The Sixties in Folk Music / 6. John Thomas

John Thomas
Music—A Lifelong Love Affair

The first sounds I can remember hearing were music. My dad had been lighting director and stage technician for the Brooklyn Opera Company, and his Victrola never stopped playing classical music and operas on those big old 78s.  [They were big! Classical music was usually released on 12-inch 78s, with a playing time ca 5.5 minutes/side.-PF] When I was about three, he’d hold me on his lap so I could pick out those tunes on the piano, and he’d sing along with them…and me.

We made a transcontinental move from New York to Los Angeles in 1945 when I was four—in a 1936 Dodge and a 24-foot trailer—and settled in the San Fernando Valley, in Tarzana and then Reseda, when the Valley was walnut orchards, citrus groves, and the Red Line trolley car ran through it—to downtown and the beaches.

I started at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music when I was five—my dad and me on the Red Car every Saturday. I played my first solo concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theater when I was eight and was well on my way to being the new Van Cliburn. I played live on the radio when I was eleven—that performance was captured on a “wire recorder”—and I had my first record out on a 78.

At the same time, I was listening to Huggy Boy and Hunter Hancock on the radio—the early days of Rhythm & Blues—and I realized that my audiences were appreciative, but those other audiences were DANCING and having fun. Also at that same time, I’d been selected for the Tchaikovsky Competition in Paris—and found out how the game was really played in the “classical” field, whereby I got to be a “protégé” (boy-toy) for the “Fat Lady in Paris”—and I bailed. My “distinguished career” went down the drain.

My mom was horrified, my dad understood, and I went right into R&B and became John “Fats” Thomas—entertaining my friends at lunch hour in the cafeteria during junior and senior high school—probably drove “Blueberry Hill” and “Ain’t That A Shame” into the ground—and started writing my own songs in the process…and having fun!

And then, in 1957, I went to UC Santa Barbara—what a paradise! Two thousand students, five miles of campus beach, and seven girls to every guy. Learned how to drink beer and started going to beach parties, where some guys with guitars were sitting around serenading the girls and singing Kingston Trio songs. At that point I thought, “Hey—these are easy tunes—I can play them! I can join that fun circle!” But…one does not take a piano to the beach. So, I bought a Silvertone 6-string and a book that showed me how to mash the wires down, and went for it…picked up all the tunes off the records, got calluses, and finally put myself out there on those sandy stages and found the fun of playing with other guitar players and singers. I hadn’t done anything but solo piano, except for “Orchestra” at the conservatory, and stepped into a whole new world of music and fun!

I jammed around with some of those beach guitarists—kinda fun—more experience…and then I met Phil Earl. He shared a mutual love of the blues—the real blues—and he turned me on to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Josh White, to mention a few—and he knew all the licks on the guitar. So I locked myself up for a weekend and learned every Josh White song from the album, note for note. We got back together again for another practice session, and it just clicked. Phil had an old Martin D-18, and he let me play it—adios Silvertone, hello new Martin D-18 for me!

Phil and I hooked up with a banjo player named Roffe Morris, and Danny Hudson on bass. We played at UCSB for the Galloping Gaucho Revue and the Roadrunner Review, and we played at the OMTAE coffee house in Isla Vista and the Contempus in Goleta (forerunner of the Nexus), and some parties. My first folk group, and we didn’t have a name—we just played.

Isla Vista, 1959

Isla Vista, 1959

Roffe graduated ahead of us and moved to San Diego, and Phil and I kept jamming for a while. Then a friend at work, Riley Jackson, who had his own folk group—the Freeway Singers with Don Robertson and Bob Hoffman—introduced me to Howard Pelky and Ernie Brooks. I think we auditioned each other—and it was instant synchronicity, and total fun—and I joined The Channel Singers.

We developed a repertoire of many musical forms and styles—even had some “original” folk songs—and took it out there. We had played at the Noctambulist and a few other coffee houses and were visiting the Iopan one night when Bill Berner, the co-owner, said that the scheduled performer hadn’t shown up, and if we had our instruments, would we like to play? I think it took us about three minutes to get the axes out of the car and be tuned up and ready to go. More fun!!!

Being The Channel Singers was a completely unique experience for me. We got to open at various clubs for Joe & Eddie, the Kingston Trio, Bud & Travis, etc., many of whom are still friends of mine, and we were able to participate in a folk scene that was comparable only to the Greenwich Village scene—except we had beaches and much better weather and beach bunnies.

And the clubs were unique as well. The Iopan—a beautiful, three-story Victorian house—the fireplace, the living room/stage—the chandeliers, the polished stair rails—the epitome of warmth, coziness, intimacy, and no PA needed. When we saw Joe & Eddie’s first show there, and they rocked the place without amplification, I’m surprised the place didn’t fall down from the applause and the roar of the audience. The Iopan was the kind of place we all wish we could go to now—again.

There were several other clubs that we played—the Bluebird Café (opened by Peter Feldmann), Gatsby’s, and others—but the two major venues were the Rondo and The Nexus.

The coffee house scene was going through a transition—people started serving beer and wine, and the whole scene changed. Tony Townsend took over the Rondo and turned it into the hottest music spot downtown. It featured all of the best of the local performers (and a dud or two, but that’s what hootenannies were for—a precursor to The Gong Show, American Idol, and Karaoke), and a good time was had by all!

Back somewhere in the ’63-’64 period, the folk scene in Santa Barbara was seriously moving along—out of the coffee houses and into new clubs that served beer and wine, and where the patrons and the performers got a tad more rowdy—perhaps a bit more like Frisco and LA. So out in Goleta, real close to UCSB, a new place called the Nexus was opened where the Contempus used to be, at the intersection of Fairview and Hollister—in what had originally been a walnut-shelling factory, and right next to a tin building that had been an old-time cabinet shop—I think the original owner was named Dave Deras. It was turned into a great club—benches along the wall, pretty good-sized stage in the far left corner, pillows and small tables in the central area, and a nice long bar on the right as you walked in—light and dark beer on draft, candles on the tables, and a pretty good sound system.

It became a really great place for us folkies, like my group, The Channel Singers, and most of the other folk personas, like Don Robertson, Todd Grant, Tony Townsend, and others, to perform. It was a really fun, comfortable venue, where the interaction was close between the performers and the audience…if you spilled a beer on stage, it would probably splash on the front-row tables…lots of colored burlap on the walls and ceiling to create atmosphere and cover the tin roof.

Someone installed a new sound system, with JBL speakers hanging from the ceiling—I think a friend of our bass player, Ernie Brooks, installed them—but whoever did the wiring back down to the stage and the connections to the amplifier/PA on stage (back in the old days when we controlled our own sound, as opposed to having a sound man) used lamp cord instead of speaker wire, used lamp plugs instead of phone jacks, and set up a power strip to plug into. I’ll never forget when Howard Pelky, our banjo player and fellow guitarist, plugged it in for the first time to get us set up for our gig. Somehow all that stuff just went directly from the 110-volt wall socket directly to the 8-ohm JBL speakers hanging from the roof—the resulting screech and pop and explosion of those speakers was “a most awesome noise” with little bits of the speaker cones filtering down like ashes from a volcano—so much for THAT debut!!!

The Nexus did turn into one of the most happening places in Santa Barbara. We had regular Sunday afternoon hootenannies featuring other local artists like Sheri Geiger, René Leyva, The Terrytown Trio (later to become The Floyd County Boys), and anyone who had an ax and wanted to play and sing—gee, the forerunner of Karaoke—except you had to actually play AND sing. And someone got smart, opened a door in the wall to the space next door, and a pizza place was set up there. I can’t recall the name of it—before Petrini’s—or maybe the first Petrini’s—but that sure was fun—folk music, beer, and pizza—what more could anyone want???

Unfortunately, the place caught fire and burned down—always some questions about how a tin building burns down—but, shortly thereafter, the Nexus reopened across the street, in what had been a medical and dental office. The new Nexus was not nearly as cozy and comfy as the Nexus #1 but had a better stage and light system, and actually a “performer’s room.” There, I, as a member of The Channel Singers, had the pleasure of being the headline act and having this group from LA that nobody had ever heard of, called “The Stone Poneys,” open for us. Needless to say, I just wanted to listen to Linda Ronstadt and Bob Kimmell and Ken Edwards play all night…tough act to follow!!!

The coffee house scene in Santa Barbara, which started the whole folk music thing in the first place—mellow, laid back at the Iopan and the Noctambulist—turned into a whole different club scene—like the Rondo, Borsodi’s, and Baudelaire’s (who could ever forget Claire Rabe?) and The Bluebird Café (who could ever forget Peter Feldmann?) (Julie Felix?) (Gene McGeorge and The Scragg Family and Kajsa Ohman?).

Truly a turning point for the folk music scene in Santa Barbara.  It was around the ‘65-‘66 period when a lot of things changed again in Santa Barbara. There weren’t very many places to play folk music, so Howard and I kind of drifted apart. I bought a Rickenbacker electric guitar and played with The Underground Railroad—made up of UCSB students—and we had a hot R&B band. I also played in a pick-up band with Mike (of Mike’s Drum Shop), Ron Fink on bass, and George “Stosh” Mamalakis (lead guitarist for the Tridents surf band) who worked at [H.T.Bennett’s Music and sold me a Fender Strat (genuine 1964—pre-CBS) that I put a Jaguar pick guard on and a Fender Super Reverb amp with the four 10-inch speakers. We played around and opened the Ali Baba off lower State Street—the first “topless club.” Well, as they say, “It all depends on what you see in your work.” But we had a lot of fun, to say the least. It was all fun!!!

Travis Edmonson and I remained friends. He “camped” at my house for a few months after his split with Bud, and I produced and recorded him in a solo benefit concert for my Sigma Pi Fraternity at UCSB in May of 1966. And then all of us went our separate ways.

I returned to Santa Barbara in 1974, lived on Mountain Drive, got involved in all the music/Latin percussion/drumming, and went to Mexico in 1980. I lived in Yelapa, played in Puerto Vallarta (my new “tropical jazz” on piano) and also joined Gypsy Rock with Glenn Blakesley—folk rock—and toured for a couple of years—paid my dues sleeping on couches—and had a lot more fun.

Since then, I’ve gotten into production. I reconnected with Travis and produced and released the “Travis Edmonson/Live In Concert at U.C. Santa Barbara” CD, “Travis Edmonson/The Tucson Tapes,” and—most fun of all—we re-created “Bud & Travis—The Santa Monica Concert”—the one that you may remember as a double album. Well, we re-created the “real” set list and the concert sound, and put all the tunes in the right order. This couldn’t have happened on vinyl, but with CDs—a whole new way to go. All are available on Folk Era Records through Rediscover Music, and “Bud & Travis—The Santa Monica Concert” was submitted for a Grammy for Best Historical Album two years ago. We were up against Peggy Lee and some sound tracks—so we didn’t get one (yet)—but I’m proud to have been a part of re-creating musical history and to have had some recognition for all our efforts.

I was also delighted to be a part of helping to make “The Floyd County Boys/ Heart of Pain” CD become a reality after 39 years; and, in the process of making this book become a reality, to be able to share the new music of Sheri Geiger Odenwald, Tony Townsend, and Howard Pelky. It seems like we’ve all continued to grow, and share, and have fun, and, most especially, to keep the music alive and share the continuing joy and pleasure after all these years …

Music IS a lifelong love affair—and I couldn’t have asked for better people to share it with. My thanks to all of you. It was good then—and there’s more yet to come!

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs.

Peter founded Santa Barbara’s Old Time Fiddler’s Convention (1972), UCSB’s Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps – three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled “The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music” (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 – 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, “BlueGrass West!”, based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California.

Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America’s musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.

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