News From The Woods.00

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published January 15, 1992


"The "Vipers" Reunion"


As we enter a new year, let me share a bit of nostalgia with you. It concerns a group of old rock-and-rollers and a brief trip back to their youth. First, lets ask Sherman to set the wayback machine to the summer of 1964 . . . . .

It all started one Saturday night in the little town of Henderson, on the east side of Lake Norfork at the Highway 62 ferry landing. The US Army Corps of Engineers also maintained campsites, boat launching ramps, a swimming beach, bathroom, and a park pavilion there, and because the Henderson Marina was also located in the cove, it was always a busy spot of vacationers and visitors alike. The pavilion was (and still is) located at the end of the point for kids from all around. At some point the Corps decided to allow groups to rent to pavilion. Such was the case in 1964.

I was out water-skiing with friends and needed to gas up the boat, so I pulled into the Henderson Marina. As we were stocking up on food and drinks I noticed a flyer: "Dance tonight at the Henderson Pavilion! Live Music! Lots of fun!" I decided to go check it out later that evening. Imagine my surprise that night when I discovered that the band was in reality a bunch of buddies of mine from school. It looked like they were having a blast. There must have been 300 people there. They couldn't charge admission because it was Government property, but they didn't mind if you passed the hat around. I spent most of the night watching the drummer. I had always wanted to play the drums but had never been around a trap set.

As fate would have it, I got my "big chance" that night. During a break the drummer came over and sat next to me. It was obvious that he had done a little too much partying. As he opened yet another beer he commented how tired he was because he had worked all day long and had no chance to relax before the dance. I told him I thought his kit was really nice and expressed my desire to someday have my own drum kit. He said "Do you play drums?". I explained that even though I played drums in the school marching band I had never had an opportunity to play trap set. He handed me his drumsticks and said "Here… go try mine!"

I hadn't expected that. I didn't know what to think, and before I had a chance to back out of it he got up and told the other guys that I was going to sit in for a few songs. They were back from their break and the next thing I knew I was up there sitting at a drum kit with a pair of drumsticks in my hand. I had no idea what to do. They just started to play a song and I sort of jumped in when I recognized something. Fortunately, everything happened so fast I didn't have time to get scared. I fumbled my way through one song to the next. I wound up playing the rest of the night with those guys.

At the end of the night the drummer could not be found and the guys asked if I had room in my car and at my house to store his drums until he called for them. He did call me the next day and to my surprise confided to me that he didn't want to play any more. Then he really floored me and asked if I wanted to hang on to his set for a while until he could find another place to store them. It was the answer to my prayers and the beginning of the end of peaceful evenings around my house. Despite my dads protests about the noise I practiced every day or two weeks, then I began rehearsing with the band. We played maybe three of four dances at the local armory or the Legion Hut before summer ended and school started.

That fall I attended Arkansas State College (now ASU) in Jonesboro. One day I was driving downtown and as I drove by Arkansas Music Supply I happened to spot a beautiful new drum set in the front window. I stopped the car and went in for a closer examination. The kit was a brand new set of Ludwig Super Classics. The color was Oyster Blue Pearl. It was a four piece set with kick drum, snare, a carry tom and a floor tom. It had a high hat, crash and ride cymbal (all Zildjins). They were the same model, year, and color of Ringo Starr's kit and I HAD TO HAVE THEM! After pleading with my mom, she finally gave in and helped persuade my dad to allow me to buy the set. Just two days after my 18th birthday, arrangements were made for me to purchase the drums. I used my clarinet as the down payment. Pat Richardson, owner of the music store, sums it all up in a letter to my parents:

"Dear Mr. Ketchum,
Sunday afternoon your son picked up the drum set, and I don't believe there was a happier boy on the campus that night. Along with the clarinet he gave me a check for $125.00 to add to the down payment. We worked out his payments of $18.90 per month. I will send the payment book to your son at the college.
Sincerely,
Pat Richardson,
Owner - Arkansas Music Supply."

I would come home on weekends and play dances at the armory or the Legion hut following a football or basketball game. During the game we would drive through the parking lot and stick hand-made signs on windshields. All they said was "Dance Tonight At Armory". Since we were the only band within a hundred miles, everyone knew it would be us. We named ourselves "The Vipers" and those dances made some of the best memories I have. Back in those days there wasn't much else going on and the only drug we knew about was alcohol. We always had at least 200 kids attending and some nights we would have 350 to 400 in attendance. This supplemental income was great but we still had just as much fun if we weren't making much at all.

As we continued to play, our horizons expanded to include frat and jock parties at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. We played as far east as Jonesboro, south to Little Rock, and north to West Plains, Missouri. We always kept up with the latest hit records and newest in sounds. I remember our guitar player drove all the way to Little Rock to buy a new gadget called a "fuzztone", and that night we used it for the first time, starting the dance with "(I Cant Get No) Satisfaction". On the opening notes of that fuzz guitar - the kids were blown away and the joint was jumping (as I said it was a simpler time).

For the next two years the Vipers were pretty much in demand. We kept putting our hard earned money back into equipment. By 1966 we all had Fender Bassman amplifiers, a Standel PA system, and our own lights. As crude as they were. We even made our own strobe light by inserting a record turntable inside an enclosed wooden box with a 150-watt spot light lined up with a hole cut into the box. The handmade cardboard wheel had a hole cut into it and with each revolution of the wheel, as it passed by the corresponding hole in the box it would line up the holes and allow the light to shine out of the box for a few milliseconds. It was weird. It was crude. But it worked! Smoke machines and affordable stage lighting was still in the future. We made our own smoke effect during a halloween dance by packing dry ice into a cauldron and pouring hot water into it just before we began the set.

We played the Jaycees Water Carnival in July, 1966, held at the Cranfield recreation area on Lake Norfork. A Memphis fellow by the name of Chips Moman saw us perform and invited us to record in his studio. When we arrived in Memphis and as we began to bring our gear in the studio, Paul Revere and the Raiders were just moving their gear out after completing a session there. We were also introduced to one of Chip's newest stars, Sandy Posey, who had a big hit for Chips called "Born A Woman". We thought we had hit the big time, but you know how most of those stories go, so I won't bore you with the gory details except to say the setback didn't deter us in the least.

In June of 1967 we added another high school chum to the band, adding trumpet and percussion to the lineup. My Mom wrangled us a cushy summer job at the Lodge of the Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Missouri. For us, this was definitely the big time! We did two performances a day and opened shows at the World's Fair Pavilion for the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, Les Jouliet Puppets (don't ask!), The Winjammers, and Frank Sinatra, Jr. Our manager was Harold Koplar, owner of the Lodge as well as KPLR-TV and the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis. In his infinite wisdom he decided that we needed a gimmick which would catapult us into national fame. He sent us to St. Louis where we were fitted for stage costumes and were taught by the makeup artist from the St. Louis Metropolitan Opra how to use stage makeup. After two weeks we returned to the Lodge where we were billed as the "Harlequin Vipers". We were supposed to be from Denmark. And with our spiffy (and weird) new outfits and face makeup we DID make heads turn. I mean, it's hard not to stare at five guys in white leotards with diamond shaped patches sewn on and with long flowing satin capes. Our faces were completely stage white, thanks to pancake makeup, with various felt shapes (teardrops, raindrops, stars etc.) fixed to our faces. Remember folks - this was WAAAAAY before KISS. When we took the stage the audience was very quiet for the first few minutes (probably in shock). Getting attention "in uniform" was easy to do after that!

By August of 1967 our managers informed us that they wanted us to move to St. Louis, where we would have our own TV show on KPLR-TV. The host of the show was slated to be Johnny Rabbit, popular DJ and personality in the St. Louis area. Several of us started checking out colleges in the area, but it was not destined to be. After playing all season in our "zoot suits" (as we not-so affectionately referred to them) we had grown weary of the concept. We were by this time consuming vast quantities of alcohol and living the lifestyle of the "Rock Star". We trashed our dressing rooms and in general created mayhem wherever we went. Things were falling apart and we all missed home. In retrospect, I think we lost our purpose - playing seemed like work instead of fun. I think we started feeling as silly as we looked in our outfits. It had become a sham to us; we had become performers rather than musicians. The music came secondary as we got too involved in the business. Ironic, isn't it?

We played a few gigs after that, but it just wasn't the same. Several of us were getting involved in other directions. We even played once in Mountain Home in costume. That was a mistake. As we peered out over the "usual" crowd of hometown friends we all saw the same astonished looks and raised eyebrows we had become used to from the previous summer. The last Viper gig was at Hestand Stadium in Pine Bluff in February of 1968.


THE VIPERS (L to R, from top): Bob Ahrens (organ), Bob Ketchum (drums), Steve Tullgren (guitar), Gary Shelton (bass), Joe Summers (vocalist), and Hiram Byrd (trumpet)

Okay Sherman . . . bring us back to 1992.

Why all this activity about the Vipers back in the 60's? Well, I'll tell you: last November we all got together for the first time in 24 years. We met here at the studio. I showed home movies on 8mm film that I was fortunate to have saved, as well as some old rehearsal tapes and live performances of the band which had survived the years. It was truly a night to remember. My mom even attended (she was a "band mom"). We sat up most of the night telling stories "from the old days". It was such a good feeling hanging out with the guys after all those years. Mom suggested an idea for us to get a group shot of us standing roughly in the same place as our original publicity photo.

You should have no trouble telling the "now" form the "then" photo. Let me introduce you to "The Vipers" Starting with me (drums) at the 12'Oclock position and moving clockwise, to my left is Steve Tullgren (guitar), Gary Shelton (bass), Joe Summers (vocalist), Hiram Byrd (trumpet), and Bob Ahrens (organ). The "now" picture has us roughly in the same position, and I'm holding the "then" picture for reference. Incidentally - I'm the only one of the group crazy enough to have stayed in the music business. Some people just never learn!

FOR MORE ON "THE VIPERS GO HERE!


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