Back in high school, I played rhythm guitar for The Bearcats, a six-piece combo that came within one, small misunderstanding of performing in matching red blazers.
I thought of that the other day as I drove through the business district in Chamberlain, the town where Nancy and I grew up and where we settled last year after 50 years far away in Pierre. When a guy moves back to his old home town after many years, he sometimes sees things as they were. It’s actually pretty cool.
As I drove past the State Theater, I pictured Ray’s Men’s Wear next door. It isn’t there, of course, but it was. And Ritchie’s shoe store was there, too. Throughout my school years, Ritchie put shoes on my feet and Ray put clothes on my back. A theater, clothes store and shoe shop – everything a guy could want, mere steps apart.
OK, not quite everything. At the end of the next block the Black Hills Cafe served the best hot beef sandwiches in town. Great butterscotch malts, too, thick and creamy and overflowing the top of the heavy serving glass. Big as it was, the glass held only half the malt. The rest came in the metal mixing container, its outside coated with frost.
But the café is a different story. We’re remembering Ray’s and the misadventures of the Bearcats.
Our band organized in the winter of 1962. Every band that performing on the Ed Sullivan Show or American Bandstand in those days wore matching outfits — blazers or mohair suits for the men; fancy dresses for the women. Matching threads is how you knew they were professionals.
Mike, our trumpet player and unofficial costume negotiator, approached Ray about purchasing six snappy red blazers. He returned to tell us $30 would buy us six blazers and a professional appearance. That’s five dollars each, we said. Sign us up. We took our money to the store to put in our order. Ray said there’d been a misunderstanding. Thirty dollars bought one blazer. That killed the deal.
We could have approached our parents. But they were skeptical about the whole dance band venture already. Harmless enough in high school, maybe, but what if we actually drew dance crowds, had a hit record, went on the road, got into booze and cigarettes and wild living? None of the parents was about to finance the ruination of their offspring.
The Bearcats survived the shame of performing in outfits that didn’t match. After graduation that year, the band fell apart. It’s an old story. It happened to the Beatles. Well, not the $30 blazers. But they broke up, just like the Bearcats.
Speaking of the Beatles, in 1963, as they were hitting it big, they played a London concert to a packed house that included Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. At the show’s end, John Lennon took the microphone and said, “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.’’ I’m told it brought down the house.
Lennon wasn’t the only guy who could ad-lib. I was ahead of him in 1962 during the Bearcats’ first gig. The school hired us to play a dance at the old city auditorium. We set our equipment up on the stage, which was raised three feet or so above the wood floor of the basketball court. During the first intermission, I played and sang a couple of songs. I don’t know what possessed me. We hadn’t practiced the songs, and none of the other Bearcats played without sheet music. I worked solo – without a net, you might say.
The crowd responded enthusiastically to my first song - the novelty of the moment, not the quality of the singing or playing. As I sang, though, the kids gathered below the stage, laughing and cheering. “Don’t clap,’’ I said into the microphone. “Throw money.’’ Pennies and nickels pelted the stage floor like hail on a bumper wheat crop.
It looked impressive, but it wasn’t enough for even one blazer. The band counted every cent.