Beat Merchants And The Underground Legends
Author: Nick Warburton
Mid'60s South African beat merchants The A-Cads and late '60s Canadian underground legend Influence share a global pedigree through their musical connections. Both groups brought together the cream of local talent and mixed it with British expats who had first-hand experience of the UK beat group scene.
Although The A-Cads barely lasted six months, they heralded an exciting new age in South African rock, and like their Australian contemporaries The Easybeats, spearheaded a movement that sought to raise the nation's musical profile at an international level. The A-Cads' leading figure, Hank Squires, was well-established in South African musical circles, having previously worked with British expat Mickie Most, then a popular singer in South Africa and later one of rock's most successful producers.
Together with The A-Cads' final guitarist (and former Upsetters member), Louis Campbell McKelvey, he would move to Canada in 1966 in search of new adventures and embark on a career as a producer and talent scout. McKelvey, meanwhile, went on to establish one of Canada's most innovative groups, Influence, who produced one of the era's most challenging and musically inventive albums in 1967. McKelvey later guided another notable Canadian outfit, Milkwood, who recorded an album for Polydor Records in 1969 with legendary producer Jerry Ragavoy, which remains unreleased to this day.
The A-Cads/Influence/Milkwood story is arguably one of rock's most fascinating tales. Stretching across three continents, it is a testimony to the exciting sights and sounds that were Swinging London, sun-drenched Johannesburg and L.A., and the bohemian bars and coffeehouses of downtown Toronto.
The origins of this fascinating story can be traced back to late '50s Johannesburg, where rhythm guitarist/singer Hank Squires (b. Henry Smittsdorf, 1943, Johannesburg, South Africa) made his debut on the city's fledging rock 'n' roll scene playing with the popular rock 'n' roll outfit, The Playboys.
Training to become an electrical engineer, Squires soon abandoned Johannesburg Technical College after witnessing a concert by English émigré, the late Mickie Most (real name: Michael Hayes), a singer of modest talent who had moved to Johannesburg in 1958 to marry his South African fiancée. (Most's wife is the sister of rock singer Jackie Frisco, who moved to the UK in the early '60s and married Gene Vincent whom she had met during his South African tour with Mickie Most and his Playboys. Most produced Jackie's lone album for Rave Records in 1961). Impressed by the singer's performance, Squires approached Most for guitar lessons and after a few months joined his original backing group, The Playboys.
Most's move to the colonies proved to be extremely fortuitous - his British solo recordings (as well as singles recorded with future producer Alex Murray as The Most Brothers) had all met with widespread indifference back home. However, after changing his name, Most and his newly formed group, quickly established themselves as one of, if not, the most successful band(s) in South Africa, scoring eleven consecutive South African hits over the next three years. And although Most would subsequently return home during 1963 to try his hand at production, he would continue to maintain contact with Squires, seeing him as one of the few musicians in South Africa that he thought had the potential to go on to greater things.
Squires meanwhile, had already left The Playboys prior to Most's departure and formed a new band, The Silhouettes. This short-lived outfit also featured another ex-Playboys member, Leon Booysen (bass), alongside the late George Hill (drums) and the late Archie Van der Ploeg (lead guitar), all of whom would resurface in The Upsetters/A-Cads story in future years. During The Silhouettes' short lifespan, the group supported singer June Dyer on her number one single Whirlpool of Love. Squires moved on soon afterwards and joined another local group, The Giants, who scored a number one hit in late 1961 with Dark and Lonely Street and also recorded a rare album entitled Meet The Giants. The Giants subsequently changed their name to the Rebels and became June Dyer's backing group.
While his old friend Mickie Most struck gold in the UK as a producer for The Animals and Lulu, among others, Squires kept busy performing and recording with Johnny Kongos and The G-Men. This exciting band was arguably one of the best outfits to emerge in South Africa during the early-mid'60s, and included some of the city's most gifted musicians. The group's potential however, was cut short when the band's singer (and future solo artist) John Kongos (best known for penning the international hit He's Gonna Step On You Again, made famous by indie revellers The Happy Mondays in the '90s) left to do national service.
Kongos later enjoyed moderate success with his solo work and his UK bands Scrugg and Floribunda Rose. The latter outfit featured English expat Peter Clifford, who had toured South Africa with Dusty Springfield and Tom Jones before joining South African rock-comedy group, The Bats. The Bats turned a Mickie Most produced song A Shabby Little Hut, originally recorded by UK trio, Ron, Mel and Tim into a huge South African hit. (Incidentally, when UK band Hedgehoppers Anonymous relocated to South Africa in the early '70s, their admiration for Clifford as a musician resulted in the hit single, A Song for Pete. Clifford also recorded a live album with Clive Calder, now a hugely successful music executive in the UK)
Kongos' replacement in The G-Men was another expat, singer Sam Evans (b. 1947, Glasgow, Scotland), a short, burly man with a rough-edged voice, who had arrived in South Africa in early 1964 after fronting a number of now long forgotten bands back home. Evans would ultimately become Squires' first choice as the singer in what would become The A-Cads. Another former G-man, drummer Robbie Kearney (b. South Africa), fresh from a nine-month army stint at Simons Town naval base, joined him soon afterwards.
Before such a project could materialise, however, Squires left The G-Men during December 1964 to pursue a short-lived solo career. Spotted playing in a club by Mickie Most (on a flying visit to South Africa), Squires was subsequently offered a recording contract and a single, a cover of Fats Domino's I've Been Around, produced by Most, was issued in spring 1965. A follow up single, Stand By Me, also failed to attract much attention and Squires began to make plans for a new band that would storm the South African charts.
THE A-Cads (Part One)
Formed during October 1965, The A-Cads were essentially the brainchild of English émigré Peter Rimmer, a former support musician for the likes of Marty Wilde and The Tempests, who had decided to try his hand at management following his move to South Africa in 1963. By the time that Rimmer ran into Squires, he had become the manager of the Rand Academy of Music, and it was probably this experience that inspired him to form what would essentially be the first South African super group. Squires immediately recruited Evans and Kearney for the new project. He was also instrumental in bringing in the band's remaining members, lead guitarist Richard Laws (b. 15 May 1946, London, England) and bass player Les Goode (b. 1946, Surrey, England). Both musicians had impressive pedigrees and were first-rate musicians.
Englishman Richard Laws had first visited Johannesburg in early 1963 when his band, Bill Kimber & The Couriers, got work in the city through local-born businessman Frank Fenter who had seen them play in his London coffee bar and raved about them to friends back home. Like many British artists who ventured to the colonies during this period, the group arrived to be greeted like visiting royalty. Over the next year or so, Bill Kimber & The Couriers scored a string of South African hits for the Renown label, including covers of The Beatles' I Want To Hold Your Hand and Booker T & The MG's Green Onions. (They also starred in South Africa's first rock movie, Africa Shakes, where they backed local singer Sharon Tandy on various songs, including the well known R&B hit, I'm Movin' On. Tandy later had a fair amount of success in the UK with Fleur de Lys and became the first white artist to record for the Stax label in the US.)
The Couriers eventually returned home, but Squires was convinced that Laws was key to his new group's success, and with Rimmer's support, managed to coax him back to join The A-Cads. Laws brought with him a unique guitar style and, perhaps more importantly, an in-depth knowledge of the UK rock scene, as well as choice material to cover. (The Couriers' drummer Alan Turner, incidentally, subsequently replaced Mick Fleetwood in the Bo Street Runners. When that group dissolved, he joined Gary Farr and the T-Bones, who contained keyboard extraordinaire Keith Emerson, a founding member of The Nice. Turner briefly played with The Nice before the band Yes asked him to join, but he declined because of family commitments.)
Les Goode meanwhile had previously worked with the early '60s outfit The Deans, formed in 1963 with singer John E Sharpe. Coinciding with the arrival of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Deans subsequently adopted the more progressive name John E Sharpe and The Squires and quickly became Johannesburg's top R&B attraction.
The A-Cads' unusual name appears to have been, according to press releases from that period, a compromise between Rimmer and the band. Apparently Rimmer was keen to name the group after the Rand Academy, while the group members' preferred choice was The Cads, the result being The A-Cads. After weeks of intensive rehearsals, Rimmer duly launched The A-Cads at a cocktail party at Ciros in Johannesburg, hosted by A G J McGrall, a managing director of a well-known record company. The event attracted a great deal of publicity and made the front cover of the South African music rag, Record Express.
Soon afterwards, the band signed a recording deal with Teal Records (with distribution by RCA Victor) and, on the recommendation of Laws, recorded a stunning version of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates' Hungry For Love, which reached #1 on the South African chart in January 1966. The South African music press was quick to praise the band's debut disc, with one review quoted as saying "an excellent disc by an excellent group, backings are great, and vocal beautifully handled, this is about the best record ever produced in South Africa…"
Laws' piercing guitar work on the single's b-side, a storming version of Bo Diddley's Roadrunner meanwhile, provided a more accurate insight into the group's musical abilities and hinted at its potential to develop into a formidable force. In addition, the track featured some amazing throat shredding vocals from Sam Evans. However, as the next few months would prove, the band would never capitalise on this early success.
During December, The A-Cads began work on an album, and while in the process recorded a cover version of The Small Faces' Sha-La-La-La-Lee, which for some inexplicable reason was later omitted from the album when it was issued the following spring. To add to the confusion, the track was finally issued as a single after the album's release and after the band had relocated to London in April 1966.
Unfortunately during the recording process, the band started to unravel as Laws increasingly voiced his objections over the choice of material being presented to the group. As he later recalled: "A lot of stuff we did was just floating around in memory (Chuck Berry, Rufus Thomas etc.), old favourites, that sort of thing. But some of it was producer Derek Hannan playing us things in his office that he thought would be good for us. I never agreed with his choices, but then I had a distinct vision of what the group should be. I always thought that it would have been better if Teal had just let us loose in the studio to get on with it ourselves (as we did initially with Hungry For Love). I think the band would have lasted a lot longer and surprised a few people."
Louis Mckelvey, Andy Keiller And The Upsetters
At this critical juncture, Squires decided to introduce a second lead guitarist Louis McKelvey (b. 31 October 1943, Killorglin, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland), as Laws looked increasingly to be on the verge of splitting. McKelvey, whose family had moved to Twickenham during his adolescence, was already an established figure on the West London club scene. His earliest musical venture had been local group The Persuaders, but he quickly jacked this in to become the lead guitarist in R&B outfit Jeff Curtis & The Flames, the house band at the famous Ealing Jazz club.
Besides McKelvey, The Flames also consisted of singer Jeff Curtis; bass player Dave Wiggington; rhythm guitarist Keith Gardiner; a sax player known as CB and drummer/vocalist Malcolm Tomlinson (b. 16 June 1946, Isleworth, Middlesex, England). McKelvey and Tomlinson would strike up a close friendship and would reunite years later in McKelvey's Canadian band, Milkwood (more of which later). Though no recordings ever emerged from this period, The Flames did record an acetate comprising five tracks with the late, legendary Joe Meek.
When Tomlinson quit the band to play the club scene in Germany with James Deane & The London Cats, McKelvey grew restless and took off for South Africa with his newly wedded bride (not before joining Tomlinson's band in Germany for about a month's worth of gigs). McKelvey's parents had run a theatre production company in Leicester Square and on their travels had been struck by the beauty of Cape Town. On the look out for fresh musical adventures, he decided to follow their advice and see the country for himself.
Arriving in Johannesburg around September 1965, McKelvey quickly fell in with expat, singer Andrew Keiller (b. 16 August 1941, Bodmin, Cornwall, England). Though relatively new to the music business, Keiller had nevertheless, witnessed first-hand many of the hotbeds of the early London rock scene (including a brief incarnation of The Rolling Stones featuring Carlo Little and Rick Brown), before moving to South Africa in March 1964. As Keiller recalls: "Soon after I arrived in Johannesburg, I wrote a few songs and made a demo, which I gave to Dan Hill at Gallo Records. He was a nice guy and introduced me to Mickie Most who told me to bugger off. Undaunted I recorded a single for Continental Records, Find My Baby c/w Elaine, with a guitarist called Archie Van der Ploeg and some other guys whose names I can't recall, although I do remember Gene Rockwell sitting in at the session. Later that year, I recorded an album, Round About Midnight, using the same guys and with Dan Hill producing. I then had to get a band together and put some ads in local music shops. The first person I met was Louis, who'd just arrived from the UK". (Keiller's album doesn't appear to have been released until 1966 when it was given a write up in Teenage Personality in its 12 May issue.)
Within a short space of time, Keiller and McKelvey established one of Johannesburg's finest beat groups, The Upsetters, with former Playboys member Leon Booysen (bass) and ex-Navarones member Colin Pratley (drums), who soon made way for George Hill. (In later years, Pratley joined South Africa's most successful progressive rock band, Freedom's Children).
Thanks to Booysen's contacts at Trutone Records, the band (with George's brother Frank on the skins) recorded a single for the label, Daddy Rolling Stone c/w Pain In My Heart, at EMI studios in Johannesburg. (The single's a-side, which was brought to Keiller's attention when he heard The Who cover it, is an arresting R&B tune written by Derek Martin and features some fiery guitar work from McKelvey. The flip meanwhile is more restrained and is the same Otis Redding song that had recently been made popular in the UK by The Rolling Stones.)
The group's name appears to have been McKelvey's idea - The Upsetters being his idol, Little Richard's original support band. The Upsetters proved to be particularly apt as it was also a fashion at the time to insult the audience and, according to sources close to the band, Keiller was keen to emulate what The Who were doing back in London.
Shortly after the single's release, the band underwent a number of personnel changes as Leon Booysen and George Hill both left to be succeeded by 18-year-old drummer Gregory Allen Plotz and former Johnny Kongos & The G-Men bass player Jesse Sumares. (Booysen, meanwhile, later played with The Scene IV, before moving into the retailing jewellery business, while Hill eventually joined The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, not to be confused with the US band of the same name.)
The new Upsetters line-up ventured back into the studio to record further material for a follow up single - Down Home Girl, Boom Boom and High Heel Sneakers, but for some inexplicable reason, the tracks were subsequently left in the can. Perhaps it was this disappointment that led to the group's collapse later that autumn. Whatever the reason, Keiller decided to return to London in late November and the others drifted apart after a short Bloemfontein tour with the A-Cads the following month, during which Sam Evans handled vocals for both bands. It was shortly after the final tour that Squires approached McKelvey about joining The A-Cads.
THE A-Cads (Part Two)
As mentioned earlier, McKelvey's primary role appears to have been to take over from Richard Laws, who had increasingly come to blows over the band's musical direction. As Laws later admitted: "The band was moving in a super-commercial direction, recording puff pieces like Fool, Fool, Fool. I was interested in keeping the heavier sound of Hungry For Love. Also, there were too many people involved in the band's management - three managers actually. It felt like no one was interested in the music itself. Producer Derek Hannan was coming up with these hits (which I suppose was his job). Yet the success of Hungry For Love should have proved that a song doesn't have to have an infantile hook to top the charts, but no one was listening."
Within weeks of McKelvey's arrival, Laws abandoned the group, initially to work on a solo rock instrumental album for Teal Records, but he soon lost interest and the project was shelved. Over the next few years, Laws would maintain a relatively low profile, working occasionally with The Derick Warren Sound. However, in the late '60s he joined Tommy Roe's visiting support band and subsequently moved to the US. (According Bats' guitarist, Peter Clifford, it was he who recommended Laws to Tommy Roe after declining an offer to join Roe's band during their 1969 South African tour.) During the early '70s, Laws appeared on Tommy Roe's critically acclaimed albums We Can Make Music and Beginnings, but has kept a low profile since then, although he is still active musically in Los Angeles where he resides.
Laws was quickly followed by Sam Evans, who was keen to go solo and wisely used the success of the group's debut single to launch his career. After a brief stint with local beat group This Generation, Evans debuted with a revival of Dean Martin's Memories Are Made of This on the Pye label, and later that same year scored with Roy Hammond's composition, Shotgun Wedding. (Incidentally, the song was at #10 in the South African charts on 12 August 1966 when the Beatles' hit Paperback Writer was removed from the Springbok charts as a result of a SABC Board decision that no Beatles songs may be played on any government-sponsored radio station. They took the decision in response to Lennon's apparent remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus.)
Later, Evans would go on to record a string of singles throughout the late '60s and early '70s for the WRC, Parlophone and Nitty Gritty labels. He enjoyed further chart success with his singles, Ain't Love A Funny Thing, Goodbye Girl and Goodbye Guitarman. Evans also issued a solo album in 1970 for Parlophone entitled Ain't Love A Funny Thing, but sadly passed away in Johannesburg on 23 December 2004.
THE A-Cads (Part Three)
The A-Cads, meanwhile, briefly split up for a few weeks, but soon reformed with Hank Squires handling the vocal duties. The new line-up quickly emerged with a follow up single, Fool Fool Fool c/w Zip-A-Dee Doh Dah (the b-side in fact had been recorded before Evans' departure) and, in a rather unusual move, also toured the Garden Route by train with the Boswell-Wilkie circus during the school holiday. One of the most memorable dates during this period was appearing at the Vaal Festival where the band played to 3,000 screaming fans.
Amid all this activity, RCA Victor issued the band's album, which credited McKelvey for lead guitar and Dick Laws for bass (Les Goode wasn't mentioned at all in the sleeve notes!). Curiously, the label also chose to use a rare picture of the short-lived Laws-McKelvey line-up for the album's front cover with the group pictured on the back of a lorry. The true extent of McKelvey's involvement in the sessions, however, is a matter of contention. According to Richard Laws, McKelvey wasn't around in the studio when he was recording with the group, and Laws is almost certain that he played lead on all the album tracks and three of the singles. Other sources close to the band appear to support his claim, and yet McKelvey is insistent that he did play on at least half a dozen of the album tracks.
One possible explanation is that both guitarists recorded material for the album and RCA Victor handpicked the best cuts when choosing on a final track listing. That might explain the delay in the album's release and may also explain why the group's second single, as well as earlier recordings with Laws - Roadrunner and Sha-La-La-La-Lee were subsequently excluded.
Whatever the reason, the media was unaware of any musical differences, and its response was overwhelmingly positive. Record Express gave the album a beaming write up in the April 1966 issue: "This tremendous, versatile, local group have followed up their hit single with this terrific album of bluesy R&B type numbers."
Though no long lost classic, the album, named after the group's debut single, does show The A-Cads in fine form with the band tearing its way through covers of R&B favourites like In The Midnight Hour and Got My Mojo Working. If any criticism could be levelled at the record, it would have to be the absence of any original material. Even The A-Cads' British contemporaries, Them, The Rolling Stones and The Animals were writing their own songs, and The A-Cads' dependence on such well-trodden material would probably not have helped the group's cause over the long-term.
The album's appearance also coincided with the belated release of the non-album track Sha-La-La-La-Lee, which as mentioned earlier, had been recorded while Laws was still in the band. Despite the changes in personnel and fresh developments in the group's career, which will be discussed in a moment, the media continued to sing the group's praises. Record Express' Cordy Gunn enthusiastically told readers in that month's issue: "Sha-La-La-La-Lee is the A-Cads' best since Hungry For Love…I predict that this new single will immediately leap to the top." Though it never quite matched the success of the band's debut single, Sha-La-La-La-Lee did indeed become a sizeable hit that spring, but by then the band was no longer in the country to promote it.
THE A-Cads' London Debacle
With Squires' old mate Mickie Most now acting as the group's agent in London, the group's fortunes appeared to be on the up, and plans were made to launch the group overseas. Record Express was quoted as saying in the April issue, that "Louis McKelvey has left South Africa on the Edinburgh Castle bound for London where he'll meet the other members of the group in a month's time". Squires and Goode did subsequently join McKelvey during May 1966, and the trio ended up renting a flat in Notting Hill Gate. (Kearney decided against the move as he had recently married the leading dancer from the Boswell-Wilkie circus. He would maintain a profile of sorts, reportedly playing briefly with The Falling Leaves and recording with Birds of A Feather in late 1968. Later qualifying as an artist, he went on to design the cover of the Ancient Mariner album, which featured Les Goode on bass!)
However, plans to get The A-Cads' singles issued in Europe remained just that, and though a recording company in Amsterdam was reportedly interested, Most's attempts to negotiate a deal quickly floundered. When the opportunity to play some dates in Hamburg also failed to materialise, and tentative plans to move to India to play at a major festival fell through, Goode returned somewhat despondently to South Africa during the summer. (Incidentally, Teenage Personality reported in its 21 July issue that Squires was in Hamburg, so perhaps he did play there as a solo artist?)
Re-establishing ties with his first employer John E Sharpe in September 1967, Goode ended up playing in the local R&B outfit Impulse alongside John Elliot (sax), Albert Rossi (drums) and Alan Shane (bass). (Elliot incidentally, also worked with Sam Evans during his post A-Cads career.) Impulse changed its name to The Board of Directors in August 1968 and recorded two excellent singles: New Orleans and Legend of A Big Toe, before Sharpe and Goode left in November to put together The Crystal Drive alongside South African guitar legend Julian Laxton from Freedom's Children. Goode also briefly played with The Derick Warren Sound during this period (he recorded two singles with the group for the Continental label: Lingering On and Every Other Saturday).
Since then, he has become one of South Africa's most highly regarded bass players and has appeared on records by (or played with) such notable outfits as Dickory, Backtrax and Morocco. Goode also worked with future Yes member and fellow South African Trevor Rabin's support group when he toured England in 1979, and during the '70s was also a member of Hawk. He currently resides in South Africa.
Hank Squires And The Haunted
Back in England Hank Squires' decided to trade in a career as a performer. His decision may primarily have been influenced by The A-Cads' recent demise, but it is likely that other factors played a part. During the summer, the South African division of Columbia Records had released Squires' solo album Strange Effect, but neither it nor two singles - Don't Come Knockin' and Strange Effect had been commercially successful. Nevertheless, the album, recorded in late 1965/early 1966 (according to Laws with the original A-Cads), did receive a positive write up in the South African music press.
Tony Hamilton writing in Teenage Personality that summer said: "[The album] carries 13 carefully chosen numbers including It Only Took A Minute, Concrete and Clay, Up On The Roof and My Girl. Hank has lots of talent and deserves a break. He is now in England, and this new LP may help him over there." Unfortunately, it didn't and as the autumn progressed, Squires made plans to move to Montreal. According to Teenage Personality in its 22 December 1966 issue, Squires recorded a rare single in Europe and then headed to Canada for a three-month engagement after he couldn't get a work permit to perform England. Arriving in the spring of 1967, he hooked up with McKelvey who'd made the crossing months earlier.
Like Les Goode, Louis McKelvey decided that England was not the ideal place to pursue his musical ambitions and around October 1966 he took the boat to Montreal with only $10 in his pocket. However, after only a few weeks in the city, he took off for a cross-country jaunt to Vancouver and on his return around March 1967, briefly hooked up with the French-speaking Les Sinners. McKelvey's lone performance with the band was at the Paul Sauve Arena supporting The Young Rascals on 9 April where he sported a Union Jack jacket (extremely daring considering the political climate in Quebec at that time).
By then, Hank Squires had also relocated to Canada and through McKelvey, he soon found work with (arguably) Montreal's finest garage band, The Haunted, who had recently scored a sizeable Canadian hit with 1-2-5. He would work (somewhat controversially) with the band and be given co-production credit on their lone album, which has since become a popular collector's item.
McKelvey was also briefly involved with The Haunted. He was given co-production credit for the single Searching For My Baby c/w A Message To Pretty with Squires and, according to band member Jurgen Peter, was responsible for suggesting the 'A' side's gutsy guitar intro. (In an interesting side note, The Haunted single was given a South African release on the Continental label during early 1968 and was given a positive write up by Tony Hamilton in Teenage Personality.)
A short while later, Hank Squires became a talent scout for Johannesburg-based label Highveld and through Jurgen Peter produced a single for Montreal singer, Andrew Storm (real name: Andrew Lacroix). Storm's single, Tic-Tac-Toe c/w I'd Love To Love You Again, which features McKelvey on guitar, was later given a South African release on Highveld in 1970.
McKelvey next threw in his lot with Our Generation - a Haunted spin-off featuring former members Bob Burgess, Tim Forsythe and Jim Robertson. Our Generation already had one single to their credit, I'm a Man c/w Run Down Every Street, issued on the Transworld label, but McKelvey's arrival gave the band a "shot in the arm". His fiery lead guitar work is immediately distinguishable on the group's second (and arguably best) single, Cool Summer c/w Out To Get Light, which was issued in May 1967. By the time it reached the shops, McKelvey had moved on and pieced together a new musical project. (Hank Squires, incidentally, produced Our Generation's second single, which was given a South African release on the Highveld label.)
Formed in late May, Influence originally comprised drummer Dave Wynne (b. 17 May 1947, Stockport, Manchester, England) and bass player Jack Geisinger (b. Jackob August Geisinger, March 1945, Czech Republic).
McKelvey was already aware of Wynne through his work with The Haunted, as the drummer had recently been a member of that group, after starting his career in another local outfit, The Rabble. Geisinger, meanwhile, had spent the early '60s playing with Bob and the Messengers, a surf outfit that recorded a rare lone single, Splash Down c/w Bob's Groove for the Reo label in 1963. Most of that group then took on a new identity as The Soul Mates. The band never issued any material but did play regularly at the Grand National and the Esquire Show Bar where soul legend, King Curtis played. When McKelvey met him, Geisinger had spent three weeks playing with The Buddy Miles Quartet and had just missed out on an opportunity to play with Wilson Pickett, after the soul singer recruited Miles' entire band for his forthcoming US tour.
The final thread in the original Influence was McKelvey's former band mate from South African group The Upsetters, Andy Keiller, who had moved to Montreal in April 1966 and had contacted McKelvey after spotting him playing with Our Generation on a local TV show.
Influence immediately found work at a small club in Montreal known as the Barrel, where they quickly found their feet. The club normally catered for the local punters' predilection for jazz, but before midnight, when the up and coming jazz bands came on, rock bands would entertain the crowds. "This was the year Coltrane had died and the bar owner Mike brought in all of the band members who had played in his Ascension (Marion Brown, Rashied Ali et al) in quartets, quintets over the summer," says Wynne. "Influence played the early evening and at midnight the jazz started. One of the highlights of my musical career."
The period appears to have been particularly hard; the band was making just under a dollar a night, but by playing five hours a night to an often near-empty house, the group developed a unique stage performance and sound.
The band's musical direction, however, was soon given a fresh and exciting new edge when vocalist/organist Bob Parkins, otherwise known as Bobo Island, and guitarist Walter Rossi (b. Rossignuoli Rossi, 29 May 1947, Naples, Italy), dropped by to hear the band in June and subsequently asked to join its ranks.
Parkins was an intriguing character. Blessed with a beautiful voice, slightly reminiscent of John Sebastian's in The Lovin' Spoonful, he added a mysterious bent to the band, claiming he had been born on the fictitious Caribbean island of XANATU. Unfortunately, his "eccentricity" would later become his undoing.
Walter Rossi, on the other hand, brought a strident guitar sound to the band, which would draw favourable comparisons with his idol Steve Cropper. Together with McKelvey's more fiery blues approach, the two guitarists gave Influence a unique sound, particularly for a Canadian band.
Both musicians had previously played alongside Geisinger from Bob and the Messengers through to The Buddy Miles Quartet. More importantly, they had been fortunate enough to participate in the Wilson Pickett tour, including the famous performance at Murray the K Show at the RKO Theater where English bands, Cream and The Who made their US debuts. While Parkins only got to play with Pickett for a couple of months, Rossi toured with the soul legend for about a year, after auditioning for Pickett at Toronto's Massey Hall in May 1966.
Local bi-weekly music magazine, Music Trend, reported on the expanded group in its June issue, noting: "As most of you probably know by now, The Influence added two new members a month ago. Bob Parkins on organ and Wally, who is playing second lead guitar, have made a big change. The first and most obvious is the sound. It's big! Two lead guitarists and no rhythm player makes for an interesting change of pace, but the sound wouldn't come across except in material written for it. Influence has the material."
Music Trend ended its review by noting that "[Influence] is doing a lot of new things for Montreal and in a couple of months will be a big influence on other groups". While events didn't quite work out that way, the future certainly looked promising. Within a matter of weeks, the group attracted the attention of Jerry Renewych, the manager of a local music publishing office, who together with his associate Alan Fainman set up a demo session at a studio in Montreal. Two tracks - McKelvey's Sir Archie and Marble Hall, the latter co-written with his friend, the late Roger Gomes aka Roger Gaylord Keene (singer Millie's road manager during the mid-'60s) were laid down at the session that summer.
The band then headed to Toronto in late August to play the city's vibrant club scene, debuting at Boris' Red Gas Room on 2 September. At first Influence struggled to attract much interest, but following regular appearances at Boris' Red Gas Room, the group's reputation began to spread among the music cognoscenti. (Rossi remembers one hilarious incident in Toronto where Parkins pissed on a picture of the Queen and in the process landed the band in deep trouble with the musicians union!)
While Influence was in Toronto, Renewych used his contacts at ABC Paramount to pass on the group's demo to producer Dennis Minogue (aka Terry Cashman) in New York. Minogue wasn't exactly blown away by the results but decided to take a chance on the band and booked some studio time at Bell Studios during November. However, when Influence proceeded to lay down tracks, Minogue was struck by the great diversity of the band, which by this point encapsulated blues, rock 'n' roll, jazz, chanson and classical influences.
With the recordings complete and an album in the can, ABC set up a launch at Steve Paul's The Scene in late December to coincide with the album's Christmas release. The launch at Steve Paul's famous New York club went well and during the festivities, Buddy Miles (now with The Electric Flag) joined Influence on stage. Reviews were encouraging. "Best material for rock musical theatre we've heard yet," noted Hit Parader that same month, before going on to say: "Influence is a very strange and interesting collection of satire and putdowns. The music is vicious, almost maddening and Influence laughs at themselves as well as the drop out-tune in set."
Cash Box in its 20 January 1968 issue, meanwhile, commented: "Like many Canadian rock groups, Influence places heavy emphasis on comedy, the basic difference in this case is that the comedy is not only original but truly hilarious. Having seen and heard Influence, we can only anticipate with pleasure their debut waxing on ABC, which is scheduled for release sometime late in Jan."
Though only recorded on four-track (the group had anticipated using eight-track studio facilities), the band's eponymous album, demonstrates how special the group was. The opening bars of the atonal I Admire, notable for its discordant riffs and unusual modulations, sets the tone for an album that smacks of musical ingenuity.
Similarities with The Mothers of Invention are striking, although according to Keiller it was really the "interplay between Louis and Bob's unusual sense of humour and the influence of local jazz musicians Sonny Murray and Archie Shepp, who we supported at Montreal clubs" that affected the group's stylistic approach. An example of this "unusual sense of humour" can be found on Parkins' County Fair, an amusing story concerning the sexual relations between a circus girl and a donkey. Another "unusual" track is the group's mini opera, Mad Birds of Prey, which according to Wynne got a nod of approval from one famous musician. "Our publicist at ABC was dating Peter Townsend and reportedly he liked the opera idea."
McKelvey's Pieces of Me with its soaring organ, and the incisive Natural Impulse, co-written with Keiller demonstrate the heavier side of the group's repertoire and are perfect vehicles for Andy's tortured vocals. The latter is arguably one of the album's highlights and is notable for its dramatic shift in mood; a Caribbean-flavoured verse is brusquely pushed aside in the middle eight by some searing guitar work and angst-ridden vocals.
On the other hand, Dream Woman co-written by Parkins and McKelvey and the Parkins-Rossi chanson-styled masterpiece I Don't Know Why are examples of Influence's moodier side and are notable for some intricate guitar playing. Better still, Bob Parkins' heart-tingling voice weaves through the songs and holds it all together.
Despite the positive reviews, Influence was just too challenging to garner the success the group deserved and sank without trace on release. The band was also unravelling behind the scenes.
First to depart was drummer Dave Wynne, who returned to Montreal and his studies. "I left the band in New York for two reasons," says Wynne. "Largely, McKelvey was difficult to work with. I had through Lillian Roxon met with John Kirland of Columbia Records and brought him to see the band at Steve Paul's The Scene where we were playing while recording. Columbia offered to buy out ABC and reproduce us - the album was finished and had not really captured the band. McKelvey, however, had been brought into the booth in ABC and was tied into production and reluctant to move. I decided to leave at this point."
The late Frank Lo Russo, affectionately known to the others as Yum Yum took his place. Russo had also played previously with The Soul Mates and was the perfect drummer for Influence, bringing in a more soulful, earthier feel.
The new line-up returned to the Toronto club scene in mid-February, appearing regularly at Boris' and also performing a series of engagements at the Penny Farthing from 4-9 March. The following month, on 20 April, the band joined a number of local acts at the Canadian National Exhibition Hall in Toronto, opening for The Doors.
Influence next set out on a two-month US tour performing at the Chessmate [10-12 May] and the Grande Ballroom [17-19 May] in Detroit (opening for Procol Harum at the latter) before moving on to Chicago to play at the Electric Theatre [24-26 May] alongside Steppenwolf. A live album was recorded (on a non-professional machine) at the latter and reportedly captures the group's on-stage dynamics perfectly.
Internal dissension and financial difficulties, however, continued to dog the group with Andy Keiller next to leave. He would subsequently quit the music industry and return to England briefly before moving to Melbourne, Australia in 1971 where he now makes a living building fibreglass bodied race cars. (His sons Rupert and Zac are both successful music artists in Australia).
With Keiller gone and Parkins determining the band's direction, McKelvey soon began to lose interest and shortly after a series of shows at the El Patio in Toronto, running from 31 August-1 September, he left Influence to plan his next move. (According to Walter Rossi, the group's manager Berny Cougelman's decision not to share management with Steppenwolf's team in the USA was one of the main reasons behind Influence's eventually break up. He also agrees with Dave Wynne that McKelvey was difficult to work with.)
Ironically, the first person McKelvey approached was The Soul Mates' original drummer Ron Frankel (b. April 1947, Montreal, Canada), who at the time was playing with King Curtis and was married to a French-Canadian singer with an exceptional voice known as Mary Lou Gauthier. Gauthier had sung at St Patrick's Basilica in Montreal at the age of 9 and by the age of 16 had won a nationally televised talent competition before hooking up with Frankel, first in lounge band Five of a Kind and then King Curtis' group.
Keen to move on from King Curtis, Frankel and Gauthier both expressed an interest in forming a band with McKelvey and in early 1969 introduced a bass player friend from the Montreal scene called Ronnie Blackwell (b. 27 July 1948, Montreal, Canada). Younger than the others, Blackwell had first played professionally with R&B outfit, Kenny Hamilton and The Inn Crowd, which is where he first met Frankel. Later, Blackwell worked with Pops Merrily, the house band at the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal. (Pops Merrily, incidentally, later included, in a different line up, future April Wine guitarist Neil Moffatt.)
After working briefly with US singer/songwriter Jesse Winchester, who had moved to Montreal to evade the draft, Blackwell hooked up with the pop group The Five Bells and participated in a short tour from Miami to Puerto Rico. Back in Montreal in early 1969, he ran into Frankel and Gauthier who told him about McKelvey's plans to form a group.
Although McKelvey's new band had initially been planned the previous year, the prospective group had to be put on hold when the Irishman returned to the UK unexpectedly in October 1968. Back in London, McKelvey quickly tracked down his former colleague from Jeff Curtis & The Flames, Malcolm Tomlinson, and convinced him to return to Canada with him the following year. Though Tomlinson had enjoyed some success since McKelvey's departure for Canada two years earlier, he didn't need much convincing.
Returning to Toronto around March 1969, the pair contacted Ron Frankel and Mary Lou Gauthier, who still expressed an interest in pursuing McKelvey's project. Frankel did voice concern that having another drummer in the group might undermine the band's internal dynamics, but the issue was easily resolved as Tomlinson could also be called on to play guitar and flute, as well as share lead vocals with Gauthier.
Adding Ronnie Blackwell, the band rented a large house on Westmount Avenue in the St Clair neighbourhood to rehearse some recent McKelvey compositions. Shortly after taking up their Toronto residence, McKelvey and Tomlinson were both called on to play on ex-A Passing Fancy guitarist Jay Telfer's ambitious solo album, Perch, which was subsequently shelved despite notably contributions from the cream of the Toronto music scene, including Kensington Market members Keith McKie and Alex Darou, singer/songwriter Murray McLauchlan and future Chris De Burgh sideman, Danny McBride.
A few weeks after the sessions, McKelvey was introduced to Vietnam War draft-register and California musician David Mandel by the owners of the Penny Farthing club. Mandel volunteered to roadie for the group and was also responsible for naming the group.
Says Mandel: "Louis and I were sitting around one afternoon at the first home the band had, a basement apartment on Church Street. He was, as always, playing his guitar for hours on end. We were chatting, and I think he asked if I had any ideas for a name. I immediately said, 'Milkwood'. Louis asked why and I said: 'Cause your guitar work is mind-boggling, the beautiful music you get out of your axe is like milking wood.' He liked it, the rest liked it, and the name stuck."
According to Billboard magazine, the group inked a deal with Polydor Records before it had played a single show. Whether this is true is not clear, but whatever the case, Milkwood made their live debut in early May and immediately made an impression.
Blackwell remembers one particularly appreciative fan of the group, who caught the band's set in early May. "One night in Toronto we were jamming at the Penny Farthing. All of a sudden I looked up and there was this guy standing in the door looking in, headband and all. It was Jimi Hendrix! He stayed in the doorway for the entire set and left as soon as we stopped. A while later in Cashbox, he talked about his tour of Toronto and how he had seen this real funky band with two drummers in a small Toronto club".
Milkwood's mixture of blues-flavoured hard rock and strong ballads proved popular with local promoters, who booked them for a string of shows at Toronto's Rockpile supporting visiting acts The James Cotton Blues Band, The Who [19 May], Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention [24 May] and Grand Funk Railroad [25 May]. "I recall that The Who passed on to our group through one of their equipment guys that they had enjoyed our music," remembers Blackwell. Milkwood's bass player also has fond memories of the Zappa show. "That was a fun night because after the concert most of the musicians hung around and we jammed. The Indian bass player for Zappa and I took turns playing bass and it was a blast."
Jerry Ragavoy And Milkwood's Album
During May, Polydor Records had agreed to record the band after receiving a four-song demo, including Blackwell's Fantasy Girl. Sometime in July 1969, the group travelled to New York to begin sessions at the Hit Factory with noted producer Jerry Ragavoy. However, at this critical juncture, the group unravelled. Quite unexpectedly, Blackwell lost interest and left.
Looking back, Blackwell regrets leaving at this crucial time. "Till this day I am not really sure why I left. I was younger than the others and one day just made this stupid decision to leave. There had been a lot of ego clashes and I had a hard time figuring out if I was the cause so I think I just sort of volunteered to leave. No one tried to talk me out of it so I figured that was what should be. I should never had left. We had the potential to make a real impact. Louis could write a hard driving song and then turn around and write a great ballad."
To salvage the sessions, McKelvey put out the call to his former colleague Jack Geisinger who left Influence to help complete the sessions. Unfortunately, differences within the group dogged the recordings and the album was subsequently shelved, probably because Ragavoy sensed that there might not be a group to promote it.
"I think when I left Milkwood the band was done," says Blackwell looking back. "It's hard to fit two drummers and bass into a cohesive sound and while Jack was a fantastic bass player I just happened to have a special groove that melded with Ronnie and Malcolm."
Despite the setback, Milkwood returned to Canada in late July and embarked on a six-week tour, including a show at Ottawa's Café Le Hibou where McKelvey remembers sharing a bottle of whiskey with Van Morrison in the club's dressing room. Dave Mandel was also present and has fond memories of the night in question. "Morrison drank at least one whole bottle of whiskey backstage in a quick barrage of gulps before going onstage, and you sure would never have known he'd taken a drink - amazing performer, amazing hollow leg!"
Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival Concert
Shortly afterwards, Milkwood were asked to play at Toronto's famous Rock 'N' Roll Revival Concert on a bill that also featured John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and McKelvey's idols Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Mandel remembers some interesting guests at the band's house before the show. "Milkwood was asked to back up Jerry Lee Lewis and the then unknown Alice Cooper had been asked to back up Gene Vincent. Cooper's manager and Milkwood's manager were old friends from either Phoenix (where Cooper was then based) or LA, which is how the Cooper invite was arranged. Although I don't recall Jerry Lee Lewis being at our house, Cooper and Gene Vincent practised for the gig in our basement."
Ultimately though, the conflicts that had arisen during the sessions pulled the group apart and shortly after a show at the Hawk's Nest on 17 October 1969, Milkwood finally disintegrated.
From the ashes, McKelvey, Tomlinson and Geisinger launched the aptly titled Damage, a gritty hard rock band that was especially popular with local biker gangs. Consisting of ex-Influence and Life drummer Yum Yum, occasional member Walter Rossi, and (later) ex-Majestics bass player Chris Vickery, Damage played a few notable dates - an appearance at the Toronto Rock Festival at Varsity Arena [26 March 1970] and the Electric Circus [8 May] - but crumbled soon afterwards.
During the early '70s, McKelvey briefly re-united with Hank Squires, working as a songwriter and session guitarist for Squires' short-lived studio group Marble Hall. McKelvey contributed the a-side to the group's lone single, Marble Hall (originally recorded as a demo with Influence).
He also briefly worked with Chris Vickery and future Goddo member Doug Inglis in the rock group Powerhouse, formed in October 1970. Powerhouse opened for Lighthouse at Ryerson Great Hall in Toronto on 4 December but early in the new year, McKelvey lost interest and dropped out to pursue a non-musical career. Music has remained his passion, however, and in 2004 he lent his guitar skills to local group, The New Signals' debut album. He continues to play guitar for fun at members' club that he helped found.
Where Are They Now?
McKelvey's former band mates' fortunes have been decidedly mixed. Following his work with Andy Storm, Hank Squires made one more solo recording that year - Ecstasy, which appeared on a compilation album called Command Performance (although this also could be the elusive rare single he made in Europe in 1966). Squires also produced a number of recordings in the early '70s for a singer known as Martin Martin. He currently lives in Vancouver.
Influence members Jack Geisinger and Walter Rossi meanwhile played in a latter day Luke & The Apostles and then collaborated on an album as Charlee. Geisinger eventually crossed over to the French-Canadian market and played with Michel Pagliano, appearing on the British rock show Top of The Pops to promote his hit single Lovin' You Ain't Easy. He also recorded a couple of albums with Moonquake. Rossi, who spent a brief period playing in Buddy Miles' Express in 1969, went on to establish a successful solo career, releasing a string of excellent studio albums, including Six Strings Nine Lives. He has recently released a new studio album, Secret Sins.
Drummer Dave Wynne meanwhile, spent 20 years as a Canadian diplomat and was last heard working in venture capital in Singapore. On a sadder note, Bob Parkins (who appeared on Buddy Miles's single Them Changes alongside Rossi) sadly died in a highway accident during the summer of 1970, his great potential left unfulfilled.
As for Milkwood - Ron Frankel subsequently did sessions for Jesse Winchester, but otherwise kept a low profile. Plagued by ill health, he lives in Montreal. Mary Lou Gauthier, meanwhile, recorded a brilliant single for Polydor in September 1970 entitled In the Summertime c/w Come Run and later became a noted session singer, appearing on records for April Wine and Celine Dion. She is currently singing with Celine Dion at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
Ronnie Blackwell later became a computer consultant and now lives in Las Vegas. "After I left I was playing with a band in Vancouver but they sucked. I knew I would never play with a band again that had so much promise and talent."
Malcolm Tomlinson spent a brief spell in former Elektra band Rhinoceros before recording with Syrinx, Bill King and Bearfoot among others. In 1973, he became a member of Rick James' original Stone City Band, which cut an album's worth of material that was subsequently shelved. Tomlinson later pursued a solo career, issuing two strong albums in the late '70s. More recently, he has sung lead vocals on The Cameo Blues Band's latest album and continues to gig around the city.
The legacy of McKelvey's involvement with The Flames, The Upsetters/A-Cads, Influence and Milkwood spans three continents and incorporates a myriad of musical styles and genres. Interest in his South African work has grown in recent years - Italian label, Crystal Emporium, brought out a CD of The A-Cads album in 1998 complete with bonus tracks featuring some rare Hank Squires solo material, taken from an unreleased EP recorded in 1966. Influence's album, however, remains one of the era's neglected gems and deserves to see a release in the foreseeable future.
Many thanks to the following for generously helping to piece the story together: Louis McKelvey, Andy Keiller, Tertius Louw, Dave Wynne, Jack Geisinger, Malcolm Tomlinson, Walter Rossi, Edward Pickersgill, Ronnie Blackwell, Dave Mandel, Jurgen Peter, Carny Corbett, Bill Munson, Mike Paxman, Garth Chilvers, Tom Jasiukowicz, Richard Laws, Gregory Plotz and Leon Booysen.
A special thank you to Chris McClaren for the autographs.
Copyright © Nick Warburton, June 2001.
Webpages by Tertius Louw with help from Brian Currin, September 2001