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Rock n’ roll stories from Fort Wayne’s past

Big names. Big events. Brushes with fame…

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


(editor’s note: Back in FWR #167, we published a story called “Rock n’ Roll Stories from Fort Wayne’s Past.” Many issues later, we followed it up with “More Stories…” They were both very popular; emails continued to trickle in for man years after the stories ran.

Flash forward to FWR #340, and we find ourselves at press time with no feature story. So, we picked a few of them, and are reprinting the piece. The recent passing of Aretha Franklin makes one of the stories below timely).

Big names. Big events. Brushes with fame. “We knew them when…” When it comes to rock n’ roll stories, Fort Wayne has had its share of them over the years. In the 70s, for instance, you hear of some of the monster Chicago bands — Chicago, Styx, REO Speedwagon — coming through Fort Wayne to play small venues or free concerts before they graduated to bigger things (and then returned decades later to play for free again).

We set out to find some of the more distinctive or unusual stories from over the years. We’re sure there are many more out there, but here are a few we’ve gathered…

Hungry for Genesis

Back in the 70s, Fort Wayne loved Genesis.

This was in the British band’s prog-rock years, when meticulously arranged song suites dominated the entire side of an album — usually a concept album — and drummer Phil Collins couldn’t be seen behind Peter Gabriel’s headdress. “Back in the old days, the highest sales of Genesis albums per capita in America was at Slatewood Records, which is now Wooden Nickel,” says long-time Rock 104 DJ and program director Doc West. “Also, members of Ethos, a Fort Wayne band signed to Capitol Records, were close to the guys in Genesis and helped them get booked here. Genesis played various locations in Fort Wayne, including IPFW.” (apparently, there’s a photo of Peter Gabriel wearing an Ethos t-shirt in the biography The Book of Genesis).

Peter Gabriel left in 1975, Phil Collins took over as singer, and Genesis slowly started acquiring a more pop-oriented sound — albeit a pop sound with some serious musical chops behind it — and even scored a few top 40 hits. In 1983, they released an album called Genesis (referred to sometimes as “the yellow album”) that became the band’s biggest commercial success yet. Songs like “Mama,” “Home By the Sea,” “That’s All,” “Taking It All Too Hard,” “Just A Job to Do,” and… err, “Illegal Alien” (the only clunker in a pretty respectable record) were all over AOR radio and Top 40. Also, Phil Collins had begun his solo career by this time.

But as Genesis became a radio format striding behemoth with a famous lead singer, they were suddenly too big to play the town that had given them so much love in the early days, as Doc West discovered when he tried to get concert promoters to bring in the band. “They said Genesis was too big to play Fort Wayne,” West says. “So, I contacted the record company and let them know I was going to try to do something to get their attention.”

That something? A hunger strike. West refused to eat until he heard from Genesis about playing Fort Wayne. The radio station also did a petition drive, but it was the hunger strike that quickly grabbed the attention of the national media, including MTV. “Martha Quinn and the jocks there at the time did news updates on our attempts to get Genesis into Fort Wayne,” says West.

That got the band’s attention. “But what happened was, it actually ended up being concert promoter politics,” West recalls. “Belkin Productions out of Cleveland had the rights to the Genesis tour. Sunshine Promotions, out of Indianapolis, were not involved, and they were not happy with that. Back then, things were much more territorial.”

Belkin had booked Genesis into Indianapolis, and were looking at potential dates for Fort Wayne. In the meantime, Sunshine Promotions had booked Quiet Riot — who were riding pretty high at the time with their cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize” — into the Memorial Coliseum, right around the time Genesis was available. “Back then, there was an agreement with the Coliseum that you had to have a concert a few weeks out from another competing concert, and you had to have permission of the other concert promoter,” West explains. “Sunshine Promotions, who was not happy, said no.”

“So, we didn’t get Genesis because of Quiet Riot,” West adds. “Hard to believe, but…”

But Genesis was sympathetic, and a number of people on Genesis’ touring crew were former Fort Wayners, so tickets sold here for the Indianapolis show were offered at a $2 discount. “Belkin Promotions were a little arrogant,” West says. “They said, ‘we don’t know what’s going on here, but Genesis wants us to make these tickets available to you at a discount. Good luck selling them’.”

But sell them they did. West made several trips to Indianapolis, brought back tickets, and Karma records ended up selling out in a matter of days — 2,000 tickets in all. It broke Belkin’s record for out-of-town ticket sales, and Rock 104 filled 11 buses with concert goers to see the show.

As for West, he lost 40 pounds, and claims he did not have any medical supervision during his hunger strike. At the time, he says, he had the 40 pounds to lose, but… “I was actually starting to lose my hair,” he says. “If you don’t get protein and you’re starving, you get hair-loss.”

Also… “You can get pretty wired when you’re starving, so that was not a good thing. I tended to rant. If you ever talk to anybody on the Atkins diet, it was kind of like that. You kind of get consumed.”

Aerosmith and the “Fort Wayne 44”

On October 3, 1978, 30 people were arrested for drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and possessing marijuana during an Aerosmith show at the Memorial Coliseum.

And we hear you: “wow, arrests were made at an Aerosmith show in the 70s. I’ve also heard that dogs occasionally bite people who deliver the mail. When is your story on that?”

Of course, you’re right. We’re betting this wasn’t the first such bust at an Aerosmith show, in Fort Wayne or anywhere else, and it probably wasn’t the last. We’re also guessing that many of those arrested were minors, since in 1978 adults could indulge in two out of the three activities on that list. It’s possible the Coliseum had a “no smoking” policy then, but anyone who attended a rock concert there a few decades ago can attest that if there were such a ban, it didn’t seem to be vigorously enforced. And by “vigorously” we mean “ever.”

But audience members weren’t the only ones getting arrested at that Aerosmith show. According to Walk This Way, Stephen Davis’ history of the band, singer Steven Tyler’s seamstress was arrested for lighting a cigarette on stage, and “manhandled” by the police.

By 1978, Aerosmith’s infamous drug use was taking its toll, and their live work then was notoriously sloppy and shambolic. Nevertheless, the sight of the woman who handles his scarves being taken away by police seemed to rouse Tyler from his haze. He stopped the show and went on a rant — the words “scumbag” and “gestapo” were used in reference to the police. In turn, he was threatened with arrest for incitement to riot. Then, Tyler offered bail to anyone who was arrested. 28 “arrestees” accepted Tyler’s offer, and the next day, the band’s tour accountant showed up in court to pay $4200 in bail and fines.

Once again, this is according to the book Walk This Way. For the record, the wikipedia entry says it was 58 people, and Doc West calls it “the Fort Wayne 44.” “We did a reunion a while ago with people who could prove they were arrested that night,” West says.

Steven Tyler apparently remembers the incident, and talks about it whenever the band comes through Fort Wayne. “Yeah, the band is very aware of it,” says West. “In the late 70s, Aerosmith played the Coliseum something like three times within 26 months, so they know us.” And of course, the band has returned many times since their big comeback.

West adds that Steven Tyler has fond memories of Fort Wayne for a different reason. Back in the day, West was at a radio industry convention in Los Angeles, and there was a meet-and-greet with Tyler and bass player Tom Hamilton. West approached Tyler with a digital recorder (new at the time) and asked Tyler to say hello to Fort Wayne. “He did his Steven Tyler thing,” West recalls. “’Helllooo, Fort Wayne…’ But then he said ‘You know, the very first rock n’ roll record I heard was on WOWO out of Fort Wayne’.” Indeed, Tyler has talked fondly about the old days of WOWO, which he used to pick up as a kid in New England.

Percussion Paradise

These days, Sweetwater puts Fort Wayne on the national musical map. But a couple decades ago, another Fort Wayne-based music retailer/manufacturer was the “go to” place for those in the know — the Percussion Center.

As you might guess from the name, it was a percussionist’s paradise. Located on Harrison street, north of the river, the store hosted workshops and clinics, and adorning the walls were drum heads signed by bands who would drop by while on tour.

Neal Graham (editor’s note: Graham passed away in 2012) started the Percussion Center in 1973 as a teaching center. “We got into the sales part of it primarily for the students,” Graham says. “It grew into a drum shop from there.”

In addition to retail, the Percussion Center also did drum set customizing. And one of the things you always, always heard about the Percussion Center back in the day — Neil Peart, drummer for Canuck math-rock godfathers Rush, had his drums customized at the Percussion Center’s manufacturing wing.

I heard the Neil Peart story repeated by rote so often that I thought it was a sort of urban myth. Rush was huge in Fort Wayne — their tunes were all over the radio — and in the 70s and 80s Peart himself enjoyed almost god-like status among drummers. In fact, he still does. Precise, musical, able to find the groove in the trickiest of time signatures, Peart and his mad skills get respect even from those musicians who prefer their rock in 4/4 time.

But the story is true. “We were involved in doing custom finishes and brass and gold plating,” Graham says. “The stands and the riser system Peart used, we were involved in all that.”

“In the mid or late 70s, Rush would frequently make Fort Wayne their first stop when they entered the US for a tour,” adds Graham. “They would get their supplies from us — sticks and cymbals and that kind of stuff — so they wouldn’t have to clear it through customs. So we would have it here. Ultimately, we started building drum sets from Peart, and we finished the first 10 — I think it was 10 — sets of his career.”

The Percussion Center did customization for tons of clients, from brass bands to other professional drummers — Kenny Aronoff, who played with John Mellencamp for much of the 80s and has worked with some of the biggest musical acts around, was also a client and occasion clinic host.

So far, Peart has only done three drum clinics, and one of them was for the Percussion Center. “We did it at the Grand Wayne Center,” Graham recalls. “We were walking in there, and Peart said ‘I have no idea what I’m going to say,’ and three hours later, he was still talking. He’s a very intelligent and insightful guy.”

In the early 80s, Graham started another manufacturing company, XL Specialty, concentrating on manufacturing and sales to retail and drum manufacturers. The Percussion Center moved to State Street, and then closed in the early 90s. XL Specialty became a division of Gator Cases several years ago.

The Diva vs. The Maestro

In February of 1999, the legendary Aretha Franklin stopped by Fort Wayne for a couple shows with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. For many in the audience, the performances rankas one of the more memorable shows they’ve seen on the Embassy stage.
But for many Philharmonic musicians and staff, it’s the rehearsal before the performance they’ll really remember.

A bit of background…

At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Franklin — the Queen of Soul, Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and possessor of one of the most powerful and expressive voices in popular music — stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti to sing Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” an aria from the opera Turandot. Franklin received a standing ovation, and “Nessun Dorma” became a staple of her concerts for the next several years.

Franklin’s dip into opera was met with generally favorable reviews from critics. Most felt that while she certainly had the pipes for it, her delivery was still rooted in the church. But overall, she didn’t embarrass herself, she did the songs justice, and if Franklin wants to try her hand at opera… well, why not? Besides, who’s going to say “no” to the Queen of Soul? I mean, you remember that hat she wore at the inauguration in 2009. Who says “no” to Aretha Franklin?

Well, funny you should mention it… When Franklin came to Fort Wayne that year, her touring conductor was delayed because of winter weather, so Edvard Tchivzhel, the Philharmonic’s conductor at the time, stepped in during rehearsal. Franklin and the orchestra went through her classic Atlantic records catalog — Franklin leaning against the piano and snacking on a bag of Doritos — and everything was going swimmingly until it came time for the opera part of the show…

Edvard Tchivzhel became Maestro of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in 1993 and held the position until the end of the 2007-2008 season. Born in St. Petersburg Russia when the city was still called Leningrad and educated at the Leningrad Conservatory, Tchivzhel was already an internationally recognized and respected conductor when he and his family defected to the United States in 1991 while on tour with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his tenure with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, he has also conducted with the Baltimore Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, and the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, just to name a few.

But Tchivzel did not know the Queen of Soul, by reputation or otherwise. So Franklin launched into the Puccini… “All the notes were there, and there were some extra ones, too,” says a section musician with the Philharmonic who was at the rehearsal. Tchivzel, who may not have known “Natural Woman” but definitely knew “Nessun Dorma,” called a halt to the proceedings to correct what he saw as a few flaws in Franklin’s technique…

“He would stop and make her start over again,” says a witness. “This happened two or three times, and then things started to get a little tense.”

Tchivzel told Franklin “Madame, you do not know your music…”

You can probably imagine how well this went down with Franklin, who implied that maybe the problem was on his end, saying “well, we performed it Detroit last week and it was just fine then.”

It escalated from there. At one point, Franklin called out into the hall “Is there anyone out there who can conduct this?” And you can probably imagine how well that went down with Tchivzel.

This went on for about 20 minutes, with both Franklin and Tchivzel — the original Diva and the old-school Maestro — playing their parts like pros from central casting. The orchestra witnessed the entire incident, torn between fascination and the urge to crawl under their seats in embarrassment. “We kept looking at each other, whispering because we didn’t want to attract the attention of either one of them,” says a member of the orchestra. In fact, the entire hall was pretty full, with a lot of staff from the Philharmonic and the Embassy present. A camera crew was there as well; at some point, one of Franklin’s people gently but firmly indicated they should turn the camera off.

Eventually the rehearsal broke down. But as Tchivzel walked off, he said to Franklin — without a trace of irony — “You do not know the meaning of the word respect!”

That last bit… well, at first we didn’t believe it either. It’s the kind of joke you couldn’t put in a sitcom because it just would have been too tidy (though if it had been in a sitcom, someone would have replied “she may not know the meaning, but she sure knows how to spell it.”)

But we’ve heard it from so many different people who were there, all of whom swear it’s true, that we’ll stand by it. And did Tchivzel know what he was saying? Most of those who were there don’t think so, and add that Tchivzel wasn’t really in a joking mood at the time.

(UPDATE: After the original story was published in FWR #216, another person involved with the Philharmonic at the time said that while it pretty much happened as related, Tchivzel always did his homework and knew exactly what he was saying.

A few other people whop contacted us objected to the term “Diva” used to describe Franklin. To them, it conjured up images of unreasonable demands and “star tantrums,” while Franklin [we hear] was a professional and more grounded than calling her a “diva” would suggest. We didn’t mean the “tantrum throwing” kind of diva; we meant the “enormous talent and stature” kind of diva).

In the 60s, Indiana garages weren’t just for tractors…

In December of 2012 Frank Gray’s column in The Journal Gazette talked about a 60’s band from Fort Wayne called The Olivers, who recorded an album in 1969, only to have their record company deal fall through and the recording seemingly lost to time…

It was our kind of story — someone had actually mentioned The Olivers to us after the “Rock n’ Roll Stories…” ran — and we shake our pasty fist at Gray for beating us to it. But one sentence in the piece did cause us to raise our bushy brows in interest: a mention of a guy who runs a blog dedicated to Indiana garage bands from the 60s.

That guy’s name is Tim Cox. He’s a record collector from Columbus, Indiana, and since 2006 has run and maintained the blog “60s Indiana band szene,” detailing the stories and music behind many of the seemingly countless rock n’ roll bands of the era.

And Fort Wayne is well represented, with stories, photographs, and music from bands like the Miles Bluffton Blues Band, The Jersey Chains, The Chessman, The Children, and many others. Some of these bands made a recording or maybe even a 45 or two, some played lots of gigs, but whatever the case, when Cox started posting their stories, he began hearing from people who remembered the band. “I’d hear ‘hey, that’s my dad’ or ‘that’s my grandpa’ or ‘I dated this guy back in the day…’”

Indiana’s “scene” wasn’t as big as some of our neighboring state’s — Michigan, Ohio, and the Chicago area seem fairly bristling with bands — but in the days before DJs and inexpensive sound systems, every dance and party needed a band, and in Indiana there were plenty eager and willing to meet that need. “Look at a Journal Gazette from the 60s,” Cox says. “Literally, every week, there are bands playing. The hard part is finding which ones are from Illinois, which ones from Ohio…”

That can actually get pretty complicated. Cox says he has a whole stack of stuff that he has no clue where it’s from. It might be on an Indiana label, or the band may have played or recorded in Indiana, but finding out where they’re actually from requires a certain amount of diligence.

Cox says he was too young to have heard these bands in their day, but for him, the records are a great snapshot of a time in music before things became “too overdone.” “I don’t want to insult anyone,” he explains. “But as a kid in the 70s, everything was The Eagles, Yes… Things were so horribly complicated you couldn’t play it, much less reproduce it on stage. For me, the music’s ‘real,’ which sounds kind of phony, but it’s a bunch of kids getting together, playing, and this is their little testament to what they did at the time.”

Some of the musicians in these bands went on to have professional music careers, and Cox says he’ll hear from guys who dismiss their early stuff as too primitive or immature. Some others even take exception to the phrase “garage band,” seeing it as somewhat demeaning. “In their own little microcosm they were professional band,” Cox says. “Their intent was to play, make some money, meet girls, have a good time, and many of them thought ‘music could be my life’.”

And as we said, for some of them, music did become their professional life; for many others, music is something they still pursue to some degree, for fun or a hobby. “That’s one of the things that surprised me, what a large percentage of them still play,” Cox says.

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