An Interview with Chris Michie of The Grapes of Wrath
A Major Contributor to Wisconsin’s ‘60s Rock Movement
[Interviewer's note: Shadoks Music has recently released an LP reissue by a late '60's hard rocking band named Mendelbaum. Chris Michie, guitarist for Mendelbaum, was earlier in the Wisconsin garage band, The Grapes of Wrath. Though the Grapes never officially released a single, they recorded many songs that Shadocks Music is planning to unleash for the first time, hopefully in the not too distant future. Michie's career has included stints with Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs, and the Pointer Sisters, but it was his tenure with The Grapes of Wrath that we were primarily interested in when he graciously agreed to an interview.]
[LANCE MONTHLY] How did you first get interested in music?
Chris MICHIE I took piano lessons, and played a few band instruments in school like everyone else did, but I particularly loved the sound of the guitar, whether it was Duane Eddy's twangy guitar, the mysterious sound of Jorgen Ingeman's Apache, the finger-picked acoustic sound of Peter, Paul, and Mary, or the raunchy rock sound of Link Wray. I remember getting my first guitar from a catalog. I would sit in my room for hours playing it. Sometimes I would rest my left ear against the wood of the body as I played. I think that sound first attracted me to the idea of amplified guitar.
[LANCE MONTHLY] Was the Grapes of Wrath your first band?
CHRIS MICHIE The Grapes of Wrath was the first professional group I played in. We joined the Musicians' Union and filed contracts when we did gigs. Before that, though, I had a four-piece band with Tracy Wolters playing an Indian tom-tom drum that someone in his family had bought at some tourist attraction in Wisconsin. I think he also played a banjo body, shaped like a tambourine. We took off the strings and the neck, and he drummed on the skin of the body. The rest of us, Jon Standridge, Mark Loder, and I all played acoustic guitars. We rehearsed a lot, but I only remember doing one gig for five bucks. I think it was at a party for some girl with whom we all went to school. We were twelve years old, except Tracy, who was eleven. We didn't even have a name for the band. We did Ventures tunes, mostly. I think we also did "Runaway" by Del Shannon, but that may have been later.
[LANCE MONTHLY] So when did the Grapes of Wrath come about?
CHRIS MICHIE The Grapes of Wrath's first official gig was February 27, 1965 at The Center Loft, a Teen Club in Madison, Wisconsin. The band was formed by Chris Michie, Greg Loeb, Tracy Wolters, and Joe Wilson. In 1966, Joe quit the band to go to college on the West Coast, and we hired Will Collins on guitar and vocals.
[LANCE MONTHLY] Where did you typically practice?
CHRIS MICHIE We practiced in Tracy Wolters' parent's basement.
[LANCE MONTHLY] And what types of gigs were you landing at this time?
CHRIS MICHIE The Grapes of Wrath played teen clubs, schools, businessmen's association halls, VFW Halls, private parties, fraternity parties, proms, hotels, battle of the bands shows, bars, college parties, and every imaginable type of venue in the Midwest. We opened for The Beau Brummels once at the State Fair, and we were supposed to open for Moby Grape at another show. They never showed up, but it turns out it wasn't the real Moby Grape anyway, just one of several groups that had been put together to capitalize on the name.
[LANCE MONTHLY] Did the Grapes of Wrath have a manager?
CHRIS MICHIE Bassist Greg Loeb was our manager. We had a couple of booking agents, George Dufre and Tom Holter, who booked some of our gigs, but mostly it was Greg. He actually got pretty close to getting us a record deal with Mercury Records. It fell through at the last minute when Lou Reizner went to work in the London office.
[LANCE MONTHLY] How popular locally did the Grapes of Wrath become?
CHRIS MICHIE We were pretty popular, actually. We had a fan club with members writing fan letters to us and showing up at all our gigs. I think we were considered among the top groups in the area.
[LANCE MONTHLY] What other area groups do you recall?
CHRIS MICHIE I remember The Gentlemen, The Cannon, The Crucible, and The What Four.
[LANCE MONTHLY] I'm only aware of one Grapes of Wrath song. "Flower Lady" appeared on the BADGER A-GO-GO LP. What was the flip side?
CHRIS MICHIE We recorded a flip side called "Write Another Song," written by Will Collins and me. Phil Ochs wrote "Flower Lady." We won a battle of the bands competition and got to record two songs at Cuca Records. I don't remember much about the session, other than it went pretty quick, and it turned out pretty well. We lost the acetate, however, so we didn't even have a copy of it until it showed up on a Cuca compilation years later. Only "Flower Lady" was included. I don't know why we didn't print up a bunch of copies on our own. We weren't thinking that way, apparently. We were only nineteen at the time. Twelve years ago I called the owner of Cuca Records, and he said he'd send a copy of "Flower Lady" and "Write Another Song," but it never showed up.
[LANCE MONTHLY] I have a couple of fairly complete Wisconsin discographies from the '60s, yet cannot find any info on the Grapes of Wrath's single. How limited of a pressing was it?
CHRIS MICHIE It was never released. I'm not sure who dropped the ball on that one. Maybe it wasn't part of the deal in winning the battle of the bands.
[LANCE MONTHLY] Did the Grapes participate in many battles?
CHRIS MICHIE We played a couple of battle of the bands. I wrote a memoir a few years ago, and in the process of emailing old cohorts, I got an email from one of the guys in The White Trash Blues Band. He related an article that some guy had written about a particular Battle of the Bands that we had done together. In it was The Grapes of Wrath (we won second place), The White Trash, Private Property, The Affluents, The Marbles, The Chains, and The Checkmates. I think we probably played one or two originals, and then a couple of hits like "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," or "Bus Stop."
[LANCE MONTHLY] So, the Grapes of Wrath never released any singles?
CHRIS MICHIE We didn't have any releases back then. Again, I think it was a question of "Oh, was I supposed to take care of that? I thought you were suppose to take care of that." We were just kids, really. Shadoks Music is releasing a retrospective of Grapes' studio and live tracks recorded between 1965 and 1967. We had recorded about ten tunes at WHA Radio, Music Hall on the University of Wisconsin Campus. My father worked there, and he got us some session time with Bob Bodine as engineer. They were demos for Mercury Records. They kept saying, "We like it, but we want to hear more." We got kind of burned out and that's when Will and I wrote "Write Another Song," according to Greg Loeb. Shortly after that, Lou Reizner moved to London, and no one else at Mercury was interested in us, I guess. The live tracks on the Shadoks release are from our final show in May of 1968.
[LANCE MONTHLY] How would you describe the band's sound? What bands influenced you?
CHRIS MICHIE Our best asset was our three and four part vocal harmonies. We also put a lot of work into arrangements for the guitar parts. We liked what Buffalo Springfield, The Youngbloods, and Moby Grape were doing along those lines, so we emulated them. We were definitely a British Invasion copy band. Though we wrote several originals, they all were designed to pretty much sound like the stuff we were listening to on the radio. As American music began to adapt, so did we. We covered tunes by The Beatles, The Zombies, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Byrds, The Youngbloods, The Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, The Turtles, The Buffalo Springfield, and The Beau Brummels. Sometimes, we would stretch out and do some more R&B type material, like James Brown, The McCoys (not their hits, mostly B-Sides) and the occasional Blues. I had a fairly good soul sounding voice when I sang high. We had a high school buddy named Steve Kerst, who sat in on blues harp.
[LANCE MONTHLY] Did the band make any local TV appearances, or is there any surviving film footage of the band?
CHRIS MICHIE No, unfortunately there are no video records of The Grapes of Wrath.
[LANCE MONTHLY] How far was the band's "touring" territory?
CHRIS MICHIE I don't remember ever leaving Wisconsin, but we covered pretty much every square mile of it.
[LANCE MONTHLY] Why did the Grapes of Wrath break up?
CHRIS MICHIE Will Collins left the group to spend more time with his girlfriend. He also was getting tired of being persecuted for being a "long-hair." It just wasn't the same as when we started. The political climate had changed so much that we were frequently getting hassled by rednecks, and he was tired of it. We might have found a replacement for him if I hadn't gotten a gig as the lead guitarist for The Mendelbaum Blues Band literally the day after our last Grapes' gig. That pretty much cinched it. I was getting tired of the style of music The Grapes were doing, anyway. I really wanted to be playing a lot more loud lead stuff and Mendelbaum was the perfect vehicle for that.
[LANCE MONTHLY] What groups did you play with after Mendelbaum?
CHRIS MICHIE Lamb (San Francisco), Boz Scaggs, Pointer Sisters, Fat Max & the Casuals (San Francisco), Maria Muldaur, David Soul, Van Morrison, and currently The Chris Michie Band.
[LANCE MONTHLY] What can you tell me about the Chris Michie Band? How often, and where, do you primarily perform?
CHRIS MICHIE Fortunately, I made enough money over the years so that I don't have to take every gig that comes along. I play about twenty times a year as The Chris Michie Band, mostly at corporate parties, private parties, and festivals. I run a production company called Chris Michie Music & Sound that does music and sound design for media, like TV and radio commercials, film, CD-ROM, etc. If Van Morrison called tomorrow and said "Wanna do another album and go out on the road?" I'd probably do it, though.
[LANCE MONTHLY] Until that happens, what else will keep you busy?
CHRIS MICHIE I enjoy writing music and short stories. I'll attach my story about being an extra on a Michael Jackson Video. I record a CD every year or so, and I sell them along with my book, "Name Droppings," through my website. I'll continue doing that as long as I can. I'm very happy with the way things have worked out, so why not just sit back and enjoy it?
[LANCE MONTHLY] The upcoming Shadoks release sounds very cool . . .
CHRIS MICHIE They did such a good job on the Mendelbaum release, that I'm sure the Grapes release will be great, too. The Shadoks release should be out sometime late this fall. It includes a lot of the studio stuff we did and most of the final show. Greg Loeb tells me he has some tapes of us rehearsing and jamming, and maybe a live gig we did at The Blue Star Roller Rink. Maybe some of that stuff will end up on the Shadoks release. I'm still talking to the label about what to include. I just finished doing a Shadoks release for the group I joined the day after The Grapes' final gig, so it will take a while before we finalize the Grapes release.
To check out Chris' website, or to order his book and/or CDs, visit www.cmichie.com - For more information on the Shadoks Music release, visit www.psychedelic-music.com.