July 23, 2007

(Third of a five-part series.)

6. Glory Days: 1976

A few paid gigs during this era stand out in Doug’s mind: “We played the Dom Polski Club in Lowell one cold and rainy Friday night, and I remember we played OK. We also did a wedding at some social club in Lowell where the bride was ready to drop at any time and the food was pot luck, brought in by everyone who was invited – it was really pretty pathetic. I remember Jerry hit a bad note during ‘Here Comes the Bride’, and whole hall cringed – we just laughed. And there was this Saturday afternoon gig we did at the K of C hall in Tewksbury where the stage was a tiny ‘T’-shaped thing; Mark had to locate his drums behind us to the point where he couldn’t hear what the rest of us were playing, as we couldn’t afford a sound system that included on-stage monitors.”

Having to actually get to and from their live appearances was both time-consuming and wearying, as Mark recalls: “The problem was, whenever we’d have to play a gig, there’d be this little cellar window that we’d have to slide all our equipment up through. Fortunately, The Bouch had a van – I think that was the only reason we put up with having him in the band as long as we did – but outside of a few times where we’d have people to help us – my friend Doug Luciano, my cousin Gregg, or Jerry’s brother Tom perhaps, all the carrying, lugging, setting up, and tearing down would have to be done by us. Then, after the gig was over, all our stuff would have to be passed back through that tiny window late at night when we’d return. We’d all be exhausted, but all that equipment still had to be carried over from the driveway and passed back down into the cellar – sometimes through snow and mud. Once the newness of it all wore off, it started to become a royal pain in the ass.”

Kittyhawk Productions

For even the most humble of garage bands, music is an expensive pursuit. Everything costs money, and none of it is inexpensive. For a fledging band like Top Priority, where none of the members had a lot of money, creativity oftentimes was as important as talent in order to keep the band functioning; hence, Kittyhawk Productions was formed. Mark remembers: “Kittyhawk Productions was our gem – an operation designed to help the band prosper and allow us to do whatever we wanted to do under our own names.” Doug adds: “The best way I can describe it is that we were dreamers. Kittyhawk Productions was our operation, created initially to help support the infrastructure of the band, but we also envisioned a time where if Keys or The Cat wanted to go out and do their own thing, they could and would under the ‘Kittyhawk’ umbrella. It was like our Apple or Brother Records…”

It was under the Kittyhawk banner that Top Priority’s stage setup was designed. Taking their queue from the Beach Boys concert they had attended in late 1975, fake palm trees and cheap oriental rugs became just as important to the band’s practice headquarters as their own equipment, and lighting and sound equipment would soon follow – all designed to enhance the band’s image and identity when it came time to go out on the road. “The PA system was our own design”, remembers Mark. “We had seen an ad in the Lowell Sun for a cheap, second-hand PA system head, and we built two speaker cabinets out of particle board with five speakers in each, bought from Radio Shack. We then covered the cabinets in blue naugahyde. Was it the best PA system around? No, but it was the best we could afford.” Looking back, both Doug and Mark agree that, if there were a “smoking gun” when it came to the band’s less-than-professional live sound, all fingers would point to the PA system. “But you have to remember”, says Doug, “we didn’t have a lot of dough – I was just two years out of high school and the others were still in it. And none of our parents had a lot of money to support our muse, either.”

The group also knew that if it were going to start playing dances and other kinds of gigs, music alone wasn’t going to be enough to get them noticed, so once more Kittyhawk Productions was called in to put its creative thinking cap on – the result being, the band’s own light show. Doug recalls: “Mark figured out a way to build two ‘light towers’ out of 2x4s and metal poles. Each ‘tower’ had a red, green, blue, and yellow floodlight on it, and he jury-rigged a control box out of an empty 8-track storage box – pretty amazing, when you think about it! – with switches that could turn the lights off or on as needed. I remember him spending a lot of time getting that damned thing to work right, but once it did and we took it out on gigs, we felt like we were friggin’ superstars!”

Scat Jacobs and the Manhattans Featuring Sonny Williams

There had been from the very start a chasm between the musical tastes of the other band members and those of The Bouch. Eventually, this started to manifest itself in different and interesting directions once The Bouch would leave practices to head home, upon which the group would stay behind to fool around on their own. It was the result of this that an alter-ego of the band began to take shape: something the group called “Scat Jacobs and the Manhattans Featuring Sonny Williams”. As this entity, the group felt free to experiment with the various adult and pop standards it would normally mix in with their Top 40 repertoire at weddings and dances, accentuating the corniness of the songs for the purpose of exploring more inventive and bluesy kinds of interpretations. “I think we were influenced by seeing this group of old guys playing music one afternoon at the Hampton Beach hatch shell”, remembers Doug. “They were playing Van McCoy’s disco hit at the time, ‘The Hustle’, but playing it with a swing/shuffle beat! That absolutely slayed us, to the point where we wanted to do the same kind of thing to every disco tune we had ever learned. It also inspired us to trying giving that same kind of over-the-top treatment to boring things like ‘Tiny Bubbles’ and ‘Hawaiian Wedding Song’ – Keys really got into that kind of stuff…”

The group also began to use this time to begin developing some original songs on their own, two of which, “Rhythmic Blues” and “The Boucher Shuffle”, rank at the top of their very best work, leaving one to wonder why the band didn’t try and take this kind of musical direction more seriously. Hearing it on an old, beat-up cassette tape marked “Handle with Care” three decades later, the unreleased “Rhythmic Blues” stands out as something both unique and apart from anything else the band ever attempted, and the results are fascinating to behold: it’s as if the band were inspired by hidden forces to take the ‘Scat Jacobs’ persona to an entirely different and more serious level.

There’s a hint of expectation as the song begins: Doug’s doin’ a slow and easy ‘walking bass’ line to lay the foundation, when a sharp chord on the backbeat from Jerry, accented with just a hint of sneaky wah pedal from The Cat, usher in Mark’s drums – the latter accentuating the downbeat with a simple snap of the snare. This is pure and simple 12-bar blues, sounding as black as night by a group of white boys from suburbia. Upon the second verse, Jerry’s piano takes on a more forceful role, starting with a few well-placed chords to complement the rhythm, but gradually taking over to the point where his instrument assumes the role of primary accompaniment to The Cat’s instrumental, which serves as the song’s third verse. The song is cooking now – walking bass, snap snare, piano, and wah pedal lead.

…And then suddenly it all drops off, leaving Doug and Mark with the song’s underlying rhythm. Doug’s bass continues its slow easy walk, and Mark adds to his snare a hushed cymbal hissing its quiet approval at the song’s blue simplicity. By the time Jerry’s piano and The Cat’s guitar re-enter for the final verse and ending flourish, the song has become this alter-ego group’s signature – unlike anything Top Priority would have ever thought of attempting with someone like The Bouch. Doug remembers playing it for a co-worker of his at the time: “The guy’s name was Willie Mayes; a big black guy who was one of our company couriers. I played the tape for him and he was very impressed. I remember him saying something like, ‘you boys got something there – work it out and get that damned thing down on tape in a professional studio!’, but we never did. It was all really just for fun.”

The band’s other significant original at this time, “The Boucher Shuffle”, unlike “Rhythmic Blues”, was actually performed live; it was added to the band’s repertoire immediately after The Bouch’s departure. The song, primarily a Palma creation, features two distinct sections built on the idea of Boucher’s onstage foot-shuffling tendencies becoming a world-renowned dance – a rave-up on the idea of ‘The Twist’. The first section is a straight-ahead, 4/4 rocker, with lyrics that make no bones about its humble intentions, a Palma lead, and a chorus featuring Doug’s and The Cat’s playful background vocals:

“There’s a brand new dance catching on all over the world
It’s done by every single boy and girl;
You shuffle your feet, that’s all you need to do
You’re doing ‘The Boucher Shuffle’ and it’s really cool…

(chorus)

“Do ‘The Bouch’ (Boucher alive!)
Do ‘The Bouch’ (Boucher alive!)
Do ‘The Bouch’ (Boucher alive!)
(Do ‘The Bouch’!) That’s a big 10-4…”

After a second verse telling listeners of the varying ways ‘The Boucher Shuffle’ can be done (“when you’re all alone”, “when you’re on the phone”, etc.) the chorus repeats, but the music stops after the third “Do The Bouch!”, upon which Palma sings, “That’s a big 10-4” slowly, enabling some extended Mark drum fills to usher in the second section – a rollicking 12-bar blues reminiscent of the ’50s hit, “The Stroll”. Here, Palma takes an extended solo on piano while Doug and The Cat happily chirp “Do The Bouch!” between piano fills, allowing the guitarists time to perfect their own ‘Boucher Shuffle’. Just when you think the song is beginning to lag, the music drops off and Palma begins to half-sing:

“It’s late at night and you’re out on a date
You look at the clock and it’s getting late
Your girl says baby, it’s a quarter to two
You say, sorry but I’ve got some more shuffling to do…”

Upon which the band repeats the chorus from the song’s first section, except here the word “Bouch” is repeated over and over until the chorus starts all over again, with more repeated “Bouch’s” over some additional drum fills by Mark. Another repeat of the chorus, and here comes the song’s big finale: the band drops out, there’s a few ascending tinkles on Palma’s piano, and a final sustaining chord – a popular way for bands to end songs back then. A kitschy close to a more than kitschy song? Not quite, as Palma finally ends the proceedings with an abbreviated sour chord, as if the band is telling the world not to take the song seriously. As if it ever could be.

While different songs by nature, both “Rhythmic Blues” and “The Boucher Shuffle” have one significant trait in common: they are both creative and inventive recordings, revealing by their very nature a band weary of the same old Top 40/wedding and dance routine, and hungering for a new direction. As they saw it in that steamy and pivotal Bicentennial summer of 1976, there was only one barrier preventing them from dedicating themselves to that new musical direction – their lead guitarist. A decision had to be made, and quickly.

Tomorrow: The Post-Bouch Era: 1976-77

—————–

Excerpted from “The Band That Never Changed Rock: The Definitive History of Top Priority” by Victor N. Cugini, soon to be published by Permanent Press.

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