Thursday, February 01, 2007

First local rock show recalled


In 1970, Escanaba music promoter Gene Smiltneck had an idea.

While his Bands Unlimited had successfully booked dances for young people at Teamsters Hall and other locations for years, he noticed music tastes were beginning to diverge.

He observed his patrons were increasingly divided between "teeny boppers" and "freaks." The teeny boppers, he explained, liked dance music such as "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies, while the freaks were into heavy songs by such groups as the Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Led Zeppelin.

"The heavier music performers were recognized more as concert performers and some of the dance patrons actually started sitting on the dance floor when we had a musical group that played the 'heavier' music," Smiltneck told me recently.

Smiltneck's observation prompted him to organize "our first production of an organized rock concert." The show, with the audience seated, promised "to be an experiment into a new and fast growing field of music appreciation in the concert form."

For the event, he lined up the best performers the Escanaba area had to offer in "star soloist" Jim Lewis, the Riot Squad and the Prophets of Doom.

To publicize the show, Smiltneck designed an eye-catching 22 by 17 inch poster which included photographs and biographies of all three acts topped with the words "ROCK CONCERT" in large letters.

The event was held at the Junior High Auditorium at 7 p. m. Wednesday, Dec. 16, 1970. Admission was $1.

Lewis, known as "Louie" or "Smiley" by many of his fans and friends, had started his musical career six years before with one of Escanaba's pioneer rock groups, Beat Inc. In the sixties, Lewis was in various bands and never strayed far from the blues he loved so much. The poster noted, "He spent three years as a rambler, hitchhiking throughout the U. S. with no responsibilities except to himself."

For the local show Lewis performed songs by Willie Dixon, Siegel-Schwall Band, John Hammond, B. B. King, and Tom Rush, as well as original material. Many of those songs remained on Lewis' set list through the years as his reputation as a performer, musician, vocalist and composer grew.

Greg Tolman of Escanaba remembers Lewis in that era. "While everyone else was trying to be the coolest group and do the grooviest songs, Smiley just 'did his thing.' Jim was always true to himself and that is the mark of a fine musician."

The poster advertising Escanaba's first locally-organized concert was found in Lewis' belongings following his death in 2005.

Tolman offered some unique insight into the 1970 concert from his perspective as a member of the Riot Squad, which also included Larry Willette, Tom Vardigan, Greg Curran and Bob Derouin.

"I don't remember a lot about this particular concert except for it being one of our first, if not THE first time playing in a concert setting. I remember sitting back and listening to the other performers and critiquing them to the max. It was pure competition back then," Tolman said.

Formed in 1965, the Riot Squad had cut a single and toured throughout the Upper Peninsula, northern lower Michigan, Wisconsin and even into Minnesota and Canada. They had spent over 90 days on tour the previous summer in their green and orange bus.

"The Riot Squad always focused on vocals and harmonies. Most other groups at the time were trying to emulate the heavy music artists, while we always tried to remain vocally consistent. Sure, we did some heavy tunes that were popular and getting airplay. But we did a lot of Beach Boys, Four Seasons and the Letterman," Tolman recalled.

The Riot Squad's local rivals, the Prophets of Doom, also showed their musical prowess on the Junior High stage that evening. Also formed in 1965, the Prophets included Larry and Jay Olivares, Dave Watchorn and Mike Steede. The promotional poster cited the band's "showmanship and stage humor which has brought them acclaim from almost every city they have performed in." The group was a top draw in Wisconsin's Fox River Valley and also made many appearances in the Wausau and Eau Claire areas. At the time of the local concert, the band was preparing material for their second single release.

While the performers and promotion team worked hard on the show, it did not sell out.

"Although it was an enjoyable experience for all of us, the crowd was modest in size and we decided to stick with the dances," promoter Smiltneck remembered.

More difficult times lay ahead. "We were actually put out of business by the drop to 18 for liquor consumption. When that happened, we lost the 16 year olds and up to 'keg parties.' Our crowd sizes dropped to a level that made it unprofitable to continue the events and then discos dropped the band opportunities by 90 percent," Smiltneck explained.

With music promotion dwindling, he moved on to owning several bars, then migrated to real estate sales. In the late seventies, Smiltneck shortened his name to Gene Michaels.

Now 65, he lives in Green Bay where he has been an insurance agent, mobile disc jockey, and works to develop singers from around the world for recording projects.

"I really miss the time period," he said about his years in Escanaba.

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