Rock and Roll Heaven II:  The Little Band That Might’ve (But Didn’t)

Kings English, Left to right: Fred Martin, Ed Davis, Nick Bassett

by Ed Davis on June 30, 2014

Photo: On-stage at Bluefield Auditorium, left to right: Fred Martin, Ed Davis, Nick Bassett

(The following continues my rock and roll coming of age in southern West Virginia in the 1960s. In September, 2014 my novel The Psalms of Israel Jones, set inside the world of professional rock, will be published by West Virginia University Press.) 

“The King’s English, a small pop group from Princeton, is out to prove that you don’t need a whole army of musicians to produce a good, clean sound . . . I predict that if [they] would only diversify and not concentrate solely on “The Rolling Stones” sound, they’d make it.”

—Nino Sylmar, The Princeton (WV) Times (August 1968)

 The Gauntlet 

As the above quote indicates, you would’ve had to look long and hard to find a southern West Virginia band more British than the King’s English. And a place more unlikely than  Princeton’s Episcopal Church for our hometown debut.

It was an after-school coffeehouse, and the stakes were high. No one would be dancing; they would be listening—and watching our every move. Our audience of high school peers would include plenty of soul-music lovers, addicted to ten-piece bands with horns, keyboards and back-up singers galore, eager to scorn if they didn’t like what they heard from two guitars, bass and drums. Would we get out alive? 

No Honor in One’s Home Town?  

There is no honor in one’s hometown, sayeth the Bible; well, that afternoon, we planted the Union Jack on American soil and for an hour or two owned the town formerly claimed by James Brown and Wilson Pickett. Tomorrow it would be back to “Cold Sweat,” but on that day “Satisfaction” reigned!

Classmates who normally didn’t speak to us gave us a warm welcome and responded enthusiastically to “Mercy, Mercy” and “Under My Thumb.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, there were two influential musicians in the crowd. Tony Cline, guitarist with the soul-saturated, horn-wielding Kentucky Gentlemen, said that while he didn’t really like British music, he did like us. Even more astonishing, we made a convert:  within a few weeks, Roger Cozart became the King’s English’s new rhythm guitarist, learning our songs only hours before his first gig with us.

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Left to right: Fred Martin, Roger Cozart, Ed Davis, Nick Bassett.

The King of the English

As for me, I was probably the weakest link. For a while our leader/lead singer Fred figured out all the bass parts and kindly taught them to me, eventually leaving it to me to devise, improvise or copy whatever Bill Wyman played on the Stones’ records. My skills became adequate on an instrument that’s relatively easy to play, although exceedingly difficult to play really well. Perhaps nudging me toward greater maturity, Fred even shortened my name, Eddie to Ed. Happily, it stuck.

And Fred was the only person I knew in Princeton that “got” Bob Dylan, something that took me a couple more decades to do. Fred learned many of the Unsmiling One’s songs for himself, not for the band. I can still hear him on Cozart’s front porch strumming and singing “North Country Blues” in D minor, a song about the Minnesota iron pits, whose truths echo the sad history of the Appalachian coalfields:

Come gather ‘round, friends,
And I’ll tell you a tale
Of when the red-iron pits ran a-plenty
But the cardboard-filled windows
And the old men on benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty.

 Struggle to Survive

From the beginning, the King’s English had lots of problems. Transportation was huge, since, for the longest time, none of us drove. Thus, somebody’s friend or relative would need to be recruited to let us jam all our equipment (and ourselves) into his station wagon or truck. In retrospect, what we were attempting seems monumental:  somehow get the cash to buy instruments, learn to play (from each other and by listening to records), find gigs, arrange transportation then get out of the venue without being beaten to a pulp by jealous natives.

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10,000 Hours

Was it worth it? Hell, yes. We were obsessed that we’d “make it,” as Nino Sylmar said in the article quoted above. That meant:  make a hit record, wow the waiting world with our “noise” (wasn’t our business card clever?), tour the planet and make a million dollars. I agree with Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of the 10,000 hours in Outliers, especially as he applied it to the Beatles:  rather than being “overnight sensations,” the group had, by the time they invaded America, logged thousands of hours playing marathon gigs in Hamburg, Germany, the Cavern Club in Liverpool and on BBC radio (listen to those anthologies:  they could play anything, from country to cabaret, and play it well).

For Love, Not Money

Same with us—at least given our little band’s short lifespan. We practiced all the time, individually and together. I can recall at least once hand-carrying equipment that included a bass drum three miles from downtown to Fred’s house, just to practice. When we weren’t at school or hanging out at Hamden’s Snack Bar (sleeping was optional), we had a guitar or drumstick in our hands. And we got pretty good, if I do say so myself.

I wish I had a recording of the King’s English, but of course none exists that I know of. I’d give a month off my rapidly-eroding life to hear us rip through “Route 66” or “Gloria” on New Year’s Eve, 1968, at the Red Carriage Supper Club; or hear Fred’s beautiful rendition of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” Ah, those hair-on-fire guitar and harmonica solos that could melt the mortar between bricks.

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Reverse clockwise: Roger Cozart, rhythm guitar; Fred Martin, lead singer; Ed Davis, bass; Nick Bassett, lead guitar; Larry Thorn, drums.

The Last Time 

The end came much too quickly for the King’s English—like many another band, at the height of “success” after playing together not much more than a year. After graduation, Fred was heading for the army—that’s why his hair is so short in the accompanying photos. At one of our final gigs together at Bluefield Auditorium, we drew a huge crowd, making one hundred bucks apiece after expenses, unheard-of money for our little band in those days. More important, for four hours, we kicked musical ass, ascending to rock heaven in a hail of flaming feedback, drum rolls and crowd screams. I found there’s nothing better—nothing—than playing rock and roll when the band is on.

And we were on one last time.

When the smoke cleared, I realized I’d lost more than my band. Something bigger was in the wind, and I heard the faint strains of Fred singing the last verse of “North Country Blues” on the porch:

The summer is gone
The ground’s turning cold
The stores one by one they’re a-foldin’
My children will go
As soon as they grow
Well there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.

What the future held we hardly knew—but it was coming fast.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Margie Wehner July 3, 2014 at 5:04 am

I enjoyed reading about the King’s English and I’m looking forward to reading your new novel. Maybe it interests me because my father and youngest brother were in high school bands. My father’s band broke up after high school when everyone was drafted into the service, but I think those times were some of his fondest memories. My brother has continued to play in one band or another ever since. Music is powerful stuff!

Reply

Ed Davis July 3, 2014 at 1:39 pm

You’re right, Margie; music is one of the most powerful legal drugs!

Reply

Roger Cozart July 3, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Spot on Eddie. Thanks for these blogs. Great work.

Reply

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