Making music and magic

I was walking through the Petrova school courtyard, lost in thought. That’s nothing new, since I’m always lost in thought when I’m near Petrova. And why wouldn’t I be, since I spent 12 years of my life there?

I checked the school clock – it was running way behind. I understood the feeling perfectly.

Suddenly, something shiny on the ground caught my attention. I looked and couldn’t believe it – it was a quarter. I snagged it immediately.

A quarter left lying around in the Petrova schoolyard? Holy moly, if I’d ever found a quarter when I was in grade school, it would’ve been like winning the Powerball!

What could I have gotten for a quarter back then? A better question is what COULDN’T I have gotten?

How’s this? Twenty-five atomic fireballs, or licorice sticks or root beer barrels. An Archie comic, a Coke and a Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy. A root beer float in the Altamont dairy bar. Twenty-five cents in my grubby little meat hooks back in The Glory Days, and the sky was the limit.

Though two bits would’ve been a windfall in my single-digit years, in high school it still would’ve been a hefty chunk of change. Why, in the summer after my senior year it would’ve gotten me into the Wonderland held each Monday night at the K of C hall – dances with the Persuaders.

If you don’t know who the Persuaders were, you obviously were not a teen in My Home Town in 1963-64. And if that’s the case, more’s the pity.

What’s What

Before I get into the 1964 Who’s Who of Rock-n-Roll of Saranac Lake, I need to get into its What’s What.

Back then, if you wanted a dance, there were only two ways to have the music: a jukebox or a band. Jukeboxes were cheaper, but when it came to having music at dances, The Law of Supply and Demand was our best friend: There were so many area bands that they were all eminently affordable, if not downright cheap.

First-rate bands, who were always in demand, charged a lordly $125 for a four-hour gig. The second- and third-tier bands charged much less and they were always in demand, too. Given the number of schools, fraternal organizations, restaurants, roadhouses, gin mills and sundry buckets of blood, any band could, and did, work all the time.

Being a word lover, I always liked the bands’ names. Today, many of the bands’ names are more interesting and complex than their songs. But not so in The Good Ole Days. Uh-uh, those bands’ names were simple, straightforward and a bit macho, much like the musicians themselves. The names fell into three categories.

Given the time’s proximity to WWII, and the fact that the Car was King, a lot of the names were military or automotive. In the first category there were Raiders, Liberators, Rangers, Hellcats, Cruisers, Destroyers and so on.

Among the second group were Impalas, Continentals, El Dorados, Fairlanes, Jaguars and, of course, Sevilles.

The third category was pretty much manly labels of indeterminate origins.

They included Invaders, Invictas, Intruders, Blasters, Boomers and Banshees, Rebels and Rogues, Flames and Freewheelers. I don’t know how the Persuaders picked their name, but at some point I will.

When the speakers blared pure joy

And now for the Who’s Who, namely the Persuaders.

There’s no doubt they were the best Saranac Lake band, but they were also as good as the best regional bands. Their only real competitors were Plattsburgh and Malone’s favorite sons: the Thunderbolts and the Falcons, respectively. The Persuaders once lost a battle of the bands to the Falcons, but they got beat due to style, not substance: The Persuaders wore their understated gray mod outfits. The Falcons blazed the joint in gold suits. Our boys, God love ’em, never stood a chance.

The band consisted of Doug Kenny, lead guitar; Brian Patnode, rhythm guitar; John Kains, bass guitar; Terry Tyler on drums; and Al Sutphen on saxophone. As for vocals? They all sang leads, but Al took that role most of the time, which was a shame of sorts since he was a wonderful saxophonist.

According to Al, the Beatles were the best thing that happened to the Persuaders. The Beatles hit our shores in February 1964 and, of course, took the U.S. by storm. But before the Beatles, the rock scene was dominated by the girl groups – the Chiffons, Shirelles, Ronettes, Marvelettes, Crystals, et al – and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the negative effect that had on a bunch of guys banging on git-fiddles and drums.

But the Beatles led the pack, and the Persuaders did a great job of following. Their repertoire was almost exclusively covers, including lots of early Beatles’. They did other stuff as well, and my favorites were “The House of the Rising Sun” and “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” of which I thought they did brilliant versions. Traditionally, they closed each dance with the Santo and Johnny classic, “Sleepwalk.”

I remember they cut a .45, on which was an original instrumental, “Cry of Atlantis” (featuring Al on sax). It was produced by Rondack records, was on green vinyl disc and is a collector’s item today, selling for upwards of $200 – if you can even find a copy. My copy is long lost, which, given my organization skills, is hardly surprising. What you might find surprising is, even though I had the record, I never had a phonograph. That, friend, is what devotion is all about.

The Persuaders worked seven nights a week. In addition to Mondays at the K of C, they played at Freddy’s in Lake Placid, and they were the house band at Brody’s in Plattsburgh, which was the North Country’s equivalent of The Peppermint Lounge or The Whiskey A Go-Go. Their fee was $125 for a four-hour set, but for the K of C gigs, they took the admission fee.

All said, the K of C was their favorite gig. First, it was only three hours. Second, they didn’t have to breathe a roomful of secondhand smoke the whole time. And third, believe it or not, that’s where they made the most money. This should give you an idea of how many kids turned up if, at two bits a pop, this was their biggest take.

As for money, catch this: Brian was the youngest of the group, at 16 or 17. John Kains was an old man – in his mid-to-late twenties; the others were early 20s, at most. So ultimately, all of them were kids but each of them was making $125 a week. But here’s the kicker: Each of them was also taking home more than his father.

Toward the end of that summer, Al Sutphen went in the Navy. Two weeks later, coming back from a Brody’s gig, Terry Tyler died in a car wreck. And suddenly the Persuaders were no more.

But though the Persuaders are gone, memories of them and that magic summer still roll over me, bringing with them a joy, laughter and a medley of old-time rock and roll straight to my heart.