Jeff Lemlich Feature
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.
After learning to be a DJ as a student at Miami-Dade Community College, Lemlich interned at the old AM country station WWOK and then landed a job at WIGL-FM. One night in January 1978, a night listeners didn't know would be the last in the life of WIGL (107.5 on the dial, now Super Q, WQBA), DJ Lemlich took advantage of the what-are-you-gonna-do-fire-me? opportunity. Although he stopped short of playing the new Sex Pistols record, he did supplant the usual Helen Reddy tunes with "Ring Around the Rosie" by the long-gone Shaggs, and was immediately rewarded with an angry call from his boss and excited calls from listeners.
Lemlich felt the advent, and the fringe acceptance, of the punk movement was more than an antidote to the firmly entrenched disco sound. It might also be a way of opening the doors to an appreciation of Miami's mid-Sixties savage. At about the same time, Lemlich recalls, the Miami Herald published a story by Christine Arnold about the punk scene. "Arnold's article was about the music," not about the negatives, says Lemlich, who was impressed enough to write a letter to the editor lauding the local rock of the Sixties. "When is this boogie fever going to end?" he asked in a desperate postscript.
Others, it turned out, shared Lemlich's view. One woman, who'd seen his letter in the Herald, tracked him down. "She knew all these groups," Lemlich says now. "She confirmed that certain groups I wasn't sure about were in fact local. She came to the radio station with all these Sixties negatives. I had the photos developed and I could see the fun these bands were having on-stage." Lemlich found Cleve Johns, the guitarist-vocalist of the Shaggs, in the phone book. He ended up speaking to at least one member of every garage band he would eventually write about in Savage Lost.
And he had already begun to compile a discography of his burgeoning record collection, the names and dates printed on record labels supplemented by interviews with musicians, producers, disc jockeys, and others. Thanks in part to the British punk wave, fanzines were popping up around the nation, and Lemlich decided to publish his lists and let others in on the secret treasure of South Florida. "Two magazines were interested in publishing it," he says, "but then I heard about all the stuff in Tampa. Then Orlando. The article was taking on subchapters and subgenres." And the savage was out of control. "By 1980," Lemlich says, "I realized it was a book." Then he realized he'd have to include a chapter about radio. And when he began to uncover the vinyl remnants of the great soul music that was created down here, the size of the project grew even more daunting.
These days any band with a name like Evil immediately evokes images of Spandex and mousse, power chords and M(etal)TV. But the Evil Lemlich now lays down on the dining-room turntable was a rock band, a fact that becomes clear with the first strains of a collection of unreleased demos recorded in 1966. The songs rock on the strength of driving, relentless drum beats, guitar riffs that fly every which way, vocals that forsake technical precision for the sake of raw power. Lemlich claims he's attempted for years to reunite the members of the band for a show. "But their lead guitarist is a born-again Christian," he says, and therefore wants to have nothing further to do with Evil.
Next up are Dr. T and the Undertakers; then Lemlich moves to the Canadian Legends, a group that duplicated its strong Milwaukee following after it moved to South Florida, even scoring mention in a story in the New York Times about what Lemlich calls "the Miami Beach teen scene." After two of its members were drafted for Vietnam, the band fell apart. Lemlich introduces the Neighborhood of Love's "Miss Blue 3/4" as "sounding just like Mitch Ryder on acid." He suspects the band's name was a pseudonym, he says, "but I don't know anything about this record." When he spins the tune, it sounds just like Mitch Ryder on acid.
Lemlich lays down the needle on the Birdwatchers' "Mary Mary (It's to You that I Belong)," a high-flying ode to marijuana. One of Lemlich's two copies is a promo that once belonged to WQAM - along with WFUN, one of two dominant broadcasters of South Florida rock in the Seventies - and someone at the station pasted a piece of tape over the "Mary Mary" on the label, hiding the contraband from view. Of course that did nothing to cover the blatant lyrics contained within. Singer Sammy Hall, Lemlich reveals, became a born-again Christian, recording a number of Christian folk records.
A worse fate befell Ronnie Luke, guitarist of the Catalinas, who was killed in Vietnam in November 1965, a year after graduating from Southwest High School. But some survived the savage days alive, and with their musical mentality intact. Lemlich documents the early years of Lee and Steve Tiger, Miccosukee Indians who recorded and performed as Tiger-Tiger through the Seventies and Eighties. Lee Tiger worked with a very early incarnation of NRBQ, a group that later left North Miami for New Jersey, national fame, and a career that endures to this day. The New Society Band, formed in 1966, went on to become the Rockerfellas, who still play local clubs. Brooks Reid, once of the South Miami band Cottonwood, has held a steady solo gig at Tony Roma's for the past six years, and released a CD of new material in the spring of 1989.
In 1984 Lemlich had completed his first draft of Savage Lost, which he named after a song by local band the Kollektion. A Wisconsin publisher expressed some interest but lacked commitment to the project. Then a second house, R.P.M., agreed the book would fit in with other regional-music works in progress at the time. "It was looking good but there was no contract. Everything was oral," Lemlich says. "They strung me along until 1986, and then went out of business, leaving everyone in the lurch."
The Miami rock scene, which had virtually disappeared in the Seventies, began to recover in the Eighties, and made a return to glory - albeit not savage glory - by the end of that decade. "That's when I got excited again," the author recounts. "I had to acknowledge quite a rebirth." At that point, Lemlich took another look at his manuscript. So much had changed - perhaps most significantly, the invention of track acts had made Miami a hot spot for fashion-conscious singers who use tape recordings in lieu of actual musicians - that the rock historian decided a rewrite was needed. Lemlich had also begun to crack "dead wax" codes, letters and numbers etched into the smooth "dead" space between a record's last cut and its label that indicate further details about the recording. And he went out and talked to local soul and R&B pioneers, including the legendary Henry Stone of TK Recording Studios fame and the ubiquitous songwriter/nasty rapper Clarence "Blowfly" Reid. He investigated country-music radio. "Country plus R&B plus gospel," Lemlich says, "is rock and roll. So it was all related."
When he went back to shopping Savage Lost to publishers, Lemlich had to face the inevitable rejections, which he attributes to a "soft" period for the industry, combined with a glut of bad books about the Sixties. "I got letters saying it was a valuable work of research," says the writer, "but they couldn't publish it. That was more frustrating than if they just came out and said it sucked." Finally he latched on to Broward-based Distinctive Publishing, which has contracted to publish Savage Lost: Florida Garage Bands, The '60s and Beyond. The opus, all 430 pages of it, includes essays and arguments, anecdotes, 25 photos, and list after list of record releases with immaculate detail about their issue dates, labels, and chart histories. It is scheduled to hit bookstore shelves by Christmas.
The reader learns who Little Esther's cousin is, how Little Beaver acquired his nickname, which songs George Terry (who went on to fame with Eric Clapton) played on. Fantasy's "Stone Cowboy," the Blues Image's "Ride Captain Ride," Wayne Cochran's "Goin' Back to Miami," and Steve Alaimo's 50 singles all get their due. The Squiremen IV, the Razor's Edge, the Clefs of Lavender Hill, Echoes of Carnaby Street, the Limeys, the American Beetles, the Blue Beatles, Beaver Patrol, the Mor-Loks, NRBQ, 31st of February, and dozens upon dozens of other local rock bands from the Sixties are preserved for history. Space is devoted to Mark Markham, who recorded for RCA and authored songs such as "Marlboro Country" and "If This Is Love Can I Get My Money Back." (Both were remade in the Eighties by Markham's cousin Charlie Pickett, one of the most famous of Miami's local rockers.) The works of producer Steve Palmer, who guided many of these local projects, are enumerated, as well as those of Jim Sessody, one-time drummer for the Legends who went on to engineer and produce a number of SoFlo singles and albums.
Trivia, too, abounds: The Miami Herald's veteran movie critic, Bill Cosford, was once a tangential member of the Vandals, whose "We're the Vandals" is one of the coolest band-theme songs of all time. And there's the tale of the Pigeons, who gained fame after leaving town and changing their name to Vanilla Fudge.
At the end of the book, Lemlich offers brief salutes to each year of the Eighties, but he stops short of commenting on the current local rock scene. "Some people suggested I bring it up to 1991, but I have no perspective on now," he explains. "Years from now, what's written won't matter, and this is a real key year in the local scene." Also, while the fates of some musicians are mentioned, few "where are they now?" anecdotes are included. "First of all," says Lemlich, "by the time a book goes to press, that often has changed. Secondly, how would you like your life to be summed up in a couple of lines: `He's now an attorney'? Where it's relevant, I do mention it, but I tried to avoid that."
Perhaps one day Lemlich will write a second tome, one that spotlights the return of the savage. If that is ever to happen, today's bands would do well to consider the fate of their predecessors. In his book, Lemlich posits that the peace and love, flower-power mindset is what brought the savage to its knees near the end of the Sixties. "Amidst the changing world around them," he writes, "kids still just wanted to play music - whether it be outdated from a California standpoint or not. But there was just so long that this sort of limbo could go on. Eventually, the hippie world won out...eventually, people got caught up in what they thought was `their own thing'...eventually, the whole essence of the scene got lost - and I do mean lost. Savage lost."
"Today," Lemlich elaborates, "you have too many bands playing for record labels, looking for deals, instead of playing for their fans. You can't forget the local fans. You have to play for them." Counting himself among those fans, Lemlich attends as many shows as possible, and has an extensive collection of local post-savage records. He often tries to persuade his Channel 6 co-workers to go with him to local clubs. "They want to go to Friday's or Chili's," he laments. "You can see these bands for three dollars instead of spending six on a movie. It's hard for me to get to shows, but I force myself to do it. That's what keeps me sane. To go from murders and fires at my job to a rock show is what brings the humanity back.
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