News From The Woods - July 11,2005

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published July 11, 2005


"WHIZZ REUNION '05: Not ANOTHER ten years!!"


In Mid-March of this year I celebrated a 30-year reunion with four former band-mates of "Whizz", a rock and roll band which we were all together in back in the 70's in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. It seemed like it wasn't really that long ago that we celebrated our 20th reunion in 1995, so when I started getting email from my friends in January I had to check the calendar.

Thirty years………. Wow.

And what makes reliving the "Whizz" experience so special to all of us? I mean, it's just another rock and roll band that didn't "make it", right?

Well…. As usual in my life - things are not always as cut and dried as they sometime seem. "Whizz" started innocently enough back in February 14, 1974. I had just finished a stint in the band "Rock Bottom" which broke up at about the same time as my first marriage. Suddenly I had a lot more free time on my hands and I threw myself into this new band with the vigor of a man released from a prison sentence.

Originally, it was me on drums, Jimmy Watson on bass, Dave Irvin on Hammond, and David Hopkins and Eric Dennis on guitars. In March we purchased a new PA system and began to play some local gigs. As I never really got into the bar circuit (the only band I ever played in that did bars was "Mover" ) we limited ourselves to playing private parties, high school gigs and the like. We began playing some benefits for the exposure, and then looked around the surrounding region for any place we could rent and throw our own gigs. One such location was Poteau, Oklahoma, which was mere miles from Ft. Smith across the border. They had just built a great new Civic Center building. It had a very large stage, grid lighting, and was a nice venue which needed some bookings to justify the city father's investments. Working through the auspices of various local social organizations, we played the Civic Center for a percentage of the door. Sometimes we would make as much as $200-300 for a night, and sometimes we lost money - usually due to foul weather. Poteau, Oklahoma, is right in line with Ft. Smith in what is referred to by the locals as "tornado alley", and for good reason. During the summer months it can be a very dangerous place to live and work. More than once we had to cancel gigs due to tornado warnings in the region. Several times we had to wait to load or unload our gear until a bad storm passed. However, it was usually well worth it as residents of the area had virtually NO social events throughout the year, and Eastern Oklahoma isn't exactly the center of the known universe as far as entertainment is concerned. Through the period we played in Stigler, Talequah, Talihina., and several other small towns in Oklahoma that could support a dance. We played several regional college gigs where 99% of the audience was Native American Indians, and I can tell you from experience that mixing alcohol and young red men could be a dangerous combination which often resulted in a quick pack up and hasty retreat back across the Garrison Avenue bridge to Arkansas. We also played towards the counties east of Sebastian County (Ft. Smith). We did many a gig in Paris, at Subiaco Academy, Charleston high school, Van Buren and of course whenever we could find a reason to play in Ft. Smith. We were very popular in Western Arkansas at prom time.

In July the band changed personnel. Dave Irvin left the band, Jimmy switched over to organ, and Mel Myers joined us as bassist. It turned out to be the best thing we could have done. Our sound took on a much more funky attitude and maintained a more raw edge to the music. Mel played a Rickenbacker 360 bass with RotoSound strings through an Acountic bass amp. This thing was BIG. It had an 18" speaker and sported a combination of tubes and transistors. It had wheels built into the rear of the cab and it needed them! Dave was by this time playing through an Ampeg SVT amp and Eric had bought a Marshall. We carried a Hammond and a Leslie with us, had our own sound and lights and of course I carried my trusty vintage Ludwig Ringo Starr kit. A regular part of our expenses was for a rental trailer, which we loaded up for each gig. Our road manager, Bob Swofford, had been with us from the beginning and since we made so little he usually only got paid for his gas expenses. It was definitely a job that you had to really love because there simply was NO money in it. By July we took pity on poor Bob and agreed to pay him an equal share of our earnings after expenses. To be honest he may have actually made LESS after that because after taking out expenses (rent on the rehearsal building, trailer rentals, gas expenses, etc.) and then splitting the remainder six ways, none of us made hardly any money at all during those times.

Of course, we weren't really doing it all for the money. Oh, that's what we told our wives and families, but we were doing it just to be in a real rock and roll band. Nothing more. Just living the lifestyle. It was the best of times - it was the worst of times. Looking back on it now, I have had the chance to read from my well kept diary of the times and taking the average of our income for the band for a period of one year - we played about 24 gigs and averaged about $50 per man per gig. No WONDER most parents were against their sons joining up with a rock band! All that work…… All that rehearsal time….. All that investment in gear……. And for about $100 a month?? Boy, I'm glad I wasn't paying that much attention back then.

CLICK HERE FOR A RealAudio CLIP OF SOME "BLUE GOOSE" RECORDINGS.

But the best thing was - we got to live out our fantasies and began to write our own songs. As I was into recording even during those early times we did a fair amount of recording live to a stereo cassette deck in our rehearsal room. We called it "Blue Goose" studios. I had a Radio Shack mixer and a Shure M67 mic mixer (which I still own to this day) and we used whatever mic's we could lay our hands on to record our tunes with. Furthermore, Dave's big brother Ed was a partner in a multimedia company, which included an 8-track recording studio. I did a little work in that studio and once got the band in after hours for some recording. We also had an opportunity to record in Ben Jack's recording studio, which was a 16-track facility at the time. Although as I recall no one was particularly happy with our results there. In reality we just weren't ready for that level of recording experience. I think we may have been too, Er, "unruly" to be captured in a studio.

In hardly any time at all we had almost 6 original songs which we played at all our gigs for exposure. The songs were of the rock and roll variety. There was a lot of Deep Purple influences as well as other bands like Uriah Heep, Creedence Clearwater, Bad Company, Joe Walsh, and Z Z Top. It was typical rock of the 70's, but our own original compositions were (I think) a cut above the "norm". It wasn't just mindless wanking on the guitar. We put some thought behind our arrangements. All of us were decent enough players and we aspired to be at the top of the heap (locally speaking). In less than a year we went from obscure nobodies to the best local band. I'd love to take the credit for it but quite simply there was a better explanation……

The thing that made our band truly unique from all the others in that town at the time was that all of us were associated in some way with broadcasting. I was currently working at KWHN/KMAG radio (5KW AM/100KW FM Stereo simulcast). Dave was working for KISR 93FM. Mel was "The Goose" on KFSA radio, and Eric had just gotten hired at KFSM-TV. Several of us had on-air shifts that overlapped each other's time slots. We had Ft. Smith COVERED in media! Furthermore, I was the local concert promoter at the time. Whenever I held a concert at the local civic auditorium, I made sure "Whizz" was the opening act. I would buy just enough time on my own station to promote the concert. The rest of the promotion would be aided by Mel, Dave and I, talking the concert up on our own board shifts. It was (barely) legal and we could always be assured that the whole town was aware of an upcoming concert. This did a great deal for our reputations, but the best gig by far was when we opened for Styx in Paris, Arkansas. You can read my account of the experience by clicking on the concert ticket below.

We got some major exposure locally whenever we played at the KISR Free Frisbee Festivals held at various city parks in town. I even have some home movie film of one of those events, as well as the now infamous Styx concert at the Logan Theater in Paris. Other "gigs to remember" for us included a New Year's Eve party we played for the Ft. Smith Jaycees. It was an outdoor gig and we were so cold we could hardly play. They had thoughtfully provided space heaters and blocked off our little corner of Garrison Avenue downtown with large sheets of plastic, but it was still so cold that Mel, Dave and Eric could hardly feel their fingers. But the crowd was H U G E and stayed right up to the end. Another event worth mentioning here was the Black Oak, Arkansas concert at Barnhill Fieldhouse early in 1975. We were at our best during that period and our original arrangements were well honed by this time. No other concert has been remembered so well since those days, with the possible exception being the Styx concert. I get email and calls to this day from people who remember that particular gig. Everyone seems to remember Mel, our bass player, because he came out on stage sporting a cape. For some reason that one single decision by Mel has been the main reason people even remember that gig. They don't even remember the name of the band but they DO remember "that bass player that wore the cape" at the Black Oak concert at U of A in Fayetteville.

It all came to abrupt end on May 3rd, 1975, when I was in Tulsa where "Whizz" had been contracted to play a college fraternity rush party at the Hilton Inn. While setting up our gear at the Copa Cabana Club in the Hilton, I was accidentally shot by an idiot security guard who had no business carrying a gun (but that's another entirely different story). Those two months recovering at St. Francis Hospital gave me time to reflect on my life up to that point and I decided I would make some changes. I stayed around Ft. Smith for a while, wrapping up my radio career and learning as much as I could about recording and engineering at Ben Jack's BeeJay Recording Studio. Then in March of 1976 I moved back to my hometown of Mountain Home and began my career as a studio owner and audio engineer.

Over the years following the "shooting incident" I kept in touch sporadically with Eric, Mel & Dave, but lost touch with any of the other guys. Everyone had gone his separate ways. Then, suddenly in 1995 I was informed that a reunion might be in progress. Bob Swofford had been located (coaching high school football in Oklahoma). Mel and Dave were DJ's in Tulsa, and Eric had worked his way up through the trenches and was now a respected video editor in Washington. For the life of me I never figured they would pull it off, but that's just what they did! Eric flew down to Springfield where I picked him up and drove him down here to my place. Mel and Dave picked up Swofford on the way over and on August 26, 1995 the Official 20-year "Whizz" reunion was in full swing. We recorded several cover tunes ("Coast To Coast" byTrapeze; "Little Sister" by Elvis, and "All Along The Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix) and even had the audacity to attempt a couple of our old originals, "Long Lasting" and "Watch Your Step". Twenty years had passed and yet we still had good recollection of those arrangements (so much for the phrase "This is your brain on drugs"). Even though Mel and Dave were only playing as weekend warriors and Eric had not ever picked up a guitar in 20 years, we held it all together and even had a few shining moments during the recording session. To say a good time was had by all would be a gross understatement. When we all said goodbye over the weekend everyone talked excitedly about getting together again soon. We all nodded in agreement, patted each other on the back, and then it was all over. You can read the account of that 20th reunion HERE.

Ten years passed. Rather quickly, I might add.

As I write this account, it's still hard for me to realize that another ten years had passed so quickly. Although the four of us kept current email addresses and occasionally email passed back and forth, there was never a mention of another reunion.

That is, until February of this year. It came out of the blue….. A simple email from Mel telling me "they" had been discussing another reunion. Two days later I got confirmation that it WAS in progress. Once again- I could not imagine how those busy guys could have done the necessary planning to pull it off (especially Eric), but once again they all showed up on my doorstep - 9 years and 7 months from the day of our last get together. Eric flew to Tulsa and they all trekked down in a rented van. Why a rented van? Because they were bringing so much gear they could not get it all in a single family vehicle. They brought amps, guitars & basses, camcorders, microphones. My God! It was a major expedition to the woods of Arkansas!

They showed up around 1AM on March 14th, and we were so excited we stayed up until after 4AM talking about old times and getting caught up on each other's lives. Everyone looked so healthy (if maybe a wee bit older) and I was so glad to see them all in such good spirits. This time they managed to spend almost 5 days here, even though Bob had to return home early due to his responsibilities at the school.

This time I was ready for them. I set up the session beforehand, and had strategically placed four digital camcorders unobtrusively to capture the event. When they loaded in all they had to do was set up their guitar amps and off we went. This time we did three covers ("Too Rolling Stoned" by Robin Trower; "I Can See Clearly Now" by Johnny Nash", and 'Back in the USSR" by The Beatles) and tackled two originals, "Grande 505" and "Seduced By My Teacher". It was a much more ambitious project, partly made more complex due to the fact we were capturing video of all the session work (and a lot of the partying as well), so it took a considerable amount of time. We worked right up to fifteen minutes before they had to leave. The weird thing was: It was work, work, work (well, sort of) and then they were all gone in a flash and there I sat with a 24-track tape full of music and 8 one-hour MiniDV videotapes of footage to sift through.

Not that I minded. It was truly a labor of love. I mixed all the songs and mastered them - except for "Seduced By My Teacher", which was an afterthought. We did not get to finish it before everyone had to leave. Then I edited all the footage as a "rockumentary" of the event, with each recorded song serving as an anchor to edit the images to. It turned out like a 1-hour music video. Bob Swofford, who is a PhotoShop power user, created the cover picture as a collage of images taken during the weekend. EVERYONE had digital cameras and camcorders. We wound up with a full CD-ROM of images from the reunion. In addition, they all brought their old cassettes of former times, which I had originally given them "for safe keeping" though the years. It's a good thing tht I did as many of the tapes had been lost in one of our studio floods we suffered through over the years. So I set about to clean up the old tapes and enhance them using today's cool audio software. We now have in the audio archives: the NYE gig in Ft. Smith, the Black Oak gig in Fayetteville, the Styx gig in Paris, all of the old session masters, and the first KISR Free Frisbee Festival. What luck! I made everyone their own copies of all the audio and all the video masters (just in case), and sent all four guys a "care package" containing 8 CD's and 2 DVD's I call "The Complete Works of 'Whizz'". In essence, I have taken all the best copies of our "archive master tapes" and re-mastered each and every cut before burning a master CD of each performance or studio recording. This exciting 8 CD and 2 DVD set contains more WHIZZ than any sane and reasonable human being would ever want or hope to attain.

"Damn, that's a lot of WHIZZ", you say, and you'd be right.

But this is not all about the Glory Days of yet another unknown band. Nor is it a testament to a band at all. It is an account of four guys…. Four incredibly stubborn fellows, who absolutely REFUSE to give in to the ravages of time. Yes, the music was . . . and still is, great. The communication skills and willingness to do whatever it takes to make the song right is still intact. But it is so much more than that. This is really about a friendship that was forged so strongly that thirty years after it was supposed to die, the spirit of "Whizz" lives on in each of the five of us. Truly, each time we get together it is like only a short while has passed, NOT just another ten years……………..

The current flurry of email between us is much more active than after the 20th. This time everyone mentions not waiting another ten years. We'll see. In the meantime Eric has picked out this nice little guitar that he's had his eye on for some time now and he is threatening to actually USE it and do some serious "catching up" with the rest of us. Not that he is a slacker (any more) but he is the only one of us in the band that does not pursue a musical career any more, and hasn't for the past 20 years. It's really amazing that he could hold up his chops the way he has been able to. But I feel he is gearing up to actually show us some "stuff" the next time we get together. It may even be as soon as next year. At least that's what the scuttlebutt is. If so, I hope we can finish off "Seduced By My Teacher" before going on to something else. We're about to run out of old original tunes so we'll have to gear up and write some new tunes if we want to stay current. Now THAT'S funny!

So, if a year or so from now you happen to be listening to the radio and you hear a song called "Seduced By My Teacher" by a band called "Whizz", you'll know that song was written thirty years ago…. And the topic is STILL CURRENT!

Of course, by then we'll be too feeble to tour……………

"Grande 505" - WHIZZ from Bob Ketchum on Vimeo.


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