Oldest known pic of the original Hangmen with first bass player Mike (Walters) West
The Hangmen formed at Montgomery Junior College, and included bassist Mike West and rhythm guitarist George Daly. They were joined by fellow students Tom Guernsey and Bob Berberich, whose previous group the Reekers, dispersed when other members went away to college.
Looking for a vocalist, George Daly called the British Embassy asking for someone who was British and could sing! The person he talked to referred him to a girl who could sing, who in turn recommended Dave Ottley, a hairdresser for Vincent Hair Stylists who had been in the U.S. for two years at that time. Variously reported in articles about the Hangmen as being from Liverpool or London, Ottley was actually from Glasgow, Scotland.
First press on the group, from the Washington Evening Star of April 3, 1965.
The Hangmen lose a battle of the bands at the Shirlington Shopping Center to the Shadows.
In early summer of ’65, the band’s managers Larry Sealfon and Mike Klavens played “What a Girl Can’t Do” for Fred Foster of Monument Records. Lillian Claiborne graciously released Tom from his contract with her and Foster signed him – only Tom as he was the songwriter and leader of the Reekers.
Since Joe Triplett and Mike Henley were committed to college, Tom decided, against his own preferences, to work with the Hangmen as his band. Monument then released the Reekers’ recordings of “What a Girl Can’t Do” and “The Girl Who Faded Away” under the Hangmen’s name, even though only Tom and Bob Berberich had played on them.
Some sources report that the Hangmen rerecorded the “The Girl Who Faded Away” for the Monument 45.
A close listen shows that the Hangmen’s Monument 45 version is actually the same recording as the Reekers’ original Edgewood acetate, except that the acetate had a long ending that was cut from the Monument 45. Confusion also exists about “What a Girl Can’t Do”. The Monument 45 version released under the Hangmen’s name is the Reekers. In 1966 the Hangmen recorded their own version of the song for their LP, which sounds much different.
Arnold Stahl, a lawyer, and Mike Klavans of WTTG formed 427 Enterprises to promote the band. Their connections landed gigs for the Hangmen in embassies and a mention in Newsweek. One memorable event was playing a party for Robert Kennedy’s family and getting drunk in their kitchen!
Despite these connections, the Hangmen were still primarily a suburban band, playing for kids at parties and shopping malls but not getting into the clubs like the big DC acts like the British Walkers and the Chartbusters. This would change as the Monument 45 of “What a Girl Can’t Do” started gaining momentum locally.
Algerian Ambassador and Cherif Guellal (in tux) and former Miss America Yolande Fox to his left, with Dave Ottley on the far right and Tom Guernsey behind Yolande, 1966. Photo by Frank Hoy.
Billboard, 2/19/66: Hangmen Cause ‘Swingalong’
FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Jack Shaver, owner of Giant Record Shop, said last week a mob of teen-agers turned out to hear The Hangmen (4) and when police cleared the store because the crowd created a fire hazard a near-riot ensued.
Shaver said browser bins and display cases were smashed and two girls and a boy fainted during the chaos. He said damage was estimated at $500.
Shaver said The Hangmen are from the nearby Washington area and are local favorites. He said he had sold about 2,500 copies of their single, ‘”What a Girl Can’t Do”‘, on Monument, and it was No. 1 on local charts.
He said school was out that day because of snow and the store began filling up at noon for the 4 p.m. show. He estimated 400 ‘were jammed and packed’ inside and some 1,500 were outside.
Shaver said traffic was snarled, police came, declared the gathering a fire hazard and began clearing the store. He said The Hangmen had been playing 15 minutes at the time and it took half an hour to disperse the crowd.
Shaver said he had had record stars perform at his store before, including Johnny Rivers, Johnny Tillotson, Peter and Gordon, and Ramsey Lewis, ‘but they never created anything like this.’
He said he did not have insurance to cover the loss.
The Hangmen, May 1966.
“What a Girl Can’t Do” knocked the Beatles’ We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper out of the top spot of the charts for Arlington radio station WEAM on Feb. 7, 1966. On a national level, though, Monument wasn’t doing enough to promote the 45. “What a Girl Can’t Do” remained only a local hit. Their best opportunity had been wasted, but from their perspective as the top band in the D.C. area, success seemed certain.
Tom chose to quit college when an offer to play the Jerry Blavat TV show coincided with his final exams in late 1966. On the show, the Hangmen played “What a Girl Can’t Do” then backed the Impressions on a version of “Money”. (If anyone has a copy of this, please get in touch!) The Hangmen played all along the east coast from New York down to Florida, doing shows with the Animals, Martha Reeves, the Yardbirds, the Count Five, the Dave Clark Five and the Shangri-Las among others. Tom remembers Link Wray coming up on stage during a Hangmen show, borrowing a guitar and launching into a long version of Jack the Ripper. Link played solo after solo while Tom’s arm nearly fell off trying to keep up the rhythm!
Profile of the Hangmen in the May 8, 1966 Sunday magazine of the Washington Evening Star:
The Hangmen recorded a fine follow up, “Faces”, and this time Monument put some money into promotion, taking out a full page ad in the trade magazines. Propelled by fuzz guitar and a heavy bass line, “Faces” is a tough garage number with a fine vocal by Ottley. Tom points out that the song finishes quite a bit faster than it starts, making it difficult for those on the dance floor to keep up! The flip is another Guernsey/Daly original, “Bad Goodbye”, which features studio musician Charlie McCoy on harmonica.
By this time Mike West had left the band and Paul Dowell plays bass on “Faces”. After its release, Ottley moved to London and was replaced by Tony Taylor. The Hangmen went into Monument Studios in Nashville to record their album Bittersweet. Remakes of “What a Girl Can’t Do” and “Faces” on the album fall flat compared to the 45 versions. Monument pushed the band into recording a version of “Dream Baby”, produced by Buzz Cason and released as the A-side of their last 45. The band does a good job with a slamming beat and catchy guitar and sitar sounds, but I can’t help but feel it’s not the right song for the band.
I prefer some of the other album tracks, like their extended psychedelic version of “Gloria”, the tough sounds of “Isn’t That Liz” and “Terrible Tonight”, the delicate “Everytime I Fall in Love”, and “I Want to Get to Know You”, which sounds something like the Lovin’ Spoonful.
An announcement in the May 17, 1967 edition of the Star Ledger said that the Hangmen had changed their name to The Button to pursue further psychedelic stylings. Paul Dowell and George Daly were already out of the group and replaced by Alan Flower, who had been bassist for the Mad Hatters, and George Strunz. By June Tom Guernsey had left the band to be replaced by John Sears, and the group were being billed as “The Button, formerly The Hangmen.”
Relocating to New York, the Button cut an unreleased session for RCA and played at Steve Paul’s The Scene on West 46th St. and at the Cafe Au Go Go on Bleeker. Berberich left the band leaving Tony Taylor as the only one of the Hangmen still in the group. They band changed its name to Graffiti, recording for ABC.
Meanwhile, Tom Guernsey produced a legendary 45 for the D.C. band the Piece Kor, “All I Want Is My Baby” / “Words of the Raven”. He also wrote, produced and played on a great 45 by another Montgomery County band, the Omegas, “I Can’t Believe”. For the Omegas’ session, Tom played guitar and piano, Leroy Otis drums, and Joe Triplett sang, with backing vocals by the Jewels.
Bob Berberich briefly drummed with The Puzzle then joined George Daly and Paul Dowell in Dolphin a group that featured the young Nils Lofgrin. Berberich stayed with Lofgrin through Grin, while Paul Dowell of Hangmen became equipment manager for the Jefferson Airplane, and George Daly went on to A&R with Elektra Records.
Tom Guernsey deserves a special word of thanks for giving his time to answer my many questions, and also for loaning me the Evening Star magazine.
List of original releases:
What a Girl Can’t Do / The Girl Who Faded Away – Monument 910, released Nov. 1965
Faces / Bad Goodbye – Monument 951, released June 1966
Dream Baby / Let It Be Me – Monument 983, released 1966
LP: Bittersweet – Monument SLP 18077, released 1966
Tom Guernsey passed away on October 3, 2012 in Portland, Oregon, followed less than two months later by David Ottley, on November 27, 2012.
from left: Tom Guernsey, George Daly, Dave Ottley (center with white shirt), and Paul Dowell
Billboard, July 9, 1966