Friday, December 17, 2010

Bob McKeag...McKeg...Bubs!

Bubs McKeag

Bob "Bubs" McKeag started out like many Pittsburgh music legends - he and a bud, Little Joe Arena, put together a garage band in high school. They formed the Igniters, and the Penn Hills musicians became local club heroes in the sixties.

The Igniters were the house band at The Varsity House in Oakmont, and their early Brit/R&B rockin' style regularly filled the club. McKeag was the lead singer (although Frank Czuri, an old St. Bart's pal, would eventually fill that role in what would become a recurring theme) and lead guitarist.

Atlantic Records signed The Igniters to a record contract in 1968. They were the second white band signed to the label, following the Rascals; they had the soul sound, even if blue-eyed, that Atco pushed. That made the way Atlantic handled the act a bit of a mystery.

The label changed their name to Jimmy Mack and the Music Factory for reasons unknown. They released the poppish "Baby, I Love You" b/w "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game" in 1968, and it got a little love, but not much outside the region; maybe the label thought the B Side Marvelette's cover would qualify as R&B. It did get a lot of play in the region.

So they changed names again, now performing as the more psychedelic "Friends." They cut another single that went nowhere, effectively ending the Atlantic connection. After a couple of years of touring and playing The Psychedilly club as their local home base, they disbanded in 1970. McKeag joined the Navy.

After seeing the world on Uncle Sam's dime, he played with various bar bands in the area. Then, in 1974, McKeag hooked up with Norm Nardini and Robbie Johns to record Marvin Gaye's "Ain’t That Peculiar" at East Liberty's Red Fox Studio. A Pittsburgh rock legend was born that day: Diamond Reo.

Diamond Reo signed a contract with Big Tree Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic, added Czuri as a vocalist and Warren King on ax, and became the next big thing. Oddly, for all the smoke their only top 40 hit was their first tune, "Aint That Peculiar," with McKeag working the "talkbox" guitar and singing lead.

The band schmoozed with Dick Clark on American Bandstand and opened shows for Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Kiss, Rush, Canned Heat, Kansas, Blue Oyster Cult, and other seventies' rockers as they toured non-stop and lived large on the road.

Life on the bus brought changes to the group. McKeag was the first to leave Reo as the band moved from Top 40 rock to punk/metal. He recorded another top 40 hit, "Gimme Some," for Buddah in 1977 as Bob McKeag and later recorded for Phantom Records under the easier to spell (and pronounce) name of McKeg.

He then hooked up with James Lawson to form the McKeg/Lawson Blues Band, and the group became a popular local blues mainstay. In 1994, Lawson lost a battle with cancer; McKeag kept the MLBB going for five more years before they broke up.

For the past decade or so, he's been mostly gigging solo. His EP "McKeg on Tap" is a Pittsburgh hit (of course, one of the tracks is the Heinz Field tailgate favorite "Go Steelers." Guy knows the market, hey?)

And he's a full-time bluesman now; he even has a trademark porkpie hat, though it's overshadowed by his ax. McKeag is a two-time winner of the Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania’s International Blues Challenge for solo/duo artist, taking the 2009 title with Dr. Blue as a duo and as a solo act in 2008.

McKeag has taken a couple of side trips to Finland, too. He performed during the 30th Annual Helsinki Blues Heritage Festival. In 2007, he went to Finland for an international songwriting competition in the blues category, and placed fourth.

Bubs is a teacher, too. Beside performing in the Pittsburgh Blues Festival, he worked the Blue's Society "Blues In the Tent" project. McKeag presented “Story Telling in the Blues," where kids focus on their life stories of heartbreak, loss, or just the day-to-day grind. Then they write them down, and have the framework for some blues lyrics.

But ya know what? Sometimes the old days are the best days. McKeag just joined with his old Igniter bandmates at the Palisades last week for a holiday reunion gig. People came to town from all over the US to catch the act again, only the third time that the band has gotten back together since they went their separate ways in 1970.

And hey, after four or five decades of making that ax sing, it's sweet to know that Bubs McKeag's first chord was just as popular as the next one will be.

Bubs McKeg with The Sweaty Betty Band - "No Baggage"

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