The Wheels, l-r: Victor Catling, Rod Demick, Brian Rossi, Tito Tinsley and Herbie Armstrong
all photos and clippings courtesy Victor Catling
|Brian Rossi – organ, piano and vocals|
Rod Demick – rhythm guitar and vocals
Herbie Armstrong – lead guitar
Tito Tinsley – bass
Victor Catling – drums
Updated September 2013
The Wheels came out of the same Belfast band scene as Them, playing at the famous Maritime Hotel in College Square North.
They began as the Golden Eagles, fronted by the charismatic singer Brian Rossi (Brendan Rosebotham, as noted on the songwriting credits to “Bad Little Woman”) and house band for the Plaza, one of the circuit of dance halls owned by the Mecca company. Van Morrison briefly played saxophone with the Eagles – previously he and Herbie Armstrong had been in the Manhattan Showband together. Some time after changing their name to the Wheels they were fired from the Plaza and in September 1964 began a club residency in Blackpool in northern England (just above Liverpool), where they built a strong following while sharing a house with the Rockin’ Vicars. In 1965 the Wheels’ rhythm guitarist Kit Carson quit the band, to be replaced by Rod Demick of Tony and the Telstars with Tony G. Ford, Robert Green, Ernie Graham and Chris Stewart.
EMI Columbia signed them to a singles deal in 1965. All three of their releases would be produced by Tommy Scott (Thomas Kilpatrick), a young Glaswegian who had been working with Them since producing “All For Myself”, the flip to Them’s third single “Here Comes the Night”.
The Wheels’ first recording, “Don’t You Know”
This label is the flip of the US release of “Bad Little Woman”, February 1966
Rossi ‘hopes to make his disc debut with a Van composition, ‘Gloria'”
At their first session at Regent Sound Studios they chose a good cover of Them’s “Gloria” for their first single, backed with Tommy Scott’s “Don’t You Know” (a song Them would also release, on the flip to their ’66 single “Richard Cory”). The single came out in September ’65. Also from this first session was a fine version of “Mona (I Need You Baby)” with Rod Demick on harmonica and Brian Rossi on lead vocals. It would show up in 1997 on Belfast Beat Maritime Blues along with several other unreleased gems by the Wheels.
The Wheels went back to Regent Sound Studios to record five songs, two of which would appear on their second 45, from February 1966, the originals “Bad Little Woman” b/w “Road Block”. Three other songs from that session had release on Belfast Beat Maritime Blues, “Send Me Your Pillow”, “You Got Me Dizzy”, and “I’m Leaving”.
“Bad Little Woman” was released simultaneously in the U.S. on the Aurora label (it was predicted to reach Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on February 5, 1966), which included the b-side from their first Columbia single, “Don’t You Know” instead of “Road Block”. The Aurora release renamed the group the Wheel-a-Ways, possibly to prevent their being confused with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, whose first chart single “Jenny Take a Ride” hit the charts in November of ’65.
What makes this single so fascinating is Columbia accidently sent Aurora a tape with a different take of “Bad Little Woman”. The Columbia version begins fast, with two guitars, organ and drums equal in intensity. The Aurora version starts at a much slower pace with room for intermittent guitar licks and harmonica bleats, and forgoes the organ.
With the line “and he don’t love you baby …” both versions accelerate for twenty seconds of rave-up, but the Aurora version achieves incredible velocity, with the guitars cranking out one of the best amp sounds I’ve ever heard recorded, while the vocals go completely into the red with distortion.
The band comes together for a last chord on the Columbia version, while the Aurora version ends quietly – a slow slide down a high guitar string to the final sound of a guitarist taking his fingers off the frets.
Judging by the audio quality and the assured pace of the band on the Columbia single, I’d say the Aurora version was recorded first, possibly meant to be a demo rather than a finished single. The timing of 2:20 on the Aurora label doesn’t make any sense, the song is 2:44.
The Wheels went back to Regent Sound for a third session, this time producing two covers of recent singles by other bands. “Call My Name” was another Tommy Scott composition, originally the A-side of Them’s seventh single, from March of 1966. “Tell Me (I’m Gonna Love Again)” had been A-side to the Graham Bond Organisation’s third 45, from April of ’65.
The Wheels version of “Call My Name” would show up as the b-side to their third single “Kicks” in August of 1966. It would also appear on the b-side of most UK promo copies of “Bad Little Woman”, though mislabeled as “Road Block”. A 1992 Record Collector article on the band erronously listed the mislabelled promo b-side as “Kicks” – impossible as the Feb. ’66 release date would have been a month prior to the Raiders’ release of “Kicks”!
The nearly solid sound spectrum during the song’s peak!
Notice for Aaron Shcroeder’s Aurora Records in Billboard, Feb. 6, 1965
“The Wheels say most of the English groups just hate showbands.”
Six-member version of the Wheels
from left: Tito Tinsley, Victor Catling, Rod Demick, Brian Rossi, Eric Wrixon and Herbie Armstrong
The Record Collector article and the notes to Belfast Beat Maritime Blues state that Brian Rossi left the band after the failure of the second single, and that Eric Wrixon from Them joined the group on keyboards. According to this chronology, Wrixon would be playing on the third Regent Sound session that produced “Call My Name”. However, since “Call My Name” was recorded in time to be on some promo copies of “Bad Little Woman”, then it’s likely Rossi was still with the band at the time of that session. If so, then it’s also probable that “Kicks” was the only session that included Eric Wrixon.
Curious as to who sang on the singles, I asked Rod Demick and he stated in an email that he sang lead vocals on the singles released by The Wheels. In an interview with Shindig magazine Rod specified that Brian Rossi sang lead on “Mona” and “You Got Me Dizzy”. Victor Catling wrote to me “Rod was the lead singer with that [hard r&b] style of music. Rod used one of those harmonica racks when playing. Brian Rossy sang ballads and rock numbers when we were on stage. Herbie and Tito also sang but mostly as backup singers. I never heard what happened to Tito.”
From their first Regent Sound Studios session, “Mona” has lead vocals simultaneous with the harmonica, and I don’t think either is dubbed, so that confirms Rossi on lead vocals and Demick on harp. It’s a step from that level of singing to what Rod accomplishes on “Gloria” (from the same session), “Bad Little Woman”, “Road Block” & “I’m Leaving” (these three from their next Regent Sound session).
Rossi was probably not with the band by the time they recorded their version of “Kicks”, so Demick is likely singing on that song, which is very different in style from their other recordings.
Cityweek, September 1, 1966
An article from the Belfast newspaper Cityweek in September 1, 1966 depicts a six-member lineup including both Wrixon and Rossi. This show is described as a short-lived reunion with Rossi before the band broke up in early ’67, but the article doesn’t mention anything about it being a reunion, nor does it suggest the band is about to break up. In any case, they did fall apart.
I know of only one version of the Wheels’ “Bad Little Woman” from that era, a great one by the Shadows of Knight. An obscure group called the Right of Way copied the Shadows of Knight version, unreleased until Norton’s Northwest Killers Vol. 3. This can only be a testament to how obscure this single was at the time.
After the Wheels, Rod Demick and Herbie Armstrong recorded two singles as the James Brothers for Page One Records in 1967, “Does It Have To Be Me” / “You Don’t Really Love Me” and “I Forgot To Give You Love” / “The Truth About It”. I haven’t heard either. Rod Demick switched to bass and with Herbie they backed Screaming Lord Sutch for a time, and then recorded two LPs together in the early ’70s. Demick has since played with many bands. Armstrong joined Fox and also Van Morrison’s band for a time, and then had his own groups.
Brian Rossi passed away in 1984. There are some photos of the Wheels within a tribute video created by his daughter Tamara Rossi; if anyone has access to better quality versions of any photos, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Bruce Welsh for pointing out the first James Brothers 45 to me.
Special thanks to Victor Catling for the newsclips and photos seen here.
Victor Catling of the Wheels
Regent Sound Studios, Summer 1965:
Unknown studio and date:
Regent Sound Studios, late 1965:
Regent Sound Studios, late 1965 or January 1966:
unknown session, probably without Rossi, so assume Demick on lead vocal:
The Wheels, l-r: Victor Catling, Rod Demick, Brian Rossi, Tito Tinsley and Herbie Armstrong
First UK EP showing lineup after November, 1964
From left: Alan Henderson, Pat McAuley, Van Morrison, Billy Harrison and Jackie McAuley
|Van Morrison (harmonica, saxophone, vocals)|
Alan Henderson (bass)
Billy Harrison (lead guitar)
Eric Wrixon (keyboards)
Ronnie Millings (drums)
The group is formed in Belfast, Northern Ireland by Henderson (b. 26 November 1944, Belfast, N. Ireland), Harrison (b. 14 October 1942, Belfast, N. Ireland) and Millings (or Mellings), who have previously played in a local three-piece outfit, The Gamblers. The trio adds keyboard player Eric Wrixon (b. 29 June 1947, Belfast, N. Ireland) and a short while later completes the original line up with singer Morrison (b. George Ivan, 31 August 1945, Belfast, N. Ireland) from local band The Monarchs. Wrixon names the band after a 1950s B horror film.
April (17) One of the first R&B/beat group’s in the province, Them quickly build a reputation as a strong live act holding down a residency at Belfast’s Maritime Hotel in College Square North. The group’s repertoire includes a blistering 15-minute version of Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light”, and a 20-minute improvisation of Morrison’s celebration of teenage lust, “Gloria”. (Although Morrison is credited for the song’s lyrics, Harrison and Henderson have contributed significantly on the musical side.)
January Pat’s brother Jackie (aka John) (b. 14 December 1946, Coleraine, N. Ireland) is added on keyboards as the group begins work on its next single, a recording of their new producer, Bert Berns’s “Here Comes The Night”. Some sources maintain that organ player Phil Coulter and drummer Alan White are brought in to play the McAuley brothers’ parts, but this is disputed by the band members. (Berns, an American producer working in the UK is impressed with Morrison as a vocalist and will continue to work with the group over the next few months.)
French EP showing original drummer Ronnie Millings (with shades)
Gloria reaches #1 on KRLA, April 14, 1965
early mention for band in KRLA’s Beat, May 19, 1965
Rare French EP showing short-lived line up from November 1965, from left: Billy Harrison, Alan Henderson, Van Morrison, Ray Elliott and Terry Noon
Them’s first UK LP, The Angry Young Them, Peter Bardens in pink shirt next to Van
First U.S. issue, featuring “Here Comes the Night”
Second U.S. cover to capitalize on “Gloria”
From KRLA’s Beat, April 30, 1966 (click for larger image)
from left to right: Ray Elliott, John Wilson, Jim Armstrong, Van Morrison and Alan Henderson
January Them’s second album Them Again fails to chart in the UK. It contains two of Morrison’s best songs: “Hey Girl” and “My Lonely Sad Eyes”, as well as an edited version of Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light”. Original Them member Eric Wrixon leaves The People, who have relocated to Blackpool, and joins another expatriate Belfast band, The Wheels, who record two singles for Columbia. In 1967, he moves to Germany with The Never Never Band and plays regularly at Hamburg’s Star club, supporting soul acts like Sam & Dave.
KRLA’s Beat, April 23, 1966
Click above for larger image and
KRLA’s Beat, June 25, 1966
Click for larger image
KRLA’s Beat, September 24, 1966
|September (2-3) Them performs at the Longshoreman’s Hall, San Francisco.|
(9) They appear in Fresno, California. Shortly afterwards, Morrison and Henderson return to London to sort out business matters with Solomon while the others return to Los Angeles. However, when their visas expire a few weeks later, Armstrong, Elliott and Harvey also return to Belfast. A new Them line up featuring Morrison, Henderson and Armstrong plays Derry Embassy Ballroom with Morrison’s cousin Sammy Stitt on drums but the show is so bad that Morrison leaves. He continues to work some new songs that will later comprise his masterpiece Astral Weeks. Morrison also returns to occasional live work in a new outfit dubbed, Van Morrison and “Them Again”, which features former Atlantics and Delltones’ guitarist Eric Bell alongside Joe Hanratty (drums) and Mike Brown (bass) from local group The Alleykatzs. “Them Again” debut at the Square One in Belfast and also play at Queens’ University’s rag ball before playing further gigs throughout Ireland. The band soon implodes and Morrison concentrates on a solo career. Eric Bell meanwhile moves to Glasgow and plays with The Bluebeats for two years.
(17) The McAuley brothers’ group, now dubbed The Belfast Gypsies score a minor US hit when “Gloria’s Dream” hits #124.
November (5) The McAuley brothers’ Them play their final date in Stockholm.
December Armstrong, Elliott, Harvey and Henderson decide to carry on with Them’s name, now that Morrison has abandoned the name and is pursuing a solo career. The group recruits a new vocalist Ken McDowell (b. 21 December 1944, Belfast, N. Ireland), previously a member of Belfast group The Mad Lads, who have recorded a number of singles for Decca Records, as well as a lone release “I Went Out With My Baby” as Moses K. & The Prophets. The new version of Them writes to Carol Deck, Californian editor of Flipmagazine (who had given the band some encouraging reviews during its US tour) asking for help, and she in turn introduces them to Texan producer Ray Ruff, who has his own indie label, Ruff Records.
January Major Minor Records releases “Gloria”, backed by another Morrison song, the acoustic “Friday’s Child” as a UK single. The McAuley brothers’ Them implodes and Jackie McAuley returns to Dublin and forms Cult with singer/songwriter and guitarist Paul Brady.
The Belfast Gypsies, released as Them
Rare French EP with Belfast Gypsies listed
Them in Checkmate Studios, Amarillo, 1967, from left: Ray Elliott, Alan Henderson, Dave Harvey, Ken McDowell and Jim Armstrong
Photo from the collection of Tom McCarty
|August Nearly year after the band’s final performance, the McAuley brothers’ group The Belfast Gypsies have a belated album release on the Swedish label Sonet as Them Belfast Gypsies. Relocating to Amarillo, Texas, Henderson’s Them release their debut single without Morrison, a cover of Tom Lane’s “Dirty Old Man (At The Age Of Sixteen)” / “Square Room” on Sully Records before a nation-wide distribution deal is struck with Tower Records.|
Above and below, first record by the Amarillo, Texas based Them
September Starting off in Amarillo, Henderson’s group kicks off a tour and gigs for 65 days straight. The gruelling tour, which sees the band take a day off before working another 38 days straight, takes the musicians up to Canada across to the west coast and then down to Los Angeles, where Them begin work on its first album without Morrison.
November Henderson’s Them release a second 45, the band composition “Walking In The Queens Garden” b/w “I Happen to Love You” on Ruff Records.
December Tower issues two singles, one includes newly recorded versions of “Dirty Old Man (At The Age Of Sixteen)” and “Square Room” and the second reissues the Ruff 45.
(8-10) The band appears at the Whisky-A-Go-Go, West Hollywood, California with Love and Blue Cheer.
KRLA’s Beat, May 6, 1967
The McAuley brother’s group
Poster from Amarillo, 1967, from left: Jim Armstrong, Dave Harvey, Ken McDowell, Ray Elliott and Alan Henderson.
Poster from the collection of Tom McCarty
January A new album, Now And Them is released featuring Them’s reply to the Doors’ “The End”, the extended raga piece “Square Room”.
March Them’s final single, a cover of the traditional Corinna is released but fails to chart. Unhappy with Ruff’s management and production, Armstrong and McDowell leave and return to Belfast where they put together Sk’Boo with Ricky McCutcheon and Colm Connolly. Henderson, meanwhile, remains with Ruff in L.A. and continues with the Them name; using guitarist Jim Parker and drummer John Stark from Amarillo band, The Kitchen Cinq, he produces two further albums: Them (1969) and In Reality (1970) for the Chicago label Happy Tiger. David Harvey also stays behind in California but will leave the music business.
October Having returned from Germany and joined The Trixons showband, original Them member Eric Wrixon joins guitarist Eric Bell from the short-lived “Them Again” in the original Thin Lizzy. He leaves in early 1970 and returns to Germany to play with Junior Walker, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy among others.
January (21) Truth play at the New Cellar, Chicago alongside The Mauds.
Japanese sleeve with Alan Henderson’s Them
February Truth return to Belfast for a working holiday before sessions in London begin later that month. Unfortunately, Epic Records undergoes a change in management and following a communication problem, Truth’s band members fall apart before they have a chance to enter the studio. Elliott subsequently moves to Canada (where he dies in June 1993 in Toronto), while Bachman and Smith return to the US. Armstrong and McDowell move back to Belfast where Armstrong joins the Civil Service and McDowell becomes a member of The College Boys. (Truth’s private recordings and studio sessions from Chicago are later released by Epilogue Records as The Truth Of Them And Other Tales in 1995.)
August Compilation album Them Featuring Van Morrison hits US #154.
After working with cabaret singer Roly Stewart, Jim Armstrong has rejoined Ken McDowell in The College Boys in the early 1970s. The pair then join Reunion before working with another former Them member John Wilson in Bronco. The pair also form the band Spike, which works at the Pound club in Belfast. Wilson subsequently becomes Northern Ireland’s top session drummer.
Repackages their first two U.S. LPs minus two tracks each.
|1974Backtrackin’ released only in the U.S., featured obscure b-sides and songs not previously available in the U.S.: “Richard Cory”, “I Put a Spell on You”, “Just a Little Bit”, “I Gave My Love a Diamond”, “Half as Much”, “Baby Please Don’t Go”, “Hey Girl”, “Don’t Start Crying Now”, “All for Myself” and “Mighty Like a Rose”. All the tracks except the last, however, were in simulated stereo.|
Armstrong leaves Spike and forms his own band Light, who record an eponymous album on the small Mint label in Ireland only.
Billy Harrison reforms Them with original keyboard player Eric Wrixon. Initially, Harrison intended to complete the group with John Wilson, who’d played drums on Them Again album, together with bass player Jackie Flavelle and singer Mel Austin but Wilson and Flavelle drop out prompting him to bring in drummer Billy Bell. He also brings back Henderson, who has spent several years working on his Connecticut farm. Them move to Germany where they hold down a residency in Hamburg. While there the group records the album Shut Your Mouth for Teldec/Decca before Jim Armstrong and Brian Scott from Light replace Harrison and Wrixon. However, after a brief tour of Germany the group splinters. Armstrong reunites with Ken McDowell in a new version of Sk’Boo, who release one single “It’s A Hard Road” for the small Cuecomber label.
From left: Joe Baldi, Terry Noon, Peter Bardens, Van Morrison and Alan Henderson from summer of 1965
|1980Harrison emerges with the solo album Billy Who? on the German Vagabond label. He then abandons a music career and become a marine electrician. Jackie McAuley spends most of the 1980s and 1990s working with Poor Mouth, who release a number of albums, including Gael Force. In 1982, he co-writes “Dear John”, which is a hit for Status Quo.|
Original member Eric Wrixon forms The Belfast Blues Band with another former Them member, John Wilson.
Jackie McAuley emerges with a new solo album, Headspin. Guitarist Jim Armstrong meanwhile has formed The Belfast Blues Band with original Them member Eric Wrixon. His former band mate, Ken McDowell has continued to work with Sk’Boo and then plays with Hens Teeth before forming The Kenny McDowell/Ronnie Greer Band in the early 2000s.
Jackie McAuley releases another solo release, Shadowboxing.
Jackie McAuley puts out another solo release, Bad Day At Black Rock. McAuley subsequently joins The Harbour Band, who release the album Live In The Spirit Tour in 2003.
The Ken McDowell/Ronnie Greer Band release the album, Live At The Island. Jim Armstrong leaves The Belfast Blues Band and reforms The Jim Armstrong Band.
Clayson, Alan. Call Up The Groups – The Golden Age Of British Beat, Blandford Press, 1985, pages 168-170.
Thank you to John Warburg, Nigel Norman. Tom McCarty and Mike Markesich.
Copyright © Nick Warburton, 2009. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any from or by any means, without prior permission from the author.
Japanese sleeve with wrong photo showing the Scottish group, the Poets