An Interview with Bob Ketchum of The Vipers
Mountain Home, Arkansas' Hottest Mid-'60s Rock Band
Looking back, I don't think it's ever been adequately explained why some garage bands in the 1960's were able to "break out" nationally, while other bands--no matter how talented (the Dovers, for example)--never became anything more than neighborhood heroes. Examples for this are plentiful: No management-- or worse still--poor management; small indie labels that couldn't keep up with the demand for a group's single; disinterested band members; and the military draft unceremoniously shortening a band's life. These are the most common grievances given to me from garage band veterans that hampered their efforts in making it to the top. But another reason is often times overlooked, and that is the locale that the band hailed from. Sometimes it's not how you play, but where you play. Such was the case with Mountain Home, Arkansas' Vipers. Special thanks to Bob Ketchum, drummer for the band, for sharing his tales with The Lance Monthly.
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
[Bob Ketchum] For me personally it started at a very early age. My mother was a professional entertainer in the '30's and '40's around the Kansas City area. She fronted the Frank Bailey Orchestra sitting at the Steinway, singing and playing. In 1947, Mom and Dad moved the family to the Ozarks to begin their new fishing lodge business. Each evening the guests would sit around the dining room and listen to Mom entertain them sitting at the piano. So I guess you could say I literally grew up surrounded by music.
[Lance Monthly] The Vipers were an established band before you joined. How did you eventually become a member?
[Bob Ketchum] I went to a beach party dance one summer night in 1964. The band was made up of school chums. I had never played a trap kit before (having played bass drum in my high school band) but the drummer in their band was a bit gassed and he just handed me his sticks during a break and said "Go try my kit out!" I didn't know what to think, and before I had a chance to back out of it he got up and told the other guys that I was going to sit in for a few songs. They were back from their break and the next thing I knew I was up there sitting at a drum kit with a pair of drumsticks in my hand. I had no idea what to do. They just started to play a song and I sort of jumped in when I recognized something. Fortunately, everything happened so fast I didn't have time to get scared. I fumbled my way through one song to the next. I wound up playing the rest of the night with those guys. At the end of the night the drummer could not be found and the guys asked if I had room in my car and at my house to store his drums until he called for them. He did call me the next day and to my surprise confided to me that he didn't want to play any more. Then he really floored me and asked if I wanted to hang on to his set for a while until he could find another place to store them. It was the answer to my prayers and the beginning of the end of peaceful evenings around my house. Despite my Dad's protests about the noise, I practiced every day for two weeks, then I began rehearsing with the band. We played maybe three or four dances at the local armory or the Legion Hut before summer ended and school started.
[Lance Monthly] Describe the band's beginnings prior to you joining?
[Bob Ketchum] The band had originally been formed the previous summer by the other members. There were basically two other drummers they used before I came along, but it was never anything absolutely set in stone. I think it was sort of like "Spinal Tap" - "Break out a new drummer. This one just blew up!" After I joined, the band really began to click. Not so much because of me, but I have always been very ambitious and I think I gave the band just enough confidence to go to the next level.
[Lance Monthly] Please list the names of each member of the Vipers, as well as the instruments each played.
[Bob Ketchum] Bob Ahrens, organ; Bob Ketchum, drums; Gary Shelton, bass; Joe Summers, vocalist; and Steve Tullgren, guitar. Originally we were a 4-piece, but in 1967 we added Hiram Byrd (another school chum) on trumpet. He also doubled up on percussion for some songs.
[Lance Monthly] Where did the band typically practice?
[Bob Ketchum] We always practiced in the basement of Steve's parent's house which was connected to the garage. We were the "original" garage band and played very loud. They never complained. They had the patience of Saints. They (and my Mom) were the "band parents,"
[Lance Monthly] Where type of gigs did the band typically land?
[Bob Ketchum] There were no teen clubs here. We played after all [the] important football games in the winter. We always drove into the parking lot and stuck hand written pieces of paper in car windshields which read simply: "Dance tonight at the armory, The Vipers." Back then, that was enough. The armory was our first choice to play as it was very cheap and very big. We also played at the local Legion Hut. In the summer we would rent the Henderson pavilion located on the lake for good dates and throw our own gigs. Remember, this was 1964-1967. There was NO competition! If someone wanted a band, we were it. The Jaycees were our biggest customers. They held their annual water carnival at the lake and we would play, precariously balanced on a very small floating dock about six feet from the shore, with a single electrical cord running out to us. Kids would swim out to the dock and we would literally be "rocking and rolling." MANY times someone would get zapped as their lips touched the mike or grabbed their guitar. We were lucky! We were also the featured "entertainment" for the various talent shows and beauty pageants that were held at the local movie theater. I'll never forget kids coming up to us at the end of a set and asking for autographs on the backs of their popcorn boxes. And of course we might play the occasional private party if they could spend that kind of money (probably around $200). We occasionally traveled to West Plains, Missouri (50 miles away) and played at the country club. As we grew in popularity we would be asked to come to Fayetteville, Arkansas (130 miles away) and play for frat parties at the University of Arkansas. Once we even traveled to Little Rock to play a country club gig. We thought we had hit the big time as we knew there were at least a dozen Little Rock bands and yet they chose us.
[Lance Monthly] So the band became somewhat popular locally?
[Bob Ketchum] Trust me. We were as big as it gets back then. People STILL talk about The Vipers at class reunions. We are even considering putting the group together and having a reunion gig here in town. I guarantee you the house would be rocking and it would be chock full of old geezers! In 1967 my mother had a friend who worked for the Lodge of the Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Missouri. We got an audition and were hired for the summer at the Lodge. It was very upscale and catered (and still does) to a very elite crowd. We knew we had hit the big time then and that's when it all started to fall apart. We became performers and in my humble opinion we lost sight of what we were initially doing the music for in the first place, which was having fun and sharing the experience of music. Once the paycheck became the reason for playing, the fun stopped. We could have continued. We had an opportunity to have our own TV show in St. Louis. We had a record label to back us. We had management and money behind us. We just lost sight of that intangible "something" that had always been there for us in the past.
[Lance Monthly] You've indicated that the Vipers were THE band for the area. Do you recall any others from surrounding locales that played at the same time?
[Bob Ketchum] There was only one other band, The Dukes Of Earl. They were all friends but all younger. Our singer's brother, Danny was the singer of the Dukes. They lived under the shadow of the "kid brother" band for many years but were still a good band in their own right.
[Lance Monthly] Did the Vipers ever record? Did the band release any singles?
[Bob Ketchum] We were discovered by legendary producer Chips Moman at one of the local Jaycee Water Carnivals I mentioned earlier. He brought us to his American Artists Studios in Memphis. When we arrived in Memphis and as we began to bring our gear in the studio, Paul Revere and the Raiders were just moving their gear out after completing a session there, which eventually became the "Goin' To Memphis" LP on Columbia. We were also introduced to one of Chips' newest stars, Sandy Posey, who had a big hit for Chips called "Born a Woman." We thought we had hit the big time, but you know how most of those stories go, so I won't bore you with the gory details except to say the setback didn't deter us in the least. We had pretty tough skins as far as the group went. We had several originals that he liked, but he started the session off by requesting that we first record "One of the Millions" and "Climax." "One of the Millions" was a great rock ballad penned by our singer Joe. We knew it could be a hit and we were excited to record it. However, "Climax" was an instrumental and we weren't that enamored with the song. To us it was just filler. We felt we had much better songs with "My Love Is Gone," "She Just Goes Her Way," and "In Vain." Of course we didn't know how the record business worked back then. Looking back I realize Chips was obviously only interested in the first release single which would place the instrumental as the obvious B-side. Since the deal fell through (he had only enough time to pursue one new artist and he chose Sandy Posey) we never knew what happened to the masters. Back then it wasn't like it is today. Cutting a record required that you had some kind of major connection in the industry. Very few independent bands cut and distributed their own records. I can't even bring one band to mind from those days. Therefore, we never had another opportunity to record in a professional studio. However, I DID do a lot of garage recording on my own gear, which consisted of a radio shack mono mixer and a Sears reel-to-reel deck. We made some pretty savvy recordings (for those days) in the basement, which I still have today and have archived all the tracks to CD.
[Lance Monthly] What can you tell me about some of those recordings?
[Bob Ketchum] Well, as I said earlier, it was either feast or famine in those days so no official recordings exist, other than the recordings I made of the band myself in the basement or the one sole surviving live recording made at the Lodge on a mono Wollensak reel-to-reel. Someday I may issue those old recordings as they really sound pretty good and reflect the raw energy the band put forth when we played. "The Basement Tapes" consist of "She Just Goes Her Way," "In Vain", "No, No, No," "Time," "My Love Is Gone", "No Time," "One Of The Millions," "Climax," and "So Excited." They were recorded February 12, 1966, and are all originals.
[Lance Monthly] Did the Vipers participate in any Battle Of The Bands? If so, what do you recall about these contests?
[Bob Ketchum] We always won. Period. Like I said - we rocked! And we had the right stage attitude. People liked us.
[Lance Monthly] How would you describe the band's sound? What bands influenced you?
[Bob Ketchum] We were a hell of a Rock & Roll band. We also played a lot of R&B and soul music. We covered the hits of the day by everyone from The Raiders and The Rascals to The Stones and The Standells. We were big into the Animals. Their music fit our music personality. We did songs like "I'm Cryin'," "House of the Rising Sun," "It's My Life," and "Bring It On Home To Me." But we also did lesser known artists and songs like Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" and songs by the Purify Brothers and James Brown. We were a good soul band, covering "Runnin' & Hidin'," "Midnight Hour," "Gimme' Some Lovin'," "You Can't Sit Down," "Don't Bring Me Down," and "Turn On Your Lovelight." Being a very high energy drummer I really pushed the band on the rockers, which always got the kids dancing and kept them on the floor. We also did a lot of Ventures covers. There were really no weak link players in the band so we could cover a lot of ground. I remember the day we drove to Memphis and secretly bought Bobby Ahrens a Fender Leslie for his Farfisa organ. He was completely blown away and by the very next day's rehearsal he had learned the two-handed technique on "Light My Fire" all by himself. We played it that night and the crowd loved it. Then there was the time Steve drove to Little Rock and bought the very first Maestro Fuzztone in the state of Arkansas. We used it that night at a dance at the armory. We started the set out with "I Can't Get No [Satisfaction]" and when he hit that fuzz guitar intro, the entire place swarmed onto the dance floor! I bet we played that song every set that night and it didn't diminish it one bit. We always tried to stay on top of the charts and keep ahead of the hits so we would be playing them at gigs even as they were still climbing to the Top 10. If we needed some kind of sound we either bought it or figured out how to cheat. We weren't rich but we poured every cent we made individually into our own personal set up. By the end of 1967 we had our own solid state Standel PA system with self-powered columns and built-in reverb. Steve was playing either a Moserite or a Strat into a Bassman with a 6-10" cab, Gary played a Hofner copy (Apollo) bass into a Bassman with 2-15" cab, and Bobby used the Leslie and Farfisa rig with an additional Bassman 4-12" cab. I, of course, had the kit I had just bought in 1964 -a Ludwig Super Classic "Ringo" set with extra brass. It just didn't get any better than that for a drummer in those days. Most of the bands in those days were using Kustom rolled & pleated amps but our stage set up was Fender all the way! We all had SM58's to sing with and even had our own light set up with us, including a homemade strobe light!
[Lance Monthly] Did the band make any local TV appearances?
[Bob Ketchum] Since there was no local TV, it is a moot point. However, as I said, we DID have a contract offered to us to do our own TV show on KPLR-TV (St. Louis) in 1967. KMOX radio personality Johnny Rabbit was to be the show's host. There were going to be guest bands like Paul Revere & The Raiders and the Standells but we were to be the featured band of the show (since our manager happened to own KPLR-TV at the time).
[Lance Monthly] What was your manager's name?
[Bob Ketchum] Harold Koplar (recently deceased). He owned the Chase Park Plaza Hotel and KPLR Radio/TV stations in St. Louis, as well as The Lodge of the Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, MO. That family was/is about as big time as it gets money-wise. Just last month I was contacted by someone writing a book about Harold and I contributed a few anecdotes about our remembrances of Harold when he was our manager. It'll be interesting to see if it makes the book!
[Lance Monthly] How active was he in the Vipers' careers?
[Bob Ketchum] I'm sure not as active as he would have liked! He was trying to mold our careers to his liking. For instance, it was his idea to wear the "zoot suits." He brought us up to The Chase in St. Louis for a week. We were then fitted for the outfits by the costume designer for the Metropolitan Opera in St. Louis. We also had "make up classes" to learn how to apply and remove stage make up. Our tutor was the make up artist at the Met. I think Harold might have been a major contributor to the Opera in St. Louis. He even had a large front row center box which he gave us access to. We saw the modern opera presentation of "Superman" while we were there. We acted just like rock stars (I think we showed up drunk) and were about as obnoxious as five young hellions could be, but because we were his guests, everyone was too intimidated to tell us to shut the hell up! Hahahaha! I'm SO proud!
[Lance Monthly] We're posting a photo along with the interview of the band in full costume. When dressed, the band was known as the Harlequin Vipers. Please tell me more about this!
[Bob Ketchum] Well, that was another of Harold Koplar's brainstorms. He changed the name (adding the Harlequin part). From that moment on we were to hail from Sweden. Why Sweden? I have NO earthly idea. We never found out what he intended to do when we opened our mouths to speak. Swedish Rockers with Ozark accents? H-m-m-m-m-m . . . The odd thing is that when the make up and outfits went on, it was actually easier to become those alter egos. So when "they" were bad boys it wasn't really "us." It's hard to explain, but I can remember that it was shortly after we resigned ourselves to walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk that we began to slip. There is a lesson to be learned here, my friends!! And--having said all that--let me say here that I wouldn't trade all the memories of those times for twenty gold records.
[Lance Monthly] Getting back to the KLPR-TV Show, why didn't that become a reality?
[Bob Ketchum] We became disillusioned by the business. We had become "product." Hell, I was barely 20! We were not prepared for all the hype surrounding our eventual introduction to the national music scene. We just wanted to be ourselves and play that music. Naive? Yes, we were. But could you imagine what would have happened if we had made it big with those suits as an integral part of the package? I know what you're thinking: "Well, that's what KISS did and look at them." Maybe so, but I'd wager that there are many hours spent in front of the makeup mirror before shows that each member of KISS has asked himself the same questions: "Is this all really worth it? Would we still be this big--relying on our music rather than the image--if we didn't wear all this crap every time we play?" Maybe it WAS a mistake. Hindsight is always 20/20. But, by the end of that season, we had become something that we didn't actually believe in. Our alcohol intake had increased dramatically. We started arguing amongst ourselves which we had never done before. Our singer quit like five times that summer! We became cynical and retreated into our own clique. Even the Lodge employees were afraid of us because we were trashing our rooms, etc. My personal feelings are that if we would have continued, we would have eventually succumbed to alcohol and drugs just to escape from our stage alter egos. Either way we would have lost. I believe we did the right thing. We were already living the lifestyles of rock stars even if we were still unknown. So where else was there to go but down at that rate?
[Lance Monthly] That's very interesting. It sounds like the Vipers "ruled the roost" locally, but did you ever get to cross paths with any national acts during the band's heyday?
[Bob Ketchum] Remember - this was Arkansas in the sixties. They didn't even have national acts performing concerts in Arkansas at the time. It was either Memphis or not at all in those days. We shared the stage with The Box Tops, The Gentrys, and a couple other regional acts on the occasional opportunity. When we did that summer at the Lodge of the Four Seasons, we opened for (are you ready for this?) Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, a couple other big bands on tour, and even Frank Sinatra, Jr. We were the advertised "rock band" of the series . . . designed to appease the teenage children of the Lodge's vacationing adults. We would open the show and play a 30-minute set (in our "zoot suits" as we called them) then take a break to go change as the main attraction would do their Vegas style performances. Then we would return at the end of the evening and play a "teen dance" for the kids while their parents would retire to the bar for a couple of hours. On weekends they would move us to the Marina where we played in the afternoons while the jet set would zoom in and out of the Marina (which served beer).
[Lance Monthly] Why did the band break up in the '60s?
[Bob Ketchum] Well, we had never been in a situation where we were being depended on for daily performances and especially wearing such outlandish outfits. The routine and schedule started wearing us down. We were getting into alcohol more than usual. Our handlers treated us like a commodity, which I guess in retrospect we were. As they placed more demands on us, we rebelled that much more. Eventually they discovered that they could not control us. What it came down to was that we were playing for the money, not for the music. In the past we all played the crap gigs but got through it all because we were still having the time of our lives. When we took the stage we COMMANDED the audience. They looked up at our faces and realized that we were really enjoying ourselves. We fed off their energy. I think when they looked up there and saw us just going through the routine, it wasn't the same. So then it wasn't the same for us when we looked back at them. We became disillusioned and it eventually broke the band's spirit. Even after we quit the Lodge and came home it wasn't the same anymore. We were getting to the age that college became important to some of us and the future was in question to all of us. I am the only one who has somehow managed to stay in the business after all these years, and believe me it hasn't been easy. I've played a lot of great gigs since then and have played in a number of memorable sessions and on stage with some pretty big names, but it has never been like the feeling of that period in time for me.
[Lance Monthly] This seems obvious to me, but do you think the Vipers might have made it "much bigger" if the band wasn't based in Arkansas?
[Bob Ketchum] No question about it in my mind. I'll tell you what . . . we played gigs around bands with much more reputation to lose that us and they never wanted to share a stage with us because we would kick their collective butts. We really rocked and all of us had plenty of stage presence. We had attitude and charisma. We were a bit arrogant on stage but that was our way of "crowd control." We didn't do the "pretty boy" thing. We were more like "the rebels from next door." The audience could tell at a glance that we were confident players and having a good time up there. There was never a sour look when someone hit a klinker . . . we'd just turn and laugh it off. We were mischievous and always kidding around on stage. We were VERY much like a certain mop-top group from across the sea but we weren't copying them. It was just our manner.
[Lance Monthly] So you agree that your locale might have held you back a bit?
[Bob Ketchum] Absolutely. Besides being initially discovered (and then discarded) by producer, Chips Moman, who was from Memphis and happened to be vacationing in the area one summer, no other record executives had ever seen or heard of us. In the sixties, Arkansas wasn't really the "in" place for showbiz people to hang out. For that matter, it still isn't today, and that's a shame for the record-buying public because there are some damned talented musicians and songwriters from Arkansas. And I don't mean Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, or Levon Helm. I have an independent record label (HYPE Records) with no less that EIGHT current CD projects containing some fine original music crossing several musical genres and I can't get the "legitimate" music business to even puke in my general direction. It's really too bad.
[Lance Monthly] What were some of the bands you played in after the Vipers?
[Bob Ketchum] Wow! That's a tall order!: In 1969 - Blind Chance (1 year); in 1970 - Rock Bottom (3 years); in 1974 - Whizz (2 years); in 1977 -Goldrush (2 years); in 1980 - Mover (2 years); in 1982 - Motion (we changed name to Thrilz in '83 - 2 years); in 1992 - Big Deluxe (2 years); and in 1998 - my current band, Spilt Milk.
[Lance Monthly] What can you tell me about Split Milk?
[Bob Ketchum] Spilt Milk is comprised of personal friends who also happen to be professional musicians. We have been together for several years now but do not play on a steady basis. The main reason is that all the band members have careers, "straight jobs," and many other things going on in their lives which prevent them from becoming anything other than "weekend warriors." We are basically what you might call a guitar band . . . drums, bass, and three guitar players. Probably the most unusual aspect of Spilt Milk is the fact that although each of us has his own CD out on the market, the band prefers to just do covers. The reason? No pretenses. The guys just have such a good time doing cover material: classics of the '60's and '70's, and we only perform material that is instantly recognizable to the public. Sometimes we can be coaxed into doing an original or two; but, more often we prefer to just do covers and please the crowd. Last year we opened for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Nevada, Missouri. This year the promoters of the event have hired us as headliners due to the crowd response at last year's festival. Another reason it's hard for me to devote much time to the gigging side of my career is that I have a three year old son who demands as much attention out of Daddy as he can get. I can respect and understand that so I have been cutting back in several areas of my career in order to spend more quality time with family.
[Lance Monthly] How often do you keep in touch with the other Vipers?
[Bob Ketchum] Three of us still live here in the area and so it's pretty easy to keep in touch. Joe lives in Texas and Steve in Illinois but we all have email and correspond regularly. We had a Viper reunion in 1992 here at my studio. My Mom was still alive then and attended as the official band Mom of the event. We all watched the home movies, played the recordings that have survived the test of time, and reminisced on the old days. In 2000, a second reunion was held here, but Joe could not make the get-together, so we got together anyway and raked him over the coals. I'm sure his ears burned all night long. The most remarkable occurrence happened at this reunion however. Steve revealed that he had purchased a Strat for his son and he had actually picked it up and played it for a while! We all decided that we might try to get together and actually play some of the old songs from those days. But I don't think we could still fit into our "zoot suits" even if we still had them!
[Lance Monthly] What are your plans musically for 2001 and beyond?
[Bob Ketchum] Well, I released my first solo CD last year, called "New Tricks From an Old Dog." I have been promoting it as much as possible on a budget of zero dollars and no spare time. I am quite prepared to sell a million copies but more than likely it will be one at a time. Some of the tracks are getting airplay across the country. Some tunes are picking up steam on the Internet at sites like MP3.com, Garageband.com, IUMA.com, and other sites. I did not expect to achieve stardom with this album, but felt the need to have something tangible that I could hold in my hand and say "This is mine." However, I have been pleased with it's success so far and am amazed that many of today's young music buyers are enjoying it. I didn't write the material for acclaim, I wrote it basically for me.
To check out Bob's web site, please visit: http://oznet.com/cedarcrest/vipers.html - From this site, which includes more great Vipers' info and sound clips, you can link to other pages that allow you to purchase his "New Tricks From An Old Dog" CD. The Lance Monthly wishes Bob the best of luck on this and all his future musical endeavors.