Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Dreaming of George McGonigle

I had a dream that I went to Gregory's bar in Somers Point and George McGonigle was bartending and I took a selfie photo of him with my camera.

And then I found this among my old photos, I think my brother Leo took this in the late 1970s

Dreamin' of you George, you old rascal.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Herb "Bubba Mac" Birch RIP

Herb "Bubba Mac" Birch - RIP

Herb "Bubba Mac" and Carmen Marotta
Two Jersey Shore Music Heavyweights

By William Kelly

It was at the Tony Marts All-Stars concert on the Somers Point beach last summer (2016) when I was approached by a hesitant young kid who asked me if I was Bubba Mac.

"No," I said to the clearly disappointed kid, "but if you follow me I'll introduce you to The Man himself," and his face lit up and he followed me to the stage where Bubba was standing with Carmen Marotta, son of the legendary Tony Mart and primary promoter of the Point beach concert series, now in its 25th season.

While I somewhat resemble Herb Birch with now white hair and beard and we are about the same height, he was older, wiser and richer than me by a long shot.

We shook hands and he gave me a big biker hug and I said hello to Carmen and Herb's son Mac, and then introduced him to the kid who wanted to meet Bubba Mac.

Herb didn't look too good, as he was on oxygen, but played his guitar and sang in his distinctive voice and put on a great show with the other Tony Marts All Stars.

So it was with much dismay that I learned of his recent death.

In retrospect - I recall when he first came to town in the late 1990s, buying a house in Ocean City and frequenting the Point, looking to put a band together.

Having sold his Maryland medical services company for millions, he had deep pockets and money to spend.

First he put a band together - one with a blues bent that consisted of him and his good friend Ritchie Baker on guitars, and brought in the best local talent money could buy - including guitarist Danny Eyer, Lew  London on fiddle, Chris Sooy on piano, and rounded it out with Charlie Winters on harp and vocalist Terri Showers.

Then he needed a place to play, and sat down with Randy Scarborough, whose bar/restaurant was up for lease. Randy's father had pretty much built Cherry Hill as a suburb of Camden, and Randy, being a racing sailor, bought the bayside land at the north end of Bay Avenue, erecting upscale townhouses that came with boat slips. He also built a large restaurant, got a liquor license and leased it out to the son of the president of an Atlantic City casino they called Markers - as in ship markers.

It was an upscale carpet joint in a shot and beer drinking town with a fishing problem, and it served the people with money - no riff raff. But after five years, someone new tried something different - a Friday's type place that didn't work for long. But Bubba had his own ideas and Randy handed the keys over to him in 2000and Herb opened the Bubba Mac Shack - a mid-scale barbecue and beer joint with live music - featuring The Bubba Mac Blues Band. And the Riff Raff were welcome.

Somers Point hadn't seen such a big place since Bay Shores and Tony Marts bit the dust in the late 1980s. With two stages - the first up front in the main bar, and he built a new large wood stage out back that had a dance floor and balcony, the Shack had four bars - one outside overlooking the bayside boat slips - and you could arrive by boat as transient slips led right to the bar.

Besides his own really terrific band - CDs are still available, Herb hooked up with Carmen Marotta and Jerry Blavat - the Geater with the Heater - the Boss with the Hot Sauce, who spun the oldies but goodies on dance night. Carmen introduced Herb to a lot of great talent that played the Shack's main stage over the years - blues harp man the late great James Cotton, Hubert Simkin - Howlin' Wolf's legendary guitarist, drummer Levon Helm from The Band and Bill Haley's Original Comets, who made a Labor Day weekend performance a regular gig for years.

Sunday afternoons were particularly popular as Herb gave the main stage to local talent Jackie Major, whose band was solid and visiting guests really jammed.

Herb "Bubba Mac" Birch brought a rush of fresh air to the Point and brought back the great music the  town was know for in its heyday glory years, something no one believed would happen.

Now I don't know what happened, but from what I understand, it was the neighbor's complaints that did the Shack in, as some of the people who lived nearby didn't appreciate the music or noise that came out of the Shack until two in the morning - something the Point was known for. You don't buy a house next to an airport and complain about the planes.

So Randy, shortly before he died, let Herb finish out his lease and then sold off the liquor license and tore the building down - a parting shot if ever there was one.

But Herb kept the band together, opened another Bubba Mac Shack on the Ocean City boardwalk, and kept plugging the blues - sponsoring a fantastic two day Blues Fest at the big baseball field - Bernie Robbins Stadium in Atlantic City - the last time I saw Woody and the late Carol Stone - founders of the Cape May Jazz Festival.

And now Herb - Bubba Mac Birch is gone too, leaving us with his big smile and a lot of great memories of the music he brought to town - the Music Man.

Bubba Mac and Jerry Blavat - TGWTH-TBWTHS

Levon Helm on drums and Bubba at the Mic at the Old Shack

Bruce Aydelotte's photos of Levon at the Shack - Circa 2001

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Robbie Robertson Remembers Tony Marts - The Summer of 1965

Image result for Robbie Robertson     Image result for Tony Marts

Robbie Robertson – from the autobiography Testimony (2016)  – Chapter 12 p. 158

IN THE SUMMER of 1965 we had booked a gig at Tony Mart’s big dance club in Somers Point, New Jersey. Tony’s was a hot spot, a popular club that sometimes had three bands playing on separate stages over the course of the evening. A big round bar sat in the middle of the club, handy for a refill no matter where you were standing. Tony himself was an unusual club owner, a real character.

A bit stocky, no-nonsense, and Sicilian born. Anthony Marrota spoke broken English and hardly ever smiled. He ran his “circus” with a strong hand, wandering through the crowds while yelling order at bartenders and bouncers. Every once in a while he’d walk by the center stage we were playing on and call out, “Hey, turna downa the jukebox!” We took this to mean we were playing too loud for an early-evening crowd.

On the first weekend we were there, you could tell the audience was into our type of music. Conway Twitty and some of his original band were in residence too, which was a nice surprise. When we went on, the place came alive. By Saturday night the club was so packed you couldn’t move. Tony Mart pushed his way through the crowd and called up to us, “Hey, turna upa tha jukebox!” and gave a little grin.

After the first two weeks, Tony asked us to come back for two more weeks later in June. It was very unusual for us to play two stands so close together in one spot like that, but we were glad to plant our feet for a while. And lo and behold, our old road manager, Bill Avis, showed up in Somers Point too, managing a band of lesbians calling themselves the Female Beatles.

In between dates in Somers Point, we would head up to New York City to meet with production companies that had seen us play and were interested in signing us. We listened to songs they thought we could record, but none of them really connected….The acoustic folk setting was thriving in New York. You could feel it goring in Toronto’s Yorkville district, but Greenwich Village was the epicenter of this world.

John Hammond (Jr.) asked me to come hear him play at the Gaslight Club. He talked up Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil and a couple other guys he thought were very soulful folk singers. The Gaslight had a sign out front announcing the next act that would be performing there – Mississippi John Hurt. I told him about our jam with Sonny Boy Williams, and he said, “Sonny Boy one or two?”

One afternoon John came by the Forest Hotel to collect me for a trip downtown to a hip record store,…then he hit the breaks and said, “Oh, man, I forgot something. A friend of mine is recording around the corner and I promised him I would stop by….”

Before long we were on the elevator in the Columbia Records building heading for Studio A. In the control room people were listening to the playback of a song they had just cut. John said hello to a man in round wire-rimmed glasses with shoulder-length grayish hair.

“Robbie, this is the great music manager Albert Grossman,” Sitting in the corner silently was Dion of Dion and the Belmonts. Then John went over and gave a big greeting to his friend who was recording. He turned to introduce me.

“Hey, Bob, this is my guitar-player friend Robbie, from Canada. This is Bob Dylan.”

You could barely see his eyes through the dark glasses he wore, but there was high voltage in the room coming from his persona.

Bob said hello,a nd then to John. “You want to hear something.”

“Yea, I’d love to.”

Bob teased. “You sure you want to hear this? You never heard anything like this before.”

Albert Grossman and the record producer nodded in serious agreement.

“It’s called ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ Bob said with a little smirk.

Bob was right – I’d never heard anything like this before. The studio lit up with the sound of toughness, humor and originality. It was hard to take it all in on one listen….

By then we’d begun our second stand at Tony Mart’s club in New Jersey, and on our nights off we would slip over to the Wonder Gardens club in Atlantic City, where we caught some of the best jazz-organ combos going. Jimmy Smith played there, and we also saw Brother Jack McDufff, whom Garth appreciated for his unusual style. Shirley Scott, “Queen of the Organ,” was a favorite of mine, with her husband, Stanley Turrentine, on sax. Most of these jazz organizats played a Hammond B2 with bass pedals, which meant they could play a lead part with their right hand on the upper keyboard and chords or counterparts (and sometimes lead) with the left hand on the lower keyboard. At the same time they’d be changing sounds and controlling the speed with both hands while playing the bass part with their feet. The whole thing was a remarkable balancing act. And of course the grove and texture of the B3 was sexy cool. It made you want to order Cutty Shark and soda. Garth played a whole other kind of organ, the incomparable Lowrey. Different sound, different touch all together from the Hammond B3, and you could bend the notes like a horn or guitar, which completely baffled a lot of listeners. So great when Garth would kick into a free-for-all jam by himself, with those bass pedals in full effect. Gave you the shivers.

One night after we finished playing Tony Marts, Garth began telling me about some ideas and effects he was experimenting with. He was always devising new modes of ‘hot rodding’ the Lowrey organ and its Leslie speaker to create brilliant new sonic wonders. As he described his research and discovery approach, most of it went over my head, but the results were undeniable. The sounds that came out of Garth’s keyboards or wind instruments had originality stamped all over them. Garth experimented endlessly, like a Harry Partch or Les Paul. He never stopped wanting to expand on his technical abilities inside or outside the instrument. None of the rest of us Hawks was so inclined. 

Some people wanted to know how a watch works, and other people just want to know what time it is.

Quite regularly on our days off I would head up to New York City, sometimes crashing out with our Canadian pal Mary Martin, who had taken a job working for Albert Grossman’s management company. She was always so supportive and would try to turn us on to new music that was happening, like John Sebastian’s new group, the Lovin’ Spoonful. Sometimes one or two of the other Hawks would join me on these excursions into the city, but it soon became evident that I was the one most drawn to the metropolis….

Of all the groups that played Somers Point in the summer of 1965, Tony Mart’s personal favorite was Levon and the Hawks, though it was sometimes hard to tell whether he like the swampy sound of our music or the ringing of the cash registers.

Towards the end of our stint, our relationship with Tony had grown warm, almost familial. He hired us to finish out the season, which proved ideal for future recording sessions and continued access to the city. Everyone in the band seemed to be in a good place during those days.

The only dark cloud that passed over us that summer (other than the enduring stress of the drug bust in Canada) was when we got word that our dear Sonny Boy Williamson II had passed away from tuberculosis, and that the beautiful dream we had of recording together had died with him.

Soon after I got a message from Albert Grossman’s office, asking me to come up to the city on our next day off to meet with Bob Dylan. I’d only met him briefly with John Hammond when they were recording “Like a Rolling Stone.” I asked the guys if they knew any of Bob’s music. I wasn’t that familiar with it myself, though I remembered a song he’d done a few years back called “Oxford Town.” It rang true, and the tone of his voice really stood out for me. Richard offered that Bob’s record of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” reminded him of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”

“Yea,” I said, “That staccato rhythmic phrasing is reminiscent.”

Albert Grossman’s office set up for me to meet with Bob the following Monday. I couldn’t help but wonder what this was all about.

Image result for Robbie Robertson

Image result for Tony Marts