Ron and The Starfires

The name may not ring a bell, but Carl Chambers was a major contributor to the garage band scene of the 1960's. After he launched his musical profession as lead guitarist for various local bands in Florida, Carl parlayed his earlier successes into a flourishing song writing venture during the '70s and '80s, and eventually composed a number one smash hit for the country super group, Alabama. It is, of course, his work with his many '60s bands that piqued our interest. From his playing days with the Dynamics, Ron & The Starfires, and the legendary, We The People, through his association with the Canadian Rogues and, later, the Shadows of Knight, Carl has had an illustrious career. The Lance Monthly gives a big thanks to him for sharing his early highlights with us. LM) Prior to you joining the Starfires in 1963, the band was well established in the Florida area. What were your thoughts on the band?

An Interview with Carl Chambers A major '60s garage band contributor who scored big with his song writing skills

[Carl] The Starfires were the first "live" rock and roll band I had ever seen or heard. They were musically raw and crude and my heros. I spent many a Saturday night along the wall of the Auburndale Teen Center in a trance, tappin' my toes to that simple drivin' beat. They made me want to do that.

[LM] How did you, then, become an official member of the Starfires?

[Carl] The Starfires had been together about three to four years when some of the guys decided to walk some other paths. Ron Whitney (the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist) and Charlie Brown (the lead guitar player) wanted to keep the group alive and called me because I played lead guitar in another band there in Auburndale at the time. Charlie switched to playing bass for a while and they hired another local by the name of Ray Lee as the drummer. Originally, when I joined the group, it was a quartet and we played that way for several months until the original drummer (Allen Keefer) returned to that position and my cousin Jesse Chambers (bass) joined the band after leaving the Legends.

[LM] What was the name of the band you were with prior to joining the Starfires?

[Carl] The first band I put together was the Dynamics. In those days personnel would vary, often from job to job, mainly because we were all teenagers and had not learned the value of commitment and loyalty. Most of the time, it consisted of my cousin, Jesse Chambers (bass), Jon Corneal (drums), Buddy Canova (sax) and Billy Joe Chambers (vocals and rhythm guitar). Toward the end it also included Bobby Braddock (now a legendary country songwriter) on piano who also taught us the value of serious rehearsal and professionalism and also used me as lead guitarist on my very first recording session. We played roughly from 1960-1962.

[LM] Earlier you mentioned The Legends. That band is best remembered today for including both Gram Parsons and Jim Stafford.

[Carl] The Legends were from Winter Haven, another small town about five miles south-east of Auburndale. Gram Parsons and Jim Stafford were the anchors of the group and had played with a loose group of various Winter Haven high schoolers until they lost several members to graduation and college. Gram convinced Jesse and Jon (from the Dynamics) to join up with him and Jim, and they played for about a year in that configuration. The Legends had a Volkswagen van with their name painted on the side. For 1962 that was a lot of class. All four of these guys would go on to leave their marks on the national and international music scenes. Jim Stafford and I were pretty good friends and would often trade guitars and licks although he was such a phenomenal guitar player I usually couldn't do the stuff he could work out. He'd let me show him a blues lick every now and then. Gram Parsons was a spoiled rich kid with lots of talent and big ideas. We jammed in his room a few times but I never actually played out with him anywhere. He was very charismatic and had a way with the ladies.

[LM] Ron & The Starfires started out playing mostly blues and rhythm and blues cover songs, but changed once the British Invasion hit America full stride. What did you think of the English bands at that time?

[Carl] We always did a lot of R&B, but the first time I heard the "Meet The Beatles" album, I knew the future of music had taken a turn. This was like nothing I had ever heard before. A little bit R&B, a little bit country, a lot of rock and roll. I liked several others of the English groups of the era, such as the Zombies and Rolling Stones, but none impressed me like The Beatles. Eventually we were doing about a 50/50 split of R&B and English-style rock. What did I think of them? I thought it was incredible that people so far away were listening to and playing our (American) music. I'm still amazed at the impact a few rock and roll pioneers had on what is called popular music in the world today.

[LM] What were some of the more popular venues that Ron & The Starfires played? How popular was the band locally?

[Carl] Ron and the Starfires played an extensive circuit of municipal teen centers and teen clubs that were very popular venues in the early and mid sixties. During the Fall and Spring, we played primarily in Gainesville on and around the campus of the University of Florida and in the Daytona Beach area. We were made honorary pledges at the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at the University of Florida, and played most of their house functions. We were also very popular at several other fraternities in town, as well as at The Pier in Daytona Beach. We did a few out of state jobs up into Georgia. Our longevity speaks of our popularity. The Starfires were together (with only a couple of personnel changes) from 1963 until 1970. (That is) a long time for a local band that rarely played in a night club or lounge.

[LM] Did this popularity translate into any local TV appearances?

[Carl] I don't think so. There was a "live" 'American Bandstand'-style television show, Saturday afternoons on WFLA-TV in Tampa, that the original Starfires, the Dynamics, and the Legends played quite often, but I think the show had run it's course by the time I joined up with the Starfires.

[LM] Ron & The Starfires played with two of the best Florida garage bands of that era, the Nightcrawlers and the Birdwatchers. What do you recall about these bands? What other local bands impressed you during this time?

[Carl] Both were great bands and enjoyed "star" status in Florida. We were pretty close friends with the Nightcrawlers (in the Daytona area) and recorded some of Charlie Conlon's tunes in 1966 or so. We got to know the Birdwatchers' Bobby Puccetti when he played some keyboards on one of our recording sessions in Miami. Some time later we had the opportunity to open a show for them. Another group we often hung out with when we were in the Daytona area was the Allman Joys. Greg (Allman) could do Ray Charles like nobody I'd ever heard and Duane (Allman) always insisted that Ron sing "that Bobby 'Blue' Bland song" we did call "Stormy Monday Blues."

[LM] Ron & The Starfires had a regional hit in the Gainesville and Daytona areas with "The Grass Is Greener" on the Lee C label. Do you recall the circumstances leading to the single?

[Carl] Michael Stone, the manager of the Nightcrawlers, really liked us and set up and produced a recording session for us at Criteria Studios in Miami. Ron had written three or four tunes and we recorded those as well as a couple of covers we had rearranged. "The Grass is Greener" was actually the "B" side of the single but it was the one that got the most attention and airplay. The flip side was, in my opinion, a more commercial tune called "Why Did You Cry?" I believe Mike still has the masters from this session.

[LM] Did any of these other songs ever get released?

[Carl] Yes, we did get a release on another song we recorded in Miami about a year or so later, that Ron, Jesse, and myself wrote called "Lyla" but I don't think it was ever promoted. It was produced by Brad Shapiro on the Kim Records label, and the artist was listed as Ron Starr (??). The flip-side was a Charlie Conlon tune called "Crawl Into My Shoulder."

[LM] How many unreleased Ron & The Starfires recordings are in the can?

[Carl] During the second session we recorded several songs Charlie Conlon, of "Little Black Egg" fame, had written. It's too bad the masters of these recordings didn't survive (at least to my knowledge) because a couple of these were the best stuff we ever did. [They were] very commercial for the time. I managed to get, and still have, a board mix of the session on cassette but the quality is less than ideal.

[LM] In 1967, Ron & The Starfires filmed some of the very first music videos with Eric Shaubaker of the Bee Jay Booking Agency and Recording Studio. What do you remember about these videos?

[Carl] Eric had this idea that the future of music was gonna be in video. He had this huge video tape machine and camera that he would cart out into the parking lot and video tape the acts that he handled. Then he'd carry this contraption, along with a monitor, around to the various buyers and let them choose the acts they wanted from the video. In our portion of the video, we performed a Neil Diamond song "Solitary Man." Many years later he had the original video restored as best as was possible and sent both Ron and myself a copy of the Starfires performance. My VCR has been busted for some time so I'm not sure if my copy still plays.

[LM] As noted, the Starfires started out as a blues/rhythm and blues cover band, changed with the arrival of the "British Invasion" to sound more like the English bands, and then finally adding horns. Which one of these musical styles--or sounds--was your favorite?

[Carl] I've always been partial to '60s R&B and I loved playing with the horns (I had another "horn" band in the early '70s). It's just hard to beat the power that an eight or nine piece band generates. But then I also really enjoyed playing the other styles too. We could mix 'em up and do both styles equally well. During the '60s and early '70s, rock and roll in general was fun to play. Then it started to fragment and get weird (to say nothing of the artists). I still play in a retro-rock band with a couple of the original members of another local '60s garage band, the Canadian Rogues.

[LM] The Canadian Rogues? Do you know them from your playing days in the '60s?

[Carl] Actually, during the '60s, I'm not sure if any of us actually knew each other, but we were definitely familiar with each other's reputations and on occasion played jobs on the same bill in and around Lakeland--a larger city, about 10 miles west of Auburndale--where they were from. Willie Metts, the Canadian Rogues lead singer, was a great and charismatic R&B singer. Willie was acquainted with and could sound just like Otis Redding when he wanted to. It was in the early '70s that we first got together with Willie. In about 1973, Jesse and I put together Raintree County, an eight-piece horn band that featured Willie on vocals. In about 1991, Jesse and I started playing with Willie, Ronnie Harrell, and Dane Streets, all three from the original Canadian Rogues, in a new version of the Rogues doing retro-rock from the '50s, '60s and '70s. Willie passed away (heart attack) in the mid-'90s and Jesse left the group soon thereafter. I still play with the Rogues a few times a year.

[LM] In late 1968, you joined another popular--and now highly revered--garage band in the We The People. How did your association with that band begin?

[Carl] Ron and the Starfires were well known in the Orlando area where We The People were located. When Tommy Talton left them, Ron Dillman (their manager), for some reason, thought I would fit into the group.

[LM] Were you aware of Talton, or Wayne Proctor, the main songwriters for the band, prior to joining We The People?

[Carl] I was familiar with their reputations but I didn't know either Talton or Proctor. It really had not yet dawned on me that songwriting was where it was at. It took about ten more years for that to happen. The band played quite a bit and seemed to be popular and well respected during the time I was with them but, in all honesty, I think the guys were a bit bummed by that time, because RCA had lost interest and Talton had left. We never performed any of the groups "hits" while I was with them. But we made some fine music. They were a truly talented group of players.

[LM] Did this version of We The People record?

[Carl] No. Although I do have probably close to two hours of live recordings I made while I was with them. The quality varies from fair to very good.

[LM] You sang lead for the first time in years after joining We The People. Was there any particular reason that you decided to start singing again?

[Carl] Actually, I sang in my first band, the Dynamics, because no one else would. But when I heard myself on tape I sounded very nasal and corny. After I started working with Ron Whitney in the Starfires, I had no need to sing lead and became an adept harmony singer. Ron Dillman insisted I carry part of the vocal load with We The People, so I did. I was still nasal, but from then on I worked at getting better as a lead singer.

[LM] How did your stint with We The People come to an end?

[Carl] I left We The People because they were in Orlando and I was in Auburndale--about 50 miles apart. I was a young married man at the time and money was very tight. While they played almost every weekend, the pay didn't quite cover the added expense of the sometimes daily commute (rehearsals, etc.) and I didn't have the means to pick up and move. It was unfortunate, because we made some good music. I think they hired another guitar player and played for another year or so before disbanding.

[LM] You probably scored your biggest career successes post-We The People and Raintree County.

[Carl] In 1978 Jesse and I got the opportunity to both tour and record with Howard and David, the Bellamy Brothers who had garnered an international number one pop hit in 1976 with "Let Your Love Flow" but were now looking to crash the country music market. The Brothers contacted us because they remembered Jesse and me from when Ron and the Starfires used to play the Dade City Teen Center (near where they lived) during the '60s. I was with them through two albums and four number one hits and left them at the very end of 1979. While I was with them I came to the realization that song writing was where the money was. In 1980, as an artist, I managed a minor showing on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart, with the song "Take Me Home With You" (on an indie label out of Nashville) that I had co-written with my wife Nancy. In 1982, I had the good fortune to get a single release by the group Alabama of a song I had written while I was on the road with the Bellamys. The Song was "Close Enough To Perfect" which was a number one hit for them and a BMI award winner in both 1982 and 1983. In 1984, Ricky Skaggs released one of my tunes, "Loves Gonna Get You" that managed a number four on the Billboard chart. 1985 through 1990 were spent playing Central Florida theme parks Circus World and Boardwalk and Baseball with the Dizzy Rambler Band. The '90s were slower, but we did a few really great shows and opened for some pretty big country acts.

[LM] You've obviously had a very impressive and successful career. Aside from the retro rock band, what else keeps you busy today?

[Carl] The new millennium has started with some promise. Last May, the retro rock band I play with, did a show in which we backed up Jimy Sohns, who was the lead singer with the Shadows of Knight and sang the hits "Gloria" and "Shake" back in the '60s. That was a blast.

[LM] What is Jim Sohns like? Being from his hometown of Chicago, I've heard stories of him being a bit, umm, eccentric.

[Carl] I found him to be no more eccentric than most musicians that have had some degree of success in this business. He was friendly and easy to work with and I have definitely worked with much bigger egos. Of course, we have all mellowed somewhat in our old(er) age.

[LM] Tell me about the PolKats Reunion.

[Carl] On January 19th, 2001 we had a PolKats reunion dinner/show/jam, an invitation only affair, that included performances by Jim Stafford, Lobo, country super-writer Bobby Braddock, myself, Jim Carlton, Jon Corneal, Jesse Chambers, Ron and the Starfires, the Canadian Rogues, and everybody we could run down from the old '60s peer group. It was a night that will be remembered in Polk County, Florida for a long, long time.

[LM] So you're still very obviously involved in the music industry . . .

[Carl] Currently, we manage and produce wanna-be country artists and do a lot of demos for songwriters in our home studio. I still play songwriter shows when I can and also play retro-rock gigs with the Rogues when those opportunities arise.

[LM] Gear Fab will be releasing the second volume of its 'Psychedelic State: Florida' series shortly, and a Ron & The Starfires song will be included. That's got to be exciting for you.

[Carl] I have been providing Roger Maglio at Gear Fab Records in Orlando, with some material (bio and photo) for the CD. Roger had sent me Volume 1 and I was impressed that the Canadian Rogues were on it, but I didn't recognize any of the others except for the Maundy Quintet who we used to be in competition with in the Gainesville area (where they were located). I always remember them because that was Bernie Leadon's (of the Eagles) group. I'm looking forward to the CD.

Check out Carl's comprehensive web site with many rare recordings at:

"Copyrighted and originally printed on The Lance Monthly by Mike Dugo".
"Listen live, online to their music at Beyond The Beat Generation, 60's garage and psychedelia".