A veteran of Columbus groups The Abstracts and The Lowbrows, keyboardist Sterling Smith would move on to become a member of The Grayps. During his first appearance with the band, The Grayps took first place at The Northland Battle of the Bands, and would later make apearances on local TV, and record a 45 on Cobblestone Records. While Smith later played for multiple other groups - including J.D. Blackfoot, Osiris, and The Load - he affectionately refers to his sint while a member of The Grayps as being "about as good as life gets."
An Interview With Sterling Smith
60sgaragebands.com (60s): How did you first get interested in music?
Sterling Smith (SS): I think I always responded to music, and grew up in a house where classical music was a constant from the hi-fi. I went to see the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony when I was about nine years old, and heard Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade. My parents bought a piano when I was eleven, and I played it constantly, gradually figuring out al ot of the logic of it, though not in any systematic way. My father played some Bach pieces, and showed me how to read music so I developed an early appreciation for Bach.
60s: I think your first band was The Lowbrows. Is this correct?
SS: The first "group" I was in was called The Abstracts. I played piano and it was about five or six guys in the eighth grade (I was in seventh grade) and they sang Jamaica Farewell, and Mother In Law. Our only appearance was a talent show at University High School. Because I was a classical pianist at the time, my involvement was considered amusing and fun by my peers.
60s: When was The Lowbrows formed?
SS: My appreciation for music beyond "classical" widened considerably when I heard The Beatles’ Second Album. I started listening to the radio, hoping to hear more of The Beatles, and instead, heard more of everything. Chuck Berry songs were particularly cool, and I was startled and impressed by his actual recordings, with the percolating rhythm section and the inventive and lively piano playing. When The Dave Clark Five tour came to Columbus, my brothers and I went to the airport to see their arrival. Rick Gilbert, one of The Abstracts asked what I was doing there, and was incredulous that I was there to see The DC 5. We agreed it would be fun to start a band. He had just purchased a guitar, and because our school (University High School) had no dress codes or restrictions on hair length, Rick’s was already impressive. This was December of 1964, I think. Walter Shymkiw, another high school classmate, joined in on bass and Skip Anderson, a few years younger, was our drummer. Skip would later go on to be musical director for Luther Vandross, a position I believe he currently holds. The Lowbrows’ first gig for a lot of people was a street dance in Clintonville (a neighborhood in the north side of Columbus). Not having many tunes under our belt, we bought some time playing a long version of What’d I Say with some colorful verses thrown in. It was great fun. Parallel to my involvement with The Lowbrows, a few girls in our class formed a singing group called The Dynamics. I played piano. We only played live once, but it was fun and we wrote a couple of original songs. Rick Gilbert met two of the members of a Cincinnati band called Little Don & The Contentions who were very successful there. We drove down to see their weekend gigs sometimes, and I bought their custom modified Electro Voice organ, which although a bit reedy, gave me my first portable keyboard. Mike McConnell, a drummer from North High School joined us towards the end of ‘66, and our last big dance/gig was a party near Walnut Ridge High School with several other bands. Rick Gilbert and I started jamming with Walter "Skip" MacElfresh," an accomplished guitarist who had built his own "fuzz tone" from scratch. Don Gorman became the drummer of that last incarnation of The Lowbrows, and we jokingly called that band, The Scum Of The Earth. By then, we were exploring songs by The Blues Project and other more "progressive" music of the day, along with the usual Rolling Stones and Beatles songs.
60s: Did you join The Grayps after The Lowbrows?
SS: MacElfresh was friends with a band from Whetstone High School called The Grayps, and they came over to our rehearsals a few times. I went to their’s once, and was blown away by their vocal harmonies as they sang Beatles and Turtles songs effortlessly. They asked me to join them and I did. The Grayps had three "lead" singers, a Rickenbacker 12-string, and were very into fun and anarchy on stage, without sacrificing the music. The first Grayps gig I went to (before being in the band) was in the shelter house at Whetstone Park where a weekly summer dance was held. As we walked up the hill to the shelter house, Mike Meyer, their rhythm guitarist was hanging from the ceiling beams and yelling to the appreciative crowd and they were just playing away, laughing, but sounding very good. Kind of a folk rock style, I suppose. Tom Ramseyer, a guitarist in the band before Mike Meyer, was something of a jazz afficiniado and I think he influenced some of their earlier sound, from his band with Ed Mikusa, The Scepters.
60s: What was the band's line-up?
SS: When I joined in August, 1966, The Grayps were: Don Ketteler playing bass (a 1951 Fender Telecaster Bass); Paul "Bud" Dillahunt playing guitar (a Les Paul and a Rickenbacker 12); Mike Baumann playing drums (a small Ludwig kit); Charlie Cesner and Ed Mikusa were vocalists; and Mike Meyer played rhythm guitar. Mike was going away to college in a few weeks, and I would replace him.
60s: How would you describe The Grayps sound?
SS: In that 1966 incarnation, The Grayps could sing songs by groups like The Association, The Left Banke, The Beatles, etc. very well. I think I probably added a spine to the sound as they didn’t have a keyboard player previously, and I tended to play fairly strong and linearly, both as a soloist and within the ensemble. Some of our Beatles covers included I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Drive My Car, Here There and Everywhere, Lady Madonna, and many more. We had a strong cover of the Alan Price version of I Put A Spell On You, and later on, Richard Harris’ MacArthur Park and also things as diverse as The Fugs' Doin' Alright and Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride. We liked everything from The Beatles and Hollies to The Blues Project, Paul Butterfield, Frank Zappa, and of course later on, Hendrix and Cream. We started dabbling with original songs too, but I think in the early moments, we were happy to be playing, meeting girls, and enjoying it all.
60s: What type of gigs did The Grayps typically land?
SS: Teen dances in the smaller towns throughout Ohio were common. We also played lots of gigs in Lancaster, Ohio at the Moose Hall; Mansfield, Ohio at the YMCA; Newark, Ohio; Circleville, Ohio (Pumpkin Show and dances at the fairgrounds), Ater’s Lake near Chillicothe, Ohio, etc. We also played in Fort Thomas, Kentucky; Cleveland; Avon Lake; Galion; Marion; Indian Lake; Findlay; and Cincinnati. We played on Columbus’ rock TV show, DANCE PARTY, which was good exposure. (We also played) THE GENE CARROLL SHOW in Cleveland. High school parties included Dublin High, Worthington, Bexley, Lancaster, Delaware Hayes, Olentangy, Gahanna, New Albany, Arlington, Bishop Flaget (Chillicothe), Circleville, Watterson, Hartley, and I’m sure more that I’ll remember later. "Frat parties" also intermingled in all this, at Ohio State, Miami University, Denison, Bowling Green, Wittenburg, Ohio University, and others. Parties at Kenyon College were particularly fun, because they would have weekends with lots of bands and usually a nationally known act. All the fraternities were housed in dormitory like buildings, so there would be several acts in each. We would see our friends in The Lapse Of Tyme (Whitehall, Ohio), 1984 (who for a brief time were called The Lowbrows), The DuBonnets, and The Trolls. The most anarchic and "Animal House-ish" fraternity party we did was was a gig for the OTG ("One-Time Greeks") House at Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa. They ripped a wall out of their living room to build us a stage. Aside from the mostly Ohio gigs, we did play a week in New York City at Ondine, a nightclub that was fashionable at the time. We were doing some original material by then, and had a different lead singer (Charlie Cessner had gone into the Air Force) named Kenny Weiss. Weiss was particularly strong, but we didn’t really have enough original material prepared to show anyone. It’s too bad, because a few of the things we did with Kenny were particularly strong.
60s: Did The Grayps have a manager?
SS: Before I joined, John Battles was their manager, but he had gone off to college. Just around the time I joined, we met Bob Chirico. He was a student at Ohio State University, and when we suddenly got lots of gigs after winning the Northland Battle of the Bands, he co-signed the loan to buy us three Dual Showman amps. I bought a Vox Continental Organ and put a Hohner electric piano on top of it.
60s: What do you recall about the Northland Battle Of The Bands?
SS: The band that impressed us the most that weekend was The Esquires, a band from the west side of Columbus. They were phenomenally tight and covered R&B tunes with great authenticity and the right sounds. Their performance of James Brown’s Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag was particularly strong. We were sure they would beat us, but we were later told by the judges that "crowd appreciation" was part of their criteria, and our version of Walk Away Renee (sung very accurately by Bud Dillahunt) was particularly effective. Another band I remember there was The B & W Commonwealth from Westerville, Ohio (and one or two of them attended University High School). I think we did Great Balls Of Fire, I Feel Good, maybe I Put A Spell On You, You Baby, It Ain’t Me Babe...stuff like that. The second day (finals), we opened with me playing The William Tell Overture solo on the keyboard, while the band ran around the stage and audience screaming and being silly before getting on stage and eventually launching into a song.
60s: Was there a prize for winning the Northland Battle?
SS: I don’t recall a prize - maybe a plaque or something. We appeared on DANCE PARTY the next Saturday, simply to be introduced as winners of the Northland Battle of The Bands, and coincidentally and conveniently, to plug an appearance that night in Circleville, Ohio playing a dance sponsored by Jerry Rasor, the host of DANCE PARTY. It was all good.
60s: Did The Grayps participate in any other Battles?
SS: In Winter of 1967 or so, we were in the Valley Dale Battle Of The Bands, but lost in the first round to The Gears, a popular band from Reynoldsburg who brought a very enthusiastic crowd of their supporters. We were also in The Button Battle Of The Bands" ("The Button" being a popular club where bands played), and lost to The Cheerful Earful, a band with whom we had great empathy for due to their attitude and musicianship. I think The Regents (from Upper Arlington) also played on that. Their keyboard player Jim McNamara always did a good job.
Valley Dale (still there) is an old ballroom that big bands played way back when. Chuck Selby, a big bandleader from Columbus threw the Sunday afternoon dances there with Jerry Rasor (pronounced "ray-zer"), the host of the local version of AMERICAN BANDSTAND called DANCE PARTY. Their promo machine was perfect, as the Sunday afternoon dance (usually having three bands) was plugged on the Saturday TV show. It was the Valley Dale Battle of The Bands that produced a huge finale one year - moved to the Ohio State Fairgrounds - with The Dantes and The Rebounds battling. The Dantes won, but it gave the battle and both bands that much more notoriety.
60s: How popular locally did The Grayps become?
SS: I’m not sure I’d know how to measure that. Winning the Northland Battle Of The Bands seemed to put us on the map (it was my first official gig with them). A month or so after that, WCOL Radio had a "Big Five Hop and Show" at Valley Dale (a particularly popular venue for dances citywide), and we were included on that. Because the other four were already popular bands (The Dantes, The Fifth Order, The Rebounds, and Sir Timothy and The Royals from Mansfield), it was a packed house. From then on, the gigs never stopped.
We were an opening act for two concerts with The Beach Boys (with The Left Banke, Keith, The Electric Prunes, and another Columbus band, The Rebounds) in the winter of 1967. The following Summer, we also backed up Sonny & Cher for four grandstand shows at the Ohio State Fair, flanked with local guitar whizzes Dave Workman (Dantes), Tommy Williams (Rebounds), and Jack Wilce (Cheerful Earful). Other opening act stuff included The McCoys, Bobby Goldsboro, The Casinos, The Byrds, and Bob Seger (several times), and backing up The Dovells at The Sugar Shack somewhere around 1969.
60s: The Grayps released one single that I'm aware of, on Cobblestone Records.
SS: The Leader Of The Band was a song Bud Dillahunt and I co-wrote. It was sort of bubble-gummy and carried a lot by the piano playing the chord progression. The flip side was a Bud Dillahunt song, called You Came Up With The Sun which had horns and was mildly reminiscent of the sound of The Buckinghams out of Chicago. Bob Harrington, a deejay at WCOL, had come on board as our manager, and got the tape to Wes Farrell, et al, and they put it out on a Buddah sibsidiary - Cobblestone - where it died quietly. It was played a handful of times on WCOL, but nothing more than that that we ever heard of. The songs were recorded at MusiCol Studios, which back then were in John Hull’s residence in Westerville, Ohio.
60s: Did The Grayps write many original songs?
SS: There were probably a dozen songs written in the early days of The Grayps. On Thanksgiving of 1968, Bud Dillahunt needed to leave the band to devote more time to his (pre-Med) studies. Jon Townley, a brilliant guitarist from Worthington, and Bill Gray, a vocalist from Whitehall, came on board, which triggered a considerable amount of songwriting. The instrumental part of The Grayps’ sound became considerably stronger, at the expense of the subtle nuances lost when Bud left. Still, it was a powerful combo and original songs did start to evolve. Gigs, by then, were less "teen" oriented, and more in college clubs and fraternity parties.
60s: Do any (other) Grayps recordings exist? Are there any vintage live recordings, or unreleased songs?
SS: There are some tapes of the old Grayps gigs, and a few of the studio tracks are still around. A very cool song called Frustration was recorded at Akron Sound, but its wherabouts are unknown.
60s: There is some GREAT silent home movie footage of the band circulating amongst collectors. What do you remember about the filming of this footage?
SS: The 8mm film of The Grayps at the Northland Battle Of The Bands was shot by my father. It is a whole, 50-foot reel. A great collection of footage was shot by Jim Cushman, a Worthington High School grad who played in a band called, The Toads. They appear in his collection of movies, dressed in Frankenstein and other masks on a DANCE PARTY appearance. Before I knew Jim, I used to see their band when Rick Gilbert and I would go out in "Lowbrow-days" to see bands. They played a lot at the Ohio State Student Union. Jim’s footage of The Grayps includes alot of DANCE PARTY footage (you can see us singing the "ooh wahs" in Along Comes Mary in one of the shots). While waiting for the show to start, we went outside and Jim took a bunch of stop-action footage. When he dubbed it to video, he added The William Tell Overture as performed by The Load, which I was in the '70’s. Then we go to the Circleville Pumpkin Show, where a bass player (Mike Haines, who was our first try at replacing Air Force bound Charlie Cesner), is playing Don’s bass as Don belts out Great Balls Of Fire. Mike sings I Put A Spell On You (on his knees, I think), and you get Ed Mikusa singing James Brown’s I Go Crazy, leaping around the stage in a frenzy. The last segment is The Grayps in MusiCol at our first recording session. I’m wearing madras shorts (fashionable at the time), and while I’m grandstanding for Jim playing piano and Hammond Organ, Ed sticks a screwdriver into the picture.
After The Grayps’ and Toads’ segments, there’s a lot of footage of The Dantes (a very popular band from Worthington) playing at Valley Dale. I think it was the first night they had their new Vox Super Beatle amplifiers. There’s also footage of them on DANCE PARTY. We must've made two different video compilations - one that was Grayps only which had the Northland footage, and then the collection of Jim Cushman's movies. The Dantes footage is long, and in front of a packed house at Valley Dale - the popular citywide ballroom kids went to every Sunday afternoon. I believe that was a Thanksgiving night gig, or something. I was there (along with Lowbrows guitarist Rick Gilbert) and it was before I knew Jim Cushman - or The Grayps. I remember him filming though - the bright light on his camera moving around the room and stage. I also believe that was the first night The Dantes had their Vox Super Beatle amplifiers. The bass player got a Sunn amp shortly thereafter, unless it's on stage with them. I can't recall. We were all amp and gear junkies too, back then. The Load's bass player still has the original cabinet from that first Sunn amp in Columbus. (More footnotes - "Sunn" amps were developed by Norm Sundholm (sp?), bass player of The Kingsmen. He developed the original to resonate with the low E on a bass guitar - something that other cabinets of the day didn't do. He put a Dynaco amplifier in the amp section and sold them under the name "Sunn." Fender later bought the company).
60s: When and why did The Grayps call it quits?
SS: In the summer of 1968, drummer Andy Smith and a singer from Portsmouth, Ohio named Dan Lawson performed with The Grayps. Andy was a very creative drummer, and Dan sang and played saxophone. That combo was very strong, but Andy was heading to Berklee School of Music in September, and Dan decided to return to Ohio University and play with his band, Shadowfax. Bill Gray, Jon Townley, Don Ketteler and I decided to continue playing gigs but were growing very restless to do more original music. My brother, Phil Smith, came on board as our drummer for that final "year" (1969-1970 in academic terms). We wrote a "concept album" which was never formally recorded in a studio, but several of the songs survived and were recorded by groups I would be part of. I was majoring in harpsichord at Ohio State and enjoying college more than I had in previous years. Spring of 1970, though, with graduation for Bill Gray and Don Ketteler, and the uncertain future that the draft, Vietnam, etc. brought seemed to just logically signal an end to The Grayps. I got a call that April to meet with a band called J. D. Blackfoot, who had a contract with Mercury Records. I went to one of their gigs, and there was a large crowd of appreciative people listening to their mostly original music. I joined. Jon went on to several other musical collaborations, but we would later work together on music at our recording studio, Owl Recording, which existed in Columbus in the early to mid '70’s. Jon also designed the cover for The Load’s first album, Praise The Load, released in 1976.
60s: Didn't The Grayps reform in the '70s, and even release another single?
SS: Mike Meyer, the guy who I "replaced" in 1966, had graduated from Miami (Ohio) University and was back in Columbus. The draft lottery had given clarity to many on what they needed to worry or not worry about. Mike and Ed wanted to play again, but just for fun. They had "real jobs," and enjoyed the catharsis that gigs bring. Mike Baumann and Don Ketteler joined them, and several guitar players (Sid Cushman, Joe O Dea, and Tim Murray come to mind) were involved for a while. By then (1971), the J. D. Blackfoot group had evolved into Osiris and when I was available, I would go play the Grayps’ gigs with them. When Osiris disappeared, and The Load was formed (Spring 1973), a gradual evolution occured where Mike Meyer, Ed Mikusa, and Don Ketteler (all original Grayps) would go play with me, Tom Smith and Dave Hessler (drummer and bass and guitar player for The Load respectively). Coincidentally, Dave Hessler joined The Esquires - the week after The Grayps won The Northland Battle Of The Bands.
Parallel to the entire existence of The Grayps, was a recording-after-practices "band" called, The Shredded Wheat. I played left hand bass and organ, improvising progressions, while whoever wanted to would play whatever they wanted to. Ed Mikusa would sing, often stream of consciousness lyrics with very off color and amusing moments. George Maher, a trumpeter from Upper Arlington sometimes joined us, too. A few days after these recordings were made, we’d play them back for everyone else. If we really liked something we’d done, we’d play around with it and make it into a song. Around the time The Grayps re-formed, a few of us went into MusiCol Recording Studio (now on Oakland Park and a stand-alone facility) and cut two songs for a 45: She said She Gave Me Applause (But I Think I Got The Clap), and The Mysteries Of My Body. We even labeled it The Shredded Wheat, but it became identified as part of The Grayps reunion, and we played it live sometimes for fun.
60s: When and why did The Grayps eventually call it quits?
SS: When The Load moved to California in the Spring of 1977.
60s: You've had quite a history with bands...
SS: After The Grayps, there was J. D. Blackfoot (Summer of 1970); Osiris (two incarnations from 1970 to January 1, 1973); The Load (1973 - 1981, but still recording and writing today with two CDs out on The Laser’s Edge label. California amounted to a lot of diversification, and included touring with The Beach Boys (‘78 - ‘79), albums and touring with Randy Meisner, Lisa Hartman, recording with Jesse Colin Young, Steve Perry, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Brown (yes, The Crazy World Thereof), and the usual boatload of studio stuff and all that goes with being freelance. There was also a tour as musical director and onstage pianist with Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov (‘92-’93), and a lot of other stuff too.
60s: What keeps you busy today?
SS: More recording than gigging, in a way, but I am in a band that does a lot of corporate party work, called The Hodads (www.hodads.com).
60s: How do you best summarize your experiences with The Grayps?
SS: What all those years may have lacked in technical expertise or excellence, it’s fair to say the 1966-1968 portion of it all was about as good as life gets. I feel very fortunate to have experienced all that, and to have grown up in that era. The friendships forged back then continue to this day, and several of The Grayps stayed involved in the music business.
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