Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Good News-Performance History 1966

(drummer Chris Herold, guitarist Tim Abbott and keyboardist Bob Stephens of The Good News, from Redwood City, CA, playing somewhere on the Peninsula in 1966-photo courtesy of Tim Abbott)

History is written by the winners, and hindsight is always 20/20, so rock history often falls into a tautology: since only famous bands are written about, rock history is shrunk to a tiny roster of famous bands. The reality is messier and way more interesting. The San Francisco Bay Area in 1966 was rightly remembered as a time of great creativity and musical experimentation, as the likes of Ken Kesey, Bill Graham, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead created the blueprint for the modern rock concert as we know it today. A closer examination of the time, however, shows that a lot of interesting things were going on.

In the course of my research, I was fortunate enough to learn some things about a hitherto obscure group called The Good News, from Redwood City, CA. The Good News played heavy Butterfield-style blues, had their own light show and played some hip venues, and some of their members went on to better known endeavors, but they have been all but lost to history up until now. The Good News were interesting and well ahead of their time, and an examination of some surviving evidence gives an interesting picture of bands on the rise in 1966, when the Bay Area was exciting and everything seemed possible.

Redwood City, CA
Redwood City is in San Mateo County, just a few miles North of Palo Alto, but still about 30 miles South of San Francisco. It's a nice little town, but back in the 60s it was just another suburb on the Bay, with no University to make it cool, yet still too far from the City to be hot. There were a few tiny venues in Redwood City, but most of the action, such as it was, could be found on El Camino Real, the main commercial strip that ran from Mission Boulevard in San Francisco to downtown San Jose, touching every town along the way. By day, the El Camino was a commercial district with stores and auto dealers, and at night it was the entertainment district in each of the little suburban communities. In 1965, many entertainers simply played up and down the El Camino. For example, in the Fall of 1965 a Palo Alto blues band called The Warlocks had a lot of bookings in and around El Camino Real.

As to indigenous Redwood City rock bands, however, they were few and far between. I do know of a folk-rock group called The Sit-Ins, but they seem to have been High School students. So far, the first group from Redwood City who played outside of the town that I have been able to discover has been The Good News. One eyewitness describes them as "a Butterfield-style band," which for the early 1966 suburbs is pretty surprising. David Nelson of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage described them as "a Redwood City blues band," which had to be a pretty short list. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band had only released their groundbreaking debut album on Elektra in October '65, showing that it was possible for white boys to play the blues, and it had an electrifying effect on musicians and audiences.

Good News lead guitarist Tim Abbott recalls
The Good News was a group that I joined in about 65 and split up in 66 or early 67 The group went through some changes in personnel over it's time together. It started with 
  • Chris Herold-drums, 
  • Dan Hess- Bass, 
  • Kinkade Miller- Keyboards, 
  • Tim Abbott- Lead Guitar and Vocals and 
  • Dave Torbert-Lead Vocals and Guitar.
After several months we got Bob Stephens in on Keyboards, Harmonica and Sax (he also did some  amazing Howlin Wolf style vocals) [Stephens replaced Miller]
The timeline fits nicely. The first Butterfield album came out in Fall '65, so it makes sense that it would inspire any just-formed band. The Good News lasted until about the end of 1966, although there seems to have been a few personnel changes at the very end.

Tim Abbott would go on to join the South Bay's finest, The Chocolate Watch Band. Dave Torbert (1948-82) is best known today as the bassist for The New Riders and Kingfish, and drummer Herold was also in Kingfish. Both Torbert and Herold left The Good News in late Summer 1966 to join the South Bay's other psychedelic blues band, The New Delhi River Band. The New Delhi River Band are a fascinating story in their own right. I am working on the definitive NDRB story (and it will be definitive) but it turns out that The Good News were a critical prequel.

 (The Good News perform at a debutante ball, with their strobe-light-ready clothing. The caption from  a forgotten newspaper says "Peninsula Deb Janet Laird, Steve Boyden dance to the Big Beat"--clipping courtesy Tim Abbott)

The Light Show
The Good News were playing some pretty serious blues by early 1966, making them ahead of the curve but not unique. What set them apart, however, was that they appear to have been the first Bay Area band to travel with their own light show. It was pretty simple, but remember that at the time there was no concept of "light shows" outside of a few underground Family Dog events in San Francisco. Almost none of the suburban teenagers who would have seen The Good News would have been to The Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City or a Family Dog dance at Longshoreman's Hall or The Trips Festival.

The Good News basically used a strobe light, which must have been quite a shock to teenagers used to conventional stage lighting. The Good News had special stage clothes that were embarrassingly colorful in true 60s style, but they were designed to look exciting when they jumped around under the strobe. It may seem corny now, but seeing flashing lights jumping around the stage while the band laid it down on "Got My Mojo Working" must have been a surprising moment, and however briefly shown the shape of things to come.

Tim Abbott very kindly sent me the clipping above (and the other visual materials), but he doesn't know where the photo was taken. It was common in the mid-60s at Debutante parties to have two bands, a big band for the adults to dance to and a rock band for the kids. The groups would usually alternate sets. Many famous Fillmore bands actually played Debutante parties, as the money was good and the girls were cute. Abbott recalls playing a Debutante event at San Francisco Airport (of all places) for Bob Weir's sister.

I wonder who Janet Laird and Steve Boyden were (the couple in the photo)? Were they just dancing together, or did they get married and have three kids? Maybe the Internet will work it's magic and they will write in.

Good News Performance Venues
The performance history of The Good News remains murky. Since the band did not go on to subsequent fame, few artifacts of their past remain preserved. Abbott, fortunately, does recall a few events, and it at least gives us a picture of the circuit that was available to aspiring bands. The Grateful Dead had graduated from the El Camino Real by the end of 1965, as their association with Ken Kesey led them to Owsley and then The Trips Festival. Other bands had to keep slugging it out.

(a flyer for The Good News performance at The Bold Knight in Sunnyvale, April 1, 1966-courtesy Tim Abbott)

The Bold Knight, 769 N. Matilda Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA
Abbott recalls "we used to play The Bold Knight a lot." The Bold Knight was in Sunnyvale, a few miles South of Palo Alto, nearer to San Jose (Redwood City was North of Palo Alto). Once a sleepy farm town, after World War 2 it was a booming suburb full of people working for Lockheed and other aerospace companies. It was garage band central, and the South Bay was full of great bands. The local radio station (KLIV-am 1590) liked to play local bands, so groups like The Chocolate Watch Band, The Syndicate Of Sound and The E-Types were making real money playing dances and concerts all over the area, even though the band members were barely out of high school (and in the case of The Syndicate Of Sound, still in High School).

Two Los Altos High School graduates, Mike McCluney and Terry Nininger, leased the banquet room of a restaurant in a shopping mall and put on rock concerts. These were mostly directed at kids under 21, although unlike some parts of the Bay Area older patrons were not excluded. The banquet room could fit up to 1000, so it was  relatively substantial place. The Bold Knight put on about one show a week on Friday or Saturday, occasionally both, so it was a regular venue without being full time. With a huge audience of mobile South Bay teenagers and a lot of great bands, so when the Bold Knight opened in early 1966 it was successful almost immediately.

McCluney recalled The Good News fondly, and remembers them mostly playing blues covers but doing some original material as well. This was typical of a lot of bands in San Francisco and elsewhere, particularly those playing blues. Since the Rolling Stones and others had made a lot of blues songs sort of well known, they could play music they liked that audiences knew, and slip in some of their own stuff as they worked it out.

The Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, CA
The Cocoanut Grove Ballroom is connected to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, a sort of East Coast-style amusement park somewhat out of place on the West Coast. Although it was established in 1907, by the 1960s, the Cocoanut Grove had regular "teen" dances, usually on Friday or Saturday nights, with the local bands who were popular on KLIV. It was part of the same circuit as The Bold Knight. Santa Cruz had nice beaches (if kind of cold), so many families would spend a week or a weekend in town, so there were many more kids available to go to shows at the Grove (capacity 800) than the tiny population of the town might indicate. The Good News played the Cocoanut Grove regularly, just as all the other South Bay bands did. Abbott recalls a number of bookings at Cocoanut Grove with the Chocolate Watch Band, who were the best, best-known and most infamous of all the South Bay bands in that period.

The Spectrum, 1836 El Camino Real, Redwood City, CA
Abbott recalls, "We did several weeks at the Spectrum in Redwood City with what later became Moby Grape (Jerry Miller introduced me to the Sitar and some great guitar licks)." He added "Jerry [Miller] and Don [Stevenson's] group were called The Frantics at the point that they were working with us and Bob Mosley hadn't joined the band yet. Chuck [Schoning] was on bass, and they had a girl who's name I can't remember on rhythm guitar."

The Frantics had relocated from Tacoma, WA to suburban San Bruno. Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson were only a few months away from the roller coaster ride of Moby Grape, but couldn't have known it at the time. Schoning too would go on to a lengthy music career (with AAA and Quicksilver, among others). The "girl whose name I can't remember" was the uber-cool Denise Kaufman, immortalized as Mary Microgram in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and by 1967 the main voice of the great band The Ace Of Cups. So The Good News were bumping into musicians just like them, playing around the circuit and trying to break through.

The Spectrum was at an intersection in Redwood City called Five Points. It had been an Autumn Records-owned place called The Nu Beat, but when Autumn folded in April 1966, the place changed its name to The Spectrum. I have written about the intersection of Autumn Records, The Nu Beat, The Frantics and The Spectrum elsewhere.

The Barn, Granite Creek Road at Highway 17, Scotts Valley, CA
Abbott: "I also remember playing at The Barn at some point, but can't remember if we were sitting in or were on the bill."

The Barn in Scotts Valley was a hippie enclave that started in Spring 1966 in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In 1966, the only true "hippie" places were The Fillmore and The Avalon in San Francisco. You could argue that the college campuses of UC Berkeley, San Francisco State and San Jose State were hippie friendly, but those zones didn't extend very far off their respective campuses. For the rest of the South Bay, there was just The Barn. The converted dairy barn, halfway between Palo Alto and Santa Cruz, was an isolated little clubhouse for all the longhairs: hippies, bikers, Merry Pranksters, light shows and psychedelic blues bands were all there at once. Good bands played The Barn, but at the time they played there, they were mostly unknown. The more adventurous of the teenagers going to places like The Bold Knight would find there way to The Barn, so for the South Bay it was a signpost to new space.

I am working on the history of The Barn, and I have a very preliminary version online. The Spring and Summer of 1966 remain very murky, however. Abbott's confusion over whether they were on the bill leads me to think that they played on a Thursday night, but explaining why is too much of a tangent, so you'll have to take my word on that for now. The essential point about playing The Barn was that it was one of the few places outside of San Francisco and Berkeley for longhairs to hangout, so if a band played well at The Barn then the right people heard about it.

Fillmore Auditorium, 1805 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA
October 22-23, 1966 Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band/Chocolate Watch Band/Great Pumpkin/Good News
Abbott: "We did one date at the Filmore and were asked back but we had broken up by that point."

Without question, bands made it in San Francisco by playing The Fillmore and The Avalon, and indeed succeeding at The Avalon mainly guaranteed that Bill Graham would steal you from Chet Helms for a more lucrative Fillmore booking. So if The Good News had played The Fillmore and were asked back, things were definitely looking up, yet they did not stay together to make the jump. If the Good News had played The Barn before the Fillmore (not a certainty), the word would have traveled particularly fast. Abbott recalled that Good News manager Denis Minga lined up the Fillmore appearance, but Graham would have asked around about the band.

Shortly after the Good News played the Fillmore, the band broke up. Dave Torbert and Chris Herold became members of The New Delhi River Band, who were regularly headlining at The Barn. While Torbert had played guitar in The Good News, he played bass in NDRB, an instrument he would play for the rest of his career. There is some ambiguity as to exactly when Herold and then Torbert joined NDRB, and either or both musicians may have been members of both bands for a brief while.

It's a little known fact that many bands played The Fillmore who were not "on the poster." In 1966, Graham would advertise two or three bands on his famous posters, usually for three shows from Friday through Sunday. Each advertised band would play two sets. Often, however, another unadvertised group would open the shows on Friday and Saturday night, playing a single set. These were usually called the "audition" bands, and were probably paid union scale. Trying out bands this way gave Graham a look at which groups were worthy of getting on the poster for a forthcoming date. No doubt The Good News acquitted themselves well, as they were asked back, but it was not to be.

The Good News-Aftermath
When The Good News broke up, in early November 1966, Tim Abbott became the lead guitarist in a group called The San Francisco Bay Blues Band. The group was not particularly successful, even by local standards. However, in early 1967 lead guitarist Mark Loomis left the Chocolate Watch Band, and bassist Bill Flores asked Abbott to take his place. Although the Chocolate Watch Band members weren't any older than The Good News, they were already hugely successful. By 1967, the group had successful records, and airplay on KLIV insured that they were hugely popular in the South Bay.

Despite many social connections to the San Francisco bands, the Chocolate Watch Band were never able to really break into the Fillmore. The CWB played there a few times, and were well received, but they were one of the Bay Area's best bands, and should have had a much higher profile at the Ground Zero of San Fransicso 60s rock. Different reasons are ascribed for this--competition between Bill Graham and CWB manager Ron Roupe, stemming from Graham's attempt to manage the band may have been a factor, or it may have been that San Franciscans couldn't believe that a cool band could come from San Jose instead of Seattle or London. As a result, while the Chocolate Watch Band belong in the top rank of Bay Area bands from the 60s, they are often given only second tier status. Nonetheless, Abbott joined the group in 1967 when they were hugely popular. His first show with the band, after three days of frantic rehearsal, was at the Mt. Tamalpais Festival on June 10, 1967, as the Chocolate Watch Band went on between The Doors and The Fifth Dimension.

Abbott, however, left the Chocolate Watch Band by the end of 1967 due to concerns about the band's finances. The New Delhi River Band had ground to a halt by early 1968, so Abbott, Torbert and Herold formed a group called Shango with a few other players (Matthew Kelly and Ryan Brandenburg), but that is yet another story that I will tell later. Torbert went on to great success with The New Riders Of The Purple Sage, and then Kingfish, and Chris Herold rejoined Torbert in the latter band. Torbert passed on in 1982, way too early, and is sorely missed by fans and friends alike.

I had thought that the story of The Good News was completely lost, but the former proprietor of The Bold Knight tipped me off to the fact that Tim Abbott owns a recording studio in the South Bay. Tim could not have been more helpful and generous with his memories and pictures, and so a seemingly lost piece of Bay Area rock history as been retrieved.

And who says the past has to be past? Guess what band has Tim Abbott as their lead guitarist? Why, The Chocolate Watch Band, still going strong with members from back in the day, still ready to be there when you make your move (at the Love-In), still the pride of the South Bay 60s. Good News, indeed. The CWB have produced a new album, recorded at Abbott's studio, featuring new and old Watch Band songs. Whether the band will break out the multi-colored Good News stage gear remains to be seen.

3 comments:

  1. Corry:

    Fascinating research as usual. I had never heard of the Good News, and had assumed that the New Delhi River Band was Torbert and Herold's first group (BTW - I look forward with great anticipation to the full NDRB history). I recall going to the Bold Knight Restaurant for family dinners on numerous occasions, but I never made it to one of their concerts.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Tim Abbott keeps remembering extra details, so I have actually made a number of changes to the post. The early personnel for the New Delhi River Band is somewhat more confusing than I had originally anticipated, but that is for a different project.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete