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
But now we started to work a little more and to play outside
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 “
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
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.
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.
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
Soon after the WSAI dance, Steve Schmitt mentioned that he knew a guy on the
The West Side of Hamilton was always considered a little more upscale than the
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
She decided that she could use us as an opening band for some of the WUBE dances featuring the bigger
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
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
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
The next WUBE dance we played was in St. Bernard (a
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.
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,
Undaunted, we continued to play around
Another out-of-the-way place we started to play was in
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
We did fun afoul of authority at least once during this time, though. Some club or organization from
The dance was held on the top floor of
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
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,
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
So there was always a lot of talent and a strong music “scene” in the Cincinnati-Dayton,
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
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
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,
Alhough Randy was gone, Steve Schmitt was becoming more of a blues aficionado. We didn’t know much about the black blues tradition in
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.