In 1965 bombs fell on Vietnam, and garage bands sprouted all over America. My hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi was no exception. While the black majority population of our Delta town was marching on the courthouse for voting rights, a good portion of the white youth were hunched over guitars puzzling out the Delta blues-derived licks on records by The Yardbirds, The Animals and The Rolling Stones.
I was eleven years old that year, and there were at least two functioning garage bands within walking distance of my house. On warm evenings, I hung around and listened to them practice in a family carport or under the picnic shelter at the neighborhood park. I remember boys with puppy dog bangs flopping in their eyes as they thrashed away at shiny new Fender Jaguar guitars and Ludwig drums. They all wanted to be The Beatles, but, here in the Delta, they all played "Mustang Sally" and Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog."
Then, in the autumn of that year, something truly incredible happened. One of our hometown bands broke through. The Gants' recording of Bo Diddley's song "Roadrunner" started creeping up the charts. It was two minutes and twenty seconds of garage-land glory. It opens with thrashing electric guitars modulating up a scale, building the tension rung by rung, and then ignites with primitive fuzztone power chords over a classic boogie bass line. And it had a gimmicky hook on the chorus when lead singer Sid Herring imitated the cartoon Roadrunner's classic getaway line, "Beep-beep, schwoooo." "Roadrunner," the single, and The Gants' first album with the same name, were recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and licensed for national release by Liberty Records.
The Gants were older than the guys in my neighborhood bands. Two of them were in college at Mississippi State, but the other two were still at Greenwood High. At least they were when they weren't out touring with The Dave Clark Five, playing club gigs in New York, or appearing on television in L.A. For a season, the gods walked among us. We just knew that The Gants would go all the way. Their lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, Sid Herring, was a natural. At seventeen, he was already writing album-loads of crafty, Beatle-esque pop tunes. He had the singing voice John Lennon would have had if he'd grown up surrounded by black people. And he was cute-- way cute-- so cute, he was sometimes mistaken for that ultimate cute guy-- Peter Noone-- the "Herman" of Herman and The Hermits.
That winter The Gants played a March of Dimes benefit show in Jefferson Davis School auditorium. The place was filled with hundreds of kids and teenagers, and no parents. The band wore blue suits and Beatle boots. The girls screamed just like they did for The Beatles-- constantly, through every song. The night was loud, sweaty and intense. It was my first rock concert.
"Roadrunner" eventually stalled at #52 on the Billboard pop chart. It charted higher on local surveys in Memphis, Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Miami. But in those days, the music business was still more decentralized than it is today. With enough bad luck, it was possible to hit in several major markets without breaking through nationally. For The Gants, bad luck came in the form of the Vietnam War. Their career was crippled from the start by their inability to mount a sustained national tour. They couldn't tour behind "Roadrunner" because rhythm guitarist Johnny Sanders and bassist Vince Montgomery (who were Mississippi State students) were told that if they left school they would be reported to the draft board and called up within a month. Sid Herring and drummer Don Wood got the same message at Greenwood High School after they'd turned eighteen.
Today it may be hard to believe that a local, small town draft board would be impervious to influence or the pull of celebrity. Today Greenwood would probably bend any rule to snag a group of world-famous entertainers. But back then, rock and roll was still dangerous and disreputable. To the average white, middle-aged Southerner, the musicians' long hair reeked of perversion and the throb of their music suggested orgies of miscegenation. These boys clearly needed a dose of the same military medicine that tamed Elvis.
But Elvis was lucky enough to serve in peace-time and bring his pretty self home in one piece. In Vietnam, kids were dying like flies. In fact, the star running back from the 1965 Greenwood High School Bulldogs came home in a body bag not long after The Gants hit. So The Gants wisely chose to stay home and live, and their career slowly fizzled.
Liberty brought them to L.A., but the producer didn't trust their original material and had them record a laundry list of uninspired covers. Of the material the band took out West, the only thing the producer used was The Gants' cover of another Bo Diddley tune, "Crackin' Up." Unlike "Roadrunner," "Crackin' Up" features the patented Bo Diddley hambone beat, and The Gants ride it like expert surfers. Sanders' rhythm guitar sounds like an electric organ, an effect achieved by putting an electric fan in front of the amp to emulate the sound of a Leslie speaker. Herring lays down blistering blues licks between lines of the vocal, and they give the whole thing a pop sheen with Beatle-esque vocal harmonies. It's as fine a white rhythm and blues number as any of the era.
Liberty put "Crackin' Up" out on a single, with a bluesy "Dr. Feelgood" on the flip. But it died, and so did the intensely mediocre album titled Gants Galore. The Gants went to Nashville and recorded Gants Again. It was a better album, but one without hits. Finally Liberty called them back out to L.A. and put them in a studio with a writer-producer named David Gates. In the 1970's, Gates became the genius behind the pop group called Bread. Remember "Baby I'm'a want you, baby I'm a need you..."? The same guy put The Gants in front of the L.A. Philharmonic string section and had them sing his songs. One of them, "Greener Grass," was released as a single and began to generate some radio action in the Northeast, but without the support of live appearances this spark fizzled, too.
That was pretty much the end for The Gants. Johnny Sanders quit to go to medical school. They picked up a new rhythm guitarist, Johnny Freeman, who'd played with Herring and Wood before they were The Gants, and kept gigging. They got to spend the summer of 1967 lolling in the flesh pots of Sunset Strip at Liberty's expense. Their first gig that summer, Freeman remembers, was opening for The Grateful Dead at a club called the Hullabaloo After Hours. They came back to Greenwood playing the songs from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in front of a psychedelic light show. The locals were dumbfounded.
That summer turned out be the last hurrah. Liberty dropped The Gants. Freeman and Montgomery went back to school. Sid Herring and Don Woods kept playing around the South, including a stint as writers and session men with Steve Cropper's Transmaximus International (TMI) studio. After all the threats from the Greenwood draft board, when Herring and Woods were finally called up for their physicals, they were both declared 4-F due to high frequency hearing loss. Rock and roll had ruined them for Vietnam.
The Gants became a footnote in rock history, but their music never quite faded away. In the 1980s, they were included in Nuggets, the highly influential series of classic garage band compilations released on Rhino Records. In 1989, well-known rock critic Dave Marsh put out a book called The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. There, near the middle of the book, (at entry 783 to be exact) was "Crackin' Up" by The Gants. Marsh wrote, "It definitely was better than Bo's original, his standard chunky beat beefed up with nasty guitar licks... and a vocal that's as close to a hoarse rebel yell as anything ever applied to R&B manuevers."
As for me and my house, I left Greenwood at age eighteen, and I didn't think about The Gants again for a long time. I held on to my copies of their first two albums. In a cardboard box, they followed me on my bewildered pilgrimage from the 1970's to 1990's. They went with me to Mississippi College in Clinton, then north to Washington, DC for eleven years, then further north to Cambridge, Mass., down to New Orleans, and back up again to Washington. When my beloved vinyl collection was finally shelved in Ripley, Mississippi a couple of years ago, The Gants were still there-- right between Gang of Four and The Grateful Dead. But I hadn't played the albums in at least 25 years.
The band re-entered my life in spring 1999, when my wife and I were scouring Northeast Mississippi for a good obstetrician to deliver our third child. Everyone kept referring us to Dr. John Sanders in Tupelo, so we decided to give him a try. And it turned out that John Sanders, MD was Johnny Sanders, rhythm guitarist for The Gants. At each of our monthly visits, Sanders regaled me with The Gants misadventures in the music biz, including some of those recounted above.
Some of his stories sounded like outtakes from Spinal Tap: The Early Years. My favorite concerned a concert The Gants played in Little Rock, Arkansas. Sid Herring remembers it as a job opening for The Yardbirds. Sanders only remembers that The Swinging Medallions and Sam the Sham and The Pharoahs were also on the bill. Everyone agrees that it was a fiasco. At the time, Sanders says, "I was running track at Mississippi State, and they made me keep my hair very short. You can see how short it was on the cover of the Gants Galore album. Of course, that just wasn't cool for a rock and roll musician in those days. Vince was insecure about his hair, too, because he was already going baldheaded. So, on the way to the show, Vince and I decided to wear wigs. We stopped off and got two of these really terrible, cheap Beatles wigs. We wore them on stage, and the minute we walked on we could see people in the crowd whispering to each other. Then they started laughing. Then they started howling. It was terrible. But there was nothing we could do then, so we just played along with it. Then while we were playing the wigs started coming off. I still remember this like it happened yesterday."
Sanders told me that there was interest in re-releasing The Gants stuff. The reunited band had played a garage band festival called Cave Stomp in Detroit the year before (1998) and were well-received by a new generation of fans. There were bootleg compilations out in Europe and Japan. There were Gants web sites springing up on the Internet. Liberty Records was long gone. The master tapes of The Gants recordings were owned by the big British entertainment conglomerate EMI, and EMI refused to license them for reissue.
Sanders delivered our son, Joseph Myles, on November 24 (by caesarean section). Two days later, he dropped by our hospital room to check my wife's incision before discharging her. He bounced into the room on the balls of his sneakered feet, and blurted out, "EMI sold the rights. A legal Best of The Gants CD will be out next year. It's a company up in New York called Sundazed. The deal just went through, and they want us to come up to New York to play a show when it's released." Then he got down to the medical business at hand.
Finally, with the guys all in their 50's, it seemed that The Gants luck might change. The Sundazed disc, called Roadrunner: The Best of The Gants, got a few good reviews. The band played a series of gigs around Mississippi in preparation for a return to New York. Sanders said the hard part of getting back together was re-learning the originals. "The Sundazed people wanted us to play a set of almost nothing but Sid's originals. But we didn't play those songs much in our live show back in the '60's. They weren't as good to dance to. In our live show we played stuff like "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour." We hadn't played "Smoke Rings," for instance, since the day we recorded it. We never played that live. But now we had to learn it."
The trip to New York was a triumph. They headlined a show with The Blues Magoos, and the crowd went wild. The farflung, and downright eccentric, cult of The Gants, spawned on the Internet, has continued to grow. "One guy," Sanders told me, "swore he had driven from Seattle, Washington to see us."
Not long after the band's return to Mississippi, their luck returned to form when Vince Montgomery was found dead in his Clarksdale home from "natural causes" at the age of 54. But the band is playing on. Herring said they were playing the Riverfront Festival in Vicksburg and the Elvis Presley Festival in Tupelo. "And we're talking to people about appearances in New York and New Orleans," he said. They've added a bass player named Ed Foresman, another Delta boy (born in Greenville, Mississippi) who used to play with Larry Raspberry in one of his post-Gentries bands. " It'll never be the same," Herring said. "But I know Vince would have wanted us to keep playing."
There's more Gants material in the can, which could be released. This includes a session cut at the original Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. "Sometime in 1964," Don Woods remembers, "we played a dance at the American Legion hut in Greenwood after one of the high school football games. I think we made $108 at that job. We took that money and the next day we went up to Memphis and recorded about ten songs at Sun." This material has survived in the form of a pristine acetate pressing discovered among Vince Montgomery's personal effects. There is also a ten song collection, titled Delta Blues, that was recorded in 1994 with producer John Mihelic. It includes some more recent Herring originals in a Southern rock mode (the title track among them), some '60's covers and a new recording of "Roadrunner." The session was intended for release to the European market, but (more Gants luck) Mihelic died suddenly before the deal was done.Looking back on this long, strange trip, Sid Herring says, "I remember playing in the summer of 1965 at our first big coliseum show. I remember I got this electric feeling from the top of my head down to my toes, probably the best I have ever felt. I had already dedicated my life to this. I thought I was going to be doing it forever, and I believed in it heart and soul. I was ready to ride it out to the very end. I still play, and I still enjoy it. The music has never let me down. As long as it feels like that, I'll continue to do it