Michael Day was a talented songwriter and musician that is best known as a member of Champaign, a 1980s R&B group that took its name from its hometown of Champaign, Illinois. The group’s first single “How ‘Bout Us” was a crossover hit that peaked at #4 on the R&B chart and #12 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in June of 1981. Day recorded four albums with the band between 1981 and 1999.
Day was more than a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter however. He was also an arranger, engineer and studio owner that was involved in a variety of projects and bands going all the way back to the late 1960s.
While he is often associated with the Champaign-Urbana music scene, Michael’s Day’s music career began in his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. Day was performing in local bands as early as eighth grade and by high school was performing across the Midwest, playing keyboards and singing in a group called Backstreet Majority. Other members of the group included Harry Washburn on bass, Bobby Carlin on drums, and Howard Reeder on guitar.
Michael and James Day, 1969. Photo courtesy of The McLean County Museum of History
In the fall of 1969, while still a junior in high school, Day and his younger brother were expelled from Bloomington High School for wearing their hair too long. In an interview at the time Day said “when people come to see us (the band), they expect to see long hair.”
Their father filed a suit, claiming the dress code violated his sons’ right to an education and denied them their freedom of expression. The boys, refusing to cut their hair, were kept out of school for months but eventually allowed to return when the courts ruled in their favor. Michael however would not go on to finish high school but instead focus entirely on his musical career.
In 1969, Champaign-Urbana’s burgeoning music scene made it the place to be for area musicians. It was a natural fit for Day even if he was a few years younger than most of the other musicians. In a 1983 interview while reminiscing about those early days, Day said “I was the kid - always the kid.”
Despite not being old enough to drink, Day had steady work in the bars and parties around the campus of the University of Illinois. In an interview with Cash Box years later, Day mentions that he was “making $250-$300 a week playing in bands four nights a week.” He adds, “Champaign was an incredible musical community.”
In 1971, Day joined a popular Champaign-Urbana band, Feather Train. Other members of the group at that time were Freddie Fletcher, Bruce Hall, Dana Walden, Norman Zeller and Bobby Carlin. Guitarist Gary Richrath had recently left the group to join REO Speedwagon who had just signed with a major label and was about to release their first album.
Both Feather Train and REO were represented by Irving Azoff and Blytham Ltd., a booking agency based in Champaign-Urbana. Azoff and Blytham’s founder Bob Nutt were the driving force behind Champaign’s thriving music scene and the reason a growing number of talented musicians were starting to gather there.
One prime example was a young songwriter and guitar player from Peoria named Dan Fogelberg. In the early 1970s, Fogelberg was living in Champaign and was being represented by Azoff who quickly recognized his talent. Fogelberg, like REO Speedwagon before him, soon had a record deal with a major label. Michael Day would be the third.
While still a teenager, Day signed an exclusive contract with Columbia Records as a solo artist based on his talent as a songwriter. Day would soon leave Illinois and travel to the East Coast for the next few years to work on an album.
In the early spring of 1972, Day recorded a five song demo at Connecticut Recording Studios in Bridgeport, CT with producer Billy Rose II, the same studio where REO Speedwagon had recorded their first album. Day and the other band members would eventually move to Bridgeport, returning to the studio numerous times over the next few months to work on new songs and lay down the basic tracks for what would become his album.
By the summer of 1973, Day along with a few of his old bandmates had recorded and finalized ten songs. During the sessions, drummer Bobby Carlin (originally from Pontiac, Illinois) would also play on Harry Chapin’s Short Stories album which was being recorded at the studio at the same time as Day.
Acetates and test pressings of Day’s debut were produced. The record was starting to be promoted by Columbia but then, for reasons that are unclear, the album was shelved.
While there is a lot about the record that remains a mystery, thanks to a photo of the back cover posted on a Facebook tribute page for drummer Bobby Carlin we have the liner notes and credits.
Million Dollar Movie Star
Let’s Make Music
Lead Me Love
Can’t A Little Lovin’ Be Mean?
Doctor Freedmont’s Bone Elixir
Let A Good Man Be
Why Say Goodbye?
I Can Feel It
All songs written by Michael Day
Produced by Billy Rose II
Michael Day - Lead Vocals, Piano, Bass and 12 String Guitar on “Let’s Make Music”
Bobby Carlin - Drums, Conga, Percussion
Doug Mazique - Bass
Norman Zeller - Lead Guitar
Howard Reeder - Guitar
Billy Carmichael - Saxophone
Gary Morgan - Trombone
Fritz Kriedler - Trumpet
Background Vocals: Tomi Lee Bradley, Jeanne French, Vicki Hospedale
Strings arranged by Paul Leka / Strings by Irving Spice String Section
Recording and Mixing Engineer: Billy Rose II / Re-Mix Engineer: Jack Ashkinazy
Recorded at Connecticut Recording Studios Inc.
This Album Is Dedicated To: 909 N Elder, Susan, Trudy, Noreen, Cinnamon
Special Thanks To: Kip Cohen, Paul Leka, George Brown, Irving Azoff, Bob Nutt,
Ray Smith, Red Lion (Tyke), Jim Corbett, Brian Imhoff
Many Thanks To Our Friends In Champaign, Illinois
Harry Washburn, Dana Walden, Bruce Hall, Barry Fasman, Allen Clark,
Billy Landrus, Bob Bitchin, The Cat, Gale Pelleteer, Bernard Schultz
Cover Design: Karen Lee Grant / Cover Photos: Reanne Rubenstein
All Songs Published By Dramatis Music Corp.
Green Rose Music / Columbia Records (cat# 32555) / 1973
One song (“Let This Good Man Be”) was released on a Columbia promo compilation series in 1973. In the booklet, Day was erroneously listed as "a Connecticut-based rock and roller."
The rest of the album has gone mostly unheard for the last 47 years... until a recently discovered test pressing:
Special thanks to John Anderson and Reverberation Vinyl for the discovery and preservation of these rare recordings.
One possible explanation for why the album went unreleased is that Columbia Records was in turmoil in the summer of 1973. Dealing with multiple scandals involving the misuse of funds and a payola-by-drugs allegation, the label’s president Clive Davis was fired.
Also Kip Cohen, the head of A&R at Columbia and the man responsible for bringing Day to the label, left Columbia soon after Davis for a job at A&M Records. It is reasonable to assume that any project approved by Davis and/or Cohen was halted. New artists, such as Day, were likely the first to be dropped from the label as new management took over.
Whatever the reason, Day left Connecticut in 1974 and returned to Bloomington. Soon after his return, Day started a recording studio in his parents' garage at 909 N. Elder Street with his former bandmate Harry Washburn. The next year they moved the studio to Urbana.
Sunday Studios, located at 705 Western Street, was the only recording studio in operation in Champaign-Urbana at that time. According to Day from a 1975 article in the Daily Illini, the equipment and construction, including insulation, soundproofing and extensive electrical outfitting cost approximately $11,000. Soon they were recording local bands such as Coalkitchen, Ginger, Starcastle, Head East and REO Speedwagon.
In 1975, Coalkitchen released their first single on Sunday Records. Both songs, “Chained To The Train Of Love” and “Bumpin In The Kitchen,” were written by Day. The record was produced by Day and Washburn. Members of Coalkitchen at the time included Day’s old bandmate Bobby Carlin as well as Pauli Carmen who would eventually join Day in the group Champaign.
Day would go on to produce and arrange Coalkitchen’s first and only record Thirsty Or Not… Choose Your Flavor which was released in 1977 on Epic Records in conjunction with Irving Azoff’s label Full Moon. Day also played on the album and co-wrote several of the songs.
In 1975, Day also produced a single by another local group, The Water Brothers Band. The single included two songs written by Day’s former (and future) bandmate Dana Walden. Other members of the group included Howard "Leon" Reeder, Bobby Carlin, Keith Harden and Scott Karlstrom.
The b-side of the 1975 single was an early version of “How ‘Bout Us.” While the original went mostly unnoticed, Day, Walden, Reeder and others would re-record the song as Champaign several years later and turn it into an international hit record.
The connections and partnerships that came with having a studio were not only beneficial to Day's career but helped sustain the local music scene. Sunday Studios paved the way for Creative Audio, which became the place to record in Champaign-Urbana in the 1980s. Adrian Belew recorded there during his time in central Illinois as well as many local and regional bands. It was also the home base for the group of studio musicians that became Champaign.
When Day formed the group in the spring of 1979, he was just 26 years old. He turned to friends, former bandmates, studio partners and people he had worked with on sessions: Pauli Carmen, Dana Walden, Howard “Leon” Reeder, Michael Reed and Rocky Maffit.
One key addition was singer Rena Jones from Springfield, Illinois. Jones was working as a speech therapist in Springfield’s school district when she joined the group. She was a part time singer with a strong gospel background that had come to the studio to sing on a jingle. (Day and Jones would marry in 1987.)
Champaign was signed by Columbia Records (Day’s old label) in early 1980. The overwhelming success of their first single catapulted the group to a decade long run of albums & singles, tours, tv performances, etc.
During the Champaign years, Day continued to write songs with and for other artists including several that ended up being released on movie soundtracks. Day, along with bandmate Rocky Maffit and fellow musician Thom Bishop, co-wrote "Trials of the Heart" for the hit 1986 film About Last Night which starred Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and John Belushi. The song was performed by Nancy Shanks.
A few years later Bishop, Maffit and Day co-wrote "All Over You" which was recorded by Freddie Jackson and included on the movie soundtrack for Def By Temptation as well as Jackson's hit 1990 record, Do Me Again.
While Day was often described as the leader of Champaign in the band's early press materials, he did not appear to seek the spotlight. His life in music it seems was defined mostly by his collaborations and his work behind the scenes. His unreleased album of 1973 would prove to be his only solo endeavor.
Day passed away from cancer in 2001 at the age of 48.
Who was Sloopy from "Hang on Sloopy" and what does it have to do with an obscure single released in Decatur, Illinois in 1965? Below we will try to answer at least one of these questions by untangling decades worth of misinformation.
In early 1965, Dave Scherer and the Castels from Decatur, Illinois released their second single, "Everybody's Doin' It (The Penguin)" b/w "Sloopy Can Penguin" on Loki Records.
Members of the group were: Dave Scherer (vocals & bass), George Hickman (guitar), Jack Trowbridge (sax), Jim Seitz (sax), Chuck Jordan (drums) and Dee Brownson (organ).
The single was recorded and produced in Nashville by another Decatur native, Chuck Givens, who ran a studio in Music City. Despite not being a member of the group, Givens took a writing credit on both songs of the single. Listen to the b-side "Sloopy Can Penguin" below:
Shorty after the single's release, the Decatur Daily Review ran several articles suggesting that the single was a hit and had already sold over 200,000 copies.
Decatur Daily Review Feb. 14, 1965
Mar. 22, 1965
In July of 1965, Scherer and the Castels recorded and released their third and final single, "My Dog Spookie" / "Tell Me Who She Is." Again, both songs were recorded with Givens in Nashville and again the Decatur Daily Review ran an article suggesting the song was on its way to being a big hit along with other bold claims regarding the records promotion and national distribution. These claims along with those printed about the earlier release seem to be based in pure fantasy.
That same month, the McCoys released their first single "Hang On Sloopy." The McCoys were originally known as Rick and the Raiders from neighboring Indiana. Rick Zehringer (who would soon change his last name to Derringer) and his band were invited to record in New York by another group, the Strangeloves, who they had opened for and played with in Ohio. The Strangeloves it turned out were a group of New York songwriters and producers looking for a group that looked like the Beatles. They were especially eager to release their re-working of an R&B tune called "My Girl Sloopy" for a white audience with such a group.
As a result Derringer's lead vocals were added to the Strangeloves' already recorded backing tracks and it was released under the new band name, The McCoys. "Hang On Sloopy," as it was now called, was a number one hit by October of 1965.
Six months after it went number one, the Decatur Daily Review ran another outrageous article suggesting that "Hang On Sloopy" was based on Scherer's "Sloopy Can Penguin." The article even claimed that Scherer and the group would be receiving a royalty of a penny per copy on the McCoys' hit single.
Mar. 2, 1966
While it is true that “Sloopy Can Penguin” predates “Hang On Sloopy” by roughly six months, both are obviously based on “My Girl Sloopy” which was written by the New York songwriting duo of Bert Berns and Wes Farrell. It was recorded and released in early 1964 by the R&B vocal group the Vibrations on Atlantic Records - a full year before Scherer and the Castels.
The Vibrations even released another song in 1964 called "Sloop Dance" on Okeh Records which bears some resemblance to their earlier "My Girl Sloopy." It too predates the Scherer single by months.
Much of the misinformation regarding the authorship of "Sloopy" and any connection it might have to Decatur and Scherer's single seems to lead back to one man and it would only get worse as the years went on.
Charles J. Givens was born in Decatur, Illinois in 1941. As a teenager he played in a local band known as the Quintones. By the mid-1960's, Givens had moved to Nashville where he ran a recording studio, booking agency and record label. During this time he recorded and produced a handful of records including the two singles by Dave Scherer and the Castels as well as other Decatur groups such as the Chosen Few and Eugene and the Fugitives:
According to Givens, the recording studio burned down in 1966 which was uninsured and left him broke. As a result, Givens left the music business and sought his fortune elsewhere.
Over the course of the next decade, Givens would reportedly make and lose millions of dollars at various business ventures. By the 1980's however, Givens had become a multi-millionaire by giving motivational lectures and selling personal financial advice. By the end of the 1980's, Givens had become a get-rich guru and a best-selling author. He hosted a weekly radio program and was a regular on syndicated daytime talk shows and late night infomercials.
It was also during this time that Givens began publicly claiming that he had written "Hang On Sloopy." Sometimes he claimed to have sold the song for next to nothing or even had given it away and other times he claimed to have gotten rich off the royalties. He would continue to tell a version of this fabrication in interviews throughout the 1980's which were printed in newspapers all over the country. In a few articles he was even photographed on his sailboat named "Sloopy" of course.
At some point in the late 1980's, Givens' claim was challenged by a lawyer representing Wes Ferrell, one-half of the writing team behind "My Girl Sloopy." From a Los Angeles Times article dated May 14, 1989:
Confronted with all this by Farrell's lawyer, Givens now claims he wrote a song called "Sloopy Can Penguin" in the early 1960s that he called in a letter to Farrell's lawyer "a new dance idea that we had almost identical to Hang On Sloopy." He blames the media for improperly crediting him with writing Farrell's song, even though publicity materials he distributed at the time said he wrote "Hang On Sloopy" and sold the rights "for peanuts." Just about every article about him at the time also mentioned he wrote the song.
In a November 7, 1993 article in the Orlando Sentinel, when asked whether or not Givens wrote "Sloopy Can Penguin," Dave Scherer responded this way, "God love him, Chuck's my friend, but Chuck sometimes claims for himself things that other people have done." Scherer added, "Of course, he promoted my group and produced the record, but he didn't write the song."
With Givens' claims completely refuted, it would seem that any confusion regarding the authorship of "Hang On Sloopy" would be settled. Yet, in a strange twist of fate it is Rick Derringer that has kept Givens' lie alive.
In a 2012 interview with Karen Kernan which can be found on YouTube, Derringer innocently mentions an article published in a St. Louis newspaper that someone had sent him where a successful businessmen claimed to have written the song while in high school and sold the rights for next to nothing.
It is obvious that this article was written about Givens sometime in the 1980's. Derringer, not realizing that Givens claim had been disproved years earlier, seems to believe it completely. He even conflates a few of the details and as a result, the idea that "a high school kid from St. Louis" wrote "Hang On Sloopy" persists to this day.
At the same time, the myth that the McCoys' hit was somehow based on Dave Scherer and the Castels' b-side never went away either as this 1995 article in the Decatur Herald & Review demonstrates: --
By the early 1990's, Givens' get-rich empire was starting to come apart as he became the target of multiple lawsuits and investigations. He died from prostate cancer in 1998.
Dave Scherer passed away in 2008. His obituary read, "Dave was well known throughout Decatur for the past 45 years for his various bands. He wrote Sloop Quin Penguin in the early 60's which was sold to the McCoys and renamed Hang On Sloopy." Proof that Decatur newspapers have never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
So who was Sloopy?
In Ohio "Hang On Sloopy" is the official rock song of the state and is synonymous with many sporting events there, particularly at Ohio State University. Therefore, many in Ohio claim the song was named after Dorothy Sloop, a New Orleans jazz pianist from the 1930s that was born in Steubenville, Ohio. For them, it strengthens the state's connection to the song.
Rick Derringer tells a different story. In that same 2012 interview where he lends credence to Givens' fabrication, Derringer says "(Bert) Berns told me... that he lived for awhile in Cuba. Sloopy was a colloquialism, he put it, or a nickname for girls in Cuba. Guys would just go, 'Sloopy how ya doin?' He said he took that and wrote "Hang On Sloopy."
While this seems to be the most plausible explanation, we will likely never know as Bert Berns died in 1967. One thing is for certain. Sloopy wasn't from Decatur and she didn't dance like a penguin.
This article was originally posted on Dec. 30, 2019. It was updated and re-posted on Oct. 6, 2020.