Rock music in Nashville didn't begin with the Exit/In. It didn't begin with Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, and it didn't begin with the White Animals. It began in 1956, the year Elvis Presley had his first No. 1 record with "Heartbreak Hotel"--the year that rock 'n' roll became a household word. It began in fits and starts, with the distant throb of a potent new music, with the faint light of a transistor radio hidden away under the covers, with a group of kids looking for something to do. But once started, it could never be silenced.
For four decades, local groups have been forming and reforming, releasing records, and playing regional gigs. And ever since those early days, rock 'n' roll has remained a vital part of Nashville's youth culture, just the way it has been a part of so man y kids' lives across the country. Even back then, rock music wasn't simply the domain of outsiders or rebels; it was embraced by ordinary, middle-class teens. But it was still exciting-- it had a spirit of abandon, a spark that people had never encountered before.
Rock 'n' roll was also a force of social interaction: It brought people together on the dance floor and at parties. Even if band kids didn't go to school together, even if they grew up on opposite sides of town, they still knew one another, at least in p art through the local rock scene. As one band veteran remembers it, you played football against each other on Friday night, and you competed in the battle of the bands on Saturday night. This is the environment in which rock 'n' roll flourished, a little community with its own stars and its own hit records.
Ask anyone who was around back then, and they'll tell you: Country music didn't mean a thing to them. "Nashville was not a country town in the beginning," remembers producer/songwriter Buzz Cason. "The kids that grew up here, we grew up on Bo Diddley, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, The Clovers, The Moonglows." By 1956, Cason says, radio stations in Nashville were playing rock 'n' roll music, but "when it got down to it, a lot of people listened to WLAC at night."
Since the late '40s, WLAC's 50,000-watt signal had been booming out its late-night blues and R&B programming to listeners all across the eastern United States. Most of the kids growing up at the time remember picking up the latest R&B on WLAC. They'd put transistor radios under their pillows and drift off to sleep, lulled by forbidden music and the racially ambiguous voices of deejays John "R" Richbourg, Gene Nobles and Hoss Allen. As they grew up, these kids would form the first rock 'n' roll bands in Nashville.
The music seeped into the city's bones as its children slept. By the early '50s, Ernie Young had started recording local R&B acts such as Roscoe Shelton and Arthur Gunter in his downtown store, Ernie's Record Mart, for his Excello label. At the same time , Ted Jarrett was recording his own acts for a variety of small labels, including Republic. The nightclub scene was hopping, and white teens even got their chance to see singers like Big Joe Turner and Etta James when big package shows roared through town.
Cason, then an Inglewood teenager, first heard the siren song of rock on WSIX deejay Noel Ball's Saturday Showcase, a primitive talent show on then-ABC affiliate Channel 8. "Anybody that had any kind of talent, you could get on his show," Cason remembers. "You just had to show up." Some of Cason's Litton High classmates were going to lip-synch "White Christmas" on the program. A friend asked Cason to come, and he invoked seven magic words: "There'll be a lot of girls there."
That was enough to convince Cason, who soon discovered that he liked showing off for the cameras. After several more appearances, he hooked up with piano players Richard Williams and Chester Powers, who had formed a group with drummer Bill Smith. "I wormed my way into the band lip-synching records," he recalls. With the help of manager Jerry King, the group dubbed itself The Casuals and started making noise. To the best of anyone's recollection, thus was born Nashville's first rock 'n' roll band.
When the band played area high schools, Cason remembers, "we would be like the local TV stars coming to do the shows." The only problem was, Cason's lip-synch routine bugged his bandmates. Shortly thereafter, King told him to leave his records at home-- but that didn't stop Cason himself from butting in. Cason still remembers the date: Mar. 16, 1956 -- he made his singing debut with the band on "Blue Suede Shoes."
By the summer of 1957, The Casuals had become a touring act. While they were on the road, replacing The Everly Brothers on a package tour, Minnie Pearl gave Cason some advice: When you get back home, she said, go back to school.
He didn't listen to her. Instead, he pursued his rock 'n' roll dream, opening dates for the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran and The Big Bopper. "We rolled on the floor, jumped on the amps, rode on each others' backs," Cason recalls. "We saw Gene Vincent, and that was our inspiration: 'Man, we're gonna start jumping and shaking.' We weren't that good musicians, but we could do a show."
By 1959, The Casuals had become Brenda Lee's backing band. A year later, Cason recorded a solo hit, "Look for a Star," under the name Garry Miles. The song, which reached No. 16, was hastily recorded to beat British singer Garry Mills' original version-- which charted the same date as Cason's but only peaked at No. 26. When The Casuals toured with Lee, Cason did double duty, changing his coat and his glasses backstage before appearing as Garry Miles.
By 1962, though, he'd gotten into the music business, moving to Los Angeles to take a job with Liberty Records, the label that had released his solo record. The Casuals, meanwhile, stayed behind Brenda Lee for the next two decades. By this time, Nashville's rock scene truly rocked.
Actually, Nashville has turned out its share of non-country hits, beginning as early as 1947 with big band leader Francis Craig, whose "Near You" went to No. 1. By the late '50s and early '60s, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee all had Nashville-produced chart successes. Texas performer Larry Henley was brought to Nashville by singer Bob Luman in 1962, and only two years later he scored a No. 2 hit providing the memorable falsetto vocal on The Newbeats' "Bread and Butter." (Years later, he would cowrite the wedding staple "Wind Beneath My Wings.") The same year, 1964, a Nashville kid named Bucky Wilkin, son of songwriter Marijohn Wilkin, hot-rodded to the top 10 with "G.T.O." under the name Ronny and the Daytonas.
All this was happening in a town with a relatively young music industry--and Henley recalls that Nashville music executives didn't quite jive with rock 'n' roll. "They treated us really nice," he remembers, "but we were token. They didn't understand what we were doing." Still, the studios of Nashville were far removed from the rest of the town.
The Casuals may have been Nashville's first rock 'n' roll band, but not for long. Pat Patrick, who today leads a society orchestra and produces advertising jingles, remembers early local rock combos with astonishing clarity. Many of the people he talks a bout became successful session players. But even then, Patrick says, they were something to behold.
Rock 'n' roll was, at this point, literally in its infancy-- which meant there was plenty of room for innovation. A lot of the local groups only had one guitar player, who played both lead and rhythm parts on his instrument; as a result, he "had to really be innovative--fat, full--to cover the sound," Patrick says.
"The Sliders may have been the best four-piece group that I ever heard," Patrick recalls. "Mac Gayden was the best electric rhythm player. Man, he just chunked that electric rhythm. I think a lot of people learned their style from Mac's playing."
Another local hotshot Patrick remembers is Willow Collins, who played guitar for The Monarchs. "He just played what he wanted to play," says Patrick, who believes Collins could have been a rock innovator. "But he went and switched over to country, started playing banjo and forgot the guitar."
There were still more groups: The Gators eschewed raucous, R&B-flavored rock 'n' roll in favor of Four Seasons-style vocal harmonies, but Patrick recalls they kicked as hard as any of the other local groups. "I remember just standing there," Patrick enthuses, "going, 'God, these guys are awesome!'" And Patrick still marvels at the rumbling sound of The Lancers, whose drummer, Gene Kirby, miked his kick drum for explosive effect.
Along with The Casuals, though, perhaps the most high-profile group was Charlie McCoy's Escorts. As a teenager in Florida, McCoy had cranked up WLAC plenty of nights, and he moved to Nashville in 1960 to pursue a recording career. According to Pat Patrick, the Escorts were, in a word, "awesome. Charlie would play bass with one hand, trumpet and harp with the other hand, sing lead, and play percussion when he wasn't playing trumpet." Even early on, Larry Henley recalls that McCoy "could play any instrument there was, and play them better than anyone else." Even as his own records fizzled, McCoy was on his way to becoming an in-demand session harmonica player.
Of course, when bands play clubs now, all the instruments run through the P.A. system, where a soundman ostensibly achieves a perfect mix. But back then, local combos practiced in garages, and gigs consisted of little more than high school dances, frat parties, and big gatherings in people's driveways. Flash, in other words, counted for a lot.
"It was all about showmanship," explains John Sturdivant, who played saxophone for the Escorts after his first band, the Monarchs, fell apart. "That was what we felt set us apart."
He recalls a two-night poolside gig the group worked at the Hillwood Country Club. The first evening was for older kids, and the second was set aside for the younger crowd. The older kids, however, decided to come back and crash the second night's show. With such a big mob gathered, a big finish was imperative. So as the band stomped through Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," Sturdivant and trumpeter Bill Aikens hopped onto the diving boards, jumping up and down as they honked the final notes. By this time, all the kids were yelling for them to jump in the pool. With that, on the last note, both horn players took the plunge-- fully clothed and with instruments in hand. The kids followed suit.
Although many local bands at the time were based in, or at least played gigs around, West Nashville, groups popped up all over town. And, according to Patrick, the sound changed depending on the area. For instance, south of town, in Franklin and Columbia , bands like the Fairlaines played straight rhythm and blues. Near Charlotte Avenue, Howard Hudgins formed a band with a bluesier, more harmonica-driven sound. Meanwhile, in East Nashville, combos like the Kapers blended the rawness of rock 'n' roll with the horn-driven verve of R&B. The Fairlaines might play a James Brown song, Patrick explains, but the Kapers "would play a white version of an obscure James Brown song. So you wouldn't know if it was their original, or if they pulled it off an R&B album and just whitened it up a little."
Sturdivant, who eventually joined the Kapers after his stint in the Escorts, isn't so sure that a combo's sound was strictly defined by its home turf. Since all the bands were basically playing the same material, he explains, each one had to find its own sound. Nevertheless, there's always been an undeniable split between East and West Nashville--and it isn't just the Cumberland River.
Back then, the difference between the decidedly genteel West Side and the more down-to-earth, working-class East Side was even more pronounced. "We had more prestige because we were West Nashville," says Bill Davidson, who, as an eighth-grader in 1961, played in the Saturns with Pat Patrick. (Today, he still plays in the Pat Patrick Band.) "We didn't give those [East Nashville] cats any credit at all." And yet, he admits, these two separate sectors of Nashville were basically parallel universes.
"I wish some producer could have seen us at the time," Patrick recalls of those early days of Nashville rock 'n' roll, although he gives Fred Foster at Monument some credit. "He had Orbison and Brenda Lee," he recollects. "I was getting ready to sign with Monument as a singer. Fred had seen me do a show, and he loved the show." The teenage singer walked into the office, and before his stunned eyes Roy Orbison walked out and Brenda Lee walked in. "I was like, 'This is unbelievable! I can't believe I'm in the middle of this!'" Patrick exclaims. Unfortunately, one of the singers had picked that day to leave the label, and Foster was hardly in a jovial mood. "I went ahead and cut a demo," Patrick remembers, "and nothing ever happened."
However, an all-new influence arrived that would energize the youth of Nashville. And it came not from within, but from overseas. By the mid-1960s, the British invasion had forever altered pop music, and kids in Nashville were listening. The people who'd formed the first local rock combos had, by this time, graduated either to studio work or regular jobs. But in their place, a whole new crop of bands sprang up. They didn't entirely abandon their R&B roots-- they just became one more generation removed.
In 1964, a group of West Nashville kids, who'd all played in different combos, got together and formed the Charades. Playing covers of the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five and the Hollies, they evolved into one of Nashville's most popular bands, barnstorming frat parties, high school dances, and various West Side hangouts. "That was it for the kids of that era-- there was no Opryland, no Q-Zar, no drugs," remembers Charades bassist Jim Ragland. "It was more just a way of life. It was fairly good, clean fun."
In 1967, American pop music was changing yet again, as the first waves of San Francisco psychedelia pulsed over America. As the Charades took notice, their lineup evolved, and so did their name: Under the more flowery appellation of The Lemonade Charade, they released a single, "San Bernardino," on New York-based Bell Records. The record, which was written by a high-school kid named Bill Davidson, featured the kind of lavish string and horn arrangements that graced records by Bell labelmates The Box Tops, who'd had No. 1 hit that year with "The Letter." Although "San Bernardino" was a local hit, it never got any nationwide action-- despite reports that it went over well in San Bernardino, Calif.
Singer Steve Davis, who had penned the B-side, "Hideaway of Your Love," left to pursue a songwriting career. Davidson, who had been drumming for the Fairlaines, took his place. As the band continued through the end of the decade, their music kept pace with the psychedelic times.
"We started wearing clown suits onstage," Davidson remembers. "I did a tap-dance routine; we had a light guy. It wasn't just a bunch of guys coming onstage playing a set."
The Lemonade Charade even made a pretty bold move for a local combo: It started playing original material-- the kiss of death for lesser bands. Generally, there wasn't any money to be made playing original songs, Davidson explains. "Vandy was the primary employer in town, and that drove the economy. You did the tunes they wanted to hear. By the time I was in the band, we were doing 15 or 20 percent original stuff. We were so accepted that people thought it was hip."
After more than half a decade together and an ever-changing lineup, though, the Lemonade Charade fell apart, unable to earn a decent living. They'd done great locally, but "we starved for two years," says Davidson, who'd quit college to go on the road with the band. "Later on, I joined groups that did primarily original material, and then I really starved." Even so, you can still catch the band's reformed original lineup. They play occasional dates around town. They're now the Original Charades.
Aside from the usual driveway parties and dances, there weren't many other places to play in town. The Escorts played gigs in Printer's Alley, and for a while, around 1962, they even operated their own teen club, The Sack, next to East High School on Gallatin Road. There were hangouts like the Varsity Club at 15th and Broad and the Tiger A Go-Go on Charlotte Avenue. But beyond that, the only other venues were black joints like the VIP Club on 12th Avenue South (now where the Station Inn stands) and the New Era Lounge in North Nashville. Rock bands played them-- but not very often.
However, around the same time that the Charades were becoming West Nashville's preeminent rock band, one of Nashville's earliest rock clubs, the Briar Patch, opened at the corner of Fifth Avenue South and Lea Street. Suddenly, the scene had a center-- a place where underage kids could peer all night through the windows while rock 'n' roll played into the early hours.
Early on, The Briar Patch snagged one of the hottest acts in town, The Allman Joys. Every local band member managed, at some point, to catch other groups; an atmosphere of healthy, respectful competition flourished. But Gregg and Duane Allman's band-- now, they were out of everybody's league. Those who saw them speak with the reverence reserved for rock stars-- even though, at the time, the Allman Joys were gigging just like everyone else. "We played this gig on Belle Meade Boulevard," Pat Patrick recalls, "and these guys come in, and they were so cool. I mean, they were rock 'n' roll-- all the way. We thought the Beatles were there."
Sam Robinson remembers listening to the Allman Joys at the Briar Patch with his friend Rob McLemore. They had to stand outside the club because they were too young to get in. The front window looked directly on to the back of the stage, and "we could hear the band perfectly. We'd hang out in the street listening to them until 2 a.m., and we'd finally have to go home because we had school the next day."
Robinson himself hadn't done too badly with the Nashville Shadows, a British Invasion-style aggregate of mostly Glencliff-based kids. The band had even toured the South on a Dick Clark package show, but now the bass player and the drummer were going off to college. McLemore's band, the Anglo-Saxons, asked Robinson if he'd like to join up with them; they already had a vocalist, but they could always use another-- especially one who already had his own following. The day he graduated from high school, in the spring of 1968, Robinson joined the Anglo-Saxon horde.
By time Robinson joined the Anglo-Saxons, they'd been playing for several years, and only one original member remained in the group. Early on, a local label, Squire Records, had issued an Anglo-Saxons single that featured a sloppy demolition of Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man"; the flipside droned Jody Reynolds' morbid ditty "Endless Sleep" (a staple for everyone from Billy Idol to the Judds). Strangely enough, the band on the record wasn't even the Anglo-Saxons-- a local deejay had cobbled the band together only after the record's release.
The group formed in 1964 or '65 around a core of kids from Goodlettsville and Hendersonville. Original guitarist Phil Earhart remembers getting a call from organist Sharon Lane, who was likely the first female instrumentalist in the local rock scene. Along with guitarist James Swing, bassist Jerry "Pott" Williams and drummer Butch Williams, they were nothing if not versatile: at various points, they backed country cut-up Ray Stevens and R&B crooner Arthur Alexander. Within a couple of years, only Pott Williams remained in the band. Jimmy Shields replaced Earhart on guitar, Freddie Birdwell replaced Lane on organ, and Rob McLemore came in on drums; a West Nashville kid, Bobby Neighbors, took over vocal duties.
"For the times, we had a decent band," Neighbors says. "Mainly, what we had about us was charisma. We had five people that just clicked." Like so many other local bands, the Anglo-Saxons' music had a strong R&B foundation, but it was heavily influenced by the British Invasion sound. Ultimately, their calling card became lengthy medleys of Rascals tunes.
When the Allman Joys blew town, the Saxons signed on at the Briar Patch. Sam Robinson, who hadn't yet joined the band at that point, remembers the club's proprietor as "a rough, short little character. He would try to keep the band in the kitchen during the breaks, and he would sell all the soldiers from Fort Campbell a bottle of booze from the trunk of his car for double the price. Then he'd sell them mixers for 50 cents."
In 1967, around the time they were rocking the Briar Patch, the band won four hours' free studio time in a battle of the bands contest. They went in to Scotty Moore's studio to record under the guidance of songwriter and WKDA jock Dan Hoffman, who by this time had become their manager.
Accounts vary about how the band ended up cutting Mel Tillis' "Ruby," a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell that year. Bobby Neighbors remembers demoing the song on his own several months earlier to give to his stepfather; at the Saxons' session, someone heard him singing "Ruby" and said, "Why don't you put that down?" "I thought he was kidding," Neighbors says. Hoffman recalls bringing in the song himself. Shields credits a guy named Mike Weesner with presenting it to the band. Whatever the case, the resulting track wasn't even representative of the Anglo-Saxons' sound. Yet it was perfect-- a country song by a Nashville rock band.
Listening to "Ruby" 27 years later, it has the hallmarks of a lost '60s pop classic, complete with jangly guitar and lots of organ. Producer Hoffman supplied the finishing touch: a percussive effect created by rubbing two pieces of sandpaper together and running the sound through an echo chamber. Not only did it reinforce the rhythm, it gave the whole song an eerie undercurrent.
But "Ruby" wasn't remarkable simply because a local rock band was reinterpreting a country song. (Just a few years ealier, the Kapers had released a single featuring demented R&B takes on Buck Owens' "Tiger By the Tail" and "Love's Gonna Live Here.") Recorded in 1967 and released the following year, "Ruby" captured the times with stark precision. A soldier, wounded and wheelchair-bound, comes home from "that old crazy Asian war" to find that his wife prefers the city lights and the arms of other men. As the sun sets and Ruby prepares for another night out, the young vet pleads with her, "Aw, Ruuuuuu-by, don't take your love to town." What made it all the more effective was the fact that any one of the Anglo-Saxons could have been that soldier. The draft and the Vietnam war were daily terrors.
"Ruby" was released on the inaptly named Flint, Mich. label Lucky Eleven, and it came painfully close to becoming a hit. The single picked up plenty of local airplay, and then suddenly it began gathering steam in other cities. According to Hoffman, it charted on a number of regional radio stations and was poised to go national. And then, as quickly as it rose, the record nosedived. No one knows why. At least a couple of people involved with the band blame Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, who would, in 1969, reach No. 6 with their version of "Ruby."
"We had it on the tips of our fingers," Hoffman remembers of the Anglo-Saxons' near-success. "That's happened so many times before, but it had never happened to me. It leaves you with the emptiest feeling." The Anglo-Saxons never released another record.
After Sam Robinson joined the band, they carried on for several years, touring heavily in the Northeast. They played backbreaking stints at the Jolly Roger in Virginia Beach, swapping sets with a beach music outfit. Robinson recalls Virginia Beach as "a damn boot camp." Playing seven nights a week, they had to have two vocalists: That way, when one guy's voice went out, the other singer took over. But the boot-camp regimen also tightened the Anglo-Saxons into a fierce combo. Whenever the Saxons returned home from being on tour, they packed the Hullabaloo Club, a spacious teen hangout located at Bell Grimes Lane and Dickerson Road. Kids couldn't wait to catch the band, who by now were road-tested and tight. "We had no dead mic time," Neighbors recalls. "It was hard to tell when we ended a song because we were right on top of another one."
Ask anyone who was around back in the '60s about local bands and they're liable to unleash a litany of names: the London Fog, the George Washington Bridge, the Ugly Forest, Lightning Tight, Bobby Williams and the Misfits, the Jaguars, the Rubber Band, King James and the Scepters, the Remmicks, the Nobles, the Continentals, the Zodiacs, the Aztecs, U.S. Apple Core, the Exotics, Patent Pending, Past Present and Future, the Shufflers, the Crystals, the Nocturnes and on and on. But among all those bands, one still stands out. At a time when rock 'n' roll was dominated by men-- not that it isn't now-- this group was a true rarity: five teenage girls who decided that if a bunch of guys could play rock 'n' roll, so could they. And they were as cool as their name: The Feminine Complex.
The origins of the Feminine Complex were inauspicious enough. In the fall of 1966, two Maplewood High School sophomores, Lana Napier and Jean Williams, decided to start a band for fun. Drumming came naturally to Napier, and Williams had gotten interested in playing music after watching her boyfriend play bass in a local band. The only problem was, they didn't have much in the way of musical equipment. Napier only had a drummer's practice pad, and Williams, who'd asked her parents to buy her a guitar, got a ukulele instead. It wasn't long, Napier remembers, before Jean could play just about anything on the ukulele.
Williams finally got her guitar-- a Gibson-- and she and Napier, both starting players on the Maplewood girls' basketball team, found a couple of teammates to round out their band: guitarist and vocalist Mindy Dalton and tambourinist and vocalist Judi Griffith. Their basketball coach, Pam Hickman, came up with their original name: The Pivots. The quartet officially convened in Jean's basement bedroom.
By wintertime, they'd already played a couple of gigs, one of which was a Maplewood school assembly. The girls dressed in matching pantsuits that day, a direct violation of school dress code; when they went back to class, they had to tuck their pants legs up under their skirts. The show went well-- despite one little incident that, almost 30 years later, Napier still recounts with chagrin.
The Pivots had, in true local band fashion, worked up a whole set of cover tunes. (In the case of a song like "Mustang Sally," they just reversed the gender and retitled it "Jaguar Jimmy.") One of the songs they'd prepared especially for the show was a version of James Brown's "I Feel Good." Williams, who took the lead vocal on this particular number, also did her best impersonation of the Godfather of Soul, donning a cape and then shrugging it off in the middle of the song. They'd practiced the routine plenty. Only this time, when she tossed off the cape, it landed right on top of Napier-- who remembers thinking, "Why here?"-- and her drum kit.
The beat went on, though. By spring, The Pivots were a working band: With Williams now on bass, they played their first paying gig backing up a contestant at the Davidson County Beauty Pageant. By the time summer rolled around, they were practicing five days a week and had completed the lineup with the addition of Pame Stephens, a childhood friend of Jean's, on organ. The only problem was, they weren't happy with their name. They gathered in Williams' basement to brainstorm.
"Everybody was just throwing out stuff," Napier remembers, "And somebody threw out a name, and I don't remember which one of the girls, I think it was Mindy, said, 'No, we need something feminine'-- and I just added 'Complex' to it. We weren't simple!"
They played dances at Skateland, a big summer hangout, and then they started working out-of-town jobs in surrounding towns. Everywhere they went-- be it Nashville, Dickson, Tullahoma or Shelbyville-- boys loved them. They were used to seeing all-male combos, but this was something new. Who could blame them for staring?
"I remember there used to be fights," Napier says, "because the guys would want to come and watch, and the girls would get mad because the guys were watching, like, 'Wow! I can't believe these girls are doing this! Let's watch and see what they'll do!' Or they might say something to us while we were taking a break, and their girlfriends would get mad."
With the end of summer came the beginning of school, but the band didn't slow down one bit-- although they did quit the basketball team. (Coach Hickman, needless to say, wasn't thrilled to lose four of her six starting players.) The gigs kept coming. Among their favorites were the semi-regular shows they played at Sewart Air Force Base in Smyrna. The men at the Airmen's Club were always an appreciative audience, although one time, Griffith remembers, a couple of women in the crowd decided to steal the show: "They got up in front of us and said, 'We can get more attention than them,' and they started taking their clothes off."
The band even played in the window of a Gibson dealer's store on Lower Broad, in the shadow of the Ryman. Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, who caught the band's act, approached Williams after the set and told her, "You need to be in country music."
About this time, the Feminine Complex attracted the attention of Dee Kilpatrick, who had just formed Athena Records with Rick Powell. A country music industry veteran who'd worked as an A&R man for the Nashville divisions of Capitol Records and Mercury Records, Kilpatrick envisioned a label dedicated to fostering songwriters. Powell, meanwhile, was a talented guitar player who brought his expertise as a producer and arranger. The group was Athena's first signing.
By the time school let out, the Feminine Complex were practicing twice a day, working up material for their debut LP. They were also given lessons, courtesy of Rick and his wife, on how to carry themselves more maturely. "They were extremely concerned that we be ladies and not brats," Dalton recalls, "and so they had us over and gave us etiquette lessons. There was even a point when we were going to take piano lessons together. They were really great through the whole thing, but we all thought it was the stupidest thing ever."
As far as Athena was concerned, the Feminine Complex were about to enter the big-time. The group started playing more out-of-town dates, the highlight of which was a trip to New York to perform with the 1910 Fruitgum Co. on the NBC network's Showcase 68. (Incidentally, Stephens struck up a long-distance courtship on the trip with the Fruitgum Co.'s keyboard player).
Just as everything began coming together, however, the band started falling apart. Dalton, Griffith and Stephens had all graduated from high school by this time, but Napier and Williams had another year left. It became increasingly difficult for Stephens , who had enrolled at Baptist-affiliated Belmont College, to maintain her commitment to the band. To get out of classes so she could play a road gig one Friday, she fibbed to the academic dean that she was Jewish. "We didn't know you were Jewish," he sai d. "Well, trust me, I am," she retorted.
When she got back that Monday, the gig was up. The powers-that-be had found her out, and they made it clear they didn't approve of a female student playing rock 'n' roll. She had to choose, and she decided to stick with school. Napier and Williams, who by that time had rejoined Coach Hickman's team, left the band soon after. That left only Dalton and Griffith, who tried to carry on. But by the time the Feminine Complex album, titled Livin' Love, came out, the band had broken up.
Listening to Livin' Love 26 years after the fact, it remains an utterly engaging document of the Feminine Complex's incredible potential. However, many of the band's male peers saw them as little more than a novelty. Ask any veteran of the local rock scene then what he thought of the band, and his response will likely be, "Well, they were good for girls." Pat Patrick, for one, gives the group a little more credit: "They were breaking new ground all around. They were tight when they played live. It was so unique, though, that, of course, the first reaction was, 'Man, they're good for girls.' At that point, you never saw a female bass player or drummer, you just didn't. I remember the bass player blew me away."
Ironically, to the best of anyone's recollection, Livin' Love largely features the instrumental talents of session musicians. (Williams, for her part, remembers having to show her bass licks to a studio pro.) The playing is definitely slick, but Lee Hazen's engineering and Rick Powell's snappy production deserve a mention in and of themselves: "Time Slips By," which closed the album, was a triumph of studio wizardry, brimming with psyched-out guitar effects and primitive feedback. Most remarkable of all was the fact that this mind-altering stereophonic action only served to enlarge Mindy Dalton's pop sensibilities to near-epic proportions.
Indeed, even if the members of the Feminine Complex didn't play on their own record, Livin' Love still proved that Dalton had developed into a fine vocalist and an excellent songwriter-- which the local music scene clearly lacked at the time. Songs like "Are You Lonesome Like Me" and "It's Magic" suggested a womanly sophistication far beyond her 18 years, while "I Won't Run" was a supremely catchy pop tune, pure and simple. Williams, who had contributed the equally infectious "Forgetting," remembers being fairly impressed by Dalton's lyrics. After hearing some of her songs, "we'd go, 'Wow! What have you been doing?'"
Unlike many of their male counterparts, none of the members of the Feminine Complex went on to pursue careers in the music business. Nor did their band experience serve as a revolutionizing or liberating force in their lives. They all went on to the kind of lives led by so many other female baby-boomers: They got married and raised families. (Dalton, however, did manage to combine both music and domesticity for a while; she spent the better part of two decades playing in a band, Dotson and Co., with her husband at the time.)
And yet, talking to them, it's clear that they all developed a deep sense of self-esteem from their time in the band. Even today, they speak with pride about the fact that, even if they didn't make it, they came pretty close-- and they did it themselves. Kids today may grow up knowing that they can play music regardless of age, gender or ability, but the Feminine Complex didn't have that kind of encouragement when they started. All they had was their own determination and the loving support of their parents.
The Feminine Complex's story isn't much different from that of any other rock band trying to make it in Nashville. Countless musicians here have faced the harsh reality of failure, and almost invariably, they blame their dashed hopes on the fact that they're stuck in a country-music town. Buzz Cason, however, has little patience for this kind of reasoning. "People use that as an excuse," he says, "and they're still trying to use it. But if you cut the music right, [listeners] don't care if it's from Podunk, Alaska."
What matters to the pioneering heroes of Nashville's rock scene, after 40 years of dashed hopes and infrequent victories, is the fact that they at least tried. "In our minds," the Feminine Complex's Judi Griffith recalls, "we were getting there. We were almost there. In our minds, we still have that presence of mind. We almost made it."