Interview and story by Al Goldberg
With the recent passing of Davy Jones and Dick Clark, it brought to mind a performer with a rich history on the Nippertown music scene. Bobby Dick, whose band the Sundowners toured with the Monkees back in the day, had kept up a close friendship with Jones over the years.
His band’s history goes back to the very early ’60s in their native Brooklyn. An act called the Del-Phi’s, were in attendance when Bobby won a talent contest at the local CYO. They were impressed enough to ask him to join their instrumental group, which was looking for a vocalist. He graciously accepted, and after learning to play bass – took on that duty as well. Members left and new ones came along, as they continued to evolve. The sax and keyboards were done away with, resulting in a tighter five-piece outfit. Almost everyone now assumed the vocal chores to some extent, in order to achieve the proper harmonies on certain songs.
Eventually, another lead vocalist, Eddie Brick, would come onboard. This made them somewhat unique, as most of the inner-city bands at that time were instrumental. Since the name “Del-Phi’s” was considered too urban in nature for their style, Bobby came up with a new name – the Sundowners, taken from a Robert Mitchum film. Playing covers by artists such as Elvis, Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers, they performed at high school dances in the beginning, then moved on to the Catskill resorts and also the popular New York City clubs of the time, including Trudy Heller’s, Cafe Wha and the Wagon Wheel.
One night, they were thrown out of the Peppermint Lounge for being too young. Indeed, some of the guys were barely in their teens. Dick believes that a member of a competing band reported them to the state liquor authority for being under age. It was decided that a move northward would be better, where perhaps they wouldn’t come under as much scrutiny. In 1963, the group relocated to Lake George.
The Village Inn in South Glens Falls was one of the hot spots, where they would draw upwards of 75-150 people a few nights a week. There were many Capital District-area clubs on the itinerary as well, including – the University Twist Palace, Lorenzo’s, the Showboat, Joyce’s Log Cabin, the Frat House and Kapps in the Hollow. The band would also travel to New Jersey and do shows with Cousin Brucie at Palisades Amusement Park.
They released a single, one of the last on the Coed Records label, entitled “Leave Me Never,” with the B-side being a cover of Chuck Berry’s classic “Around and Around.” Soon, local radio stations were beginning to take notice. In 1965, the Sundowners – along with another popular group from the University Twist Palace, the Knickerbockers – played on a bill with the Rolling Stones at Albany’s Palace Theatre, sponsored by radio station WTRY. A few months later, they opened for the Dave Clark Five at the RPI Fieldhouse in Troy.
The following year, Bobby and his bandmates decided to pack up and head west to Los Angeles – a prime opening at one of the premeir clubs in Hollywood being the catalyst. The Knickerbockers had made quite a splash on the scene there, particularly at a place called the Red Velvet. When their song “Lies” became a hit, they became regulars on Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is,” and were able to leave the club business. This left a big void at the legendary nightspot, and the Sundowners were recommended to fill it. Through mutual connections there, they became acquainted with members of the Monkees, but at a point before they had come out with a hit record or their television show aired. It wouldn’t be long though, before Monkee-mania started to catch fire. During 1967, their records actually outsold the Beatles and Rolling Stones combined.
One day, Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz dropped by the club to catch a show, and it was suggested that they all go out for a bite to eat afterward. The Monkees upcoming tour was in need of an opening act and a backup band so that they could do their solos. While members of the two groups were eating at the Hamburger Hamlet, a popular hangout on the Sunset Strip, the big question was presented to the New York natives, “You guys want to get on tour? See’s as we’d love to have you!” Dick mimicked to me in his finest Davy Jones accent. “Here are all these agents jockeying to get groups on their tour, making phone calls – and we’re dipping french fries in ketchup! It was all about friendships, which says a lot for the Monkees actually, and they loved our band. The deal was done.”
On June 9, 1967, the Sundowners played their first show with the new pop sensations at the Hollywood Bowl, along with Ike & Tina Turner. They joined the Monkees tour a month later, which was sponsored by Dick Clark Productions. When it reached Jacksonville, Florida, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was booked as the main opening act, with Australian singer Lynn Randell also in the lineup. This is considered one of the strangest concert matchups ever. Although Hendrix was coming off a historic show at the Monterey Pop Festival just a few weeks earlier and was a hot commodity in the UK, his star was still rising in America.
After a handful of dates along the East Coast, they reached New York for a three-night stand at Forest Hills tennis stadium. Playing before large crowds screaming “we want the Monkees” or “we want Davy” night after night apparently started to wear on the psychedelic blues rocker, who probably seemed like an anomaly to the thousands of teenyboppers and their parents – with his wild afro, fringed vest and colorful velvet pants. While Hendrix’s management may have been looking for more exposure to benefit their young client, Jones and his cohorts wanted more respect. As Dick would recall, “The Monkees felt that they were being considered a “New Kids on the Block” of the sixties, and so they thought by booking Jimi Hendrix, it would give the tour more credibility. Obviously, it was a disaster. He literally flipped the bird to about 15,000 people at Forest Hills Stadium and walked offstage.” Clark then came out and asked the Sundowners if they would do a few extra songs. Hendrix quit the tour that day, which provided them with more playing time, as many more dates were to follow across the country. Shortly after finishing the tour, they signed on for a show with the Who, Herman’s Hermits and the Strawberry Alarm Clock at the Anaheim Convention Center. Other name acts whom they opened for at various times included Dion, Little Richard and the Righteous Brothers.
Decca Records released three singles to preview the Sundowners upcoming debut album. The first of those, produced and arranged by Bones Howe and Bill Holman respectively, was “Always You,” a lavish up-tempo pop song reminiscent of the Association. In stark contrast, the flip side was “Dear Undecided,” sometimes referred to as “the best song the Beatles never wrote.” The band would go on to perform it on an episode of “It Takes a Thief,” billed as the Raspberry Wristwatch. There were more television and movie spots, such as in the Tony Curtis film “Don’t Make Waves,” where members of the group perform briefly during a poolside scene. On the premeire episode of season two of “The Flying Nun,” and this time credited as Sonny & the Sundowners, they backed Paul Petersen while entertaining in a casino.
A few high-profile gigs would come their way, including a stint in Las Vegas at the Pussycat a’ GO GO. Eventually, as times were changing and new acts were bringing new sounds, opportunities were starting to dry up. Bobby and the others knew that the one possible ace they still had up their sleeve was the new record.
Returning to New York to finish recording the album, it was a project that, from it’s inception, took nearly two years. This was due in part to infighting and creative differences. Kim Capli, the band’s drummer and vocalist, parted ways. He was replaced by Benny Grammatico, brother of Foreigner’s Lou Gramm. Bobby himself had quit for a time, but returned prior to the Monkees tour. In late 1968, the finished product, “Captain Nemo,” was released. Produced by their lead guitarist and songwriter, Dominick Demieri, it offers a very eclectic mix of sunshine pop, country, up-tempo, contemporary and raw, high-energy rock. As Dick would summarize, “It showed while it was good in diversity, it also maybe told the story of the schizophrenia and descension in the ranks the band was going through. There was no one theme in the album.” Expectations were running high, and some songs did receive considerable airplay in certain markets, but overall – the project was not commercially successful.
As 1969 arrived, the Sundowners were home again, playing at some of their old haunts, such as the Village Inn. Understandably, it was a difficult transition back. Dick relates what it was like when you go for the brass ring and don’t get it, “Now all of a sudden we were faced with going back to some club, whether it be in Albany or Hollywood, five nights a week – five sets a night for nominal money, when here we were doing this tour, playing before 15,000 people, limousines, private planes – there was no way we could go back to being journeymen rock and rollers.” Although the band had the distinction of being on a huge tour without a hit record or LP on the market, the tour itself would ironically lead to their implosion and demise. By 1970, they had finally called it a day.
Bobby stayed on in the Glens Falls area, and at various times worked as a clothing salesman and club disc jockey. By the early ’80s, he was employed for a housing company and was eventually laid off. It was then that he got the idea of resurrecting the Sundowners. “I’m gonna put the band back together again” is an analogy he used from the Blues Brothers movie. Eddie Placidi, who was the band’s guitarist and vocalist, was also living in the area. He agreed to return. A drummer was found and now they were complete, playing as a trio. Many years later, a second guitarist was added to the line-up. They were primarily a cover band, as it was difficult performing the high-harmony originals without the proper vocal arrangements. For about the next 30 years, Bobby Dick & the Sundowners enjoyed considerable regional success, playing at a variety of establishments – including bars, ski lodges and outdoor events, as well as weddings, private parties and social functions.
As the years went on, the band members were at different points in their lives. Some had day jobs and families now, which would not enable them to be on the road for any length of time. Bobby also wished to pursue his dream of a solo career. By 2011, he stopped booking shows for the Sundowners, and started a new act of his own, called “Rock ‘n’ Roll 101.” With his wife Susan, aka DJ Susie Q, spinning the background music and doing occasional harmonies, Bobby does what he loves best – singing. Then throw in a bit of comedy, impressions and parodies between numbers, and there you have it. He enjoys the autonomy that his latest gig provides, but won’t rule out the possibility of another Sundowners show if the stars are aligned just right.
Bobby Dick’s Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 comes to Rensselaer today (Wednesday, August 1) as the Music in the Park concert series continues at the North End Firehouse. Showtime is 6pm, and admission is free. Other upcoming performances include Ft. Edward Yacht Basin at 7pm on Wednesday, August 8; the Boathouse in Lake George at 5pm on Thursday, August 9; the Pub On 9 in Bolton Landing at 8pm on Friday, August 10; and the Georgian in Lake George at 8pm on Saturday, August 11.