Thursday, May 01, 2008

Prophets of Doom aced debut

The Prophets of Doom posed for this photograph at Ford River Cemetery. From left, Dave Watchorn, Jim Nelson, Jim Smith, Larry Olivares and Mike Steede


Musician Dave Watchorn will never forget the last weekend of January, 1967.

That's because he got married on Saturday, Jan. 28, and played the first gig with his band, The Prophets of Doom (PoD), the next day.

The group's memorable debut performance came during a March of Dimes Telethon, then a popular talent showcase, broadcast from the studios of WLUC-TV6 in Negaunee, Watchorn recalled.

Making the trip to Marquette County were drummer Jim Nelson, guitarist Mike Steede, bassist/ singer Calvin Rose, lead guitarist/ singer Dave Watchorn (Steede's cousin); and keyboardist Jim Smith.

The PoD, one of six acts from Delta County to appear on Sunday, Jan. 29, started their segment at 8:20 a. m., according to a newspaper advertisement promoting the event.

After one of the guys in the band mentioned Watchorn was recently married, an announcer picked up on the fact and told the audience, "If this person is willing to play for us during his honeymoon, the least you can do is call in a pledge."

PoD then played two songs, Watchorn noting that the phone operators were busy and that everyone else was dancing. "Wow, that woke up everybody here and by the phone calls, we woke up the whole U. P.," a host announced as the band was unplugging their guitars. They were quickly asked to continue playing and ran through the eight songs they had practiced with Smith, who had recently joined the group.

With their appearance going so well, the band even took a request when a caller pledged $50 to hear a certain song, even though Smith didn't know the tune. "He looked at me with this horrified look on his face. I told him to turn the organ off and play. The camera was now on and we started wailing away on this song. Jim started bouncing around. The cameraman noticed all this action, focused on Jim and sent him out over the airwaves. Jim was oblivious to all this and didn't notice until the camera rolled within two feet of him. To make matters worse, the cameraman then focused on Jim's hands and the organ keys. That seemed to make him play even harder. All this and not one note coming out of the organ. We laughed about it for a long time," Watchorn said.

The upshot of the telethon show was the band quickly had several bookings.

With band members living all around Delta County, they carried business cards which declared: "From out of nowhere... The Prophets of Doom."

Early on, PoD emulated the Buckinghams and Cryan' Shames, two Chicago quintets who had hits with "Kind of a Drag" and "Sugar and Spice," respectively. "We dressed in black because of our name and also because the Buckinghams are all in white," Rose said in a 1967 article in the Escanaban, the local high school newspaper.

They played in Powers, Munising, Noway, Trenary, Manistique and at popular teen dances (known as "KC") hosted by booking agent Gene Smiltneck at Escanaba's Teamsters Hall. "Playing our first KC dance was very special. For a local band, it was like making the big time," Rose recalled recently.

"My favorite song to sing was '96 Tears' because it was always well received by the audience," said Rose. "One of the strengths of our group was that we all could sing and our voices complemented each other. I enjoyed the songs we sang as a group as much or more than the ones I was out front singing," he added.

By the fall of 1967, Rose enlisted in the Air Force, leaving the bass player position vacant. The search for a replacement turned up lead guitarist Larry Olivares, who had recently moved to the Upper Peninsula from California. "After we heard him play, we knew we wanted him in the band," Watchorn said. So, to accommodate Olivares, Watchorn switched to bass.

While PoD was growing in popularity as a live act, the band also followed local rockers the Riot Squad in making a 45 rpm single for the Peninsula Records label, owned by Smiltneck's brother, Leon.
While the Riot Squad had recorded cover songs, PoD's record contained two original tunes.

Watchorn was inspired as a songwriter by Dave Brooks of Manistique. Before Watchorn joined PoD, the two had played together in the group 4 Degrees North. Brooks contributed his song "Baba Do Wah" to the project, while "I Told You" was Watchorn's composition. "I had worked on the melody for a while. I did the lyrics in a bit of a hurry. They don't make a lot of sense but a lot of songs made no sense back then."

The songs were recorded in Smiltneck's basement studio. "He had a couple of two-track recorders, a couple of little Radio Shack microphone mixers and cords everywhere. It was a trial and error thing to get the sound right. Nothing could move an inch once we had it right. I can't remember how many times we did those songs. Glitches would happen now and then ruining a perfect take. We finished one of these perfect takes and the song was fading out when a teaspoon that was used to stir some coffee fell off a speaker, glanced off a guitar case and right into the microphone stand. It was barely audible to us but it sure was loud on the tape. It sounded like someone hit a gong with a sledge hammer," Watchorn remembers.

"Gene put a lot of time and effort into the making of our record. It was an amazing experience and a dream come true to be part of the whole endeavor. I only found out recently that Gene's brother had the Peninsula Records label in his name. I would like to thank Gene and Leon for the opportunity to make that record," Watchorn added.

As part of the effort to promote the 45, the band posed for what Watchorn called "the famous graveyard picture" at Ford River Cemetery. Used on posters, the black and white image was taken by studio photographer Gordon Nelson of Gladstone. "He thought we were nuts," Watchorn remembers. The band then brought a copy of the photograph to Photo Offset Printing in Escanaba where Gene Hebert suggested a logo of the band's name with the letters dripping blood.

In the late summer of 1968, several personnel changes came to the band as Smith moved away from the area with his family and Nelson went on to a four-year college. New drummer was Jay Olivares, Larry's brother. Smith was replaced on organ by Hank Mroczkowski, who had been in several early Escanaba rock bands, including the Nomads, Beat Incorporated and Johnny Evil and the Spirits.

On Wednesday, Aug. 14, 1968, PoD took part in a wildly competitive Battle of the Bands contest at the Upper Peninsula State Fair, won by the Ravelles, a popular show band from Iron Mountain.

"When the final list of bands to play included the Ravelles, everyone, including me, felt they would win. I remember us getting together and talking about it. Our plan was fairly simple. We planned to win or be a close second. We would do that with the right song choices and playing those songs the very best we could. When we finished our part of the show, we were pleased with what we had done. The Ravelles started their portion of the show and within 30 seconds I knew they had won the first place spot. I remember telling the guys: 'We just lost first place.'

"From the Ravelles we learned what 'showmanship' and 'audience participation' was all about. The Ravelles left the stage with doubts as to who won. They came directly over to us and congratulated us, saying they thought we had won. Well, we straightened them out on that.

"The Ravelles remain in my mind the nicest batch of musicians in one band that I ever met. In the following years we met again quite a few times on the road," Watchorn said.

Not long after, PoD played another Battle of the Bands in Kingsford. The Ravelles weren't contestants, but some of them were judges. "We won first place in that one. First prize was cash and more important several bookings deep in Wisconsin. I can remember a couple of those club owners asking if there were other good bands from the U. P. Our answer was always, 'Hey, there are lots of them.' We played all over Wisconsin after that."

The PoD always learned what they could from other acts, including the Unbelievable Uglies, a group from Detroit Lakes, Minn., known for adding comedy to their stage antics. Members of PoD watched closely when the Uglies played a teen dance in Escanaba. "In any case, we learned about entertainment. We changed our posters to say 'dance and stage show,'" Watchorn said.

"We had jokes along with some comedy skits. We had a rubber chicken called Clyde. We had a dozen or so things we did with that chicken. Mike would light his pants on fire. Mike and Jay would go in the crowd and dance the funky chicken. Mike would dress up as 'Sweet Sue' for the 'Along Came Jones' song.

"Over the years, we have met many people who still remember some of the crazy stunts we did on stage," Watchorn said.

The PoD performed extensively. "In the summer of 1970, we had a stretch of 90 days when we played 81 nights. It was a long summer. We played a lot of teen bars in Wisconsin. I look back now and all the summers meld into one," Watchorn said.

Besides the countless dances, PoD also played a few concerts. They opened for the Archies, famous for "Sugar Sugar," when the bubblegum group played at Holy Name High School and warmed up the crowd when the Animals played an engagement in Green Bay.

The band was also featured at a concert held at the Escanaba Junior High School on Dec. 16, 1970, which also included the Riot Squad and Jim "Smiley" Lewis. "We were excited about playing but we were a little disappointed that it was far from a sell-out," Watchorn said. Larry Brown had joined PoD at this time on lead guitar, while former member Mike Steede emceed the show for promoter Gene Smiltneck.

"There were some pretty wild sounds at times," with two lead guitarists, Watchorn said. "Larry Brown put up with us for about a year and he left when Mike Steede returned."

PoD was also working toward the release of a another single. "We recorded what was to be a second 45 at Target Recording Studio in Appleton. The two songs were originals. One song was named 'Things I See,' written by Larry Olivares and myself. The other was called '9th Street Earthquake,' written by Larry Brown.

"We never released the songs on 45. Our intention was to try to market the recordings to some larger labels with the funds to press the number of records needed for nation-wide release and to market them. We got really good reviews of the recordings from most of the labels. However, none of them were ready to take on new projects having already more bands signed than they could do justice to," Watchorn stated.

By the summer of 1971, Watchorn's priorities began to shift away from the band to his family. "I had given up all the things normal people do on weekends for too many years. Simply put, it became more important to take my son fishing or on a picnic than it was to play music for a crowd somewhere in the Fox River Valley," Watchorn said.

"I gave notice that as of a certain date, I was done with all the travelling," Watchorn said. "The band could have carried on with a replacement, but I think they admitted to themselves that they were tired of it all, too."

According to Larry Olivares, one of PoD's last jobs was at the Frank Karas memorial band shell in Escanaba's Ludington Park. "We generally wanted to quit at the top and be remembered for our best years, not just burn out," Olivares added.

Founding member Jim Nelson is pleased with PoD's legacy. "I'm happily amazed that there is still interest in a band I started with Mike Steede in my small bedroom in Pine Ridge so many years ago. I have played with many bands since but I have never run across such a wonderful group of true friends as the guys in the PoD.

"For the last two years, the PoD have had a reunion of sorts. Mike Steede, Dave Watchorn, Calvin Rose and myself have met at Mike's house and swapped stories and jammed for several magical hours. That first reunion was completely indescribable. To be playing drums with most of the original Prophets of Doom after so many years was like a dream come true... and the emotion in the room was like we had never left. Maybe someday we will be fortunate enough to have Larry Olivares and Jim Smith join the fun," Nelson said.

"As you can imagine the stories were flying. One of my favorites was about the very snowy and slippery day we were driving to a Catholic school youth club dance in Marquette. As we entered the city, we slid right through a snowy intersection cutting off a car coming from the other side. The car followed us all the way to the Catholic church complex. We were sure the driver was ready to read us the riot act and probably beat us up. As we pulled up to the church complex he drove up next to us and rolled down his window, ready to read us off. He glanced into the car and saw five young men all dressed in black. He blinked a few times, said 'I'm sorry, fathers' and sped away. We said a little prayer of thanks, had a good laugh, set up our equipment and played our hearts out for the next three hours."

Prophets of Doom Picture Gallery

The Prophets of Doom debut public performance, at the WLUC-TV Telethon, was heralded in this newspaper advertisement. The band was said to be from Ensign because that was the mailing address of member Dave Watchorn, who took care of the details of booking the group on the program.

Mark Olivares took these three color photos of the Prophets of Doom at their final sound check at the Karas Memorial Band Shell in Escanaba's Ludington Park. On stage, from left, is Larry Olivares, Dave Watchorn, Jay Olivares and Mike Steede.


Unknown said...

Would love to see a reunion.

Looks like my Uncles are really cook guys!!!

Mathew Olivares

Unknown said...

Would love to see a reunion.

Looks like my Uncles are really cook guys!!!