Thursday, March 01, 2007

Teen dances featured top bands

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For a decade beginning in 1966 local teenagers could see top name live bands for what amounted to pocket change.

The action was centered at 900 1st Ave. S., a location which was home to the Knights of Columbus Council 640 for decades, but at this point was headquarters to Teamsters Union Local 328.

These dances were sponsored by promoter Gene (Smiltneck) Michaels who had moved here from Menominee. But he wasn't the first to hold such teen events.

Elroy and Wilma Zimmermann began hosting "sock hops" earlier in the decade at the suggestion of Elroy's brother Jim, who noticed such dances were popular when he was working as a disc jockey in Ironwood while attending Gogebic County Community College.

Zim's Night Train dances, some of which were held at Marco's Stardust Room, 2120 Ludington St., cost 35 cents and featured a library of 1,000 45 rpm singles for the crowd's dancing pleasure, Wilma recalled.

For his dances, Michaels hired local favorites the Riot Squad and Prophets of Doom, but also upped the ante by adding top regional acts and even groups with national reputations.
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Admission to the dances, which flourished as a social activity at the time, started at a paltry 50 cents and increased to a few dollars over the ten years that Michaels' company, Bands Unlimited, promoted them.

Michaels' efforts were well received by local young people. Attendance would range from 200 to 400 people, with one dance pulling in nearly 1,000.

To meet the entertainment demand, dances were scheduled on Mondays and Thursdays during the summer as well as Friday through Sunday during the school year. Dances were also slated on the night before a day off from school, Michaels noted. Depending on the time of year, the three-hour fetes started at 8 or 9 p. m.

Linda Brown remembered: "Guys would gather right inside the front door and check out the gals as they came in. Then when they were inside they would stand all around the room against the walls and slowly circle the dancers. Most never danced."

Michaels also scheduled Sunday "Jam Sessions," during which as many as a dozen bands would play. "They came from lower Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota to participate," Michaels said.

Long-time Escanaba musician Greg Curran played the dances as a member of Riot Squad.

"I remember all of kinds of great bands," said Curran, who went on to perform in well known bands Rocking Chair and the Cadillacs.

"The Excels were a five piece group from Northern Michigan University who got $300 when everyone else was getting $100. I still remember the local bands just speechless because these guys had all top of the line Fender equipment that you could only dream about." Curran was also impressed by The Ravelles from Iron Mountain who were "a show band before anybody knew what that meant. They would play a song and all switch instruments part way through until everybody had played every instrument."

Curran also fondly recalled regional bands the Unbelievable Uglies (Minnesota), The Boys Next Door (Indianapolis), and the Corrupters (Flint). Michaels said those bands were among the top draws when he booked them into Teamsters Hall.

The act which generated the most interest, Michaels said, was Love Society from Plymouth, WI. Covers of J. D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" and Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance" on Scepter Records proved to be regional hits in 1968 and 1969 for the group which packed 900 people into the venue.

Next most popular was an interracial group from Cicero, IL called American Breed. They had a Top 5 hit in 1968 with "Bend Me, Shape Me."

Making a strong impression with the local audience, the Unbelievable Uglies featured the raunchy bass antics of Winston Fink. The show band, based in Detroit Lakes, MN was named best group by the Minnesota Ballroom Operators, an endorsement which translated into increased exposure.

Michaels signed the Robbs to appear at the Teamsters Hall, despite their busy television schedule. Originally from Oconomowoc, WI, the Robbs were a house band on the popular rock 'n' roll show "Where the Action Is," hosted by Dick Clark, and had cut numerous singles although none became national hits.

The Boys Next Door were another top attraction at the dances, Michaels recalled. Taking their cue from the Beach Boys, the group performed tunes about cars and girls, many of them originals, gigging around the Midwest until they disbanded in 1967. The Corrupters, a seven-piece soul group from Flint, meanwhile, featured horns and a pair of black singers.

Myriad other bands showed their chops at the dances, Michaels said, including Infinite Blue, Home Sweet, Down Home and Tongue, shortened from Tennis Shoe Tongue Band. Curran, who's wife Debbie worked the door for most of the dances, also recalled other local groups playing there including The Spoken For, Upstairs to the Left, The Minutemen and Chocolate Ashcan.

"The bands even got together one weekend and painted the place," Curran remembered.

Michaels, now a Green Bay resident, said his best memories of the dances were "watching the excitement and fun the kids would have."

Having been a teenager in the Sixties, I went to those KC dances just like hundreds of other kids. I'm afraid I was one of those guys who never or rarely danced. But, I heard some fantastic rock 'n' roll bands which influenced my musical tastes right to this day. The dances inspired a sense of camaraderie and I had a blast going.

So, thanks Gene and Greg for sharing your memories and creating some, too.

Promoter Gene Michaels lists bands
with biggest crowds at KC dances

1. Love Society, Plymouth, WI
2. American Breed, Cicero, IL
3. Unbelievable Uglies, Detroit Lakes, MN
4. The Robbs, Oconomowoc, WI
5. The Boys Next Door, Indianapolis, IN
6. The Corrupters, Flint, MI
7. The Ravelles, Iron Mountain, MI
8. The Riot Squad, Escanaba, MI
9. Prophets of Doom, Escanaba, MI
10. Infinite Blue, Menominee, MI

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Our old band "Tree" played at Teamsters Hall back in '72 at one of Gene's Battle of The Bands - and we won! As I recall Riot Squad and Tree were 2 of Gene's biggest-drawing bands in the early 70's. I was also an agent (for a very short time) for Bands Unlimited. I thnk the only band I ever booked was Tree :-)