In 1966, Norfolk, Nebraska's The Smoke Ring formed from the remnants of two groups: Little Joe & The Ramrods and The Strollers.
In 1968, Mike "Pinky" Semrad joined the band, just in time to be a part of their greatest success. With Semrad as a member, The
Smoke Ring recorded its biggest hit, and also lined up an appearance on AMERICAN BANDSTAND. Inducted into the Nebraska Music Hall
Of Fame in 1995, the Smoke Ring continues to perform yearly for reunion concerts.
An Interview With Mike "Pinky" Semrad
60sgaragebands.com (60s): How did you first get interested in music? Mike "Pinky" Semrad (MS): My Great Grandmother was an opera singer in Eastern Nebraska. My father's family had a "big band" - The Semrad Family Band in the 1930's - and my mother has been a church organist/piano teacher since the early 1950's. Music has always been important in my family.
60s: Prior to the Smoke Ring, you were in J. Harrison B. & The Bumbles. How long was that band together?
MS: That band started as Fremont, Nebraska's first rock band (as The Fabulous Nomads) in 1962. Upon all of us entering The University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1963, we ultimately changed the name to J. Harrison B. & The Bumbles. We went from frat-surf rock to an 8-piece horn band until it temporarily disbanded in 1968. We played all over the Midwest. Stan Johnson, co-leader, has kept the band alive for over forty years and versions of the band have called England, Germany, Japan, Wisconsin, Montana and California their home base.
60s: So the Bumbles continued on after you and Ron McClure left to join The Smoke Ring…
MS: The band was ready to dissolve due to Military obligations for several members; this was the Viet Nam era). Johnson kept versions of the band alive in Germany during his military stay there, and has generally kept the band alive to this day. Versions of the band still continue to play in Fondu Lac, Wisconsin and Davis, California.
60s: How did The Smoke Ring become acquainted well enough with you and Ron to ask you to join them? Did you often see them perform?
MS: Several members of The Smoke Ring, Jerry Benjamin, Chuck Asmus and John "Coyote" Schrad, attended The University of Nebraska. I'd also known members of Little Joe & The Ramrods and The Strollers from Norfolk, Nebraska from seeing them play in my hometown prior to those two groups reforming into The Smoke Ring. When Schrad, Asmus and Benjamin left the band, they recommended that McClure and I tryout - and we were accepted in the summer of 1968. They needed two trumpets and two singers, which we were. I also played valve trombone.
60s: How long was The Smoke Ring together before you joined the fold?
MS: Little Joe & The Ramrods and The Strollers were two of the early rock bands in Norfolk. The Ramrods had recorded on Minnesota's SOMA Records (Yogi Twist and B. B. Limbo on SOMA 1403 - 1962) and both were quite popular throughout the Midwest. The Strollers reformed into a larger version of The Ramrods, allowing the Hupp brothers from Norfolk (Little Joe Hupp - keyboards, Bob "Tunda" Hupp and Nick Hupp on bass) to be in a band together for the first time. That version of The Ramrods recorded several 45's on Minnesota's Studio City Records, including Somebody Touched Me b/w Hurtin' Inside (# 1014 - 1963) and Ooh Pooh Pa Doo b/w We Belong Together (#1019 - 1964). Norfolk was a "hot-bed" of early rock with these groups learning the ropes from the real Nebraska pioneers like Don Sohl & The Roadrunners and Ron Thompson & The Broughams with Dick Allison and Dennis Volk. The Strollers and The Ramrods changed their name to The Smoke Ring around 1966.
60s: Whew! Will you recap the line-up?
MS: Jerry Benjamin - drums and guitar thru '67; Tom Benjamin - drums thru '67; Jim Casey - Sax Guitar ('66-'69); Dave Dohren - trumpet ('66-'70); Bob Hupp - guitar ('66-'69); Little Joe Hupp - keyboards ('66-'68); Leader Nick Hupp - bass ('66-'70); John Schrad - sax ('66-'68); Chuck Asmus - drums ('66-'68); Roger Volk - drums ('68-'71); Greg "Bosco" Goodman - keyboards ('69-'71); Ron McClure - trumpet ('68-'69); and Mike "Pinky" Semrad - trumpet and guitar ('68-'69).
Later players included Steve Dahl (formerly of The Red Dogs); Jon Hischke (formerly of The Red Dogs); Garth Fundis; Keith Goins (formerly of The Chancellors); Colin Keefe; Danny Keller; Tommy Shaw (later of Styx and Damn Yankees). 60s: What was a typical Smoke Ring performance like?
MS: We were an exciting band with lots of "steps" and "Showtime". The later groups were in the seven to nine piece ranges, so the sound was huge. We wore matched Bell-bottom tuxedos until around 1970 - when the mismatched look came in. Many of the '60's rock bands were highly influenced by Lawrence Kansas' Fabulous Flippers. The Flippers introduced all of us to obscure black R&B. By 1968 there were hundreds of bands in the Midwest that copied the Flippers R&B horn-based sound; all predated Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears.
60s: What types of gigs did you typically line up?
MS: Once we began touring, we played mostly ballrooms and auditoriums throughout the USA. The main teen club was Sandy's Escape in the Benson area of Omaha, Nebraska. We played there occasionally. We also played the Macomba Club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and The Cock & Bull in Memphis, Tennessee. But most of the shows were at major ballrooms, armories or auditoriums.
60s: Did The Smoke Ring have a manager?
MS: From about 1966 -when the band changed its name to The Smoke Ring) through it's demise around 1972 - Little Joe Hupp was the bands' manager. We did book through Mid-Continent in Lawrence, Kansas, and Willard Alexander in Chicago occasionally, but Little Joe handled most of the bookings. He later booked major acts, including The Oak Ridge Boys, Roy Clark, Carl Perkins, Leon Russell, David Allen Coe, etc with Halsey Agency in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
60s: How popular locally would you say The Smoke Ring became?
MS: The Smoke Ring was a major draw in the Midwest: Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, etc. We also drew well where our records charted in the Top10, like in Memphis, Boston, and Cleveland.
60s: What other local groups of the era were also large draws?
MS: Other local groups that charted regionally or nationally were: The Coachmen (Mr. Moon), The Rumbles, Ltd (Jezebel on Mercury), Zager & Evans (In The Year 2525 on RCA), Buddy Miles (with Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsies, Buddy Miles Express and Santana), Gene McDaniels (100 Pounds Of Clay and Tower of Strength on Liberty Records), The Velaires (Roll Over Beethoven on Jamie Records and Dick Clark Show in Philadelphia in 1960) were all from Eastern Nebraska or Western Iowa. Randy Meisner from The Eagles is from Mitchell, Nebraska (in western Nebraska). Max Carl Gronenthal from Norfolk was the lead singer for .38 Special and now Grand Funk Railroad. He used to watch The Smoke Ring play in Norfolk when he was still in high school.
60s: Who wrote the majority of The Smoke Ring's songs?
MS: Jim Casey from the band and Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds wrote many of the B-Sides. Also Jim Casey and Jerry Phillips (son of Sam Phillips - Sun Records. He now has a publishing company in Nashville). Most of the A-Sides were covers.
60s: The Smoke Ring's biggest hit was No Not Much, a cover of a Four Lads tune. Whose idea was it to cover it?
MS: The Smoke Ring you heard live was a smokin' rhythm and blues cover band. We used to hire musicians to take on the road with us. We'd pay them a flat fee and then book ballrooms through the Midwest as sole proprietors and try to make the spread. We did this with Tommy Roe, Bobby Wood (from J. Frank Wilson & Cavaliers), Rufus Thomas (Walkin' The Dog) and Dickey Lee (Patches). Dickey Lee liked the band and offered to record us at Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis (the second home of Sun Records). Our producers/engineers were Dickey Lee, Allen Reynolds (producer for Garth Brooks), Knox Phillips (Sam Phillips' son), and Stan Kesler (Sun Records' bass player, and the discoverer of Sam The Sham and an Elvis Presley songwriter). Horns were dubbed by Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love (The Memphis Horns and Stax Records session players). They decided to go the "Easy Listening - MOR" route - which we typically didn't play live. Their first suggestion was No Not Much. It was released first on Gold Dust Records, and later picked up by Buddah Records - the legendary "Bubblegum" label from New York.
We later recorded a cover of Portrait Of My Love on Buddah (#112 - 1969). Most of the unreleased album cuts were also in the same groove (Dark End of The Street, Ruby Tuesday, All The Time, etc).
No Not Much (Gold Dust #317 b/w When Marty Throws A Party and Buddah # 77 b/w How'd You Get To Be So Wonderful - 1968/69) charted around #85 on Billboard, and in the '60-'70's on Cash Box and Record World. We hit #1 in Memphis and Top 10 in New York, Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The second Buddah single didn't chart, but sold well.
60s: How long did you stay in Memphis?
MS: The first record released nationally (before I joined the band) was That Girl Was My Girl One Time b/w Her Love's A Lie on MALA Records (# 568 -1967). It sold well regionally but didn't chart nationally. The band ventured to Memphis around six times between 1967-1970, and recorded both at Sam Phillips Recording Studio (Sun) and Sounds of Memphis Studio on Camilla Street.
60s: You've referenced unreleased album cuts. What prevented the songs from being released?
MS: After the second Buddah single (Portrait of My Love b/w Looking For Love To Come My Way, Buddah # 112 - 1969) failed to chart, the album that was in the can was never released. We've tried to find the masters, but have been unsuccessful to date.
After the Little Joe and Ramrods singles and the Mala-Buddah singles, The Smoke Ring released High On A Rainbow b/w First Reaction (#10008 - 1969) on Certron Records - the same label as Don Williams' Pozo Seco Singers. Again, this sold well regionally but didn't chart nationally. Garth Fundis sang lead on this record. This is the only record that actually had the R&B feel of the live band. We have found a number of second-generation cassettes of the unreleased material, but probably not good enough to release. We did do a self-produced compilation of Smoke Ring songs (on cassette) around 1997 that features some of these cuts. This was just sold "off the stage" and was only released locally.
Buddah Records' catalog was sold to Essex Entertainment, which released a Buddah Box set, but we were not included. Then Essex sold Buddah to BMG/RCA. I tried to purchase the masters for our two singles from RCA and when they located them they said "the good news is we've found the masters, and the bad news is, we like No Not Much and won't sell the masters to you." They included No Not Much on a Compilation CD/cassette issued in 1996 called The Complete Buddah Singles Collection - Volume 2. We, of course, received no funds (which is typical), but it was exciting to have our "hit" in the music bins again. RCA tried to resurrect Buddah (changing the spelling to Buddha). They did some reissues of prior Buddah artists and others, but I understand they recently closed this operation. We'd hoped that they would reissue the Buddah Compilation album we were on - called Buddah's 360 Degree Dial-A-Hit (1969) on which No Not Much was included along with The Brooklyn Bridge, Melanie and others. Maybe I'll try to purchase the masters again! A record released in 1972 as The Smoke Ring (Heavy Metal Whale - Shue Records # 1988) was organized by Little Joe Hupp but had no direct tie to the original band other than the name on the record. It was a local release that didn't sell many copies and was far from the traditional Smoke Ring sound.
60s: No Not Much did sell well enough to land the band on AMERICAN BANDSTAND. What do you recall about the filming of the show?
MS: Little Joe Hupp first tried to get us on THE JOHNNY CARSON SHOW (Carson was from the band's home town of Norfolk) but to no avail. Joe literally sat on the steps of the TV Studio in Los Angeles until the band was booked on BANDSTAND. We'd charted in late February 1969 and he convinced Dick Clark's people to put us on his Los Angeles show, which aired around May 1969. Dick Clark filmed an entire month of shows (two acts per show) during one day. Those also filming that day and who appeared throughout the next month included: Tommy Roe (who appeared with us), Dee Dee Warwick, The Ventures, The Grass Roots, The Guess Who and Sajid Khan. Dick Clark spent a lot of time with us after the show and was a wonderful person. He continues to correspond with us from time to time.
We have an audiotape of the AMERICAN BANDSTAND show, but can't locate the video. Dick Clark's staff told us many of the tapes of the early shows were tossed some years ago, before they knew they'd have value or fan interest.
60s: What other TV shows did The Smoke Ring appear on?
MS: We appeared on a local Los Angeles "bandstand type of show" I think on KHJ-TV. We appeared on a WHBQ-TV Dance Show with emcee George Klein - who was best friends with Elvis Presley and was best man in Presley's wedding. After I left the band, they also did several TV shows on the East Coast and in Cleveland, Ohio. Elvis Presley was a good friend with Dickey Lee and of course, the Phillips family. He'd returned to Memphis to record for the first time (at American Studios) during the time we were in town recording. We were invited to the In The Ghetto sessions, but for some reason chose to not go. Looking back - that was a major mistake. Our session keyboard player (Bobby Wood - who'd played with J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers) played on the Presley sessions.
60s: Did the success of No Not Much affect your touring territory at all?
MS: Through 1969, the band played mostly the Midwest (Oklahoma through North Dakota and Colorado through Iowa/Minnesota). Once the band signed to Buddah and gained national attention, the touring expanded, mostly to the South and East. The last versions of the band played quite a few states before disbanding.
60s: Why did the band disband?
MS: Of the players that I was with in '68-'69, Roger Volk (drums) was the last to leave in 1971. Keith Goins from Columbus, Nebraska (The Echoes and The Chancellors with Max Carl Gronenthal) basically took my place in the summer of 1969, when I entered the Military. Keith generally ran the band from there on. After early 1971 the band varied between a five-piece guitar band to expanding again to a horn band. A number of great players went through the ranks (Steve Dahl from The Red Dogs, who is now a major booking agent in Nashville; Garth Fundis, who went on to run A&R for RCA in Nashville, and has produced Crystal Gayle and now Trisha Yearwood; the former drummer for The Ides Of March played in a late version of the band and last, but certainly not least; a young guitar slinger named Tommy Shaw joined The Smoke Ring in early 1972 in Nashville). The band had generally booked out of both Nashville and Chicago by then. Shaw of course went on to join Styx and recorded with Jack Blades (Night Ranger) and Ted Nugent as Damn Yankees. Tommy joined and during a session at Jack Clement Studio's in Nashville, a decision was made to change the name of the band. Colin Keefe from Lincoln, Nebraska was now lead singer. The band (The Smoke Ring) changed its name to M. S. Funk (for Muscle Shoals Funk). The same final members of The Smoke Ring toured as M. S. Funk until around 1976. Shaw left and joined Styx and the band generally disbanded at that time. The Smoke Ring name was discarded around March 1972.
60s: What about you? What bands did you join or form after The Smoke Ring?
MS: After the military, I joined with my then brother-in-laws (Dick and Bob Allison) to form The Allison Brothers Band in Norfolk. Dick Allison charted regionally with Dream World of Love on Dreem Records with Ron Thompson & The Broughams around 1959. He also toured with The Grand Ole Opry. We were a great early band. We did both country and rock. I had a band called The Mob with the legendary Ron Tuccitto from Omaha for over 13 years. Ron played on the rockabilly cult record The Itch by Carl Cherry when he was 14 years old in the late '50's, and toured with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. I've also played in The Haywood-Wakefield Band and Heart Break Fatty & The Liverspots.
60s: What about today. How often, and where, do you perform?
MS: After the military, I went into the banking business, where I now have been for 32 years. I am a Commercial and Real Estate Lender, with American National Bank of Fremont (Nebraska). However, I've continued to play most of the time, since 1962. We've had Smoke Ring reunions with the Nebraska Music Hall of Fame since 1994. The band sounds great. We've also had several J. Harrison B. & The Bumbles reunions over the years - also all very good players. I've played with Magic Slim, jammed with The original Muddy Waters Band, played with The Fabulous Flippers and had actress Anne Heche sing with us during the filming of a movie in Nebraska.
The Smoke Ring (we reformed in 1994) has played recently with Dickey Lee, Max Carl Gronenthal (.38 Special and Grand Funk Railroad), The Fabulous Flippers and Little River Band. I still generally play weekends, and have six boys that are all musical, so I enjoy having them play with me or enjoy sitting in with their bands. The '60's ponytail revival will have to wait until I retire from banking.
60s: Finally…How do you best summarize your experiences with The Smoke Ring?
MS: Although I was only in the band for a short while, the timing was excellent. I was lucky enough to be part of The Smoke Ring national success (charted records with Buddah, AMERICAN BANDSTAND, etc). The entire Norfolk musical community is amazing, and more fine players came out of that small town (18,000 population) than probably any other town that size in the country. "There's something in the water," we say. The friendships are strong, the musical talents are amazing, and our annual Hall of Fame shows in Norfolk and around the state relive the great music from the '50-'70's that came out of the Midwest.
Your readers may be interested in finding out more information on The Nebraska Music Hall of Fame (they can go to www.nebrocks.org