All posts by Jack Garrett

The O’Kaysions: Beyond Girl Watching

O’Kaysions (second generation, ca. 1968) Top row L-R: Jimmy Hinnant (bass); Jimmy Spiedel (sax); Bruce Joyner (drums). Bottom row L-R: Ronnie Turner (trumpet); Donnie Weaver (lead vocals/keyboards); Wayne Pittman (vocals/guitar).

O’Kaysions (second generation, ca. 1968)
Top row L-R: Jimmy Hinnant (bass); Jimmy Spiedel (sax); Bruce Joyner (drums).
Bottom row L-R: Ronnie Turner (trumpet); Donnie Weaver (lead vocals/keyboards); Wayne Pittman (vocals/guitar).

Much has been written about the early O’Kaysions and their one hit; however, little is known about the group that followed and the handful of recordings they made for Cotillion Records. All but two members of the third generation O’Kaysions have since died and the bulk of the recordings they made in 1970 remain unreleased. The O’Kaysions would disband in the early seventies, following a series of personnel changes and missed opportunities.

The Kays sleeve for
The Kays (picture sleeve, JCP Records)
L-R: Wayne Pittman, Steve Watson, Donnie Weaver, probably Gerald Toler, Jimmy Hinnant.

The band formed in Kenly, North Carolina (south of Wilson) as The Kays. Lead vocalist and organist Donnie Weaver was from Rocky Mount and was just 12 when he joined The Kays. A decade later and with the same band at age 22, he sang lead vocals and played organ on “Girl Watcher” at Sound Studio in Greenville, NC, on February 8, 1968. He is also credited with coming up with a new name for the band, and from that point on they would forever be known as The O’Kaysions.

By 1968, the group had changed names and personnel. Weaver, guitarist Wayne Pittman, trumpeter Ron Turner, saxophonist Jim Spiedel, bassist Jimmy Hinnart and drummer Bruce Joyner were the second generation O’Kaysions. Steve Watson, Gerald Toler and Eddie Dement (drums, sax and trumpet, respectively) all performed on “Girl Watcher” but decided to stay with their day jobs rather than pursue fame and fortune on the road.

O'Kaysions North State PS Girl Watcher
O’Kaysions (“Girl Watcher” picture sleeve, North State Records)
Front row: Donnie Weaver (vocals, organ); Steve Watson (drums).
Back row: Gerald Toler (sax); Wayne Pittman (guitar); Eddie Dement (trumpet); Jimmy Hinnant (bass).

Pittman penned the summer beach anthem and told Rick Simmons in his book Carolina Beach Music: The Classic Years that one of the band members suggested he write a song about girl watching because of his penchant for observing bathing beauties. Pittman recalls that he had already written the melody and added the lyrics, finishing the song in two nights. When Weaver was asked in the studio to help complete the chorus, he came up with the unforgettable “umm, umm, umm.” North State Records producer Buck Trail is given co-songwriting credit on the label, but Pittman composed the song and wrote the lyrics and Trail’s contribution was minimal.

O'Kaysions North State 45 Girl Watcher
Original “Girl Watcher” 45 on North State Records 1001, 1968.

Game Artists promoter Ken Adkins says the O’Kaysions made the crude recording in “a broom closet studio in Greenville, N.C.” The song became a regional hit, with WBAG in Burlington playing the 45 (North State 1001) in heavy rotation. It caught the attention of Adkins and his boss, Bill Griffin, who owned Greensboro’s famed Castaways and managed Game Artists.

Griffin wanted to sign the band and enlisted Adkins and A&M Records promoter Manly May, who shopped the song to labels in New York. ABC Paramount picked it up (ABC 11094) and Pittman remembers that label executives flew down from New York to get the master tapes from North State and decided to rush release the song unchanged, while picking up distribution. It went on to reach #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and in Cashbox and Record World) in early October, peaking at #6 on the R&B chart and earning a gold record with one million in sales by December 1968. “Girl Watcher” was listed in the Top 10 for nine weeks and in the Top 100 for twenty-six weeks. The song is listed as the 45th biggest record of 1968 in Billboard’s listing (#44 in Cash Box) of the “Hot 100” songs of the year.

Griffin had a management contract with the group and arranged a six-week tour. ABC had signed lead vocalist Donnie Weaver to an individual contract, leaving Game Artists in limbo: They had a national hit with no band to promote it. Weaver, Pittman and Hinnart were willing to tour, but first they needed a drummer and some horns.

Adkins returned to Greensboro, where he says he hand-picked some of the area’s finest musicians to join the O’Kaysions in the studio and on tour. In the fall of 1968, the three original members were joined by newcomers Turner, Spiedel and Joyner to record the Girl Watcher album, which was was produced by Johnny Pate.

O'Kaysions Jukebox mini-lp on ABC
O’Kaysions Jukebox mini-lp

The “Girl Watcher” album (ABC LP ABCS-664) was recorded in two days to take advantage of the hit single and received a favorable review in the Nov. 9, 1968 issue of Billboard. “The soulful O’Kaysions, the “Girl Watcher” crowd who spilled from R&B into a top 10 pop power should strike hard at the LP chart with the debut dozen of breezy rock ‘n’ soul tunes. “Little Miss Flirt,” “Love Machine,” “My Song” and Don Weaver’s bluesy vocals herald the arrival of this top white soul group.” The LP did fairly well on the Billboard album charts, climbing all the way to #49 on the Rhythm and Blues LP list and peaking at #153 on the overall albums charts on Nov. 23, 1968.

“Love Machine” (ABC 11153) was chosen as the follow-up single and was listed as a “new release” in the Nov. 30, 1968 Billboard. It spent six weeks in the charts, stalling at #76 on the pop charts in late December. The song fared much better on the Cash Box charts and was chosen as the number one pick in the trade paper’s “Looking Ahead” forecast on Nov. 16, 1968, the week it debuted. “Love Machine” had risen to #47 by Christmas. It was the O’Kaysions last chart entry.

O'Kaysions early concert poster, Williams Lake Dance Club, Clinton, N.C.
Early concert poster, Williams Lake Dance Club, Clinton, N.C.

Management problems plagued the band from the start. Pittman says the people at North State thought they could sign the band with any booking agency they wished and inked a contract with Atlanta promoter Bill Lowery, without the band’s knowledge. The O’Kaysions felt Lowery wasn’t booking the group enough, so they canceled the agreement. The band next signed with Associated Booking in New York City. But Pittman says Lowery’s power and contacts in the industry “put the kiss of death” on the O’Kaysions and ABC was reluctant to put much money behind the band.

But while Weaver was tied to an individual contract with ABC, Griffin and Adkins had traveled to New York and signed the group to Atlantic Records. Atlantic would later front $15,000 for the O’Kaysions to record an album at the new, state-of-the-art Crescent City Sound Studios (formerly Copeland) in Greensboro, for release on their subsidiary, Cotillion Records.

Pittman was the next to leave. Donny Trexler was brought on board as his replacement on guitar, with drummer Gary “Groove” Pugh joining the band at the same time. Both were also excellent vocalists. Trexler was known for his gritty, soulful singing, while Groove brought a piercing falsetto voice to the mix.

Bob Collins & the Fabulous Five
Bob Collins and the Fabulous Five L-R: David Hamilton (drums), Bob Collins (vocalist), Dick East (bass), Tommy Tucker (sax), John Cook (keyboards), Donny Trexler (guitar/vocals).

Trexler began singing at age 9 in Summerfield, N.C. and was 14 when he formed his first band, Donny and the Blue Jets. Two years later, he joined the Six Teens, which consisted of six, 16-year-olds. Their drummer decided to defect to Allan and the Flames, a group that had a regional hit with the instrumental “Winter Wonderland.” Their drummer, Bob Collins, didn’t want to leave his job to go out on the road, so the bands switched percussionists. Several left to attend college and some older members were brought into the reformed band, now known as Chuck Tilley and the Fabulous Five. Chuck left or was fired in January 1962 and Bob Collins was chosen to front the band because, as Trexer recalls, “he could sing ‘Ooh Poo Pah Do’ and the Fats Domino catalog.”

But it was Trexler who would sing lead on the group’s 45, “If I Didn’t Have a Dime.” The song had been a minor hit for Gene Pitney but became the signature song for Bob Collins and the Fabulous Five. The band actually recorded the tune twice, first at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte and then at Copeland Sound Studios in Greensboro in 1966. The latter version was released on the Greensboro-based Jokers Three label and remains a beach music favorite. Trexler says the band got a group of teens “to come in from Guilford and High Point College and a couple of cases of beer and we had an audience!”

Trexler left the Fabulous Five in February of ’68 and was playing in the basement of the Rathskeller in Greensboro with Ted Carroll and the Music Era. The band had traveled to Florida for an extended engagement when manager Bill Griffin contacted Trexler and told him he was having problems keeping members in the O’Kaysions. With a hit record and a follow-up in the charts, it didn’t take much persuading to convince Trexler and Pugh to leave the Music Era and join the O’Kaysions in the first week of January, 1969.

Both were flown to New York City to provide backing vocals for the group’s next single, an upbeat cover of Gene Pitney’s “24 Hours from Tulsa.” Weaver sings lead but none of the O’Kaysions play on the track, which was recorded with session musicians at the Hit Factory in January of ’69. Trexler says that ABC called Johnny Pate (Impressions,Gene Chandler) to produce the sessions, although the label credits Bill Szymczyk and Game Productions. While he was brought on board as guitarist, Trexler said he didn’t take his instrument to New York and Billy Butler plays guitar on the song. Interestingly, Trexler was told the guitarist was the brother of singer Jerry Butler. The single’s b-side, “Colors,” is a curious ballad about the plight of the American Indian that features a strong vocal delivery from Weaver.

OKaysions Billboard February 22, 1969
The O’Kaysions featured in Billboard February 22, 1969

The record (ABC 11207) received a favorable review in the April 19, 1969 edition of Billboard and was listed in the “Top 60 Pop Spotlight.” The reviewer enthused that “the ‘Girl Watcher’ group bounces back with a strong item here, a clever revival of the Gene Pitney hit of the past, penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Driving rock beat backs a strong vocal workout.” While “24 Hours from Tulsa” had all of the elements of a hit record, it failed to dent the charts.

But the band was about to undergo another drastic change. Lead vocalist and front man Donnie Weaver was about to leave the band for a solo career with ABC, while the band would record for Atlantic. Trexler says there were already rumblings of Weaver’s departure as early as January of ’69, although he would continue performing with the group through late August. After the New York sessions, Griffin and Trexler were walking down the street when his manager remarked: “You might as well get yourself prepared to really do something with this group because ABC is shooting to take Donnie away from us.” Griffin told Trexler he didn’t intend to stop them and asked that Trexler take over when that happened, adding: “You’re one of these people if I send you out on a job and there’s no place to play, you’ll build a place before the night.” While he insists it was never his intention to repIace Weaver, Trexler said it became apparent in the following months that “Donnie was not a happy individual.”

His first job as lead singer for the O’Kaysions came on a Labor Day Saturday night in 1969 at the Coachman & Four in Bennettsville, S.C. “We got notice on Monday or Tuesday of that week that Donnie wouldn’t be coming back,” says Trexler, because Weaver “had decided to do a thing on his own and ABC Records decided to stay with Donnie and not the group.”

Weaver left around August 1969. Jimmy Spiedel was drafted in the fall of that year and Ronnie Turner departed about the same time. Glenn Ingram was added on sax, along with trumpeters Tommy Hawk and Tim Moore.

Donny Trexler with his new Gibson ES-335 guitar, Christmas, 1969.
Donny Trexler with his new Gibson ES-335 guitar, Christmas, 1969.

This line-up played a gig in Mississippi a couple of days before Christmas in 1969. The job wasn’t as memorable as what happened immediately afterwards. The band was headed home to North Carolina for the holidays when someone flagged them down to tell them the door on the band trailer was wide open. Somewhere along the way, Trexler’s Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar and Hawk’s Schilke trumpet had tumbled out onto the tarmac. “We doubled back at 3:30 a.m. to look for them but never found either,” recalls Trexler, “so a Gibson ES-335 was the replacement purchased by the group.” Trexler had warned the band repeatedly that the latch was bad and describes the episode as “an early nail the coffin.”

O’Kaysions (third generation, ca. 1970-71) Top row, L-R: Gary “Groove” Pugh (drums/vocals); Big Jim Lowry (guitar/vocals). Second row: Donny Trexler (guitar/vocals); Allen Brewer (bass/vocals). Front and center: Lenny Collins (drums)
O’Kaysions (third generation, ca. 1970-71) Top row, L-R: Gary “Groove” Pugh (drums/vocals); Big Jim Lowry (guitar/vocals). Second row: Donny Trexler (guitar/vocals); Allen Brewer (bass/vocals). Front and center: Lenny Collins (drums)
O'Kaysions drummer Lenny Collins in the mid-70s.
Drummer Lenny Collins in the mid-70s.

Trexler contends the eight-piece group “was not a workable unit,” and the O’Kaysions soon downsized, eliminating the horns. After the band regrouped, Moore joined Kallabash Corporation. According to Trexler the band “just kind of drifted for 6 months” before they hired Big Jim Lowry (guitar/vocals), Allen Brewer (bass/vocals) and former Tropics drummer Lenny Collins in “late February of early March of 1970.” Groove Pugh had some problems and left the group until they were resolved. He returned and they continued with two drummers. The group now had the strength of two lead vocalists and a pair of excellent guitarists. While no longer playing in the O’Kaysions at this point, Jimmy Hinnant was the group manager. Hinnant and Ken Adkins ran the day-to-day operations of Game Artists and kept the band working.

This was the line-up that Lost Soul keyboardist Steve Calfee booked for the Blue Toad, a college club in Bluefield, WVA. Calfee said he was amazed, adding “they did ‘Girl Watcher,’ of course, but most of the evening they did everything from the Allman Brothers first two albums, blues and some killer rock and roll. Knocked our little beer hall right on its butt (and) Donny and Big Jim did some great double guitar solos.”

O'Kaysions and Drifters at the 220 Drive-in in Martinsville, VA., May, 1970.
Topping the bill at the 220 Drive-in in Martinsville, VA., May, 1970.

Art Kramer was playing tenor sax in Mass Production when the group shared a bill with the O’Kaysions at the 220 Drive-In near Martinsville in May 1970. His group also supported singer Clifford Curry. The Drifters also performed but it was the O’Kaysions who topped the bill. Kramer remembers that “the O’Kaysions were down to a five-piece band at this time… didn’t have any horns.” He recalls that they had “a good sound (and) you could tell the band had been together for a long time.”

Trexler maintains this line-up was the best on stage, noting “the group was very versatile; we all played different instruments in the show.” The five-piece configuration toured extensively along the East Coast, playing military bases and clubs like the Magic Attic in Myrtle Beach. But their songs were hard-edged and had little in common with the beach music generally associated with the band.

OKaysions Cotillion 45 Watch Out GirlTheir first Cotillion single, “Watch Out Girl” (Cotillion 44089) backed with “Happiness,” was recorded at Walt Copeland’s new Crescent City Studios, in the spring of 1970. Allen Brewer played bass, with Trexler on guitar and lead vocals. The band borrowed drummer Clayton “Red” White, from Bob Collins’ band, with Duke Hall on keyboards. Hall was the arranger and producer for Game Artists. Trexler says the horns were some players from A&T State University, supplemented by musicians from the Peace Core, formerly known as the In-Men LTD. While Trexler believes the strings were added later by Atlantic, Ken Adkins recalls that Hall “hired great string and horn players who were in town for the Eastern Music Festival held annually at UNCG.”

Drummer Red White remembers the band doing a sound check when a “squeak” was heard in the playback. The engineer isolated it to his Speed King bass drum pedal. “I always kept (and still do) a can of 3-In-One oil in my drum case to keep my pedal at top speed. One drop to each spring piston and we were recording.” White still uses that same bass pedal to this day.

The flip side, “Happiness,” is a beautiful ballad with an infectious chorus. Penned by Trexler, the song incorporates horns and a nice string arrangement. He sings the double-tracked vocal and plays acoustic and electric guitars. The acoustic used on the session is a 1934 Gibson Model L-00, which Trexler purchased from his uncle for $50 when he was 10. The same guitar was used on dozens of jingles he recorded at Crescent City Studios in Greensboro. Trexler performed the song as a solo artist for a TV broadcast on TBS while the O’Kaysions performed a three-week run in Atlanta in 1971.

Griffin shopped the master tapes to Atlantic because Groove and Donny were still under contract with the label through their work with the Music Era. The 45 was one of the first Cotillion releases following the massive success of the “Woodstock” album and the single was a Top 20 pick in all three trades: Record World, Cashbox and Billboard. That helped the group gain an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in mid-October, where Trexler mimed “Watch Out Girl” and Weaver’s vocal on “Girl Watcher.” Groove couldn’t make the show and Collins sat on the drum throne.

Billboard gave the record a rave review in the Sept. 20, 1970 edition, pegging the song in its “Top 20 Spotlight” of 45s predicted to crack the upper reaches of the Hot 100. “Watch Out Girl” was singled out with the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” and CSN&Y’s “Our House” as surefire hits, with Billboard enthusing “the ‘Girl Watchers’ gang move to the Cotillion label with a blockbuster single that will get them back at the top of the Hot 100 and Soul charts (with) a top vocal workout flip, “Happiness.” Unfortunately, it was not to be and the song sank without a trace.

While on the West Coast, Trexler did an interview on Wolfman Jack’s radio show before the band returned home for a heavy schedule of touring in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

Okaysions Cotillion 45 Travelin' LifeThe third generation O’Kaysions were in the studio in Greensboro in the summer of 1970 to record a follow-up and an album that languishes in the vaults to this day. On reflection, “Travelin’ Life” b/w “Life and Things” (Cotillion 44134) seems like an odd choice for a single, but Trexler explains that “Duke Hall wrote them and they were published by Griffins Publishing Co.” Trexler sings lead and plays guitar. Hall was again the producer/arranger and played keyboards, while Brewer was on bass. Trexler believes Lowry played a second guitar on the recordings, with Collins on drums “and hired union musicians” rounding out the band. Jimmy Ienner (Three Dog Night, BS&T, Raspberries) was the production coordinator. Trexler recalls that Ienner was production manager for all Cotillion releases at the time and was “very interested in the group but did his homework and decided to stay clear.”

The sessions for the single coincided with the recording of the group’s second album, which featured songs written by both Trexler and Duke Hall. Hall, who is best remembered for producing some of the Platters later hits, had the financial backing of Atlantic, which – according to Trexler — had advanced Griffin $15,000 for the sessions.

Okaysions Cotillion 45 Life And Things
Okaysions Cotillion 45 Life And Things (b-side of Travelin’ Life)

Another ode to life on the road, “Travelin’ Life” boasts a strong, raspy vocal from Trexler, who explains that the effect was intentional. “Duke always liked to record late at night after I had sung all night because he said my voice sounded better,” recalls Trexler. He says the strain in his voice is audible, explaining that the song “was pretty rough, but that’s the way Cotillion said they wanted my voice to sound.” The flip side, “Life and Things” features a harmonica and fuzz guitar but sounds as though it was hastily recorded as a throwaway track. Trexler again sings lead and plays the wah-wah guitar solo.

Running order of songs for the unreleased Cotillion LP by the O'Kaysions
Running order for the unreleased Cotillion LP.

With four songs in the can, the group needed another eight to round out the album. Four of Hall’s tunes were recorded, along with three by Trexler, including the unreleased songs “Long County” and “Unity.” Ken Adkins recalls that two songs were recorded at the insistence of Atlantic Records “as a favor to some publishing company.” Hall’s composition, “Phat Momma,” was a standout, as was Piano Red’s “The Right String (But the Wrong Yo-Yo).” Other unreleased tracks include “Bad Girl,” “Listen to the World,” Ripe for Disaster,” and “A Man Is A Man.”

Ken Adkins was in the studio and says he “loved ‘Phat Momma’ when Donny Trexler recorded it,” adding: “I thought that O’Kaysions’ album really smoked with a bunch of great songs. They even did an arrangement I suggested of a very funky version of “Right String.” He still wonders why the label chose not to release the album, calling it “the best stuff ever recorded by Game.”

Trexler has his own ideas about why the album was shelved. While he and his band mates had spent “a lot of hours” in the recording studio, Trexler contends that Cotillion became disenchanted with the group’s management after “part of the money designated for a comeback album for the O’Kaysions (was spent) on other group projects.”

O'Kaysions poster for Greensboro show on Sunday, April 29, 1973
Poster for Greensboro show on Sunday, April 29, 1973, near the end.

While the group continued touring, Trexler insists “the magic was gone” and he decided to leave the band, ending a three-year stint as an O’Kaysion. He had become disenchanted with the lack of direction and felt the group was headed nowhere. Trexler was also embarrassed to open for national artists like the Guess Who and Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds when these groups had “top notch equipment and roadies,” (while) we carried and set up our equipment in front of thousands of people in the audience.” Trexler left in March of 1972 and formed the group Swing with Tim Callaway, Doug Bates and his future wife, Susan.

O'Kaysions Game Artists Promo 70 s
O’Kaysions (last line-up, ca. 1972) Front row: Bobby Holland, Johnny Cobb. Back row: Frankie Pyrtle, Jim Lowry, Sylvia Lowry, probably Larry Miller, Gary Pugh.

The O’Kaysions soldiered on briefly before finally calling it quits. Little is known about the last line-up, but Johnny Cobb took Trexler’s place on guitar. Jim Lowry and Gary Pugh continued with the group, joined by Frankie Prytle, Sylvia Lowry and Larry Miller. The group quickly morphed into the International Boogie Band and recorded one single for Game: “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”/ “Silver Dollar Lady” in 1972.

Donnie Weaver ABC 45 Speak To MeWeaver’s recording career with ABC was short-lived and yielded just one single – “Speak to Me” b/w “Sad, Sad Sam” — in 1970. The plug side was written by Jackie Lomax, guitarist in the British Invasion band, the Undertakers. The song was the opening track on Lomax’s 1969 LP on Apple Records, “Is This What You Want?,” which featured all four of the Beatles. Weaver wrote the flip side of the single but neither song received significant airplay. Both songs were produced by Bill Szymczyk, who had overseen the “Watch Out Girl” sessions earlier that year.

In 1972, Weaver moved to Riverside, California, where he joined bassist Gerald Davis and put together a band to record and perform some original songs. In 1979, Weaver met Chuck Leavell and Sea Level and recorded with some of the band members at Capricorn Studios in Macon, Georgia. He also toured briefly with Sea Level.

According to his official bio, Weaver left music in the eighties and nineties to focus on his career as a scientific computer consultant.

But his retirement was temporary and Weaver opened for Chicago at the Alltel Pavilion in Raleigh on June 16, 2001. He performed original songs to an audience of 15,000.

In November 2003, Weaver organized a reunion of all six original members of the O’Kaysions at the Alabama Theater in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to perform “Girl Watcher” for the Carolina Beach Music Association Hall of Fame Awards.

He was inducted into the Twin County Hall of Fame for Nash and Edgecombe Counties in 2009 and was still in fine form when he recorded the song “Truth” in 2012.

O'Kaysions - Donny Trexler
Donny Trexler, 2016

Donny Trexler continues to record and perform and appears regularly at private parties, clubs and restaurants in the North Myrtle Beach area. He and his wife, Susan, formed Swing in 1972 and the four-piece, Top 40 act toured the East Coast until 1988. At the time the couple, now married, formed Swing Too. The pair still record and perform together. Their 2007 c.d., The Edge of Paradise, contains standards and original material, including the popular “Tired of Pulling This Train” and “Inventory on Heartaches,” an updated version of the song Trexler wrote for Bob Collins and the Fabulous Five. He also remixed “Jukebox,” which remains a favorite during performances.

He was recognized by the industry in November 2000, receiving the CAMMY Award for “Lifetime Achievement.” The following year, Trexler was inducted into the South Carolina Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame and received the Palmetto Award from the governor.

The O’Kaysions reformed in the eighties and remain a popular attraction on the beach music circuit. The current group is based in Columbia, S.C. and features three vocalists, trumpet, saxophone, drums, guitar, bass, and keyboards. Original member and guitarist Wayne Pittman manages the band, which plays a mixture Top 40, classic rock and the ever popular anthem to summer, “Girl Watcher.”

Jack Garrett, 2016

 O'Kaysions - current touring band
O’Kaysions – current touring band

Raven Records, Frank Koger and the House of Sound Studios

By Jack Garrett

Frank Koger photo
Frank Koger, 1977, photo taken by Pete Walker

In the mid-sixties, Frank Koger started Raven Records, a small, independent label based in Danville, VA, that released a large catalog of mostly Southern gospel, bluegrass and country and western 45s. All were recorded locally, or at larger studios in North Carolina. About a half-dozen of these have gone on to become garage and soul classics among collectors.

Koger was born May 10, 1931 in the Henry County town of Bassett and spent most of his life in Southside Virginia. He managed the appliance/electronics department at Kmart on Riverside Drive in Danville and opened a small studio (The House of Sound) on the Piney Forest Road, after receiving requests from local musicians who were looking for an engineer to record and release their songs.

None of the 45s and albums recorded for Raven Records or its subsidiaries (Hoss, Hippie, Piedmont and Colony 13 Records) were pressed locally. Master tapes were sent to Tennessee and custom pressed by Nashville Record Productions, Inc.

Gene and the Team Beats

Gene and the Team Beats were one of the first rock acts to record for Koger in early 1966. The Team Beats (AKA Teenbeats) formed in Martinsville in 1959 and had many personnel changes during their ten-year lifespan. The one constant was leader and sax player Gene Rumley.

Gene and the Team Beats early lineup
Gene and Team Beats lineup that would record their first two singles
L-R: Charles Hairston, Lonnie Woodall, Gene Rumley, Brian Thomason, Rickie Fox

The band started recording relatively late in their career, cutting their first 45 (“I’ll Carry On” b/w “Apple Fuzz”, Leatherwood RI 2096) in the basement of a Rocky Mount home after a gig. 

Their second single (“I Want’A Be Your Baby” b/w “Sorry ‘bout That”, Raven HOS 45-2006) was released on Raven Records but was actually recorded at Copeland Studios in Greensboro, although Koger accompanied the band to the sessions and can be heard speaking the title at the end of the instrumental B-side. Rumley believes Copeland was chosen because Koger was just getting started and the Greensboro studio had better equipment. In addition to Rumley, who plays sax and contributes backup vocals, the songs feature lead vocalist Charles Hairston; Lonnie Woodall on lead guitar and backup vocals; drummer Rickie Fox; and Carl Barrow on bass.

Gene and Team Beats later lineup photo
Lineup on Gene and Team Beats last single
L-R: Lonnie Woodall, Carl Barrow, Gene Rumley, Eddie Scott, Jimmy Mitchell

The band would return to Raven in 1967 to record their third, and final single: “I’ll Let Nothing Separate Me” b/w “Here I Stand” on Raven HOS 42-2011. This time, the sessions were recorded in Danville.

Drummer Eddie Scott plays on the record and recalls that the studio was small and Koger did very little overdubbing. As he remembers, “it was more or less cubicles and everything was recorded together… pretty much live to tape.” Rumley, Woodall and Barrow were still with the band, although Scott had replaced Fox on drums, and Jimmy Mitchell was now their lead vocalist. The backing tracks to a fourth single were recorded, but the project was abandoned after vocalist Alfonzo Martin was drafted.

Lost Soul

Lost Soul poster, October 28, 1967Like the Team Beats, Bluefield’s Lost Soul recorded two singles at House of Sound, (“A Secret of Mine” b/w “Minds Expressway” Raven HOS-45-2016 and “I’m Gonna Hurt You” b/w “For You” Raven HOS-45-2032) both in 1967.

Lost Soul started in 1965 as the Prussians, a five-piece band fronted by vocalist Jimmy Johnson, with Charlie Bassett on keyboards. Bassett and Johnson soon exited the band, before the group entered the recording studio in early 1967.

Steve Calfee composed all four songs (Conley co-wrote “A Secret of Mine”) recorded by Lost Soul and is the lead vocalist. He also plays keyboards on the recordings, which feature Randy Conley (guitar); Steve Cook (bass); and Donnie Fields on drums.

The Lost Soul business card
The Lost Soul business card

Guitarist Emerson Randall “Randy” Conley (who continues to record today as Emerson Conley) says Lost Soul came together when he was still in junior high school and rehearsed at bassist Steve Cook’s house, which was on the Virginia side of Bluefield. Conley was the only West Virginian in the band and recalls that his dad worked with drummer Donnie Field’s father at N&W Railroad, “and that is how I was introduced to the situation.” Cook’s father, John, managed the band and learned of Raven Records through his work as a sales representative for farm machinery. He credits the elder Cook with making contacts and “booking us everywhere,” including a live appearance on WHIS TV in Bluefield, where the group performed both sides of their first single.

Conley remembers that while traveling to Danville to record, the band passed a huge Klan rally in downtown Lynchburg. It was cold and snowy when the group arrived. And he says “A Secret of Mine” was recorded in “a big room (that) didn’t even look like a studio.” “There were no cubicles or anything like that, and just a few mics; there were no gobos… and everything was right there just real close together. There was no separation between anything that I can remember,” he adds. The building looked like a makeshift studio in “a big warehouse with high ceilings and a large room” for recording.

Lost Soul Raven 45 Mind's ExpresswayConley played guitar on all four sides recorded for Raven and explains that mixing the blue-eyed soul sound of “A Secret of Mine” with the psychedelic ramblings of “Minds Expressway” was a conscious effort “to blend in with the pop scene,” while appealing to “the psychedelic influences from (their) older musician friends at Bluefield State College.” 

While the band “never received a dime of compensation for anything,” Conley recalls that their first record was big in the Bluefield area. He said the label did little to distribute their first 45, with the band hand delivering copies to dee jays and radio stations.

That summer, Lost Soul accompanied Steve Cook’s family to North Myrtle Beach, with Conley and another band member following them down by bus. They ended up ten miles from their destination and were lugging a heavy suitcase in the median of the bypass when Cook’s family spotted them. During the week, Cook’s dad got Lost Soul a job at the famed Pavilion. They also talked their way onto the stage at the Bowery and the Rathskeller.

While the band would split in 1968, Conley insists there was no acrimony. Several were finishing high school and he left within 5 days to enroll in an auto diesel school in Nashville. That was short-lived, and four months later Conley was back in the band business full-time. He moved back to Bluefield, then to Roanoke, Arizona, South Carolina and finally back to West Virginia, performing and recording all the while. He played in a number of bands, including Razzmatazz, Rat Salad, Friends, and most notably, Sweet Toothe, a band that recorded one album and opened for Iron Butterfly before their performance at the Bluefield Armory.

Emerson Conley at the Propeller Club, Radford, VA 1972
Emerson Conley at the Propeller Club, Radford, VA 1972

Sweet Toothe LP TestingRecorded at Bradley’s Barn and produced by Benny Quinn and Patrick Glossop, “Sweet Toothe Testing” features Conley’s tasteful fuzz guitar. Released in 1975 on a small, Nashville-based label (Dominion Records TN 37214), the melodic heavy metal album was limited to a pressing of about 900 copies.

Sweet Tooth Dominion 45 KarenA promotional 45 from the LP (“Karen” b/w “Music’s Gotta Stay”, Dominion NR 7224) was a song about Karen Ann Quinlan and the debate over disconnecting the brain-dead patient from life-support. It was hampered by poor distribution, with only 200 copies pressed. The album has been bootlegged and was later reissued (with a different cover and on colored vinyl) on the Void label. Conley insists none of the band members received any compensation from the original release, referring to “a fake royalty check” with Dominion of “about 15 cents or something, to get us to sign away that album.” The band was one of only two artists to record for Dominion, the other a female country singer from Indiana.

An even rarer 45 followed. Lead vocalist Michael Hopkins left the band, but Conley, bassist P.D. (Pierce) Bratton, and drummer Michael Chilco reformed with two new members as Pyramid, releasing two self-penned numbers (“Buffalo Creek” b/w “Elusive Things”) on Studio One Records (SR-075) in Tazewell, VA. The songs were engineered by Nashville’s Joe Deaton on a 16-track recorder.

Sweet Toothe Photo
Sweet Toothe

Conley and Calfee’s paths would cross again in the mid-80s, when both were living in Myrtle Beach and Emerson played with the Beachcombers. The group was the house band at the Sands Ocean Club for six years and Calfee lived just a few miles up the road. He would sit in for the guitarist when Conley needed a break from the six-days-a-week gig.

Conley has operated a home studio since the eighties. He recorded his first CD (The Power of Love, LGM 2222) as Emerson in 1992. More recently, he has released discs as Little Ronny and the Blues Bots (as Randall Conley) and Flying Saucer Heads (“Inner Limits,” LGM 2223), both released through his publishing company, Los Gatos Music. He continues to live in West Virginia.

In a 2012 interview, lead vocalist, keyboardist and song writer Steve Calfee recalled the studio sessions in detail.

Your band was from Bluefield, VA, so how did you learn about Raven Records in Danville?

We did a lot of promotions… there was a radio station in Bluefield, West Virginia, WKOY, there was a DJ there by the name of Charlie Duff. I think that was his air name. But he had done radio promo dances with several different groups and one of the groups he did a promo with was Gene and the Team Beats. And I think they were from the Danville, VA vicinity, but they recorded for Raven. And he at one of the dances talked to the guy that was our manager at the time, who was John Cook, who was our bass player Steve Cook’s father. And at some point I think John Cook worked for the Caterpillar Corporation and he traveled a lot selling generators and heavy duty equipment, things like that. At some point he actually went to Danville and I think met with Frank Koger and talked about this and that and that’s when he decided we should do this and what were we gonna need to do to raise the money and that kinda thing. So, that’s how we made the connection with him. It was through the radio station and then through Gene and the Team Beats, and then finally to Frank Koger at Raven Records himself.

Were both 45s recorded in 1967?

I know we did the first one in ’67. I think we did. Yea, I think we did them both in ’67. They were probably stretched about six or seven months apart. I think one was done, the first one was done in early ’67 and the second one was done later on, like about the end of the summer in ’67.

Ernie Dickens of the Soulmasters photo, Danville, 1967
Ernie Dickens of the Soulmasters at the Coke plant in Danville, 1967.

Ernie Dickens, the Soulmasters bassist, is listed as arranger/conductor on your second single. What role did he play?

He acted kind of like our cheerleader. Get us through the sessions, tell us what to expect, what was gonna go wrong, kind of just keep us going out there because back when we did those nobody had multiple tracks in that general vicinity, so everything was like direct to two-track. I know we did multiple takes of every cut and we were doing, I think it was the flip side of the first one there was actually a mistake on there where the drummer — if you listen to the uh, it might be Minds Expressway, I’m pretty sure it is — there’s a “pa-ping” sound on the cymbal. And we’d gotten just to the very end of a take and it was an accident that he did and as soon as we ended the take I think Ernie and Frank actually came out of the booth and said “What was that?” And he took the drum stick and did a ping off the bell of the cymbal, from the bell of the cymbal to the body of the cymbal itself to do the “pa-ping” sound and Frank said, “Well that’s fantastic; it actually makes the record.” He said, “Do you think you can do that every time?” So, we spent probably the next two hours doing take after take after take of him trying to do that pa-ping sound through the entire cut ’til we finally got it. It was almost like working with a child or a dog in a movie where it doesn’t matter what you do as long as the dog hits its mark. So as soon as we got a take where he had done that on every single cut, that was the take that they pressed for the flip side.

What do you recall about House of Sound Studios or Frank Koger?

I think where it was, it had originally been an ice house where they did ice I guess for restaurants, grocery stores and things like that because it had a loading dock in front. It was a white building on the right side of the road on the outskirts. And I think it had just a little tiny entranceway room (and) then there was the room that was the main recording room that was probably not more than 10×12, if that. And the control room was probably, maybe a 6×6 room with a glass window. I know they had to turn the air conditioning off every time we got ready to record because the air conditioner was just a window unit. They cut a hole in the wall and put an air conditioner in there, so for the length of time you were in there, every time between takes you almost prayed for a mistake sometimes because that’s the only time the air conditioner would get turned back on. It was not a really big building but I think they told us it had been an ice house.

What did you play on the records?

I think on both of the records, I played keyboards. It was an interesting situation. We had a keyboard player, actually a fifth member and about a month or six weeks before we knew we were going into the studio our keyboard player got married and left the band. So me and the other guitar player, we were two guitars, bass, keyboards and drums, but when the keyboard player left we just kind of split up the duties. And the other guitar player was named Randy Conley. And he learned half the songs so that we could get it done quickly and I learned half the songs, so that we would switch off when we played jobs. He would play guitar on some songs and I would play keyboards; and then he would play keyboards and I would play guitar. And then probably over about a six month period I think for the duration of the band I just switched over to the keyboards. That’s how we did it at the time. I think I played keyboards on all four cuts that were released. I’m pretty sure I did. I don’t remember playing guitar on any of them.

Is the personnel the same on both records?

Yes, the group members are the same on both.

Tell us about the second single, I’m Gonna Hurt You/For You.

Lost Soul Raven 45 For YouI think the band was a lot tighter when we did those. Actually, those we didn’t need to do near as much press. I think we were actually playing more jobs on the road, but actually the radio stations that played the first single really picked up on that one without us having to do as much work to back it up. It was almost like that one was too easy. We were more focused on playing the jobs than we were really on doing promotion on the singles. And a lot radio stations — I think in Roanoke and Charlotte — and a lot of other markets would take that song, back then it was one of those things where they did the thing on American Bandstand where they would rate a record. And there were a lot of rate-a-record shows on, where they would have kids that would come into the studio and they would play 8 or 10 records and rate them. And that record got taken to a lot of those promo-type things, so the band didn’t do it; the radio station kind of did it. It really got a lot more airplay that the first one did.

Did you sell these at live performances? Who handled the distribution?

What Frank would do, he gave uh, everybody I think got two boxes of records and I think there were probably fifty 45s in each box, so those were the records that we would sell or give away at jobs and things like that. Think we probably gave away a lot more than we sold because it was one of those situations where somebody would come up and they really, really liked the band and you’d meet somebody after a show or something like that and it was just much easier to give ’em a record that to try to say, “Give me a dollar.” So I think we probably gave away four or five-thousand like that. Especially the second one, because that was the one that had the larger pressing.

But I know the company that Frank had that pressed that one was called P.M. Distributors in Pittsburgh, Pa. I’m not sure when they went out of business. But that was the one where the manager had run some kind of a trace on and found out that they had received somewhere between ten, fifteen, twenty thousand copies that they had distributed. And by then, he tried to go back and get an accounting and it was just sort of, “Well, we’ll get around to it.” And of course nobody ever got around to it and by the time the band broke up at that point everybody lost interest. But, I don’t think they did the first one, P.M. Distributors. I think that was probably done pretty much like Frank did most things. He sent out copies to radio stations, that kind of thing and we took copies around to radio stations as well. But the yellow one, the one that was “I’m Gonna Hurt You” and “For You,” that’s the one that P.M. Distributors put out to rack jobbers and radio stations. They even sent it to the radio stations direct, or they had a promotion person that did that.

The band recorded a demo tape with Koger. Did you keep a copy?

We didn’t keep a copy. We did some demos. We had done kind of a soul version of, this is interesting because we never figured out exactly how this happened, but we had done a more soulful, Memphis-type feel to “Day Tripper” by the Beatles. That was just one of the demos that we did. We never even thought anything else about it, what happened to it or where it went. But about somewhere a year or so later there was a version that was almost, very close to what we thought we had done that came out by, I think it was by the Foundations. And we always wondered if they got hold of that demo, or you know somebody said, “Oh, you guys can do this.” But I don’t think we kept any of those demos. We did some stuff between takes that Frank recorded just to get loose in the studio. And that version of “Day Tripper” was one of the songs that we did, and I think we probably played some Sam and Dave stuff and a couple of other things like that. I know they got recorded, but what happened to them I have no idea. I know the guy that was our manager that we shared with Archie Bell got a copy somehow, some way and he was putting that with the two 45s and taking it to different companies. But once again, we never heard it. He kind of imploded at one point, the manager did, and we never heard from him again. That was another interesting story.

Do you have the master tapes for any of the band’s recordings?

No, we don’t have master recordings of anything, and of course as long ago as it’s been I know the statute of ownership has run out and I doubt seriously if anybody redid the copyrights. I know they’re not on my list. I’m a BMI writer. None of the things that we did are anywhere on the list of, I’ve only got maybe a dozen songs listed with BMI, but none of those four are anywhere on that list. So, probably they could be edited, they could be redone and I could file a new copyright on them. I just never have thought about doing it.

While he was told at the time that “I’m Gonna Hurt You” b/w “For You” (Raven HOS 45-2032) had cracked Billboard’s Hot 100, Calfee has since learned that wasn’t the case. While researching his songs, Calfee discovered that BMI had never heard of Choptank Music (Raven’s publishing company) or Frank Koger. All four songs were signed over to Frank and Choptank and never listed with BMI. Calfee says “that’s why when ‘I’m Gonna Hurt You’ was supposed to enter the Billboard Hot 100, it never happened. It seems that at that time, when a song was being promoted and pushed, at the point it was getting sufficient airplay enough to be added, Billboard would double-check the copyright license and the copyright owner. When they found none for ‘I’m Gonna Hurt You,’ they let it drop.”

After searching BMI’s records, Calfee discovered that the songs were not listed or actually published with BMI. “That’s also the reason we never received any royalties for airplay or sales,” says Calfee. He has since listed all four songs with the agency.

Gene Rumley had a similar experience. A letter from Broadcast Music, Inc. to Rumley dated May 10, 1966 lists the A-sides of the first two Team Beats’ singles and “I’m Sorry About That,” urging Rumley to notify the publisher (Old Standby Music Co.) and have the songs registered with BMI as soon as possible.

Individuals band Danville Photo
An early photo of the Individuals practicing at Glenn Meadows’ house.
L-R: Tommy Redd, Ben Vaughan, Ronnie Couch, Glenn Meadows, and Ronnie Vaughan. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Couch.

The Individuals

Apparently the situation wasn’t unique. Ronnie Couch played drums with another Raven act, The Individuals. The Halifax/South Boston band recorded one 45 (“I Want Love” b/w “I Really Do”, Hos-45-2018) at Koger’s studio. Bassist Tommy Redd penned both and paid Koger $6 to have both sides registered with BMI. That never happened and the garage classic has since been bootlegged in England.

The Individuals, ad for Oak Level Club show
The Individuals, ad for show at the Oak Level Club

The Individuals were truly a garage band and started out practicing in the basement of Couch’s home in 1964. Besides the drummer, the original group included vocalist Glenn Meadows; bassist Tommy Redd; and lead guitarist Ben Vaughan. Then known as the Rhythm-Makers, the four-piece group played their first gig at the American Legion Hall in South Boston on March 25, 1965. The band soon changed names and musical directions and Meadows left over creative differences. Redd and Vaughan took over as lead vocalists. Sammy Moser was added on organ and stayed with the group through 1967, when Mike Oakes joined on keyboards.

The Individuals paid Koger $250 to record, press and distribute 500 records. The Individuals sold 200 copies locally and Koger agreed to distribute the remainder to radio stations across the country. When they entered House of Sound Studios, the band consisted of Ronnie Couch on drums; Tommy Redd, who played bass and sang lead on both sides; Ronnie Vaughan and Ben Vaughan on rhythm and lead guitars, respectively; and Sammy Moser on organ.

The Individuals, South Boston VA photo
The Individuals, from left: Sammy Moser (keyboard); Glenn Meadows (lead singer); Tommy Redd (bass guitar); Ronnie Couch (drums); Ronnie Vaughan (rhythm Guitar); Ben Vaughan (lead guitar)
The Individuals receipt signed by Frank Koger
The Individuals receipt signed by Frank Koger to Ronnie Couch ($108) as payment for reorder of their 45

The band recorded both songs in a marathon session in the summer of 1967. Couch and Redd remember scaling a long flight of steps to reach the small recording room. Couch’s drums were set up “behind some kind of plastic shield and there was another man on the board with Frank.” The band “toted our equipment up the steps to the studio. We got there around 5 or 6 pm and left around 11 pm.” According to Couch, the band “played our two songs seemed like a thousand times apiece” before Koger got acceptable takes. Raven HOS-45-2018 was released in August of 1967 and charted on WHLF radio in South Boston. “I Want Love” also made the playlist of a radio station in Brookneal, VA, while WYPR in Danville picked up the record and even had the band in the studios to promote the song. The group remained a popular regional attraction, sharing the bill with the Soulmasters and opening for popular recording artists like Sam and Dave.

[youtube]Interestingly, the vinyl version of “I Really Do” was not the intended release, but an outtake. When the master tapes were sent to Nashville for pressing, Koger mistakenly sent an alternate version of the song, not the one the group intended for release.

[youtube]The initial run sold out and Couch still has the $108 invoice for a second pressing of the 45. The band wrote a follow-up (“The Fire Is Out”) and hoped to return to Danville for a second recording session; however, the group broke up and the plans were shelved. Home recordings show a radical shift in the band’s sound just before the split, with the Individuals adding extended solos, fuzz guitars and feedback to their performances.


The Individuals publicity photo taken for Gazette-Virginian
The Individuals publicity photo taken for Gazette-Virginian newspaper story in ’67
from left: Tommy Redd, Ronnie Vaughan, Ronnie Couch, Ben Vaughan and Sammy Moser
The Individuals color photo
The Individuals from left: Sammy Moser (keyboard); Tommy Redd (bass guitar); Glenn Meadows (lead singer); Ronnie Couch (drums); Ben Vaughan (lead guitar); Ronnie Vaughan (rhythm guitar)
The Individuals photo
The Individuals, from left: Mike Oakes (keyboard); Ronnie Vaughan (rhythm guitar); Ronnie Couch (drums); Tommy Redd (bass guitar); Ben Vaughan (lead guitar)
The Individuals 1st business card
The Individuals 1st business card
Individuals 2nd business card
Individuals 2nd business card

The VI Pak (aka The IV Pak)

About the same time, the VI Pak of Ruffin, N.C. entered the studio after winning a battle of the bands competition and a free session at Raven. Frank Carter played organ in the band and remembers Koger’s studio was located in the same building where guitarist Mike Carter’s uncle (E.C. Gerringer) operated a piano and appliance store, which adjoined Merchants Delivery, a moving and storage company also owned by Gerringer.

Merchants Delivery House of Sound Studio
Merchants Delivery, according to one musician, the House of Sound Studio was located above

Carter remembers lugging their equipment up a flight of stairs to a small studio located above the business. He describes it as a “pretty neat little studio (with) multi-tracking and cubicles so “that each one of us had our own little box to play in. It wasn’t like playing in one big room, everything was sort of sectioned off for the drummer and for the guitarist and the horns and myself.” He remembers one large room and another “engineering room where Koger had the multi-track recorder.” According to Carter, the bigger room “wasn’t really that large — I’d say maybe 14×14 or so. It was enough room for four or five small cubicles and a mike for each.”

former location of House of Sound Studios
according to another, this was the former location of House of Sound Studios, across the street from Merchants Delivery.

William “Pete” Walker has a different recollection. He played bass on many of the country and western sessions at House of Sound and is certain the studios were located in the building across from Merchants Delivery. Walker notes that the long staircase leading up to the studio has been replaced and some cosmetic changes have been made, but otherwise the building is much the same 50 years later. He remembers Koger had the second floor, while an auto repair shop was located in the basement. The building now houses a Muslim church. 

The VI Pak sessions produced a garage-psyche classic – “Whatzit?” – along with an interesting cover of Booker T’s “Boot-Leg,” released on the one-off Hippie Label as HOS–45–2019. Carter recalls that the band was given the option of choosing their own label after balking at Koger’s request for an extra $10 to release the 45 on Raven. Besides the Carter cousins, the VI Pak included Brandon Cardwell on drums; Anthony Hodges on bass (lead vocals on Whatzit?); Lonnie Bowes on sax; and Sidney Vernon, trumpet.

[youtube]There was again a problem at the pressing plant, this time with labeling. Someone in Nashville couldn’t read Roman numerals and the six-member VI Pak was listed on the label as the IV Pak. The band made the best of 500 mislabeled 45s, which sold few copies at the time but has gone on to grace several garage compilations. VI Pak members were also given a 12” acetate containing both sides of their single on one side and the Individuals’ songs on the other. Ronnie Couch (Individuals) was unaware of the record’s existence until shown a copy recently.

Soulmasters at the Sweetheart Dance at Stratford College in Danville, Va., 1967
Soulmasters at the Sweetheart Dance at Stratford College in Danville, Va., 1967. L-R: Dennis Shepherd, Jerry Wilson, Jimmy Matthews (obscured), Larry Davis (obscured, drums), Doug Hyler, Junie Walton (obscured), John Irby, Charles Gentry, Ernie Dickens.

The Soulmasters

Danville’s Sensational Soulmasters also recorded at Raven in ’67. The Soulmasters started out in Eden, N.C. in 1965 as a nine-piece rhythm and blues band. Black vocalists John Irby and Jerry Wilson were added as the group merged with Danville’s Majors to create the 10-to-12-piece aggregation that would record at Raven and tour Virginia and the Carolinas extensively through 1970.

Rickie Fox was the first drummer in the Danville incarnation of the Soulmasters. Another former Team Beat, Brian Thomason, was the original bassist. The first band only performed for 5-to-6 months and included “the original band from Eden and a few more people who were leaving the Majors, like (guitarist) Steve Scearce,” says Fox. Larry Davis was Fox’s best friend and was recruited on drums when Rickie left the Soulmasters to join his brother Butch in the Majors.

The Majors, 1964
The Majors, 1964, L-R: Juni Walton, organ; Larry Payne, drums; Marvin Farr, sax; Joe Johnson, vocals; Ernie Dickens, bass; Dennis Shepherd, trumpet; Charles Gentry, guitar.

Bassist Ernie Dickens recalls that “George Parrish was lead singer and fronted the Majors, (while) Vance Yarborough and Junie Walton also sang a few. Back in those days we also performed a lot of instrumentals.” The group also featured black vocalist Joe Johnson, who earlier sang for the Imperials. The Majors “kinda fell apart in late ’64 after a few members were drafted or left for other reasons,” says Dickens. He says the remaining members “reformed with new drummer Larry Davis. Wayne (Womble) and Doug (Hyler) were already trying to form the Soulmasters around John and Jerry, so we basically merged the two groups.” Junie Walton moved from organ to sax and Dennis Shepherd was added on trumpet.

Soulmasters at the Sweetheart Dance at Stratford College in Danville, Va., 1967
Soulmasters at the Sweetheart Dance at Stratford College in Danville, Va., 1967. L-R: Wayne Womble (organ), Denis Shepherd (trumpet), Jimmy Matthews (trumpet), Doug Hyler (sax), Junie Walton (sax), Larry Davis (drums), Charles Gentry (guitar), Ernie Dickens (bass guitar).

[youtube]SoulmastersRaven45YouTookAwaytheSunshineDickens also worked as Koger’s assistant, later producing the second single recorded by Lost Soul of Bluefield, VA. He recalled the Soulmasters’ two-day recording session in a 2015 interview.

Frank in the early days wanted to create a recording capability that rivaled the big studios. Problem was he had to try to do it on a Danville-sized budget. When we recorded our 45, Frank had acquired a 4-track reel-to-reel system that allowed control of each of the 4 input tracks, but had no capability to overdub.

This meant songs had to be rehearsed over and over again until the balance was right. Once this was accomplished, we then had to record the entire song start to finish in a single take. I remember rehearsing and balancing the sound for “I’ll Be Waiting Here” pretty much all day on the Saturday. We then recorded the version that was released the next day, Sunday. The B-side (“You Took Away the Sunshine”) moved along faster since we did not need to readjust the balance and only took several hours that Sunday. We probably spent 20 hours in all over the two days to complete the project.

[youtube]SoulmastersRaven45IllBeWaitingHereThe studio was very rudimentary in those days (and had) little in the way of acoustic absorption or isolation between the instruments. The horns were recorded on 1 track; the bass, organ and guitar on the second; drums on the third track; and vocals on the fourth.

We were used to playing in halls for large crowds at pretty high volume levels. We found it very difficult to adjust to playing with only a fraction of the volume we were used to. Hence the somewhat distorted sound that we ended up with.

Frank was pretty obsessed with trying to make it work, as were we. We must have played each of the songs 50 or more times over those two days. By the time the record was released, we were all pretty sick of both songs and could hardly stand to perform them.

After this Frank continued to make improvements and learned much from the early experiments. Each time he recorded another group the sound improved and the process became more refined.

Soul Masters Bowmar promo photo
Soulmasters 1967 Bowmar publicity photo, Riverside Drive Danville. Front row left to right: Paul Brooks, Bill Hundley, Doug Hyler and Jimmy Mathews. Back row left to right: Charles Gentry, Larry Davis, John Irby, Jerry Wilson, Bill Adams and Ernie Dickens

Wayne Womble was the band’s keyboard player and said the studio was sparse, with a single, two-track recorder. Bill Dudley was a disc jockey at the local Top 40 station (WYPR) and fronted the $200 to finance the sessions. The band spent two days recording Raven HOS 45 2020, “I’ll Be Waiting Here” b/w “You Took Away the Sunshine.” Dickens says the 45 had an initial run of 500 copies but believes the band “gave away more than we sold.” Both songs were pressed at the wrong speed and the 45 is slightly faster than the original recordings.

Sax player Doug Hyler wrote the B-side in his bedroom and recalls the sessions as “lengthy, tedious and fun,” describing trumpeter Dennis Shepherd’s idea to pause near the end of the “You Took Away the Sunshine” as awesome and innovative. In addition to Hyler and Juni Walton on saxophone, the record features hot guitar licks from Steve Scearce; Larry Davis on drums; Ernie Dickens on bass; Dennis Shepherd and Jimmy Matthews on trumpet; Wayne Womble on organ; and vocalists John Irby and Jerry Wilson.

While not in the group at the time, keyboardist Bill Adams was friends with several of the members and attended the sessions. He recalls that “Wayne used a Farfisa organ on “I’ll Be Waiting Here” and an old upright piano on “You Took Away the Sunshine,” adding that “everything was recorded on a two track machine as the group played live.” According to Adams, the intro to “You Took Away the Sunshine” was put together that night with “a little alcohol involved in that one.” Dickens had written out chord charts for the arrangements and Adams was given the task of turning the pages while Wayne played the organ. Womble would soon leave the Soulmasters and Adams would take his place, but Bill said he had no inkling at this point that he would soon be playing with the group.

Soulmasters at Peabody's Warehouse 1968
Soulmasters at Peabody’s Warehouse 1968, Charles Gentry (guitar); Ernie Dickens (bass)
The Soulmasters first practice, 1965
The Soulmasters first practice, 1965 in Doug Hyler’s basement.
Back L to R: Rickie Fox, Wayne Womble, Jerry Wilson
Front L to R: Doug Hyler, Jimmy Matthews, Steve Scearce, Brian Thomason
Soulmasters at Peabody's Warehouse 1968
Soulmasters live at Peabody’s Warehouse in Virginia Beach, VA 1968
L-R: George Parrish, Paul Brooks and Jimmy Matthews on trumpets, Bill Hundley and Doug Hyler on sax.
In the background: Bill Adams (keyboards); Larry Davis (drums); Ernie Dickens (bass); Charles Gentry (guitar)
Soulmasters at Peabody's Warehouse 1968
Soulmasters live at Peabody’s Warehouse in Virginia Beach, VA 1968
L-R: George Parrish, Paul Brooks and Jimmy Matthews on trumpets, Bill Hundley and Doug Hyler on sax.
In the background: Bill Adams (keyboards); Larry Davis (drums); Ernie Dickens (bass); Charles Gentry (guitar)
Jerry Wilson of the Soulmasters at the Apollo Theater
Jerry Wilson of the Soulmasters at the Apollo Theater

Both sides charted on AM stations in Danville and South Boston and the single became a regional hit for the band, while reaching the Top 10 on WLAC in Nashville. The band re-recorded both songs at a better studio in Raleigh, but the master tapes were given by Wilson to soul singer Eddie Floyd, in hopes of landing the group a major recording contract. No copies are known to exist.

Vocalist Jerry Wilson looked back at those sessions during a 2013 interview.

People in Southside still remember your record, which was a big regional hit.

Yea, in Tennessee it reached 7 or number 4 (on WLAC) in Nashville. And that’s one thing I add: If it was anything to regret it was that we didn’t go back in the studio and cut any more. Because Ernie Dickens asked me, “Jerry, you and John wanna cut some more?” And we looked at him and said “no,” because it wasn’t what you’d call a great looking studio. But the sound wasn’t bad. And it was for free. But after ten years you say, “Man, we should’ve done a bunch of songs.” And if we had, I know one side hit real good so I know what would’ve happened if we had followed up. But we were young.

Jerry Wilson of the Soulmasters
Jerry Wilson of the Soulmasters, circa early ’70s

What do you remember about those sessions?Man, we had fun. It was just fun. We went in and you know back then you didn’t have all this digital equipment. You made one mistake and you had to do the song over again. I think we did it about four times until everybody became relaxed, laughing and carrying on. And then after that I think it took us two days to record it, both sides. And then when we did our song, “I’ll Be Waiting Here” that Dennis Shepherd wrote and “You Took Away the Sunshine” that Doug Hyler wrote, it was great! You know, we were signing (autographs) and I think we only had about 500 copies made.

Who had the idea for the stop and start on “You Took Away the Sunshine?”

Dennis Shepherd, the trumpet player who wrote the song. Dennis was a diminutive type in stature, but he had a big heart. He was one of my favorites, man.

Stones Unturned Photo
The Stones Unturned in 1966. L-R: Jim Ray, Pete Hilliard, Curtis “Inky” Vaughan, Doug Starnes, and Truxton Fulton

The Stones Unturned

The Stones Unturned House of Sound reel for Tobacco Road
The Stones Unturned House of Sound reel for Tobacco Road
The Stones Unturned House of Sound reel
The Stones Unturned House of Sound reel

Another Danville band – the Stones Unturned — entered House of Sound Studios in 1967, although none of their recordings were ever released. The Stones, as they preferred to call themselves, were a cover band and borrowed much of their early catalog from the British band of the same name. The Stones were: Pete Hilliard, bass and vocals; Jim Ray, lead vocalist; Truxton Fulton, organ; Curtis “Inky” Vaughan, drums; Doug Starnes, lead guitar.

Starnes dated and soon married vocalist Florence “Flo” Penn, who would later front the band when they performed as the Purple Haze Publication and Light Show. The couple recorded a number of demos in Koger’s studio. Starnes discussed the Raven sessions shortly before his death in October 2013.

How did the Stones come to record “Tobacco Road” and “Sunny” at Frank Koger’s studio?

How we got that (recording) time was that we were backing up (vocalist) Flo Penn Starnes, your cousin, on some songs that she wanted to record. She was fixing to go up to New York City that coming summer and she already had an agent up in New York. And he’d lined up, well she didn’t have a band she (always) used the house band wherever she had to play. I went up there (New York) with Flo and her mother, Anne Penn. And Flo, maybe she had to pay (Frank) extra, I don’t remember. But anyway, we had that time that she had set up for us with Frank. And we rehearsed a lot, not in the studio but here at home. We always rehearsed at my parents’ house here at South Woodberry in Danville. And it was a lot of fun because everything was a new experience for us back then. We didn’t know how it would sound. And fortunately it sounded good enough on tape to be worthwhile. And that was probably one of the biggest turning points for the Stones Unturned.

I have your master tape of about six original songs with the band backing Flo. There are multiple takes and false starts with dialog between songs. However, a smaller reel of just the Stones appears to be a dub. It’s only recorded in one channel and there are finished takes of only two songs: “Tobacco Road” and “Sunny.”

We had done more songs than that. There is a tape… it may be the one that you have listened to. I thought we had between 4 and 6 songs on that one. She (Flo) had done her songs in order that we could have a tape to take with us when we went up to New York City. I didn’t know how that tape (the reel with just the two songs) came about but I do remember there being more than just two songs on it. There’s another tape that may be around here or not. Over the years, the tapes have been loaned out and some of make it back and some don’t. And then there are a lot of them that the boxes aren’t even labeled and I don’t have a reel-to-reel recorder.

[youtube][youtube](Note: Stones Unturned vocalist Jim Ray believes there were two sessions at Raven and that the first in ’67 was to record the band. He thinks the group returned some time later to back Flo Starnes. Bassist Pete Hilliard sings lead on both and thinks the Stones’ songs were hastily recorded at the end of Flo’s session because they still had studio time remaining.)

Fabulous Fingermen Photo
The Fabulous Fingermen at the Moose Club in Danville, 1966.
L-R: Lee Glasgow, Ray Carper, Johnny Glasgow (deceased) and Julian A. Lillard (deceased).

The Fabulous Fingermen

Local Bluegrass legend Julian Lilliard started out playing in the mid-sixties in an instrumental guitar band known as the Fabulous Fingermen. The group played frequently at local sock hops and fraternal lodges in the Danville area and also recorded some unreleased songs at House of Sound. Lilliard says the band committed “3 or 4 cuts on a reel-to-reel” and he kept the master. He died in 2014 before locating the tape.

The Mustangers

Mustangers Piedmont 45 That's My WayPiedmont Records was another House of Sound offshoot that produced at least two records of note for collectors. The Mustangers recorded “What Do I Have to Pay,” listed on the label as a “rhythm and blues vocal.”

Nothing is known about the record (Piedmont CSP 45-2556) or the group, which featured a spirited soul singer and a good rhythm and horn section. The flip side (“That’s My Way”) is an odd instrumental that was also penned by the group and sounds as though it was recorded in a single take.


Moon Mullins Piedmont Records Picture Sleeve
L-R: Gwynn Kallam, Moon Mullins and Mickey Hawks

Moon Mullins and the Night Raiders

Mickey Hawks (Moon Mullins vocalist)
Mickey Hawks (Moon Mullins vocalist)

Moon Mullins and the Night Raiders also recorded their fifth single for Piedmont Records (“Baby, I Got You” b/w “Ain’t Gonna Cry”, Piedmont Records 45-2044) around 1968. At the time, Mullins’ band was performing throughout Virginia and North Carolina and he also owned a club in Madison, N.C., “Moon’s Danceland.”

“Baby I Got You” features a duet with vocalists Mickey Hawks and Gwynn Kallam. Hawks takes the lead on the flip side, “Ain’t Gonna Cry.” A picture of Mickey Hawks, Dallas “Moon” Mullins and Gwynn Kallam Montgomery appears on the sleeve, which was a rarity for Raven. While she sang with the band for several years, this was the only time Montgomery entered a recording booth. She recalls that Koger had the walls of the studio lined with egg cartons and that Stoney Bowman was their guitarist.

Moon Mullins Piedmont 45 Baby I Got YouThe sound was also a departure for the Night Raiders, who’d been recording rockabilly ravers since the fifties. The band is best remembered for their first recording, “Bip Bop Boom,” which was released on Profile Records in 1959 and did well in Chicago and the Midwest.

Gwen Kallam at 18
Gwen Kallam at 18

The single on Piedmont was the first release by the Night Raiders in seven years. The group had last been heard in a 1961 instrumental (“Gonna Dance Tonight, Part 1 & 2”) on country singer Jim Eanes’ label (Lance Records 005) out of Richmond, VA. While this would be Moon Mullins last commercial release, Mickey Hawks continued performing and recorded an album shortly before his death in 1989. Mullins also continued playing and was a fixture at the Eden Flea Market until shortly before his death in 2014.

Soulmasters’ bassist Ernie Dickens assisted Koger on many of the sessions at this point and recalls that “before Frank left for Nashville he was recording anyone that could show up with $200, whether they were up to the task or not.”

Greater Experience at Uncle Sam's 1972
Greater Experience at Uncle Sam’s 1972
from left: Jay McKee, Ed Burnette, Chuck Wall (in back on drums), Chip Wood, Roger Scruggs (guitar in back), Rocky Robertson (at mic), Kenny Arthur (in back) and Jenny Green.

The Greater Experience

Some of the last recordings Koger made in Danville were by an eight-man Lynchburg horn band, the Greater Experience, and their lone 45 has gone on to become one of the most coveted records among Northern Soul fans. “Don’t Forget to Remember” was seldom heard outside Southwest Virginia until it was rediscovered by collectors across the pond, but Lynchburg’s Greater Experience had quite a local following in the early seventies.

The Greater Experience Business Card
The Greater Experience Business Card, Stan Jayson manager

Chip Wood played alto sax on the 45 and says a chance encounter with vocalist Jerry Mitchell on a summer afternoon “around 1968” got the ball rolling. Wood was visiting friend Milton “Winkie” Blanks at his home on Trents Ferry Road and Mitchell was seeing Blank’s older sister, Brenda. While waiting for his date, the conversation turned to music and Mitchell remarked that he was trying to start a band. Wood mentioned that he played sax and said he also knew a good drummer, Chuck Wall. Wood was playing in a soul band at the time. This was Mitchell’s first band and he enlisted trumpeter Ricky Height and guitarist John Williams. Neither stayed long and both were soon replaced by Ed Burnette and Roger Scruggs. Johnny Dodson joined on organ, with Robert Tunkel on tenor sax, and Russ Hovda on bass.

Greater Experience card for Uncle Sam's
Greater Experience card for Uncle Sam’s

A name was needed and leader Jerry Mitchell came up with Greater Experience. Burnette says he never knew the significance, adding: “It was just one of those sixties things.” Drummer Chuck Wall was just 16 when he joined the band and believes the name was agreed upon while the band was holding its first rehearsal in Wood’s basement. “I think we were just kind of kicking around, trying to come up with (a name) and I’m not sure if it was Jerry Mitchell or Robert Tunkel, or just kind of a collective effort,” he says. While he had played in a couple of other neighborhood groups, Wall says the Greater Experience was his first serious foray into music, and the first band capable of playing an entire set.

Burnette, Scruggs and Wood all played together in the E.C. Glass Stage Band and Wood and Burnette were also in the high school’s marching band. Wood recalls that “many a time on a Friday night we played for the marching band and then at half-time Ed and I would sneak out to go to a gig with the Greater Experience.”

The Greater Experience publicity photo for Virginia Talent Associates in Lynchburg, Va.
The Greater Experience, from left, standing: Rpger Scruggs, Johnny Dodson, Robert Tunkel, Ed Burnette, Russ Hovda and Chuck Wall;
seated: Jerry Mitchell and Chip Wood.
Publicity photo for Virginia Talent Associates in Lynchburg.

The band was a favorite in the Lynchburg-Danville area and soon set their sights at recording an original song composed by Mitchell and Tunkel. Scruggs plays lead guitar on the single and says he was 18 when “Don’t Forget to Remember” was released in the fall of 1970 on Colony 13 (CSP 45-2572) Records. He remembers little about the sessions and says they may have been in Danville, but he is “not 100% sure of that.” He remembers a “pretty good sized studio,” with partitions and headphones. While he doesn’t remember the particular studio, Chuck Wall says the sessions were “definitely in Greensboro” and that the band was in and out in four hours.

While the sessions were most likely done at Copeland Sound Studios in Greensboro, the recordings could have been made in Danville at Frank Koger’s House of Sound Studios. The band performed frequently at Happy’s, a pizza restaurant and nightspot located directly across from his studio on Piney Forest Road. Scruggs doesn’t remember whether Koger produced the sessions, but he often used Copeland to record bands, especially when the projects were beyond the capability of his small studio in Danville. The 45 was apparently his last hurrah in Southside Virginia, as Koger moved to Nashville around 1971. While he used the Colony 13 label in Danville, most of the studio’s earlier output was on Raven Records. Koger used the Colony 13 logo exclusively in Tennessee, but again only for country and western artists. While his involvement with “Don’t Forget to Remember” may have been limited to pressing the record, it does appear on Koger’s label and bears the notation “Nationally Dist. by Colony Sound Prod., Danville, VA.” A later release on Colony 13 Records by Jamie Reeves (A Mother’s Salute to Lt. Calley b/w I’ll Wait, CSP 45-2580) lists a Nashville address for Colony Sound Productions. The labels are identical and, like the Greater Experience 45, Kitten Britches Music – BMI is listed as the music publisher. Koger’s wife, Jean, was nicknamed Kitten. Frank James is listed as both writer and producer on Reeves’ 45. From this point on, Koger referred to himself as Frank James in production credits.

[youtube]Trumpeter Ed Burnette agrees that the recordings were made in Greensboro and recalls that the band purchased a designated amount of time for the recordings, with the studio “charging $1 a minute” for any time they ran over, “so we tried to get it done as quickly as we could.” He remembers the group “spent an inordinate amount of time getting the rhythm part down: the guitar, the bass, the drums, and the organ.” He recalls that “it just seemed to take an eternity to get that down and we actually did the brass part in one take, and then we added the vocals on top of that.” Burnette says he is “confident” the sessions were in Greensboro, “because when I saw the actual record label for the first time and it showed ‘Colony 13’ in Danville, VA. I questioned why we went to a studio in Greensboro to record it.” He believes the pressing was limited to 500 copies.

GreaterExperienceColony13_45_DontForgetToRememberScruggs says both sides of the single were recorded “in an afternoon” and that the 45 received extensive airplay in on WLLL in Lynchburg, placing 99th on the station’s top 100 songs for the year. He remembers the band miming the song on a television show “around Christmas, 1970.” Wood says the band’s only TV appearance was for the Labor Day Telethon. The Greater Experience performed on the local segment of the telethon, which was broadcast from the WLVA (now WSET) studios, where Mitchell worked. Wood remembers that the band had to pantomime “Don’t Forget to Remember,” which he says “was harder than actually playing the song live.” Scruggs and alto saxophonist and rhythm guitarist Chip Wood had just finished school and two of the other members – Burnette and Wall – were both 17 and still at E.C. Glass High School when the 45 was released. Lead singer Jerry Mitchell wrote the lyrics, while sax man Bob Tunkel composed the music. John Dodson played Hammond organ on the record, with Russ Hovda on bass and Roger Scruggs on lead guitar.

Greater Experience Photo
courtesy Mark Windle and Roger Scruggs

While not listed as a co-writer, Scruggs believes keyboard player Johnny Dodson contributed to “Don’t Forget to Remember.” He points out that the song’s progressions contain “mostly major and minor 7th chords, not your average chords (and ones) only a keyboardist or guitarist would have played.” He believes Dodson “probably helped Jerry write the basic chord structure and Tunkel wrote out the music to be copywritten.” He points out that Tunkel had a music degree and did compose the music to the flip side, “Carol’s Carol,” which features a flute solo and is dedicated to his wife. Tunkel majored in music composition at Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to tenor sax, Tunkel also played flute and trumpet.

Greater Experience Photo
courtesy Mark Windle and Roger Scruggs

Chip Wood plays alto sax on the 45 and is uncertain whether the sessions were in Greensboro or Danville. He does recall that as they were leaving Lynchburg for the recordings, WLLL disc jockey Stan Jayson (who was also managing the group) played Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and dedicated the song to the band. “Being 18 and just out of high school, that was really cool,” says Wood. Before the band recorded “Don’t Forget to Remember,” Wood says they played an afternoon job at Lynchburg College. Chicago played at LC that night “and we all had front row seats for the concert.” Wood concurs with Burnette about recording the rhythm section, saying it took “forever to get their part down.” And while the horns got just one shot, Wood says: “I guess we got lucky, although listening to the record now I think the horns were just a little bit out of tune.”

In addition to original material, the Greater Experience was known for their covers of songs by Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Cold Blood, Sly and the Family Stone and the Ides of March. The band gained a reputation as one of the best live acts in the area and opened for the Ides of March, the Classics IV, Percy Sledge and the Spiral Staircase in Lynchburg. A recently discovered live tape (made at Happy’s in Danville in 1970) captured the Greater Experience at its peak and includes the unreleased original song, “Mail Day Lament,” which Wood describes as “in the vein of the Ides of March.”

[youtube]The band booked through Virginia Talent Association (VTA), a Lynchburg-based agency owned and operated by Phil Vassar, Sr., who was the singer and front man for the Lancers, a rock and roll group that recorded the 45, My Little Girl/Alone (Panther Records SP-1051) in 1964. He was also the father of country singer/songwriter Phil Vassar, Jr.

TheGreaterExperienceSpiralStaircaseFlyerIt’s said that timing is everything, and such was the case with the Greater Experience. A demo tape was given to WLLL and the song was already receiving heavy airplay on Lynchburg radio. Band manager Stan Jason was also a popular DJ at the local radio station and had earlier gotten the group’s photo in a national publication, TV Radio Mirror Magazine, in an article profiling Jason. He was also able to get the song in heavy rotation at WLLL. The problem, says Burnette, was that the records hadn’t arrived from the pressing plant and none were available in stores. And by the time the single was in stock, interest in the song had already started to fade. Wall said Jason could get the group air time on the radio, “so we thought maybe we could make a little money out of this and it wouldn’t be a total bust if we could get the airplay and get local ears on it, and maybe enough money that if people would go out and buy it that we could at least pay for it, or the recording itself.” Wall believes that the delay kept the record from being a much bigger regional hit, noting “there was an issue with the pressing of the record, so the idea was Stan was going to give it a week or two in advance to start putting it on the radio to get it out over the airwaves and peak a little interest, and hopefully by then people would go out and want to buy it.” It took a little longer for the records to arrive and they weren’t available when fans requested the 45. Wall recalls that it was a month to six weeks before the song was in stores, “so anybody at the time that was out there who was looking for the record to buy, it just wasn’t available. They just weren’t there at that point in time when the demand was probably at the peak.”

Greater Experience For TV Radio Mirror Magazine Interview 1969
Greater Experience For TV Radio Mirror Magazine Interview 1969

Burnette still has a memo Mitchell distributed after the sales had completed. He recalls band members “all got some records back because we made the mistake of releasing the song to radio stations before we actually had the 45s.” It was a case of the group “having our 15 minutes of fame; it went up the charts locally and then down the charts and by the time we got the records actually in hand, our moment in the sun had come and gone and we were basically stuck with a bunch of records.” Wall believes that Jerry Mitchell ended up with most of the surplus. 

Mitchell wanted to release another 45 or album with the band, but plans to return to the studio were scrapped after his departure. Wood explains that “Jerry was the contact guy (and) really the manager of the band,” taking care of all the finances and contracts while “the younger guys like myself, Chuck, Ed and Roger… just kind of did as we were told and went on from there.” Money from several gigs was set aside to finance their 45, which the band sold at live performances, small shops like L. Oppleman Pawn Shop and at the G.C. Murphy Department Store in Lynchburg.

The group hoped to record “Mail Day Lament” in a controlled setting, but Mitchell left and the band never made it back to the studio. Soundman Steve Dunaway made a crude live recording of the song, but Scruggs says the quality isn’t suitable for release. The line-up featured on the 45 only performed together for about 18 months and the band underwent numerous personnel changes before calling it quits in 1975. Wall says while the band hoped to record an album, only three original songs were written during their eight-year existence. The Greater Experience went through numerous personnel changes, but Wall says “the nature of the band pretty much remained a copy band,” leaning heavily toward brass numbers, while remaining flexible enough to cover “pretty much whatever was popular at the time on the radio.” While members preferred more progressive music, Wall says the reality was that “because the fraternities and clubs we played were basically just dance halls,” the music had to be danceable. The idea, says Wall, was to “blend what was a challenge to play,” with what was on the radio, adding: “You just couldn’t go to a club and play the music that you wanted to play and have people sit there at their chairs and just kind of twiddle their thumbs. So, it needed to have a good solid beat and at the same time be popular.” The key to the band’s success was its amazing rhythm section.

The Greater Experience Jerry's wreck. 1970
Jerry’s wreck. 1970

Mitchell left on November 21, 1971, after a final performance for a Circle K fraternity party at the Holiday Inn in Lynchburg. He became the lead vocalist for a Roanoke band, the Divots. Wood believes Mitchell saw the move as “a step up” and felt Roanoke offered more opportunities than Lynchburg. Rocky Robertson was recruited as his replacement and was joined by female vocalist Jenny Greene. Jay McKee was added on trombone in ’71 and stayed with the group until the end. He was already familiar to the group and played in the E.C. Glass Concert and Marching Bands with Wood and Burnette. Scruggs recalls that Russell Hovda “just quit” and was replaced by bassist Robin Tolley. Kenny Arthur succeeded Tolley on Rickenbacker bass, but left to attend college in Alabama, where he still lives. Billy Bragg was their fourth, and final bass player. Dodson departed and was replaced by Billy DeZonia on keyboards, while Burnette left in the fall of ’71 to attend William and Mary College. He is now a General District Court judge in Lynchburg. David Cooper replaced him on trumpet. Wood remained with the band on sax until the breakup but then stopped performing and installed commercial entertainment systems until his retirement. Wood and Wall were the only two founding members who remained with the band until the end. The two were good friends and Chuck dated Chip’s sister during the band’s formative years. Tunkel, Wall, Williams and Hovda still live in the Lynchburg area and Williams and Hovda continued doing trio work until just recently. Sound and light man Steve Dunaway stayed in the business and went on to run sound for the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Mother’s Finest and Ted Nugent.

The Greater Experience band, 1974
The Greater Experience band, 1974

Scruggs remained with the Greater Experience until 1973 and was succeeded by guitarist Dale Ollweiler, who attended Lynchburg College with drummer Chuck Wall. Wall decided to stay in Lynchburg so he could continue performing with the band on weekends, which he did until the split in 1975. By that time, he says the group had “had kind of just run its course.” He had finished college and was growing weary of the long road trips, adding that “every time you pulled in new people it was just kind of a hassle to have to get back to square one.” He regrets that he no longer plays, adding: “You get married and you get a job and all of a sudden the reality is there.” Scruggs says he left a couple of years earlier because most of the original members were gone and the popularity of horn bands had started to wane. He remains active in music to this day, while Dodson, DeZonia, Bragg and front man and lead vocalist Jimmy Mitchell have since died. Mitchell died of cancer on March 16, 2011 in Roanoke, Virginia. He was 62. 

While Wall, Wood, Scruggs, Burnette and McKee occasionally get together to reminisce or to watch a concert on Chip’s entertainment system, they doubt there will be a Greater Experience reunion. While he admits it would be nice, Wood points out that their front man is gone and he no longer plays the sax. “I guess we’re too old for that,” says Wood. Wall says he always admired the progressive, British bands of the early seventies and finds it ironic that their music now has a following in the UK. Burnette admits that all the attention from across the pond has been nice, adding that the surviving members are “all basking in the glory of that delayed gratification now.” His only regret is that vocalist Jerry Mitchell “who wrote the music and was kind of the leader of the band did not live to experience this wonderful delayed popularity of our record.”

Frank and Kitty Koger at the last show at the Ryman with Johnny Cash, March 18, 1974.
Frank and Kitty Koger at the last show at the Ryman with Johnny Cash, March 18, 1974. Frank is in the center with mustache but no glasses. His wife, Kitty Koger, is the brunette second from right with the big hair. I’m assuming they sang back-up on the final hymn.

Move to Nashville

Around 1971, Koger decided to move to Tennessee. Danville guitarist Butch James knew Koger and his wife and helped the couple pack when they made their move to Music City. James was 17 at the time and recalls that Koger had connections with the music industry and wanted to be closer to Nashville. He remembers that Frank’s wife was also a talented seamstress and made dresses for Dolly Parton.

Raven - Frances Ingram's 2nd LP
Frances Ingram’s second Raven LP, Singing His Praises

Francis Ingram was a gospel artist who recorded for Raven. She remembers posing for pictures with Dolly as Jean Koger, who was nicknamed Kitten or Kitty, pinned a dress for the singer. She says Parton was talking about ending her long-standing partnership with Porter Wagoner, a move she would ultimately make in February 1974. She wanted Ingram to accompany her on the road, but Ingram said she declined because she had three small children at home. 

Ingram, who’s now 84, was a lifelong friend who attended school with Koger. She recorded two gospel albums (My God Is Real, Raven Hos-33-2022; Singing His Praises Vol. 2, Raven LPM – 2041) for Raven Records. Ingram borrowed $800 from Schoolfield Bank to record and press 600 copies of her second album in 1968. She returned to Nashville with Koger and his wife around 1970 to record a 45: “Nobody Knows (Where No One’s At)” b/w “Love and Memories”, for Plowboy Records PAL-0001. Interestingly, Koger does not receive producer credit on the labels.

Russ Lindley Colony 13 45 Lonely RealtyKoger set-up shop in Tennessee and began producing country artists like Russ Lindley, Wayne Snow and Prince Guitar for Colony 13 Records, now listing himself as “Frank James” on all label credits.

Prince Guitar Colony 13 45 All You Want When You PleaseIngram accompanied the Kogers several times to Nashville and remembers the walls of his studio being lined with albums. She remained in contact with the couple and heard from Koger just before he died of cancer in 1980, at the age of 48. According to Ingram, he became a minister in his later years and was buried in the Old Primitive Baptist Church cemetery in Sanville, VA, not far from his birthplace. His widow told Ingram in 2010 that Koger kept the masters from her albums, but got rid of all of the other tapes made during his days in Danville.

Peggy Wiggins (Harville) worked with Koger at Kmart, assisting him with newspaper ads the store ran in the Danville Register and Bee. She said he kept his day job as manager of Kmart’s appliance department until the couple left for Tennessee. “Frank and his wife Kitty would go to Nashville and stay with Wagoner and Parton,” she says, and “Frank had Porter and Dolly autograph their picture in a Grand Old Opry magazine,” which he gave to Wiggins. She also remembers that Kitty designed and made many of Dolly’s stage outfits.

Truxton Fulton played keyboards in the Stones Unturned and recorded with the band at House of Sound. He recalls that Koger was a huge country music fan, years before it became mainstream. He remembers Koger as “someone who could take a little and stretch it a long way.” Frank’s job at Kmart “gave him access to recording equipment at a discount but it was just home stereo stuff, nothing professional or even top of the line Sony,” says Fulton. Given those budget constraints, Fulton believes the studio was still able to produce an “amazing” sound, pointing to the Soulmasters’ single as Koger’s crowning achievement.

Pete Walker was probably Frank Koger’s best friend when he lived in Danville, and describes him as likable and friendly, adding: “He would give you the shirt off his back.” Walker credits Frank with getting him started in the business. The two met one night at Kmart and struck up a conversation about music. Walker told Koger he was “just playing a little flattop” on the side. But Koger needed a bass player, so “he started me playing bass and we formed a little group.” Bass players were hard to find and “when I told him I didn’t have a bass, he gave me one from Kmart and that’s what started me in music.” He went on to play on many Raven sessions (backing Susan Lea, Jack Transou, Homer “T” and Paul Parker) and recalls driving with Frank to Copeland Studios in Greensboro to back a black female vocalist on a recording of “Harper Valley PTA” (Millicent Williams, Harper Valley PTA/Ode to Billy Joe, Piedmont 45-2050). Koger also played flattop guitar and even recorded a 45 at one point, although Walker can’t recall the title or label.

“All of the local musicians knew Frank,” recalls Walker, “and the T-Birds did their practicing at the studio before playing their first job at T-Bird Country,” a popular honky tonk on the outskirts of Danville owned by popular W.D.V.A. disc jockey Homer “T” Thomasson, who also recorded a recitation 45 for Raven, Thru A Soldier’s Eyes/It’s Santa Claus (HOS-45-2008).

Walker helped the Kogers make the move around 1970-71, renting a truck and hauling their furniture from Danville to Nashville. Frank continued moonlighting in the studio in Nashville, while working a day job selling television sets. While he no longer played on any of the sessions, Walker remained close friends with Frank until his death, and the couple would visit him whenever they returned to Southside Virginia.

Jean Koger was also a songwriter and Frank bragged that she could compose a song about anything. Walker was visiting the couple one night and was sitting in the recreation room when Frank remarked that “Kit could write a song in 10 minutes.” He pulled a nickel and two pennies from his pocket, the two walked upstairs and Koger handed his wife the change and asked her to “put a song together.” It wasn’t long before she did just that, much to Walker’s amazement. Walker says the couple became good friends with Dolly and Porter, and Jean designed custom gowns for Parton and other Nashville singers. While Frank had a knack for finding and recording undiscovered talent, it was his wife who had a fixation with fame.

Frank Kroger's grave
Frank Kroger’s grave in Henry County, VA

In the late seventies, Koger had a serious wreck that left him in severe pain. Walker said while x-raying his back, doctors discovered he had spinal cancer. They began treatment and the cancer was in remission. But Walker says “it came back and he died not long after that” on February 24, 1980. Walker attended his funeral in Henry County but soon lost touch with Frank’s widow, who remained in Franklin, Tennessee. 

Walker believes Koger would be pleased that his music lived on after his death, but says he never achieved his biggest ambition, which was “to own a town where everybody was equal.”

More information can be found at these articles by Jack Garrett:

Gene and the Team Beats: Have Soul, Will Travel
In Search of the Lost Soul
The IV Pak or the VI Pak, Whatzit Gonna Be?
The Stones Unturned: Institutionalized Delinquency

For more on the Individuals see Chris Bishop’s post on this site.

Discography of Raven / House of Sound and related labels

It’s nearly impossible to compile a complete discography of Raven-related releases, since as few as 50 copies of some of the 45s were pressed.

Since Raven Records of Danville, Virginia was connected to the House of Sound Studio, other House of Sound Productions are included in this discography, including occasional releases on the Hoss, Hippie, Piedmont and Colony labels. Singles have the 45- prefix, LPs the 33- prefix. This discography was compiled by Dennis Minter and Jack Garrett.

Any help with this discography would be appreciated

Raven HOS-45-2006 – Gene & The Teambeats – I Want’a Be Your Baby / Sorry ‘Bout That
Raven HOS-45-2007 – Earl Wilkes – Too Many Nancys / Keep This Song
Raven HOS-45-2008 – Homer “T” – Thru A Soldier’s Eyes / It’s Santa Claus
Hoss HOS-45-2009 – Kathy Bledsoe – My Baby’s Gone / Shattered Dreams
Raven HOS-45-2011 – Gene & The Teambeats – I’ll Let Nothing Separate Me / Here I Stand
Raven HoS-45-2013 – Hender Saul – You Really Put a Hurtin’ on Me / What I Need Most
Raven HOS-45-2014 – The Ambassador’s Quartet – I’m Free Again / Lord I Need You
Raven HOS-45-2015 – The Bowes Brothers – Ain’t Got Time To Think / Bottom of The Glass
Raven HOS-45-2016 – The Lost Soul – A Secret of Mine / Mind’s Expressway
Raven HOS-45-2018 – The Individuals – I Want Love / I Really Do
Hippie HOS-45-2019 – The IV Pack – Whatzit? / Bootleg
Raven HOS-45-2020 – The Soulmasters – I’ll Be Waiting Here / You Took Away The Sunshine
Raven HOS-33-2022 – Frances Ingram – My God Is Real
Raven HOS-45-2024 – Susan Lea – Home Loving Girl / I’m Going To The Back Room
Raven HOS-33-2027 – Dan River High School Band
Raven HOS-45-2028 – Katie Lee – It Takes Two / Mommie What Would Daddy Say
Raven HOS-45-2029 – The Wilsons – Rabbit In The Log / White House Blues
Raven HOS-45-2030 – Hughes Memorial School – We Sing
Raven HOS-45-2031 – Jack Transou – Wait Until The Weekend / When You’re Thru Hurting Me
Raven HOS-45-2032 – The Lost Soul – I’m A Gonna Hurt You / For You
Raven HOS-45-2033 – Paul Parker – Don’t You Sometimes Get Lonely / I Just Want You
Raven HOS-45-2034 – Susan Lea – If This Dam Ever Breaks / Teenager’s Dream
Raven HOS-33-2038 – Old Country Church Quartet – The Old Country Church
Raven HOS-33-2041 – Frances Ingram – Singing His Praises Vol. II
Raven HOS-45-2042 – Charlie Chandler – The Drunken Driver / I’m Fine
Raven HOS-45-2043 – Charlie Massey – I’m My Daddy’s Man / The Kingdom of God
Piedmont HOS-45-2044 – Moon Mullins & Night Raiders – Baby I Got You / Ain’t Gonna Cry
Raven HOS-33-2046 – The True Gospel Singers – The Man On The Middle Cross
Raven HOS-45-2047 – Cathy Bledsoe – Leave Well Enough Alone / Cold And Lonely Grave
Raven HOS-45-2048 – Ralph Viar – When The Money Runs Out / The Stains of Time
Raven HOS-45-2049 – Susan Lea – Hillbilly Willie / Lonely Too Long
Piedmont HOS-45-2050 – Millicent Williams – Harper Valley PTA / Ode To Billy Joe
Colony 13 – CSP-45-2554 – Bill (Mr. “G”) Glover – Weeping Willow/Liberty Dance
Piedmont CSP-45-2556 – The Mustangers – What Do I Have to Pay / That’s My Way
Colony 13 CSP-45-2572 – The Greater Experience – Don’t Forget To Remember / Carol’s Carol
Piedmont HOS-33-2585 – Old Country Church Quartet – Singing Time


Raven 7-701 The True Gospel Singers – The True Gospel Singers
Raven 7-702 The Savage Family – The Savage Family Sings

Included is the Greater Experience 45 on Colony 13. Most on this label were out of Nashville after Frank Koger moved, but this one (“Don’t Forget to Remember”) was distributed locally.

The Tropics: Hey You Little Girl

Tropics Van Ken Adkins, Jimmy Robinson, Leonard Collins, Arnold Robinson
Ken Adkins, Arnold Robinson (kneeling), Leonard Collins (sitting in front) and Jimmy Robinson

While not exactly a tropical paradise, the city of Eden was the birthplace of one of the best Soul bands of the sixties. This was before the towns of Leaksville, Draper and Spray merged to form Eden, which today has a population of less than 16,000. All three are nestled in Rockingham County, which gave rise to the Tropics through the merger of two bands: one from Reidsville and another from Leaksville.

Tropics December 1962 or 1963
from let: Ken Atkins, Malcolm Allen, Red White (at bottom center), Billy Hutchinson and Charles Hutchinson. “The Hutchinson brothers had no direct connection with the Tropics but were starting a band and we three were at their house to jam in 1962” – Ken Adkins
Tropics Malcolm Allen Douglas High School Leaksville 1962
Malcolm Allen’s graduation photo, Douglas High School, Leaksville 1962

Guitarist Ken Adkins was visiting a girlfriend in Leaksville one night in 1960 when he cut through a black neighborhood to hitch the five-mile ride to his home in Draper. As he was passing by a church, Adkins was taken aback by a “terrifically great boogie woogie piano… Ray Charles-type stuff.” He crept up to the window and was peering inside when he was startled by the preacher, who came up from behind and asked if he’d like meet the pianist, a gifted black musician by the name of Malcolm Allen. The two bonded immediately and it wasn’t long before Adkins brought drummer Red White and bassist Ronnie Hooker into the fold.

Tropics Malcolm Allen's house
Malcolm Allen’s house for early rehearsals

Allen recalls that their first practices were held in his home because the family had a piano in the living room. The then unnamed group quickly gained a following in the neighborhood and Allen says the front porch and yard of their home was often filled with people listening to their music. It wasn’t long before they began receiving requests to play in public.

A name was needed and Allen thought of The Tropics after seeing a commercial showing Jamaican musicians jamming on the beach. He explains that the group was billed initially as The Interracial Tropics “(so) people would know what they were getting and kind of eliminate some of the surprise factor.”

Double Door Tea Room, Leaksville, NC
The Double Door Tea Room, Leaksville, NC

The four jammed and honed their skills at each other’s homes before landing their first gig at a black club, the Double Door Tea Room. Allen had cards printed for the occasion, advertising “The Interracial Tropics.” The Double Door was a small club in Leaksville that served Soul food on the ground level, with a small, open area on the second floor for live performances.

Allen explains that the “black community (was) more receptive and open to integration at that time” and “our guys were mostly into Soul and then Motown and blues, so the music kind of catered more to our people.” The crowd at the Double Door was on their feet cheering the soloists on, “hollering and raising sand, saying “go ahead, go ahead and play that thing!” Bolstered by the response, Allen says the band was encouraged “to branch out and go other places.”

Tropics Leaksville circa 1962
Leaksville, NC, circa 1962, from left: Jane Kirby, Susan Powell, Red White, Ken Adkins

Dances followed at the segregated Stoneville High School. And while most of their friends were receptive to the mixed race band, Adkins recalls that “all (of our jobs) were for black audiences because white places would not book us.”

Red White says the country clubs in Virginia and North Carolina wouldn’t touch the band, but “we were accepted without equivocation (at the Double Door) and whites came to see us there. So it was really the beginning of the end of segregation as I knew it in my hometown.”

Tropics drummer Red White
Red White practicing at his home on his first kit.

The band stuck close to home through 1961, when Adkins went away to school in Chapel Hill. They continued to play on weekends, when their paths crossed with another group of musicians from Reidsville who had a band. Mike Peters played bass in the Reidsville group, first known as the Bermudas (later as Rick and the Spirits) and remembers playing their first job at the Casville Volunteer Fire Department in Caswell County for $6 per man.

The decision was made to merge the two groups after Adkins moved to Reidsville. White drummed with the band for about two years before graduating high school in 1962 and joining the Air Force. The group recruited the drummer from the Reidsville band, Leonard Collins, who was equally adept on the skins.

Peters explains that the Spirits lost their guitar player, Rick Sealey, who left to attend college at East Carolina. Someone suggested Adkins and he agreed to come and play. Don Watkins played organ in the Reidsville band but quit when Adkins came on board. Ken brought Allen in to play keyboards and Peters replaced Hooker on bass. Joe Frank Myers played sax. Sealey attended college briefly before returning to the band, this time on keyboards.

Sealey’s return was short-lived. He was drafted in 1966 and replaced by Larry Wren on the Hammond B-3. Myers left and was replaced by Leo Caudle on sax. Caudle was a gifted saxophonist who “could play a tenor and alto sax at the same time out of both sides of his mouth.”

Allen played with the band for several years but came to a crossroads when he married and the couple had a young daughter. His job required that he work nights and that made it impossible to continue road trips on weekends. But before leaving, he introduced the band to Jimmy and Arnold Robinson. “I met Jimmy because right after high school I was in Greensboro attending A&T State University,” says Allen, and “when they came into the group, they gave us a new dimension because they were some heck-of-a singers and they enabled us to do a lot of Motown stuff.” While not related, the pair shared the same surname, so the band billed them as the Robinson Brothers.

Coachman & Four Club, Bennettsville, SC
Coachman & Four Club, Bennettsville, SC
Engagements increased after the band hooked up with Bill Kennedy, who was the first manager of the Castaways in Greensboro. Kennedy auditioned the Tropics and told the band to buy some better equipment. They followed Kennedy’s advice and soon found themselves playing at his nightclub. The group hooked up with Ted Hall, a booking agent with Hit Attractions in Charlotte, and found themselves playing every weekend. Kennedy sold the Castaways to Beach Music legend Bill Griffin, and Kennedy went to work for Jokers Three as a booking agent. Jokers Three also ran a popular nightclub by the same name, and it wasn’t long before the Tropics switched their allegiance, with the agency booking most of their jobs until the band split in 1969.

Kennedy booked the band throughout the East Coast. In addition to the Castaways clubs in Greensboro, Raleigh and Nags Head, the Tropics frequented the Embers Club at Nags Head; the Cellar in Charlotte; Coachman & 4 in Bennettsville; the Beach Club in Myrtle Beach; and the Pink Pussy Cat in Atlanta. They also played cotillion clubs, debutante balls and “just about every college in North Carolina.” The band performed “anywhere from Northern Virginia down to Atlanta, out west to Nashville.”

Tropics J's Bacardi, Durham 1965 Joe Frank Meyers, Leonard Collins Dee Clark
The Tropics at J’s Bacardi, Durham NC, March 12 or 13, 1965, from left: Joe Frank Meyers, Leonard Collins and Dee Clark

Their musical prowess became well known and the Tropics were soon in demand to back rhythm and blues recording artists. One of the first of those gigs was in support of Dee Clark, with the band later backing the Impressions, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Major Lance, the Tams, Showmen and the Drifters.

Adkins says the band backed Dee Clark in late 1964 or early ’65 for two nights at J’s Bacardi in Durham. The Tropics already had two Clark songs in their repertoire, “Raindrops” and “Nobody But You,” and set about learning his other material, “so when he came to the show, we had his stuff down cold.” While they lacked the strings heard on Clark’s hits, Sealey was able to duplicate the arrangements note-for-note, recreating the background orchestration on the keyboards. Clark was impressed and would use the band again down the road.

The Tropics with Dee Clark at J's Bacardi, March 1965
The Tropics at J’s Bacardi, Durham, NC, March 12 or 13, 1965

Tropics J's Bacardi, Durham 1965 Ken Adkins, Joe Frank Meyers, Dee Clark, Mike Peters
The Tropics at J’s Bacardi, Durham NC, March 12 or 13, 1965 Ken Adkins, Joe Frank Meyers, Dee Clark, Mike Peters
The Tropics at J's Bacardi, March 1965 Dee Clark and Mike Peters
The Tropics at J’s Bacardi, Durham, March 12 or 13, 1965, from left: Dee Clark and Mike Peters

Rufus Thomas was a favorite of the Tropics and members would arrive hours before their shows and be entertained with non-stop jokes from the former Memphis DJ.

The Tropics shared the bill with the Temptations on the BDG Quad at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, playing to 12,000 on a Saturday afternoon. An outdoor concert in Chapel Hill in support of Sam and Dave drew an even larger crowd.

But touring the segregated South with two black vocalists was a challenge. One night after a job the band stopped to eat at a restaurant in Eastern North Carolina. The Robinsons walked in with Adkins and Peters while the rest of the band slept on the bus. The waitress took their orders and emerged from the kitchen carrying just two plates, “gave them to Jimmy and Arnold and then looked at me and Mike Peters and said: ‘The law says we have to serve them, but it doesn’t say we have to serve you.” The four left the food on the table and walked out.

Another incident happened at the Jokers Three in Nags Head, where the band was playing a two-week summer engagement. The night before they were scheduled to leave, the club owner learned that the Klan had threatened a protest. He paid them in full and the band left the Outer Banks a day early.

The Tropics promo photo
Jokers Three Booking Agency Promotional Photo circa 1965
From left, top row: Rick Sealey, Leonard Collins, Mike Peters, bottom row: Jimmy Robinson, Ken Adkins, Arnold Robinson

An engagement at a large venue in Farmville, Virginia almost didn’t happen. Malcolm Allen says the band had reached their destination and the guys were unloading their equipment when the club manager spotted him and grabbed Adkins, asking if Allen were the band’s chauffeur. When the manager was informed that Allen was their organist, he responded, “not tonight.” Adkins didn’t hesitate, telling him that “if he don’t play, we don’t play.” Allen says the band was preparing to pack up their gear for the long trip home when the crowd started getting rowdy. Adkins turned to the owner and said: “Look, if you don’t get a band in here soon, they’re gonna trash your place.” The manager relented and allowed the band to take the stage, but glared at Allen and said: “I’m gonna keep an eye on you.” The Tropics brought the house down, especially when Allen tore up the keyboards on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” When they finished their set, Allen approached the club manager and asked him how he was doing. He told him to keep playing and “when we got through, he gave me a tip, so I felt like that we broke a racial barrier… because it was just a segregated time.”

But the most disturbing incident happened at UNC in Chapel Hill. The band was playing a fraternity party on April 4, 1968, the night that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Adkins recalls that the band was performing their first set when one of the fraternity brothers came up and asked to use a microphone. Adkins recalls that he told “his room full of partiers, frat boys and their dates that Martin Luther King had been shot.” The fraternity “erupted in cheering and applause, and it literally made me sick. It made Jimmy and Arnold sick and it made our whole band sick and it made me very sad for the students of the University of North Carolina.” The band stopped playing immediately, packed up their equipment and headed home.

Traveling with two black vocalists was not without its perks. Peters’ fondest memory is of the band’s two-week engagement in Myrtle Beach. The group decided to spend one week at the then black beach, Atlantic, and another at the white beach, Windy Hill. The first half of their stay found the Tropics sharing quarters with Norman Johnson and the Showmen, a scene Peters describes as a non-stop party. “You could get anything you wanted any time of the night,” he recalls, “and everybody stayed pretty much passed out the next day.” The week was “an adventure,” but the pace at Windy Hill was considerably quieter.

Tropics at Appalachian State University 1967
Appalachian State University Homecoming Dance, circa 1967, from left: Ken Adkins, Mike Peters, Leonard Collins

Shortly after backing Dee Clark in Durham, the Tropics traveled to Greensboro on March 15, 1965 to record a 45 at Copeland Studios. Adkins says it was an obvious choice since it was “there at our back door” and they knew owner Walt Copeland.

The group had rehearsed an Adkins’ original (“Hey You Little Girl”) in Peters’ basement and performed it live before the sessions, but were unprepared to record a flip side for the single. Their idea to simply repeat the backing track as an instrumental was quickly nixed by the engineer and Adkins proceeded to write “The Happy Hour” in 15 minutes. Peters recalls that the song was composed one night right after a rehearsal, adding: “(We) just did it to an old Curtis Mayfield run and put ‘The Happy Hour’ together.”

Original Tropics promo photo
Promotional photo, standing: Rick Sealey; middle row: Jimmy Robinson, Leonard Collins, Arnold Robinson; bottom row: Mike Peters, Ken Adkins
Before the group began work on the two tracks, they were asked to run through a set so the engineer could set levels. “We did 13 other songs that aren’t nearly as polished,” recalls Peters. All were recorded onto a reel, which Adkins kept, along with the master tapes for both sides of their single. All were cover versions of popular recordings, including the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart,” and “Before Six,” an instrumental co-written by Curtis Mayfield and recorded by Larry Frazier that served as the Tropics’ theme song. The songs lack bottom and were performed at breakneck speed, but Adkins points out that they are the only surviving “live” recordings of the band.

A two-track recorder was used for “Hey You Little Girl.” While the studio would soon become a state-of-the-art facility, in ‘65 Copeland “was much more modest with just a two-track system.” That meant the band members “all had to play at the same time live and get it right.”

The unique finger snapping at the start of the song was Adkins’ idea. He explains that it was a way to get the band to start on cue without a counted introduction. Two guitar chords get the song into gear, followed by an unforgettable vocal interplay between Arnold and Jimmy. The song builds to a crescendo that Collins kicks to a close in just two-and-half minutes.

Sealey played piano; Collins was on drums; Peters and Adkins played bass and guitar, respectively; Arnold Robinson played the saxophone; and the Robinson Brothers shared lead vocal harmonies. The band provided background vocals. Peters was featured prominently, aided by a girl remembered only as Sandra. Jimmy sang the lead tenor part, while the baritone voice is Arnold’s. Jimmy also sings the lead on “The Happy Hour.”

While the label credits four band members, Adkins says he wrote and arranged the tune and insists “it was pretty much my song all the way.”

Adkins explains that he “wanted to write something that was musically different” than other songs on the radio, so he incorporated “a couple of things to make that happen.” The most effective is in the vocal walk-up where they sing: “I’ll never love you and leave you alone.” Adkins says the “alone” passage “goes back to the dominant chord, which is ‘F.’ None of the songs that I’d heard to that point, actually went back to their final climax and got back to the final dominant chord. So doing that gave a lot of strength to the harmonies.”

The Robinsons’ vocal harmony was perhaps the band’s greatest strength. Both were exceptional singers and shared lead vocal chores on stage. While Arnold went on to perform professionally in the Nylons, Adkins says Jimmy was also an outstanding singer and the combination of their voices gave the Tropics “a Righteous Brothers vibe.” The two had “distinctly different voices” that blended perfectly. And while Jimmy left music after the Tropics, Adkins insists that he was also “an incredible singer,” who “was even more charismatic on stage than Arnold and did the majority of the lead vocal work.”

Tropics Jokers Three Club Nags Head 1968
On stage at Jokers Three Club, Nags Head, NC summer 1968
Tropics Jokers Three Beach Club Nags Head 1968
from left: Arnold Robinson, Ken Adkins (at bottom), Mike Peters, Leonard Collins (at bottom), Jimmy Robinson

Tropics Jokers Three Beach Club Nags Head 1968
Arnold Robinson (left) at the Jokers Three Beach Club, Nags Head, 1968
Tropics Jokers Three Club Nags Head 1968
from left: Ken Adkins, Mike Peters, Jimmy Robinson, Arnold Robinson and Leonard Collins

The Robinson Brothers gave the Tropics a smooth, professional “show band” performance with custom-made uniforms, elaborate choreography and humorous back-and-forth banter with the audience. The show would start with the band playing, followed by a big introduction to bring Jimmy and Arnold onto the stage. Theirs was the first group in the region to feature the star stage show that would become the norm a few years later.

Adkins says the Greensboro sessions lasted about two hours. The band had rehearsed the songs before entering the studio and committed both sides to tape in no more than three or four takes. The band performed flawlessly, except for one bad note hit by Sealey, which can be heard on the record. Copeland charged an hourly rate of $45 in 1965 and the total tab for the studio time came to $95, including the master tapes.

While at Copeland, the band recorded a jingle for Holsum bread, with Jimmy, Arnold, Ken and Mike adding vocals and background claps to the television commercial.

Tropics Topic 45 Hey You Little GirlThe 45 was a one-off pressing on Topic Records, which Adkins describes as his label. The name was chosen because of its similarity to the group’s, and because “it rhymed with Tropics.” Peters believes the 45 had a total run of 2,500 copies; however, Adkins recalls several pressings, noting the band “would order 1,000 at a time and sell them at our shows,” paying for the records as they were produced. Betty Sue Trent owned Trent’s Records in Reidsville and paid for the initial pressing, in exchange for copies of the disc. Besides Trent’s, the record was placed at mom-and-pop stores throughout the Piedmont, while the band also “did a fair amount of promoting,” taking them to dee jays and program directors in the Carolinas. That resulted in “a fair amount of play,” and Adkins recalls the song being in heavy rotation in Burlington, Greensboro, Reidsville and Charlotte. Stations across Eastern North Carolina also picked up the tune and Adkins remembers selling the final 1,000 copies a year after the song was recorded.

While the song became a regional hit, the band never capitalized on its success. Peters believes they missed an opportunity by not recording a follow-up, but concedes they were so busy on the road that no one took the time to write a song or book the studio. Adkins admits the oversight was “incredibly stupid,” pointing out that he composed “a lot of songs thereafter (and) some of them were better” than the two chosen for their lone single. While there was talk of returning to Copeland, it never happened.

In addition to playing with the Tropics, Adkins soon found himself in the band booking business. Bill Griffin, owner of Castaways, also managed groups through Game Artists, and soon was recording his own bands. Griffin lived in Atlanta, leaving Adkins to manage the day-to-day operations in Greensboro. In 1968, an unknown group called the O’Kaysions made a crude recording in “a broom closet studio in Greenville, N.C.” WBAG in Burlington was playing the original 45 of “Girl Watcher” on North State Records and Adkins knew it was “a natural hit” the first time he heard it on the radio. Griffin had the idea to sign the band and enlisted Adkins and A&M Records promoter Manly May, who shopped the song to labels in New York. ABC Paramount picked it up and the record went on to reach #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Griffin had a management contract with the group and arranged a six-week tour, including an appearance on American Bandstand. But the band balked at life on the road, with one member telling Adkins he couldn’t leave his job at the hardware store, and another bowing out because his wife wouldn’t let him tour the country with a Soul band.

O'Kaysions Photo
The O’Kaysions

In the meantime, ABC had signed lead vocalist Donny Weaver to an individual contract, leaving Game Artists with a hit song and only a bass player to promote it. Undeterred, Adkins returned to Greensboro several months later and hand-picked some of the area’s finest musicians to tour as the O’Kaysions, including vocalist Donny Trexler, an ace guitarist who also sang with Bob Collins and the Fabulous 5. Trexler joined the band on guitar in December 1968 and became lead vocalist when Weaver left the following August. Dick Clark was none the wiser when he mimed the lead vocals to their hit record on Bandstand. In the interim, ABC had dropped the band and they signed with Atlantic, releasing one 45 (“Watch Out Girl”) on Cotillion Records. When it failed to chart, plans to release the O’Kaysions second album were shelved.

Tropics Ken Adkins Game Artists 1969
guitarist Ken Adkins taken at Game Artists in 1969, the year the Tropics split

The Tropics were still a hot commodity and Adkins spent weekends on the road with the band, arranging bookings and making certain the group was on the bus and ready for the next gig. A near disaster happened when he was working with Griffin at Jokers Three. A promoter in Rockingham, N.C. had booked the Coasters to perform in the National Guard Armory, with the Tropics as their back-up band. Posters were printed and tickets sold, when the headliners called four days before the show and cancelled. Lee Dorsey and Major Lance were contacted but both had prior engagements. With time running out and hundreds of tickets sold, Adkins contacted a friend in Greensboro, Big Barbara. True to her name, Barbara was “a big girl with a big personality” and a great voice. After some coaxing, Adkins convinced her that the show could go on, if she agreed to take the stage as Barbara Lewis. Adkins explains that the ruse was plausible, since Lewis had never performed in the area and albums rarely featured the photos of black artists, “so nobody knew what she looked like.”

Big Barbara learned Lewis’ hits and was ready to perform when she had an attack of stage fright. The band plied her with a fifth of whiskey, “she gets drunk as hell; she gains tremendous courage; she goes out on that stage, struts her stuff and does a fabulous job and does Barbara Lewis to a T.” The audience loved it and were unaware that they had seen an impersonator.

But managing and performing soon became too much for Adkins, who decided to leave the road and concentrate on booking the Tropics and other bands. Adkins told the group he would continue to manage them, but would no longer travel with the band. But that was short-lived. Once Adkins left “there was nobody there to (prod) everybody to get up out of the hotel room and get in the bus” for their next performance. The band became frustrated with the set-up, so once Adkins quit, “within a month they all did, too.”

But Peters is more stoic about the break-up, pointing out that the band had been together for nearly a decade and members were growing weary of life on the road. “We were playing every night and a couple of us were married and a couple of us were thinking about getting married,” recalls Peters. He believes the “time had come when we were not committed 100% to the group” and it was time to move on. Jimmy and Arnold tried to convince Peters to join them as the entertainment for a cruise, but he declined.
Drummer Leonard Collins went on to play with the O’Kaysions and the Impressions.

The Nylons with Arnold Robinson
The Nylons with Arnold Robinson

Arnold Robinson joined Sonny Turner’s Platters and later moved to Canada, where he was a founding member of the Nylons in 1979. The band achieved its greatest success in 1987, when their version of “Kiss Him Goodbye” reached #12 on the Billboard chart. Arnold recorded and toured with the internationally acclaimed a cappella group until his retirement in 2006. He died of complications from diabetes in 2013.

Leo Caudle went on to play with former members of the Swinging Medallions in Pieces of Eight, a band that had a minor hit in 1967 with “Lonely Drifter” on A&M Records. He also played tenor sax in Greenboro’s Kallabash Corporation. Larry Wren took his own life in the early seventies. Rick Sealey lives in High Point, but Parkinson’s disease has left him unable to play the guitar. Joe Frank Myers left for college after a few gigs and his whereabouts are unknown.

Malcolm Allen still lives in Leaksville and plays in his church. He headed the local NAACP chapter for more than a decade.

Tropics Clayton Red White at Jokers Three Club 1966
drummer Clayton Red White taken at the Jokers Three Club, Nags Head, on New Year’s Eve, 1966
Calvin Lindsey and the Hysterics including Red White
Calvin Lindsey and the Hysterics including Red White at bottom right

After leaving the Air Force, Red White returned to Rockingham County and drummed with the Tropics and the Impacts before joining another Jokers 3 band, Calvin Lindsay and the Hysterics. He moved to Beaufort, N.C. and now plays with the Outer Banks Philharmonic.

Mike Peters also lives at the beach but still plays his bass and joins Adkins for blues jams in Greensboro. Ken Adkins started his own business, Adkins and Associates, and has trained some of the top fashion headhunters in the country.

Jimmy Robinson left town and no one has heard from him since the band parted ways in 1969.

A revival of interest in the Tropics started in the early 80s, when Adkins began getting calls from Northern Soul fans in the UK who were looking for copies of the band’s record. Interest in the original 45 led to a reissue in 1987 by The Wax Museum, a Charlotte-based collector’s label.

Adkins admits the band’s cult status caught him by surprise and says he “had no inkling” the record would garner attention six months after its release, much less 50 years after the fact. “When you’re going through a certain period of your life,” he says, “you never in a million years would guess that anybody would give a hoot about something you did when you were young.”

White shares Adkins surprise, but believes the Tropics have benefited from the trends that followed. With “disco and various fads,” he says “people began to get nostalgic for the old music.”

But he believes the band has a far greater legacy than a chunk of vinyl. White is proud to have been a part of the first integrated band to perform in rural North Carolina. He believes that helped break down the color barrier by “setting a precedent” for generations that followed. “I was part of the original group that set that precedent for accepting a black musician and (going) on the road with a black musician,” White says.

While it’s been more than 50 years since the band first practiced in his father’s living room, Allen says he is still amazed at what they were able to accomplish. “We were just a small group of guys from the country, (but) were able to break down a lot of barriers because we all had a common goal and we all cared about each other, and we loved music.”

And while the Tropics may have gone their separate ways, there was no turning back and the landscape of Rockingham County was forever changed.

The American Band: Beware of Falling Dreams

The American Band 1969
The Commercial Appeal, Danville news clip photo, 1969, from left: Larry Abbott, Truxton Fulton and Walter Dalton
Photo by Mike Mitchell

The American Band was an original music group formed in 1968. It had a short and sweet life with only one memorable gig and one demo album. This was the first original material by Truxton Fulton, the composer/musician who currently works under the pseudonym Karl Mahlmann. The focus of this article is the composer’s juvenilia, the band and the music they created while in high school almost 50 years ago.

In 1969, three teenagers who attended school together in Danville, Virginia came together to create an unusual album of original material that isn’t easy to categorize. It isn’t hard rock and is not quite psychedelic, but it was certainly different from anything playing on the radio that summer.

But The American Band’s story begins earlier, with two friends teaming up in 1968 to perform and produce original music. The band was an informal regrouping of friends who had played together on and off in different bands. The group started as a duo with Fulton on keyboards and vocals and Larry Abbott on drums. After a while they coalesced into a band with the addition of Walter Dalton on guitar. Before it was over, the American Band had become a quartet with the addition of vocalist Jeff Fiske.

The American Band GWHS Larry Abbott, Truxton Fulton and Walter Dalton
1969 George Washington High School yearbook photos, from left: Larry Abbott, Truxton Fulton and Walter Dalton

The George Washington High School variety show was a yearly tradition and helped launch several groups, including the as yet unnamed American Band, which first performed at the 1968-69 assembly. Fulton and Abbott played three original songs: “The Milkman’s Wife,” “Beware of Falling Dreams” and “Look for Your Utopia in Your Backyard.” The first two would be recorded the following summer in Greensboro, after the band added a guitarist and decided upon a name.

Bassist Alan Rowe says the show was in March of 1969. He remembers the date distinctly because his band had been scheduled to perform but had to withdraw at the last minute after several members were involved in a serious car accident. Rowe recalls that the event was held in the school’s gymnasium and was a “true variety show,” including comedy routines, skits and an assortment of musical styles including a jazz set with saxophonist Allen Rippe; a soul band fronted by Rickie Fox; Pete Viccellio on piano; a drum solo performed by Lynn Finch; and a power rock trio that included guitarist Mark Aldridge, Rick Crane on bass, and future American Band guitarist Walter Dalton on drums.

But Rowe says he was most impressed by Fulton and Abbott. Not only did they play original material, but Rowe says the music and performance were exceptional and “really good.” Rowe recalls that “their music was so different from anything else that was being done. They were very accomplished and had a built-in uniqueness… just two people and they were doing their own thing and doing it well.”

The band, as a duo, also played a talent show sponsored by the Danville Rotary Club. Fulton recalls that “We had a fun time backstage while everyone was prepping. Larry and I pretended we were doing a dance routine and we just couldn’t get our steps right. We didn’t win. I think we went over the time limit. On the other hand, we may have just weirded everyone out; we were very counterculture.”

Truxton Fulton of The American Band
Truxton Fulton of The American Band at the Hammond

Fulton was already a veteran of the local band scene in Southside Virginia, having played in several groups, including the Stones Unturned, Radio Super Ice Cream Parlor and the Satisfactions Band and Show, a Farmville-based horn group that performed extensively and recorded two 45s for the Stag label in Greensboro, N.C. By his senior year in High School, Fulton was ready to concentrate on his own material. He explains that “from the beginning it was a little different in that it was a band for original music. We were never a cover band.” While the group performed “a couple of cover songs” live, Fulton says their purpose was to record his songs.

After graduating in 1969, Fulton took a summer job at wallboard maker U.S. Gypsum, saving $500 to finance a session in Greensboro. The group — now a trio with the addition of guitarist Walter Dalton — began rehearsing original material that would be recorded during a marathon session in mid-July.

Walter Dalton photo
Walter Dalton and his Rickenbacker guitar, ca. 1969.

Two years earlier, Dalton had worked with Fulton and Abbott in Radio Super Ice Cream Parlor, a cover band that featured a light show and included guitarist Bob Tamson and bassist Rick Crane. The short-lived group performed in the GW High School cafeteria, either for graduation or a homecoming dance. And while the band specialized in lesser known numbers like “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” Tamson and Dalton both concede that this may not have been a wise choice for the football crowd.

Dalton remained a fan of Fulton’s “amazing” talent on the organ, and says “he could really whip it out on a (Hammond) B3.” So, “when Trucky asked me if I’d be interested in working with him (on) this original material he wanted to record… I was more than willing to do it.” The band rehearsed over the summer “to the point where it went pretty smoothly” by the time the three traveled to Greensboro.

The American Band Crescent-City Sound Studios Demo
Crescent-City Sound Studios demo, recorded in Greensboro, N.C. on 7/15/69
Fulton, Abbott and Dalton made the trek to Crescent City Sound Studios on July 15, 1969. Crescent City was founded by Walt Copeland, who managed the studio and doubled as chief engineer. Fulton says it seemed like a logical choice. He was familiar with the studio, having recorded there earlier with the Satisfactions.

The sessions were done in a single afternoon. The original master tapes are lost, but Dalton kept his copy of the mono acetate, which includes eight original songs written and sung by Fulton. The album is an eclectic mix of styles, incorporating rock, jazz, soul and classical music, with heavy fuzz guitar and Fulton’s Hammond organ.

The threesome provided the instrumental backing, save for a session violinist who contributed to one track. While the band provided sheet music, Fulton remembers that the violinist “never did get his part right.” At one point, Dalton stood in front of him, waving his arm on each beat. In retrospect, Fulton wishes he had erased the part because the violinist was playing out of tune.

Most of the songs were performed live-to-tape in a single take, with very little overdubbing. Fulton did overdub piano parts and his vocals. In addition to organ, he also played a Fender Rhodes bass piano, ala the Doors. The band had rehearsed the arrangements and Dalton remembers that “there were some songs that Trucky planned to do some overdubs for vocals as well as maybe other parts; I think there was one that he played a recorder on.”

Dalton was excited because it was his “first and only real experience in a full fledged recording studio.” He recalls that the sessions were “pretty much straight in” and that he was only required to do overdubs on a couple of songs “and then it reached the point where we were done, meaning me and Larry, and we just left. I remember we left Trucky down there with the recording engineer.”

Walter Dalton of The American Band
Walter Dalton of The American Band

His only hesitation came when Fulton brought a Vox wah-wah pedal to the studio and asked that Dalton use it on some of the songs, most notably on the coda of “Beware of Falling Dreams.” While the band may have rehearsed with it once or twice, Dalton admits it was “kind of a new toy, so I had to fool around with it a little bit, but it went pretty well.”

There were no studio jitters. The band was well rehearsed and Dalton says he was comfortable with the arrangements. He knew what he “needed to do (and) just tried to go in and concentrate and do it.” And with the studio charging “a fairly hefty rate per hour,” there was an incentive to do it right the first time.

While the album holds up well, Fulton insists the sessions were “ill-conceived, in the sense that we tried to do too much in too short a time.” While the recordings are raw and include mistakes, he remembers the sessions as fun and “a good learning experience.” The three entered the studio with a plan to use the recordings to promote the band, “either to record companies or to get some good gigs, which we did with the Steel Mill job up in Richmond.”

The trip to Greensboro was highlighted in a story — “Band to Make Album” — that appeared in the Commercial Appeal, a weekly Danville newspaper known for its liberal stance on politics.

Describing their music at the time, Fulton said their style was unique, adding: “It’s partly classical rock, but mostly rock. Kids won’t be able to dance to some of it. But I don’t think that means it isn’t good. I mean you couldn’t dance to Beethoven, and he was good.”

For the newspaper photo shoot, the band posed in Truxton’s bedroom in front of a borrowed American flag. Fulton asked the photographer whether he thought his beard would show up in the picture. Not missing a beat, the photog replied: “Oh, in about two years.” Fulton also remembers that his father was none too pleased when the band picture appeared and his son had a cigarette dangling from his lips.

A few seconds of video of the band was also filmed around this time by Gary Gaddy, a friend from high school. The silent film is in color and was shot on a Super 8 camera. It provides a glimpse of the band rehearsing “Beware of Falling Dreams” in Fulton’s home. The camera pans from Fulton’s hands at the keyboards to a shot of a sweaty Abbott pounding the drums. There are a few frames of Dalton in sunglasses playing his Rickenbacker guitar before the film runs out.

The American Band only performed once, but it was a memorable gig. Fulton was a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall of 1969 when he approached concert organizers about playing at the Free U, which Fulton describes as “a short-lived hippie thing,” offering classes with no tuition. The venue was later known as the String Factory. The American Band opened for Bruce Springsteen and his group Steel Mill, which had just changed its name from Child so as not to be confused with another group by the same name that recorded for Roulette Records.

Fulton secured the band a supporting spot on the bill, largely on the strength of the acetate. He played their demo for the manager of the Free U, Russ Clem, who listened to several songs without saying a word. After taking it all in, he looked up and remarked: “It’s so refreshing to hear some really good original music”. Clem agreed to add the American Band to the show. While Fulton had never heard of Steel Mill or Springsteen, the group played regularly in Richmond and Fulton says they “were regional stars and had a good following there.”

The Richmond psyche group Morning Disaster may have also performed that day, but Fulton says the American Band was a last-minute addition and did not make the concert poster. The bands performed in an upstairs room and the attendees sat on the floor.

Kondors Photo 1966
The Kondors, ca. 1966. L-R: Bobby Lewis, Burt Sparks, Darryl Hawkins, Jeff Fiske, Wayne Womble.

Jeff Fiske, whose family lived behind the Fultons on Confederate Avenue, had joined the American Band by this point and handled some of the lead vocals. Fiske was older than the other band members and fronted several local groups, including the Kondors, Manchesters and City Council when lead singer Charles Hairston was unavailable.

Fiske was drafted right out of high school and served in Vietnam in 1967-68, so he was anxious to get back into the band business. He said he was impressed by the musicianship of the American Band, noting the trio was “amazingly tight considering they hadn’t played together very long.”

His audition involved singing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” to Fulton’s accompaniment on organ. Fiske doesn’t recall how it came about and says he could have heard the band jamming or he may have been recommended by Mrs. Poindexter, another neighbor who was a big fan of the Kondors.

The band’s one-off performance at the Free U caught Dalton by surprise. He was still in high school and recalls finding out “with fairly short notice that Trucky had gotten us this gig in Richmond where he was going to school.”

Steel Mill American Band Poster
Nov. 20, 1969 poster promoting a Steel Mill concert in Richmond, VA. The American Band was a late addition and was not on the poster.

Dalton, Abbott and Fiske drove up to Richmond and were unloading their equipment for the sound check when Dalton was informed that he didn’t need to bring his amp, just his guitar. “So I show up with just my guitar wondering what kind of amp am I going to be playing through, but there was this nice guy who was telling me, ‘Here’s my amp, you can use it,’ and showing me a couple of tips on how we set up and everything. I only found out recently that the guy was Bruce Springsteen, which is really a big surprise for me because nobody ever gave me a clue that’s who we were playing with.”

The band opened the Richmond concert with “Beware of Falling Dreams.” Before the next number, Fulton turned to the audience and asked them to be kind because it was the group’s first performance. To his surprise, the comment was greeted with a round of applause. According to Fulton, their set was “very well received in spite of the fact that Steel Mill was much more of a mature act than we were.”

Jeff Fiske of the American Band
Jeff Fiske of the American Band

Fiske recalls that the place “was packed with all the audience sitting on the floor.” The crowd was “laid back, but appreciative of the band’s music.” The stage had a short walkway that extended into the audience and Fiske’s mike stand was placed on the extension. He said it “was very cool (to be) surrounded by those folks singing for them, and I thought the band sounded great that night.” While most of the attendees were waiting for the main attraction, he recalls that the American Band still “received a great response from most of them.”

Fiske was wearing his Vietnam boonie on stage that night, in the midst of demonstrations against the war. At some point he realized his apparent faux pas, but if anyone objected there were no complaints.

Fulton played Steel Mill’s Hammond B3 at the concert and was impressed with the keyboard player and Springsteen, who watched the American Band in the wings and cheered them on. Steel Mill already had quite a following in the Richmond area and Fulton remembers them performing “The War is Over” and “Sweet Melinda,” along with a cover of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

While Steel Mill played September 19 and 20, 1969 in The Center at Richmond’s Free University, Fulton says the American Band only performed one night. Photographs were made of the concert but have been lost to time.

Alice Cooper Matrix Titfield String Factory Richmond 1970
Poster for Alice Cooper, the Matrix and Titfield at the String Factory in Richmond on Sept. 27, 1970.

This was to be the American Band’s first — and last — performance. The group parted ways shortly thereafter. Fulton insists there was no animosity about the break-up and says the logistics of keeping a Danville-based group together were just too difficult with the leader a full-time student at VCU and the other members attending high school three hours away. Dalton concurs and says the distance separating the band made it impossible to continue, adding that “we just kind of understood that this probably was gonna be it.”

Larry Abbott of the American Band
Larry Abbott of the American Band
1969-70 was a year of musical growth for Fulton, who became well-integrated with the Richmond music scene.  His band Matrix opened for Jethro Tull that November, playing a set of Fulton’s compositions, including the 20-minute suite, “Miscarriage.” Reviewers described Matrix as “a strangely original group” whose music was as good “as any band heard on record or off.”  Some of Fulton’s cohorts from that year are still involved in projects with him today under the band name Play Innocent.

As for the other American Band members, Walter Dalton moved to the Norfolk area, where he lives today. Larry Abbott remained in Danville. Sadly, he died in 2010. Jeff Fiske continues to live and work in Danville.

Article by Jack Garrett

Gene and the Team Beats: Have Soul, Will Travel

Gene & the Team Beats 1965 Promotional Flyer
1965 flyer, L-R: Charles Hairston, Lonnie Woodall, Gene Rumley, Brian Thomason, Rickie Fox
Gene Rumley Promo Photo, 1965
Gene Rumley, 1965

It has been nearly a half-century since five musicians from Martinsville and Danville banded together to form a group that would record just six sides over their decade together, but the music they created continues to gain fans and now reaches a far greater audience than was possible when they honed their skills in rural Virginia in the 1960s.

Gene and the Team Beats started their career as the Corvettes, an instrumental group led by Gene Rumley of Martinsville, who also played sax and booked the band throughout Virginia and the Carolinas. Carl Clarke (also from Martinsville) was the group’s original rhythm guitarist and joined the band near its inception in 1959. He remembers that the band originally performed as the Teen Beats, borrowing their name from a popular instrumental recorded by drummer Sandy Nelson. But when several of the members turned 20, Gene and the Team Beats were born.

The Team Beats performed mostly in Virginia, North and South Carolina and the DC area between 1959 and 1968. The band started recording late in their career, with all three 45s released between 1965 and ’67.

Gene & the Teambeats Early Promo Photo
Gene & the Teambeats first promo short, circa 1961.
L-R: Butch Fox (bass); Dennis Porter (drums); Lewis Woodall Lead guitar); Carl Clark (rhythm guitar); Gene Rumley (sax)
Gene & the Team Beats, Martinsville Bulletin September 22, 1961
article in the Martinsville Bulletin September 22, 1961

The Team Beats were especially popular in the Danville area and early performances saw the group backing recording artists Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, Brenda Lee and Jimmy Clanton at the local Coke plant. Clark recalls that the crowds were huge and even the local musicians were treated like rock stars. Butch Fox doubled on guitar and bass, while Dennis Porter played drums in the 1961 Team Beats’ configuration. Both commuted from Danville.

An article appearing in the Martinsville Bulletin in September 1961 recounts the band’s return from a summer tour which took them across eight states. They began playing in Myrtle Beach, S.C. at the Ocean Forest Marine Patio and Pavilion. Other appearances included the Top Hat, the Tropicana, and the Star Terrace Room in Virginia Beach.

Besides Rumley, bassist Carl Barrow had the longest history with the band, starting with the original line-up and continuing through countless personnel changes. Barrow’s bass can be heard on all three recording sessions. He first met Rumley when the future bandleader was “16 or 17 and he was working a night job as a curb hop at Sugar’s Drive-In, a small diner located in Martinsville on River Hill.” He remembers Gene had a strong work ethic and didn’t seem to mind holding down a full-time job, booking the band and driving the Team Beats to and from jobs in Virginia and the Carolinas.

But there were equipment problems early in their career, with Barrow blowing speakers at performances. He went to work with Clark and the pair designed their own cabinet. They mounted two 15 inch JBL speakers in a huge cabinet powered by a Fender amp. Other bands heard about the innovation and were coming to hear this “loud and very deep bass amplifier.” The huge tower was years ahead of the Marshall stacks of the sixties and even had a practical application, providing the band a safe hiding place when fights and gunfire cleared the dance floor.

Clark and Barrow’s paths first crossed when they attended separate high schools in Martinsville. Barrow remembers being blown away at an assembly at Drewry Mason High School when Clark took the stage playing guitar. This was before the Team Beats, but “Carl got them reelin’ and rockin’ with a Chuck Berry song; he could really play.”

Gene & the Teenbeats at Fred's Skateland with the Fabulous Ones
Gene & the Teenbeats at Fred’s Skateland with the Fabulous Ones

In the summer of 1961, the Team Beats were playing a night club in Norfolk — the Star Terrace Lounge — and living in a motel near Virginia Beach. With all of clubs booked at the beach, the band had to make do with the steady job in Norfolk. Clark recalls that “after a month or two some shyster talked us into going to Chicago, explaining that he had worked up a job for us there and we would be famous.”

All five members crammed into Rumley’s vintage Oldsmobile, pulling a wooden trailer covered with a tarp to the Windy City. On arrival, they discovered that the club manager had never heard of the band and had no interest in booking an unknown group from Virginia. Clark explains that “you had to be 21 to walk into the place, much less work there. We had been had by a manager who wanted us to leave (Norfolk) so his group could move in.”

The group piled back into Gene’s Olds and were trying to find their way out of Chicago when they “found this nice quiet road with no traffic.” With no place to stay and a long drive home, the band found a secluded spot by the water and went to sleep. The next morning they were preparing to leave but couldn’t understand why so many people were walking in the “road” and looking at them like they were from another planet. The band stopped the car and got out, only to be greeted by sirens and police cruisers coming through the woods in their direction. Gene and his compatriots were soon surrounded by the law. With guns drawn, they ordered the band to spread eagle and were promptly searched. Unbeknownst to the Team Beats, they had been driving on the sidewalks of Lake Shore Park.

The group was ordered to remove everything from the band trailer and all of their instrument cases were searched. With no machine guns in tow, Chicago’s finest finally realized that they weren’t dealing with criminals but “five dumb, redneck hillbillies from Virginia trying to become rock and roll stars.” They repacked their equipment and were escorted from the city by one of the officers. When they arrived at the outskirts of town, the cruiser stopped and the cop told them to “head that Oldsmobile south and don’t look back.”

Gene & the Team Beats with Joey Dee & the Starlighters December 15, 1962
with Joey Dee & the Starlighters December 15, 1962

Clark married in 1963 and “found a shift job,” which didn’t jive with the night life and long hours required for road gigs on weekends. He left the band and music shortly thereafter but still plays, although he has switched to bass and Bluegrass music.

Lewis “Lew” Woodall of Bassett was the band’s original lead guitarist, and still performs with his own jazz quartet. He recalls the early years, when the band formed in 1959-60 as Gene and the Teen Beats. He says the band played about every weekend around Martinsville, Danville and Roanoke, frequently crossing the state border to play jobs for college fraternities. Woodall says in addition to the extended engagement at Norfolk’s Star Terrace, the Team Beats also played Virginia Beach’s Top Hat Club in the summer of 1961.

Woodall’s instrumental prowess was already legendary in Southside Virginia and Barrow says he had no rivals, calling him “the best guitarist anywhere around” and “way ahead of his time.” Barrow recalls that “Lew was getting sounds out of just his straight guitar without the fuzz box and pedals that came along years later.”

While the band was small in number, they were able to get a full sound because each member was an accomplished musician. They were primarily a soul and rhythm and blues band and Rumley points out that “Lewis (Woodall) and some of the guys hated playing rock and roll.”

Gene & the Team Beats at the Peppermint Beach Club 1962
Peppermint Beach Club, Virginia Beach, 1962, L-R: Carl Clark, Gene Rumley, Lewis Woodall

Gene and the Team Beats were the house band at the Peppermint Beach Club in Virginia Beach for the summer in 1962. The club was the sister of the renowned Peppermint Lounge in New York City and home of Joey Dee and the Starlighters of “Peppermint Twist” fame. The Team Beats played to a packed house during their two-month stint at the club. Between frat house engagements found by Rumley (aided by Bill Buckner) and the jobs secured by the group’s three booking agencies, there was seldom a weekend when the group wasn’t on the road.

One such weekend found the Team Beats in Greensboro in the dead of winter. Rumley drove the group’s blue Econovan, pulling a band trailer with the guys crammed inside the van. Barrow admits “it wasn’t highfalutin; we were lucky to get there at times.” The band finished their job about 1 a.m., loaded the trailer and Gene got behind the wheel. He was also working a day job for Gerber Foods at the time, so Rumley was tired. Barrow recalls that it was bitterly cold outside “and Gene was so sleepy that he would roll the window down and stick his head outside until he nearly froze. That would wake him up for a few minutes and when he was about to doze off, he’d do it again.” Barrow suggested that “maybe one of us should drive,” but Rumley would have none of it. They made it home safely but Barrow marvels that “we weren’t all hurt or worse.”

Gene & the Team Beats at the Peppermint Beach Club 1962
Peppermint Beach Club, Virginia Beach, 1962, L-R: Butch Fox, Gene Rumley

Wayne Motley was the band’s vocalist during this period. Rumley describes Motley as “an amazing showman and singer,” but with a troubled life that made him “hard to manage at times.” Motley, who also played guitar, keyboards and “just about anything but a horn,” was in and out of the band. Rumley explains that he “had to let him go a couple times (but) took Wayne back out of desperation.” He finally left the band for good after a minor scrape with the law.

Motley was fronting the group when the Team Beats won second place in a statewide battle of the bands competition in Richmond. Dressed in matching outfits and belting out a Jackie Wilson tune, the band took home $250 and new suits for each member.

Motley was already a veteran of the band scene by this time, starting at age 14 as a founding member of the Royal Kings, which played the club and college circuit in the Virginia Beach/Ocean View area. He would return to the Royal Teens after his ouster from the Team Beats. Barrow recalls seeing the band in Roanoke then and not recognizing Motley immediately because he was wearing a blonde wig.

Eddie "King" Scott and his wife, Katherine
Wayne “King” Motley and his wife, Katherine

In later years, Motley recorded and performed with his wife, Katherine, in the Newport News area as Wayne “King” Motley. His three-hour show was interspersed with vintage rock and roll, country classics and an Elvis tribute. He continued entertaining at assisted living and retirement communities until just before his death at age 67. Barrow, Buckner and Lew Woodall visited Motley at his home a month before he died on August 18, 2012. Barrow says he was in good spirits and glad to see all of them after so many years. Bill Buckner, who was instrumental in promoting the band, died months later on April 2, 2014. He was 76.

Gene & the Team Beats at the Peppermint Beach Club 1962
Peppermint Beach Club, Virginia Beach, 1962, L-R: Wayne Motley (singing and on guitar); Lewis Woodall; Gene Rumley; Carl Clark

Lew Woodall remembers that in 1963, the band played a couple of months at the Twist Lounge at Nags Head. Nights found the band sleeping in a hot dog stand on the beach, with all five members crammed into a small cinderblock room and sharing a single sheet. Rumley recalls that “one night the guys left the sheet for me, but they’d wrapped it around a dead shark.” While the stand had “gone broke and closed,” the awning was still up and band members would be awakened by beachcombers who wanted a snack in the middle of the night.

Woodall left the Team Beats at the end of that summer when he transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. After graduating in 1965, Woodall was drafted and his brother, Lonnie, began playing with Rumley while Lew was in Vietnam.

The younger Woodall and Barrow shared an affinity for the same music and he recalls “Lonnie and I used to do a little soulful singing to each other.” The two were like brothers and Lonnie was already a regular on the bandstand, tagging along when Lewis was playing with the group. Lonnie picked up the guitar and “after a while we could see he was going to be a great guitarist. He joined the band and Lonnie took over where Lew left off.”

Gene & the Team Beats Business Card
back of Gene & the Team Beats business card.
L-R: Charles Hairston, Lonnie Woodall, Gene Rumley, Rickie Fox, Brian Thomason

Gene & the Team Beats Business CardWith Motley’s forced exodus from the band, Rumley was in need of a soulful vocalist. He found Charles Hairston by sheer tenacity, explaining that he went up Fayette Street in Martinsville saying: “Hey, we’re looking for a black singer to really represent our group with soul music… who’s a good singer?” Someone recommended Charles, who passed the audition and became the voice of the Team Beats. Gene says his contribution cannot be overlooked, and believes “Charles really made our band at that time.”

The addition brought some problems in the segregated South, where the band was refused service at a restaurant while returning from a fraternity gig at the University of Virginia. But having Hairston on vocals also allowed the Team Beats to play in some black clubs that were generally off limits to white bands.

There were some close calls, though. On one occasion the band was playing in the basement of an all black club in Martinsville when a woman accused her boyfriend of cheating and pulled a Saturday night special from her purse. She pointed the gun at the boyfriend and shouted: “I’m gonna blow your head off!” He ran into the women’s bathroom as the band scurried for cover, ducking behind the piano and amplifiers. With a staircase on each side of the bandstand, the patrons ran up the steps to the right as the irate female continued to wave her pistol in the other stairwell. The band had nowhere to go and remained in hiding until the standoff could be diffused.

Gene & the Team Beats Rocky Mount Armory, December 10
Rocky Mount Armory poster with Frankie & the Dynamic Souls Band featuring Frankie Divers and Wayne King

Rumley recalls another incident at a long since forgotten club “somewhere back in the sticks” of North Carolina. After agreeing to take the job, Rumley was contacted by Bill Buckner, who wanted to book the band for the same date. When Buckner learned where the Team Beats were scheduled to perform, he warned the bandleader that they were risking life and limb by playing there. But the gig paid about $300 and the band needed the money, so Rumley instructed Buckner to keep quiet about his reservations.

Rumley didn’t tell the band about the club’s reputation for violence, but instructed the guys to pull the old, upright piano away from the wall, in case they had to duck for cover. With just one door on the opposite end of the dance hall, he also made certain the window behind the bandstand was open, in case they had to stage a speedy exit.

The band was rocking about 1 a.m. when two gunshots rang out. That brought things to a standstill, but the partying resumed once the patrons realized the shots had come from the parking lot.

As the band was packing up for the night, Rumley inquired about the gunshots and learned that a woman had fatally shot her boyfriend.

The band was instructed to pick up their pay at another location. Rumley was returning to the van with the night’s receipts when he spotted a drunk standing by the van, talking to the musicians about the shooting that had happened a couple of hours earlier. Turns out he was also the local undertaker and, upon determining that the shooting victim had died, simply placed him on the back seat of his car and returned to the festivities. When the band declined his offer to view the body, the mortician drove on to the morgue. It would be the first — and last — time the Team Beats booked a job there.

Gene & the Team Beats Clowning AroundMusician and composer Rickie Fox was also an early member of the band and says one of his first performances as a Team Beat was at the Rathskeller, a downtown Danville nightclub located off Main Street, behind the Elk’s Lodge. Fox explains that his brother, Butch, got him into the group after one of the members (he’s not sure which) was drafted into the Army. Butch Fox switched to lead guitar and 12-year-old Rickie picked up the bass. Fox ended up playing with the group for about two-and-a-half years, first on bass, later on guitar and finally on drums. His drumming can be heard on the band’s first two records.

Butch was asked to leave the band after missing several rehearsals. Rickie was not yet old enough to drive and had no way to get to Martinsville “so Gene hired Brian Thomason to play bass” and bring the younger brother to rehearsals. Fox switched to guitar; Lew Woodall was drafted and Rumley hired his brother, Lonnie, to play guitar with Fox. Charles Hairston was the vocalist, Mickey Walker played drums and Rumley was on sax.

Fox shifted to drums when Walker was drafted and recalls driving to Sam Ash Music in New York, “where I bought a set of drums just like Ringo’s: black pearl Ludwig’s.”

Gene & the Team Beats Otis Redding June 4, 1965
Opening for Otis Redding at the Couples Club in Martinsville, June 4, 1965

Fox says his most vivid memory is playing with Otis Redding in Martinsville on Friday, June 4, 1965. Fox recalls that Redding, then billed as “Mr. Pitiful,” was playing at the June German Ball, which was being held on Fayette Street in Martinsville. The “School’s Out Celebration Show and Dance” was billed as a five-hour show featuring Redding, with Little Royal and the Swingmasters of Washington, D.C. and Gene and the Team Beats as support acts. Fox says that Rumley and friend Bill Buckner had arranged for Redding to play for about an hour, with all of the bands using the Team Beats’ equipment “because they just kind of came in and then they went out.” According to Fox, the Team Beats were playing a club on 220 at the time and both he and Lonnie Woodall worshiped Little Royal’s guitar player, Robert Parker, stealing “every guitar lick we possibly could from him.” Little Royal was also quite a showman and emulated James Brown.

The Otis Redding show was at Baldwin’s Gymtorium on Fayette Street and attracted 3,000 fans. Rumley says the aging, two-story building had a balcony that circled the interior, with a high stage and a large dance floor. The Team Beats got the crowd warmed up and by the time they left the stage, “that place was jumping and the old wooden building was literally shaking.” He says when Otis Redding performed, the sound was “absolutely unbelievable.” Rumley recalls that the horn section from James Brown’s band had just defected to the “up and coming” Redding and says “they basically tore the roof off the place. That was one of the best jobs that we’d ever played.”

Rickie Fox today
Rickie Fox today

Fox was also with the band when the Team Beats opened for the Shangri Las at the Danville City Auditorium. The all-girl group was backed by a stellar English instrumental band, Sounds Inc. The group had recently performed with the Beatles and — like the Liverpudlians — honed their skills at the famed Star Club in Germany.

The agent for the show arranged for the Team Beats to travel to Washington, D.C. to play for other booking agencies. Fox remembers that they played a club with Little Willie and the Hand Jives. And while nothing ever came of the audition, Fox says they had a great time there.

The Team Beats performed with Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge and the Showmen. They also provided instrumental backing for Joe Simon, Inez Foxx, William Bell, the Kelly Brothers and Freddy Cannon.

Eddie Scott, who played drums after Fox left the group, says the show with Sam and Dave was especially memorable, since the Team Beats had the chance to join the duo’s huge band on stage. Scott remembers that the Team Beats “were the opening act (but) as the night wound down, we were able to play together, all of us. Sam and Dave and their group (were) on stage and then Gene and the Team Beats along with them… we were able to deliver a high powered performance.”

Gene & the Team Beats Leatherwood 45 I'll Carry OnThe Team Beat’s first single, “I’ll Carry On” b/w “Apple Fuzz” was released on Leatherwood (RI 2096) in 1965. Rickie Fox played drums on the session and says the band recorded the 45 not long after he joined.

“I’ll Carry On” is credited to Rumley, while bothers Lewis and Lonnie Woodall are listed as composers of the instrumental, “Apple Fuzz,” which features nice jazz phrasing on guitar.

Rumley explains that for the first release, the band saved some money “from a couple of gigs, rented a studio near Rocky Mount somewhere and cut our first record, which we self-promoted.” Rumley describes the recording quality as “bad,” noting “there wasn’t much separation at all… probably one, two tracks because we were playing like we were playing in a nightclub and had the volume cranked up. When the sound came out, we were not too happy with it.” The single is distorted and poorly mixed and received little airplay.

Gene & the Team Beats Leatherwood 45 Apple FuzzFox insists it wasn’t recorded in a studio at all, but rather in the basement of a home in Rocky Mount. He was 12 at the time but remembers the night vividly. Fox says the band had played a job in Roanoke at the Sportsmen Club and “Gene had hooked up with some guy that had a quote-unquote ‘studio’ in his basement.” That night after the gig, the band went to his home and recorded “I’ll Carry On” and the flip side in a marathon session. Fox says the band was “literally there pretty much through the night.” While he knew little about recording studios at the time, Fox remembers “it was kind of primitive (and) I don’t think we did a lot of overdubbing or anything like that. It seemed like it was just a situation to record right onto a big reel-to-reel.”

He says the setting looked nothing like a studio. Fox had just started playing the drums and when he listens to the 45 today, “I cringe because everything I like in a drummer now I didn’t do then; I was playing everything on the off beat… a lot of off beat snare drum hits and the ride cymbal was real heavy.” But he feels justified in that the record was “hastily done in somebody’s basement and there’s no telling what type of equipment he had.”

Gene & the Team Beats Hitchin'
Hitching a ride in ’66. L-R: Carl Barrow, Lonnie Woodall, Gene Rumley, Charles Hairston, Eddie Scott

Gene & the Team Beats Raven 45 I Want'a Be Your Baby“I Wanta Be Your Baby,” and “I’ll Let Nothing Separate Me” were the group’s second and third 45 releases, respectively. Both were pressed in Tennessee by Nashville Record Productions, Inc. for Raven Records in Danville, although “I Wanta Be Your Baby” was actually recorded at Copeland Studios in Greensboro, N.C. Rumley doesn’t recall why they opted to record the single there, but believes it was because Copeland had better equipment than the fledgling House of Sound Studios on Old Piney Forest Road in Danville.

Gene & the Team Beats Raven 45 Sorry 'bout That“I Wanta Be Your Baby” b/w “Sorry ‘bout That” was released in 1966 and was the first rock record in the Raven Records (Raven 45-2006) catalog and was among the label’s first releases. Writing credits for both sides are given to Gino Lamonte, although the Italian never existed. Rumley explains that he penned both sides; however, the band decided to create a composer pseudonym because they thought a European name would look more impressive on the label.

This was to be Fox’s swansong with the band and he recalls that Frank Koger, who ran the House of Sound and Raven Records, accompanied the band to Greensboro, along with Koger’s close friend Bill Buckner, who was managing the Leeds Music Store in Collinsville at that time. Fox remembers “it was the first time I’d ever gone to a real studio and the guy came running out and oiled my (squeaking) bass drum pedal and I was like: ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ I didn’t quite get it.”

The band was well prepared to lay down the plug side, but Fox recalls that the B-side was another matter, adding that the band would always make up something for the second side. “We would go to the studio with one song, which looking back on it is not very smart, and then we would just kind of make up something to go on the other side right there in the studio,” said Fox. The flip side was usually an instrumental, because the group didn’t have time to write lyrics. “And that’s how we made up that “Sorry ‘bout That,” which he says was created on the spot in the studio. Buckner laughs on the track and Koger can be heard saying “Sorry ‘bout That” at the end. Fox was in seventh grade at the time but still remembers the excitement of recording in an actual studio setting.

The personnel on “I Wanta Be Your Baby” is: Gene Rumley (sax and backup vocals); Charles Hairston (lead vocal); Lonnie Woodall (guitar and backup vocals); Rickie Fox (drums); Carl Barrow (bass).

John and Jerry & the Soulmasters, at the 360 Drive-In with Gene and the Teen-Beats Danville Register, July 19, 1967
John and Jerry & the Soulmasters, at the 360 Drive-In with Gene and the Teen-Beats Danville Register, July 19, 1967

In addition to Rumley and Buckner, the Team Beats had three agencies booking the band: Hit Attractions out of Charlotte, N.C.; Cavalier Attractions in Charlottesville, VA; and Southeastern Artists and Promotions of Florence, AL.

As he was too young to drive, Fox recalls that “when my ride (Brian Thomason) left the band, I had to leave, too.” He went on to form the Soulmasters with musicians from Danville and Eden, N.C. He played drums in the early Soulmasters, with Thomason on bass. Fox also played in the Majors, City Council, the Manchesters and Fox and Company. He continues to record, produce and perform today, both as a solo artist and with various bands.

To “promote” the record Rumley and the band’s drummer got in Gene’s car “and drove for two days from Danville to Richmond, up to a guy playing all kind of rhythm and blues out in Delaware. Just anybody who would listen to us we go into a studio and try and tell them who we were and what we were doing.” Apparently it worked, as “I Wanta Be Your Baby” was a regional hit and the group’s best selling 45. Bassist Alan Rowe remembers buying his copy at Leeds Music Center in Danville from Soulmaster Doug Hyler, who worked at the store when not on the road with his band.

Gene Rumley BMI letter
BMI letter to Gene Rumley

A letter from Broadcast Music, Inc. to Rumley dated May 10, 1966 lists the A-sides of both singles and “I’m Sorry About That,” urging Rumley to notify the publisher (Old Standby Music Co.) and have the songs registered with BMI as soon as possible. His experience was not unique. Two other Raven bands, Lost Soul and the Individuals, thought their songs had been registered, only to learn years later that the music licensing firm had no record of their recordings. Individuals’ bassist Tommy Redd kept the paperwork showing he paid Koger $6 to register two of his songs with BMI.

Interestingly, Koger recycled the single’s flip side without telling the band. “Sorry ‘bout That” can be heard as the instrumental backing to an otherwise forgettable B-side recitation (“I’m Fine”) recorded by Charlie Chandler (Raven HOS-45-2042 “The Drunken Driver” b/w “I’m Fine”) and released on Raven’s C&W subsidiary.

Charles Hairston at the Double Door Inn
Charles Hairston at the Double Door Inn

Most regard the Hairston line-up as the band’s best. Hairston would remain with the Team Beats until his conscription to military service. He would later be reunited with Fox in City Council, a horn band that toured extensively, performing original material and covers of popular songs that were given the band’s unique stamp through creative arrangements.

Hairston moved to North Carolina in the mid-70s. He remained a fixture on the Charlotte music scene until his death from prostate cancer in 2009 at the age of 61. As vocalist, he fronted the All Stars and is best remembered for being “the soul and energy” of the band’s Monday night performances at the Double Door Inn.

Hairston put on a memorable show for the Inn’s 35th anniversary in December 2008, just two months before his death. Fans say he was his usual self, sweating, singing and moving all around the stage. He last performed publicly at the Double Door in January 2009. By then the cancer he’d battled all year had taken its toll and he sang while sitting on a stool. Hairston’s mother and family visited from Maryland about a week before his death and he sang for them and the hospice staff. He was in good spirits and one in attendance described it as “a wonderful moment… and then he passed peacefully.” The Charles Hairston Memorial Foundation was established the following year.

Charles Hairston in 1970
Charles Hairston in 1970 with City Council
Ricki Fox and Lonnie Woodall
Rickie Fox and Lonnie Woodall

Guitarist Lonnie Woodall also died too soon, suffering a fatal heart attack on May 20, 2002. He was 54 and had recently attended a bands reunion in Danville that included many veterans of the Team Beats. He played with numerous local and national groups, including City Council, the Rogues, Fox and Company, Percy Sledge and the Blues Defenders. He was the owner of Woodall’s Music and was also instrumental in establishing Harrison Scales Young Musicians Foundation and worked closely with the Bassett High School Jazz Band.

Woodall is still remembered as a great guitarist and a soulful blues singer, but also as a friend to all. Barrow calls him his “brother” and Rumley said he was “always dependable, up-beat and loved music.” Gene says there were many times when he considered quitting, but “I could always depend on Lonnie being there when we had to start over with new people in the group: singers, bass players or drummers. I don’t know of anyone who did not like Lonnie; he was always learning, always caring and kind to everyone he met.”

Gene & the Team Beats Raven 45 Insert
Insert from their 3rd 45, ca. 1967.
L-R: Lonnie Woodall, Carl Barrow, Gene Rumley, Eddie Scott, Jimmy Mitchell

Gene & the Team Beats Raven 45 I'll Let Nothing Separate MeThe band’s third and final release, “I’ll Let Nothing Separate Me” b/w “Here I Stand” (Raven HOS 42-2011) came out in 1967 and features a cover of an obscure song by the Wallace Brothers as its A-side. Early pressings featured a photo card insert of the band with a brief bio and booking information.

Since they were no longer writing their own material, Rumley explains that the members would “sit down and listen to old records,” then decide which tunes would be suitable for the group.” This time the group delivered what is arguably their best effort. And, unlike their previous releases, the B-side was no throwaway. “Here I Stand” stands on its own and is preferred by many to the single’s infectious plug side.

Gene & the Team Beats Raven 45 Here I StandHairston had been drafted and Rumley hastily recruited Martinsville’s Jimmy Mitchell as vocalist for the recording session, which also features Eddie Scott on drums. While Scott only appears on their last 45, he replaced Fox in 1966 and was with the Team Beats until the band called it a day two years later. He recalls passing an audition and recording at House of Sound Studios. Scott says the studio was small and there was very little overdubbing. As he remembers, “it was more or less cubicles and everything was recorded together… pretty much live to tape.” Mitchell sang lead, Rumley played sax, Lonnie Woodall was on guitar and Carl Barrow handled bass on the sessions.

Gene & the Team Beats Raven 45 Insert Reverse
Reverse side of 45 insert from 1967 with bio and booking info

Mitchell was needed because “when Charles left we were missing that soul that only some people can bring to our style of music.” Rumley discovered Mitchell after again asking friends to recommend a good, soulful singer. He says Jimmy’s vocal styling fit the band perfectly. It didn’t hurt that he was a consummate “showman and front man.” By this point the band was moving in step on many of their numbers and Mitchell was a natural for the choreography, adding his own gyrations. Scott was also quite a dancer and Barrow recalls Eddie would hit the dance floor during breaks, “doing his best James Brown impression.”

Mitchell’s tenure with the band was brief. The singer married and left because it was too difficult to balance his day job with the band’s busy travel schedule. At some point he left Martinsville and Scott recalls that Mitchell later sang in clubs in New York City.

Barrow also left the band shortly before the break-up in 1968. Carl had been with the group on-and-off since he beginning but explains that he “went into commercial artwork” and the pressure of holding down a job and playing every weekend became too much.

Gene & the Team Beats Live 1965 Martinsville
Martinsville, ca. 1965: L-R: Lonnie Woodall, Rickie Fox, Gene Rumley, Mickey Walker (on drums, obscured) and Brian Thomason

A fourth single release was planned and the backing track was recorded. The project was shelved after the group’s new lead singer, Alfonzo Martin of Martinsville, was also inducted into the military. Rumley regrets that the band was unable to add Martin’s vocals to their final recording session, describing his range as “unbelievable.” Martin served in the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. He was killed by hostile fire in Vietnam.

The group disbanded shortly thereafter. Rumley points out that the band had been together nearly a decade and he had grown weary of replacing members who moved on to other bands, full-time jobs or were drafted and shipped out to Southeast Asia.

Scott moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 1996 and drove a truck until his retirement. He played in several bands over the years, including Martinsville’s Renegade Demolition Band in the eighties.

Gene Rumley, India
Gene Rumley in India

With the break-up, Rumley left touring behind and concentrated on a career. He spent more than 30 years in the business world, serving as president and vice president of multi-national corporations while leading training seminars throughout Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America. He was named “Business Man of the Year” by, the world’s largest B2B search engine. While his home is in Florida, Rumley continues to travel extensively as a John Maxwell certified coach and teacher. But he is most passionate about his work with children in India, where he founded Mission for Orphans, a non-profit organization that helps feed, clothe and educate street children and orphans.

But rarely a day goes that he isn’t contacted by a follower of the music his band created nearly fifty years ago. The songs have stood the test of time, and Gene and the Team Beats live on through the dedication of Beach Music fans on the East Coast and lovers of Northern Soul in the United Kingdom.

The Stones Unturned: Institutionalized Delinquency

Jim Ray (on drums) and Pete Hilliard with a pick-up band performing in Danville’s Ballou Park.
Performing in the George Washington High School cafeteria after a football game.
L-R: Jim Ray, Pete Hilliard.

By Jack Garrett

In the days before tribute bands, a group of high school friends from Danville, Va. formed a group that borrowed everything — including their name — from their idols, the Rolling Stones. And while the local band would continue to emulate the  English rockers, they quickly developed a style that incorporated the best of British blues, funky Southern soul and West Coast psychedelia.

The nucleus of the Stones Unturned — Jim Ray (vocals); Pete Hilliard (bass); and guitarist Doug Starnes — formed in 1965 to play for a Junior Variety Show at George Washington High School in Danville.

The band needed a drummer and Rick Blair was recruited, along with rhythm guitarist John Douglas. Douglas was a junior at GW and was the lead guitarist for the recently disbanded Kondors, so he was anxious to play again.

An early shot of the band on London Bridge Drive in Danville, Va., ca. 1966.
L-R: Jim Ray, Pete Hilliard, Curtis “Inky” Vaughan, Doug Starnes, Truxton Fulton.
Stones Unturned Business Card
Stones Unturned Business Card

The group learned three Rolling Stones songs and Douglas recalls they “blew the roof off the place and the people just went nuts.” J. Ray, all 115 pounds of him, was a consummate showman and had the audience in his pocket. Douglas and Starnes alternated playing lead as they ripped through “Not Fade Away,” “The Last Time” and “Satisfaction.”

RollingStonesTicketNov12_1965GreensboroColiseumRay had spray painted a parade drum from the GW marching band, mounted it on a stand and joined the drummer on “Not Fade Away.” After the show, Ray was mobbed by classmates who told him the group was great, adding: “You guys can mouth those records super.” After convincing them that the band was actually playing, they were immediately hired to play 3 parties. The only problem was that the group only knew 3 songs. They went to work and quickly learned about 25 tunes off the Top 40 charts.

Pete Hilliard and Doug Starnes

Blair’s mother wouldn’t let him play in a rock band and Douglas was more interested in soul music and his girlfriend, so Curtis Vaughan was brought in on drums and Truxton Fulton was added on organ.

Ray explains that the band played everything in their repertoire during the first set of those early gigs and repeated the same songs after intermission. He handled vocals on the rockers, while Hilliard sang lead on the ballads and soul numbers.

Pete Hilliard rehearses

Rehearsals were held at the Starnes’ home on South Woodberry.  Sheet music for anything but standards was non-existent, so the group bought 45s and Starnes “would sit down and figure out the chords and Pete and Jimmy Ray would figure out the words.” None of the members had any formal musical training but Starnes “could sit down and pick out a song in less than 5 minutes,” so he was placed in charge teaching the band the arrangements. He says the idea was to “imitate (the 45) as closely as we could.”

Rehearsing in Truxton Fulton’s basement.
L-R: Truxton Fulton, Doug Starnes.
The Stones played sorority dances, night clubs, hotels and fraternal organizations in Virginia and North Carolina, eventually venturing as far south as Asheville and the Carolina coast. Unable to find a regular venue to showcase their talents, the band became adept at self promotion, renting space at the Hotel Danville for performances. Friends were recruited to collect the small admission fee at the door. Just by word of mouth and a few homemade flyers, they were able to pack the auditorium.

An early demo tape was recorded in 1966 at the WBTM studios in Danville, where Hilliard worked weekends as a disc jockey. The group delivers note-for-note covers of several Rolling Stones songs, along with “96 Tears” and a raucous rendition of “Baby Let Me Bang Your Box” that borrows heavily from Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, an R&B party band that frequented the frat house scene in the South. Hilliard produced the sessions, which were recorded with one mic on a single-track, Ampex reel-to-reel.

Fulton, who was an intern at WBTM at the time, recalls that the recording session was in lieu of payment for a commercial the band had recorded for Jet Wash, a new car wash that had opened in nearby Martinsville. Owner Joe Stendig wanted a jingle sung to the tune of the Batman television theme, with the group singing “Jet Wash” instead of “Batman.”

Since Hilliard worked at the station, the Stones “had all of the time we needed” to get the songs right.” Given the fact that all of the performances were laced with profanity and sexual innuendo, it is hard to believe that an unedited version of the tape was ever distributed outside the group’s inner circle.

Pete Hilliard rehearses.
Al Newman had recently opened a high-end clothing store and his son loved the band. Before a performance at the Danville Coke Plant, the group was approached by the haberdasher’s son, Mark, who had talked his father into outfitting the Stones for free, provided they put up a sign advertising his store and boasting that “The Stones Unturned are outfitted by A. Newman Ltd.” The guys agreed and showed up unannounced, bypassing the three-piece suits in favor of houndstooth jackets and corduroy pants. Nothing matched and the horrified shopkeeper never repeated the offer.

Fulton recalls getting a last-minute call from Starnes during the height of a snowstorm. The Danville Golf Club had booked a “professional” band out of Greensboro but the group canceled due to the weather. The Stones had the gig, provided they could get there. Fulton hailed a taxi while other members got there in a four-wheel drive. They arrived to find Vaughan waiting on the dance floor with a date. After a hasty explanation, he joined his mates on the bandstand.

L-R: Curtis Vaughan, Pete Hilliard, Truxton Fulton, Jim Ray, Martha Viccilio, unknown female fan.
Taking a break at the beach house during their road trip to Yaupon Beach in 1967.
Jim Ray at Yaupon Beach in front of the Sand Fiddler Club.

The Stones played the Sand Fiddler Club in Yaupon Beach for a week in the summer. Vaughan recalls consuming “lots of beer” and wearing lampshades during the beach trip, describing the experience as “a kind of institutionalized delinquency.”

Stones Unturned, Doug Starnes
Doug Starnes

Vaughan and Fulton showed up at the Sand Fiddler for one of the performances and waited anxiously for the arrival of the other three. Fulton explains that “the time came and went for us to play and no Pete, or Jimmy or Doug and we were getting concerned and just a little miffed.” They showed up late, explaining that Hilliard’s car had gotten stuck on the beach as the tide was coming in and was nearly swept away.

Doug Starnes and Carolyn Garrett

Hilliard had convinced his dad to loan him his new ’66 Dodge Coronet to haul their gear to the beach. He said the three decided one afternoon to ride along the beach, explaining that “I guess we thought we were at Daytona and I took the Coronet onto the beach and immediately got stuck.” They were there about a half-hour when they flagged down a Jeep and asked the driver for a tow. He refused, explaining that the vehicle was new and he didn’t want to scratch the paint. With the tide lapping at the doors of the Dodge, the band members reluctantly called a tow truck, which wiped out any profit from the week’s engagement, since they were playing for a portion of the gate. The following night they spotted the new Jeep outside an oceanfront house shortly after stopping at a fireworks stand in Myrtle Beach. The band placed two M-80s on a cigarette fuse, chucked them into the tailpipe and left for the club.

A flier for their self-promoted show at the Mid-Towner Motor Inn in downtown Danville for the BFB’s… Barefoot Babes sorority at GW High School.

A show at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol almost didn’t happen. Administrators should have known they were in for trouble when Ray opened the band trailer and empty beer cans fell to the pavement. The shoeless singer made a grand entrance to the formal ball, walking across tables to the stage. Vaughan wore his “Strawberry Alarm Clock shirt,” with Neru collar and reflective flowers that would blind the audience during the light show. At the break, one undergraduate in a suit approached Vaughan and remarked: “Wow, you guys are crazy!”

On the road.
Katherine Hunter and Pete Hilliard.

Another road trip took the band to the Albermarle Beach Casino in Plymouth, N.C. The building was on stilts above the Albermarle Sound and band members went up the back steps to reach the stage, only to find it surrounded by chicken wire. Ray says the clientele expected a country band and the Stones were pelted with beer bottles until they broke into “Rawhide” and “Big Boss Man.”

In the summer of 1967, the band morphed into the Purple Haze Publication and Light Show. The name was chosen over the objections of Fulton, who wanted to rename the band Radio Super Ice Cream Parlor. Members built light columns and a huge purple strobe light that was pointed toward the audience. Ray, who would go on to become an electrical engineer, wired it all to a foot pedal he could control from the stage. The band covered Hendrix, Cream and the Vanilla Fudge.

The group was excited about the chance to play with one of their idols, Jerry Lee Lewis, even though the venue was the Skylark Club, a beer joint on Rt. 86 that was notorious for rowdy drunks, shootings and stabbings. While the group had no problems, Ray recalls that Lewis arrived late and “drunk as hell, so we played a little longer than expected.”

Vicki Lester, Flo Penn Starnes, Doug Starnes, unknown male.

Starnes was dating vocalist Flo Penn and it wasn’t long before she was added to the line-up, allowing the band to cover the Jefferson Airplane. Penn was already a veteran of the music scene and had recorded (as Little Lambie Penn) for two labels, including Atco where label mate Bobby Darin wrote and produced a novelty song (“I Wanna Spend Christmas with Elvis”) for his young protégé in 1956.

During this period, the band entered the House of Sound Studios on Piney Forest Road in Danville and recorded covers of the Nashville Teens’ hit “Tobacco Road,” and Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny.” Hillard sings lead on both and “Tobacco Road” features a blistering instrumental break that rivals the original in intensity. The Stones seemed equally at ease covering the MOR ballad, which at the time was a dance band standard.

Doug Starnes, Carolyn Garrett

A session tape survives, complete with the band’s banter between tracks. The recordings are some of the best to come out of the studio, but for some reason were never committed to vinyl. Ray says both songs were later submitted to CBS Records, along with the band’s slower version of the Temptations “Get Ready.”

Hilliard insists the band recorded several others songs that day and says nothing came of the tapes because “we looked at them as cover material” and “we didn’t have money to take them any further.” Everything was recorded in a single take with no overdubs. He attributes a bad note on “Sunny” to the fact that he “was singing and playing at the same time.”

Starnes says the band recorded as many as a half-dozen songs that day and recalls that the studio was booked so the Stones could back Flo on a demo tape for her agent in New York City, where she performed that summer. The group made quick work of her vocal numbers and — with studio time remaining — convinced producer Frank Koger to keep the tape rolling and record the band. The results were impressive and Starnes calls the recordings “one of the biggest turning points for the Stones Unturned.”

Both songs recorded at the House of Sound Studios and four tracks from the W.B.T.M. sessions are included in a Virginia garage band compilation slated for release later this year on Garden of Delights Records, a Greek label that specializes in vinyl offerings for the collector’s market.

Clowning around at the abandoned Luna Lake property in Danville.
L-R: Jim Ray, Truxton Fulton, Curtis Vaughan, Doug Starnes, Pete Hilliard (standing).

Flo was never an official member of the group. Starnes notes that she sang with the Artie Tompkins Dance Band, and “if they weren’t playing on weekends and we were, she would come and sing with us. She would do a lot of the Jefferson Airplane and other groups that and it gave us a real full, more professional sound.”

The group opened for Joe Tex at the WDVA Barn Dance at the Danville Fairgrounds on Thanksgiving Day. Ray remembers the day well because the family was seated for the annual feast when he grabbed a turkey leg, informed his mom that the group was playing and ran from the house. This was an important performance and the band planned to go all out with their stage show, with an 8mm projector showing “Varan the Unbelievable” on a screen at the rear of the stage. Ray also rigged an overhead projector with a clear glass beaker containing oil and water, with food coloring dropped in as the stage floor vibrated, creating a montage of colors over the giant Japanese monster.

When the emcee announced the group, the curtains parted and the band launched into “Purple Haze” before realizing they were playing to an all black audience. Once they made it through the first number, Ray turned to Hilliard and told him to forget the song list and play “Funky Broadway.” When they got to the middle break, the pair brought the house down when Ray called Hilliard to center stage to teach the audience the new dance. The crowd rushed forward and dozens joined Hilliard on stage.

Hilliard decided to leave the group shortly thereafter, but not before a final show at the Danville City Armory in support of the Soulmasters and Minit recording artists the Showmen. Hilliard had already informed the band that as they were performing their last song, he planned to smash his guitar. He borrowed a Fender bass from the Soulmasters’ Ernie Dickens for their set, but switched to his cheaper knock-off when the band hit the first chords of “Tobacco Road.” When they reached the instrumental break, Hilliard walked to the center of the stage, jumped high into the air and landed on his knees. He fell backwards and continued playing. Starnes saw the crowd response and slammed into his amp, ending on the floor atop his equipment. Ray got so carried away that he jammed his mic into the P.A. column, piercing the grill cloth and a speaker cone. Vaughan kicked his cymbals onto the stage as Hilliard raised his bass above his head and smashed it into three pieces on the stage. The band quit playing and the curtains closed as a cacophony of noise and feedback filled the auditorium and the crowd erupted in cheers.

The Showmen, detail from poster

The audience kept calling for an encore and the curtains parted with Hilliard holding shards of his guitar. He threw the remnants into the audience and exited stage right as the crowd fought over the pieces. Backstage, the Showmen were watching in the wings in stunned silence and were reluctant to follow an unknown act that had just brought the house down. One of singers approached Hilliard and said, “man ya’ll were really smoking tonight.” When Pete thanked him for the complement, he replied: “No, I mean your amplifier is on fire.” Unbeknownst to Hilliard, the bass amp had shorted out during the melee and was ablaze. While he had trashed the equipment, Starnes said “it sure did make a good closing.”

After the show, fans made their way to the dressing room, bypassed the headliners and went straight to Hilliard and Ray.

With Hilliard’s departure, the group brought in rhythm guitarist/vocalist Joe Mitchell and bassist Jay Barker. The two lived in an apartment above an old movie theater that had no lighting, save for some neon beer signs the pair had won in drinking contests at the Skylark Club. The two left town — and the band — in a matter of months.

Carolyn Garrett and Susan Withers, ca. late 1966 or ’67.

Another beach trip included an audition at the famed Pavilion in Myrtle Beach, S.C. By that time the group was playing strictly psychedelic music and the club’s owner explained that his soul audience had no interest in fuzz guitar and feedback. Carolyn Garrett accompanied her cousin Flo to take care of Penn’s young daughter and remembers that the Pavilion’s owner “loved the singer but hated the band,” offering Flo the chance to sing without the group.

One of Purple Haze’s last gigs was for a boy’s prep school is Asheville, N.C. The students were dressed for the occasion and had their dates with them. Starnes remembers that the band played their usual set of Cream and Hendrix covers and was well received. “They kinda got into that music; they liked Flo a whole lot. Oh course everybody liked Flo because she had such a good voice. She could sing just about anything. That was about a far away as we ever went… and we knew we were getting close to the end.”

The band had signed with Bowmar Productions in Wilson, N.C., a booking agency that also handled Danville’s Soulmasters. CBS expressed an interest and a test pressing of the band’s version of “Get Ready” was made.

Plans for additional recordings were shelved when PHP&LS split in the summer of 1969. The break-up was amicable as most were leaving to attend college.

The American Band, ca. 1969.
L-R: Larry Abbott, Truxton Fulton, Walter Dalton.

Fulton was the first to leave the Stones and went on to play with a Farmville soul group, Sammy Hawks and the Satisfactions, who recorded two 45s, including a cover of “Day Tripper.” During his senior year at GW, Truxton formed the American Band and performed his own compositions, with the assistance of drummer Larry Abbott and guitarist Walter Dalton. The trio recorded an acetate album of original material at Crescent City Sound Studios in Greensboro on July 15, 1969. Fulton handled the vocals and played organ, piano, and bass piano, while a session violinist was used on one track. Shortly thereafter, Fulton moved to Richmond to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. The recordings got the group a gig with Bruce Springsteen’s band, Steel Mill. Larry Powers and John Coppinger saw that show and recruited Fulton into their newly formed group, Play Innocent, followed by a stint with a “working band” called Matrix.

Fulton abandoned the idea of music as a career in the 70s and moved to Alabama, where he worked for years as an engineer with Boeing, specializing in missile defense. Since retiring, he has reconnected with some of his former bandmates from Play Innocent and the band recorded a music video (“Monster Movie”) in Florida. Fulton also records original material as Karl Mahlmann.

Hilliard studied electrical engineering at Virginia Tech before moving to D.C., where he worked in radio before joining the Army. He spent three years with the American Forces Radio Network in Germany, interviewing many of his idols, including Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Steve Miller, Ian Anderson, Edwin Starr and Godley and Crème. After the service, he moved to Florida and “starved, worked in sunshine” before receiving an offer to return to Germany to work in television with the AFN. Today he lives in Connecticut and is the owner of Hilliard Creative Group, a digital media production company. He returned to the guitar in 1998 and married a music teacher and keyboardist in 2004. He currently performs for friends and in church.

Ray left the band just before the split, went to Blacksburg and majored in electrical engineering at Virginia Tech. He went into business for himself and continues to work as a consulting engineer, specializing in automation systems. He still lives in Danville but has not performed since 1969.

Vaughan was a year younger than the rest and remained with the group until the end. He was so committed to the band that he skipped his high school graduation to play a road gig. After finishing college, Vaughan was drafted and spent two years in the Army. He moved to California, earned a doctorate in Psychology at Berkeley and taught in Tokyo before returning to the West Coast, where he taught briefly before working for 30 years in the Bay area as an Applied Psychologist in Adolescent Child Development. He continues with his day job and also travels with his wife, who is a performer of Japanese classical music.

Doug Starnes and Mustangs’ guitarist Danny Carlton clowning around.

Starnes attended Virginia Tech, married Penn and the couple moved to Greensboro, N.C. Starnes left the music business and worked as a traveling salesman for a company that sold sportswear and lingerie. Flo continued to perform, singing in Las Vegas and on countless of radio jingles. She also released a growling version of Timi Yuro’s “What’s A Matter Baby” that went nowhere. The couple eventually moved to Salisbury, N.C. before splitting. She remarried and performs Christian music. Starnes lived in Danville in the same house where the Stones spent hours practicing until just prior to his death in 2013. He gave up playing but said he always regretted selling his five guitars.

While it’s been more than 40 years since the band played its last note, Vaughan says they built a bond that continues, because “we were able to communicate totally through our music.” Ray says the members concluded “there was a lot more to be had by going to school than playing rock and roll,” but has always wondered what might have happened had the band stayed together. Fulton has no regrets about leaving the business but has enjoyed returning to music now that he doesn’t have to depend on it “as a source of income.” Hilliard says their “brief moment of fame” was fun but insists the band never seriously entertained the idea of trying to make a living at it. Starnes sums it up by saying he “wouldn’t trade a single day or do anything any different,” adding: “We made a little money off of it… and that was all we were interested in, making some money and turning the girls’ heads.”

Crammed into a phone booth in front of Producer’s Warehouse on Industrial Ave. in Danville.
Bottom: Doug Starnes
Center: Truxton Fulton
Standing L-R: Pete Hilliard, Curtis Vaughan, Jim Ray.

The Fabulous Generals

The Fabulous Generals, 1966
The Fabulous Generals, 1966, back row: David Daniel, Bobby Henderson, Joe Merriman, Lee Moore; middle row: Mack Davidson, Ronnie Ashworth (holding Bobby’s bass); in front: Fairy Ashworth

The economic landscape in Martinsville and Henry County is far different today than was the case a half-century ago. In the sixties, the area was the manufacturing hub of Southside Virginia and was home to textile giants DuPont and Tultex, and furniture makers including American of Martinsville, Hooker and Stanley. The boom era provided teens with disposable income and the British Invasion gave rise to a number of excellent bands, including Gene and the Team Beats, the Rogues and the Generals, also known as the Fabulous Generals.

The Generals were based in Martinsville and nearby Collinsville and came together in the spring of 1964 during a school election of senior class officers at Drewry Mason High School in Ridgeway, VA. Guitarist Ronnie Ashworth was an eighth grader and had been playing music with pianist Joe Merriman. The two rehearsed in the cafeteria after school during football practice and knew they had something going when other students stopped by to listen. Drummer Frankie Divers was one of those who heard the duo and asked if he could sit in with them. He soon convinced Joe and Ronnie to play on behalf of one of the election parties.

The Generals' first drummer Frankie Divers yearbook photo
The Generals’ first drummer Frankie Divers

The rival political factions in the school election were dubbed the “Generals” and the “Beatles” parties, in homage to the Beatles recent appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Ashworth recalls that “We were representing the Generals party and so we took that name for the trio.” He says the band didn’t have a name and the “Generals” moniker stuck. He doesn’t recall which party won the election but says the Generals “made a hit as a band.”

The trio played the Surfaris’ instrumental “Wipe Out” for the class election, with Ashworth on a Kay electric guitar and a small, Silvertone amp; Merriman on the school’s stand-up piano; and Divers pounding out the rim shots on a white snare drum.

Divers played with the Generals briefly, but left the group to join the football team. Ashworth’s uncle, Bobby Henderson, was asked to play bass in the spring of 1964 and Lee Moore joined shortly thereafter as drummer, along with Mack Davidson on rhythm guitar.

Generals 1964 Photo
Ted Hatcher watches as the yet-unnamed Generals practice in the Drewry Mason HS cafeteria in early 1964.
Left to right: Ronnie Ashworth, Frankie Divers, and Joe Merriman.

Henderson recalls that Ashworth and his sister, Fairy, both attended Drewry Mason High School in Ridgeway, along with Merriman and Davidson. Ronnie and Fairy would share the lead vocal chores.

The Ashworth family has always been musically inclined. Ronnie admits “most of the musical talent is from my mom’s side.” When his mother was growing up, she sang bluegrass and gospel in a small group in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, around Saltville and Marion. She taught Ronnie a few chords on his first guitar and he took it from there, learning from records. Ronnie and his sister sang together as young children. He took up the guitar and Fairy was soon to be part of the group. Their younger brother, Dennis, sang and became an accomplished drummer, joining his older siblings on stage in the late seventies in the group Eastwinds.

Ronnie’s introduction to the stage came in 1962 when the pre-teen played at a talent contest at the Fieldale Community Center. He “was about 12 years old” and was just learning to play the guitar. He performed Ricky Nelson’s “They’ll Never Be Anyone Else But You” and the Cascades’ song, “Rhythm of the Falling Rain.” He won the competition and used the $50 prize to purchase his first electric guitar.

Ronnie said he “always felt like we were supposed to play music” and forming a group seemed to be “the next phase: to get together with a few people and just play some.” The Ashworth siblings were budding songwriters and penned both sides of the group’s first single: “You Make Me Happy” b/w “Without You.”

Ronnie recalls that their first session was held at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, N.C. in 1966 and says “You Make Me Happy” was the first song they worked on, the consensus being that the number had the best shot at being played on the radio.

He doesn’t recall Smith participating in the session, but says “they had a really good studio engineer there who seemed to know his stuff.” The Generals did their first take of “You Make Me Happy” and “then he played it back through these big Altec Lansing speakers, and it was just amazing!” Ashworth explains that the band “never really heard ourselves play, but we could hear everything through those speakers. That’s what I remember, just how good it sounded.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the b-side, “Without You,” is its unusual bass line, which starts the number and runs throughout the song. Ronnie says the bass intro was his idea; he made it up on the guitar and showed it to Bobby. He recalls that it “seemed like an unusual way to start the song and it gave us a solid heads up as to when to start playing.”

Henderson believes Arthur Smith was present for the recordings, describing him as a hands-on producer who supervised the production, mastering and pressing of their initial offering, which was released on General Records. This was the first time that he had been in a recording studio and Henderson concedes he was “scared to death” and “surprised that actually we were able to play music and listen to it.”

The Generals Early PhotoThe line-up on the first sessions (and for the second single on Pyramid Records) featured Ronnie Ashworth on lead vocals and guitar; Fairy Ashworth on harmonies; Joe Merriman on organ; Bobby Henderson, bass; rhythm guitarist Mack Davidson; drummer Lee Moore; and David Daniel on saxophone. While barely noticeable on the first recordings, Daniel’s sax was featured prominently on the follow-up, “Life’s Not Worth It.” Ronnie says Daniel was from Collinsville and played with the band “for about a year.”

Generals New Years Eve PosterThe influence of the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five is apparent on both sides of the single, with its infectious harmonies and strong hooks.

According to Henderson, the recording session and the 45s were the grand prize for winning a battle of the bands in Danville, Va. The two-day marathon featured dozens of rock and soul bands performing on flatbed trucks in the parking lot of the then new Ballou Park Shopping Center.

Ronnie doesn’t recall the prize for the competition, but believes both singles were recorded prior to the band marathon in Danville, which was held in the summer of 1967. Fairy was with the band for both recordings but had left the band by that time, rejoining the Generals in 1968.

Fairy Ashworth, 1966
Fairy Ashworth, 1966, at Theta Chi Fraternity at UVA

Generals General 45 You Make Me HappyIn his detailed history of 1960s garage bands, Teenbeat Mayhem!, author Mike Markesich painstakingly traces the timeline for all recordings produced through Arthur Smith Studios, including both releases by the Generals. In an interview for this article, Markesich notes that all of the discs produced by the studio were made by Kaybank, and all “Kaybank pressings handled accounts in sequential order.” The matrix numbers indicate the first single on General Records (“You Make Me Happy”) was recorded in January of 1966, with the follow-up on Pyramid Records (“Life’s Not Worth It”) recorded in the same studio in September of that same year.

Markesich adds that Amos Heilcher put the pressing account number on the actual record from these custom client accounts and “there is no arguing to the contrary; neither Generals 45 was recorded or released in 1967. Given the absence of paperwork from the era, these pressing plant codes yield a firm time frame, almost down to a couple of weeks (and) within a month.” That substantiates this writer’s memory that the first 45 was offered for sale for $1 at the conclusion of the Danville performance in 1967.

The competition at the Ballou Park Battle of the Bands was stiff, with Ruffin’s VI Pak winning the preliminary round on Friday and the prize of a one-off recording (“Whatzit?” b/w “Boot-Leg” on Hippie Records) at the House of Sound Studios on the Piney Forest Road in Danville.

Generals Photo at Mirror
The Generals circa early 1968. In the mirror image is, from left, Bobby Henderson, Joe Merriman, Lee Moore, Ronnie Ashworth and Fairy Ashworth. Mack Davidson is not present for some reason.

Generals General 45 Without YouThe Generals captured the top prize and were the last band to take the stage Saturday afternoon. Dressed in matching suits, the band at this point was fronted by vocalist Debra Carol Crowder. Ronnie explains that his sister left the group in the fall of 1966 to be a cheerleader, although Fairy would rejoin the Generals several times over the six years the band was together. Another female vocalist was needed and the band decided on Debra, who was the daughter of band manager Troy Crowder. While she had not been a singer prior to that time, Ronnie says she had talent, “so we put her as the lead girl singer and that seemed to work out for a year or two.”

This writer was present for the Danville Battle of the Bands and crowd response was tremendous, especially when Crowder did her interpretation of the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” The band finished its set and autographed 8x10s for fans before WYPR emcee Glenn Scott announced that the Generals had won the competition.

Henderson admits he was “surprised because there was some good talent over the weekend.”

WHEE Radio 1370 AM, Martinsville
WHEE Radio 1370 AM, Martinsville

He remembers that their first 45 had an initial run of 500 copies, but believes the band ordered another 500 at some point.

The band sold their new single at concerts and to friends, but did little to promote the 45 outside Southside Virginia. Ronnie remembers taking a copy to Hank Hedgecock at WHEE Radio in Martinsville and said the deejay “just loved them” and he “played them quite a bit, actually.”

Ecstatic to have one his songs on the airwaves, Ronnie was deflated when he went back to school and no one said anything about it. He asked a group of friends if they ever listened to radio and one replied: “Yea, we heard it, just don’t let it go to your head.”

The song was also played “quite a bit” on another Martinsville station, WMVA, by DJ Paul Miller, host of the popular “Night Train” program.

Henderson has a slightly different recollection, saying the single “received minimal airplay” in the Martinsville area, but fared better in other regions of Virginia and North Carolina. The band sold “quite a few of them” and Ronnie believes they moved the initial run, although he admits the band never promoted the single “in a big way.”

The Fabulous Generals Promo Photo
The Fabulous Generals 1967 promo photo with vocalist Debra Carol Crowder‏

By this point, the Generals were playing extensively throughout Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and East Tennessee. Ronnie notes the band “was very popular,” playing country clubs and fraternities at UVA, Hampton-Sydney, Duke, Wake Forest, UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Tennessee.

Henderson remembers the band playing “whatever was available” and booking larger clubs in Atlanta, Raleigh, Charlotte, and even traveling as far south as Florida.

Hit Attractions in Charlotte booked the band exclusively and many of their engagements were for fraternity parties along the East Coast.

The Generals next to their Cadillac limo, 1968
The Generals next to their Cadillac limo, 1968, from left: Ronnie Ashworth, Bobby Henderson, Fairy Ashworth, Lee Moore, Joe Merriman, Mack Davidson

Weekends meant long road trips and little time for football games and other high school activities. To ease life on the road, the band purchased a huge Cadillac limousine, stowing their gear in a band trailer hauled to their gigs. With its huge fins and “The General Assembly” painted on the doors, the ride was quite a sight to behold. Ronnie recalls that “people always looked,” although most members were asleep on the return trips.

The Generals Business CardLocal engagements included the Martin Riding Stables, where the Generals “played maybe every Wednesday night for a couple of years.” Truxton Fulton (keyboard player with the Stones Unturned of Danville and Sammy Hawks and the Satisfactions of Farmville) recalls hearing the group there, describing it as “a strange venue, like a horse farm, but it was packed.” He says the Generals were “a really good group,” adding: “My whole band was there and they were real nice to let us sit in. I think he (Joe Merriman) had a (Farfisa) Combo-Compact (organ), a step up from what I had.”

Ronnie admits the riding stable was an unlikely night spot but says it “had an upper loft that made a great place for a dance (and) was packed out on many occasions.” He remembers performing the Lovin’ Spoonful’s, “Summer in the City” and “playing Wooly Bully to death” in 1965-66.

As requests for the band increased, Troy Crowder was brought on to manage the group after the Generals had been together for about a year. Ronnie explains that “we just felt we needed a manager, somebody who would go out and kinda talk up the group and help book us some jobs.” Crowder was a friend of Mack Davidson’s father, B.J., and they worked together at Continental Can Company. B.J. recommended Crowder, who was brought on board and immediately began finding work for the band. Ronnie says “we all went out booking jobs one day… and drove toward Danville (and) booked the group into a VFW Post.”

The Villagers
The Villagers

The band was heavily influenced by a South Carolina group, the Villagers. The Villagers were fronted by lead singer Dana Douglas and were regulars on the nationally syndicated television series “The Village Square,” which showcased regional and national talent and ran from 1964-1968. Ashworth says the Generals “basically idolized the group and copied them as much as possible,” and credits the Villagers with contributing to the band’s “style and sound.” The Generals traveled to South Carolina in 1965 and again in 1966 to hear the group perform at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion. Their paths would cross three years later when Ronnie was in college in Georgia.

The Generals Pyramid 45 Life's Not Worth ItWhile their second 45 was pressed on Charlotte’s Pyramid Records, both sides were recorded at Arthur Smith. For their return trip, Henderson says the band again decided to tap the songwriting talents of their lead vocalists. “Life’s Not Worth It” and “For What More Could I Ask” feature guitarist Ronnie Ashworth and his sister, Fairy, on lead vocals, respectively.

While credited to manager Troy Crowder, Ronnie says he wrote both sides. Ashworth said his parents weren’t with him to sign the studio paperwork, which included verification of songwriters. And since he was under 18, authorship was credited to an adult “to avoid copyright infringement issues.”

Henderson believes that soul great Otis Redding was also at Arthur Smith’s that day, which is possible, given the fact that James Brown also used the studio on occasion.

The Generals Pyramid 45 For What More Could I AskThe group financed this release and Henderson says members again made a conscious decision to record original material, pointing out that their band “wrote a lot of the music we did in our live shows (some of which was never recorded) and even the covers that we did took on a personal flavor.”

Ronnie concurs, pointing out that they “had some original songs and that just seemed to be the way to do it.” He notes the Beatles “were big and it was a new sound and everybody was getting on the bandwagon,” adding: “It was easy to write music back in those days, so why do somebody else’s stuff when you can write your own?”
According to Henderson, their second 45 fared much better. He says while “Life’s Not Worth It” was the “plug” side, both songs received considerable airplay.

The Rogues and the Generals at Martinique Au Go-Go, Church St.With the music scene changing, the band “tapped into the California/West Coast music scene” and psychedelia.

In 1968, the group landed a regular gig at the Park Mor Restaurant in Martinsville, attracting a loyal following for their Sunday night performances.

The Generals drove to Tennessee (Ronnie believes it was Johnson City) in late 1968 to provide backup for singer B. J. Thomas. The group set up, rehearsed “Hooked on a Feeling,” and went through a sound check before being informed that Thomas had been detained and would not be appearing.

A little known chapter in the Generals history followed in 1969, when Bobby, Fairy and Ronnie moved to Atlanta, where Ronnie attended school. The trio kept the Generals name alive for another year or so, playing jobs booked previously at colleges throughout Virginia and North Carolina.

Dana Douglas of the Villagers
Dana Douglas of the Villagers (no pictures of Dana with the Generals exist)

Dana Douglas (of the Villagers fame) was also living in Atlanta at the time and became the group’s lead singer. His friend, Wes Braxton, was a proficient sax and flute player and also joined the line-up. Blake Coverstone — originally with the Divots of Roanoke — was recruited on drums and the six created what Ashworth describes as an “intense” sound. This was late in the psychedelic era and Ashworth says the revamped Generals leaned heavily to the California sound. Douglas “could dance just like James Brown” and was also an accomplished musician, playing keyboards, guitar and other instruments.

At the time, Ronnie was attending a Bell and Howell electronics school with Coverstone. While the original Generals hadn’t broken up as such, the others “had gone off to college because we had graduated from high school and so everybody was kind of going their separate ways.” The core of the original group remained constant, as Fairy was also living in Atlanta and Henderson and his wife and young family had also relocated there. Ronnie explains that “Bobby knew that Dana Douglas lived there, so we had gone by and seen him” and asked Douglas about fronting the Generals.

Technically, the Generals had not broken up. According to Ronnie, they “still had jobs booked, but really the group wasn’t together in the sense that it had been before… the name was still there; the jobs were still there; and the three of us were still playing together. So we just added a few folks and just kept the name, just reorganized the band.”

The Rogues on Lake Lanier Bridge, Martinsville
The Rogues on Lake Lanier Bridge, Martinsville, circa 1970, just before changing their name to Truth and going on the road.
From left: Jim Stone, Mark Anthony, Ronnie Ashworth, Terry Chitwood, Art Kramer, Ronnie Stone and Mike Arnold.

The Villagers & the Rogues at Druid Lanes, Martinsville, October 14The group never entered the studio again, but continued performing through 1969, when the Generals disbanded and Ronnie Ashworth joined another Martinsville band, the Rogues, just as the group was expanding and adding horns.

Ashworth, Mark Anthony, Ron Stone, Jim Stone, Mike Arnold and Art Kramer joined forces with former Soulmasters Doug Hyler and George Parrish as the Rogues evolved into the band Truth, touring extensively and recording one single. The line-up featured four horn players: Hyler and Kramer on sax and Parrish and Ron Stone on trumpet. Arnold was the original drummer, later replaced by Paul Mitchell. Stone was the band’s bassist; Ashworth handled vocals and guitar; and Anthony was Truth’s keyboard player.

The Truth, Atlanta 1972
The Truth (Ronnie Ashworth on the left) doing an Everly Bros. medley in Atlanta, ca. 1972
In 1971, Truth opened for Blood Sweat and Tears and Bill Withers at the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, N.Y., and also played as the support act for James Brown in Rochester.


After leaving Truth and coming off the road in 1974, Ronnie played guitar in Dallas “Moon” Mullins’ house band at Moon’s Danceland in Madison, N.C. Moon Mullins and his band — the Night Raiders — are best remembered for their 1958 recording on Profile Records, “Bip Bop Boom,” which featured rockabilly vocalist Mickey Hawks. The 45 sold well in the Chicago area, but failed to catch on nationally. Ronnie played in Moon’s band for about three years, ending “probably in late 1977.”

East Winds Band
East Winds, circa 1978, from left: Jerry Davis- keyboard, Dennis Ashworth-Drums, Ronnie Ashworth-Guitar, Jim Stone-Bass, and Fairy Ashworth in front.

East Winds followed (with Fairy and Dennis) and the band played the Martinsville/Collinsville area in the late seventies, including regular performances at the local Holiday Inn. From a musical standpoint, Ronnie says East Winds “was probably the best (band) I was ever with” featuring “strong three- and four-part harmony, and really good musicianship.” Ronnie and Fairy were the band’s lead vocalists and guitarists (Fairy on acoustic); brother Dennis was the drummer; Jim Stone handled the bass; and Jerry Davis was their keyboard player. The group ran about two years, from mid-1977 until ‘79.

Over Easy
Over Easy. L-F: Fairy Ashworth Coleman, Bobby Henderson, Ronnie Ashworth

Ronnie Ashworth remains active in the music ministry at his church and still plays with band mates Fairy Ashworth Coleman and Bobby Henderson as Over Easy, a trio that specializes in classic rock by artists like James Taylor, CSN&Y and the Beatles.

After the Generals, Henderson played with various touring bands throughout the Midwest and Southwest. He later returned to Southside Virginia, where he now plays in several groups and operates his own sound production company.

Keyboardist Joe Merriman died recently, but all of the surviving band members remain friends and still see each other on occasion. David Daniel’s whereabouts are unknown.

As for their recordings, Henderson says he has no favorites and “enjoyed doing all of them” and is pleased that the band is still remembered more than 45 years after their last performance.

Looking back on his six years with the Generals, Ronnie says the band had a powerful impact on his life, allowing each member “to stand out in the crowd” and teaching him that he “could accomplish what (he) set out to do.”

Music was something they all took seriously, with endless rehearsals and long road trips that could start early on a Saturday and take 12 to 16 hours to complete, with packing, driving, set-up, performing and then breaking down the gear for the trip home. They had fun along the way but Ronnie admits “you had to love it or you wouldn’t do it.”

While there was anxiety over the war in Vietnam and social conflict in America, he says the band allowed them to all be part of “an exciting musical revolution” the likes of which the world has not seen since the sixties.

In Search of the Lost Soul

The Lost Soul, Vox Promotional Photo, Hillsville Armory 1967
The Lost Soul, Vox promotional photo at the Hillsville Armory, ca. 1967. (l to r) Randy Conley, Donny Fields, Steve Cook & Steve Calfee

Article by Jack Garrett

While the Lost Soul is all but forgotten in their home state of Virginia, legions of fans in the UK regard their records as classics. Little has been written about the band, whose members came together in 11th grade. All but one attended Graham High School in Bluefield, Va., performing for about 18 months as The Prussians before changing their name to Lost Soul.
 The group featured songwriters Steve Calfee and Randy Conley on guitar, organ and vocals; Steve Cook on bass and vocals; and drummer Donnie Fields.

The Prussians, 1965
Early shot of the Prussians, ca. late 1965. (l to r) Steve Calfee, Randy Conley, Donnie Fields, Jimmy Johnson & Steve Cook

Calfee explains that hard rock was just coming to the fore. And while Lost Soul was responsible for the psychedelic gem “Minds Expressway,” Calfee says they were more into Motown and the R&B Memphis-type sound. The band felt “some of the music that was coming out on the hard rock side of it as not having the soul that we liked… we were gonna try and put the lost soul back into the rock and roll. Whether we actually did that or not I don’t know, but we gave it a shot.”

The Prussians, circa 1966
The Prussians, ca. 1966. (l to r) Steve Calfee, Randy Conley, Donnie Fields & Steve Cook.

With the name change, the band began looking for studio to record some original compositions.

The group did a lot of promotional dances and during one DJ Charlie Duff put them together with Gene and the Team Beats of Martinsville. That group was already recording for Raven Records in Danville and suggested that manager John Cook (the bassist’s dad) talk to Frank Koger, who owned and operated the small recording studio on the Piney Forest Road. Cook met with Koger and the band traveled to Danville in 1967 to commit two songs to wax: “A Secret of Mine” b/w “Minds Expressway”.

By all accounts, John Cook was a savvy businessman. He was a salesman for Caterpillar and taught the boys how to publicize and promote their shows and dances, how to collect fees, and even how to dress, although the dark green checked suits he bought for a job at the Fincastle Country Club bombed with the band. It was John who secured their bookings and traveled with the group, and who ultimately brought them to Danville in early 1967. Vox was just making inroads into the U.S. and he arranged for the group to receive free amplifiers and a PA system.

Calfee and Conley were the group’s two guitarists but were forced to make some last minute adjustments just prior to the recording session. Three months before they cut their first record, lead vocalist Jimmy Johnson quit for no apparent reason. About the same time, keyboard player Charlie Bassett married and left the band to attend engineering school. Rather than add a new member, the guitarists simply split the keyboard duties, although Calfee bought Bassett’s Acetone organ and plays keys and sings lead on all four Raven sides.

The Lost Soul Raven 45 A Secret of MineCalfee remembers the House of Sound studios as a small converted ice house, complete with loading dock. The control room was no larger than 6×6 with a glass window and a hole cut for a window unit. This proved a problem on their second session in the summer. The air conditioner was so noisy that it could only be turned on between takes, leaving members praying for a flub so they could get some relief from the heat. The songs were recorded directly to a two-track recorder, requiring multiple takes before an acceptable master was delivered.

A mistake on the end of the flip side was caught on tape and was incorporated into the song. If you listen to Minds Expressway, there’s a “pa-ping” sound on the cymbal. Calfee says they’d gotten “to the very end of a take and it was an accident that he did and as soon as we ended the take (producers) Ernie (Dickens) and Frank actually came out of the booth and said, ‘What was that?”

Drummer Donnie Fields took the stick and did a ping off the bell of the cymbal and Koger said, “Well that’s fantastic; it actually makes the record.” He asked Fields if he could do that every time, so the band spent “the next two hours doing take after take of him trying to do that pa-ping sound through the entire cut ’til we finally got it.”

To promote the disc, their new manager landed the band a slot on Dick Bennick’s Dance Party, a popular Bandstand-based broadcast on WGHP 8 in High Point, NC. The band arrived to light snowfall around mid-day, set up their equipment and were prepared to play when they were told they would be lip-syncing the songs. That was a first and it took the group “forever to get it right.” Whenever the cameras would roll, the director would stop the band, telling Calfee his lips weren’t moving with the music and it looked “like a Japanese movie.” Compounding the problem was the drum intro on “A Secret of Mine”. Without a count leading in to the song, it was impossible to synchronize the video, so the cameraman did a crossfade from a vine-covered trellis on the set to Fields’ drums.

They finally finished about 1:00 a.m. and left the studios to find three-feet of snow on the ground. It took them eight hours to reach their next gig, forcing the band to miss their television debut.

Each member was given two boxes of 45s and Calfee says they gave away as many copies as they sold. Koger distributed discs to radio stations and the band followed up with promotional appearances. “A Secret of Mine” was the pick of Top 40 radio, while “Mind Expressway” was played by college stations in the FM market. Along the way, Lost Soul followed or shared bills with ? and the Mysterians, the Hombres and the Fantastic Johnny C.

The Lost Soul Fincastle Country Club, Bluefield, VA
The Lost Soul live in 1967 at the Fincastle Country Club in Bluefield, Va.
(l to r) Steve Calfee, Donnie Fields, Randy Conley, Steve Cook.

Some of the largest crowds Lost Soul played for were at the Coke plant in Danville. Workmen would use fork-lifts to clear out the warehouse and set up the stage. Local radio stations and the high school newspaper promoted the dances, which attracted thousands.

Their manager brought a Webcor reel-to-reel to record one college job. Calfee says the band decided to have a few drinks to loosen up and thought they “were just kickin’ butt and takin’ names” on the bandstand. The next day he “played the recording back for us and it was the worst crap you’ve ever heard in your life.” Calfee says it was so bad that “it literally sobered us up.” From that day forward, no one took a drink on a job.

The Lost Soul Raven 45 I'm Gonna Hurt YouSix months later, Lost Soul was back at Raven to record a second 45 and a demo tape for distribution to major labels. They now shared management with Archie Bell and the Drells and their new manager signed a deal with PM Distributors in Pittsburgh to press thousands of copies of “I’m Gonna Hurt You” b/w “For You”. Calfee says the company had a promotions man who got the 45 to rack jobbers and radio stations. The effort paid off, as Calfee was told the song made it to the lower reaches of Billboard’s Hot 100. (Perhaps it was the Cashbox chart, as Billboard’s Top Pop Singles 1955-1996 lists no entries by Lost Soul.) As many as 20,000 copies were pressed but the group never received any royalties and requests for an accounting were ignored. Once the record started to break nationally, Lost Soul moved from playing country clubs and frat houses to armories and auditoriums.

Several labels were interested in the band, but Calfee says they had an image problem. It seems the major labels couldn’t decide how to market a group that played both psychedelic rock and funky soul. “We didn’t know any better,” says Calfee, adding, “We didn’t know that you were not supposed to mix the genres.” Elektra liked the tapes, which included a soulful arrangement of “Day Tripper”. Their manager secured a $25,000 advance with an agreement to record two more 45s and the promise of an album, if the singles charted.

But it was not to be. About this time, the band started to implode. It was 1968 and the height of the Vietnam War. Cook was drafted, Calfee decided to go back to school, Conley left to attend trade school and Fields got married. The band went through a period of about six months with pick-up drummers and even a saxophone player before calling it a day.

The Lost Soul, Live 1968
Faded Polaroid of the Lost Soul performing live in 1968.
(l to r) Steve Cook, Randy Conley, Lance Yost, Joe Simoncini & Steve Calfee

The later band delved further into psychedelia. The group dropped their matching suits in favor of multi-colored shirts and sunglasses and would scatter the stage with streamers. Borrowing from the Mothers of Invention, a metal trash can was also incorporated into the stage act. Calfee explains that “if you dropped a live mic inside with lots of reverb and delay, then banged on the can it created quite a bizarre sound.” The Fool had just painted Cream’s guitars in psychedelic colors, so Conley and Calfee did the same with their guitar and organ.

While national success eluded them, Calfee believes that was probably a good thing, adding, “If we had signed, as young as we were at the time and as crazy as the business was, I doubt seriously if any of us would have survived.”

Calfee later returned to music. He still plays and books entertainment for a cruise line in Little River, SC. Conley also returned to the stage, performing as E.R. Conley. And while their paths crossed occasionally on the road, Calfee lost touch will his co-writer eight years ago. Cook died about a year ago, while Fields left music and went to work for the railroad in Roanoke.

The band was all but forgotten until some Northern Soul fans in the UK discovered “A Secret of Mine”. Calfee was unaware of the renewed interest until he received a letter from an English musician he had worked with in the 80s. He learned the song was a favorite on the club scene and that their first 45 was selling for huge sums in England.

Two of the group’s songs were recently reissued on compact disc (Aliens, Psychos & Wild Things, Vol. 3) and videos of the band draw thousands of views on Youtube. But Calfee has yet to capitalize on the new audience and has received no songwriting royalties. While Calfee is “amazed” by the band’s resurgence in popularity, Cook recognized their potential. Shortly before his death, he told Calfee: “We never realized how good we were and what a great opportunity we had.” And while he won’t rule out a reunion, Calfee says it hasn’t happened yet and believes things worked out for the best, adding, “We were just trying to make music and have a good time.”

The Lost Soul, 1968
The last line-up, ca. 1968. (l to r) Steve Cook, Randy Conley, Lance Yost, Joe Simoncini. Steve Calfee is out of the camera frame.