During the two years I played in Knockdown, we only played for one frat party. We had our regular monthly three nighter at the NCO club (guitar player Ray was a Sergeant in accounting, so we had an inside track with the NCOs), numerous party dates at both the NCO and the Officer’s club, company parties for places like Montgomery Wards, plus more wedding receptions than you could shake a stick at. As the only non-Air Force member of the band, I was doing all the bookings and union contract work. Ray hadn’t thought of it first, but when I joined as the first non-service connected member of the band, it was a logical step for me to become the contact guy because the AF guys weren’t allowed to join the musician’s union. Nobody grumbled about being affiliated with the union because having your name on their master list lead to more bookings than we could have picked up just casting about on our own. If someone needed a band for an event, they often called the Local AF of M 218 secretary to get the names and phone numbers of available bands.
One of the reasons that we didn’t play a lot of frat parties was simple: we were always booked three months or more ahead of the current month. I would religiously type up a master calendar for January, February, and March and start filling in dates. When the calendar was full, I would make a copy for everybody in the band, type up the next three months and start filling in dates. If I had a dollar for every job I had to turn down, I wouldn’t be rich, but I could have at least bought some slick new wheels and tires for my pickup truck. I estimate that we played around 250 to 280 dates in the two years I was with Knockdown. It is a good bet that we turned away at least as many jobs in that time. My answering machine in those days was my mother, so I posted a copy of our filled calendar dates by the phone and it saved me a lot of call backs. Mom would say, ”Oh, I am sorry, they are already booked on that date.” It was kind of a nice problem to have. I never had anyone turn us down for a booking because of the cost but I did have a couple of gigs offered to us with a ‘special bonus’ tacked on if I would dump one job for another. The standard line I used was, “Nope, sorry, I have a contract and I would never break a contract. If I did that to you, would you be happy?” Having a contract worked both ways and had someone tried to back out of a booked gig once I had the paperwork in hand (and no one ever did), I had the union’s backing to get paid if we had a valid contract.
Somewhere along the way, we did end up with a frat gig at the Mather Inn in Ishpeming. I was told it was a dinner party with a dance to follow, so we showed up expecting to set up in a dining room. The room where they were eating was long and narrow. The tables were set up in one long row with seating for about 20 couples. There was just enough room between the chairs and the walls for the servers to do their thing. When I expressed my concern about how we were going to set up in this room while dinner was being served, the kitchen manager said, “Oh, this isn’t the dance hall – you can set up down there and they will come down to dance after dinner.” This made sense until he showed us the dance room. Picture an empty hotel room that would normally house two double beds, a dresser, table and some sitting chairs (but no bathroom as there were common bathrooms at the end of the hall). Granted, the Mather Inn was an older hotel with larger rooms than today’s norm, but it was still small for a dance hall. We set up in the smallest configuration we could and still filled one quarter of this converted guest room. We tried to keep the volume down at first and finally said, “Forget it! They knew they were hiring a band to play in a postage stamp sized room, so we will play the same way we would in a larger room.” It was the smallest gathering I can remember being hired to play for, but they must have invited all their friends to drop by. By the third set, if the the place had caught on fire, I would have had to break the window behind me to get out because there was no way we would have been able to wade through the sea of bodies dancing in the room and out in the hallway.
Sledgehammer was another story. We played a variety of gigs but I don’t recall any frat parties in the nine months we played for pay. We did get booked to play in the lobby of Majors-Meyland Hall for a few hours, but I believe that was a university sponsored special event. It wasn’t really a dance as much as a social event with people coming and going. There is a good possibility that my future wife and I were in the same room during this gig, but we wouldn’t know it until we compared notes some three years later.
After Sledgehammer ended and I moved to Ontonagon, I got a call from my old guitar player Barry who asked if I was interested in playing a frat party one Saturday. I asked if he had a band going and he informed he that the gig would be with the Gordon Coleman Trio. The ‘Gordon’ in the GCT was a balding bass player who made a pretty good living at booking jobs and then combing the AFof M Local 218 musician roster for available musicians to play the gigs. I don’t know how much he charged for his services, but I am pretty sure he made money because he paid his hired guns less per man than we used to charge per man for full band gigs. No doubt he paid himself extra for doing the bookings, making the phone calls, and bringing the PA system which is just fine. Having been a band booker, just showing up to play is much less work and just showing up and getting paid to play as a hired hand was fine with me..
On the appointed night, I showed up with my drums at a very large home that had been converted to a frat house in east Marquette, sandwiched in the neighborhood between Arch and Ridge Streets. I was right on time, but the rest of the band had already set up and had apparently retired to the basement bar to kill some time. They had left me just enough room for my drum rug so I set about cramming myself into an area that was much too small but we didn’t have much choice. Did I mention the ‘stage’ we were playing on was the landing at the top of a double wide staircase leading to the second floor of this massive house? The word ‘landing’ is a little misleading, because there had been an obvious attempt in the architecture to make a little sitting area where the stairs switched back on the way to the next level. With that said, I could have held my arms out with drumsticks in hand and touched the guitarist (Barry) and keyboard player (who I never was introduced to that I remember) without leaning much. Gordon and his bass were positioned to my far left and when Barry moved side to side, I could see to the bottom floor where I could occasionally see people traveling back and forth. I never did figure out which floor they were dancing on, but in this case, we certainly were ‘the house band’ because we were playing to a house and not to the dancing crowd we could not see.
We had a good time. We bounced song ideas off each other and played a mish-mash of songs based on all of our previous bands. Barry and I got to lead them through some of our old Sledgehammer tunes. The keyboard player was into The Moody Blues so we did Nights in White Satin. I should have learned his name because when we finished he gave be a big thumbs up and said, “I really like the cymbal wash you used and how it built up during the chorus.” I said, “Thanks” and stored that away for the next time I played Nights in White Satin some six years later with a version of Easy Money that had Dave Morehouse singing the same tune.
Was I disappointed that the frat parties I played at weren’t as wild as they are usually depicted in the movies? When a gig involves people laughing, dancing and having a good time, it is a good gig. The only time I ever witnessed a fight of any kind at a gig was in a bar, but that will have to be a tale for another day. Were the frat parties we played at more fun than wedding receptions? Another story for another day but I will end here by noting that I played for some wedding receptions that were more wild and crazy than any frat gigs I got to do!
As an epilog to this story, I encourage readers to revisit the Animal House party scene to get the full flavor of what most frat parties are not like. As you watch it, take note of the band called Otis Day and The Knights who figure prominently in the basement party scene at the frat house. Otis Day was played by an actor who was able to make a career after the movie by forming a real band called Otis Day and the Knights. They are still active and apparently get to play more than a few primo gigs in Lost Wages (sorry, Las Vegas).
Now that the WOAS West Coast Bureau is located in Eugene, OR, I also have to push the parody of the party scene that the Nike (Phil Knight of Nike is a big University of Oregon backer) put out shortly after Marcus Mariota played his last football game for the Ducks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11fZVVkmy5o) (The 2015 Nike version is proving hard to find now so the video listed here is a side by side comparison of the the 1978 original and the 2015 version). The updated party scene is populated by former OU athletes and if you are a sports fan, you may even recognize some of them before they roll the credits. One may also notice Otis Day is a tad older looking in the 2015 version! If you weren’t aware, the University of Oregon campus in Eugene was used to depict the fictitious Faber College in the movie. The ‘Fishbowl’ student lounge featured in the movie’s memorable food fight scene has been renovated since then, but I can at least say I have had a cup of coffee on a movie set!
Top Piece video – here is the University of Oregon take on Shout!