Rock and Roll Memoir #2

"The Thunderbirds"

When I was 13 a neighbor showed me his new electric guitar. It was an off brand electric, baby blue cheapo with lots of buttons and knobs and terrible action, an intriguing beast that had me green with envy. I persuaded him to lend it to me overnight. I stood in front of the mirror with it. I picked at it, strumming the open chord, picking the open strings. Lo and behold, I discovered that if you picked the first string repeatedly it sounded like the opening to "I’ve Had It" by the Bell Notes. I got out the record and fiddled all night eventually mastering most of the opening solo. Fun indeed, I asked for my own guitar.

We had a family friend, a local cop who played guitar. Evidently he owed my Dad some money so he was enlisted for lessons, kind of a barter deal. He brought me my first guitar, a sunburst Harmony acoustic with F holes. The action was a little rough, but I loved it. (I later ripped this baby apart and used the neck to build a copy of Bo Diddley’s winged guitar). Although I only lasted through a few lessons, it turned out to be quite a useful experience as he taught me the basic open position chords and the entire guitar part to "Honky Tonk" by Bill Doggett. From there I could play most of the blues oriented rock songs in the keys of E, A and C. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were my favorites.

I met Bob Muller in detention hall. I would get in trouble for various crimes; having my hair too long, having taps on my shoes, or opening my mouth at the wrong time. I knew Bob had a four piece Rock and Roll band called the Clef Tones; Bob on drums, two guitars and a sax. One of the guitarists was Michael Nouri, who went on to a successful acting career (Flashdance). Dick Garratt eventually performed with Grand Ol' Opry mainstay, The 4 Guys, and toured with the likes of Charlie Pride, Hank Williams Jr. and Jimmy Dean. The Clef Tones did mainly instrumentals like Rebel Rouser and Honky Tonk (hey, I know that) and played at the school dances and talent shows. Bob and I hit it off immediately and soon Bob called and asked me to replace Michael in the band. I think they had the same girlfriend. At the time I had the Chickenpox and had to decline. I was crushed, knowing that they would surely find another player. But when I recovered the job was still open and I nervously attended my first band rehearsal in Bob’s basement. I got the job, Bob got the girl, and Michael Nouri became famous.

Bob was definitely cool. He had painted sillouhettes of musicians on the walls of the basement, augmented by the album covers of "Here’s Little Richard", "One Dozen Berries" and others. I felt right at home. There was a ‘46 Ford in the garage with glo-in-the-dark flames on the hood. A glittering Thunderbird logo graced the bass drum head. The band had been renamed The Thunderbirds. I knew three chords and they taught me the fourth...really all you needed to play 90% of the songs in 1958. After the first practice the sax disappeared and we emerged as a three piece.

Competition was stiff at Tenafly High School. There was Willie Nelson and the Dukes (Ricky’s cousin), who was handsome and popular and he had a first rate band. He even had a record ("No Dough"). The Impalas had quite a singing team in Bill Markell and Gary Wright. They did exciting two part renditions of Hank Ballard’s "Annie" songs, and it had a great influence on us. We had a tragedy in our school when three seniors slid off a road on wet leaves, killing two of them. Gary Wright was in the sole survivor. Shortly thereafter there was a Rock show at the High School and Gary performed, although he was obviously still in shock. It was quite a dramatic scene. Little did we know that he would go on to stardom with Spooky Tooth. The Rhythm Jesters were led by Don Cass, a cat who could play piano exactly like Jerry Lee Lewis! From neighboring Bergenfield was a band called "Red" Brown and the Rockin’ Saints, a really professional act that would later spawn the Royalteens and then the Knickerbockers- named after Knickerbocker Road in Tenafly. We were a bit younger than all of these groups and somewhat intimidated by it all. We sang all the great songs in the basement, but were too shy to sing in public. We stuck to the rock instrumentals of the day, pieces by Duane Eddy, Johnny and the Hurricanes, Link Wray, and an occasional original. I had a decent twangy guitar arrangement of Exodus. At our first talent show at Tenafly High we closed with "Woo Hoo", by the Rockateens. During the drum breaks, Bob got off the drums and worked his way to the front and did a split to climax the show. The kids went crazy and the principal closed the curtains on us in the middle of the song. Success at last!

Bob and I worked weekends at my Dad’s restaurant and there was a kitchen man who would sing as he washed. Ervin Artis knew all the great R&B songs of the time. We invited him to a practice and we immediately became Little Erv and the Thunderbirds. During an audition at the Casino at Seaside Heights NJ, Erv asked a white girl to dance and he was asked to leave. We packed up and walked with him. He was really pissed and we felt terrible. That was our taste of what black performers were enduring all over the country, with the white audience clamoring for the music, but the racist establishment fighting it all the way.

When Bob’s Dad was transferred to California, the band broke up, but he returned two years later. We reformed as the Rahgoos, which later became Gandalf.

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