Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ROCKIN' with roadie Charlie Kelly and Yogi Phlegm (aka The Sons of Champlin)

(above) The Sons of Champlin's road crew, truck, equipment, and PA
(above) Yogi Phlegm in 1970, better known as The Sons of Champlin
(above) an earlier promo shot of the Sons, probably 1968 or 69
(above) the plate from their last truck

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I made it out from New Jersey in the Fall of 1969 to begin my freshman year at Stanford. I was in the first true coed dorm there on campus, Florence-Moore Hall, known as Flo-Mo. There I would encounter the music of the Grateful Dead and many more Bay Area-bands. . . including the Sons of Champlin.
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The Sons were led by vocalist Bill Champlin (perhaps better known--certainly in recent years--for his work with Chicago). In Flo-Mo, their album "Loosen Up Naturally" was played often. I remember one song in particular, that began, "why don't you . . . open the door," and in the midst of many a late night stony session, that was cause for much merriment. Ah, the strange things you remember about your first year in college.
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The Sons were a brass and organ-driven band, unusual for the Bay Area (most of the Bay Area bands were guitar-driven), and actually all of the Sons were more accomplished musicians (in the beginning) than the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother (with Janis Joplin), or Quicksilver Messenger Service.
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But they never quite caught on nationwide, despite being, to this very day, revered in their home territory, much like the Ides of March in Chicagoland (see earlier blog).
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In 1970 - 71, they went through some internal changes, reforming briefly as Yogi Phlegm, a name that promoter Bill Graham absolutely hated, and literally refused to book them under that name, despite their playing the closing of his legendary venue the Fillmore West during the summer of 1971 (they are credited on the "Closing of the Fillmore" album as The Sons of Champlin).
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Charlie Kelly was the Sons' main roadie--in the great tradition of Marin County rock band roadies. He has vastly amusing stories on his website, http://www.sonic.net/~ckelly/Seekay/yogi_phlegm.htm, including many (a few reproduced below, with a nod of thanks to Charlie) about trucking the band's equipment and P.A. The small photo of him and a Sons truck was taken outside Black's Butte, near Redding, probably in the mid-1970s.
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I apologize if Charlie's stories are a little bit out of sequence, but you'll fdefinitely get the flavor of what it was like to be a true 'quippie in the "good ol' days of homegrown classic rock."
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STORY SEQUENCE ONE:
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"From 1968, when I joined up with the Sons, to 1972, poverty was the principal state. This wasn't too hard on me, because I was a bachelor and could sleep standing up in the rain. Bill Champlin was the only family man, and he was always under pressure to provide his family with the minimum standard of living. Bill always had a decent rental house, and probably spent more on rent than the rest of the band put together. Even though the necessity of this arrangement was obvious, the two standards of living separated Bill from the other guys in a subtle fashion. None of the other guys had kids, and their wives/girlfriends had jobs. Terry could sleep anywhere. And did.
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"For me, the relative poverty translated into the minimum amount of truck it took to deliver the equipment. When Tooth (Steve Tobin, also aka Steve Tollestrup) and I blew up Bill Champlin's Econoline in 1969 (hey, Tooth was driving), we [resorted to using] the Quicksilver Messenger Service's truck for a while, because they weren't getting along and weren't playing any gigs.
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"By the time we used up the Quicksilver favor, Tooth had already quit, so [Sons' manager] Fred Roth hired a reasonably professional roadie, Gary Jackson, who had handled gear for the all-girl Ace of Cups. Gary was hired more for the fact that he owned a van than for any other reason, and he wasn't much into the family aspect of the Sons.
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"When we were getting ready for the two month tour that finished off 1969, Gary saw the writing on the wall: two months of hard living for not much money with a bunch of guys he regarded as marginally crazy and a partner who didn't give a shit about money. He quit, and was replaced by "Hog" Steve (Rhodes), our old friend from the Hog Farm, my third roadie partner in a year and a half.
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"Steve and I turned out to be completely compatible. He knew it was an adventure, and that comfort was not required, and he was the only guy I worked with whose stamina matched my own. We never argued over a thing.
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"We desperately needed a truck for our tour, one that was big enough to hold all of our gear plus a P.A. system. We didn't have the money, so Fred Roth and Julie Salles [the Sons' then Office Manager] went to see Bill Graham. In his office they asked him point blank if he would buy the band a truck.
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"According to Julie, Graham exploded. He went on for some time, and when he stopped, Fred and Julie were still waiting for a truck. Finally, in opposition to every commercial principle he had, Graham said he'd co-sign a loan so we could get a truck.
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"It was really the minimum truck we needed, a Ford one-ton, and it was the no-option package with a wimpy engine and a cheesy box. It had a lift-gate, which we considered essential for loading the Hammond B-3 organ, but when the lift died about three weeks after we got the truck, Hog and I had to pick the organ up to chest height to put it in the truck.
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"By the time the band broke up in 1970, the Ford was trashed. We drove it back to Graham's offices, and gave him the keys.
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"I took a job as sound man at The Lion's Share, a nightclub in San Anselmo where various groupings of the Sons and their friends played just about every Sunday night under several names, such as the Nubugaloo Express. I always roadied for them, and I doubt if they ever looked farther than me when it came time to move some equipment.
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"In late 1970, Bill Champlin decided that he was going to move to Santa Cruz, and start a band called the Rhythm Dukes with his friend Jerry Miller, formerly of Moby Grape, and John Barrett and "Fuzzy" John Oxendine. The latter two had been in a band called Boogie that had practiced at the Heliport, and Fuzzy had been the second drummer in the Sons for one awful month.
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"The first Rhythm Dukes gig took place before Bill had even moved down to Santa Cruz, and there was this little problem of getting the Hammond down there, about 100 miles. I knew a girl with a pickup truck, and I asked her if she wanted to go to Santa Cruz for the weekend with me. Oh yeah, do you mind if I throw a Hammond, Leslie and a Twin Reverb in the truck? Oh, did I mention we're driving your truck?
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"We got the stuff down there, and after a day or so, the girl started to get the feeling that I was more interested in her truck than in her. Maybe I said something, I don't know. She took off in a huff and drove home, leaving me in Santa Cruz with all this equipment that had to be brought back to Marin. I had to practically hitchhike back with it. I had my bicycle with me, so combed the area, asking about anyone who might be heading north, and I finally found some hippies who dug the band and had a VW bus headed up the coast. We loaded the gear and got it home.
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"When the Rhythm Dukes phase was over, Bill moved back to Marin and the band reformed as Yogi Phlegm. The name came from a fictional Indian mystic who was always being quoted as the guru of weirdness. Bob Cain had invented him while we were all in a restaurant one evening, and he became symbolic of new-age nebulous philosophy.
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"The real reason that the band changed the name was that the Sons of Champlin had been a brotherhood, and when Bill decided that he wanted to play with a different bass player and drummer, the problem arose: is the Sons this specific group, or does someone own the name and have the right to apply it anywhere? Rather than hassle about it, it was easier to get a couple of new guys and call the band something else. Of course, there were probably better choices than Yogi Phlegm, but the name had a lot in common with the music.
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"Yogi Phlegm was Bill, Terry [Haggerty], Geoffrey, and bassist Dave Schallock and drummer Bill Vitt. Dave Schallock had been in Bill's high school class, and along with Bruce Walford had been the unofficial producer of "Loosen Up Naturally." Yogi Phlegm never practiced, they just played gigs at the Lion's Share. They didn't really have material. Bill would name a key, count to four, and they would play something. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, and when it didn't, people left.
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"One memorable night, they emptied the Lion's Share except for one guy leaning against the bar grooving his butt off, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. That was probably the low point, and from that point they started to once again build a repertoire.
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"Things started to turn around when Bill Graham started putting together the "Last Days of the Fillmore" show in 1971. By this time the guys had finally put together a few tunes, but even though they referred to themselves as Yogi Phlegm, Bill Graham hated the name. On the posters for the gig there was a subtitle, (Sons of Champlin) and on the record album that was later released from the concert, the one tune ("Papa Can Play") was credited to the Sons of Champlin.
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"Of course we didn't have anything like an equipment truck for the last days of the Fillmore. I can still remember the look on the Quicksilver roadies' faces when I drove the equipment up to the back door of the Fillmore in a borrowed 1951 Chevy flatbed that looked like it might have flunked the Mexican safety inspection.I came up with what turned out to be a pretty good idea, although it didn't look that good when I had it. It looked more like desperation.
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"I had met this fellow at a Fillmore show, a roadie for a group called Rock City from Ohio. We had kept in touch, and I knew he had an old Pepperidge Farms delivery truck. What the hell, I wrote him a letter, two sentences, which I can still quote from memory. "If you want a job, come out to California. Bring your truck, your dog, and some rolling papers." And on the basis of a short letter from a guy he had met one time, Tony Black left Ohio for what turned out to be the rest of his life. (So far at least.)
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"Tony got as far as Reno before he ran out of money, so he called me and Julie, and we found fifty dollars to wire to him and get him the rest of the way. Tony arrived with Rosie, his dog, and eventually shared the little rental house behind the Church with me. Although we needed another roadie, a truck was a lot harder item to find than a guy, so it was more the vehicle than his abilities that got him the job. Sorry, Tony. But who CARES how you get where you get?
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"Once Tony arrived, he was obviously part of the gang, because he had made a major commitment to be there, and you had to respect that. I know I wouldn't have moved 2000 miles with everything I owned on the basis of two sentences from a guy I barely knew.
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"[Tony's] truck was no great deal. It had limited seating, and the third occupant had to ride on top of the engine cowling with his back to the windshield. The rear door was tiny, more suited to a guy stepping in and out with loaves of bread than a B-3. It had no gas gauge, so we kept a full gas can handy, because when it ran out, you had to jump right into the drill of getting some fuel into it. Fortunately, the fuel filler was at the bottom of the step by the passenger door, so you could reach it from inside the truck. One time it ran out on the Golden Gate Bridge, and we got it refueled before it even stopped rolling.
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"One other adventure in Tony's truck stands out. We had done a gig in Santa Cruz, and at about 3 a.m. we were headed up I-280 for home when we blew a tire. Damn, no spare, and on the big truck it took equipment we didn't have to change a tire. If you can't change the tire, what good is a spare anyway?
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"Complicating the picture was the presence of Steve, who caught a ride to the gig with us and had ingested LSD earlier in the evening. He was no problem as long as the truck was rolling, but when we pulled to the side of the road, the truck rocked from the air blast of every car passing us a few feet away. It was not a comfortable situation, and Steve started getting very anxious. "I can't take this." Like, what exactly are the options here?
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"Just then a car pulled up , and it was several members of the band, asking what our problem was. "Steve is our problem. Take him, with you." So we got rid of Steve, which improved the situation only slightly. We were still stuck on the side of a freeway in the middle of the night with a flat tire and no money. We caught whatever sleep was possible, sacked out on top of the equipment, and when the sun came up, we staggered out to deal with the situation.
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"A Highway Patrol car pulled up to see what was up. Well officer, we have this flat tire. Can you help us? It turned out that Highway Patrol officers don't do tires The tire was our problem. He just didn't want us to be there. Well, gosh.
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"We ended up hanging out there most of the day. I finally walked a mile or so to an exit, found a house where a woman didn't want to open the door, and asked her to call the CHP for us. Another officer arrived, and in the absence of any other possibility, allowed us to contact a tire shop through his radio patched into a phone.
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"The absence of any money was still a problem, so we somehow got Julie, now back in San Anselmo, to contact the tire store. I have no idea what means of persuasion she used, but they actually advanced us the $50 tire and came out to put it on. We really did pay them, too.
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"It takes a few seconds to tell about all this, but it was about twelve hours out there on the freeway, a long day, and there was no coffee shop handy.
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"Tony's truck got us through a critical phase, late 1971 to early 1972, but it was rapidly approaching the condition of toast. Good thing a new phase was opening up, the Wally Haas years.
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"As 1971 turned into 1972, hope appeared on the horizon in the form of Wally Haas. The scion of a prominent San Francisco family whose wealth goes back to the founder of the Levi Strauss company during the Gold Rush, Wally had money, was a devoted fan of the band, and felt that what they needed was a manager and some decent equipment. He said he could provide both, and with no one else lining up for the job, the Sons took him up on the offer.
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STORY SEQUENCE TWO:
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"Bill's Econoline blew up early in 1969. It had been knocking really bad for a few days, because it had run low on oil. The motor was under a cowling that was in the middle of the cab. It wasn't meant to be the pasenger seat, but it was for whoever lost the toss, if there were three in the vehicle. A long trip was torture for the loser, because that sucker got hot.
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STORY SEQUENCE THREE:
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"Whenever there wasn't a passenger in the truck, we had coats, food, whatever else you might find in a truck that we just about lived in, stacked on the motor cover. The amplifiers and instruments were jammed up against the back of the cover. Checking the oil was a bitch, so we never did it, and with a truck as beat up as that one it may have been a good idea to monitor oil usage. Somehow, the truck had never let us completely down.
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"The time when the fanbelt broke, we had enough momentum to coast into a gas station in Pismo Beach. The time when it got this big bubble in the front tire, Tooth had punctured the bubble with his pocketknife, and since the tire still seemed to hold air, we drove it 200 miles up the coast to Eureka and back. Despite bald tires, we never crashed it, and the time we got cited for the headlight being burned out we were right by a gas station outside Atascadero, and besides, that was where we met the guy from Chicken Little's Cosmic Farm and found out that King Kong died for our sins.
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"I drove that truck when I shouldn't have, in amazing weather conditions, in advanced states of fatigue, and if I had needed to stop it quickly for any reason we probably would have died, but I didn't and we didn't.
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"Of course, it was so dangerous to drive that we may have been trying subconsciously to get it off the road. We took it on that last trip to Sacramento, and it made so much noise that it was an open question whether we would get there. Loading out of the club, I remember the security clown looking at the pile of equipment next to the truck and laughing. "No way that all goes in there."
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"Of course we got it all in, then we went to a gas station and filled the crankcase with straight STP. It kept the noise down enough so we could talk over it. We had to choose between a slightly shorter route on a more deserted road, or the freeway and a little longer drive. Freeway it was, and it looked like we were going to make it. Tooth nursed the throttle, trying to maintain decent speed, without stressing what was left of the engine.
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"Just as we took the last bit of freeway into San Rafael, one mile to go, he got excited and stepped on it. Big mistake. We scattered the motor and a lot of lubricant along a hundred yards of Highway [101], and had to get it towed to my house.
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"Our good relationship with Quicksilver manager Ron Polte got us through the truckless era. We didn't have the kind of money it took to get a new truck, and our credit was... Our credit was... Credit? Quicksilver had a new truck, and Ron lent us their old truck, a Dodge van much heavier-duty than the old Econoline. One of my first acts was to rear-end a car on the way to a gig, and later I backed it into another car in a parking lot. I was not endearing myself to Ron or Fred Roth.
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"When Quicksilver was recording, we got the use of their new truck, an aluminum stepvan of the UPS style. It was noisy, cold, uncomfortable truck, but fortunately we only used it in the summer.
Then Tooth quit. It was hard for me to believe that he felt there were better personal opportunities for him in traveling to India, but that's where he and his girlfriend wanted to go, and he could hardly keep the job and go there.
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"We needed a roadie AND a truck, and we needed them pretty quick. Gary Jackson got the nod. He was a career roadie, who had worked most recently for the Ace of Cups. This Sons of Champlin family shit wasn't his thing, but he could drive forever, and he was a really big guy who had no trouble picking up his end of the organ. He even owned a set of organ dollies, an amazing luxury. He wanted a real salary, none of this communal business, and he cost the band a lot more than I did.
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"Gary and I did one long drive together, a sweep of the Northwest, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake and Boulder. We used a rental truck; actually we used one UP, and checked it in at Salt Lake City for another one. A little problem with the brakes caused by driving some distance with the parking brake on.
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"Outside of California it was more obvious that we had chosen to present ourselves a little differently from middle America. Driving through the hills outside Salt Lake City, Gary and I stopped at a pizza place. At the time both of us affected fringed leather jackets, with looong fringes, a foot or more off each arm and the back and front. Long hair, and I'm big, and Gary's much bigger at six-five and 240. When we went into the pizza place, the girl who took our order spoke for the first time to authentic, California hippies. She was so terrified she could hardly finish the transaction."
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Charlie lists the various guys "who shared the truck seat with me since 1968:"
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1968 - 1969: Steve "Tooth" Tobin
1969: Gary Jackson
1969: Paul Stubblebine
1969 - 1970: Steve "Hog" Rhodes
1971 - 1974: Tony Black
1972 - 1975: Howie Hammerman
1974 - 1977: Zero Nylin
1975 - 1977: Mark Deadman
1999 - 2002: Jeff Ocheltree
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I should also mention that Charlie is one of the great mountain bikers, a founding father of the movement so to speak, and there is much rich material on that aspect of his life on his website.
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Thanks, Charlie, for these great truckin' reminiscences. Here's hoping they'll also make it into a museum of rock exhibition someday, in Marin County no less--cause that's the plan in the works.
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Anonymous said...

omg talk about a fantastic blast from the past...Where is Fred Roth these days?

Great blog story

from an old hippie

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