My boyhood friend and later rock and roll band-mate, Dennis Willard, posted a blog awhile back ( http://dennywillard.blogspot.com/2012/02/smooth-jazz-in-seattle.html ) that traced his musical roots. That got me to thinking that this might be a good time in my life to do the same. So, herewith is my best recollection of how playing music was a big part of my life for a period.
Other than those ubiquitous elementary school recorders, the first instrument I picked up was a trombone I inherited from my Uncle Jack. He had played, briefly, in the high school band until he got his growth spurt and then, at just over 6’, he was recruited for the basketball team. In those days (late ‘50s), a six-footer was a highly valuable commodity on a high school team. In came the hoops, out went the toots. I got the trombone as I was entering the fifth grade and I remember very clearly not being given even the basic instruction on how to hold it. My grip, for the first week of practice, was such that every couple of minutes the bell would fall off the slide assembly. After several loud crashes that interrupted the proceedings, my band director finally showed me how to hold trombone to make sure there was a good solid connection between the two important pieces of the instrument.
Despite its dents, I played that trombone through elementary school, junior high and the first year of high school. I was accomplished enough on it to sit in “first chair” beginning my sophomore year. I managed to talk my mom into buying me a new horn that year, a shiny Olds “Special” that looked something like this.
So, that horn saw me through concert band, jazz band, marching band and a non-school conglomeration called the Dixieland Group.
Left to right: Johnny Cain, me, Linn Allen Weiss,Mark Pettiford, Mike Mulvaney and Ricky Cook
Mind you this was just before the Beatles took over the universe, so playing in a band like this was not looked on as being exceedingly nerdy. It was, of course, pretty nerdy, but at the time, folk music was ascendent so Dixieland was not too far removed. Besides, we had paying gigs! We appealed to the over-fifty age group and played lots of the summer picnics put on by the VFW, Lions, Elks, and assorted churches. Dixieland was “safe” music, so we were in demand.
Linn Allen graduated in 1964 and went off to the University of Missouri, so we lost our piano player and I switched to standup bass. Here’s a photo of our new configuration. Notice we graduated from suspenders to vests and spiffy bowler hats.
I was strictly dixieland until the dying gasp of my senior year in high school. Ok, by then we had all seen the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, along with the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Chad and Jeremy, Petula Clark, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys and the Animals, but when the Approximate Thots took the stage at Monett High School talent contest in 1966, those other bands faded into the background, as did the Dixieland Group. Here’s what took their place:
I wasn’t in the group that night, but knew that I wanted to be. They didn’t have a bass player, so I went out and bought an Airline bass from Montgomery Ward, something like this one.
That bass worked long enough to get me in the band but I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t good enough for real rock and roll. After our first paying performance (probably at the Monett Casino; it was not really a casino, just a building in the city park that hosted weddings, family reunions and dances), I had enough money to get the local bank to loan me the money to buy a Fender Precision bass. Here’s a photo of the band (renamed The Water’s Edge) with me and my new bass.
Here’s a better picture of the bass:
That was a terrific instrument, but it was pretty heavy and one day, a couple of the band members and I were in a music store in Springfield, Missouri, where we were all going to college and I happened to see a Hofner bass like the one that Paul McCartney played. Now I wasn’t then, nor am I now, a fan of Paul’s but I did admire his bass, so I managed to trade the Fender for the Hofner.
During the summer of ’67, the band underwent some personnel changes. We added a new drummer and guitarist, and lost a couple of the old members along the way. Once again, we changed our name to The Ultimate Purpose.
Here’s a photo of us in action.
The lineup was Steve Vermillion on organ, Dave Boger on rhythm and vocals, John “Breeze Blues” Mitchell on drums, me with my Hofner, and Dennis Willard on lead and vocals. That configuration lasted through the summer until Dave decided to go back to Arkansas. That left the heavy vocals to Dennis and occasional fill-in vocalists. Fred Gann, who had been in the original band, rejoined for a few performances.
Our repertoire through most of this time was made up of covers of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Rascals, Cryan’ Shames, Turtles, and Buckinghams numbers, but Dennis, Breeze, Fred and I had been to see The Who in St.Louis and decided we’d add a few loud songs to the mix. Things in Viet Nam were getting increasingly heated about this time and Steve got drafted. Rather than replace the organ parts, we tried out a few guitarists, but none of them really clicked. The band became a three-piece group modeled on Cream, Jimi Hendrix and The Who. We got my mom to make us costumes like the ones Hendrix and the Beatles were wearing: Nehru jackets in bright paisley, very psychedelic.
When we started doing the new music, I decided the Hofner didn’t project quite the right style. I was in a pawn shop in Springfield one day and came across a Fender Telecaster bass, something like this one:
In keeping with the psychedelic tenor of the times, I repainted the body of the bass white and spray-painted it in neon swirls. It was a terrific bass; heavy, wide-necked, groaning through those songs like Purple Haze, Sunshine of Your Love, I Can See for Miles, and Manic Depression. During a few performances, we even “destroyed” our instruments, a la The Who. Sadly, our good times came to an end. Viet Nam and the draft were breathing down our necks. Dennis decided that joining the Navy was the prudent thing to do and I made a brief foray into draft doggerdom, going to Canada for a bit, but that’s another story entirely.
Since those heady days of rock and roll, I’ve only been an attentive and appreciative listener. No trombones or bass guitars around my house, but I do have tons of CD, tapes, original vinyl and a good Internet connection to keep music pulsing through the house. Every now and then, I even turn my stereo up to 11.