to remember all his leads and play them correctly in public. Whether we were right we would never know. But we did continue to rehearse.

The next job we got was a dance at Wilson Junior High School on the West Side. We were rehearsed and ready to go when Hershner called at the last minute to say he couldn’t play. He had gotten his report card from school just a day or two before the job, and his father had grounded him for his bad grades. He wasn’t allowed out to play the job. Cursing his father and our bad luck, we pressed Warren back into service. We begged him to bale us out, and he agreed to play this one last job just save our butts. (I’m sure we had to bribe him with something or other; Warren is a born trader and negotiator.) Unable to perform our new psychedelic repertoire, we fell back on the old songs we had done with Warren, but the job came off well enough. The Wilson kids seemed to like us, but we couldn’t help wondering what their response would have been had we had our great new guitar player onstage with us.

Imagine our surprise then, when we saw, towering above the Wilson Junior High students in the audience, a tall red-headed guy with big black glasses! Yes, Steve Hershner, theoretically grounded and unable to bring his guitar out of the house to play the job, had somehow been allowed to come and see us play the job without him.

After he was “ungrounded,” Hershner came back to the basement to continue rehearsing with us. He also began to build, in his family’s garage, an extra speaker cabinet for his Tremolux amp, just as Randy Blades had for his Bassman. Steve, however, was shooting for the stars with his new creation. Whereas Randy had built a reasonably sized cabinet with two 15-inch speakers to supplement the two 12s in his original cabinet, Hershner was building a cabinet that would house not two but four 15-inch speakers—never mind the fact that his Tremolux head was probably not powerful enough to push all those speakers efficiently. His new cabinet would be eight feet tall, four feet wide, and two feet deep!

“How will we carry it?” we asked.

“Just strap it to the top of the car,” he answered.

We pointed out that it would surely crush the roof of Linda’s Nova, but Hershner would not be dissuaded. He continued to build like a madman. From the local Pontiac dealership he ordered a “Firebird” insignia, mounted it on the face of his creation, and christened his new amp the “Fender Firebird.”

One night he informed us that he was having an end-of-the-school-year party in his basement. He wanted to create a very hip theme. He had a black light to make things glow but wanted to use our homemade strobe light to further enhance the hip atmosphere. We were not invited to the party—it was only his Fairfield schoolmates and a few very hip girls from our school, Garfield. We said that we would bring the strobe only if we could come, too, at least for a limited period of time. So it was decided that we would attend the party and operate the strobe from 10:00 to 11:00 or 12:00, as I recall. Hisey and I dressed in our day-glo Nehru jackets from the House of Adam, and at 10, Linda drove us to Hershner’s house and waited outside while we spent an hour or two playing the roles of very hip strobe light operators. We hoped we had made a favorable impression upon Rhonda Smith, one of Garfield’s few hip girls, who had been invited by virtue of her extreme freakiness and reasonably good looks.

Near the end of that school year—1968, I believe—we got a job at Fairfield Junior High, playing outdoors on the steps of the school for a year-end event that was going on. Again, when he received his final report card of the year, Hershner was grounded for his bad grades. Rather than replace him for this job, we decided to play it four-piece. Hisey and I had become somewhat smitten with the idea of a four-man lineup like The Who’s and Led Zeppelin’s: guitar, bass, drums, and a frontman. The balance and symmetry seemed ideal for the flashy, showy kind of band he and I both wanted to have. He had by now traded in his Silvertone Twin-Twelve for a Kustom amp. These amps were upholstered in rolled and pleated sparkle material, like the interior of a customized car. Hisey’s was a beautiful royal blue sparkle and a real step up from his Sears amp. Since this was only a two-hour job to be played in a relatively small space, we rehearsed songs we could play with just one guitar and went with a four-piece line-up: Hisey on guitar, Randy Blades on bass, Jimbo on the drums, and me out front. Since Hisey had been to this point only a rhythm player and was not up to the Hendrix and Clapton solos, we adjusted our song list and play tunes that didn’t require much lead. We played, for example, The Who’s “Substitute,” which featured a bass solo that Randy could play easily. By now I had also gotten a harmonica and could play simple solos in the key of A, so that filled in some of the holes. Only a few kids showed up to watch us, but one of them (you guessed it, reader) was none other than Steve Hershneranyway, so the first set came off well enough. On our break, we walked to a nearby store to get something to drink, and as we were walking back, we heard the distinct strains of “Purple Haze” being played to perfection somewhere nearby! It took us only a dumbfounded moment to figure out what was going on. The supposedly grounded Steve Hershner had once again shown up to watch us play the job he was forbidden to play, and had, without even asking this time, just picked up Hisey’s guitar on the break and started playing for the kids there the songs that Hisey could not play, thus upstaging us insultingly. We ran the rest of the way back to the school steps and ordered Hershner off the “stage.” We decided that day that we had had enough of him and began to look for another lead guitar player.

We learned later that his Fender Firebird, when finally finished, was so big that he could not get it out of the one-car garage in which he had built it. He was forced to saw it in half and make two four-by-four Fender “mini-Firebirds,” which still did him no good since he had purchased not the 15-inch heavy-duty guitar speakers he needed, but 15-inch home stereo speakers, which were blown out by the first—and last—guitar chord he played through them.

I recently heard from an old mutual acquaintance—W.A. Williams, a longtime singer/songwriter and successful music photographer—that Steve Hershner is still playing music around the Butler County area and that he owns an entire houseful of equipment.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

From The Beatles to The Blues, My Life in Music/Chapter 2: The Inversions

2. The Inversions (1966)

While I was on my virgin musical voyage with the Morticians, my Industrial-Arts friend Warren Wright also formed his first little band, The OK’s, with Jim Gross Merle Lawson on guitars and Jim (Jimbo) Powell on drums. They too, I believe, played only one time in public, on the sidewalk outside Jimbo’s grandfather’s barbershop in downtown Hamilton during the annual “Fort Hamilton Days” celebration, circa 1965.

Shortly thereafter, Warren started playing with some guys from the West Side of town. That meant they went to Taft High School, not to Garfield High with us, but their families attended church with Warren’s family. The Inversions were doing on the West Side what we were doing on the East Side—trying to become a local version of a British Invasion band. Warren had started out playing guitar and had had at one point a big hollow-body National and a National amp, then a cheap Kay six-string, but he played bass in the Inversions. As I recall, he had come up with a Kay bass and some kind of bass amp. The lead guitar player was Keith Beyers, who had a Harmony Rocket and a fuzztone—a little black box that interrupted his guitar-to-amp cable. On his solos, Keith, a decent lead player for those times, could click the fuzztone on and get the fuzzy, sustained sound first associated with the Yardbirds, the British band that included, at one time or another, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmie Page.

The Inversions drummer was Bill Thomin. There had been a fourth original member, a singer/rhythm guitar player who had left for some reason, and Warren convinced the band to try me out as a replacement on rhythm guitar and vocals. The only conditions were that 1) I had to purchase a tan “doughboy” jacket from Sears, since the Inversions had adopted it as their band uniform, and 2) my guitar had to be amplified. Keith had a Sears Silvertone Twin-Twelve, an amp that was becoming very popular with bands like ours because it was as close as we could get to the two-piece “piggyback” amps made by Fender: the Bandmaster, the Bassman, the Tremolux. None of these was within our price range, but a Twin-Twelve could be had for less than $200, as I recall. It was also a piggyback amp, with a separate “head” and speaker cabinet, and it was fairly large, with two twelve-inch speakers; hence the name Twin-Twelve. When I explained to my father that I had a chance to play in a better band, but needed an amplifier, he agreed to go to take me Sears and look. Of course, I wanted a Twin-Twelve, but it was too expensive. There was, however, a singe-twelve version, smaller, with one speaker, and that’s the one my father bought me. Then we went to the clothing department to get my “doughboy” jacket, a semi-military looking garment modeled after WWI uniforms, I believe, but in a rich tan wool blend. My problems were still not solved, though. I had an amp, but only an acoustic guitar, and my father had no intention of buying me an electric one at this point. The best we could do was go to Morris Loan and buy an attachable pickup. For those who don’t know, a pickup is essentially a microphone that lies beneath the strings of an electric guitar, picks up the sound of the strings, and sends the sound to the amplifier. It was possible to “electrify” my acoustic by purchasing this attachable pickup, mounting it on my guitar and running the cable to my new amp. Now, at last, I was ready to start practicing with the Inversions, with whom Warren had already played a job or two at church-related functions. We practiced together about three times. One of our big songs was the Yardbirds, “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I,” featuring Keith’s fuzztone lead. We also did “The Last Train to Clarksville,” by the Monkees, “Gloria,” by Them and the Shadows of Knight, and some other tunes. At the third practice, the regular drummer, Bill Thomin was not present, and Warren brought along Jimbo Powell, who took his shoes off before sitting down to play. When we questioned him about playing barefooted, his response was: “Can you play guitar with gloves on?” I don’t know if the more uppity West Side musicians could not imagine playing with a barefoot drummer from the East Side, but somehow, that was the end of the Inversions. We never rehearsed again and never played a job together, but Warren and Jimbo and I would be in another band together sooner than we realized.

Meanwhile, when we weren’t practicing our music or trying to form bands, we fed our music obsession by going on Saturday nights to Junior High Open House, a hugely popular dance (though there was little dancing; we all just watched and listened to the bands) for 7th- and 8th-graders in the Hamilton Public Schools. It took place in the basement of the YWCA, uptown. We had to buy a green membership card at school, then pay a 35-cent admission fee at the door of the ‘Y.’ As we waited in line on the stairs, we could hear the bass guitar (a real one with a long neck and four oversized tuning keys) thumping up from the big room downstairs. There was a stage in the corner graced weekly by local groups a little older than we were. They were high-school aged guys who were ahead of us musically. We watched and listened to The Counts, the Rockers (whose lead singer, Wayne Perry, would eventually go on to be a successful country songwriter in Nashville,) the Mods, the What Four, Jerry and the Mustangs (who wore long-haired wigs until they were transformed to the Has-Bins; their guitar player, Doug Davis, was well known in the area as a fine musician and later moved to Nashville and made a career touring and recording with many different acts based there), the Out of Sights, Ron and the Sabras (Ron Danford also wore a long-haired wig while playing and later played organ in the Carp Brothers, a successful Cincinnati band; the other members of the Sabras evolved into Whalefeathers), and—for a special Christmas dance, I think--Beau Dollar and the Coins, a very good white soul band that had a regional hit in 1966 or 67 with their version of King Curtis’s “Soul Serenade.” Almost 40 years later, their guitar player, at the age of 60, would play for me in the Lowriders band in Cincinnati.

Dreaming of being “good enough” one day to play there, Warren and Jimbo and I and other aspiring players were at Open House every Saturday night. (There were a couple of weeks, however, when my girlfriend Marilynn and I were banned by the very strict lady who oversaw the dances because we had been seen kissing in the alley behind the Y while we waited for Marilynn’s mother to pick us up.)

In the summertime, when school was out, there was no Open House, but the local top-40 radio station, WSAI-AM, put on dance/concerts on Monday and Friday nights at LeSourdsville Lake, an amusement park out on Rt. 4, between Hamilton and Middletown. The park had been there for many years and included the Stardust Gardens, a large, covered wooden dance floor with a stage, where big bands of the 40s and popular singers of the 50s had performed in bygone summers. In the mid- to late 60s, the WSAI dances there featured “name” bands who were actually on the radio, coming through Ohio on their summer tours. At “the Lake,” I attended my first real concert. For a $1.00 admission fee, I saw the Byrds, who were touring on their first big hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written by Bob Dylan, of course. The Byrds stayed at Eaton’s Hamilton Inn, a motel right next door to the Dixie Trailer Park! That day we rode our bikes around the parking lot, trying to get a glimpse of them. Finally we spotted the drummer, Mike Clarke, through an open door and worked up the nerve to go up to his room and ask for an autograph. As he signed his name for us, we admired the bikini-clad girl there in the room with him, and our desire to be musicians was even more firmly solidified! That night, as I watched the Byrds in the hot, packed atmosphere of Stardust Gardens, I was transported. I had seen them on “Where the Action Is,” and now they were somehow here in front of me. Jim McGuinn (later Roger Mcguinn) sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” in a thin, liquid voice while he played his Rickenbacker 12-string. His tiny square glasses sparked a fashion trend among those of us who had to wear corrective lenses. Many whose vision was 20/20 still bought non-prescription versions of the little square “granny” glasses anyway, just to be as cool as the Byrds. That night at the Lake was the first time I ever saw a live performance of a song I had heard on the radio or television, and of course it was magic. Besides the Byrds, other name acts we saw at the Lake were Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (“Devil with the Blue Dress”), Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (“Lady, Willpower”), Every Mother’s Son (“Come on Down to My Boat, Baby”), Tommy James and the Shondells (“Hanky-Panky”), the Ohio Express (“Yummy, Yummy”), the Sir Douglas Quintet (“Mendocino”), the Music Explosion (“Little Bit o’ Soul”), the Syndicate of Sound (“Hey, Little Girl”), and the Knickerbockers (“Do You Wanna Dance?”), and one band of which I had never heard, Mouse and the Traps. They set up not on the stage but on the floor in a corner of the Gardens and encouraged us to gather round them and sit down cross-legged on the floor to listen to them. We were on the eve of the “hippie” era, and they were trying to establish an aura of equality and brother-sisterhood between band and audience. They were not there to encourage any dancing or other plastic, establishment activities.

The national acts were supported by good local Cincinnati groups who opened for them at the Lake. These bands from the big city 25 miles south of Hamilton were a cut above even our senior local bands, and we idolized them, too. There were the Lemon Pipers, the Us Too Group (later Balderdash), the Glass Wall, the Daybreakers, the Heywoods, the Dingos (whose trademark was blue-sparkle rolled and pleated Kustom amplifiers), Salvation and his Army, the Rapscallion Circle, Whalefeathers (who had evolved from Hamilton’s Ron and the Sabres), the Haymarket Riot, the New Lime, Ivan and the Sabers, the East-Orange Express, the Casinos, and many others. My very favorite, whom I watched with full attention from the foot of the stage, was the Dayton Sound, a band actually from Franklin, Ohio, though Dayton was nearby. The Dayton Sound modeled themselves after The Who. They had the first strobe light I had ever seen and, during “My Generation”—their finale--smashed their equipment up a little bit (to the minor extent they could afford) as The Who did on a grander scale. The Dayton Sound’s lead singer, Danny Riley, was a tremendous front man whom I admired and copied shamelessly. My girlfriend Marilynn and I would follow them around when they played at other WSAI dances in the Cincinnati area, taking photos of them and becoming huge fans.

A few of those local bands went on to a national level, however briefly. The Heywoods later had a very commercial hit called “Billy, Don’t He A Hero.” The Casinos, featuring singer Gene Hughes, had a hit with a song called “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye.” The McCoys, from a nearby town in Ohio had a national hit with “Hang On Sloopy.” Their guitar player, Rick Derringer, then went on to some notoriety, working with Johnny Winter in later years and writing “Rock and Roll, Hootchie-Koo,” recorded by both Winter and Derringer. The Lemon Pipers, from Oxford, Ohio, were a very good progressive rock band who got a deal on Buddah Records and recorded “Green Tambourine,” which became a national hit. Buddah was essentially a “bubble gum” label, though, and tried to push the Lemon Pipers in the same direction as the label’s most successful act, the “Ohio Express” (“Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy”!). So the Pipers’ association with Buddah was short lived and finished badly, essentially putting an end to a really good band of the late 60s.

These were the groups we idolized as we struggled to make music in those years. We modeled ourselves after them, wearing suede, Cuban-heeled boots, tight corduroy pants, “Nehru” jackets, beads, and Indian moccasins, and, most importantly, growing our hair as long as we possibly could. Of course we ran afoul of the Hamilton Public Schools’ dress code and paid a price, but we would not be dissuaded from the most important thing in our lives: to be in a really cool band—and look like it. The next one that I joined, again through my friend Warren Wright, was called Blues, Inc.