Woog’s World: Westport’s musical memories live on
The death of Ginger Baker earlier this month focused rock fans on the legendary English drummer’s long career, particularly his work with Cream, the supergroup he founded with Eric Clapton in 1966.
Here, and for former Westporters who grew up in the 1960s, it revived memories of the longest drum solo we ever heard. For 15 or 20 minutes — maybe half an hour, depending on who’s telling the tale — Baker pounded out his rhythms. It was riveting. It was long. And it took place on the Staples High School stage.
It was the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s a sly reference to Mott the Hoople — one band among the few that never played in Westport. As for Sly: He and the Family Stone were here more than once, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bo knew Westport. That’s Bo Diddley of course. The singer/guitarist was one of the first big names to play here. In the 1950s and early 1960s he headlined several dance shows, at places like the YMCA. He was booked by Mike Borchetta, when the Class of 1961 member was still at Staples.
Borchetta went on to become a noted music producer in Los Angeles and Nashville. He started his own label and discovered a 16-year-old named Taylor Swift.
That’s just one nugget from Westport’s musical history. There are many more.
The cascade of bands that rocked Staples reads like a list of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The Yardbirds, Animals, Rascals, Byrds, J. Geils, Peter Frampton, Taj Mahal, Richie Havens, Blues Project — all performed in the auditorium (or gym).
The phenomenal run began in the mid-1960s, when student government officers Dick Sandhaus and Paul Gambaccini were figuring out ways to have a free senior prom. They cold-called New York agencies, which had no idea the Staples High School “representatives” were 17-year-old kids. Their first coup was the Beau Brummels, a San Francisco group riding the Beatles wave. Luckily, they performed right around the time their song “Laugh, Laugh” was a major hit.
The rest is rock history. With some very intriguing sidebars.
Steve Tallarico played at Staples back in the day. No one knew him; he was just part of a Yonkers band that opened for the Yardbirds. But he was so inspired by that gig that he dedicated himself to a career in music.
And when nearly 30 years later he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland — he’d changed his name to Steve Tyler, and earned worldwide renown with Aerosmith — his speech included a heartfelt reference to that life-changing day in Westport.
That Yardbirds show was memorable for another reason. A young photographer named Linda Eastman heard that the group would play here, and came from New York to see. A shot of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck warming up in the choral room was included in a book of photos she published years later. By then, everyone knew her by her married name: Linda McCartney.
Speaking of the Beatles: No, they never played at Staples. But the Remains did. That band was formed by Westporters Barry Tashian and Bill Briggs, with two Boston University classmates. They took that city by storm. Soon-to-be-famous music critic Jon Landau said the Remains were “how you tell a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll.”
In 1966, the Remains opened for the Beatles on their final United States tour. They broke up soon afterward, but they’re memorialized in a documentary called “America’s Lost Band,” by Staples graduate Fred Cantor (who never saw any of those concerts). The beat goes on.
It went on in other places too. The Nines Club — a short-lived discotheque built in a former skating rink at what is now Lansdowne condominiums — hosted shows by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Vanilla Fudge and Question Mark and the Mysterians. The Critters played at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Plenty of non-rock musicians were here too. Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger, Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, Sammy Davis Jr., Ferrante and Teicher, Odetta, Richie Havens — all, at one point or another, performed at Westport venues.
For Phil Ochs, it was Coleytown Junior High School. The date was March 31, 1968. In the middle of the show, someone handed him a note. He announced momentous news: President Lyndon Johnson had just told the nation he would not run for re-election. The audience erupted in cheers.
There’s much more, of course, like the famous rockers who lived here (Edgar Winter) and the songs they recorded about Westport (REO Speedwagon’s “157 Riverside Avenue”).
But, like Ginger Baker’s long-ago drum solo, today they are all just magical Westport musical memories.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.