Thursday, July 14, 2011

That's His Real Name...Larry Raspberry

Ever the perennial showman, Larry Raspberry needs no introduction to Rock N' Soul audiences. Photo by Phillip Rauls (c) 1967

This is Part 1 of a 2-Part posting on performer Larry Raspberry

Holy Toledo! Where do I start? This guy's got more legendary stories about him than Moses. And believe me, his real name is actually...Larry Raspberry. Seriously. It's not a stage name or some kind of nickname. The reason I know that to be a fact is that I went to grade school with him and personally knew his mom, pop and his sister. They were the undisputed Raspberrys. The only one listed in the phonebook. Plus, that's not the kind of name that you make up. If that's your real name, then brother you're stuck with it forever. Listen to this; Back years ago while he was performing a song this fan came running up to the stage front and asked, "Hey man, is that your real name?" And he smiled while responding, "Yep, Larry's my real name." You get the picture.

As far back as I can remember, Larry Raspberry has always been a superstar. Not in the Elton John or Bruce Springsteen sense but more in the Jerry Lee Lewis or Leon Russell vain. You dig? As a matter of fact, Jerry Lee Lewis and Leon Russell were two of his earliest inspirations. An example of the music that influenced him was the time when he talked me into joining him to see a concert by Ike & Tina Turner at the all black night club called, The Club Paradise. The place was packed and we must have been in our late teens or early twenties at the time and the only white people there. Man oh man. After the concert, I felt like I had been baptized and collected their concert flyer stapled to a nearby telephone pole. Plus, Larry Raspberry knew a thing or two about that soul-gritty Memphis Music also. He had soaked-up much of his surroundings as you can probably tell. As a matter of fact, Larry's original music is the essence of Blue-eyed-Soul. He often refers to his style of music as "Jukeing and Jiving." Okay, try to Google that. When you stop and think about it, I don't think he really cared for all that rock stardom stuff. I really believe he liked having the reputation of being a flying-under-the-radar artist. Perhaps he liked being separated from all those polished superstars and enjoyed the blue-collar work ethic that was associated with his original music. "Razz" - as most people called him, is a down-to-earth guy with both feet firmly planted on the ground. That is, when he's not standing in a row boat (above) and playing air guitar with the boat paddle.

Sometimes back, somewhere in the mid-60's, Razz and I were sitting in his bedroom and listening to his record collection. He was at the controls and began playing artists I'd never heard of before like Mose Allison, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers and Hedgehoppers Anonymous. Larry was always ahead of the curve with music trends. He had a very accurate pulse for recognizing the groove in a new song. As a matter of fact, because of this unique talent, many of Larry's friends considered him as their mentor. Including myself (L).

Larry Raspberry's first musical success came with a high school band sensation he formed called, "The Gentrys." They were a garage band before garage bands were even called garage bands. He was the lead singer, the guitarist and kindred spirit of the popular group. They started out playing high school dances held at local gymnasiums such at the YMCA, CYO's, VFW's and even played at the naval base. Their popularity attracted local record producer Chips Moman who would record the band. The Gentrys would go on to have a huge hit with million selling single titled, "Keep On Dancing" that peaked on the Billboard charts at number #4 in 1965. Both The Gentrys and their producer never looked back as their careers took off from that very point. The band toured with a ever-changing number of excellent musicians who rotated through the group as The Gentrys would go on to play the American music scene for the next decade. There were concerts with The Beach Boys, Dave Clark Five, Sonny & Cher, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, Paul Revere & The Raiders and many more. Also, The Gentrys performed on major TV programs such as Shindig, Hullabaloo, Dick Clark's American Bandstand and Where The Action Is. They were also featured in a full length Hollywood movie called, "It's a Bikini World."

Some of the stories about Larry Raspberry and The Gentrys comes from the first hand experience of working with both he & the band. You see, Larry gave me my first job in the music business. Be that as it may, I have worked in various capacities with him and the band such as road manager and later a promotion executive for several of Larry's record labels. If the truth be known, I've admired Larry Raspberry for several decades and promoted both him and his music until I was blue in the face. Anyone who has ever worked with Larry will tell you the same. Recently I spoke with old friend and former bassist of the band, Ronnie Moore. Ronnie reminded me of this unforgettable little morsel about The Gentrys. Moore recalled, "We were in Los Angeles filming American Bandstand and sky high from all the events taking place. Plus, at the time we were the headliners for a week at The Whisky-A-Go-Go. Opening for us all week was a little known band at the time, The Buffalo Springfield." Moore further explained, "Our hit single and album status had us topping the bill as The Buffalo Springfield hadn't scored a record deal at that point. We got up on stage and played our standard set which included "Keep On Dancing" and a couple of other songs that probably sounded bubble gum. We were all dressed in our Gentrys uniforms and had a couple of dance steps we would always do with the stage set. Our set would end with the audience response being good, nothing spectacular." Moore continued, "But several of us thought The Buffalo Springfield (below) were terrific. Man, they were decked-out in threads we'd never seen before. Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay looked outstanding wearing all the new fashionable hippie gear. When the band started playing, they performed all their own material and we were completely blown-away. Both bands became good friends while Jim Messina borrowed my bass several nights in a row and I never knew it could sound so good. Wow, The Buffalo Springfield were mesmerising! For the first time ever, I thought The Gentrys had been upstaged and came-off sounding a little weak. The experience of playing at The Whisky, on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, really affected us, both in a good way and also a reconstructive way. It changed our total perspective of how we sounded and appeared. Man, on the way home, several of us were down in the dumps and felt we should have done better." Larry Raspberry added to the story by offering, "Vocalist Jimmy Hart had been pushing for sometime for the band to drop the beatlesque stage suits and dress more like The Rolling Stones, ala natural. He felt it would connect us better with our audience and re-energized the band. Plus, we all agreed that we needed to perform better material or write our own songs." Ronnie Moore concluded the story by saying, "Raspberry thought long and hard about these decisions. I think we went home and wanted to regroup as it was definitely an education for the band."

One of the many renditions of The Gentrys was (above) this talented group who pounded the pavement of the music circuit from the mid-to-late 1960's. (L-R) Ronnie Moore-bass, Larry Wall-drums, Larry Raspberry-vocals/guitar, Jimmy Hart-vocals, Bruce Bowles-vocals, Stuart Paine-keyboards.

Upon returning home, numerous changes were made in the band as they abandoned the outdated uniforms and dropped the synchronized music steps. Alterations in music were also made as it was apparent that the landscape of pop music was rapidly changing. Sometimes later and after placing a rather impressive 6 chart records on Billboard Hot 100 chart, plus numerous record releases on several labels combined with consecutive years of tireless touring, Larry Raspberry would seek artistic expansion and depart The Gentrys, a band he originated some years earlier. This time he would venture deeper into his musical journey.

After The Gentrys and following an enormous music trend that leaned towards guitar oriented music, Larry Raspberry joined keyboardist Ken Woodley and drummer/recording engineer Richard Roseborough in forming a group called, Alamo. By now yours truly had joined Atlantic Records as Southwest Regional Promotional Director. In the meantime, Atlantic's home office in New York had become very interested in the talents in Larry Raspberry and the group. Hmm...imagine that.

Alamo, just like The Gentrys, had several variations of band members. The original band was a trio and consisted of; (L-R) Ken Woodley, Larry Raspberry and Richard Roseborough. After signing the band to Atlantic and prior to their album release, the label put together several quick showcases in an effort to view the band on stage. One concert was staged on Long Island N.Y. before a very large crowd that included the members of the Atlantic hierarchy. Another appearance was in New Orleans at The Warehouse concert hall while opening for still another Atlantic act, The Allman Brothers Band. After returning home to Memphis and performing several shows in front of local crowds, friction began to set-in with band members and Larry Raspberry was out. Within days of hearing the news, the corporate officers at Atlantic were apparently displeased upon hearing the status of Raspberry's departure and seemed to lose all enthusiasm on the Alamo album.

Realizing that it wasn't a good fit anyway, Raspberry would move on. But he would land successfully on his own two feet. With interest still being high at Atlantic, he would score a new artist contract with the label for the release of a single. Yet, this time he would record in his own name. Even better, he would venture into still another new category by not only being a solo performer but now to becoming a songwriter as well. Plus, with his veteran status now being apparent, he was able to record with an all-star cast at the renowned Muscle Shoales Recording Studio.

Raspberry performed numerous solo gigs on the East Coast and through-out the deep South while producing artistic growth but with mixed results. That's when he returned home to the familiar grounds of Memphis and sought to regroup. This strategy is an all-familiar pattern for many ambitious performers while desiring to expand their repertoire. After a helpful recommendation from long time friend Don Nix, Raspberry decided to travel to Europe for a period and seek a sabbatical far away from his surroundings.

Next, Larry Raspberry ventured into the production arena by producing a local Memphis group by the name of, "The Scandal." With the production assistance of engineering wizard Ronnie Capone, Raspberry put out a single on the band however a tragic auto accident fatally injured one of the vocalist leaving the group without their leader. As Raspberry regrouped from this terrible misfortune he began singing with a vocalist from the band who sang perfect harmony to his unique pitch. Within a short period she would join him full time as they would form a new group called, "The Highsteppers." Incidentally, Larry's singing counterpart, besides being an outstanding vocalist, was also a local beauty queen by the name of, Carol Sue Ferrante. In 1969 Ms. Ferrante would become a local celebrity as she would go on to win the prestigious Miss Memphis Award. Plus, upon winning that title, in 1970 Carol would soon become a member of an all-exclusive club of only 8 members to go on and also win the Miss Tennessee Award. But listen to this, the story gets even better. Next, Mr. Larry Raspberry and Ms. Carol Sue Ferrante would then be joined together in marriage while hitting the road and touring as an authentic Rock & Roll family in his new group called, "Larry Raspberry & The Highsteppers." Now, try and top that. Correct me if I'm wrong but that's the same equivalence of earning about a thousand merit badges.

Next Posting; Part 2 of Larry Raspberry - "Jukeing and Jiving"

Photo of The Buffalo Springfield by Henry Diltz

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