| 
  • If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • Buried in cloud files? We can help with Spring cleaning!

    Whether you use Dropbox, Drive, G-Suite, OneDrive, Gmail, Slack, Notion, or all of the above, Dokkio will organize your files for you. Try Dokkio (from the makers of PBworks) for free today.

  • Dokkio (from the makers of PBworks) was #2 on Product Hunt! Check out what people are saying by clicking here.

View
 

Early Rock 'N Roll In Polk County

Page history last edited by Wayne Renardson 6 years ago

Originally published on the Dizzy Rambler web site.

 

This recollection was written in early 2001. Errors of time, place, or
person are the sole responsibility of the author. Anyone interested in
sampling a slice of the Polk County music scene during the late
fifties-early sixties should press on.

The decande of the fifties in American was a time of solitude and
introspection. The country remained high on WW II so working-class
people could buy homes and live comfortably as the post-war glow
diminished. Except for an Asian land war in Korea, the Eisenhower years
were placid. Into the calm stepped rock and roll, arriving just as the
post-war boomers were reaching puberty. With an infectious backbeat,
rock rapidly supplanted what remained of "our parents" music. Goodbye
Perry Como. Hello Chuck Berry.

In the rural South, as elsewhere, rock was often considered a scourge of
the devil. White males in particular were not amused as their blonde,
cherubic, thirteen year-old daughters gyrated their hips to music played
by hot, sweaty, black men. The establishment was determined to rid us
of this menace, but it was too late. Captivated by the music of Chuck
Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, and Bo Diddly, youngsters picked up
instruments and became part of the scene.

There were two legally operated white live-music clubs in Polk County.
The Rainbow on US 92 catered to a country crowd. Club 92, owned by
Jeff Morrell, featured country on Wednesday, and a rock/country mix
on Friday and Saturday nights. Jeff was a progressive who cared about
music. He would occasionally host a band of black musicians from Tampa,
'Texas Ray and The Houserockers', whose skill put the white bands to
shame. Since Polk was a dry county (no liquor-beer only), any club
selling alcohol was required to close at midnight.

The Elk's club in Florence Villa also hosted live music. They featured
Fats Domino one evening circa 1960 that I was there with Grant Lacerte
and Herb McCullough. The people were very friendly, in spite of the fact
we were the only white faces in the crowd. Bob Bell's brother, 'Spider'
opened a club near Bartow air base called 'The Spider's Web.' Our band
auditioned for a gig that we did not get. I cannot recall how long the
club remained alive, though it's demise was not likely due to their
failure to hire our band :)

I never played the Rainbow, but a legendary guitarist named Bobby Joe
Barlow did. I suspect Herbert Bohannan may have been part of the band
(more about him later). Barlow was married to a wafer-thin, blonde woman
who played drums with his band. I first saw Barlow when Club 17 opened.
And it was Club 17 that became a breeding ground for Polk County's loud,
rock music.

Club 17 was located on Highway 17/92, a quarter mile toward Lake Alfred
from the former Rustic Club. Leroy Bassham from Eloise opened it as an
after-hours spot to accommodate folks who had not gotten their fair
share of alcohol and dancing at Rainbow or Club 92. Leroy licensed the
club as a restaurant. He obtained a dancing permit and sold no legal
alcohol, so it did not have to abide by closing laws. It was a front
during the daytime, as was his Eloise grocery store. Bassham kept a loaf
of bread and a can of beans on the shelf. I assumed he sold alcohol, but
I never saw it. Club 17, on the other hand...

Sometime during 1958 I was hitchhiking near Lake Shipp Heights, where I
lived on Prospect Avenue. An older guy named Chuck? Brown picked me up.
He was a guitar player and I mentioned I was interested in drumming. As
we chatted, we discussed forming a band. He knew another guitar player
named Herbert Bohannan who lived in Lake Alfred or maybe Auburndale. We
ended up at Bohannan's house where I listened to them play their Fender
and Gibson guitars. I decided I wanted to be part of this and convinced
my parents to sign a $300 note so I could buy a set of drums. I promised
to make the payments, and did. The Gretsch kit included a 20+ inch bass,
a 14" snare, a 14" x 14" floor tom-tom, and a 14" side tom. It also had
a 16" Zyldjian ride cymbal, a 16" crash, and a high-hat. I was in rhythm
heaven.

We practiced midweek and played weekend open-air gigs in truck stops on
US 27 near Haines City. We would play for whatever came our way, which
was often nothing except tips. There was plenty of alcohol and
benzedrine---chalk bennies were 10/dollar from truckers---to fuel the
fire, and to a high-school student, this was a lively scene. We also
worked with a craggy old singer named Ray Jackson who claimed he
co-wrote 'White Lightnin' with George Jones. Jackson would take the band
to Tampa on Sundays where we would set up in a joint and play all
afternoon for beer, deviled crabs, and tips. Glamorous stuff. I often
suspected Jackson pocketed most of the meager earnings.

The music at these gigs was basic country. Both Chuck and Herbert had
been weened on it, and Jim Reeves, George Jones, and Faaron Young ruled
the day. We covered 'White Lightnin' and 'Who Shot Sam', 'Four Walls'
'Your Cheating Heart' and Everly Brothers tunes. The band was older than
I, and from Polk County. Having moved to Winter Haven from Toronto, I
did not easily fit in with my new surroundings. Listening to Chuck
Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and other emerging
rockers opened my ears to different music, and it was this new music
---rock n' roll---that captured my interest, just as blues had earlier.

The blues came to Winter Haven, as it did to most small towns, by way of
radio. The main station was WSIR, whose transmitter was located on Lake
Howard Drive, though I recall another station at Cyprus Gardens. A
history of WSIR can be found at:

                <http://is.gd/fgPG6J>

The station was low power and after 10 PM went off the air. With that
signal gone, kids received clear-channel WLAC from Nashville which at
night played classic blues musicians. Listeners delighted in the sounds
of Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and other
greats. Rock and roll seemed to be a fatser version of the blues, and
the rhythmic backbeat that propelled rock soon attracted a large
audience. John R., the DJ, would carry on all night long. He played what
we wanted to hear, not what our parents wanted us to hear. Sadly, one
could not purchase the recordings except by mail, since 'race records'
or music by black artists was simply not available locally. Forbidden
fruit.

Our ragtag band was playing a truck stop when I met Ronnie Mills. He
lived near Haines City and fronted a band called The Blazers. At some
point he asked me to join them as he needed a drummer. It was around
this time that we visited Club 17 to hear a local band that was
generating a monster buzz.

I will never forget walking into the place shortly after midnight. Club
17 was a dumpy, stucco brick building with a lunch counter up front and
a large dance floor in the back. In short, a dive. It was extremely dark
and as I looked on stage, I thought I saw a woman singing. It was James
'Junior' Jolly, whose long, stringy hair curled down his neck. He was
belting 'Stormy Monday Blues' backed by a crackerjack band. On piano was
Bobby Braddock, who went on to fame as a Nashville songwriter. Bobby Joe
Barlow played guitar while Arnie Levin, a student at Florida Southern,
played a set of red-sparkle Slingerland drums. I watched, fascinated,
returning many times to listen.

Braddock sat on his piano bench with one leg tightly crossed over the
other, bent from the waist over the keyboard like a man entranced.
Barlow stood perfectly still, just layin' down smooth licks. At times
his eyes would close so he appeared to be asleep. Levin played right on
the beat. No fancy licks and fills, no show, just keeping the pulse
intact. I later tried to emulate him. If they had a bass player, I
cannot remember who it was. This band appeared to have great freedom to
play what they wanted, with no need to cater to any particular crowd. I
was in awe of their sound and freedom.

The Blazers were then playing Club 92. The band included Jimmy Britt
from Lakeland on upright bass, Wayne Denmark from Dundee on Fender
guitar, Ronnie Mills playing a black Gibson 'fretless wonder', and
I was on drums. Both Ronnie and Wayne used Fender amps. Grant LaCerte,
another Winter Haven high school student, later joined us on trumpet and
occasional piano. Herb McCullough, now a Nashville songwriter, was also
playing trumpet (we listened to Miles Davis "Sketches of Spain" and Herb
Alpert) in the Winter Haven school band, and we all hung out at the
club.

The Blazers were basically Ronnie's band. He sang in a style echoing
Buddy Holly, and we covered such tunes as 'Rave On' and 'Peggy Sue'. We
also covered Chuck Berry (Oh Carol, Johnny B. Goode) and other rockers,
along with some country covers with a rock beat. Ronnie also wrote tunes
that we managed to squeeze into our sets.

Around 1959 or '60 we were hired to play Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday
nights from nine to midnight at Club 92. The house band at Club 17 was
moving on and Bassham hired us to play after hours. We would finish at
Club 92 by midnight and move to Club 17 where we would play until three
or four AM. While we were musically constrained at Club 92, we faced no
such restrictions at Club 17. The audience, already primed, wanted the
music loud and fast, with only occasional ballads, and that is what we
delivered. It was packed three nights a week. Leroy sold half-pints of
Old Mr. Boston vodka for two dollars, and there was plenty of benzedrine
to keep folks awake.

This joyous atmosphere had a downside. The volatile combination of beer,
vodka, speed, whiskey, and sexual maneuvering often led to fights and
the occasional brawl. Leroy hired a couple of bouncers who ruled. I
played the club for several years and cannot recall ever feeling
seriously threatened, in spite of the fact there was always some drunken
soul who thought he could or should play drums. There were always enough
Elvis wannabes to make leaving a guitar unmonitored during a break
hazardous to one's musical health.

The police and sheriff's departments would raid the club several nights
a month. It would close for the evening, Leroy would post bond, and he
reopened within a day or so. He viewed raids as part of the cost of
doing business.

Club 92 paid each of us $15 a night. Ronnie may have earned more. In
addition, there was free beer, or anything else. A friend used to treat
us to pints of pure grain alcohol courtesy of the Florida Citrus
Experiment Station in Lake Alfred. We enjoyed playing rock covers, but
with Grant LaCerte joining us, ventured into jazzier tunes. We did a
swinging version of 'Five Foot Two' and I can remember Grant blowing
great tones on 'My Blue Heaven'. Wednesday was considered 'country
night' so we played square dances, though not many. Hank Williams,
Faaron Young, George Jones, Jim Reeves, and other mainstays were our
models. But as young people, rock music was dying to break loose and
always just below the surface.

Club 17 also paid us $15 each. As a high school student working three
nights a week, I was earning $90 a week cash, plus all the mind-altering
substances I could handle. I was having the time of my life, but it soon
became time to move on. We had cut a couple of records in an Orlando
studio but they went nowhere. I suspected the producer was more
enchanted with Ronnie than the music.

I played my last gig at Club 92 in May of 1961. The military beckoned
and so I was history. I have no idea what happened to the band after
that time. Maybe someone else will pick up the story. I do recall
visiting Winter Haven during the eighties and stopping by the Rustic
club. Ronnie Mills was playing guitar and singing. I asked him to play
'Blazers Theme' for me. He nearly fell off the stage. We chatted during
the break and played catchup. It was the last time I saw him. But
somewhere, I have no doubt, the band plays on.

Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.