When The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, teens across the country raced to local music shops, picked out guitars and hastily learned chords as their crewcuts grew into mop tops. High-school garage bands popped up across the map — all looking to recreate the energy of the burgeoning British Invasion.
West Michigan was no exception. While the scene’s genesis, life and demise is quite similar to other cities, one distinguishing characteristic is where these local bands recorded: Great Lakes Studios in Sparta — home of Fenton Records, the now iconic garage-rock vanity label. Bands from all over West Michigan, Lansing and beyond traveled to Sparta to record. From there, the studio’s owner, Dave Kalmbach, would not only produce the audio, but then send the recordings off to be pressed onto 45s, often stamped with his Fenton Records label.
Located in an airy movie theater with soaring ceilings, Fenton’s unique space created a genuine, natural reverb that current hipster bands attempt to recreate with computers and pedals. But 50 years ago, all local bands had to do was show up with a decent tune and plug in. From there, Kalmbach’s studio helped create the magic.
“I loved that place,” recalled local radio personality Aris Hampers, who fronted his own ’60s garage band, The Soulbenders. “It was a big old theater that played scratchy, old films during the day and then rocked with garage music immersed in cigarette smoke at night. It was a place with a ton of natural reverb — guitar notes, drum crashes and organ riffs would reverberate around that huge room.”
And that signature sound fetches a lot of dough on eBay these days. Some of the teen bands’ Fenton 45s sell for $20, others for $200 to $500, all the way up to $1,200 — depending primarily on the band. Vinyl-record collectors don’t shell out big bucks like that for mediocre tunes. It’s proof that something special happened in Sparta throughout the mid-1960s. Some incredibly talented bands crossed paths with Kalmbach and together they sonically documented a slice of Michigan’s finest, rawest teenage rock ‘n’ roll.
While those youthful, primitive bands died off with the advent of progressive and hard rock, and Fenton fizzled out before the onset of the 1970s, today the label is seeing a surprising resurgence. Last year, the Fenton brand was relaunched in Sparta and has now re-opened as a space for locals to learn how to play and produce music. Organizer Gregory Peak calls this venture a “Cultural Community Center” that’s focused not only on music, but a wide array of art forms. More information can be found at fentonrecords.com.
And while Kalmbach is not around to witness this unexpected rebirth, his vision lives on in the new Fenton mission, as well as the records he and the bands left behind — the songs music-obsessed freaks refuse to forget.
In celebration of the re-launch of the Fenton name, here’s a brief history of a select batch of West Michigan ’60s teen bands, all of whom passed through the hallowed doors of Great Lakes Studios in the mid-sixties — and are now actually in their mid-sixties. But thanks to the records, they’ll be forever young in the eyes of their fans.
The Barons (Grand Rapids)
The Barons, one of the first teen-garage bands to form in Grand Rapids, got together in 1963 and played its first gig that Halloween — a string of shows followed. Soon, there was no shortage of venues to play in West Michigan. Along with the burst of British-obsessed garage bands came a surge of newly-opened, all-ages teen-clubs willing to host these well-attended, dance-friendly concerts. Prior to this, all of the local music venues were 21-and-over. And when The Barons was not honing its live set, which — like all teen bands from this era — consisted mainly of hot Top 40 covers, the band was working on original tunes, which would be peppered into each live show. With its early formation, the group’s “Try a Love With Me” b/w (backed with) “Don’t Come Back Here No More” single boasts a chirpier, pre-Beatles-teenybopper sound. The 1965 record was released on Jafes Records, a Fenton offshoot-imprint named after the band’s manager, Jim “Jafes” Kent. The Barons, which recorded in Kent’s home studio, comprised guitarists Dick Steimle, Dave Rutkowski, Bill McNamara (bass) and drummer Steve Carpenter, aka “Mandrill Fern.” A high point for the band was opening a show for the legendary Chubby Checker. After the guys parted ways, Steimle went on to play in The SoulBenders while Rutkowski joined up with The Pedestrians in 1967.
The Renegades (Grand Rapids)
Another Grand Rapids band with a pre-Beatlemania start date is The Renegades — aka The Renegades IV and Renegades V. The group formed in 1963 and released its debut Fenton Records single in 1964: “Greensleeves” b/w “Autumn Night,” both instrumentals. The following year the band decided to add some vocals to the mix after taking some cues from local rock heroes The Kingtones. From there, the East High-based band released another single, this time on Dubonay Records — a Fenton offshoot. The A-side is a fiery take on “Wine, Wine, Wine,” a Nightcaps cover. The single is steeped in the energy of late-’50s rock and topped off with dubbed-in crowd screams. One last single appeared in 1966, “She’s Your Find” b/w “Raving Blue” via Cambridge Records. This obscure garage-rock gem is the band’s most polished work on record. Vocalist Scott Vanderleest and guitarist Fitz Green collaborated on “She’s Your Find” and crafted a passionate pop hook. It’s a fine example of how a potent chorus can get stuck in your head for days. The track, of course, also included bassist Craig Menees, Dave Heth(keys) and drummer Rick Idema. Another incarnation included Brian Bracken on keys. While all of The Renegades’ singles made local charts (WERX and WLAV), the band parted ways soon after its swansong effort, “She’s Your Find,” faded from the airwaves.
The SoulBenders (Grand Rapids)
Led by frontman and keyboardist Aris Hampers, The SoulBenders formed in 1967 and churned out a matchless cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” and a blistering take on Love’s “7 and 7 Is” that same year. Released on the Phantasm and Mala Records labels, “Hey Joe” was No. 1 on WLAV’s charts for six weeks and helped the band sell 3,000 copies in around three weeks’ time. Aside from dominating charts, The SoulBenders opened a big show for The Blue Magoos and were also notorious for winning a bulk of the Battle of the Bands events. But it wasn’t just covers that helped them gain local notoriety. While at the Great Lakes Recording Studio, the band also put originals down on tape — including poppy tracks like “Petals” and “I Can’t Believe in Love.” In the years following the band’s break up, Hampers fronted his band Phlegethon, which opened shows for The Stooges, MC5 and The Byrds, among others. At the onset of the 1970s, he also became a beloved local disc jockey and spent the following decades spinning tracks on both WLAV-FM and WBFX-FM.
The Pedestrians (Grand Rapids)
After forming in the spring of 1966, The Pedestrians quickly became a fixture at local teen clubs like The Place and Beach Bash in Grand Haven — sharing stages with the likes of the Lansing-based, Motown-signed Danny Hernandez & The Ones. The Pedestrians was also a regular at local high schools, gigging at Catholic Central and Union High School dances. The group included Tony Cooper (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), Jay Kilpatrick (drums), Kim Weighous (lead guitar/vocals) and bassist Bill DeYoung. The band’s single “Think Twice” was a No.1 local smash in 1966 and even topped radio charts in parts of Florida and Alabama. Following the widespread buzz, the group road-tripped down south for shows and a television appearance. A visit to New York saw them performing on the Lloyd Thaxton Show, an appearance in support of a never-to-be released LP. After a deal with Atco Records went sour, the band fell apart and was totally dismantled by the end of the 1960s.
The JuJus (Grand Rapids)
The JuJus formed at Godwin High School after the members met up in the school’s jazz band. While its first gig was a Beatles cover set at a school assembly, the group would go on to record some stone-cold garage-rock classics — in their own folk-rock and British Invasion-influenced way. The original JuJus lineup was comprised of saxophonist Max Colley Jr., Bill Gorski (drummer) and lead guitarist Rod Shepard. After adding vocalist Ray Hummel III, the group headed to Sparta and cut one of its most sought after 45s, 1965’s “You Treat Me Bad,” on the Fenton Records imprint. The single was backed by the tremendously poppy “Hey, Little Girl.” Locally, “You Treat Me Bad” reached No. 2 on the October ’65 charts and earned the band a performance on WOOD TV’s American Bandstand-style show, McKay’s Place — hosted by the late Dick McKay. After the band had some turnover. In 1966 Ron Burke stepped in on vocals and the band released its primitive masterpiece, “Do You Understand Me.” Over the years, The JuJus’ tunes have appeared on countless CD and vinyl compilations, even landing spots on the legendary Back From the Grave and Pebbles collections.
The Legends (Holland)
The sea of reverberated “ooh, ooh, oooh, oooohs!” paired with the relentless pulsation of a Farfisa organ on The Legends’ “I’ll Come Again” is textbook ’60s Garage Rock 101. Perhaps that’s why the 1967 Fenton single, backed with the soft ballad “I’m Just a Guy,” is considered one of the label’s classic releases. This lone release from the band was actually recorded in 1966, but a delayed release pushed it into the next year — right as the outfit was disbanding. Still, they had a good run. The band, which formed in 1964 at Holland High, consisted of Ray Vasquez (keys/vocals), Scott Hamberg (guitar), Andy Fierro (bass) and drummer John Bertalan. The group played local clubs like the Thunderbird Lounge in Muskegon, Noah’s Ark in Saugatuck, and The Edgar Allan Poe Club in Holland (fun fact: The Edgar Allan Poe Club was previously a funeral parlor). The Legends also backed Ray Hummel III of The JuJus on his 1967 solo outing, the “Fine Day” b/w “Gentle Rain” single on Fenton. The Legends emerged from its breakup in the early 1970s as a six-man group called The Black Sparrow, but it fizzled out into obscurity.
The Quests (East Grand Rapids)
The Quests’ “Shadow’s In the Night” is stacked with some mean fuzz guitar, sure, but it’s also dynamically complemented with soaring, Brian Wilson-inspired vocals. The flipside of the Fenton single is the frantic and galloping track, “I’m Tempted” — making it one of the best-rounded singles on the label. The band’s first 7-inch, 1966’s “Scream Loud,” hit No. 2 on WGRD and later became the title track of the impressive 2007 Fenton Records boxset, a three-LP collection called Scream Loud!!!: The Fenton Story. After the band split, guitarist Bob Fritzen and keyboardist Ron Sieracki formed another band, The Sound Investment. In 2007, the band issued a CD of their songs, ReQUESTed: Back to the Garage. The disc includes the singles and some previously unreleased tunes.
The Jades (Sparta)
Luckily, after forming in 1964, The Jades didn’t have to travel too far to get to Sparta’s Great Lakes Recording Studio. The band formed at Sparta High School and cut two 45s on the Fenton label: “Confined Congregation” b/w “Please Come Back” in 1966 and 1967’s “Surface World” b/w “We Got Something Going.” The pop-fueled group included guitarists Rich Seigel and Phil Succop, Craig Clarke (bass), Floyd Johnson (keys) and drummers Don Preston, Bill Alexander and Roy Johnson. The band gigged across West Michigan, performing at high school post-games, Friday-night dances and countless teen clubs, including one massive battle-of-the-bands show at The Place (632 Plymouth Ave. N.E., Grand Rapids). The Jades also performed three nights a week, during the summers, at a club in Hess Lake before disbanding in 1968. As usual with teen bands, it was that pesky high-school graduation that dissolved the group. Last year, the band reunited for a fan Q&A in their hometown of Sparta.
The Mussies (South Haven)
The climatic swagger of The Mussies’ “Louie Go Home,” an amped-up Paul Revere & the Raiders cover, is a prime example of garage-rock flawlessness. The 1967 Fenton single, backed with the unruly psych-tinged instrumental “12 O’clock, July,” was recorded at Chicago’s Chess Studios and featured Greg Erikson (vocals/bass), Paul Nabb (lead guitar), Tom Mann (rhythm guitar/vocals), Brady Rusin (keys) and drummer Bill Johnson. Some of the band’s high points included opening big shows for The Buckinghams and Shadows of Knight. After the draft broke up The Mussies, some of the band went on to form The Smoke, releasing one self-issued single, 1968’s “Half Past the End.”
The Black Watch (Cedar Springs)
The small town of Cedar Springs produced one of the softest teenage-love ballads to come out of the West Michigan scene: “I Wish I Had the Nerve” by The Black Watch. Paired with a more upbeat A-side, “Left Behind,” the Fenton Records band — like many from this era — only stuck around for one single and then vanished into adulthood. The group, originally known as The Nomads, comprised bassist Bob Rayce, Jon Grannis (lead guitar/ vocals), Glenn Stout (rhythm guitar/vocals), Brad Bassett (drums) and keyboardist Bill Shaw.
The Chentelles (Fennville)
The first rock ‘n’ roll band to ever form out of Fennville High School, The Chentelles recorded one lone Fenton single, 1967’s punky party-starter: “Be My Queen.” This highly collectible slab of local wax (only 400 pressed) has fetched in the neighborhood of $1,200 on eBay. The band included William Dalton (keys/vocals), Dennis Smiertka (accordion/vocals), Bruce Smiertka (guitar), John Willerton (guitar), Mark Adams (bass) and drummer Gary Adkins. The original Chentelles drummer Barb Overhiser — a rare female Fenton-band member — left early on, and didn’t play on the record. In its heyday, the group gigged at West Michigan teen clubs like The Warehouse, Noah’s Ark, The Morgue, and Holland’s Edgar Allan Poe teen-dance club. After the band dissolved, a couple of the Chentelles members formed The Embryonic Marshmallow, a band fronted by Pam Busscher.
The Sheffields (Holland)
“Nothing I Can Do,” released in May 1965, is one of a string of West Michigan jangly melodic-garage nuggets penned by The Sheffields’ guitarist John Dunn. The band also consisted of bassist Dale Knoll, Ron Gibson (lead guitar), Rodney Mullett (drums) and lead singer Gary Teall. The Sheffields also recorded three other singles on both Fenton and Destination Records, including “My Lovin’ Days Are Through” (November 1965), “Do You Still Love Me” (May 1966), and the band’s final stab at a hit, “Fool Minus A Heart,” arriving in March 1967. In its prime, the band packed out popular local venues like the Holland Armory and The Factory. In 1986, about 20 years after the band’s breakup, they played a well-attended reunion gig at The Holland Civic Center — and haven’t played since.
The New Era (Holland)
Holland’s own The New Era recorded the obscure jangle-pop gem “We Ain’t Got Time” in 1967 while the band was still in tenth grade. This lone single, released on Great Lakes Records (a Fenton subsidiary), featured the equally enchanting flipside “Won’t You Please Be My Friend,” a mellow Rickenbacker-driven, Byrds-esque tune. The band, which was known for its stupendous live cover of “Light My Fire,” comprised Dana Dunn (drums, vocal), John Williamson (lead guitar, vocal), Jay Bertalan (rhythm guitar, vocal) and bassist Steve Kunkel. Later, keyboardist Jeff Brown joined the group. Both sides of The New Era’s majestic folk-garage 45 was written by Dunn’s brother, John Dunn — of the fellow Holland-based band The Sheffields.
The Aardvarks (Muskegon)
From the ashes of The Hitchhikers came another Muskegon-based band, The Aardvarks. The band was formed in late 1964 by lead vocalist/bassist Darryl Dingler and drummer Garey Walker and soon included John Carter (lead guitar) and guitarist Rick Spratt. The group’s sought-after psych-garage single “I’m Higher Than I’m Down,” released in May 1966 on the band’s Vark Records imprint, was recorded at the Great Lakes Recording Studio and features a peculiar bell ringing throughout the trippy tune. When the band wasn’t performing at local teen venues, like Muskegon’s Club Safari and the Thunderbird Lounge, they were back in Sparta recording tracks, including the “I Don’t Believe” b/w “I Don’t Need You” single, released in September 1966 on the Fenton label. In 1967, while on tour, the band performed on the national television show Swingin’ Time, sharing airtime and a dressing room with The Grateful Dead. In 1968, The Aardvarks called it quits after the Army and college called on its members.
The 9th Street Market (Muskegon)
The 9th Street Market’s 1967 A-side “You’re Gone” was penned by fellow West Michigan garage-band fixture Dennis Dingler of The Aardvarks. The spacey-surf guitar line, opposite a cranked-up Farfisa organ, echoed The Marketts’ “Out of Limits” — and other surf-tinged mid-sixties tunes. “I’m a Baby,” the A-side of this Fenton record, is a moody-outsider anthem written by band members Erv Wagner and Rick Rademacher.
Peter & the Prophets (Grand Rapids)
In April 1966, Peter & the Prophets’ polished-pop treasure “Don’t Need Your Lovin’” (b/w “Johnny of Dreams”) started scoring airplay on WLAV and soon reached No. 17 on WGRD. It also landed them a lip-synching spot on McKay’s Place. The East Grand Rapids-based high school band, which formed in 1965, included Pete Samuelson and John Kay on guitar and vocals, Mike Boylan playing lead guitar, Jeff Boylan on bass and Dan Kimball on drums. After the band called it quits, Kay and Samuelson joined another garage-pop group called The Everyday Things and cut one private-press single on its Briton label.
The Pentagons (Muskegon)
This long-lost band has the arguable title of being the first band to form in Muskegon after its 1960 genesis. The Pentagon’s single “Try and Find” was recorded at Great Lakes Studio and then released in August 1966. The menacingly-paced track featured an obnoxiously cranked saxophone alongside periodic stabs of reverb-laced guitar blasts, adding a bit of ’50s-rock grit to a ’60s garage stomper. The B-side, “Before I Go,” shows the band’s ability to dial it back and deliver a mid-tempo love song — with no shortage of saxophone, of course.
The Chevrons (Grand Rapids)
In 1965, The Chevrons — originally known as The Chevrons V — formed at East Christian High in Grand Rapids and was made up of Bob Goote (keyboards/lead vocals), Pat Strong (lead guitar), Bob Vandenberg (guitar/vocals), Steve Vanderark (bass/vocals) and drummer Jerry Vanderwal. Its first single, “I Lost You Today” b/w “Niat Pac Lavram,” was released in 1966 on Nook Records. (Note: The revved-up B-side is “Captain Marvel” spelled in reverse). For a follow up, the band dropped the “V” from its name and headed to Great Lakes Recording Studio to record another 45. In early 1966, the Goote-penned tunes were released as a Fenton single: “Hey Little Teaser” b/w “What Everybody Wants.” The gleeful A-side climbed to No. 5 on local radio charts. A year later the group disbanded after their high school graduation. Goote then formed a new band, Counts of Coventry, and recorded “Somewhere (Someone Is Waiting),” another lost local hit on 4 Count Records.
The Poor Boys Pride (Grand Haven)
Formed in 1966, The Poor Boys Pride were on their way up after landing a booking and promotion company. But, like all of these bands — it didn’t last long. The group consisted of Rick Clark (drums/vocals), Jim Crowell (guitar/vocals), Ken Saum (guitar/vocal), Floyd Walker (bass/vocal) and Lowell Webster (keys/horn/vocal). The Poor Boys Pride released its 1967 single, “Fall of a Town” b/w “The Place,” on their own Swade imprint. The B-side was, of course, a tribute to The Place, the notable local teen club. When the band was preparing for a three-week tour, two of its members were drafted into the Vietnam War. The band’s 1968 single “I’m Here” (backed with the Bo Diddley-beat-driven “But Yes Who Cares”) was one of the last Fenton Records singles to be pressed. In 2013, the band released a CD retrospective compiling its singles and previously unreleased tracks.