Mar 12, 2020
Lansing’s 1960s garage band scene retrospective
written back in 2011)
Soon after Feb. 9, 1964, Lansing area teens began filing into Marshall Music in search of guitars, organs, amplifiers and drum kits. Those school kids had just witnessed the Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" — and they wanted to experience the energy of live rock 'n' roll.
Thanks to Beatlemania and the British Invasion, the mid-1960s saw the birth of garage bands across the map: Lansing was no different. Crew cuts grew into mop tops and teenagers were picking up instruments for the first time — each musician doing his or her best impersonation of the British Invasion bands ruling the charts.
While the sound from these bands’ tube amps may seem primitive by today’s standards, make no mistake: These teen bands could rip through a set of danceable Top 40 rock covers. Every weekend the bands would play wild shows across the state, often held at teen clubs, battles of the bands, frat parties, high school dances and VFW halls. They’d have huge crowds dancing to the latest crazes, as well as their own three-chord, organ-heavy originals.
Toby Bates, organ player of The Beaux Jens, a Grand Ledge band, said the garage bands’ live shows and original recordings were full of primal energy. “We all kind of formed this raw sound, it was teaming with energy,” Bates said. “It was primitive, with a lot of screams. We’d put a big, long scream in a lot of songs. That scream was the signature of that garage band era. That would get the crowd screaming. This was the first time a lot of kids heard this stuff live. They got revved up, too. It was wild, crazy and loud. It was fun.”
The teen club fad would only last a few years, approximately the same amount of time as the bands that performed in them. The 1970s would make both obsolete. However, in their heyday, top Lansing bands like the Ones, New Paris Bakery, the Plagues, the Ferraris, the Woolies, the Saharas, the Assortment and the Chancellors were playing packed shows every weekend, recording singles and getting them played on local radio stations. A majority of the bands also played on “Swing Lively,” a local television show that featured live performances from local bands.
For four years (1964-1968), high schoolers were dressed in their best stage attire and on top of local dance scenes across the map. The beginning of this era was a transitional period for popular music. While a coffee house folk music trend continued to thrive, rock 'n' roll concerts were still a fairly new phenomenon — and the kids were going crazy for them.
To accommodate this demand for live concerts, teen clubs began sprouting up all over the country. Lansing had The Incline and Hullabaloo, which were two of the top spots in the city. Lansing even had a local studio where teen bands would record.
The Ferraris and the Plagues both recorded at Don Lee Studios, which was located at 1438 E. Michigan Ave. However, the bulk of the Lansing bands, as well as the groups from the Grand Rapids scene, recorded singles at Fenton Records’ Great Lakes Recording Studio in Sparta, which doubled as a movie theater. The studio was owned and operated by producer Dave Kalmbach.
Bruce Reinoehl, rhythm guitar player for The Chancellors (1965-1967), an Okemos/ East Lansing band, said his band (which was formed by vocalist/organ player Jim Ovaitt) would make the hour-and-a-half drive to Sparta to record a couple of original tunes. “Listening now, it sounds fairly primitive,” Reinoehl said. “Now you can overdub and triple-track instruments. Back then, at the studio in Sparta, you had one chance and everyone in the band had to play it right at the same time. By the time we recorded our single ‘Dear John,’ which was played on local radio, I didn’t want to hear it again. It took us a couple days to get that one right.”
Bill Malone, lead singer and bassist for The Plagues (1964-1967), said the Plagues spent almost every weekend touring across the state, putting on its best “mini-Beatles concert.”
“We were basically a Beatles band to start with,” Malone said. “We did all Beatles tunes. Then we started branching out. We also liked the Byrds and the Animals. It wasn’t long after our first show at Everett High School that we played Waverly Junior High School — we nearly started a riot,” Malone recalled. “It was like something out of ‘Hard Day’s Night.’ We had a big local following; there were about 300 kids in our fan club.”
The Plagues, which also consisted of Van Decker (lead guitar), Phil Nobach (drums) and James Hosley (rhythm guitar), could fly through a set of Beatles covers and other Top 40 hits like “Louie, Louie,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The band’s original tune, “Through This World,” charted locally on WILS, then a popular AM pop station in Lansing. The band also opened a Lansing show for the Young Rascals.
“We were very energetic and enthusiastic,” Malone said. “We were funny and goofy on stage. We’d rock it out like teeny-bop rockers. We’d put on a show. Our story is very much like the movie ‘That Thing You Do!’ I laugh every time I see it.”
Hosley, the band’s rhythm guitarist, said shows often drew 75 to 200 teens, who would be seen coming and going throughout the night. “They couldn’t have alcohol in the club, but some would drink before they got there,” Hosley said. “People would stop in, hang out for awhile, and then they’d find a party and leave. They’d come and go — a group of people would leave, then more would show up — it seemed like it was rotating all night.”
After the Plagues broke up in 1966, Malone briefly fronted another Lansing garage band, the Frightened Trees. He then permanently relocated to California in April 1967. Malone began a job at Don Post Studios where he molded masks for films, including the Michael Myers mask for the classic 1978 film “Halloween.” He later became a director, with a resume that includes the 1999 remake of “House on Haunted Hill.”
The other Plagues stayed in Lansing. Decker, Nobach and Hosley began working to reform a band in the fall of 1966. With the addition of Scott Durbin and, later, Steve Allen, the band became the Plain Brown Wrapper. Decker said Plain Brown Wrapper, which broke up in 1974, was more experimental than the Plagues.
“The Wrapper was influenced by American groups like the Beach Boys, Motown and some jazz artists.” Decker said. “(The sound) had a lot to do with Scott Durbin, who was an experienced jazz musician. Scott's trumpet playing and piano talents made it possible to explore a much wider variety of styles, which carried over into our original material.”
Before breaking up, the Plagues recorded three singles, one of which is the catchy and fuzzy garage rocker “I’ve Been Through It Before.” It’s now highly collectible and has sold for over $700 on eBay. Today, by chance, Malone, Decker and Hosley all live in California.
The rival to the Plagues was another local band of teens, the Ones. After founding members/brothers Kevin Nicholoff (bass) and Kerry Nicholoff (organ) recruited the dynamic lead vocalist and guitarist Danny Hernandez (who passed away in 2000 at age 53), the Ones quickly became Lansing’s biggest sensation.
The Ones, which also included drummer Mark Boomershine, toured the circuit, packing in huge crowds at each stop. The band primarily played covers of soul hits — and Hernandez had the perfect voice, guitar skills and stage presence for the job.
“We were doing James Brown stuff because Danny could do it,” Kerry Nicholoff said. “He was a great showman and guitar player. He’d drop down to his knees and all that. That’s what he did. His whole family were great musicians.”
Loren Molinare of the classic Lansing rock 'n' roll band the Dogs, which formed in 1969, recalled growing up in the Lansing teen scene and witnessing the brilliance of Hernandez and the Ones at the Armory on Washington Avenue.
“Danny was kind of like the Hispanic James Brown with a guitar — he was quite the showman,” Molinare said. “People take that stuff for granted now. Back then, rock 'n' roll was still fresh and new. Bands actually made money back then. Live music was a big deal. There was no MTV or Internet, so when a band came to town it was a big deal. It was a different world.”
Dave Cripe, who played in the Back Alley, a 1960s Lansing band, recalled seeing Hernandez perform in a group prior to the Ones. “Danny was fantastic, just unbelievable. I saw him when he was in a band called Pepe & the Problems,” Cripe said. “My cousin, who was a little older than me, took me over to a dance that was in the Frandor parking lot. I thought he was fantastic then. But the Ones — they were like celebrities in Lansing. They still are to our class at Everett High School.”
Aside from clubs, dances and concerts, the Ones played a seven-night-a-week gig at the Metro Bowl in Lansing, which was then a hip bowling alley and night club. That gig is where the band honed its stage show and perfected what would later be its signature tune.
“You Haven’t Seen My Love” hit the charts in late 1967, and later took off across the region in early 1968. The song featured lyrics by Hernandez and was produced by “Boogie” Bob Baldori of the Woolies at Fenton Records. Kerry Nicholoff, who wrote the classic organ riff on the tune, recalled being surprised by the reaction to the epic love ballad. Nicholoff said he vividly recalls recording the track.
“I’d say Bob Baldori, who produced it, was behind the sound,” Nicholoff said. "He instilled a concept of dynamics in us. You can tell when you listen to it that there are a lot of dynamics going on. The volume goes up and down in certain areas of the song. When a new verse would come in, everyone would drop down to a whisper on the instruments — that was Bob’s influence on us. He always pushed the idea of dynamics, and it showed on that record when I listen to it today.” Soon, the Lansing band was riding high on a huge success.
“It went to No. 1 in Lansing,” Nicholoff said. “They were playing it on all the stations non-stop. We’d sit outside on a summer night, and it seemed like the record was on every half hour. Then it started playing in Grand Rapids and other cities in the area. Then we started getting calls from just about every record label.”
The song, originally released by local labels Spirit and Fenton, soon got picked up and distributed by Motown Records — a first for a non-Motown-produced act. The record deal led to additional Motown singles and a tour, which included one date opening for Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
By 1969, the Nicholoff brothers left the band. Hernandez continued to perform as Danny Hernandez & the Ones with a rotating cast of members for a number of years. Later lineups included Hernandez’s nephew Ronnie Hernandez (of the New Paris Bakery), as well as local musicians Tom Taylor, Gary Pitchford, Gary Melvin and Brad Hersey.
Another hot act in the ‘60s Lansing scene was the Woolies. The band saw national success and worked with Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Stevie Wonder and Chuck Berry.
The Woolies, led by “Boogie” Bob Baldori, made a mark far beyond Michigan. Baldori moved from Dearborn to East Lansing in 1961 to attend Michigan State University. His early bands, Maury Dean & the Nightshift and the Mongers, would be a precursor to a life-long career in blues-inspired rock-nroll. Baldori also founded Spirit Records in the mid-1960s, a local label with a catalog of over 30 records.
While most local bands were digging the British Invasion, Baldori said the Woolies, which also included the younger Baldori brother, Jeff, were more influenced by the roots of American music. “We were locked into early blues,” Baldori said. “We did a lot of Robert Johnson and Chicago, urban rhythm and blues. Basic rock is what we called it.”
Upon arriving in East Lansing, Baldori became heavily involved with the then-lackluster East Lansing rock scene. He was even a part of a club called the Fat Black Pussycat, which was home to the local booming folk music circuit that booked big-name singers like Pete Seeger. But soon enough, the Woolies, and rock 'n' roll in general, would take up all his time.
Baldori, a lawyer who still lives in the Lansing area, recalls watching downtown East Lansing grow into a musical hot spot. “When I got here, East Lansing was dry,” he said. “The closest place to play was Coral Gables, so we’d play there all the time. But when bars opened in East Lansing it became a mecca for music in Michigan. We played all the bars there. There would be 10 bands working in two or three blocks of downtown. We’d play Lizard’s (now Rick’s American Cafe) every Thursday for a long time. Then we switched to Sunday nights.”
While his band played in the same area as the Ones and the Plagues, Baldori said his band was part of a different scene. “We were more plugged into the regional scene,” Baldori said. “We traveled a lot. We’d even played gigs in California. Then we hooked up with Chuck Berry in 1966 and played all over the country with him. We also recorded two albums with him. We are still great friends with him. I played with him at his 80th birthday a few years ago.”
The Woolies’ biggest hit was a cover of “Who Do You Love.” Originally released as a single in 1966, the song later found its way onto Rhino Records' "Nuggets" box set, an acclaimed collection of 1960s garage singles.
“It went to No. 1 in a few markets,” Baldori said. “It was a big deal. The reason it didn’t score nationally is because back then it took forever to spread across the country. It was a hit in Boston, Miami, Los Angeles — but not all at the same time. It was spread out between ‘66 and ‘67. I still go to cities and people remember it being a No. 1 hit. It was breaking in regional charts, but had it broke all at once, it could have been bigger.”
While the Ones and the Woolies saw the most national success out of the capital city bands, a number of other talented local bands performed at many of the same clubs throughout the city and state.
The Ferraris were formed in 1965 by twin brothers Hector and Victor Juarez when they were 14 years old. “Before the Beatles influenced us, we were fond of the Beach Boys — that’s what started it for us,” Hector Juarez recalled. “We heard '409' and wanted to have a singing group. Then a year later the Beatles hit on Ed Sullivan, and that’s what got us into guitars and playing music.”
Like the Beatles, the Ferraris used Vox brand amplifiers, bought by the twins’ supportive father and manager, Mario Juarez, who booked the band’s shows and drove them to gigs. Juarez said even at their young age, the band worked hard and played shows every weekend.
“Being only 14, we had these high falsetto voices. It sounded pretty cool,” Juarez said. “We’d pick harder songs to play. We’d do ‘Along Comes Mary’ by the Association. We’d play the Young Rascals, all the hits of the day.”
Aside from winning a battle of the bands in 1968 and playing countless packed shows at “young adult” dances at the Jack Tar Hotel (hosted by Erik OFurseth, a popular WILS DJ), a high point in the Ferraris’ career was working with Stevie Wonder in 1967 at the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing, where young Stevie was attending classes.
“We were with Stevie for a week,” recalled Juarez. “It was a music clinic for the kids at the school. For the first two days we met with Stevie and talked with blind kids about music. At the end of the week all these musicians from Motown came and we played a big show on Friday night. “That Sunday Stevie came over to our house for a chicken dinner and we jammed in the living room.”
The Ferraris would play until early 1970 when the Juarez brothers were drafted into the Vietnam War. The two spent their time deployed in Europe.
TONTO & THE RENEGADES:
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.
THE BEAUX JENS:
Formed in March 1966, the Beaux Jens were the other side of Grand Ledge teen rock until they broke up in July 1968.
The band’s original song “She Was Mine” (originally released on Sound of the Sceen) has become an underground classic after being featured on the third volume of “Back From The Grave.” The sporadic screams and haunting organ sets it apart from other cheery tunes of the times.
Toby Bates, the band’s organ/coronet player, recalls the band’s humble genesis. “We didn’t know shit,” Bates said. “Tim Schram was the musical leader because he actually knew chords. At the beginning of the band we were still learning how to play. We were only 15 or 16 at the time.”
However, after a rigorous practice-andshow schedule, the musicians developed into an energetic and solid live band. “I think we were pretty intense. Between Gordy Garris (bass/vocals) and Joe Panessidi (drums) we had two very energetic performers on stage,” Bates said. “We were an energetic show and very fast-paced. We didn’t fool around between songs. We were on it. Joe was a ball of fire twirling his drum sticks around, jumping up and down, laughing and smiling.”
Bates said the band, like the other busy garage bands, juggled school and being local rock stars. “None of us were great students,” Bates said. “The more success we got as a band, the more we all kind of fizzled out on academics. But we had a great following at our high school. Along with our rivals, Tonto & the Renegades, we were all in the same circle. After we released the 45, we had a fan club between Grand Rapids and Flint.”
The party soon ended when Garris left the band and hooked up with a Michigan guitar legend.
“When we lost Gordy, our bass player, to Dick Wagner’s band, The Frost, it was the beginning of the end. We tried to replace Gordy with two people, and it still didn’t work,” Bates said. “So two months later it all fizzled out and everyone went their own directions.”
END OF AN ERA, 1968:
With the escalating Vietnam War, and the emerging drug culture, the teen scene’s days were drawing to a close. Suddenly, young adults weren’t interested in dancing to happy tunes anymore, a more progressive sound began to develop.
The release of the Beatles' psyched-out "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" and the birth of an array of progressive bands changed people’s perspective of music. Teen-scene band members eventually abandoned their instruments, or were swallowed into the long-haired and bearded world of experimental rock.
Jim Joseph, who managed the Ones, recalled a transformation with audiences. Crowds went from happy dancing teens to lethargic hippies. “The Ones were always a dance-oriented group,” Joseph said. “The groove was everything. They wanted people to move; that was the thing back then. We played Daniel’s Den in Saginaw, and everyone was dancing their asses off. Then all of a sudden in 1969 things changed. Next time we played Daniel’s Den everyone was sitting on the floor wanting to hear a rock concert. Suddenly R&B and dance-influenced bands were not popular anymore.”
Bands like the Moody Blues and other prog-rock innovators had taken over. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the “garage rock revival” happened that young people began to appreciate the teen-scene sound. Mid-1980s garage compilations, like “Back From the Grave,” would also regenerate an interest in the primitive sounds of the past.
Forty-five years later the bands mentioned in this story aren’t playing shows (aside from The Woolies), but the recordings are still available on CD and vinyl. “Scream Loud! The Fenton Story,” a 2007 CD/LP compilation, specifically documented the Lansing and Grand Rapids area teen scene. The collection features an array of Lansing bands that recorded at the studio. “Scream Loud!” is available at Flat, Black & Circular in East Lansing. - by Rich Tupica
For more information on Lansing '60s Garage Bands, visit: www.facebook.com/lansinggaragebands