Traditional Rock ‘n Roll Since 1969

Who'd have thought, 40 years ago, that rock 'n' roll would ever lose its innocence?  To bobby-soxed teenagers in the age of Ike, Sgt. Pepper, the Sex Pistols, grunge and the Village People were beyond imagination.  Rock in its purest form was about simplicity of form and feeling; anything beyond three chords and angst over going steady could not fit the mold.

Yet, like you and me, rock music grew up.  It got moodier and more complicated.  It took on the weight of middle age even while staying stuck in the swamp of youthful fixations.  As '60s balladeers brooded over the big issues of the day, or as a later crop of Mohawked troubadours made nihilism a pop song fad, the simplicity of infant rock grew more alluring even as it receded further from our reach.

It took a handful of musicians with the right blend of humor and respect to revive the style.  That group was Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, a group of students at the University of Colorado who, against all odds, found each other on a campus then renowned for its counterculturalism.  Where most of their peers were obsessing over Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and the Doors, these guys were dazzled by the flame of the ‘50s.

The original Flash Cadillac - guitarists Linn “Spike” Phillips III and Mick “Flash” Manresa, bassist Warren “Butch” Knight, keyboardist Kris “Angelo” Moe and drummer Harold “Marty” Fielden - played its first gig at a frat party in Boulder on March 7, 1969.  Their sound struck a chord with the Animal House set, and in a matter of weeks the quartet was rockin’ the Greeks every weekend.  With a repertoire rooted in Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and lachrymose teen crooners, they built a reputation that soon stretched beyond the Rockies and pointed them toward more promising pastures out West. So it was that the band relocated to Los Angeles in 1971.  The move cost them several members; Manresa and Fielden were replaced by John “Ricco” Masino, the next in a long line of drummers, and guitarist Sam “Flash” McFadin.  But their impact on Tinsel Town was immediate; within months after their arrival, they had appeared on American Bandstand - the first band to appear on that epochal show without having released a record.   By the following year they remedied that problem by cutting their eponymous major-label debut album, on which they served up burnin’ renditions of such now classics as “She’s So Fine,” “Betty Lou” and “Nothin’ for Me.” Shortly after that they were fine-tuning their lineup, this time with players whose experience stretched back further than the frat houses of Boulder:  Dwight “Spider” Bement, for example, who brought his sax and keyboard talents to the group in 1973, had a sterling pedigree in avant / retro rock.  In 1958, at age 13, he co-founded the Blackouts with Frank Zappa and Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood. 

From this now legendary outfit the infamous Mothers of Invention would eventually emerge - but by that time Bement had left to play with another definitive ‘60s act, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. Within four years after their move to L.A., the band - its name now abbreviated to Flash Cadillac - had cut three albums.  Several of their singles registered on the national charts, including “Good Times, Rock & Roll” in 1974 and, two years later, a collaboration with disc jockey Wolfman Jack on “Did You Boogie (With Your Baby).”  But you didn’t have to have a radio stuck in your ear to undergo the Cadillac experience.  American movie buffs also came face-to-face with the guys in 1973, when they played on screen in American Graffiti; you can see them now, in matching red blazers, on the 25th anniversary reissue of that milestone film.  They hit the silver screen again five years later as well, in a rather less lighthearted epic, Apocalypse now.  And they were no strangers to television, with frequent stints on The Tonight Show, The Midnight Special, In Concert, Bandstand and all the other pre-MTV vehicles for rock acts. Maybe all this activity started burning them out.  Maybe they got tired of the hassle of trying to find a drummer who would be able to keep up with them for more than a year or two.  (As far as we know, though, nobody on their drum throne actually exploded onstage, a la Spinal Tap.)  Whatever the reason, a decision was made in 1976 to say goodbye to Hollywood and all its pressures, pack up the metaphorical van and head back to the big country they’d left behind in Colorado. There they’ve stayed these past 25 plus years, somewhere by Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs.  It’s a far cry from the urban street corners that gave birth to doo-wop, or from Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans studio, which spawned many of the Little Richard, Fats Domino and other hits that fill Flash Cadillac’s playlist.  But the idyllic vibe hasn’t mellowed them; indeed, they’ve been pumping albums out of their private studio, all of which they sell now via the band website.  These include Souvenirs, a collection of original material; Drivetime, which is backed with familiar barn-burners such as “School Days,” “Not Fade Away,” “You Can’t Sit Down” and “Great Balls of Fire;” 25 Years, featuring outtakes, neglected tracks, two cuts from American Graffiti and rarities that somehow got piled away in closets and forgotten; and most recently, Rock and Roll Rules, a 13-song CD unleashed by the band in 1997.

Still, a quarter-century up there in the pines will have an effect - which perhaps explains why Flash Cadillac has spent several years matching their high-energy act with the civilizing influence of symphony orchestras.  It started in 1992 with the Colorado Springs Symphony and its visionary Music Director, Christopher Wilkins.  A Night at the Symphony was released, which they followed with another orchestral recording, The Ghost of Christmas Past.  In 2002, with over 100 orchestral performances to their credit, the band features Warren Knight, Dwight Bement, Dave (Thumper) Henry (drummers rarely stay around this long), Rocky Mitchell on guitar and singer extraordinary, Timothy P. Irvin.  Together they offer stirring arrangements of Rock ‘n Roll classics and some surprises.  It’s a match made in heaven, or at least in Colorado.  As the Flash Cadillac itself says, “orchestras know the same three chords we do.”

Reprinted in part courtesy of the Jacksonville, Florida Symphony Orchestra

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