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!)
Our first name, “The Six Transistors,” sucked big time. Plus, we fired the fifth guy (who played coronet – badly);The sixth member was Eddie Parker, a saxophonist, whom we later gave the boot due to truly stupid reasoning on our part (We didn’t realize Eddie was an excellent keyboardist, but a real band in Florence soon benefited from his talents). We came up with a new name after rendezvousing with Eddie in the little crossroads community of Trio (pronounced TRY-O) during one of our late-night soirees. Trio is exactly halfway between Andrews and Lane, so during a Peach wine induced haze, “The Trio Conspiracy” was born.
With the public debut under our belt, things began to roll right along. We weren’t really all that good – but in the small town of Andrews, we had a proverbial ace up our collective sleeves: true, we weren’t the best; but we were the only band around.
Now, in all truthfulness, we actually did get better. Then again, it would have been impossible to get any worse.
We played relatively steady for school events like sock hops, assemblies, and the good ol’ standby – beauty pageants. Our set list of 20-25 songs remained pretty much the same for a year or so, as we honed our skills and began to nail down the arrangements (which, after about two years, seemed only fair).
I was really happy with our progress. I had learned an additional dozen or so chords on my Tesca Del Ray cherry sunburst double pickup guitar, which Santa brought to me direct from the Bennett Brothers of Chicago mail-order catalog. “T” was handling guitar and keyboard duties, as well as splitting time with me on lead vocals. Prior to his departure, Eddie really was a great sax player. Ron wasn’t trying to be Keith Moon or anything, but he was – and I avow to this day – the steadiest drummer I ever worked with. Van was probably the most technically attuned of us all: he built his amplifier (straight from the Heathkit Catalog), and he actually studied the art of bass lines: picking up cues from songs on the radio, and reading up on interviews with renowned bassists and songwriters in all the trade publications.
Our coming of age was signaled when – during a practice where learning someone else’s song wasn’t going very well – we stumbled onto a riff. It sounded sorta cool, and we kept finagling around it, trying it this way and that way. After a while, we started putting it in order, using all of the accidental attempts we had tried. Without meaning to, we had crossed over into the realm of creativity.
We had written original material – a song.
It was an instrumental. It was only three chords. And the guitar lead was three notes picked down scale on each measure, then picked up scale on the next measure, and finally strummed staccato on the last stanza. It was – undoubtedly – the lamest, weakest, most annoying little ditty ever composed in the annals of musical composition history.
But, baby, it was all ours.
We called it “428,” an homage to Ford’s muscle-car engine of the day (O.K., so we weren’t very deep when it came to inspirational fodder for songwriting).
Now the floodgates were open, and we struck while the iron was hot. We ripped off a riff from Little Stevie Wonder for a trumpet-lead tune called “Brass Revolution.” (In an ironic twist, I’m sure Stevie would have found it quite revolting.) We “borrowed” another hook from Three Dog Night’s “Chest Fever” to pound out an untitled organ-guitar-bass-percussion fiasco that featured our first “way-too-long-jam” in the middle. It actually bordered on being psychedelic – but at the time, the closest we ever got to drugs was when we had a really far-out, grilled-cheese sandwich and Pepsi at Reynold’s Drug Store’s soda fountain after practice.
Well, now there was no getting around it. We needed to put these classic tracks down on tape for posterity and fortune. But in Andrews, quality tape recorders were a rarity – and if one existed, it was a luxury item that no one would ever let us near.
I might not have been all that bright, but I was imaginative. The AM radio station over in Hemingway, WKYB, was the Top 40 listening choice of the “in crowd” in Andrews, circa late ‘60s. I remembered listening to this big hype job from some band near Florence who had recorded a song in the station’s studio. WKYB played that song for weeks – getting the top votes on “Listener’s Choice” at 5:00 p.m. every day – from their legion of loyal fans. And, of course – in all modesty – we were much better than those guys.
First, I received permission from my parents to place a long distance phone call from our home land-line phone (There were no cell phones before the wheel was invented, kids,) since I needed to call the station for my next move. Hey, the charge for that call – all the way past Hooterville over to Hemingway, spanning every bit of 23 miles – was probably around $1.50, in late ’60s money. That’s like $21.00 now.
Then, I mustered up all the courage I possessed – at the time, quite an accomplishment for a shy, low-esteem, underachiever like myself – and called the station, using my best “older-sounding-adult” voice. The secretary connected me with their Program Director, G. Stephen Green, who was also the afternoon drive D.J.. Everyone listened to his show – because, well, we were in school the rest of the day, and KYB went off the air at sundown – so when it came to radio, it was him or nothing.
It felt like my heart stopped as I took a deep breath before I began to speak. I must have really hoo-dooed this guy with “the voice,” because he became very excited when I enquired about using their facilities for recording. Yes!, he would be happy to let us pay him for his time after they went off the air. Yes!, any night the next week would be just fine. I negotiated a fee (I think it was $25, which was equal to about $1,000 in today’s inflated currency), thanked him for his time, and hung up. Finally, I exhaled, and felt my chest pound again.
Then I jumped up and down while running around the house, screaming in pure joy for 15 minutes; ran to the bathroom, and threw up several times. Then I called the guys and told them our recording session was set, and they all repeated the routine in the safe confines of their own homes.
The next week, we borrowed a van (another milestone in band maturation), and talked my brother – seven years my senior – into driving us over to the studio in Hemingway. Upon arriving, we were a bit perplexed by the station’s meager size. In our fertile minds, we had visions of Radio City Music Hall grandeur as our recording Oz. Comparatively, this place was more like an outhouse.
However, that quickly dissolved when we entered the lobby. With my brother leading the way – and effectively shielding us from view – we spotted Mr. Green thru the studio’s glass partition, as he “ramped” the time and weather while cuing the next song on the turntable. Festooned with wire-rimmed glasses and a beatnik goatee, he broke into a big smile and excitedly waved us on into the booth. As we entered single-file, he snatched off his headphones and rushed over to my brother, engaging him in an animated handshake.
“It’s a real pleasure to meet you, Brian,” he gushed, “After dealing with these kids around here, I’m really looking forward to working with guys that are true hipsters.”
My brother, who possesses an acridly dry wit, stepped aside and waved his hand toward us. “Well, that’s great, but I’m not Brian. Meet the hipsters, bud.”
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to listen to the winning lottery numbers being announced, and having each one match your card, right up until that last, horribly incorrect number?
Well, that’s the look that came over Mr. Green’s face when he gazed upon the five of us, as we grinned like proverbial Cheshire cats. “Hey, Joe,” Eddie squealed, “really looking forward to working with you, too!”
To his credit, once resigned to having another group of kids in his studio, the guy actually did make us feel welcome. He led us into a tiny little room beside the main studio, separated once again by a large window. There was an old standup piano in there, and a few mic stands. It was barely bigger than a closet.
But to us, it may as well have been fabled Sun Records or Motown.
We lugged in our gear and began setting up, per his instructions, between records. For some reason, we decided to pick up on Eddie’s moniker and called him “Joe” all night long.
“Hey, Joe, is this where I plug in?” “Oooo, Joe, do you have any free records we can have?” “What does this button do, Joe?”
As the final strains of “Theme from Summer Place,” WKYB’s official “going-off-the-air-background-music-while-the-station’s-FCC-required-signoff-info-drones-on,” played out through the studio monitors, “Joe” pushed his glasses back on his balding head, furrowed his brow, and wheeled his chair around to face us, cuing the intercom mic and motioning to the big clock above the mixing console. “O.K., you guys have two hours, and only two hours. Any questions?”
For a moment, silence. Then Eddie leaned over to the nearest mic. “Um, yeah, Joe … you got any beer?”
“Joe” looked over at my brother, who was in the control room with him, and smiled. “Well, they sure act like musicians, don’t they?”
The guy showed the patience of Job for the next two hours – suffering through horrendously mangled chords, muffed notes, louder-than-anything-ever-heard-drums and constant re-takes – as we played for everything we were worth, and laughed ‘til we cried. We absolutely had the best time of our entire lives.
We recorded the three instrumentals (I would give anything to have a video of the expression on “Joe’s” face during that), and then recorded our first song with lyrics. It was entitled “Marilyn,” a mushy little love song (verbosity personified, considering my extensive experience with the opposite sex – not!) that I wrote about a girlfriend with whom I had “gone steady with” for about three weeks (That was before she dumped me via a letter, while I was staying at the Airport Sheraton in Atlanta with my dad – who was now general manager of the local Ford dealership – as he attended a Ford management seminar).
Up until then, “Joe” had pushed us along like an overseer on a Medieval rowing ship. Once we got through the initial sound check, it was just “GO!,” and no other movement was employed until the song was over. But, as we played this song, he sat up from his slumped position and began twirling knobs on the console. Eddie’s sax solo really was very good, and when we finished, “Joe” cued the intercom.
“You know, that’s not a bad tune, guys. I’d like to try putting a little echo on the vocals and sax lead, though. How about we do that one again?”
We looked like deer in the headlights. “Joe” was asking us to cut another take? Up until then, it was more like “STOP! DAMMIT, START OVER!,” with lots of head shaking and muttering on his part.
I pointed to the big clock. “Our two hours are up. Do we have the time?”
“I think we can scratch that first half hour from the clock. You know, that was for setting levels and all,” he replied, allowing a slight smile to break out. “Let’s get a good take on this one.”
For the first time that night, we became serious about the task at hand. We had our first real shot of encouragement from a “pro” in the business, and it breathed confidence into our demeanor. We did a few more takes, and when “Joe” gave us the sign, we all pushed and jostled our way into the control room for the playback.
During the other songs, we listened to the playbacks through headphones. Remember, this was a little AM station that had recording equipment mainly for cutting commercials, and for Gospel singers who did a live Sunday morning broadcast accompanied by the old standup piano. But for this playback, we listened to the pro-quality studio monitors – and our jaws literally dropped.
Life Lesson #2: Your songs will never sound better than they do on the master tape playback. Even the crummy songs sounded decent through the studio monitors. But “Marilyn” was a real killer.
We loaded up our gear, thanked “Joe” and paid him, and headed home. Our songs would be played at 5:00 p.m. – on the radio – the next afternoon.
Let’s see … do you think any of us slept a wink that night?
– Next Issue –
Bigger Amps Deliver Groupies
The previous series of articles originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, 2000.