|The Soul Benders were a teenage garage combo hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan that achieved a great deal of local success with high-octane covers of 'Hey Joe' and 'Seven And Seven Is.' After haphazardly stumbling across a video of the group on YouTube, British freelance journalist and '60s garage enthusiast Ross Davies was able to procure an interview with ex-frontman and keyboardist, Aris Hampers.
An Interview With Aris HampersBy Ross Davies
60sgaragebands.com (60s): You started The Soul Benders as teenager. How did the group’s inception come about?
Aris Hampers (AH): Nothing out of the ordinary—nearly all people my age in the ‘60s wanted to start a band. I tried a couple of times with a few different friends but they had no passion so nothing ever materialized.
One particular incarnation which included Jeff Boughner, my best friend from down the street from me, started to click at rehearsals. After hearing a band called The Barons play at a high school dance, I found the courage to ask guitarist Dick Steimle, who was mighty good, to join our venture. He agreed and after a few rehearsals with him, we started to play some high school dances and began to make a name for ourselves.
60s: What were your influences?
AH: I had many but very few of them contributed to “our sound.” I took 14 years of classical piano training, so I was always thinking of using strings in my compositions, but there weren’t any instruments back then to replicate orchestral ideas on stage or in the studio; for example, there was no place in the States to buy a Mellotron. ‘Last Voyage Home,’ my last record with Phlegethon, was the closest I came to what was really playing in my head.
I was a monstrous Motown junkie, more than anyone else I knew. I bought every single and album that was released by Motown in the ‘60s and relished listening to all of them. Early Cat Stevens was also a favorite of mine, especially the first two albums on Deram with all the strings. I envied his ability to write solid pop songs with such short running times. The string arrangements and production “pump” on those albums were stellar…something you Brits did so much better than we did here in the States.
I was fortunate, from my tenure working at a record shop and my association with the local radio stations from the success of our records, to have the opportunity to hear almost every new album and single being released in those days. The radio stations would give me at least 10-20 new LPs each week since they weren’t playing most of them because they were Top 40 stations, not rock stations. It was a sweet deal—new music every day. We were very informed on what was happening musically in every corner of the world. I could probably list at least 50 albums from the ‘60s, mostly obscure, that at some point had some influence on what we were writing such as Mint Tattoo, Mars Bonfire, Things To Come, Hardin-York, Illinois Speed Press, Aorta…I could go on for hours.
60s: Was there a particular Michigan or Grand Rapids sound?
AH: If there was I can’t put my finger on it. The Great Lakes Studios where all of the Fenton records and our first two singles ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Seven And Seven Is’ were recorded, was a large movie theater with very high ceilings that created a unique reverb sound, because it was completely natural—you can hear that on all of those singles. If I were to say there was a Grand Rapids sound, I guess that would be it—a genuine reverb, not a manufactured one like with so many other studios.
60s: You won the local and state rounds of Battle of Bands and were placed fifth nationally in 1967. Do any recordings exist of your performances?
AH: Only one song, ‘House Of The Rising Sun,’ which was issued on a double LP set by the JayCees, who sponsored the event. For some odd reason, I never ordered a copy and never actually heard it until someone gave me a cassette of our song nearly 30 years later. I was surprised when I heard it, because I couldn’t even remember doing it. It’s a pretty sparse version, but not surprising since we had been together less than a year. That version appears on the bonus disc of our CD release of our material called The Michigan Tapes which is currently available.
60s: Your first release, a version of ‘Hey Joe’ went to no.1 on three Grand Rapids radio stations. How many pressings copies were released?
AH: The first run of 1,000 copies sold out in two days. I was stunned. I did a reorder of another 1,000 and those were gone by the end of the second week. I ordered one more run of 1,000 copies while it was still #1 and they were all gone as it was just starting to fall down the charts. It was still on the charts when we ran out, but I decided not to push my luck and order more. I wish I had as copies today are going for high prices on the Internet.
|Photo Source: Garage Hangover
60s: You followed this up with an explosive cover of Love’s ‘Seven And Seven Is.’ Some claim that Alice Cooper’s 1981 version was inspired by your own rather than Arthur Lee and Co’s. Did you ever play alongside Alice?
AH: I’ve never heard that claim but it’s a nice compliment. My second band Phlegethon played with Alice in 1969 or 1970, right around the time his first album for Zappa’s Straight label was released, but we didn’t play that song with that band. However, Alice did make a point to come to our dressing room after the show to rave about our opening set.
In 2005 I interviewed him on one of my radio shows and brought the incident up. He told me he always makes a point to watch openers whenever he plays. On the other hand, he is always listening to other people’s music so he may have heard our version at some point. No one can be sure.
It’s interesting how many people like our version of ‘Seven And Seven Is.’ To be truthful it’s my least favorite track of what we did but I have no reason to argue with the masses. It’s a fun song to be sure, but I think I’d rather be patted on the back for something a bit more ‘musical.’
I loved the band Love. Forever Changes is still in my top 20 of all time but I honestly thought their version of ‘Seven And Seven Is’ lacked punch, particularly the “lounge riff” after the explosion, so I left that off of our version although a few people over the years have expressed their dismay to me for doing so.
60s: Around the time of the national release of ‘Seven And Seven Is’ (Mala/Bell Records), is it true you turned down a contract with Atco Records? If so, what was your reasoning behind the decision?
AH: Actually it was before that. ‘Hey Joe’ spent six weeks at #1 here in Grand Rapids and the word was getting out to some of the labels that it was a hot seller. I was only 18 at the time but knew the “industry” pretty well. I got a call from someone at Atco who wanted more information on the record and the band. At the time Atco didn’t have much going for them rock-wise aside from Cream—they were pretty much a straight ahead pop/R&B label with the likes of Sonny & Cher, Ben E. King, Bobby Darin, Bee Gees, etc. I felt they just weren’t the right choice. Of course within just a few months I ate my words with the sudden explosion of a number of psych-rock and generic rock bands that began to appear on the label such as Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Allmans, etc. It never got close to a contract talk—I just initially said something stupid like, “You know…I think I’d like a better label to put out our record,” and that was the end of it. I try not to think about it much but sometimes wonder if things might have been different if I had kept my mouth shut.
60s: After The Soul Benders, you fronted Phlegethon and opened for the likes of The Byrds, The Stooges and MC5. What was that like?
AH: The MC5 is perhaps the most underrated and misunderstood band of the whole era. At the beginning, they actually frightened me a bit with their rhetoric and phenomenal electric live performances that broke ALL the rules. When I finally figured it out and realized that they were a one-of-a-kind “rock miracle” and something I needed to pay strong attention to, I embraced not only their music but their message. It’s so frustrating to try and explain to people today what it was like to watch those guys. Nothing I’ve seen since has come even close. Their stage presence and sheer volume, not to mention their musical prowess, was hypnotizing. Their live Elektra album was such a huge disappointment to all of us as it didn’t even begin to capture what they sounded like live and loud.
Because of the many concert/festivals that happened here in Michigan in those days, The MC5 would often appear in the lineup and so would we because of our popularity on the west side of the state. We probably opened for them at least three or four times but at the beginning I could never get up the courage to try and get close to them offstage.
One fun story worth relaying: On one of the last occasions when they played in Grand Rapids, a rather conservative city, especially in those days, after our opening set a friend of mine in the audience informed me that the local district attorney and a number of the policemen were standing in the back row waiting for The MC5 to utter even just one four-letter curse, with the full intent of stopping the show and arresting them if they did. Of course we all knew at the time they started EVERY show with Rob screaming “Kick out the jams…motherfucker!” Apparently, the local law enforcement knew that as well—remember in 1970 using foul language in public on stage was not common at all and in some places flat-out illegal.
I went to their dressing room only moments before they were to play, and sheepishly told them what the situation was, not knowing whether they would believe me, or frankly even care. It was hard to not laugh out loud, when they indeed did start the show with Rob yelling, “Kick out the jams…Mister Prosecuting Attorney!” I gotta admit…I felt pretty good, knowing that I probably saved their butts from getting arrested and going to jail, even though I was nervous and almost didn’t knock on their dressing room door.
Thankfully, in the late ‘80s, at a chance meeting backstage at a concert here in Grand Rapids, I spotted Rob Tyner who was heading to the catering room for some dinner. Since I knew everyone in the venue including the caterer, I went in there too and approached him, mentioning that my band had opened up for The MC5 some 25 years earlier and that I had to admit I was a huge fan of his former band. He immediately said to me, “please sit down,” so I did. We ate and chatted for over an hour. I learned more about the MC5 in that hour than I ever could have otherwise. He graciously answered a number of questions that had been in my head for years and some of the answers he gave me were quite surprising.
At one point, while discussing the shows we did together, he swore that he remembered us and said he was impressed. I think he was just being nice but who knows? He was a very quiet and personable guy, nothing like his stage persona. It was an enlightening conversation, and I’m glad I had that chance as he died only a few years later.
I was never a big fan of The Stooges so I never had any interaction with them, even though a friend of mine from here in Grand Rapids, Steve McKay, had just joined the band.
The members of SRC were friendly, but a bit distant. Dick Wagner of The Frost and later of Lou Reed fame, was an extremely friendly guy and a fine musician. We opened for The Frost on one occasion and he spent at least 20 minutes after the show talking to me and raving about our set. He said at one point he was interested in recording and producing us but it never happened.
Opening for The Byrds was a great experience but also a nerve-wracking one. It was our very first gig as Phlegethon and the public was expecting something special. We played two sold-out shows and people today tell me that we “delivered” but in my heart, I’m still not so sure. The Byrds were very kind to us and were wonderful guys. I had the opportunity to attend an after-show party with the whole band and we chatted music ‘til the sun came up.
60s: What happened to Phlegethon?
AH: There wasn’t any particular event or reason why we put the band to rest. We were just beginning to tire of the whole rehearsal/play/make no money thing. We were evolving into a heavy prog-like band playing 20-30 minute set pieces. The clubs that were finally starting to book live music wanted bands that played hits or covers, so we found that shows were becoming few and far between. Our college gigs were all huge successes and the crowds sometimes went wild over our music, but there just weren’t enough of those gigs to pay the bills.
The war in Vietnam was breathing down our necks as well and it was looking as though we were all going to get drafted. Thankfully, that never happened. Our last record, ‘Last Voyage Home,’ was finished after we had already broken up, thus the title of the song and I had to pay a couple of the musicians to finish it. I financed the whole record myself. I think deep in our hearts, we just knew it was time to let it all go and move on.
60s: With there still being a particular fondness for 1960’s American garage, what has the demand been like for Soul Benders/Phlegethon 45s?
AH: It’s really amazing. I never had a single idea back then that anyone would care for any of this stuff 40 years later. I rather doubt any of those other garage bands did either. The love of this type of music is still growing today and I see no end in sight. I only have a few copies left of all of our singles, and not even one good copy of ‘Hey Joe’ although I get at least one or two emails a week from people worldwide asking for them. I occasionally put a copy up now and then on eBay—my seller ID is arisdisc—so people looking for them may want to check out eBay. I also recently found some near-mint unused sleeves from our first two singles buried in my basement and will start selling those soon for the people that may want to upgrade their current copies as personally I don’t have much use for them.
60s: What sort of price range do the records sell for?
AH: I’ve seen copies of ‘Hey Joe’ sell for around $60-$150 but that was a few years ago. They might get more today but there aren’t many left. A close friend of mine got $181 for a copy of ‘Seven And Seven Is’ just last year on eBay, so it looks like the value is going up. I would probably guess that the videos I created and put on YouTube last year have added to the new excitement I’m starting to receive about our music.
I’m mighty glad I took the time to make those videos. It was painstaking work and extremely time-consuming. The ‘Seven And Seven Is’ video took me over 45 hours to assemble and create but the response has been exhilarating.
Another surprise is the sudden interest in ‘You’re No Good,’ my first single with Phlegethon. Last year on eBay I sold a couple of copies in the $25 dollar range but the last two I put up went for $100 each and sold within a day for each listing. It looks like that record is just now being discovered. It’s a soul-ish rock version of the Betty Everett classic, although I patterned it more like the Dee Dee Warwick version. ‘Last Voyage Home’ from ’71 is also getting more money than it used to. But since there were only 1,000 pressed, there aren’t very many to go around and it doesn’t pop up very often.
60s: You’ve posted videos on YouTube. What has the response been like?
AH: Unbelievable. I couldn’t be more thrilled with the wonderful comments people have been posting under our videos. When I first uploaded them, I didn’t know what to think. I was fairly sure that they would get lost in the shuffle and be completely ignored but quite the contrary—they’re approaching 5,000 hits and I am just delighted.
60s: What did you go on to do after Phlegethon?
AH: I worked in a wholesale/retail one-stop record shop that specialized in R&B during my tenure in The Soul Benders and Phlegethon and quit soon after the bands broke up. My next calling was radio. I had dabbled a bit in it off and on, but was asked to do it full time in late 1971. It turned out to be a very rewarding career. I lasted 37 years of doing on-air rock radio until retiring last year. It allowed me to continue my love of music, collect tens of thousands of vinyl records and meet hundreds of my favorite musicians and rock stars, many of whom I continue to keep in contact with today. More on my career and links to the videos on YouTube can be read on my MySpace page at www.myspace.com/arishampers. I don’t update it much anymore, but still check it for messages. There are also some photos of me with some Rock stars that some may find amusing or possibly interesting.
60s: Any particular fond memories of your time as a musician?
AH: I loved every minute of it. Playing live in front of an audience of admirers is a feeling that can’t be equaled.
I miss it deeply but am now too old to try it again. We came extremely close to a reunion show back in 2001 but I came to the unfortunate discovery that I couldn’t sing those old songs anymore. My voice had deepened so much, partly because of my radio work and being a chain-smoker, that our repertoire was completely out of range for me, so I snuffed the idea, much to the dismay of the other members. Everything was set: the venue, the set-list, the technicians etc…but I pulled the plug. I wanted it to be a real spectacle of a show…not just a so-so set. Having someone else sing my parts would have been a complete mistake, so I feel I did the right thing.
The idea can never be revisited either, since Jeff (guitar for Soul Benders and Phlegethon) and L.C. (bass for Phlegethon) recently passed away. I miss them both deeply. Jeff was easily one of the finest guitarists to ever come out of Michigan.
Talking with you today gives me an opportunity to clear up a rumor—presently there is a popular garage band Web site that claims that our first guitarist with The Soul Benders, Dick Steimle, committed suicide many years ago. That’s completely false. He is alive and well on the West Coast and it was fun to reconnect with him back when we released our CD in 2000 and again recently when he stumbled upon our videos on YouTube. I politely asked the Web site to remove this erroneous information, but for some absurd reason, they refused by ignoring me.
I did decide to re-master the tapes that had survived of both of my bands and issue a CD, The Michigan Tapes in 2000 of which only a couple hundred copies remain. It will not be re-pressed. There’s a 45 page mini-book that comes with the CD that has more anecdotes, photos and information about our bands and our music, very similar to what I’ve told you here. It’s currently available on eBay, and more information on the CD can be found at www.arisdisc.com.
Thanks so much for allowing me this opportunity to share some stories with you about our music. Any of your readers who would like to contact me or chat with me some more, can do so by writing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.