The Regents featuring Mel Gaines

The Regents band photo
The Regents from left: Sumner Bell, Bobby Hill, Jeff Paul, Robbie Pond, Jimmy Finnegan, Richard Phelps, Lou Flowers and Johnny Johnston. Not pictured: lead vocalist Mel Gaines

The Regents featuring Mel Gaines M.A.D. 45 What'cha Gonna DoMel Gaines – lead vocals
Jimmy Finnegan – lead guitar
Jeff Paul – bass guitar
Sumner Bell – organ
Robbie Pond – trumpet
Richard Phelps – trumpet
Bobby Hill – saxophone/lead
Lou Flowers – saxophone
Ken Lewis – drums
Johnny Johnston – drums

The Regents started in Portsmouth, VA in 1967. Looking for a vocalist, they met Mel Gaines in 1967, who was a co-worker of bassist Jeff Paul’s father at WAVY-TV 10. For a group of eight white high-school students to have a lead singer who was African-American and already 21 years old might seem an unlikely pairing, but the band found considerable live success.

The Regents featuring Mel Gaines M.A.D. 45 I Tried With YouTheir record on the Mad label shows the band working seamlessly with Mel, as each song features Jimmy Finnegan’s sharp rhythm on guitar, solid drumming from Johnny Johnston and memorable horn arrangements. “What’cha Gonna Do” has been a long-time favorite of mine. The band provides plenty of momentum and gritty backing vocals for Mel’s soaring voice.

“I Tried With You” starts off solidly but really picks up in the second verse as staccato bursts from the horns precede Mel’s pleas, segueing to an smooth, affecting chorus. Bobby Hill wrote both sides of their only 45, recorded at Norfolk’s D’Arcy Studios in 1968.

Mel Gaines passed away on November 18, 2009, two days short of his 63rd birthday.

Below are the stories of drummer Johnny Johnston and organist Sumner Bell in their own words.

The Regents at practice
Practicing at Bobby Hill’s parents house around 1967. From left: Jeff Paul, Bobby Hill, Jimmy Finnegan and Johnny Johnson on drums
The Regents at practice
Jimmy Finnegan on lead guitar and Johnny Johnson on drums

The Regents featuring Mel Gaines, 1967-1968 as remembered by Johnny Johnston

The Regents featuring Mel GainesThe Regents Featuring Mel Gaines was a popular soul band established in Portsmouth, Virginia around 1968. The first memory I have of the group is my audition for the band as a drummer in the spring of 1967.Rusty Gibbs, an old high school buddy of mine, told me the group was auditioning drummers at Jeff Paul’s house in the Churchland area of Portsmouth. Jeff played bass with the group and actually liked how I played, and to my surprise the group asked me to join them. I was a junior at Cradock High School in 1967 and was trying to determine if I should continue to play sports or follow my heart’s desire and become a drummer in a dance band.

The Regents on Disc-o-TenI had taught myself how to play drums by watching all of the local bands. I especially studied and copied Fat Ammon of Bill Deal and the Rhondels and also The Swinging Machine’s Dickie Bocock. I loved their styles and really became accustomed to the beat and timing they both had. This was when dancing at teen clubs, dances halls, high school dances such as the Ambassadors Club (or AB Club as we called to it) and The Lighthouse in Portsmouth were both at their all time high.

The other band members were especially talented and we were blessed by having a great black singer by the name of Mel Gaines, who resided in Suffolk’s Pughesville area. Mel was a very talented and blessed singer of our group. He was the person our fan base came to see. I remember playing at a dance at Cradock High School in 1967 and when his name was announced the crowd exploded and rushed the stage to sing and dance as he sang.

 Johnny Johnston of the Regents
Johnny Johnston

Soul music was the big sound of our day and we really had a powerful brass section. Robbie Pond and Richard Phelps were on trumpets, Bobby Hill and Lew Flowers on saxophones. Bobby Hill was the driving force of the horn section, and the great horn sound heard on our record. Jimmy Finnegan was the best lead guitar around, and is still playing guitar for a group called El Kabong in the Tidewater area. Jeff Paul was our outstanding bass player and mostly the one responsible for motivating us to perform at our top level of showmanship. I did not realize how good they all were until years later when listening again to our record. Our rhythm section was also capped off by Sumner Bell who played Hammond organ. During the high mark of our short career, all of our members were juniors or seniors in local high schools and on the brink of following college careers.

The short career of our band was topped off when we decided to go into the studio and record “What’cha Gonna Do” which was Side A and “I Tried with You”, was the B Side. As my memory would have me believe we recorded both songs at D’Arcy Studios in Norfolk in four hours. Of course our horn section was pretty tired after playing Side A about twenty five times in a row. At $25.00 per hour for studio time we wanted to get our money’s worth. We made about 300 copies and started selling them for a buck apiece. I think I made about twenty five dollars. We actually made it to the Billboard chart and made the playlist at local radio station WGH.

Just as with all the other local bands we played all the local places such as The Lighthouse in Portsmouth, Ambassador Club, Peabody’s Warehouse in Virginia Beach, The Peppermint Beach Club, The Kage in Hampton, The Four Seasons in Norfolk, The Dome in Virginia Beach, The Sand Box and local high schools such as Wilson, Cradock, Deep Creek and Norfolk Academy.

My favorite place to perform was the Glenshellah Woman’s Club in Portsmouth. It proved to be the best venue for live bands and we could get close to the dance floor. The next best place was the Knights of Columbus Hall in Portsmouth. The dance floor was on the second floor and I remember having a great time. All who attended these dances have fond memories of the music and the people we hung out with. We also appeared on the WAVY-TV DISCO-TEN television program, which highlighted local area high school dance scenes in addition to private parties and other local dances.

Just when we started to really get a following and some momentum, we had finished our senior years in high school and off to colleges we all went. One last ditch effort to try and stay in the music world was when we started a new group called Brave New World. That group was way ahead of its time though and never really caught on, due mostly to our impending college departures.

I am not sure where all the members have gone but I am trying to trace them and would like to see them again if at all possible. Members of our group moved on to other careers. I must say that all of them made my life much richer by playing a big part of my musical career. I still enjoy playing our record and remember all the places we played. Some of the clubs are still in existence after 40 years. And yes, I still have the fire to play thanks to them.

Many thanks to my “way back when” neighborhood friend Len Hamilton who encouraged me to play drums and was instrumental in getting me started in local bands.

Johnny Johnston
Cradock High School, Class of 1968
Portsmouth VA

The Regents notice of Disc-o-Ten show
Announcement of Disc-O-Ten show, May 11, 1968, from left: Bob Hill, Robbie Pond, Jeff Paul, Johnny Johnston (with drumsticks), Sumner Bell (at the organ), Jimmy Finnegan, Richard Phelps and Lou Flowers.

The Regents Featuring Mel Gaines’ by Dr. Sumner Bell

Portsmouth, Virginia. AM Radio covers the hits. WRAP. Vinyl 45s. Segregated Schools. Protestant – Catholic. Camelot President. Black – White…..”The times they were a changin”Fast forward to the Fall of 2001: A road trip with my college aged son, Joe, on a Friday night jogged some memories. ‘Invisible Downtown’ packs up its gear in a car in Boston heading for a 9:30 pm gig at the Yale University Women’s Center. Unlike my early band days, the car is driven by the lead guitar player and not one of the fathers. But it seems just like old times, I am with the band in the back seat wondering what the first set will be.

But, times have changed. My son Joe, the rhythm guitar and song writer is riding shotgun. This is no cover band – only original stuff. I’m along for the ride in the back seat, trying to remember what it was that got me interested in bands. We unload and ‘Invisible Downtown’ plays the set. One thing catches my eye as I exit the Yale Women’s Center for the last time carrying an amp and snare drum to repack for the early am drive back to Boston, and it is not what I recall from my days as an XL or Regent — a basket of condoms by the door. Not one of those band members had a bulging wallet.

“Satisfaction” – times have changed, but small bands still ride together and pack their stuff in the trunk. It seemed that I was back where I had been 35 years before; my ears were ringing all the way back to Boston.

Jimmy Finnegan, Bobby Hill and I had been friends thru elementary school. My Dad and Jimmy’s father worked together and Bobby and I went to Monumental Methodist Church; Jimmy went to St. Paul’s. Our families interacted in a variety of settings and encouraged our socialization and many developmentally rich experiences together included after school sports, Boy Scouts, trick or treating, and church before deciding on music as a shared interest and experiment. Little did we or our parents know where our shared interests would lead the boys.

I can remember playing “rock music” in 1963 or ’64 sitting at a upright piano in Jimmy Finnegan’s living room with Jimmy on a guitar…not even sure if it was electrified. Perhaps this was the only time that the keys could be heard above the guitars and soon to be added bass and drums. I think Bobby Hill next came over and may have had a guitar that he reversed the strings on so he could play left handed. Jimmy’s mom Frankie was “quietly” encouraging us. We needed a bass guitar player and Bobby took on a project — to not only learn to play the bass, but also to make one. Ken Lewis (a fellow Trucker and Methodist) subsequently joined us on drums and Andy Copley (a student at Portsmouth Catholic and natural, fantastic musician and ear) took on the bass (something he continued as a professional career across the country).

But, Jimmy loved the music and was the driving force in getting us going as the XL’s. Jimmy’s musical flame has always burned brightest. Jimmy played the St Paul’s Catholic card and we were booked at the Knight’s of Columbus with a microphone stuck inside an upright piano and plugged into one of the first little Fender amps. After our first gig I received a letter from a female fan, a first (I was hooked) and last (what went wrong?)! Eventually, we went on to play “The AB – Ambassador’s Club”, Churchland Teenage at the VFW, and many private parties.

The XL’s were authentic, but an average white band. Jimmy had a Fuzz Tone and we could play “Satisfaction”, the words being distinct enough to be heard across the Elizabeth River by Bobby’s dad Stoney. All of us were too young to drive and when Dr. Hill picked us up in his Rambler Ambassador Station wagon from Portsmouth City Park he wanted to know what WE knew about satisfaction! Not much, but we all were interested in learning as quickly and often as possible. The amps got bigger, as the boys grew to young men, got driver’s licenses and hormones.

The drama that ended the XL’s is lost to me. I think Andy Copley went on to play with a “cooler”, bigger and better band. The bitterness spurred the survivors to retool ourselves. Bobby once again stepped up to learn how to play another new instrument, the saxophone! This time he didn’t make his new found instrument but purchased it.

Retail shoppers for musical instruments visited Portsmouth Music, we haunted the pawn shops on High Street. Jeff Paul came on as our new bass player and with him we enjoyed the contacts of his dad the general manager of TV 10 and his brother Jay who served as our booking agent. I think the addition of Jeff introduced modern marketing to the guys.

Bobby was very interested in the regal sounding name, The Regents, and after some discussion of alternatives the name stuck, usually to our blue blazers, the iconic adhesive pocket logo. R&B, soul music, and beach music were the popular dance bands in southeastern Virginia. So a very practical decision was made to play what the market wanted and would pay for. Jimmy packed away his Fuzz Tone, and saved up lots of musical ideas for his future. One minor weakness that had hampered the potential of the XL’s and subsequently, The Regents, was the lack of an exceptional singer. Mel Gaines filled that need and became the “featured act” of the ever so regal “The Regents, Featuring Mel Gaines”.

Ken Lewis was the first of the original band members to graduate from high school and leave the area for college. Ken was red headed, high energy, and enjoyed swirling those drum sticks between swats at the snare. Johnny Johnston’s transition to the band as our new drummer was seamless. What a quick study!

Johnny’s good nature, sleepy smile, and steady beat assured he fit right in and quickly proved to be a valuable asset. He brought new fans and exposure to the group. The Regents didn’t miss a beat.

Bobby organized the horns into a coalition of harmonies that were extraordinary. Robbie Pond and Richard Phelps were on trumpet and Bobby and Lou Flowers played sax. They swayed and stepped to the music usually prodded by Jeff Paul’s big “axe”.

As lead singer, Mel Gaines was a few years older than the high school instrumentalists, but what we lacked in maturity he covered ever so well. Mel had patience, talent and soul and propelled The Regents from gig to gig as we developed a reputation and following from the Virginia Beach oceanfront to Capron.

Mel Gaines took the stage in a humble way usually dressed in a suit that belied his coming performance. By the end of the second set, Mel had removed his suit coat, sweat was streaming from his face and soaking his shirt, damp handkerchief clutched in his hand and singing with an intensity that was matched by the enjoyment of the listeners and dancers whom he had whipped into a frenzy.

Mr. Gaines was an unassuming man who was always dependable, hard working and on key. Mel only asked for one thing that I recall and that was for “The Regents, Featuring Mel Gaines” to play at a small club in Pughsville that was owned or managed by his relative. Mel wanted to play for his family and friends in his neighborhood and so, we did.

A talented singer, interested and competent management, receptive audiences, and teenage swagger resulted in excellent music. We all came to understand the meaning of Satisfaction and the importance of music, organization, practice, and teamwork in our lives. And, hearing your own band on the radio with Mel’s amazing voice as you traveled home as a senior in high school was way cool! Almost as cool as going on a road trip band gig with my son.

Johnny, thanks for putting this together. It has been fun for me to reminisce.


Special thanks to Johnny Johnston for his help with this page, to Jimmy Finnegan for the clipping about the record release, and to Jeff Paul for the video link.

 WAVY tape box
WAVY tape box for a Regents session
 WAVY tape box
WAVY tape box

The Regents Record Release Clipping
clipping courtesy of Jimmy Finnegan

11 thoughts on “The Regents featuring Mel Gaines”

  1. It was great seeing this page. My dad (87 years old) told me about it. I have a video of the Disco 10 performance on a CD. I will be glad to share it.

  2. Jeff, I saw your reply. Jimmy Finnegan and myself have been looking to contact you. I have some stuff I have produce to send you. If you could contact me via email I will send you my phone number and will be glad to send it to you. Email is Nice to see that you saw it on Garage Hangover. I will explain everything when we make contact.

  3. Incredible! Really brings back memories. Richard Phelps and I talked earlier this evening…haven’t seen Richard since our 20th reunion. Saw Sumner at Churchland’s reunion about 5 years ago. Great memories from Johnny & Sumner. I listened to our songs…my wife Terri didn’t know me then so she’s having difficulty relating to my previous life as a garage band rocker.


  4. I put the video of the 2 songs that we recorded in the late 1960’s it is under The Regents with Mel Gaines. However, you just need to put in the Regents and u can find it several layers down on youtube just got to look for it.

  5. Hey Jeff, thanks for putting the video on youtube. It is Great. I had the songs remasterd on put on CD. Contact me and I will send you a copy and let you know where you can get more. Thanks again Johnny J.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.