Dr.T & The Undertakers

Gears Fab's three volume PSYCHEDELIC STATES: FLORIDA CD series has proved beyond a doubt that the Sunshine State was a fertile ground for countless great garage bands. One of the best and most popular groups of the time, was Dr. T. & the Undertakers. From numerous concert appearances, TV show appearances, and even a documentary film appearance, Tony Asci - Dr. T. himself - recounted for the Lance Monthly his time spent in the group.

An Interview With Tony Asci (Dr. T) of Dr. T. & The Undertakers

60sgaragebands.com (60s): How did you first get interested in music?

Tony Asci (TA): At my Mother's suggestion, I started taking piano lessons at the age of six and early on I found myself listening to all the music I was allowed to on the radio. Remember that this was in the mid '40s, long before rock and roll was even thought of. By age nine I was into music theory and started to notice that I could listen to music and seem to separate the instruments and sort of know what they were doing. I could also transpose songs in my head if the key was too complicated for me to play. This proved very helpful years later when the band was learning new material. After seven years of lessons I was away from the keyboards for twelve years although my interest for music grew. It was always the "sound" more so than lyrics with me and I found that most any song the band wanted to work on was just a matter of memorizing the words; I could play all the music by ear.

60s: Was Dr. T & The Undertakers your first band?

TA: Dr. T & The Undertakers was my first band and the only one I really consider myself to have been a part of. After the breakup I did put a four-piece group together using my drummer, a new lead and a new bassist. We did one gig, a "freebie," at a place in Coral Gables, doing new material (this was early '68). I remember doing Incense & Peppermints by Strawberry Alarm Clock and watching everyone just stand there while we stretched out the ending with a 10-minute keyboard solo. That group never actually had a name and that was the end of my band days.

60s: How long was Dr. T & The Undertakers together?

TA: Dr. T & the Undertakers was together from early '65 (when we came up with the name) until the last Sunday in May, 1967. Our last gig was at the North Miami Armory. I would have to say that there was already a band of sorts when I met the guys in the latter part of 1964.There was a drummer, a rhythm guitar, and all kinds of brass, and they were just struggling along. They wanted a keyboard player, which wasn't common then. Most groups had a lead, a rhythm, a bass, and a drummer. We actually got an audition at The "21"Club on Miami Beach which didn't go well at all. A couple weeks after that I met with Jerry Johnson, the drummer, and Bob Barbara, rhythm, and said, "I know I'm new here but if you guys want to get serious at all then I suggest you lose the brass and we'll go from there." That was the beginning. Jerry, Bob, and I practiced everything we could think of, which included the current Top 40 plus 40-50 more songs.

60s: So how did you get the "Dr. T" moniker?

TA: The name was the last of my worries until we finally had a complete five-piece band. One night we got together to practice and I came in with this black bag that I used to carry the microphones and cords in. Bob Barbara made the comment of how I looked like a Doctor carrying that bag. So the credit goes to him. I simply responded, "Just call me Dr T." I added The Undertakers from an English Group called The Undertakers who wore black capes and rode English bikes to their gigs.

60s: So could you recap the band line-up at this time?

TA: I really can't remember the "brass section" but the guys who I consider to be the original band were: Tony Asci (Dr T.), keyboards, lead vocals; Sal Gonzales; lead guitar; Bob Barbara, rhythm guitar; Bob Usherson, bass guitar; and Jerry Johnson, drums and vocals. We performed during 1965-1966. Sometime in mid-'66, Sal and Bob Usherson left the group and they were replaced with Bob Jabo, lead guitar and vocals; and Louie Rodriguez, bass guitar. We performed thru 1966 and to the last gig in May 1967. The only member I know of who went on from there was Bob Jabo, who joined The Kollection and, later, Katmandu.

60s: Where was your typical practice location?

TA: We would practice anywhere we could, usually on weeknights. Occasionally we practiced at The Coliseum in Coral Gables thru the generosity of the owner, Nat Sokalow (thus the "freebie" I mentioned earlier to show my appreciation for letting us practice there).

60s: And what type of gigs were you landing?

TA: We played mostly for the teen and college ages. We stayed away from the nightclubs, mostly because of the late hours. Being older than the rest of the band, I worked full time and most of the others were still in school.

60s: What about the WFUN dances? I read the band played at those frequently.

TA: Once we got our foot in the door, so to speak, I always put the WFUN dances first because - thanks to Steve Palmer - we got a lot of exposure and a lot of outside jobs. He always saw to it that whenever anyone "big" was coming thru Miami we got to open for them or - in cases of a solo artist - accompanied them.

60s: Who was Steve Palmer?

TA: As far as I can remember, Steve Palmer had something to do with Florida Bandstand. He may have been the director. He owned The Place, a Teen and college age place with live bands and weekend dances. We were the first band to play there and the grand opening was aired on WFUN. Steve and I got along great and he always threw outside gigs our way. We played there regularly and he was the one who hooked us up with Steve Alaimo for his appearance in West Palm Beach.

60s: What bands did you get to open for or play with?

TA: We played with so many bands during that time, both local - and again, thanks to Steve Palmer - artists who were nationally known. The locals I recall were The Shaggs, The Montells, Echo, The Bluenotes, The Moss Brothers, Clefs of Lavender Hill, The Pawns, The Drones, and so many more. Early on we played at The War Memorial Auditorium in Ft. Lauderdale with a great band out of Milwaukee called The Canadian Legends. The drummer was Jim Sessody, who I got to know later on after The Legends split. He hosted some of the dances at The Place (Steve Palmer) and occasionally would sit in on drums. All I can say is the guy was a great drummer and a hell of a nice guy. He sat in on our third recording, and possibly our second, I'm not sure. We were very fortunate to have met and played with a number of well-known artists. Some of them were just getting their break back then. The first I remember was at The Municiple Auditorium in Hialeh. We were still getting our feet wet. We did sets with Ronnie & the Daytonas ("Little GTO"). They were good guys. The keyboard player let me use his Vox Continental and the next day I was at The House of Pianos buying one! We accompanied Neil Diamond at The Place. He walked in, did three songs, and walked out! We did a gig in W. Palm Beach with Steve Alaimo from WHERE THE ACTION IS. He was a great guy; really down to earth. We rehearsed in the afternoon and on the stage he didn't do one number we had rehearsed. It was fun, though. I mentioned Simon & Garfunkel. We also played with The Lovin' Spoonful with John Sebastian, and Wayne Cochran& the CC Ryders. He actually opened for us the first of two times. We played with Bob Seger (The Bob Seger System) at The World. Those are about all I remember and were the most memorable....

60s: Did the Undertakers tour at all, or did you perform with all these acts while they were in Florida?

TA: We played mostly in the South Florida area but we played at University of Florida, and we also played in The Bahamas a couple times. We also took a trip or two to the Florida Keys...We got around. I should mention that we traveled in a 55 Caddy Hearse with our name on the sides in Gold Letters! It was a gimmick and always drew a crowd.

60s: What can you tell me about the singles that Dr. T & Yhe Undertakers recorded?

TA: We recorded three songs, all at Criteria Studios in Miami (NOTE: The first recording was actually at Dukoff Studios). The first was an original and the flip side was something I had improvised as a "break" song (NOTE: Undertaker's Theme aka Deceased). The second was the B-side of one of The Animals hits. The third was the B-side of the Moody Blues hit Go Now - again totally re-arranged. They got quite a bit of play on WFUN and WQAM. They did OK locally, but really didn't amount to that much. I always felt that we were so much better live where I had total control of what we could and could not do. The studio is an entirely different game. All I remember about the recording sessions is that we were completely "green" and had no say whatsoever. I think that's why I was somewhat disappointed at the results. I had ideas that I never was allowed to use. But it was an experience, as was the entire time Dr T. performed.

60s: The song Deceased was later renamed Undertakers Theme. Do you recall why? And why was it used as the B-side to both of your first two singles?

TA: I really don't know why the song's title was changed other than the fact that we honestly didn't have any material of our own except Times Have Changed. I think that would explain the repeated use on the B-sides (NOTE: The band's first single, Times Have Changed, was also used as the B-side for It's Easy Child, the group's third single).

60s: So you were the band's songwriter?

TA: I was the songwriter...Ha Ha. I only wrote the one song: Times Have Changed.

60s: Are there any vintage recordings by Dr. T & The Undertakers in the vaults? Do any live recordings exist?

TA: Other than the three recordings, that's it. I know there are copies and I know the three masters still exist. Right now, let's just say they are "out of reach". I'm hoping that will change one day. I would really like to have a copy of each one for myself. I have promised a friend a copy of the third single if I ever find one for their music archives. I also kick myself every so often for not ever taping any of our gigs. I just never thought of it.

60s: How popular did the band become?

TA: I think that by early '67 we were considered among the best around. To say we were THE best would be unfair because there were so many really good bands in Miami at the time. I recall Carter Ragsdale of The Montells saying how people didn't dance much when they played. That was true and, with all due respect to them, we also experienced a lot of that. I will mention just one time in particular...it was at the North Miami Auditorium. Jim Howell was the MC from WFUN. Simon and Garfunkel had just performed two songs with our drummer as background. We had been working on a new release by Alan Price (the former keyboardist for The Animals, whom I tried to emulate) called I Put a Spell On You. This was his rendition of the original done by Screamin' J Hawkins in the '50s. Jim Howell came out and announced that we were going to "attempt" to play it and as he walked off the stage I noticed 2000 kids standing, waiting, wondering...The stage lights went out and I started the intro and as we gradually worked into it the lights came up and we played this number for the first time to the biggest, most silent, room we ever played in. Even after it was over they just stood there, frozen for a few minutes. I never forget that night!

60s: How would you best describe The Undertakers' sound?

TA: I think we had a great sound - a unique sound for that era. We had not only the typical lead and rhythm guitars, but we also had the keyboards...and using a Vox Super Beatle amp (200w out) with two speaker cabinets, each with four Goodman's of England 12" speakers and two compression horns, I could fill any part of the band's sound and any part of any auditorium, for that matter.

60s: What bands, or performers, personally influenced you?

TA: I have to say that I was influenced originally by '50s rock and roll, as that's what I listened to as a teen. I remember when Chuck Berry burst on the scene( before Elvis), we had never heard anything like that come out of a guitar before! But as far as the '60s, I really liked The Animals and we did just about everything they recorded. We had almost the same equipment. I would have to say that our "sound" was very similar to that of The Animals.

60s: Did The Undertakers compete in any Battle of the Bands?

TA: Ah, yes…the Battle of the Bands. I'll try to be brief...We ended up in the final three in the Florida Battle of the Bands in either late '66 or early'67. We went on second. We started off with that Alan Price version of I Put A Spell On You and then we did Devil With The Blue Dress On by Mitch Ryder and both went extremely well. We were at The Place, our favorite, and it was rocking! Echo was the first band, and they were always good! The final band was a group called The Buckinghams. I know I'm going to sound partial but they didn't show me a thing! Of course they beat us out, and the rest (for them) is history. We were already established enough and I don't think second best helped or hurt us. So many people, including one judge, told us that we blew the competition off the stage. I was satisfied just knowing we were in there.

60s: The Buckinghams? They were from Chicago. Is this the band you're talking about? The Kind Of A Drag group?

TA: Yes, as far as I know, I'm sure it was the same Buckinghams but they were listed as out of Palm Beach. So who knows...

60s: What about TV appearances. Did The Undertakers make any?

TA: We appeared on THE FLORIDA BANDSTAND, an AM TV show sponsored by WQAM, with Rick Shaw. We taped a song and it was aired several times on the local TV station. I'm sure the video is somewhere there just as our records are somewhere in the WFUN archives. How to obtain them is what I'd like to know. I have tried to find one of the DJs from that era but no luck so far.

60s: The band also appeared in a documentary film titled ANATOMY OF A CITY. What can you tell me about this?

TA: All I can remember about the documentary is that we shot random scenes around Miami, including quite a bit in a Miami cemetery. As far as I know it was to be shown overseas somewhere. We did get a lot of publicity over it but never actually viewed any of it (or received any money for it). It was mentioned quite often in the newspapers but I really don't have a clue as to what became of it.

60s: Why did The Undertakers eventually break-up?

TA: Well, the sad part of all this is the break-up. I thought we were really sounding good and to be honest wasn't really interested in any more recordings, at least at that point. I wanted to play! We were starting to make gas money, too. One day, out of nowhere, Bob Jabo told me that he was leaving the band if our third record didn't really take off and take us to a higher level. I had already heard rumors of him practicing with several other guys...all from the top bands in the area. Well, I knew the record wasn't going to make us "stars" and I think that was his way of leaving without any ill feelings. When Bobby left the band, I knew I would have a hell of a time replacing him. He fit our style so well. He was a show-off and he did it well! It was always understood that I was the leader of the band, so to speak, and I enjoyed the spotlight. But from the time we took him aboard, I knew he was going to add so much to what we already had. I had no problem letting him do his thing out there. I tried several replacements, but I wasn't satisfied and rather than lose what we had come to be I decided to call it quits. Several years later I was hired at Eastern Airlines where I worked as a mechanic until Frank Lorenzo bought the company and parted it out while we were on the street in a two-year strike. That's a whole other story…

In '91, I moved to Lakeland, Florida with my present wife and worked there until late '95. We moved back home to Western Massachusetts because of her job. It was tough for me coming back here after 35 years in Florida but we knew it was a temporary thing. I retired last June and my wife will retire at the end of this year. We are presently building in Fort Myers, Florida so we are both anxious to return.

60s: Do you perform at all anymore?

TA: I haven't played in any bands since Dr T. I do have so many great memories. Bob Barbara and I keep in touch and we talk about it every chance we get. I still feel the same about music. I never lost that ear for an exceptional artist or group, but it's all behind me. Now my interests are golf and riding my Harley. Those are the "Doctor's" orders!

To read more from Dr. T., check out the Limestone Lounge at http://pub64.ezboard.com/blimestonelounge.

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