On August 1st, 1970 something big was about to happen in the Illinois Valley. At least that is what the organizers of a Canned Heat concert were hoping to convince you of. They promoted the concert as a "gigantic music festival."
Canned Heat was billed as "Stars of Woodstock & Kickapoo Creek Rock Festivals" and several ads included a picture of the traffic jam along the road to Woodstock while mentioning "10 acres of free parking" would be available. These ads, which ran in newspapers across northern and central Illinois, made it seem as though this would be an outdoor festival similar in size and scope to those earlier events.
In truth, the "festival" was just an evening concert being held inside a former roller rink called The Back Door (previously known as Skaters Junction) which was located on Rt.6 at the west end of Peru, Illinois. In addition to Canned Heat, there were just two local bands on the bill: The Rain and 927 Ya Ha Band.
Surprisingly, the location (now Steinberg's Furniture) had hosted a couple of big name concerts just a few years earlier. In April of 1966, when it was still Skater's Junction and under different ownership, the venue hosted Dick Clark's all star show, Where The Action Is. On the bill was Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Paul Revere and the Raiders and several other acts.
Perhaps an even bigger performance came less than two months later when the Dave Clark Five gave two performances there on June 19th (3:00 & 7:30).
The English group, which sold over 100 million records and has since been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had performed on the Ed Sullivan Show just a week before their stop in Peru.
How exactly they ended up at Skater's Junction is somewhat of a mystery. The concert was promoted by a Peoria radio station (over an hour away) and featured three opening groups from the Peoria area: The Friars, The Shillings and The Coachmen (who replaced The Inn Group).
Whatever the reason, Skater's Junction almost certainly had to be one of the smallest venues that the Dave Clark Five would perform at on any of their American tours in the mid-1960s. Despite that fact, it has been reported that the concert was not well attended. If true, that should have been a warning to the organizers of the Canned Heat concert a few years later.
The promotional campaign to cast the Canned Heat concert as a "gigantic rock festival" may not have fooled any concertgoers but it was enough to put fear in the minds of city officials and some residents living on the west end of Peru. In the weeks before the concert there were several attempts to block the event.
It didn't help the that the local papers had recently reported on the drug-use and perceived lawlessness of the Kickapoo Creek rock festival which had occurred just a few months earlier in central Illinois. One Illinois legislator referred to that event as "a muddy and obscene haven for dope-users and flower children."
Peru citizens expressed fear that their town would be overrun by a similar crowd. Nearby taverns and local businesses such as the Igloo Drive-In (still in business) said they would close as a precaution.
The situation took a turn for the worse when alderman William Roth referred to potential attendees as "rumdums" in a city council meeting.
That set off a series of angry letters published in the open forum column of the local newspaper, The News Tribune:
In the end, the concert could not be stopped. It was on private property outside the city limits.
Fate had other plans however. Just days before the concert, the organizers received a telegram from Canned Heat's management informing them that the group would have to cancel. The telegram, which would be published in the News Tribune, read:
THIS SHALL ACT AS OFFICIAL NOTIFICATION OF CANCELLATION OF THE CANNED HEAT ENGAGEMENT TO BE PLAYED THE WEEKEND OF JULY 31 - AUG 2. ALAN WILSON SINGER-GUITAR PLAYER OF THE GROUP HAS BEEN HOSPITALIZED FOR THE PAST TWO WEEKS FOLLOWING A SERIOUS AUTO ACCIDENT. HE IS STILL UNABLE TO LEAVE THE HOSPITAL AND IS UNABLE TO PERFORM ANY ENGAGEMENT UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE FROM HIS DOCTOR. A LETTER FROM HIS DOCTOR AND CANNED HEAT INC IS FORTHCOMING TO YOU. WE ARE EXTREMELY SORRY THAT WE MUST CANCEL THIS ENGAGEMENT CORDIALLY = SKIP TAYLOR, PRESIDENT CANNED HEAT INC
Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson's auto accident was believed to be a suicide attempt. Sadly, he would die just over a month later (September 3, 1970) from what was ruled an accidental overdose.
Music Festival Still Goes On!
The concert promoters were able to salvage the event by quickly booking Poco, which featured Richard Furay and Jim Messina of Buffalo Springfield, as a replacement. An additional band, the One-Eyed Jacks from Champaign-Urbana, was also added to the bill.
Without Canned Heat however, the concert had little chance of living up to the hype. Advanced ticket sales were already below expectations before Canned Heat had cancelled and their departure from the bill all but guaranteed a low turn out.
Still, rumors circulated that thousands of advanced tickets had been sold and that hordes of hippies were camped out west of Peru.
Come the night of the concert, several neighboring towns sent police officers and squad cars to help patrol the area. The Illinois State Police was also out in force while several units of the LaSalle County civil defense group were put on standby.
In the end, however, just 1,412 people attended the concert, mostly kids between the ages of 15-18. The event went off without incident.
The biggest issue that the police had to deal with was the traffic of curious residents, which was bumper to bumper for miles. It was even reported that around 200 people stood across the road from The Back Door hoping to see something happen. They would be disappointed.
Inside however the crowd of young people enjoyed four hours of music on a hot and muggy Saturday night.
Local group 927 Ya Ha Band performed first. Next was local group The Rain which included members Dick Verucchi, Les Lockridge, Dick Hally and John Mark Edmunds. (The group would record a single for RCA as Stronghold about a year after this concert. Later several members would form the group Buckacre.)
The third act to perform was the One-Eyed Jacks from Champaign-Urbana. The group had been around for several years and had gone through several lineup changes. At the time of the Peru concert, the group was led by Mike Murphy who would go on to play with REO Speedwagon for several years. The group had several singles including two released on Roulette Records.
Poco would close the show which lasted until midnight. (Ironically Poco's next gig was at an actual festival, a three day event near Galena, Illinois that was scheduled that same weekend.)
According to the News Tribune, reactions of local residents to the concert ranged from "I knew everything would be okay" and "I'm glad nothing happened" to "It's a good thing the police were so well-prepared."
In the week after the concert, the paper continued to publish letters to the open forum, mostly denouncing the fear and close-mindedness that had surrounded the event.
Yet one local citizen warned, "This first concert is just a front, just wait until the next one." He or she was correct in that there were more concerts to come but none created the controversy that surrounded the first one.
Anyone that remembers the event or attended the concert is encouraged to leave a comment below. If you want to contact me directly you can do so at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a 1969 newspaper article, guitarist Nellie Hastings told how the group got its start. “We were sitting around one afternoon bored with our lives. I said, ‘Let’s start a rock and roll group.’ It was a joke at first, but once we realized we could all play instruments we got so excited over the idea. Our parents liked the idea and gave us the necessary encouragement, that’s how it happened.”
The girls indeed had the support of their parents, none more so than Kathy’s dad, Robert “Tab” Talkin, who became the band’s manager, agent, promoter, chauffeur and stage hand.
After regular practice sessions at the Talkin household, the group had developed a repertoire of a dozen or so songs. The group’s first gig was in December of 1966 at a cafeteria dance after a high school basketball game. Soon the group was playing other dances and local events.
In the early summer of 1967, before entering high school, the four girls went into the Fredlo Recording Studios in nearby Davenport, Iowa and recorded their first single.
A cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour” was sung by Kathy Talkin while the flipside featured Nellie Hastings singing a version of Bobby Goldsboro’s “See The Funny Little Clown.” The record was released in early July of 1967.
The combo continued to perform live at teen clubs, high schools, colleges and county fairs around western Illinois and eastern Iowa, though appearances were limited to a 100-mile radius during the school year. Despite their busy schedule, the girls were all honor students in high school.
The group returned to Fredlo Recording Studios in the late spring of 1968. This time they recorded two original tunes, both written and arranged by guitarist Nellie Hastings: "Open Up Your Mind" & "Puppet."
In the summer of 1968, the Mod 4 performed at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. (The same year as the Who and the Association.) By 1969, the group was performing twice a week on average. According to an article in the Quad-City Times, “the Mod 4 carry more than $9,000 worth of sound and musical equipment with them in their personal van and the girls have 10 outfit changes in their stage wardrobe.” According to Tab Talkin their gear included “echo chambers, strobe lights and other ‘blow your mind’ equipment.”
As the Mod 4 stage show grew, so did their setlist. In a 2004 interview with Mike Markesich for his book TeenBeat Mayhem!, Nellie mentions that at one point they had up to 57 different numbers in their repertoire. Examples include “Hang On Sloopy”, “White Rabbit”, “Good Lovin”, “For What It Is Worth”, “You Keep Me Hangin On”, “Sgt Pepper”, “Purple Haze” and “Respect.” In 1969 the group told the Quad City Times, “We play a lot of Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.”
The Mod 4’s biggest performance came in early 1969 when they were selected to be on the rock variety show Happening, an ABC-TV program produced by Dick Clark and hosted by Paul Revere and the Raiders. In January, the girls along with Kathy’s parents flew to Los Angeles for the taping. The group lip-synced to a taped version of “Midnight Hour” which they had submitted as part of a “Battle of the Bands” portion of the show. Because the show did tapings for the whole month in one day, the girls were able to see and meet several famous groups such as Tommy James & The Shondells, Canned Heat, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Gary Lewis, Keith Allison, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap as well as the hosts of the show, Mark Lindsay and Paul Revere.
“We were thrilled to pieces when Paul Revere recognized our name and said he had heard of us when he was in the Quad-Cities for a performance last year,” Nellie told the Quad-City Times after returning home from the taping. She added, “I only wish we could have stayed in Hollywood a while longer. We would have met so many more groups.”
The show aired in February but unfortunately the Mod 4 did not win the contest. Instead first prize went to a group of young kids, ages seven through 13, known as Paula & The Pipsqueaks. As a consolation prize, the girls each received a Waltham wristwatch. “I still have mine and it still works,” Nellie told Mike Markesich in 2004.
While in California, two talent agents showed interest in the group for a possible U.S. tour during the summer. “We haven’t decided anything definite yet but the possibility is there. If they can line up enough shows to make it financially beneficial for us, we’ll go,” Kathy told the Quad-City Times in January of 1969. Obviously the tour never materialized. The group continued to perform around western Illinois.
During the last year or so of the group’s existence, they were joined by a fifth member, Trisha Meacham. By fall of 1970 however the girls were busy with their senior year of high school and the live performances began to slow down. The group’s last gig was October 30-31,1970 at a club in Kewanee, Illinois.
After graduating high school, the four girls went their separate ways to attend different colleges. Officially, however, the group never broke up. They remain in contact to this day.
This post was updated on Sept 17, 2020. An earlier version was posted on Sept 4, 2019. Special thanks to Kathy Talkin.
If Little Richard was "the architect of rock 'n' roll," then central Illinois' Byron Gipson was one of his early apprentices with a front row seat to many of Richard's legendary performances and recordings.
During 1955 and 1956 Gipson traveled with Little Richard on his first American tour, acting as Richard's road manager, driver and bodyguard (possibly saving the star's life on one occasion). Gipson was also present for many of Richard's recording sessions in New Orleans that produced such hits as "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up" and "Ready Teddy."
During that same period, Gipson himself released two singles as Byron "Slick" Gipson and the Sliders for the same label as Richard, Specialty Records. He also helped write hit songs for Richard and Lloyd Price among others, although he was rarely credited for these efforts.
In 1958, Gipson recorded two singles with Freddie Tieken & The Rockers for Hit Records including "Uncle John," a song he had written for Little Richard as an answer to "Long Tall Sally." He continued to record sporadically throughout the 1960's.
Though he never received the recognition that he deserved, Gipson remained a lifelong student of music. In the late 1960's and early 1970's he went back to college to study music and sound production. He would continue to perform and produce music in and around Peoria for decades until his death from cancer in 1994.
Born in 1930, Byron Everett Gipson, Jr. grew up on a farm in Gulfport, Illinois. His family was just one of two black families living in a five-county area. As a teenager Gipson moved to Iowa and then to Hannibal, Missouri to stay with relatives when his mother and sister died from tuberculosis.
In 1950 he was drafted into the army and served as a bomb expert during the Korean War. While stationed in Germany, Gipson made his first recordings which he sent back home to his family. They included a recording of Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and an original tune called "You've Got To Work."
After the service, Gipson moved to California to pursue a professional musical career. At a popular talent show in Los Angeles, Specialty Records' A&R man Robert "Bumps" Blackwell saw Gipson perform and signed him to the label. Soon Gipson was writing songs for the label and its artists.
Gipson made his first recordings for Specialty with a group called the Sliders (aka The Pharoahs) which included Judge Dennis, Eugene Jackson, Clarence Alexander and Alexander Lee. Gipson was billed as Byron "Slick" Gipson. When asked years later about the nickname, Gipson said "we wore our hair slick and my brother-in-law said I had a slick way with women, 'cause I'd steal guys' girlfriends and they wouldn't even know it."
Gipson and the group released two singles on Specialty. "The One I Love" b/w "Honey-Dew" was released in January of 1956. Early pressings of the single credit Byron Gipson as the artist whereas later pressings show it as Byron "Slick" Gipson and the Sliders.
The second single, "Footloose and Fancy-Free" b/w "Etta Mae," was released in November of 1956. On the record and in the early reviews it was credited to "Flick" Gipson and the Sliders. Later pressings corrected it to "Slick" Gipson.
Gipson and the group recorded at least two more songs for Specialty but both went unreleased until a 1993 compilation, Golden Groups, which included "I Want 'Cha Baby" and "My Little Girl" (released as The Pharoahs).
How Gipson came to be Little Richard's road manager was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Gipson was already with Specialty Records before Richard joined the label. In fact, Gipson claimed to be in the office the day someone first brought a tape of Little Richard in for label owner Art Rupe to hear. Gipson contends that Rupe was not impressed with Richard initially. Still the label sent Richard to New Orleans to record at Cosimo Matassa's J & M Studio. That session produced "Tutti Frutti" and the label quickly had a major hit on their hands.
When Specialty was booking Little Richard's first tour, Gipson was again in the label's office. In a 1990's interview Gipson said "The recording company was the booking agent, too, so they hired me. I guess, to get me out of their face or something. They said, 'Hey, we need a road manager, you want to be a road manager?'" Just like that, Gipson had the job.
He added "A road manager in those days was more than a road manager. He was bodyguard, chauffeur and everything else. I drove the station wagon, booked the bands in the hotels. I started with them in the mid part of '55 and was with them a little over a year."
Gipson was also in charge of counting the tickets and keeping track of the money. As a result, Gipson carried a gun on the tour though he only kept it loaded with one bullet in the last chamber. One night after a concert in New Orleans, Gipson had taken the money and the gun to Little Richard's suite at the Hotel Foster. Shortly after leaving, Gipson realized he had left his wallet in Richard's room.
"I was going down to the Dew Drop Inn. Fats Domino was there, and Ray Charles was playing there, too. I went back to the hotel to get my billfold; the Dew Drop Inn was only about three blocks away. I went in there and this kid's with Richard playing with a gun, clicking it. I opened the door and seen this kid clicking that gun and I said, 'Hey, put that gun down - there's a bullet in there!' I hollered at him, I scared him, and he turned and it went off." Gipson was shot in the leg. He carried the bullet in his leg for the rest of his life.
About the incident, Gipson said, " I wasn't hurt that bad. I still have copies of the hospital bills somewhere." In another interview he added "I saved Little Richard's life. He wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for me hollerin' at that kid. He sure was dead. The kid clicked it right in his face."
In addition to saving Richard's life, Gipson claimed to have written his hit song "Ooh, My Soul." As to how he wrote it, Gipson said "he was always going, every time he'd see somebody, 'Ooh, my soul, honey, did you see him right there? Ooh whee!' That's why I wrote that song. I sung it to him, he didn't get it all but he got enough of it. Then he added a couple more verses to it." The song was released in 1958 and reached no. 31 on the
US pop chart and was no. 15 on the R&B chart.Despite his claim, Gipson was not given any
writing credit on the song.
Similarly, Gipson claimed to have written "Baby Please Come Home" which was a hit record for Lloyd Price on Specialty Records. "They added a chorus to it, wasn't no chorus when i wrote it." Again, Gipson was not credited.
Perhaps because of the poor treatment he received from his own record label, Gipson would use pseudonyms and sell songs to other labels around that same time. One example was "I Need Someone" which was released by Amos Milburn on Aladdin Records in 1956. The song was officially credited to "Junior Everett" but was really Gipson.
Sometime in 1956, Gipson left the tour and broke ties with Specialty Records. Years later, Gipson said he got tired of the road, especially having to deal with the extreme racism in the South. He recalled stories of police beatings as well as being chased by the Ku Klux Klan.
Gipson did not return to Los Angeles, however. Instead he first moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and then Quincy, Illinois. It was in Quincy that Gipson met local sax player Freddie Tieken and his band. The two soon hit it off and "Wild Child" Gipson with Freddie Tieken and the Rockers was born.
In addition to singing with the group, Gipson played piano and guitar. In a 1991 interview, Gipson said he took the nickname "Wild Child" as a gag to draw people to his music. Together the group performed up and down the Mississippi River and across the Midwest.
In 1958, the group made several recordings at Boulevard Studios in Chicago. The session was paid for by the group's guitarist John Moorman. The result was two singles released on Hit Records.
The first was "Uncle John" / "Sitting Here Cryin'" released in late 1958. Both songs were written by Gipson.
The single was a regional hit and was re-issued nationally on the Laurie label as well the Astra label. According to Freddie Tieken, the single made it to number 24 on Billboard's R&B chart.
The next single was "Lost Control"/ "Kool" which was released sometime in 1959. Again both songs were written by Gipson.
In an interview years later Gipson stated that the group actually recorded 10-15 songs for Hit Records. It is unclear whether or not any of those other recordings still exist.
Before the end of 1959 Gipson parted ways with Tieken and the Rockers. Gipson moved to Peoria where he would live the rest of his life. About the move, Gipson said, "I liked Peoria because it had so many bands, the music was flourishing. I got tired of travelling, getting cheated out of your money and stuff. Hit Records, we got cheated out of that money, too. It's a never-ending thing."
Over the next seven years, Gipson would perform with several of his own bands around the Peoria area. First the Violators, then Katz & Jammers and finally the Soul Merchants. Some of the people that performed with Gipson during this period include John "Pops" McFarlane (brother to Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane of Spanky & The Gang) and Tim Drummond, a bass player who went on to play with Neil Young, Bob Dylan and many others.
In 1962, Gipson recorded for Chess Records in Chicago but the recordings were never released. In 1965, Gipson did release a single for IT Records out of Quincy, Illinois. The label and studio were owned by Gipson's old bandmate Freddie Tieken and fellow Rocker Jack Inghram. "Sweet Roll'n Stone" & "My Kinduva Blues" were both written by Gipson (aka Jr. Everett) and released in September of 1965.
In 1966 Gipson formed his last group, the Peoria Soul Merchants. They released one single sometime that year on C.A.B. Records: "Boogaloo Train To Peoria" / "Coal Mine no. 2"
In 1967, Gipson continued to perform in clubs but he was now a one man band, billing himself as Wild Child Gipson and His Funk Machine.
At the same time, Gipson decided to go to college and study music. He first attended the newly opened Illinois Central College in East Peoria where he also joined the jazz ensemble. He continued to perform with the ensemble for years afterward and would even go on to teach music at ICC sometime later.
Gipson continued his music studies at Illinois State University and then later attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY to study sound production.
By the mid-1970s, Gipson had set up a recording studio in his home. The Peoria Journal Star referred to it as "the smallest recording studio in Peoria, a one man operation at 1506 W. First." At the time, Gipson was producing what he called "personal interest tapes" on demand which included anything from audio letters, original poetry, educational tapes and Halloween special effects.
For years Gipson also produced customized soundtracks for exotic dancers and strippers across the country. At the same time he continued to perform as a one man show in nightclubs and lounges around Peoria. In 1985, Bill Knight of the Peoria Journal Star wrote this about him, "Gipson was Peoria's first local 'rock star,' a R&B machine who churned out hits and hot nights at local nightspots for years."
His last single of original music was released in 1989. The song "Bobby 'Kewanee' Brains" was a country & western duet with Sharon Bryant about his friend and favorite bartender. It was released on Music 55 Records and was being distributed by The Basketcase where Brains worked.
In the early 1990's Gipson said "I'm back playing R&B stuff now, New Orleans stuff. I finished 18 new songs. I've recorded them about ten different times, but I'm not satisfied with them." Those recordings it appears were never released. Gipson passed away from cancer on January 30, 1994. He was 64.
Shortly before his death when asked to reflect on his life and his time with Little Richard in the 1950's, Gipson said, "I wouldn't give a million dollars for what I learned, but I wouldn't give two cents to do it again Everything we did was nothing." He added, "We were all buddies, trying to write songs, trying make some money, get a Cadillac, get a girlfriend. Now it's all history, a big thing, but it wasn't nothing to us."
A version of this article was published in the November-December 2020 issue of Illinois Heritage.
Listen to a selection of Byron "Wild Child" Gipson's early recordings below.