Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rock bands toured U. P. in '66

This custom poster publicized a 1966 tour
of the Upper Peninsula which included the Buckinghams,
Luv'd Ones, Excels and Ravelles.


A week-long tour of the Upper Peninsula by four rock acts in 1966 was thought to be a surefire success, but instead the event slipped into obscurity.

Called "U. P. Swings" by promoters, the tour was headlined by Chicago's Buckinghams and featured an all-girl combo from lower Michigan called the Luv'd Ones. To add local appeal, the bill also included Marquette's popular Excels and the Ravelles, an up and coming band from Iron Mountain.

The shows were promoted by Don Cooper and Dale Chenoweth who ran a teen center in Iron Mountain and regularly hired the Ravelles for dances at the local armory which drew hundreds of teenagers.

Also a popular draw at dances in northern Michigan, the Excels had signed a recording contract with Detroit's Carla Records, owned by influential producer Ollie McLaughlin.

Chicago's Buckinghams were depicted in this
early promotional photo used during the "U. P. Swings" tour.

Top of the bill was anchored by the Buckinghams, a Windy City group getting massive airplay on WLS, a giant 50,000 watt radio station which easily reached into the U. P. with a teen-friendly rock 'n' roll format.

The Buckinghams were a client of the Willard Alexander Agency, which also represented the Luv'd Ones, led by guitar virtuoso Char Vinnedge. Vinnedge's band, based in downstate Niles, had played Escanaba earlier in the year.

The talent package was tied together by lower Michigan disc jockey and well-known radio personality Bill Eberline, who for contractual reasons was referred to as Bill Berline.

Looking to pack their venues, the promoters took out newspaper advertising and distributed posters prior to the tour. The poster, picturing all four groups, promised three hours of entertainment for ages 6-60 for a $2 admission fee. The event was sponsored by Teen Promotions, P. O. Box 63, Iron Mountain.

The tour represented the first time the Buckinghams performed in the U. P., singer and guitarist Carl Giammarese told me in a telephone interview on June 19, 2008.

The trek's initial stop took place on Tuesday, Aug. 9 at the fairgrounds in Norway, a Dickinson County location aimed to capitalize on the Ravelles' fan base. Indeed, the show drew a good crowd, Rand Alquist, the band's drummer, recalled. Lead singer Carmella Altobelli, remembered the audience was especially receptive to their version of Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!," during which keyboard player Brian Alquist jumped out from a box while on stage.

Although the Ravelles didn't have a 45 rpm record to promote, the other bands did. Released on Carla Records, the Excels' first single was a solid rocker called "Gonna Make You Mine, Girl." The Luv'd Ones were promoting "I'm Leaving You," issued on the Dunwich label, while the Buckinghams had released an appealing take on "I Call Your Name," a Lennon-McCartney number, on USA.

On Wednesday, Aug. 10, the tour stopped at the Escanaba High School gym, but the crowd was less than stellar. On Aug. 11, the groups travelled to Sault Ste. Marie's Pullar Stadium. The eastern U. P. ice skating facility, which was often crowded for teen dances, did not fill up on this occasion.

Then, on Aug. 12 the bands piled into their vans and cars and drove 369 miles to the peninsula's western-most city to perform at the Ironwood Theatre. Despite the talented line-up and the venue's elaborate Italian renaissance decor, attendance was disappointing. Still, Tom Lucas, lead guitar player for the Ravelles, took the opportunity to preserve the evening's performance on tape.

While the Buckinghams were busy playing engagements in the Upper Peninsula, excitement was building in their hometown of Chicago over an appearance by the Beatles. The famous British quartet set Aug. 12 as the date they would begin their 1966 North American tour.

If two Chicago shows weren't enough to create an uproar, controversy surrounded the Beatles over a comment John Lennon made about the group's popularity. Months before, Lennon had commented in the London Evening Standard on the current status of religion, surmising the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Although Lennon's statements were taken out of context in the United States, he apologized profusely during two press conferences.

Despite the political firestorm, 13,000 screaming fans attended each of the two shows, where the Beatles played old songs but nothing from their newest album, "Revolver." The warm-up acts were Barry Tashian and the Remains, Bobby Hebb, the Cyrkle, and the Ronettes.

Meanwhile, back in northern Michigan, the final date of the "U. P. Swings" tour came at Menominee High School on Saturday, Aug. 13. Turnout was lackluster, Rand Alquist recalled. Following the gig, the four bands went their separate ways.

In the end, the Upper Peninsula tour failed financially because not enough tickets were sold. "There were some long faces," Alquist remembered.

Still, band members have fond memories of the experience.

"The Buckinghams had the same sense of humor as the Excels and we tried to outdo each other with gags while each group was on stage," said Clark Sullivan, lead singer for the Excels.

At one stop, the Excels "found these custodial outfits in a closet with all the cleaning supplies, brooms and vacuums. During one of the Buckinghams' songs, we emerged from the wings of the stage dressed in these custodial uniforms and proceeded to clean the stage in back of the group. Everyone in the audience was thinking it was the custodians cleaning and they cracked up. The Buckinghams were performing one of their tear-jerker songs and couldn't understand why everyone was laughing," Sullivan remembered.

"Needless to say, they started contriving their payback. When we were performing, they held up placards directing the crowd not to clap, get up and walk toward the door and pretend to fall asleep," Sullivan added.

Steve Contardi, drummer for the Excels, also remembered the tour.

"This was a big deal for us because the Buckinghams were big on Chicago's WLS. So, here we were on the same stage with a group that was all over Top 40 radio. Although we had opened for a good number of big acts before, most of those shows were outside of the U. P., so our friends and neighbors had not seen us sharing the limelight with such headliners," Contardi said.

"The Buckinghams were fun guys and we had a good time with them off stage. There were also a few on-stage pranks, lots of great music and good fun," Contardi recalled.

"The Excels and Ravelles were each trying to claim our 'turf' at home in the U. P. We normally spent the summers almost exclusively in the lower peninsula. This tour gave us a chance to be home for that period," Contardi added.

Despite the antics, the Buckinghams' Giammarese remembered the groups taking the music quite seriously. "We were pretty focused," he said.

That the U. P. tour failed to generate significant crowds was disappointing enough, but Alquist said the Buckinghams also missed an opportunity to open for the Beatles during what became their last tour of America.

But, don't feel sorry for the Buckinghams. Just six months after their northern sojourn the band enjoyed a chart-topping hit with "Kind of a Drag." Six more hits followed, including "Don't You Care" and "Mercy Mercy Mercy."

Carl Giammarese, center, an original member
of the Buckinghams, reminisced about touring the Upper
Peninsula with Rand Alquist and Carmella Altobelli,
of the Ravelles.

In later years, the Buckinghams played more dates in northern Michigan, most recently in Kingsford last summer. After that show, Giammarese reminisced backstage with Alquist and Carmella Altobelli, both members of the Ravelles, about touring the U. P. all those years ago.

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