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The Village Square

Charleston, South Carolina's The Villagers released one 45-rpm record, in May 1966. Not surprisingly, the single was issued on The Village Square label, an offshoot of The Village Square, a television variety program that featured the young combo as the house band. Created by Jim Owens, a producer at WCIV, Channel 4 in Charleston, The Village Square debuted as a local program but was eventually syndicated throughout major markets across the United States. Spotlighting a varying degree of musical talent--from name acts/bands to local and forgotten groups--The Village Square offered viewers a regular dose of all that made 1960's rock and roll--and television--memorable. Today, The Village Square remains a fascinating example of 1960's grassroots programming, and it's not a stretch to single out The Villagers as a prime reason for its success.


Jim Owens' lengthy career as a pioneer in both television production and country music had its start when he returned from the RCA Television Workshop in New York City to take a position as a camera operator for Charleston's CBS affiliate. After working his way up to producer, Owens moved to WCIV, also in Charleston, and in 1964 planted the seeds for a televised local music and dance show aimed at teenagers. Initially, Jeanne Lavoie, an incredibly strong 15-year old vocalist who had been singing with her brother's band, The Paragons, was chosen--along with Doug Randall from WTMA Radio--to be co-host.

In those early, pre-Beatlemania days, the widespread appeal of rock and roll combos had yet to be realized, yet Owens' foresight predicted the impact a strong group could have on television ratings. Therefore, later in the premiere season, he added a house band to the proceedings, in the form of The Lancers, a group he created and managed. Formed by Leroy and Mike Thompson in 1962, The Lancers--who also included Frank Taylor, Ricky Baltzegar, Wally Till and Don Cantrell--would soon be renamed The Villagers to tie into the "Village Square"-theme of the program. As surmised, The Village Square increased its ratings and popularity, leading eventually to a syndicated deal that made the program available across the country. By 1966, The Village Square was broadcast in over 50 television markets, including Atlanta, Charleston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Columbia, Nashville, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, Montgomery, Nashville, New York, Raleigh, and San Francisco.

(As manager, Owens capitalized on the concurrent success of The Village Square and The Villagers, and the program was able to retain its popularity even after moving locales.  The production of The Village Square moved to Florence, South Carolina in the fall of '65, with Bill Miller as host.  In 1966, Owens and the group moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where The Village Square filmed for two seasons  During this time, The Village Square was broadcast in over 50 television markets, including Atlanta, Charleston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Columbia, Nashville, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, Montgomery, Nashville, New York, Raleigh, and San Francisco.  In 1967, the production moved for the last time, this time to Atlanta, Georgia.)


The newly christened Villagers proved to be an amazingly versatile group, which proved very beneficial for a band that needed to perform new songs regularly for a weekly television show. From ballads ('Let It Be Me') to pop ('Happy Together') to rock ('The Nazz Are Blue') to Motown ('You Can't Hurry Love') to garage rock ('Talk Talk') to schlock ('The Girl From Ipanema')--not to mention performing medleys of the top hits of each decade, 1950 through 1966--The Villager' incredible range established The Village Square as a program not to be missed.

The pressures of learning new material, coupled with a steady stream of appearances, led to a hectic performance schedule for The Villagers. A typical week, for example, regularly included two days in the studio to record songs and video skits, and another three days touring in their buses to college campuses and concert halls. Thankfully, as Leroy Thompson recalls, the group "was young and able to learn quickly. We showed up and learned the songs as we went along. (They were) long days."


Along with the crash course in learning new material (Wayne West laughingly admits that many of the songs were placed into "short-term" memory--although some did get worked into their regular performance set list),The Villagers were also writing and recording their own songs. Their record, 'You Don't Know What You've Got Until You Lose It' b/w 'You're My Baby' (Don't You Forget It)' (Village Square Records 1001), was recorded in May 1966 and was number one in Myrtle Beach during the summer of 1966. (Unfortunately, Leroy Thompson had left the group for six months to resolve personal matters when the record was recorded and is not on the single.)

Produced by Owens, The Villagers' recorded legacy is every bit as impressive as the record of their filmed performances (more on that later). 'Girl For Sale,' written by Wayne West and Steve Wiggins, is a fuzz-filled garage rock masterpiece, and 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone,' written by West and Leroy Thompson, is a solid pop song with a memorable hook.

Unfortunately, even with the handful of recorded songs that would have made excellent 45-rpm singles--not to mention the multitude of tunes recorded for airing on Village Square--only the one lone single was ever officially released. We had many songs in the can but Jim never released them." West recalls. "We were so busy rehearsing, recording in the TV and sound studios and playing live gigs that we never really pushed to get them released. We were even going to release 'The Nazz Are Blue' but never did."

Skip Baker of The Innovations, a local teen group from South Carolina, is one of the musicians that idolized The Villagers, and particularly West. "They were great, and their lead guitarist Wayne West was a monster!" remembers Baker. "We all looked up to him. He was probably 17 or 18 at the time." Ron Padgett, of local band The Spades, credits West with getting him started playing guitar. His teen combo (three guitars [lead, rhythm, bass], drums, a male singer, and two female singers) made an appearance on Village Square, performing 'Soldier Boy' and 'Got Something For You Baby.'


During the course of the program, The Villagers made several personnel changes as needed. Leroy Thompson, on vocals and guitar, and Jeanne Lavoie on vocals, remained as stalwarts. Ricky Baltzegar departed. The Rivieras' Preston Mullinax, and then Fred Hoffman, replaced Mike Thompson, who moved on to the College of Charleston, on drums. After Frank Taylor married, Bill Jones replaced him on bass. Steve Wiggins was added on keyboards, and Wayne West--who had left The Lancers to join The Dardanelles--returned as guitarist. Dana Douglas rounded out the group as lead singer. Other short time members included Wesley Braxton on sax and Cleve Wiggins on lead guitar.

The change in personnel benefited The Villagers as far as song selection. With the incredible number of top hits the group was forced to learn, the influx of new members permitted The Villagers to tailor their song set accordingly. In short, the band's versatility, as evidenced in surviving footage, is nothing short of amazing. And while the majority of performances filmed for The Village Square were lip-synched, The Villagers often times performed their songs live.

Guest stars, however, uniformly lip-synched to their recorded hits. Local South Carolina groups, such as The Spades, frequently made guest appearances while the show was based in Charleston and Florence. With the move to Charlotte, more regionalized groups including beach band Harry Deal & The Galaxies, The Eighteenth Edition and The Paragons (of 'Abba' fame) appeared. Once based in Atlanta, bigger name acts/bands routinely visited The Village Square. During the course of its run, entertainment that appeared on the series included Dionne Warwick, Ronnie Millsap, Jackie DeShannon, Roger Miller, Billy Joe Royal, Tommy Roe, The Box Tops, The Tams, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Status Symbol, The Lemon Pipers, Joe South, Spider Turner, Kenny Odell, The New Beats, Marion Love, The Wayfarers, The Gentle Touch, and Tommy James & The Shondells.

Airing from 1964 through 1968, and switching to color in 1966, The Village Square changed along with the times.  The earliest shows (filmed in black and white) from Charleston and Florence featured the band, mostly clean cut and neatly attired, performing on a huge stage in front of a live audience. By the time the program moved to Charlotte, a stage set--something that would not have been out of the norm on Shindig or Hullabaloo--was utilized. The Villagers' individual appearances also changed, as members' hair became longer and their clothes more colorful and psychedelic (readily apparent after the show started filming in color).

Indeed...The Villagers, too, became more psychedelic. Performances of songs like 'Tobacco Road,' where the band members drop to their knees during the performance, and 'Purple Haze'--with strobes flashing--marked a sharp contrast from the clean cut Villagers of only three years earlier. While the group's image might have been evolving, it's still somewhat startling to see them knock out such hard-edged garage punk classics like 'Talk Talk' and 'Hey Joe'...while wearing tuxedos!


In addition to the steady stream of high profile guest stars and excellent Villagers' performances, The Village Square sprinkled in comedy skits to offer viewers a wide array of variety. Most bits were musical in nature, and often showcased The Villagers singing, sans instruments, on set pieces designed to resemble a saloon, for example, or a field. Songs that mixed music with comedy included 'Long Tall Texan', 'Sweet Thang', 'Little Ole Wine Drinker', 'Roll Out The Barrel' and even popular songs of the day, including Tommy James & The Shondells' 'I Think We're Alone Now'.


It would be completely remiss to discuss the diversity of The Village Square without singling out the contributions of Jeanne Lavoie. A performer since the age of 11, Lavoie had grown up listening to the music of the '40s and '50s. While in her early teen years, she regularly performed at teen clubs and Navy base clubs with her brother's band, The Silvertones and later, The Paragons (not the 'Abba' combo). She shortly thereafter started to listen to and appreciate the music of the '60s, and throughout the Village Square's run performed many of the top hits of the day. Lavoie recalls that, "I chose many of the songs, both old and new (at the time). Many of the songs I did were requested by fans. Jim Owens also helped in the selection of songs for all of us, based on requests from fans.  We all contributed to the 'Hits of...' medleys each week."



As the only female-featured vocalist of The Villagers, Lavoie always sang at least one song during each show. She also provided backing vocals as part of the group. Although she was not involved in the Villagers' lone single (The Villagers recorded the songs in Atlanta, but Jeanne was living in Charlotte at the time), she did add harmonies on most of the other studio songs to add fullness of the sound. Lavoie would also eventually become featured on stage during the Villagers' live engagements. In fact, the act was often billed as The Villagers Revue, Featuring Jeanne Lavoie and The Village Dancers.

The Village Dancers were an ensemble of female dancers that assisted in the mod appeal of the show. The original Village Dancers were Linda Oltmann, Ruthee Thompson, Celei Metz, Jean Hightower, and Janice Watkins.  In the spring of 1965, Vickie Chesser joined them.

Oltmann and Thompson happened to be good high school friends and auditioned together at Channel 4 before each landed the job. Oltmann, who had been dancing since the age of three--and whose mother established Trudy's School of Dance on James Island in 1939--was responsible for creating all the routines for the TV show as well as for all live performances.

As might be expected, the Village Dancers and The Villagers became a tight-knit group. Oltmann recalls that, "We all became like brothers and sisters, traveling together every weekend for years.  It was a family away from home. They each had their unique personalities and quirks but I loved them all. We were together constantly...between rehearsing, setting new routines to new songs and the travelling, there was much interaction.  In our off time, we usually ended up going to some of the same places to hear bands..."


The Village Square ended its run in the summer of 1968. The Villagers broke up and Wayne West, Leroy Thompson and Jeanne West formed a group called August. They performed for about a year all over the East Coast and in the mid-South. On August 17, 1969, West and Lavoie married and moved to Los Angeles.  They are still successfully performing together.

In May 1999, The Summer of '66 musical stage production debuted at the Crook and Chase Theater in Myrtle Beach. Written and produced by Jim Owens, the production ran for two seasons and documented The Villagers' experiences during that heady summer. Jeanne Lavoie and original dancers Linda Oltmann, Ruthee Thompson and Vickie Chesser were major contributors, while young singers/actors performed as The Villagers. The success of the musical, which became one of the most popular productions of Myrtle Beach's Grand Stand, has led to rumors of a possible feature film...

Looking back, Lavoie recollects that performing with The Villagers "was hard work--especially traveling on the road for personal appearances and recording in the audio and video studios each week." However, even with all the many hours spent rehearsing, recording and playing, "We had a lot of fun and many fond memories."

Today, The Village Square lives on via the Internet. Wayne West has uploaded an amazing collection of Villagers clips via YouTube, and DVD collections are in the discussion phase. As one of the few localized (at least initially) teen music programs to have footage exist well beyond its original broadcast run, The Village Square has proven to be a remarkable time capsule of an era when rock and roll was king...and The Villagers ruled the airwaves.


Post-Villagers

After The Villagers, Wayne West was responsible for several excellent recordings.  He often times collaborated with the songwriting team of David Brown and Henry Steel.  Brown and Steel provided the lyrics, and West contributed the music, for many recorded songs, including 'Don't Fall In Love,' 'The New Harpoon Song,' 'Come Into The Light,' '143rd Street, Please Driver,' 'Nothing's The Same,' 'Get Me Out,' and 'Nothing Matters More.'  Some of those songs were also recorded by North Carolina band The Eighteenth Edition (later New Mix), who were also produced by Owens and whose songs West often contributed lead guitar duties on.

Somewhat surprisingly, West also teamed with another producer--one known several years earlier for his own garage rock recordings and productions--Lindy Blaskey.  In addition to his own group, Lindy & The Lavells ('You Ain't Tuff', 'Let It Be'), Blaskey produced other combos, including Albuquerque acts The Burgundy Runn and The Striders.  

"I worked with Lindy in Los Angeles from 1969-1971.  I called him from Charlotte when I decided to go to LA to get into the music scene out there" explains West. "He is the one that got my partner Jimmy Barden and I together to write songs and record for Paramount.  I also did almost all of his session work playing lead guitar.  Lindy would call me up and say, 'Did you hear the record we did?  It's number one.'"

Interestingly, one of the songs West recorded while working with Blaskey was 'Rocks In My Head,' familiar to fans of Florida group Mouse & The Boys.  According to West, "It was a bubble gum song that we arranged to sound a little better. That's when the bubble gum era was going. We never released it. We played it for Lindy, and maybe he used it with some other band..."


Check out Wayne West's Village Square You Tube channel for an incredible array of Villagers clips and footage...