By Brian M. Howle
(Note: To bring you up to speed from the last installment: After watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I got together with my best friend, “T” Gamble, and started learning guitar. We enlisted two other friends in our endeavor: Van Wright became our bassist, and Ronnie Talbert was our drummer. We had ourselves a band, man!)
As for the absence of this column in the last issue, well, that was a work-related incident. Our computer – on which ever single letter of type, every photograph, every ad element, and tons of stuff you don’t even want to know about which goes into producing this publication – finally gave up the ghost, and up and died on us. Not a crash, not a technical glitch, not an “operator error”; it flat out zoomed on up to that great software program in the sky. As a direct result, we literally worked around the clock – rebuilding years of work while continuing to prepare the new submissions as well. Along the way, the weekly allotted time I set aside for pounding out this puppy disappeared. Now, it would have been interesting had I gone ahead and attempted to write one at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of our press deadline, after being up for three or four days. Natural fatigue and the hallucinations that accompany it make for some fine writing at times – a la Wordsworth – but that last deadline wasn’t one of those times.
In the issue before last, I began recalling the genesis of my musical career … or rather, the would-be, tried-as-hard-as-I-could, gave-it-my-best-shot attempts at making music a semi-career. In the end, it turned into a hobby with an attitude.
But in those heady early years, ahhh … that was quite another story.
After watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I got together with my best friend, Troy “T” Gamble, and started learning guitar. We enlisted two other friends in our endeavor: Van Wright became our bassist, and Ronnie Talbert was our drummer. There were a couple of other friends who tried to make the cut in the band, but it just didn’t work out. Danny Bath played coronet (long before Chuck Mangione), but there weren’t a lot of coronet-led rock & roll tunes on the charts at the time. When it came time to give him his pink slip, then manner in which we carried it out should have been a harbinger of things to come.
On the next day of practice, we rode over to his house, opened the car door, and placed his coronet case on the edge of his yard. Then we slammed the door and sped off.
Looking back on it now, it amazes me how the cutthroat and heartless nature of the beast came to us to effortlessly. We didn’t have a lick of real talent to speak of, but we were just as smarmy and goal-oriented as any other music industry moguls. And it was something that would reoccur many times over the course of my music career – including to myself – and it was never pleasant.
The other guy – a saxophonist by the name of Eddie Parker – was “let go” because he lived about twenty miles from Andrews, in the little community of Lane in Williamsburg county. Like both “T” and me, his mom was a teacher, and he had to ride home with her whenever she was through with after-school stuff – and after-school was our prime practice time. None of us were old enough to drive, so he missed a lot of practices, and we cut him loose, too. Since he never let his sax out of his sight, he was spared the roadside drop humiliation.
Oh, by the way – he soon joined The Spirals – a real band in Florence – as a keyboardist. Before long, he was playing gigs, wearing tuxes and making more money in one night than we would make as a group in a year.
Such is the fickle nature of the beast.
Well, we weren’t soothsayers, so none of this mattered to us at the time. We were consumed with getting our little band established, and in landing paying gigs that would pave our way to fame and fortune.
After we acquired a couple of electric guitars, a bass guitar, an anemic little amplifier or two, and Ronnie’s drum kit, we set about working out our arrangements of the current hits.
“Current hits” was defined as any song that contained the four to six chords that we could play.
Well, in order to chart arrangements, we had to have a place to practice. Hmmmm … now, that shouldn’t be a problem for us. Surely, our parents would just love to have the four of us in their living rooms, creating sonic death for hours on end, right?
See, it turns out, like Orwell said – some parents are more equal than other parents.
Our “anytime, anywhere, anyplace” practice mentality was swiftly converted into a “whenever-my-folks-aren’t-gonna-be-home” mentality.
But when you’re cutting your diatonic teeth, the music biz is just a series of obstacles that you overcome and conquer. And that’s a good thing, because it helps to prepare you for the constant flurry of repetitive scenarios that are inherent in the game.
Once we began to actually learn a few songs, the cold hard facts began to create impasses that we just didn’t think we’d be able to overcome. For starters, we didn’t have a single bit of P.A. equipment – not even a microphone stand. And keep in mind, we were just 11 to 13 at the time. No one was “independently wealthy,” and no one was knocking down the big bucks required to purchase a P.A. system. And as long as it took us to prod our folks into buying us our individual instruments, no one was silly enough to ask for a P.A. for Christmas. Because we knew the answer would be a question:
“Do you want Santa to get a hernia lugging that huge thing down the chimney?”
It was about this time that having three members of the band with mothers who taught at our school came into handy play.
I can’t remember exactly when we first stumbled into our good fortune. I think it was when we were asked to be the “talent” part of a program at school, most likely a beauty contest (we ended up playing at lots of beauty contests).
Well, lo and behold, it turned out that the school had a little portable P.A. that they lugged out and used for every function requiring a sound system. You remember the kind: a little tweed-covered, 50 lb. suitcase-like contraption that encased the amplifier, a turntable, the volume and tone knobs, and about three inputs for high-impedance microphones, with the detachable speaker enclosures that made up the outside covers for the power unit.
Hey, it wasn’t high-tech. It wasn’t big and impressive. It wasn’t very efficient, either; the two 10” speakers were pushing about 10 watts (your little desktop stereo “boombox” of today has 20-50 watts). It was ornery and cantankerous, requiring a 10-minute warmup for the vacuum power tubes. It would wail in holy feedback anger at mis-calibrated volume levels thru the omni-directional, high-impedance microphones, deafening dogs within a four-block radius before we managed to spin all the knobs back to “0”. But this seasoned little P.A. had the one quality that made all the other ones pale in comparison …
It was free.
I realize now just how good we had it back in those days, in our little “backwoods” Southern town; where everybody knows everybody and their children. Loaning out the school’s one and only P.A. to a bunch of rowdy little troublemakers? Try that today and see how long they laugh at you.
With the acquisition of the P.A., our impetus to be a super group was established. We could now actually hear ourselves when we sang, which was truly a heaven-sent revelation – since we sang a lot better than we played. At about this time, I learned another of those lessons that stay true throughout your life:
Life Lesson #1: Your vocals will never be louder than your drummer. Learn to deal with it.
But, doggone it, darn if we didn’t actually start getting sorta good at a few of the songs. Our set list consisted of 20 to 25 songs, tops. Of those, about 40% were Beatles tunes; 40% were “Beach Music” (rhythm & blues), and 20% were “contemporary” AM radio rock & roll. We didn’t have a very well defined musical agenda as far as content went. We just played songs in our 4-6 chord range. Any song.
After a couple of months of steady practice, we began seeking out gigs in ernest. As I said, the school became our primary venue, playing for assemblies and special events. We would spend hours setting up our meager little P.A., along with our little amps and Ron’s drum kit. We would do our “sound check,” shut it all off and then head home and get ready for the show, grooming and preening and getting that cowlick under control. Then we would don our basic gig attire: white shirts, ties, dress pants, and break out our “Sunday-go-to-church” shoes (penny loafers with the mirror-like, highly buffed sheen).
We would gather at the show at least an hour before anyone else arrived, re-setting our amps, cleaning and polishing our guitars, and always checking one last time to make sure that mic would indeed electrocute you if you touched it while keeping one hand on your guitar. When the masses began arriving, we sauntered over to the side of the gymnasium (the Stonehenge of all small-town schools was the gymnasium), trying not to look too cool for the room as we battled the butterflies and racing pulses that always struck minutes before our name was called.
Which brought up an overlooked little item in our overall game plan. We didn’t have a name.
See, depending on who you talked to, we were known as “Brian’s band,” or “T’s band,” or “Van’s band,” or “Ronnie’s band,” since we never played anywhere before. But when they came over and asked us our name so they could pencil it in for the M.C. to introduce us, we stared blankly at each other for a minute or so. The first few offerings that came up were all inappropriate titles that had us laughing hysterically at the thought of our parents’ or teachers’ reaction to such monikers. Then we noticed a little plate on one of the amps that said, “Transistorized Power Amplifier.”
Since we still had the other two guys in the band, we made our world debut as “The Six Transistors.” It’s probably debatable which was more lame – the name, or the performance. Perhaps it was an even draw.
But we were undaunted. The event began, the M.C. cheerfully welcomed all to the beautiful Andrews High School Gymnasium, and the show was on. Our heart rates went from 70 beats a minute to around 290 when the M.C. glanced over his shoulder and nodded at us while he fumbled with his notes, looking for that penciled-in name. And then, all the hard work, all the practices, dreams and fears coalesced in one heart-stopping, cottonmouth inducing, flop-sweating moment.
“Ladies and gentlemen, would you please make welcome … The Six Transistors!”
The crowd politely applauded. We strode up to our instruments, flipped a couple of switches, and looked at each other one last time with a combination of pure fear and unbridled joy, as the pop and hum of the amps buzzed in anticipation.
Then Ron counted off to four, as we launched into “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
I can only speak for myself, but for two minutes and ten seconds, the worlds of physics and metaphysics collided and merged in my brain, enrapturing me with the resulting epiphany.
The beat’s a bit fast; didn’t matter. The chord change was a bit mangled; didn’t matter. A horn note here and there that’s not in the song; didn’t matter. Constantly forgetting to not let my lips touch the microphone while playing my guitar and consequently seeing a bright, pulsating, electric Jesus every time I need; didn’t matter.
We wrought out the retarding last chords, as “T” and I harmonized the chorus to its end. As per endless rehearsal, we bowed in unison. Above the din of thunderous applause, the screams of the girls cut through like a nightingale’s call in the night.
That’s what mattered.
– Next Issue –
Behind The Scenes:
The Trio Conspiracy
The previous series of articles originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, 2000.