Saturday, February 25, 2012


SleepyV - MySpace Image

Ben Greenwood, a one-time Frank Cunimondo student, gave us a yell last fall to be on the lookout for SleepyV's EP "The Storybook." At the time, he thought it would be an October release; as often happens, it dragged out a bit. But for fans of acoustic prog music, it's finally done and hits the streets Tuesday.

SleepyV is a South Oakland band formed in 2009. They started performing in early 2010, winning a Pitt Battle of the Bands, and were booked by Manny Theiner into venues like the Thunderbird Cafe, 31st Street Pub, The Shadow Lounge, Belvedere's, The Smiling Moose, Howler's and the Garfield Art Works.

A self described indy-folk-prog group, they've been playing selections from their original repertoire of songs. And this is one Oakland band that eschewed the Decade/Electric Banana-inspired bar rock/punk genre. SleepyV is acoustic and backed by reeds and strings, pop troubadours with a classical sensibility. Heck, their EP is even divided into two movements, and several of their tunes feature the dead stop transition common in symphonic compositions.

In addition to bassist/vocalist Greenwood, the band features Gene Paul Vercammen on lead vocals/guitar, Derek Krystek behind the kit and on the hand sets, John Manganaro playing trumpet, flutist Dominique Dela Cruz, and Sarah Greenwood on violin. The EP includes clarinet recorded by Tessa Lewis-Whitson and a rap verse thrown down by Joe Kennedy of the 1s and 2s.

The release party is on Tuesday the 28th at the Frick Fine Arts building in Schenley Plaza, across from The Carnegie Library (Room 125 - doors open at seven, show begins at eight), and it's free with munchies. "The Storybook" will be downloadable the same day on a name-your-own-price basis at

Greenwood explains the concept record and its name this way: "The music on our EP fills the role that illustrations would play in a regular storybook while the lyrics express the thoughts of a protagonist and the demons in his mind. It's almost like a modern version of Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf.'"

Well, we'll take his word about all that. Old Mon's merrily misspent days have somehow managed to avoid mash ups with Russian composers (well, except for Tchaikovsky. We like things that end with a bang.) But he has run across a lot of singer/songwriters in his day, and if they had the chops to shed their shell, collaborate, and play in front of a band, the result would be SleepyV.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ron "Byrd" Foster

Byrd Foster (in the light shirt) with the Houserockers

If Pittsburgh had a Hall of Fame for its rock royalty, there's little debate that Ron "Byrd" Foster would be the first choice to sit behind the kit.

From the seventies through the nineties, Foster provided the beat and vocals for the Eruptions, the Igniters, Marshmallow Steam Shovel, Roy Buchanan, the Silencers, the Mystic Knights of the Sea, Sweet Lightning, the Iron City Houserockers, Red Hot & Blue, Extension 8 (an eighties cover band that Byrd named) and the Hell Hounds, forerunners of today's Jill West and the Blues Attack. He also was a popular session player, sitting in with other groups on stage and in the studio.

Foster did more than just pound the skins. Beside being an accomplished singer with a gritty, Stax-style R&B voice, he also churned out tunes as a writer, primarily for Buchanan. And he played a pretty mean rhythm guitar, too.

Born in Mt. Oliver, Foster had migrated to Seneca Valley High by the time he first summered with a band. He replied to an ad posted by Michael G and the Eruptions. They were looking for a drummer; their guy couldn't go to Wildwood, a Jersey resort town, for their extended vacation run. Foster could, and did.

Through the Eruptions, he met Frank Czuri, then of Penn Hill's Igniters, a group that had just signed a deal with Atlantic Records. He joined up, and in short order the band became Jimmy Mack and the Music Factory. The group released a double-sided single in 1968 for the label, a cover of the Marvelette's 1966 hit "The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game" and "Baby I Love You," which charted for the Ronette's in 1963 and was a Top Ten hit for Andy Kim in 1969.

It was during that period when he got his nickname. Bandmate Rob Abberzizzi caught a glimpse of Foster getting out of bed with his mop sticking straight up in the air, ala Einstein on a bad hair day, and announced that he looked just like a "baby bird."

While "Baby Byrd" never quite made the cut, "Byrd" stuck (and no, we're not sure why the "y." It's probably just a novelty of the times.) The nickname seemed appropriate for a guy who was well known for his cutting up and generally being the life of the post-gig party. It's probably a good thing for posterity that Abberzizzi never saw a baby loon in the morning.

After the Igniters split in 1969-70, Foster kept busy. He played some locally, then spent a six year gig as drummer and vocalist for blues guitarist Roy Buchanan, recording five albums with him between national and international tours. There was a marked Pittsburgh connection with the blues band. Vocalist Billy Price, keyboardist Freddie Delu and bassist John Harrison all played with Buchanan during that era.

In 1979, buds Dennis Takos and Czuri recruited him to join the Silencers, along with former Diamond Rio member Warren King. "Roy heard the recordings and told him to do it," Czuri told Scott Mervis of the Post Gazette. "He said 'This is your shot.' "

The new wave Silencers recorded two albums for Precision/CBS ("Rock 'N' Roll Enforcers"/"Romaniac") and its vid for the "Peter Gunn/Remote Control/Illegal" mashup was on MTV's 1981 playlist, getting air love on the station's very first day of broadcasting.

When the Silencers went their separate ways after failing to break into the big time, King and Foster became the core of Red Hot & Blue, a hot R&B bar band. He was a member of the Houserockers, replacing Ned Rankin, for that band's fourth and final MCA LP, "Cracking Under Pressure," cut in 1983. They folded a few months later.

Foster joined with King again, forming the Mystic Knights, an all-star band that consisted of Decade regulars. Joining them were guitarist Bryan Bassett, of Wild Cherry, Molly Hatchet, and Foghat fame, and keyboardist Gil Snyder of the Houserockers.

After playing with a couple of other local bands, Foster made the move to Orlando in 1991. He joined King as a session player at Kingsnake Recording Studio, home of the blues/southern-fried rock Alligator Records label.

He and King also played for the Midnight Creepers, a band of Kingsnake session men that performed on the local Sunshine circuit and recorded 3 albums. He later gigged with the DBS All-Stars after King returned to Pittsburgh in 2007. Foster also backed a couple of dozen studio releases as a session player.

He did make a couple of working trips back to the 'Burgh. Foster was part of an all-star cast of players that backed Chizmo Charles' "Up All Night" LP in 1998, and in August, 2010, he joined an Igniters reunion gig, his last hometown performance.

In 2004, he was found to be suffering from cirrhosis, to go along with diabetes. His bride, Carrie Smooke-Foster, told the P-G that "He was living in pain for years." It got worse; in the spring of 2011 he was diagnosed with liver cancer.

In January of 2011, he performed for the last time, backing Georgia guitarist Eric Culberson. On June 30th, he passed away in Deltona, Florida, at the age of 61. Foster left behind nearly 40 LPs that he played on as his legacy, along with a lifetime of great performances and better memories.

We can take solace in that he and Warren King are back together again. Rock 'n' Roll heaven sure does have a helluva band.

Ron Foster with the Silencers - Agent OO Soul

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Shadyside Wil Shiner

Will Shiner image from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Willard Shiner and his wife, Ruth (who was an equal partner in all their ventures), formed a real estate company in 1945, and zeroed in on laid back Shadyside, then a quiet community with just a handful of shops and restaurants in the neighborhood.

It boasted of an Isaly's, fruit and vegetable markets, a tailor, a butcher and several laundries. There was also The Shadyside Variety Store, Rolliers Hardware, Schiller's Pharmacy and the Shadyside Theater along with a post office. Boy, would that lineup change.

Before retailers reclaimed Walnut street in the past three decades, the Shiners helped convert Shadyside into a destination spot for local night life. Starting in the sixties, the places they opened - the Encore, Gaslight Club, and Pizza Pub - led to an explosion of activity.

The street bustled with watering holes like Nick Fratangelo's Lou's Shadyside Grill, Mardi Gras, Taylors, Fox Cafe (a long time establishment), Casbah, Raspberry Rhino, the Hollywood Social Club, and the Balcony, transforming the East End neighborhood into a 'Burgh Bohemia.

Music flowed through the streets from every open club and barroom door, the sidewalks were jammed with a young, fashionably hip crowd and their wanna-bes, and the corners were filled with street musicians, buskers and hawkers. If there was ever such a thing as Pittsburgh cool, Shadyside in the sixties and seventies was its epicenter, with Shiner's Encore and Gaslight Club at the head of the class.

Wil Shiner grew up in neighboring Squirrel Hill and graduated from Taylor Allderdice. He went on to Pitt briefly, but left school to help support his family, going to work for his dad by repairing pinball machines.

From servicing clubs to opening one wasn't a huge leap. Shiner opened the Encore on 5505 Walnut Street in 1959, and it became one of the first area cocktail clubs to feature jazz instead of lounge acts.

And we're not just talking run of-mill jazz. Sonny Stitt, George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Mary Lou Wlliams, Roy Eldridge, Yank Larsen, Earl Hines and Morganna King were among the top shelf musicians who played there. The locals were well represented too, when Harold Betters left them an open date.

Trombonist Betters made the Encore his home base, playing five nights a week with a Saturday matinee. He recorded two live albums at the club, including his well known Gateway slab of wax "Harold Betters at the Encore." In fact, the Encore was often touted as "The House that Betters Built."

Managed by the capable duo of Art Swiden and Bobby Davis, the club booked top acts and even spread the wealth around, arranging for their artists to do promo cameos, like for WQED's "Jazz Beat" show. Their work paid off. The club drew lines to get in, from politicos and sports figures to bookies and Pittsburgh's hoi polloi.

Shiner started to get out of the business in the early eighties. The Encore became Brendan's Restaurant in 1982; Shiner sold his share in 1985 after becoming ill, but maintained ownership of the building, which led to a long-term clash of lawyers over back rent. He had planned to bring back the jazz, but that never materialized. The building is now a Victoria's Secret. Other tenants were Cozumel's and Azul's, which both went the way of the Encore.

The next Shiner jazz spot, The Gaslight Club, on 738 Bellefonte Street, opened in 1961 and immediately ran into trouble. Part of the decor included nude paintings (copies of old masters, not Art Cinema posters), and then-Public Safety director Louis Rosenberg threatened to padlock the club before it opened, but relented an hour before the doors swung open. But he did have the final say, making sure that all the cars illegally parked for the opening (and in Shadyside in the early sixties, that was about all of them) were ticketed.

It was a private club that featured a posh - some say decadent - disco style lounge and a restaurant. At its heyday, it sported 5,000 members. A fire closed it for two months during 1975-76 holiday season. The renovated club had just a temporary reprieve on life afterward. It shut down in the early eighties and now houses retail shops.

He also opened the Shadyside Pizza Pub, the Pup Tent, and the Liberty Avenue Encore II in town, all also long gone.

Shiner was more than a club owner, though. Beside his real estate ventures, he served on a number of City boards, including the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Planning Commission and was on the seventies Convention Center Advisory Committee. His bride, Ruth, ran a bi-weekly community paper called The Shadyside Voice and was a high school teacher. She passed away in 1998 at the age of 73.

Willard Shiner died of a heart attack on Sunday, October 26th, 2003. He was 81.

Harold Betters "Tall Girl"

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Billy Cox: 'Burgh Bridge To Hendrix

Billy Cox from Wikipedia

Ask any old stoner from the Woodstock era, and they'll tell you that Noel Redding was Jimi Hendrix's right hand bass man. Well, that's one hippy that would be wrong.

Redding may have gotten more notoriety as part of the Experience, but Pittsburgh's own Billy Cox knew and played alongside Hendrix longer, and in more bands. He was with Hendrix at both the start and finish of his career and still carries his torch today.

Billy Cox was born with music around him in Wheeling on October 18th, 1941. His dad was a Baptist minister and math teacher while his mom was a classical pianist, and at a young age he played the piano and sax.

His family moved to the Hill while Cox was in his early teens, and it was at Schenley High where he began to master the bass while playing in local bands. Cox was heavily influenced by Pittsburgh's jazz scene, soaking up the local greats performing in the Hill District clubs and the national players passing through town. Then it was off to the Army.

Hendrix and Cox met at the 101st Airborne Division base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 1961 where both were paratroopers. Cox and a bud were walking past Service Club #1 and popped into the hall to get out of the rain. There they heard the 19 year old Hendrix's chords blasting through the air; Cox thought it was great stuff, while his pal covered his ears.

He introduced himself to Hendrix, and soon they were jamming together, becoming great friends in the process. They left the service about the same time, moved a bit down the road to Clarksville, Tennessee, and formed a band called the King Kasuals.

They played gigs on the "chitlin circuit," joking that everyplace they performed had a hole in the wall. Finally settling on Nashville as a home base, the Kings played dates on the Jefferson Street R&B club circuit while getting regular work as the house band at Del Morocco. It wasn't Stax soul that came out of the axes, but prototype funk rock.

Hendrix left Nashville in 1964, moving to Harlem where he worked as a sideman and with his own band The Blue Flames. He was then discovered by Chas Chandler, the Animals bassist, who took him across the pond to Britain and success in 1966. Hendrix didn't forget his army bud, and called him to join him on the trip. Cox begged off, telling him that he only "had three strings on his guitar." Cox wished him well, and Hendrix said that he'd call for him again after he hit the big time.

Broke or not, Cox was working steadily. Between 1962 and 1968, he played on the TV shows “The Beat” from Dallas and Nashville’s “Night Train.” He was a band/session player for Sam Cooke, Slim Harpo, Joe Simon, Rufus and his daughter Carla Thomas, Lou Rawls, Etta James, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard.

Small change, though, compared to Hendrix and the Experience. With Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, their 1967 debut LP "Are You Experienced" took off, fueled by a riveting show put on by the trio at the Monterey Pop Festival.

But two albums later, the Jimi Hendrix Experience broke up in 1969. Hendrix was tiring of the power trio concept and its limitations (though he would quickly return to it), and put together a new group, Gypsy Suns and Rainbows.

He made good on his promise, calling Cox, who accepted this time. Who sez opportunity only knocks once? Cox joined Mitchell, rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, another Nashville bud who would become the only non-bass guitarist to play with a Hendrix band, and percussionists Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez.

After a handful of club dates, the band had a memorable outing on the last day of Woodstock in front of 200,000 fans. You can hear Cox drop a couple of bass notes in at the start of Hendrix's iconic "Star Spangled Banner" before wisely stepping back. Though Hendrix had played the jam many times before, Gypsy Suns had never rehearsed it, and Cox decided discretion was the better part of valor. He was right.

Hendrix's big band only lasted for one or two more performances, and never recorded. Band of Gypsys with Cox and Buddy Miles quickly took its place.

Cox told Ron Wynn of the Nashville Scene that the funk rock trio came to be because "Jimi had gotten himself into a financial bind with a contract he'd signed that wasn't exactly the greatest. He needed to work and do some things in a hurry that would make some money. So we got together and did the album (the live "Band of Gypsys" recorded on New Year's Eve 1969 at New York's Fillmore East, released after Hendrix's death) and toured...That's the real reason why that band was formed."

Miles left, and Hendrix formed another trio: Hendrix, Cox, and Mitchell. They began recording tracks for Hendrix's fourth studio album at the Electric Lady and toured during the summer of 1970 in America and Europe. Cox dropped out overseas after a few shows, suffering from "nervous exhaustion." The Band of Gypsys cancelled their remaining dates, and Hendrix went off to London, where he OD'ed three weeks later at the age of 27.

Cox heard the news back home in Nashville. He not only lost a guy he considered his best friend, but his career was knocked out of the fast lane, too. He released the 1971 LP "Nitro Junction," did some session work with Charlie Daniels, played club dates and sat in with other artists while operating a pawnshop. But his bass lines were kept alive thanks to the flood of posthumous Hendrix records. As of today, Cox's bass can be heard on 26 different Hendrix releases.

In 1995, Cox, with Experience members Mitchell and Redding, along with Gypsy Miles, began touring as a Hendrix tribute band. In 1999, he formed the Gypsy Sun Experience with Mitchell and guitarist Gary Serkin to keep Hendrix's legacy alive. Cox also leads the annual "Experience Hendrix Tour," which last stopped in Pittsburgh in late 2010, featuring guitarists Steve Vai and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

In 2004, Miles joined with Cox to record songs from the original Band of Gypsys' album with guitarists Eric Gales, Kenny Olsen, Sheldon Reynolds, Andy Aledort, and Gary Serkin. The tracks, titled "The Band Of Gypsys Return," were released in 2006.

With former Hendrix bandmates Redding, Mitchell and Miles now gone, Cox is the only surviving member of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Band Of Gypsys. And it's safe to say that he keeps the Hendrix legend alive with the tours and his role as Hendrix historian and promoter.

He co-authored the books Jimi Hendrix Sessions and Ultimate Hendrix with John McDermott and Eddie Kramer. Cox told Rege Behe of the Trib that Hendrix's body of work "compares to that of Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart, a legacy comparable to those of George Gershwin, John Coltrane and Miles Davis." He formed the "New Band of Gypsys" last year. So he does his bit to burnish that legacy, but has quite a bit more to his credit than Jimi's apron strings.

Cox owns a video production company and produces gospel and blues stage shows. He lectures at college music seminars. In 2009, Cox was inducted into Musician's Hall of Fame. In 2010, Microsoft's Paul Allen honored him with a Founders Award. His home state recognized him last year when it enshrined him in the West Virginia Music Hall Of Fame.

He's released two recent LPs of his own work, "Last Gypsy Standing" in 2009 and "Old School Blues" in 2011. Cox also plays on the 1970 Buddy Miles LP "Them Changes" and has collaborated with JJ Cale, Charlie Daniels, Bruce Cameron and Gov't Mule on other discs.

And hey - next time someone tries to pull that Noel Redding stuff on you, just slowly shake your head and ask "Who was that playing with Hendrix at Woodstock again?" Jimi's alpha and omega bass man will always be Billy Cox.

Voodoo Child from the Experience Hendrix Tour at the Benedum in 2010