Thursday, March 27, 2008

Renaissance Fair aimed for top


Upper Peninsula rock band Renaissance Fair issued three 45 rpm records in the 1960s, even contacting the Beatles' Apple Records in a quest to get a major label recording contract.

Band member Rob Benjamin is credited with suggesting the group use the title of a Byrds' song as their name. A flower power anthem, "Renaissance Fair" appeared on the "Younger Than Yesterday" album and as the flipside of the Byrds' 45 rpm cover of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages," released in the early months of 1967.

Based in Sault Ste. Marie, the group was comprised of John Ordiway, guitar, trumpet; Gordie Moon, guitar, keyboards; Greg Myner, drums, saxophone, guitar, bass; Rob Benjamin, bass, drums; Larry Verrett, guitar, bass; Jim Rogers, bass, guitar; and Larry McGahey, guitar. Besides playing their instruments, all members of Renaissance Fair also sang.

The group was influenced by contemporary acts like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals and Yardbirds, but also by "many other things in our backgrounds including country and jazz," said McGahey, who now lives in Kalamazoo.

As the group was performing all around the U. P., and occasionally in lower Michigan and Ontario, Canada, they made contact with Fred L. Crook, owner of Princeton Records in Marquette, a small independent label which had already issued 45 rpm records for The French Church and 'Country' Tommy James. Renaissance Fair travelled to Marquette and taped "Every Moment" and "It's Still Her."

"I wrote 'It's Still Her,' which was corrected by the English teacher of one of the band members still in high school to 'It's Still She,'" McGahey recalled. Renaissance Fair promoted their first 45, which appeared as Princeton 107, at live dates.

A number of months later, they returned to Marquette County to cut a track written by Ordiway called "In Wyrd," and another McGahey composition, "Simple Love."

"We rehearsed and recorded all day at Superior Recording Co. with Crook using mono RCA equipment he said he bought from the RCA studio in Nashville," McGahey said. The label owner may have been assisted by Mike McKelvey, according to McGahey.

Crook had recently recorded a pair of tracks by a Northern Michigan University student named Mike Koda. While the songs, "Let's Hear a Word (for the Folks in the Cemetery)" and "More Than Me" were released as Princeton 110, music fans would later come to know the aspiring musician as "Cub" Koda, famous for the hit "Smokin' in the Boys Room" by Brownsville Station.

"We listened to the songs Cub Koda had recorded and then jammed and partied all night with Fred. I remember Fred asking someone to open a beer and then breaking into the Nat Stuckey song, 'Pop a Top Again.' Most of us who weren't married slept on the studio floor until morning.

"In the morning, we packed up our equipment and then listened to the recordings again. We didn't think 'In Wyrd' was what we wanted so we unpacked everything, resumed drinking and re-recorded 'In Wyrd' the way it was meant to be. I remember needing to sit in a chair, because I couldn't stand, watching the spray from John's mouth as he sang, taking hits of Southern Comfort between verses.

"I had just received my new Gibson SG the day we left for Marquette to do the recording and didn't have a real good feel for it yet so I didn't know where I was going on the guitar solo. We were never able to play the song the same way again," McGahey noted.

Besides McGahey's guitar work, the single also features some great organ fills by Moon and Ordiway's compelling vocals.

Gordie Moon and singer John Ordiway during a Renaissance Fair performance

Issued as Princeton 111, "In Wyrd," received the unique spelling because songwriter Ordiway was studying Norse mythology and "y" relates to female personifications of fate or destiny. The song itself has gained mythic status over the years for sounding like Black Sabbath before Black Sabbath. (It's the lone Renaissance Fair song to be released on compact disc, appearing on a collection called "Psychedelic Experience, Vol 3." Unfortunately, it may be available only as an import and to make things more confusing, there are at least three different discs with that name, only one containing the Renaissance Fair tune.)

Later, Renaissance Fair issued a third 45. This time, the band held sessions at Grand Rapid's Midwestern Sound Studios, located at 444 W. Leonard St. McGahey, Verrett, drummer Richard Rand, and keyboard player Terry Bumstead recorded material with studio owner Phil Roberts. Their record paired "Always Love You" with "She's a Woman," not the Beatles song but an original composition by Verrett. The tracks were issued on Astral Records, owned by McGahey, as single #117.

Renaissance Fair: From left, Richard Rand, Terry Bumstead, Larry McGahey and Larry Verrett

"Phil liked our band and had us learn the music for a song someone else was going to sing so we also recorded those tracks at the same session. He told us how he wanted the song to feel and then sang the chord changes into our headphones as we played. I have never heard what he did with it," McGahey said.

About this time, the Beatles had placed an ad in Rolling Stone magazine announcing the launch of Apple Records. The Beatles, it turns out, were looking for talented acts to sign to its new label and requested that interested parties submit demo tapes.

Taking the initiative, McGahey wrote a letter to Beatle John Lennon, telling him about Renaissance Fair. Lennon forwarded the letter to Apple employee Peter Brown, who answered McGahey's inquiry.

McGahey still has the letter and envelope from Apple Records. The Beatles' label received hundreds of tapes in the mail and Apple hired staff to listen to them, but the label didn't sign anyone.

Still, Renaissance Fair carried on.

"We went on playing under the same name as a quartet with John Antonelli on drums, Rob Benjamin on bass, Larry Verrett, and myself on guitar until the early 1970s," McGahey recounted. The band played around the midwest, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, North and South Dakota and Iowa.

Renaissance Fair: Clockwise from top, Tim Hatfield, John Antonelli, Rob Benjamin and Larry McGahey

Eventually, a trio of Antonelli, Benjamin and McGahey emerged. Later, Benjamin left, replaced by Tim Hatfield, who was later replaced by Chuck McGill.

McGahey has fond memories of Renaissance Fair, and treasures the close friendships of the band members and "all the fun we had travelling around the U. P. playing music. One trip we thought of putting Simon & Garfunkel's 'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' in John's tape deck and driving off Pictured Rocks at high speed."

McGahey also recalled driving to a job in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in the winter. "We had an accident with all three cars, two of them running into each other. That was fun."

Hatfield recollected an especially fiery gig in lower Michigan. "I remember when the club we were playing at in Alpena almost burned to the ground. The club was called The Roost, but after it burned it was then changed to The Roast. Our equipment was only smoke damaged and a little water logged. We called our agent in Little Chute, Wis., and he told us to pack up and drive back to the Soo and he'd have a place for us to play by the time we got there. And he did. He told us to drive to Fond du Lac, I believe, and play there for a week. After getting there and driving around endlessly, we finally asked where G. G.'s Pussycat Lounge was.

"It was just a house that this girl G. G. turned into a 'gentlemen's club.' I was, at the time, 19 years old and had never been into one of those places before. The thing that I thought was hilarious was that we didn't play your traditional stripping kind of music. We played the top hits of the time, like 'Your Mama Don't Dance' and 'Proud Mary.' When you're young and impressionable, things like that will stick in your mind forever," Hatfield noted.

With a cache of songs by band members, Renaissance Fair often played original material. "In fact, the band would have liked to play all originals, all of the time, if we could. But playing in clubs means you have to play mostly what the people want. The originals that McGahey and Verrett wrote were really great songs, not to mention Rob Benjamin's tunes. He wrote some beautiful songs that no one will hear." Hatfield said.

In the years since Renaissance Fair disbanded, Larry Verrett and Gordie Moon have died, but Larry McGahey, Greg Myner and John Ordiway each continue to make music today, as does Tim Hatfield.

Renaissance Fair Picture Gallery
Photos courtesy of Larry McGahey, Tim Hatfield and Greg Myner

Renaissance Fair when the band first formed. In front, Gordie Moon. In back, from left, Rob Benjamin, Larry McGahey, Jim Rogers, John Ordiway, Greg Myner, Larry Verrett

Renaissance Fair reunited about 1975-80 in Kalamazoo, Mich. under the name Friends of Mine. From left, John Antonelli, Greg Myner, Larry McGahey, Larry Verrett, Rob Benjamin. They played southern Michigan mainly and were the house band at the Light House in Plainwell, Mich.


Anonymous said...

This is a terrific site. Gordie(my brother) and Larry were with the group from the beginning. I remember hearing them practice and was mesmerized by their music. I'm glad their contribution, as well as others, is being remembered.

Reenie Moon-Spencer

Anonymous said...

I agree with Reenie, great site, thanks for taking the time to write about us. Gordie and I started jamming at his house, Gordie on guitar and me drumming on coffee cans, later Larry joined us and we became the Dutch Boys (before Renaissance Fair). I think of Gordie and Larry often, they still have a lot of influence on the music I play.

Greg Myner, Oklahoma City

Anonymous said...

Larry Verrett was a close friend of mine when he was with the Dutch Boys in the 1960s. I had no musical ability at all, but Larry used to invite me to hang around at the band's practice sessions. Some sessions were held at Gordie Moon's house or at the lead singer's (Dave Swart?) house. Greg Myner played the drums, but I don't remember who played bass, unless Gordie did when he wasn't playing organ. (I don't think Rob Benjamin played bass with the original Dutch Boys -- he wasn't added until the Renaissance Fair days.) I still remember some the of the songs they played, including "Barbara Ann" -- John McCain's favorite -- and "A Well-Respected Man." Thanks for bringing back some great memories.

Ron Evensen, Seattle

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane! I have nothing but fond memories of these guys. One song I haven't seen mentioned and yet the one I still remember how to play is called "She's a woman". I heard them play it at one of the mixers (OMG a mixer?)and went home to learn it on the guitar. Good times and good people.
Thanks again for bringin back the days!

DJ Hanchera-Malloy

Anonymous said...

I listened to the band in Kalamazoo. What a great band! I just want to hear "Truck Driving Man"

Art Gage

Anonymous said...

You can hear In Wyrd on YouTube