'We were different: We were kind of rockabilly'
|By Rich Tupica|
After 55 years and hundreds of shows, The Blue Echoes — Lansing's first rock band — keeps on rolling
At first glance, the genesis of rock ’n’ roll in Lansing could mistakenly be traced back to the garage band explosion that happened after The Beatles wowed the country’s youth on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964.
But in 1957, seven years before that British invasion, a group of sharp-dressed local high school guys started a band called The Blue Echoes: the first Lansing-based rock band.
The band’s love of country-tinged rock shined through on cuts like “It’s Witchcraft,” a primitive and menacing hillbilly-rock track that could’ve easily been released on the Sun Records label. (A copy of the single was available earlier this week on eBay — for a cool $249.)
The band has managed to remain under the radar, even locally, for decades. However, in April The Blue Echoes were inducted into the official Rockabilly Hall of Fame, which is helping to pull the band out of obscurity.
While the band’s initial run only lasted about three years, vocalist/guitarist/pianist Larry Palmiter and guitarist/vocalist Roger Benham have kept the Echoes alive for more than half a century, with various line-ups along the way. Both musicians are now 71 years old and remember that exhilarating time for rock music.
“I don’t think there were any other local bands,” recalled songwriter Palmiter, who writes the band’s original tunes. “I remember we went to the musician’s union and they said, ‘You guys play that funny music?’ Back then it was Frankie Parker & His Orchestra, those kinds of bands. The only other kinds of bands around here were country groups. We were different: We were kind of rockabilly.
“It was the kind of stuff that was coming out with not only Elvis, but Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Buddy Holly was definitely an interest because one of the first songs I remember doing at our high school on the stage with the band was ‘That’ll Be the Day.’”
Lansing music historian and record collector Dick Rosemont was co-owner of Flat Black & Circular for more than 30 years. While Rosemont moved to Santa Fe, N.M., in 2010, he still maintains his large collection of rare and valuable local vinyl.
“The Blue Echoes is definitely the first (rock band) in Lansing that I’m aware of; if there is something else, it’s really obscure,” Rosemont said. “You have to put yourself in that timeframe. Rock ’n’ roll in the ‘50s was still a counterculture equivalent of the ‘60s. People thought rock ‘n’ roll was going to be temporary — those who worried about it thought it was going to pass by. So to have a rock ‘n’ roll band in an area like Lansing in those days is pretty impressive.”
Rich Parker, another area vinyl collector who owns a staggering 40,000 slabs of wax, confirms the notion that The Blue Echoes were the first to pen a stompin’ rock tune in the capital city.
“They definitely haven’t had that much recognition, but they were for sure the first band to play rock ‘n’ roll in the area,” Parker said. “They used to play dances all over. They played above the old Kroger store in Grand Ledge. That’s probably where I first heard them, back in 1959 or ‘60.
“I think ‘It’s Witchcraft’ is their classic,” Parker added. “It’s a high-demand record in Europe: They’re very interested in The Blue Echoes. They’re rockabilly, but their ballads (“Debbie”) could almost be described as doo-wop, too. They wrote them, played them, produced them — they’re fantastic.”
‘If it had a sign above the door, we played it’
Hailing from Resurrection High School, The Blue Echoes was formed by Palmiter, the band’s chief songsmith. The outfit was originally called The Echoes but soon added “Blue” to separate themselves from another band with the same name. In January 1959 The Blue Echoes released “Debbie,” backed with “It’s Witchcraft,” on Bon Musique Records, the first Lansing rock ‘n’ roll single and a local hit. The “Cool Guitar” single on Glisten Records followed a year later.
Like a scene out of “American Graffiti,” when the guys weren’t playing music, they would cruise Washington Avenue (an act then known as “cruising the gut”), looking for girls and parties — and then maybe stop in for a bite to eat at Kewpee Sandwich Shoppe or Sully’s Drive In on West Saginaw.
In its earliest formation The Blue Echoes featured three guitarists — Larry Palmiter, Bob Devetri and Tom Schmitt — and drummer Bob Coscarelli. In late 1957 or early 1958 Benham, then an Everett High School student, took Schmitts place when he went into the military. He has remained in the band to this day, alongside Palmiter. The band has released five singles, the last being “Man From Nowhere,” which came out of an early 1970s session at “Boogie” Bob Baldori’s studio.
The band is in talks with Bear Family Records (a German-based label) about a potential compilation album of its singles and unreleased material.
In its heyday the band played teen dances, clubs and record hops across the state, including many a stop in Detroit. Sometimes the band ventured outside of Michigan on short tours.
“We played everywhere,” Benham recalled of the band’s earliest years. “If it had a sign above the door, we played it. We did all the halls and Masonic Temples, the armory, anywhere that had a ballroom.
“I think we just about played every town in the Lower Peninsula at one time or another.”
Still in harmony
Some major-label names performed at the long-gone Lansing Civic Center, and The Blue Echoes were able to open at those shows, thanks to Lansing radio legend Erik O. Furseth, a popular WILS DJ who championed the band. Furseth would also book the band to play at his packed teen dances. At one dance, a young Stevie Wonder joined The Blue Echoes on stage in front of hundreds of ecstatic teens.
“Erik O was even trying to get us a contract with Decca,” Benham said. “We came so close to getting it, but at the last second they decided to go with a four-piece singing group because that doo-wop stuff was coming in.”
Deal or no deal, Furseth landed the emerging band some primo gigs.
“We did a lot of those big rock ‘n’ roll shows that came to the Civic Center,” Palmiter said. “We opened for Link Wray. We came out on stage to play and tore up the house.”
“Outside of Lansing, we did a show in Detroit at the fairgrounds at the Coliseum,” Benham said. “It was called the Detroit Youth Festival — that had people like Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Rydell on the bill. That was like 10,000 screaming teenagers. It was really neat.”
The Blue Echoes also warmed up stages for The Four Seasons, Johnny and the Hurricanes, Jack Scott and even Del Shannon at the Pro Bowl in Lansing. At one point, the band even had a fan club.
“I think for $3 you got a signed picture, a card, a pen, a button and a membership card,” Benham recalled.
While the band has had a number of hiatuses over the past five decades, Palmiter and Benham remained a team and still play occasional shows; a few local dates are currently in the works. Perhaps the longevity can be attributed to a strong friendship and a shared love of performing music.
“We get along great. We haven’t had any problems,” Palmiter said of his musical relationship with Benham. “There was a time when Roger was doing a solo act and I was doing a solo act, but we decided to get back together again. I don’t know. It’s like we can’t ever get out of it. I enjoy playing too much, (and) singing too much.”"It's Witchcraft"