EARLY DAYS - Now, let's see - - In the Fall of 1953, there were two Universities that offered Band Scholarships wherein one did NOT need to be a Music Major - - One was Michigan or Michigan State, and the other was the University of Miami. I had experienced plenty of snow in McKeesport, PA (30 miles East of Pittsburgh) and Andover, Mass. (it was at Andover that I first saw Josh White in concert, and heard "Miss Otis Regrets"), so I opted to become a Hurricane. At several fraternity rush parties, I met a guy (from the Edgewood part of Pittsburgh) named Bernie Armstrong, Jr.. We ended up together in Phi Delta Theta. We were both offspring of music families, and we played together at parties, local bars, did a couple local TV shows, and won a talent contest. We were like Siamese twin Jimmy Buffets, with Caribbean shirts and cutoff white jeans. Of course we had to know what was being featured in all the local watering holes, so we spent many nights at the local establishments, which didn't help our scholastic standings too much! Bernie was a cheer-leader and I was in the Band, so we had a lot of rehearsal time on the bus going to "away games" during football season. Bernie's family moved to Coral Gables about this time, and we spent a lot of time in his backyard, throwing his mother's good kitchen knives into her good palm trees, killing several, I believe. They were actually savage Jivaro Indians in our teenage minds! We also skin dived and snorkeled in the Keys, and explored the world of spear guns and Hawaiian slings. Bernie once put a spear through his Dad's garage door, from about 40 feet away! From the very beginning, I always knew where his Tenor voice would be, and he always knew where my Baritone voice would be. After many months of this "fun and games", he enlisted in the Navy and watched radar aboard a Destroyer Escort and I decided I wanted to be a TV Director and transferred to the Carnegie-Mellon theater department.The Steeltown Two
Version 1 - C. Carson Parks, Bernie Armstrong, Jr.
The Steeltown Two (1st Edition) - After I graduated from Carnegie, I hitchhiked around Europe in the Summer of 1958, playing "Mona Lisa" and "Blue Suede Shoes" for cucumber sandwiches in Scandinavia and wine and mussels on the Italian Riviera, learning probably more than a young guy needs to know! Fortunately, I didn't bring anything home that couldn't be washed off with Grandma's Lye Soap! In the Fall, I took a job in Los Angeles as a Production Assistant for a company that filmed TV commercials. My other options were New York or Chicago but, once again, I had gotten my fill of snow and ice! I worked there for about nine months, paying off my student loan, and one day, I got a letter from Bernie, who had finished his hitch in the Navy, gotten married, and thought we might be able to do something in the musical world. The Kingston Trio had started, and the Four Freshman were hot, etc, etc. So, Bernie moved to California, and we made lists of songs we knew. The old "blend" was still there, and each of us had gotten better on the guitar, which was nice, as I hadn't been too smooth three years earlier, and his piano playing left a lot to be desired! We sat on the sand in Venice, CA and tried to think of a name to call ourselves. We both agreed that it was harder than naming a baby, and although we didn't do much "Pittsburgh" material, except for a couple polkas, "doo-wop" tunes from the quartets that were springing up in Pittsburgh at the time, "oldies" that we had learned from our folks, and a few country songs which, although not too popular at the time, we could hear on WWVA (Wheeling, West Virginia), we decided to stick with "The Steeltown Two." I believe that the product defines the name, rather than the name defining the product. So, those that heard us knew what we did, and the "Pittsburgh image" soon fell away, and just defined our origins. They didn't come expecting to hear songs about Bessemer converters or "all pig iron." So, with an insufficient repertoire, but plenty of energy and a good blend, we started playing joints around UCLA, Westwood, the various beach towns, and finally nailed a long-term part-time gig (maybe two nights a week) job at a beer joint called The Brew-Inn ("Bruin", get it? - Duh!), where we did pretty well. One night, some guys from what was called the "Ethnomusicology Department" at UCLA were there, and told us we were singing "folk music", which was perhaps the first time I ever heard the term. So, I remember a baptism in parties featuring mostly Far Eastern stuff, with Gamelons, Sitars, weird drums and bells, etc. Anyway, we auditioned at a fairly new place in Hollywood called "The Ash Grove", owned by one Ed Pearle, and were hired for two weeks. We were the "loud opening act", followed by Bob Gibson and The Tarriers. We must have done okay, as we were extended another week. It was the first club I ever saw that was painted totally black inside. They also had a small bar outside the show-room, where the entertainers would gather between sets. One night I smelled something unfamiliar and said "what is that?" I was told: "Oh, that's pot, don't cha know?", and I, having read Jack Kerouac, replied (totally cool, and a "folk singer" to boot) "Oh yeah, of course!" For those of you who might want to pursue this avenue, I tried it twice a couple years later, maybe one "toke" each time, and had a bad experience with it (ringing in the ears, etc) and haven't done it since. Somebody (probably the late Bob Gibson) said we need to travel more, and should send our tape to other clubs. We didn't have a tape. How did we figure to get "a tape"? Well, we needed a bass player, and some chord charts, so he would know what to play. Now, let's see - - a song lasts maybe 3 minutes. We've been doing these songs for quite a long time, so they're pretty tight. We don't need a lot of songs to show what we do, so (at 3 to 4 minutes per tune) we should be able to do 10 to 15 songs in an hour (if we concentrate.) It's just like doing a show in a quiet room, with good mikes and a bass player! How green WE were! So, we booked an hour! After the first take of the first song, the Engineer (George) said: "Do you want to hear that back?" I asked Bernie if he had made any mistakes and he said "no", so I said: "George, if it sounded okay in there, we'll just go on." So, that's how our recording career began, and it's amazing that it ever went beyond that. The main good thing to come out of that hour (except for some bookings), was that George said "You guys ought to go see Terry Gilkyson". Well, to me, that was like saying "Go see the Pope!" However, George gave us Terry's business phone number and we called. (Probably Bernie made the call, as I know I'm innately shy, and probably am a 'phonophobic' and don't trust my ability to 'think on my feet'.)
The Easy Riders
The "Gini Records" Event - Sometime, in all this, we met a guy named Glen Law, a Mormon from Utah (Duh), who was in L.A. He was trying to get something going in music, and had a Record Label called "Gini Records", I think named for his daughter. Anyway, Glen was a talented musician, and wrote "Blue Is The Wind", later recorded by The Greenwood County Singers. How I met him, I can't recall, but I had taken many courses in Philosophy and Religion in college and have always been fascinated by this part of life and I had been investigating the thoughts of the Latter Day Saints, and had met some of The Lettermen, and that's perhaps the connection. So Glen, believing in us, paid for and produced a single, with "Tarrytown" on one side and "The Wolves" on the other. This latter, taken from a Russian folk tale, was told to me by my mother, and it chilled me to the bone. My mother wasn't Russian, but she could tell a good story! Maybe that talent was passed on to her by her mother, but Bernie and I wrote it out in song. The other tune "Tarrytown" was later done by the 2nd Edition of "Bud Dashiell and The Kinsmen", under the title of "In Tarrytown." (I guess this circumvents the original copyright, held by Greenwood Music.)
Terry Gilkyson, Rich Dehr, C. Carson Parks, Bernie Armstrong, Jr.
The Easy Riders Experience - Most people know of The Easy Riders, but for those with curiosity about minutia, here's a little background: The Easy Riders was originally a duo, composed of Rich Dehr and Frank Miller. They got together in Chicago, I believe, and were a little left of center politically, along the lines of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, etc. It seems that they even sang on street corners, advocating the Presidency of Henry Wallace. They recorded a few songs on Majestic and Audio-Video Records about 1949. Terry Gilkyson, in the meantime, born of a "main line" Philadelphia family, served a stint in the Army, as a member of the last cavalry troop, before horses were retired in favor of tanks. Terry told a story of one of his NCOs, who had been in the Army since probably Gen. Pershing, and when they were told that the horse cavalry was being disbanded, this old Sergeant got drunk and took his horse upstairs in the barracks to his room, and passed out on his cot, in tears. After the Army, Terry spent some time rounding up cattle on a ranch out West, then moved to Los Angeles and ultimately recorded several albums for Decca and Columbia Records. These contained many songs that he had written, among them "Fast Freight", "Cry Of The Wild Goose", "Mr. Buzzard", etc. He was known as "The Solitary Singer", and I have a 10 inch vinyl LP of him, which was a format that came and went in a hurry. So, Rich and Frank moved to Southern California, and met Terry, and they started singing together, with Terry and Rich doing most of the writing, although Frank was the best guitar player of the three. They did several albums together, sometimes called "Terry Gilkyson and The Easy Riders" or just "The Easy Riders." Their output included "Memories Are Made Of This", "Greenfields", "Marianne", and many more. In the Fall of 1959 we called Terry. By that time Frank had left the group, and Terry invited us to his office, which was on the second floor of a building next to Nicodell's restaurant on Argyle in Hollywood. We went in and sang a few tunes for Terry, and he was very gracious. We went back again, met Rich, and the four of us sang a few songs together. We were invited to take Frank's place in re-organizing The Easy Riders. Terry and Rich weren't much into performing, so The Steeltown Two worked coffee houses at night and developed a repertoire as The Easy Riders in the daytime. We recorded two albums on Kapp Records in the early 60s. One was later re-released, with a different cover, in case this has caused some confusion among collectors.
REMEMBER THE ALAMO
CRY OF THE WILD GOOSE
The Ice House years - After playing The Ash Grove, Bernie and I were
booked into a club in Denver, at a place called The Exodus, owned by one Hal
Neustedter, who was later killed in a plane crash. Since I had still been
working at Hollywood Filmed Commercials, something had to go, so I quit my day
job (and haven't had real work since!) We were booked for two weeks, opening for
Jesse Fuller and Judy Collins. Once again, we were extended for a week. On the
way back, we went through San Francisco and played The Hungry i. A few days
later, we had a call from a guy named Willard Chilcott, from Pasadena. We met
and talked. The bottom line was that he was tired of driving into Hollywood for
his "folk music experience", and wanted to open a place in the San
Gabriel valley. He wanted us to be a permanent "house band", as
it were, and we'd use our contacts to book other rotating featured artists. For
several days, Willard & I drove around Pasadena, looking at various
commercial buildings. One that we liked had been a huge meat warehouse, with
overhead tracks where they hung beef for butchering. It had very thick walls and
was insulated in a major way, as it was cooled for food processing. Willard
opined that it might be named for its address - "49 North Mentor", and
we batted that around for awhile. Finally, I said "Well, it's an ice house,
so why not call it The Ice House", and the deal was done. As far as a
long-term commitment, we felt that The Steeltown Two were on a roll, so we could
open Willard's club and play for an open-ended period of time, with the
understanding that we would be free to play other venues and further expand our
growing popularity. We played there steadily for three months or more.
Bud Dashiell and The Kinsmen
Bud Dashiell, C. Carson Parks, Bernie Armstrong, Jr.
About this time, Bud Dashiell and Travis Edmondson (known as "Bud and
Travis") had gotten into some disagreement and split up. Bud came to
Pasadena and asked us to join him in a trio. I was a little cool on it, as I was
sure The Steeltown Two were on our way, no matter the name value of "Bud
& Travis", which had largely been dissipated, due to the split.
However, Bernie felt that hitching our wagon to Bud's star would be a good move,
so I yielded to his feelings. While we rehearsed with Bud, we still worked
paying jobs. It seemed to me that most of the tunes we worked up featured
Bud, but I dismissed that because of the need to build a repertoire quickly and
do some tunes that were in the style of "Bud and Travis".
Finally, we had enough tunes to do an album for Warner Brothers. The blend was
not the best, but Bernie and I had ears enough to surround Bud with good
harmonies and make a fairly good sound. I thought that, as we got to
perform more together, we would come upon something unique, but it became
clearer each day that we were mostly backup singers to Bud, who wasn't very good
at using his available talent. In the meantime, we played several venues,
did a tour with Mort Sahl but, by the time the financial split came down to me
(after deductions for photos, plane fare, misc. managers and agents), there
wasn't much left, since Bud took half of what was left. Out on the road,
we were booked as "Bud and The Kinsmen", while we continued to work as
The Steeltown Two. One night, totally unexpected by me, Bud came into The Ice
House and told me I was fired. I gathered my wits together, spoke privately to
Bernie, saying "we joined as a unit; we can leave as a unit!"
Bernie said something in the nature of: "I have a wife and kids, etc",
so I once again went with his plan.
Bud and The Kinsmen - 2nd Edition - I can't tell you much about this, as I wasn't part of the group. However, they had a guy (Everit Hearter) waiting in the wings, who already knew all my parts, and stepped in without a heartbeat. I know they recorded one more album, called "Everybody Else's Hits" or something which, to me, doesn't advance music much, but they disbanded shortly, and I never heard any reaction from any of them.
The Steeltown Two
Version 2 - C. Carson Parks, Van Dyke Parks
The Steeltown Two - 2nd Edition - It was just before Christmas
1962, so I went back to McKeesport, to my folks' house, and talked them into
letting my brother Van Dyke drop out of Carnegie music department in his second
year and come back with me to California. Perhaps they figured I was a
"survivor", or that "big brother" would take care of
"baby brother." Van Dyke played no guitar, but in 90 days, he knew
more than most folks know after many years! We scrambled around and got a
repertoire going, and started to play many of the Southern California coffee
houses that I had been in before. Although we didn't do any duo recording, we
did some soundtrack movie work with Terry, often with Van Dyke on piano/
keyboard, as that was/is his forte. Mostly, this was for the Disney studios, as
Terry was doing a lot of writing for them at the time.
The Southcoasters - Van Dyke & I had an apartment in Seal Beach, CA, about 2 blocks from the sand. It was somewhat of a financial struggle for a while, but we eked it out. Somehow, we met a gal named Pat Peyton, who sang mostly smoky ballads in piano bars. We worked up 3 or 4 songs as a trio and made some demos, but not much came of it.
Greenwood County Singers
(Not in any order, nor ever all at once:)
Carson Parks, Dave Backhaus, Don Beck, Van Dyke Parks, Pat Peyton, Sandy Moseley, Bob Turner, John Wilkenson, Reg Bannister, Gaile Foote, Tom Robbins, Corrine Gelfan, Rick Jarrard, Al Johnston, Donna Di Martino
The Greenwood County Singers - Terry had a vision of forming a larger, mixed-gender group. He had sung the lead on "On Top Of Old Smoky", with The Weavers, to great success, and the 3 & 4-member versions of The Easy Riders made good music. Once, over lunch at Nicodell's, he mentioned this idea to Randy Sparks, and before Terry was able to get it together, Randy had put together The New Christy Minstrels. Through our playing at all these clubs, Van Dyke and I had gotten to know many other performers, both singles and duos. With Pat Peyton, we recruited another duo (Reg Bannister & Tom Robbins), a bass player (Dave Backhaus) with whom we had worked, a single (Al Johnston), a multi-instrumentalist (Sandy Mosely), and a soprano (Gaile Foote.) We did our first album (on Kapp Records) with this configuration, primarily Terry Gilkyson songs. Then, we played a couple weeks in The Ice House. It became obvious that we were too large - - there were too many mouths to feed - - and we needed to combine jobs. We let Tom Robbins and Al Johnston go, did some re-arranging, and told Sandy he had to start singing. All told, The Greenwoods did four albums and several additional singles for Dave Kapp and Kapp Records.
THE FIRST RECORDING BY THE JOYFUL
(Kapp Records #KL1362 & #KS3362)
THE NEW FRANKIE AND JOHNNIE
(Kapp Records #KL 1362 & #KS3362)
Carson & Gaile
C. Carson Parks and Gaile Foote
Carson and Gaile - In the mid-60s, there were several boy/girl duos
making waves on the music scene. Not just established MOR (Middle Of The Road)
acts like Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, but new ones like Sonny & Cher
or April Stevens & Nino Tempo. However, there didn't seem to be much of that
nature in the folk-rock or country field. My feeling was to do some country
standards with a different feel - such as soft Latin Rock. So, Gaile Foote and I
worked up 3 or 4 numbers, made some demos and sent them to Dave Kapp in New
York. As Dave had run Decca Records during the time Terry Gilkyson was on that
label, and liked the stuff that The Greenwoods had sent him, he told us to go
ahead with the project and do an album. By this time, I had learned that writers
make money also so, not being totally satisfied with what I could find that
seemed to fit the style that we were looking for, I wrote some songs for us to
do. Out of the 12 cuts on the album, I wrote 7, and had secured the publishing
of 2 others for Greenwood Music Co. Of the 7 that I wrote, 6 were recorded
by other artists, most notably "Something Stupid" (Frank & Nancy
Sinatra) and "Cab Driver" (The Mills Brothers).
SAN ANTONIO ROSE
(Kapp Records #KS 3516)
Fade Out - All this time, it became more and more of a struggle to
keep a viable unit together. Van Dyke left for a while, and joined the
Brandywine Singers in New England, then returned. Reg was drafted, Dave
was going to get drafted, and qualified for the Army band, but had to enlist.
Pat Peyton left and got married, and we went through two other altos after her.
Each time, we probably had an upcoming engagement, so we had to cram like mad to
bring the new people up to speed. Fortunately, early on, even on primitive home
tape recorders, we had the forethought to tape the songs, with only one or two
people on each mike, which made learning the parts easier. So, in addition to
hearing or reading your part, you could hear what others were doing, and where
your part fit in the mix. After November of 1966, we had planned to take
Christmas off, and look for some more replacements. Then "Something
Stupid" came out, and the advice to me was just to quit trying to fill the
gaps left by people leaving, or because the draft boards were winning. So,
The Greenwoods just faded out, not with a bang, but just a whimper.
All-in-all, it was a wonderful period in my life - - almost a decade, from college to my first paying song. I'm sure I made some bad decisions, wrote some dumb songs, should have used an Eb instead of a Bb but, with the grace of God, I made it. Mostly, it was a blast! I loved it!
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