Monday, September 1, 2014

UCSC 1971, The Rhythm Dukes, and Oganookie

In the fall of 1971, I entered college at UC Santa Cruz. Although only an hour from home, Santa Cruz might as well have been a different planet. Much less populated and pretty much graffiti-free in 1971, the town nonetheless already had the funky, slightly shabby, beach town ambiance it retains today.

The campus, only six years old when I entered, was tiny compared to its present size, with only five functional colleges, with the original four clustered together at the top of the hill, and the arts based College Five set widely apart, near the exit of the perimeter road to Empire Grade.  I chose UCSC over the other UCs because of its academic excellence, small size, unique residential college organization, and because of the haunting beauty of the forests and meadows of its campus, set on a hill overlooking the town of Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay.  A friend’s father was one of the main UCSC architects, so I had visited the campus on numerous occasions when it was under construction.

What Santa Cruz was not known for at that time was a music scene. There were really no viable live music venues in Santa Cruz proper, and the relatively small population did not support too many local bands.  The biggest venue, the Santa Cruz Civic, was essentially off limits for rock concerts when I first arrived in Santa Cruz , although they did start permitting shows there by 1973. There were clubs in the Santa Cruz Mountains like the fabled Club Zayante and the even more storied Chateau Liberte, but there were few if any options in the city itself.  The original Catalyst was still in existence on Front Street, but it seemed to be more of a coffee house than a music venue at that juncture, prior to its purchase in 1973  by Randall Kane and move to larger quarters on Pacific Avenue where it emerged as the town’s flagship rock venue.

My principal knowledge of Santa Cruz musicians prior to arriving on campus in the fall of 1971 was the fact that Moby Grape, one of the best and most mercurial of the San Francisco Bands, had just recorded an album there, the marvelous and underrated 20 Granite Creek.  The Grape’s travails have been documented at length elsewhere, but in 1971 the original members got together in a rambling house in Santa Cruz to record a new album of original material with their original producer David Rubinson.  Moby Grape’s resident genius Alexander Spence had left the group abter being hospitalized for mental problems during the recording of their second album, Wow. For Granite Creek, Spence was back in the fold and accompanied by multi-inatrumentalist Gordon Stevens who apparently kind of watched over the volatile Spence as well.

At any rate, Moby Grape had imploded once again following a short tour including some high-profile but musically disastrous gigs at the Fillmore East in June of 71. Nonetheless, most of the Grape members stuck around Santa Cruz, and at least one, bassist Bob Mosley, still lived in nearby La Selva Beach last time I checked. The Grape reformed with various lineups over the next four decades, but I did not see them live until 1973, when a version of the group performed in the UCSC Quarry Amphitheatre.

However, my first Grape siting occurred fortuitously on the second night I was on campus. For most of my time at UCSC, the campus at night was bustling with energy. Each of the residential campuses had its own flavor but, between the dining halls, the dormitories, and coffee shops, each remained a hub of bustling activity well into the night. During orientation week, there were also a number of unadvertised dances and social events.  A group of new friends from my dorm and I were exploring the campus late that evening when we happened onto a dance concert at the spacious Cowell College Dining Hall, down the hill from my own new home at Crown College. Holding forth was a power trio that was billed as the Rhythm Dukes, featuring Grape lead guitarist Jerry Miller along with bassist John Barrett and, I presume, drummer John “Fuzzy”Oxendine.

The Rhythm Dukes were formed in 1969 following one of Moby Grape’s several breakups, when Miller and Grape drummer Don Stevenson  joined forces with Oxendine and Barrett in the Santa Cruz Mountains to hang out and form this new loose, jam-based ensemble. They routinely played the ballrooms and clubs in the Bay area through the summer, but Stevenson left the fold in the fall, with the band continuing as a trio. For most of 1970, the group was augmented by keyboardist/vocalist Bill Champlin, whose main band, the Sons of Champlin, had also broken up. Champlin left in late 1970 when the Sons reformed, and some additional Dukes, including guitarist Russell Dahneke, were recruited to round out the band. When The Grape reunited for 20 Granite Creek, the Dukes pretty much folded, although the show I saw and a couple of others demonstrated that the Dukes trio got together for a few fall 1971 gigs after Moby Grape had imploded once again. Those interested in the Rhythm Dukes should check out the band’s web site and Bruno Ceriotti’s extremely useful family tree and gig guide.
Rhythm Dukes 1970 Champlin, Oxendine, Miller, Barrett

The Dukes show at UCSC was my first exposure to Miller playing live, and his blend of speed and precision was, and remains, a marvel to behold. Details of the set are fuzzy, since I knew none of their material except for Miller’s “I’m The Kind Of Man That Baby You Can Trust,” which was one of the highlights of 20 Granite Creek, but there were blues standards, country-inflected workouts, and lots of extended jams. Not bad at all for a free, unadvertised orientation week concert.

Although the Dukes apparently folded soon after this gig, Miller was a steadfast presence in many different bands in the Santa Cruz area for the next several years, including the Original Haze (which featured future Call leader Michael Been on bass and vocals), the New Shreveport Homewreckers and many incarnations of Moby Grape.

A week or so later I had my first exposure to another peerless Santa Cruz Band, the eclectic quintet known as Oganookie. who were arguably the area’s best and most popular dance band. Oganookie got their start on the other coast during the height of psychedelia as a very different band called Federal Duck. Initially an informal aggregation of musically inclined students at suburban Philadelphia’s Haverford College that apparently at one time included humorist Dave Barry, the group, sans Barry, managed to get a recording contract with  Musicor Records and put out a single album in 1968 that was recorded by seven other musicians including bassist Bob Stern, drummer Tim Ackerman, lead guitarist George Stavis, and guitarist Jack Bowers. The band’s sound was a blend of Strawberry Alarm Clock style soft psychedelia with some harder-edged guitar workouts and just a taste of the bluegrass influences to come in their later incarnation.

By 1969, Stavis had flown the coop and secured a recording contract with Vanguard Records, for which he recorded the remarkable solo banjo recording Labyrinths. He also opened for the Grateful Dead at Purdue University on April 18 of that year, so apparently toured in support of that album.

1970 found the core of Federal Duck (Stavis, Ackerman, Stern, and decamped to a farm in the Santa Cruz mountains. They had added guitarist-vocalist Bruce Frye, and reinvented themselves as country-rock ensemble Oganookie.  Several of the musicians also switched instruments. In addition to playing bass, Stern proved to be a fine electric violin player.  Bowers moved to electric piano and became the group’s principal songwriter, whereas Stavis focused almost entirely on the electric banjo, sometimes switching to bass when Stern was fiddling. Another Duck member, keyboardist Ken Stover, also migrated to the Santa Cruz area, playing in bands including funksters Chameleon. 

Oganookie was a quintessential jam band a couple of decades before that term was coined. Their blend of rock and electrified bluegrass instrumentation and their tendency to play extended versions of  bluegrass tunes, notably their trademark pairing of Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” and “Orange Blossom Special” made them one of the most popular acts for dances on campus and in town.  They also epitomized the people’s band ethos, playing many benefits and extolling the virtues of the back-to-the-land lifestyle the group modeled.

Alas, Oganookie’s term as a band was relatively short-lived, as the group broke up by mid-1973. Before sailing off into music history for good, the band did reunite in 1975 for a pair of energetic and sold-out concerts at the Coconut Grove Ballroom at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and, apparently, once again in 1991. Bob Stern moved back east, became a dentist, and still plays the fiddle.  Stavis and Ackerman both enrolled in the History of Consciousness program at UCSC, and Stavis also appears to have moved back east. He recorded a new-agey banjo album for Aspen Records in 1986 entitled Morning Moods, and still gigs periodically. Both Frye and Ackerman’s current whereabouts are not easily discoverable on the net.

Jack Bowers, however, stayed in the Santa Cruz area. After Oganookie’s demise, he spent several years working with country rocker Jill Croston (AKA Lacy J. Dalton) and built a career working in the Arts program at nearby Soledad Prison.  I saw him at a career retrospective concert at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz last March, and he remains a fine keyboard player and composer.

As the seventies ticked by, Santa Cruz became more and more of a rock and roll town. More later. 

5 comments:

Bruno Ceriotti said...

Another great piece of work Michael!

Obviously I'm interested in the Dukes show because I don't have it in my list. You remember the exact date of the gig? or maybe just the month, September 1971? October? The venue is the Cowell College Dining Hall in the USSC campus right?

So the band was a trio again by then? so Russell Dahneke was no longer with them?

BTW, I see two typos...1) Dahneke's name is Russell not Howard, and 2) In the photo of the Dukes you wrongly spelled John Barrett's name as "Starrat"

Cheers,
Bruno

Corry342 said...

Legend has it that Bob Stern was famed violinist Isaac Stern's son. Any notion as to whether that is true or not?

cryptdev said...

Corry: I read that in at least one citation, but a Google search shows that Isaac Stern had three children, Michael, David, and Shira.

James Langdell said...

I remember Oganookie from amazing performances at UCSC in the early 1970s. I started at College V in 1971. Glad that when they came to mind today (forget how) that my search found your recent account.

Pure Prairie said...

I had the old Oganookie album but doubt if I still do..I was at the Coconut Grove show where they ran the old film of their days in the hills above santa cruz and 'camp Joy'. Was also first time I had saw that upright electric fiddle.They maybe got that posted on you tube.
Norman Lewis told me of the show,,and he lived in the hills near Boulder Creek and the camp and he had the Pine Grove Mills band and had gotten together with Peter Clark and formed Lewis and Clark. Stormin Norman, with Tirone Porter and Slippery Jon still plays around SC and has an annual show at the crows nest were all the many members and friends show.
Check out the lates issue of the GoodTimes SC as it just turned 40 and has many other stories of those good old days in surf city up.