Ron Hall’s Playing for a Piece of the Door: History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



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 (www.shangri.com), 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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