Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Lexingtons

[the following is a chapter from my still-in-progress autobiography.]

The Lexingtons

For about three years I was a member of a small musical group. Given my shyness at that time in my life, this is still amazing to me. First, some background:

In 1958, a new musical group called the Kingston Trio had the number one-selling song in the nation, “Tom Dooley”. This song was not a rock and roll tune as was typical for the times. There were no electric instruments in it. In fact, there was a banjo in it. It was the beginning of a wave of popularity for a simple style of music called “Folk Music”. It was played with acoustic instruments and simple vocal harmonies and much of the material was old songs written in the 1700’s, 1800’s or early 1900's. The person most responsible for the popularity of “folk” music was Harry Belafonte who had several popular songs in the late 1950’s. They were a mixture of folk and calypso styles of music. Calypso is a style of music common in the Caribbean islands. End of background.

I first learned of the Kingston Trio while visiting my natural father, Frank. He had their first album. We played it and I liked it. A few weeks later I bought a copy for myself. From then on, every four to six months a new Kingston Trio album came out and I bought a copy as soon as I could. Interestingly, I had heard “Tom Dooley” on the radio but never liked the song. It was often requested by our listeners, and we sang it for them, but I did not like doing it.

The evening that changed my life came when me and several friends (male and female) went to see the Kingston Trio and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Hollywood Bowl in 1962. I came away from that evening with a desire to learn to sing and play that kind of music on the guitar. A neighbor kid, Terry Parker had received a cheap Stella guitar a year or so before for Christmas and seldom played it. I offered to buy it for ten dollars. He agreed, and I had a guitar. It only had four strings on it, so before I could learn to play, I had to buy a new set of strings. I did and the journey began.

I practiced almost every afternoon or evening, learning to place my fingers on the strings in just the right places to make the chords. Pressing on the strings was a bit difficult and after an hour or two the ends of the fingers on my left hand were purple from the abuse. But I kept at it. And after a few months I could play along with many of the songs on the Kingston Trio records I owned.

(the following is based on a history of our group I wrote around 1965)

In the spring of 1963 a folk singing club was formed a Canoga Park high school, in response to popular demand. Shortly afterward, a small group of volunteers was requested to sing at an upcoming Friday night “Sports Night” (a school social event of games, music and dancing)

A group of seven from the club performed. It was a sloppy performance in my opinion. The material was well-known generally to accommodate the limited rehearsal time for the performers, rather than to please the audience. I was embarrassed by the poor quality of the performance.

Among these seven was the son of Mrs. Shank, the teacher/sponsor of the folk singing club, Erik Shank. Though he had graduated the year before, he was included in the group because he could play the banjo. (an almost “required” instrument for playing folk music at the time.)

In spite of the sloppy performance, the group was well received and was asked to sing again a couple of weeks later at another Sports Night. For various reasons, the group diminished to four members, all of whom had participated in the previous performance. Me, Jim Sinclair and John Gretzinger played guitar, while Erik played the banjo. We sang four songs.

Whereas the first group of seven had been a hastily formed association with divergent musical interests and motives, the latter group of four had more in common. John and I went to the same church. All of us had similar tastes in folk music.

(the reader should understand that the folk music audience in those days had two factions – the “purists” and the “commercial” patrons. The purists, the smaller of the two factions, insisted that old folk songs be performed exactly as they have been since they were written, with the most simple chord structure and harmony. They disliked the more commercial form of “folk” music, and openly criticized those who performed it. The common features of most “authentic” folk music was bad singing, boring arrangements, and long songs that told a story. The commercial fans cared less about “purity” of performance or arrangement and just wanted to hear good acoustic music, even if the “folk” song they were listening to had been written a few months earlier by a commercial writer and only sounded like it was an old song.)

We in the group were all of the commercial persuasion. And we all liked the Kingston Trio – the leaders of the commercial folk music fad.

I may have been the first one of us to seriously suggest that we form a permanent group. This was done after the group of seven had performed but before the foursome had played. This is a strange desire from someone so shy as myself at that time, but I enjoyed singing and playing this kind of music. (I must have really enjoyed it to overpower my shyness!)

It was agreed that the group would be only a hobby. We never expected to earn any money and no one was going to quite his job to become a “star”. The goal was to become as good, musically, as possible and perform in the local area. The group started out as a foursome but Jim soon dropped out because of his busy schedule. This left the trio of Erik, John and me. We briefly discussed finding a replacement for Jim. But we reasoned if the Kingston Trio was successful as a trio (duh) then we could be successful as a trio.

If you were going to be a group in this field, you needed a name. Finding a name for the group at this time was difficult. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of wannabe folk groups in the area, as well as professional groups springing up all over the country to capitalize on the folk music tidal wave.

For one of our early engagements in November 1963, we called ourselves The Chanteymen. The name was my idea, taken from a type of folk music called a “sea chantey” – songs sung by sailors as they worked. None of us was too taken by the name. It was in January 1964 that we settled on the name, The Lexingtons. I was the one who came up with the name, I think. Again, we were not completely happy with the name but it was the best we could find in the blizzard of folk groups at the time.

If I was going to play in a folk group in front of people, I needed a better sounding guitar than my plywood Stella. I saved up my money and soon bought a Martin D-18. It was not the model I really wanted (I really wanted a Martin D-28 but they were very expensive) but it was a Martin – the same brand that the Kingston Trio played.

It may be difficult for you to imagine what it was like back then. Imagine going into a music store to buy an acoustic guitar only to find just five or ten acoustic guitars in the whole store. Most of them were cheap “learners” like my Stella. Some stores we went into had none! Zero. (The waiting time for some models of Martin guitars was over six months. For certain Gibson and Epiphone guitars it was three months.) The fad-driven demand for guitars was so strong that Martin had to build a new factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. There was a world-wide shortage of rosewood – used in making some guitars.

Unfortunately, I soon found that my D-18 sounded too loud and bright with weak bass. I wanted a more mellow sound. I tried all sorts of things to modify the sound of my Martin – different picks, different strings, stuffing the sound box with foam or cloth - but nothing worked.

We worked all summer of 1963 putting together a one hour program of songs. Most of the material was from the Kingston Trio but there were a few songs from other similar groups. Our first engagement was at a Hootenanny (the term for a gathering where folk music was performed) at the Lutheran church that John and I attended on September 1, 1963. We did nineteen songs, twelve were from the Kingston Trio. [I should point out that we did not use sheet music or notes to help us remember the words of our songs during our performances. We sang all of our material from memory.]

This endeavor was so important and satisfying to me that I started a scrapbook – something I have never done before or since - and recorded most of the events and songs that we sang. I even saved the little three by five cards that I taped to my guitar to remember the program. Somehow this scrapbook has survived forty-four years of storage and moving. Somewhere late in this process, I wrote a narrative about our little folk group, from which this article is based.

On September 15, just two weeks later, we performed again at a church function. This time it was the Annual Ice Cream Social. We sang three songs as well as three “sing along” songs requested by some adults to better engage the audience. The following month, on October 30, 1963, we played at the Annual Father and Daughter Funfest at the Lutheran church where we played four songs.

A few days later, on November 3, 1963, we played at a special Hootenanny for the youth group at Saint Luke’s Lutheran church. We called ourselves the Chantymen and did seventeen songs for the mostly female audience. I was beginning to like this idea of mine even more than I thought I would.

The following month we played at the Canoga Park High School French Club dinner, doing thirteen songs for the mostly female audience. About this same time we played at a Jewish Temple social event, a dance and dinner, if I recall correctly. We played five songs. The dates of these two events are not recorded. They were to be our last gigs with John.

John was forced to drop out because his parents thought there was too much difference in our ages. John was still in high school while Erik and myself were now in college. None of us were happy with this situation and we parted on good terms.

It was during this time of hunting for a new member that an important relationship was formed. A young man from the Lutheran church I attended expressed his interest in playing in a folk group. He about my age and his name was Dave Griffey. During some casual playing we found that he was a good guitar player (better than me) and a good singer (also better than me). We would find that he had a sense of stage presence that added more energy and sparkle to the more laid-back nature of Erik and myself.

He and another guy, Mike Lanphier, joined Erik and I to practice for a performance at the 1964 Cleveland High school Talent Show on January 3,1964. This was the first time we billed ourselves as “The Lexingtons”. Being a new group, we were nervous and because there were four of us, the technical people decided to give us two microphones. This spread us out on the stage and made us look like two groups. We sang two songs. Afterwards, word from friends in the audience ranged from they “could not hear” us, to “we sounded bad”. After the performance we found that only one of the mikes was turned on. We were not happy with this performance.

On February 3, 1964, the four of us played in a small club called The Pump Room. I do not know how we found out about this venue. It may have come through Mike. I have only vague recollections of this place (somewhere on Ventura Boulevard with blue lights shining on the building and a water fountain/pool outside?). We sang three songs. After this Mike left the group. He had a new girlfriend and between school and other activities, he did not have time to practice with us.

I should point out here that we were very serious about practicing. We tried to practice two or three times a month, and several times during the week just before a date. Each rehearsal session would last from two to four hours. And we sang most of that time. We worked at it. We had fun and laughed a lot, but we were serious about our sound. We wanted to sound as good as the professionals. We worked on our harmonies. We also spent a lot of time on beginnings and endings – starting and stopping together. These were exercises in timing – critical to a polished sound.

At the same time, we did not want to sound exactly like our mentors, The Kingston Trio. We wanted to develop our own style and sound. Basically, we used the material we borrowed from the professional groups as a base on which to build our own sound. This rather rigorous schedule put off our less motivated members who had other things going on in their life. I add this to dispel the possible impression that the guys that left our group were less talented or capable than those of us who stayed. Not necessarily so. Erik and I just worked them too hard.

On May 22, 1964, The Lexingtons – as a trio – performed at the Lutheran church Pot-luck Dinner. For reasons now forgotten (job?), Dave could not join Erik and I for this engagement, and John Gretzinger filled in. Blast from the past. We sang three songs.

On June 14, 1964, Dave rejoined Erik and myself at the annual Lutheran church Bar-B-Q dinner. We sang five songs that evening. Then Dave, busy with a summer job and other personal business (perhaps there was a girl in there somewhere) left the group. But this was not the last we would see of Dave.

The search for a new member began with a newspaper ad and several three by five cards posted on bulletin boards in area music stores and colleges. One ad for a new member paid off. A young man named Tom Drosman called me one evening. The interview was brief and we made an appointment to audition him in my back patio. We found that Tom knew some of the songs we sang, could sing okay, play guitar passably and he liked the Kingston Trio style of folk music. He was “hired” and we started to practice to get him up to speed on our arrangements.

Our first engagement with Tom was at the annual Ice Cream Social at the Lutheran church in September 1964. We sang four songs. Soon afterward, Tom introduced Erik and myself to a friend of his, Bill Botticher (pronounced “bettiger”), an acoustic bass player. After a rehearsal wherein Bill joined us to see if we could work together, he became the sometime fourth member of the group. Bill was an excellent bass player, had a good sense of humor, and had a good ear for music that provided valuable input to our arrangements as we worked on new material.

The new group of Erik, Steve, Tom and Bill played at the Canoga High School French Club Christmas dinner, on December 21, 1964, doing 12 songs and two encores (!).

My quest for the “perfect” sounding guitar culminated in my buying an Epiphone guitar from a music store called Zepp’s. This was done by violating the golden rule of guitar buying - never buy a guitar without hearing and playing it first. I did this because he had the best price I could find for this instrument model in a seller’s market. With no guitars in his store, the store owner took my money and ordered it from the Epiphone factory. The delivery date was from sixty to ninety days. After a couple of months, I called Zepp’s every Saturday morning to inquire if my guitar had come in. Finally, one Saturday the answer was, yes. Erik and I drove over to the store and picked it up. Finally, I had a guitar that I liked. I sold my Martin to Tom. He was thrilled and I was too.

On January 15.1965, we played at a Canoga Park High School Sports Night, doing nine songs, and again, two encores.

After this last event, Tom became increasingly preoccupied with a new female companion and it was difficult to schedule our long practice sessions. Finally, we told Tom we had to have someone we could count on. Unable to promise this, Tom left the group. The breakup was amicable but disappointing. Erik and I began – again - look for another, more dependable - and available - member. Bill agreed to stay with us, much to the delight of Erik and I.

The replacement for Tom was a familiar person – Dave Griffey. His schedule was different now and he wanted to get back with us. After a couple of practice sessions, this new/old group (including Bill on bass) played another Canoga Park High School Sports Night on March 19, 1965, singing seven songs plus an encore.

On April 11, 1965, Erik, Dave, Bill, and myself played at a little folk club in Hollywood called The Garret. The program was open (only) to amateurs on Friday or Saturday night, and each person or group was limited to a maximum of three songs. Most of the acts were solo kids singing dreary Bob Dylan antiwar dirges, or their own whiney compositions of similar ilk. Knowing that this crowd was composed of many “purists”, we wondered if The Lexingtons would be booed off the stage.

After putting our name on the program list, we went out in the back parking lot to tune up and practice one last time. Big mistake. The weather that evening was unusually cold for southern California – about 40 degrees. Our breath turned to fog as we sang. After bringing our instruments in from the cold to the warm little club we waited for our turn to play.

When our name was called and we crowded onto the little six by six stage and hit our first chord we realized we were badly out of tune and spent the next minute or so in front of the restless crowd re-tuning our instruments. (steel guitar strings are very sensitive to temperature. Tuning our instruments in the cold and then going into a warm club caused the strings to warm up and stretch out of tune. It was a lesson we never forgot.)

We did three songs (two of them Kingston Trio covers) and, to our surprise and delight, we brought down the house. The crowd called us back for two encores. The owner/manager of the club was not happy. She evidently felt that we were professionals that had crashed her little amateur program. We knew better and left the club elated. It was the greatest of compliments to be accused of being a professional group.

On May 22, 1965 we played at the UNICO National Dinner at the invitation from, of all people, Tom Drosman. (UNICO is an organization that celebrates the heritage of Italian Americans) We played four songs to a huge crowd of several hundred. I was terrified at the ocean of people sitting at the dozens of tables in the big auditorium. We were largely ignored but received several compliments from a handful of attendees after our performance.

Our next gig came on September 14, 1965 when we played at the UCLA Phi Kappa Sigma Fraternity rush party. We did three sets of six songs each. In between sets we visited with some of the college guys and several of our girl friends who came along. Back stage, we sang along with some of the rock and roll songs that were played as background music for the party.

We sang two or three songs at a talent show at Canoga Park high school. I did not record when this event took place, but it seems that it was late in our short career. The highlight of the event was when we were singing “Hard Ain’t It Hard”. I was supposed to sing the second verse as a solo, as usual on this song. It was a fast song and the group was getting into it, I was pumped and ready to do my part, but when I stepped up to the microphone, my mind went totally blank. I could not remember any of the words I was supposed to sing. I had been listening and singing this song for four or five years. I knew all of the verses by memory, yet, at this moment I stood there looking at the packed auditorium, helplessly strumming my guitar along with the rest of the group, wishing I could disappear under the stage. At the end of my blown verse, Erik looked at me with a murderous expression as he joined the group in the chorus. I had no problem remembering the chorus as I sang along. In fact, as soon as I stepped away from the mic, I remembered my verse – too late. It was the only time in all of our performances that something like that happened to me.

Our last engagement as a group was on October 1, 1965 where we again played a Canoga Park High School Sports Night. We sang five songs and did one encore.

The Vietnam war was raging and my student deferment had been changed to 1-A – prime meat for going to war. At the suggestion of my dad, I paid a visit to the local Army recruiter and enlisted in the United States Army. I was scheduled to go in on February 14, 1966. The Lexingtons were finished.

During the three years that the group had been together, popular folk music had changed. It had evolved from re-done mountain tunes and pseudo folk compositions played on acoustic instruments, to a blend of contemporary/political songs performed with electric instruments and drums. This shift in “folk” music is widely credited to Bob Dylan, and he surely had some influence on the evolution of the genre. But he was not the first to employ an electric instrument to folk material. The first to do it was a southern California club singer named Trini Lopez, who released a version of “If I Had A Hammer” on his album “Live At PJ’s in Hollywood”. We heard the song many times and disdained the sound of electric instruments and drums on “our” songs. That was rock and roll. We liked rock and roll, but we did not like the blending of folk and rock and roll instrumentation. Unfortunately for us, most everyone else did.

The effect of this release, and others, was to sweep the base of popularity for acoustic folk music out from under the style of music The Lexingtons played, leaving them (and hundreds of groups like them) with no one to play for.

And so, through the rising din of electric music, Steve, Erik, Dave, and Bill played their last engagement together in the same building where the group had started. Their last notes, and the group, drifted away and were quickly forgotten by all but a handful of people, scattered by the winds of time and circumstance, never to be resurrected again.

(Pretty poetic, huh?)

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