The rock of South Florida's Sixties is about to be born again, thanks to a reunion of some of the era's stars.
Exactly 28 years ago, the WFUN-AM Boss Survey had the Kinks at number one with "A Well-Respected Man." Also hitting the charts that week: Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, the Beatles, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley. And, at number 37, with a song called "Bucket of Tears," were the Squires Five.
A local band.
The Squires were not alone, not even unusual, in becoming chart-certified recording artists in the mid-Sixties era. Local bands such as the Birdwatchers, the Mor-Loks, the Clefs of Lavender Hill, the Shaggs, the Montells, and Evil were cutting records (in some cases for major labels), playing live shows, appearing on national television, being celebrated by fan clubs...the whole bit. A South Florida band called the Ardells achieved major stardom -- complete with hordes of swooning girls -- by touring in South America, becoming so big they decided to call themselves the American Beetles. Later they renamed themselves Razor's Edge and hit the Billboard Hot 100 with "Let's Call It a Day Girl." Later the song also had the distinction of being covered by Bobby Vee.
All of this, and much more, is documented in author Jeff Lemlich's Savage Lost. And it was Lemlich's book that led to a reunion of many of the stars of the Sixties scene (scheduled for this Monday, January 31, at Stephen Talkhouse), a full-length video, and a new album, Reawakening, by the Fog, made up of Squires drummer Fred Sams, his former bandmate Steven Bates, and others.
Sams recalls that despite its national achievements, the local rock scene was nothing like today's. "There were two warlords that controlled most everything," he says. "Steve Palmer ran the Florida Bandstand [a live concert and dance], which was affiliated with WFUN. Rick Shaw had Miami Bandstand for WQAM. You couldn't play one if you'd played the other." The competition between the two AM Top 40 powerhouses was fierce, especially when it came to local music, which both stations played and promoted in a way that WSHE-FM could never begin to even understand. "We were with Palmer and Florida Bandstand," Sams continues. "But the Coasters were coming to play with Shaw, and we wanted to be on that bill. So we made up a name, I don't even remember what it was, and posed as a different band." The Squires got caught in the act. "We had played the North Miami Armory for Palmer 34 weekends in a row. When we got caught, he wouldn't let us play for three or four weeks." The band was on the outs with the big man.
Palmer, like many a warlord or godfather, had a temper, and he was tough when he had to be. But he also molded a scene of great worth and propelled innumerable young musicians to professional careers. He and his family ran the shows, managed the bands, called the shots. After the three or four weeks passed, Palmer contacted Sams and the rest of the Squires and said, "Let's cut a record." Sams believes Palmer's motive was to bring the band back in line after the fake-name incident with a dose of honey atop the vinegar. Sams also recalls Palmer's method of paying his young charges. "He handed each member of the band, individually, a white envelope. Each envelope had the night's pay, six or eight dollars. He may have had a temper, but he never took advantage of the kids. He was a real gentleman. And in 1964, when you're a sixteen year old, and you get $14 for a weekend of playing, that was good money."
The scene was different then in another way. "The bands really stuck together," Sams says. "We shared instruments and nothing ever disappeared."
There were fewer clubs and they were of a different ilk than today's. "There certainly was no Talkhouse-type of place," Sams remembers. "There were a couple of go-go places, like the Diplomat." Many of the clubs were huge spaces, with names like Thee Image and the World. "They had these huge stages, and you'd go upstairs to a big room with pillows everywhere. It seemed strange to let teens loose in that." Sams and the Squires found those venues too commercial, preferring the Place. "I remember the night Evil came in in miniskirts." One venue offered band members free beer, and a sixteen-year-old Sams decided that if one beer looked good, two looked even better. "I played my drums that night from the floor."
Today Sams lives in North Carolina. "I hadn't picked up my drumsticks in 27 years," he recalls. "Steve Bates still lives in Miami, and he called me up. He said he was reading New Times, and that there was a story in there about a book that mentioned us. I said 'You got it wrong, nobody's going to write a book after this long.'"
Bates, of course, was not wrong. Sams tracked down Lemlich and obtained a copy of Savage Lost. "I got to the last chapter," Sams recalls, "about people promoting the local bands of today, and how they shouldn't slip into obscurity as our bands did. I called Steve again. He hadn't played guitar in 25 years. I told him we were going to make an album. Randy [Boone] and Paul [Peterson] wanted to be a part of it, so I brought all these dinosaurs in to the studio." (Boone and Peterson were successful actors and singers in the Sixties on a national level; while they didn't play with Sams at the time, they met him later at a nostalgia festival.)
At the end of September last year, the Fog was formed and set about "trying to recapture music that had integrity," Sams explains. "The songs of that era had political messages, verbiage with meaning and feeling, more so than today's kind of music. Today's music is missing the message." Yesterday's sociopolitical approach to righting wrongs has been supplanted by a more immediate response to problems: Blow the offending son of a bitch away in a drive-by.
The Reawakening album was completed in the third week of October and the Fog scheduled a live performance in Old Fort, North Carolina the day after the sessions ended. Some 350 people showed up. "We began practicing seven nights a week, playing at festivals," Sams says. "But we haven't really broken out of our shell yet. That'll happen when we come to Florida." (Sams did visit a while back to appear on Evan Chern's radio show on WDNA-FM [88.9].) The band will be playing several dates this week and next at local venues.
"This fan club sprang up," Sams says from his home in Old Fort. "We didn't start it. Now it has 150 members based in Asheville." That's remarkable. Then again, when you hear the Fog's music, maybe it's not so remarkable. Count me as member 151.
This isn't classic rock, it's vintage rock. Guitars and bass and drums and charismatic singing and melodies and hooks and -- real rock and roll as it always has been meant to be played. Songs of great diversity sharing a common thread. The good stuff. Timeless. Immortal.
Though the Fog might still be in its Old Fort shell, Nashville's Sun Entertainment offered the group a deal. "If Sun gets a deal for us in Europe," Sams says, "then we'll sign with them exclusively for Europe. We're still a free agent in the States. Sun is strictly handling distribution here."
Inside Edition dispatched correspondent Joel Loy and crew to tape a segment involving the Fog back in September. It hasn't aired yet, and the show's managing editor says it's still not scheduled to.
While former TV stars and Fog album guests Peterson and Boone are suited to splashy television programs -- they've both gotten nostalgic on sundry daytime gabfests like Geraldo -- Sams is not. Though articulate and candid, Sams is no blabbermouth.
I had to drag from him his personal background, how he came to leave behind Miami's rock scene to end up in the boondocks as an attorney and businessman. Sams was born in Charlotte, came to Miami at age five, and he decided to become a cop in 1969, after the Squires disbanded, when he went to the police academy. He became a patrolman (once busting some pot smokers who recognized him as the Squires's drummer), then a detective. He remained in Miami until October of 1972, when he found out the Army was set to draft him. He immediately volunteered, Special Forces, and served for nine years. He took advantage of the service's educational opportunities, dreaming of continuing a career in law enforcement. But Sams could not continue as a police officer; instead he worked his way through several schools to obtain a law degree. He took a job with Melvin Belli in San Diego that lasted until 1984, when he "retired" and went back home to North Carolina.
Yes, I had the same question: Why couldn't he go back to being a cop? "I had a disability." A disability? "Yes, 40 percent disabled." Um, well, uh, which 40 percent of you? "My lungs." Your lungs? "Yes." Eventually the truth comes out: While serving with the Special Forces in Vietnam, Sams was, in his word, "gassed."
Many of the players in Miami's Sixties have stories to tell (and many got the chance in Lemlich's book). For instance, the band Evil destroyed the stage after covering the Who's "My Generation" during the 1966 Youth Fair's battle of the bands A and still ended up winning the contest. But censorship was also a problem. As a reminder of that earlier era, the new Fog album has the Montells (featuring Steve Bates) version of the Pretty Things's "Don't Bring Me Down." Sams decided to include the Montells's original recording of the song on the Fog album, complete with the censor's bleeps. The offending word: "lay." The key line where that word is bleeped: "when I A- her on the ground."
Some things change, some don't. A question I have to ask myself during the early stages of the Fog's ever-expanding reawakening: In 1994 is this just another desperate grasp at nostalgia, or viable music for a new generation? I feel strongly it's the latter, but time will tell.
"We tried to update without losing the Sixties vitality," offers Sams. "The anti-establishment thing is still alive. But young people don't understand what they're protesting. For kids in the Sixties, the issues were simpler. We were more aware and understood better the unpopular war and Kent State and the things government did. The government still does that stuff, but today, as a response, the youth has a more violent overtone. Ours wasn't violent, it was a message that we weren't happy. We let people know we had other ideas." Even their songs from 30 years ago retain their iconoclastic edge. The new Fog album, for example, includes a song called "LSD." I know what you're thinking, but the point of the tune is contained in the chorus: "I don't need no LSD."
For the Reawkening album Sams brought in author Jeff Lemlich to add spoken narration. "I believe in the power of Ludwig drums, Les Paul guitars, and Fender amps," Lemlich says in the recording's intro. "I believe you can rock when you're 14, when you're 40, when you're 50. Who cares when you were born? You know, the guys on this album all remember what it felt like to make music in the Sixties. What a wide spectrum of sounds. They all have lives away from music, but this is it, what really moves and grooves them....It's eternal, this thing we call rock and roll."
No one can go back to those heady days. But thanks to the Fog we can at least hear what it was like. And you know what? It's still rock and roll.
The Fog's Sixties reunion takes place Monday at Stephen Talkhouse (531-7557), where the band also performs on Wednesday. Several other shows are scheduled for next week. Check the "Clubs" listing next issue.
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