Nearly Almost Famous
I will probably never have an opportunity to travel the country with a musical group to write an article for Rolling Stone magazine but, for one brief moment, I did receive a pretty cool consolation prize. I was recently invited to join one of my favorite bands, The Royal Guardsmen, for a concert appearance in Las Vegas. Also on the bill for the End of Summer Bash were Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs, Eddie Holman, and The Vogues. I knew this would make an excellent article and, in the end, I learned a lot about music and the music business.
The Royal Guardsmen’s September performance at the Cannery Casino in Las Vegas was booked just before my May visit to the city. As part of that trip, I made a reconnaissance stop by the casino to check out the hotel and the stage. I was immediately impressed by the Cannery’s décor of 1940’s pin up art and neon. The casino also uses a decorating scheme that incorporates Earth tones and 1950’s “fruit cake” style patterns that give it the homey feeling of a simpler time. I knew once I saw their stage area, called The Club, with its exterior that looked like a vintage theater, that this would be the perfect type of place for the Guardsmen to perform.
Once I had signed on as the personal assistant, roadie, inventory control manager, logistics coordinator, chief cook and bottle washer and just about any other duty the group could dream up for me, my real work started. I spent the next three months between June and August helping to plan the trip, coordinating with the casino, and generally doing anything I could to free up the band so that they could concentrate on their music. This performance would be the first time in several years that all five of the original members, lead guitarist Tom Richards passed away in 1979 and was replaced by Pat Waddell, had played together. They were very excited about the opportunity but it would require coordination and practice to have everyone ready in time and being spread out over three states didn’t help.
As plans for the show progressed, ideas were bounced back and forth for banter and stage material that would improve the performance. One of these ideas involved cue cards for the audience so that they could call out the various vegetables named by keyboardist Billy Taylor during the song Jolly Green Giant. Since all of the band members were already occupied with playing the song, it was decided that the job of holding up the cards should fall to their “assistant”. This also involved hand lettering poster board sized signs with vegetables on them as props for my Las Vegas stage debut!
The week prior to the End of Summer Bash, The Royal Guardsmen all met in Ocala for some intense practice sessions. I joined them on Friday in the small studio room of lead singer Chris Nunley’s home to observe the sessions and figure out how I would do the cards. I had met all of the Guardsmen on previous occasions with the exception of drummer John Burdett who lives in Michigan. We had spoken on the phone over the years and exchanged numerous E-mails but this was our first face to face meeting. It turns out John, who did a lot of the behind the scenes work in finding and booking this engagement, and I share a very similar sense of humor, so we hit it off right away. I arrived just as they were reaching the Jolly Green Giant portion of the set so we practiced my part and then I watched the conclusion. Afterwards we caught up on business and the other tired band members went their separate ways while Chris and I, with respective spouses Karen and Cindy, went out for some overdue dinner.
Saturday morning we met at Chris’s house again and the group did two more full run throughs of the set. In between rehearsals, they took a break and the Guardsmen autographed merchandise to sell at the show while Cindy and I broke down and reassembled the signed CDs. Even though the acoustics weren’t the best and the room was crowded, it was clear to me that the show was shaping up and the group was coming together after their long time apart. This was the point where I really started to get excited about the project.
The set list for the Las Vegas show was assembled by bassist Bill Balogh with input from the other members. Bill has a knack for choosing songs and the list he came up with had everything to please both the casual and more experienced fans. The opening number was a track from The Guardsmen’s second album, Return of the Red Baron, a cover of the Byrds hit (So You Want to be a) Rock and Roll Star. When the album was pressed back in the 60’s, the label somehow lost the vocal track between the time the group recorded the number and the studio mastered it. This was a rare opportunity for fans to hear the group do the complete song. Speaking of rare, yours truly just happened to locate an acetate pressing of the original version of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron that had been rescued decades ago from Charles Fuller Studios in Tampa. The first version of the song features a different mix and actually has the group singing “hang on Snoopy” in the middle to the chords of The McCoys famous hit. After I got copies of this track to the band, they were inspired to reinstate this refrain into the live version so the audience in Las Vegas was the first to hear this live.
Bill’s other selections for the concert included the Guardsmen originals Searching for the Good Times, Any Wednesday, So Right to be in Love, and The Airplane Song. This last track, originally sung by the late Tom Richards, was recently featured in a commercial for Red Bull energy drink and the band spiced it up with a Reggae feel. They also performed some of their more recognizable cover versions like Peanut Butter, Road Runner, and a personal favorite of mine, Baby Let’s Wait. Hang on Sloopy, a popular tune from the group’s live performances back in the day but never officially recorded, was initially part of the set and done at the rehearsals but was later dropped from the show due to time considerations. They did, however, find time to do their rendition of The Coaster’s hit Charlie Brown which was withdrawn from their very first LP when Peanuts creator Charles Schulz deemed it an inaccurate portrayal of his character of the same name!
After a long busy day and a great lasagna dinner thanks to Karen’s sister Kim, Cindy and I had to head back to Jacksonville to prepare for the even busier week ahead. After making final preparations and mailing my cue cards to the casino, Cindy and I caught a flight out on Tuesday afternoon and were in Las Vegas before we knew what hit us! Since Cindy has been absent on my last few visits to Sin City and I already had a standing agenda of things to do there (which will be covered in detail next week), we arrived a few days early. The Taylors, Billy and Donna, and the Nunleys, Chris and Karen, joined us the following day and shared some of our adventures. The rest of the group – Bill, Pat, John, singer and guitarist Barry Winslow and his wife Teena, arrived on Friday afternoon. We were relaxed and settled by this point but the final contingency had to hit the ground running to get ready for the show the next day.
On Saturday morning, we started off with a group breakfast at the casino’s excellent Victory’s Café. We were joined by the Guardsmen’s agent Luanne Hunt of Star Creek Records and her husband Steve. Following some great food and conversation, I snuck off to a nearby table where I had spied Hugh Geyer and Bill Burkette of The Vogues. We had met the previous day when they were checking and Hugh had discovered a cryptic message I had left for the group, who are best remembered for the hits Five O’clock World and You’re the One. It seems The Vogues played in Ocala, Florida some forty plus years ago and an up and coming batch of local musicians had been hired to back them – The Royal Guardsmen! At Billy’s provocation, I left a copy of the original flyer for that concert for them at the front desk with note stating that the Guardsmen had never been compensated for this engagement and they needed to contact me prior to show to get this corrected. I had warned Billy they might send a message of their own, like my Royal Guardsmen shirt with a fish wrapped in it, but fortunately they appreciated the humor. I visited with them for a few minutes at their table and even got them to sign my Vogues’ Greatest Hits LP before going back to “work”.
The Royal Guardsmen were scheduled for a sound check at 1:30PM and wanted to get in one more run through of the set before choosing a few selections for that. They introduced me to the concept of a “room” practice or “unplugged” practice. This involved all of us gathering in one of the hotel rooms with Pat and Barry playing the guitars they had brought with them without amplifiers, John using the corner of the bed for drums, and everyone else singing or miming their instruments. I had a little trouble wrapping my mind around this at first but as soon as the first number was finished I realized it was a viable way of getting in some practice without tempting complaints from the other guests and it proved to be a lot of fun too!
Following the room practice, we separated with plans to regroup in an hour or so for the sound check. I ran into Barry in the casino and we wandered over to the stage area to take a look at the facilities. The Vogues were doing their set up when we arrived so we sat in on several selections as they rehearsed. They wrapped up and made way for Eddie Holman who was using some of the same backing musicians for his performance. Both Hugh and Bill stopped by to chat for a moment on their way out and as soon as they left, the rest of the Guardsmen arrived on schedule for their turn.
For the sound check, the group ran through several numbers to test for different vocals and harmonies. Since Bill, Billy, and John were using instruments provided by the venue, they had to make sure they were tuned and arranged to their preferences. Aside from a mix up involving the type of bass guitar Bill requested, a four string versus the five he was given, and some adjustments to speaker volumes, everything went fairly smoothly. The five string bass was out but it was all the sound department had available. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a four string version from Stan Lark of The Fireballs (thanks Stan!). They were on immediately prior to The Royal Guardsmen so all he had to do was leave it on stage. I couldn’t comment from the stage but standing in the audience area, the group sounded pretty darn good to me.
The doors didn’t open until 4:00PM for the End of Summer Bash and the first act wasn’t on until 5:00PM but their were already people starting to line up for the open seating by the time the Guardsmen finished their sound check. We didn’t go on until 6:00PM but I still had to distribute some passes to the wives and friends, check on some last minute details and get cleaned up and dressed myself. A nap seemed like a good idea at this point and so did grabbing a snack since we had skipped lunch but neither was going to happen!
I just barely managed to get everything done and get ready before time to meet back stage. I ran into Billy, Chris and Pat in the hall and we all walked down together in our black Hawaiian style shirts with World War II era planes emblazed on them. These were purchased especially for this performance and I was also wearing my Red Baron ball cap for the occasion. As we entered the exterior portion of the venue from the rear and headed towards the back stage doors, I got to experience the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol was always talking about. Before we could make it inside, a woman in the back of the crowd spotted our group. She immediately ran up excitedly and asked “aren’t you guys The Vogues?” Without even thinking I responded “do we look like The Vogues?” She was still standing there looking confused when we walked inside and the stage door closed.
Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs were wrapping up their set when we entered the green room to wait our turn. We had been instructed that after they vacated the stage, the crew had to make some adjustments, and when they were finished we would have approximately ten minutes to set up before show time. I received a few last minute instructions on showmanship and prop placement while we were waiting for the signal. When the Guardsmen were given the green light to take the stage, they had to use the brief interval to connect their instruments and do last minute tuning. I rushed around and made sure that props for the show were in place and properly concealed and that everyone had what they needed. Stan had left his bass on stage as promised and I helped Bill adjust the strap for his height while he tried to tune it at the same time due to the rush. As the announcer was getting ready to introduce the band, I put my cue cards in position and ducked off the stage.
For the first time that day, I noticed that the place had filled up. The Club area of the Cannery Casino consists of a stage with an indoor seating area in front of it. Behind this, large doors are opened to an outdoor ground level seating area and then bleachers. I was told that the area seats approximately two thousand people when full and I would say there were at least fifteen hundred present when I was setting up. Everything looked full up to the first few rows of bleachers. Considering that the weather forecast had called for a record high that day of one hundred and eight degrees and it was still bright outside at 6PM, I considered this a more than respectable turn out.
The Royal Guardsmen launched into their set with practiced skill and admirable gusto. The audience picked up on this immediately and was rocking away in no time. I was enjoying a close up view from the side of the stage but it seemed my appearance, at around the mid point, was there in almost no time. Contrary to Chris’s previous threat of announcing me as a replacement for a showgirl they had hired who fell off her high heels just before show time, I received a much more mundane introduction. I took my position to the stage left of Billy Taylor and his keyboards and managed to flash my cards without incident. The audience loved the bit and enthusiastically called out the name of each vegetable as I held up its sign. When the song ended, I gave one quick cap wave, collected my cards, and resumed my position at the side watching for signals if anything was needed.
Before I knew it, the band was closing with their classic hit Snoopy vs. the Red Baron and the audience was letting their approval be known. This was my cue to make a quick trip back to the green room, retrieve the merchandise, run behind the stage, and set everything up in the front lobby – preferably before the song ended! I made it to the lobby just as Snoopy was putting an end to the German air ace and there were already people lined up for autographs and souvenirs. Fortunately, the group was detained by the entertainment director, who wanted them to sign a photo for the casino, so that bought me a couple of extra minutes to get everything laid out while also answering questions. By the time the band started to fill in behind me I had everything lined up and ready for them to sign.
I thought the audience showed enthusiasm when I saw them in en mass but it was even more pronounced up close. Fans were telling me stories about watching The Royal Guardsmen in concert forty years ago and when and where they bought their first Snoopy record! Some people brought the anticipated vinyl or CD to have autographed but a few had somehow acquired copies of that evenings’ set list and one guy even brought a guitar. The Guardsmen dutifully signed anything that was put in front of them and even posed for a few photos with fans for close to an hour following the performance. I was so busy selling CDs and photos that I almost forgot I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast!
After the crowd died down and we pulled ourselves back together again, we took just enough time to change clothes and clean up before we regrouped at the casino’s buffet. I suspect that the food would have been pretty good in any case but the fact that we were starving didn’t hurt! Everyone was jazzed about how well the show had gone and what a great crowd we had but this quickly died down as the exhaustion of the long day we had just gone through began to settle in. I really wanted to go back out and watch The Vogues perform but I was running out of energy fast and still had to pack. I opted instead to join most of the group in Chris’s room for a couple of ice cold celebratory beers before heading across the hall to get as organized as I could that night until I dropped!
We had an early flight out the next morning and the Las Vegas airport is not one you want to be late getting to under any circumstances. Billy and Donna were flying nonstop back to Jacksonville with Cindy and I while the rest of group went to Tampa but all of the flights left close together. Chris and Karen rode with us to return our rental car before we parted company at the airport for different airlines. I realized as we got on our plane that my experience as a roadie was coming to an end but it was one I would not soon forget. It was fun, educational, and a surprising amount of work. I would probably do it again if the opportunity presented itself and I know in the meantime that I can always get a job holding up signs for condos on the side of the road!
Special thanks this week to my wife Cindy Tucker for taking many of the pictures featured in this article and to The Royal Guardsmen for letting this Fanboy hang on to their coat tails. For more on the Guardsmen’s practice session in Ocala, check out Entertainment editor Dave Schlenker’s article on the Ocala Star Banner’s website. Ocala Star Banner Article