As my 70th birthday crept up on me in the fall of 2023, I started thinking about how time passes between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. My 60 years spent as an student in public school (K-12), college (5 years including grad school) and teaching (43 years in the trenches) were bookended by the 5 years before I started school and the 5 years I have been retired. During all those school years, summers seemed to pass in an orderly fashion. June was spent winding down, everything was set on cruise-control during July, and then August would hit. August felt like a treadmill that kept increasing speed. Everything that I wanted to do before the start of the next school year seemed to be compressed into shorter and shorter segments of time. That old feeling still comes up in retirement, but if I take a deep breath and remember that ‘retirement time’ runs at a different pace, the feeling subsides. I don’t need to get everything done; the fall months are wide open and there is always tomorrow.
How does this relate to the Summer of ‘70? As I pondered the ‘big 7-0’, my mind went back to the summer of 1970; no matter how busy my summers were, that one was especially packed with activity. The previous summer had been consumed with Driver’s Education and marching band. Those activities occupied June and August which left July relatively untouched. We were putting together my other band in 1969 (The Twig), but rehearsals were only held once a week as both Gene and Mike had summer jobs. We kept working on the band all through the 1969-70 school year, but we really picked up the pace as the summer of 1970 approached. Our goal was to be playing paying gigs by fall and we set our sights on the first post football game dance in early September. The Twig was our top priority going into summer but looking back now, it is a wonder I had time to eat and sleep for all the other stuff that got crammed into those brief three months.
It all started innocently enough. The weekend of high school graduation, my buddy Mitch had invited me to visit his sister’s family in Hancock. I had to be back to play in the high school band for graduation on Sunday afternoon so we planned on getting back to Marquette in time for me to make that obligation. It was a busy weekend and started off the summer with a whirlwind of activity. Mitch’s sister lined us up a double blind date with a couple of girls from her church. She didn’t happen to mention the family of one of the girls was moving to a new house that weekend. We ‘volunteered’ to spend most of Saturday lugging their worldly goods from one house to a truck and then into the new house. They appreciated the help but by the time our ‘date night’ started, we were almost too pooped to go.
We settled on dinner and a movie. We got to the restaurant only to find the girl’s were fasting, but they decided something light like a salad would be okay. Ann of a Thousand Days was playing at the Pic Theater in Hancock. After the show, we spent some time cruising the streets of Houghton and Hancock. One of the girls wanted to check out the teen dance being held at the old powerhouse on the Houghton side of the bridge but we were too tired. It turned out to be a good idea to not go; the girls later told Mitch there was a ‘welcoming committee’ of guys from their high school who wanted to ‘meet’ us out of towners. We started our Sunday morning with breakfast, a partial church service (their church held long Sunday School sessions/services each week) before skedaddling back to Marquette so I could get to graduation. Little did I realize at the time that this three day blur of activity was just the start.
Our new band director, Bill Saari, had stepped in to finish my sophomore year when my first HS director (Mr. Patterson) passed away during the school year. With a full year of directing now under his belt (my junior year), Mr. Saari had procured new uniforms, sent us out selling candy (as a fundraiser), and laid out a master plan to have us debut the new duds with a series of events in the summer of 1970. He arranged for us to march in two parades during the Cherry Festival in Traverse City in July. To prepare us, we did several weeks of street marching in June and then we marched in the big Fourth of July parade in Marquette the week before we went to TC. Between marching band and Twig practices, June to mid-July was consumed with music, music, and more music. It was worth the effort and the HS band enjoyed all three parades we were in.
Just after returning from Traverse City, my next door neighbor knocked on the door. He was a drum instructor for the Northern Michigan University music department and had obviously heard us rehearsing in our basement. He said, “Hey, would you be interested in a fill-in drummer gig? Some of my students have a band called the Larry Henry Trio and their drummer can’t make it to their wedding reception gig next weekend. If you would be interested, they would like to come over and check you out.” I said, “Sure, I would be interested,” and an hour later, Larry Henry and another fellow showed up. Larry: “Cool kit – can you play a rock beat?” Me: “Sure – boom, thumpa, boom, thumpa.” Larry: “How about a funky beat? (I must have looked puzzled) You know, like Respect by Aretha Franklin.” Having played the song with three NMU students from Detroit as their ‘practice band drummer’ when I was a HS freshman, that was a cinch. Larry: “How about a polka? (again I looked puzzled). Just go ‘boom chuck boom chuck’ with the bass drum and snare. Yeah, just like that. Add some ride cymbal – there you go – the perfect polka beat.”
That was my one and only successful audition to join a band. Larry said they didn’t have time to rehearse their song list but I would catch on. “Meet us at the Holiday Inn at 8 p.m. Saturday to set up; the gig is from 9 to 1 a.m.” Playing a band job cold with musicians I had never played with probably should have made me at least a little nervous, but I had played with other musicians before. I was more excited than anything and it never occurred to me to ask what they were going to pay me. Larry was also happy to find out I was already a member of the American Federation of Musicians union. I was now lined up to play my first professional gig even if it wasn’t with my own band.
The first set at the Holiday Inn was more or less easy listening music as the dinner wrapped up and the dance floor was cleared. On our first break, I took a walk outside and realized I had left my mother’s Chevy Caprice parked in one lane of the luggage drop off area under the front canopy after I unloaded my drums. Oops. I moved the car and never mentioned it to the band. The second set included more dance music and I passed my first ‘polka test’ test with flying colors. The guy playing bass was giving me the song titles and tempos while passing out pearls of wisdom like, “Ya can’t play a wedding reception in the U.P. without tossing in a few polkas.”
When we finished what I considered a pretty funky version of the Blood, Sweat, and Tears classic Spinning Wheel, my cue guy said, “Hey, that was great. Have you played that before? No? I would never have been able to tell.” I was having a grand old time and Larry must have been good with what I was doing. He only turned around once to ask, “How ya doing?” When he paid me my $30 bucks at the end of the night, he said, “Hey, we will call you again sometime if we need you” (he never did, but I was good with surviving my first paying gig).
Just when it looked like my condensed one week summer vacation at the end of July would happen, my phone rang again. “Ken? Hi, my name is Rex Bignal. Larry Henry gave me your number. I am playing at the Diamond Club every Friday and Saturday in August and my drummer just walked out on me. Larry said you would be able to handle the stuff I play. I would pay you $40 a weekend for four weekends.” I had no idea what kind of music he played, but it was an offer I was not about to refuse. I got one hint when Rex asked, “Do you know how to play with brushes (drum sticks made with multiple metal strands designed for easy listening music)?” Once I confirmed that brushes were in my skill set, he told me to be at the Diamond Club at 8 p.m. Friday to set up and the gig would be 9 to 1 a.m.
I arrived at the club and met Rex; it turned out he played a Hammond B-3 organ but did not sing. He seemed a little surprised when he saw me and asked, “How old are you?” When I told him I was almost 17 he said, “Larry told me you were a senior . . . high school? If the club owner (pointing to the guy behind the bar) asks you how old you are, tell him 18 and for God’s sake, do NOT order anything but Coke!” Obviously he thought Larry had meant ‘college senior’. Rex played a lot of Lawrence Welk type music so it wasn’t anything too complicated. The one drum solo I got was four bass drum beats during the middle of Patricia, but I have to say Rex could certainly make the B-3 sing. I can trace this month-long engagement as the source of my life long love of the Hammond B-3 sound.
Rex only made two corrections in my performance during my month with him. First, he told me the owner asked him to tell me to not dress in black (my lounge act garb was all black under a maroon sport coat) ‘because it is too depressing’. Rex also suggested I should smile once in a while (the same thing my father said when the folks came out to hear us one evening). Rex had purchased a 24 inch Zildjian cymbal and stand for the drummer who walked out on him. When he offered them in lieu of one weekend’s wages, I told him, “You know, this is worth twice what you are paying me per weekend,” but he insisted it was fair enough for him. Today, this same cymbal retails for more than I paid for my entire Ludwig kit back in 1966. Every time I set it up, I still say, “Thank you, Rex.”
August was now consumed by Friday and Saturday performing with Rex and (depending on Gene and Mike’s schedules) two or three afternoons of Twig rehearsals. Early in the summer, we played a free five song set at an outdoor gathering south of Marquette called Sundelstock – it was our first and only experience playing on a flatbed trailer out in a field. Somewhere in there, we got to play our first paying Twig gig for NMU’s band camp. We set up on the steps of the Forest Roberts Theater and serenaded the neighborhoods surrounding the campus with our hour and a half worth of songs. When we ran out, the kids begged us to play them over again (which we did). I can’t say why our encore set was requested. Either we were that good or (more likely) they had a curfew they wanted to extend. Carol, the activities director that hired us said, “Thanks, the kids had a great time!” We were happy with how it went but it was just the kick in the pants we needed to learn more new songs – fast.
Believe it or not, we also found time to squeeze in two sets in a tent on the U.P. State Fairgrounds during the Fair’s annual August run. We did our set twice there, also, but separated by a couple of hours so we had some time to wander the midway. Some local kids asked us why we weren’t playing any Grand Funk Railroad songs and we had to admit it was because we didn’t know who they were. They were insistent; how could we not know the best band ever? The next week we had their debut album (On Time) from which we worked up Heartbreaker and Into the Sun. As soon as their second LP came out (Grand Funk) we added Inside Looking Out. The album Closer to Home track I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home) appeared on our set list soon after that. The fair gig was timely in that talking to those kids added five songs to our set and all of them became instant calling cards for the band, especially at frat gigs.
If it sounds like the pace of activity for August of 1970 was picking up, that might be an understatement. Our band director, the previously mentioned Bill Saari (who got his start as a music teacher in the Mass City school in the early 1960s) had bigger plans for his band that fall. Having seen high school bands perform drum and bugle corps style routines at the Cherry Festival, Mr. S declared our fall football shows were going to be bigger and better than ever before. I do not know if he choreographed the patterns we used or if they were purchased from elsewhere. All I remember was the first walk through we did looked a little like a Keystone Cops movie. I do not know how the other instrument sections managed to remember when to stop, turn, step off and so on, but I ended up telling the drum line, “We don’t have music to write cues on so we are going to have to memorize where all this happens in the music.”
We began practicing four days a week during August and from chaos, we managed to put on a show that took the band from one end zone to the other. While we played, we did patterns I had only ever seen during drum corps shows. The only memorable mistake happened to part of the trombone line. Watching it on video later, we gave them no quarter when the entire line turned the wrong way and marched completely out of the camera’s view….only to come hustling back a few seconds later to catch up. I had to hand it to Bill. When he first showed us his master plan, I was one of the voices that said, “What? How in the heck are we going to do that?” In the end, we performed this entire show twice during the football season and it was one of the best routines I can remember from four years of high school marching band.
By the time school started, The Twig was ready. The first school dance would end up being the 16th public performance I did during the summer of 1970 (all of them required a lot of rehearsal time). With all this activity, time didn’t seem to fly by like it did during so many other summers. When the high school band was dismissed after the football game’s third quarter break, we normally would dash into the band room to change our of our uniforms into our civies so we could watch the rest of the game. For the first home game in the summer of ‘70, I found myself hustling off to the gym to set up my drums so we could do a quick sound check before our first high school dance. Even though we found out our new PA system wasn’t up to the job in a big hall, we had a great first gig. The next week, it was almost a relief to just be going to classes (with band in the daily schedule) and rehearsing with The Twig a couple afternoons a week.
I am not sure I would like to tackle that kind of schedule again at the age of 70, but in 1970, a much younger me would not have traded all this hustle and bustle for all the tea in China. Brian Adams can have the Summer of ‘69, my really great year came the summer after that.
Top Piece Video: Proof that I wasn’t actually being critical of Brian Adams – I love the track meet beginning – you would think simply performing would be exercise enough!