News From The Woods.80 - October 3, 2005

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published October 3, 2005


"Back to the Bottom…. ROCK BOTTOM, that is……"


Lately I have been going through my vast archives and converting many of my old master reels and cassettes of projects I recorded and bands that I have been fortunate enough to have been in and have recordings of. In many ways it's like I can re-live all those gigs from so many years ago. Looking back I realize what a nut I have always been for recording all those bands and performances. I can now see that all those years of recording were just a set up for my audio engineering career.

Here's one of the strange things about the magic of music: Although many years may have passed (sometimes 30 or 40 years!) and I may have forgotten much about the band itself, one listen to these rare old recordings and it all comes flooding back! I may have forgotten who was playing in the band at the time (getting old is hell) but I can still remember the arrangements! That sound absurd, I know, but if the band was here right now - and all alive - and all could still play their instruments - I actually believe I could play the correct drum arrangement. And consider this…. I may have played the same song in two or three (or FOUR) different bands, spanning a couple of decades or more, and yet I can still recall the difference in each bands approach to the arrangements. Don't ask me how I do it - it just comes to me.

As I write this, one particular band comes to mind because it was when I was in this band that I came to the realization that I might be a good recording engineer. And just as when many years before I had the opportunity to play with my father's old Webcor reel to reel tape recorder but didn't realize then how that might affect my future, I didn't know at the time how playing in "Rock Bottom" might also help shape my life in later years.

Sherman set the Wayback Machine for the year 1969……….

I had just moved from Rogers to Ft. Smith. One of the pitfalls of being a radio announcer A.K.A. "Disk Jockey" is that you have to go where the jobs are offered. I had just finished up as news director and DJ at KAMO in Rogers and had landed a job in Ft. Smith at KFPW. As (good) luck would have it, that job lasted only a few months before I was offered a better job at KWHN, also in Ft. Smith. Not only was it a better paying job at a station with a higher wattage (5,000 watts directional as opposed to KFPW's 1,000 watts), but I was hired to play music more to my liking. KFPW played the classics of the forties and fifties, which I was versed in as my mother played all the old standards and at least I recognized song titles enough to snow my way into the job. KWHN at that time was playing music from different formats during the broadcast day - called "block programming" - and they needed someone to fill in the 10-4 time slot with contemporary pop music, which at the time was 45 RPM singles of the day. It was right up my alley, and my previous DJ experience was in Top 40 at KOTN in Pine Bluff, under the tutelage of Buddy Dean, one of the first pioneers of Top 40 radio in the nation.

During my short tenure at KFPW, I began to scout around for local musicians, with the hopes of perhaps getting into an established band or maybe even starting one up. In early fall of 1969 I heard of a band called "Ginger Blue" that was between drummers. I contacted the bass player, Harley Vinsant, and asked him if they had located a drummer yet. He replied that they had tried several but it "just wasn't working". I asked to audition and he said they were having a jam at his house and invited me over. With my trusty Ludwig drum kit already in my van I dashed right over to his place, which was conveniently only a few blocks away from where I lived, and eagerly introduced myself to the guys there. Harley turned out to be a likable fellow and had a great bass set up. He played a genuine Hofner (right handed) through a Sunn Coliseum amp. I knew we'd hit it off as I figured he was a Beatles fan. Jim "Jimmy" Atchison, the guitarist, played a Gretsch Tennessean guitar into a Fender Blackface Vibrolux amp, and did most of the singing that day. I was impressed with his voice and amazed with his guitar chops. Ronnie Thomas played a Farfisa organ with a Fender Leslie. That was enough for me! I HAD to play with these guys, and told them so in no minced words. I don't think I gave them a way out! Perhaps my enthusiasm impressed them, or maybe they liked my drumming, because we decided right then and there to start something up. But they didn't want to use their former name as they thought this would be a totally different kind of band from "Ginger Blue", so we spent the rest of the evening trying out different names. We settled on "Island" and played a few gigs at Arkansas Tech in Russellville before extending it to "Rock Island", like the railroad. We played some "student mixer" dances at WestArk Junior College in Ft. Smith as "Rock Island", only to discover a couple of months later that a blues band with an album out on a major label had the same name.

Back to the drawing board………

We chose to change our name to "Rock Bottom" and played some private parties as well as a couple of weekends at The Beehive, a popular tavern in town. We covered tunes by Steppenwolf, Creedence, Deep Purple, Traffic, Free, The Guess Who, Jimi Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, and many of the rock and soul standards of the 50's and 60's. We also started writing our own songs within the first six months we were together. On July 4th, 1970 we got a great gig playing an outdoor concert for the Russellville JayCees, which led to another outdoor performance at a rock festival in Fayetteville. We then played for the Ft. Smith JayCees on New Year's Eve. Things were looking up!

CLICK HERE FOR A RADIO INTERVIEW WITH ROCK BOTTOM IN 1971.

By early 1971 we were firmly entrenched into the social scene in Ft. Smith. Our first high-profile gig was a benefit for the March of Dimes, held at the Ft. Smith Municipal Auditorium, a 900-seat venue with an excellent stage and lighting grid, which was packed with kids. Parts of the event, including some of our performance was televised on local KFSM-TV. Through my DJ job I had befriended a local writer for the Entertainment section of the Southwest Times Record by the name of Ellis Widner. He liked the band and began to include regular blurbs in his "Worlds of Music" column about our upcoming gigs. When we scheduled a recording session February 20 he did a complete interview with the band about the upcoming session.

It was at this session that I "accidentally" discovered my future profession. We had scheduled some time at a studio we discovered in Russellville while gigging at Arkansas Tech, called John's Recording Studio. It was owned and operated by John Miller, a local resident who had been recording there for many years, mostly gospel and country sessions. He had a 4-track studio set up on the second floor of his music store downtown. I'll never forget lugging a borrowed Hammond up that flight of wooden stairs on the outside of the building! His recording set up was pretty simple. He had a couple of Altec mixers (4 inputs each) and a pair of Ampex 4-track recorders. There was a drum booth and several sound gobo's scattered around. We recorded four songs in an afternoon there. I recall that there was a high-end hiss in the mixes, which I wasn't pleased with. I looked over at the mixers and discovered the equalization switch was set to 7 ˝ IPS even though we were recording at 15 IPS. Not wanting to sound like a "know it all" (after all, it was HIS studio) I kept my mouth shut and minded my manners. But I learned that day that sometimes you NEED to speak up or you will be stuck with the results - which we were when the 45 RPM singles later came out with a sizzling top end. When we left the studio 11 hours later I thought to myself, "Well, I can do THAT well on my own", and from that day on I started using my own reel to reel Roberts 720A to record our band. I had a second larger capstan for that deck which allowed me to record at 15 IPS in stereo, or using the Crossfield heads I could record one track and record another track over it in sync. I made many a decent recording on that deck after that, including a good band demo for us with only a few microphones and a Shure M67 mixer, which I still have to this day.

And speaking of our garage recordings, just listening to those recordings as I write this brings back a flood of memories. I recall the day we were standing around taking in a break when Harley's guitar strap broke, and his cherished Hofner instantly fell to the floor and broke in half as it hit the weighted bottom of his mike stand. For a second, the world stood still. Later in the session Jimmy's Mosrite fuzztone's battery died and so did the pedal. It's death scream was captured to tape. But the mix on some of the songs were odd. For instance guitar and organ would be on the right and vocals and drums would be on the left. Bass and vocals would be (somehow) in the middle. I wanted to put reverb on the vocals so I ran that channel (with both vocals and drums) through a Fender guitar amp with reverb and send that to the reel to reel. Of course the track would then sound like it had been run through a guitar amplifer!! By listening to the tape I recorded in March of 1970 I realize (1) I liked the pan knob too much, and (2) I had learned how to properly record everything but the drums.

Poetic justice for a drummer/engineer, wouldn't you think?

LISTEN TO AN AUDIO CLIP OF OUR GARAGE RECORDINGS HERE.

And by the way, that first 45 RPM single "I Know You're Leavin" b/w "Lose My Lonliness", marks the very first release on my own HYPE Records label, which has since been used for every "official" label release recorded by me here at Cedar Crest Studio.


CLICK ON THE RECORD ABOVE TO PLAY A RealAudio CLIP OF THE RECORD

On April 30, 1971, we played our first concert, sponsored by Arkansas Tech. We were to open the show for Bell Records artists "Dawn" at the Municipal Auditorium Theater. Their hits "Knock Three Times" and "Candida" were high on the charts and guaranteed us a full house. Tickets sold out so fast that a second show was booked which sold out as well. However, just two days before the gig, due to "contract discrepancies", Dawn canceled out and we had to do the show by ourselves. Instead of two shows however, the promoter decided to have just one large performance in the Exhibition Hall next door to the auditorium. We opened with "And The Address" by Deep Purple, using Ronnie's recently purchased Hammond and Leslie, then played our five originals and "Bluebird" by Stephen Stills among other last minute additions for our remaining time on stage. I remember we had our own dressing rooms and everything. It was like being in the Big Time, but I'll bet Arkansas Tech Student Senate promoter took a bath!

On June 6th we were contracted to open for United Artist's group Sugarloaf, who had the solid Top 10 hit "Green Eyed Lady". We released our single just a week before the concert, so our timing was perfect, although the single never went anywhere because we were not on a major label and other than me playing it on my radio show it got very little exposure. Another shot in the arm was an interview and full-page article on the band by Ellis Widner in the Southwest Time Record that was published May 30th, a week before the concert.

During the summer of 1971 we played many high school proms and a student dance at the College of the Ozarks in Clarksville. We even combined business with pleasure by getting an outdoor concert in Mountain Home for the opening of the new Wal Mart store and while here we all stayed at my parents house and spent a great weekend lounging on the lake on the family pontoon boat. I also have some footage of that but believe me, you don't want (or need) to see it!

During the fall of the year Harley and I put many miles on his hot new Chevelle Super Sport driving all over western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, visiting high school and college campuses and making presentations to student government associations. We obtained a constant flow of weekend gigging throughout the following school year. With a 45 RPM single release to play and a well organized promotional package listing our concerts with major acts it was fairly easy to line up a lot of high school and college dances in areas that didn't usually get visits from bands or booking agents. We were "the hot band" at WestArk and played several dances over the year. It didn't hurt that during that year the station I worked for bought out a giant 100,000 watt stereo FM station, KMAG, and began simulcasting my radio show on both stations. The Rock Bottom single may not have made waves on the nation scene, but it was being heard in 4 states!


(CLICK ON THE IMAGE ABOVE TO SEE WHAT STEVE IS DOING THESE DAYS)

In the winter of 1972, we added another member to the band. Steve Hawkins became our second guitarist, and our sound exploded into another dimension. With the addition of Steve, we not only had a rhythm guitarist when Jimmy soared out in an extended solo, but the two spent a great deal of time together working out dual lead solos and simultaneous harmony guitar rides. With Ronnie's Hammond swirling around underneath and Harley and I holding down the groove we established a "wall of sound" that would get anybody's feet tapping. The addition expanded our sound palate to include more complex arrangements, and our original material took on a much more professional feel. It was hard for the audience to distinguish between cover tunes and our own compositions. Concert audiences began to sing along with our own tunes at concerts. And we were doing more concert opening slots than ever before, largely due to the fact that at that time I began my career as a concert promoter.


CLICK ON THE IMAGE ABOVE FOR A LARGER PICTURE

It was around this time that I wrangled my way into Ben Jack's Recording Studio in Ft. Smith. The studio manager and engineer, Mickey Moody, befriended me - the "local DJ" - and I started hanging out at the studio during sessions. I became fascinated with audio engineering at a "big time studio". Ben Jack's at that time was a 16-track studio, and had all the trimmings of a professional facility. It had acoustic treatments to the interior, Neumann microphones, a 9-foot grand piano, Hammond and Leslie, and a custom large format recording console with MCI and Ampex multitrack tape decks (read more about BJ Studios here). Mickey knew I played in a rock and roll band. I had told him we had written some original material and he wanted to give it a listen, so he invited us to come in after hours and do some recording. We went in after 6 PM and spent an entire night recording. I recall that as we were driving away from the building the sun was just beginning to rise. The time passed so quickly and we had six songs to show for our efforts.

Click HERE for a RealAudio clip from our session at Ben Jack's Recording Studio.

CLICK HERE OR HERE TO SEE A CONCERT POSTER EXAMPLE

I formed a concert promotion company called Dime-A-Dozen Productions. I was the only concert promoter in Ft. Smith, the third largest city in Arkansas. And at every concert that I brought into Ft. Smith, Rock Bottom was the opening band. We opened for acts like Trapeze, Bloodrock, and Black Oak, Arkansas to audiences of 1,000 or more in concerts I promoted as "pillow concerts". The Municipal Auditorium had only enough theater type seating to hold 900 people, but I could sell a lot more tickets by using the Exhibition Hall adjoining the Theater building. With a portable stage set up it could hold up to 1,800 persons before the fire marshal started to complain. I began by placing folding chairs in the hall but that quickly became a mess, as everyone would just move the chairs around wherever they wanted, and the chairs took up extra room anyway. So I had a concert with NO seating at all and advertised it as a "pillow concert" ("bring your own pillow"), and it caught on immediately - largely due to the fact that a pillow in a pillowcase could conceal any number of things (bottles, joints, cameras, etc.). My clean up crew found some interesting items after such concerts. But we thoroughly cleaned up the hall after each and every concert - right away - in an attempt at keeping a clean reputation with the City Fathers. Therefore the "pillow concert" idea became SOP until I got out of the concert promotion business.

CLICK ON THE ARTICLE ABOVE TO HEAR A RealAudio CLIP OF THE BAND LIVE.

Rock Bottom enjoyed a good solid year of playing dances and concerts. We played a lot of college gigs in Eastern Oklahoma because there just weren't that many good bands around that area at the time, or maybe they just weren't bold enough to take on "Indian trouble spots" like Talequah, Sallisaw, Poteau, and Talahina. I'll have to admit, those kids of the red skinned persuasion could certainly put back the firewater, and when they did they liked to party and dance, but I don't recall ever having a tangle with any of them. An occasional fight might break out amongst themselves, but it was never directed at the band. I dare say we had the time of our lives during that period.

December 12, 1972 marks the last concert that I have written records on having to do with Rock Bottom. We played a concert with "Silver", from Memphis at the Municipal Auditorium. Not too long after that the band and coincidentally, my first marriage broke up. I honestly cannot remember what precipitated the demise of Rock Bottom, but it was the beginning of a hazy period in my life and career, as if I had just stalled in mid-journey. I had done all I could do with my life, my marriage, my band, my radio career, and concert promoting as far as Ft. Smith was concerned. Although I stuck it out for a couple more years, the "Golden Era" of my influence in that town had come and gone. I probably would have hung around even longer but a Higher Power intervened in the form of a .38 caliber bullet one fateful night while setting up for a gig in Tulsa.

But that's another story………..