Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Hey, Hey, We're The Wildweeds
Hey, Hey, We're The Wildweeds
The story of Connecticut's best rock band of the 1960s -an archetype of the rock 'n' roll dream.
Hartford Advocate (CT)
October 17, 2002
In the film that will never be made about the Wildweeds—arguably, Connecticut's greatest rock and roll band of the 1960s—the opening scene would take place inside a sleek black limousine parked at a drive-in theater in East Haven.
It is late 1966, and the wintry winds are blowing across the weedy, litter-strewn asphalt of the adult world, while something new, unbearably fresh and impossibly irresistible is playing over the theatre speakers and on the drive-in screen.
There, out there, A Hard Day's Night is getting its East Haven debut, and the Beatles are changing the history of the world.
But inside the black limo, it's business as usual. The windows are rolled up; the portable speaker is left disengaged at the curbside.
There are three men in the limo. They are the legendary Phil Chess, who has flown here from Chicago in hopes of snagging a deal for his famous Chess label; Jerry Greenberg, a small-fry who'd sent Chess a demo by a local band known as the Weeds, hoping Chess will distribute the single on his Green Sea label; and Doc Cavalier, an oral surgeon-turned-record producer whose knob-twirling nom de plume is Trod Nossel.
Conspicuously absent are any of the five members of the Weeds—as the band is known until that very meeting. Though still impossibly young—all but one is still in his teens—the Weeds are a formidable band with a large regional following. Hailing from tiny Windsor, the five Weeds came together after plying their skills at sock hops, VFW and K of C halls, in bands with names like the Al-tones, the Six-Packs and the Blues Messengers.
The music they play is a cross-pollination of current styles, including the blue-eyed soul at which the Weeds excel. The band is versatile enough to segue from Joe Tex to "Lady Madonna" without missing a beat. Something for everyone.
The Weeds are Ray Zeiner (vocals, organ, piano, clavinet), Al Anderson (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Martin "Skip" Yakaitis (vocals, assorted percussion), Bob Dudek (bass), and Andy Lepak (drums).
Zeiner, in his mid-20s, is wiser to the ways of the music business than the others.
Dudek is blind and wears teardrop-style shades like those worn by Jose Feliciano. He's also a Beatles fan, even plays the same Hofner violin-style bass as Paul McCartney, and he brings an indispensable pop sensibility to the Weeds' sound. His moptop and shades, though, are the keys to the band's coolness.
Though none of these five know this summit is taking place, they are having their professional fate determined inside that limo.
First order of business: the band's name will henceforth be the Wildweeds. The Weeds, it is decided, has drug connotations.
Secondly, the single will be "No Good to Cry," not "No Good by Crying," as Al Anderson originally wrote it.
Thirdly, Cavalier and Greenberg will be listed as producers, though neither were present when the song was recorded.
Finally, and most importantly, Chess will release the single on his Cadet label, making the Wildweeds one of the few white acts on a prestigious, predominantly black national label.
Chess, Greenberg and Cavalier-Nossel decide on their cut and a final agreement is nailed down, to be rubber-stamped soon thereafter by the members of the Wildweeds, who don't know any better. It's the quintessential rock 'n' roll fairy tale meeting the all-too-familiar rock 'n' roll cautionary tale.
The band is about to take its first—and, as it turns out, only—giant step toward rock 'n' roll immortality.
While many groups did well enough to sustain regular gigs, the Wildweeds—still the Weeds to their myriad fans—had something special. They had a rare combination of talent, original songs, great covers (Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Animals, Lee Dorsey) and unrivaled professionalism.
They wore tuxes on stage. They arrived on time. They played in tune. They rehearsed between gigs.
And when they performed in public, Al Anderson, Bob Dudek and Ray Zeiner could all sing like champs, while the band could pop like Merseybeat heroes or put the pedal to the metal like a Nutmegged Steppenwolf.
"The best time with the Wildweeds was before we put out any records," says Anderson, who went on to become an integral part of NRBQ and, since 1993, one of the preeminent songwriters in America. "We played clubs like the Red Ash and the Rock a Bye, a black club in the North End owned by one of the Niteriders. Going over in front of a black audience was the greatest feeling in the world."
"We were excellent right off the bat and I don't recollect having any problem with audience apathy," says Ray Zeiner, who now lives in Simsbury and makes his living as a piano technician. "Everyone loved us. It seems pompous to say that but it was true."
After the sock hops and frattybagger bashes, the Wildweeds graduated to club dates and opening slots for chart-toppers like the Young Rascals, the Turtles, the Cowsills, Vanilla Fudge and the Doors. They continued to expand a loyal local fan base.
Bo O'Reilly, who grew up in Southport and now lives in Durham, North Carolina, was a fan. He recalls, "I attended Kent School during high school, and we'd have two large sock hops each year. The gym would be decorated by students, and popular bands from the region would be booked. In this setting, the Wildweeds played once around 1966 and a second time in 1967. Their Chess/Cadet single 'No Good to Cry' had just come out and they were pretty hot. I still have a small Instamatic snapshot photo of Big Al Anderson that I took then."
The story of how the Wildweeds came together sheds light on what was a thriving live music scene in Hartford at that time.
Prior to the Wildweeds, Zeiner the keyboardist had a regular gig for three years as the house organist at a Hartford jazz club, the Hofbrau. He got this job while playing a gig one night at the Subway, a black club run by a North End legend named Al Mathis.
"A guy came up to me and informed me that I was going to be playing Hammond organ at his club, the Rock a Bye, six nights a week," says Zeiner. "I told him that I didn't know how to play the Hammond, and he said, 'You'll learn.' I was making 60 bucks a week at a veterinary hospital and playing weekends. He offered me $80 a week and cheap rent. Who could refuse?"
Zeiner formed, with drummer Melvin Smith and guitarist Fletcher Bass, the Ray Mell Bass Trio. They got a gig in 1963 at the Hofbrau that eventually lasted three years.
"We were the house band, alternating sets with the likes of Cannonball Adderly, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Gene Krupa, Cozy Cole, King Curtis, and so many more greats that I can't name them all," says Zeiner.
When that group disbanded, Zeiner found himself freelancing again. Just for fun one night, Zeiner sat in on trumpet with the Six Packs, which included Al Anderson, Skip Yakaitis, Alex and Andy Lepak, and George Christensen.
A few months later, at Yakaitis's insistence, Zeiner checked out the Six Packs again. They were suddenly so tight, he decided to join.
"We all had so much common ground that it was easy to get tight in a hurry. The organ/piano was the final touch in a very nice rhythm section. We were all well known, individually, in the area so we got plenty of local exposure."
After exhaustive rehearsing, the band—managed by Al Lepak, Sr., a distinguished music professor at the Hartt School—scraped up enough money to buy a few hours of recording time at Syncron in Wallingford.
"We had two tunes to record that day, both written by Al, 'No Good to Cry' and 'Never Mind,'" says Zeiner. "We spent most of the time trying to get a sound on 'No Good to Cry.' Al had a cold and didn't want to do the vocal, but I goaded him into singing. He was pissed, but that showed up in the performance as strong emotion, and even though he could have sung it better, technically, I don't know if we would have had that raw sound and emotional content that he put forth that day."
"Business wise, none of us knew anything," says Anderson, who continued to write stellar songs that the Wildweeds recorded. Among these eclectic treasures are the blistering "I'm Dreaming," the Zombies-like 'message' song, "Sorrow's Anthem," and stunning soul chestnuts like "Can't You See that I'm Lonely," "Happiness is Just an Illusion," and "Where is Our Love," which, in a better world, would have been an unstoppable hit for the Four Tops. (As it was, "Someday Morning" was a hit in Hartford and listed in the "Bubbling Under" chart in Billboard).
Doc Cavalier was (and still is) one of those manic rock 'n' roll characters who seem to turn up at the most propitious moments. His ability to embellish a tale over time and repeated retellings is charming if not always in agreement with other eyewitnesses.
"It's very difficult to describe that time, because it was just good music everywhere," says Cavalier, who today still runs his Wallingford studio, now called Trod Nossel Productions. "The Shack in Watertown. There was the Sherri Shack on Route 1 in Branford. And the Wildweeds were the #1 act in this entire area.
"We all arrived on the same bus as The Who's My Generation. But we were no longer on the bus, we were walking on our own."
Cavalier had heard the demos the Weeds cut at the earlier incarnation of his studio. He inherited all the demos of all the bands who'd recorded at Syncron when he bought the studio and changed its name to Trod Nossel. He'd just thrown over a Tufts University degree and a budding dentistry business to follow his quixotic dream of being the next Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones' manager and producer who, ironically, is now a good friend and business partner with Cavalier).
After hearing the Weeds' demos, Cavalier caught the band live. He was hooked.
"The Wildweeds were one of the few bands I could go to see live purely as a fan," says Cavalier. "The Wildweeds were one of the greatest bands I have ever heard. I used to tell people, 'Here are five guys out of Windsor who were all black in a prior lifetime.'"
The band members' relationship with Cavalier was, and still is, tempestuous.
This is especially true of Anderson, who until this year still had a home in the Windsor area. He remembers the star-making logistics differently.
"We never even got paid for that recording session," says Anderson, in a phone conversation from his new home in New Mexico. "We never saw a nickel from the record sales. Cavalier and Greenberg were listed as producers of that record even though we'd never met them when we recorded it. Cavalier talked me out of my publishing rights because I was a kid and naive. I see this sort of thing happening all the time in Nashville today. It never changes."
Cavalier bears Anderson no ill will, though he did rather testily tell Ralph Hohman of the Meriden Record-Journal, "All I can say is I made him a star."
"Al Anderson was not just one of the great singers," says Cavalier. "He is one of the great talents in American music. He was a phenomenal songwriter and guitarist, too. I always felt that Al was taking a step backwards when he joined NRBQ. They have a cult following and I understand that, but Al was and is one of our great musical talents."
His negotiating techniques notwithstanding, Cavalier expended a lot of energy in furthering the Wildweeds' career, even hiring a film crew to document the band at Trod Nossel studio. He experimented with arrangements on later recordings, including hiring Bert Keyes, who'd previously worked with Dionne Warwick, to write an arrangement for "It Was Fun While it Lasted," bringing in string players from the Hartford Symphony and horn players from the Hartt School.
And though Anderson feels Trod Nossel studio was "second rate" when the Wildweeds came there to polish their sound, that can't be said of the place today. Since the Wildweeds recorded there in the 1960s, among those who've mixed tunes on Trod's nozzles are Joe Cocker, Donovan, Taj Mahal and Fleetwood Mac. Cavalier says, "When I listen to a song, I always ask myself, 'Does it have timelessness?' 'Will they be listening to it years from now?'"
Leaving it unstated, he clearly thinks the answer to both questions, in regards to the Wildweeds, is an emphatic "Yes."
It was, however, that Cavalier-less version of "No Good to Cry" that would gain the band national recognition. By early 1967, when that single was released on Cadet, it was ranked #1 for four weeks running on WDRC's Swingin' 60s Survey and then in April, hit #1 on stations throughout New England.
The world was seemingly their oyster. Indeed, could there be any greater feeling in the world than this one, described by the "baby of the group," then 17-year-old drummer Andy Lepak: "I remember being a senior in high school, leaving class, getting in my convertible, putting on the radio and hearing '#1 again this week—The Wildweeds!'?"
But that's as far as the ride to stardom took them. "No Good to Cry" also charted at #1 in smaller markets in the South (and was, and still is, a staple of any club that features "beach music"), as well as #5 in New Orleans and Cleveland. And though it sold 100,000 copies, the single never broke into New York and Los Angeles and it died in the upper 80s on the national charts.
This did not stem the enthusiasm of a band as confident as the Wildweeds. After all, the gifted, prolific Anderson wrote "No Good to Cry" in a hurry, penning the lyrics in the car on the way to the studio. The follow-up single, "Someday Morning," a psychedelicized pop nugget (replete with Beethoven organ riff) was proof that he could produce quality songs even then.
They had high hopes that Chess, based in Chicago, would find a way to free them from their Connecticut base.
But by the time he got them a weeklong gig in Chicago, musical tastes had changed nationally. FM radio was thriving, free-form improvisation was in, revolution was in the air. Tuxedos and professionalism were strictly Las Vegas, man. Toward the end of their original line-up, the Wildweeds did have one memorable gig—opening for the Doors at Oakdale Theatre.
"Before I met them at the Oakdale, I thought they were ultra hip," says Anderson. "But I got the distinct impression the guys in the Doors weren't very happy people."
Anderson managed to hold the group together as the Wildweeds until 1971, partly because he'd always wanted to play country music and partly because he'd signed a contract with Vanguard Records.
O'Reilly, the fan, caught them a third time during this stage. "I didn't see The Wildweeds again until 1969 when a girl I dated invited me to her high school graduation dance in Westport or Norwalk," he says. "By this time they looked more hippie-ish, and had much longer hair. The conga player was gone and the blind bass player had switched to drums."
A poor-selling Wildweeds album was released on Vanguard in 1970, which at least allowed Anderson to realize his dream of visiting Nashville, where legends like Charlie McCoy, Mac Gayden and Weldon Myrick sat in on the sessions. But, by then, Anderson had already become a member of NRBQ, from which he amicably departed in 1993.
Anderson estimates that he still writes anywhere from 80 to 100 songs a year and records demos of 70 of them. And, his songs have been covered—and been hits for—Carlene Carter, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dave Edmunds, Hank Williams, Jr. His achievements culminated with the Songwriter of the Year award from BMI in 2000.
The proof of the Wildweeds' greatness is in the pudding, and the pudding has just been served by Confidential Recordings, an independent New York label run by musician Michael Shelley and producer Dean Brownrout. All of the Wildweeds' early singles and outtakes have been re-mixed and re-mastered by Doc Cavalier and repackaged on No Good to Cry: The Best of the Wildweeds (www.confidentialrecordings.com). The remarkably crisp sound quality and the exhaustive liner notes make this an indispensable item for anyone who remembers hearing or seeing the Wildweeds "back in the day." It's also a must-have for anyone else who never saw the Wildweeds but still cherishes tightly arranged 1960s pop. Hell, this collection will convince you that, with the right push at the right time, the Wildweeds could have been huge stars.
And yet, had it not been for one of the Wildweeds' unlikeliest fans, a vinyl junkie named Richard Brukner who was born the year the Wildweeds first started performing, this too would have never come to pass. Brukner was so smitten with the Wildweeds' scratchy old Cadet singles—which he'd purchased on eBay—that he burned the tunes onto CDs for his own, and his friends', listening pleasure.
"I knew Doc Cavalier had the tapes. That was the easy part. The tough part was putting the notes and package together and getting the OK from the original members of the band," says Brukner
Brukner's first phone conversation with Anderson was less than auspicious.
"My first talk with him was full of expletives," says Brukner. "He had no great love for this project. He hadn't heard these things in 30 years and was under the impression that the recordings were terrible."
"When Richard called, I wasn't angry at him personally. I just thought, 'Oh boy, here we go again'," says Anderson, who admits to being won over by the younger fan's enthusiasm. "My take on the music is totally different from anyone else's since I wrote the songs. It can be embarrassing to listen to the lyrics you wrote as a teenager."
"He was 18 when he sang 'No Good to Cry'! The whole band, besides Ray, were teenagers," says an awestruck Brukner. "They are not playing like 18- or 19-year-olds on these singles. This was not a garage band, not that being a garage band is a bad thing. They were professionals who played and sounded like soul music veterans."
Brukner ran into the same resistance from Dudek but for a different reason: Dudek was gravely ill.
"I tried for months to track him down and finally in May of this year I got through to him by e-mail," says Brukner. "He was dying of cancer and was nonplussed about the possibility of this project happening. One of the things that makes me the happiest about this is that, before he died, he knew this was going to happen and it made him happy."
Skip Yakaitis, who moved to New York City in the 1970s, died from heart disease in 1988.
Andy Lepak still performs music, though nothing like that of the Wildweeds. He plays the piano on Friday and Saturday nights at the Taste of India in West Hartford.
Until Brukner got involved in their lives, the surviving members of the Wildweeds had not seen each other in over three decades. When they posed for a photograph earlier this year at Anderson's house, they realized it had been since 1969 that they were all together. The acrimony of the band's demise had passed and the camaraderie was obvious.
Though Anderson splits time now between Nashville and New Mexico, he hasn't completely severed ties with Connecticut. He still comes to Windsor because his dentist and barber are here, and he has three grown children who live in Collinsville.
Zeiner, like Anderson, prefers to recall the good times with the Wildweeds.
"There was always an element of spontaneity in the band and there were many great nights artistically. They were what I lived for ... inspiration. I frankly had no use for the phony vision that people had of us," says Zeiner, who remembers each member fondly and individually.
Of Anderson, he recalls, "A beautiful songwriter, singer, guitarist, friend and youngster. Once, on the bandstand he was a professional. I like to think that I had something to do with his professionalism. I felt always like an older brother."
Of Yakaitis, Zeiner says, "Skip was the front man, a great personality. He had a laid-back attitude, which was great for us as most of the rest of us were wired. Skip was underrated because he never really worked too hard at it, but in fact he had a lot of innate talent, and was an irreplaceable asset."
Of Andy Lepak, he recalls, "A terrific drummer and a wonderful, gentle person. Always cooperative and sang some Beatles and did background vocals. You couldn't ask for more in a partner."
Of Bob Dudek, he recalls, "A great bassist and vocalist, and an educator of the band in regard to the Beatles. Bob had a wonderfully solid way of playing bass and singing at the same time that was a thrill to behold."
To read more about the Wildweeds' history and to order their music, check out these two excellent Web sites: www.wildweeds.net, or www.confidentialrecordings.com.
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