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.