Ron Hall's Playing for a Piece of the Door: History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975
It's very easy to see why the garage rock revival appeals to an old guy like me, or Steven Van Zandt. This is music we grew up listening to, loving and playing. Of course we're getting off hearing twentysomethings play it live again. And of course it also strokes our egos that twentysomethings are into music we loved in our youth?another affirmation that maybe the era of our youth really was the coolest ever, just like we keep telling everybody.
I do have to ask Lisa LeeKing and Tanya Richardson to explain to me again why the twentysomethings themselves are getting off on this music, though. Clearly garage rock is this year's retro fad, like lounge music and the swing revival before it. They need to tell me again if and how it's more than that.
Still, if the fad means that Ron Hall will find a bigger audience than he might have a few years ago for his new book and CD, I'm all for it. The book's called Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 (172 pages, $16.95). The CD's called A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 ($11). They're both from Shangri-La , Memphis' well-loved record store/ record label/publisher, and they're both great, grassroots exercises in popular history.
The book's very straightforward: brief portraits of dozens of 60s and early 70s bands, most of whom you and I never heard of because they never made it out of Memphis. Bands with names like Flash & the Casuals, Butterscotch Caboose, Danny Burk & the Invaders, the Guilloteens, the Escapades, the Jesters, the Yo-Yo's, the Torquays, the Coachmen, the Load of Mischief. Wearing Beatles haircuts and turtlenecks and shades in their official band photos. They played Memphis' sock hops and CYOs, its rock clubs and local rock shows on tv, including one hosted by George Klein, of the Memphis Mafia. Some were homegrown, others were attracted to Memphis from all over the South because it had the recording studios and the labels, including Sun and Stax.
A very few became famous?the Box Tops, the Gentrys, the Mar-Keys, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs?but most are completely unsung heroes, bands who'd never get mentioned in any mainstream rock history. Many of them wouldn't even rate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's insulting wall dedicated to one-hit wonders, because they never made anything resembling a "hit" record. Many just managed to do a vanity single or a demo tape before disbanding?because the singer had to go off to college, or someone got drafted, or the drummer and singer got in a fight.
Some of them don't have much to say for themselves, and only a trainspotting record-collector type will care about their mundane tales. But there are great stories to tell about others. Like:
As kids, the Knowbody Else hid out in the hills of Arkansas to avoid the police and evolved into one of the first big southern rock bands?commanding $15,000-20,000 a night. When Jim Mangrum, Rick Reynolds, Pat Daugherty, Harvey Jett, and Artis Brewer got together in Black Oak, Arkansas, in 1963, all they had was a love for rock 'n' roll and not much else. Jim Mangrum claims to be the first long-haired rock 'n' roller in Arkansas, and he may well have been. Regardless of this claim, rural Arkansas was a tough place for a band of long hairs to get started.
In 1965 they broke into a local high school and stole a p.a. system, microphones, and other equipment. They were caught, and after spending a couple of weeks in jail while raising bail, they all received long suspended sentences. While their records kept them out of the draft, the conviction also brought the watchful eye of every law enforcer in Northeast Arkansas. They were advised to break up the band. If they did not, they were urged to leave town. The group moved into the woods outside of town and began playing whenever they could find a gig.
The Knowbody Else eventually became, as you may have guessed, Black Oak Arkansas, fronted by Jim "Jim Dandy" Mangrum.
Here's a blues rock band called Moloch, who managed to tour outside the Memphis region:
Just before the album came out, the band went to Washington, D.C., to play a week at the Emergency Club. While they were there, an agent interested in signing them called and said if they could get to Flushing Meadows, New York, he could get them on a bill with the MC5 and the Stooges. "We pooled all our money and took off to New York," says Phil Durham. "We had known Bill Barth from the Blues Festivals in Memphis, and he had a band, the Insect Trust, that had a house in Hoboken, New Jersey. So we stayed there."
"Man, I was just a baby when I left town with those guys," says Steve Spear. "They were a wild bunch. We were stuck in a traffic jam in New York, and Lee whipped his old Volkswagen over on the sidewalk and went around the traffic. I was so naive I said, 'Can you do that up here?'"
Ron Hall is 51 and has lived in Memphis since the fourth grade. "I grew up going to the CYOs and seeing these bands," he tells me. "I had a lot of friends that were in some of these groups. As I got older, I started in collecting this stuff." As a record collector and dealer, he got interested in putting together a master list of all the long-lost singles by all the local bands of his day. And he started looking up band members to interview. When I ask if he knew when he started how to find all these guys?now middle-aged adults with 30, 35 years of growing up between them and their teenage bands?he chuckles.
"I thought I knew who they were! I found out real quick that old Ron didn't know near what he thought. I was lucky in that the first couple of guys that I talked to?one guy in particular, Greg Redding, who played with a bunch of bands, just a good friend of mine from here?he was like an encyclopedia. I went over there for a couple hours one day and he filled me in on a bunch of stuff." Other guys took a lot more research to track down, having moved out of state decades earlier. Some have stayed in the recording industry or other media?record producers, music shop owners, radio talent, commercial jingle-writers. Others completely left the music behind to become dentists or preachers.
At first, Hall says, their reaction often was, "'Man, why do you care about this stuff?'" But then, he says, "they would really get excited. So now I get e-mails every day. They can't wait for it to come out." He adds that "what really freaks these guys out [is] when you tell them, 'I got your record on an auction. A guy in Seattle had it.' 'What? We only printed 300 of them!' So many of these guys say, 'We used to take those things out, line them up on the fence and shoot them up with BB guns.' I tell 'em, 'Well, they're selling for $50 apiece now.'"
It's usually implied in mainstream versions of rock history that all the big stars became big simply because they were the best, and all the others who didn't make it were less talented, just those one-hit wonders or something even less. Some of Hall's stories suggest that this wasn't universally so?that at least sometimes it was just sheer luck, good or ill, separating a band that made it nationally from one that never got beyond the local teen circuit.
"There's so many unknown musicians here in town that are legends?in town," Hall says. Why didn't they make it big? "Either they had a shyster manager or a lazy promo man, or the record would come out and the record company would fold. There's just so much bad luck involved in so many of these stories."
The CD backs this up. Of the 15 tracks Hall compiled from obscure singles and demo tapes, almost all of them had hit potential. There are a couple of great, grungy, Farfisa-heavy garage rock numbers, some good, Boxtops-ish funky whiteboy stuff, a couple of top-class frat rockers, some psychedelia and two fabulous blue-eyed soul ballads? one kind of Eric Burdon, the other the Yo-Yo's covering a song by Joe ("Down in the Boondocks") South called "Leaning on You," with the phenomenal chorus, "'Cause when I'm holding your hand/I'm holding my breath/If I thought you'd ever leave me/It'd scare me to death/It's sad but true/What can I do?/I believe I'm leaning on you too much."
One way to think about a book and CD like these is to accept that rock was, at the time, everybody's music. A kind of folk music. Not folk music as in a hootenanny, but in the ethnographic sense of music produced by a folk culture. That folk culture was the youth culture of the day. Like Hall, almost literally everybody I knew was in one of these high school bands. Rock wasn't just being made by rock stars. All these obscure little bands each contributed a little something to the great bubbling stew that was rock in those days. You couldn't have had the Beatles and Stones, or even Paul Revere & the Raiders, without all the Monarchs and the Jesters and the Scepters and the Coachmen there to help create the context and the milieu, to maintain the pervasiveness that helped make the music such an irresistible force. Maybe we could say that the big stars made the best of that music, but all those myriad little bands created the musical culture that surrounded and supported those stars and helped make their big commercial successes possible. Maybe it was all these obscure little bands, playing constantly in all the clubs and teen centers, who fed and developed all the other kids' tastes and appetites for the stars' records. And, obviously, these bands were the breeding ground for those stars?virtually no one made it big who didn't start out in a garage somewhere, imitating their heroes.
"I've got two sons that play music," Hall tells me. "In fact, one's got a band, with a CD out and everything. I know how hard it is for them. I tell them, 'Nothing's changed in 35 years. These guys did the same thing you guys have done. Their parents never got any money back?like I know I'm not getting any back from you!'"
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