Last year, the Morticians were inducted into Iowa's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Though starting out playing in Southern Iowa and
Northern Missouri, the band was forced to move to Kansas City to continue their musical career, and they quickly adapted to their
new surroundings. Lead guitarist Steve Gunlock, drummer Larry Pollard, and bassist John Hatton graciously filled us in on the band's
long and successful history.
An Interview With Steve Gunlock, Larry Pollard, and John Hatton
60sgaragebands.com (60s): How did you first get interested in music?
Steve Gunlock (SG): I've always been interested in music, as far as I can remember. My mother had a Conn organ and I used to lie down and play the bass pedals...just by ear. I remember when, in my early teens, we used to go to the ice arena often, and they used to play the usual Hammond organ music. Then, one night they play this wild new stuff...Shake, Rattle & Roll by the guy I consider as the "Father of Rock & Roll," Bill Haley (and The Comets). Soon after, rock 'n' roll music changed the music scene forever. When I was about 15, my parents bought me a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone electric guitar (it was made by Danelectro). A friend of mine at church, played guitar (mostly western music) and showed me a few chords. I then pretty much taught myself after that. I tried to learn all of Chuck Berry's licks. I never really used chord books much. Mainly I could hear chords in my head and then I would separate the notes and figure out the fingering.
Larry Pollard (LP): I was introduced to music through my Dad. It was mostly big band and jazz at first. One Sunday night he said it was mandatory we watch Ed Sullivan. I was just a kid. He told me there was a young guy going to be on that played guitar and sang. He said this guy was going to be the biggest thing to hit the music business. It was Elvis. That was just a start. In the '50's the accordion was a popular instrument and my parents had me take lessons. I loved music but hated the instrument. In the late '50's and (early) '60's I listened to all the rock n' roll 45's I could but when The Beatles hit the ED SULLIVAN SHOW I was hooked. That is when garages around the world had young groups practicing to become stars.
John Hatton (JH): My Dad was a violinist. I wanted to be like him, so at age six he brought home a little half-size violin for me. I clearly remember him taking it out of a brown paper bag. It was shiny. I was in awe. It's one of my earliest childhood memories.
60s: Was the Morticians your first band?
LP: The Morts were what I would call the first "real" band I played in and certainly my favorite. I was still in high school when I was asked to replace the former drummer. I have the distinction of being longest with the group as drummer. After the Morts split in '68 I toured with a couple of other bands. In 1972 I formed a band in Kansas City named Union Station. We were together until 1989.
JH: Nope. The Marauders were. We were high school students in the suburbs of Saint Louis attending Affton High School. We were together maybe two or three years. We played teen-towns. Those were dances on Wednesday nights in the basement of Catholic Churches. We played school dances as well, and a few private parties. We played some frat parties, too. They were wild to us high school kids because of the drinking going on. Mattress parties were a curiosity, too. I remember getting paid twelve bucks for a gig in Rolla, Missouri for the School of Mines, a two-hour drive. This took place from '61 through '64.
SG: The first band I was in, while attending Central High School in Sioux City, Iowa, was The Teen Beats. We formed, I think, in 1958. The band consisted of me, playing lead guitar; George Norman, piano (when we played at a place that had one); Ken Wood, drums; Tom Meyers, rhythm guitar and vocals; and Dick Chase, guitar. We didn't have a bass player, until George switched from piano to Fender bass. I was with the Teen Beats until I left Sioux City in 1960.
60s: Were you in a band post-Teen Beats and prior to the Morticians?
SG: Yeah. I was for a short period of time with a band in Sioux City, Iowa called the Imperials. It was only for a couple of months; I think, in fact, I was still with the Teen Beats (at the same time).
60s: Where was the Morticians formed, what year, and by whom?
SG: The Morts were formed at Graceland College (now Graceland University) in Lamoni, Iowa (south central Iowa). We were all students, living in the same dorm. This was in 1964. Three of the guys were music majors. The band consisted of John Hatton (Fender Precision Bass) ; Jack Cave (Vox Continental Transistor Organ); Ned Ashbaugh (Slingerland Drum set); Fred Silvester (Gibson Firebird III guitar and sax); and me, on lead guitar (Gibson ES-345 Stereo guitar). John, Fred and I were all on the same floor and when we discovered each other and the fact that we had all played in bands, while in high school, we got together and jammed, then decided to form a group. Later, after we had left Graceland and moved to Kansas City, Larry Pollard became our drummer (Primier drum set).
JH: We met at our college, Graceland, in southern Iowa on the Missouri border just off what is now I-35. Steve, Fred and I were living on the same floor of the dorm. Jack and I were music majors. It was a small campus so it was just a matter of time until we found Ned. After Ned left school we used Ron Strayer on drums, then when we re-grouped in Kansas City we started using Larry Pollard.
60s: Is it true that the band was given an ultimatum by Graceland College to either break up or leave the school, and therefore headed for Kansas City? What were the circumstances leading to this?
SG: Oh yes. You see, in the early '60's, Graceland - being a church sponsored school - did not permit dancing on campus. So, we would have to leave campus and go to other towns to play where the kids could dance. We had a 1952 gray Caddy hearse, which we named "The Gray Ghost". When we'd leave campus to go to a neighboring town or city, many of the Graceland students who had cars would fill them with students and follow us out of town. Everyone would turn on his or her car lights and we would have a "funeral procession". We became a thorn in the side of the administration. They did not like the fact that Graceland students were leaving campus to go hear us play and to dance. Mostly, they were concerned about students being out on the highways, late at night. Finally, one winter night, after a gig in Ridgeway, Missouri, one of the cars filled with students missed a curve and overturned. Fortunately, none of the kids was seriously injured. However, the State Patrol notified the college and we were called into the Dean's Office the next Monday morning and were told we could either stay (at Graceland) and break up the band, or leave. We chose to stay together and moved south.
JH: Ironically, Jack Cave is on the Board of Directors at Graceland University now!
60s: What was the Iowa/Missouri rock and roll scene like at the time?
SG: Surprisingly, those Iowa farm kids were pretty hip. As for Graceland, remember, since this was a church sponsored school, we got kids from all over the United States, so we had kids from California, New York, Texas and all over. They knew the music scene and that's the reason they followed us, because they wanted that kind of music - which they couldn't have on campus.
60s: How would you compare the Iowa scene compared to the Kansas City scene?
SG: As stated previously, the Graceland kids were really hip - and the local residents pretty much so, too. In Lamoni, Iowa, the town where Graceland is located, the best Top 40 radio station at the time was WHB, out of Kansas City. It played all the top hits and just about all the kids listened to that station. So, it's not like the kids just stayed in the corn fields. Kansas City was obviously more hip and sophisticated, as far as the music scene goes. You had to be more polished down there and if you weren't, the kids would let you know.
LP: The Kansas City scene was more clubs, more gigs, more bands (as opposed to when we were in) Iowa.
JH: Kansas City offered larger clubs with bigger audiences. We didn't have to rent places any more. We played in Warrensburg at some college hangouts. Today you'd call them discos. Unfortunately, there are no live bands any more.
60s: How far was the band's "touring" territory?
LP: We toured or played Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. In '67 our booking agent, Bill Boyle, had us scheduled to play Vegas and San Francisco but we returned to Missouri to attend school.
JH: From Graceland we got out thirty or forty miles. In Kansas City we got out as far as Warrensburg. In Utah we worked Provo, Salt Lake and Spanish Fork with a side trip of a week in Laramie.
SG: Let's see...in Iowa, we went as far north as Ames. Lamoni is just three miles north of the Iowa border, so most of our gigs there were in southern Iowa and northern Missouri. After moving to Missouri, we pretty much covered the whole state. We put a lot of miles on those highways. In the summer of 1967, we toured Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. While in Utah we had an offer to play at the Thunderbird in Las Vegas, but we turned it down because it was at the end of the summer and school would be starting up again soon and the gig would have been for an extended time. In hindsight, that was a dumb move.
60s: Did the Morticians have a manager?
SG: While at Graceland, we had a guy named Rick Flanery, who took care of most of the bookings. Our road manager - our roadie - was a fellow named Rick Amsberry. When we moved to Kansas City, Larry pretty much took care of bookings. In 1967, Bill Boyle of Salt Lake City, Utah became of full-time manager.
LP: Rick Flannery, a good friend, will always be known as our manager but we handled most of our own bookings. When we lived in Utah we were handled by B&B Booking out of Salt Lake City. We were on the club in '67 out west before we returned to Missouri.
60s: Where did the band typically practice?
SG: At Graceland...anywhere we could: The student union, the music building, private residences, and the Ad Building auditorium. In Kansas City, (we usually practiced) at Larry Pollard's home. When we played the club circuits in 1967, we just rehearsed at the clubs.
LP: We practiced in living rooms, basements, and one time in an equipment room next to the football field at Central Missouri State College.
JH: There were several rooms we could use at Graceland. Some were in the Music school. Sometimes we'd just shed vocals and arrangements in our dorm rooms. In Kansas City we could practice in our homes and apartments.
60s: What type of gigs did you typically land?
LP: In addition to schools, parties, and clubs the band would rent halls like American Legion or Elks and put on our own dances. We did it all over southern Iowa and north Missouri. Whatever we made on cover was ours. After expenses, including those early morning breakfasts at truck stops, I doubt we ever made much. It wasn't about money…it was about the music. That was in the early days. We had steady club dates in Warrensburg and Kansas City at places called Pizza Villa and The Attic Lounge.
JH: We would travel to nearby towns, rent Legion Halls, Moose lodges…anywhere there was a dance floor. We'd put up posters, charge a buck or so at the door, and sell sodas. The college had a no dancing policy, so they frowned on our activities off campus. We played a few concerts at the college. Occasionally we'd play at the student center for roller skating night.
SG: While at Graceland, usually, we would just rent the local American Legion Hall and a cop, and throw our own dances. We always did well, once we became established in the area. (We played) several high school proms, and some private parties such as college frat gigs. (We also played) a couple of TV dance shows, and nightclubs.
60s: What TV dance shows did you appear on?
SG: We appeared on LET'S DANCE or DANCE PARTY; I'm not sure of the exact name now. This was in St. Joseph, Missouri, about 50 miles north of Kansas City. We did a few radio interviews, also.
JH: We were on a TV show out of Des Moines, kind of like a local AMERICAN BANDSTAND.
60s: How would you describe the band's sound? What band's influenced you?
SG: When we started, the British sound owned the music scene so, naturally, we did a lot of that type of stuff: Beatles, Yardbirds, Stones, etc. However, John - being from St. Louis - liked soul and R&B, so we started doing a lot of that...and ultimately that was our primary focus. While in Kansas City, we added another trumpet player (Jack Cave also doubled on trumpet, while at the same time playing keyboards). We normally would play three sets of music during a four-hour gig. The middle set was non-stop soul music. We never stopped.... one tune would go right into the next; it was really cool.
LP: The Morts copied bands from the British Invasion as well as good American rock, from the Beatles to (Chuck) Berry, the Kinks to the Kingsmen. We used a lot of vocal harmony and we had guys that could play more than one instrument. Three of the guys picked up horns and we added quite a few soul tunes to our list. We even had a full set we called our "Soul Set".
JH: Different members of the band were influenced by different styles. I liked R&B. Ned liked the Stones, some liked the English beat. Later we could agree on the Beatles after Rubber Soul came out. Toward the end we had added horns to our sound, leaning toward Soul music. Fred took up the sax; Jack and I blew the trumpet while simultaneously playing our instruments with me on bass and him on piano. So we had a three-piece horn section with a 5-piece band. Not bad.
60s: How popular locally did the Morticians become?
JH: I found my calendar when I cleaned out my folks' house a few years ago. We were busy every Friday and Saturday.
LP: Looking back, I guess the only way to measure our popularity is the fact that fans followed us and supported us, that we packed clubs in various states, that we had standing room only at our 2001 reunion shows at Graceland, and that we were honored with our induction in the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
SG: Well, while at Graceland, (we were) very popular in the Southern Iowa/Northern Missouri area. While down in the Kansas City area, there was more competition, but we were well known and liked in the area. Now, Kansas City was our base of operation, but three of us were attending college a few miles down the road at Central Missouri State University. John was attending the Conservatory of Music at The University of Missouri in Kansas City. Down in Warrensburg, Missouri, where Central Missouri State is located, we played often at the University and on every other weekend, were the house band at the Pizza Villa Club, the local hang out for the college crowd.
60s: How'd you become the house band for the Pizza Villa Club?
SG: I think Larry got us the gig...or we might have auditioned for it.
60s: What other local groups of the era do you especially recall? Did Graceland College offer any competing bands?
SG: I really don't remember any other local bands at Graceland or in the towns around there. There may have been, but I don't recall any. Now, down in Kansas City and Warrensburg, there were many. A couple that I remember were The Broadway Clique and The Classmen. There were many bands, but I just can't recall the names now. Over in Lawrence, Kansas, at Kansas University, were the Fabulous Flippers. They came to a couple of our gigs in Kansas City. I still have a note written to us from Dave Crotty, (the Flipper's) sax player.
JH: I remember a band out of Kansas City or Wichita called the Flippers. They were awesome. They had a large, big horn section, sharp uniforms, and made a lot of money.
LP: Local groups I recall? Classmen, Chessmann, Flippers, Blue Things, The Continentals, The Viscounts (which became The Broadway Clique in '67), The Rumbles, Red Dogs, Galaxies, Emeralds, Gary Mac & The Mac Truck. I'm sure there were more but I'm brain dead.
60s: Were there any popular teen clubs to play?
SG: A few of the towns had them. In Ames, Iowa, we played at a big dance hall, complete with radio ads and a deejay. Mostly though, while at Graceland, we would either rent our own hall and do our own advertising or play for some school.
LP: I don't recall any particular teen club in Iowa but I remember The Boom Boom Room in Kansas City that we used to play.
JH: We were out in the middle of the boonies. The only clubs were the places we rented and threw dances at. Chillicothe had a teen town that we played at once. That was the night we got in a rumble.
60s: What can you tell me about the single that the Morticians released?
SG: I remember we recorded six tunes. We did this at Damon Recording Studios in downtown Kansas City. That would have been March 18, 1965. Let's see, there was I Don't Understand written by John Hatton; I've Been A Waitin', written by Jack Cave; It's Just Not Right, written by me.... and there were three other singles.... but I just cannot come up with the names of them. I do recall that Ned Ashbaugh wrote and sang one of them. (NOTE: According to Tom Tourville, the band's single was I Don't Understand b/w I've Been A Waitin' on Guillotine Records, #6-505, 1965).
JH: I Don't Understand, written by me; I've Been A Waitin', written by Cave; It's Just Not Right, written by Gunlock; and another which I can't remember. We recorded at Damon Studios, just a few blocks from the old Continental Hotel in downtown Kansas City. Marilyn Maye used to record all those Lincoln jingles produced by Warren Durrett there. We laid down the instruments first, then sang the vocals while Ned banged the tambourine way off mike.
60s: Did any of the songs receive any radio play?
SG: We had full BMI /Ascap sanctioning and did receive airplay locally. Our records were on some jukeboxes, too. We recorded these tunes in Kansas City in 1965, but they were not pressed until 1966 or 1967 with Guillotine Records out of Ogden, Utah.
JH: They may have been played in the Salt Lake area where our "agent," Bill Boyle, had them pressed.
60s: Do any (other) '60's Morticians recordings exist? Are there any vintage live recordings?
JH: I don't think so.
SG: Well, none that I am aware of. I have often wondered if TV station KFEQ in St. Joseph, Missouri still has a tape or kinescope of the DANCE PARTY show we did there in 1965.
60s: Did the Morticians participate in any Battle Of The Bands?
SG: As I recall, we only played in one Battle. This was at the big student union auditorium at Central Missouri State. There were a lot of bands there, but the only other one I can recall was the Broadway Clique. I don't recall what tunes we played. I know it would have included some soul stuff, though.
JH: We played in the Warrensburg "Band Jam" around '66 or '67 and came in third. I don't remember our competition, but I vaguely remember three or four bands. I don't remember what we played, but most likely it was soul music since we had the horn section by then.
LP: In the fall of '67 we were in a band battle at Central Missouri State. There were 12 or 13 bands; one was the newly formed Broadway Clique. I don't recall the exact songs but I know we used our "Soul Set".
60s: What do you remember about the Broadway Clique?
SG: They were a good band. They played pretty much the same kind of stuff we did. However, they had a full horn section and the keyboard guy played a Hammond B3. They were the band that shared house band duties with us at the Pizza Villa in Warrensburg. There was friendly competition there. They didn't play as much in the Kansas City area as we did. I think they were pretty comfortable down in the Warrensburg area. Dave McQuitty, lead singer of the Clique, years later opened a string of clubs called Guitars and Cadillacs. He did very well, bringing in big name entertainers, etc. We recently tried to get in touch with Dave to see if he would be interested in putting together a show of as many of the old Kansas City-area bands as we could find for a big reunion show, but he never replied.
LP: Broadway Clique was the offspring of a band from Clinton, Missouri. The Viscounts' leader, Bob Wilson, wanted to cut back on the band's busy schedule, and Dave McQuitty, the lead vocalist, wanted to play more gigs. Dave basically took the Viscounts, minus Bob, added a new drummer and a couple of horns and named the group The Broadway Clique. That was September 1967.
JH: Cave was a member for a while. They had some local hits, or at least got air-play. Drew Dimmel, their bassist, was a great marketer. I don't think I ever saw them. I was playing in The Emeralds, a large soul band backing up a black vocal trio called the Sinceres. Later they went to Los Angeles and became Bloodstone and had a huge hit, Take To The Sky With A Natural High, or something like that. (NOTE: Natural High was the actual name of the song).
60s: Why did the band break up in the '60's?
SG: I was the first to leave the band. I received my degree in 1969. I signed a teaching contract and started teaching the fall of '69. There was a lot of family pressure on me to get of out the music business and to get a "real job" - teaching. The rest of the guys stayed together until 1970. Jack also received his degree, although he did stay with the band for a while. I think mainly, it was time. John became involved with several jazz groups in Kansas City and in particular played a long stint with the Pete Eye Trio in Kansas City, playing a regular gig at the Playboy Club. Larry started another band in Kansas City called Union Station. They stayed together for 18 years. Fred moved to Salt Lake City, got his law degree and is now a trial lawyer. We just moved on.
LP: We basically split to pursue career paths. It was a friendly split. We are good friends to this day. There probably aren't many bands that can boast about that.
JH: I got a gig playing 6 nights a week with Pete Eye, a local Kansas City jazz pianist who is still playing in KC. Jack got a gig with Broadway Clique soon after.
60s: What other bands did you play in after you left the Morticians?
SG: I never played with any other bands after the Morts. Jack played with Larry's band, Union Station, for a while and also became the keyboard guy for The Classmen. John moved out to Los Angeles, where he became a session's musician. He did a lot of record sessions with big name artists. He's played bass with Big Daddy, Seals & Croft, and Dolly Parton. He currently is bassist for Los Angeles party band The Hodads, and when not doing that he tours with Brian Setzer - both with the Brian Setzer Trio (comprised of John, Brian and Bernie Dresel, the drummer), where they reprise the old Stray Cats routines - and he also plays bass with the BSO (Brian Setzer Orchestra, a 17-piece orchestra). By the way, you (could have) seen John several times on national network TV, with Brian Setzer (in) December. They appeared at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, on the TODAY show, on CONAN O'BRIEN, on THE REGIS PHILBIN SHOW, on THE TONIGHT SHOW with Jay Leno, and on December 15th performed for President Bush at the Kennedy Center.
LP: From '68 through '72 I played with three other bands before forming a new group of my own in February '72. The irony is the new group, Union Station, was formed in the beginning by three former Morticians. Jack Cave, Ron Baker, and myself along with three others formed Union Station at a time when Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Tower of Power were hot. We had horns so we copied a lot of their stuff. Jack left after a year and Ron and I kept the band going through 1989. It was a great band, very versatile, and very much in demand. We went through a lot of sidemen over the years to keep the band going. Ron and I were the brotherhood of USB. That is what we brought with us from The Morticians.
JH: I have played with a lot of famous musicians, some for only one gig. I toured with Seals and Crofts in 1978, Dolly Parton in 1981, John Davidson in 1982, and Bert Convy in 1983. In the late '80's I joined a Rhino Records group called Big Daddy. We recorded four albums released in the states and a best-of album released last year. That group did very funny '50's versions of current hits, our last album being a complete re-make of the Sergeant Pepper album. It's very good arranging and creativity in that the eight of us collaborated on all the tunes. We had a top twenty hit in England with Dancing In The Dark, the Springsteen hit. We made it sound like Pat Boone's Moody River. You really should get these CDs! Big Daddy also played the casino circuit, Reno, Vegas and Carson City. We toured to New York, via Minneapolis promoting the Sergeant Pepper CD. We toured England twice. We played eight weeks in Australia and came close to a deal with Virgin Records. We wrote a short play/musical that lasted two months of sold out performances at the Groundling Theatre in Hollywood. Following Big Daddy, I joined The Hodads, a local Los Angeles party band that plays mostly covers and dance tunes. We are very busy in the convention scene and have been together for 15 years. Last January I got called to play for Brian Setzer. We have recorded two albums, one of which, The Christmas album, Boogie Woogie Christmas is out now. We have toured Japan with the big band for two and a half weeks. We toured with Tom Petty (opening act) with the trio for a month last summer. We toued in December promoting the new CD and were on several national TV shows. Check www.briansetzer.com
60s: What else keeps you busy?
JH: When I'm not performing I do carpentry, woodworking, construction work, home renovation and I recently took up golf. I love to sail and own my own 16-foot wooden sloop.
SG: I taught school for 22 years, at the high school level. I taught photography. After that, I became the plant photographer for the Government at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, in Independence, Missouri for ten years. Now, I work for the same church that sponsored Graceland when we were there. John, Jack, Ned and I still get together each summer at Graceland for the annual weeklong summer camp for high school kids. This is called the "Graceland Spectacular". It's a weeklong competition in sports, visual arts and music. We play in the daily Morning Show Band and the big week ending show, "The Extravaganza," which is usually musical Grease. Last year, all of us Morts put on two packed house shows for Graceland's Homecoming. Funny, how after all these years, we have become very popular; we're almost an institution up there. That was the first time all of us had been together to perform in over 35 years. Then, this past year, we were inducted into the Iowa Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That was a blast. We all still keep in touch all the time. It's kind of hard to see each other too often as John and Jack both live in Los Angeles, Ned lives in Ohio, Fred in Utah, Rick Amsberry lives in Minnesota, and Rick Flanery lives in North Carolina. LP: I live on a farm in very rural north Missouri. Kiera, my wife, my two youngest, Rachael and Jacob, and I raise cattle. The kids are active in 4-H and sports. I also work for Premium Standard Farms as a H/R Recruiter. The past few years I have sat in with various local groups. With the recent recognition of The Morts we have played twice and have had to recently turn down an offer to play Graceland's homecoming.
60s: What were your thoughts when you first learned that you'd be inducted into the Iowa Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame?
JH: Whoop de do! As my wife put it, "Honey, it's your legacy. Long after you're dead, your name will be on a plaque on the wall at the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame!"
SG: It was a total surprise. I couldn't believe it. Who would think, after all these years, that this would happen? It was quite an honor, to be sure.
LP: When I first heard about the induction I thought to myself, "That's neat", but I can't say I was really excited. As the date got closer it started to sink in. When we were all there for the induction and the opportunity to play I became overwhelmed with excitement. It was an honor to be recognized. I wanted to be able to accept the recognition on behalf of all the bands everywhere that just wanted to play some good music and have fun doing it.
60s: Looking back, how do you best summarize your experiences with the Morticians?
JH: Just good old gettin' into trouble and playing music. "Pauyin' yer dues," as the old musicians call it.
SG: It was some of the best years of my life. I have many, many fond memories. When we all get together, we could spend hours recalling the old times and experiences. Those were special times and the guys were/are special. We are all like brothers. We really care about each other and support one another in whatever each is doing. Yeah...the Mort years were great and will be a special part of my life.
LP: Summary? I always ask myself, "What if?" What would have happened had we stayed together? We were the right mix of personalities and we played some damn fine music. It was and still is great playing with these guys.
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