Celebrating the Winston-Salem Sound (Live at the Ramkat 2018)

Excerpts from A Spy In The House Of Loud (University of Texas Press)

by Chris Stamey (used by permission)

Before Guitars

In the years before the Summer of Love . . . science was king. The astronauts were the heroes of the early sixties; the space race was on. While still in elementary school, I read every single book on the public library's science fiction shelves, riveting tales of rocket life by Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and the rest. Our family of five and our several cats and many dogs (thirteen adult Afghan hounds at one point) filled up all the rooms in our suburban brick home at 3229 Crittenden Court, in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood of Winston, but my friend Mitch Easter, an only child, had free rein over his parents' large, empty suburban basement across the way at 610 Nokomis Court. It soon became a laboratory and staging ground for experiments rewiring discarded radios and utensils. We shot Estes model rockets with salamander astronauts into "space" above the schoolyard, laughed together over what we could understand of the savage humor in Mad magazine, and played at being international spies, tinkering with soldering guns in an effort to make espionage gear worthy of our television favorites, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Prisoner.

By 1965, long before either of us could play guitar, Mitch and I had both begged Sony reel-to-reel tape recorders for Christmas . . . and would put them through their paces. I experimented with recording myself reciting palindromes, to see whether the likes of "radar" or "Peel's foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep" sounded the same when the tape was running back to front. (To save you time, I'll report: This does not work.) And we tried defeating the erase head's function by covering the head with paper and aluminum foil, which let us add layer after layer on the mono machines without losing what had gone before--a very primitive, hissy form of overdubbing. In addition, I had a magnet shaped like a pencil and could use this to gradually "fade" a recording by slowly moving it closer and closer to the tape as it moved from one reel to the other. I'm not sure when we started experimenting with tape loops, but I think it was around this time as well.

It was the era of the electronic tinkerer, and Popular Electronics magazine was the bible. CB radios came into vogue among hobbyists around then, and we would roam the dials trying to connect with other voices in the ether. Mitch even had his own barely legal AM radio station, built from a kit from the Heathkit catalog, with a range of practically two hundred feet. From the top of the Nokomis cul-de-sac, we would spin "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron," by the Royal Guardsmen, or "Wooly Bully," by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, using a microphone to capture the sound from a record player and adding commentary for the near neighbors, all the while keeping an eye peeled for FCC agents with handcuffs. The Guardsmen tune; "Expressway to Your Heart," by the Soul Survivors; and "The Letter," by the Box Tops, were all songs that combined small-combo performances with sound effects of airplanes, traffic, and crowds, and any such extramusical additions always drew me in. I also experimented with my dad's SoundScriber machine, which he used for office dictation. This device etched out low-fi grooves onto fluorescent-green translucent plastic disks, and I would borrow it on weekends to make "records," rubbing the mic and banging on it for my own Foley effects.

Sam Moss Arrives

It was an era when only a few young players had yet cracked the physiology of the wrist-twisting, string-bending electric guitar technique now made possible by the new thin wire gauges, such as Ernie Ball's Super Slinky set. In Britain, Eric Clapton (an early adopter of skinny strings) and Jeff Beck were making inroads, listening to and extrapolating from rare tracks recorded in the fifties by blues innovators such as B. B. King, Albert King, and Hubert Sumlin. And in the United States, Mike Bloomfield had gone to the sources in Chicago and now had it down pat. Robbie Robertson, with Bob Dylan's backing band, was also getting it together a bit. But most of the radio players quickly got into deep water when they tried to stretch the strings and apply vibrato. Up to that point, guitar players had produced vibrato just as violinists do, by pulling a finger forward and back, parallel to the length of the string, making the pitch go alternately a tiny bit flat and sharp. This yields a lovely, humanizing effect but not a very dramatic pitch shift. The new electric players' string-stretching technique, with the thumb hooked over the neck and the wrist pivoting, allowed bends of a whole step or more and a deeper vibrato. The sustain and compression created by heavier amp distortion allowed for expressive phrasing that mimicked gospel vocal inflections, going up to pitch and then dipping down and back up but not ever above. (A record from a later decade, Bill Frisell's cover of Aretha Franklin's hit "Chain of Fools" on his Is That You? album, nicely illustrates a string-bending guitarist mimicking a singer.) To rock ears at that time, amazing jazz players such as Larry Coryell sounded almost clumsy, because they were slow to cotton to the new, lazy, thumb-over-the-neck microtonal style.

Mitch's chops soon brought him, and all of us, into contact with another member of the secret society of early rock string-benders, a slightly older and most extraordinary character: Sam Moss, a Methodist minister's son from the small nearby town of Lewisville, who lived and breathed guitar and had also broken that code.

Sam recognized Mitch as a fellow devotee and started visiting at the Easter's "salon" for days on end. We would all eat the endless cheddar-cheese sandwiches served up by Lib, Mitch's mom, drink Coke after Coke, and listen to Sam spin tales and "bend wire." Sometimes I would spend the weekend with Sam, who was by that point living farther down the road in Taylorsville, near Statesville, and he would patiently show me, a beginner, parts of how it was done. Those lessons have stayed with me.

From the first day we met, Sam spoke in a patois that was his alone, full of implied quotation marks and arched eyebrows around unexplained catchphrases, although some of these came from the black-and-white W. C. Fields movies we would sneak into at Wake Forest College ("Go away, kid, ya bother me" seemed to fit most any occasion). He seemed at times to be out of an R. Crumb comic, striding confidently through the frames of life while the rest of us waited for page turns. He would talk about "hitting the note" (based on a specific high harmonic that Todd Rundgren, another early adopter of the new vocabulary, had popped out during a solo on the first album by his early band, Nazz), which now applied to any peak moment in life. Anything with inner Aristotelian beauty, from a great chili hot dog to the novel A Confederacy of Dunces, was proclaimed "Blues approved." I was under his wing for a while, learning everything from the proper way to drink tequila (with salt and lime on the hand, taught to me while sitting in a '66 Ford Thunderbird on the side of the road) to all the myriad reasons why the Warren Commission had gotten the Kennedy assassination all wrong and all the obvious reasons why Rolling Stones guitarist "Keef" Richards had gotten almost everything right. In short order, Sam became our resident wise man and arbitrator of all that was true and good in music, with extra points assigned if it was rooted in the blues.

Captain Speed Kickstarts an Era

A duck, tethered to a kick drum by a forty-foot piece of twine and flying through the air in time to the pounding rhythm. A 150-watt bulb in a black box, its illumination interrupted by the slowly revolving blades of an electric fan: a poor man's strobe light. Yours truly, cowering in fascination as the cavernous acoustics in the cafeteria of the Bishop McGuinness Catholic high school for girls swallowed up what coherence there was in the improvisatory fury of Captain Speed and the Fungi (pronounced "funky" by those in the know) Electric Mothers. It was 1968, I was thirteen, and Winston-Salem was being forever transformed.

Not that there hadn't been electric guitar music in town already. In fact, Easter was now leading the Loyal Opposition, with "girl drummer Robin Borthwick" (the prefix usually included for shock value). Their quartet played precisely picked versions of material from the Ventures' surf-instrumental songbook among other radio faves, for turtlenecked partygoers.

But it was nothing like this: the freedom, the volume, the rumble. Psychedelia, on the wings of a water fowl, had flown into our little tobacco town. We watched Steve Hutchison blur into a many-limbed beast as he rolled around the toms, while Buddy Carlisle traveled all over the neck of a Fender Precision bass (shaped like a "Year Zero"--i.e., 1951--Telecaster) as he sang. Guitarist Mike Greer had taken the underground phonograph sounds of Cream, the Amboy Dukes, Vanilla Fudge, and Hendrix and conjured them into life on his way to transmuting them into the band's "Yesterday's Tomorrow" b/w "Reptilian Disaster" single (of which there were only three or four copies ever made, reference lacquers only). This was a seismic event for our town, and as the dust cleared, everything looked different.

Within a year there was a gaggle of brightly dressed, Nehru-collared bands with extended guitar solos, bellbottom pants, and peace signs. It was a pop-music shift as extreme and rapid as that of CBGB's rise to prominence a decade later. Easter's band, the Loyal Opposition, had evolved in short order into the Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin and then Sacred Irony, singing original songs such as "I See Love" and "I Am Your Doctor" with 100-watt Marshall stacks and wah pedals and ace Ted Lyons (later an influential painter, raconteur, and bluegrass mandolinist) now on the tubs.

Guitar guru Sam Moss still played with the B. B. King via Mike Bloomfield phrasing he'd mastered, but now in the context of the sonic wash of Upinshades and, later, on songs from the Beatles' trippy Revolver, with the Rhythm Method (a reference to a birth-control technique that seemed anachronistic then, with the recent advent of "the Pill"). A bit later, our own McCartney figure, heartthrob bassist and singer Don Dixon, already a veteran of "beach music" session work in Charlotte, migrated from Lancaster, SC, to anchor Arrogance, Mike Greer's new, oh-so-heavy (meaning "profound," "ponderous," and loud) project, singing both "Maybe I'm Amazed" and the Black Sabbath catalog with equal aplomb. Robin Borthwick now pounded away behind the Shadows of Thyme.

The psychedelic invasion that this earthquake sent rippling out through Winston-Salem that year was an inclusive phenomenon: If you didn't play well enough to be on stage, you could probably sign on with one of the requisite light shows; no band in town would willingly perform without an overlap of black-and-white cartoons (on actual film) and giant amoebas created by floating oil on water in Pyrex dishes on top of overhead projectors "liberated" from high school supply closets. I had started taking electric bass lessons at a downtown music store, but my skills had not yet caught up with the rest of the young musicians in town. So I found my own place in the action by taking one of the stereo tape recorders I had formerly used to record palindromes and planting it backstage, with rewired boxes from Radio Shack as cascaded four-channel mixers, to capture the undulating sounds (though not the visual fury) onto seven-inch reels of analog tape. Almost every weekend, there would be the four layers of action: the light show guys in front splashing away in the water dishes, a pulsating band on stage splattered from head to toe with their strobes and cartoon ducks, the freeform dancers and shoe-gazers in front of the stage, and myself in the hallway behind, watching meters and changing reels.

New York was linked to all this via our ambassador, Ken Easter. AT&T had posted him to Manhattan, and he was living in Greenwich Village's NYU towers, although keeping the family in North Carolina and coming back as often as he could. On frequent trips to Manny's Music (the world's hippest music store since 1935, then located at 156 West Forty-Eighth Street, now demolished), he had made friends with Henry Goldrich, the son of the original owner. The Goldriches had connections to Winston-Salem (possibly through the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco family and its femme fatale, the New York-based singer Libby Holman), and they were pleased to connect with another Winstonite. Tales trickled back to NC of Ken and Henry sitting around after hours while Alan Rogan, the Who's head guitar tech, tried out new fuzz pedals and amps and selected guitars for guitarist Pete Townshend to smash. As did Ken's purchases of the latest thing, the insanely loud high-rise Marshall amplifiers. These were made for an era when bands used PA systems only for the singing, not for a full blend of the instruments. The sound from the stage amps had to reach to the back of the room, making stage volume at ground zero breathtakingly loud. There were also precious few distortion pedals on the market, and the ones that were available--the Dallas Music Fuzz Face; the Jordan Boss Tone; the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, which claimed to replicate the "sound of a thousand woodwinds"--for the most part all sounded like the Ventures' aptly named "2000 Pound Bee," just buzz buzz buzz. The high volume was necessary to overdrive the amps themselves, for sustain. This wasn't a problem with the small, twelve-watt Fender amps, but the eight-speaker, one-hundred-watt Marshall stacks had to roar before they would saturate acceptably. Sacred Irony even ended up with a tube Marshall PA, basically a big, trebly guitar amp with mic inputs, which made all the singing sound a bit like Stratocasters feeding back.

The Coffeehouse Scene

Most of the churches in town had community rooms for potluck meals after services, and in an effort to contain and control the teenage explosion, these were offered as concert halls on the weekends. It gave a religious tint to the activity, as youth pastors circulated with plates of Nabisco cookies and trays of lemonade through the weaving, free-dancing crowd, watched over by watercolors of saints. This liturgical largesse had a dramatic and unexpected effect. Because the bands felt absolutely no need to play the hits of the day, as they might have felt at bars in other cities, they started writing their own songs and covering obscure underground favorites. It's hard to overemphasize the importance of this: By opening their doors, the churches played a huge role in fostering creativity in the Winston-Salem music scene. Adopting the Captain Speed template, all the local bands were soon trying to write their own original extended takes on such scene hits as the political, apocalyptic "Monster" by Steppenwolf or Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" (a phonetic spelling of the singer's mumbled "in the garden of Eden"); the Beatles and the Stones were mostly missing in action, old news. Little could match the excitement of writing a song during the week and then playing it for your musical peers on the weekend. Such things are now taken for granted, but in the decades before indie rock, this was a paradigm shift.

All this was great fun, but I wasn't completely sold yet; on some level, I was still the doubting Thomas who had questioned the worth of that new television boy band the Beatles back in fourth grade. My snobby skepticism about pop records was finally overcome by Lib Easter, who jokingly called herself "the oldest living teenager" and was enamored of electric and acoustic folk rock. One rainy afternoon, when everyone else was practicing in the basement, she took it on herself to play me each track on a flagship Greenwich Village folk-rock release, her current favorite, the third Simon and Garfunkel record, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. The duo had scored a surprise hit when the record label, Columbia, overdubbed electric instruments onto their acoustic-guitar recording of "The Sounds of Silence" without the band's input. Now the duo had taken a whole month in the label's Manhattan studio to spend an unheard-of $30,000 using a brand-new invention, the eight-track tape recorder. I sat and listened patiently to Lib's commentary for song after song, and I liked the careful use of language, although the music sounded very restrained and timid. But when it got to "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night," with the announcer's monotone about Vietnam War deaths weaving in and out of the Christmas ballad, the irony of the sound collage really grabbed me. Of course, the disastrous war and the draft were on all our minds in those years, with the protests, napalm, and body bags on TV daily. Perhaps the song reminded me of the layering I had created earlier by my tape recorder's erase heads with aluminum foil. Or of the sound effects added to "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" and "Summer in the City." But it was the contrast between the deadpan recitation of death tolls and the Everly Brothers-style tenor harmonies that did it: From that moment on, I wanted to make records.

The Yellow Payges

Our scene was heavily influenced by a pair of local 1969 concerts by the Los Angeles-based Yellow Payges, which featured Bill Ham, a guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas, playing their regional hit "Vanilla on My Mind" on a tiny double-cutaway sunburst Gibson Melody Maker. The band's members started the evenings by each coming out and playing a unaccompanied solo and then jamming together before even playing a single song; we all loved that. Their entrances were preceded by offstage announcements, with their manager identifying their hometowns: "From Houston, Texas," "From Dallas-Fort Worth"; I think the bassist was a "Citizen of the World," which instantly went into local legend as something to aspire to. I recorded both their area appearances on a Sony reel-to-reel under the stage, and those tapes, passed from hand to hand, became a textbook of sultry guitar phrasing for Moss and Easter and the rest of the local guitar slingers. (Bill went on to play lead guitar on tour with Sonny and Cher, the Carpenters, Bread, Toto, Joan Armatrading, and Freddy Fender, and he still plays local jazz gigs in Fort Worth, I believe. He was not the same guy as the like-named manager of ZZ Top, however!)


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