Interview With The Tropics
Florida’s Number One '60s Show Band
Interviewer’s note: Though described as "Florida's number one show band," the Tropics are currently revered as being one of the finest bands period to hail from the Sunshine State. From the punk-laced "As Times Gone," to the folk-rock of "For A Long Time," to the outright garage appeal of "I Want More," the band proved beyond a doubt that they were much more than your average '60s show band. Bassist Charlie Souza is still very active on the Florida music scene and, besides recording new CDs and touring Europe, he also has plans to reunite the band sometime in 2002. Here is the story of the Tropics as remembered by the group's reigning artist, musician, songwriter, and vocalist, Charlie Souza.
[Lance Monthly] First things first . . . The FUZZ ACID & FLOWERS web site states that the Tropics were "also known as Chipper." Could you clarify this, please?
Charlie Souza Chipper is my son's name. I recorded a Christmas song entitled "Groovy Christmas" the year he was born (1967), and since it was more like a children's song. I used Chipper as the artist's name.
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
Charlie Souza My mother played piano. From the time I was able to walk, I was singing along at age five. My teenage sister brought home Elvis records in the '50s, so I eventually learned piano, clarinet, & guitar in my early teens. Bass guitar came when the Tropics needed a bass player in 1964!
[Lance Monthly] So the Tropics was your first band?
Charlie Souza I played folk music with a high school buddy . . . then the Beatles happened, and nothing's been the same since! Yes, the Tropics was my first experience playing in a rock & roll band! I was 16 when I joined them.
[Lance Monthly] Were the Tropics an existing band when you joined, or did you replace somebody?
Charlie Souza David Burke was the original bass player in '64.
[Lance Monthly] That's right. He left to join the Standells right?
Charlie Souza I never knew of the Standells.
[Lance Monthly] Where and when were the Tropics formed?
Charlie Souza Buddy Pendergrass played at a family party with his friend on clarinet in 1963. That was the beginning. Then my high school best friend, Mel Dryer, introduced me to Buddy the following year when we started practicing to play the local teen dance hall in Tampa.
[Lance Monthly] What was the complete Tropics lineup at this time?
Charlie Souza Mel Dryer - lead singer & toys; Buddy Pendergrass - guitar & keyboards; Eric Turner - lead guitar & vocals; Bobby Shea - drums & vocals; and Charlie Souza - bass guitar & vocals.
[Lance Monthly] Where did the band typically play when first starting out?
Charlie Souza We played our own high school proms & and teen halls at first, then things picked up in late '64 and '65. We started opening for acts like the Rascals, Vanilla Fudge, Herman Hermits, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Dave Clark Five, and many more at the bigger venues in Florida and the Southeast - in cities such as New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi, and Jeckyl Island, Georgia.
[Lance Monthly] Did the Tropics become immediately popular?
Charlie Souza Ah yes - the Fabulous Tropics, Florida's number one show band. After we won the International Battle of the Bands in Chicago in '66, and were playing 300 gigs a year, nobody could touch us!
[Lance Monthly] How did the Tropics qualify for that '66 Battle?
Charlie Souza Our manager saw it listed in BILLBOARD and signed us up. There were several bands that weren't well known yet that we competed against, like Tommy James & the Shondells, and a horn band later known as Chicago (AUTHOR'S GUESS: THE BIG THING) - but we came out on top!
[Lance Monthly] Your group released "I Want More" b/w "Bye My Love" on the Knight label as your first single. Where was the 45 recorded?
Charlie Souza Our Producer at the time, Phil Gernhardt, who also produced the (Royal Guardsmen's) "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron" record, co-wrote with us on the session. I'm sure it was done in a local studio in St. Petersburg, Florida.
[Lance Monthly] I know that the Canadian Rogues were offered "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron" before the Royal Guardsmen recorded it. Considering your association with Phil Gernhardt, was it ever offered to the Tropics?
Charlie Souza I do believe that Phil offered it to the Tropics at one time, but we thought it was too bubblegum for us!
[Lance Monthly] What do you remember about Gernhardt?
Charlie Souza Phil Gernhardt was a very talented producer. He eventually produced the song "Abraham, Martin, and John" by Dion.
[Lance Monthly] Jeff Lemlich, author of SAVAGE LOST, has reported that, prior to the first single, the Tropics recorded some demos, including a cover of Solomon Burke's "Stupidity." Do you remember anything about these early recordings?
Charlie Souza I'm sure Buddy Pendergrass has copies some of our early demos. I don't recall that song, but we did end up recording "Tired Of Waiting," which is available on the Tropics Anthology CD on my website.
[Lance Monthly] After a few more singles, the Tropics were signed to Columbia. How did that come about?
Charlie Souza In '66, after winning the International Battle of the Bands in Chicago, one of the prizes was a recording contract with Columbia Records. After that, we promptly flew to New York and recorded the record "Time," or "Take The Time," which was later played by Dick Clark on American Bandstand. It got a 92!
[Lance Monthly] Did the Tropics compete in any Battle of the Bands besides the International one?
Charlie Souza Only in Chicago, in '66, and we won!
[Lance Monthly] How would you describe the band's sound? What band's influenced you?
Charlie Souza We stated out with R&B roots. James Brown was a big influence, but the Beatles, I have to say, were our biggest influence, along with the Byrds.
[Lance Monthly] Florida was home to many great garage bands in the '60s. Which ones do you particularly remember?
Charlie Souza The Outsiders come to mind . . . also The Romans, but there were many bands that tried to copy us at the time, so it's hard to remember names. Another was the Tempests, also known as The Little Tropics!
[Lance Monthly] Did they actually bill themselves as the Little Tropics, or was it simply a local nickname?
Charlie Souza It was a nickname placed on them by the venues and booking agents in Florida. We are still friends via e-mail.
[Lance Monthly] Did the Tropics make any local TV appearances?
Charlie Souza Yes. We performed at a very early stage on HIGH TIME, a local TV show in the '60s. In 1999, we were on the morning show on the local Fox channel in Tampa.
[Lance Monthly] Do any (other) '60's Tropics recordings exist? What about any live recordings, or unreleased songs.
Charlie Souza In May of 1999, we did a 30-year Reunion Concert at the Coliseum in St Petersburg, and a documentary video, which you can view on my website. We also re-recorded some of the old stuff along with some new songs and it's available on the CD "Still Get A Chill" at www.charliesouza.com.
[Lance Monthly] What was the catalyst for the '99 reunion?
Charlie Souza Me! It was I who financed it and pushed for it until it happened. After having heard from Buddy, Bobby & Mel about another local Band - the Rockers - doing their 30-year reunion, I figured it would be a thrill! And it was! You can watch the Tropics Reunion documentary video on my web site.
[Lance Monthly] Why did the band break up in the '60's?
Charlie Souza After a long run in the '60s, and after Jimi Hendrix entered the music scene, a couple of us--Eric & myself--went "metal" and decided to do a three piece progressive rock band, Bacchus. We played on some concerts and opened for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, then did mainly club work. The other three Tropics continued on for a while until Buddy formed White Witch.
[Lance Monthly] What about after Bacchus?
Charlie Souza I was pursued by Greg Allman while clubbing with Bacchus, and went to New York with him when the "Laid Back" album was being recorded. At that time, I was also called by a buddy of mine, Bobby Caldwell of Captain Beyond fame, to come over to Long Island, New York, where I joined the group Cactus (formerly Vanilla Fudge). Shortly after that, I did return to Tampa and then to Miami to reunite with Buddy Pendergrass and record the second White Witch Album, "A Spiritual Greeting." It's available at www.amazon.com on Capricorn Records.
[Lance Monthly] What about your career today? How often, and where, do you perform?
Charlie Souza I have recently recorded two solo CDs: "Live Your Dream" and "9 Ball In The Corner Pocket," which also are available www.charliesouza.tv www.charliesouza.tv- I am currently working on my Unplugged album, entitled "The Rose." The release date is January 24th.
[Lance Monthly] What are your current music plans?
Charlie Souza To write new songs, to pray for peace, and to be happy - no matter what I am doing. Also, I have a European release that's out now. It's entitled "Lightnin' Bolt". For more information, visit www.bikercd.de. I intend to follow up with a European tour with my own seven-piece group in 2002 - starting in Hamburg, Germany as The Charlie Souza Band.
For more historical information on the Tropics, be sure to watch the informative seven minute band documentary on Charlie's website at www.charliesouza.tv