The Jerks band from Birmingham: Steve Fletcher, Dennis Wilkey, Larry Gardner, David Duke and Mike Ellis

The Jerks of Birmingham

The Jerks band from Birmingham: Steve Fletcher, Dennis Wilkey, Larry Gardner, David Duke and Mike Ellis
The Jerks, from left: Steve Fletcher, Dennis Wilkey, Larry Gardner, David Duke and Mike Ellis

Rhythm guitarist David Duke of the Jerks wrote to me about the group and sent in the photos seen here:

The Jerks were a Birmingham, Alabama band formed in the mid 60’s. The band members were:

The Jerks Vaughn-Ltd 45 I'm Leavin' YouLarry Gardner – drums
Mike Ellis – lead guitar & vocals
David Duke – rhythm guitar
Dennis Wilkey – bass guitar
Steve Fletcher – keyboards

The members came from three high schools in the East Birmingham area: Woodlawn – Steve & Larry; Banks – David & Dennis; and Mike from Erwin.

In early 1966 the Jerks recorded a record on the Vaughn-Ltd label at Ed Boutwell’s early recording studio located in a vacated church at 1st Ave North and 35th Street. The main side was “I’m Leavin’ You” with the back side a slower song “Don’t Make Me Sorry” both written by Mike Ellis. “I’m Leavin’ You” was later published in the #5 spot on Psychedelic States – Alabama in the ’60s Vol.1 (Gear Fab) and is still available on CD.

Jerks early photo April 1965
“An early picture taken in my Birmingham garage basement practicing in April 1965. This was before we added the keyboards.” – David Duke

The last addition to the band was Steve Fletcher on keyboards. The band gained popularity playing at Calico Corner, where many top chart artists performed, along with numerous Armories and high school dances throughout central Alabama. The Jerks were also winners of the Phipps Piano Co., VOX Battle of the Bands contest. The Jerks were popularly seen in their black leather outfits influenced by the British groups. The Jerks opened up for The McCoys concert in Birmingham.

McCoysSignaturesForJerks
Signatures of the McCoys

Jerks-Pizitz-Fashion-ShowThe Jerks gained early popularity in the summer of ‘65 as a big part of the Pizitz Department Store Fashion Shows in downtown Birmingham. The Jerks also performed for a publicity party with Beach Party movie stars Debby Walley and John Ashley at the premiere showing of their new movie.

During this time the band was offered to go on tour throughout the US by Warren “Billy” Wilson, promoter and agent, but declined due to the young age of the members. (Our parents had the upper hand on this decision!)

The band broke up in ’67. Dennis and Mike continued on professionally in the music industry with several other successful bands. We believe Steve continued in his family-owned business. Larry after graduating from Jacksonville State University became a successful business owner of a large nationwide window blind manufacturing and sales company based in the Birmingham area.

David Duke of the Jerks, 2015
David Duke, 2015

David joined the Alabama Air Guard for six years, pursued college and after 45 years as a Sr. Acct Sales Mgr in the industrial gases industry retired in 2015.

Over those years I played with several new bands in the 80’s and 90’s doing a 50’s-60’s-70’s music review. I still keep my collection of guitars close by to play those classic old songs of great days.

David Duke

I asked David some follow-up questions about the group:

Q. How did the band choose The Jerks for a name?

Not absolutely sure, but the song “The Cool Jerk” performed by the Capitals was released about that time along with a dance by that name and I believe that is where we heard it. I’ve been asked many times and that was all I could come up with. But we did find it to be well received and well remembered for many years after, even today.

The Jerks, from left: Steve Fletcher, Dennis Wilkey, David Duke, Larry Gardner and Mike Ellis
The Jerks, from left: Steve Fletcher, Dennis Wilkey, David Duke, Larry Gardner and Mike Ellis

I’m playing a Fender Jaguar that my father brought home and surprised me with. It was a Daphne Blue and never saw another one like it anywhere. I was very popular just from that. I think if I had kept I might have been able to retire earlier. Around the time I either went or came back from boot camp I sold it. Mike Ellis played the Fender Mustang.

Q. Did the single get local radio play?

We did get local radio play. WSGN was the most and several of the DJ really got close to us and helped us a lot.

Q. Was the east Birmingham scene distinct from other parts of town or did bands play all over?

Most all the bands in the Birmingham area played all over including cities outside of Birmingham. Birmingham being a large city was a hub for popular bands. I was very close with many other groups during this time. I was influenced by some friends in elementary school that had a band and my friend played the drums. I would listen to them around ’62 or ’63 playing many of the Ventures guitar songs. That’s when I really decided that was what I wanted to do and play. In later years that group became the Rockin’ Rebellions which became popular throughout the south.

Some of the guys I played with in early years ended up in the Daze of the Week another popular group with records. I was close and went to high school with one from the Distortions, also I was close friends with the Vikings.

I haven’t talked to any of the other Jerks band members in a while. Larry Gardner I talked to about two years ago.

Esquires of BirminghamIt took me a few years, then I got the bug from a friend I grew up with that had his band called the Esquires. We started a band together in the early ’90s and played several gigs but had a hard time keeping or finding good members. I always said I wanted to get with him again and see if we could start another band since we were both getting close to retiring. He died of a heart attack two years ago (Terry Mathews – bottom left). I guess that is why I’m really pushing myself to have some fun while I can.

Jerks-Deborah-Walley-John-Ashley
The Jerks supporting Deborah Walley and John Ashley on tour to promote their new movie Sergeant Deadhead.

Jerks-Phipps-Piano-Vox-Contest

5 thoughts on “The Jerks of Birmingham”

  1. MORE “COOL” THAN “JERKS”, BUT , IT IS A GREAT NAME , AND IT TOOK GUTS TO USE IT , AT THAT TIME. GREAT ESSAY , PHOTOS AND MEMORABILIA.

  2. I was the little brother that David would have to take with him on gigs. It was some of the greatest times of my life even though it was a challenge to my older brother David. He and the Jerks were so cool and I looked up to all of them. I worked as the lighting guy for the Esquires and it was a blast also. Not many kids my age had that kind of opportunity. I grew up fast! Lol

  3. Hey, where’s my call out? I ran the lights for the band and made sure Mike actually showed up for gigs and that his equipment was in working order. Damn, working with true genius artists is a pain in the butt. Great memories about traveling and working with and getting into fights at Krystal burgers in Roebuck at 2 AM after a show with these guys.

  4. Thanks David Duke for saving all of the clippings, photos and telling the story of The Jerks.
    Like the other guys, this band was part of my youth. Dennis Wilkey was my cousin. I’m sad to report that he passed away just two days ago (Tue 1/24/17) It was his passing that prompted me to search on his band names and to this site.
    This was a great local band! I remember seeing them in David’s basement practicing a time or two and also visiting with David’s brother Wayne, who was a friend from the neighborhood and school, in the same space.
    My brother Wayne was in anothe garrage band (The Magnificent Hump) that practiced in the basement of the house next door to the Duke’s house.
    As David Williams mentioned, I too ran the lights for the Esquires a time or two. Terry Matthews lived accross the street from our house and his younger brother Randy was a friend of mine. I’m also sad to hear of Terry’s passing. I heard his father, Jim, also passed recently. He was the Manager for their band and a real drivimg force for them.
    Great trip down memory lane!

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