Up Close with Mike Shapiro of William Penn & His Pals
An Important Player in the San Francisco Music Scene of the '60s
"We were actually in a Battle of the Bands with the Grateful Dead. They won and I never really could figure that out because they were really bad back then."
The Grateful Dead, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service are the bands most commonly associated with the San Francisco music scene of the 1960s. However, one of the areas most sought after singles, "Swami," happened to be recorded by William Penn & His Pals. Guitarist Mike Shapiro with input from original drummer Ron Cox and manager, Vern Justus was gracious enough to document the band's story for The Lance Monthly. . . . Mike recently released a CD album entitled "Deja Vu" which is available for sale at his website, http://www.beatrecords.com. In case you missed it, Beverly Patterson wrote a very favorable review of this album in our last month's issue . . . [Comments by Vern Justus identified as (VERN)]
[Lance Monthly] First - please set the record straight - was the band name William Penn & His Pals, or the William Penn Fyve, as it was credited on the "Swami" single? What led to the two different names?
[Mike Shapiro] The Band was always known as William Penn and His Pals except for the one record we made of "Swami" for Thunderbird (actually Rene Cardenas of Trident Productions). We were always known as William Penn and His Pals on the radio, for instance. We just wanted to get away from the Paul Revere and the Raiders thing.
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
[Mike Shapiro] I always loved music and started out on recorder, and then went for Hawaiian steele guitar. My sister's new boyfriend, Troy Weidenheimer, who was the alternate guitarist for The Legends in Palo Alto, used to give me free electric guitar lessons so he could see my sister. By the way, The Legends were Bill Kreutzman's (the Dead's drummer) first band . . . so I was brushing against greatness all the time.
[Lance Monthly] Weren't the Nomads your first band? What can you tell me about them?
[Mike Shapiro] The Nomads had Tom Frasier, Jack Shelton, Steve Leidenthal and Bob Rickerts, besides myself. We all went to Cubberley in Palo Alto and Jack Shelton started the band. We played at sock hops, the Elks Lodge, and school dances. We were auditioning for the San Carlos Recreation Department, and the guy who was auditioning us was Vern Justus. He asked me if I knew of any good guitarists because he was managing a new band called William Penn and His Pals. I said "watch me." After that, he called me up to audition with the group and I brought Steve Leidenthal along for moral support. They loved our playing and we quit the Nomads. The Nomads weren't exactly a bed of roses for me so it wasn't hard to do. We'll leave it at that.
[Lance Monthly] So William Penn & His Pals were a band prior to you joining them . . .
[Mike Shapiro] Dave Lovell, the old keyboard player, actually started the group (VERN). They had some other people. Vern was going to San Jose State and working Britton Park as Recreation Director. Vern had hired them to play a couple of times. Vern was approached by Ron and Dave to manage them because they heard he had been in the music business with a vocal group. They came to a verbal agreement that included them getting rid of the bass player and lead guitarist. At that point, Vern met Steve and me so he already had an idea of who would replace them.
[Lance Monthly] Who comprised the rest of the band?
[Mike Shapiro] We had different people at different times. The first lineup was Neil Holtman, lad singer and de-factor William Penn; Ron Cox, drums and lead vocals; Dave Lovell, Vox continental organ; Steve Leidenthal, bass and vocals, and Mike Shapiro, lead guitar. We then later added Jack Shelton on rhythm guitar (from the Nomads). That was a big mistake, because he was the problem I was having in the Nomads. After a while we added a second drummer - Mickey Hart, (later) of the Grateful Dead. Dave Lovell started having an attitude problem, and he threatened to quit a couple of times, so we auditioned Gregg Rolie. Dave Lovell then decided to come back and we said "no way. Gregg is our keyboard player now." Since he was such a strong singer he gradually took on more vocals and we finally decided to get rid of Neil Holtman because he was hard to deal with. Neil actually died in a car crash about five years later. I remember there were a couple of races to gigs that exceeded 100 miles per hour between Neil and Jack Shelton. Jack Shelton had a heart attack and died at 42. The final lineup for the "Swami" recording was Mike Shapiro, Steve Leidenthal, Gregg Rolie, Ron Cox and Jack Shelton. I also have a tape of "Got To Get Away" and "There I Go I've Said It Again" with the original group including Neil Holtman which I am debating on how to distribute.
[Lance Monthly] Gregg went on to bigger--but not necessarily better--things with Santana and Journey. Do you stay in touch with him?
[Mike Shapiro] It was a shocker to me to see that Gregg has a picture of William Penn in his new CD, "Roots." He always tried to downplay the importance of that to his career but I truly believe none of the other things that happened to him would have happened had he not been with us. He'll never admit it that he owes me one. We don't really talk anymore and once in a while I'll email him or something. He always emails me back. We used to be great friends. Ah the music biz . . .
[Lance Monthly] Are there any other unreleased songs?
[Mike Shapiro] I have two unreleased songs. I might put them on my website to get [some] interest in my CD. Maybe even do a William Penn CD. Why not counter rip off everyone whose ripped us off?
[Lance Monthly] did the band typically practice?
[Mike Shapiro] We practiced at an old school in Belmont. At first we practiced at the Britton Recreation Center in San Carlos. It is now a Safeway parking lot.
[Lance Monthly] What type of gigs did the band typically land?
[Mike Shapiro] Our first gig was next to Eddy Kramer's House Of Music in San Carlos. From our first gig we had the full uniform with the long old English coats and tri-cornered hats. We were an instant success. We then started playing at a thing they had at the Monterey Fairgrounds. We also played in Oakland at the Memorial Hall, and at the San Francisco Longshoreman's Hall. We would go out on the weekends for Friday and Saturday and hit up to three gigs. I was still in high school. Most of our gigs were big halls or big events. We then started opening up for really big acts like Paul Revere and the Raidersso we had to change our uniform style to a leather kind of thing. We opened up for the Jefferson Airplane at the San Jose Civic. I think the biggest show we did was with Them at the Oakland Civic (Paul Revere was also on this show). We opened up for The Animals at the Circle Star. In between the big shows we would play high schools and junior colleges.
[Lance Monthly] I have an original program for that Them concert. It was June 26, 1966. Do you remember anything in particular about this performance?
[Mike Shapiro] The thing I remember was watching how hard Paul Revere and the Raiders worked doing all those dance steps. It was great and I think we played a couple of originals. I was on top of the world and signing autographs, etc.
[Lance Monthly] Actually, Paul Revere & The Raiders were not part of the Them concert. Joining Them, and William Penn & His Pals, were the Association, the Grassroots, the Harbinger Complex, and the Baytovens.
[Mike Shapiro] You know, you're right about that. I think we must have played another show with Paul Revere at the Oakland Civic. God, how could I have forgotten that? It was probably the pinnacle of my career.
[Lance Monthly] So Vern was responsible for lining up these shows?
[Mike Shapiro] Vern had a Battle of the Bands at Britton Recreation Center in San Carlos, California. We started talking and he let drop that he was looking for a guitarist for a group he was working with. Without hesitation I said "watch me." I guess he liked what he saw and asked if I knew a bass player and I said Steve might be interested. He was and we auditioned with the group. It sounded incredible from the first second we started playing. Vern says that our greatest strength was our wall of sound. We were really loud and really full sounding. At one time each instrument had one dual showman head with two cabinets, one on each side of the stage. We could easily play the biggest rooms. You brought your own sound in those days. For a PA we also used a dual showman head with two bottoms with a mixer and an echo unit.
[Lance Monthly] Did William Penn & His Pals participate in many Battle of the Bands?
[Mike Shapiro] We were actually in a Battle of the Bands with the Grateful Dead. They won and I never really could figure that out because they were really bad back then. I knew Garcia from Dana Morgan's, and I was at their first gig at Magoos Pizza in Menlo Park. I used to go down to buy strings at Dana's and Garcia would sit me down on the couch and make me play E, D and A chords for him for what seemed to be hours. There was another guy who used to just sit on the couch and play E, D and A for hours listening in a fascinated way to the sound of them. His name was Bob Weir. I always thought they should start a band. They did. I have lots of Garcia stories, like the time Pig Pen and Jerry grilled me about how I straightened my hair and where in East Palo Alto you get the conk to do it. If you remember, Jerry used to have the pyramid hair back then.
[Lance Monthly] Which other local/regional bands do you recall really enjoying?
[Mike Shapiro] I used to be good friends to all of them: The Watchband, the Otherside, Baytovens, the Fugitives, and the Night Riders.
[Lance Monthly] The Chocolate Watchband have been long time favorites. What can you tell me about them?
[Mike Shapiro] The Watchband was basically Mark Loomis' baby. I knew him well enough to hang out at his house a few times. He was living with his mother and wife who were going around saying "My Mark. No, my Mark." He was a very intelligent cat until he took a little too much acid. The last time I saw him he was engrossed in testing out fountain pens. We used to go to Shaw Tolby's mountain cabin after gigs and get stoned until the wee hours, and that was the first time I heard a component stereo. He turned me on to "Cats Squirrel" by Cream, and I just about shit . . . the guitar playing was so great. The Watchband had an extremely compelling beat. We must have done 20 shows with them. They were primarily a San Jose band so William Penn was actually a bigger name because we were from Northern California. They were a little more astute about getting their recording thing going and RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP didn't hurt, either. I knew Bill Flores from when we were about 13 or 14 and was surprised to see that he was the bass player. The original guitarist was Ned Torney (the Otherside/Bogus Thunder), and a guy named Danny Faye was the original lead singer. They really had the Stones down and were really into the image. Loomis used to use a Fender Volume pedal before there were Wa Wa pedals.
[Lance Monthly] How popular locally did William Penn & His Pals become?
[Mike Shapiro] We were popular enough to have a backlash against us. I always thought that Big Brother and the Holding Co. was a play on our name for the hip community. I was in the Fillmore Auditorium once when Gregg was doing a warmup for a Santana show and I happened to walk by Bill Graham's office and noticed he had a picture of William Pen & His Pals over his desk. We were popular enough that I am doing this interview with you after all this time.
[Lance Monthly] Did the band make any local TV appearances?
[Mike Shapiro] You know, we never did any television but we did make a PSA (radio) commercial.
[Lance Monthly] PSA? Is that Public Service Announcement?
[Mike Shapiro] PSA was a small hop commuter airline. I think it was Pacific South Air, or something like that. The commercial was something like "William Penn and his Pals always take PSA when they go to L.A." We were playing something in the background, and Vern came on doing the main dialog.
[Lance Monthly] Your group released "Swami" b/w "Blow Your Mind" on the Thunderbird label. Where was the 45 recorded?
[Mike Shapiro] We actually were all set to go with Fantasy. We had a meeting with the president of Fantasy before Sol Zaentz, Max Weiss, about the Creedence tapes and the rest of the catalog. Our parents and my father didn't like Max so wouldn't sign. My father and Max were like oil and water. Max was hip and making jokes about commies and rat finks and knew Lennie Bruce; my father was a depression kid and very uptight about signing something by which he could lose his house. That's where Fantasy got the tapes of the stuff on "More Nuggets From The Golden State." I remember recording at Fantasy and John Fogerty was shrink-wrapping albums (as a summer job ) in a warehouse which was in the same building. I actually think he stole the lick from the Golliwogs "Fragile Child" from me when we recorded "Got To Get Away" there - listen to the two for similarity; also, on "Blow My Mind" from Fantasy with Mickey Hart playing second drums. Anyway we went with Rene Cardenas and Trident Productions. We should have gone with Fantasy because they had a studio and would have let us take time to record. "Swami" was recorded in one take; same for "Blow My Mind." They had some guy from Beechwood Music that said "GREAT. It's got the magic" after each take even though they weren't as good as we could do. We recorded at Coast in San Francisco. I played the rhythm guitar part. I then came back and overdubbed the famous psychedelic "Swami" lead part. I had no idea what I was doing musically. I just played notes I thought sounded mystic. It came out pretty well. The words were re-written in the studio on the spot by Rene Cardenas, Bob Nagy (Associate Producer), and the rest of the guys in the group. However, on the single, I got all the credit. But if you look under the credits on BMI you see that Rene and Bob both took credit. What a sleezy business. I don't think the song was ever picked up locally but it must have played somewhere, otherwise "Pebbles" (garage rock compilation series) couldn't have known about it. I heard it was played a lot in Buffalo, New York.
[Lance Monthly] As you indicated, due to it's inclusion in the "Pebbles" series, "Swami" is now regarded as a classic. What was the inspiration behind that song?
[Mike Shapiro] I was just trying out a new scale I learned: A major scale with a flatted seventh (what I now know to be the Mixolydian mode). I had some ethereal words that I don't even remember and they changed them in the studio. I can only take credit for the music. We were really against them putting that finger pop into the song. That was Bob Nagy. They were just some older guys having fun in the studio.
[Lance Monthly] Overall, how would you describe the band's sound? What bands influenced you?
[Mike Shapiro] We really liked the harder edged British Sound: The Animals, the Dave Clark Five, the Stones. Since we had the organ we could really get the Animals sound down. I had a lot of experience playing rhythm and blues from the Nomads. You had to know your Freddy King and James Brown in Palo Alto. It was easy to move to the English rhythm and blues sound. We also did a fair amount of Hollies and Beatles . . . but no Beach Boys.
[Lance Monthly] Why did the band break up in the '60s?
[Mike Shapiro] We actually went to Catalina for the summer and when we came back, some other manager, who turned out to be insane, really got to us about our image and how he was going to make us hip. Our manager, Vern, wanted us to sign a contract that gave him 25% of everything and we didn't want to. There was also a lot of internal strife within the group. Some of us were straight and some were taking drugs. I had had it with everybody in the group and I probably did the stupidest thing I ever did but I called a meeting and said, "we should disband." Nobody disagreed too strongly. They all tried to get me to reconsider but I stupidly wouldn't. We should have stayed together. Jack Shelton would have gone off to the Army. I was having the most problems with him and his musicianship. I fell out of contact with Gregg for about six months and then heard it through the grapevine that some of the members were invited to jam with a guy name Carlos Santana in San Francisco by Tom Frasier, the lead singer from the Nomads. I used to hang out with Gregg a lot when Santana was first getting together. I actually told him that Santana would never make it playing that Latin stuff. Oh well . . .
Ron Cox Remembers: (The Drummer For William Penn & His Pals Fills In the Gaps In The Band's History Prior To Mike Shapiro's Joining) Thanks to Mike Shapiro, we're able to print the recollections of original William Penn & His Pals drummer Ron Cox on the formation of the band. Since Mike joined the band after it was already established, Ron shared his memories from the beginning: The band was formed at the College of San Mateo in late 1964. Neil Holtmann and Steve Sweet put an ad on the bulletin board at school for musicians to help start a band. I applied and auditioned and, of course, I wowed them and was given the drummers job. The lead guitar player was Mike Dunn, from Millbrae, and he was in a band prior to joining us. Neil actually played Hawaiian steel guitar (though he kind of sucked) and we were using a couple of rhythm players on a casual basis. We were known as The DiscCounts. We played around at pizza parlors and teen clubs for a couple of months working on a song list. I`m not really [sure] how we connected with Dave Lovell. He was still in high school. We picked him up in early 1965 and in about March or April that year we decided to go with the tri-cornered hats, ruffled shirts, etc. That was also the time Mike, Steve, and Jack joined. Vern had come along in early `65, I think, but I`m not clear on how that connection was made. Eddie Kramer was in the picture, somewhere, booking local bands for dances and such so maybe that`s how we got together with Vern.