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
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
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
The Blues Inc. drummer was Charlie Henry, also our age, a sophomore at Taft High on the
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
He had started out with a red-sparkle
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
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.