BN: BOB NORTHCOTT
PH: PETER HOLSAPPLE
WR: WILL RIGBY
PT: PHIL THOMAS
TE: TOMMY ESHELMAN
CS: CHRIS STAMEY
CC: CHRIS CHAMIS
CS: The Iceberg Theory of music history goes like this: the most potent stuff is always hidden below the surface, and if only we'd heard the music of J. S. Bach's second cousin twice removed, all would be different. In the Winston-Salem, NC, rock scene of the early 1970s, Little Diesel was the stealth missile in the silo, the band that had the courage to play exactly how they wanted and what they wanted. The dB's and Let's Active were to hog history's footnotes of the period, but Little Diesel are the ones who kick-started it all.
PH: There was a time when I couldn't have imagined being in a band with Bob Northcott. Ever. At Brunson Elementary School in the 1960s, where Will Rigby, Northcott, and I met in the third grade, he was pretty much the bane of my existence, pranking me until in 1970, I fled in tears to spend a year in exile at a New Hampshire prep school. That year was an eye-opener for me, and I came home to tenth grade somewhat more worldly and sure of myself and more ready than ever to play rock music.
Bob had changed, too, and we got to be pals, along with a group of what came to be about a baker's dozen of friends. He was quick with the arch joke and fake snicker, and maybe that was what he was doing all along. But I got it now, and his weird, fly-eyed running commentary on our lives--which often bordered on the obscene--still resonates inside me to this day. WHAT WOULD BOB DO?
We had band class with Mr. Shelton together, Will and I on snare drums, and Bob, cheeks distended like Dizzy Gillespie's, blowing clarinet. We had Spanish with Mrs. Dull and Sr. and Sra. Villalon. None of us were much good at sports, and inevitably we were the last mopes standing in vicious games of Battle Ball.
The year I spent in New Hampshire must've been the year stuff coagulated in Will and Bob where they just couldn't not start a band, which was eventually to become Little Diesel.
WR: Bob and I spent 1970-71 woodshedding with various musicians, learning how to play our instruments (guitar and drums, respectively).
BN: In fall 1971, Will, Peter, and I formed Wazoo. We practiced at Centenary United Methodist Church once and played at the Brunson Family Fun Night, in front of a stunned and confused crowd, including our band teacher Mr. Shelton and his wife, our third grade teacher. Numbers performed included "I'm On an Island" (Kinks), "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" (at that time, only by Johnny Winter And), a 45-minute version of "Dear Mr. Fantasy" (Traffic), and an original instrumental by Peter called "Rigid Member" (a condition that stayed on all our minds for a number of years; please see "Flamingo").
WR: I remember the slow-Stooges version of "Yo-Yo" (Osmonds) with Bob oozing down the stage steps, Ig-like... and Bob's suggestion to call us the Hard-ons.
PH: We also had a tenor sax player, Bruce Swaim, a super good musician who went on to play jazz and blues with people like the late Danny Gatton. We smoked cigs in the tiny bathroom stalls and felt very big indeed.
WR: Lenny Kaye had just coined the term "punk rock" (to describe what is now known as garage rock) in the liner notes for the album Nuggets, which when it appeared became something of a touchstone. Glam rock, huge in the UK but not much of anything in the US (and practically unheard-of in NC), was our staple among current recordings: T. Rex, Slade, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, the Dolls. . . . One could go on categorizing, but somehow we knew--knew the difference between rock and rock and roll and the difference between good and bad music. Bob and Peter had preternatural ability to pick out the good stuff.
CC: I've known most of the members of Little Diesel since the third grade. Starting from about 1968 when we were in the seventh grade, they seemed psychic in their knowledge of emerging bands and trends in rock and roll. To be based in North Carolina and know about the Move, Big Star, Bowie, the Stooges, Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, and on and on was truly amazing.
PH: We were all into music as listeners at some depth, devouring Creem and Phonograph Record magazines whenever we could get them. Will was a consummate Beatles collector for a long while. He and Bob loved Dylan, who I saw as a singles artist. Bob listened to Lenny Bruce, Streisand, the Velvet Underground, and the Stooges. We all adored the MC5, who performed in Winston-Salem at a legendary show the year I was away. My tastes were in the Roxy Music/Eno/Can school, with a nascent fascination with Fairport and Richard Thompson. We saw lots of shows together in Greensboro, like Alice Cooper/Free/Todd Rundgren. I think we went to see the J. Geils Band every time they played in NC.
BN: Wazoo splintered as Peter went to join Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter, and Bobby Locke in Rittenhouse Square. Rittenhouse recorded their now-legendary EP at Crescent City Sound Studio in Greensboro and played in local clubs to capacity crowds who were hungry for their hard-edged but melodic pop-rock.
PH: Rittenhouse made a six-song album that our drummer had pressed, which became noteworthy for its guile and riff-rocking originality (plus its lack of a hard cover) and is now considered a collectors' item by people who've obviously never heard it. Chris and Mitch were deep into their fledgling recording careers even then, and playing live was not high on the list of Rittenhouse's priorities.
BN: We originally started practicing in classmate John Blunk's backyard. We called it "The Shack" and spent as much time out there hanging out and practicing as we could. One day the Blunks went out of town on vacation. Mr. Blunk explicitly told us not to go in there while they were gone (I'm sure for safety concerns or liability; he was in the insurance business). Well, of course, we went anyway and sure enough, they came home from vacation, pulled into the driveway, and busted us. We were banished.
We fished around for a bass player, and classmate Kyle Troxell put us onto the great Tommy Eshelman, whom he knew from Forsyth Country Day School, a private school outside of the city. I think it was Tommy who then recruited Phil Thomas, a terrific guy who used to give me rides home from school in his old Mercedes.
TE: My first memory of the band was going to meet Bob and Will and play for the first time. It must have been 1972. Bob was sitting on a stool with his Gibson Melody Maker looking a bit tired. Then he started playing Michael Bloomfield licks and the guy ripped. He was awesome like nobody I had seen play. They were both nice high school kids.
PT: Tommy and I had been classmates and close friends at Summit School (a private Winston-Salem school). We started to play the guitar at the same time, but it didn't take long before he was light-years ahead of me.
I happened to be at Eshelman's house one Sunday afternoon when Bob, Will, and Tommy were practicing. There was this green Greco bass guitar leaning up against the wall. I picked it up and started to play with them. I had never played the instrument before, but knew enough of the basics to cover the bottom. Had the green Greco not been in the room, I don't think that I would have ever become part of the band.
WR: I remember the day that Phil came up at lunch outside Reynolds High School, after having been assigned the duty/honor of naming the band. Surrounded by a horde of bated-breath eleventh-grade boys, he coolly took a puff off his cigarette and said, "How about Little Diesel and the Weasels?" I don't recall a dissenting opinion. After a while ". . . and the Weasels" was dropped, Little Diesel being plenty good and long enough at four syllables.
PH: "Little Diesel," by the way, was the name of Olive Oyl's niece in a Popeye cartoon.
PH: I went to see them play at a Calabash-style fish restaurant outside of Winston one Sunday afternoon, a spotty teen in a biker throng. It was going to be an uphill battle for them, but fortunately, an older, bluesier band would be following Northcott, et al., and the audience could get drunk in peace. I don't remember much about what happened later that day, apart from leaving Bob's Silvertone speaker cabinet behind.
BN: We opened for an all-female touring band called Birtha at the old Winston-Salem Coliseum and played "Brontosaurus" and "Turkish Tram Conductor Blues" by the Move. Malcolm Jones (now a senior editor at Newsweek) reviewed the show for the Winston-Salem Journal, saying the crowd was not very impressed.
PH: Birtha's roadies accused the band of stealing a monitor cabinet (comeuppance for the Silvertone?).
WR: It was almost our first show, and by far our most high profile. Those two gigs were the same week, June 1973.
WR: Later that year Peter joined, leaving Bob mainly as singer. Peter also had a Wurlitzer electric piano, so we had some possible variation in sound.
BN: Henry Martinat came through with an old cabin wired for electricity in his backyard off of Country Club Road. It was promptly dubbed "the Batcave" in honor of Chris Chamis's old Plymouth station wagon, "the Batmobile." Many afternoons after school were spent honing our craft in the Batcave, learning songs, eating boiled peanuts, talking about girls we had a thing for, and soon we were a crack rock and roll juggernaut capable of delivering three-set shows.
CC: I was a pal, a fly on the wall at practices (practice drinking beer?), had my first exposure to PA systems and became a roadie /soundman of sorts.
PH: We undoubtedly were not very gracious guests, with high volume rock and roll played on their power bill accompanied by underage drinking and recreational soft drug use by a vast group of their son's classmates.
TE: We had parties with another band and friends there at the Batcave on occasion. One such event included an 8mm projector that tended to overheat and melt the adult entertainment film during the exciting parts. A bass player from the other band (now a local news writer) would patch it with tape and the show would go on. The night ended with a bottle-smashing contest against the fireplace. The neighbors were either very patient or partially deaf, except for Dr. and Mrs. Martinat, who were just very kind.
PH: Bob and Will pretended they'd written "In the Street" and "Feel" (from #1 Record by Big Star), and I fell for it completely. I wanted to believe they had, and I thought that Little Diesel was just an amazing idea in the first place so I was easily duped. Pissed me off for quite a while, too.
TE: I remember dissecting songs from our favorite LPs with Peter. He could pick out the parts quite well, then build the arrangements: part A1, A2, B1, etc. I also remember listening to Alice Cooper in his car once and he was explaining to me how to pick out bass parts. We sat for a long time listening and discussing bass guitar. It was rock-and-roll school for me.
BN: Phil had an old green Greco bass, and later bought a Gibson EB-1 violin-shaped bass (from Gene Holder, later of the dB's); Tommy had a Telecaster (and later a Strat and a Les Paul gold top); and Peter had both a clear Dan Armstrong (like Cyril Jordan's) and a couple of Silvertones. We used to have to rent big enough amplifiers in the early days so we could be heard over the drums at gigs. I usually got a Kustom because the Naugahyde cover looked cool. I had no idea whether it sounded any good or not. Needless to say, this ate up what little money we earned anyways. We rented mics and stands, too.
PH: I bought a fifty-watt Marshall stack with eight ten-inch speakers, which blew its transformers continuously. One day, I stripped the Tolex off the cabinet, and it lived out its days as nude plywood. The amp I ended up with was somebody's nightmare shop project, with tuck-and-roll vinyl and a volume pot but no knob. It was loud as all get-out.
TE: The band would go hunting for guitar strings and drugstores with tube testers for ailing amps on Sundays sometimes.
PT: Bob Northcott made me laugh harder than anyone that I have known in my lifetime. He would say anything to anyone, just to get a reaction. When you were with Bob, you were always entertained.
In my mind, Bob's voice set us apart from the other local acts. In those days, there were talented musicians around town, but few bands had the vocals of LD. Bob had great range and could cover the broad spectrum of our repertoire.
PH: A good part of our high school years was spent in the company of each other in our cars on weekends and evenings, which we called "blazin'." We played the game "find 'Journey' on the radio," the reward for which was shouting along with the Amboy Dukes. Later, Journey meant something entirely different, and there was a much better chance of finding that Steve Perry upchuck instead of Ted Nugent. But sometimes the magic still works . . .
BN: We all would get together at somebody's house on Friday and Saturday nights and listen to records and decide songs to learn, drink beer, and watch Don Kirshner's Rock Concert.
PH: Although we certainly rehearsed more than we played live and earned less than $1000 in our existence, our gigs were crazy and are some real milestones in my life.
We did a show at Strawberry Fields, the concert lot behind the Coliseum, where we were pied in the collective faces by our well-meaning friends. I tried to emulate Glen Buxton of the Alice Cooper band but ended up nearly hyperventilating on a cheap cigar. Northcott out there jabbering lyrics, both authentic and "revised" by him; Will beating the shit out of his Mica-Sonic drums; the bass dropping out as Phil would light a cigarette mid-song.
Little Diesel did not follow the rules of order for bands in the South that wanted to ever get booked anywhere. The covers sprawled and trawled through the best pop, rock, and soul the members knew, and that didn't include "Whippin' Post" or "Honky Tonk Women." We were more attuned to "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" than "Ramblin' Man." And it wasn't that Winston-Salem was ready to hear "Sweet Jane" or "Trash"; but Little Diesel did not give a shit, and we played what we liked because we thought other people would like it too, if they ever heard it.
BN: "Good News/Bad News" (Family) was awesome and always managed to elicit a lot of blank stares and slack jaws from the crowds. Our use of dynamics was particularly stunning on that one.
WR: It's hard in retrospect to believe we expected to win battles of the bands in 1973 North Carolina, playing "Dirty Water" by the Standells or T. Rex's "Bang a Gong." I know we wanted to win the prize of a recording session at Arthur ("Guitar Boogie") Smith Studios at another W-S Coliseum show, by playing "Rockin' Pneumonia." We didn't, but we enjoyed talking to Arthur's brother Ralph.
BN: We played at the Parkland Lounge (in an apartment complex) where they really hated us.
TE: Phil took a nap during a thirty-minute version of "Sister Ray" at a party at the Sheraton Motor Lodge. He just laid down onstage and closed his eyes, but was still playing bass. Afterward, the band and everybody at the party got thrown in the pool.
PT: Will had the smallest drum kit in Winston-Salem at a time when many local drummers were sporting double bass drums with multiple tom-toms. There were occasions when Little Diesel was the opening act and we would be setting up our equipment, and members from other groups sharing the engagement would walk by and snicker at Will's drums. Once Will started to play, the snickering stopped as everyone realized his talent level.
PH: We played Bishop McGuinness, the local Catholic high school, twice. One time was in the freezing cold out on the asphalt.
BN: The other time was for a senior prom where the theme was Hawaii, and we did a killer slowed-down version of "Brown Eyed Girl" that precipitated some massive slow dancing.
PH: Little Diesel played the King Battle of the Bands, the selfsame event commemorated in song on the Rittenhouse album, where we played Yardbirds and Paul Revere covers in sprayed hair, sparkly shirts, and platform boots to an extremely flummoxed crowd.
BN: We played in front of Will's house for the annual Runnymede Road Fourth of July parade and picnic.
PT: At the Polo Road Recreation Center gig Bob had a conflict; he had a role in a local theatre production and didn't play with us. Our sound was very vacant without him. That night we sounded like everyone else in town.
TE: One time we played at a local grammar school for some reason. During "Gloria" Peter pulled a chalkboard out on stage and started teaching the kids the letters to the song. Before long, he had them singing along.
BN: We played at the Reynolds High School Follies, both for the student assembly and for the real show at night that they sold tickets for and all. We played two songs, "Wishing Well" (Free) and "Anytime at All" (Beatles via Blue Ash). At the assembly during the day for the entire student body, the student council officers came up on stage at the end of the last song and sang along with the band, our arms around each other singing and taking bows. It was very cool and a great way to end Little Diesel's high school career, sort of like on a made-for-TV movie, all triumphant and shit.
WR: The last show with the Bob/Peter/Will/Tommy/Phil lineup was at a party in December 1974, with one semester of college under our belts. There was never a posed picture of the band taken, as far as any of us can recall or find.
WR: Little Diesel recorded an album's worth of songs in one afternoon, in Chris Stamey's bedroom at his parents' house, on his four-track Teac reel-to-reel (that era's cutting-edge home-recording technology)--three originals and songs by Free, MC5, the Coasters, Spirit, the Electric Prunes, Fairport Convention(!), Richard Rodgers(!!), and others. There was an overdub session the following week for background vocals and guitar parts, but the tracks were live-in-the-bedroom including lead vocals--an authentic document of how the band played and sounded. It's a shame there is no recording of us doing our unofficial anthem "Do Ya" (by the Move--the vastly inferior ELO version did not exist yet).
PH: Not a particularly large place when you have drums and several teenagers in it; Chris had some ancient Fender tweed Champ amps mounted on his walls and others stuffed in his closet. I can't imagine how we decided to record the songs we did, apart from "Kissy Boys" and the other originals, but it's a pretty accurate cross-section of what we played live.
CS: These recordings were made without a mixing console; we plugged it all straight in to the Teac 2340 four-track in all kinds of unorthodox and incorrect ways. I wish I could figure out now how we did it! There was only one take of each song, and the whole session start to finish lasted only an afternoon. The master tape was thought to be gone until Mitch Easter found it under a pile of forgotten reels this year.
CC: I sat in the corner at the Stamey sessions, in awe of the recording process and of Northcott's ability to remain standing upright.
WR: I don't recall if recording was Chris Stamey's idea, but he certainly did the work involved. And in 2006 it was Chris who took the original tapes and made them sound better than they did before, with digital techknowledgy. Bob's singing holds up particularly well, and Peter's and Tommy's guitar playing is solid and inspired, especially for high schoolers. There are some moments where the drumming makes me wince but some good moments too, and the timekeeping is solid. Little Diesel was no exception to the time-honored rock-band tradition of having the cool/sexy guy in the gang play bass; Phil wasn't the best bassist but he wasn't the worst, and was a good guy; he intros "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" and throughout holds up the bottom just fine.
Bob's vocalizing is worth a few . . . words--or more precisely, the lack of lyrics at some points is not your imagination. I don't think he ever learned the words to "Pictures of Matchstick Men," but the scream at the beginning more than compensates; even the ones we wrote have some, uh, "wacka sacka" moments. His asides at the beginning of the tracks are some of my favorite moments and add to the pile of culture-vulture references that comprise the song list: "dig my fine brown body" (the beginning of which, "I know you . . . ," was uttered before the record button was pushed). Finally, his Barbra Streisand fixation surfaces more than once, especially on "Anytime at All" and, of all places, "Substitute."
PT: A brief history on "Kissy Boys": One afternoon Bob showed up with this pornographic movie catalogue. We stopped rehearsing to check it out. One of the movie titles was Kissy Boys. We thought that it was hilarious and decided to write a song around it. I think it took about five minutes to compose and it consisted of our best New York Dolls impression. When you consider the times, I am not sure people would have been so accepting had they known the underlying theme. We hung the Kissy Boys picture on the mantle of the Batcave. It remained there for many months thereafter.
PH: "Flamingo" is about the Flamingo Drive-In, Winston-Salem's porn theater. You could see the screen from Interstate 40. We were pretty obsessed with the place; a picture of some of us posing on its marquee appeared in the high school annual that year.
WR: The original pressing of this recording was twenty copies--on 8-track. The plain yellow labels were typed by Peter. After each member of the band got one, the remaining fifteen copies quickly sold out. There were two runs of Little Diesel T-shirts (yellow and blue), with a design by Peter that stands the test of time--unlike the shirts or the 8-tracks.
THE BIG BAND
WR: In the summer of 1975, Peter stayed in Chapel Hill and didn't want to keep playing with us; Phil was uninterested, too.
PH: I'd jettisoned myself out of music and the life I knew for a year. Love makes you do funny things sometimes.
WR: Chris Stamey came in on bass, Mitch Easter on guitar, and Chris Chamis was added as a second drummer. This lineup only played two or three shows but somehow managed to record some tracks. No new originals were added by this lineup. "Hollywood Swinging" by Kool & the Gang was a particularly inspired choice among cover songs.
BN: The Little Diesel Big Band recorded a bunch of songs at the NC School of the Arts and played a few times, the last gig being in Blowing Rock, NC. There wasn't much of a crowd, and logistically it was a pain to gather from the corners of the state for gigs. We were doing Aerosmith and we even still played "Journey to the Center of the Mind" a few times. The Little Diesel Big Band produced a massive thundering sound thanks to the twin drumming torpedo of Will Rigby and Chris Chamis.
CS: I don't even remember the sessions, much less how they were recorded, but again, it seems to have been with everyone singing and playing live.
TE: Recording with Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey was enjoyable. I remember asking Mitch, "What am I doing showing you guitar parts?" The most exciting parts were those unique moments of a song when you didn't know what was going to happen, but you knew it was going to be good.
PT: Having remained a local Winston-Salem resident, periodically I run into people with a connection to the Little Diesel era. The recurring comment is always "you guys were a great band." I find it amazing that thirty years later the association still exists!
PH: I'm glad I had a really great band in high school. It completely confirmed that, no, I was not alone in my passion, and yes, I could save my mind by playing music with my blazin' buddies.
BN: Most of all this band was composed of real friends who are still close after three-plus decades. They all still play music, and there is currently a grassroots effort to force their reformation that they may not be able to resist.