Thursday, May 8, 2008

From The Beatles to The Blues, Chapter 4: Erebus (1968-69)

4. Erebus (1968-69)

The next guitar player to join the Blues Inc. family was none other than my old friend Steve Schmitt, in whose basement I had played my first band job. He told me over the phone that he still had his old Kay guitar and a Magnatone amp. (Magnatone at the time was a respectable amplifier, though I haven’t seen or heard of one in years.) What he actually showed up with at our first practice, however, did not look like any Magnatone I had ever seen. He had some sort of small head or amp that might have been produced by some subsidiary of Magnatone, but his speakers were mounted in two tall, well-worn, rough plywood cabinets that looked distinctly homemade. They had neither upholstery nor grill cloth, and the exposed speakers were decorated with strips of adhesive tape where they had been ripped or torn during the course of long use. They sounded just about as they looked—all buzz and fuzz, but Steve had developed into a passable lead player and somehow we all jelled pretty well when we started playing together. He was able to play acceptable leads for the Cream and Hendrix songs we had learned with Hershner. Though he did not play the solos note-for-note, he knew his guitar well enough to improvise a blues-based solo when necessary and did not have to “review.” He also showed us a few songs—like Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman”--that were good additions to our repertoire, so he became our lead guitar player. Linda soon drove us down to Midwest music in Cincinnati, where we were able to trade all of Steve’s old equipment for one second-hand, single pickup Epiphone guitar. Epiphone was a less expensive line made by Gibson and thus a decent enough guitar to play. (We had upgraded our equipment to the point where we didn’t really want to go onstage with a Kay guitar.) The neck of this “new” Epiphone might have needed adjustment, though, since it always seemed to present tuning problems. Of course, Steve now had no amp at all and no money to buy one. For the duration of the time he played with us, we borrowed amps for him to play through for every job.

But now we started to work a little more and to play outside Butler County. In Forest Park, a northern Cincinnati suburb, was a place called the Cellar. WSAI held dances there on Saturday nights, and all the good Cincinnati bands—the same ones we saw at Le Sourdsville Lake--played them. We were not in their league, but we went to the Cellar to see them on Saturday nights. There Steve and I got to know a couple of Forest Park girls who hung out at the Cellar regularly. They introduced to the guy who ran the place, and he hired us to play some dates on Friday nights, when there was a sort of teen dance for younger kids of junior high age. This was a step down from the Saturday night ‘SAI dances, but a step up, for us, from playing Open House in Hamilton (for $20) and the Millville Roller Rink (for $35). At the Cellar on a Friday night, we made $50, ten bucks each, which wasn’t too bad for a teenager in 1968-69. We played at the Cellar several times, and that is the first place I ever played any kind of blues repertoire. At the insistence of Steve Schmitt and Randy Blades, we added to our psychedelic list a simple blues song called “Last Night,” which had been recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Randy had somehow discovered the blues, about which we knew very little, and was listening to Sonny Boy Williamson (the “second” one, Rice Miller) and starting to play harmonica. So, on “Last Night,” I played his bass and sang the song while he played harp. Hisey hated playing the blues because he found it boring. As the rhythm guitarist, he had to strum the same three chords over and over again, verse after verse, until he was literally falling asleep on his feet. We ignored his complaints and forced him to play “Last Night.”

Although we had added our first blues song to the list, I decided at this point that we must change the name of the band. “Blues Inc.” did not describe us, and I thought it was trite, uninteresting, and unhip. Bands we admired had names like Jefferson Airplane and the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Canned Heat and the Chocolate Watch Band, for heaven’s sake. We needed something freaky. So we went through a series of new names. I named us “Erebus,” which I had learned in Latin class was the name of the underworld in Roman mythology (reached by traveling on the river “Styx,” to mention at least one other band with a mythological name). We also toyed with “Electric Love,” then ended up sticking with “Erebus.”

Our next personnel change was again at the bass position. Randy Blades, a good bass player and probably the most serious musician among us, refused to turn his amp up high enough to match the volume at which the rest of us wanted to play. Bigger and louder equipment was being developed (the Marshall stack was the supreme amp of the time, though we could not yet dream of affording one), and bands were getting louder and louder. To play very loudly was to be that much hipper, from our musically immature point of view. Only Randy refused to go along with the program. “I’m not blowing my speakers for you guys,” he would say whenever the subject came up. “If you can’t hear me, you can turn down.” Of course, he was absolutely right. Today, I preach the value of playing as quietly as possible onstage in order to hear well and stay in control of the music. I have often fought with and even fired musicians—usually guitar players or drummers--for too much noise. But in those days, we saw Randy as hopelessly old fashioned in his viewpoint on volume. Then, to exacerbate our troubles with him, he did two things we felt he never should have done: cut off all his hair and break his leg.

An increasingly enthusiastic blues fan, Randy had begun to listen to Paul Butterfield, whose band then included not only Elvin Bishop on guitar, but also Mike Bloomfield. Bloomfield was a respected white blues player who would later make a record called Super Session ( with Steve Stills and Al Kooper). Bloomfield had what we called “electric hair,” a white man’s “afro,” if you will—black hair that was very, very curly and had been allowed to grow out to the proportions of a “’fro” like a miniature version of Jimi Hendrix’s “do.” Randy, whose hair was naturally brown and straight, wanted electric hair like Bloomfield’s, and he had a theory that if he cut it all off, he could somehow start from scratch and train his hair—by teasing or ratting or some other technique—to stand straight up and out like Bloomfield’s. So, in this age when to cut off one single lock was verboten to us, when a trip to the barber shop was worse than a trip to hell, Randy had actually gone voluntarily to a barber and gotten a “butch” or “burr” haircut like some of us (but not I!) had had in elementary school. Needless to say, we all were appalled and angry. The last thing we wanted was to appear onstage with a skinhead in the band.

Randy was also a gymnast. He worked out regularly and was on the high school gymnastics team. At one Saturday morning gymnastics session in the school gym, he fell and broke his leg, which had to be put into a cast from his foot to his hip. He was still able to sit on a chair and play his bass, which was good enough for practice, where our image did not matter. But, as luck would have it, while his cast was on and his hair was gone, we just happened to get THE job offer of our careers to that point.

In Fairfield, just south of Hamilton, a new VFW hall had been built, and WSAI was going to stage a dance there. The headline band would be the Rapscallion Circle from Middletown, north of Hamilton, but also in Butler County. Somehow, we got the job as the opening band. I don’t remember clearly now how we got it. I must have called the station. We must have been chosen because we were a Butler County band and theoretically likely to bring some local people in—our friends, families, and classmates. That’s the only rationale I can think of. Whatever the reason, we were ecstatic to hear our name being announced on the radio during the week before the show.

On the appointed night, the VFW was pretty much packed. The Taggart Brothers were there with their top-of-the-line Lawson P.A. system. WSAI deejay Roy Cooper was on hand to MC the show and introduce the bands: “To open up the show tonight, from Hamilton? [he paused as if to question our origins] Please give a big hand to [pause again] Erebus? [another question, as if to ask if he had gotten the name right].” Linda, ready at the back of the room, turned the psychedelic movie camera on us, and we began to play our opening song, “Fresh Garbage,” by Spirit. Of course we were dressed to the hilt and gave it everything we had. Jimbo was in heaven. Playing at a WSAI dance was the big time for him. Dressed in his red corduroy pants and leather aviator’s helmet, he flailed like madman. Hisey, in his polka-dot pants, spread his legs and wheeled his arm around with every chord like Pete Townshend junior. Steve had some houndstooth-checked Mick Jagger pants and dropped to his knees to play his guitar solos. I wore my Cuban-heeled suede boots from the House of Adam, my giant bell-bottoms and the button-and-chain-adorned army fatigue jacket that I had never returned to Warren. Our hair was washed and flying. On this, the biggest night of our short musical lives, we had made sure we were at our absolute hippest—all except for Randy. Perched on the edge of a metal folding chair at the end of the stage, his leg in it’s huge white cast stuck straight out in front of him, his burred head covered with the little beanie we had forced him to wear, he played along, the best musician among us. But he stuck out like a gigantic sore thumb and completely destroyed our visual presentation—which was vitally important to us, to the audience, and probably to WSAI (especially in these times when the audiences and most of the band members were still teenagers and not musically sophisticated enough to judge any group purely on its artistic merits). We played one set, then the Circle played one (the drummer dripped gasoline on his cymbals and set them on fire at one point; this was a feat we could not hope to match, since Jimbo couldn’t risk damaging or destroying the couple of beaten-up cymbals that he had), then we played another and the Circle finished the night. We seemed to go over well enough. We were paid, but I don’t remember how much, probably between $50 and $100. If we were expecting to now join the WSAI band rotation and play regularly at their events (truly our dream at this point), however, we were kidding ourselves. Was it just because we looked bad, or had we sounded bad too? We had no way of knowing, but nobody had booed our playing. We had been painfully embarrassed by Randy’s appearance.

Soon after the WSAI dance, Steve Schmitt mentioned that he knew a guy on the West Side who looked good onstae and wasn’t afraid to turn his amp up loud. So we “fired” Randy at that point and “hired” Bob Holland to play bass.

The West Side of Hamilton was always considered a little more upscale than the East Side. The kids over there went to Taft High School, generally lived in nicer houses and had more expensive equipment than did the East-Siders at Garfield High. To this point (with the exception of original drummer Charlie Henry), we had been an East-Side band. Bob Holland was a guy our age who went to Taft and lived in a nice split level house in the Sanders subdivision, a good West-Side address in those days. He was a tall, slender, boisterous guy with good stage presence. He was not a genius, of course, and had not nearly so much talent as Randy had. No matter. He looked good onstage, he had long blond hair that flew through the air when he played his blue Mosrite (the guitars popularized by the Ventures) through his big black Fender Bassman amp with the large, 2x15 cabinet. He turned it up loud enough to distort the speakers and just let his fingers fly all over the neck, with little regard for the key of the song we were playing or what the drummer was doing. Holland more or less played a multi-keyed bass solo throughout every tune. But we could hear him; that was for sure. He had hair, and his leg wasn’t in a cast, so we were happy.

Playing at the Cellar one Friday night with our new bass player, we met a guy named Steve Bork (there seem to be a lot of Steves in this story), who said he wanted to be our manager. He was only a little older than we were, but looked like an adult—kind of conservative and geeky. He lived with his parents somewhere around Forest Park. He did not drive and sometimes actually walked to our practices in Hisey’s basement in Hamilton—a walk of at least an hour or more. We felt that having a manager made us pretty cool, but I think our association with Steve Bork was fairly short-lived, probably because of his location outside Hamilton and his lack of transportation. He did, however, put us in contact with a woman named Carol Ann Forbes (as I recall her name now, almost 40 years later). She worked for WUBE-AM, a top-40 radio station in competition with the better-known WSAI. WUBE also held dances around Cincinnati and hired local bands to play them. She came to see us at the Cellar and was interested enough to come along with Steve Bork to one of our practices in Hamilton. For this “audition,” I moved from my supervisory position at the far end of the basement, and we played facing her as we would have onstage. I had always been a shameless show off as a front man, and Ms. Forbes and I saw eye to eye. I liked her because she fed my ego by making me feel I was the most important person in the band, when the reality was that I was probably the least talented. She encouraged me to give it all I had and put on the best show I could. She also told me to keep my eyes open when singing, for better contact and communication with the audience, especially the girls. She told me to aim my show directly at them and not to be shy about it. Hold nothing back, she advised me. Be bold, blatant, even sexual!

She decided that she could use us as an opening band for some of the WUBE dances featuring the bigger Cincinnati groups. We had thought we’d blown our chance at the “big time” by failing to impress WSAI at the Fairfield VFW. Needless to say, we were so thrilled at the thought of playing more shows on the same stages with our local heroes that we hardly balked at all when she made it clear that these shows would be “freebies” to help us get exposure. There would be no money involved right now, but if we did well, after a few jobs we might work our way up to be headliners eventually.

The first show we opened featured the Daybreakers as the headline act. Linda hauled us down to a small VFW hall or American Legion in some part of Cincinnati with which we were totally unfamiliar. It took us a while to find the place, but eventually we did and put on our most enthusiastic and psychedelic show for what I remember as a small and quiet crowd. To our strobe and black light show, we had now added old movies. We got this idea from reading in magazines about the light shows at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and other hip places. At the back of the room, Linda would set up her 8-mm projector and show silent Keystone Kop and Charlie Chaplin movies directly on the stage as we played. She also took some footage of Hisey’s custom-made black-and-white polka-dot pants, moving the camera slowly up and down, left and right. So the jerkily running characters or slowly revolving white dots would move across our bodies and faces as we flailed away at the highest volume level our equipment could produce.

But we were no match for the Daybreakers, in either volume or quality. An excellent local band for the time, they were Hisey’s favorite group. The leader and guitar player was Bob Monday, a big guy with straight black shoulder length hair. He played a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall stack. Wilgus Hicks, tall with a long blond shag, played a semi-hollow Gibson bass of some kind through not one, but two Sunn bass amps. We could feel each note he thumped vibrating the pits of our stomachs. The drummer was Davy Anslow, the keyboard player-frontman was Hank Mayberry. Under Monday’s direction, Hank had developed a unique and dynamic stage presence that made the Daybreakers a great band to watch. Hank was a good-looking guy with a long, dark shag haircut and goatee. He was well built in the very thin but slightly muscled way we cultivated then. He wore skin-tight hip-hugger bell-bottoms, Cuban-heeled boots and tightly tailored, long-sleeved shirts. On songs that other band members sang, he looked good just sitting behind his Hammond organ and playing, but when he sang (most of the songs), he stood up behind the organ and used it as part of his show. The keyboard hit him at about pelvis level, and he worked behind it as well as any front singer I have ever seen, grinding and pushing the organ in a very suggestive way, swinging the mike Roger Daltrey (of The Who) style. He was a natural and gifted frontman and gave a riveting performance every time I saw him.

The Daybreakers changed their lineup a little later, with Bob and Hank still the main players but with a different bass player (Don Hacker) and a drummer whose name I did not know. They were still good but did not have quite the chemistry of the original group. Then, later, in the early 70s, they gave up the Daybreakers lineup and formed a band called “Samson,” with Bob on guitar and Hank out front without his organ, backed by a new drummer, bassist, and keyboard player. I can’t remember if I ever saw Samson. I think they started doing some original songs, and I’m sure they were good, but the original Daybreakers were a special band that I will always remember as a great example of musicianship, presentation, song selection, and professionalism in that era. Bob Monday went on to own and operate a huge musical repair business called Secret Service in Cincinnati. And at some time later, I think he actually owned the Kustom amplifier brand name.

The next WUBE dance we played was in St. Bernard (a Cincinnati neighborhood), opening for the Heywoods (of brief “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” fame a little later), featuring Bo Donaldson on lead vocals. This was a much bigger place. I recall it as a huge room inside a huge Catholic church, and we used the Heywoods amps, which were powerful enough to fill the room as ours could not. Following Ms. Forbes’ instructions, I put on the most dynamic show I could, prancing and posturing all around the stage like the very poor man’s Jagger, Daltrey, and Morrison rolled into one, and singing to, pointing to, staring boldly and even sticking my tongue out at every girl within 20 feet of the stage. I guess I went a little too far for some of these girls’ boyfriends, because after our set, Steve Schmitt came into the dressing room to report that he had walked through the crowd and heard some St. Bernard rednecks—of which I gathered there was no shortage—making plans to catch me outside after the show and beat my ass. To avoid this promised violence, I think we sneaked out some back door early, packed Linda’s Nova and high-tailed it back to Hamilton (where we also had a boatload of rednecks, but where we knew better how to recognize and avoid them).

The third job we played for WUBE was at a very unusual place called The House of the Rising Sun. It was not a theater or auditorium or VFW hall, but just a big old house that had been converted into a sort of psychedelic dream residence. I don’t know who owned it—the radio station or someone else. But the walls were painted much as we had painted the Hiseys’ basement—in free form psychedelic mosaic and peace symbols. The ceiling was a blue sky with clouds, and there was an ongoing light show—with black lights and strobes--in at least one room. One of two stairways had been replaced with a long curving slide, so that one could walk up to the second floor then slide down. The most unusual feature of The House of the Rising Sun was its stage, which occupied two rooms (probably the original living and dining rooms). A hole had been cut in the wall dividing these two rooms in order to extend this stage from one room into another, but the rest of that wall was left intact, so that half the stage was visible from one room and half from the other. I suppose the idea was that people could see the band from two different perspectives in the two rooms. We rather stupidly made use of the whole stage, putting, as I recall, Steve on guitar, Jimbo on drums, and me on vocals in the living room. Holland on bass and Hisey on rhythm guitar were in the dining room. We could see each other through the hole in the wall, but the amps were isolated in one room or the other, so we couldn’t hear each other very well. There was no sound man, and in those days we did not mike the instruments and send them back through the monitors as we do at bigger shows today. As anyone with any musical sense would have known, the set up at the House of the Rising Sun guaranteed terrible sound and a very unbalanced presentation, which is exactly what we delivered. We managed to play our normal list of songs, but God knows what they sounded like. My girlfriend Bonnie was there with us that day and kept her ear to the PA speaker in the living room (the other was in the dining room, of course) in order to hear every word I “sang.” This, maybe more than anything else, was a sign of her devotion to me. I still had learned nothing about vocal technique and had almost never heard myself on tape since my embarrassingly breathy rendition of “Satisfaction” a few years earlier. (I probably had told myself that the tape was inaccurate and that I really sounded as I did to myself in my own head.) I just choked it out with confidence until my voice got hoarse and compensated with an increasingly dynamic stage presence that began, with the encouragement of Ms. Forbes, to border on the scandalously suggestive--some might (and did) say obscene.

Ms. Forbes had also told us that we should mingle with the crowd on our breaks, not stand around in a huddle talking to each other--especially not to our girlfriends, since the reaction of the girls in the audience was crucial to our success. So I had to kind of ignore Bonnie that day in order to do my required P.R. work (still gratis, of course). I’m sure she would have like my attention when I wasn’t onstage, but she didn’t complain. She was always much too good for me.

I remember that the show took place in the afternoon and that we opened for the Stone Fox. More experienced than we were, they saw right away the downfall of the two-room stage, simply set up on the living room section, and played in one room. They sounded and looked great there on the stage in the psychedelic dream called the House of the Rising Sun, which still ranks today as one of the most unusual places I have ever played. Today, the house has probably been restored to normalcy, and a family probably lives there, completely unaware of the crazed hippie happenings that once took place right there in its little nest of happiness.

The fourth and most important job we had scheduled for WUBE was coming up. But the name of the venue now escapes me. I believe our agreement was that, after playing three free jobs, we would now get paid something for our next show. In the early afternoon of that day, we were rehearsing hard to be the best we could possibly be. We had discovered that we played our best if we ran practiced for little while early on the day of the show, then packed up, got dressed, loaded equipment, etc. So we were doing exactly that in Bob Holland’s basement, which was finished, with a bar, etc.

At one point we took a break and turned on the radio in hopes of hearing our name advertised for the show that night. WUBE was a station with the same format as WSAI—top 40 hits by the pop/rock artists of the day. Imagine our surprise when we tuned in WUBE and heard not the Beatles or the Stones or the Animals or the Doors, but instead George Jones, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, and other country artists, song after song after song. This was crazy. “You’ve got the wrong station, Holland!” we yelled. Steve got up and fiddled with the dial to get WUBE in properly. But it was still country. WUBE was playing country, and there was no mention of any dance or any band playing anywhere that night. We immediately got on the phone and started calling the station, but could get no answer. We also tried to reach Ms. Forbes, with no success. WUBE had changed formats—secretly, overnight without warning, as radio stations still do today so as not to tip off the competition. So there was no dance that night. We did not ever play our first paying job for the radio station. We never heard from WUBE or Carol Ann Forbes again. We had just been a free opening act for them to use at some of their last few dances before they switched over.

Undaunted, we continued to play around Butler County. There was one dance at Camden High School. (Camden was the boyhood home of author Sherwood Anderson and is generally considered to be the setting of his book Winesburg, Ohio.) It was a rural school, out in the country, and the country kids were always a good audience because they didn’t get as much live music as kids in the cities did. So we played the dance there in the gym. Holland had borrowed my suede Cuban-heeled boots for the show and somehow managed to lose just one of them. So I was left with one half of my favorite pair of stage shoes.

Another out-of-the-way place we started to play was in Eaton, Ohio, up in Preble County (maybe an hour’s drive from Hamilton,) at the Eaton National Guard Armory. Out the front lawn stood a huge old tank. Inside there was a big hall that we could rent for $20 per night. So on a Friday or Saturday, we would go up there and throw our own dance. Earlier in the week, we would make posters to advertise and Linda would drive us up to hang them around town. Then on the night of the show, we would put Linda at the door with a stamp (I think it was a peace symbol or cannabis leaf) and she would charge 50 cents a head for admission. If we got just 40 people through the door, that paid for the hall rental. The rest was profit. The kids in Eaton usually came out since they didn’t have many entertainment options. They were a good audience, and we played up there in Eaton a few times. We made friends with a couple of sisters who helped us by putting up signs in their high school. Then we would let them in free the night of the dance.

Still following the advice I had gotten from Ms. Forbes, I was making my stage show increasingly scandalous. If Hank Mayberry of the Daybreakers was mildly suggestive, I would be overly dirty. I would place the base of my microphone stand against my groin and thrust it like a long silver phallus toward the audience. I would mount and grind against speaker cabinets as though making love to the guitar solos issuing therefrom. I would stick my tongue out at the girls in the audience. This was a time when excess was cool. Jim Morrison had made big headlines by betting arrested in Miami for indecent exposure during a Doors concert. Some people were shocked and offended. That was fine, as far as I was concerned. The more shocking the better. And in Eaton, Ohio, there were no authorities to complain or tell us to stop. It was our show. We were young musician-entrepreneurs.

We did fun afoul of authority at least once during this time, though. Some club or organization from Talawanda High School up in Oxford was putting on a dance, and two girls from the committee in charge of getting the band came to hear us at a rehearsal at Holland’s house. They liked us well enough and gave us the job. Of course they had seen only a rehearsal, without the stage act.

The dance was held on the top floor of Oxford’s City Hall, which housed the police department and was right across High Street. from the Boar’s Head, where we had played our unnoticed Saturday afternoon “audition” a couple of years earlier. Now we were a different band. When we launched into our show for the Talawanda high-schoolers, many of them the children of Miami University’s faculty and staff, jaws dropped at my blatantly risqué shenanigans. On the break, the girls from the committee asked us to please stop the x-rated show. This is not what they saw when they auditioned us. I pointed out they had come to a musical rehearsal, not a show. If they had wanted to see a show, they should have come to a live performance. But the police downstairs were called to intervene. They said we were breaking public decency laws and that the show would be stopped if we continued in the same way. So I think I calmed it down and cleaned it up for the second half so we could get paid. (I’m sure the other band members wanted to kill me.) Needless to say, we were never asked to play at a Talawanda High School function again.

In the early summer of ’69 (sounds like a good name for a song!), Gary Hisey, original Blues Inc. bass player Danny Paul, and I would walk over to Gerry Sawyer’s House on the Knob in Hamilton to rehearse with him on summer afternoons before he went to work the second shift at GE, if I recall correctly. When we younger players had begun to learn, Gerry, a couple of years older than we were, was already playing at Junior High Open House in a band called The Crickets, which also featured my friend Mike McGuire on the organ. Gerry was a gifted singer with a fine, clear, true, wailing, soulful voice that made any song he sang a joy to hear. But at 19 or 20, he was already married and had children. We practiced with him and a drummer named Ronnie to play, again, one job at the Butler County Fair. From a vocal standpoint, it was silly for me to be there, especially then, when I knew next to nothing about singing, because Gerry could out-sing me on his worst day. I probably had horned my way into the project and nobody had the nerve to tell me to butt out. At the fair, we played a few cover songs, which I sang, and two of Gerry’s originals, which he sang. The titles were “How Many Times?” and “Am I Blue.”

After that job, Gerry took Danny and the drummer Ronnie and formed a trio that played around town for a while. Gerry was also a good, smooth guitar player who played a right-handed guitar left-handed, upside down in other words, so his hand looked very strange when he played, but his solos were liquid and soulful to match his voice. So with a bass player and drummer who were just adequate at the time, Gerry was able to carry the show with his singing and playing.

He continued in this trio format with his next group, the Maxx Band, which included Tommy “Boom-Boom” Ellis on bass and Gary Butler on drums. When a local music store held a battle-of-the-bands-style contest in the parking lot of a strip mall one Saturday morning, the Maxx band was the only group who showed up. Thus they won a P.A. system, which was the prize for being chosen the best band in the contest. With this P.A., the Maxx Band embarked on a 20-plus-year career as a local band around Hamilton and Butler County Ohio. They played early 70s classic rock and became very popular in the biker bars around the area, especially the Vagabond Lounge on the West Side of town and a place called P.J. Shooters (formerly Brenneman’s and owned by the father of Dee Brenneman) on the East Side. Over the years, Gerry’s personnel in the Maxx Band changed periodically, but his song list did not. Most people who saw them year after year will tell you that they played pretty much the same 30-40 songs for more than two decades. They eventually played also at the big yearly biker event in Sturgis (North or South?), Dakota. P.J. Shooters eventually came to be called Dakota’s, and Gerry tended bar there and ran a jam session on Friday nights. Around the age of 50 then, he would claim that the weekly session was enough music for him. After a lifetime of weekends playing in the barrooms, he had had about enough of that level of playing (which was understandable) and preferred to devote his free time to other activities.

Very sadly, Gerry Sawyers died just a few months ago, in late 2007. He was 57 years old. Though his career had been confined to a small area most of his life, Gerry always had more soul than any white man should. He was one of the best natural singers I’ve ever heard, and I envied his voice greatly. It is a shame that few people outside southwest Ohio ever heard him.

Another great white soul singer from my hometown is a guy named Larry Combs, who also has been working there for the past 40 years and more. Like Gerrry, Larry is a couple of years older than I am. I first saw him, too, at Junior High Open House, playing guitar in the Rockers, but he was not the lead singer. Wayne Perry was the frontman, and as I’ve already mentioned, had a ton of stage presence. A natural frontman, Wayne was, like me, a good showman without a great voice. His singing was rough and raunchy, limited in range, but he learned to use it to his advantage. (The years would show that his strength, like mine, lay in songwriting. After playing in many bands around our area, Wayne would move to Nashville, where he spent the last 15 years or so of his life as a successful country songwriter.)

After the Rockers broke up, Larry joined forces with a rival band called the Mods to form the What Four, in which he both played guitar and sang lead. To my knowledge, Larry’s career was pretty much confined to the Greater Cincinnati area, primarily Butler County, over the years. Most of the bands he was in would be called, simply, the Larry Combs Band. He sang and played guitar, but usually had another guitarist working with him, as well. Most of his bands did not last long, as far as I know, and I have heard people say that he was hard to work with, as are many talented artists. But there are people who will say the same of me—rather that I am hard to work for—not because I have much talent, but because I generally run the show with an iron hand. I have never been especially talented. But I know what must be done to put a band together and keep it running and working. I know what everybody should and should not be doing, onstage and offstage, to keep the program functional. I like to have the input of others, especially good musicians, but I make all final decisions, and anyone who interferes with my program or works against me will soon find him/herself fired. A bandleader is not in business to win a popularity contest among musicians. He must make hard decisions that will make people mad and sometimes even cost him friends. I have lost more than one good and respected friend as the result of decisions I had to make as a bandleader. So I cannot criticize Larry because I have never worked with him. I was always the singer/frontman in my bands, and he was a much better singer than I, so there was no reason for him to collaborate with me. The last and possibly most successful of Larry’s projects of which I am aware was a band called Jumbo Junior, which was together around 2000. They were managed by my good friend and favorite soundman in the world, Dave Scott of Middletown, Ohio, and made one CD featuring songs written mostly by Larry. It was a good record. The band was good and sounded a little like a soulful, modern-day Allman Brothers Band. Larry’s voice is just a little less gritty and more fluid and flowing than Gregg Allman’s, with beautiful range and heart. Whatever he sings—blues, R&B, rock, or country--it is beautifully done and drenched in soul. I am truly and deeply envious of his voice. It is a shame that the world does not know more about Larry Combs. Today, I am not aware of his doing too much in music, but I have been away from home for more than two years at the time of this writing. His son, Jamie, is a good drummer and, the last I knew, was playing for Sonny Moorman, who is probably the best and hardest working blues-rock guitar player in southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and a few other places, too.

So there was always a lot of talent and a strong music “scene” in the Cincinnati-Dayton, Ohio, area where I grew up. I think this was true even before my time, but certainly from the mid-60s to the present, there have been many good bands to be found playing in venues all around the region. The best players who started out in the golden early days are getting up in years, but many are still kicking it out. It’s a very competitive place to play, with many good bands fighting for the available work, but the result is much good music to be heard. I think it was, during my youth, as good a place as any in the country for young musicians to develop and gain experience.

During my junior year in high school, 1968-69, my band-mates and I got driver’s licenses and at least occasional access to someone’s car. The first place we headed for was the Black Dome in Clifton, near the University of Cincinnati. I would sometimes borrow my father’s old Chevrolet, say we were all going to the drive-in movie, then fly down to the Black Dome, aka Hippie Heaven. The dome was in fact a round, domed building at the intersection of Vine and Calhoun Streets. One entered, pay his 50 cents, and got a day-glo hand stamp that showed up only under the black light at the door. The interior was neither very large nor very small. There were no chairs of any kind, only Persian rugs on the floor, and a high stage in the corner. No alcohol was served, thus patrons of all ages were welcome. In the back there were free bagels, as I recall. (Ah, the glorious late 60s, when it was cool to give, to love, to send out vibrations of peace and positive energy; who is giving away anything free today?)

At this time in history, WSAI, like other top-40 AM stations in the country had lost popularity among young listeners like us. In 1969, we were turning our attention to the FM “progressive rock” stations popping up all over the country to spread the wealth of music being created in those times. In Cincinnati, it was WEBN-FM and its “Jelly Pudding” show, featuring the warm and laid-lack voice of Michael Xanadu (aka Frank Wood, Jr., son of WEBN’s owner at the time), who treated us to Big Brother, Country Joe, the Dead, Cream, Hendrix, and the Doors doing “The End,” “When the Music’s Over,” and the long version of “Light My Fire,” each of which jammed on for a good 20 minutes. So the WSAI dances were becoming things of the past, but the best local acts, many of whom had graduated from the WSAI dance circuit, now played at the Dome: Balderdash (formerly the Us Too Group), The Glass Wall, Bitter Blood Street Theatre, the Sacred Mushroom, and a band called, simply, “Rock.” Rock featured Don Hacker on bass and a guy named Steve Belew on guitar. A few years later, Belew would have a trio called Adrian, with Ray Yancy on bass and Mike Hodges on drums. Then he, Belew, would change his first name and become Adrian Belew. Rumor around Cincinnati some 20 years ago had it that he had fallen into some collaboration with David Bowie and thus boosted his career up to an international level. He is now a minor guitar figure known at least by name to many musicians around the world.

Spurred on and inspired in our efforts during this magical musical time, we played through the rest of my junior year in high school with Steve Schmitt on lead guitar, Holland on bass, Hisey on rhythm, Jimbo on drums, and me out front. We returned to the Eaton National Guard Armory once or twice and went back to the Cellar. We were playing songs by Hendrix—“Fire” and “Foxy Lady,”—Pride of Man by Quicksilver, Cream, and a couple of songs by Spirit. Our big closer was always “Inside Lookin’ Out,” first done by the Animals (to my knowledge) and then covered by Grand Funk Railroad. We also did a tune or two by the Doors, I think. Jim Morrison was one of the few singers I could mimic well in those days, when doing a cover tune as much like the record as possible was our goal. Unlike Robert Plant and Steve Marriott, for example, whose stuff I really could not sing, Morrison had a voice that was low and full like mine, and I could sing in his range and copy his phrasing pretty easily. His version of “Back Door Man” was one of my favorites, though I didn’t even know at the time that it was an old Willie Dixon song.

Alhough Randy was gone, Steve Schmitt was becoming more of a blues aficionado. We didn’t know much about the black blues tradition in America, but a couple of bands, like Canned Heat and Big Brother with Janis Joplin, whom we saw at Music Hall, were blues-based groups that were part of the psychedelic scene. And The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was truly just that: a Chicago blues band that played all the big shows and venues that the big psychedelic acts played. When the first Led Zeppelin album came out in ’69, it featured “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You,” both blues covers. Steve was a huge fan of Jimmy Page and often said he really wanted to play in a band that was “strictly blues.” Hisey would roll his eyes in despair at such comments. He hated the blues because to him it meant sheer boredom for the rhythm guitar player.

When Cream released its version of the old blues tune “Spoonful” (written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Muddy Waters, unbeknownst to us), we immediately included it in our repertoire. This was the day of long songs, and Cream’s “Spoonful,” with verse after verse of Clapton’s blazing guitar, was at least 20 minutes long. Since the song consists of only two chords, G and E, repeated from beginning to end, playing it sent Hisey to a living musical hell. After about 15 minutes of G and E, he would rest his elbow on the head of his soft blue Kustom amp, roll his eyes behind his black, Buddy-Holly-style glasses, and try to stay awake until the end. Meanwhile, Steve would fall to his knees to deliver a screaming solo, Holland would play an equally busy, many-keyed bass solo against Steve’s, and I would use the instrumental breaks to grind my pelvis against the speaker cabinets in the bold psycho-erotic style that was becoming my trademark. Eventually, Hisey complained so much about his blues boredom that I think we let him sit out on “Spoonful.” He was happy take a break somewhere with a Mountain Dew and a Twinkie while we pounded away for an eternity on one two-chord song, there in our very poor man’s answer to the Fillmore West: the Eaton, Ohio, National Guard Armory with the big tank out front. Lord knows what the kids there thought of us, but they came out to listen, applaud, and dance every time we played.

During this time I wrote a song called “The Extraneous Blues,” a simple 12-bar anthem to male philandering, about which we as late adolescent musicians were just beginning to learn. I don’t think that was the first song I ever wrote, but it was one of them--and the first to be performed by the band.


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