Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Walrus won fans, waxed vinyl

Walrus relaxed on a couch for this 1969 photo. From left are
founding members Don Kuhli, Kim French, Bill Etten and Mike


Marquette rock band Walrus tried to expand on local success by moving to Ann Arbor where they staged live shows and recorded an album of original songs.

Active from 1969 to 1974, Walrus opened for many of Michigan's finest rock bands and warmed-up the crowd for a Marquette appearance by Richie Havens, famous as the first act to play at Woodstock.

The original Walrus was comprised of lead vocalist Bill Etten, Mike McKelvy (guitar), Don Kuhli (drums) and Kim French (bass).

Etten's three musical cohorts all played with Cub Koda, the legendary rocker who would later write and perform "Smokin' in the Boys Room," a No. 3 hit for Brownsville Station.

While enrolled at Northern Michigan University, Koda recorded an obscure 45 rpm single for Princeton Records, and played local gigs as Mike Koda and the Blue Blades.

Etten had some experience of his own as the singer in a mid-60s high school combo called the Henchmen. Besides Etten, the Henchmen included Les Ross (drums), John Howe (lead guitar), Pete Stanick (bass) and Brendan Biolo (rhythm guitar). Another rock outfit with a similar name, the Henchmen VI, hailed from Ontonagon.

Marquette's Henchmen actually played some of the same venues as Koda's band, including the Roosevelt bar in Ishpeming, run by "Gigs" Gagliardi.

When the Roosevelt was alerted to an impending visit by the state liquor inspector, underage patrons were quickly ushered into the back alley, Etten recalled.

Although Koda was the leader of a rival band, Etten admired the musician. Etten remembered attending a party with Koda. Although Koda didn't drink due to diabetes, he was still the center of attention, even demonstrating some of the antics he'd employ years later in Brownsville Station.

The Henchmen played the senior ball at Escanaba High School on April 10, 1966 as a last minute replacement when the Rogues broke up.

Etten entered the Air Force in 1966, putting his musical aspirations on hold.

Sprung from military service in 1968 due to a stomach ulcer, Etten soon hooked up with Koda's ex-bandmates. They rehearsed cover songs from Steppenwolf and Cream and were hired to perform at the NMU University Center.

The band didn't yet have a name and chose "Walrus" after McKelvey saw the word on a poster from an accounting firm.

John Metz joined the aspiring rock outfit on guitar, while French left Walrus in 1970 to be replaced by Randy Tessier on bass.

Early on, Walrus excited fans with a liquid light show, used to great effect by many San Francisco bands. Operating overhead and slide projectors with color wheels, an entourage of eight or nine NMU students created constantly changing psychedelic visuals to add a multi-media effect to Walrus performances.

Walrus played Marquette County jobs but also ventured into Delta County to play teen dances at Escanaba's Teamsters Hall, organized by promoter Gene Smiltneck. Smiltneck, in turn, booked the band for engagements in Iron Mountain and Ironwood, Etten remembered.

Making a political statement, Walrus was among the groups to play at a Michigan Marijuana Initiative concert at Karas Memorial Band Shell in Escanaba's Ludington Park.

Managed by David Perkins, Walrus opened concerts at Northern's Hedgcock Field House when Detroit-area acts like the Bob Seger System, MC5, Brownsville Station, SRC and Savage Grace came to town.

Seger enjoyed a handful of regional hits, including "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," before his national break-out and played north of the Mackinac Bridge many times.

The MC5, known for their incendiary live shows, made a name for themselves with "Kick Out the Jams," recorded live at Detroit's Grande Ballroom.

SRC, noted for an organ-heavy dirge called "Black Sheep," joined forces with Savage Grace and Walrus for a memorable gig on the NMU campus on May 23, 1970.

In fact, Etten and his bandmates became friends with Glenn Quackenbush who played Hammond organ for SRC.

Besides Quackenbush, SRC was comprised of brother Gary Quackenbush (lead guitar), Scott Richardson (vocals), Steve Lyman (guitar) and E.G. Clawson (drums). The band had a series of bass players, including Robin Dale, Al Wilmot and Richard Haddad.

The hard rockin' SRC was based in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan and the center of a thriving counter-culture scene.

Feeling the group had accomplished everything it could in the Upper Peninsula, the members of Walrus decided in 1971 to move lock, stock and barrel to Ann Arbor.

Walrus enjoyed "moderate success" in lower Michigan, Etten noted. The band played numerous outdoor Sunday concerts at Gallup Park which featured the likes of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Up, Third Power and MC5. Walrus also performed at the famous Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, Etten said.

Then, in July, 1973 Glenn Quackenbush invited Walrus to record at Morgan Sound Studios in Ann Arbor, owned by SRC. With guidance from Quackenbush, Walrus taped two original songs for a 45 rpm single. The top side was "Rape and Plunder," penned by Randy Tessier, while the flipside contained "Delighted," a composition co-written by Etten and Mike McKelvy.

Produced and arranged by Walrus, the resulting seven-inch record was assigned catalog number 1008. Etten is unhappy with the record today and estimates that less than 1,000 were pressed.

Still, Walrus returned to Morgan Sound Studios in the fall for more recording. This time, Quackenbush produced the sessions. Although Tessier came up with a number of worthwhile originals, Etten said the band decided to divvy-up the record so each band member was able to contribute songs. Unfortunately, their long-playing record was never issued.

Walrus continued playing live shows. Between Jul 30, 1973 and March 10, 1974, Walrus was featured at Ann Arbor's Primo Showbar eight times. The venue at 217 S. Ashley was a stop for Bob Seger, Detroit and the Rockets.

But, as the year wore on, Walrus broke up. Etten and McKelvy returned to Marquette.

A band called Punch was Etten's next musical project. Formed in 1974, Punch consisted of Etten (lead vocals), McKelvy (guitar), Rick Leppanen (bass) and Mark Skubick (keyboard, trumpet, harp).

Punch became the house band at Marquette's Traffic Jam Bar, owned by boxer Joe Paduka. One of Paduka's bartenders was a NMU student athlete named Howard Schultz. Schultz moved on from serving liquor to serve as chairman, president and CEO of a little coffeehouse chain called Starbucks. "I tell people I once tipped a billionaire," Etten jokes.

Bar owner Paduka and Jay Jadorsky delved into the music business by forming The Brass Ring, a production company which booked such acts as Aerosmith and Wishbone Ash into the Marquette's Lakeview Arena. After their concerts the bands would often show up at the Traffic Jam to play with Punch, Etten remembered.

Punch disbanded in 1976 and was followed by Reentry, a band which appeared on a regular basis at Scarlet O'Hara's in downtown Marquette. The Core members of the group included Etten, Kim French and Mike Stadler.

When Reentry ended in the early 1980s, Etten took aim at the burgeoning demand for country music with Bill Etten and the Heritage Band. The group earned considerable recognition in the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin with their novelty hit, "We Go Green Bay," composed by Etten, Rob Labby and Ed Wales.

The band was comprised of Etten (vocals), Dave Bradbury (bass, vocals), Steve "Amos" McCoy (guitar), Kevin Mussatto (guitar), Eddie Kangas (drums) and Jerry Kippola (steel guitar).

Released in 1985, "We Go Green Bay," was recorded at Studio B in Ishpeming and issued on Jack Pine Records. Etten's father, Herb, plays accordion on the session. The 45's flipside, "Northern Country Boy," had been released earlier as the group's first single.

"We Go Green Bay" received considerable airplay in the Upper Peninsula and on WGEE in Green Bay. Sold at many independent record stores, including the Record Rack in Escanaba, the single was picked-up by Shopko, and sold an estimated 20,000 copies.

Some people who heard the song, a clever mix of country and comedy, mistakenly thought it was done by the Joe Arkansas Band, later known as Da Yoopers. Etten's Heritage Band and Da Yoopers enjoyed a friendly rivalry during that period, Etten recalled.

One of the Heritage Band's high points was opening for Charlie Daniels at Lakeview Arena on June 17, 1988, Etten said.

The Heritage Band worked as the house band at The Shamrock through most of the 1980s. The band even worked up their own live version of "Delighted," originally done by Walrus.

Although Walrus broke up in 1974, the band has retained a group of hardcore fans over the intervening years. Walrus even got a mention in The Blues Brothers movie. Walrus drummer Kuhli was a childhood friend of comedian John Belushi, who played Jake in the 1980 film. In one scene, the word "Walrus" was shown prominently among some restroom graffiti announcing a Blues Brothers show at the palace Hotel Ballroom.

Members of Walrus remain active in music today.

Kim French continues to live in Ann Arbor and works as a free lance musician. Tessier teaches English at the University of Michigan and plays bass in George Bedard and the Kingpins.

Don Kuhli teaches music to elementary school students in San Diego and plays with the San Diego Symphony. Mike McKelvy is a free lance musician who spends most of the year in Florida.

Etten still plays gigs with McKelvy, when the guitarist returns to Marquette each summer from his southern digs.

Walrus has also staged a series of reunion concerts, the most recent in 2006.

Etten, meanwhile, also keeps himself occupied in a business he owns with his wife Carol, Mrs. Moose Jigsaw Puzzles.

He even produced custom Walrus puzzles to recognize those reunion shows, bringing past and present together.


Anonymous said...

Great story of musical king pins......Dwight Johnson

JulZ said...

This article really captures the enduring influence of Walrus.
Friends of Walrus can join the Facebook group dedicated to Walrus lore. A link to this article is already posted there. http://www.facebook.com/s.php?n=0&k=200000010&sf=f&sid=ec012be50a9c3291d5ec514226665040&n=0&c1=4#/group.php?gid=18299135851

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seymour:

I have a copy of the French Church 45, "Without Crying" and "Slapneck 1945" (I think that's the name). While I never thought Mike Cleary was much of a singer, he and the rest, Warren and Gordy MacDonald, and John Spratto,sound remarkably good. A couple of minor, but important, footnotes to the Marquette scene circa 1970 should mention Jon Robin Labby (The Ski-Doos), and his associations with all of the musicians you've mentioned in the context of the Walrus. I could discuss many things he did that raised the local hip culture's coolness quotient, like taking different groups of us to concerts in Detroit. Two I recall, at the Grande Ballroom, included Steppenwolf, The MC5, and Three Dog Night, and the other,Stone the Crows and Joe Cocker with Mad Dogs and Englishmen. What I remember most about Labby was him bringing me to his house (he always had the coolest stereo system around) and introducing me to an album called "We're Only in it For the Money" by Frank Zappa. That album changed my life. There are some outrageous Walrus stories (ask about Mac) that certainly bear telling. If you ever want to call or e-mail, feel free. rlt@umich.edu or 734-276-4474. Besides playing with GB& the Kpins, I am also in a band called FUBAR. Give me an address and I'll send our disc along. I think your mission of surveying UP rock history is a worthy pursuit.

Best - Randy Tessier

Kim French said...

Hi,Steve, hope to hook up, some day... got plenty of stories! Anyway, glad that finally there was some light shined on the three MYSTERY groups before Brownsville Station...also, Happiness Ticket...thanks,

Kim French said...

I also played bass, on "We Go Green Bay" so der...

Kim French said...

Want stories ? Contact R. Tessier...B. Etten... K. French

Unknown said...

Hazy memories of shooting the first two black and white pictures as an Under Assistant U.P. Promo Man Intern for Left Bank Lights. It's a wonder they're in relative focus.

Always thought there were enough good stories for a book, but then again, who would believe most of them? Guess you had to be there.

Best wishes to the extended Walrus tribe.

petefogo said...

Walrus was a damn good band. They pretty much played every venue in the area (including a cow pasture in Sundell.

On the other hand, if you missed Mike Koda and the Blueblades in the 60s, you missed the best music on the Peninsula in that era. They're largely overlooked due to Koda's later success (and the absence of video recorders in those days). They were NOT a ragged pickup band as is often alleged. They could blow the walls out when Mike got it kicking and the kid was absolutely fearless. He'd walk into fraternity gigs and do Chicago Blues and Dylan covers. (I'd love to have a tape of his cover of "Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know")
Mike was a casual friend. I interviewed him once for the NMU paper (then called the Northern News). He pretty much gave me the first critical perspectives I ever had regarding rock and roll. I last saw him in Texas in 74' when Brownsville Station was touring with Johnny Winter and I regret losing touch with him. Like a lot of the best things in life, you don't realize their value until they're gone.

Barry said...

Remember seeing The Walrus in the Church Theater in Marquette -- they did a great rendition of "I've Got A Feelin'" by Da Beatles. Good stuff. They were a great inspiration to me in my early Marquette music career as well.

Anonymous said...

This link is long overdue. Randy Tessier mentioned Rob Labby's influence on the Marquette scene. Sadly, he died nearly ten years ago, Sept. 12th, 2001.
Here's a bit more on Rob, his movies, The Ski-Doos (I was a member.) and so forth. He helped make wild creativity de rigueur in Marquette for many who might otherwise have seen such things as outsider behaviors.

You make me want to branch out and find out what other overlooked music is in non-center places. Who was The Walrus of Rhode Island? The Excels of North Dakota? Life away from publishing centers can be pretty interesting too.

Mike Stadler
(The Anchormen, Zanzibar Exchange, Dark Horse, The Ski-Doos, Re-entry, The Fools, Boreal String Band and a dozen more I can't recall. Randy?)

Rambliniggy said...

I may remember the premier screening in Marquette of Easy Rider. Then again, my memory is a bit shaky. I wanna fly figure 8's through the pearly gates.