Rochester rocked the '60s

The grooviest combos ever to hit a (585) stage



"Touch my instrument"

Provided

During the mid-1960s a new kind of music burst forth from our area’s garages, barns, church halls, and the back rooms of taverns. Played by adolescent baby boomer boys, it had all of the sophistication of juvie: primitive, strident, nasal, and pounding, with a fuzz guitar made of electricity itself and a beat that struck like a riding crop.

Those years were a wonderful, horrible time in America and a transformative era in popular music. First with the rise of the teenager, then more thunderously with the coming of the Beatles, show business opened up in the form of a silent nationwide casting call, an instantaneous and urgent need for bands.

The entertainment industry shape-shifted from a spectator sport into something more inclusive and participatory. Hair formerly combed back was down over the forehead, and penny loafers gave way to black high-heeled boots. Sales of electric guitars skyrocketed.

While Rochester’s teenaged girls screamed and cried, teenage boys schemed and plotted to get in on that hysteria, fought their parents over getting a haircut, and formed musical combos that played three-chord two-minute masterpieces like “The Hump,” “Woolly Bully,” “Louie, Louie,” and “Hang On, Sloopy.”

And while “old” Rochester bands like the Invictas shifted gears and went Liverpudlian without breaking stride, newbies grouped and practiced from Irondequoit to Scottsville—but it wasn’t easy. Social skills were required. Guys tried to mesh into a cohesive unit, despite different levels of talent, determination, ambition, intelligence, and interest.

It almost always didn’t work. All sorts of things went wrong: Three guys drank after the show, one before. Girls that went with the bass player sometimes switched to the drummer. Musical styles and personalities clashed. Maybe there was one talentless guy whose dad was paying the bills.

And then there was the dark omniscient threat: Uncle Sam and his draft.

Only a handful of the bands that started out managed to get gigs at school dances or in Rochester’s new rock and roll nightclubs. Fewer still achieved a small piece of immortality by recording a 45 rpm record. But even for those that didn’t make it, those were the best years, bursting with camaraderie and shared dreams…

In 1961, Herb Gross matriculated at RIT, changed the lineup of his high school band the Furys a bit, and renamed the group the Invictas, after that year’s space-age Buick. Gross’s band perfected a rowdy stage show of rock classics and were hired as the house band at Tiny’s Bengel Inn, a small and sweaty venue where kids mingled in the parking lot because they wouldn’t fit inside. The Invictas also served as openers for big shows that came to the War Memorial (now Blue Cross) arena, warming up for the Beach Boys, Otis Redding, Jay and the Americans, and the Young Rascals.

Tiny's Bengel Inn sign
Provided

 

Gross says it was ironic that much of the fuss regarding the Invictas centered around a record they made. He always considered the band a live act, a group that mind-melded with a crowd and created a party. That record, some may remember, was “The Hump,” a song Gross wrote in 1963. It earned a review as Billboard’s “Spotlight Winner of the Week” but was plagued by hesitant airplay.

The song, Gross insists, was not a purposeful attempt to be “banned in Boston” or create a firestorm of angry parents. On the contrary, the idea came from, and the song was written for, adults who went to Tiny’s. Gross got the idea from a dirty dancing couple in front of the stage, and the song and the dance were enjoyed at first exclusively by college-age kids.

Then Sahara Records came calling and said they wanted to put “The Hump” out as a 45. The studio was in Buffalo, and the band’s first attempt to record the song was a failure. Alone in a quiet room, the Invictas couldn’t muster the controlled chaos of a gig at Tiny’s. The audience needed to be part of the show.

So Gross invited thirty friends to come to the studio.

“Bring beer and food,” he instructed. When the studio was full and the beer was flowing, the recording light again went on, and the band nailed the song in one take.

The word “hump” meant the same thing then as it does now, and the song caused a ruckus when taken out of Tiny’s and placed on the public airwaves. One night they were playing a gig in Newark, New York, thousands of kids were there, and the cops showed up. If they played “The Hump,” the show would be halted. When Gross announced no Hump because of the cops, the crowd went nuts and chanted, “Hump! Hump! Hump!” Fearing a riot, the cops said, “Just go ahead and play it,” and left.

Sometimes it went the other way. They were hired to play a Catholic school event and were informed by several tight-lipped nuns that there would be no Hump.

“Yes, Sister,” Gross said, and that night the band skipped their greatest hit.

When the record came out, outselling the Beatles locally, younger girls started hanging around, which was a drag because it was a strictly no-touch situation. Gross, who for a time called himself Herb McGovern because it sounded more British, had to be nice but firm when he’d come home at night and teenaged girls would be camped out on his front lawn.

WSAY took to the record right away, and it went to number one on their chart in March 1965, but WBBF was reluctant, worried about sponsors. Eventually there were so many phone requests that BBF had to play it also.

The Invictas rocked Rochester until 1967 when they lost two members to the Army. But they never really went away, regrouping for good in 2008. The Invictas still play anywhere on the East Coast as part of their never-ending “Skip ’n’ Go Naked Tour.” (To book them, email herb@herbgross.com.)

Gross has had a successful career producing TV commercials and has never had to grow up. Wholeheartedly, he advises against it. His message to baby boomers is: “Get off your ass and follow your dreams. Don’t let age get you down.”

Herb Gross
Photo provided

 

For a brief beautiful time, the number-one band in Rochester was the Showstoppers. They were from Glens Falls but had the great bulk of their success in the (585). Bat McGrath and Jay Capozzi were frontmen. Don Potter played guitar and sang like Ray Charles.

The bandmembers were babes in the woods when they first gigged at the 414 Club on Ridge Road in 1965. They learned fast about vice, adult loneliness, and how to keep playing even if there was a brawl going on. And they rocked the joint. In rapid order, they went from making $200 a week for six nights, four sets a night, to $1,000 a night.

Their manager wrote to John Hammond Sr., at CBS Records, and he came to Rochester to hear the band, loved them, and signed them to a deal. Hammond swooned, calling the Showstoppers the “American Rolling Stones.”

Using a blues producer, they cut “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Don Potter ranted and raved and preached and dripped soul, and created a 45 covered for years by the Grateful Dead. The flip side was a Bat McGrath project, an electric folk tune, a hippie song two years ahead of its time. The band returned to Rochester from New York convinced they were on the brink of superstardom.

The single sold well in Rochester, but not elsewhere. A second single sold nowhere. Fights started, and the band broke up. By 1967 it was over. There were splinter groups like the Brass Buttons, but Bat McGrath and Don Potter had their greatest (and ongoing) success as a folky acoustic duet.

Irondequoit’s Jake Gerber might’ve looked like an Everly Brother, but he learned how to play guitar from jazz musicians his dad knew and jammed with in bars on Goodman Street long before he combed his hair down and tried to sound like a Beatle.

But within a month of the Fab Four’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Gerber was sitting in at a high school dance playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” with the generically named the Groop: Bob Fry, drums; Russell Schaad, bass; Dick Kirkmire and Gerber on guitars. Fry only lasted one gig and was replaced by a jazz dummer/lead vocalist named simply Kerim.

They played all Beatles all the time and gigged in just about every high school in Monroe County, not to mention Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester. They played Joe Dean’s Sock Hop on WBBF, heated up the après ski on Bristol Mountain, warmed up for Gerry and the Pacemakers and Freddie and the Dreamers, cut a 45 on the Integrity label, had business cards printed that read “The Groop Ltd. (with the Liverpool Sound),” and had a logo made of flowers, very ahead of its time.

But they didn’t always play nice. Gerber and Kerim stopped getting along, and that was the end.

Edwin Yaw, a West Brighton boy, had his own band since 1960, when he was thirteen. He and neighbor Art Schulmerich, plus Roger Rotoli of Chili, were the Continentals. They wore black sport jackets and played surfin’ tunes, twistin’ and a-twangin’. Rehearsals were at the house of the guy whose parents weren’t home, and they shot the curl at the American Legion Hall, the Chili Grange, and Wheatland-Chili High School.

The Continentals cut a record called “Marauder,” a three-chord instrumental that was (after a lot of calling in under phony names and begging) played a couple of times on the radio by personality Eddie Meath. When the Beatles hit, Yaw couldn’t believe the chords in “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Completely new and fresh.

“I loved it and got right on it,” he says.

The Continentals’ popularity increased in the Beatlemania era, and they notoriously played many bars when they were all underage. Their cover of “Twist and Shout” made the girls run for the dance floor.

By the time Yaw did make it to legal drinking age, eighteen back then, his musical career was put on hold for a stint in Vietnam. While Yaw was overseas, one of his friends back home was killed in a car crash on Scottsville Road and was buried in Yaw’s Continentals jacket.

The Sportsmen formed in 1960 in Scottsville, a perfect high school dance band known for the singing voice of Tom Martin, who like Roy Orbison could hit high C without falsetto. Many fell in love during slow dances played by the Sportsmen and sung by Martin, with charter band members Bill DeWitt and Danny Swain playing behind him.

In addition to high school gyms, they played the Golden Greek on Main Street Scottsville, where proprietor Mitch Alepoudakis would cover the bowling lanes for dances, and at the Caledonia Carnival, where they played on the same bill as country legends like Hank Snow. If you’re of a certain age and from Wheatland, chances are good the Sportsmen played at your wedding reception.

Fred Kentner, lead guitarist in more recent incarnations of the band, remembered the originals as “clean cut, red, white, and blue, hot-rod racing, shot-out-of-a-cannon American dreamers.”

The Sportsmen’s final gig was in 2015 at a book launch for the memoirs of the Golden Greek himself. Tom Martin passed away in 2017, forever silencing the great voice of the Sportsmen.

As a thirteen-year-old kid, Kit Nelson had a monster radio in his Penfield garage that drew blues and rockabilly broadcasts from Texas. His first band in junior high was the Thunderstones—three guitars; no bass or drums.

At Penfield High School he met a kid named Dale Celke, and they played together a couple of times. His first real group was the Furies (not to be confused with the Furys). Kit learned about life in the raw as an underage kid playing gigs in rough Rochester joints like the Niagara and the Rock Tavern. They wore bedazzled tuxes and pomaded hair.

He left that band when his family moved to Brighton, but other bands followed. The Lancers was a surf band that sometimes performed barefoot.

A few years later, when the Beatles hit, Nelson and Dale Celke were both attending Ohio colleges, and their band evolved into the Quirks. The band’s first move was to learn as many Beatle songs as they could and play them as loud as management would allow.

They landed a steady gig at a Canandaigua bowling alley. Crowds were small but the sets were long and the band developed serious British Invasion chops. The lineup: Nelson and Celke, Gary Bippes on bass, and Dan Weale (straight from drum and bugle corps) on drums.

At Clover Lanes in Brighton, they covered the alleys to make a huge dance floor for the Quirks. Their Beatles act was so popular that within weeks they were packing the joint. Shows at Fairport Lanes and Panorama Bowl followed. As their playing and singing improved, they attempted tougher Beatle songs and the results were impressive.

When Gary Bippes went away to college he was replaced by Bob Soehner, the best bass player around. The money improved. One night they made $900, all in $1 bills. One small group of high school girls, their groupies, followed them and stood right in front of the stage. The Quirks befriended Ferdinand J. (Smith), the WBBF deejay, and he got them a gig in Buffalo warming up for Paul Revere and the Raiders.

The band first learned it was approaching its expiration date when the Showstoppers started to play in town. They mixed rhythm and blues and soul with a rock sound and blew other bands off the stage. The Quirks lost their groupies, who switched to the Showstoppers, and by 1966 the Quirks “yeah, yeah, yeah” sound was outdated. For Kit Nelson, other bands followed—These Odds and Ends and the Invisible Sideshow—but it wasn’t the same.

The Quirks reunited for a few gigs in 1967 playing tunes from Sgt. Pepper, and then—like the decade of 1960s itself—went away forever.

 

Michael Benson, a native of Chili, is a classic-rock aficionado and author of Why the Grateful Dead Matter (University Press of New England).

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