Around 1966, I was in a rock group that was playing its first of two career gigs at the elementary school in Lexington, Missouri, for my own third grade class. Originally called Tim & the Termites, the band later changed their name to The Presidents. Like our heroes, the Monkees, we didn't play our own instruments. I owned the snare drum, but Robby played it. Marty owned a guitar, but I played it, and on and on. One of the band member's mothers eventually insisted that each member play his own instrument, causing the band to break up. The lead singer was one Brian Eads (a future Wing Nut).
In eighth grade (1971) I bought a used drum set and was ready to play "for real." Recruiting Billy Grubb on guitar and Spark Lindhorst on bass, we still needed a singer. Enter Ballard Smith. "Genesis" (which was named before any English band by the same name was ever heard of) played at the Lexington "Pre-Teen Dances" at Teen Town, and even played the high school After-Prom on the river boat in Kansas City. Rumor has it we played "Proud Mary" five or six times, but it was probably more. At least half of our song list came from early Grand Funk Railroad albums.
Towards the end of high school, I teamed up with Andy Bryant (drums), Troy Johnson (vocals), Bobby Backs (bass), and two Wentworth Military Academy cadets playing lead and rhythm guitar. This new band, "Copperhead" had the added bonus of being able to practice in Wentworth's wrestling room. Some of my equipment still carries that smell.
One of the cadets stayed out late after a gig, and Wentworth made them both quit the band. I moved from full time keyboardist to full-time guitarist. We were one of the few bands you'd ever see go through a complete night without a single guitar solo.
The following year (1977), with Copperhead calling it quits, I decided to look to other towns for some new musicians. Finding Johnny Ehlert playing in a Nugent-inspired trio in Odessa, Mist was formed with the old Copperhead rhythm section of Andy and Bobby. Within a year, Andy was itching to switch over to guitar and he and Backs left the band. Sam Lee (bass, and future Wing Nut) and Rick Davis (drums) filled the void, with Cathy Porter later joining as a vocalist.
Mist became a regional favorite, appearing at the Missouri State Fair numerous times, and playing more high school proms and homecomings than I can remember. Over the next couple of years, we gradually had some member changes, and I got to work with some excellent musicians and singers, such as Bruce Fenimore, Tex Reynolds, Brad Wilson and Cliff Payne.
Mist finally called it a day, and I took a short break from music.
I was in college when John Lennon was killed, and I heard about plans to hold a candlelight vigil. Although I was deeply saddened by his death, I felt that the get-together should be a celebration of his music, as opposed to an evening of grieving. Four musicians that I knew had been rehearsing their new Beatles' tribute band, Yesterday, so I called them. On that chilly December night, Yesterday brought a lot of smiles to otherwise sad faces as they played on the CMSU Student Union steps.
It wasn't long until I was a member of Yesterday. I was the off-stage musician, playing whatever instrumentation the four on-stage members weren't able to play. It was a great education to listen to Beatles' records on headphones and figure out what sounds, other than the two guitars, bass and drums, were needed to fill out a song. Most of the time it was keyboards or percussion of some sort, but occasionally there would be something really fun, like the flute solo on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." Unfortunately, too many people thought that we were trying to "cash in" on Lennon's murder, and we were never able to draw big enough crowds (although we did get to play the Englewood Theater in Independence, MO).
I paused long enough to finish college and get a "real" job as a graphic artist in Mission, Kansas. I worked a full six months at CompArt before leaving to join Bonita Shortline as their sound man. This was where I got my real education about playing full time. We spent a good deal of time on the road, playing five or six nights a week. When in Kansas City (for those of you who bar-hopped in the early 80s) we could usually be found at The Lone Star in Westport, or Lucifer's (later The Night Life Lounge) in Independence. After several months I started missing actually playing music.
In the meantime, my roommate Brian had gotten together with two ex-members of Mist (Johnny Ehlert and Sam Lee) and keyboardist Tim Biesemeyer to form the hard rock band Rampage. Rampage played the circuit for eleven years, becoming extremely popular. (I did some of their promo shots, as well as the art for the cover of their second release.)
It was 1982 and I was back in Warrensburg looking for musicians to put together a full time band that could do original music, as well as covers of new wave artists and re-worked 60's tunes. I had been discussing putting a unique band together with Mark Morrison, who was a singer and songwriter - but had never been in a band. Next I went to listen to a band from Kansas City at their rehearsal - literally in a tin shed garage. Having never played anywhere other than the garage, they were ready to break up. I offered the guitarist and the drummer a spot in the band. Keith Shipman was actually the rhythm guitarist, but he was doing some of the lead vocals. The main lead singer was a girl named Terri, who was dating the drummer, Brian Vincent. Keith agreed to join. Brian also wanted to join, but only if his girlfriend could also be in the band. I had specific plans for The Razors, and I couldn't see how a female lead vocalist could fit into them. (Plus, I'd learned over the years that couples rarely work well together in bands.) So we were still searching for a drummer and a bassist.
We found the bassist, Chris Dietrich, right at CMSU. He was a freshman in a class that Mark was helping teach. He had curly hair with a long rat tail. Before class one day, Mark asked him if he was a musician. (Only a musician would have a rat tail, I suppose.) Surprisingly, he was - and he played bass. He also turned out to be better than anyone else that we'd auditioned. We went through several drummers in the early stage. Mark's younger brother, who'd just graduated high school, agreed to move to Warrensburg to play drums with us, on the condition that Mark buy him some new high hat cymbals. Mark agreed, and later told me, "After all, how much could two little cymbals cost?" He was in shock after they picked up a pair of Zildjians. And to top it off, his brother wasn't a very good drummer. He took his new cymbals and moved back home. Someone finally suggested that we check out an 18-year-old drummer from Belton, Missouri named Gary Mills. Gary fit in music-wise and personality-wise, and we finally had a full line-up.
We played originals, mixed in with covers, from the very first gig. We had two rules: 1) if another club band played a certain song, then we wouldn't play it. And 2) we wouldn't play any Lynyrd Skynyrd or ZZ Top unless our lives depended on it. Our whole plan was to be different. We cut our hair short and grew rat tails. (This was right as the hair-bands of the '80s were just getting started, so we definitely looked different.) Everything we wore, and everything on stage was black and white. We only used white stage lights, although this changed a couple of years later. And our song list? We covered Squeeze, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Marshall Crenshaw, Talking Heads, the Monkees, the Beatles more obscure tunes, the Doors - well, you get the idea. Our opening number at our first gig was "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," which we picked up off a T-Bone Burnett album.
Needless to say, people either loved us or hated us. We went over great in college towns, but some good ol' boys in Nebraska wanted to kill us. Literally. Luckily we had that provision in Rule #2, and we played a twenty minute version of "Sweet Home Alabama" that pacified them. We played some pretty prime gigs. Headlining the street dance in Warrensburg the night before the first day of school at CMSU was a big one, playing for around 4000 people. Opening for Fools Face at old Parody Hall in Kansas City was a real treat. We got to play about 15 songs, and did half originals and the rest were songs that people had come to associate with us ("Tall Order for a Short Guy," which was appropriate, and "Stay in Time" by a band called Off Broadway. So many people thought that it was one of our originals, that they were upset when it wasn't on our album.) Another highlight was a ten night gig on the Larry Don cruise boat at the Lake of the Ozarks. (I'm sure we were the only band to ever open with "Come On Down to My Boat, Baby.") One night I was standing at the gate to the boat, and girl after girl got on board - all wearing various black and white outfits. I finally stopped one and asked why. "Because we called down here and heard that The Razors were playing." They were a sorority from some college.
Two other things that I felt made The Razors unique: we didn't play the same set list every night. We could play several nights in a row, and the songs would always be in a different order, as well as some new ones added. But it wasn't from "calling them" from the stage - we had multiple lists. Even club owners commented on it. Yet we still tied songs together, keeping people on the dance floor. Which brings us to the second thing: there was rarely any time between songs. I once listened to a live recording, and for fun I timed the space between songs. The longest break was eight seconds, the average was two.
We didn't make it through with the original line-up intact. Mark, who was originally singing almost all the leads (although EVERYone sang lead on at least one song), just wasn't cut out for it. He couldn't understand why some people only wanted to hear "Free Bird!" (And now, twenty-some years later, I'm even more baffled that it's still going on.) Mark left, and Keith and I took over his leads. Chris Dietrich also left after the first year, and was replaced by Chris Vonn. CV was a good vocalist, and stuck around for about a year also. When CV left, Gary announced that he was joining the army. So with Gary going off to be all that he could be, we brought in a new rhythm section. Dan Sittenhauer had played bass in Jeoparty, out of Overland Park, Kansas. Our new drummer was our original choice, Brian Vincent (no longer with his girlfriend). This was the tightest version of the band, and probably the most fun. But we were having a problem: we weren't making much money. You can only play in the college towns so often, and then you have to fill in the off nights at the regular clubs. Our management finally told us that if we learned just a few "Skynyrd, Seger, and ZZ Top" tunes, they could book us solid. I don't know if our lives really depended on it, but we were getting pretty hungry. We compromised with a song by .38 Special, Bob Seger's "Get Out of Denver" (which we learned off of a Dave Edmunds album, and to which Keith and I never did learn the words), and some other crappy tunes. But our hearts weren't in it, and our fans didn't like it. Brian left the band, claiming (correctly) that we'd sold out. Mark Rogoff, a talented drummer-singer-magician-tumbler-stand-up comedian, took his place. We played a few more months and then took a break.
While everyone went to find regular jobs, we also started recording at a studio in Kansas City, owned by Farley Compton, from my old Bonita Shortline days. Keith and I were the only Razors left, but the other guys came and played in the studio with us. Gary and CV had already recorded three songs with us back when they were in the band. Dan and Brian played on two or three tracks. Two of our friends from Fools Face sat in with us: Jim Wirt, playing a stand-up bass on one track, and Jimmy Frink playing lead on another. Lane Brock, who had been in The Shapes, also played on several songs. But some of the tracks had only Keith and me, with us taking turns playing bass and using programmed drums. The final result was called "Good News!" I don't know if it's stood the test of time, but we were proud of it back then.
Oddly enough, we actually got quite a bit of airplay. Lake94, a station in the Ozarks, picked up "Charades" and "In the Meantime," and since they were a "vacation station," we got heard by lots of people. The same two songs, which happened to both be just over two minutes long, got even more exposure in a very unique way. A DJ at KBEK, which was the Royals' radio station, was a Razors' fan. When the baseball broadcasts go to commercial, they're either piped in from the Royals' network, or they're provided by the local station. If the local station doesn't sell enough advertising, you'll either hear the network commercials, or crowd noise for two minutes. Not wanting to give away advertising to the network, the DJ edited both of the songs down to exactly two minutes and played them in place of un-sold commercial time. And luckily for us, KBEK didn't sell much advertising. So for Royals' fans back around 1984, those two songs were the "Centerfield" and "Another One Bites the Dust" for the baseball season. At least on radio.
One other song, and the most controversial on the album, "A Song About Art," was also picked up by some dance clubs. It was controversial because it had the F-word in it. A few times. Like around 24 times. In three part harmony.
But The Razors were done. We couldn't even get a band together to go out and promote the album. But I figure a lot of people remember us fondly. Especially long-time Royals' fans. The ones who still like to sit and listen to the ballgame on the radio, and with the way the Royals are playing, say the F-word a lot.
In 1999, Andy Bryant (drummer for Copperhead and Mist) and Ronnie Goodloe invited me to join Classic Rock Revue. I hadn't played in public in 10 years. We were playing a lot of the old songs that I'd grown tired off years ago, but with a new keyboard I was able to add horn and string parts, as well as playing rhythm guitar and mandolin, so it was fun for a couple of years. At the end, the line-up included Ballard Smith on bass and vocals (from my first real band, Genesis) and Leonard Audsley, a great singer from Carrollton, MO.
Around 2003, Sam Lee, Brian Eads, Andy Bryant and I got together as The Wing Nuts. As veterans of the Midwest music scene of 25+ years, we decided it was time to play the type of music WE wanted to play (with a few stipulations). No "Sweet Home Alabama," "Cocaine," or "Old Time Rock & Roll." Been there, done it to death, and there are (still) plenty of others beating those particular dead horses. We decided to play all the songs that we used to think we were too cool to play, or simply great songs that everyone knows - but you just never heard a local band playing. From "Quinn the Eskimo" to "Tighten Up" to "Do You Know What I Mean." Unfortunately, we soon discovered that, back in the corner of every bar - not dancing, these guys never dance - there's a drunk sitting there, still yelling for "Free Bird." When we discovered that it was oftentimes the club owner, we decided to hang up our Wing Nuts.