Contemporaneous articles of the time - from the Ohio State Lantern and The Monthly Planet (the completely dreck-ridden, unlamented successor to Focus as Columbus' music weekly) - tell me the name of that band was, alternately, The Stray Revival or Willie & The Passions. I never heard the band called by either one of those names. Rockers around town routinely called it "Willie's Big Band" and later, after they were signed, "The A&M Band." Stray Revival or Passions? I don't think so, though both are cool names.
That band was comprised of Willie on rhythm guitar & lead vocals, Greg Glasgow - Willie's right-hand man, held over from the earlier bands - on bass & backing vocals, Rob Brumfiel on lead guitar, Mel McGary on keyboards and Gary "The Captain" Strauss, a strapping 300-pound drum-basher. There were always two or three female back-up singers (who were dubbed "The Willie-ettes" in tribute to Ray Charles' girl singers - beginning with CiCi Hank and Tracy LaTour - but I swear there were different girls every few months. (If my memory serves, even Donna Mogavero - later and still a popular Columbus folkie singer/songwriter around town - was a Willie-ette at one time.)
The sound of The Big Band was solid heartland rock & roll. Willie's songs got longer, more involved, much expanded from his previous power-pop stylings. It wasn't prog, by any standard, but man did some of those songs have a lot of sections. Think Bob Seger or John Cougar (pre-Mellencamp), maybe with a little Bruce Springsteen thrown into the mix. (I remember thinking one night I was glad they didn't have a saxophone player or it all might have been a little bit TOO obvious.)
Again, Willie scrapped the entire previous bands' repertoire and started over from scratch. A couple of songs - "Mary" and "New York Is Burning" - existed in Willie's pre-power-pop acoustic sets and were revived in revved-up form for the Big Band. Brand-new tunes "Champaign," "Bowery Express," "Old Man," "Too Much Traffic," "Crawling King Snake," "The Sketch," were introduced into the set and the hits just kept on coming. The Big Band had three solid 45-minute sets of material worked up and with a six-piece band behind him, Willie's performances got just as amped-up as the songs.
At one point the band held down a Tuesday night residency at a High Street club adjacent to the OSU campus called Zachariah's. Zachariah's was a former hippie hangout - home to Columbus country-rockers McGuffey Lane and Spittin' Image - that by 1981 was trying to draw a more rockin' clientele as country-rock faded from view into the mists of the 1970's. Zachariah's was taller than it was wide, built on three levels, with two balconies that overlooked the stage on three sides. Once during a rendition of "Crawling King Snake" that ended the band's second set, I witnessed Willie crawl off the left side of Zach's stage, crawl up the stairs to the second level, crawl across the balcony railing to the stairs on the right, back down those stairs, and back onto stage right. It took probably ten minutes, while the rest of the band pounded away onstage, Brumfiel and McGary trading impromptu wild solos. It was probably the greatest commitment to a stage-bit I've ever seen. I wouldn't have crawled on Zach's floor for a hundred thousand dollars.
Another night Willie ran up the stairs to the second floor and was singing from the second floor balcony railing with no mic - just bellowing out the lyrics to "The Sketch" - when a big, burly, bearded guy reached down from the third level of the bar and pulled the barely 100-lb. Willie up into the third balcony. You could hear the entire crowd catch their breath at once while Willie dangled over the thirty-foot drop to the dance floor before the guy pulled him all the way up. If that drunk had dropped him, Willie would've at least broken some limbs, or worse.
It was performances like those that first earned Willie his "Wild Man of Columbus Rock & Roll" reputation. The band became wildly popular and subsequently signed a major-label deal with A&M records (the first major-label deal for a Columbus band since The Godz and McGuffey Lane years earlier), but I also sometimes think it's where the seeds got sown for the later decline in Willie's songwriting. Once Willie learned he could get over on any bar crowd or, indeed, on any rock audience sheerly on his performance charisma, it almost seemed like he lost interest in writing good songs. I alternately dubbed it The Curse Of Saturday Night Rock & Roll or The Chuck Berry Syndrome to friends who wearily replied, "Ricki, why don't you just relax and try to have a good time for a change?" And they very well might have been right. Except I couldn't shake the memory of Willie saying to me, two years earlier, after a Romantic Noise show at The Agora, "You can't give the audience what they WANT, Ricki, you've got to give them what they NEED." I've never forgotten or lost sight of that rock & roll precept, but sometimes I think Willie has.
The band decamped to Los Angeles to record their first album (of what, as I recall, was supposed to be a three-album deal, but as always, the record company held all the options) with David Anderle producing, and that's when the problems started. Anderle had been to Columbus to see the band perform in their hometown element before they were signed to A&M, had certainly heard the band repertoire, but somehow came to the entirely wrong-headed conclusion to ignore Willie's strengths as a heartland rocker and record what I can only call a synth-pop record. I fully understand that it was the early 1980's and synth-pop reigned supreme on the rock airwaves, but ignoring certified hit-song-waiting-to-be-recorded "Champaign" in favor of "Rough Kiss" (a throwaway rocker that Willie had once handed off to The Movie Dolz - an all-girl band he had championed in '78 & '79 - because it wasn't good enough for The Buttons set) was just ludicrous.
"The Sketch" and "New York Is Burning" came out okay on the record, but contained none of the fire and passion that drove Willie's best songs and performances. "Kiss Quick Say Goodnight," "Talk So Loud," and "Dead From A Broken Heart" just were NOT good Willie songs. "Mary," "No Signs Of Johanna," and "Maybe It Won't Rain Tonight" were just okay. (Also, problematically, virtually every song on the record was at least TWO MINUTES LONGER than it needed to be, musical padding reigned supreme.) Overall the production on the record was too studied, too sterile, just plain too COLD for as incendiary a songwriter as Willie was. Plus it was fairly obvious from the beginning that once A&M signed The Big Band they had no clue how to promote Willie - a left-handed, African-American, dreadlocks-sporting, 5"3' rocker - to an increasingly polarized rock & roll audience. And the fact that at the time the A&M roster also included Bryan Adams - a blue-eyed Canadian, literally fair-haired boy - didn't help matters. Bass player Greg Glasgow once told me a story about the Big Band playing a showcase gig in L.A. - wherein the various promotional staff people of A&M Records were flown in from all over the country - and they alternated sets with Adams' band. Glasgow - who, for anyone who knows him, is shy almost to the point of invisibility and sports not one boastful bone in his body - related that Willie and the boys blew Adams' band off the stage at the showcase, but that he could feel the promo people throwing their support towards Adams even before the end of the night. So it goes. That same year, 1982, Warner Brothers records got it right and Prince sold three million copies of 1999.
Willie Phoenix, 1982
(blogger's note; Okay, readers, it's become painfully obvious that The Ballad of Willie Phoenix
has become A Monster, has taken on a life of its own. It was originally intended to be a 3-part
series, but after three installments we're only up to 1982. I'm expanding to five parts, but they
might be broken up by other blog entries. Hang in, we will eventually arrive at 2013. Next up:
The Ballad of Willie Phoenix part three - The Shadowlords and The Flower Machine, 1983-1989.
© 2013 Ricki C.