Fans crowded the stage at Daniel's Den
in Saginaw when the Excels, a popular Marquette-based
rock band, made an appearance in 1966. The Excels
are among the Upper Peninsula acts included on
the 2009 ballot for an on-line Hall of Fame at
Michigan Rock and Roll Legends.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
Vintage Upper Peninsula rock bands have long been overlooked when to comes to recognizing acts which have contributed to the state's musical heritage.
It may be true that no northern Michigan group had the impact of Alice Cooper, Bob Seger or Grand Funk Railroad.
Still, a case may be made that U. P. groups have been ignored simply because they came from the state's sparsely populated northern counties.
Now, U. P. music fans have an opportunity to help correct this omission.
Fifteen of the region's best 1960's era bands-- and a talented solo performer-- are included on the 2009 ballot for Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, an on-line Hall of Fame conceived by Gary Johnson.
"The idea for Michigan Rock and Roll Legends came from a proposal that I wrote for an actual physical museum project in downtown Bay City," said Johnson, who lives in nearby Essexville. He thought tourists would flock to a music museum located in Madonna's hometown.
"Unfortunately, the powers-that-be didn't care much for the idea, so I went ahead and put together an on-line version," Johnson, a retired school teacher, explained.
Seventeen acts were inducted into the 2005 class during voting held at rock and roll trivia shows Johnson ran in Bay City. During on-line voting in the three succeeding years an additional 17 performers have been cited. Most of Michigan's best-known stars have already won places in Johnson's virtual Hall of Fame.
This year's honorees are the Amboy Dukes ("Journey to the Center of the Mind"); Brownsville Station ("Smokin' in the Boys Room"); Frost (Alpena's most famous rock group); Stooges (including punk rocker Iggy Pop); and Terry Knight and the Pack (predecessor to Grand Fund Railroad).
The U. P. groups on the ballot include Renaissance Fair and Rob Kirk and the Word from Sault Ste. Marie; Danny and the Galaxies from Ironwood; and the Benders, featuring Menominee's Gerry Cain. The Copper Country is represented by the Vigilantes, Henchmen VI, the Kinetics (Kinetic Energy); and the Rhythm Rockers. Dickinson County bands on the ballot include Joey Gee and the Blue Tones; Lexington Project and the Ravelles. Escanaba's Riot Squad and Prophets of Doom are named as are the Fastells from Negaunee and the Excels from Marquette. Clark Sullivan, lead singer for the Excels, is also nominated as a solo artist.
All the U. P. combos issued 45 rpm records during their careers and were active during an era in which Baby Boomers demanded new music and encouraged local acts to reach for their dreams of rock stardom. Many of these bands were popular well beyond the confines of the U. P. and have recordings highly regarded by collectors today.
To get elected to Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, the upper Michigan groups are competing against hundreds of bands from lower Michigan. So, does an Upper Peninsula act have any chance of being inducted?
"I certainly hope that a U. P. act will be voted in," Johnson, also known as Dr. J., said.
In the context of Michigan rock and roll history, which includes the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Supremes, an outfit comprised of teenage boys from rural northern Michigan probably doesn't stand much of a chance.
"Speaking for myself, I was pretty much unaware of the Upper Peninsula artists. The only act I was familiar with was the Excels," Johnson told me.
Although they were based in Marquette, the Excels cut five 45 rpm singles for Detroit's Carla Records under the tutelage of influential producer Ollie McLaughlin. Their song, "Little Innocent Girl, did well on many lower Michigan radio stations including WTRU, Muskegon; WVMO, Monroe; and WKNX, Saginaw.
Terry Knight and the Pack
"If there was a teen club in the lower peninsula, we played it," recalled Clark Sullivan, the group's lead singer. "A few memorable ones were Daniel's Den in Saginaw, the Tanz Haus in Traverse City, and the Roostertail in Detroit. These were the clubs where we would alternate dates with some of Michigan's top groups such as Bob Seger, Terry Knight and the Pack, and the Bossmen, led by Dick Wagner, later Alice Cooper's guitarist. And, there was a group called the Mushrooms, with a guy named Glen Frey, who went on to stardom with the Eagles."
Following the demise of the Excels, Sullivan continued working with McLaughlin, taping material in New York City.
To be eligible for the on-line Hall of Fame, an artist must have started their career in Michigan, or be a native or resident, and have a record which received AM or FM radio airplay prior to 1988.
Besides the Excels, other U. P.-based rock bands also had significant musical accomplishments, which might have escaped the notice of lower Michigan music fans.
Take the Vigilantes, for example. This group of high school friends from Ontonagon recorded at least ten 45 rpm singles under various names for a variety of labels. Led by vocalist Jim Brogan, they also recorded as the All Nighters, the Flagmen, the Lovers, Pastels and Playboys. Rare for the time, they issued an LP called "Live at the Barn," credited to the All Nighters.
The same basic band backed-up for singles by Jay Johnson, Richard Parker and Johnny Tucker. In addition, Brogran taped a 7-incher under the name Jimmy B and the Rockatones.
Another act which gained considerable notoriety outside the U. P. was the Kinetic Energy, fronted by Frank Gallis. Based in Houghton, the group was also known as the Kinetics and Five Kinetics. They cut a pair of singles, including "Susie Q," and a frenetic LP of cover songs called "Snow Children."
The other U. P. acts on the 2009 Michigan Rock and Roll Legends ballot also have compelling stories.
On-line voters have already given favorable nods to many of Michigan's greatest rock stars, including the Temptations, Mitch Ryder, Del Shannon, Aretha Franklin and Madonna.
Johnson's mission statement declares: "Michigan Rock and Roll Legends is a web site dedicated to the artists and music that are part of Michigan's rich and diverse rock and roll legacy. In order to help promote and preserve this vital aspect of the cultural history of our state, Michigan Rock and Roll Legends was created. It is hoped that the site will not only give recognition to artists who were important contributors to the rock and roll movement, but will also help keep the spirit of Michigan music burning bright."
To be elected, a nominee must be included on one-third of all on-line ballots, Johnson said. Voters name their top ten choices.
Balloting for the 2009 class begins Jan. 1 at the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends website.
Since the 15 northern-most counties contain just three percent of the state's population, the numbers are against an Upper Peninsula act being elected. Still, getting representation in the on-line Hall of Fame would remind music fans that Upper Peninsula acts created a vital chapter in the history of Michigan rock and roll.
If you agree, cast your ballot at michiganrockandrolllegends.com and ask your friends to do the same.