Friday, December 25, 2009

Dr. Nelson Harrison

Doctor Nelson Harrison

Hey, last week we featured one of the great jazz teachers and performers in Pittsburgh, Dr. Nathan Davis, a Kansas City transplant. Today we're sticking with the professional day job theme, but our guy is as Pittsburgh as the Steelers - Dr. Nelson Harrison.

He was born and raised in the East End. His schooling was at Crescent Elementary, Baxter Junior High, Westinghouse High (where he's a member of the Wall of Fame), and the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Harrison, now 69, began his musical career at the age of 13 as a trombonist and bandleader for the Beethoven Bebops 7-piece jazz/dance combo. At the same time, he played for the Junior Pittsburgh Symphony and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony.

As a Bulldog, he took private trombone lessons under Carl G. McVicker, Sr., the famous band teacher at the 'House, and Matthew Shiner of Duquesne University in the late fifties.

Don't let the classical background fool ya; Harrison didn't end up a longhair by any means. Since the early 1960's, he's gigged with local jazz and R & B groups.

He started playing with bands like the Joe Westray Orchestra, Sonny Gilmer and the Premiers, the Walt Harper Quintet (he recorded "Live at the Attic" with them in 1969), and the Nathan Davis Quintet (he recorded "Makatuka" in 1970 and "Suite for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." in 1971 with Davis).

Want some more Pittsburgh music mavens Harrison backed at one time or another? How about Billy Eckstine, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Kenny "Klook" Clarke, Art Blakey, Stanley "Sugar Man" Turrentine, Sam Johnson, Joe Harris, J.C. Moses, Dakota Staton, Lena Horne, and Grover Mitchell?

As a session trombonist, Nelson was a member of the Heinz Hall and Stanley Theatre Stage Orchestras accompanying national acts like Bobby Vinton, Liberace, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ginger Rogers, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Jack Jones, Michele LeGrande, Mel Torme, Perry Como, Nancy Wilson, Melba Moore, Glenn Campbell, and Slide Hampton.

He also played shows with Nelson Riddle and the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops and for several Civic Light Opera productions, along with shows with Marvin Hamlisch and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans (and North Side). What, no KISS?

He's still active in the local club scene. Harrison sits with the Roger Humphries Big Band, Spirit on the Hill, The Blues Orphans, Bill Dell & Wee Jams, Swing Fever, Gary Rican & the Studio-E Band, The Hard Groove Project, and his own bands The World According to Bop, Jazz ‘N Jive, Blue to the Bone, Nelson Harrison & Associates, and Dr. Jazz & the Salty Dawgs. From doo-wop to dixieland, the Doctor has a place to play what he feels.

Harrison has had his share of studio time lately. Recordings he's on from the past few years include "Tuesday Night at James Street" with the RH Factor; "Don’t Give Up" with the Roger Humphries Big Band; "Moonlit River" with songs by Fred Moolten; "21st-Century Musicism" featuring compositions by Karlton E. Hester; "If I Can’t Dance, It’s Not My Revolution" with folkie Anne Feeney; "Schism ‘n Blues" & "Root Rot" with the americana Blues Orphans; and "Not from Concentrate" & "Harmonique" with Genie Walker.

And he isn't just a busy local player. Harrison accompanied some big-league soul acts in his day, like Dionne Warwick, James Brown, The Supremes, The Temptations, Mary Wells, Aretha Franklin, and Little Stevie Wonder.

In fact, he expanded his wings for a while. Nelson gained a wide reputation as a New Orleans-style, Dixieland pianist when he tickled the keys with the Boilermaker Jazz Band from 1991-98. The band hit the international jazz festival circuit, and he's on four albums with them, "On A Coconut Island," "Don't Give Up the Ship," "Burgundy Street Blues," and "Honky Tonk Town."

Harrison has performed at festivals in New Orleans, London, Edinburg, Sacramento, New York City, and Seattle. He's given clinics and lectures in Santa Cruz, San Jose, Quebec City, Montreal, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and Toronto.

He might be best known, though, for playing with the Count Basie Orchestra between 1978-81, touring the US and Japan with vocalists Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Helen Humes, Joe Turner, Eddie Vinson, and Dennis Rowland. He's on their LP "Kansas City Shout."

But hey, idle hands and all...and Harrison's never been accused of having a pair of those. He charts arrangements for local groups and recording sessions, written over 300 original compositions spanning the full range of jazz, pop, fusion, rock, jingles, blues, ballads and kiddie songs. Harrison's the lyricist for 125 published bop tunes, too, by last count.

He produced an original score for the road show of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," for the Kuntu Repertory Theatre in 1987. Other scores of his are featured in movies by Georg Sanford Brown and John Russo, and plays by Richard Wright and Rob Penny.

Harrison was the musical director for WQED-TV's award winning "Black Horizons Show," and the on-air host of "Jazz Pittsburgh," an hour-long National Public Radio series produced by WDUQ-FM. He appeared in the TV movie "The Temptations," and is featured on Science and the Outer Streams, a live web cast on "The Metaphysics of Music."

Dr. Harrison is also known as the ultimate historian of Pittsburgh jazz. He served as the project advisor for WDUQ's "Steel City Legacy," which focused on the lives of Pittsburgh musical legends Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine and Billy Strayhorn.

In addition, he's a contributing partner with the Afro-Centric curriculum for jazz and the "Living Encyclopedia of Global African Music" that includes a Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy project as a component.

He's the founder and online host of The Pittsburgh Jazz Network, a web-based who's who of Pittsburgh boppers.

Harrison formed the first All-City High School Jazz Orchestra for the
Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. He organized an international cultural exchange tour in Pittsburgh and Texas for the Krakow Youth Jazz Ensemble. The doc has had a hand in putting together segments of the Three Rivers Art Festival and Mellon Jazz Festival.

The good doctor has enough honors to strain a fair-sized high school trophy case, including the East Liberty Gallery of Stars, the Walt Harper All That Jazz Award, the Legacy Arts Project Keepers of the Flame Award, the Manchester Craftsmen Guild Jazz Pittsburgh Legends of Jazz Award, and his latest, this year's African American Council on the Arts Rob Penny Lifetime Achievement Award.

And as a side bar, he's an inventor, too. He come up with the horn he's now famed for blowing, the "Trombetto from the Ghetto," as he calls it. It's a brass piece with four valves that plays a range of six octaves with a trombone mouthpiece. The instrument is kinda a cross between a French Horn and a Flugelhorn, and looks like a burnished pretzel.

Did we mention his day job? Dr. Nelson Harrison received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974. Along with delivering his musical chops, he's also a college lecturer, business consultant and in-demand speaker on “The Creative Mind” and “The Metaphysics of Music.”

As Doctor Harrison said "A mentor once told me that a person needs a profession and a trade. Art is my trade and psychology has been my profession. I can boldly say that every scientific theory I was taught through Ph.D. level has since been proven wrong. Art is never wrong. Music metaphor for life." Amen.

"This Christmas" - December 7, 2009 at the AVA Lounge, Nelson Harrison on trombetto

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dr. Nathan Davis...Jazz Is The Cure

nathan davis
Nathan Davis from The Pitt Chronicle

Nathan Tate Davis, 72, was born in Kansas City, not far from the childhood home of Charlie Parker. He first took up the tenor sax in high school after starting out on trombone, and was soon playing some local gigs.

After Davis graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in music education, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1960 and sent to Germany, where he toured with an army band. He grew to like Europe and its opportunity for jazzmen, and when he left the Army in 1963, he stayed across the Atlantic.

Davis played hard bop with some other ex-pats, and Kenny Clarke heard him honking in Berlin and invited Davis to join him in Paris at the club St. Germain des Pres. He blew his sax with Clarke for seven years. Erroll Garner and the MJQ sat in with them, and he played with Woody Shaw, Donald Byrd, Art Taylor, Ray Charles, and Eric Dolphy.

In 1965, the saxophonist got a call to work as Wayne Shorter's replacement with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on a European tour. At the end of the gig Blakey asked Davis to return stateside with the band. But his daughter had just arrived, and he was happy raising his family on Paris' Left Bank; the answer was "no". Blakey said that Davis was the only musician in America who ever turned him down.

Davis did come home eventually. In 1969, at the urging of Donald Byrd and Dave Baker, he joined the University of Pittsburgh as director of the first full-time, accredited jazz studies program in the nation. He planned to play it by ear during his first three-year contract with Pitt; forty years later, he's still here.

It's sorta ironic. He made a home in Europe because he wanted a chance to play instead of coming back to teach. Que sera, sera.

Pitt's not his only educator gig. He's a past director of the Thelonious Monk Institute Summer Program in Aspen Colorado, spent five years teaching sax at Ohio's Oberlin College, and since 2002, he's been a director & faculty member of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program, based out of the Kennedy Center.

During his Pitt tenure, he's founded the annual Jazz Seminar and Concert, established a Jazz Hall of Fame, and developed the Jazz Outreach Programs in Dubai, Ghana, Bahia, and Jordan. The program he put together is a model for schools around the country.

Davis found time to earn his doctorate in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan, paid for by the GI Bill. His dissertation was "The Life and Music of Charlie Parker and the Kansas City Environment." Meanwhile, he still performed and recorded a handful of albums as a band leader.

He played with the Charlie Mingus All-Star Band at the Kool Jazz Festival, in Saratoga, New York, in 1982.

In 1985 he got back together with Woody Shaw to form the Paris Reunion Band, an all-star aggregation that included Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Nat Adderley and Slide Hampton.

They broke up after seven years when Shaw passed away, but not before they took their show on the road to Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France and Switzerland.

In the 1990s, he formed the band Roots, with brother saxmen Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman and Sam Rivers, followed by Benny Golson. They toured Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France and Switzerland. Guess Davis never quite got over that European thingie.

He played the Blue Note in New York with Dizzy Gillespie and toured as part of The Three Tenors with Grover Washington, Jr. and James Moody.

His discography includes "The Hip Walk," "Peace Treaty," "Happy Girl," "Rules of Freedom," "Makatuka," "Sixth Sense In The Eleventh House," "If," "London by Night," "Faces Of Love," "I'm A Fool To Want You," "The Other Side of the Morning - Dedicated to Eric Dolphy," "Live: Jazz at Pitt: The 25th Anniversary Concert," and 2009's "The Best Of Nathan Davis '65-76."

Good luck finding many of them, though, especially his European tracks. Most were printed by small labels with limited runs, and a couple weren't even released. So putting together a Davis collection is quite the challenge.

His ex-pat buds were hot items when they returned to the states. But when he chose an academic track, the labels treated him as if he didn't exist, even though Davis' playing was as hot as ever. Their loss, and unfortunately, ours too.

Davis has also penned "Writings in Jazz" and "African American Music in Society," while founding and editing the "International Jazz Archives Journal." He's also had a book written about him, Gisela Albus' "Paris to Pittsburgh, a Story in Jazz, the Life of Nathan Davis."

Hey, Pittsburgh was once called "The Foundry of Jazz." Many of its great performers began here and left for greener pastures. Somehow, it seems fitting that the City has claimed a sax man from Kansas City to keep the tradition alive.

Nathan Davis - "Stick Buddy" from the album "If" - 1976

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Funk Brother Bob Babbitt

bob babbitt
Bob Babbitt

Few bassists have played on as many hits as Funk Brother Bob Babbitt. Over a career spanning five decades, the 6'2" Mt. Washington native with the offensive lineman’s build has earned 25 gold and platinum records and has played on more than 200 top Forty hits.

Oddly, none of his 25 gold and platinum records were from his Motown body of work, because the label didn’t give out gold records. Berry Gordy, Jr. believed his corporate structure, not the artists, created the hits. Who knows what his count would be with those tunes to his credit?

Born Robert Kreiner to Hungarian parents in Pittsburgh, Babbitt was heavily influenced by the gypsy music he heard in his home.

He started his career when he received classical training on upright bass. His seventh grade choir teacher got him started on the instrument, and Babbitt played for three years in the Pittsburgh Symphony's Junior Orchestra.

Babbitt began performing at age 15, and after hearing an electric bass live at a nightclub for the first time two years later, he saw the light and traded in his upright for a Fender.

Like most local players, he was inspired by the R&B sounds throbbing from Pittsburgh jocks like Porky with music like Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk" and Red Prysock's "Hand Clappin'."

His father died during his senior year in high school, and the family moved to the Glen Hazel projects. Babbitt passed up a music scholarship to Pitt to look for a job. But his 9-5 gigs didn't pay much, and he didn't want to end up in the steel mills.

An uncle in Detroit offered to help him find work. Babbitt moved there in the mid-1950s, and worked for an aluminum plant and a construction outfit.

A year or so after arriving, he hooked up with the Royaltones, a gritty instrumental combo that made waves in the Motor City club scene, charting a handful of records including a Top Ten hit, "Flamingo Express."

They caught the attention of Del Shannon, who hired the Royaltones as his touring and recording band through 1965. They backed Shannon's smash "Little Town Flirt."

Babbitt began to make a name for himself. He first met some of Motown’s Funk Brothers, including bass legend James Jamerson, who he would later replace, while working at Golden World studio.

He sat in at nearly every Detroit studio except Motown's Hitsville, backing songs like “I Just Wanna Testify” (Parliaments), “Love Makes the World Go Round” (Dion Jackson), "Agent Double 0 Soul" (Edwin Starr), "With This Ring" (Platters); and “Cool Jerk” (Capitols).

Live dates with Stevie Wonder finally brought Babbitt into Motown’s Hitsville studio in 1967 (it helped that Motown bought Golden World studios); his first session for the label was Wonder’s cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”

He went on to back “Touch Me in the Morning,” (Diana Ross) “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Stevie Wonder); “Smiling Faces” & "Ball of Confusion" (Temptations); “War” (Edwin Starr); “Tears of a Clown” (Smokey Robinson); Gladys Knight & The Pips' “Midnight Train To Georgia” and many other Motown hits. Most famously, Babbitt laid the bass lines for “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues” for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece "What’s Goin’ On."

His stay with the Funk Brothers was sometimes rocky. Babbitt often replaced James Jamerson, the band's troubled but brilliant bassist. Occasionally, Jamerson would stop by the studio to watch Babbitt play in his spot; once with a gun stuck in his waistband.

But they ended up getting along just fine, and the Funk Brother's came to accept him as, well, a brother. But the band and Motown always had a contentious relationship, and when the label decided to do most of its studio work in LA, the Funk Brothers gave it up and scattered with the wind.

Babbitt moved to New York in 1973 and did dates and sessions with artists such as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Jim Croce, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Engelbert Humperdink, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Songs he backed were “I Got a Name” (Jim Croce); "Indiana Wants Me" (R. Dean Taylor); and “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Gladys Knight & the Pips).

It expanded his music world. He said "Playing in New York forced me to learn a lot of different styles, because there was so much going on there. I started checking out rock bands like Aerosmith, Edgar Winter, and The Who, particularly what John Entwistle did on 'My Generation' and 'Magic Bus,' which knocked me out."

The variety of acts he supported didn't just widen his repertoire; it made him slightly nuts. "I was recording with so many different artists in so many different styles, I didn't know which end was up. I remember cutting three complete albums in three weeks at one point. The first was with the Spinners out in L.A.; then came an Alice Cooper record in Toronto; then I did Sinatra in New York."

He also worked in Philadelphia during this period, playing on Spinners classics such as “Then Came You,” “Games People Play,” and “Rubberband Man" at the City of Brotherly Love's famous Sigma Sound Studio. Babbitt also backed Deniece Williams on her hit "It's Gonna Take A Miracle," produced by Thom Bell.

But the heyday of the star session man had peaked. In the early 1980s, Babbitt gave up album work in favor of commercial jingles and a jaunt into jazz, touring and recording with Herbie Mann and the Hill District's Stanley Turrentine.

He moved on to Nashville, with its R&B, country, and gospel markets. He did a few sessions with Louise Mandrell, Carlene Carter, and other country artists, plus some demo jobs.

Babbitt toured with Joan Baez and Brenda Lee. When he's not on the road, he plays with a local R&B band called Lost In Detroit, featuring Dennis Locorriere, who was the lead singer for Dr. Hook. He was in Philly, doing a Bobby Rydell compilation. Babbitt backed Elton John's 2009 album, "Are You Ready For Love?"

He also appears with the Funk Brothers when they gig, including during their 2007 North American tour. The musicians got a huge boost in 2002 from producer Paul Justman's documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," based on Allan Slutsky's book.

Supported by a dynamite two-CD soundtrack and DVD version, it took off, along with the cred of the Funk Brothers. Babbitt was interviewed and featured prominently in the film. In 2004, the FBs were awarded a Life Time Achievement Grammy.

And as an acknowledged master of his instrument, Babbitt is in constant demand in the industry for his technical skills; he's maybe the top teacher in the bass biz.

The seventy-something Babbitt's last visit to his hometown was on October 31st, for "A Pittsburgh Tribute to Motown Records' 50th Anniversary," at the August Wilson Center. Before that, Babbitt visited on July 23, 2008, at Duquesne University's "Summertime Jazz With Soul" where he played and spoke at a seminar.

He also participated in the annual Rockin’ Christmas Fund charity fund-raiser, a holiday concert that benefited needy children.

Babbitt was diagnosed in early 2011 with an inoperable brain tumor, on on February 4th, 2013, he passed away in Nashville at the age of 74.

But his music lives on. Every time you hear the classic bass lines of later Motown that a guy from Mt. Washington was probably laying them down.

"Ball of Confusion" - Temptations (1970)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sir Walter

John "Sir Walter Raleigh" Christian from Poise Foundation

Losing WAMO wasn't bad enough. Now a monument to Pittsburgh's early R&B history, John Christian, has left us, too. Sir Walter Raleigh passed away after a long illness last weekend at the age of 92.

He was born in Virginia on March 1, 1917, and raised in Binghamton, New York. Christian attended Virginia State University, and graduated with a degree in education. Always athletic, he went on to play semi-pro baseball for the Newark Eagles.

Christian planned to trek to California in 1951 to make a name for himself, with a new set of wheels and some cash in his pocket, but he didn't get very far. He ended up in Steubenville, Ohio, where his mother lived, and eventually opened an appliance shop. And those Maytags and Amanas would soon unwittingly launch him on his media career.

His store was the only black-owned appliance shop in town, and he'd advertise on East Liberty's WILY to draw some customers, calling in his spots. One day, the station manager heard his dramatic basso profundo voice over the phone and offered him a job on the spot.

Hey, spin damp clothes or wax? That was a no brainer. In 1955, Christian came east to the Steel City, twirling disks at WILY. There he joined Lee "3-D Lee D" Dorris and Bill Powell. The trio became the original godfathers of soul for the black audiences of Pittsburgh.

He needed an airwave persona, and because of his deep and cultured pipes, Time Magazine dubbed him "Sir Walter Raleigh" in 1957. Christian liked it, and took to wearing fancy duds, a derby and a monocle, generally immersing himself in Sir Walter-ness.

1957 marked another big event - Christian joined WAMO, which had just purchased Homestead's WHOD. His morning show featured smooth R&B, often by unknown soul artists, and he greeted his listeners with the intro “Sir Walter Raleigh, the gent with the accent.”

Porky Chedwick was already there, and in 1960 Bill Powell jumped ship, too, and they became the holy trinity of Pittsburgh radio jocks to the area's hep cats, white and black, in the early sixties.

But the era of jock-driven radio soon passed, and ad-driven formats pushing top-40 sounds replaced their hand-picked playlists. It was time for a change.

In 1970, Christian switched media and began a long career as a newscaster, producer, and talk show host for WPXI-TV (then WIIC), where he, Dee Thompson, Bev Smith, and Della Crews became city pacesetters as black TV personalities. Christian also served as Channel 11's local conscience, letting the suits know when the station let Pittsburgh's black community down.

He retired from WPXI in 1992 after 22 years of TV work. But he wouldn't sit still; Sir Walter still had deeds to do.

Christian was a dedicated jogger and tennis player, and later on, he became an avid golfer. He turned that hobby into an annual charity golf tournament. His John Christian Charity Golf Classic has raised $300,000 for local charities since its inception in the eighties.

But that's all in the past now. As the poet Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:
"The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields."

Rest in peace, Sir Walter.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Flashcats and Bull Moose


The Flashcats got together in 1978-79 thanks to the efforts of manager/drummer Carl Grefenstette. You might recognize Grefenstette now as the owner of Pittsburgh Guitar on East Carson Street and Bogus Records, but back then, his main claim to fame was the Flashcats. In fact, he believes the band paid the bills for his business at the start.

The band mates are Grefenstette (drums), Skinny Dave Kent (guitar/vocals), Jim "Junior" Fanning (bass/vocals), Miss Cindy Sotak (guitar/lead), Phil "Harmonic" Brontz (sax), Brian "Crusher" Onater (brass), and departed original member Sweet Pete Loria (brass/vocals), who passed away in 2001.

They developed a high energy stage presence to match the intensity of their R&B-driven rock, and worked virtually non-stop; they were one of Pittsburgh's premier live acts during their heyday.

The music was excellent stuff on its own, mostly original tunes with an occasional cover thrown into the playlist. But geez, the shows...

Giant Toothbrush Night, Miss Cindy's Bug Opera, Throw-A-Pie-At-Pete Night, Mexican hat dances, members of the audience taking the stage to sing "Bonanza," Flashcat kazoos and 3-D glasses, Sweet Pete, dressed as a bee, famously tying himself to a beam one night and swinging over the crowd, blowing his trumpet to the tune of "Flight of the Bumblebee" or hanging from the balcony...

Grefenstette explained "We've done a million gigs, and the best way to keep it exciting is to throw in some surprises. Generally, only half of the band knows what's going to happen next, so it's as much fun for us as it is for the audience!"

Needless to say, they always played to a packed house. They didn't need the novelty, though. Their sound was enough to draw a crowd wherever they set up their amps.

Billboard Magazine first mentioned The Flashcats in 1981 after the release of their first 45, "Baby Baby Ooo." Music News magazine called "Twelve Arms To Hold You," the band's first LP, "the finest independently released album of 1982." Trouser Press said, "The LP is chock full of mid-60s type R&B so good you'd swear the tunes weren't originals."

In 1983, The Flashcats won a national Warner Communications award for the video of their second single, "Appetite For Love." The next album, 1984's "Show Me," was described by The Detroit Monitor as "some of the best juke-joint music in America today."

They had a huge regional following, and were working five or six shows per week. Then they revived a dormant legend and took their act to another level.

All their recorded material was original, except for one old Bull Moose Jackson song, "Nosey Joe," the B side of "Appetite For Love." They also did a cover of his "Big Ten Inch Record" during their gigs.

One night, they played "Nosey Joe" and R&B jock Howard Kozy, better known as Bumble Bee Slim (he hosts WYEP's Saturday night "Blues and Rhythm" show), was in the audience. He told Grefenstette that Bull Moose was still around and kickin' in DC.

Life hadn't been treating Benjamin Clarence "Bull Moose" Jackson so well right about then. After decades as a King Records hit maker, with a mix of risque and standard songs to his credit, the rock 'n' roll parade had passed him by.

In 1958, at the age of 39, Jackson was semi-retired and running a bar in Philadelphia. By the early 1960s, he took a job with a catering company at Howard University in Washington. When the Flashcats called, he was working in the college's cafeteria.

Grefenstette got on the horn with the all-but-forgotten rhythm and blues singer and coaxed him into appearing with the band. He said, "We thought it would be the thrill of a lifetime to play with him."

So in 1984, the sixty-something Jackson flew to the Steel City to do a show with the Flashcats. It turned into a four-year gig. The Moose was loose once again.

The Flashcats' also cut some wax with Jackson. The recordings, a single that became a Pittsburgh classic "Get Off The Table Mable (The Two Dollars Is For The Beer)" and the 1985 album "Moosemania" were his first tracks in 30 years, and restored the luster of his career and R&B legacy.

They appeared together from coast to coast, and Bull Moose won over an entire new generation of fans. He and the Flashcats appeared at New York's Carnegie Hall, in Hollywood, and toured Europe with Johnny Otis.

Jackson credited the Flashcats and the city. He became a virtual cult hero in Pittsburgh, and said, "I'm elated that I can still perform and I'm very proud that people still remember." He added "They've resurrected an old man. I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. They dug me out and here I am."

Bull Moose continued to perform regularly until 1987 when his health began to fade. His last performance was on April 23rd, 1988. It was a birthday gig with the Flashcats in Pittsburgh.

After that concert, Bull Moose went home to Cleveland and moved in with an old flame. He died of cancer at Mt. Sinai Hospital on July 31st, 1988.

All of his studio sessions with The Flashcats are available on the CD "Bull Moose Jackson, The Final Recordings," along with "Moosemania."

After the Bull Moose era, the Flashcats continued entertaining the city. But 25 years in the business without a deep breath finally caught up to them. In the early 1990s, the Flashcats decided to take a break and pursue other projects, and that effectively put an end to the act.

They did get a nice going-away present, though. In 1994, "Appetite For Love" was selected by Pittsburgh Magazine as One Of The 10 Greatest Pittsburgh Rock & Roll Classics.

But they didn't fade entirely into the City mist. In 1981, they began to release Christmas albums as gifts to their fan club members. And ya know how it goes with home-grown holiday traditions; once ya start one...

The Flashcats gather locally in a studio every year to cut a new record. Some hold three or four songs; others are full length productions. They're recording their 29th without a miss, and in fact will get together tonight to tape it.

And while they're all in one place, they try to book a reunion show or two for their fans, an even better gift. The 'Cats don't have any holiday gigs on tap this year because of scheduling clashes, but Grefenstette wrote to say "we're going to made it up to everyone with a big show next summer."

If you'd like any of the Flashcat recordings, Christmas or otherwise, they're available at Bogus Records. Grefenstette also features the Spuds, the Frampton Brothers, and the "Made In Pittsburgh" compilations through his impress. (Some of the stuff is old-school, recorded on vinyl or cassette, so make sure you're ordering the right medium.)

Flashcats - "Best Girl"

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Swan Silvertones

swan silvertones
Swan Silvertones from

One of the seminal gospel groups, along with the Dixie Hummingbirds and Soul Stirrers, called Pittsburgh home during the fifties and sixties - The Swan Silvertones.

They were led by Claude Jeter, who formed the a cappella quartet in 1938 as the Four Harmony Kings while working as a miner in Coalwood, West Virginia. The group changed its name to the Silvertone Singers to avoid confusion with another group riding the same circuit, the rival Four Kings of Harmony from Texas.

The Silvertones were a jubilee, or uptempo, gospel group, although they later included sentimentals (ballads) and chop jubilees (also known as “shouts”), sowing the early seeds of R&B.

After moving to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1942 and landing their own radio gig on WDIR, they became the Swan Silvertones because Swan Bakeries sponsored their show. Their radio exposure - WDIR was aired over much of the south - eventually earned them an audition and contract with Syd Nathan, owner of Cincy's King Records.

They developed a national reputation during their contract with King Records from 1946 to 1951, releasing 45 titles for the label. But they were bumping heads with King's management, which wanted nothing more than old-timey gospel from the band.

They packed up and moved to Pittsburgh in 1948. No reason was ever given that we could find, but it wasn't unusual for black groups during that era to head north for both better opportunity and a smidge less race-based hassle. The Dixie Hummingbirds made the same move, from South Carolina to Philly, a few years before the Swans.

Freed from the King impress, they signed a deal with Art Rupe's Hollywood-based Specialty Records, an arrangement that lasted from 1951 to 1955. But that adage about the grass being greener proved true again.

The Silvertones taped 25 tracks for Specialty, but the label issued only four singles (later releasing compilations in 1972 and 1991) that featured a more up-to-date style of music before the group was dropped by mutual agreement. But the singers had developed a sound much like the popular doo wop groups of the day during that period.

The early Silvertones had lead singers Jeter and Solomon Womack (Bobby's uncle), tenors Robert Crenshaw and John Manson, baritone John H. Myles, and bass Henry K. Bossard.

But in 1956, the band made what for them was a sea change. They began adding instrumentation to their songs, which had previously been backed by a lone guitar or snare and vocal bass lines.

The Silvertones brought in guitarist Linwood Hargrove, jazz sidemen Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Walter Perkins on drums, to back their recordings. Louis Johnson had by then taken the place of Robert Crenshaw, who became a minister and wasn't pleased with the groups secular direction.

Then they signed with Chicago's Vee-Jay gang, and recorded with that label from 1956 through 1964. Their popular Vee-Jay sound was mainly credited to arranger/tenor Paul Owens, who joined the group in 1952, replacing Womack, who was having health issues.

Influenced by groups like the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los, Owens, who had performed with the Nightingales and Dixie Hummingbirds, made the music more contemporary, developing a prototype R&B sound for the Swan Silvertones.

Perhaps their greatest hit was "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," released in 1959. It's during this song that Claude Jeter adlibs the phrase "I'll be a bridge over deep water..." that inspired Paul Simon to compose "Bridge Over Troubled Water" some years later.

In fact, Simon's first choice to join him on 1973's "Loves Me Like A Rock" wasn't the Hummingbirds, who backed the tune, but the Silvertones, though they never hooked up. However, Jeter did make it on the album that song was on, "There Goes Rhymin’ Simon," credited with the falsetto vocals.

When Vee-Jay closed down in 1965, the group moved on to Detroit's gospel label, HOB Records, where they did one last album before Claude Jeter left to record on his own and focus on his ministry in 1967.

After his departure, Louis Johnson led the Swan Silvertones, which continued to make records through the 1970s. He tried to put the group back together again in 1984, but stopped the project after six months; Johnson couldn't find the voices to duplicate the old sound. They joined the oldies circuit, as Jeter occasionally reunited with his colleagues for reunion concerts through the 1990s.

Nobody could go from a smooth tenor to a piercing falsetto like Claude Jeter did. You can hear the phrasing of his leads echoed in the singing of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks. Jeter's later interplay with the other Swan Silvertone vocalists is reminiscent of Sam and Dave and the Righteous Brothers.

Yet Jeter more or less walked away from the music business, cutting one solo album after his departure and making a few appearances. He had been ordained as a minister by The Church Of Holiness Science, and generally limited his singing to services.

Jeter ministered quietly in Harlem before his passing on January 6, 2009 at the age of 94. His trade may have been music, but his calling was to serve a higher cause.

But the good Reverend Jeter did hang around long enough to see the Swan Silvertones inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002. Oh, and in 1996, he was elected into the American Gospel Quartet Convention Hall of Fame.

The legacy continues, though. Pittsburgh-based Rev. R. L. Bush & The New Swan Silvertones, consisting of Eddie Houston, Lorenzo Rideout, Ron Womack, and Ricky Mathews, are keeping the tradition of the original Swan Silvertones alive.

"My Rock" - Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones

Friday, November 13, 2009

Marcy Jo

Marcy Jo from Robbee Records

Hey, for a while in the early sixties, Pittsburgh had its own Leslie Gore. She performed as Marcy Jo(e).

The singer was born Marcy Rae Sockel in 1944 in Oakland, and she was known by her buds as Marcy Joe. Every week for four years, she headed downtown to the Carlton House on Grant Street, where she took voice lessons from Lennie Martin, a noted local songwriter, arranger and music entrepreneur.

In 1961, she penned a song as a 17 year-old high school senior. It was written for her sweetheart, Howard, but she changed the title to "Ronnie." Hey, she may have loved Howard, but even he had to admit the name didn't have much of a musical ring to it.

As luck would have it, her old vocal coach, Martin, had just founded Robbee Records the summer before (named for his son, Robbie) and booked a recording session for her.

Martin and co-producer Lou Guarino set up shop at the nearby United Recording Service studios with back-up singers Lou Sacco, his older sister Amy, Kay Chick and Bill Fabec, who performed then as a Robbee act known as Lugee & the Lions. Later, Moon High's Sacco would change his stage name and cut some wax as Lou Christie.

Robbee released the ballad in March, and "Ronnie" was a Pittsburgh smash, reaching #7 on the National Record Mart sales rankings. Liberty Records picked up the disc for national distribution.

By the end of May the record was #81 on Billboard's Hot 100, #64 on the Cash Box charts, and #27 in Variety, not a bad debut.

Her April follow-up, "Since Gary Went In The Navy," was also backed by Lugee & the Lions. The tune was dedicated to the military bound Gary Troxel of the Fleetwoods. Another version was released at the same time (Troxel was quite a teen heartthrob back in the day), and the competing songs canceled each other out.

Even then, you had to support your records, and Marcy Joe went on a tour of one-nighters throughout the East that summer with Del Shannon and Johnny And The Hurricanes.

She came back and did one more Robbee 45 in September, "Jumping Jack," but it didn't move either, and Marcy Joe looked across state to find another label after Robbee folded its tents.

In 1962 she signed with the larger Philadelphia-based Swan Records, who released the singles "I'm A Dreamer, Aren't We All" and "How Softly A Heart Breaks," losing the "e" of her name in the process.

The label then teamed her with singer/songwriter Eddie Rambeau for a duet medley, "Those Golden Oldies." Sticking with the same format, the duo's next release was "Lover's Medley," combining "The More I See You," which became a top 20 hit for Chris Montez in 1966, with "When I Fall In Love," a top 10 hit for the Lettermen in 1961. It was one of Billboard's "Regional Breakout Single" picks, but it stalled at #132.

Rambeau would later have one hit in 1965, doing a remake of the Unit 4+2 smash "Concrete and Clay," which topped out at at #35.

Lennie Martin, her business agent, passed away shortly after the release of "Lover's Medley" at the age of 46. Marcy had one song left in her, a solo effort called "The Next Time," but there would prove to be no more next time; Marcy Jo never recorded again.

But all's well that ends well. Remember Howard, Marcy's teenage sweetheart? Well, she married him, so we'd have to say she had a pretty successful career all in all.

MARCY JOE DISCOGRAPHY (from Spectropop):

Ronnie/My First Mistake (1961) Robbee R-110

Since Gary Went In The Navy/What I Did This Summer (1961) Robbee R-115

Jumping Jack/Take A Word (1961) Robbee R-117

I'm A Dreamer, Aren't We All/First Kiss (1962) Swan S-4116

How Softly A Heart Breaks/Night (1962) Swan S-4128

The Next Time/How Sweet It Is (1963) Swan S-4148


Those Golden Oldies/When You Wore A Tulip (1963) Swan S-4136

Lover's Medley/The Car Hop And The Hard Top (1963) Swan S-4145

"Ronnie" by Marcy Joe - 1961

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Kenny Fisher

Kenny Fisher image from the New Pittsburgh Courier

Kenny Fisher may not have been an everyday name to current music fans in Pittsburgh, but to players in the Steel City's jazz scene, the 69 year-old was a bridge to the golden age.

The self-taught tenor saxman (he also played flute, clarinet, recorder, and composed) died a couple of weeks ago from cancer, and with him went a page from Pittsburgh's jazz history.

Fisher grew up in the Hill and went to Weil Elementary and Schenley High. As a teen, he would hang outside the Crawford Grill with his buds, listening to the likes of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, peeking in the back window to catch the acts.

“Fish” was a throwback to the days when the Three Rivers was a blues hot spot. He played the late great club circuit, places like the Loendi Club, the Hurricane, the Crawford Grill, the Too Sweet Lounge, Mason's Bar, the Homewood Bar, Gail's Lounge, and the Diplomat Lounge, while perfecting his licks at the Musician Unions' Club.

He fronted the Kenny Fisher Quintet, made up of Jesse Kemp (piano), Wade Powell (trumpet), Tony Fountain (percussion), and Howard Russell (bass).

The KFQ toured Europe and the Caribbean in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and scored regular dates in the Big Apple and California. After the band broke up, Fisher went to DC and gigged with Max Roach.

Then it was back home to stay, and he became much more involved in the area's jazz community than just honkin' at the local venues.

Fisher played at the African-American Jazz Festival, was noted in the book "Pittsburgh Jazz" by John Brewer, and received an award from the Legacy Arts Project. He also was a member of Nathan Davis' Pitt Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Orchestra. Fish was a regular at Pitt's jazz seminars.

For decades, Fisher taught the sax, clarinet, flute and recorder to hundreds of children, teenagers and adults at the Homewood Carnegie Library on Saturdays and evenings for the Jazz Workshop.

He and the other instructors often gave free lessons - their version of scholarships - to kids who couldn't afford the $65 tuition, in trade for chores such as emptying waste baskets or making copies. They knew that a little discipline and structure goes a long way not only in music, but in life, too.

Fisher was a recognized elder statesman and mentor for Pittsburgh's jazz legacy. Why so little love for Fish's work?

It's probably a combination of Fisher's quiet nature, the years gone since he was regularly performing at the clubs, and the fact that even though they busted down the doors to see him live on-stage, he never recorded. Plus, of course, staying and playing in Pittsburgh for the past four decades tends to put a bucket over one's light, too.

But hey, at Wilkinsburg's Mt. Gilead Church, he was escorted to the afterlife with a celebration befitting a jazz king. There were performances throughout the service, and he was taken to his rest at Greenwood Cemetery accompanied by a New Orleans "funeral with music" done up Pittsburgh-style.

Among the luminaries to see Fish off were Roger Humphries, Dr. Nelson Harrison, and Tim Stevens.

Kenny Fisher is now reunited with his love, Jeannette, who passed away in 2001. And he doesn't have to be a back door man to catch Coltrane; he's sitting in with him.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gene Ludwig: Bossman of the B-3

Jerry Byrd, Gene Ludwig, and Randy Gillespie in 1964

Being Halloween and all, Old Mon couldn't resist posting a little haunting organ music for today's entry. And who better to deliver it than Gene Ludwig?

On September 4th, 1937, the coal-mining hamlet of Twin Rocks in Cambria County welcomed young Eugene Ludwig into the world. And while you may not have heard of him unless you're a local jazz fan, rest assured that Ludwig is one of the monsters of the Hammond B-3 organ.

Four years after he was born, his father took a job at Westinghouse Electric and moved the family to Wilkinsburg and then Swissvale, where Ludwig spent most of his youth. And yah, this all does have something to do with his career as a B-3 burner.

The previous owners of the Swissvale crib left an old piano behind, and that beat-up set of 88s was Ludwig's launching pad. His mom, Mary, could see he was a natural at the ivories, and dreamed of her son becoming a classical pianist.

At age 6, Ludwig started taking lessons, but momma's hopes took a hit when as a high-school kid, he discovered Porky Chedwick on WHOD. A steady dose of Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis turned him away from big-band sounds to the R&B scene.

He still cites "Honky Tonk" by Bill Doggett, "The Sermon" by Jimmy Smith, and "I Got A Woman" by Jimmy McGriff as songs that inspired him and his career.

In 1955, he graduated from Swissvale High and went to Edinboro State Teacher's College, where he studied physics and math (and to this day, Ludwig still looks more like a professor than a jazzman).

But Westinghouse went on strike, and with his dad out of a pay check, Ludwig dropped out and started to earn his own way in the world. He returned to Pittsburgh, and got a gig with Fuller Construction.

He became a habitue at Birdie Dunlap's Hurricane Bar in the Hill, where he was exposed to keyboardists like Jack McDuff, Johnny Hammond Smith, Groove Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, Horace Silver, Ray Bryant, Ahmad Jamal, and Ramsey Lewis.

One night in 1957 at the Hurricane, he saw Jimmy Smith perform, making magic with his B-3 Hammond, and he was wowed.

Ludwig eventually purchased a Hammond M100 organ and later a C Model, branching out his keyboard repertoire after Smith showed him the light. Ludwig was bitten hard by the bug, and eventually started performing as a sideman with groups around town and then forming his own band.

In fact, his trio - Ludwig, drummer Randy Gillespie and guitarist Jerry Byrd - played Birdie's club from 1962 until it closed in 1968, a victim of the Arena project and the Martin Luther King riots. They also played some east coast gigs, and etched some wax for LaVere. Ludwig even hit the chitlin' circuit.

As he recalled for Bill Milkowski of JazzTimes: "It was beautiful. I didn't encounter any problems at all. I was up there playing and we always got return invites to all these places - the Hubbub in Indianapolis, the Key Club in Newark, Count Basie's in Harlem, Lennie's on the Turnpike and the Shanty in Boston. The people liked us."

Ludwig hooked up with tenor saxophonist Sonny Stenton and hit the area club circuit. They gigged in local venues like the Hi-Hat on the Northside, Mason's in the Hill, Tropics in Braddock and Dave's Walnut Inn in McKeesport, even scoring some dates in Cleveland.

Getting a taste of the gypsy life, Ludwig jumped ship and joined up with another saxman, Gene Barr. Barr's band toured heavily, performing in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Buffalo.

Over time, Ludwig transitioned full monty from the piano to the organ. During a 1964 Atlantic City show, he played on the same bill with Smith, who used Ludwig's C Model.

After the show, Smith told him he should try to get a B-3 because the C Model, a smaller, open-legged instrument, would work him to death. Ludwig returned to Pittsburgh, bought a B-3, and played with his trio (Wilbert Longmire eventually replaced Byrd, and then Pat Martino took Longmire's spot). They traveled to Count Basie's club in Harlem, the 100 Club in Cleveland and other jazz venues around the East.

During a gig in Newark, New Jersey, Nesuhi Ertegun (Ahmet's brother) of Atlantic Records caught the band in action, and he signed Ludwig and the trio to cut a 45, "Sticks And Stones," which led to the "Organ Out Loud" LP for Milestone Records (#6032).

In 1966, "Mother Blues" was released on the Jo-Da label, and Ludwig's own label, Ge-Lu Records, issued "This is Gene Ludwig" (GL-1415).

In 1969, Ludwig replaced Don Patterson in Sonny Stitt's band for a year, long enough to cut "Night Letter" with the group for Prestige Records. Though he left the band, he would sit in with Stitt over the years.

Ludwig returned to Pittsburgh and started working regularly with saxophonist Bill Easley and later, Walt Maddox. He took to the road with big band crooner Arthur Prysock a couple of times, once for a year beginning in 1973 and again in 1978.

David Parr of the La Rells, who was also a sound engineer, remembers one session loaded with superstar talent. In 1974, he taped “Dancing on a Daydream” by Flora Wilson. One of the backing singers was Phyllis Hyman.

But the jocks turned the record over, and the big hit was the instrumental B side, done by the Sound of Philadelphia Orchestra, credited to the Soulvation Army Band. Parr taped the flip side in Philly, and added some sugar in Pittsburgh. He had sax man George Green honk for him, and Gene Ludwig pumped the B-3.

Phyllis Hyman backing on the vocal track and Gene Ludwig on the B side? Hey, ya gotta be kiddin'! Pittsburgh sure had some sidemen back in the day.

Although he got his share of club dates and was a popular session player, the era of the organ was winding down. He was turning down gigs that wanted him to mellow out (he remained true to jazz and R&B), and it looked like the Hammond players were fast becoming an endangered species.

That is, until Joey DeFrancesco, Papa John's kid, fueled a resurgence with a series of Columbia albums running form 1989 through the nineties and revived the genre.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, Ludwig's schedule picked up, and he toured the eastern and midwestern circuits while working in local jazz clubs like the Crawford Grill and James Street Tavern.

He appeared at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. He's honky-tonked at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Birdland in NYC, the Stanford Jazz Festival, and Newark's Jazz Organ Jam. Ludwig has gigged at the Blue Note in Las Vegas, Philly's Zanzibar Blue, and Trumpet's in Jersey.

Dizzie Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Charles Earland, Don Patterson, Nancy Wilson, Barbara McNair, Damita Jo, and Ester Philips are some of the artists he's shared stages with during his career. He played at the Mellon Jazz Festival.

Locally, Ludwig organized his own Jazz Organ Jams at Shadyside's Balcony club, where he had a regular gig until it closed its doors a decade ago. Ludwig and fellow Hammond B3 giants, Jack McDuff, Joey DeFrancesco and Papa John DeFrancesco, put together a super-group performance there that they called "ExtravOrganza."

And hey, he's kept busy even as the jazz joints become fewer. In the past few months, he's rocked the Rhythm House in Bridgeville, Blue in McCandless, Morgan's Restaurant in Penn Hills, The Sweetwater Center For The Arts in Sewickley, The Backstage Bar, Downtown, and Pangea in Shadyside.

That's a pretty active schedule, we think, for a guy that's in his seventies, has 50 years in the business, and lugs around a 400 pound instrument.

The last decade has seen a flood of tracks being laid down by Ludwig, too. With the release of his 1998 "Back on the Track" CD, the gates opened.

Five other CD's have since hit the market: "Soul Serenade" in 2000, "The Groove Organization" in 2002, "Hands On" in 2004, "Live in Las Vegas" in 2006 and “Duff’s Blues: Live at Zoellner Art Center” in 2008.

Oh, and Ludwig was recognized by the Manchester Craftsman Guild as a "Jazz Legend" last year with eight other local giants during its 40th anniversary bash. He even found time to marry Pattye Zamborsky on September 30, 2000.

Now about that national recognition thing. It's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind conundrum, and in the east, if you're not in New York, you're nowhere.

Marty Ashby of the Manchester Guild said of Ludwig and his home boys: "These are the people who have stayed in Pittsburgh, who could have been anywhere in the world, and they elected to stay here and pass the tradition and the language of this music on to future generations."

Jazz producer Bob Porter told the Jazz Times that "To a certain extent, if you are a local musician, you’re either so good that you’re always working or you’re not good enough to travel. There’s no real middle ground. And Gene is just one of these guys who is so good, and his reputation is so strong around Pittsburgh, that he really didn’t have to come out that much." Amen to that.

"I chose to stay in Pittsburgh for my home because I love this city and my many friends and fellow musicians here," Ludwig wrote on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network. "I haven't found as rich a source of great musicians as in Pittsburgh."

Pittsburgh has been the mother lode of jazz for longer than Old Mon has been alive (and yes, that's a long time), and will be as long as guys like Gene Ludwig are here to pass on the torch to the next wave of be-boppers.

EDIT - The next generation will have to do without Gene Ludwig; he passed away on July 15th, 2010, at the age of 72.

Gene Ludwig live at Zanzibar Blue - "I Got A Woman"

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Southside Jerry

southside jerry
Southside Jerry Mellix

Jerry Mellix was born in the Lower Hill, and went to Soho and Forbes schools. He got his start in music in 1961 at the age of fourteen, blowing a sax for the Fifth Avenue High School band and with his Hill District community players, the Hill City Marching Band.

But his muse was his brother Ron, looking sharp while marching in the Saturday morning parades with the HCMB. Ron would then spend his Saturday nights with Clairton's Shirley and The Splendors, coming home after a gig with his cut of the pot - $15. Jerry wanted to get a piece of that action.

Not that there weren't other influences over his career. "Sax players like Art Nance, the late great J.C. Gordon, Stanley Turrentine, Hammond B-3 player John Papi, guitar player Larry "Butch" McGhee, vocalist Hattie Taylor, members of These Gents, the late Johnny Jack and Jerry Betters, and of course everyone from the group The Memories, inspired and encouraged me," he said.

"A lot of those players, too many to name, were cats who only got to play in those hole in the wall joints. They never got recorded or will never be known outside their neighborhoods, but I appreciate them all."

When he was sixteen, Mellix hooked up with his first professional band, Little Willie Beck & The Crossfires (Beck forged Mellix's folks signatures on the work permit papers). Mainly a club band, they never recorded, though they did perform at the Stanley Theater for a 1963 show headlined by Lee Dorsey and Derek Martin of "You Better Go" fame. In fact, the Stanley performance was Mellix's first gig.

The Crossfires rode the circuit of the local venues - The Holiday House, Twin Coaches, and the other supper clubs that once dotted the region. They got to open for groups like The Miracles, Brook Benton, the Coasters, and ‘Wicked’ Wilson Pickett.

While the band may have never cut wax, they did get on radio, doing live commercials for WAMO DJ Bill Powell.

Like the other young males of the day, Mellix spent his year in 'Nam, joining Uncle Sam's crew in 1965. Then he came back home to a long run with the Memories.

He spent the next twenty plus years as a member of the band. They started out as an acapella doo-wop group the first year, then changed some personnel and added musicians, putting together a sweet show act. The Memories did an album worth of recordings in the mid 70’s for Terry Lee, but the DJ never released the cuts.

But the Memories did record again, on their MEMCO Label, and released their first wax, "Can I" b/w “Lovey Dovey” in 1976, followed in 1978 by "Sha-Boom" b/w "Once And Awhile." They later recorded and released a 4-song mini LP on cassette, a hot medium in 1981.

The band based their later choreography ala The Temptations, as they found themselves opening for a number of Motown acts playing the area like the Temptations (who were duly impressed by the Memories' show; imitation is the greatest form of flattery, no matter what biz you're in) and the O'Jays.

By the late 80’s, the members of the group were being raided by The Vogues, who took Keith Dix & Dave Wingo, The Marcels, who lured Jules Hopson, and The Clovers, who added Richie Merritt. The Memories became a memory. Mellix cast his lot with The Laurels.

He spent a few years performing with them, and decided to strike out on his own. His first gig was as a member of a South Side blues house band. The leader had trouble pronouncing Mellix during the group intros, and so "Southside Jerry" was born.

In 1997, he taped his first solo effort under his new stage name. That recording, released on cassette by RAM, was titled "Blues 'N' At" and won Pittsburgh's EXCEL Award for best independently produced Jazz/Blues record. Southside Jerry reissued it on CD in 2000 on his own impress, the Jermel label.

Now on his own, Mellix expanded beyond his Motown roots, and added blues and jazz to his R&B and doo-wop repertoire. He also expanded his stage, performing in places like Buffalo, Rochester, Charlotte, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

His favorite gig was at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. There, Mellix got to perform with The Clovers, which included his old band mate from The Memories, Richie Merritt, who sang for a host of local groups, including the Electrons and the Marcels.

He joined forces with Morgantown's oldies/shag act, the Subway Band, which toured the east, and in 2005 cut the album "Black, White, & Blues" on their own label. His playing is also heard on albums with Pittsburgh's Stingers, Memphis Mike, and Kari Throm.

Heck, in 2006 he even played a gig with Gary Racan and the Studio E Band for the opening night gala after Matthew McConaughey's and Matthew Fox's "We Are Marshall" movie premier in Huntington, West Virginia.

The Subway job landed him an opportunity to play with Chicago's "Daughter of the Blues," B.B. King's girl Shirley, as a member of the R&B Station. His last performance with her was in Toronto, where Mellix parted ways to work in the Reno and Carson City casinos with a R&B show band called Musicole w/Michael Coleman.

But when the economy went south, so did the casino budgets. Mellix returned to his old stomping grounds in 2007 to earn his daily bread, and has been doing nicely ever since.

Here, he's back on the oldies circuit, backing The New Holidays, The Four Townsmen, and the Soul Merchants; he was with the El Monics before they broke up. He also performed with his own band, the Blues 'N' At Band, under his Southside Jerry persona.

Mellix plays the tenor sax, but also has been known to blow on a alto, bari and flute when it's called for and still is a pretty fair vocalist.

Forty-five years in the show, traveled the country, and yet got to come home again, to Wilkinsburg. Oh, and made enough of the long green to send his daughter through medical school (a day job with the Post Office helped that cause).

Southside Jerry is one of the unsung blue-collar success stories of the Pittsburgh music scene, and we hope he's back to stay.

Southside Jerry doing "Jerry's Blues"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Meeting Of Important People

Meeting of Important People (photo by Rebecca Chiappelli)

In the late summer of 2008, a Pittsburgh band with the high-falutin' name of Meeting of Important People had one of their songs, “Mothers Pay More,” released on a national "Key Party" sampler.

And hey, the Brit-pop tune, a sort of Zombies-meet-The Who mash-up, became an internet hit. The guys followed the cut with a full-length CD, and self-released their self-named debut in March of this year.

It didn't take long for the tracks to pick up a following. In July, the band signed with the LA-based Authentik label. The impress is a twenty first century company; instead of peddling hard-copy CDs, they put their acts' material on the web for download on sites like iTunes and Amazon MP3.

They reissued "Meeting of Important People" the following month, and it's gotten some love on the digital platform. It was considered "new and notable" on the iTunes Store's singer-songwriter category, not a bad accolade for Pittsburgh garage rockers.

MOIP's sound is from the 1960s British Mod Invasion, deconstructed music with upbeat rhythms, bouncy melodies, crash-bang-boom drums, and mindworm hooks. Their themes often center on the odd-ball relationships of youth with his personal world.

Sounds a little off-the-wall, but angst has moved a lot of wax, and they have enough tongue-in-cheek lyricism and the musical chops to pull it off.

It's not the first time around the track for the trio. Guitarist/lead Josh Verbanets, bassist Aaron Bubenheim and drummer/keyboardist Matt Miller have all played in big-time Pittsburgh bands.

Miller was pounding the kit for Lohio, Troy Hill's Bubenheim played for the bluesy Br'er Fox, Resistor, and Central Plains, and frontman Verbanets made a couple of stops along the road himself.

Plum's Verbanets came by his rock jones honestly, hooked when his dad spun Alice Cooper's "Love It to Death" when he was a kid. He played in a high school group, went off to college, and came back as a member of the power-pop threesome The You in 2006. They recorded an LP with producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse) for Pure Tone Music, a subsidiary of Sony/Epic.

But amid some major-label politicking, the album was never released. When the deal went south, so did The You.

Verbanets eventually sat in with Lohio, and Miller recognized him from a The You show he had caught. They collaborated writing with band founder Greg Dutton, but three is a crowd, and Dutton was the alpha dog of Lohio. Rather than bang heads creatively, the pair eventually decided to chase their own vision, and MOIP was born in 2008, first as a side project, then as a full-time gig this year.

The band members have shared the stage with The Secret Machines, Blonde Redhead, and the Sam Roberts Band. Their tracks have received heavy airplay on XFM and terrestrial radio and have been placed into films and television, even before their album was released. The iTunes suits gave them some recognition.

Hey, they've even released their own Authentik vid of "Brittney Lane Don't Care," directed by Thom Gunt, who's done some Anti-Flag and Iggy Pop stuff. It, like their songs, has a hook - everything in it but the band members is made of cardboard, which helped get them some notice and ink in the rush hour crowd of internet music vids.

They're finishing up the year by touring the state, performing at a label party in Brooklyn, and on stage for a couple of rockfests - Brooklyn's CMJ Festival, Bruar Falls showcase in October, and Toronto's International Pop Overthrow Festival in November. MOIP did over 30 shows to support the CD in the East, Midwest and Canada, and they were named WYEP-FM's local act of the year for 2009.

Whether MOIP break out will have a lot to do with the Authentik business model. They have a solid indie sound that should appeal to the college radio scene, and being web-based instead of a local phenomena gives them quick access to national markets. Whether that works better than the traditional "release a CD, push it on the radio, and tour like madmen to support it" model will be seen.

But hey, so far, so good. In July of 2010, they released their new "Quit Music" CD, a garage rocker with a 60's pop sound. They'll hold a release party July 24th at the Thunderbird for 21+, and an all ages show, with Good Night, States Friday, July 30th at The Andy Warhol Museum. Everyone that attends will get a copy of the CD.

But MOIP is in a sort of limbo state right now, with two CD releases but not yet known well enough outside the region to tour full-time, and with home front responsibilities that require some steady bread. All have day jobs: Miller works in the Carnegie Cafe at the Carnegie Museums in Oakland, Verbanets is a financial analyst at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Bubenheim works in the title department for Federated Mortgages on Mt. Washington.

As Albert Einstein, renowned player of the slide rule, once said "I never think of the future - it comes soon enough." We'll see what it holds for MOIP.

MOIP - "Brittney Lane Don't Care"

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A. T. Vish

A. T. Vish

You can trace the Pittsburgh music scene fairly linearly, from the crooners to the jazz era to the R&B/doo-wop bands segueing into the pop/punk sound of more recent decades.

But beyond the club bands, musical genres of all stripes have bubbled just under the mainstream radar in the 'Burgh. Goth and industrial rock have been underground mainstays in the region, and some strong if locally underloved experimental electronica groups have emerged.

One of the veterans of the area's side stream scene is drummer A.T. (Al) Vish.

He's played the kit for Pittsburgh bands like the 90's garage-psych Thickhead Grin, InShalla, MACE, Una De Luna, electronica Jilted Brides, and perhaps the best-known of his groups, of New York's Projekt label, the goth/darkwave Lowsunday.

Lowsunday was named by Alternative Press as one of the "Top 100 Bands You Need to Know of 2002," and was featured on MTV and The Real World TV series before their breakup, when Vish departed to work on some solo projects.

In the summer of 2003, Vish was the drummer in South Side's City Theater and Hartford Stage production of the rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," starring Anthony Rapp. He also backed Rapp during his "Without You" show that premiered at the City Theatre in 2008.

But his raison d' etre has been Carol Blaze, the collective name for his solo work.

Apart from a couple of guest vocalists, the CD "Carol Blaze" is Vish's love child, featuring a mixture of drone, psychedelia, goth, darkwave, and rock, originally conceived as the soundtrack to a fictional character by the same name.

Written, performed, and recorded by Vish, he claims that the tracks are "the product of a confused sexual relationship between Nick Cave, The Sneaker Pimps, Bowery Electric, Tangerine Dream, Peter Gabriel, U2, and Monster Magnet."

Well, we don't know about all that; the mind shudders at contemplating a sexual bond between Sneaker Pimp and Monster Magnet. But it is an interesting sound, kind of a Bowie meets Pink Floyd mash-up with generally bleak, gloomy undertones.

One reviewer compared it to a "cleaned up Bauhaus mixed with New Order." The songs range from analog to darkwave to lo-fi to radio rock, quite a lot of genres to wrap one's ears around.

While the approach is an honest representation of Vish's collective musical experience, if you're a hard-core fan of one style over another, you'll find some tracks awesome, but will pound the "skip" button on others.

Even Vish recognizes that a melange doesn't suit everyone. So he's put together a pretty unique sales pitch - he offers 32 different tracks at his MySpace Music site, and will customize a mix-and-match Carol Blaze CD to your liking. How's that for service?

It's also available at other e-outlets, like i-Tunes and Amazon, for the less ambitious or more catholic listener.

Cuts from "Carol Blaze" have also been snapped up by a couple of indie film-makers, who used its dark, foreboding tracks to evoke the right mood for their flicks.

He's just followed up 2003's "Carol Blaze" with the September release of "Soul Surrender," on his All Terrain Vehicles label.

Vish also stays busy in his ATV recording studio. He's recorded and/or produced bands such as Peace Project, Between the Waters, Debutante, Boxstep, The Drag Strippers, Violaria, and Freddy Hall, among others.

So hey, remember there's life beyond the pop/punk scene in Pittsburgh. A.T. Vish is living proof.

A. T. Vish "Staring," video by Jilted Bride's Tanya Andrea Stadelmann

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Punchline from Starpulse

Punchline is a pop punk band from Belle Vernon that first formed in 1997 as a trio. Its original members were lead vocalist/guitarist Steve Soboslai, bassist Chris Fafalios, and drummer PJ Caruso.

They were all students in BVHS, and began by playing local Mon Valley shows. They recorded "How to Get Kicked Out of the Mall," that was heavy on punk/ska, their initial trademark sound. In later recordings, the ska influence would wane; pop harmonies gradually replaced the Jamaican rhythms.

In 1999, the band self-produced and released their first full-length album, "Punchline."

Guitarist/vocalist Paul Menotiades signed up, and they recorded and co-produced "Major Motion Picture" in 2001. Punchline followed that in 2002 with "The Rewind" EP. The EP's four tracks featured for the first time their now signature pop-punk sound.

In 2003, the band signed with Fueled by Ramen Records, the Tampa-based indie label. "The Rewind" was remixed, remastered, and reissued. Early pressings included a DVD of Punchline in action.

With February 2004's "Action," Punchline continued on its pop-punk trail by featuring sharp harmonies, catchy melodies and riffs, and a strong rhythm section.

Soboslai, Menotiades, and Fafalios interweaved vocals on the disk, and the first 10,000 pressings also included a new DVD. Gotta love that multi-media approach.

That's when they lost their first player. Menotiades left the band in mid-tour, and Greg Wood replaced him for the remaining shows on the schedule.

Wood, a solo artist and member of Connecticut's West Beverly band, eventually joined the group full-time, and played keyboard and guitar on Punchline's 2006 release "37 Everywhere."

Why that title? The album's CD notes explain: "The number 37 is everywhere. It is in your daily routine and it will surprise you. Look for it and it will look for you." Even the liner notes contain 37 references to the number 37, and the band had 37 titles to select from when putting the tracks together. Spooky, hey?

"37 Everywhere," was released in 2006. The album was dedicated to John "Beatz" Holohan (1974-2005), former drummer of Bayside, and had a half-dozen guest punk players pop up on its tracks.

Greg Wood amicably bailed out in the summer of 2006. He left the band to pursue a solo career and to teach guitar. Keepin' that fourth member around was proving to be quite the chore for Punchline.

Wood was replaced by keyboardist Jon Belan, who was a high school bud, former member of The Berlin Project, and now lead singer for Gene the Werewolf.

In early 2008, the band left Fueled By Ramen, which had helped them become a presence locally and internationally. Later that summer, Punchline created their independent label, Modern Short Stories, using the $25,000 winnings from Heavy's Contraband Contest, a net-based battle of the bands. Punchline’s videos were viewed over 1,100,000 times in four months on the site.

It's a unique boutique. Modern Short Stories has released a children's book authored by Fafalios and Tony Hartman, and plans to be a multi-media producer. For now, it has a couple of albums in the works and a DVD planned, both aimed for year-end release.

The album "Just Say Yes" was released on their label in September of 2008, with a limited four-track bonus disc. It marks a transition, from less of a punk sound to more of a heavy rock beat, ala Green Day and Weezer.

Punchline isn't just a studio band, though they've moved over 100,000 albums worldwide. They've cultivated a dedicated fan base (the "Punchkids"), using a blend of social networking on the web and a well-developed, often self-depreciating, sense of humor, and toured like madmen.

Punchline has played with Catch 22, Coheed and Cambria, Good Charlotte, Brand New, Reel Big Fish, Sum 41, Less Than Jake, and was part of the Warped Tour

In 2003, as a FBR act, they appeared in over 200 shows. During the summer of 2004, Punchline strutted their stuff in Japan with Fall Out Boy. In the spring of 2005, they embarked on their first headliner road trip, the Now or Never Tour.

They returned to the Land of the Rising Sun in June of 2006, when they had top billing on a Japanese tour with Paramore and October Fall. Punchline toured the UK for the first time in 2007 as a supporting act on the Good To Go Tour, and returned in 2008 for a second go-around on the GTGT, in addition to a lot of Tri-State dates.

This year, they're riding the bus for a series of American stops. In June, Punchline co-headlined the Major/Minor Tour with the band Socratic.

In September, Punchline set out on the AbsolutePunk Next Favorite Band Tour with groups Farewell, Between The Trees, and Action Item, focusing on midwestern and southern venues, ending in November. They'll follow up by taking to the highway with Hawthorne Heights, Just Surrender, Monty Are I and Nightbeast.

And hey, besides those early DVD's, the band also has a couple of vids to their credit for the tracks "The Ghostie" and "The Hit" from "Just Say Yes."

2009 saw a little more shake-up on the personnel front. In January, long-time drummer and original member P.J. Caruso left the band (on good terms; he said was going back to college and had a day job), to be replaced behind the kit by Pat Dee.

Then in late August, guitarist Jon Belan exited, to howl as Gene the Werewolf full-time. Former guitarist Paul Menotiades (currently playing as part of the singer/songwriter duo The Composure with Jesse Hall) is replacing Belan for their autumn tour "and possible future recordings."

"Delightfully Pleased," their newest release, hits the stores on August 10, 2010 from Modern Short Stories/TDR Records, and will include a limited vinyl edition. The release party is set for Friday, August 13 at Club Diesel. Its music features return to Punchline's roots sound, uptempo and percussive.

The band is now Soboslai, Fafalios, and new drummer Cory Muro, along with founding member Menotiades; the original trio are back together. The band will its US tour dates in the coming weeks.

Hey, the faces change, but everything old is new again, and the Punchline remains the same.

Punchline - "Ghosties"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Black Moth Super Rainbow

Black Moth Super Rainbow, photo by Jae Rumberto

Black Moth Super Rainbow is... well, you decide. Their music contains elements of psychedelia, folk, electronica, and pop. Their unique sound is created by blending electronic instruments like synthesizers, Moogs, a vocoder, Rhodes piano, and Novatron, giving their stuff a distinctive "Lucy In The Sky" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" vibe. We'll stick with indie synth-pop.

Rolling Stone's David Fricke tried to explain their scene in April of 2007: "They didn't look psychedelic, just confused. The female drummer wore a toucan mask and her sweat-shirt hood pulled druid-style over her head. A woman playing keyboards had on a fur hat with bobcat ears. The singer sat on the floor, invisible, crooning through a vocoder."

(The singer would be Tobacco; he's known for sitting hidden behind an amp while on stage, heard but not seen by the audience. His real name is Tom Fec, who supposedly became Tobacco in honor of a Roger Corman zombie flick.)

"But musically, this bucolic-futurist quintet was a firmly directed trip: pillowy synth chords and day-glo songcraft nailed to Earth by insistent backbeats. Formed in 2003, Black Moth have a sizable library of CDs to their name. Renown should follow."

Rolling Stone was impressed enough to tag the band "artists to watch."

Its members are The Seven Fields of Aphelion (Maureen Boyle), IFfernaut/D.Kyler (Donna Kyler), Father Hummingbird (Seth Ciotti), Tobacco, and Ryan Graveface (who just replaced Power Pill Fist, Tobacco's cousin Ken Fec of Brookline, who's breaking out on his own).

According to its MySpace site, the band's influences are "Neckface, Odd Nosdam, Olivia Tremor Control, Led Zeppelin in search of the perfect riff, folk tales of western Pennsylvania, and people who broadcast stuff from hidden places."

It's said that Fec got his start when he began recording on his four-track in his bedroom. Not exactly singing along to the radio, but hey, ya gotta start somewhere.

From 1996 to 2000, beginning as a high school sophomore, Tom Fec performed with the Allegheny White Fish, local patois for a condom floating down the river; now there's some vivid hippy imagery.

From 2000 to 2002, he went by satanstompingcaterpillars. As SSC, he self-released his music, the albums "F**keroo (Flower Slides)" and "Side 8."

After a third album in 2002, "The Most Wonderfulest Thing," SSC added Father Hummingbird, The Seven Fields of Aphelion, and IFfernaut (D. Kyler) to the roster, morphing into Black Moth Super Rainbow in 2003 and becoming a full-fledged band instead of a motley collection of part-time collaborators.

BMSR began releasing their music on the 70's Gymnastics Recording label, which is the band's own imprint. It's logo is a tree-person jumping rope in a dress. Black Moth Super Rainbow's first album, "Falling Through A Field," was actually satanstompingcaterpillars' greatest hits.

After 2005, Chicago's Graveface label picked up BMSR and released "Lost," "Picking Flowers in the Woods," and bonus reissues of the Tobacco albums. "Dandelion Gum" was BMSR's third album, released in 2007, loosely based on witches who make candy in the forest. It resulted in their first music video, for the track "Sun Lips," and was the record that gave them a national following, even if somewhat cultish.

They released "Zodiac Girls - Single and Drippers," an EP, in November of 2008. In May of this year, BMSR issued "Eating Us." The album was recorded at Tarbox Road Studios and marks the first time Black Moth has ventured into an actual recording studio and made a hi-fi album; the others were lo-fi, pretty much home-made disks.

BMSR is also preparing to release a private pressing CD from 2001, "The Autumn Kaleidoscope Got Changed" and an accompanying EP, "Sing To Us," available through the band's website. The records include some older stuff and several acoustic tracks.

In addition to the group's discography, the members have released several solo projects, too. Tobacco cut "F**ked Up Friends" and "Super Gum." Power Pill Fist recorded "Extra Life" in 2005, and "Kongmanivong" in 2008.

Seven Fields of Aphelion's first album "Periphery" is due in the fall, and she's also doing a music/photography project.

But hey, they're not just a studio creation. The band's busy, playing to an active schedule of festivals and other dates. Its supposed to be a great show.

While the band doesn't exactly nosh with its fans, except for a furry critter that mingles with the paying audience handing out candy, a stunning video display accompanying them is enough to make the crowd forget there are actual folk performing on stage, and the outfits make their performances memorable, even without any James Brown showmanship.

On March 17, 2007, the band played alongside The Octopus Project at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, featuring music from their collaborative project, "The House of Apples and Eyeballs." And it was a true collaborative effort; the bands sat in together while recording the tracks.

Black Moth Super Rainbow opened for The Flaming Lips on their Fall 2007 tour, and again in 2008. They also played along with Aesop Rock in late 2008, and at the 2008 SXSW music festival.

Although they took a break this year while working on "Eating Us," they've been back on the road again since its May release. The only complaint among local fans is that BMSR is the only Pittsburgh band that doesn't perform in Pittsburgh.

Maybe they learned the lesson of so many other local acts - if you wanna break out, get outta town, although Tobacco had publicly griped about the local coverage, too.

And what community spawned our local mind-melters? The lore is that they're from rural western PA, and that they emerged from an obscure Pennsylvania forest glen to make their music.

But Fec admits that tale started as a dodge to avoid giving out his 411, and it's grown into BMSR mythology since, further fueled by some liner notes in "Dandelion Gum."

While it's true that their home studio is an exurban cabin, Tom Fec originally hails from Hampton and now lives in South Side while his cousin Ken is from the West End. The other members are identified hazily as Pittsburgh-area musicians. Hey, close enough.

Enjoy them while you can. Tobacco is sounding a little restless lately, having told Leilani Polk of Tampa's Calling that he has no real plans for any future recordings with Black Moth, and says that after this tour, “I think I just want to do something else for a minute and stop thinking about all this Black Moth stuff.”

So stay tuned to find out if this moth bursts into a butterfly or heads toward the flame.

Black Moth Super Rainbow - "Born On A Day The Sun Didn't Rise"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Up The Revolution, Pittsburgh Style

Photo by Jazmin Million at Toronto's Warped Tour

Hey, Pittsburgh's home-grown, kick-out-the-jams punkers, Anti-Flag, were all ready to welcome the G-20 gang to the 'Burg with a Club Zoo concert, sponsored by the Students For A Democratic Society.

But they were thwarted by Mayor Luke and the Secret Service; the security zone would have made it well nigh impossible to get people into the Strip District venue without a major hassle. Pity; it was the last chance to see them here for awhile.

But don't obsess over missing their cancelled show. You may still get to see them live later in the week, just on the avenue instead of the stage. "We are looking forward to joining the thousands of young people in the streets of Pittsburgh," the band said after they scrubbed the booking, "to resist the failed policies of the G20."

After a little street theater, it's on the road again for the group.

They have their visas stamped for a couple of months on the far side of the Atlantic. Starting October 7th, Anti-Flag will be part of the Eastpak Antidote Tour 2009 with bands Alexisonfire, Four Year Strong and The Ghost Of A Thousand.

For six weeks, they'll gig in England, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland.

A trek like that is nothing out of the ordinary for Anti-Flag. They’ve toured in Russia, the Baltic, Scandinavia and Europe. AF has appeared on the Big Day Out festival tour in Australia with Rage Against the Machine, Billy Bragg, Arcade Fire and Bjork.

They were the only band to play two sets each day at the Leeds and Reading Festivals in England. Anti-Flag has headlined at the Rhein Kultur, the biggest free festival in Germany. And hey, they've pretty well criss-crossed the US, too, just finishing up the Warped Tour.

Why all the frequent flier mileage? Because they truly think music can change the world. Justin Sane (No, we don't think he's related to Justin Case), lead guitarist and band co-founder, explains:

"It is not a song, a record, a t-shirt, or a band that changes and shapes the world. It’s community and union. Our band writes songs to build community and union, to create awareness and preparedness for when the students and workers of the world push to level the playing field and bring equality."

All you have to do to understand where the band is coming from is to take a look at the play list on their latest release, "The People Or The Gun," issued by LA's Side One Dummy label and recorded in Pittsburgh at AF's newly-built studio.

It features “Sodom, Gomorrah, Washington D.C. (Sheep in Shepherd’s Clothing),” “The Economy is Suffering…Let It Die,” and “The Gre(A)t Depression.” No Pat Boone stuff there.

And the band does put its guitars where its mouth is. They’ve created the non-profit organizations Military Free Zone (opposing military recruitment in schools) and the Underground Action Alliance (a networking site for social justice).

Drummer Pat Thetic adds “It’s a priority to put the emphasis of our band and every show we play on community, whether it be canned food drives for local food banks, raising money to build wells in Africa, or clothing drives for the homeless.”

Hey, not every band in Pittsburgh is about the girls. Anti-Flag's message is all about social justice, and its chops have their roots in the Clash and the Ramones. And that's a sound worth listening to.

"Press Corpse" live from Pukkelpop 2008 (Kiewit, Belgium)