Is there any group of kids who put together a band for a high school talent show that didn’t, in the back of their minds, think they just might have a shot at, you know, the big time? And out of the few that stay together past graduation, is there any band who wasn’t secretly dying to hear a song they recorded in a garage, or, if they were lucky, in a studio, played back on the local radio station that first time?
When you think about it, success as a rock musician wasn’t a foreign concept to a kid in mid-1960’s Memphis. They need look no further than the former truck driver who went in one day, cut a record, and ten years later was a millionaire singer and movie star living the dream in his Whitehaven mansion.
But imagine the astronomical odds against one bunch of kids, all from the same high school, hitting the top five with the B-side of the second single they put out, something even Elvis didn’t do. It happened, in 1965, right here in Memphis.
The Gentrys formed as underclassmen at Treadwell High. Instead of following the R&B or rockabilly route of their Bluff City predecessors, this band sought a more British feel to their sound. At this point we hear again from Chips Moman, who left Stax a couple of years earlier in a monetary dispute with management.
Chips had helped start another studio, American Sounds, on Thomas north of Chelsea. Chips cut a single with the Gentrys for release on his label, Youngstown Records. “Sometimes I Cry,” a cover of an Everly Brothers song was chosen. It sold enough to warrant interest in another single, “Make Up Your Mind.” Now all they needed was a B-side. Chips was reminded of a song he recorded with an R&B band, The Avantis, called “Keep On Dancing.
Although the Gentrys lineup featured two vocalists, Bruce Bowles and Jimmy Hart, the lead part on this one fell to guitarist Larry Raspberry. After a number of attempts, with the tempo rising with each successive pass, bassist Pat Neal left the session, and the engineers pumped up the bass EQ on the piano to cover the missing part. The take which everyone agreed felt the best was deemed too short, so a false fade out was created, and the intro and first verse edited on to the end. After all, it was only a B-side.
“Make Up Your Mind” got a few spins on local stations, but didn’t make much of a stir. WMPS jock Jack Grady had a writing interest in that song, so the Great 68 started flipping the disc over to play “Keep On Dancing.” This time, it clicked.
Now in the background of all this, the band placed high enough at the Mid-South Fair youth talent contest that they earned a spot on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, sort of the American’s Got Talent of the day. By the time of their third appearance, they were no longer amateurs. As with party rockers Sam The Sham before them, the Gentrys were signed to MGM records. Appearances on Hullabaloo, Shindig, American Bandstand and Where The Action Is gave them national exposure, and their flipped-over 45 became the number four single in the nation. They even parlayed that success into movie stardom, appearing in the beach movie, It’s A Bikini World.
Bassist Neal, then drummer Larry Wall and Bobby Fisher were the first to be abducted by real life, leaving the band for college. The reinforced Gentrys would place a few more songs on the chart in the mid-60’s, and a repopulated and revived band fronted by Jimmy Hart would have a few hits in the early 70’s on the Sun label. But none would better that out-of-the-box off-the-wall moment in 1965 when a bunch of Treadwell kids made it big.
Hart made waves with wrestling. Larry Raspberry and the High Steppers entertained loyal fans and both nurtured and launched other musician’s careers. And that band plays on.