In the mid to late 1960's, garage bands could be found almost anywhere one looked: at local grocery store openings, at bowling alleys, at Soap Box Derby races, and in nearly every high school, junior high school, fraternity, and college in the country. It seemed that where there were male teens or young men who possessed a fanatical desire to express themselves musically (and there were many), a garage band was just around the corner. It should also come as no surprise during that period of time that not even the military was exempt. Though formed prior to the "Beatlemania" explosion, the Spiffys--the U.S. Navy's version of the local garage band--did not make their first recording until 1967. The band's two albums serve today as an interesting reminder to a largely ignored part of the U.S. armed forces.
Many thanks to John Milner for sharing his recollections about his days as a member of the Spiffys.
An Interview With John Milner of the Spiffys!
[Q] You were born and raised in Greenwood, Mississippi. Do you recall the Gants, a Greenwood band that released three albums on Liberty in '65 -'66?
[A] Yes, I knew the Gants, but they did not start the band until after I had graduated high school. One of the members, Johnny Sanders, was in my high school class of '63. The others were a year or two younger.
[Q] You started your musical career playing drums in the marching band of your Junior High and high school bands. What led to the switch to guitar in your Junior year?
[A] A couple of friends were trying to learn the guitar, and I thought it was pretty cool. The first lick I learned was the classic Ray Charles tune, "What I Say." I didn't have one of my own, but as luck would have it, my high school Spanish club took a field trip in Spring of '62 to Monterrey, Mexico where I bought a small Mexican guitar, no brand name, for $10. (The) cheap Mexican strings quickly broke and I replaced them with Black Diamonds. Another friend, Joe Seawright, already knew how to play and we spent the summer of '62 sitting on the back of cars, drinking beer, and playing songs. I learned a lot quickly.
[Q] Your first band was the Sweet Nothings, formed during your High School years. What can you tell me about the band (please list members names and instruments played)?
[A] Joe Seawright and I finally decided to start our own band, and asked our buddy, Joe Correro, to play drums. Joe was in the marching band with me and was a great drummer. So the starting line-up was Joe S. on lead guitar and vocals, John M. on rhythm guitar, and Joe C. on drums. Joe Seawright played a '62 Silvertone Les Paul through a '62 Silvertone Twin Twelve amp, I played a '62 Les Paul SG Junior through a '62 Fender Princeton amp, and Joe Correro played red sparkle Slingerland drums. I still have the Mexican guitar, although unplayable, and the Les Paul SG Junior/Fender Princeton amp, which still kick ass. Joe Seawright later formed the Curb Service rock'n'roll band, still based in Greenwood, MS. Joe Correro went on to play (with) Joe Frank and the Knights; Paul Revere and the Raiders; Chase; Hamilton, Joe Frank, & Reynolds; and Al Jarreau, and lives in Los Angeles playing jazz.
[Q] Did the Sweet Nothings record? How often did they perform live?
[A] Our first gig was in the fall of '62 playing for a high school sock hop, and we got paid $25. We played about twice a month, usually for high school events and the local Teen Club. We did play a couple of Ole Miss frat parties. We never did record anything because no one had any recording equipment.
[Q] After graduating from high school, you joined the U.S. Naval Academy and, of course, the Spiffys. Reportedly, the Spiffys had been around for close to ten years prior to you joining, and continually recruited members throughout the years. Is this true? Please detail how you became a member.
[A] The Spiffys were formed in '58, and as members graduated, others were brought in. During Plebe summer, I formed a group of classmates to play for a musical competition show. I managed to borrow some equipment from the Spiffys through some upper classmen. Our group won, and when the Brigade returned in September, I was asked to join the band. A few months later, one of the other guitar players in the competition group, Larry Purdy, was asked to join.
[Q] Did the Spiffys play for general audiences, for servicemen, or for both? How often did the band perform?
[A] The Spiffys mostly played for Academy dances; however, we did play at several Maryland Girls' Colleges, like Goucher in Baltimore. We always played in Philadelphia after the Army-Navy football game.
[Q] The Spiffys recorded an album in 1967, "The Spiffys." Why did the Spiffys decide it was finally time to record an album, and how did this album come about?
[A] We thought it would be cool to have a record with our face on it. We knew it was unlikely we would have a chance of a musical career since we had to go into the Navy after graduation. (It was to be) something we could show our kids later. We talked the Academy into funding the record as publicity. We sold them only at the Academy and the price was cost - about $1.00. We recorded the first one in one six-hour session, and the second one in a twelve-hour session.
[Q] Being based in Annapolis, Maryland, how influential was the beach music scene on the Spiffys?
[A] Yes, beach music was an influence, but we played everything from the Beatles, Stones to Electric Prunes, Buckinghams to Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors. We tried anything we liked.
[Q] The Spiffys' recorded, among other songs, versions of "Satisfaction," "Gloria," and "Walk Away Renee." How was it decided which songs to include on the album?
[A] We liked the songs and thought our versions were pretty good.
[Q] The band also recorded one original song on the first album, "No Pain." Who wrote this song, and how would you describe it?
[A] We decided we needed an original on the record, but none of us had any material. So we sat down one evening and wrote it. Larry Purdy and Steve Fagan are credited on the record, but we all put something into it. I think it has influences of all our different musical backgrounds. There were seven in the band that year (1967).
[Q] The second Spiffy's album ("Spiffy's '68") included versions of the Doors "Light My Fire," and Procul Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale." Was the band consciously attempting to adjust to the prevalent musical styles of the era?
[A] We usually played what the guys at the Academy liked and would dance to. We did, however, attempt to stay as current as possible.
[Q] The second album also included one original, "Dreams." Again, who wrote this original song, and how would you describe it?
[A] Larry Purdy wrote this one by himself, and we developed our parts to fit. I was playing drums on this album, ''Siffy's '68." Our drummer got kicked out of school, and since I was in the Drum and Bugle Corps, it was a natural move. That way we didn't have to teach the repertoire to a new guy.
[Q] "Dreams" has been comped on a reissue album, "Oil Stains Volume Two." Are you aware that the song is held in high standards by '60s garage/psych band collectors?
[A] I had no idea that the album was noticed by anyone outside the Academy. We only pressed 1500 of the first, and 2500 of the second, and like I said, sold them only at the Midshipmen's Store. I'm excited to know it made some kind of statement after all.
[Q] Do you know if there is still a version of the Spiffys in the Naval Academy?
[A] I know the Spiffys ended in '68 after Larry Purdy, Rich Petrino, and I graduated. The other two tried to keep it going, but by then there were several other competing bands so finding players was difficult. Mike Imeson (in) '69, and Mike May (in) '70 (also) tried to keep the Spiffys going. I'm sure there are some forms of musical groups happening back there, but I don't know what. I doubt it would be hip-hop, but then we thought we were pushing the edge a good bit back then when we played "Purple Haze."
[Q] You're currently playing in a band, the Blue Steel Throbbers. What can you tell me about your current band?
[A] Blue Steel Throbbers is a duo, consisting of Jim Gates and me. Jim plays guitar and mandolin plus a lot of other miscellaneous instruments like dulcimer, sitar, harmonium. I stick to the guitar primarily, but can manage a decent bass when needed. Both of us sing and both have written originals. We play lots of covers, like John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Jimmy Buffett, Taj Majal, plus blues, folk, Celtic. Whatever strikes our fancy. We tend to play parties and small venues, like Irish pubs and micro-breweries. (By the way), Blue Steel Throbber is a term Joe Seawright came up with in high school after an evening of unsuccessful evening activity. I finally hooked up with someone who didn't blanch at the name, so that's who we are.
[Q] I hope that you enjoyed reminiscing about your '60s bands.
[A] I am honored to even be asked about my music experience. I have loved every minute of playing. Even when I was flying for the Navy during Viet Nam, I carried an acoustic around with me. I don't regret not being a pro because it has kept playing fun by not having to rely on it to eat. Thanks a ton.
"Copyrighted and originally printed on The Lance Monthly