Monday, January 9, 2012

Rock'n Roanoke The 1960's, The SoundCheck, December 2012

The Soundcheck, November 2011
by j. gabrielle

Roanoke Music in the 1960’s

When Chuck Berry made his infamous appearance at Lakeside Amusement Park, and when many R&B acts came to Virginia, those were the days when acts did not travel with their own rhythm section.  Instead, the agent would find local musicians to fit the bill.  The Divots from Roanoke, Virginia was one such band.

Bob Newman, Russ Gwaltney, Don East, Andy Christiansen, and Perry Calligan began the band as The Roulettes.  The name change was necessary because of a conflict with the Roulette name and a record label in Salem.  In 1961, The Roanoke Times reported on a hot new single released by the band recently reviewed in Billboard Magazine!  "Missing You" was the "A" side, written and sung by Christiansen for his girlfriend.  "Diddy-Wah-Diddy" was the "B" side.  The band was touring voraciously at fraternity parties and clubs on the east coast.  Band members changed.  Bob Hess, Richard Cecil, Jim Lough, Eddie Johnson, Dan Durham, and Odgie Fitzgerald worked their way in.  It was, in fact, the latter gentleman who coined The Divots name at Hole Number 9, Salem Municipal Golf Course.

The Kingsmen and Don Day & the Knights performed Top 40 and Rock-n-Roll.  The Rock-A-Teens out of Richmond came to record their hit "Woo Hoo" in Salem.  Roanoke was a hot bed of music.  One thing united musicians and fans across race lines: radio station WLAC, 1510 AM out of Nashville, TN.  Sponsored by Randy's Record Shop in Gatlinburg, the station's powerful 50,000 watt signal took wing at night.  It reached most of Eastern and Mid-Western U.S., the Deep South, the Caribbean Islands, and parts of Canada!  Four white D.J.s (who most people assumed were "soul brothers”) spun the latest R&B hits from the late 40's into the early 70's deep in the night.  John "R" (Richbourg), Gene Nobles, Herman Grizzard, and Bill "Hoss" Allen grew a huge fanbase with irreverent commentary, double entendre humor, and a bag full of Memphis sound, rock, and soul.  Later, the Ska movement, R&B artists, and Greg Allman all touted the station as influential (as did musicians and fans in our Valley!). 

Roanoke’s Henry Street was known as "The Yard".  As in your own backyard, your "Dukedom", if you will.  Located there was Kaiser's Record Shop, and that's where one bought the latest 45 heard on WLAC and WPXI.  At the age of 15, world-class and renowned jazz saxophonist Byron Morris worked at the record store.  Morris' musical pedigree reads like a who's-who of Roanoke music.  His father, "Jim Billy" Morris performed with The Aristocrats in the 1940s.  The young Morris attended high school with Jimmy Lewis, founder of the Premiers/Chevys.  Both men were inspired by Addison High School band director Joe Finley. 

The Premiers were a vocal band that was backed by The Chevys.  Jazz trumpeter Elmer Coles joined the group in about 1962 when he was just a kid.  Hal Walker (tenor sax) got Elmer in the band.  On the "white side of town", they performed at the Brooke Club, The Candlelight Club, Flo and Johnny's, and Colonial Hills.  The latter was "just a place teenagers went and drank 3:2 beer," according to Coles.  3:2 beer was a low-alcohol beer that could be purchased by anyone at least 18 years of age.    On the "black side of town" popular night spots included the Ebony Club, Wagon Wheel, and the Star City Auditorium.  The Premiers and the Chevys played many college venues, and they backed many artists, including Marvin Gaye, Solomon Burke, and B.B. King.

In 1963, Roanoke hometown favorite The Divots performed for the University of Georgia's Homecoming.  They backed a nine-act rhythm and blues bill that sold-out the 40,000 seat Sanford Stadium.  Major Lance, Jerry Butler, Don Covay & The Goodtimers, Irma Thomas, Mary Wells, King Curtis, Gene Chandler, Don Gardner, and Dee Dee Ford.  Elmer Coles moved into this band about 1964.  Some call them Roanoke's best band ever!  At one time, The Divots’ prowess was SO great, and SO well-known and respected, they backed nearly every major R&B act touring in the 1960s.  This also included The Supremes and Herman's Hermits.  This is about the time the competition heated up between the Divots and The Premiers/The Chevys.  The Divots tended to get their vocalists from Jimmy Lewis' band including their first African-American singers, Wayne Johnson and Sonny Womack.  Musicians, as always a little ahead of their time, integrated long before the clubs, who would not do so until about 1968.

The Divots were about to get a taste of their own medicine.  In 1965, founding members Perry Calligan and drummer Roger Fowler left.  The Royal Kings were born and, you, dear Reader, know their great-great grandchild: The Kings

Most of the bands during this period were focusing on R&B and so-called Beach Music.   WROV-AM is said to have aired “The Cheater” by Bob Kuban &  The In-Men, a 1965 Top 40 hit and had been the harbinger of that record's success, particularly with the Shag and beach music aficionados.  All of the bands discussed here are featured in Greg Haynes’ Anthology, The Heeey Baby Days of Beach Music.  Also mentioned are The Vikings.
The Vikings did not fall into the same category as these rhythm and blues players.  The Vikings were formed in 1961.  With their white socks, striped shirts and weejuns, they soundly resembled their famous counterparts after whom they were modeled: The Kingston Trio.  Success came quickly for Allen Wells, Lane Craig, and Tommy Holcomb (all college-bound musicians).  They had their own Saturday night primetime TV show on WSLS (just after Roy Rogers) by 1962.

Elmer Coles interjects, "Of course, when the Beatles came out, that ushered in a whole new era of music.  Black or white, you liked some Beatles!"

All the R&B bands started adding some of this new Beatle music (and also some BeeGees).  New players and bands changed.  Danny Counts entered the scene.  Tommy Thompson and Bobby Webber also became prominent.  Larry Calligan formed Little Rickie and the Romans.  “The Shylocks” performed at an attempted teen age night club at Crossroads Mall.  Al Coffey (The “Swiss Army Musician) recalls hearing bands here, but not for long calling it an “experiment that didn’t work”.

Coffey remembers beginning to play in this time and that “clubs just weren’t interested in bands not playing stuff on the radio”.  “Roanoke didn’t really catch on to Rock-n-Roll until the 70’s; they were just stuck in soul and Motown”.  He remembers a club called The New Wood that stood at Elm and Franklin. It was the first place he heard The Royal Kings.

The Vikings stayed together during college with the occasional Miss Virginia Pageant gig.  After graduation (about 1966), they became the house band at the Rathskellar in the basement of the American Theater. Tyler Pugh was added on bass.  In 1967, a venue was about to transform.  Tri-owners Jerry Nesbit, Bill Crews, and Ki Luczak renovated the then 31 year old Coffee Pot and made The Vikings their house band.  Once again, Billboard Magazine touted a Roanoke band as "up and coming".  Their London Label release "The Goodie Wagon" as The Vikings V with the addition of Steve Snedegar on bass and WROV's Fred Frelantz garnered National attention.

The trials and tribulations of The Vikings would take us solidly into several more decades.  Suffice it to say, additional personnel, financial backers and name changes never did get The Vikings out of Roanoke.  They remain a beloved band in the hearts of Roanokers.

There was a band called The Coordinators with Tim Ferguson on drums, Cedric Lawson on piano, Booty Staples on bass.  Elmer Coles says this is the first band he performed with that "had a big touring bus". 
In the mid to late 1960s, many of the bands dissolved.  Elmer Coles explains that a lot of the guys started touring with National acts.  Others, like himself, were mesmerized by jazz.  Mike Webber, bassist for the Divots, went on to tour with The Judds.  Elmer Coles hooked on with The Stylistics, and Cedric Lawson went with Miles Davis.  Oscar Jackson, Cole's band director, played tenor sax with The Imperials, Temptations, and Dionne Warwick.  Byron Morris went to D.C. to establish his own sound and jazz band, "Unity".

Times, and music were a-changing.

Polychrome, July 2011, The SoundCheck

The Soundcheck by j. Gabrielle

“Polychrome” is the 2010 Roanoke Times Music Poll’s Favorite Band.
They may also be Roanoke’s hardest working band.

I first saw the lean, mean, power rock three-piece band at Roanoke’s Festival in the Park in 2010 on the Amphitheater Stage.  Their catchy original songs piqued my interest.  In a word, they were “smokin’, and that’s why after a long, hot, sweaty day in Elmwood Park, “Mac Daddy” and I happily accepted the band’s invitation to their show at Brambleton Deli later that night.

We’ve been fans ever since and have followed them from venue to venue, watching their fanbase grow with “chromeheads”.

“Polychrome”, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “painted, printed, or decorated in several colors”.  I asked lead guitarist and vocalist Sean Bera what made him choose that name. Bera says, “The music I write is all over the place, and my influences are as scattered as George Gershwin to Great White, Van Morrison to Van Halen, Stanley Jordan to Santana.  Also, the band performs cover music to stay busy, and the song selections are truly of various colors!”

Indeed, the latter statement rings true.  From their sound-check of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “The Green Acres Theme”, to the set list of Sister Hazel’s “All for You”; Bruno Mars’, “The Lazy Song”; The Beatles’, “I Saw Her Standing There”; to The Eagles’, “Take It Easy”, the band morphs easily from one style to the next.

Drummer Mark Lynch joined the band a year ago.  I learned recently that Mark is a Marine and played in the Drum and Bugle Corp Band.  Lynch’s distinctive snare work “colors” the songs.  In a cover of Sting’s “Message in a Bottle”, his cymbal work is just beautiful….understated…and tasty.  In Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”, he uses a special snare, with holes in the side that gives the song that needed reggae feel.  Mark’s subtleties are intrinsic to Sean’s writing.  Sean again:

“Mark has completely changed the way I approach songwriting.  ….his rhythmic influence has me creating melodic lines that feed off his reggae/rock-fusion style.  It has both challenged me to get out of my pop/rock comfort zone as well as re-energize me to create songs with a story.”

Perry Mabry is the bass player and back-up vocalist who is so much fun to watch!  He’s just jammin’, keeping a subtle bass line…..not too busy!  He’s got this incredible smile on his face and with that long hair, resembles a California surfer dude! 

At a recent downtown Roanoke outdoor event, the band was in its element on a large stage.  When Sean goes into one of his raps and inevitably ceases playing the guitar and stretches his arms akimbo, riding the reliable groove laid down by his bandmates, he resembles a Rock-n-Roll Messiah.  The fan at the front of the stage, playing air drums, clearly was a willing disciple!

A wordsmith by trade, Sean loves to talk and has a biting sarcasm.  At Brambleton Deli, Boogie will sometimes tell him he talks too much!  At some venues, this works to his advantage.  At Awful Arthur’s in Salem, he asks the audience to write down songs on slips of paper and bring them to him.  Sean laughingly points out “it’s often a bunch of stuff I would never play, so, I either will sing a bit of a cappella or play a riff on the guitar…..It often leads to them writing down 10-15 songs just to see what we are able to perform!”

Most of all, the band is proud of their 14 song original CD, “All County Champs”.  One song, “Oleander”, is getting airplay on 96.3 WROV.  I have to urge you to check this out!  What a great song!  It is only your introduction to “Polychrome”!  Sean wrote it in tandem with the bestseller book, White Oleander

The band hopes to keep spreading an exciting groove and a most excellent vibe of goodness, happiness, and love.  Yes.  Really. 

So, you have an invitation; will you come to the party?

Polychrome is:  Sean Bera, Guitar, Vocals
                             Perry Mabry, Bass, Vocals
                               Mark Lynch, Drums

Cowboy: The Tribute, The SoundCheck, November 2011

Cowboy:  The Kid Rock Tribute:  November 2011, The Soundcheck
By:  J. Gabrielle

            Mac Daddy and I are Downtown at Awful Arthur's.  "Cowboy:  The Kid Rock Tribute Band" is performing an "unplugged" version of itself as "Lowlife".  They are taking a break from the usual southern, white male material of Kid Rock to perform some other southern, white male material from Hank Williams, Jr.   The agreeable audience sounds like a monotone church choir as they proudly sing, answer and call "Get Drunk, Get Stoned!" to "Family Tradition".  Lead singer Josh Carroll is leading the band with just the right amount of cockiness, attitude and cool detachment.

            I find Mr. Carroll to be multi-faceted off stage.  This Huntington, West Virginia native says he “lived wrong for a lot of years.  Took school of hard knocks to make me realize how to do things right."  He says it took people he respected to set him down and ''grow him up''.  A songwriter since he was a "kid", Josh turned down a baseball scholarship at West Virginia State to move to Myrtle Beach to be a musician.  He performed for 2 years with the Carolina Opry's "Dixie Stampede" and in various cover bands.  He went to Nashville for awhile.  Back in Roanoke, Josh served as a lead singer for "The Kings" for nearly 5 years.  Along the way, people continued to compare his look and sound to Kid Rock.  Now, he heads up "Cowboy, the Kid Rock Tribute and thus, a 5-piece band of some of the most talented musicians, and strongest personalities, in the area.  The band is excellent and everybody can sing.

            Ross Flora looks like an elvish nobleman descending from the Misty a Corona commercial.  His hair (as always) blowing in the wind (come to think of it, his Dad Miller is also musically gifted and well-endowed...follicley speaking....., but more on that at another time).  AND he's talented and ambitious.  A new promotional video sets the young man up for opportunity far from native Roanoke.  He often serves as the band’s own opening act and this is definitely an asset.

            Journeyman musician Gary Hall calls this his "main band".  The quintessential showman gets a chance to really show off some flash!   Walter Trexell is actually smiling and says he enjoys "just being the guitar player" and not having to front the band.  "Josh does a great job!", he says.  He alludes to a "mid-life crisis in full effect" as he recently bought a Marshall amp, and is buying guitars.  His brother Doug Trexell performs in the “plugged” version of the band.

            Brian Holt is on bass, and what a nice man.   The Berklee College of Music graduate is a prolific four and five string bassist.  "I LOVE being able to play and make a living playing music".  And, does he ever!  With the Pop Rivets, Roanoke Symphony, Burning Bridges, Leggz, and that only scratches the surface.  He's really jazzed about Cowboy's newest adventure: the Open Mic on Wednesdays at Bravo's.  He "gets it" - the way you take the "young cats" and raise 'em up.

            At Bravo’s Open Mic, the crowd and the players grow each week.  Tonight, The Worx bassist Justin Tolly, and Burning Bridges guitarist Scott Joshway sit in.  Thalassa McBroom, Barry Young are in the house.  This event is all ages in the hopes that young people will become smitten by the music bug.

            It has become October.  We've seen this group at two venues and five shows.  They are consistently excellent and convey excitement, even at the unplugged shows. 
"Cowboy" and the future look really good.  They return to Awful Arthur's at Towers on November 25th.  Be sure to catch them as our local Kid Rock Tribute is getting ready to fly.  They are the only touring Kid Rock band.  Sam Hill Entertainment is hoping to get them on the road in 2012.  Red Stag (a Jim Beam subsidiary) is looking at backing the band.

            Josh Carroll hopes to "let the music pay for seeing the country and traveling".

            Only one way to go, you know: ''Chicken-Fried'' (Zack Brown Band).

Jane Powell, Star City Diva. The Soundcheck, January 2012

The Soundcheck, January 2012
Jane Powell, Star City Diva
By J. Gabrielle

Mac Daddy and I are at one of our favorite Wednesday night rituals; Blues BBQ with the Elmer Coles Funktet.  However, tonight the one and only Jane Powell takes the stage instead filling in for Coles.  Ms. Powell usually can be seen only at the Greenbrier, performing with the Roanoke Symphony or the occasional Hotel Roanoke gig.  Tonight’s event went unadvertised, yet the word got out anyway.  The tiny venue is packed even more than usual, standing room only to catch a glimpse of the self-proclaimed “Chocolate Goddess of Love”.

The band is on break, and as always, Ms. Powell graciously entertains her fans one on one.  I am one of them.  We catch a “real” moment together and I confess to her a wounded heart and recount a resulting hopelessly floundering moment onstage.  She says, “I know JUST what you mean, I have been there!”  And I believe her, for she goes back in the next set with a soulful version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and I accept it as a gift.  I cry anyway.  But, it is a good, short weeping full of forgiveness for myself.  Now, she is not only “The Diva”, but “The Medicine Woman” too.

I have been following Jane Powell for a year now at different venues in Roanoke.  In hotel lounges and nightclubs, she always elevates her audience to a bigger venue with brighter lights.  At the Elephant Walk Lounge we are whisked away to an elegant cruise ship.  All of us, from many ports of call, are united in song as she sashes the room giving turns at the mic to sing “Hey! Hey! The Blues are Alright!”.  With the wireless mic, Jane can get to everyone and mess with ‘em, just a little.  On one such night, quintessential “mess with ‘em” artist Kelly Mullen is at my side.  He guffaws at a particularly naughty exchange Powell has with an audience member and shakes his head in admiration.  “Wow!, he says, “She’s the Master!”

With her five octave range, Jane Powell is foremost the master of song.  Her seemingly endless song list includes gospel, R&B, show tunes and Christmas songs.  A typical set includes The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, The Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”, Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay”.  The latter reveals her amazing ability to whistle in what must also be five octaves!  Her rendition of “Amazing Grace” garnered her a standing ovation on a cruise ship chartered by Oprah Winfrey just last year.

Jane Powell has toured internationally on cruise ships, elegant symphony houses and college campuses.  She has opened for and worked with Lou Rawls, Joan Jett, Koko Taylor, B.J. Thomas and Ray Charles.  The Charles concert was reviewed by The Washington Post which declared she “stole the night from a legend”!   The National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) has voted her the winner of the Jazz Artist of the Year and the Performing Arts/Music Award so many times she remains the most awarded performer in the history of the organization.  Jane has performed for a McDonald’s commercial.  You can see her in the 1999 movie “The Bachelor” with Renee Zellweger and in the Dino DeLaurentis film “Marie”.  Powell has even performed for Queen Elizabeth II during a Royal Visit to Virginia.

With all of this stellar success one might expect a stellar ego to go along.  Instead, Jane Powell has a self-deprecating sense of humor, a ready, hearty laugh and a warmth for her fans and fellow musicians.  In July, she performed for “Jazz in July” at Longwood Park in her native Salem.  I ran into her in the parking lot high above and behind the stage and listened as the attendant gave her directions on how to walk down to the stage area.  Jane seemed ready to make the trek, but I butted in asking instead for a call on the radio for a golf cart.  Jane Powell seemed almost uncomfortable with the “fuss”.

If you haven’t enjoyed this Roanoke treasure, please do.  I have been thoroughly entertained, have learned so very much and as an entertainer myself, been humbled.

When she is not entertaining the masses, Jane Powell is a sterling silver jewelry expert at

Elmer Coles Playin' Here T'night. Soundcheck, September 2011

“Elmer Coles playin’ here t’night?”
by J. Gabrielle

‘Mac Daddy’ and I are seated outside Blues BBQ in downtown Roanoke, and many others arrive, mostly in pairs.   The lyrical question of the moment on the sidewalk is, “Elmer Coles playin’ here t’night?” 

Mr. Coles is warmly approachable.  For this I am grateful.  Impressed with his wild trumpeting as well as his genuine smile, he’s been on my “radar”.

Elmer Coles was ten when he caught music fever at the Christmas Parade in Roanoke.  Band director/educator Joe Finley led the renowned 101-piece Addison High School Marching Band.  A move called “The Freeze” inspired Coles.  Roanoke Times columnist Robert Samuels wrote in 1994, “When Finley signaled his band, the students’ quick movements would stop immediately, staying in the same position for however long he wanted.”  Imagine that! Winter.  Christmas.  The outrageously good, loud, dancing, performing, ‘ahead-of-their-time’ marching band STOPS…..and downtown falls silent…frozen in a moment.   10….20…..30 seconds… and BAM the band is back in motion and sound! I’ve got the ‘fever’ now too, and I think I understand a little more about jazz and playing SPACES in music.

By thirteen, he was performing professionally with regional legends.  Jimmy Lewis, Sonny Womack, Reverend Woodrow Walker, Harvey Lee Jones: Coles performed with The Chevys, The Divots, and The Premiers.  “They schooled me to the age of sixteen”, says Coles.  “Then I got married at seventeen and had a baby.  I have a 44 year-old daughter and a 10 year-old grandson”.

It was off to Cleveland in 1968 to perform with keyboardist Cedric Lawson, who went on to play with Miles Davis.  Lawson is the son of famed Roanoke Civil Rights lawyer Reuben Lawson (who helped integrate the school systems in Southwest Virginia).  Coles says that he and Cedric “still trade secrets”.  Next, to Boston and ‘hangin’ out with Harvey Mason.  New England Conservatory launched a jazz program and Coles received a scholarship.  Then, he hit the road.

The Stylistics were one of the best-known Philadelphia soul groups of the 70’s.  They are known for R&B hits “You Are Everything”, “I’m Stone in Love with You”, and more.  Coles toured with them for three years, working with songwriter Thom Bell.  Taking a hiatus from the band, he entered the jazz scene working with Charles Earland from the Mingus band, recording “Live at the Lighthouse”.  “But”, Cole murmurs, “there was a little too much drama with the jazz behind the scenes.” He returned to the Stylistics for a bit, then moved to D.C.  Elmer earned a certificate for electronics and ran a consulting company for fifteen years.  He got studio hits the whole time.  “The phone just never stopped ringing!” he smiles.

About ’97, his mother’s illness had him transitioning back to Roanoke.  He quickly got back to work with Ronnie Law, William Penn, James Pace, and The Domino Band.  More recently, he has worked with The Elderly Brothers and now, The Elmer Coles Funktet!  The latter has been a staple at Blues BBQ on Wednesdays for a couple of years.  Coles calls this creation, “very satisfying.  A little loud, a little fiery.”  On this night, Cameron McLaughlin sits in on bass for vacationing Bernard Hairston.  McLaughlin calls Coles “the greatest trumpet player on earth!”  It’s guitarist Charlie Hughs’ first band, but performing with Coles has “completely changed my playing,” he says. 

It’s the middle of the first set, and Coles announces to the young cats, “It’s time for some rock-n-roll!”  Carlos Aranguren sets the groove on drums.  Guitarist Greg Ayers mouths to Elmer, “I LIKE THAT!”  Elmer just nods, “Yeah!”  and the Funktet is playing The Stones’ “Miss You”.  Carlos is pretty sure Coles has played with Miles Davis and James Brown.  What he appreciates is the way “in the jazz tradition, he grabs the young cats and guides them to find their own sound.” 

Keyboardist Dave Ferguson is on keys now.  Elmer Coles stands on the bar floor facing the namesake band he’s built.  Like a proud, hard-working man in front of a finely-worked garden, Elmer Coles smiles the smile of a satisfied man.  Indeed, “Elmer Coles’ playin’ here t’night!”

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