December 19, 2021

FTV: The 4th Musical Coast


     While recounting the saga of former Eagles guitarist Don Felder (FTV:  Don Felder 11-20-19),

we discussed the hot musical ‘coasts’ that existed in the 1960s.  New York City and California were considered the east and west coast hotbeds of musical activity.  Eventually we added Florida to the mix citing names like Felder, Tom Petty, and the Allman Brothers, just to name a few of the talented musicians with roots in the area we would call the ‘third coast’.  As a musician who cut his teeth on 1960s rock and roll, I would be remiss if I didn’t throw Michigan in as the ‘fourth coast’ during this extremely fertile period in music history.  This does not mean Michigan was the only state that produced a zillion garage bands in the post-Beatles era.  Rather, it hints there were a lot of successful bands with roots in the Great Lakes State.  Some were one hit wonders, some crafted careers lasting decades, and some even found their way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

     Perhaps it is best if we start with the godfathers of Michigan rock:  Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder.  Oddly enough, both of these legendary artists have at least some connection to the Upper Peninsula including our own Western U.P. backyard.  Let us start with the artist formerly known as William Sherille Levise, Jr (born February 26, 1945 in Hamtramck, Michigan), better known professionally as Mitch Ryder.  Levise spent his high school years in Warren, another Detroit suburb, and later, he lived for many years in Livonia.  In his teens, Levise spent some time as a backup singer with a soul-music group called The Peps.  When his presence in a mixed-racial group caused ‘animosities’, he went on to form his own band, Tempest.  Bill also fronted his next band, Billy Lee & The Rivieras – they gained experience performing but, career-wise, they had limited success advancing beyond the club and party circuit.  

     Things took an upswing when The Rivieras came under the wing of songwriter / producer Bob Crewe.  It was Crewe who rechristened the band Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels and guided them as they recorded a string of radio friendly hits in the mid-1960s.  The original Detroit Wheels included the world class talents of Jim ‘Jimmy B’ Badanjek on drums and Jim McCarty on lead guitar.  Classic Rock radio continues to spin their biggest hits Devil With A Blue Dress On (which reached No. 4 on the charts), Jenny Take A Ride! (No. 10 in 1965), and Sock It To Me, Baby! (No. 6 in 1967).  

     My first experience playing Ryder’s music came via a Greatest Hits compilation my mother found for me when I first began playing the drums along with records.  It was one of those packaged albums sold at the local dime store.  The album’s producers faded out the songs halfway through each track in order to cram in the promised ‘thirty hit songs on one LP’!  The first time Ray (the lead singer and guitar player in my band Knockdown) introduced Devil With A Blue Dress for a party at the NCO Club at Sawyer Air Force Base, we had never even rehearsed it.  This was a common occurrence with Ray, thus the nickname  ‘the Human JukeBox’.  He looked puzzled when I commented, “That is the first time I ever played the whole song” which of course meant I had to explain the ‘thirty hit songs on one LP’ story.  “Great,” Ray laughed, “tell me the names of the other half-songs you know.”

     Crewe decided Ryder could be the next great soul singer so he broke up the band and formed a new ten piece group.  Composed of white R&B musicians from Baltimore, MD, he sent them on the road as The Mitch Ryder Show in February, 1967.  Mitch had the voice to pull off fronting a large ensemble and made no bones about copying the stage mannerisms of one of his idols, James Brown.  Unfortunately, his version of Brown’s ‘high flying drop to the stage on his knees’ move wasn’t performed quite right.  Mitch subsequently suffered from self-inflicted knee damage trying to copy the move show after show.  Ryder holds the distinction of being the last person to perform with Otis Redding on a local Cleveland TV show called Upbeat on December 9, 1967.  They sang Knock On Wood together the night before Redding and four of his band members were killed in a plane crash near Madison, WI.

     The last ‘new’ music I picked up from Mitch Ryder was an album he recorded in 1971 called Detroit.  I especially liked his version of Lou Reed’s Rock & Roll which for one reason or another proved to be a difficult song for us to do a decent cover of.  Reed liked it enough to lure Detroit’s guitar player, Steve Hunter, to join Robert Wagner (from another Michigan band called The Frost) in his backing band.  Ryder’s discography lists activity up through 2019, including contributions to many compilation albums, but his career never reached the late 1960s level again.  On the other hand, Ryder’s presence remains as his work influenced a bevy of artists from Bruce Springsteen to John Mellencamp.  The Detroit Wheels were inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2005 and Mitch Ryder was inducted as a solo artist in 2009.

     While I have never seen Mitch Ryder perform in person, there is a small connection between his career and Ontonagon.  Bass player Mark Gougeon has performed twice at the Ontonagon Theater for the Performing Arts with Al Jacquez’s band, Measured Chaos.  Gougeon’s resume puts him in Mitch Ryder’s band in the early 1980s.  It also lists something called The Mitch Ryder Band Survival Masterclass, but not being a Facebook user, I can find no other information explaining exactly what this involves.

     Bob Seeger may be retired and splitting his time between his beloved Detroit and Los Angeles, but he has seen a fair share of Upper Michigan and Wisconsin scenery first hand.  Born in Detroit (May 6, 1945), the Seger family moved to Ann Arbor when he was five.  Seger began building a regional following with his first high school band, The Decibels, who also recorded his first original song, The Lonely One, in 1961 at Del Shannon’s studio.  After The Decibels disbanded, Bob joined The Town Criers and later Doug Brown & The Omens.  Bob became a good buddy of the late Glenn Frey of the Eagles and later recalled their thinking at the time:  “You’re nobody if you can’t get on the radio.”  Frey would later head west to find his musical nirvana, but Seger continued working the Detroit scene.  He eventually became friends with his future manager Edward “Punch” Andrews who utilized Bob’s talents as a songwriter and producer for other bands.

     Seger’s reputation grew and he was signed to the Cameo-Parkway label with another new band, The Last Heard.  When the label folded, he turned down an offer from the Motown label in favor of signing with Capitol Records.  The Last Heard soon changed their name to The Bob Seger System.  The release of his second single for Capitol in 1969 resulted in the No. 17 national hit Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, which also became the title of his first LP for the label (the LP reached No. 62 on the Billboard Charts).  The Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man session also marked Glenn Frey’s introduction to a recording studio as he provided guitar and backing vocals to the track.  The System’s next two albums failed to find commercial success and The Bob Seger System dissolved.  Their career wasn’t as long as it should have been, but they were still inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2006.

     The next iteration of Seger’s career centered on Bob becoming a one-man act.  The commercial failure of his first all-acoustic album (Brand New Morning – 1971) resulted in Capitol dropping him from the label.  His next move would acquaint him with the Upper Peninsula.  Bob got the band bug again and joined a keyboard / drum duo called Teegarden & Van Winkle.  It was with this group Seger first performed in Marquette at a Greek Week concert / dance at the Hedgecock Field House.  They opened with Seger coming out to play a set of solo acoustic numbers.  I have previously recounted Seger pulling out a sheet of notebook paper at this gig and saying, “I wrote down the lyrics to a song we heard on the radio coming up I-75.  It is really cool and I think you will dig it.”  The song was John Lennon’s Imagine and to this day, whenever I hear the song, it comes into my head in Seger’s voice.

     Drummer Dave Teegarden and Hammond B-3 player Skip Van Winkle then came out to do a set of their own material capped with their 1970 hit God, Love, and Rock & Roll as their closer.  At this point, they were joined by Seger, now sporting a Les Paul, to run through a cover heavy set they had recorded for Punch Andrews’ Palladium Records.  We have featured this LP (Smokin’ O.P.’s – 1972 – which is shorthand for Smokin’ Other People’s Songs).  During this same tour, the band would have an encounter (in Wisconsin and not ‘somewhere east of Omaha’) retold in one of Seger’s most poignant songs about the rock and roll life, Turn the Page.

     Seger would go on to much wider national and world-wide success with the Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band phase of his career.  I have been told he also played a show at Lakeview Arena in Marquette with this band, but for some reason it went under my radar, otherwise I would have been there.  Seger was never shy about acknowledging his Michigan roots.  Two of his best selling albums (Live Bullet (1975) & Nine Tonight (1980)) were recorded at Cobo Hall in Motown (although parts of Nine Tonight were also recorded in Boston).

     We can not talk about Michigan’s place as the Fourth Musical Coast without talking about Vincent Damon Furnier who was born in Detroit on February 4, 1948.  If the name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you will recognize his more familiar stage (and now legal) name, Alice Cooper.  It was a little confusing when Alice Cooper the band became Alice Cooper the man, but that part of the story goes back to the days after the Furnier family had relocated to Phoenix, Arizona.  It was at Cortez High School that Vince decided to make music his life’s work, declaring his ambition to ‘sell a million records’ in his senior yearbook.  His first high school ‘band’ was The Earwigs who came together to perform at the school’s annual Letterman’s talent show.  The Earwigs included future Alice Cooper band members Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway plus two other members of the track team.  The Earwigs dressed in wigs and costumes to resemble The Beatles and did covers (and some parodies with altered lyrics) of The Fab Four’s music.  Buxton was the only musician in the group so he played while the others mimed their parts.  The Earwigs went over well enough to encourage them to become a real band, soon to be named The Spiders.

     The band’s members graduated in 1966.  Between making frequent trips to Los Angeles and recording, they gained a new drummer, Neal Smith, and a new name – Nazz.  By the end of 1967, they had relocated to LA permanently.  Several things transpired for the band to become The Alice Cooper band in 1968.  First, there was Todd Rundgren’s band who were already called Nazz.  Then it was Furnier’s belief the band needed a gimmick to stand out among the many LA bands.  They picked ‘Alice Cooper’ because it sounded wholesome and normal, the exact opposite of the music they played.  The ‘look’ Vince developed came from the caked-on make up Bette Davis wore in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, and Anita Pallenberg’s appearance as The Great Tyrant in the 1968 film Barbarella.

     The band had not quite risen to their ‘shock rock’ heyday yet, but at a gig in Venice, CA, they were noticed by manager Shep Gordon (even though they emptied the room in ten minutes).  It was Gordon who put them in touch with Frank Zappa.  A small mix up in the message saw them arrive at Zappa’s home at 7 AM instead of the appointed 7 PM, but the audition still landed them on Frank’s new label, Straight Records.  The rest of 1969 was spent dreaming up things that would eventually be labeled ‘shock rock’.  For instance, there was the ‘Chicken Incident’ in Toronto.  Part of their act found Alice tearing a pillow apart as he spread the feathers all over the place.  Someone decided to add a live chicken to the feathery carnage.  Vince did not know chickens couldn’t fly so when he tossed it into the audience, it landed with a thud three rows back where the crowd disassembled the poor bird.  Zappa called the next day to see if the rumors about Vince biting the head off the bird and drinking its blood were true.  Shaken at the ughly turn events had taken, Alice denied any such thing had happened.  Zappa told him, “Well, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you didn’t do it.”  Shock Rock was now a thing.

     So, how did Alice Cooper get back to the 4th Musical Coast?  Lack of chart action in early 1970 and indifferent Californian audiences relocated the band to Vince’s home turf.  With Midwestern bands like the Stooges and the MC5 already pioneering proto-punk music there, the band found acceptance.  Cooper said, “L.A. just didn’t get it.  They were all on the wrong drug for us.  They were on acid and we were basically drinking beer.  We fit much more in Detroit than we did anywhere else.”  Michigan would be their homebase until 1972.  The music industry was on the tail end of the ‘Peace and Love’ decade and as Alice now says, “We wanted to see what was next.  It turned out we were next and we drove a stake through the heart of the Love Generation.”  

     The band recorded their third and final album for Zappa’s label in the fall of 1970.  Producer Bob Ezrin coaxed I’m Eighteen out of the band.  The Love It To Death album opened the door to the Billboard Hot 100 where the single hit No. 21 in early 1971.  It  also caught the attention of Warner Bros. Records who were more than happy to have them shock their way up the record charts for many years. 

     The whole Alice Cooper story will need to be told another day, but the band’s early days were certainly anchored on the 4th Musical Coast.  If we start listing all of the bands with connections to The 4th Musical Coast, we will need a longer sheet of paper.  Let’s see;  Rare Earth, Ted Nugent, The Frost, MC5, Grand Funk Railroad, The Four Tops, The Supremes . . . stay tuned.


Top Piece Video:  The song that opened doors to the Billboard Charts for Mr Shock Rock himself!