From the March and April 2011 issues of The American Rag. By David Gannett with Tom Hook and Bob Leary.
How’s your ancient jazz history? A little over 160 years ago in dog years – (that’d be 1988) – the Black Dogs first assembled at the Orlando musician’s union to explore Steve Yocum’s idea: Why not put together a crack trad unit comprised of Walt Disney World’s first call musicians?
“Yoke” was leader of the Banjo Kings, a popular group adept at entertaining the countless tourists funneling into the park via the only entrance: Main Street. With the constant flood of humanity entering and leaving the Magic Kingdom, the Banjo Kings’ job was to cause folks to linger just long enough to be drawn into the shops lining Main Street. The group’s success rate was measured by “Clickers”, hapless underlings assigned to observe the Banjo Kings and click a hand-held counter any time someone so much as looked at the group. The clicks were always good for the Banjo Kings, largely due to Yoke’s raucous tailgate trombone stylings and gravelly voice. The group never failed to attract attention.
Yoke had approached each of us with his concept of a S.W.A.T. team band, and although we were all extremely busy playing gigs, it was a no-brainer when we heard who he had in mind for the group.
Tom Hook was “Sam the Bartender” at the Diamond Horseshoe Revue, playing piano and wisecracking to eight audiences a day. Davy Jones was (and still is) the lead cornet player with the Society Orchestra at Disney’s Grand Floridian hotel. His was a highly coveted gig, as it was one of the precious few on property where you could actually sit in air conditioning for your entire shift.
Jim Buchmann’s gorgeous clarinet and sax playing made him first call for every group in the park that used reeds. Bob Leary’s brilliant banjo playing was why “Banjo Kings” was always capitalized. He reigned supreme as Walt Disney World’s go-to banjo player. A young Eddie Metz, Jr. had recently breezed into town and blown everyone away. Overnight, Eddie was the only drummer to call if you wanted your band to rock. Holding down the bottom, Dave Gannett on tuba was a Disney veteran in both California and Florida, playing nightly with Bill Allred at Rosie O’Grady’s and appearing daily as first-call tubist with all the bands at Disney.
Our first rehearsal at the musician’s union was well-lubricated with beer as we dug into one tune after another. We’d already played literally hundreds of gigs with each other, resulting in a group “head” that bordered on the psychic. This, combined with the fact that each guy was a creative bandleader and entertainer in his own right, meant the arrangements and shtick simply materialized as we played.
The situation seemed entirely normal to us but apparently, was a source of mystification to other bands once we got out on the circuit. The important thing is that we gelled instantly. Over and above our professional and personal relationships with each other was a spirit of high good humor, something which audiences readily recognized and responded to.
I’ve often wished over the years that audiences could eavesdrop on the freewheeling, x-rated on stage (but off Mic.) banter. These guys are psychotically funny. There were many times when we could scarcely play when some totally left-field observation from one of the guys left us convulsed with laughter. One of my fondest memories – and fondest anticipations – with the Black Dogs is deep-down, gut-wrenching laughter before, during and after the sets. Balm for the soul.
Our first outing was for the Suncoast Jazz Society down in Clearwater, Florida. The concert was a huge success at a venue accustomed to top-notch bands spawned by the incredible musician pool in Central Florida.
Setting our sites beyond the local venues, Yoke managed to talk the Bix Society into booking the Black Dogs at the Bix festival in ’89, but Buchmann couldn’t make it. Hamstrung by his absence, we called upon veteran Disney clarinetist Tommy Satterwhite to step in at the last minute. As great as Tommy played, he wasn’t able to hook his radar into the group “head” and we limped through the festival feeling sorry for ourselves because Buchmann wasn’t there. We got over it though, when we saw one of the beds at the hotel covered several inches deep in money from CD sales. Yoke lit a cigarette with a twenty dollar bill to celebrate – a habit that continued in various iterations throughout the years.
Nevertheless, the band was well- received and made many subsequent appearances at the Bix. We knew we were a solid, professional band, but were totally unprepared for the explosive impact the group would have at our first TerrifVic jazz fest in Victoria, B.C. To our astonishment and delight, every venue we played was SRO. Musicians from other bands lined the walls shaking their heads and whispering in each others’ ears.
The tsunami of energy from the crowds made the band light up like Cinderella’s Castle as we caught the wave. We could do no wrong. Our fresh rhythmic approach galvanized audiences, plus, the band looked, acted and in fact, lived like 1930’s jazz musicians: well-worn fedoras, period dress shirts with ties, baggy pants with suspenders and an overall aura of an anything-goes whorehouse on a Saturday night. It seemed to be the right combination.
Going all-out for the Saturday night set at the curling rink, the band took no prisoners and had the capacity crowd writhing and dancing, cheering and barking in their seats. Gannett, who introduced the exploding tuba earlier that year, took note of the curling rink’s fifty foot ceiling and determined that the mortar needed an extra special charge. Right on cue just before the out chorus of “Oriental Strut”, a gigantic fireball erupted from the sousaphone.
Instead of dissipating, the brilliant red meteor climbed and climbed until it exploded on the ceiling high above the crowd in a shower of sparks. The impressive black moon crater remained there for years to come. Each time we were back at the Victoria fest, the Big Dog would check the curling rink ceiling with a grunt of satisfaction. Like any good dog, he had marked his territory.
The band’s spirits were uncommonly high after that epic set. Packing the van out back, we sipped refreshing adult beverages as the chill air hit our sweat-soaked clothes. Spying a giant cherry picker near the van, Hook climbed aboard and exclaimed “Hey! The key’s in it!” Leary joined him on the platform as Tom, the very embodiment of his “Bad Dog” moniker, twisted the key. We howled as the 600 hp engine roared to life and twin plumes of black diesel exhaust shot from the vertical pipes. With a smile that can only be described as demonic, Hook dropped the picker into reverse gear, gripping the rail as gigantic six foot tires spun in the gravel. Leary’s face went white.
That was when Tom found the lift lever. His urgent tug on the lever was rewarded with the platform ascending – rather rapidly – some fifteen feet in the air. Leary’s eyes bulged like glistening ping pong balls as the ground receded. Now concerned that perhaps this display was garnering too much attention, Hook expertly lowered the lift to the ground, took it out of gear and shut down. Leary wobbled off the platform on unsteady legs, a strange wet patch growing on the front of his pants. He probably spilled his drink.
After that first TerrifVic fest the offers began pouring in and soon, the Black Dogs were replicating their musical and financial success at between thirty and forty festivals per year. Younger festival-goers soon caught on to the bump-and- grind rhythms of the New Orleans street beat, easy-to-dance-to vintage Rock ‘n Roll tunes belted out Black Dog style and of course, the perennially perfect mix of good old-fashioned two-beat Dixieland with any adult beverage.
Festival directors could count upon the Black Dogs to generate good badge sales, high venue counts, great concession sales and plenty of vigorish from CD and tape sales. There were many occasions when the Black Dogs generated far more income for a particular festival than the festival spent on the band’s plane fairs, hotels, transportation and appearance fees combined. The Dogs were good business. But there was one particular objection from festival directors that cropped up again and again.
In our rehearsals, the band experimented with a variety of different beats gleaned from the Neville Brothers and other New Orleans-based bands of the last thirty years or so. One of these, the “Bo Diddley” beat, seemed to be a good fit with several of the traditional tunes on our roster.
Unfortunately, there were many festival directors and not a few festival goers who were offended by our “rock-and-roll” approach to Dixieland, not the least of which was the late Neil Birdsall who at the time, was director of the Bix Festival in Davenport, Iowa.
Scheduled to perform at one of the early Bix fests, the Dogs were somewhat surprised to receive a stern warning from Neil: “Don’t play any of that modern stuff at the festival!” Naturally we agreed wholeheartedly, only to make a point of hammering our Bix audiences with every experimental rhythm we had. The audiences went ballistic and CD sales were off the charts. Neil adapted a new attitude as the Bix coffers swelled from Black Dog sales. The next time the Dogs were at the Bix, Neil hired a blood-red stretch limo to meet us at the airport, as well as escort us to every single venue. Neil was a classy guy and a great clarinet player – he is missed.
After the first season of touring, Jim Buchmann felt the press of urgent family matters and reluctantly left the group. It was only natural to make the call to Las Vegas and bring in David “Show Dog” Poe on reeds (Voted #1 in Vegas). Later in the second season, Bob Leary succumbed to the same very necessary priorities and Bobby “Bull Dog” Durham slid into the banjo seat. Without missing a beat, the Dogs headed to Europe and found new fans in every city. On one occasion we laughed ourselves sick over a little translation problem in a Dutch publication. We were listed as “Uncle Yoke’s Black Dong”. No comment.
Another time the band was performing at Dr. Jazz in Dusseldorf, Germany, which was ram-rodded by a no-nonsense redhaired Viking of a woman named Lous (rhymes with “goose”). All she needed was a horned helmet to join the opera. On the first break, the Big Dog headed to the bar and requested a Jaegermeister, which at the time was the Black Dogs’ drink of choice. Drawing herself to her full height, the mighty Lous glared at the hapless tuba player and barked, “No Jaegermeister!” An increasingly vociferous discussion ensued which caught the attention of a group of patrons. They loudly declared that THEY would not only foot the bill for the thirsty tubist, but for the entire band as well…all night! Sensing the financial opportunity at hand, a now somewhat mollified Lous agreed, no longer concerned that this Yank was about to undertake something altogether too foreign for his delicate system.
At that time, Dr. Jazz featured an extremely narrow “stage” maybe four feet deep and twenty feet long attached about six feet up on the wall – a very unusual arrangement. We had to climb up one at a time, carefully pick our way to our place in line along the wall and then make certain we didn’t take a nose dive off the platform during performance. In order to facilitate the passage of drinks to the musicians, Lous had devised long paddle-handled boards with recessed holes. Glasses of dark beer were inserted into the holes (six at a time as I recall) and then “longreached” up to the band on the cliffhanger stage.
During the course of the next set, beer boards were repeatedly thrust upon the band, each sporting six glasses of dark beer and nestled in between the glasses, five shots glasses filled with Jaegermeister.
The crowd cheered as we downed the beers as a group, then chased it with a shot of that god-awful cough medicine. When we staggered down off the gang plank stage, Lous announced that we had broken the house record for band consumption in one set: 89 dark beers and 53 shots of Jaegermeister.
Later, with our tour company safely back on board the bus, the band lined up outside and Lous gave a European farewell to each musician: a peck on each cheek, a hug and an invitation to return. The Big Dog wavered silently at the end of the line, Jaegermeister fumes curling into the night air, watching the hulking red-haired proprietress edge ever closer. Suddenly he was clasped in a crushing bear-hug, squirming and kicking as the now amorous Lous assaulted his tonsils with a tongue that might have belonged to an orca. Withdrawing but still maintaining her death-grip, Lous huskily whispered an urgent command into one of the Big Dog’s bright red ears, “Next time, you stay with Lous. Lous likes BIG BOYS!”
For years afterwards whenever he’d misbehave, the other guys would threaten Gannett with Lous. It worked.
Meanwhile, Yoke elected to move in a different direction and bade farewell to the group at the end of its third season. This was a daunting loss to all concerned. Yoke’s popularity and unique styling were integral to the original group’s product, but the Dogs had acquired too much momentum to disband now, so the search for a replacement was on.
One of the great pluses about Orlando in the ‘90s was its unchallenged status as trombone Mecca. Central Florida practically crawled with world-class trombone players like Bill and John Allred, Herbie Bruce, Vic Bird and Buddy Morrow, along with literally scores of tremendous players working the theme parks and show bands.
Like kids in a candy store, we considered the possibilities but soon realized that there was only one guy who embodied wild, searing and totally original playing with supernatural musical radar and a love of the genre. It didn’t hurt that he was also one sick puppy to boot, which meant no culture shock in joining the Dogs. Pat Gulotta was his name and he fit the band like the lost piece of the puzzle.
Our first two albums with the original group, “Come Hear the Truth” and “Dog Daze” continued to do well. During this time we also recorded a very unique binaural album called “Head Sessions” with recordist Matt Susskind, who had created a binaural recording unit from the reconstructed head of a young woman’s skull (legally obtained through a medical supply company). “Because We Can!!” was our third official album and introduced Dave Poe on reeds.
We needed to record an album for our next season of touring, but found that the finances just weren’t there to go into the studio. Solution? Tom Hook borrowed an eight track mixing board from a friend and we recorded “Off the Leash” in Tom’s living room! The album sold by the thousands at festivals and was finally released as a CD only last year – what has been called the “lost” Black Dog album. “Leash” sounds as good as any of our studio albums with the added advantage of having cost a grand total of $140 to produce!
The Black Dogs were now steam rolling along at the rate of thirty five or more festivals a year plus private appearances. In ’92 they became one of the first jazz bands to tour behind the bamboo curtain under the auspices of the late “China” Mike Kennedy. Besides an historic concert at the Great Wall of China, the band toured throughout the country leaving amazed and perplexed audiences in its wake. Chinese culture is highly stratified and status-conscious; the proletariat withholding reaction until given permission to do so (in a manner approved by authority), something which was profoundly demonstrated at a concert in Suzhou.
Prior to our concert, the Mayor of Suzhou went through an elaborate and eloquent welcoming ceremony for our group, culminating in the presentation to each band member of an intricately hand-carved sandalwood fan. That done, the mayor and his silk adorned wife took their front row center seats, which was a signal to all the “common” folks who had remained standing throughout that it was now OK to sit.
It was mid-afternoon, the band was rested and well aware of the foreign aspect we presented to the polite audience. So we launched right into the raunchiest, funkiest, most danceable tunes we had in the arsenal. From the stage, we watched as more and more people squirmed and wriggled in their seats as the universal language of the music grabbed their booty motors. The mayor’s wife retained her composure better than the rest of the audience, but about three tunes in she couldn’t take it any more.
To the mayor’s utter astonishment and alarm, she suddenly leapt to her feet as the governor on her booty motor snapped. With a piercing “Whoooooooo-OOOO!” she thrust her silk handkerchief straight up in the air and began a twisting, grinding dance! In an instant the entire audience was on their feet as an orgasmic release of pent-up dance exploded all over the auditorium. As Tom Hook liked to say, we visited an ancient culture and set it back 5,000 years.
Over the next decade various guys departed and returned and other great musicians like Dave Post, Mike Massessa, Terry Myers, Steve Walters and Steve Johnson did turns with the group. With Gannett, Leary and Metz now gone (temporarily), the band gravitated to a mix of blues, New Orleans R&B and novelty tunes. In ’96 with Metz back in the rhythm section, the band recorded what many consider to be the band’s best album, “Basin Street Blues/Big Ten Inch,” featuring outstanding arrangements by Tom Hook tightly played by the band. The sound achieved on that recording has typified the Black Dogs ever since.
Dave Gannett rejoined the group in ’97 until an industrial accident sidelined him in 2003. Young superstar sousaphonist Matt Perrine stepped into the band until 2010, when Gannett had recovered sufficiently to play again. During this time the band continued to tour, do cruises, and make appearances at Disney World and record albums.
Hook, Metz, Durham and Poe took a detour with a quartet they called Big Easy Classic, specializing in jump blues and R&B. The quartet kept the Dog brand going until Tom reinvented the group under the name “Les Chiens Noir,” a project with Davy Jones, Terry Myers, Pat Gulotta, Bobby Durham, Hook and Eddie Metz, Jr. backing up Brady McKay. Tom adds, “At any given festival set Brady’s half of the audience was pissed off when I sang, and my half of the audience was pissed off when she sang. Despite some vibes from the fan-base, I still do that project with Brady at least once a year and it always packs the house and sells CDs like crazy. Go Figure.”
Tom’s considerable creative talents found vent during this period with an album called “Hanging at the Big Bamboo” (the Big Bamboo was a major drinking hole for Disney musicians), featuring all original material plus Louis Jordan’s “Early in the Mornin’,” which has become a signature tune for the band.
With complicated personal lives and ever more complex careers, the band dialed back their appearances to two or three high-profile festivals and cruises a year, though the fabulous Mammoth Jazz Jubilee was a mainstay throughout.
Suddenly finding himself on the downhill side of 50 in 2006, Tom re-organized the band to capture the trad sounds of the early days, featuring the regulars (Jones, Gulotta, Poe, Metz, Hook, Durham) with add-ins Matt Perrine on tuba and Terry Myers on reeds. The album “Back on Bourbon” was the result and is probably the best traditional Black Dog album since “Dog Daze”.
Despite all the iterations of the band, the ups and downs and often bizarre situations that entailed, it should be noted that ONLY ONE original Black Dog played every single gig, every single time, everywhere the band appeared: the vastly under-appreciated Davy Jones. All Black Dogs past and present bow to his tenacity, commitment, consistency and artistry. Davy remains a force of nature to this day.
As Tom Hook reflects, “The impact the band ultimately had over the years will probably not be measured in CD sales but rather in the seminal impact it made on the gradually fading Trad festival circuit, and the influence it had on young upcoming musicians. It sometimes seems that the band’s reputation is far larger than the band itself in that I meet Trad musicians from all over, and they generally all have heard of the Dogs, even if they never saw us perform. I can proudly say though, we never gave a bad show, and have always been a huge draw regardless of our critics’ sometimes vociferous opinions.”
And by the way, folks, THIS AIN’T AN OBITUARY! The Black Dog saga continues as the original core Black Dogs – Tom Hook, Ed Metz, Jr., Bob Leary, Dave Gannett, Davy Jones, Pat Gulotta and David Poe are slated for multiple appearances in 2011. But you gotta check the American Rag to keep posted