Times Were Good…
I am convinced that I would never have accomplished the degree of musical ability that I have, whatever that may be, if not for the support and encouragement of my mother, Syble, all through my school years. She came from a very musically oriented family and was relentless in her support, from teaching me old songs, singing a lot of old songs herself, baking for fundraisers for band uniforms, attending every concert and parade, sewing special things for the band members, and such. I only wish she could be here to see how all that encouragement and love has paid off for me in too many ways to mention. Thanks, Mom.
My mother, Syble Gertrude Pelky, passed away on December 23, 1977, and I am honored to dedicate this, my chapter of “the book,” to her.
Here we go…
In 1941, at about four years old, I was strumming on a mandolin. I had no idea what strings to push or pluck, but I was told I had rhythm. That was a good start. I went on to play French horn, trumpet, and to beat the bass drum in the marching bands all through junior high and high school in Okemah, Oklahoma, where I was born—and which happens to be the hometown of Woody Guthrie. Sometime in 1954, I moved to Carpinteria, California, and had all but given up music, except for the hi-fi and radio.
I began to hear some different stuff, a different kind of sound, on the radio. It was interesting and it was addictive. Who are these guys? What is that strange twanging? It was the Kingston Trio, and that sound came from a banjo. I’m thinking “I need one of those.” I purchased a new banjo from a music store in Santa Barbara, and with it came six free lessons…that got it started right then. I had always messed around on guitar, but I loved the sound of that banjo!
I got together with two guys I worked with, Arlin Jensen, who played guitar, and Malcolm Stephens, percussion. I contacted a friend I went to school with, Ernie Brooks, who played bass, and together formed my first “group.” We called ourselves “The Travelers,” because we traveled between Santa Barbara and Solvang to practice. Shortly after we began, we learned that there was a “real” group called “The Travelers Three,” so we changed our name to “The Channel Singers,” after the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. We played around Santa Barbara and Solvang for a while doing company picnics, some talent shows (which we won), and a couple of spots on the radio. It was fun, but then Arlin got married and moved away and Malcolm graduated and moved away also.
Enter John Thomas…
I met John through Riley Jackson, of the Freeway Singers, composed of Riley, Don Robertson, and Bob Hoffman. John, Ernie, and I met for a tryout, and the fun began! I stress “fun” because none of the three of us was too serious about the music. Yes, we wanted it to sound good, but it did not have to be “perfect.” We were not protesting anything and we knew nothing about “political correctness.” We fancied ourselves as entertainers, and at gigs we usually had the entire room having a good time with us. Ernie Brooks was with the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, and many times his shift work conflicted with our gigs. He continued as a member of the group whenever he could and was able to do some private parties with us.
John and I continued on as a duo. We played the Rondo, Tony Townsend’s place; a few out of town gigs; a lot of fraternity houses; at least one college concert at Santa Barbara City College; many hoots; and the Nexus Tavern, owned by Fred Foth. We considered ourselves “the house band.” If Fred made money, we made money. We almost always came away with 20 bucks and free beer. Not bad for an evening having fun. A good friend of mine, Vern Rice, bought the take-out pizza place next to the Nexus. He and Fred agreed to have a Dutch door in the hallway in order to sell pizza to the Nexus crowd. The only permit required? A handshake between the two of them. Vern embellished the pizzas beyond belief! The pizzas were good, the music was good…times were good.
I am rambling here, but I keep remembering things and, not being a professional writer, this is the way it comes out, so bear with me, please….. I, and many, many others, need to thank Bill Berner, Marilyn Berner, and Dan Barrows for the Iopan, Tony Townsend for the Rondo, and Fred Foth for the Nexus Tavern. There were many venues in the area, all of them quite active as I remember, but the Iopan, the Rondo, and the Nexus were the “big three” in my mind. I remember my first time to the Iopan, with my wife, Lynn. We paid a cover charge, probably an outrageous two dollars, and we paid two dollars, maybe two-fifty for some very strong coffee. We were treated to an evening with Joe and Eddie. No sound system, they didn’t need one, and they had one guitarist accompanying them. It was fantastic! Of course, Joe and Eddie went on to make it “big” until the untimely death of Joe Gilbert, in an automobile accident. Another time we saw Randy Boone, and, of course, all the local talent of the time. Thank you, Bill, Marilyn, and Dan.
Everybody loved the Rondo! I don’t know what Tony’s motivation for opening it was, but I can imagine it went something like this: “I have all this music I have learned over the years and I’m tired of running all over the place auditioning for places to perform, so I think I’ll just open my own place!” And open it he did. Whether that was the way it happened or not, it makes a good story. The main stage room was about 24′ x 30′ and always full of people. There was a back room about the same size, probably was supposed to be the “green room,” but it was packed with people too, sitting on the floor on cushions or on low benches, tuning, jamming or just talking. Does anyone else remember this?? In addition to all the local groups and hoots, Tony also brought in The Wayfarers, a folk quartet. I believe they were students at UCLA at the time, I’m not sure. Another great performer, Kajsa Ohman, was featured. She played guitar and sang. I think she was from the Bay Area. Thank you, Tony.
When Fred Foth acquired The Nexus, I don’t know if he opened it anew or if it was already a tavern at that point, but he did some nice, artsy things to the place to make people feel comfortable there. Very low benches around the perimeter and low tables with cushions on the floor and burlap suspended from the ceiling. In retrospect, he probably did the low seats so patrons wouldn’t have so far to fall! Fred presented most of the local groups in town. In addition to The Channel Singers, he featured The Hillside Singers, The Juniper Hill Trio, The Terrytown Trio, and many others. Two members of the Terrytown Trio, Todd Grant and Phil Pritchard, went on to become the founding members of the Floyd County Boys, with Chuck Flannery. They are still active today and they are still among the best. Fred also brought in out-of-town groups for everybody’s enjoyment, most notable was Joe and Eddie. They were in town to perform a concert at UCSB (promoted and produced by J.T.), and they hung around for a few days. Fred was able to book them for a weeknight performance. This was one of the rare times Fred had a cover charge. Probably one or two dollars, and was money well spent! Thank you, Fred.
One night while performing at the Nexus, one of our fans came in and announced that he had just closed his first sale. He was a realtor and he netted a $600.00 commission, so he bought drinks for the house. At 25 cents a glass, that probably cost him around $30.00 because there were probably more than a hundred people in the house that night. Times are sure different now, but that was a pocket full of change at that time. I’m sure he gained a lot of new friends that evening. Another time, John and I were performing, and right in the middle of some raucous song the power went out due to the thunderstorm going on outside. It went pitch black and totally quiet. It remained this way for a few seconds until another regular follower, Dick Johnson, announced in an authoritative voice, “Well folks, you win a few, you lose a few, and a few get rained out.” This broke the ice, everyone laughed and applauded, and then everything got real quiet again for a few seconds. Dick yelled out this time “From here on out, it’s strictly up to your personality.” Everyone howled, the lights came back on, and John and I finished the song. I will talk about the Nexus in a related story later in this chapter. Fred Foth was just a plain ol’ good guy. He liked everyone and everyone liked Fred.
A huge thanks to “Announcer” Hal Bates. He was an announcer at KIST Radio in Santa Barbara. He was very supportive of all musicians, must have been cloned, seemed to be everyplace! He was a good piano player also, all piano bars invited him to play if he happened to walk in. Hal was not a disc jockey. He would tell you, “I am an announcer and commentator.” Almost all the music he played on the air was folk music. He would comment on each one, which made it more interesting. His was a morning show and he would always talk about the local clubs he had visited the night before, always complimentary, and he mentioned the local groups and each member by name.
You were always welcome in Hal’s studio. His only rule—“do not talk while the mic is live”—but he would do an impromptu interview with you if he felt inclined. The announcers and DJ’s in those days selected their music themselves. It was not canned in some boardroom on the East Coast, based on surveys. This way Hal was able to play what we, the locals, wanted to hear. The scene would have happened in Santa Barbara as it did all over the country, but we were fortunate at that time to have Hal Bates. He helped all of us through his enthusiasm. Hal is no longer with us, but I am sure he is still watching over us and smiling, as always. A special thank you, Hal.
John and I played a lot of different venues in Santa Barbara, among them a club called “Gatsby’s,” a place for eclectic music. We played clubs in Lompoc and Santa Maria and a couple of different clubs in Ventura. The closest we ever came to fame was the time we went to audition for Randy Sparks at Ledbetters Store. That was the name of his club in Westwood, near UCLA. By this time, he had brought in Barry McGuire to head up his New Christy Minstrels and he, Randy, was minding the store. Unfortunately, we did not get an audition, BUT, he did treat us to dinner, drinks, and a free show! That night we saw The Back Porch Majority, the back-up, second string for the Minstrels to replace members as they went on as soloists or to move on to other groups. We also saw Kenny Rogers as a soloist. He was probably auditioning for the Minstrels because he did become a member before moving on to The First Edition. Randy is another one of the “nice guys.” He is still performing with the Minstrels, with original members Clarence Treat and Barry McGuire. I saw them here in Vancouver, Washington, in 2004. They were still terrific.
Things are starting to get a little “fuzzy” in my mind here…. Sometime between 1965 and 1967, John and I were not performing together. Neither one of us remembers just why. Todd Grant and Phil Pritchard of The Terrytown Trio lost their third member, so we got together for a short time. We couldn’t come up with a clever name for the group, so we called ourselves simply “The New Group.” We had the same philosophy…let’s have some fun!!! And that we did. One Saturday night while performing at the Nexus, the Kingston Trio walked in. They had performed the previous night at the Santa Barbara Bowl amphitheater and had stayed in town for the road races at the Santa Barbara Airport on Saturday. [Yes, they had road races at the SB Airport in the early 1960s!-PF] Nick Reynolds drove in the race that day and was sporting a “fat lip” because he had crashed. Both Nick and John Stewart came up on stage with us, and together we sang about 40 verses of “Little Maggie.” Some verses were repeated, of course. John Stewart played my banjo, so I was real pleased and proud of that! Bob Shane sat at one of the tables in the back of the room with a few local fans and socialized. We all had a great time.
A couple of weeks later, at about mid-night on a Saturday night, Lynn and I had just gone to bed and the phone rang. Lynn answered, and this baritone voice said, “This is John Stewart, is Howard there?” Lynn couldn’t believe it…she handed me the phone, and John wanted to know if there was a party going on anywhere. He had stopped in at the Nexus and they gave him my home phone number. You can imagine how I felt when I had to turn him down. I didn’t know of a party anywhere, and we didn’t have a drop of “adult beverage” in the house. In those days we bought our “supplies” on an as-needed basis. That was the last time I heard from John Stewart ……hmmm.
By this time, Fred Foth had sold the Nexus to two guys who were stationed at Vandenberg, and they were in the process of mustering out, or whatever it is called when they are leaving the service. The crowds were becoming unruly, exceptionally loud, and it was becoming difficult to “gig” there because of it. Business was falling off, as people were not happy with the noise or the poor service. One night Todd, Phil, and I were playing, and we walked off stage in the middle of the second set because the people at the table at front and center stage were so loud and wild no one could hear us. Normally we would just play louder, but that night that was not possible. One of the owners then said to us, “I don’t care if there is a gang fight going on, DON’T STOP PLAYING!” We stopped, gathered our instruments, and walked out. That was our last gig at the Nexus.
The new owners changed the format to rock music, but that didn’t work out because there was no place to dance. Some time after that, early one Sunday morning, the Nexus burned to the ground. How fortunate for the owners that they had removed their newly purchased PA system that night before the fire began. [!!] They were able to use it at the new building they moved into across the street. They reopened as the Nexus, and went back then to the folk format. John and I played there a few times and had decent-sized crowds, but by this time the folk scene was waning. The Beatles were taking the country by storm. The Dave Clarke Five, The Byrds, Herman’s Hermits, and who could forget The Monkees? Sour grapes? Perhaps, but these people were having fun, making people happy just as we did. Of course, they were making the big bucks! But the money is not what we were in this for anyway, we just loved playing and singing! As Bob Hope once said, “We wouldn’t have had anything to eat if it wasn’t for the stuff the audience threw at us.” I will always remember the John Thomas quote, “I would rather we be big fish in a small pond than small fish in a big pond.” I have used that quote many times over the years. Thank you, John.
On with the story…..
The guys at the Nexus went back to the rock and roll format again, and when that didn’t work out they switched to topless dancers, lost the college crowd and attracted a much different customer base. Within a short time, the doors were closed. A couple of students at UCSB bought the place then and installed a very high chainlink fence around part of the parking lot, filling it with sand for volleyball. They had access to the tavern so the Coors could be taken outside. They got their college crowd back, along with a lot of locals. It was very successful. I don’t remember if they kept the Nexus name or not. Congratulations to them, but that was the end of the Nexus as we knew it. John, Ernie Brooks, and I were still playing, but only for private functions. The last time the three of us performed together was for a Sheriff’s Office picnic at Refugio State Park, north of Santa Barbara. We usually shook hands after a performance, congratulating ourselves for a job well done, and would say “See ya later.” Well guys, “later” is here now, and hopefully we can reunite soon, along with many others. Now, I’m not referring to the “hereafter,” I am talking about the “here and now.”
In 1969 I moved my family to the Northwest. Specifically, Tigard, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, to work for my brother-in-law, framing apartment houses. The area was booming and property was very reasonable. In 1972 we moved across the Columbia River into Vancouver, Washington, and have been here in this general area ever since.
Getting back to it….
When I first arrived here I was so homesick for the musicians I knew in Santa Barbara. I made the rounds to all the music stores, taverns, and bars looking for anyone who knew this music and could play it! There just didn’t seem to be anyone who could do it right. I did meet a few people and we would get together to jam. There are some fine musicians here, but it was not the same. They just didn’t know the music. The first band I did put together here was a somewhat bluegrass band. I played a 12-string (Martin, of course), there were two guitars in the band and two-part harmony. There was a mandolin, a banjo, and a washtub bass. We were a sight to behold, but what fun we had!
I finally put together a band when Brian, our youngest son, turned 15 and our son Todd, who was 21, got together with three others and formed “The Generation Gap,” ages from 15 to 45 years, I being the eldest. Todd on drums; Brian on guitar and vocals; Dean Lutz, 15, on bass; Tim Sutherland, guitar, tenor vocal; Randy Dinehart, electric 12-string; and me, on banjo, guitar, and lead vocal. Our three-set show consisted of folk, first set; country music, second set; and ‘50s rock and roll with electric instruments, third set. Even when we slowed down performing as a group, I always enjoyed pickin’ and grinnin’ around the house with Brian and his friend Dean Lutz.
I have to boast here just a bit about my son, Brian, but it is all music related, you’ll see. While in high school, Brian was always active in band. He was first-chair trumpet all four years. He was often asked to arrange music for the band, and one event comes to mind that I will never forget. When the movie “E.T.” came out, Brian had the music score album. He asked the band teacher if he could get the music for the high school band to learn and perform at a concert. The band teacher requisitioned that sheet music, but the arrangement did not have all of the parts in it, since it was a simpler version for high school band. Brian, from listening to that record over and over, wrote out the music for each missing instrument in the band, and additional musicians were brought in to perform it in concert. The audience gave a standing ovation for a solid minute at the end of the concert! In his senior year, he received “Most Outstanding Musician of the Year” award. He had a nice plaque to bring home and one for the school for posterity. His mom and I aren’t too proud! After that he went to the University of Washington, and played in the Husky Marching Band when they went to the Orange Bowl in Florida in 1985. After earning a degree in Communications, Brian became a news editor for Channel 8 television in Portland, Oregon. Today, he is the band leader for the highest profile 12-piece show band in Portland, 5 Guys Named Moe. And, of course, he is performing with me playing the music that his ears were first exposed to as a child—folk music! At the age of 12, he and his childhood friend, Dean Lutz, started listening to “The Kingston Trio – College Concert” album, and in no time they were singing “This Little Light of Mine” while playing banjo and guitar! Dean has recently told me that those childhood years of playing folk music with Brian and me are some of the best times of his life…funny the effect of this music, huh? Okay, is anyone still awake? I’m all done with the boasting….
By this time, Lynn and I were both real estate agents for a company called “The Stellar Group.” The administration supervisor, Ray Dowdy, and his wife were at our home for dinner one night and we started talking about music. Well, guess what? Ray is a dyed-in-the-wool Kingston Trio fan, knew all their music, played guitar, had a real passion for their sound, and had a good voice. He is a music major and had taught music in his previous life. SOOO, here we go! Brian, Ray, and I got together to see what would happen. It did! We played for fun at first, playing all the company parties. One of our agents said, “Hey, you guys are the Stellar Fellars.” The name stuck, and here we are fifteen years later and still going strong! We hire a bass player now; we get the best the Portland area has to offer because they love playing this music. We use several because they all teach or play professionally and are not always available when we need one.
Like all you guys, we played too many venues to count over the years, but a few good times always come to mind. One club, the Dublin Pub, in Portland, has a dinner show on weekends from 6:30 to 8:30. Then at 9:00 a dance band takes the stage. This was a good venue. The owners would bring in the Limeliters and the Kingston Trio at least once a year, when they were still touring. The owners called to ask us to open for the Trio one weekend; we did twelve songs in that opening act and not one of them was a Kingston Trio song. Later, I was talking to Nick Reynolds after their show, and he thanked us for that. He said the opening act for them the previous night did nine of the songs that they were going to do, so they dropped them and substituted others.
R.P. McMurphy’s in Vancouver, Washington, was our “home base” for many years. We played the second Saturday of each month from 1990 through 1995. The house was reserved out each time we played, with standing-room only. The people were so hungry for this kind of music! Over and over we heard, “We haven’t heard this in years,” and everyone in the audience was singing along with us. We were gratified, to say the least. Here we are, making people happy and still having fun.
Lynn and I are living on the banks of the Washougal River in Washington State, 25 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, and most of our family is near. Our wonderful daughter, Marlene, is a kindergarten teacher in Vancouver. Brian and his wife, Sandy, live in Vancouver, and he is now a business partner of ours in the real estate business. Our oldest son, Todd, is “doing his thing” elsewhere. We are proud to have seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I have often thought, “If only I had done things differently (missed opportunities and such), I might be better off.” The fact is, if any one thing would have been different, my life would not be what it is today—and I like it the way it is! Musically, from day one to the present, it has been a great ride, especially the Santa Barbara folk scene from early to mid ‘60s. It was special. I will remember always the great friendships and the great music.
“Those were the days, my friends….”
Thanks to all of you.