Bill Kennedy formed The Twiliters in the early '60's, shortly after returning from an Air Force stint in Germany. Recording songs that Kennedy had first heard while stationed overseas, The Twiliters laid down a couple sides that rank among the greatest garage band dance songs ever recorded. While The Twiliters have been immortalized on two different Teenage Shutdown volumes, as well as on various Norton Records compilations, Kennedy's accomplishments have earned him a peculiar distinction: He has also become inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
An Interview With Bill Kennedy
60sgaragebands.com (60s): How did you first get interested in music?
Bill Kennedy (BK): When I was a little boy back in the late '40's, I lived in a small town in West Virginia named Matoaka. My Mother loved music so there was always a radio or a record player going. She especially liked to listen to WLAC from Nashville every night. It was a fifty-thousand watt station that played R&B, gospel and blues music until the wee hours of the morning. I loved the gospel and R&B music, but I especially loved the Chicago blues masters: Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Lighting Hopkins and more. I would strain to hear their songs every night.
In addition, there was a considerable amount of country music around us. WHIS from Bluefield, West Virginia had a Saturday show featuring Rex and Eleanor & The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. I loved to listen to them. It was basically Bluegrass music and the guitar work was fascinating. Later on they came to Matoaka and played a street carnival. I stood behind the flat bed truck they were on and stared in amazement. They were just great. After that, I would sneak into the local hardware store and run my fingers across the strings of the big Gibson F-Hole Spanish guitars they had there.
60s: Your first band was apparently The Klicks, which you formed while stationed in Germany in the Air Force.
BK: Actually I had played in a couple of short term bands in Columbus, Ohio prior to joining the Air Force. I had purchased a new Magnatone guitar just before entering the Air Force in 1957, and was eager to get something going. When I first got to Germany, there was a Black singing group on base that were real talented. They did Del Vikings, Spaniels, and Penguins type of music. They ask me to back them up and I did for about six months.
Then another fellow named Bill Jenkins shipped in and somehow we got together and formed a band. He was a good looking, talented singer that played good rhythm guitar, and I played enough lead to get us by. We had many changes in our bass and drum make up but, in the end, it was a first class rock band.
We played all over (what was) then West Germany: NCO/EM/Airmans clubs, as well as German venues, Gasthouses, fests and so on. We played for about two and a half years. At the time we were the only all rock and roll band. There were others but they played country & western mostly with a bit of rock & roll thrown in. I never played in the states with The Klicks.
60s: Upon returning to the States in the early '60's, you formed The Twiliters in Plattsburgh, New York. Where did you meet the rest of the members of The Twiliters?
BK: I came back in June of 1961 to Columbus, Ohio. I thought that I would find a real good job and a band to get famous with. However, those were dire times in Ohio. The band business was about the same. I banged around for a while with different people then "re-upped" in the Air Force in early '62. I was sent directly to Plattsburgh, AFB New York, near the Canadian border. It turned out that there was a very active music scene there.
I hung out at a Roller rink there called Rollerland that ran dances several times a week. They also broadcast live music radio programs from there as well. One Sunday afternoon they asked for people in the audience to come up and make up a band to see what they could get. I played guitar and sang. An outragious 15-year old named Skip Bushey played drums. I don't remember the others. Out of that session I was ask to join a "Twist" group named The Centurys. They were made up of kids from the base and town. I played with them for several months until we had a bad accident in the wilds of Quebec. We were driving back from a gig in Sherebrooke in a Volkswagen Microbus. It had everything packed into it including a Lowery spinet organ and the four of us. The driver fell asleep at the wheel about four in the morning, went off the road and hit a tree with a "glancing" blow. Had he hit it head on, we all may have been killed or seriously hurt. There was stuff all over the cornfield. We tied the doors together with our ties and rope made it through the border and home.
I then met two guys - Mike Provost, who played bass, and John Drury, who was a great guitar player. They wanted to form a band with Skip Bushey, the drummer I had jammed with at Rollerland. I was impressed with Bushy and Drury, and they needed a singer, so I said, "why not?"
The band went through many transitions. The original band was guitar, vocals and me; John Drury, lead guitar; Mike Provost on bass; and Skip on drums. Mike went into the service and Tommy LaTour replaced him on bass. John Drury left the area and John Sullivan replaced him on guitar. I began to play lead again. It is this band you hear on the first record we made, Rollerland and Shakin' all Over.
John Sullivan left the group and Bruce Danville joined to play guitar. Bruce was multitalented and could play several instruments. This band make-up recorded Move It and The Girl from Liverpool - and, later - Mary Lou and Billy Billy Went A Walking. Carl Costin, another drummer with a good voice, was with us for a while. We actually played with two drummers with two full sets that matched completely. One was red, and the other blue.
Tommy LaTour joined the service and Bruce Danville decided to retire so Billy Pajonas, who was as good a keyboardist and a guitarist, joined the band. I switched to bass and we went along as a trio. Billy played Vox Continental organ and Fender Telecaster Guitar. Mike Berry, a guitar player who played 'straight tuning', was with us for a while. It offered some real different possibilities to the songs we were playing. The band lasted as a trio until about 1967.
60s: The Twiliters were formed and active before Beatlemania. What was the band's initial impression upon hearing The Fab Four for the first time?
BK: I had heard a lot about The Beatles before I had actually heard them. The first time I heard I Want To Hold Your Hand was on my car radio from WPTR in Albany. I thought they sounded like The Everly Brothers. At first it all sounded rather goofy - completely different from what we had been playing. But it became obvious as more records were released that they were the salvation of rock and roll at that time. We learned I Want To Hold Your Hand and played it for the first time at a dance at a high school. The reaction was unbelievable, so we began to add more and more of their songs, as well as other British recordings. We did a lot of The Animals stuff, too.
60s: What was being in band like before and after The Beatles arrived? Were there any changes that you made as a result?
BK: That's a good question. Before (The Beatles), unless you really ventured out and played R&B music, there wasn't much but the '50's stuff that made people dance. Twist music was basically the same thing over and over. Surf music was not so much of a big deal anymore in the East. We did a lot of R&B music. This was especially popular with the college crowd. After the British Invasion, everything changed: The way we dressed; our haircuts. There was a flood of new music to play from all kinds of bands. You had The Beatles playing remakes of American records like Honey Don't (and they had their own songs like) I Saw Her Standing There and many more. Their originals were considered "Pop" music. (There was) The Rolling Stones, who covered American Blues classics and brought a "grunge" sound and look to the scene; The Animals (who had) a dynamic Eric Burton as a lead singer, (were) also covering blues standards. Even the equipment changed. Where before we used Fender amps and guitars, along with Gibson equipment, now we were using Vox Super Beatle amps, and Rickenbacker, Gretsch and Vox guitars. Acoustic guitars were being used on stage. I sold my '61 Fender Stratocaster and bought a Rickenbacker 360 guitar. It was really beautiful...but I should have kept the Strat as an investment.
60s: Where did the band typically practice?
BK: Believe it or not, a garage beside Skip Bushey's house. His Father had an upholstery business on the side, so there was a lot of room and padding to deaden the noise. We still drew a crowd.
60s: Where did the band typically play?
BK: We played all over northern New York, Vermont, and Southern Quebec. (We played) high schools, clubs, YMCA dances, youth clubs, on backs of trucks - you name it. Our home base for a while was Rollerland. They brought in name acts. We played on the same bill with The Bill Black Combo and The Rivieras, whose equipment can be seen in one photo. We backed The Angels and The Cookies. We opened for The Supremes in Burlington, Vermont.
60s: How would you describe the band's sound? What band's influenced you?
BK: The band's sound went through changes. The first Twiliters band was basically playing surf music. I think we played every Beach Boys song made. The second version of the band, where I became the leader by default, became more rock-oriented. The English bands influenced us - as well as bands like The Kingsmen and The Rascals. The final version was pure late sixties stuff: Cream, Vanilla Fudge, Deep Purple.
60s: Did The Twiliters have a manager?
BK: Yes. Peter B. Guibord, who also owned Empire Records, the record company we recorded for.
60s: How popular did The Twiliters become?
BK: We did really well. Well enough for me to get asked for a page in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Our first record, Shakin' All Over, sold over 10,000 copies. The second sold over 5,000 copies. The last one barely sold 1,500 copies. The first two records have been released on no less than four record companies worldwide. Norton Records has several (of our songs) on their roster.
60s: What were some of the other local/competing groups in the area at that time?
BK: There were lots of bands up there. It was a mecca for entertainment for some reason. Mike and The Ravens, The Renegades, The Thunderbolts, Monterays, and The Falcons were just a few.
60s: As you've mentioned, The Twiliters released three singles for Empire Records. Where were the 45s recorded?
BK: The first single, Shakin' All Over and Rollerland, was recorded before a live audience on a regular Saturday night at Rollerland. There are several pictures of the event. That was a rarity then. Roy Urbanis was the engineer/producer. It was recorded on two full-track Ampex machines with RCA 77DX mics. Rollerland and Shakin' All Over were done in one take. We even left in a mistake. It's just after the lead; it's a guitar goof on my part. You can hear it clearly. A funny thing is that no one ever called me on it. Plus, once we attended a Battle of the Bands in Burlington as guests, and a band in the competition played Shakin' All Over. They even played the mistake, thinking it was part of the song. We cracked up...
Move It and The Girl From Liverpool were also recorded at Rollerland, but without an audience. We liked the natural acoustics that the room had. Roy Urbanis also did the recording but with a duel track machine this time. I overdubbed the voice in Liverpool in the ticket office of Rollerland.
Mary Lou, an old Ronnie Hawkins song, and Billy Billy were recorded at Rondack Records in Plattsburgh. Ben Everest was the engineer and producer. He had a four-track studio. He also had his own label, Rondack Records, and had several bands on it. Billy Billy was an awful song. I didn't like it but our manager did. And he was paying for the session so we gave in. A band from Canada called The Beau Marks recorded it originally. We had three girl singers on it and it sounded like a Mickey Mouse Club song. I jazzed it up with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. Bruce laid down a great solo but it still sucked. I took a lot of ribbing for that one.
By the way, Bruce Danville played a modified Fender Jazzmaster guitar. It had nine strings - one of the first to do that.
60s: Whose idea was it to record the Rollerland single live on one take? Were the singles sold primarily at Rollerland?
BK: It was our manager's idea. He did have a few good ones. It could be easily arranged so we did it. The songs were so powerful the first shot, and the crowd so pumped up, that we felt that trying to get them to do it again and again wouldn't sound right. We played back the tape for them and they liked it. So we went with it. The single - all our singles - were sold all over New England and upstate New York. We had a distributor out of Albany, as well as some distribution in Canada.
60s: You wrote Girl From Liverpool? Did you write many original songs during this period?
BK: I wrote lots of songs but Liverpool was the only one I felt good enough to record. And it nearly became a disaster. It seems like it resembles a song that was a hit back in the '50's. I didn't realize it until someone pointed it out. However, I was saved by Bruce Danville who - when transposing the song for the chart to be published - changed several notes so that it adhered to the so called "eight bar rule."
60s: Which song did it sound like?
BK: I guess it doesn't make much difference now but it bares a strange resemblance to Kisses Sweeter Than Wine by Jimmy Rogers. It was not intended that way at all. Bruce Danville caught it but changed the sheet music to reflect a different melody line.
60s: Who typically decided which songs The Twiliters recorded?
BK: I did, with the one exception that I mentioned before. I first heard Move It, as well as Shakin' All Over, while in Germany. Move It was Cliff Richard's first hit record. He was huge in England, and had a great band called The Shadows. Shakin' All Over was also by a British rocker, Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. I thought both songs would be hits in the U.S. I was right, but we didn't do it. We were the first to record these songs in North America as far as I know. Both are standards now.
Rollerland was a song written by Steve Blodgett of Mike and The Ravens, another great area band. They had performed it at Rollerland but hadn't recorded it. We ask if we could do it and he said yes. Mary Lou was a favorite of mine. I wanted to change the pace of our recordings. Billy Billy...well you know the story on that.
60s: Do any other Twiliters recordings exist? Are there any vintage live recordings?
BK: There are several live tapes around, but no other real recordings. I've toyed with the idea of doing something with the live tapes, but most are other people's songs and the pay off may not be worth it.
60s: What led you to form Venture Records? And how many singles did your label release?
BK: Just the one - Mary Lou and Billy Billy. Our manager, who owned Empire Records, didn't want to release another on his label. It may have been a tax thing. I came up with the name Venture Records and obtained a business certificate for it.
60s: When did the band break up?
BK: We may have lasted...into '66 - maybe into late '67. The band had gone through many changes. We were just a trio then. I was playing bass now because Billy Pajonas was both a good keyboard man - "he had a Vox organ" - and a real good guitar player. We couldn't find a bass player because most were being drafted for the Army. It was happy Vietnam time. Tommy LaTour, who had been with me, had joined the Marines along with several of his buddies. I think that Skip wanted to stop playing. He had gotten married and just wanted to settle down.
60s: What did you do after The Twiliters dissolved?
BK: As soon as The Twiliters dissolved, Billy Pajonas and I began to look around to form another band. It took us several weeks but we got John Champagne, who was an outrageous guitarist and a life long friend of Billy's. The "Mouse" as we called him, played a Gibson ES335 through a Fender Showman amp with two cabinets. He was unbelievable at times. We also hooked up with a great drummer named Dave Curtin who had studied at Eastman. We became The AC Apple Medicine Show, later shortened to just A.C. Apple. That began four years of sex, drugs and rock and roll. But that's another story.
A.C. Apple lasted until 1971. I remarried, and moved to the Albany area. Soon after, because of a multitude of reasons, we too fell apart. But it was the best time of my life. I did a very short stint with a band named Atlantis, then I retired - figuring I was never going to be a real rock star.
60s: What about today. How often, and where, do you perform?
BK: For a long time I turned my back on music. I had been playing guitar way back in 1956, since I was 16. I'd been in many bands, and had played all over. I wanted to be a star, but I was disillusioned and angry at the business in general. I had forgotten that it was the music that I loved, and it was that music that had probably saved my life. It was that way until about 1982 or so. I was driving back from Poughkeepsie one afternoon and listing to a great FM (station), WPDH from Poughkeepsie. I had the radio down low but I heard a song that resembled the old Gloria by The Shadows of Knight. I turned it up and heard the following verse:
You got your eye on a cheerleading queen, and your walking her home from school.
You know that she's only 17 and she's going to make you a fool.
Now you know you can't touch that stuff, without money or a brand new car.
Let me give you some advise young man, learn how to play guitar.
I almost wrecked the car laughing. What fool had written this song? It was about me! In high school I had a crush on a cheerleader named Cindy. I had a beat up old car but when she needed a ride home, she'd look me up. Her main squeeze was a big rich jock named Nick who had a new '57 Chevy 270 his Daddy had bought him. It wasn't until I learned how to play guitar those things changed for me forever.
That song was John Mellencamp's Play Guitar from his Platinum Uh-Huh album. I drove directly to the record store and bought a tape of it. I played it until it broke. I have been a rabid John Mellencamp fan every since. I owe my rebirth to him. I play open mics, sit in's, and jam sessions. I have a gig every once in a while. I own seven guitars now and one 35 year-old Rickenbacker bass. I recently built a digital recording studio in my basement. I've been working on a Mellencamp tribute CD called Mellencamp My Way, and I hope to release it by summer.
I work for Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Company as a District Sales Manager when I need the money.
60s: You are also a member of The Rockabilly Hall Of Fame. What do you consider are your proudest achievements that earned you this honor?
BK: I'm not totally sure....
I never thought that I did anything really important until about five or six years ago when - on a whim - I did a search with Yahoo on the web for "The Twiliters." I was astonished to find out that our records were being distributed by no less that four record companies worldwide. Norton and Buffalo Bop are just two. Norton even sells a seven-inch record with a picture of our band on it.
Then my name came up on the Rockabilly Hall website. I wrote them and asked who the "Bill Kennedy" was that was on their site. It was me....
I told them (who I was) and they told me that when the Hall was formed, they asked for people to submit a list of artists that they considered worthy of being listed on the site. Someone entered my name. Then the members were given a certain amount of time to challenge the selection. No one challenged my name so it remained. They asked if I wanted it removed. I said,"hell no" - of course.
They asked for material to build a web site, and they did. Since then I have received a lot of email from people all over the world who have heard of the band and our records. It's been a hoot. It took me forty-five years to become an international recording star and I didn't know it.
I think it was because we recorded Shakin' All Over first in the U.S. It's a song that The Guess Who later had a hit with, and has been covered by The Who, and many others. It was also that it was recorded live, when that was unheard of as a single.
Rollerland was covered as well. The Untamed Youth had it on a CD. I guess we were just the classic American Garage Band.
60s: How do you best summarize your experiences with The Twiliters?
BK: Well it was a trip...
It was an exciting time to be in a band. From The Twiliters from 1962 until 1967(?) and A.C. Apple from 1968 to 1971. All kinds of music - The British Invasion - the Viet Nam War, Woodstock, acid rock, love, peace and the sexual revolution. I was in there, doing my part. It was great.
I have one last funny and recent Twiliters experience. The reason that Norton Records and other companies bootleg the old '60's garage band recordings is that they are in demand on college radio. It's like an underground music thing, and it's a reasonably big market. About a year or so ago, I was on the New York State Thruway just outside Syracuse. I had my radio on "scan" in the FM band looking for something decent to listen to. Suddenly...I heard something real familiar. It was me. It was Rollerland. I thought that I had put in an old cassette so I was banging on the radio when I realized that it was being played over the radio. I turned it up and drove along with the same feeling I had in my gut the first time back in '62 that I had when I first heard our record on radio. A college radio station in Syracuse was playing it. I couldn't believe it.
It just never stops....
POSTSCRIPT: Dionysus Records has just released Hearts So Cold, a CD collection of Plattsburgh groups of the '60s including, of course, The Twiliters. You can order it via www.dionysusrecords.com
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