Of Them And Other Tales is 68 minutes and 20 seconds worth of evidence that the music created by Jim Armstrong, Curtis Bachman, Ray Elliot, Kenny McDowell and Reno Smith - collectively known as TRUTH - stands the test of time and delivers the goods.
The story of TRUTH is told in part by a look at the members' musical histories: Them, The Madlads, The Buckinghams, Baby Huey & The Babysitters, playing "beat music", blues, pop and R&B.
We begin our tale with the Belfast, Northern Ireland music scene of the early 1960's. "Showbands" were the musical mainstay, playing favourites of the day for crowds bent on nothing more than a good night out dancing, socializing (and drinking!) in Pubs, Clubs and Inns across the island. It took talent in a variety of styles to make it in the competitive showband scene. The missing elements were originality and rebellion. But a small cluster of nonconformists, attracted to the hard core blues/ R&B sounds they heard on the "wireless" (or via 45's brought over by visiting American servicemen and Irish-Americans), began forming small combos such as The Wheels, Just Five, The Aztecs, People, and later Taste, Skid Row, Thin Lizzy and many more.
Guitiarist Billy Harrison was one such "rebel" who joined forces with Alan Henderson on bass and Ronnie Millings on drums to form The Gamblers in 1963, next adding 16 year old Eric Wrixon on keyboards. Meanwhile, one George Ivan Morrison played sax with a succession of combos leading up to The Monarchs, with whom he toured the Irish and German club circuits and even cut a now-rare 45 in Germany. When Harrison and crew wanted a sax player they called on "Van", whose soulful singing soon eclipsed his instrumental prowess - and thus Them was born.
Them helped spawn an "R&B Club" at Belfast's Maritime Hotel, creating a scene where others of like vision could congregate. They pursued their own dreams of playing the R&B of their heroes - mostly black American artists ranging from the urban soul of Sam Cook, Ray Charles and The Drifters to the purer blues of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Rice Miller (better known as the second "Sonny Boy Williamson"). In the process Them went through at least ten lineups while Van was it's singer and chief songwriter - but only two LP's were released.
Among those who came, contributed and went were the McAuley brothers. Pat first came in on keyboards (replacing Wrixon, whose parents preferred that he stay in school rather than sign a contract when Them went "professional") and then switched to drums when Ronnie Millings quit, making Them a four-piece for a while.
Later Pat's younger brother Jackie joined the fold on keyboards. Jackie was in and out a couple of times, eventualy being replaced by Englishman Peter Bardens, an ex-Cheynes member.
"The Angry Young Them" LP was issued in 1965 on Decca in the UK (with a significantly different version released on Parrot in the USA a few months later), featuring founder Billy Harrison on lead guitar. Despite claims about Jimmy Page and sundry other sessionmen, our interviews with Them members, who were there, insist that it was Harrison who played those classic riffs on Baby Please Don't Go, Mystic Eyes, Gloria, Here Comes The Night, etc.
But Van and Billy were competing - consciously or not - for leadership of Them and by mid-1965 it was clear that someone would go. Billy took the fall, hanging out with various members of The Pretty Things before fading from the music scene (at least until 1979 when he re-appeared to cut a "Them reunion" LP with Wrixon, Henderson and new recruits Billy Bell on drums and Mel Austin on vocals, followed by a solo LP, both released only in Germany). Bardens and Pat McAuley joined Billy's exit; Terry Noone and Joe Boni held forth on drums and guitar for a brief spell of gigs and photo sessions but no recording. Thus in late 1965 Van Morrison and Alan Henderson returned to Belfast as the only two members left, recruiting three new musos and making it an all-Irish unit again - if only temporarily. They drew in Jim Armstrong, ex- Melotones guitarist who was known as the hottest player in town. From The Broadway Showband they drafted Ray Elliot, a "jazzer" and a "looner" too - tales abound of his antics on Them tours, usually related to drink and women. Elliot was also an excellent musician, broadening Them's sound with vibes, flute and tenor sax in addition to the keyboards which in some ways "made" Them. Drummer John Wilson lasted long enough to play some live gigs and the sessions that resulted in the "Them Again" album released in early 1966 before departing. His replacement, Englishman David Tufrey (alias "Harvey") was in the version of Them that visited the USA in mid-1966, but more about that momentarily.
But while this edition of Them got some good rock-music press coverage, all was not well in the camp. Ray Elliot had "enough already" by late '68 and split for the UK, busking for a while in London and then appearing with his magic flute as a sessionman on the Trader Horne LP, ironically backing ex-Them member Jackie McAuley. This left the remaining foursome to cut a second Tower album again produced by Ray Ruff. "Time Out! Time In For Them" was decidedly more psychedelic - "out went the R&B and in came the drugs" surmised one later reviewer of the LP, though the band actually was still more into drink - but it sold in decidedly lower numbers making it even rarer on the collectors market. Both albums received their first belated UK releases in the late 1980's on the Zap! label; even these are now hard to find.
Again despite what you might have read over the years, Jim Armstrong says that 12 of the 16 tracks on the UK version of Them Again were the product not of "Van and sessionmen", but rather the five members pictured on the cover. Mind you, they worked under constraints placed on them by the label, producer and management who were still trying to make the band a "hit maker" aimed at the teen radio audience. Live, Them was essentially a blues / R&B band. One look at their playlist reveals that aside from the "contractual obligation" performances of their "radio songs", they preferred to play music by their heroes - the Hooker / Charles / Witherspoon / Williamson sound - mixed in with Van's emerging poetic originals which later took full flight on Astral Weeks and beyond (many of those songs first took shape in '66 but the limits of the whole "commercial Them" package were too severe to let Van's spirit fly.)
Them's USA tour in '66 centered on the West Coast, including a three week stint headlining at Hollywood's famed Whiskey A Go Go club, where opening groups included Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band and The Doors, plus gigs in Phoenix, the Northwest, central California and at the original Fillmore in San Francisco. The band made useful contacts that paid off in years to come, while Van met his future (and later former) wife Janet Planet during their Bay area visit. But again they where thwarted by managerial problems that left a sour taste, and were unable to record due to various obstacles. Alan Henderson claims that there had been plans to cut a live LP at the Whiskey, but this never happened once the band realised what was going on financially behind the scenes.
And so the band returned to Belfast wiser but no richer. After some initial efforts to keep the Them thing alive, Van eventually retreated to his parent's home to continue writing the material that emerged on Bang records and later the Astral Weeks album. Meanwhile, the other members were encouraged by an L.A. - based pop journalist, Carol Deck, to regroup and return to the USA with a new manager/producer, American Ray Ruff. They recruited Kenny McDowell, who they knew from The Madlads, another R&B band from the Maritime club scene in Belfast (and also managed for a time by the same Solomon brothers who handled Them) to bring in his own bluesy vocals and harmonica playing. Jim Armstrong had actually helped tutor the Madlad's guitarist and says he played lead on their sole 45, released in 1965 under the name Moses K & The Prophets (a last minute moniker foisted on them by management!) and produced in London by none other than American Bert Berns around the same time he was working wonders with Them on Here Comes The Night and other songs. With McDowell now in the saddle and plane tickets in hand, Them flew to New York and on to Texas where Ruff produced their first post-Van era Them 45, "Dirty Old Man" which saw release a couple of times on the Ruff and Sully labels. Ruff next got Them a deal with the Tower label, a Capitol subsidiary with nationwide disrtibution.
They returned to L.A. to record "Now And Them", released in January 1968. It was a fairly straight-ahead effort, combining elements of commercial pop, R&B and emerging psychedelia epitomized in the 10 minute long version of their "raga-rock" adventure, "Square Room".
Whereas "Them Again" offered little scope for Armstrong or the other musicians to reveal their talents outside the confines of a 3 minute songoriented format, the Tower LPs afforded a bit more space for experimentation.
After "100 gigs in 101 nights on the road" Armstrong and McDowell also reached their limit, feeling that management was reaping the financial rewards of their hard labor, so they quit Them and headed home to Belfast. They soon resumed playing together as Sk'boo - named for the scribbling "Sk'boo was here" found on walls and other places all over Ireland, apparently! - and seemingly put their dreams of international rock and roll fame and fortune behind them. Well, not quite! But before we tell that tale, let's be done with Them!
With Elliot, Armstrong and McDowell gone, we are left with two. Drummer David "Harvey" Tufrey - who in fact gave way on most of the sessions for the second Tower LP to famed L.A. sessionman John Guerin - settled down in California, though recent accounts have him back home in London. Alan Henderson was thus left to carry on with the Them name, and being still (to this day) on good terms with Ray Ruff (the other members not feeling so amiable) they proceeded to cut two more "Them" albums, this time for the Happy Tiger label. These are now "rare and collectible" in their own right, but are not "Them" LPs in any obvious musical sense. Alan married an American he met in California and today they remain happily settled outside Minneapolis. He is thinking of writing "the definitive" book about Them (and he is certainly the one to tell the story, having been there from the beginning to after the end, so "go for it" Alan!). Meanwhile he runs his own business applying "stucco" plaster to houses! Alan's Burns Bison bass guitar was stolen at a Them gig years ago, but in 1979 he did the Them "reunion" album and subsequent brief tour of Germany - where Jim Armstrong once again replaced Billy Harrison on guitar after the studio sessions as the others felt that Billy was "a bit rusty" for live gigs.
Other former Them members continue to surface from time to time: Peter Bardens has alternated between solo career and Camel gigs, plus recorded and toured with Van Morrison in 1978/79; Jackie McAuley wrote songs (one a hit for Status Quo!), spent 4 years touring with Lonnie Donnegan and later issued a CD by Jackie's "Celtic R&B" band The Poormouth in 1992 - one that included ex-Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker.
Jackie's brother John "Pat" McAuley met an unfortunate and premature death while on holiday in the Irish Republic on the June 25th, 1984 - of course these brothers will always be remembered for their role in the "Belfast Gypsies" adventure! Billy Harrison works as a maritime electrician outside Belfast, turning up at the occasional gig in town (especially a spate of recent "Maritime remembrances" and newspaper articles celebrating the '60s) and latest reports tell of plans to release a new LP in Germany soon. Eric Wrixon had brief spells in seemingly every important Irish '60s band, and initiated the '79 LP while living in Hamburg; he is now back in Northern Ireland and plays with the Belfast Blues Band which until recently included John Wilson. Wilson gained some fame as drummer for Rory Gallagher's Taste and then for Stud in the late '60s. He later went on to become an in-demand drummer on Belfast studio and radio sessions in all genres of music, even reuniting with Jim Armstrong (and Kenny McDowell) several times in the '70s, '80s and '90s. And that is all we can tell you about Them, so it is time to move on with our "other tales"!
With Armstrong and McDowell back in Belfast after leaving Them, enter American Scott Doneen in Chicago. He remembered Jim and Ken from one of Them's visits to Chicago and in mid-'69 sent a message off to Belfast seeking to persuade our boys to give America yet another chance. Doneen sent the tickets, provided rent and a place to rehearse. The Belfast duo later found a rhythm section, namely one Curtis Bachman on bass and drummer Reno Smith.
Gifted with great chops and an adventurous spirit, Reno had already paid some dues on the road playing soul music with none other than Baby Huey & The Babysitters. A 400 pound giant of a soulman, Huey (Known to his mother as James Thomas Ramey) is celebrated on the posthumous Curtom LP "The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend". After Huey died suddenly and tragically, Reno became available just as Jim and Ken were seeking a drummer. Smith's later career moves include a period in the funksters Mother's Finest, various house bands at Chicago blues and soul clubs including the Kingston Mines, and later a relocation to Tucson where he continued to play blues and R&B. But now we are ahead of ourselves! Back to Bachman, back to Chicago! Curtis Bachman's own musical trajectory had brought him "close to the flame" of fame and proved as fleeting - yet intoxicating – as Them's had. He was in fact a founding member of The Buckinghams, starting with their earliest (pre-hit) incarnations. Curtis recalls playing drums in early garage/ basement jam-bands with the likes of guitarist Harvey Mandel, "doing Chuck Berry type stuff". Later, inspired by a variety of influences including The Everly Brothers and the white soul of The Righteous Brothers, The Kingsmen came together as a group of teenagers with Curtis now on bass. They evolved into The Fabulous Centuries, but in 1964 half of The Centuries – Bachman and guitarist Carl Giammerese - joined up with The Pulsations whose guitarist and bass player had quit. Consisting of George LeGros and Dennis Tufano on lead vocals, Jon Poulus on drums, Dennis Miccolous on organ plus Curtis and Carl, The Pulsations got a chance to audition as house band for local TV station WGN's weekly show "The All Time Hits Show". The producers liked the band but not its "risque" name and gave them one week to change it. A security guard at WGN named John L. Opager Jr. suggested "The Buckinghams" after a famous fountain in Chicago's Grant park - and this fit in nicely during an era still impacted by "the British invasion" and "Beatlemania". The TV series ran for 13 weeks including syndication to 12 other national markets. But after taping five shows, lead singer George LeGros was drafted, leaving harmony singer Tufano plus Curtis to handle the vocals. Five shows later Bachman became disenchanted and left the group, but not before they had recorded their first 45. Produced by Dan Belloc and released on Spectra Sound Records, "Sweets For My Sweet" (the old Drifters favourite) backed by "Beginners Love" wasn't a hit but did establish the band's early direction in the "blue-eyed soul" vein. They added Carl Bonafide as manager, who got them a recording contract with Chicago-based USA Records - but too late for the departed Curtis as Nicky Fortune (another former member of The Fabulous Centuries) came in on bass.
This wasn't to be the final word for Bachman and The Buckinghams, but before we relate that tale, a brief charting of Curtis's interim path is in order. He found himself a gig on bass with Gene Terry & The Tridells, playing lounges and supper clubs "for the next couple of years getting my chops together". That accomplished, Curtis was next seen playing "psychedelic blues" in The Gas Company Ltd. which also included Bob Riedy on keyboards - he later led his own blues band which released a couple of LPs before moving back into obscurity; James Randall Profit on lead guitar; and various drummers including one Andrew Vincent Pigeon. This same basic unit also went by the name The Round Trip for a period when they featured black female singer Irma Jean Routen. Bachman played for a spell with The Rush (not the "Rush" you may be thinking of!) before landing the bass gig in the road band for "Friend and Lover", a duo comprised of Jim and Kathy Post whose radio hit "Reach Out In The Darkness" took them around much of the country. When that played out, Bachman found himself back in Chicago in time to meet up again with old "mates" - The Buckinghams! By that time they had run the course of their peak years as a hitmaker for Columbia Records. Dissatisfied with their declining "fortunes", Nicky Fortune and keyboard player Marty Greb (who went on to Lovecraft, The Fabulous Rhinestones plus contemporary L.A. session fame) left the band in 1969 to be replaced by John Turner on electric piano and our man Curtis on bass. As journalist/historian Jeff Lind relates. "Bachman toured the Midwest teen clubs with the group during the summer and stayed on long enough to record one single. With John Hill producing, The Buckinghams turned in one of their best performances on vinyl - "It's a Beautiful Day (For Lovin')". Even the flip, "Difference of Opinion" penned by Carl, Dennis and John, had a strong accessible melody line. At the cash registers, however, it was a bust. After Bachman left during the fall of 1969, the guys decided to remain a four-piece to fulfill the remainder of their contractual obligations... Bachman moved on to a band called Truth, with three ex-members of Them..." Indeed being a free agent meant that Curtis was ready to meet up with fellow Chicagoan Reno Smith and the two Belfast newcomers Armstrong and McDowell. This still-nameless foursome woodshedded for a couple of months to write original material, doing a few guest sets at local teen clubs. One day Chicago Tribune journalist Clarence Page was walking past their rehearsal space and was attracted by the sounds of their music spilling out of the windows. "You're good; who are you?" They weren't quite ready to "come out", but when pressed rose to the occasion and concocted the moniker "Funky Skull" as the accompanying Tribune clipping shows.
When satisfied that their sound and songs were ready for a real public hearing, "It was Kenny or Jim who named the band" according to Bachman. "In Belfast they have a way of contracting the saying "God's Truth" - which is their local equivalent for saying "you don't say?" – into something like "'struth". We just took that name a step further and got "Truth"!
Jon Poulus, ex-drummer and now business manager for The Buckinghams, booked Truth as opening act for his clients, and gradually Truth became a known draw in Chicago and then throughout the Midwest. Press clippings from 1969-'70 (e.g. in Billboard and Rolling Stone) attest to the impression they left on audiences, such as the time Canned Heat failed to show up in Wichita for their headlining set at the "Great Plains Peace Festival" leaving Truth to play to a standing ovation before a crowd that had already grooved tocMarble Frog, Heaven and Earth and Rick Harrison.
During this period, another key figure entered our tale. Pat Mulcahy was an aspiring film-maker with ties to the Scott Doneen management circle. Mulcahy needed music for a movie he was making under the working title "Cum Laude Fraude". Doneen put Mulcahy and Truth together; the band was given a copy of the pre-shoot script and told to create suitable music. They incorporated some of the original material already written and improvised the rest. From the first Them LP on Tower, Armstrong had kept the "Square Room" sitar-esque workout alive – though Bachman likes to call it "Archimed's Pad" after his cat's scratch pad – and this number found a place in Mulcahy's project. When released the movie was re-titled "College For Fun And Profit". Jim Armstrong recalls, "We finished up appearing in it, playing in the background of a scene.
We went to see it at the Playboy Theater in Chicago. Most embarrassing movie! But the band was hot!"
As Truth's reputation grew, so did their awareness of the need for new management to take them to "the next level". Enter Aaron Russo, later to manage Bette Midler and the Manhatten Transfer but for now happy to represent Truth. Jim Armstrong explains the attraction: "Truth was the best band I ever played in. There was no pulling in opposite directions. We were all plugged into one box. We would practice for hours and hours. Pick a tempo, say 12/8, and jam for three hours, then stop and put your fingers in an iced beer! We received a great write-up in Billboard for the day we played the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago with Charlie Musselwhite and The Rascals - and we blew them all off the stage. When we were playing, some looner got up on stage stark naked, totally out of his head on acid. Afterwards we were all sitting up in the band room on the second floor, with the window open, and the same looner comes in, still starkers, walks past to the window, says 'Hey, looks good!' and leaps out. We thought he was on a ledge. We rushed over and he'd bounced off a car and was lying on the road all crumpled up. We thought we might get done for illegal immigrancy so we all did a runner!"
Indeed, the fear the Irish members had of "getting done" - they were in the States on tourist visas - led the band to "make a deal" orchestrated by Russo whereby Bachman and Smith would let Armstrong and McDowell take sole credit as songwriters of the band's material, a ploy that would not much impress U.S. Immigration. This CD thus aims at setting the record straight: Truth was a total band effort where the members contributed equally including shared song writing input.
Aaron Russo arranged a deal with Epic records for a Truth LP. About this time, Ray Elliot heard the call of Truth – he tried once to enter the USA and was sent back, but eventually he made it in and joined the band for their final series of gigs prior to the trip to the UK for the planned LP sessions. This five-piece version of Truth - documented visually only by some photos taken at their rehearsal room - did manage to lay down three tracks at a small Chicago studio. Fortunately we still have those on acetate to add to the collected "movie sound track" numbers which Ray was not involved in. The tape boxes and acetate remained safely stored in Curtis Bachman's house for over twenty years, seemingly destined to be forgotten in the mists of time....
But what happened to Truth?
With the Epic deal made, the band headed off in early 1971 to Belfast intent on taking a brief "time out" - after all, Jim and Kenny had been away from home for nearly two years and everyone welcomed the chance to regroup before taking the studio plunge. We will again let Jim Armstrong continue the tale: "Heads rolled at Epic; we were home in February but they didn't send for us to record until September, by which time Reno had moved off into Europe - and then Chicago - while Curtis had gone off to England with a girlfriend and was finally deported..." Bachman's version adds that manager Russo got the Epic advance money - which never reached the band members, leaving them high and dry. Curtis says he went down to London to see what could be salvaged from the Epic / CBS people, to no avail.
But for romance he did stay as long as possible, shaving his beard and cutting his hair as he went "incognito", before the UK authorities finally caught up with him and sent him packing back to the USA. For Curtis, as for the others, the whole episode was a disaster. Hopes for Truth had been high; now Curtis had been gone for two and a half years and his name was nearly forgotten on the Chicago scene.
But gradually he found his feet again and went on to play bass, sing background, write and handle business affairs for a series of Chicago-based bands over the next two decades, including Roscoe, Cactus Jack, Baraboo and Cahoots (yes, several of these were in the country-rock vein!) In the late '80s he played in a retro-'50s / '60s outfit "where I made the most actual take-home cash of my whole musical career!"
Curtis has now "settled down", married, taken a day job as a sales representative for a printing industry firm, and has been a key element in making this Truth CD possible. Reno Smith, as related earlier, kept his hands to the drums as a journeyman musician right up to today. Ray Elliot eventually went to Canada and was rumoured to have played in bar bands in the Toronto area; alas by the late 1990s word was received from his Irish kin of his passing. In belated tribute non other than Van Morrison commented in one interview that Ray was among the best musicians he played with during 'the early years' of his career.
That leaves us with Armstrong and McDowell. Upon the disillusion of Truth, and with his ambitions in shreds, Jim joined the Northern Irish Civil Service. "I'd walked out of a nice, secure banking job in 1965 to join Them and here I was six years later having my fare home twice paid by other people. I still had nothing. I had a guitar and a suitcase. You want a bit of comfort. You want to have a house, a car, a stereo. I didn't have that." Yet the music was still inside his head and the fingers could still fly. So Jim became a part-time musician, playing with (and at times without) Kenny in a series of Belfast bands such as Spike, Bronco and Sk'boo.
In 1977 Jim split with Kenny to lead Light, which released a progressive LP on the local Mint label including two Truth-era songs. Light was interrupted when Jim did the brief '79 Them reunion tour in Germany, after which Jim and Kenny eventually came together for another stint as Sk'boo. They released an EP in '81 on the local Cuecomber label, with two of the four songs again originating with Truth. By the end of the '80s Jim and Kenny parted musical ways again, Since then Jim has logged time in the "Belfast Blues Band" led by former Them keyboard men Erix Wrixon, with multiple tours of the Continent keeping this lot gainfully engaged. More recently Jim formed his own Jim Armstrong Band with one CD to their credit -- including remakes of several Truth songs that attest to the quality of the songs written back in the day. Meanwhile, Kenny McDowell fronted the countrified "Hensteeth" for a time in Belfast, still singing his heart out but too seldom and to little acclaim. During the early 2000s Kenny finally earned some recognition as lead vocalist in a straight-ahead blues band led by guitarist Ronnie Greer, releasing one live CD that garnered ample raves in the Northern Irish scene before Kenny opted to "retire" from singing by 2007.
The saying "there's no justice in life" certainly applies to the story of Truth and the way the international music scene has neglected Kenny McDowell and Jim Armstrong, who is without a doubt among the world's great "unsung guitar heroes". But there is no stopping your enjoyment of the music contained within these two slabs of vinyl!
Taken from JOHN BERG'S liner notes for the first release on CD in 1995 and updated by John berg in July 2008 for the MISSING VINYL LP