Nearly 50 years after his band's debut, Steve Staples got Gaunga Dyns together again. "It was never a question whether I wanted to do it," he says. "The problem was I didn't know where everybody was."
The West Bank teenage psychedelic rock 'n' roll band — which had dark, garage-pop hits "Rebecca Rodifer" and "Clouds Don't Shine" on the small-but-successful Busy B label in the mid-1960s — will reunite at the 2013 Ponderosa Stomp. The annual music festival includes a record show, seminars on rock 'n' roll history and showcases featuring two dozen fringe rock 'n' rollers during two nights of concerts at Rock 'N' Bowl, an event billed as "the best music you've never heard."
Or have heard. Washington state proto-punks The Sonics and "Dirty Water" one-hit wonders The Standells take top billing, and the festival's film component features the New Orleans premiere of Muscle Shoals, a documentary about the breakthrough music made in the Alabama town.
Filmmaker Greg "Freddy" Camalier's documentary debut is a poetic, unconventional history of the two hit factories in rural north Alabama's Colbert County, home to the "Muscle Shoals sound" imprinted on legendary tracks from Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett to Paul Simon and The Rolling Stones. FAME studios founder Rick Hall, the architect behind the Muscle Shoals sound, intersperses his story throughout the documentary, which credits the music to the "magic" of the town and its landscape. Session musicians The Swampers are framed as now grown-up, humble Alabama boys who found the groove for dozens of No. 1 records, although Camalier says they didn't have much access to record stores or quality radio programs to develop their chops. The director interviews everyone from The Swampers to Keith Richards and Bono.
"Nobody said no and hung up the phone," he says. "They knew this was an iconic story that hadn't been told. They just knew paying respect to these guys and this story, they couldn't say no."
The Ponderosa Stomp's bread and butter are the live performances celebrating the almost-forgotten heroes of American music, including local ones. The Gaunga Dyns, Staples says, "were on fire" in its heyday.
In 1965, Staples merged his group The Twilights with another band called Gaunga Dyns and kept the name. The new Gaunga Dyns — guitarist/lyricist Staples, guitarist Mike King, drummer Ricky Hall, singer Beau Bremer, bassist Bobby Carter and organist Brian Collins — hooked up with manager Jeb Banashak, whose father Joe ran Minit Records, which pressed tunes by Ernie K-Doe and Irma Thomas. "We had a big in," Staples says. "Plus, we were really good. We rehearsed four days a week and played every Friday and Saturday."
The band played four-hour gigs at teenage rock 'n' roll clubs, and performed at school dances, graduations and even fashion shows at Maison Blanche. Its early sets cribbed from American rock 'n' roll, Southern soul and British invasion groups. "We all wanted to be the Beatles," Staples says. "We were playing to an auditorium of girls who were screaming. And we were 14 years old."
Most of the members attended Martin Behrman High School, where Staples got turned on to the "underbelly" that influenced the dark subject matter in tracks like "Rebecca Rodifer," about abortion. "You had your jocks, but there were a lot of hoodlums, and then there was our whole in-crowd, the people who started getting turned on to pot and psychedelic music," he says, adding Bob Dylan, San Francisco's psychedelic scene and The Who to his early influences.
The band parted ways by the end of the 1960s, and its recordings landed in the hands of Banashak. He lost those materials — as well as photographs, band memorabilia and Busy B's history — in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath in Waveland, Miss. The only recordings available are the original 45s and digital copies — which Staples found on obscure rock compilations from as far as Rome and Tokyo.
Ponderosa Stomp founder Dr. Ira Padnos asked Staples to get the band together for the festival several times, though Staples couldn't find all his crew (Staples says he still can't find King). He contacted drummer Hall, but his recent back surgery prevents him from playing. Bremer — who Staples tried to reach unsuccessfully for years — wandered into Old Point Bar to see Staples' band the Avon Suspects.
"He just walks right up to the stage and goes, 'Hey, didn't we play together in Gaunga Dyns?' I go, 'Yeah, it's me, Steve.' He started singing with our band," Staples says.
Robert Hale will sit at the drum kit for the Gaunga Dyns reunion, and members of Avon Suspects will flesh out the band. Staples also hasn't ruled out bringing the band together more permanently.
"It may sound as good or better than it used to," Staples says, laughing. "Our equipment's better."