By STEVE SEYMOUR
Although no 1960s era rock band from the Upper Peninsula had a national hit, it wasn't for lack of quality material.
From the beginning of the decade, till the end, from east to west and north to south, U. P. bands recorded plenty of great rock 'n' roll singles.
But, because the region is isolated geographically and far from any large city, U. P. rock bands often had to travel to a distant recording studio to commit their songs to tape. Geography also conspired against these local acts when it came to getting airplay in those metropolitan centers hundreds of miles from home.
Despite its rural character, the rock 'n' roll spirit pervaded the 15 counties of the U. P.
Many northern Michigan groups took a shot at musical infamy by releasing 45 rpm singles, although this regional "garage band" scene has been largely undocumented.
The Beatles' appearance in America in early 1964 is credited with spawning an explosion of homegrown rock 'n' roll groups, but two of the most popular U. P. bands were launched before the British music invasion.
The Excels, headquartered in Marquette, and Houghton's Kinetics each enjoyed significant success after being formed in 1963. Fashioned in the mold of the Beach Boys, the Excels issued five singles on the Detroit-based Carla label, owned by respected producer Ollie McLaughlin. Performing original material, such as "Gonna Make You Mine Girl" and "Little Innocent Girl," they toured extensively and appeared on several well-known television programs.
The Kinetics, meanwhile, officially named The Kinetic Energy, cut two 45's and a LP record album called "Snow Children," all the while building up a significant reputation as a live act. They competed with Creedence Clearwater Revival to make a hit of "Susie Q," but broke up in 1969.
Still, the Excels and Kinetics weren't the first rock bands from north of the Mackinac Bridge to make records. Danny and the Galaxies, from the Ironwood-Hurley area, and the Vigilantes, calling Ontonagon home, beat them to the punch. Danny Sullivan and his Galaxies cut an Elvis-sounding rockabilly number called "If You Want to be my Baby," for the Darbo label in Minneapolis, early in the decade. A second 45, "My Tattle Tale," followed a year later.
The Vigilantes, a group of school friends from the Copper Country, toured around the U. P., and released a 45 called "Ramblin' On" in 1961. A second single, containing the instrumentals "Warm Wind'' and "Caterpillar Crawl" appeared the following year. The group moved to Chicago and recorded under various names beginning in 1963. Vigilantes member Jim Brogan also issued his song, "Dream Girl" on the Cuca label as Jimmy B and the Rockatones.
The Rhythm Rockers, a popular musical attraction in the U. P. for decades, released two 45s. Based in tiny community of Alston, the group issued "Unchained Melody" and "Bad News" in 1962.
Fellow western U. P. residents, the Henchmen VI, issued a single, combining "All of the Day" and "Is Love Real," five years later. Both songs were composed by lead singer and guitarist Scott Heinske.
The central counties of the peninsula also contributed to the catalog of garage band singles released during the decade.
In 1964, Joey Gee and the Bluetones, based in Iron Mountain, cut a single called "Don't You Just Know," backed with "Little Searcher." Both songs were written by singer Joey Giannunzio, under his real name.
Iron Mountain's Ravelles released an original composition called "Psychedelic Movement" in 1968, featuring the Grace Slick- like vocals of Carmella Altobelli. Not long after the group changed its name to Sainte Jon's Academy and issued a follow-up called "Smile at the Flowers," on the Daizy label.
Nearby Kingsford, meanwhile, produced Lexington Project which recorded "It Looks a Lot Like Rain" and "She Looks Much Older," both original band compositions. Only 500 copies of this 45 were pressed, according to Sonic label owner Mike Kuehl.
About the same time, two rival Escanaba bands made forays into the regional hit parade. The Riot Squad 45 included their take on Ritchie Valens' "Come On, Let's Go," while the Prophets of Doom released "I Told You," written by bassist Dave Watchorn. Both records appeared on the Peninsula Records label.
In Marquette, French Church recorded "Slapneck 1943" for the local Princeton label. Negaunee's Fastells, meanwhile, travelled to Cuca Studio in Sauk City, WI to record their 1967 single which included "So Much," written by guitarist Mark Pyykkonen, and "Take You Away," credited to keyboard player Robert Barabe.
Meanwhile, Menominee resident Gerry Cain saw his band, the Benders, issue "Can't Tame Me," while a later group, the Why Four, released "Hard Life." Years before, another group from this area, John Dee and the Shadows, issued "I'm a Rolling Stone," on the Raynard label.
Sault Ste. Marie added to the garage rock scene, as well. Rob Kirk and the Word issued "Girl Talk" in 1967, while Renaissance Fair cut ''Every Moment" and the legendary "In Wyrd" for the Princeton label in Marquette. A third disc, "Always Love You" and "She's a Woman," appeared on the Astral imprint, located in Grand Rapids.
Certainly, the complete story of this era in northern Michigan has yet to be uncovered. There is at least one lost chapter.
For example, many people know that Marquette and Escanaba boasted their own record labels, but so did Manistique. Yet, little is known about Spoke Records, beyond the fact it was founded by the late Irene Davis, then owner of radio station WTIQ, and released 45s by the Renegades, Innocence and a group from Chicago called Society. The label's slogan was "Spoke speaks for itself," WTIQ employee L. David Vaughan recalled.
Still, taking the bounty of 45s into account, it's evident many U. P. garage bands, some barely remembered, made some surprisingly memorable music.