Up Close With Karl Sjodahl of T.H.E.
A Major Player in Cincinnati's '60s Garage Band Scene
"We were always a party band. We tried to reflect the energy and attitude of the songs played on the radio."
(T.H.E.: Robert G. Fries III - 1968)
What better way to introduce you to Cincinnatti's T.H.E... than to begin with this quote by Lead Guitarist Karl Sjodahl from the band's website http://users.nac.net/karl/the/home.html
"The arrival of the Beatles in 1963 may be the start of the Garage Band boom of the '60s. The image of four friends playing music together that they so obviously enjoyed, provided a model for thousands of now forgotten groups in basements and garages across the country. The boom was fueled both by the many English bands that hit the charts in the Beatles' wake, as well as hundreds of American group acts.
"Many of the popular groups at the time, like the Beach Boys, Paul Revere & The Raiders and The Monkees, used top studio musicians to back the group's vocals. However, in many groups, the primary creative force came from within the group itself. In others, producers took control in the studio, and often replaced the group's talented live musicians with more accomplished studio performers. In all cases, the illusion of four or five friends playing music together was powerful enough to encourage aspiring young performers to buy millions of dollars worth of guitars, amplifiers, keyboards and drums, to play in garage bands which you have no idea even existed."
Well, the goal here at The Lance Monthly, of course, is to change all that thanks immensely to Karl Sjodahl for sharing his recollections of his time spent in one of those important U.S. '60s garage band players that you had no idea existed until now:
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
[Karl Sjodahl] My interest in music started around 1960, in Junior High School, when I started listening to the radio regularly (mostly top 40 on WSAI-AM, 1360), and had the assignment of programming music in the school cafeteria during lunch. That interest continued through a year at Woodward High School, then the opening of Aiken High in 1962, which is when we started providing recorded music for dances and parties.
[Lance Monthly] What was the initial inspiration for the Commands? Was it primarily your experiences with the ASA Project?
[Karl Sjodahl] The first four guys in the band all worked on the Aiken Sound Album, an audio recording of the major events of the school year, released on a 12" vinyl LP. We also shared a common interest in pop music. Tom Bruckmann and I started doing record hops around 1962 (I was the DJ, and Tom handled the technical stuff). That interest led to the idea of making music ourselves. From the beginning, our intention was to create live music, similar to what we provided with 45 RPM records, only live, and loud! We never had any ideas of being rock stars. We just wanted to play the music we loved, and do the songs justice. The early set lists were made up of the best dance tunes we could handle. Some songs required instrumental or vocal talent which we had not yet developed, so we avoided playing those songs. We always hated to do anything badly.
[Lance Monthly] Aside from the Teesians, do you recall what local bands you recorded as a part of the ASA Project?
[Karl Sjodahl] The Teesian 7 is the first band I remember recording in 1962. They were a seven piece combo then, playing dance instrumentals like "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White. " That song appeared on the 62-63 edition of the ASA. Drummer Jack Richardson may be the only member of this group who was still with them when they recorded transition music for the 63-64 ASA. By then, the Teesians were a trio, with two guitars and a drummer. Rich Beziot (Aiken Senior Class President) was their new lead guitarist. I also understand that Don Schenk (who later worked with T.H.E...) occasionally played bass for the Teesians. We recorded Cincinnati's Little Caesar and the Romans when they played at the school. I can't remember if we included them on either album. I'll need to review the albums sometime to see what we did and did not use (it's been over thirty-five years, you know.) We are planning to put together a CD of highlights from the two ASA LPs sometime in the next year. I'll be able to tell you more once we get started on that project.
[Lance Monthly] What was the line-up for the Commands / T.H.E...?
[Karl Sjodahl] We worked as a two guitar-bass-drums group in the beginning, and evolved through several configurations before arriving at the organ-guitar-bass-drums arrangement for which we are probably best known. Tom Bruckmann [who was] initially one of three guitar players with The Commands, switched to bass shortly before the band's first official gig. Tom also handled setting up and maintaining the PA, guitar amplifier and speaker systems. . . . I played lead guitar and provided vocals for the Commands, and later, T.H.E... I also wrote a few original songs for the band, which we performed fairly regularly. . . . Jeff Willis joined the group in 1965, shortly before the band changed its name to T.H.E... After working as part of the two guitars-bass-and-two drummer configuration, Jeff became the band's primary drummer when Tom left. The only time the group worked with anyone else behind the drums was when we had more than one show in a day (we liked to keep Jeff fresh for the nighttime show). . . . Mark Winkle, [who was] the youngest member of the group, joined on Hammond organ and lead vocals for the last two years the group was playing actively. Mark's addition to the group moved our sound toward more organ-based, blue eyed soul. . . . Don Schenk, [who is a] Cincinnati legend, was well known as the leader of Little Don & The Contentions when he asked if he could sit in on some of our gigs. While his schedule meant he couldn't be with us on every show, playing with Don was always a treat. . . . Larry Swan provided Rhythm Guitar and vocals with the Commands. He had the coolest guitar (a cherry-red Fender Stratocaster) and knew more chords than the rest of us at the time. He is also the guy we credit with coming up with The... as the group's new name. . . . Sherry Pickett was Larry's girlfriend, and the female singer in the Commands. She sang lead on a couple of songs in each set (like "Woolly Bully," "Day Tripper," and "These Boots are Made for Walking"). Sherry had a strong voice and rarely sang backup on any of Karl's or Larry's songs. She worked less regularly with the band as Larry became less involved. . . . Tom Allgeier, [who was] The Command's original drummer, had a parade drum and a parade bass drum which he adapted into a trap set. Tom was the drummer during the band's initial "three guitar and drums" period. Tom also worked as one of The Command's two drummers for several months before leaving to pursue other interests. . . . Rick Waddell, [who was] our first organist and another voice for the band, played with us during our stint at The College Inn, and appeared in promotional pictures of the band. . . . Roger Trauth, arguably the best musician we ever played with, played bass and guitar in several local groups, including a trio that worked the Cincinnati Playboy Club for over a year. He's also an accomplished keyboard and horn player. While he never played a gig with T.H.E..., we got to jam together frequently, and he often provided guidance and moral support. Roger, Jeff and Karl formed P.O.S., a studio group, in 1972, which recorded studio projects over the next fifteen years.
[Lance Monthly] As you've indicated, Don Schenk previously played in Little Don & The Contentions and Little Caesar & The Romans. What do you recall about these bands?
[Karl Sjodahl] Little Caesar and The Romans (a Cincinnati band using that name) was five or six guys when they first played at Aiken, with Don Schenk on lead guitar and vocals, Gene Barnett on guitar and vocals and Lenny Watson on drums. This was the first time I heard Don play, and I was impressed. The group got to be fairly popular, at least in the Northern Hills part of town. Little Don and The Contentions was one of the most memorable groups of the time. Don was the musical leader, and their drummer, Jerry Eisle, was the other experienced musician in the group. Two long blonde haired twins (David and Fred Morganstern) from Aiken provided bass, keyboards, most of the equipment, and a decidedly "Bad Boy" image for the band. The group cooked, and they had a look that really appealed to the high school girls. They also had the backing to put together fairly high profile dances every Sunday afternoon at Lakeridge Hall, which they renamed, "The Contentions Den." We always thought of the band as quite successful. Don was an impressive front man, the drummer was very good, and the Morganstern twins did a pretty fair job on keyboards and bass. Don would be a good guy to talk to about that era of Cincinnati rock if you care to track him down. He now runs Don Schenk Photography in Mt. Healthy, Ohio [Editors' Note: Consider it done! See accompanying story].
[Lance Monthly] Was Sherry Pickett a full-fledged member of T.H.E., or did she only sing on occasion? Did she sing at all while the band was The Commands?
[Karl Sjodahl] We thought of Sherry as a full member of The Commands during the summer of '65. After the name change, and the departure of Tom Allgeier and Larry Swan, Sherry sang with us much less frequently. While Sherry was always a good friend of the band after we became T.H.E..., I don't think she ever sang with the group after Mark joined.
[Lance Monthly] The Commands started with three guitar players, and no bass player. I assume this was by default rather than by design? But why later did the band decide to employ two drummers?
[Karl Sjodahl] The coolest thing to be at that time was a guitar player, so Tom and I both bought inexpensive electric guitars. I had a Japanese Orpheum solid body. Tom played a Harmony electric. Larry played a steel stringed Stella acoustic, but switched to the Fender Stratocaster fairly soon after we started. Tom and I took guitar lessons together for a while, which is when Tom decided to switch from guitar to bass. He had a natural instinct for finding interesting bass lines, and we found we worked very well together. Larry was more interested in folk, and Tom and I were a little more into electric rock. In the beginning, I was better playing leads on the Ventures' stuff so I played lead guitar, and Larry was better on chords, so he played rhythm guitar. On the drum side . . . Tom Allgeier was our original drummer, and a good friend, so we felt some loyalty to him, and Jeff was REALLY good. We also knew we might lose Tom to school requirements (he was still in high school). An interim solution was to have them both play together. Jeff was steady, but not too loud. Playing with Tom made him a lot stronger, so that when Tom left, we no longer needed the second drummer. The sound of two drummers was pretty cool at the time. Several major groups have used the approach (the Allman Brothers and the Doobie Brothers among them), so there's some validity to the concept.
[Lance Monthly] It's on the web site, but please briefly explain the origins of the name T.H.E...
[Karl Sjodahl] Well a man came to us on a flaming pie . . . no . . . that was another group. Our revelation (such that it was) came in the middle of a rehearsal when we decided we all hated the name "The Commands." Somebody started to suggest calling our selves "The...". Larry said, "Hey, that's a good idea. Let's just be 'The...'. It'd be different." It was so different that the DJ's couldn't say the name without sounding stupid. They told our agent that if we didn't change it, they would stop promoting our shows. We suggested separating the letters, [which] became "T.H.E..." and the complaints stopped.
[Lance Monthly] Where did the band typically practice?
[Karl Sjodahl] Most formal practices were in the Sjodahl basement or garage. My dad developed the habit of working late on "band" nights, and we agreed to stop making major noise when he came home. There was enough room in the "Game Room" to keep the equipment set-up between rehearsals. We also set up microphone lines so we could record what we were doing on a tape recorder in the next room. I'm not sure any of those recordings survive today. We often worked out new arrangements during sound checks before a show, or offstage with just a guitar, or just winged a new song in front of an audience. Other rehearsals were held at Mark's basement, and maybe, some at Tom's or Larry's house. Our basement was a little easier to get the gear in and out. It was also only a short walk to the Mardi Gras Tavern for a few 3.2% beers after practice.
[Lance Monthly] Where did the band typically play?
[Karl Sjodahl] Our most frequent gigs were fraternity parties, organization and school group events. We once played parties for UCs College of Nursing and the College of Mortuary Sciences on the same weekend. (It seemed strange at the time.) The Miami University gigs were probably the most fun. We played parties at fraternity houses, large dance halls both on and off campus, and outdoor parties after a Saturday football game (weather permitting).
[Lance Monthly] How did you become the house band for the College Inn?
[Karl Sjodahl] I think the College Inn gig came from our agency. We regretted taking it after the first night. It just wasn't our usual crowd. Hardly anybody danced, or even listened for that matter. It was complicated for me, because I was the sign-on DJ at easy listening station WJBI-FM, from 7 to Noon on Saturday and Sunday mornings. After the second week, with no sleep, singing four hours a night and working five hours the next morning, my voice was practically shot. Rick (Waddell) and Larry (Swan) filled in on vocals, but my performance was suffering in both places. The regular job also meant we had to turn down fraternity parties and other events we liked to play. We were quite happy to return to one-night-stands.
[Lance Monthly] The band often times played in matching outfits. Was this a trademark of the band? Whose idea was it to wear red pajama tops?
[Karl Sjodahl] None of us will ever admit to thinking the pajama tops were a good idea. I don't think it lasted more than a show or two. Influenced by the Beatles and other English groups, we thought we should look like we belonged together. The Commands often played in white Levis and blue pinstriped shirts. T.H.E... usually played in matching style sweaters and Levis (each of us in a different color). On our later shows, we played in turtlenecks and Levis. It was more a match of styles than an exact match in both style and color.
[Lance Monthly] How popular locally did T.H.E... become?
[Karl Sjodahl] We worked a lot in the Northern Hills area of the city, and were fairly well known there. We played quite a few shows at UC and became regulars at certain fraternities and sororities. For some reason, we really caught on at Miami University of Ohio in Oxford. We once played five shows for five different organizations at the school in a single weekend. Another group that repeatedly booked the band was JOPA (the Junior Officers Professional Association) for whom we played about once a month including our first "farewell" show.
[Lance Monthly] The band appeared in student film projects. Could you describe some of these? Did the band perform? Act?
[Karl Sjodahl] As a group, we provided music for dramatic productions, and appeared as the house band or as a musical guest on variety of student-produced talk shows. Most of the shows were class projects. To my knowledge, the only thing that remains is three minute segment of us playing at a party, shot on 16mm black & white film, and used for a flashback sequence in a dramatic production about a soldier in Vietnam.
[Lance Monthly] T.H.E... recorded at the Parish hall in Grace Church in Cincinnati. What do you recall about these sessions? Do any of the songs recorded still survive?
[Karl Sjodahl] The Parish Hall at Grace Church always had a great sound, which is why we decided to bring in professional recording equipment and lay down the instrumental tracks there. We recorded tracks for "The Boat That I Row" which we discovered on the "B" side of Neil Diamond's hit, "I Got The Feeling," "Say You'll Be My Girl" (an original tune), "The Only Thing To Do" (a cover of a minor local record) and an up tempo version of the Wilson Pickett classic, "Midnight Hour." Vocals were added a week or so later at a studio in another part of town. We recently transferred the original instrumental and vocal masters to CD and they're not bad. The original band tracks (drums & bass on one track and lead guitar, rhythm guitar Hammond/Leslie on the other) were recorded straight ahead, using a single Neumann or Telefunken condenser microphone on each track and no EQ. The overdubs (lead vocals, backup vocals and percussion) didn't turn out as well. Since it was still a few years before multi-track recording was available, we had to take the instrumentals down a generation every time we added something new, and the mix was done at the same time as the recording.
In general, the percussion was mixed a little too hot against the vocals. We couldn't hear the mix until after we finished recording a take, and retakes seemed to improve the vocal performances but not the blend of the instruments. We always planned to redo the vocal tracks, if we could generate enough interest with the local record companies.
[Lance Monthly] If T.H.E... recorded their songs, why were they never released as singles?
[Karl Sjodahl] We were never 100% satisfied with the way the sessions turned out. If we had been happier with the result, we might have pressed copies of the songs on our own. We played our arrangements of "The Boat That I Row," "Say You'll Be My Girl," and "Midnight Hour" for local Reps from several record companies. They said they liked the songs (particularly the instrumentals). The Rep from Columbia even said they would be interested in releasing a couple of them, but they'd like us to change the words to "The Boat That I Row." I tried writing new lyrics, but was never really comfortable rewriting Neil Diamond. We got busy with other parts of our lives, and just let the idea pass. "The Boat That I Row" remained one of the band's most requested numbers. We figured it was because we worked so hard on it before the recording sessions that we could play it in our sleep and sound really polished.
[Lance Monthly] How would you describe the band's sound? What band's influenced you?
[Karl Sjodahl] We were always a party band. We tried to reflect the energy and attitude of the songs played on the radio. The early sound was influenced by guitar, bass and drum groups from the U.S. and England, like the Byrds, the Beatles, the Stones, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, the Kinks, the Ventures, and even the Monkees' studio recordings. Neil Diamond was also a personal influence of mine, along with a whole string of one-hit wonders like the Music Explosion, the Syndicate of Sound, Shadows of Knight and Los Bravos. After Mark joined, his Hammond organ was a big part of our sound. The Rascals and Booker T & The MGs were probably our biggest influences, along with James Brown, Junior Walker, Major Lance, Sam and Dave, J.J. Jackson, and other Motown and Stax recordings. We still did the garage band classics, and added a little soul to the Farfisa/Vox organ sound featured on hits like "Double Shot of My Baby's Love," "Louie, Louie," "Light My Fire," and "96 Tears."
[Lance Monthly] Do any (other) T.H.E... recordings exist? Can you tell me about the live recordings?
[Karl Sjodahl] We recorded quite a few of our live shows. Most were made with a simple cassette or reel-to-reel deck, with microphones positioned to pick up both the instruments and the PA column. We listened to the tapes later so we could improve our performance on later shows. A few of those tapes sound pretty cool . . . not professional, but about as clean as the Beatles' Hamburg club recordings. We sounded a lot tighter than the live tapes of the Monkees which were recently released on Rhino Handmade. We've just started going through the recordings, to pick out a few of the best cuts for a limited edition CD (like the sample CD on our web site).
[Lance Monthly] What do you recall about the Battle of The Bands that T.H.E... participated in?
[Karl Sjodahl] I think we've all suppressed the memory of those shows for thirty-some years. When I was asked recently what our worst gig of all time was, one of the "Battles" came immediately to mind. On that show, we had to set up on one half of a small turntable, backstage, while another band was playing on the other half facing the audience. There wasn't enough room for all our gear, and one of our amps didn't work when the turntable finished rotating. The house sound system was awful, and we couldn't hear ourselves sing. We dreaded those shows, but had to do them to keep the popular DJs happy. After dragging all the gear across town, we often had to use some of another group's (or the house's) equipment. We'd get to play a couple of tunes before the next group went on. Not much time to develop a relationship with the audience. Most of the shows were OK, but some were embarrassing. The scoring of bands at the various "Battles" in the '60s was a lot like "Whose Line Is It Anyway." The score didn't really matter. In some cases, I think they knew the winner before it started. I don't remember winning any of them, and except for the fiasco with the turntable, I don't remember losing any either. I don't believe there was ever much prize money or a recording contract at stake. It was just the local radio stations' way to get a bunch of local groups to play, often for free, just for the exposure. The Us Too Group is the only band I remember hearing about after one of these shows. They were pretty good live, and released an original recording, "The Only Thing To Do," which we liked well enough to add to our set list.
(Commands: Dan Dryer - 1965)
[Lance Monthly] Whose idea was it to use the Standells' "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" (an all-time favorite of mine) as the band's kick off tune? Did the song have any special significance to T.H.E.?
[Karl Sjodahl] Jeff thinks it was my idea. He could be right. I always liked the Standells' recording. We played the record at dances for a while before we decided to learn to play it. The record always produced a nice reaction from the crowd, even though it never became really popular on the radio. I always enjoyed singing the song. It was so incredibly simple, and it was easy to throw ourselves into. When we were a trio, Tom and I worked out the instrumental part: a strong electric rhythm with a bass "hook." When Mark joined us, he added harmony to the "Sometimes, Good Guys Don't Wear White" line and an organ drone under the whole thing. It sounded really powerful. We usually repeated it once or twice during a four-hour show. Even if we were pissed at each other, the song generally put us in a mood to play some music, and it rarely failed to get people on their feet.
[Lance Monthly] Why did the band break up in the '60's? And why were there three farewell parties?
[Karl Sjodahl] Hey, why not? If one is good, three should be better. Near the end, we still enjoyed playing, but it was getting tougher to make the schedules work. When the job at the Christopher's Club in Dayton came through, we thought it might be our last chance to play together. A lot of our friends came to the show, and one even shot five rolls of film of the performance. Those images are the best shots we have of the group. As it turned out, it was the last time that all five of us (including Don) worked together. The main four guys (Mark, Jeff, Tom and I) took on two more shows before we decided to "call it a wrap." Jeff and I graduated from UC in 1968. I was a producer-director and staff announcer at Channel 19 (WXIX-TV) at the time, and had less and less time to play. Mark started working with the Checkmates, another local group, who traveled around in a reconditioned hearse. Jeff and I both received our draft notices on the same day in 1969, and that pretty much split us up for good. Since Jeff and I got out of the Army, it's been a rare occasion when any two of us have lived in the same city.
[Lance Monthly] What led to the T.H.E... reunions?
[Karl Sjodahl] That's easy. We missed playing, and we missed just hanging out with each other. Even our extended families have always gotten along. While we have stayed in touch over the years, and get together one-on-one fairly often, there was always something special about having the four of us together in one place at the same time. Whenever that happens, we usually find a way to make some noise. Tom's wedding in 1984 was the first opportunity for the band to play in fifteen years. We spent a few hours at a Cincinnati recording studio two nights before the wedding, but were less than happy with the result, because the studio had sold their Hammond B3. We had to borrow an organ for the session that had nowhere near the power Mark used to command with his Hammond. We decided to get together again in 1986 at Mark's house in Maryville, Tennessee. Mark had three Hammond B3s at the time, so organ sound wasn't a problem. At that session, we worked out a new arrangement of "Hurt So Bad" which Mark had always wanted to play when we were together. There's a recording of it on 1/4" 4-Track tape around here somewhere. Another reunion in 1995 turned out the most polished performances we've ever done. Mark's voice is a lot stronger now than it was when we were playing together. Most of those songs will be on the CD, once we get the live stuff sorted out.
[Lance Monthly] Please tell me about your career today. How often, and where, do you perform?
[Karl Sjodahl] Working on the web site brought the memories back for all of us. My musical "performances" today are more personal and a little less public. I still love playing guitar (usually a Gibson Les Paul or a Rosewood J-45) on my own. It's still fun working out chords and fills. I miss playing with the group, and I hope we can get together again soon. We're talking about another reunion later this year. Playing with other musicians is always fun, but working with Jeff Willis, Tom Bruckmann, Mark Winkle, Don Schenk and Roger Trauth has always been a special treat for me. For the rest of the guys: Jeff now plays with a blues/gospel trio (Bluefish) in Charlotte. They recorded their first CD in 1999. Mark records occasionally in his MIDI studio in Tennessee, and still plays for his own enjoyment. Tom rarely has time to play, but looks forward to the next time we can all get together. Don recently started playing guitar again after we brought him out of retirement for the reunion in 1995.
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