Mar 21, 2020
Bio by Rich Tupica, Lansing City Pulse
Tonto & the Renegades and the Beaux Jens were admitted rivals in their small town. The two Grand Ledge High School bands would play various parties, venues and battle of the bands, although they never shared a bill.
Gary “Tonto” Richey, bassist/vocalist of Tonto & the Renegades, recalled only brief encounters with their rivals outside of school. “I think I only saw the Beaux Jens play once or twice,” Richey said. “One of those times was at a party at Toby Bates’ (of the Beaux Jens) house. We were busy playing our own shows on Friday, Saturday and sometimes more — so was their band.”
Tonto & the Renegades’ story started much like their neighboring Lansing bands. Terry Slocum, guitarist and vocalist for the band, recalled a pivotal moment in his life. “In 1964 I was 14 years old, that’s when I first saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan,” Slocum said. “I played clarinet at that time, and I thought, ‘Man, this thing has to go!’ So I went down to Marshall Music and traded it for a guitar.”
The band, which also included Tom Kirby (drums), Bill Ford (guitar/vocals), Jeff Keast (organ), and later Dave Pung (organ), started practicing in Richey’s parents’ basement in 1964. It wasn’t long before they were winning multiple battles of the bands and becoming favorites in the Michigan teen circuit.
One of the popular teen clubs, The Sceen (near Sunfield, southeast of Lake Odessa), was frequented by most Lansing bands, as well as the Beaux Jens and Tonto & the Renegades. The club owner, Don Trefry, even financed 45s for the Grand Ledge bands under the record label name Sound of the Sceen.
Today, those 45s are highly collectable and fetch hundreds on eBay from buyers across the globe, selling for hundreds of dollars. Garage vinyl collectors mainly seek out Tonto & the Renegades' “Little Boy Blue” single, a 1967 fuzzed-out garage anthem. Slocum said he wrote and sang it for Vicky Schnepp, his then-girlfriend. The song was later featured on the second volume of the wildly influential “Back From the Grave” compilation on Crypt Records.
But back in the 1960s, the band’s cover tunes were the band’s top attraction. “Back then, it was all about the covers,” Kirby said. “You didn’t get acceptance for your originals until you proved yourself to people — they had to like you. People came to dance, so they wanted music they knew, and they wanted it to sound how they knew it. Not that you couldn’t make it your own, but it had to be solid. After our records were on the radio and the band was well known, we could throw in our originals and people would be happy.”
Eventually the band’s song “I Knew This Thing Would Happen” charted locally on WILS. The band’s second (and final) single featured polished tunes written and produced by Dick Wagner of the Bossmen, The Frost and Alice Cooper’s band.
In the 1960s, popular radio wasn’t exclusive to major-label stars. If a local DJ happened to dig a local band’s single, he would play it, sometimes boosting it to a local hit. Both WILS and WJIM would play local singles. As local radio picked up on the Tonto singles, so did major record labels, including Decca and Columbia.
“We were about to sign with Columbia,” Kirby said. “We were going to take the deal because they offered us a national tour, $10,000 advance and they were going to distribute our record nationally. They were the best of the five offers.”
While the record deal was in the works, Kirby was sent a letter from the United States government: He was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1969, which ended Kirby’s music career. "It killed it. The war killed Tonto & the Renegades,” Kirby said. “After I did three tours in Vietnam, I never went back to playing. I got home in the early 1970s and got on with my life. Gary and Terry were off playing with other people.”
While the band never signed a major deal, in 2008 “Little Boy Blue” was named the #14 Top Song by Michigan Rock and Roll Legends — along with other inductees such as Marvin Gaye, Bob Seger and Del Shannon. In 2012 Tonto & the Renegades were inducted into the Michigan Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of Bob Seger and Ted Nugent.
Also, in 2002, all four of the band’s recordings were compiled on a 45 by Misty Lane Records, an Italian label.