Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Introducing The Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Not as severely marginalized as the history of local literary artists, but perhaps better known than our jazz and visual artists, are our rock and roll, blues, and rhythm & blues artists from the past. In order to remember and preserve their contribution to our current cultural environment, a Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been established.

Rock n’ roll fever caught on in the Wilmington area at a time when it caught on in the rest of the United States. Nationally, much of the new music was proliferated by a plethora of independent music labels, like Sun Records where Elvis got his start, Specialty which recorded Little Richard, and Chess which recorded Chuck Berry. According to local rock n’ roll record collector Michael Ace, in Wilmington at least two new labels were founded. One was ABS Records, which recorded a couple 45 rpm’s that are highly valued by collectors today. One of those was “Little Boy Bop” by Ralph Prescott, and “Miss Mary” by Bobby Lee. Another local independent label was Dandy, which a little later in the 50s recorded a couple of Buddy Holly cover tunes by Pat Patterson, who later went on to be a popular disc jockey on Wilmington radio station WAMS. Another local label, Ritchie, was founded in 1959 by Vinnie Rago. It’s earliest recording was with a band called Frankie and the C-Notes. Ritchie Records would have a number of close calls and near misses with national notoriety in the 1960s.

Only one recording artist from Delaware had a nationally charted hit in the 1950s, and that was Billy Graves with a tune called “The Shag (is Totally Cool).” It was a hit in early 1959 on the Monument label. Other than having once appeared on Jimmy Dean’s television show, Billy Graves’ whereabouts is unknown.

Wilmington teenage fans also contributed to rock n’ roll history. The new music’s first group dance, the Stroll, was invented in Wilmington by the kids who danced on local radio and television personality Mitch Thomas’s Saturday afternoon dance show on WVUE channel 12.

The Stroll was first danced to Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk.” Later Chuck Willis’ “C. C. Rider” provided the music. After the kids on American Bandstand started doing the Stroll on national television, the Diamonds had a big hit with the song, “The Stroll,” and Dick Clark did the right thing by publicly crediting the kids on Mitch Thomas’ dance show in Wilmington for coming up with the dance.

Another local connection to American Bandstand was Bob Clayton, then a student at P.S. duPont High School. Every day, right after classes, he’d hop in his car and high tail it to Philadelphia to dance with regular Justine Carrelli. The couple were a big hit with national fans, got write-ups in national teen magazines, and even had a national fan club. But when Bob & Justine recorded their own record in the late 50s, “Drive In Movie,” they got kicked off Bandstand. Except for some spins on local radio, the record failed and both eventually left to lead separate lives.

By the 1960s local rock n’ roll enthusiasts were building a little momentum, thanks largely to success from Vinnie Rago’s Ritchie label and its companion, Universal. Ritchie mainly accommodated the doo wop side of the rock n’ roll sub-genre, while Universal recorded flat-out rock n’ roll or rockabilly, like the Recorders’ “Rock Around the Rosie”, which was written by Rago. Another Universal recordings was “Office Girl” by Ronnie Worth, whose day job was as an accountant in Wilmington. Andy & the Gigolos recorded a song for a new dance called “The Bug” on Ritchie. Rago’s greatest success was with a doo wop group called Teddy and the Continentals, who had a national hit –– on the Bubbling Under chart –– with “Ev’rybody Pony,” which hit #101 in September 1961, but the flip side “Tick Tick Tock” is the side most aficionados prefer.

Teddy & the Continentals.
Teddy Henry on lower right.

Teddy Henry, the lead singer of the Continentals was a student at Conrad High School at the time, and recorded two more records with the Continentals, but by 1964 the Continentals broke up and he recorded a final solo record on Ritchie in 1965 as Teddy Continental. Like a number of other local recording artists to follow, his records are still valued by collectors and have garnered cult status in unlikely places.

Another near national success was a band called the Adapters with lead singer and songwriter Ed Sterling. In 1965 they recorded a tune on the Ritchie label, “Believe Me,” which charted high on the local WAMS list of hits. The Adapters achieved some national fame. According to local rock n’ roll historian Hangnail Phillips in the recent book, Histories of Newark, 1758 - 2008, the Adapters toured the east coast concert circuit with such known acts as Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Freddie & the Dreamers and the Soul Survivors. Also, according to the same Hangnail Phillips article, another local band flirted with national notoriety. The band was the Fabulous Pharaohs and they got good enough to make a national appearance on the Pat Boone Show.
The Adaptors

Two other local record producers in Wilmington were Effers Bethea and James Chavis. Bethea's greatest success was the Dynamic Concepts, which was a combination of two previous local groups; the instrumental group, The Dynamics, with the vocal group, The Concepts. Their biggest hit was "The Funky Chicken." Bethea also produced a local label called Hip City. One of the groups that recorded on Hip City was the Overtones with their tune "The Gleam in Your Eye."

Lesser known was the Chavis label. Many of their recordings tended to be gospel tinged, but The Spidels had a popular recording with "Like A Bee."

As far as we know, none of these local record companies had local offices or studios. Early recordings were made at 20th Century Records or Virtue Recording in Philadelphia. Later on, many recordings, particularly those produced by Effers Bethea, were made at Ken Del Studios at 5th & Shipley Streets in Wilmington.
The Dynamic Concepts

A number of local recording artists who made a national name for themselves in the 1970s and beyond, actually learned their chops in the 1960s. One whose beginnings actually go back to the late 1950s was “Papa” Dee Allen. Papa Dee was originally a member of local jazz great Lem Winchester’s Modernists. After Winchester died prematurely in 1961, the Modernist tried to continue, but without their stellar front man they soon fell apart. Papa Dee continued for a while performing at Wilmington’s early 60s folk music clubs playing bongos and other assorted percussion instruments, but when that proved fruitless he gravitated to the west coast and joined the rock fusion band WAR. He remained with them and was the percussionist on all their recordings including the ones with ex-Animals singer Eric Burdon.A major local contribution to national rock history in the mid to late 1970s came from a number of youngsters who attended local high schools in the late 60s. One was Richard Meyers, who went to Sanford Academy, another was Tom Miller who attended McKean High School and a third was Billy Ficca who went to A.I. duPont. As Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, they and Billy Ficca took off to New York City and became pioneers in the New York punk rock music scene. Performing at CBGBs in lower Manhattan with bands like the Ramones, Blondie and artists like Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, their band Television helped forged a new genre of American rock n’ roll music. Other punk bands with which the three would perform were the Neon Boys and the Voidoids. Richard Hell also appeared in motion pictures, most notably Desperately Seeking Susan, which stared Madonna.

The biggest success story for a local rock musician is George Thorogood. Thorogood attended Brandywine High School and began his career locally doing gigs at local night spots. For a while, in the mid 1970s he performed at a regular New Year’s Eve bash at Newark’s Deer Park Tavern. In 1978 he signed with Rounder Records, which produced his first hit album, Move It On Over in 1978, and in late 1979 MCA Records released an album of songs Thorogood recorded in 1974 entitled Better Than The Rest. In 1982 he recorded Bad To The Bone on EMI America vinyl. Super Stardom was next!

The Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website is only a beginning. New pages will continue to be added as new material is uncovered. It is our firm hope that, while the Hall exists in virtual space, it will make the leap into actual space; in a place where people can visit and experience first hand the music that was the soundtrack of our lives.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Robert Bohm’s India: Whatever’s right in front of you

What the Bird Tattoo Hides: Selections from the Vijaynagar Notebooks (1974-2012)
by Robert Bohm

    Artfully crafted and off the chain, Robert Bohm’s What the Bird Tattoo Hides (West End Press, 2014) is an exemplary achievement in poetry. Blending poetry with short histories and vignettes, Bohm explores his 45 years of partial residence in the village of Vijaynagar, India, his wife Suman’s family home.

  Robert Bohm will be featured alongside Kito Shani and Franetta McMillian in the Dreamstreets Downtown Poetry Reading at the Chris White Gallery, 8th & Shipley Streets, October 18, 2014 at 3 p.m.

   Bohm strives to avoid “succumbing to the traditional western search for the ‘real’ India,” as “[t]here is no ‘real’ India,” he asserts. “Just India. Whatever’s right in front of you” (“Whatever’s right in front of you” 79).  What Bohm puts in front of us are villagers, family members, rivers, temples, rainstorms, bus rides, suicide wells, miserable work, indigenous dancers, bougainvillea, vomit, birth, struggle, murder, outrages of caste, and parallels with the Viet Nam war, American racism, and the 21st-century banking collapse. Throughout, Bohm struggles against the gap between the white man’s gaze and true solidarity.

    That struggle took its most significant turn in 1967 when Robert Bohm met Suman Kirloskar while she was working at the U.S. Army 225th Station Hospital in Munich, Germany where he was stationed. From the outset, she disabused him of any notions that Indians were all Hindu philosophy. She was caustic, earthy, and just impetuous enough to marry Bohm six months later and then introduce him to Vijaynagar. She was his greatest interpreter and critic in India and was his chief political collaborator when I first met the two of them in Delaware back in the 80s. They were a formidable team, quick to fault local activists for liberal and white-skin myopia. Suman went to work for GM where she was elected to high union office as a reformer. In addition to his political work, Bob often shared his sometimes abrasive and trenchant poetry at 2nd Saturday Poets readings and in Dreamstreets magazine. I followed his poetry somewhat desultorily, I must confess. Now I know that all the while, Bohm has been doing what I admire most in art.

   Not that what’s in front of him backgrounds everything in favor of politics. In “Generations,” for example, Bohm uses evocative and even erotic images to recount how the Bhil indigenous women, whose forbearers had left forest dwelling,

                                    danced rowdily at night
in their colony
on Belgaum’s outskirts
While a long-unseen uncle tended

cremation fires up north in Varanasi and the moon
its face flush with lust
groaned while spying on the earth’s naked belly. (45)

   In other poems such evocative images draw Bohm to declarations of solidarity. “Mandovi River, Panaji” posits images whose subtext is memories of empire. The river subtly conveys these memories to Bohm:

Laving its banks, the river, penetrating soil, seeps
mind-like toward roots almost, but not quite,
too slender to find.
The water’s rhythm takes me to where they are. (14)

What the river passes by are the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where St. Xaviar’s dust is resting (an artifact of Portuguese rule), a “barge loaded with ore from Marpusa”s iron mines,” “plantation laborers [who] trudge to work at dawn,” and the memory of a woman whose eyelids the Portuguese cut off to force her to watch them dismember her son. Says Bohm, accepting the challenge of solidarity, “She’s the queen of sight. / I’m her legacy” (13).

     Bohm is quite aware of the violence inherent in a struggle against violence, but, in “Concentric moments,” he seems to wonder how far he can go:

From random flailings to more focused acts, I rise, transcending redemption.
Or do I?
Did I really volunteer to go beyond the outmoded maps? (73)

    We become attached to many of the personalities over the five decades reflected in this poignant volume and, like Bohm, feel closer to their struggles. The fourth section, “Comings & Goings,” contains several tributes to the passing of a few. “Meeda Mama Dead” is a lovely memorial to a Dalit (untouchable) basket weaver, his home, his family, and to his first wife, who leapt into a well:

he wove her disappearance
into each basket he made so when
you lugged fruits or vegetables in it

you always carried an additional weight:

her body sinking in water. (129)

A bauxite rock Bohm has taken from the area suggests that dead weight and what we accumulate in life:

                        As with the rock

We all are
the matter we are made of, this
aging flesh, this body

of evidence: pitted surfaces, traces
of old chemical reactions, one
crust built upon another, nothing, no matter

how much we might try, completely

left behind. (130)

    The title poem, “What the bird tattoo hides,” refers to tattoos worn at the eye’s outer edge by Bhil women (remember the dancers and the aroused moon?). Here the eroticism is made more ambivalent and the cheeky flirtatiousness a companion to taking justice into one’s own hands and to solidarity. The aging Bhil beauty Godkari

            slices open
a stolen jackfruit, seeking
truth’s taste.

The blade she uses is just rusted enough
to cut to the chase.

Although she doesn’t know you, she’ll give you a piece.
She always shares what she takes. (148)

    These poems reflect well-tuned antennae and expert craft. But they do more. They shatter the fetishism of the physical world as innate spirit that so many New Agers and tourists of India espouse; instead, they articulate the human social relations that give that world its spirit. In “Mumbai om shanti who the fuck wants to pray anyway” Bohm pulls the legs out from under the airy-eyed: “Carrying the history / of philosophy / in a burlap bag hanging / from his neck / a legless man / maneuvers along / the sidewalk on / a wooden tray / with wheels.” He continues offering a few more disagreeable delicacies and concludes with “This isn’t / a scene / seen best from / 2 sides / or even / from all sides but rather / one seen best / without any type / of eyes at all, being / as they are / always / in the way.” Eat Pray Love this ain’t.

    “Mother River,” the farewell poem, is a wonderful prayer that sums up Bohm’s quest to breach privilege and live in solidarity (Narmada=one of India’s five holy rivers; mai=mother):

Narmada Mai
teach us to undam water so we can learn how
to free the heart and drive out
those who make our bodies labor miserably
let your high tides guide us, give us what
rising waters have: the power to breach walls, then cities. (158)

Such a quest reminds me of Martin Buber’s injunction to see the “other” as a “thou,” not as an object of use, colored by privilege, but as a co-equal “I.”  But Bohm goes further. Once we see who and what’s really in front of us, we must act.