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The four-year-old drowning victims, the urban fire that ravages too many lives, the cold-blooded street shooting, there's not much he can do about those events except frame them for the electronic eye and the talking heads, relay the grim gist to the viewing public. As a news producer for WCIX-TV, a winner of two Florida Emmys and currently a nominee for a third, Jeff Lemlich has learned, like all good journalists, to subjugate the horror, to package it for airing and then put it out of his mind.
Lemlich's biggest story will never air on Channel 6, the station for which he's worked since March of 1980. While his recent Emmy nomination is for a music story - "When the Doo-wop Stops," about the way industry power brokers abused early R&B artists - Lemlich's superstory is too big, too sprawling, to be packaged in TV sound bites. So he wrote a book, Savage Lost: Florida Garage Bands, The '60s and Beyond, a chronicle of Miami's first rock and roll scene, which thrived between 1964 and 1970, then vanished like a ghost. The disappearance of that scene, and the corresponding historical neglect, troubles Jeff Lemlich, who maintains that Miami rocked in the Sixties like never before or since, and that a treasure ignored is a treasure lost.
"I had a feeling about the Sixties," Lemlich recalls. "Not nostalgia, but a spark, and enthusiasm. I was so young in the mid-Sixties that I didn't realize it was local stuff I was hearing on the radio. You'd hear the Chiffons, the Stones, and the Montells, and I just took it all in." Only later did Lemlich realize that while the Chiffons and the Stones were mysterious faraway hit makers, the Montells had attended the same school he went to, Southwest High.
During Lemlich's wonder years, the South Florida music scene was ruled by "the savage," exemplified by bands like the Montells, the Shaggs, the Canadian Legends, whose collective voice screamed out in three-chord rave-ups, in a language only the young could understand. "In 1965 they had to fight to have long hair," says the newsman. "They had to fight their parents. The cops would be called on them. Back then you had to be a real rebel." Back then, Lemlich asserts, rock and roll was alive. Back then the savage ruled. And Jeff Lemlich has the documentation to prove it.
If you never saw the carport in Lemlich's Westchester house, you'd never have any inkling the place belongs to a fanatic. For the most part, the house is plain and simple, exceedingly average. A St. Louis Cardinals baseball pennant presides over one corner of the dining area, among the few clues to Lemlich's nonmusical interests. But Lemlich bought this house on the strength of its carport, which the former owners had enclosed and turned into a spare room. When Lemlich moved in, he lined the room with shelves, packed those shelves with records. Local singles by garage bands (so named for their ubiquity and for the typical locale of their practice sessions), soul singles, compilation LPs of Florida groups. Cardboard boxes are everywhere, dozens of them.
Back in the living room, a Sanyo stereo rules the roost, positioned next to a round dinner table, where Lemlich places two cardboard boxes filled with seven-inch discs of plastic, all of them in mint condition, all of them carefully sleeved. This is black gold, the sort of ear wax that's worth big money. Not that Lemlich would ever sell these records. He doesn't even check the buyers' guides to find out how much they're worth.
The former DJ takes immediately to the turntable, shuffling through his boxes, spinning platter after platter. The Montells jumble jangling guitars and pounding 4/4 rhythm, as singer Carter Ragsdale belts the lyrics of "Daddy Rolling Stone," released in the spring of 1966. Suddenly it seems the sky has opened up and there's God right there, smiling big, wearing Converse high tops, and saying, `Yes, my children, this is rock and roll.' Lemlich mentions that the song, which also was covered by the Who, was written by Otis Blackwell, author of the Elvis Presley hits "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up". And Ragsdale, says Lemlich, "was the best screamer on the scene."
On the label of another single, "Don't Bring Me Down," the Montells' moniker is printed in tiny type, enclosed in parentheses beneath "H.M. Subjects," short for Her Majesty's Subjects, a nom de rock chosen for its Britishness that was rejected by fans who continued to call them the Montells. Like other Miami bands of the period, Lemlich explains, the Montells drew heavily on Britain's burgeoning scene, with drummer Jeffrey Allen visiting England and bringing home cool Anglo records long before they were imported to this country. "This enabled the Montells to feature such underrated classics," Lemlich writes in Savage Lost, "as `Get Yourself Home' by the Fairies and `I Am So Blue' by the Poets in live performances, as well as nearly every Pretty Things song ever recorded."
By 1971 that scene was dead, but at age fifteen, Lemlich was in the habit of buying 45 rpm singles by the Rolling Stones ("Paint It Black") and Cyrkle ("Red Rubber Ball"), not to mention "Gloria," a Sixties standard covered by virtually every garage band in town (including an all-female outfit called the Belles, who changed the title to "Melvin" and the spelled-out chorus to "M-E-L-V-I-N!"). In a 1988 article for the local Rag magazine, Lemlich wrote of his "big breakthrough" that year, when he discovered the downtown Miami Goodwill store's selection of fifteen-for-a-dollar 45s: "We would spend eight hours at a time nearly every Saturday going through what felt like millions - no, billions of records." He began to supplement his collection with anything and everything of a rock nature.