Like just about every other kid who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I dreamed of one day being in a band.
It started with the radio - listening to the Top 40 on WHB AM out of Kansas City. Then came TV and the Ed Sullivan show bringing the top bands right into our knotty-pine-paneled living room via our blond, upright, black & white set.
It wasn’t long before I was buying the hits on 45 rpm records at Williamson’s or Woolworth’s; then on to 33 1/3 albums that I spun on the family stereo.
Man, I loved them all — Elvis, Johnny Horton, Roy Orbison, The Shirelles, Ray Charles, The Stones, The Beatles — but my passion soared when I discovered soul music.
My idol was James Brown, but there was a long list of others: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, The Righteous Brothers, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge, just to name a few.
I sang with ‘em all. Sang along, that is, envisioning myself out there in front of a band showing off my moves.
I can’t remember now who it was that told me back in 1968 that a newly-formed local band was looking for a singer, but I contacted the manager, Bruce Bartelli, and went, one Sunday afternoon to audition at Bartelli’s Blue Goose, a Frontenac tavern owned by Bruce’s uncle, Coga.
So there I was in a little bar in my hometown singing soul tunes with a real band. It wasn’t Ed Sullivan, but just the audition was a dream come true. (As I write this nearly 50 years later, I realize it was actually better than being on Sullivan. It was my first time, in my hometown, standing in the spot where hundreds of others had played dances for my ancestors and fellow townspeople.)
I got the job. Soon we were practicing several times a week, trying to learn the 20 songs necessary to be able to play a gig.
Besides me, there was Bob Konek on lead guitar, Danny Bartelli on rhythm guitar, Steve Bogatay on bass, Brian Stroud on drums and Robert Dean “Bob” Scott on saxophone. (I loved it that we had a saxophone, a soul mainstay.)
In addition to the Blue Goose, we practiced in The Frontenac Bakery, which was owned by the Bartelli brothers grandpa, Martin Spritzer. (The flour-slick floor was perfect for my James Brown slide and twirl. I do believe I was — and still am to this day — the only ‘honky’ James Brown impersonator in the four states.)
Of course we had to have outfits.
The Bartelli’s mother, Mary Ann, custom made us white turtlenecks that zipped up the back of the neck. These we wore beneath black jackets (high school graduation suit coat in my case) with light slacks and black shoes.
Our manager, Bruce, had black & white business cards printed with our name — suggested Linda O’Nelio — “The Soul Inspiration”.
Before long we were traveling around the area, our instruments packed in to the Bartelli’s old station wagon, playing dances — local teen towns in American Legion, Eagles and other small town immigrant, fraternal and community halls.
Our travels weren’t without adventure. We got our own police escort out of Columbus one night after melee that started when a well-lit patron pushed our rhythm guitar player in the middle of a song.
My most vivid (and humbling) memory is of the night we were playing a little dive outside Ft. Scott and 6-foot 8-inch, 300 pound tackle from the JUCO football team decided it would be fun to spew a fermentation of malt and hops on me when I was kneeling on the floor singing James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.”
I can still see the second arc of foamy Budweiser curving slow motion toward me. Then, to add insult to embarrassment, he and a group of his football player buddies decided they wanted to play our instruments. It was a long night.
As it turned out, 1968 was a long year. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, there was police riot outside the Democratic National Convention hall in Chicago and every month a thousand guys my age were dying in Vietnam.
The luster of youth was rapidly tarnishing.
It wasn’t long before that I discovered that being in a band required a lot of practice, plus a lot of heavy lifting loading and unloading equipment. Not to mention that the pay wasn’t that hot, and, because I was doing most of the singing, I had an ongoing sore throat.
Also the fantasy that the ‘band life’ gets all the girls to fawn over you didn’t pan out. At least not the kind I was interested in.
After a year or so, we broke up and went our separate ways.
I still have one of our old promo pictures, taken by Mary Ann with her Kodak. Six kids in white turtlenecks and black sport coats sitting on an old station wagon with instruments in hand.
Looking back, I’m not sure how good we were. I do remember a time or two when we found the groove together and rode it for all it was worth.
What we lacked in talent we made up for in genuineness, daring and raw emotion.
We had soul.
— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Consulting & Training Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or email@example.com.