July 26, 2007

(Last in a five-part series)

8. Postscript and Legacy

The end of Top Priority came in the spring of 1977 amidst a flurry of band member departures: first, guitarist “The Cat” enlisted in the Air Force, then, shortly thereafter, drummer Mark enlisted in the Army. For a time, the cellar in Tewksbury that had served as a ‘band headquarters’ for the better part of the previous three years lay dormant and empty except for a few remaining pieces of leftover musical equipment.

But the music hadn’t died completely. “Even with The Cat and Mark leaving, Keys still wanted to keep the music thing going, so he put another band together”, recalls Doug. “I had met some new friends and a horny chick at work, and had recently been exposed to an entirely different social circle – one outside the Merrimack Valley – but he needed a bassist, so I reluctantly agreed to hop on. The new band had better players than we ever did with Top Priority – not exponentially so, but good enough that I knew I had to work on my chops. The lineup included a couple of horn players, I think – trumpet and trombone, with Jerry’s brother Tom one of ‘em – and they started out wanting to play a mix of Top Priority’s old repertoire with stuff having a harder, funkier edge – Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, Heart, Boston – y’know, that kind of late ‘70s stuff…

And now Doug had some serious musical equipment in order to play that kind of music: “One day, these two huge boxes arrived by UPS at our house addressed to me. When I opened them up, it turned out to be a brand spankin’ new Fender Bassman 100 amp that Mark had purchased through Boston Music Company from wherever the hell he was in Army basic training. I was flabbergasted – I mean, this was REAL musical equipment, with a sound that made my cheesy violin bass now sound like a total bad ass. I remember I could keep the volume at 2 and still blow the whole neighborhood away.”

One day in early 1978, a shadowy figure from the new band’s musical heritage appeared out of the shadows of days long since passed. Doug remembers the event clearly: “It was a call that came out of the blue. I picked up the phone, and Ken Sandler was on the line. He said he had been thinking of us and was wondering if we still had the band together. I told him the group had recently folded, but that a new one was getting together, and that we could use an experienced guitar player like him. I told him the kind of stuff we were doing, and you could tell he was genuinely excited on his end. He asked when the next practice was, and I told him when and how to get there. He said he’d see me there, and that he couldn’t wait, but then he never showed. That was the last I ever heard from him.”

The new band (called Cotillion) played several gigs that led Doug to begin considering whether it was still worthwhile to pursue his music muse. “We played a dance at Tewksbury High School which was a huge success. Jerry and I had worked out an arrangement of the old Beatles’ tune ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ with horns, just like the one featuring John Lennon on the flip side of Elton John’s ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ single. That would be my designated featured performance during the shows; otherwise, I just played bass and tried to keep up with the rest of the players.”

The last live gig Doug would ever play was a freshman dance at Essex (MA) Agricultural College. Doug recalls: “The band was starting to look to getting bigger and better gigs, and it was all starting to intimidate me a little. This was a much better band than I was used to playing in. Anyways, I remember the Essex Aggie thing well – we started off with our usual Top 40/pop stuff, but the crowd didn’t seem jacked or even interested. I just remember a lot of rumbling and grumbling. Anyways, I look at Jerry and say, ‘time for ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, whereupon he nods in agreement and we kick into it. Well, we proceeded to blow that house away. The band cooked, the horns sounded great, and the crowd suddenly snapped into it. I was the hero that night. From that song on, the place was ours and the dance ended up really well.”

The band soon changed some personnel and its musical direction, setting their sights on bigger things, more ambitious goals. Even with his new equipment, Doug had a sense that he was in over his head. “We were starting to play harder stuff – Heart’s ‘Barracuda’, Boston’s ‘Foreplay/Long Time’, Kansas’ ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’ – that kind of stuff. I think the band renamed itself ‘Virgil Sims’, or something weird like that. Me, I was still into the Beach Boys but starting to get into the Warren Zevon/Linda Ronstadt mid-‘70s California thing, punk stuff like the Ramones and Blondie, and even starting to like country-and-western music a little more. I remember suggesting to Jerry that we get ourselves a steel guitar player and play gigs as an alter-ego band called Jerry ‘Red River’ Palma and the Saddlesores – which I still think would have been a great idea – but Jerry thought I was daft; he was really getting into the hard rock scene and all the glitter that came with it.”

With the band’s change in musical focus, Doug could sense his days as a musician drawing to a close. “I remember a rehearsal where we had been told the week before to learn some new stuff – Aerosmith‘s ‘Walk This Way’ and Steve Miller’s ‘Swingtown’ were two of the songs, I think – and there was talk of the band getting a gig at Mr. C’s Rock Palace – a club in Lowell that would be bigger and a harder rock kind of thing than I had ever envisioned playing. Anyways, I couldn’t really get psyched enough to practice those songs all by myself sitting in the cellar amidst the old Top Priority stuff that had never been fully cleared out, so when I showed up I wasn’t very prepared. We played the songs and recorded them for playback, and it was pretty embarrassing – hearing me trying to keep up with these better players was a pretty humbling experience – for both me and them, I think. So, after the rehearsal, I told Jerry that was it, I was leaving the group immediately. He didn’t sound disappointed, so I sold all my equipment a few weeks later and never looked back. We both went our separate ways and never spoke again.”

Top Priority – The Legacy

Three decades have passed since the band Top Priority faded into the mist of rock music’s forgotten past, although no one seems to have noticed it. The only actual evidence that the band ever existed has been reduced to a number of faded photographs and three beat-up cassettes – evidence now necessary to help jar the memories of its former band members who otherwise would have seen their own memories of a special time in their lives lost to antiquity, forever.

The Top Priority story did not need to be told. After all, their story is hardly unique among any number of thousands of garage (or cellar) bands that have populated the land ever since folks like Bill Haley, Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly blazed upon the rock n’roll scene half a century ago. Yet their story serves as one documented example of the power of dreams – dreams that are realized not by the millions of dollars made through gold and platinum sales of recorded products, or multi-city tours sponsored by corporations aggressively hawking their wares from boardrooms far removed from the bands they have aligned themselves and their products with.

No, it is the dreams realized by the simple joy of your band starting and finishing a song at the same time, and even playing it well. Or the joy of seeing people dance to your music, and smile or applaud after hearing a song your band has played. And the hassle of dragging your own equipment from one place to another, with no professional ‘roadies’ to help you out, but getting paid to do it. And the bitter disappointment and the dashing of those dreams when you and your fellow band members realize one day you’re simply not good enough to make a living off of doing something you love most. If there is a story to be told of Top Priority, it is just that – humble dreams dreamed, kindled, realized, celebrated, and dashed, with no apparent effect on anything or the lives of anyone except those of its own band members. And sometimes, that’s a worthy enough story in and of itself to tell.

That’s why I wrote this story.

If there was one legacy left by Top Priority, it was the absence of one: rock music was never bothered or even slightly imprinted by anything the group ever did or attempted. It never recorded professionally, never sold any records, never caused even the slightest ripple in the rock music scene inside the Merrimack Valley, let alone nationally. But there are no regrets. As Doug says, “It was a fun thing to do while it lasted – we came, we played, we departed. No one got hurt, we made a couple of dollars doing it, and I still have fond memories of those days.” Mark seconds his brother’s assessment: “Look, we were just a little combo with marginal talent that had a lot of fun playing music together for a little while. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s good enough for me.”

Not surprisingly, there have been no clarion calls in recent years for a Top Priority reunion, so it seems clear the members of the group are more than content to allow the non-legacy of the band that didn’t change rock to remain as it always has been – anonymous and forgettable. Well, at least it was until now.

(End of the series)

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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.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:39 | Comments (0)
July 24, 2007

(Part 4 of a five-part series.)

7. The Post-Bouch Era: 1976-77

In the summer of 1976, the country was coming together for it’s Bicentennial celebration: groups of ‘Tall Ships’ were arriving to huge crowds packing the Boston waterfront, and towns and cities across America were celebrating its 200th birthday with concerts, parades, and fireworks shows. It was a celebratory time. For the members of Top Priority, however, relations between lead guitarist The Bouch and the rest of the band were at a low ebb: disagreements over the band’s musical direction were starting to come to the fore, and there was an overall feeling of weariness over playing the same tired songs at the same kind of tired venues.

Ken “The Cat” McDougal would later admit, “It was a low point for everyone. There were differences – differences over what we were going to play, where we were going to play, even what we should be wearing when we played. After a while, there came a point where we just weren’t as concerned about [Boucher's] feelings as we once were. He was a nice enough guy and all, but the whole commercial wedding scene had started getting stale for us.”

As Mark remembers it, the primary area of dissatisfaction was on The Bouch’s playing: “There was this practice where my friend John Ellis recorded us on his 8-track recording system, and one of the songs we did was, ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’. Hearing it played back with The Bouch taking the lead was, in a word, laughable – I mean, his guitar had this clipped, twangy elastic band sound to it. Remember, we still had that recording with Ken Sandler playing that same song, and hearing the two together played back to back was like night and day. One of the main reasons we had kept him on as long as we had, to be honest, was the fact he owned a van, which made playing gigs a lot easier, but after weighing the pros and cons of it all, we knew he had to go. I think that recording just affirmed to us what had to be done.”

Jerry Palma would later recall: “What did The Bouch bring to the band? An idea. A concept, perhaps, that after a while we just weren’t able to buy into. I mean, the guy had virtually no stage presence whatsoever, which, if you wanted to play rock and roll back then, you just had to have. He’d just be up there, content to pick away in the shadows, shuffling back and forth, and we’d kind of get on him because of that whenever his back was turned. As a guitar player, he knew the chords OK, but we needed more from a lead player. He had this big Gibson that made kind of a twangy sound – it probably would have sounded fine backing Loretta Lynn or someone like that, but for the kind of music we were playing, it didn’t add much, and, in our view, became expendable after a time.”

Doug remembers a conversation between the four band members following a particularly uninspiring practice. “There was a moment of clarity. Not just as far as The Bouch was concerned, but for us as a band. I mean, it suddenly became clear to each of us that we were never going to be anything better than what we already were, so the feeling was, why are we dealing with this CB-toting, disco dude whose guitar leads sounded like an elastic band being plucked? So, when an opportunity for another gig came up – I think it might have been some dance in Bedford – we just didn’t tell him about it. Then, after it went over really well, we just avoided the whole issue by telling him we were folding the group. I think we all knew the whole [Top Priority] thing was starting to go south, and we figured, if that were the case, we might as well enjoy it while we can.”

The Cat would later recall the Bedford dance as an important stepping-off point for the group: “We were asked to play this dance. I remember Doug’s and Mark’s cousin manning the lights and our performance being very well received. We opened with ‘California Girls’ just as The Beach Boys would do in concert, and we played a number of songs we never would have done if The Bouch was with us. What I remember most is the crowd asking us to play an encore – which was very neat and something new to us. I remember being totally psyched about our performance that night.”

For a period of time, the group considered adding a new replacement guitarist. Doug remembers: “Mark doesn’t remember him, but I do. There was this guy where I worked named George Duda, who said he played guitar. We actually had him come by for a couple of practices (pictured: Duda, The Cat, Doug, and Keys), but I think by that time we were pretty happy just (if you’ll pardon the expression) playing with ourselves, and really didn’t feel like having to go through the hassle of breaking in another new guitarist. He did have some decent equipment, I recall. Why we didn’t invite him in I don’t remember – mighta been us, mighta been him.”

With their problem guitarist now out of the scene, the band began a series of intense rehearsals, both indoors and outdoors, in order to rework their playlist, dropping a number of Boucher-era songs and adding new ones into the mix, emphasizing songs the band enjoyed playing instead of those more identifiable to dance audiences. The realigned group then unveiled its new look and new repertoire at a backyard concert played on the Palma’s back deck. There, playing before an enthusiastic crowd of friends and neighbors, the band played one of its better performances. Mark remembers the day well: “It was probably my favorite gig we ever did. The Bouch was gone, so we were able to recapture some of the feeling of those pre-Bouch days, where we played music simply for the joy of it. I remember we played ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘California Girls’ – fairly ambitious pieces for us to be sure, but they went over very well with the crowd.”

With two well-received performances under their belt, Doug felt confident enough about the band’s new lineup and repertoire to volunteer it to provide live entertainment at the Billerica Masonic Lodge for the Lodge’s theater group following its final show that year. Doug remembers: “The band was looking for some more opportunities to play without The Bouch, so when this opportunity to play came along, I volunteered us. There’s a cassette tape of that performance around somewhere.”

Indeed there is. And, hearing the tape three decades later, one gets the sense that this is a band not at all in transition – quite the contrary, they’re coming from nowhere and heading the same place. The two sets played are a mix of uninspiring pop instrumentals (“Let Me Be There”, “Yesterday”) combined with passable Top 40 pop covers (“Get Back”, “Ventura Highway”, “Saturday Night”, The Eagles’ “Take It Easy”), all played to a lot of background noise and conversation: clearly this was a crowd that could care less about the band and its performance. A request by some young girl asking for Golden Earrings’ “Radar Love” – a current hit of that time – can be heard above the din, but it seems apparent that the band is content to play what it knows and what it wants to play, and then then get the hell out of out Dodge – and fast.

The last live performance of Top Priority took place just before Christmas 1976, and, ironically, it was one of their best. Doug recalls: “We were contracted to play a Christmas dance somewhere in Lowell or Tewksbury, and once again we brought along our cousin Gregg to run the lights. Keys also brought his brother Tom (we called him ‘TP’), and he and/or some other guy he brought along with him might have played the trumpet or some kind of horn. Whether it was because of the lights, or the horns, or the setting, or the vibes, I recall we played a very good dance – one of our best. We ditched the wedding crap, rocked a little harder, and played the kind of stuff we always wanted to play – a few obscure Beach Boys tunes – ‘Do It Again’, ‘Back Home’, and ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’, I think, and, as I recall, a fantastic bluesy-version of ‘White Christmas’ done in a ‘Scat Jacobs’ kinda vein. I think Tom Palma might have played a backing horn on that one.”

The Christmas dance turned out to be Top Priority’s “Candlestick Park” moment; by that time, the band had ceased actively pursuing gigs, and none magically appeared before them, either. While occasional practices still produced some new fine original work – Jerry’s unreleased “Rhythm and Blues, Parts 1 & 2″ was one – by the spring of 1977, it was becoming clear that the clock was starting to run down. The band was starting to put something less than ‘top priority’ on the music, and, as Doug remembers, its members were starting to think about larger things. “Mark and I would go to Mac’s Two Lounge in Billerica – this was before it became a strip joint – or the Band Box and just talk about life – you know, where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do – that kind of thing”. Everyone was starting to think about their futures and getting restless, wanting to make a big change.”

As Palma would recall later: “Around [1977], we were getting together less and less as a band to practice. Both The Cat and Mark were feeling the need to change their lives in a big way. Sometime in late spring, Ken told us he had enlisted in the Air Force, then a few months later, Mark enlisted in the Army. By late August, both were gone.” Doug adds: “I remember things pretty much falling apart on their own. I don’t recall anyone shedding any tears over the band’s demise – we had had a good time, and had made some money playing dances. It was just time for everyone to move on.”

Next: Postcript and legacy

—————–

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.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:17 | Comments (2)
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

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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.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:17 | Comments (0)
July 21, 2007

(Second of a five-part series.)

4. A Band is Born: 1974-75

Feeling confident that, along with Ken Sandler, they now had a solid core to work from, Doug and Mark set about to find their fledging band another guitarist, hence the arrival of Ken “The Cat” McDougal (forefront, with Mark on drums at a 1975 practice). In a 1979 interview, McDougal recalled how he was brought into the fold: “It was around ’73 or ’74 that Mark – who I already knew from both school and church – mentioned how he and his brother were working on getting a new band together with this other guy named Ken. I only remember this because I can recall thinking we’d then have have two guitarists named Ken! Anyways, not only did I play guitar, but I had my own equipment as well – something that must have obviously impressed [them]. Anyways, it wasn’t long before I began practicing with them.” As for McDougal’s nickname? “That was a Jerry thing”, says Mark (referring to keyboardist Jerry “Keys” Palma, whom McDougal would later recruit for the band). “I don’t remember how or why Jerry gave him that nickname – I doubt it was anything complimentary – but for whatever reason, it stuck.”

Ken Sandler had always been an enigma to Doug and Mark when it came to committing himself to the band they were trying to form. Doug recalls: “It was around this time Ken was starting to break away on his own. I remember visiting him at his new basement apartment in Lowell some time in early ’74 and trying to get him to formally commit, since he would be hot to join the group one day, then cool the next. When he showed up, I mean it was fantastic! The guy could play almost anything – his musical ear was instinctive by nature – and we worked well together as a group, but he ended up marrying this local chick and that was pretty much the last we saw of him.”

Sandler’s value to the group can best be illustrated by a cassette tape still in existence where the band is working on the Bachman-Turner Overdrive song, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”. The group attempts three takes of the song, and, while it is obviously coming along well, the takes are somewhat sterile in nature, remaining quite faithful to the BTO hit. There then follows a fourth take, and it’s clear from the sounds on the tape that Sandler has suddenly arrived on the scene – immediately, the atmosphere sounds charged and the band is clearly psyched. Starting with some meandering Sandler licks behind The Cat’s intro (he’s obviously working on his solo part), the song virtually explodes off the tape and the group nails it to a “T”. Sandler’s solo is crisp, virtuosic, and Fogerty-sounding, and the group gives him plenty of room for an extended workout. As the song comes to a crashing end, the air is filled with whoops and shouts of enjoyment: the band had cooked, and for a single precious moment, all was right with the world.

Unfortunately, that would be the last time Sandler would ever join in with the group, as he shortly thereafter, in Doug’s words, “dropped off the face of the earth”. The group now needed a new guitar player, and it would be through Mark’s boss at Tewksbury Aluminum & Hardware, Al Thibeault, that the legendary guitarist “The Bouch” would join the group. Top Priority was about to be born, and, with a new keyboard player anticipating his arrival, the rock music world would forever remain the same.

5. The Palma/Bouch Era: 1975-76

With Sandler now officially out of the picture, it became obvious that the fledging group would need to add replacement personnel. It was thus in mid-to-late 1975 that three major events in the band’s life took place: 1) The addition of keyboard player Jerry “Keys” Palma; 2) the addition of guitar player “The Bouch”; and 3) Mark’s and Doug’s exposure to The Beach Boys. All three would play a significant role in moulding and shaping the sound of the band that would come to be known as “Top Priority”.

Jerry Palma

History records that it was via The Cat that keyboard player Jerry “Keys” Palma (shown here in a 1976 publicity photo) came into the band. As Doug remembers, “Yeah, Jerry came into the band as a direct result of Ken Sandler’s lack of commitment. Even if Ken had ultimately joined the group, we still would have brought Jerry in. Not only was he a talented player who could play keyboards and a little guitar as well, he was a good guy, and not many bands back then could claim to have a bonafide keyboard player.” The other quality Palma brought to the group was his musical expertise and a wider exposure to pop music that the group was not just lacking, but, in Doug’s mind, sorely needed as well. “Jerry liked music with a little harder edge – music we hadn’t really been exposed to – stuff like Queen, Thin Lizzy, and the like. His feet were still rooted in the same Top 40 sounds that we were; he just liked the songs we ordinarily wouldn’t have normally gravitated to.” Palma’s Sound City electric piano also created a different sonic foundation for the group: the guitar-based rock of the Sandler era was now over, and the band could venture into different kinds of musical ideas.

“The Bouch”

The impact of guitarist “The Bouch” (right, with The Cat at a 1975 practice) on both the sound and the fortunes of the band cannot be overestimated, for it was The Bouch who brought with him a disco hairdo, and a desire to not simply be satisfied making music, but to actually make money playing it. Mark recalls: “It was through Al Thibeault at Tewksbury Aluminum and Hardware that The Bouch was referred to us. Al and I were pretty close – he wanted to hook me up with his daughter – and he knew this guitar player from Lowell who he thought would be a good fit for our vacancy”. Several years later, Jerry Palma would recall The Bouch’s impact and influence on the band: “Yeah, The Bouch. No question ‘dude had a diff’rent outlook on music than the rest of us. I think we were more concerned with playing the kind of music we liked – for us, it was kind of a hobby, really – whereas he was more interested in playing music we’d get paid for. It was also The Bouch who came up with the idea calling us ‘Top Priority’, and putting us in white leisure suits with bell-sleeved, open-necked red shirts. Very ‘70s… he was definitely a man of the times.”

Mark still remembers the debate over the band’s name. “We’d been tossing around the idea of calling ourselves ‘Kittyhawk’, but The Bouch felt that the name wasn’t suitable for the kinds of gigs he thought we should be interested in pursuing, like weddings and dances. Same with Al [Thibeault], who, I think, fancied himself as some kind of enterpreneur and being our Brian Epstein, or something like that. He too thought we should have a more commercial-sounding name as well. So, I guess you could call it our first sell-out. Looking back, it’s probably just as well – we weren’t good enough to make any money as a real rock band, anyways. So, in the end, Doug and I decided we’d show them – we’d paint ‘Kittyhawk Productions Presents Top Priority’ on my bass drum head (along with the chick in the bikini standing in front of the palm tree, but that’s a story for another time…), so we kind of compromised on that.”

The band set up its headquarters in the cellar of Mark’s and Doug’s house. “We used to practice in [the] cellar”, recalled McDougal in a 1979 interview. “It was like our own private club. We painted the walls lime green and hung posters to make it a true ‘band hangout’ – a ‘Jaws’ movie poster, Olivia Newton-John, The Beatles – stuff we liked. Their parents and grandfather used to watch TV upstairs while we’d be practicing, and they sure must have gotten sick of us playing the same songs over and over, and having to turn their TV volume up loud.” The idea of a band practicing right below them couldn’t have made watching television too much fun, but Doug recalls that his parents never made it much of an issue. “God bless them, they always supported our craft and were very patient and understanding, especially since we weren’t very good. I don’t recall too much complaining on their part – maybe a recommendation that we turn the volume down, or perhaps consider trying a different song from time to time – you know, that kind of thing…”

Unlike Ken Sandler’s earthy, improvisational rockin’ style borne out his love for John Fogerty’s swampy blues-rock, The Bouch’s abilities on the guitar were far more, er, measured, and therefore, the band’s sound suffered for it. While he undoubtedly had some talent, it was hard to get him to contribute significantly and lead the group in a particular musical direction, sound-wise. Three decades later, Doug reflects on the differences between Sandler and The Bouch: “Maybe it was just that The Bouch had such crappy equipment and crappy musical taste; I think at one time he even wanted us to play that stupid trucker hit, ‘Convoy’ since he had a CB radio in his car. We were always trying to encourage him to put an edge into his playing, but that was something that was never there. I suppose we could have replaced him with another guitarist, but he had that van [to carry equipment], and we weren’t really good enough to attract any really good players. As it was, Keys was the only one in the group with any real talent, and he just played with us ‘cause he liked hanging around with us.”

The Beach Boys

Unlike the arrival of “The Bouch” on the scene, the impact of The Beach Boys as a musical force and inspiration upon the band was cataclysmic, and cannot be overstated. Doug recalls, “One day in early ’75 my friend Bob Noftle brought over this album, a double album ‘The Beach Boys In Concert’ and tells me something like, ‘you gotta hear this, man, these guys are great!’. The two of us had been close friends in high school and huge Beatles fans, but ever since they had broken up, we had been kinda looking for the next ‘big thing’, music-wise. Mark and I had been big into Pink Floyd for several years – even before ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, but Bob wasn’t much into their sound. Now, while I had heard some Beach Boys music before, and had even liked a number of their tunes enough to steal an 8-track of one of their ‘Best of’ albums while I worked at Zayre’s department store a few years before, I was totally unprepared for how the music on that album blew me away. I liked their look too – they looked kinda hairy and cool looking, so I immediately went out and bought myself a copy. When I played it for Mark, he was blown away too. We were both totally hooked, just as if we had smoked crack cocaine for the first time. From then on, it was pretty much all Beach Boys, all the time for us.

“Mark and I attended a Beach Boys concert at Boston Garden – it must have been in late ’75. They had the most incredible stage set we had ever seen! Very retro, kinda like the film ‘Chinatown’. Everything seemed white – white amplifiers, white Fender guitars, a white grand piano with a tiffany lamp on it, palm trees, oriental rugs – the works. Of course, we had to emulate that, so we immediately went out and bought phony palm trees and cheap oriental rugs that we could bring with us as part of our own stage setup. If we could have figured out how, we probably would have repainted our black amplifiers in white. As it was, Mark built a piano stand for Jerry’s keyboard that we of course painted white. The white color for our leisure suits might have also been a result of that concert experience, ‘cause I think a number of the Beach Boys were dressed in white at that concert, and we thought that was pretty cool.”

Mark continues: “We then started buying up every Beach Boys album we could find, and since at that time America was also re-discovering them in a big way, a lot of their late ‘60s/post-surf era stuff was starting to get re-packaged. There were these double album re-issues of their ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘20/20’, and ‘Smiley Smile’ and ‘Friends’ albums, both with watercolor pastel paintings of a bikini-clad girl standing on a beach in front of a big palm tree on the covers. Doug and I both went bananas over this, to the point where I actually ended up painting one of those album figures on my drum head, then accentuating it by rigging up a light that would flash inside the drum so that the girl and palm tree would light up whenever I wanted. The funny thing was, we weren’t really good enough as vocalists or players to do a whole lot of Beach Boys music, but their impact on us at the time was tremendous.”

The Music

As Top Priority, the band came to learn a wide range of music and styles – after all, weddings and dances required a lot of songs and a varied repertoire. Doug remembers, “We were big into Top 40 rock and pop – stuff like America, the Eagles, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Creedence, The Doobie Brothers – you know, stuff that people could either dance to or listen to over dinner. For weddings, we’d load up on instrumentals and soft rock: I remember inventive arrangements of ‘Yesterday’, and Olivia Newton-John‘s ‘Let Me Be There’ that we’d enjoy doing, and The Bouch could warble ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ OK. On top of this, we’d play the usual kind of wedding stuff you still hear today – ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’, ‘The Hokey Pokey’, ‘Misirlou’ for the Greek dance, ‘Tea for Two’ for a cha-cha, Bobby Vinton’s ‘Una Paloma Blanca” for a polka, some disco; a little bit of everything. Nothing great, mind you, just a lot of stuff that was passable for a band being paid on the cheap. We were just a little combo playing local gigs here and there that no one else would ever think of doing.”

But, as Mark recalls, that didn’t mean the band wasn’t also capable of some fine performances. “I suppose we considered BTO’s ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ and the Bay City Rollers‘ ‘Saturday Night’ our signature tunes, as The Cat did a great job singing both those songs and they always got a good response. Some of our other best stuff? The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’, America’s ‘Ventura Highway’, Creedence’s ‘Green River’, and the Doobie Brothers’ ‘China Grove’. My brother did a great vocal on ‘Get Back’ and Jerry would do The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’, but The Cat sang lead on most of our stuff, and he was OK.” Doug says the group also prided itself in playing songs that were not so well-known but simply because they liked them. “The Cat really liked Cat Stevens, so we’d do a few of his tunes, like ‘Father and Son’; I also sang lead on Creedence’s ‘Cross-Tie Walker’, and, of course, we did Beach Boys stuff that few people would have heard before, but did them simply for the enjoyment of learning and playing them.”

Next: Glory Days: 1976

—————–

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.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:05 | Comments (0)
July 20, 2007

(First of a five-part series.)

“Top Priority? Never heard of ‘em” – Jan Wenner, publisher, Rolling Stone

1. Origins and Influences

It was the spring of 1969, and America was being torn apart by civil strife. Two years removed from the so-called “Summer of Love” and the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream” year of 1967, the national spirit of love, peace, and hope had given way to a darker, more violent mood. Vietnam was raging, college campuses across the country were erupting in ever-increasing violent protest, and the positive vibes of “Woodstock” would soon give way to the Manson murders, Altamont, Kent State, and the deaths of Hendrix, Morrison, Janis, and Mama Cass.

In the bucolic town of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, however, all of this seemed far away, indeed. Situated in the Merrimack Valley thirty miles northwest of Boston, Tewksbury in those days was a quiet, middle-class town where families struggled to make ends meet pursuing the “American dream”. The world was a much smaller place then – in the summer, weekends were for cookouts and mowing the lawn, perhaps a family outing to the ocean or a local lake; in winter, the snow would fall and the morning and evenings would be filled with the sounds of snow shovels scraping against driveways and walkways. In short, Tewksbury was like any number of small towns across the country at that time – honest, hard-working, moving along with the tide of the times.

Like most teenagers their age, Doug Richard and Ken Sandler were crazy about rock music. The two had met in junior high school and discovered that whatever differences they might have had in their home lives – Doug’s was just as stable, loving, and nurturing as Ken’s was harsh and dysfunctional – they shared the same musical tastes shaped and molded by the Top 40 radio of the day – The Beatles, The Monkees, the Stones, and Creedence Clearwater Revival were favorites, with popular country artists like Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash adding a little breadth and depth to their musical influences.

After school, Doug would ride his bicycle down to Ken’s house and the two would talk and share their thoughts about music as Ken performed his afternoon chores. Ken played guitar and was actually pretty good at it, honing his technique and skills by listening to John Fogerty’s licks on any number of Creedence 45s he would plop down on his record player over and over, trying to replicate them on his acoustic guitar. While Doug hadn’t learned to play any musical instrument while growing up, he had attained a keen ear for music, having grown up listening to his parents’ Frank Sinatra, Broadway musical, and, most especially, Herb Alpert records. Doug also enjoyed writing, and he and Ken fancied that between them, one day they might learn to write songs together, make millions of dollars, and attract pretty girls.

2. The Instamatic Vibration: 1969-70

It was Ken who first came up with the idea of starting a band. He and another student at Tewksbury High School, John Dunham, a quiet, pudgy kid from the poor Brown Street section of South Tewksbury, had somehow met and discovered that they too had a common interest in making music. How Ken and Dunham had hooked up is lost to antiquity – Doug believes it might have been through the Tewksbury 4H Club – but it wasn’t long after that the two somehow learned of a drummer named Ricky Cefalo, and the three decided to try and put a band together. With two guitars and drums, Ken knew the band needed a bass player, but was unable to find one; hence, he asked Doug if he would be willing to learn to play bass. While Doug was skeptical about the idea, he too had caught the “band bug” and wanted to help out his friend, so the two punched holes in Ken’s old Sears Silvertone acoustic, slapped on a pickup, and Ken began teaching Doug how to play bass using the top two strings of the guitar. The foursome began to practice together, and named themselves “The Instamatic Vibration”.

To this day, Doug recalls the first time he ever experienced the sensation of a band playing live, with him a part of it. “We were set up in the Cefalo’s living room and it was a sight to see – drum kit, guitars, amplifiers, mike stands, cords everywhere across the floor, the amplifiers buzzing, the sounds of Ken and John tuning up, and then Ken and I tuning our guitars up. It all seemed very foreign, yet exciting to me. Then, a four-count in by Ken, the guitars playing those three chords over and over, the snap of a snare drum, and the sound of ‘Gloria’ (your classic garage band three-chord standard) pouring out at an ear-shattering volume. It probably sounded awful – remember, we were just kids who barely knew how to play – but to me, it sounded like heaven on earth. Man, I was hooked!

“I’ve always believed that the experience of playing in a band where everyone’s cookin’ and on the same page, and the audience is diggin’ you as much as you are diggin’ the whole experience is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced – better than sex, better than a religious experience, better than anything. I think that’s why so many musicians go the route of drugs, alcohol, and destructive behavior – they’re trying to recapture somehow that over-the-top incredible high that playing music as part of a band unit brings.”

Unfortunately for The Instamatic Vibration, the early good times didn’t last. Ken Sandler’s work schedule got in the way, and Dunham had no money to upgrade his equipment beyond the rudimentary guitar and amplifier he owned. “His family seemed so poor”, Doug recalls. “I remember the three of us practicing in his house – well, you couldn’t even really call it a house, it was basically a tiny cabin his family lived in. I don’t even think it had rugs or curtains – it was just a wooden cabin with wooden floors and tiny rooms.” Because none of the group could really sing, Ken tried to enlist his girlfriend at the time to sing lead – something that the rest of the group resented, ultimately leading to its demise.

Doug remembers the end all too well: “Well, Ken had tried to get his girlfriend – I think her name was Joyce Boyer – to sing with the group, but no one was really in favor of it. We were a garage band – primarily Creedence, the Beatles, the Stones – that kind of stuff, while Joyce, if I remember correctly, came from a kind of a pop standard or country background – like Anne Murray doin’ ‘Snowbird’, that kind of crap. Anyways, we hadn’t played much before audiences as a group – I think we might have done one thing before some high school assembly or something like that. Anyways, Ken volunteered us for this gig at the 4H Fair in Westford, and there we were, on the Friday night program under the entertainment tent – The Instamatic Vibration! We thought it would be like The Beatles playing Shea Stadium… [Laughs]

“…Ricky must have had a sense of disaster looming and never showed. This was bad, since I, the so-called ‘bass player’ relied on an amplifier he owned in order to play. So there we were, Ken with his guitar and amp, and John with his gathered around one microphone, and since Ricky must have also provided our only other mike stand, I was left to hold the microphone for Joyce while she sang, looking like some total dork – I’ve got a photo of it somewhere. How bad were we? So bad that I can remember us taking a break after something like three songs, Joyce disappearing, and Ken and I calling out for her repeatedly over the 4H grounds PA system: [makes announcer sound] ‘Will Joyce Boyer please return to the entertainment tent by the rabbit cages…’ [laughs]; she was smart – she never returned. And that’s how that all ended.”

3. A New Beginning: 1973-74

Even with the demise of The Instamatic Vibration, Ken and Doug still continued to practice together and even began writing their first original songs. Doug recalls, “I remember Ken and I working on a number of songs – we were really into trying to compose our own music. One I remember distinctly – I don’t know why – was alled “Land of Snow” – it was kind of a folky, Paul Simon-influenced tune:

Alone in a land of snow
No one but you and me
Alone in a land of snow
Mmmm mmm mmmm…

We smile and whisper to each other,
We’re happy to be in love
And yet the cold wind blows…

“OK, it wasn’t great, but I remember the two of us asking my parents to come downstairs and listen to us perform it, and it came out good; two-part harmony. I ended up having a notebook full of song poems that Ken and I planned to put music to, and remember spending a lot of time in study hall during my junior and senior years just working on those songs. Those were exciting times.”

By this time, both Ken and Doug knew that if they were going to attempt another musical venture, they would need to upgrade their equipment – the 4H Fair disaster still looming large in their minds. As Doug remembers, “I wanted more than anything to buy a violin-shaped bass guitar like the Hofner model Paul McCartney used both early on and in the movie ‘Let It Be’. I was a huge Beatles fan, and to this day believe McCartney’s work on ‘Abbey Road’ to be the best single bass performance I’ve ever heard. It was after hearing his bass work on ‘Abbey Road’ that I decided I really wanted to learn to be a bass player. So, whether I paid for it myself in installments, or with the help of my parents, I found me a Greco knock-off and an amplifier, and began to learn how to play the bass properly.”

Fast forward three or four years. Doug’s brother Mark had gotten interested in music and the idea of playing the drums in a band. Mark recalls: “I was working at a place called Tewksbury Aluminum and Hardware, it was right across the street from our house. Anyways, the business was owned by a couple named Hank and Rita Fleury, whose sons had a band that played various lounges and supper clubs in the area – the Bandbox and the 3 Bs in Billerica, the Oaks and the Branding Iron in Tewksbury, small places like that. I remember their son kept his blue drumset in the back of the store where they also had a small music shop – nothing big, just guitars, music, stuff like that. They also had this beautiful red set there, and Doug bought it for me.”

For Doug, the idea of including Mark in a band came naturally: “I don’t recall if it was directly related to me and Ken practicing at the house, or whether we came up with the idea between us – more likely, the latter. I do remember us being hooked on the same kinds of music around 1970-73 – Pink Floyd especially, but other stuff as well, like the Doors, the Eagles and the Beatles’ early solo stuff. We’d take these long drives up to the North Shore and just listen to the radio and our 8-tracks and talk; it was probably during one of those drives that we decided we should just go ahead and start a band of our own.”

Tomorrow: A Band is Born: 1974-75

—————–

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.

Filed in: Top Priority by vcugini at 01:15 | Comments (10)

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