Morells - Many happy returns
"I know what you're thinking -- 'Oh, it's those guys again,'" Morells guitarist Donnie Thompson says from the stage of the Duck Room in St. Louis during a gig back in September. And it may be true that, to many in attendance, the faces of Thompson, keyboardist Joe Terry, drummer Ron "Wrongo" Gremp, and bassist/quipster nonpareil Lou Whitney are eminently familiar. After all, the band members, in various groupings, have been known over the years as the Symptoms, the Skeletons (twice), the Morells, and Combo.com, and have also backed, on record and in performance, acts such as Steve Forbert, Jonathan Richman, Dave Alvin, and Syd Straw. But this is only their second gig as the reconfigured and reinvigorated Morells, a name they haven't gone by in more than 15 years. "I realize a lot of you women out there probably met your first husband at a Morells gig," Whitney adds. "So that guy you're out there with now is finally understanding, 'What's she wanna come see this bunch of guys for?'" Humility and self-deprecation may come naturally to the band from Springfield, Missouri, but so does practicality. That's why they've come together once again as the Morells, the rootsier cousin to the legendary pop bar band the Skeletons, which itself made a second run at notoriety during the '90s. "We're doing this for the same reason we ever did it," Thompson says. "You've gotta find some format to work in. There's no point in us, at our age, starting over. We might as well start with a trademark that is kind of familiar instead of confusing people." Of course, it's not like the Morells is exactly a household name, unless your home was affected by what Whitney calls "the great roots-rock scare of the 1980s." In that case, you probably know the group's classic, sadly out-of-print album Shake And Push, back to front. Released on their own label, Borrowed Records, in 1982 and reissued on CD by East Side Digital in 1990, Shake And Push found the band resurrecting long-forgotten gems such as "Ugly And Slouchy" by the Maddox Brothers & Rose and Joe Liggins' boppin' R&B number "Go Ahead". Indeed, one song, "King Of Love", was so obscure they couldn't even find out who wrote it. ("We tried!" say the liner notes. "Call East Side Digital for your money.") Mixed in with the cool cover tunes on Shake And Push were originals paying tribute to Red's, the finest Route 66 roadside diner in Springfield ("The only thing French on the menu is fried"), and yukking it up on "Gettin' In Shape", a song about the then-current health-club-as-singles-bar craze ("Here comes Betty/She's lookin' so sweaty/I wish that girl and I were going steady"). Whether they were surveying country music, R&B, rockabilly, or straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, the Morells' music was always completely faithful to its source material, even as the lyrics were delivered with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. That sense of fun and musical adventurousness is evident once again on the band's self-titled new album, which draws material from songwriters such as Springfield's own rockabilly hero Ronnie Self ("Hair Of The Dog", "Home In My Hand") and longtime band buddy Ben Vaughn ("Seven Days Without Love", "Gimme Gimme Gimme"). The Morells, in fact, were the first ever to cut a Vaughn song, placing "Man Who Has Everything" on Shake And Push. "He writes the kind of songs you don't hear anymore," says Whitney, gathered in late November with Thompson and Terry in the control room of the bassist's studio, called, matter-of-factly, The Studio, and situated on Springfield's town square. "If this election thing [still raging with recounts, lawsuits, and near-riots at the time of the interview] had happened in 1954 or '55, there'd be songs like 'Ooh papa doo, I got eaten by a chad,' or something like that. There'd be a bunch of songs about it. They don't do that anymore, but Ben does. He writes songs that sound like they've been around forever." As with Shake And Push, the most difficult thing about the new album wasn't digging up the songs, but rather figuring out who wrote what and who owns the rights. For "Rock Bottom", the jump blues that opens the disc, Whitney says, "I went to BMI and ASCAP to try and find it, and there were like 60 songs called 'Rock Bottom'. I went through there and just by using my power of deduction, I saw 'Modern Music Publishing' and I said, 'Now, that's the outfit that published a whole shitload of stuff that was on Specialty,' you know, 'cause I remember seeing that when I was a kid. And I said, 'I bet this could be it. So I called and talked to this guy, Joe Bihari, and sure enough, it was his song." While Whitney is frequently engaged in the business and production end of things, digging up the lion's share of band's unusual material often falls to Thompson, the group's resident music archaeologist. "There was a guy here in town who was an ex-DJ who had 10,000 singles in his basement, plus 5,000 LPs," Thompson recalls. "We used to go over to his house looking through everything. It was mostly non-hit stuff, below the Top 40. And I'd buy a lot of records, too. I'd hunt for that stuff." It takes a certain mindset to go digging for gold in a mountain of 10,000 records, but Thompson has always had what it takes to persist. "Even if you've been through 150, if you find one that's great, you get all excited," he says. Sometimes the songs are brought to him by the group's devoted corps of fans, though they're seldom sure where the material originated, when it was recorded, or who owns the rights. The song "Hot Rod Baby", a rockabilly rave-up culled from a fan's tape, sent the band on a particularly protracted search for the authors. It sounded to Thompson like "some really primitive record from the '50s. It turns out it was cut by an '80s band from Pittsburgh called Skinny Vincent. They did a great job of re-creating that raw sound." There are some new original tunes on the album as well, including a hilarious country-tinged monologue by Whitney, "Don't Let Your Baby Buy A Car", that follows the devolution of a relationship after a woman gets her wheels. "Lou used to have a big hat he'd put on to warn people we were going to do a country song, so they could go to the bathroom," Thompson says with a laugh. "Tell you what," Whitney admits, "I'd put that hat on, and off they'd go." Another original, Terry's "Mom's Got A Headache", deals with domestic issues of another sort, in this case a mom who's had enough out of her misbehaving child, but told from the child's point of view. "It's a kid's song, or rather it was gonna be a kid's song on a little record I was doing," Terry says. "I brought it in because we're not limited to doing anything in this band. We'll do anything, even a kid's song. As for writing it, I've got kids, and it's pretty much what you hear. That's how it is." The history of the Morells, now stretching across decades, seems almost ancient, but bears retelling even at this late date. It begins with Whitney, who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, but didn't gain much exposure to music until he visited his stepmother's family in east Tennessee. They taught him to play "Wildwood Flower" on the guitar, but his deeper interest in playing and singing came later, when he was a student at East Tennessee State University in the mid-'60s. There he played in band that backed up singers such as Arthur Conley ("Sweet Soul Music"). For a short time, he joined a version of the Swingin' Medallions, who had a hit (prior to Whitney's involvement) with "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)". The Medallions split into two bands, which both laid claim to the name, and Whitney joined the version that eventually morphed into the Pieces Of Eight. After college, he moved to Springfield to take a job selling real estate, but that didn't last long. He kept his interest in music all the while, though. "I played music for three reasons. I wanted to make money, sleep late, and meet girls," he says. Thompson and Terry simultaneously take the bait. "So it hasn't worked so well after all," they say. Whitney and Thompson met at a music store in 1972 and started playing the bar-band circuit in Southwestern Missouri. They did country tunes, Chuck Berry songs, and eventually, some original material and the sort of rock 'n' roll oddities that later became their specialty. "When I started playing music, the two scariest words in the English language were 'original song,'" Whitney says. "Like some band would say, 'We're gonna do a song that the bass player wrote now,' and people would be leaving for the doors immediately. Now if you don't do original material, you're looked on with disdain, but back then you would only play songs that would get you hired. Every band in town would do the same songs, and the ones that would do them the best got hired. So you'd gravitate toward guys that could play better. I noticed right away that Donnie, he's got that same sound that the records do. I figured we might find some work." Thompson occasionally manned the soundboard for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, then in their mid-'70s heyday, and played guitar for folk-rock duo Brewer & Shipley. In their spare time, Whitney and Thompson borrowed some equipment and recorded a few songs, one of which, a pounding version of the Ventures' "Driving Guitars", sold substantially as a single, particularly in England, and was written up in various publications. In 1977, the pair founded the Symptoms, a band that included future Morells drummer Ron Gremp and keyboardist Maralie (who goes by her first name only). The band recorded a dynamite version of "Double Shot", which charted in a few cities, as well as an excruciatingly hard-to-find LP, Don't Blame The Symptoms (only 500 copies were minted), that featured a thrash-and-burn version of "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound Of Music. Really. That band split, however, and the original version of the Skeletons followed, with Whitney, Thompson, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and former Daredevil Randle Chowning (later replaced by Nick Sibley) on keys. Other singles followed, including "Gas Money", recorded under the guise of Bobby Lloyd & the Windfall Prophets. During the gas crunch of the '70s, it was the song that asked the musical question, "Wouldn't it be neat/If we could run on surplus wheat?" The group sundered prematurely after Whitney, Thompson and Hicks were hired to back Steve Forbert, who at the time was enjoying his moment as the latest in a long string of "new Dylans." The cynical Whitney often clashed with his poetic-minded boss, who got the last word by drawing a rather cruel portrait of the bassist on the song "Laughter Lou (Who Needs You?)" on his album Little Stevie Orbit. "I don't care," Whitney cracked some years later. "After all, I haven't had a song written about me since 'You're So Vain'." The Morells made their bow at last in 1980, with Whitney, Thompson, Gremp, and Maralie on board. They became a regional hit, with regular gigs in Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Madison, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. Occasional forays into New York also went well, earning them favorable notices from The Village Voice and The New York Times. When the group released Shake And Push, it earned a four-star review in Rolling Stone. "I was with the Daredevils when the Morells' first record got reviewed in Rolling Stone," Terry recalls. "I was like, 'Wow, this is so cool.' And then Donnie came over one night and said, 'Wanna be in the Morells?' Man, I thought I'd hit the jackpot!" The group found themselves teetering on the precipice of a major-label record deal, but then fate dealt a crippling blow. An A&R executive at MCA invited the band in and made an offer to re-release Shake And Push. The parties agreed to the various figures involved, and the band walked out figuring it was a done deal. Two days later, the label's entire A&R staff was fired, and with them went the Morells' deal. "I'm not saying that's what got him fired..." deadpans Whitney. But the fact remained that, after that, the band couldn't take it to the next level. "We'd go around playing the same old places," he says. Frustrated, the band broke up. For a time, Whitney turned to full-time production work, and Thompson signed on to play with the Daredevils. Gremp also joined that band, and still plays with them today. Maralie, meanwhile, led her own band for a while, then retired from music. In 1987 the Skeletons re-formed, in name only, to release Rockin' Bones, a collection of singles from the late '70s. The next year brought a new album, In The Flesh! Both records were released on the Scottish Label Next Big Thing. When that label went belly-up, the Demon/Fiend label released both albums on one CD, turning the band into a cult favorite of sorts in the U.K. From there, East Side Digital released the U.S. version of the disc, collectively titled In The Flesh! The same label had also reissued the Morells' long-lost Shake And Push. Asked about the differences between the bands, which share three key members, Whitney quips, "You know, there's a lot of difference between a Taurus and a Sable..." but then he turns serious. "The Skeletons broke a shitload of ground in my book," he says. "I couldn't believe somebody like Keyboard magazine did not notice that we had a rock 'n' roll band with two keyboards, and five, six different keyboards, and sampled sound and everything back in that period of time, to augment a rock 'n' roll thing." "The Skeletons were a little bit more musically progressive than what we're doing now," Thompson adds. "But I don't think people want to see anybody our age doing anything progressive. We've tried to avoid saying it's roots music for so long, that now we probably should. After all, nobody over 40 has ever broken big into pop music." "Except Rockin' Sidney," says Whitney. "And those guys that did the Macarena. And hey, those guys that do 'Who Let the Dogs Out'." So there. The Skeletons released two new albums, Waiting in 1992 on Alias and Nothing To Lose in 1997 on HighTone. They also achieved perhaps their widest recognition by taking on gigs as the backing band for Dave Alvin, and later, Syd Straw. Hicks and Terry stayed on in Alvin's band (and are still with him to this day), which eventually brought the Skeletons era to a close the second time. Says Thompson: "The van died around then, too. When the van dies, the band dies." Whitney opened The Studio, which has played host to both regional and national bands, including the Bottle Rockets, Hadacol, Kelly Hunt, and the Domino Kings. "I don't really go out looking for producer jobs," he says. "It's like calling places looking for gigs. You have to kind of toot your own horn, and it's kinda hard to do that. The proof is in the pudding. It's a results-driven business. The results are, if you make a record with somebody, and somebody hears it and says, 'That knocks my hat in the creek, and I wanna record with that guy at that place.' That's where I get my stuff from." To fulfill an offer to become the house band at a Springfield watering hole, Whitney, Thompson, and Smarties drummer Kristi McInnis formed Combo.com, a short-lived group that ended when McInnis decided to move to California, even as the band was completing work on a now-finished but unreleased album. With the momentum from that recording project, Whitney and Thompson decided to call on Gremp and Terry -- working out the logistics between the Morells/Daredevils/Dave Alvin schedules can be torturous, but they managed -- and the Morells were once again in business. Talking privately with Whitney after the others have gone home, you get the sense this is a band that is back together again for precisely the right reasons --music and friendship. "You know, in my opinion, Donnie Thompson -- well, I know it for a fact -- he's one of the top five guitarists on planet Earth," Whitney says. "He doesn't make it a habit to show you what he can do every time he does something. I think what I like most about him as a musician and as a friend -- he's my best friend as well -- is that he can do so much. But he only does what's necessary to make a song happen. "Same with Joe and Wrongo. You get these guys involved in a groove or a feel, they just go right to the place it needs to go to. I bet I notice it more than most people notice it, because I work with so many bands. When you see somebody who has what it takes, you recognize it." We adjourn for the evening to go watch the news, to catch the latest on the election struggle, which that morning had erupted into near violence as a crowd of angry white men in shirts and ties managed to bully the Miami-Dade canvassing board into stopping their hand recount of votes for president. Whitney, whose hobby is politics -- he's perhaps rock 'n' roll's biggest C-SPAN junkie -- is visibly riled by the topic. "I'll tell you something, man, this wacky bunch -- these civil disobedient CPAs -- this pales when you compare it to anything of note. It really does." Suddenly the wiseguy is gone, and what Whitney says from there on out is simply wise. "Josea Williams, the civil rights activist, who stood at the side of Martin Luther King when he was assassinated, was buried in Atlanta yesterday. He was in Montgomery, he was in Selma, he was at the front of the civil rights movement. And you know, this thought came to me this morning, when I saw that rabble in there, yelling and screaming 'cheater' and 'ballot thief.' I thought of pictures I have in my memory, of the people -- a woman being carried out, arms and legs, from the lunch counter at Woolworth's in Montgomery, Alabama, because she dared to sit at the counter where white people only sat. And see the young college students that dared to ride a bus and were stopped in South Carolina and were pulled off the bus and had their head banged on the steps of the bus. When I think of that, and then I think of that rabble, that bunch of fucking CPAs all upset because their guy's not gonna be elected prom king -- my first thought is this: Give me a goddamn break." Of course, don't look for that kind of deep thought to ever wind its way into a Morells song. Whitney knows better than to try and turn a fun and funny rock 'n' roll show into edutainment. "I used to think you could do that," he says. "But now I'm of the school that if you've got something really important to say, buy some time on a cable access channel. Get a real tight close-up on your face, speak very clearly, and don't pay someone to play drums while you're talking, you know? This is entertainment. If you can slip something in that's thought-provoking, fine, but the minute you start thinking about all that, you're off on another tangent. In the music business today, there's plenty of seriousness. There's not very much entertainment. We're here to do what we can about that." Daniel Durchholz is a charter member of the Morell Majority.