Thursday, February 14, 2008

Riot Squad had enduring career

Early Riot Squad poster


Founded in 1965, Escanaba's Riot Squad enjoyed a lengthy and influential career, despite numerous personnel changes.

The rock band was formed by Jim Joque, rhythm guitar; Dan Curran, drums; Bob Anzalone, bass; and Brendan Williams, lead guitar. An early business card listed the young musician's first names only, except for Williams, whose last name, address and phone number were given.

After a brief period as a quartet, Greg Curran, a cousin of the band's drummer, was added as vocalist and keyboard player. New member Curran and Williams attended Escanaba public schools, while the remaining three musicians attended Holy Name High School.

Not long after his arrival in Escanaba from Menominee, the Riot Squad met promoter Gene Smiltneck, who had opened a teen night club in downtown Escanaba called Club A Go Go. Smiltneck told the band they were good enough to be booked but lacked the equipment necessary for such work.

Owner of Bands Unlimited, Smiltneck allowed the group to practice at his house located at 1616 11th Ave. S. As I made weekly collections on my Escanaba Daily Press newspaper route, Smiltneck and his wife Lynn explained to me that the boys rehearsing in their basement were an up and coming group called the Riot Squad.

Early on the band played gigs at the Tony Revord American Legion Hall in Powers every other week, including a Christmas dance which took place on Dec. 23, 1966. As the Riot Squad's reputation grew in 1967, they planned to invest in additional equipment to become more employable.

Already, the Riot Squad had spent $2,500 for a drum kit, three guitars, two amplifiers, a public address system and five microphones. "By the spring we plan on having from $3,000 to $4,000 worth of Vox and Fender equipment," band leader Dan Curran said at the time.

A big gig came next. The Riot Squad performed live on the March of Dimes Telethon on WLUC-TV 6 on Sunday, Jan. 29, 1967. Although the group had to travel to the station's studio in Negaunee, the effort afforded them valuable peninsula-wide exposure.

Dances at Escanaba Area High School, Holy Name and Bay de Noc Community College became regular stops for the Riot Squad as did teen dances at Teamsters Hall put on by Smiltneck, which were referred to at the time as "K.C." The band also made the rounds of teen dances around the Upper Peninsula, including the Trenary Township Hall, Chatham, Gwinn High School gym, upstairs at the Eat Shop in Manistique and Lloyd's Good Fellowship Hall in Menominee. At the time, dances were often booked seven days a week around the central U. P.

The tiny community of Rock in Delta County was especially fond of the Riot Squad. In just a matter of months, the group played at the school gym, Finn Hall and Lions Clubhouse.

Eventually, the band performed throughout the U. P., northern lower Michigan and most of Wisconsin and-- with at least 134 songs in their repertoire-- came prepared to entertain any crowd. The group also made stops in Canada and Minnesota.

One time, the exhausted band called Smiltneck from St. Ignace to tell him their bus broke down as an excuse to avoid a engagement that evening in Superior, Wis., a bone weary 410 miles away. Over the years, the Riot Squad's green and orange bus became a familiar sight to many fans.

Smiltneck saw increasing potential in the Riot Squad and formed Peninsula Records with his brother Leon to release a seven-inch 45 rpm recording by the five young men. The resulting single paired a cover of Ritchie Valens' "Come On, Let's Go," with the Riot Squad's version of "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey," originally recorded by Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Both songs were taped in Smiltneck's basement where the band had logged many hours in rehearsal. An order at a custom pressing plant was put in for 1,000 copies which reached the record buying public in early 1968.

The rivalry between the Riot Squad and Prophets of Doom was ratched up as the groups competed in a Battle of the Bands contest at the Escanaba Area High School commons on March 2, 1968. "The battlefield is expected to be crowded with spectators who will be taxed at one dollar to provide the aid required for an undertaking of this tremendous size," a handout promised.

That summer, the Riot Squad took part in another Battle of the Bands, this time at the Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba. Organized by Smiltneck, the Aug. 14, 1968, competition included the Prophets of Doom, Spoken For, and Three Days and a Night, all from Escanaba; as well as Iron Mountain's Ravelles. Although the Ravelles, featuring female vocalist Carmella Altobelli, won the battle, they had nothing over the Riot Squad in that regard. That's because the Escanaba combo had added vocalist Karin Beck to the line-up.

The group expanded at times to include singer Kathy Kolich, guitarist Tom McGovern and keyboard player Dale Stannard.

Riot Squad promotional photo

As 1969 wore on, musical differences began to put strains on the group. To change with the times, Greg Curran wanted to add a brass section, while the others didn't support the idea. In September, the Riot Squad split over the issue with Dan Curran, Williams, McGovern and Stannard leaving to form a "heavy music" version of Porridge with Mitch Jensen.

Retaining the Riot Squad name, Greg Curran added five new members to the group, including ex-Porridge members Loreene Zeno and Bob Derouin; Fred Bingman, Greg Tolman, and Larry Willette. All the players were capable on more than one instrument. A vintage poster dubbed the band the "fun lovin' Riot Squad" and portrayed them in a collage of 18 photographs.

The Riot Squad cut a second 45 at Smiltneck's studio when the promoter moved to 2214 25th Ave. S. The facility featured a four-track recorder which cost about $2,000, Curran recalled. "Takin' It Easy" backed with "Before I Leave Tonight" appeared on the Demian label.

On Dec. 16, 1970, a five man Riot Squad performed at what was billed as the area's first sit-down concert featuring local acts. Held at the William Oliver Auditorium at Escanaba Junior High School, the event featured sets by Curran, Tolman, Derouin, Willette and Tom Vardigan; the Prophets of Doom and Jim Lewis. At the time, the Riot Squad played original material by Tolman and Curran, as well as covers of George Harrison, Chicago, the Who and Blood, Sweat & Tears, among others.

On occasion, various other musicians played with the group, including Bob Ling, who ran the Riot Squad fan club from his house at 620 S. 12th St.; Matt Gadnis, Greg Swank, John Adams, Mike Backlund and Dan Stoor. Promotional black and white 8 by 10 photographs show several popular configurations of the group including a quartet composed of Curran, Tolman, Derouin and Backlund, and a trio with Curran, Tolman and Adams.

Although the Riot Squad broke up for good in 1973, Curran, Williams and Tolman formed Rocking Chair, another popular local band. Derouin replaced Tolman in 1975 and the new trio played together until 1985.

Riot Squad photo gallery ...





Anonymous said...

Too many memories, too much emotion, too little time, too few words.

Thank you for this most incredible trip down memory-laden lane!!!!

tvardigan said...

My old buddy Greg Tolman (Toad) emailed me this link. Wow, just reading the names of people I knew so well yet haven't even thought of for so many years is a real trip!


Gene Michaels said...

Darn, I thought Bob Ling did the RIOT SQUAD article. Change his bame to Steve Seymour in my previous post.