Thursday, January 31, 2008

Excels' fame reached past U. P.

The Excels as a sextet with Clark Sullivan, Terry Quirk, Steve Contardi, Ken Forrest, Howard Ylinen and Ed Rogers


Like their name suggests, the Excels' achievements may have been superior to those of any other rock band to come out of the Upper Peninsula in the 1960s.

The Marquette show band played extensively throughout Michigan, recorded five 45 rpm singles, opened for numerous name acts, and appeared on several celebrated television programs.

The group originated in 1963 after a chance meeting of three of the original members at Jim Boerner's music store in Marquette, explained vocalist Clark Sullivan, who grew up in Republic.

"It was June of 1963 when I met Carl Holm and Dick Manning, both from Iron River, at the store. Through Carl's persistence, the idea of forming a group took hold. Manning was a lead guitarist and gave music lessons at Boerner's, while Holm was a bass player, still in high school. With the addition of drummer John Zelinski, also from Iron River, the group was formed."

The Excels, named by Zelinski, played throughout the U. P. and Wisconsin in the summer and fall of 1963, but after a few months Manning and Zelinski had to leave due to schooling and other commitments. With future bookings already scheduled, drummer Steve Contardi and Terry Quirk (guitar, sax, vocals) joined as replacements. Contardi, who handled all the band's bookings, was from Stambaugh, while Quirk was another Iron River resident.

It was during the early months of 1964, with Sullivan, Quirk and Contardi enrolled at Northern Michigan University, and Holm still in high school, that the Excels started getting lots of exposure.

"We would have jam sessions on campus that would turn into full blown 'events.' With many of the students from different parts of Michigan and different parts of the country, we started getting booked at various venues throughout lower Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio," Sullivan recalled.

To fill-out the band's sound, keyboard player Ken Forrest, from downstate Taylor, was added to the group. "Once we had all the members, things started coming together for us in a big way," Sullivan said.

The band's popularity expanded rapidly in Petosky and Harbor Springs. "We had the opportunity to play the Pony Tail Club in Harbor Springs which had the reputation of bringing in national talent such as Bobby Vinton and Jan & Dean. Thousands of kids on summer break made this club their home, so this venue gave us exposure to other parts of the state," Sullivan stated.

They packed the Teen Chalet in Gaylord whenever they played there and with their growing popularity, the Excels decided to shop around for a recording contract.

With a sound significantly influenced by the Beach Boys, the most popular American rock band of the era, the Excels headed to Detroit in the fall of 1964.

"Our first stop was Motown Studios, where we met the Supremes," Sullivan remembered. Although the Excels were impressed meeting one of the world's greatest acts, the group agreed that their "Beach Boys' harmony sound" would not be a good fit with Motown, which had an all-black stable of artists at the time.

Ollie McLaughlin

Next, during a stop at United Sound Studio, the group met Ollie McLaughlin, who captured a large audience as an influential black disc jockey on Ann Arbor's WHRV radio.

Owner of Carla Records, McLaughlin had a stable of artists including Deon Jackson, a talented rhythm and blues singer who recorded the smash hit, "Love Makes the World Go Round." McLaughlin also signed the Capitols to his Karen label and issued their recording of "Cool Jerk," which reached the Top Ten in the spring of 1966. McLaughlin, who also discovered Michigan-born rocker Del Shannon, and guided the career of Atlantic Records recording artist Barbara Lewis of "Hello Stranger" fame, was gaining stature in the music industry.

McLaughlin showed interest in the Excels and asked the group to send him a demo tape.

In a few days Sullivan and Quirk wrote and the band recorded "Run Girl Run" and "It Isn't So" on a small two track machine and shipped them off to McLaughlin. "Much to our surprise, he liked them and offered us a recording contract," Sullivan remembered.

At this point, the band knew little of McLaughlin's reputation in the music industry, but soon read in Billboard magazine that the fellow who asked for a sample of their work was among the country's most successful producers.

Excited to be working with McLaughlin, the Excels travelled to Detroit to properly record their two demo songs at United Sound Studio in the early summer of 1965. "We were quite new to this recording business, so this first session was a learning experience, as the sound on this record is quite raw," Sullivan noted. The songs, however, were not issued at that time.

Spending months perfecting their sound on stage, the group returned to Detroit in the summer of 1966 to record "Gonna Make You Mine, Girl," and "Goodbye Poor Boy." Both songs were credited to Sullivan, although it was Quirk who penned the b side. With national distribution through Atco Record Sales Co., operated by major label Atlantic Records, the record was predicted to be a hit by Billboard magazine. Issued as Carla 2529, the single missed the mark, "but it sure hyped us up," Sullivan noted. The record received some regional airplay in both northern and southern climes, reach No. 1 on Saginaw's WSAM on Sept. 16, 1966, and No. 23 at radio station WLOF in Orlando, Florida on Nov. 4, 1966.

"Gonna Make You Mine, Girl" at No. 1

Another single was recorded in Detroit in the fall of 1966. A Sullivan- Quirk composition, "I Wanna Be Free," was taped along with "Too Much Too Soon," written by 14-year-old Lisa Wexler, daughter of Jerry Wexler, a music producer and major player in 1960s soul music. Issued as Carla 2534, Billboard predicted the single would enter the Top 100, but it didn't catch fire.

As a live act, the Excels continued to do extremely well, commanding up to $1,200 per night while other U. P. acts were lucky to get a few hundred dollars. "We actually had a roadie," Contardi said about the band's status. Other bands were envious of the Fender equipment the Excels played, reported Greg Curran of Escanaba, a member of the 1960s band the Riot Squad.

Acting without a manager, the group worked virtually every Friday and Saturday night for years, often renting armories in places like Iron River, Marquette, Ishpeming and Iron Mountain. The band also impressed youngsters at various teen dances in Delta County.

Contardi recollected a Saturday night early in the band's career when they played the Swallow Inn, while the Rhythm Rockers were booked into Bill's Bar, the only other place in Rapid River serving liquor.

In lower Michigan, the band played in East Lansing, Cheboygan, Alpena, Bay City, Daniel's Den in Saginaw, the Roostertail in Detroit, and the Tanz Haus teen nightclub in Traverse City. A former funeral home in Holland dubbed the Edgar Allan Poe Club also hosted an Excels show, according to Contardi.

Sullivan recalled a memorable engagement at the Henry Ford estate in Grosse Point for the Ford family: "We played for the younger people, while Myron Floren of Lawrence Welk fame played for the old folks."

The Excels popularity resulted in the formation of a national fan club, which listed an address of Box 77, Bridgeport, Mich.

Daniel's Den marquee with the Excels

While the group was building on successful dates in lower Michigan, travel was putting a strain on founding member Carl Holm, who by this time was enrolled in Michigan Tech in Houghton, while the others were NMU students. Reluctantly, Holm decided to quit the group. To replace him, the Excels took on multi-instrumentalist Howard Ylinen and bassist Ed Rogers, from a Marquette area band called the Rogues. For a brief time, the Excels included six musicians, but that was soon pared to five when Forrest received his draft notice. Ylinen took over keyboard duties at that point.

By the end of the school year in 1967, Contardi graduated and quit the group to concentrate on his career. "It put me through college," Contardi said of his days as drummer with the Excels. He was replaced by Garry Stockero, drummer from the Crystal Falls' band, the Stormers.

"Little Innocent Girl" 45 single

During the summer of 1967, the Excels returned to the studio to record "Little Innocent Girl," penned by songwriting team Richard Wylie and Tony Hester. On the 45 rpm single, the tune was matched with Sullivan and Quirk's "Some Kind of Fun" as Carla 1901. Arranged by Dennis Coffey, the record reached No. 20 on CKRC in Winnepeg on July 18, and No. 24 on WKNR, Detroit, on Aug. 30, 1968.
"Little Innocent Girl" was also placed at No. 8 by Monroe's WVMO on July 17, 1968, No. 20 by Muskgeon's WTRU on July 19, and No. 2 by radio station WKNX on Aug. 16.

Lansing area musician Steve "Doc" Yankee, then a disc jockey, remembered spinning "Little Innocent Girl" on WLDR-FM in Traverse City. The 45 also reached the Top Ten on rival WCCW's weekly countdown.

Meanwhile, producer McLaughlin continued his efforts to get a hit for the Excels. In the summer of 1968, the group traveled to Atlantic Studios in New York to tape "California on My Mind" and "Arrival of Mary." "It was quite an eye opener to be recording in studios which had seen the likes of Frank Sinatra, the Bee Gees, Bobby Darin and Aretha Franklin," Sullivan remembered. "It was also the first time we had a 30 piece string and horn section on one of our records."

The songs, credited to guitarists Sullivan, Quirk and Ylinen, were released as Carla 2536. Despite a New York pedigree, the 45 did not become a hit.

Beyond their 45 rpm singles, the Excels accomplished much, including sharing the stage with some prominent rock bands. They opened shows on the Marquette campus for Jay and the Americans, as well as Little Anthony and the Imperials and opened for Chubby Checker during another concert. Other acts the Excels played with include the Newbeats, Buckinghams, Dave Clark Five, Sonny & Cher and the Association. In addition, the Excels performed shows or had mini tours with Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bob Seger, the Beach Boys, Turtles, American Breed, Mitch Ryder, Rick Nelson, Brian Hyland, Freddie Cannon, Jimmy Clanton, Dickie Lee, and the Barbarians.

One memorable occasion for the group was appearing on Robin Seymour's Swinging Time program on CKLW-TV in Windsor, Ontario. The Excels played "Gonna Make You Mine, Girl" on the show which featured 50 to 75 local kids demonstrating the latest dances. Spanky and Our Gang, noteworthy for "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," performed on the same episode, Contardi recalled.

An additional television appearance came in Cleveland when the Excels were featured on an early rock 'n' roll variety show called Upbeat which originated on ABC affiliate WESW-TV. Hosted by Don Webster, Upbeat included a live audience and was syndicated to 100 television markets at its peak.

By the end of 1968, Sullivan was in the first year of his teaching career and traveling for weekend gigs was getting difficult. He and the group parted ways, but the singer continued recording for McLaughlin.

Although the Excels had released four 45s, their record company still had the two songs in the can from the summer of 1965. "It Isn't So," written by Quirk, and Sullivan's "Run Girl Run" appeared in 1970, as Carla 103. The A side resurfaced in 2004 on a compilation of 1960s garage rockers called "Sigh, Cry, Die." It's the only Excels track to be released thus far on compact disc.

All the Excels songs recorded for McLaughlin show his skillful production and retain an appealing sound although none achieved the success sought by the group and label. "We were extremely excited to be working with Ollie McLaughlin. But, we came to recognize that it wasn't the right fit exactly," Contardi said about the band's time on the Carla label, which otherwise predominately issued soul recordings.

"Being with this group was an adventure for all involved. We never looked at it as a competition with other bands from the U. P. We just did our thing as they did theirs. We all had followings that propelled us to be better. The U. P. had a wealth of talent. We enjoyed working with a few of these groups and always came away with something positive that we could work into our shows," Sullivan noted.

After an adventurous trip through the 1960s, the Excels faded as the new decade dawned. Still, they came closer to national fame than any other U. P. band of the era, leaving a memorable rock 'n' roll story in their wake.

Excels- line-ups through the years
Photos courtesy of Clark Sullivan, Mark Maki and Wilma Zimmermann

The original Excels
back, Dick Manning and Clark Sullivan
front, Carl Holm and John Zelinski

The Excels
clockwise from bottom, Ken Forrest, Carl Holm, Steve Contardi, Clark Sullivan and Terry Quirk

The Excels
Garry Stockero, in middle, surrounded by, from top, clockwise, Howard Ylinen, Clark Sullivan, Terry Quirk and Ed Rogers


Anonymous said...

Wow -- it's great to see and hear this information on the web. Steve Contardi did his stint as a student teacher in Ishpeming, and though the Excels were the biggest thing around, he spent his lunch hour with a bunch of kids and seemed genuinely happy to be there. What a great role model! (I think I may have even learned some math from him!) The Excels played at our home coming dance -- a major coup given their lofty status in UP rock and roll at that time!

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