Up Close with Bill Sheppard of Stack
A Major Player During Southern California's '60s Rock Band Explosion
"...he had this idea for an album release party that included renting Alcatraz Island from the government, and flying all the 'Pop Magazine Press' out to San Francisco, serving them a meal on metal plates with tin cups, and then have Stack in concert as a debut for the national press."
"A few weeks into our producer/artist relationship, Larry informed me that Warner Bros. was interested in picking up the project, and front money was going to be in the neighborhood of $150,000.00. I was elated."
"In the beginning of 1992, I got the itch to do something musical again. The painful memories weren't so vivid, and I decided to give it a shot one more time."
[Interviewer's note: It might be best to have a scorecard handy when trying to keep track of the musical career of Bill Sheppard. Best known as the vocalist for Stack--the band that recorded the classic ABOVE ALL album--Sheppard also spent a brief amount of time with BACK FROM THE GRAVE heroes the Fabs, as well as many bands before and after his two best remembered stints. Though they don't always receive the credit or recognition due them, it is people like Bill Sheppard who are the true legends of the '60's musical revolution. Many thanks to Bill for detailing his many musical contributions.]
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
[Bill Sheppard] On my mother's side of the family, during all family get-togethers, we would sing and sit around in a room with my uncle playing ukelele, and harmonizing. There was twelve to fifteen people just jammin'. I sang my first full song solo for the family at age four. . . . In second grade, I formed a vocal group (I think it was a quartet) and we did a full school classroom tour. We sang "Oh Shenendoah" in harmony. In seventh grade I took school band and began playing sax (baritone sax at school) and we purchased a tenor.
[Lance Monthly] When did you join your first band?
[Bill Sheppard] My first band was The Individuals. The group had already formed and asked me to join to play tenor sax. That was in about February of 1962. The players were Larry Hernandez on guitar, Frank Hernandez on bass, and Artie Perez on drums. I stayed with the group until about fall of that year when I joined a surf band called Denny and the Chancellors. I was hired as a sax player and backup vocalist. The group was fronted by two singers, Gerard Belisle (his family owned Belisle's Restaurant on Harbor Boulevard, as well as Harvey's Gold Street at Beach and Garden Grove Boulevard. Gerard went on to work with and/or form The Fifth Cavalry and Big Foot) and Denny Correll, who went on to join Blues Image and Love Song and who today is a popular Christian singer/songwriter.
[Lance Monthly] What about the Fabs? [Interviewer's note: Bill joined the Fabs - of BACK FROM THE GRAVE fame - after they recorded their now legendary single, "That's the Bag I'm In" b/w "Dinah Wants Religion."]
[Bill Sheppard] I was hired by the Fabs after an audition at the Boys and Girls Club of Fullerton on Commonwealth in early '67.
[Lance Monthly] You were the lead vocalist in Stack. Did you sing with the Fabs and your other earlier bands, too?
[Bill Sheppard] In all of the groups I worked with, I was the lead singer and frontman. Rarely, one of the other band members and myself would double up on saxes (tenor and baritone) and do a little section behind a blues tune, but outside of that, I just sang.
[Lance Monthly] After the Fabs, you joined the Wabash Spencer Band. Was this a name change from the Fabs, or a completely different group?
[Bill Sheppard] Good question! I don't know why we decided to change the name, since the members remained the same. I on lead vocals, Bob Ellis on drums, Buddy Clark on bass, Dennis Yarema on lead guitar, and John Skelton on rhythm guitar and vocals.
[Lance Monthly] The Fabs have somewhat of a legendary reputation due to their two singles. Do you keep in touch with any of them?
[Bill Sheppard] Not really. I see Buddy at get-togethers of the old crew . . . you know, "Utopia" birthdays and that kind of stuff. Buddy is playing with James Harman and I believe he lives in El Toro or Mission Viejo. His real first name is Dale, so he may be listed. As far as Skelton, I haven't spoken to him in over 20 years, but I believe his folks still live in Anaheim.
[Lance Monthly] In '67, as the Wabash Spencer Band, you recorded a single with Jim Messina, "Part Time Woman" b/w "French Champaign & Caviar", on Bel Air Records. How did this single come about?
[Bill Sheppard] We had recorded a demo at Gold Star Studios, "Somewhere Between Time and Space" and "French Champagne and Cavier," upon which the engineer introduced our manager to this gentleman, Earl Dion, who was interested in signing us to a deal. Earl Dion was the actor who played Klem Kadiddlehopper's father on the "Red Skelton Show" (though there was no relationship to John). We went to another studio where Messina produced "Part Time Woman." They then used "French Champagne and Cavier" with a bit different EQ and compression to try to match the other cuts' audio nuances.
[Lance Monthly] Do you recall the circumstances leading to that demo recording at Gold Star Studios?
[Bill Sheppard] I don't remember . . . that was so long ago. We did have a wannabe poet that was hanging around the group at the time, a big guy named John (?), who had written the lyrics to "Somewhere Between Time and Space." I think he was a friend of Bob Ellis' parents. Funny that it was at Gold Star as, seven years later, William David (see below) did a live twelve song demo there and we were offered a deal that we turned down. They wanted to dress all our tunes up with "Sneaky Pete" playing pedal steel on them, and release us as a country act. We just weren't ready for that. Country wasn't anywhere near "hip" yet. Hell, they took us to lunch at the old Brown Derby and everything, and we still turned them down.
[Lance Monthly] What happened to the Wabash Spencer Band's relationship with Earl Dion? Did anything more ever become of it?
[Bill Sheppard] Earl and his entourage faded from the scene quickly. They had done a regional test release of "Part Time Woman" somewhere in the South, and apparently didn't like the feedback they (Dion and Messina) got.
[Lance Monthly] Once the band received the contract with Bel Air, however, you played out occasionally as Looking Glass. Why the name change this time?
[Bill Sheppard] It had something to do with the contract, but it was also to not scare off the competition at band battles since the group had become pretty well known in those circles.
[Lance Monthly] Did you play at battles frequently during this period?
[Bill Sheppard] Not that often, really. I remember only a couple of occasions where Ellis felt that was necessary.
[Lance Monthly] From your association with the Wabash Spencer Band, you, along with Bob and Buddy, were selected to join Stack.
[Bill Sheppard] Absolutely. Wabash had been hired for Monday nights at the old Anaheim Bowl on Lincoln Ave. That may not sound like much, but at the time it was THE GIG . . . 300-500 people every Monday night! Mike Pinizotto, the manager of the Monday night dance at the bowl, and also of Merlin's Club over in Orange on Tustin, used us as the house band on Monday nights. He would always have an "audition band" play a set during the night from a second stage, and that's where the band Stack showed up. Pinizotto decided to put together this super group and Bob, Buddy, and I were approached with the idea. Not only would we have a steady place to play, but we could rehearse at Merlin's during the week. Merlin's had previously been known as the Paradox, where I had spent my weekend nights in '66 -'67 working with another group, the Crispy Critters, and a hypnotist named George Sharp.
[Lance Monthly] The Crispy Critters?
[Bill Sheppard] The Crispy Critters was the next generation of Denny and the Chancellors except that instead of guitarist Benny Maddox (Rose Maddox, the country artist's nephew) who had been drafted, we had Frank Moore (who later joined me for the "Sheppard" folk music record). So to answer your question, I was with them throughout it's run from mid '65 thru March of '67. We had a great gig my senior year of high school. We split Friday and Saturday nights at the Paradox in Orange with a hypnotist named George Sharp. The venue turned out to be "THE cool spot" to hang out, so I never had to experience the idiot peer pressure that most high school kids go through, and with all social groups in attendance, I pretty much fit wherever I went. I can see today, having my own kids in high school, what a blessing that was. This is also where the Fabs' Bob Ellis and John Skelton saw me perform and decided to ask me to join their group.
[Lance Monthly] Back to Stack. Was it an existing band prior to your joining them, or were they still known as the Vandells at the time?
[Bill Sheppard] Stack had three other members: Kirk Henry on bass, Robbie Williams on drums, and Jim ? as the vocalist. We replaced those three. I know nothing of the Vandells except from what Rick Gould has written about them.
[Lance Monthly] According to the FUZZ ACID & FLOWERS web site, Stack had an "unusually super-distorted guitar sound, the result of using special custom made amps from a private factory in Los Angeles called Quilter." Could you please elaborate on this?
[Bill Sheppard] Wow, urban legend!!! That's great! Thanks FUZZ ACID & FLOWERS! Quilter Sound Company, nowadays known as QSC, was never to my knowledge involved with Rick's guitar sound. However, he did have a distortion pedal on which the bottom was inscribed "J Beck Yardbirds" and I know for a fact that the pedal was stolen mid-show from the stage at the Avalon Ballroom in Catalina during a Yardbirds' break. On the "Above All" record, Rick also used a "Laurel" . . . a little 10 watt amp with one volume knob and a tone knob that swept from bass to treble, on 10. Various amps, including his Marshall JCM, were used also.
[Lance Monthly] Which bands influenced Stack? And which bands/singer influenced you personally?
[Bill Sheppard] It's pretty obvious from the record, but I'll state it anyway. We were influenced by Cream, the Who, the Hollies, and a little bit by Hendrix. I personally was influenced by The Beatles, Ray Charles, The Mamas and The Papas, Simon and Garfunkle, and Gene Pitney.
[Lance Monthly] Do you remember anything about the Pepsi commercial that Stack reportedly made?
[Bill Sheppard] Only that we did it. When we completed the filming (there was no video in those days)--these great big cameras and lighting rigs--and left the studio (Producers Workshop on Hollywood Boulevard at Gower), we felt like we had made it that night. The album was done, we were being signed by Columbia Records, and now we were setting a precedent for a new act, a Pepsi Cola television commercial, which would hopefully be nationwide.
[Lance Monthly] Was it ever broadcast on TV?
[Bill Sheppard] Not to my knowledge, and as I recall, only a few guys in the group ever got to see the finished product. Right after the commercial was filmed, Clancy hired the players in the group to do a bunch of cuts for background music in the movie WILD IN THE STREETS, produced by Mike Curb. The film was about teenagers dosing everyone over 15-years-old with acid so they would be docile and controllable. Strangely, when Mike Curb was running for Lieutenant Governor, his name had been removed from the credits.
[Lance Monthly] Do you mean that Stack performed the music featured in WILD IN THE STREETS?
[Bill Sheppard] Yes, I mean Bob, Buddy, Rick, and Kurt did the music for the movie, and got paid union scale. Also at that time, Rick went out and played a couple of times with Archie Bell and the Drells . . . you know of "Tighten Up" fame. Apparently, that was a studio record and there was no real group, so they picked up-and-coming players, paid them scale, and charged concert level money for the performances.
[Lance Monthly] You shared writing credit with Rick Gould on "Valleys," one of the tracks on the "Above All" album. Did you write much back then?
[Bill Sheppard] I also co-wrote "Cars," but didn't receive any credit for it. Yes, but if you look closely at my influences, I leaned more toward folk music with my writing. In fact, about a year after the group's break-up, I came back into the studio with Clancy Grass III (Stack producer) and Jack Spina (Pat Boone's manager and owner of Sunwest Studios) and recorded a folk music album entitled "Sheppard" with guitarist Frank Moore (Hoyt Axton) and some hack flute player that Clancy had cover all the tracks. I wrote all the cuts on this project, and was very pleased even though once again the album did not get released.
[Lance Monthly] The album contained all original compositions except for a Lieber and Stoller cover. Whose idea was it to record "Poison Ivy?"
[Bill Sheppard] I haven't got a clue, but it seems that we agreed it would work because you could do big open Who chords and be powerful.
[Lance Monthly] What were some of the "big name" bands that Stack performed with? Any recollections?
[Bill Sheppard] Our first concert with a name act was with Spirit at Foothill High School in Tustin in early '68. Randy California noticed that I was pretty nervous and he approached me. "Hey kid. Wanna get mellow?" I said "sure," so he took me up on the stage, behind the screen for the light show projector, and opened up this Les Paul case and pulled out a couple of badminton rackets and a birdie. We whacked that birdie back and forth for about five minutes. I went on a few minutes later, and I was mellow!! We played a lot with the Alice Cooper band. Back then, Alice Cooper wasn't a guy . . . it was the name of the band. The two groups had a good supportive relationship, it was not competitive. . . . We opened for Iron Butterfly at the Swing auditorium when "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was number one on the charts, and we had a stage rush that required security to keep the crowd off of us. That was very very exciting!! . . . We played with the New Yardbirds, which was actually Led Zeppelin before they changed the name, but it was the same guys and the same songs as on their first LP. . . . We opened for Three Dog Night when "One Is The Loneliest Number" was number one on the charts. Stack played with Buffalo Springfield, Illinois Speed Press, Blues Image, Flying Burrito Brothers . . . the list goes on and on. But there was one particular night at a club called Thee Experience in Hollywood right after Rick Gould had received his new Marshall stack and Flying "V" that Jimi Hendrix did a set after our show with Buddy Miles, Joe Lala, and a couple of other guys. That was a historical night.
[Lance Monthly] ABOVE ALL is very highly sought after today, not only due to its rarity, but also due to the fact that it's a pretty damn good album. What are your thoughts when listening to the album today?
[Bill Sheppard] Great question!!! First of all, the album was recorded when the material was relatively new to the band; therefore, six months after recording it, the band had become a monster. What I mean is, we had polished and honed the product to the point that it was very, very powerful. Being that it got to be that powerful, it required an enormous amount of physical effort as a vocalist to keep up with the amount of energy necessary to pull it off (I'd lose an average of five to seven pounds during each performance). But leaving most of that information aside, listening to it reminds me of how very close we got to being a major worldwide act and how blind I was to that status.
[Lance Monthly] Why did Stack break up?
[Bill Sheppard] Having waited for the album release for almost a year, we had been playing the same circuit with the same tunes to the same people, and were pretty much stuck there until the record was released and the rest of the public got to see the group. So management decided to book us into the Cuckoo's Nest in Costa Mesa playing four hours per night. That doesn't seem like much to a club musician, but we'd been doing concert work, and in an one hour concert show, I'd lose an average of five to seven pounds. Without the energy level that the group was accustomed to performing at, we weren't as effective and, besides that, I couldn't work at that level of intensity 16 hours a week . . . so I quit. I believe the group auditioned a couple of vocalists after that, but I'm not sure. I moved up north and grew my hair down to my butt and made candles and started writing folk music. . . . In addition, Clancy B. Grass III, the manager of the band and a partner with Mike Curb (Curb Records, Lieutenant Governor, all that) decided that the money Columbia was offering the band (about $75,000.00) was sufficient for the signing. However, he had this idea for an album release party that included renting Alcatraz Island from the government, and flying all the "Pop Magazine Press" out to San Francisco, serving them a meal on metal plates with tin cups, and then have Stack in concert as a debut for the national press. Columbia liked the idea, but didn't like the price tag (an additional $75,000.00). So, after being front page news ("Stack Signs with Columbia Records" in the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER in '68), we faded to somewhere in the back of that magazine eight months later ("Released on Happy Tiger Records"). Clancy held out for his party, and Columbia refused!! . . . Some division had also started inside the group. Rick and Kurt, who had played together for years, kind of formed their own little camp. Bob and Buddy, who had played together for years, kind of formed their own little camp. I kind of drifted back and forth between the camps. Nothing major as far as personality conflicts but, when success comes, self importance becomes a factor, and the synergy of the unit suffers.
[Lance Monthly] After having played with so many name bands--in so many high profile concert events and with a strong debut album--can you pinpoint why Stack didn't become more commercially known?
[Bill Sheppard] Management - plain and simple!! In every venue except one that I can remember, the group blew the audience out of the water. Actually, not just the audience, but also the other groups that we performed with. Rick Gould was phenomenal, and when he took solos, it was like EF Hutton . . . everyone stopped and listened, including the guitarists in Alice Cooper, Illinois Speed Press, Three Dog Night, and Iron Butterfly. The group was polished, dynamic, energetic, and extremely powerful, with excellent vocal harmony and stage presence. If the right doors would have been opened, I've never had a doubt as to whether the group was capable of pulling off any level of art or performance. Management just couldn't open those doors.
[Lance Monthly] What about after Stack? Did you join or form any bands?
[Bill Sheppard] Following Stack, I wrote and performed the "Sheppard" folk music album. It was produced once again by Clancy B. Grass III, but this time he partnered with Jack Spina and Pat Boone. I worked with a great guitarist, Frank Moore, who incidentally was a member of the Crispy Critters group during my high school days. Frank ended up being the lap steel and fiddle player for Hoyt Axton for a number of years.
Next was Dr. God and a beautiful piece of music written by keyboardist Stuart Paul entitled "Popsicle Planet Suite" (this was about 1972). The line up was similar to what ELO did about six years later: Two violinists, a cello, electric bass, frontman/vocalist (me), keyboards, guitar, and drums. The leader of the group and drummer was none other than Steven Segal. He wasn't a martial arts expert then, and neither was he an expert drummer. But his ability to pick the right performers to work together was excellent! We did one show at Fullerton College Performing Arts Center in December of 1972 to a sold out house.
Following about a year in a nightclub act (yuck!), I was approached by a producer named James Clyde (Jim Lutrell) to form another original music act. Clyde had received a great deal of money to form a group of seasoned pros for the purpose of doing a record. We were known as Ruby Wheeler! The line up was Rick Gould on guitar/vox, David Mohr on keyboards/vox, me on acoustic guitar/lead vox, Dennis Lapore (formerly of the Blues Magoos) on guitar, John D'ursoe on Bass, and Leon Becker (El Chicano) on drums. A house was leased in Orange on Lincoln Avenue, and an interior soundproof studio was built. The idea was that management would house the band, supply us with a modest income (about $200.00 dollars each per week), give us a strenuous rehearsal schedule and an open account at the liquor store within walking distance (big mistake!!), and thus manufacture a super group. We rehearsed five days a week for five to six hours a day; we wrote and practiced; we broke down into smaller groups to tighten up parts, and we put our hearts and souls into the project.
In one sense it paid off; we had five hours of well-written original music. However, we were at the onset of Disco, and we were able to work every club in the area ONCE. There weren't any real original venues locally like there had been in the sixties and slowly but surely the group disintegrated. The money ran out, then Clyde left disillusioned. I left, David Mohr left, and after a few personnel changes Ruby Wheeler was a night club act.
Following the Ruby Wheeler debacle, David Mohr and I decided to become a duo/song writing team - William David. Oddly enough, both of our first and middle names were William David, hence the name of the duo. I was playing in a nightclub act with Bob and Buddy, (but at the same time) rehearsing William David with a backup band that included Harry Brender a' Brendis from Dutch group Marmalade on guitar, Rick Elliott from the Walter Trout Band on drums, and a Bass player named Charlie (?). We played an industry showcase at the Sunset Hyatt and drew a little attention but not enough to keep the motor running. David Mohr has since passed on. I miss him. He was my friend. His son Josh today is one of the world's top ranked longboard surfers.
In about 1975, I was approached by another producer, Michael Stagg, and offered a song writing/recording deal. I was to receive $300.00 per week plus have all of my expenses (paid), to do nothing more than write and record. He'd pay for the recording too!! This was a great offer and I did not turn it down. We spent months selecting product from my new writings and finally ended up in DDD Studios in Buena Park. The line up included Rick Gould on guitar, Rick Elliott on drums, Alan Christopherson on bass (Alan was a refugee from another club act I worked in briefly) and Albert Schildeknecht on keys. Gary Dalton and Kent Dubarry co-produced with Michael Stagg. The tunes were mine, all mine!! We finished a five song demo, and started around town shopping for a deal. I found out quickly what Michael's forte was not. In a record executive's office while the songs were being listened to, he would pace and fidget and freak; he was not a card player at all. With the help of one of our friends, Charlie Lico, we got an appointment with Larry Carlton up at Studio 335. I can't remember exactly how everything came down, but it ended up that Michael was going to be silently involved, and we were going to shop me through Larry's production company. A few weeks into our producer/artist relationship, Larry informed me that Warner Bros. was interested in picking up the project, and front money was going to be in the neighborhood of $150,000.00. I was elated.
Finally all this hard work was going to pay off. Well, about a week before contracts were due to be signed, Warner Bros. fired whomever had been interested in me and Gap Mangione (Chuck's brother), and we were dropped off the priority list. Larry called us upstairs to the kitchen above the studio and gave us the good news. That was it!!! I was done with the stupid friggin' music business.
For the next five to six years, I played half-heartedly in night clubs with no desire to write, record, or remember what I'd gone through. Then I quit playing altogether. . . . In the beginning of 1992, I got the itch to do something musical again. The painful memories weren't so vivid, and I decided to give it a shot one more time. I formed a partnership with a guitarist/songwriter, Rob "Ogden" Mudd, and began to collaborate with another artist, Keith Adey. That group we called SAM (Sheppard, Adey, and Mudd) and cut eight tunes in the studio, along with a theme song for a movie, "Girls of The Emerald Coast."
After a few live performances, Mr. Adey faded away and Oggie and I began working in a private producer's studio in Temecula with producer Gary Dalton. As the product formed and shifted it's way into existence, a style was being created, and one night at about 3:00 AM, as we had just finished putting some mariachi type backing vocals on a calypso style tune of mine entitled "Big Mouth Woman," Gary yelled out "that's Gringo to the max, man!" Oggie and I looked at each other and said "Max Gringo??", and the name and concept were born. Elliott Lott, Beach Boys manager, told us "this is one of the greatest ideas that I've seen anyone come up with. You may never make any money off of it, but it's a great idea."
And for six-and-a-half years we proved Elliott correct. Two CD's and lots of gigs under our belt, but neither the following nor the recognition that I always strive for. And that brings us up to now.
[Lance Monthly] And what are your present musical activities?
[Bill Sheppard] I'm currently building a studio at my home. I've been writing in a more reflective vein for a while now, and am very pleased with both the tunes, and the message that is coming forth from my experiences. I plan to release a solo project within the next year of the new material and some older stuff that was never recorded and I believe warrants some attention from me. There is also a project in the works by a script writer who's had good success with HBO and Showtime--who became familiar with me by attending some speaking engagements at which I was asked to share--and it appears in the near future my story will be at least a script, and at best a movie, set for theatrical release. But, just to have someone consider my experiences as worthy of that much attention, is humbling.