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.

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