BAR BANDS MAKE THE ROUNDS
The Saturday night crowd packed into At My Place in Santa Monica whooped it up as Billy & the Beaters kicked off their opening set with the jumping blues instrumental “Strolling With Bones.” A regular monthly attraction at the nightclub, the band’s repertoire of R&B; chestnuts and leader Billy Vera’s original songs was greeted with knowing cheers.
Strong solos by the Beaters’ crack four-man horn section received bursts of applause but the audience’s attention remained focused on the band’s unprepossessing, soulful singer. Clad in an unbuttoned red shirt, white T-shirt and nondescript gray pants, Vera may have been the scruffiest person in the club.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 28, 1986 IMPERFECTION
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 28, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Page 107 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Local rock fave James Harman did not quit high school to hit the road, as Don Snowden miswrote in his article on L.A. bar bands last week. Harman did leave the University of Florida one semester shy of graduation, however, mainly because he was making $1,000 a week with his band.
“Anyone notice my high-fashion shoes?” he asked the chic, upscale audience with a grin. “Air Jordans . . . multicolored.”
Vera worked the crowd with the practiced aplomb of a show-biz veteran, fielding requests between songs and often engaging in ribald banter that left the youthful crowd roaring with laughter. The biggest reaction came after Vera said the Beaters would have three songs on the sound track for Blake Edwards’ forthcoming film “Blind Date” which stars Bruce Willis and Kim Basinger.
“Can you imagine,” he deadpanned, “having Kim Basinger’s lips in your video?”
Three weeks later and 100 miles south, visions of Basinger were far from James Harman’s mind at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. The Orange County-based singer/bandleader was more worried about the condition of his throat and the studio session he had scheduled for noon the next day.
Yet, 15 minutes before the opening set, Harman was ironing out technical details with the club’s soundman and mingling with fans who approached him. He reminisced easily with a St. Louis native who had been in range of a radio station Harman had also listened to while growing up in Alabama. Then, the man melted back into the crowd and Harman strolled backstage.
The Belly Up’s dance floor was packed from the opening number as the quartet worked through a number of bedrock blues and rock styles sparked by Harman’s freewheeling harmonica solos and the impeccably tasteful guitar playing of David (Kid) Ramos. Harman periodically sent copies of a sampler album featuring the 16 groups, including his own band, selected for Miller Beer’s “Rock Network” promotional campaign spinning into the crowd while gum-snapping bassman Willie J. Campbell and drummer Stephen Hodges kept the dancers occupied.
The backstage atmosphere was subdued and workmanlike after the set. Band members waited for their pay and roadies loaded equipment before everyone adjourned to a nearby taco stand for a quick, 3 a.m. bite for the road. It would be another hour before Harman reached his Huntington Beach home to snatch a few hours’ sleep before the Sunday recording session.
Billy & the Beaters and the James Harman Band are the kind of working bands that are the backbone of any city’s live rock scene. Check the club listings any week and you’ll usually find them--along with groups like Jack Mack & the Heart Attack and Preston Smith & the Crocodiles--holding down a prime weekend night slot at a key club.
These bar bands are bookers’ delights: reliable pros who can consistently pack a room with a large and loyal following--despite the absence of a hit record. Their secret: nothing more than hard work and word-of-mouth recommendations.
“Billy Vera pops up once a month here because he’s a superb artist the record industry is choosing to ignore,” said Matt Kramer, part owner and booker of At My Place. “If I book him, I can tell anybody to come down and see the club that night and I know they’ll have a very good time.”
Added Palomino booker Bill Thomas: “We do worry about overexposure, but (we’re mainly concerned) with how much they play in the Valley. If Jack Mack has a gig in Orange County, (our customers) won’t go because they know they’ll be back here again soon.”
Still, the initial thrill of filling clubs can soon wear thin because there’s a frustrating flip side to being a successful bar band in a major music industry center like Los Angeles. Their constant visibility means that record company execs have undoubted checked them out . . . and decided against offering a contract.
“In a lot of ways, these bands are playing dated music, roadhouse blues stuff from 20 years ago,” said Malcolm Falk, booker at the Belly Up Tavern. “What they have in common is they’re all great dance bands that 30-year-old people like a lot because it’s fun, harmless entertainment.”
What sustains these bands in the face of industry indifference? Love of the music they’re playing is the obvious common denominator, but the reasons beyond that vary widely.
For Vera, it’s faith that his savvy songwriting will appeal to the commercial instincts of label execs on the prowl for the next big hit record. The industry doesn’t really enter into the considerations of Harman--music is his small business, the means of providing for his family and the people on the band’s payroll.
Ironically, the very virtues that account for their club popularity may brand these bands as good-time entertainment lacking the artistic vision or contemporary image to merit more than one grudging shot at the big time. And in the modern pop world, second chances come hard.
Just ask Vera.
Five years ago, Billy & the Beaters’ perennially sold-out midnight sets at the Troubadour’s Monday night talent showcases catapulted the group into a lucrative deal with the fledgling Alfa label. Its first album yielded a Top 30 hit single in “I Can Take Care of Myself,” but Alfa folded in 1982--three weeks after releasing the band’s second album.
Rhino Records just released a compilation album of highlights from the two Alfa albums, but no label has stepped forward to offer the group a new deal. Vera placed some of the blame squarely on his own shoulders.
“We’ve always had real good players but, from the inception of the band, it’s been an opportunity for bored musicians to blow their brains out,” said Vera in his West Hollywood apartment. “The problem has been with me being afraid to assert myself and demand that people play what I want the way I want them to play it.
“I went through a lot of self-analysis and said, ‘Man, successful people don’t behave like that.’ Being a legend means I’m going to die poor and there are a lot of people who make good music and live rich. I want signed Harrells on my wall. I want to own a house in Hancock Park and be able to buy ‘Stormy Weather’ by the Five Sharps on Jubilee.
“I believe very strongly the material I’ve got now is as good and as modern as what other people are doing but we’ll see how the people that sign the checks feel. If we come in with a record that people think they can sell, they’re going to want it.”
Vera’s faith in those commercial instincts is backed up by 25 years in the music business. The New York-born guitarist/vocalist, 42, started his career in 1960, working East Coast clubs and backing artists like Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Vera made his first breakthrough when Atlantic paired him with singer Judy Clay on his 1967 hit “Storybook Children.” The duo had a moderately successful follow-up with “Country Girl, City Man” before label difficulties ended their partnership and ushered in a lean decade for Vera. The rough stretch ended in 1978 when Dolly Parton had a No. 1 country hit with Vera’s “I Really Got the Feeling” and he landed another songwriting deal with Warner Brothers Music.
After moving here from New York, Vera planned to concentrate strictly on songwriting until a friend suggested forming a band patterned on Vera’s dream band, Ray Charles’ celebrated late ‘50s group. That goal was realized when many top local players lined up to join the band in 1979. The demoralizing Alfa episode took its psychological toll but Vera found solace by keeping the nine-piece group working constantly.
“I got very depressed when we were down but the thing that’s always kept me going is the audience reaction,” he said. “If I can get to an audience, I know I’m doing something right, but I’m also leery of overextending myself in the area and wearing out my welcome. It’s a tricky balancing act because the band is too big and therefore too expensive to go too far out of town.”
Another record deal would ease those problems and Vera made several personnel changes last year with an eye toward streamlining the group sound and erasing some of his retro-rocker image. Even with Vera’s track record and years of experience, it’s no easy task gauging the commercial currents at record labels.
“The interesting dichotomy is that to get a deal, you almost have to sound the same as another artist but for people to like you, you have to sound different,” he said. “Your success ultimately depends on the people, so the trick is how do you get past the people that want you to sound the same so the people that want you to sound different can buy your records?”
While Vera plans on winning over the industry one more time, Harman has set up his group as an independent operation capable of surviving outside the big-time music industry if need be.
“None of those major label people have beat down the door to the James Harman Band saying, ‘We want to give you a record contract,’ ” Harman, 40, said. “They never have and I doubt they will. It’s always been very strange to me because I’ve got the only band that consistently works around here, been on on a salary for seven years and makes a living from music.”
That solid business footing enabled Harman to weather a Murphy’s Law run of bad luck last year that would have sunk many other bands. Guitarist Hollywood Fats and drummer Hodges left the group, a lucrative Midwestern tour had to be canceled when Harman’s voice gave out and the death of his father forced the loss of even more dates. But bassist Campbell, a 9-year Harman band veteran, and guitarist Ramos, a fixture since 1980, stuck with him through the hard times.
“We’d go play third on the bill at Club 88 in early 1979 and make $12.88 but I’d give the band $50 apiece,” Harman said. “That’s how you keep a band together.
“I’ve probably had 200 guys in my band over the years because I’ve always had the same concept. I’ve wanted a good band capable of improvisation so the music stayed fresh and interesting arrangements so it wouldn’t be just another white blues band playing the Top 40 of Chess Records.”
The Alabama native’s musical tastes were shaped in the classic mold of early Southern rockers like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Harman bought blues records with his school lunch money, slipped away to soak up the gospel music at local churches and even brought a Howlin’ Wolf 78 into his fifth-grade class for show and tell.
“I grew up as a real jerk, a real expert Captain Blues guy, but I was always able to make people like me,” he said. “I was hearing Little Junior Parker and Bobby Bland, Otis Redding and B. B. King on the radio when I was a kid.
“If I had been born in Southern California and grew up hearing the Beach Boys and Beatles, I’m sure I would be a different person. What I grew up hearing is the only thing that seems real to me; everything from then on seemed white, watered-down and trivial.”
Harman quit high school and played extensively through the South and Midwest during the late ‘60s before arriving here in 1970. Bleeding ulcers forced him to stop playing in 1976 but running a speaker repair company in Orange County enabled him to stay close to the music scene.
Harman re-activated his band in 1978 and assembled the nucleus of his current group when vocalist Phil Alvin and drummer Bill Bateman quit to start the Blasters. Pianist Gene Taylor, another Harman Band mainstay, also became a Blaster in 1980 and the Harman Band used that Downey connection to become frequent performers on the Hollywood club scene.
The group released a four-song EP in 1981 on its own Icepick label and the “Thank You, Baby” album came out on Enigma two years later. The mixture of musical styles on “Thank You, Baby” pinpointed one dilemma plaguing the group. Many blues purists scorned the record for exploring other styles but, to major labels, Harman remained a blues specialist with a minimal chance of winning more than a cult audience.
But things are currently looking up. After 18 months of managing the band himself, Harman recently acquired a manager and booking agent for local dates.
Rhino Records is seriously considering putting out a re-mixed version of “Thank You, Baby” with four new tracks. The group may finally be wrapping up both its labor-of-love album of strictly blues material and another record of original songs geared more to the commercial marketplace.
The Harman Band has become a solid touring attraction in the Southwest and Midwest despite its lack of a major-label deal. Harman bought a 40-foot bus last year to make those swings outside the Southland more comfortable.
The biggest break may be the Miller Beer connection. The sponsorship has already meant thousands of dollars in equipment and invaluable advance promotion for the band’s live performances. A television commercial a la the Del Fuegos and a weekly radio show, “James Harman’s Record Party,” to be syndicated to college radio stations are possibilities.
With those positive developments balancing the disastrous last half of 1985, James Harman is prepared to continue on his path.
“I have a wife and child now but I don’t need Madison Square Garden and Bruce Springsteen,” he said. “I’m famous to my friends and that’s famous enough. Howlin’ Wolf didn’t make his first record until he was 39 so I’m ahead of the game.
“My next plateau is playing 3,000-seat college gigs for $10,000 a night, a new Silver Eagle bus rather than my Scenic Cruiser and being off three months instead of two weeks to relax and write more songs. I want to get to that level but I don’t want to get there by cheating or fooling anybody.
“I want them to like what I do and pay me for it. That’s as honest as I can put it. I’m a real straight, honest guy, and I don’t want anything that isn’t mine.”