A Wedding Invitation

Chapter 25

November 10, 2011

Jim Fillmore and Melody Watkins have finalized their wedding plans and want everyone to know that they will be sending invitation in a couple of weeks.  They also want you to know that even if you don’t get an invitation, you are still invited; they decided to only send invitations to people out of town, since everyone in Walnut Shade and Parkersburg knows beforehand what’s going to happen anyway.

The Veterans’ Day Parade will be held on Monday.  Stan Adams also announced that the winners of the Elementary School coloring contest will be revealed at an assembly on Monday.  Top prize this year is a $25 gift certificate from the Walmart in Fremont.

The All Miller County Jazz Band will present a concert at the high school on Sunday afternoon.

The Town Council passed the design guidelines recommended by the Planning and Zoning committee and the Main Street/Pride committee.  The guidelines will go into effect on January 1.

Stacy Long, administrator of Walnut Rest, invites everyone to come see the Thanksgiving decorations the residents created.  There will be a reception, beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Monday evening, November 17, with hors d’oeuvres and punch, courtesy of Bach’s Lunch.  Music will be provided by Daphne Wolfe’s piano students.

Funeral arrangements are being finalized for Dr. Frederick Reinholdt, who passed away on Tuesday in Fremont General Hospital.  Our thoughts are with Marie during this sad time.

Lorene Roberts reminds farmers that the USDA will be conducting an Agricultural Census next year and that there will be training sessions after the first of the year to help people understand the purpose of the Census and how to fill out the forms.  The last time the Ag Census was conducted, the ASCS office was flooded with calls and Lorene wants to head off a meltdown of their phone system next year.

Millie and Hazel Bradford have asked that last week’s column be corrected.  It was reported that they had baked fifteen dozen cookies for Halloween treats; in fact, they baked sixteen dozen, including four dozen of their famous chunky chocolate chocolate cookies, which always seem to be a hit with the (adult) trick or treaters.  Your faithful correspondent regrets the mistake and promises to be more accurate in the future.  But…

Until the future arrives, I remain
Your Faithful Correspondent

I was having coffee with Billy Thornton and and Ralph Thompson at Shirley’s on Tuesday when Jim Fillmore came in and joined us.  When we think back over our lives, most of us probably agree that they’ve turned out much different than we had imagined when we were in our teens or twenties (some of us are in a different place than we thought we would be when we were in our fifties; I’m thinking of Bernie Madoff, for one, or Keith Richards).  Stan Hawkins, for example, grew up wanting to be Julius Boros or Gary Player, but became the newspaper tycoon of Miller County.  Susan Hall, owner of Bach’s Lunch, studied with Halston to be a fashion designer and now designs the best cakes and pies in Walnut Shade.  And Jim Fillmore spent junior high school, high school and the middle years of the 1960s planning to get married to Melody Watkins and here they are, nearly fifty years later, actually doing it.  

“When I was standing on the bandstand at the County Fair, I had no idea that my life would take such a turn again,” Jim said, recounting how he and Melody were reunited.  “Was it fate or just good luck?  I don’t know, but I’ll take it, whatever it was.”

Fate?  If there were two people more destined to be together than Jim and Melody, history hasn’t recorded their story.  I suppose Liz and Dick might come close, or Brad and Jennifer (oh, wait, that should be Brad and Angelina), but those pale in comparison.  You see, Jim and Melody were born on the same day in Miller County General Hospital, grew up next door to each other, took piano lessons together from Miss Wolfe, played in the band together in junior highs school and high school and were consistently chosen “Class Couple” throughout school.  They both got scholarships to attend KU and would have graduated from there except for a fateful night in September, 1964 when they went to Municipal Stadium in Kansas City to see a rock and roll band called The Beatles.  That night changed their lives in more ways than one.

Jim and Melody were set to graduate from high school in June, 1965 and begin the fulfillment of their destiny, but after hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” playing “Watermelon Man” in the high school jazz band seemed so… small-town Kansas.  Melody suggested that Jim get a drum set, she would get an electric organ and they would talk Clarke Wick into buying an electric guitar, which wouldn’t be hard, Melody said, since he was already under the spell of the Beach Boys and the Ventures.  While their parents weren’t especially thrilled with their kids playing “that music,” Melody explained that not only was rock and roll based on American rhythm and blues (which her mom just happened to love), but the Beatles’ producer was the famous classical musician and composer, George Martin, so that in some way made it legitimate and the parents relented (while the connection to rhythm and blues was correct, Martin’s credentials were slightly skewed to the classical side by Melody, but her parent chose to overlook that fact).

Along with Clarke, Jim recruited Larry Long to play bass.  Larry played standup bass in the jazz band but couldn’t find an electric bass in Topeka he could afford, so he rigged up a pickup and connected his double bass to an amplifier.  That worked for a while, but Larry decided lugging the bass to rehearsals in Jim’s parents’ garage was too much trouble and he dropped out after a couple of months.  After that, Melody started playing the bass line on the organ, like Felix Cavalierre of “The Young Rascals” and in fact, the band decided to name itself “The Urchins,” as something of a tribute to “The Young Rascals.”

“The Urchins” started playing sock hops around Miller County and got a break when a fraternity brother of Clarke’s older brother, Craig, heard them and invited them to play at a fraternity dance at K-State.  Melody’s parents were a bit reluctant to let their daughter go to what they knew would be a wild evening in the big city, but she and Jim convinced them that it would be fine and anyway, Jim’s dad had been their unofficial “roadie” since they started, so he would be there supervising the band.

Through the winter of 1964 and spring of 1965, the band worked almost every weekend playing fraternity and sorority dances in Manhattan, Lawrence and Topeka.  That summer, they played at Fairyland Park in Kansas City and in a “Battle of the Bands” at Perry Lake.  When fall came, the band was faced with a dilemma; while Melody and Jim were headed to KU, Clarke had gotten a music scholarship to the University of Colorado and chose to say goodbye to surefire fame and fortune.  At KU, Jim started talking to musicians who might be interested in joining the band and found Mike Rogers, a guitarist, and Ron Woodly, a bass player and vocalist.  Both had heard “The Urchins” at campus events and were happy to become part of a new lineup.  While the band mainly covered groups like the Beatles, Dave Clark Five, the Young Rascals, and Freddie and the Dreamers, they also started writing their own music which they slowly introduced into their set list.

At KU, Jim studied political science and Melody took art classes.  Jim’s professors were much more liberal than even the progressive elders in Walnut Shade and he soon started incorporating references to peace and civil rights into his song lyrics.  Melody became captivated by Dada artists and encouraged the band to include performance art into their dates.  At one memorable fraternity dance, the band stopped playing after only two songs, brought out a hot plate and made omelets for the stunned fraternity brothers and their dates.  This precipitated a big food fight and the campus paper the next day had an article about the event with the headline “Fraternity party ends with egg on its face.”  At another performance, the band members showed up wearing plastic raincoats and at the intermission, grabbed garden sprayers filled with red, blue and yellow food coloring and started spraying the audience.  Fortunately, the chaperones were able to hustle the band out of the  hall before they were attacked by the angry crowd.  These additions to their repertoire made the band the talk of the University and helped them secure bookings from as far away as Omaha and Wichita from group looking for outrageous music and unexpected happenings.

The band’s big break came during their sophomore year at KU.  In November, 1967, the band was invited to open a concert at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, KS.  Besides “The Urchins,” the other bands on the bill were the Buckinghams from Chicago and a band from England called “The Who.”  “The Urchins” were contracted to play four songs and at the concert, they played covers of three of the Buckinghams’ hits:  “Kind of Drag,” “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” and a fourth original song, called “Midnight in Hanoi.”  The Buckinghams were outraged that the band played the songs that they were planning to do and the audience was outraged by a song about the U.S. Air Force bombing civilian targets in North Vietnam.  Backstage, while the Buckinghams were playing, Keith Moon, drummer for the Who, said to Melody in his usual manic, slightly incoherent way, “Uncle Mel, you really steamrolled that set.”

The audacity of playing the songs of a hit band on the same night that that band was playing in the same hall and criticizing the U.S. military in front of a high school audience caught the attention of the Who’s manager, Kit Lambert, who signed “The Urchins” to a contract, but urged them to change their name, since another band in England had just released a single under that name.  Melody remembered what Keith Moon had said and thus was born “Uncle Mel and the Steamrollers.”

Lambert arranged for the band to record “Midnight in Hanoi” and a B-side entitled “Homage to John Cage,” which consisted of the sound of Jim’s drum sticks signaling the beat and 3 minutes and 8 seconds of silence.  “Midnight in Hanoi” hit the charts at #87 and rose to #46 by the fourth week, but dropped out after that, protests music not yet mainstream then.  In the mean time, the band members themselves dropped out of school and moved to San Francisco, where they played gigs at Fillmore West and other West Coast venues.  On the strength of their first single, Lambert produced an album for the band, side one consisting of an extended improvisation based on Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” and side two covers, again, of the Buckingham’s hit songs, this time played at half speed.  Once again, the Buckinghams were outraged and their record company threatened to sue the band for copyright infringement, but Lambert managed to hold off the suit while “Toccata and Fugue” became a hit on the then-nascent FM radio stations in the San Francisco area.  The band’s success and existence was to be short-lived, however.

In July, 1968, Mike Rogers received his notice to report for induction into the U.S. military; within the week, he left for Vancouver, Canada.  A replacement guitarist (a former member of Paul Revere and the Raiders) was found and the band began touring with Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Doors.  After a concert in Atlanta in early December, Melody disappeared for a week and later called Jim Fillmore to tell him that she and Morrison were going to spend Christmas in Antigua together.  That news spelled the end of “Uncle Mel and the Steamrollers” and of Jim and Melody.

For the next few years, Jim and Ron Woodly floated from band to band, but by 1975, Jim had returned to Walnut Shade and started working at the limestone quarry.  Melody maintained an off-and-on affair with Jim Morrison until his death in Paris in 1971.  She had followed him there in June of that year only to find that he was once again living with Pamela Courson, his long-time sometimes girl friend.  Melody had known about Courson from the beginning, but was convinced that Morrison had ended his relationship with her, since he had written Melody and specifically asked her to come to Paris to be with him.

When Morrison died, Melody decided to stay in Paris and spent the next couple of years living off the small royalty checks she was getting from “Uncle Mel” records and from jobs she got singing with local bands.  In 1974, she joined Frank Zappa’s band and toured with him until 1976.  In December of that year, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention appeared on a new American TV show called Saturday Night Live; Melody’s singing caught the attention of John Belushi who hired her to sing with a band he and Dan Ayckroyd had formed called “The Blues Brothers Show Band and Revue.”  Belushi and Ayckroyd produced an album entitled “Briefcase Full of Blues” that reached #1 of Billboard and a movie called “The Blues Brothers.” Melody stayed with the band until Belushi’s death in 1982 and settled in New York where she returned to her art studies and began photographing the ‘80s scene at clubs such as the Roxy, Danceteria, and Studio 54.  She was often seen at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio and at Max’s Kansas City with Patti Smith.

By the late 1990s, Melody had settled down to a quiet artist’s life and had married Don Stores, an editor at The New Yorker.  Quite unexpectedly, Stores died of a heart attack in December, 2010 and Melody began to reassess her life.  She visited her parents in Parkersburg in August (the first time she had been back to Miller County since 1967) and it was then that she saw Jim Fillmore playing with his band at the Miller County Fair.

“It was love at first sight, all over again,” Jim said, as he finished his third cup of coffee.  “And we’ve promised each other that no matter how popular the “Dixieland Stompers” get, we are not moving to California again.  Not even Kansas City.”

Jim, we are all happy to hear that.  This is where you and Melody belong.

About stclairc

Abstract artist, photographer, writer
This entry was posted in Art, Dada, Obscure Bands, Observations, Serendipity, Small Town Life, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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