People today jump to the conclusion that coming from Detroit meant the Motown experience. But that was downtown, not the 'burbs. Motown did not burst into suburban consciousness until their string of hits in 1994. What really brought it home was the Beatles' Detroit press conference in September '64:
Q: "Which artist or musical group do you think has most influenced your music?" ...
PAUL: "... Uhh... American colored groups, mainly. And early Elvis Presley."
GEORGE: "In fact, the Detroit Sound."
JOHN: "In fact, yes."
GEORGE: "In fact, yeah. Tamla-Motown artists are our favorites. The Miracles."
JOHN: "We like Marvin Gaye."
GEORGE: "The Impressions, Marvin Gaye."
PAUL & GEORGE: "Mary Wells."
GEORGE: "The Exciters."
JOHN: "To name but eighty."
RINGO: "Chuck Jackson."
So under our parent's noses a mere 12 miles away simmered an international cultural influence. Yet its impact in the suburbs was not to be felt for some time. All through the Motown era, probably as a backlash, the suburbs kept re-releasing the Kingsmen's 'Louie, Louie,' sending this garage classic to #1 each year. The story of our bands spans this era.
|Tom Benjamin Recalls The What/Poison/Wet Paint
I'm writing this from the vocalists' perspective and as the oldest member. We, with brother Bill and cousin Jack, started as a trio. The first recording was 1963 in the echoing church basement using friend John Timms' then-revolutionary stereo tape recorder. Notable on the existing tape by absence were Beatles' tunes--this was before the British Invasion! Back then the typical vocal groups were The Lettermen, Capris, Four Preps, Fleetwoods, Duprees, etc. As children the guys were weaned on the laid back styles of Bing Crosby and Pat Boone.
Our dad had clearly been influenced by Enrico Caruso but back in the '50s few would have dreamed that karaoke, samplers and laptops would one day put these Hollywood big band, choir, and orchestra backings at our fingertips. The first thing we did beyond our parents' capacities at home was the Hallelujah Chorus at school but it was the 1963-1964 Hootenanny folk craze that first gave us youngsters the idea that we could play, sing and create music to rival what we saw on TV. Even our cat got caught up in the sing-it-yourself craze.
Of course hormones set in and once we'd heard the Beach Boys' 'Shut Down' life could never be the same: "Tach it up, Buddy ..." Electronics would allow us big sounds to rival the big bands of our parents (leaving aside the genius of Brian Wilson that still makes those 1963 tracks with quaint clavinets sound punchy nearly 50 years later). Hence our 1963 tape has 'OnlyThe Lonely,' 'The Way You Look Tonight' and 'Surfin' Safari.' Dylan and Jagger put the final nails in the old crooner style's coffin. You could scream, sing through the nose, sing off key--anything goes! Eddie Fishers or Vic Damones need not apply. We became ardent rockers, reminding the instrumentalists to let us do the occasional crooning ballad. Vocals were the weak link in most bands due to mic feedback. We specialised in speaker placement and were in demand as singers because we were the only local guys in those early days that could be heard over the loud drums and guitars of the era. Once out of the garage, ballads became all-important for the late-night dance songs at weddings and frat parties.
First Lineup - starting in 1965:
- Tom Benjamin (currently called Dr. Tom and Tom-dot.com) - Vocals
- William (Bill) James Benjamin (later called Willi the Wondo or currently Billy James) - Vocals, Bass
- Steve Heinl - Drums, Vocals
- Chuck Herndon - Rhythm guitar
- Dennis Armstrong - Lead guitar
- Tim Maney - Rhythm guitar
- Scott Newell - Lead guitar
Second Lineup -Wet Paint - starting in 1967
- John Skidmore (called Jack or Skid) - Vocals
- Billy Allen - Lead/Rhythm Guitar
- Bob Slodovnik - Drums and songwriting
- Dan Massey - Lead Guitar
- Dennis Kasprzyk - Rhythm Guitar
- Ray Coch - Bass
Third Lineup - Knights (starting in 1971 added to Bill Benjamin)
The very first band was stillborn as our first guitarists were kicked out of school for various reasons. So the first true band off the mark in 1965 was un-named, consisting of Tom, Bill, Steve and Chuck--a bit thin without a designated bass player. Tim Maney approached us bringing along Scott Newell, a 14-year old prodigy on leads who could play anything. We did a few gigs but couldn't settle on a name. Tim liked Poison--Tom thought it negative; Tom liked a rhythmic name like Maori--but the others thought it might offend (Tom figured Maori's would be rare in Detroit and they are a notably musical people). So we usually argued and compromised five minutes before the gig and called ourselves What. (Yeah, I know: "When are dey on? Well, What's on second? Dat's what I just asked! Who's on foist?...")
It was difficult to play and practice in Wyandotte because so many shift workers slept during the day and sent the police to quash the noise if we moved out of the basement to the garage. We have no photos because we had no paternal support, i.e., our band practice was, "We're going to the library." It's hard to picture this '60s mentality now when you see doting baby boomers and Gen X-Y racing around catering to their children's "creative" side, and the queues of thousands auditioning for Idol shows.
To give some idea of the mentality at the time, I recall when Tom Beaudry (later of Frijid Pink) brought into Wyandotte Roosevelt High Choir class a 45rpm of 'Shake A Tailfeather' they'd recorded (as The Ramrods) on the Capitol label. All the teacher could mutter was, "Oh, that's only a simple 3rd and 5th chord … blah de blah." She'd probably barely heard of the other groups who were recording on Capitol. Here these guys on their own initiative had landed a record deal with the same label as The Beatles and Beach Boys! How impressive was that? Even if it sold only two copies, it's something to be proud of for all time. And that old 45 probably sounds damn good compared to the plastic sounds of today. Yet our teachers completely de-valued any such self-direction in students. Things are now full circle with "multiple intelligence" and "constructivist" theories of education. But that's a day-job story.
Tom Benjamin graduated and went to Eastern Michighan University and University of Michigan. Links with the Wyandotte bands were just too hard to maintain. Jack and Bill formed in 1967 with Ray, Billy, and Bob to create Wet Paint. They were quite psychedelic and the tunes they wrote hold up very well today as proto-punk. They played "weddings, parties and anything" gigs.
Meanwhile, at college Tom briefly joined with dorm-mates Woody and Rick to play good ol' boy frat-rock at parties. Between summer factory jobs and bands Tom was getting very fed up with loud rock & roll noise and gave up music for a while. After Bill graduated from college he formed a band, The Knights of St. James, with Jeff Padden. Amusingly, when top student and former high school class president Jeff ran for Michigan State Congress, the local News Herald painted him as "an unemployed trombone player." It did them no good. He won the election and had a long career in state legislature. Bill moved to California and formed a number of duos and bands, writing his own music. He even played in a "good old boys" country band out of Seattle for a while. After finishing his MBA, Tom contacted Ray to re-form Wet Paint for a while but succumbed to the lure of an academic career in Australia. Detroit was already showing signs of what it would later become.
Where are they now?
Tom is Senior Researcher at a Government Centre for Learning Innovation in Sydney, Australia. His first re-kindling of the music spirit was while working as a clinical psychologist, with music therapy. By 21st century, karaoke had completely taken over the 'hootenanny' role and he and wife Marg joined the local karaoke scene, with a how2sing.com Web site now part of their www.e-chautauqua.com. A decade later and YouTube and Web 2.0 had now made it possible for "Tom-dot.com" to set up his own "international radio and TV stations": www.radio-tom.com and www.tv-tom.com. For less money than a beer at the local karaoke he broadcasts to the world! He can be found at www.tom.com.au. He passed the first stage of auditions for Australia's Got Talent, i.e., thousands of professional musicians, opera singers, jazz singers, pro guitarists and one white-haired guy clutching a $10 Elvis karaoke disk.
Bill is Associate Vice-President at a college in Washington. He teams up with local musicians whenever there is an opportunity.
John had a long career in Detroit steel industry, had some later bands, and now works for an insurance company.
Ray played with a number of bands in the Downriver area.
Dennis Armstrong became a "legendary" Downriver guitarist for some years.
Jeff Padden served five terms in the Michigan House of Representatives, was Deputy Director of the Michigan Department of Commerce and Director of the Governor's Human Investment Project. He currently heads www.publicpolicy.com specialising in public policy research, development, and evaluation for clients such as the U.S. Department of Labor, the Ford Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.
Scott Newell toured with The New Christy Minstrels after graduating from college, and played with Glen Campbell, Chuck Mangione and Michael Bolton. He had a long career as a journalist, from cub reporter through to senior field producer for A Current Affair, face-to-face with politicians and presidents. He won 15 regional Emmy awards, honors from Associated Press, Sigma Delta Chi, Gannett and United Press International. He now runs a state-of-the-art digital audio production facility (http://trilobitemedia.com/).
In 2008, Wet Paint held a 30 year reunion in Wyandotte. There was at around the same time a reunion of Wyandotte's Frijid Pink in a Plum Street (Wyandotte's microscopic Haight-Ashbury) revival. Tom was amazed to find an old Frijid Pink album in Sydney!