(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. â€œEven with The Cat and Mark leaving, Keys still wanted to keep the music thing going, so he put another band togetherâ€, recalls Doug. â€œI 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 â€“ 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 â€“ trumpet and trombone, with Jerryâ€™s brother Tom one of â€˜em â€“ and they started out wanting to play a mix of Top Priorityâ€™s old repertoire with stuff having a harder, funkier edge â€“ Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, Heart, Boston â€“ yâ€™know, that kind of late â€˜70s stuffâ€¦
And now Doug had some serious musical equipment in order to play that kind of music: â€œOne 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 spankinâ€™ 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 â€“ 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.â€
One day in early 1978, a shadowy figure from the new bandâ€™s musical heritage appeared out of the shadows of days long since passed. Doug remembers the event clearly: â€œIt 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 heâ€™d see me there, and that he couldnâ€™t wait, but then he never showed. That was the last I ever heard from him.â€
The new band (called Cotillion) played several gigs that led Doug to begin considering whether it was still worthwhile to pursue his music muse. â€œWe played a dance at Tewksbury High School which was a huge success. Jerry and I had worked out an arrangement of the old Beatlesâ€™ tune â€˜I Saw Her Standing Thereâ€™ with horns, just like the one featuring John Lennon on the flip side of Elton Johnâ€™s â€˜Philadelphia Freedomâ€™ 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.â€
The last live gig Doug would ever play was a freshman dance at Essex (MA) Agricultural College. Doug recalls: â€œThe 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 â€“ we started off with our usual Top 40/pop stuff, but the crowd didnâ€™t seem jacked or even interested. I just remember a lot of rumbling and grumbling. Anyways, I look at Jerry and say, â€˜time for â€˜I Saw Her Standing Thereâ€™, 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.â€
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. â€œWe were starting to play harder stuff â€“ Heart’s ‘Barracuda’, Bostonâ€™s ‘Foreplay/Long Time’, Kansasâ€™ ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’ â€“ that kind of stuff. I think the band renamed itself â€˜Virgil Simsâ€™, or something weird like that. Me, I was still into the Beach Boys but starting to get into the Warren Zevon/Linda Ronstadt mid-â€˜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 â€˜Red Riverâ€™ Palma and the Saddlesores â€“ which I still think would have been a great idea â€“ but Jerry thought I was daft; he was really getting into the hard rock scene and all the glitter that came with it.â€
With the band’s change in musical focus, Doug could sense his days as a musician drawing to a close. â€œI remember a rehearsal where we had been told the week before to learn some new stuff â€“ Aerosmith‘s â€˜Walk This Way’ and Steve Millerâ€™s â€˜Swingtownâ€™ were two of the songs, I think â€“ and there was talk of the band getting a gig at Mr. Câ€™s Rock Palace â€“ a club in Lowell that would be bigger and a harder rock kind of thing than I had ever envisioned playing. Anyways, I couldnâ€™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 wasnâ€™t very prepared. We played the songs and recorded them for playback, and it was pretty embarrassing â€“ hearing me trying to keep up with these better players was a pretty humbling experience â€“ for both me and them, I think. So, after the rehearsal, I told Jerry that was it, I was leaving the group immediately. He didnâ€™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.â€
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, â€œIt was a fun thing to do while it lasted â€“ 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.â€ 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 didnâ€™t change rock to remain as it always has been â€“ anonymous and forgettable. Well, at least it was until now.
(End of the series)
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.