June 28 2015 12:00 AM

Drummer of legendary East Lansing band reflects on Chuck Berry, 'Who Do You Love' single

In mid-August 1968, The Woolies walked into the Dells, a now demolished music venue in Haslett near Lake Lansing. The shaggy haired, blues-inspired rock ‘n’ roll group was hired for a multiple-day run backing the legendary Chuck Berry.

Berry was known for being a notorious stickler about his rhythm sections, so the college-age band was no doubt surprised when Berry took a liking to them. This was a life altering night for the East Lansing-based outfit. Berry continued to hire the band for many of his Midwest gigs over the following decades and even recorded a full-length LP with the group.

While The Woolies scored a Top 100 Billboard hit in March of 1967 — a scorching cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” — it was its time with Berry that allowed them to continue playing for decades, brushing shoulders with a laundry list of music icons. The band celebrates its 50th anniversary Saturday with a reunion concert and Haven House fund raiser at the Okemos Conference Center.

The Woolies’ drummer, William “Bee” Metros, organized the show, the band’s first in over 10 years. Here’s what Metros had to say about his time in the Woolies and the upcoming show.

The Woolies had a couple lineup changes over the years. Who’s playing the reunion show?
It’s the original band that recorded “Who Do You Love?” It’s “Boogie” Bob Baldori (keys/harmonica) and his brother Jeff Baldori (guitar), lead singer Stormy Rice and a guy named Ron English (guitar) — who became a successful jazz guitarist and played with Motown. When Jeff first joined the band he was only 15 and had only been playing guitar for maybe two weeks.

Stormy Rice’s vocals are amazing on “Who Do You Love?” — when did he leave the band?
Stormy left in ‘68, I think. That’s when (Jack) “Zocko” Groendal joined the band and was there for 15 years. Unfortunately he won’t be at the show this week.

What’s the Woolies sound in a nutshell? 
It’s rock ‘n’ roll with a distinct blues and rhythm and blues sound. We listen to Chuck (Berry), B.B. King and Elmore James — we were listening to all of that stuff as young men, too. That certainly had influence on us. My main influence would be Gene Krupa. I think he was the best drummer ever.

“Who Do You Love?” was released on Dunhill Records, how did that deal come about?
We’d won the Vox “Band of the Land” contest at the state fairgrounds in 1966. That was sort of a huge break for us. It got us on a national level. First prize was a trip to Hollywood and supposedly a recording contract. The recording contract was complete B.S., but they did end up flying us out and put us up at the Roosevelt Hotel for a week. We ended up signing with Dunhill Records and Lou Adler. As a result we recorded “Who Do You Love?” at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, the same studio the Beach Boys recorded in. 

When The Woolies started in summer 1965, where did you play in the Lansing area?
When we started, there was no alcohol in East Lansing, it was completely dry. So if we played, it was at Coral Gables. This was before the bar scene really took off in the early ‘70s, so we’d play a lot of high school places, fraternity parties, senior proms, dances and teeny-bop clubs like Daniel’s Den in Saginaw. We also played the grand re-opening show at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit (in 1966). We played Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, Cobo Hall and Detroit Olympia arena.

The Woolies were busy well into the 1970s — where were you gigging then?
In the early ‘70s, when East Lansing had alcohol, we were one of the first bands to play Lizard’s (now Rick’s American Cafe). We played there weekly for many years. As a result of that, we played all the East Lansing places like Dooley’s (current location of Harper’s). We played Grandmother’s, the Brewery and Silver Dollar, which was all the same place. There was the Alley Eye, Mac’s on South Logan. We played Rocky’s Teakwood Lounge. But we’d go anywhere. We played Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, New York.

What did Chuck Berry do for your career?
What kept our career alive was playing with Chuck. Chuck loved us. I’m not saying that in a braggadocios way. What I’m saying is, we followed him, we didn’t step over him. We could put in the groove. After he played with us for a week at the Dell’s, if Chuck came to Michigan or the Midwest he’d say, “Get the Woolies.” He recorded an album with us in Lansing (1971’s “San Francisco Dues” LP on Chess Records). As a result of playing with Chuck, we played all of these festivals where we ended up backing Bo Diddley several times, Gary U.S. Bonds, Bobby Sherman, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder. We played a number of gigs with Del Shannon, who was phenomenal — what a great singer he was.

Looking back, what did you learn most from Chuck Berry?
For me, as a drummer, he was very easy to play with because he had a great sense of time. One of the first times we ever played with him he starts off with “Maybellene.” In my mind, I knew the tempo of “Maybellene” on the recording. He apparently wanted to do it slower, he turns around and gives me a glare and starts padding with his foot. That was the first time I learned I had to follow him, not the record. He taught us a lot. His sense of dynamics, his duck walk — everything. He was an inspiration to us. He taught us how to react to an audience. He was a master at it.

The Woolies 50th Anniversary Reunion
Concert and Haven House fundraiser
Saturday, June 27, 6 p.m.
$60, includes cocktails and dinner
Okemos Conference Center, 2187 University Park Drive, Okemos
For info, contact William “Bee” Metros at (517) 641-4000 or beemetros@gmail.com