Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dodge City and R&R History

If you passed through Dodge City, Kansas any time in the last 30 years, you wouldn't think the place spawned anything more interesting than ammonia, methane, and rednecks. It's a pretty dismal place in the 21st Century and has been that since the early 1970's. However, it wasn't always a dying town in the middle of the Great American Desert.

In the 1960's, Dodge City was home to Dodge Music, owned by the same people who ran Hays Music from Hays, Kansas. At one time, during the mid-60's, Fort Hays State University was the Playboy "Party School of the Year," two years running. The place was jammed with musicians and bands and some of that spilled over to the Dodge city store. Dodge Music was the first place I ever saw Gibson, Fender, Ovation, Gretch, Guild, and Martin guitars hanging on the same wall. A few years later, I was in Hays and saw about five times that many guitars on a wall, but I was a jaded Kansas Rock and Roll'er by then.

The garage in the middle of the building was the spot where the stage for the Dodge Music Battle of the Band would sit. At the end of every year's weekend "battle," the bands would select the members of an "All Star Band" made up of the folks the bands thought were the best players at each instrument: drums, bass, guitar, keys, horn/reed, and vocal. I was once on that stage and it put me in contact with two of the guys who would become the short-lived, but excellent Living Stereo Quintet.

I was reminded of all this when I stumbled on a few pictures I'd taken in my home town more than a decade ago. The Dodge Music building had been abandoned for years at that time. I don't know if it's standing today. Not much about Dodge City is musical, in any form, these days. Like most of Kansas, the place has fallen on hard, pseudo-conservative times and if anything creative dared to rear its head in the place, it would be cut off in moments. There is a reason that the Midwest has suffered a brain and population-drain in the last 100 years and will continue to do so until the state's IQ is so low that the residents forget how to feed themselves.

Not far from that music store's location was a place most locals barely knew existed, Evans Drums. In fact, Evans was at the other end of the same block, if I remember right.According to the current Evans Drumheads website, in 1956 Marion "Chick" Evans was the man (maybe the first) who fitted Mylar film to a snare drum; later to the whole drum kit. Not being a drummer, I don't know nearly enough about the history of this man and his business. His company was successful and active all through my years in Dodge, but I missed it. Evans sold the company to Bob Beals, when the inventor retired. Beals sold the company to  D'Addario and Co. in 1995 and that company moved production to Farmingdale, NY. I don't blame them.

The dreaded front entrance to Century 
Recording Studio. Some musicians claimed
the climb to the studio was "at least three stories"
of hellish stairs. It wasn't, but it was a climb with
a B3 to tote. I dreaded this entrance because I
was tossed out this door too often to count.
Another famous (to audio professionals) ex-Dodge City musical figure is Larry Blakely. Larry owned, managed, and engineered Century Recording Studio in downtown Dodge. Century Recording was the only game in town and, practically, in the state for the years Larry ran the studio. The place cranked out a boatload of regional and a few national hits and most of the bands in the area (and the area included Oklahoma City to St. Louis to Omaha to Denver) wanted to record with Larry. In my usual clueless fashion, I never knew why Larry left town, but I suspect I do now. It just seemed to me that one minute Century was the place to be, the next it was gone. In fact, I think that's exactly what happened.

Larry tossed me out of his building too many times to recall, when I was a wannabe musician/engineering kid between the ages of 14 and 16. I tried hiding in every stairway and cranny and behind every large piece of equipment in the studio, the nights when bands played gigs in the performance area the day before their recording sessions with Century. I thought I was clever, Larry thought I was an idiot. He was right.

Not long after his personal catastrophic moment in Dodge, he moved to LA and became a big time engineer. In 1983, we ran into each other while suffering Xmas in Dodge, struck up an adult friendship, and a few months later he got me a job with QSC Audio Products. Larry didn't do much for my recording or musical career, but he was key to my engineering career and I owe him a lot.

The building that used to house the
worst bar in Kansas, 
the Hillcrest Inn
(or Hillcrest Tavern, 
depending on the
The last "famous" place I took pictures of was the decaying hulk of the old Hillcrest Tavern on the northeast end of Dodge. This place was "famous" only in that it was infamously the meanest bar I ever set foot in. A night that didn't end with a riot at the Hillcrest was a night the place wasn't open for business. Dodge City high school kids and St. Mary of the Plains College boys (mostly guys from the East who thought they were tough) went to the Hillcrest to burn off testosterone and donate blood to the sawdust covered floor. Good times.

I got the nickname "Panda" from my days at the Hillcrest. A friend, Mike Morlan, and I used to find a wall to prop ourselves against, get a couple of fists full of beer, lean our bar stools against the wall, and watch and wait. Sometimes, we'd make it through the night without a scratch. Sometimes, we'd be in the middle of whatever riot was going on. Either way, we were doing what we could to get back to our wall and back to drinking beer and watching the morons beat each other to death. Someone said, "You guys are like a pair of bears, hiding in a cave ready to tear a new asshole into whoever comes into your lair." I became "Panda." I don't know why. Mike was "Grizzly." He earned that name. Mike died in 1996, after a rough career as a lawyer and dubious career as an investment adviser.

If the Blues Brothers had played the
Hillcrest, they'd have had their asses
handed to them.  Chicago wimps. 
The Hillcrest actually paid bands pretty well and in later years put up a screen between the band and the crowd. I think it was to protect one from the other. The world got a look at that environment in the cowboy bar scene in the first Blues Brothers. The drummer for the band Ten O'Clock News got the job because he could snap a drum stick with a rim shot and throw the busted stick like a knife through the screen and into anyone who threatened to claw through the chicken wire. Several of my fondest musical moments in Dodge are tied to some jackass drunk howling in pain as he stumbled away from the Hillcrest stage with a gory wound and a drum stick poking out of his body.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.