Up Close with Dennis Blair
From Christian ‘60s Rock to Touring with George Carlin
[Interviewer's note: Having both their albums recently released on CD, the Holy Ghost Receptive Committee #9 has had a recent resurgence in popularity . . . at least to '60s music collectors. According to member Dennis Blair, "I find this recent interest in my old band amazing and hilarious," and his responses to our questions definitely bear this out. Currently a very successful stand-up comic, Blair provided The Lance Monthly with one of the most entertaining interviews we've ever had the pleasure of conducting.]
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
Dennis Blair When I was about ten years old, I decided I wanted to be transformed from the nerd I was to the cool rock and roll musician I fantasized about being, and asked my mom to get me saxophone lessons. So naturally, she found a school that specialized in the accordion. How incredibly cool was that? I wound up playing accordion for two years, until the Beatles came along and changed my life forever. I self-taught myself the guitar and never looked back.
[Lance Monthly] Was the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 your first band?
Dennis Blair I joined my first band in eighth grade. We had no name, [it] only lasted for a few months, [we] played at an assembly or two, and promptly broke up. But I was bitten by the band bug and formed several after that.
[Lance Monthly] Where was the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 formed, what year, and by whom?
Dennis Blair HGRC#9, as I call it, was actually the brainchild of a very progressive, very left-leaning Jesuit at Regis High School named Anthony Myers. "Mel" Myers (I never figured out how he got that nickname, and was always afraid to ask) taught an energetic, entertaining theology course at Regis. One of his projects was putting together musicians who could write songs to be used at Mass, that would appeal to teenagers who were bored by the typical hymns we were all used to singing. The project was so successful that Mel formed us into a recording band and got us a deal with Paulist Press to record an album. I think it was a student named Joe Piecora who came up with the name "Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9."
[Lance Monthly] What was the significance of the name?
Dennis Blair I don't really know the significance of the name. I happen to know we had no receptionist on staff, and we never welcomed anybody that I can remember, so you've got me over a barrel there.
[Lance Monthly] Who else comprised the band?
Dennis Blair The group was Mark Puleo on guitar, Rich Esposito on guitar, Bob Kearney on guitar, Larry Johnson on bass, and me on guitar. My only regret is we didn't have enough guitarists.
[Lance Monthly] Since you were primarily Christian influenced, did you face any resistance from anybody in putting together a rock band?
Dennis Blair I never encountered any resistance. The band was just a recording band and we never toured, so we never had the opportunity to confront angry, protesting Buddhists or Jehovah Witnesses at our concerts.
[Lance Monthly] How supportive was the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle for the group?
Dennis Blair I have no idea. I was just a hired hand and never got involved in anything other than the recording of the albums. We never had a representative of the Society of St. Paul at the sessions, as far as I know. Although, now that you mention it, I do remember a guy in a missionary robe hanging out in the control booth eating jellybeans from time to time.
[Lance Monthly] Where did the band typically practice?
Dennis Blair We would practice at band members' houses, or in the AV room at school.
[Lance Monthly] So you didn't play any live gigs at all?
Dennis Blair As I mentioned, we were just a recording band. Kind of like the Beatles after 1966, but with a smaller fan base.
[Lance Monthly] How would you describe the band's sound? What bands influenced you?
Dennis Blair I wish I could compare us to the Yardbirds or the Animals (which Mel Myers compared us to), but I honestly couldn't. The best I could say is we were definitely influenced by the music around at the time, for example: Jefferson Airplane, Cream, [and] the Byrds. Listening to the albums now, the songs had some very interesting melodies and chord progressions, and that was definitely influenced by the experimentation that was going on in those days.
[Lance Monthly] Did the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 ever have a manager?
Dennis Blair No.
[Lance Monthly] How popular locally did you become? Were you able to cross over into the non-religious sector?
Dennis Blair After the albums were recorded, we were over as a group. There were some very talented musicians in that band, and I think Bob Kearney went on to become a studio musician. Rich Esposito and I did some music producing in the early eighties. I sort of lost touch with the other guys. But as a band, we were basically a high school project that made something of a little mark for itself, but had no future as a touring entity after that.
[Lance Monthly] Do you recall other local groups of the era? Did you perform with any?
Dennis Blair I went on to be in a whole slew of local bands in and around Queens, New York, where I grew up. I can't speak for what the other guys did.
[Lance Monthly] Were there other Christian rock bands in New York (or elsewhere) during that era of which you're aware?
Dennis Blair None that I knew of.
[Lance Monthly] Where were your albums recorded? Do you recall anything in particular about the sessions?
Dennis Blair We recorded two albums altogether. For me, getting to record an actual album at the tender age of fifteen was a great thrill. To hear your own songs recorded by a band, and then to have those songs released on a record was a great feeling. I still love going into a recording studio to this day; it's one of my favorite things to do in the world. To get the sounds you hear in your head out on tape, and for it to come out well there's nothing better, except maybe a slice of pizza with black olives.
[Lance Monthly] Were any of the songs played on the radio?
Dennis Blair I don't recall any radio airplay of any of the songs anywhere. I don't even know to whom these albums were marketed. I can imagine nuns and priests getting their copies and boogying to the music 'til all hours, but airplay? No.
[Lance Monthly] From where did you get your material? Did Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 write any or all of your original songs?
Dennis Blair All the songs were either submitted by band members or Regis students.
[Lance Monthly] Do any (other) Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 recordings exist? Are there any vintage live recordings, or unreleased songs?
Dennis Blair Nope. I sincerely doubt you will ever hear about an album called Holy Ghost Reception Committee...The Lost Tapes!
[Lance Monthly] Battle of the Bands was big at the time the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 was playing. Did you participate in any?
Dennis Blair No Battle of the Bands for us. We were Christians, we didn't believe in that sort of thing. If a band challenged us, we just turned the other cheek.
[Lance Monthly] Being a Christian rock band . . . did it lead to any local TV appearances?
Dennis Blair No TV . . . just the photos from the album covers. Maybe we should have had a manager.
[Lance Monthly] [Interviewer's note: Dennis had already previously answered this question, but we got a good laugh out of it so we decided to leave it in the interview.] How far was the band's "touring" territory?
Dennis Blair The AV room at Regis and the recording studios in Manhattan.
[Lance Monthly] Why did the band break up in the '60s?
Dennis Blair Drugs, booze and women, plus the Lord told us to. He didn't like our sound anymore. Seriously though, after the second album, I guess demand for the Committee just dried up.
[Lance Monthly] You've alluded to the fact that you played in many bands after Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9. What were the names of some these?
Dennis Blair My real garage band career came after that period. HGRC really did help to ignite my interest in performing with bands and writing songs. I was in several bands throughout the '60s and '70s, including bands named Pegasus, Justice, and Cottonmouth. Cottonmouth was a great band. We did bluegrass music and originals, and one of our members was a guy named Larry Campbell who has now gone on to be one of Bob Dylan's lead guitarists in his current touring band.
[Lance Monthly] What can you tell me about your stand-up comedy career. How often, and where, do you perform?
Dennis Blair In the late Seventies, I started performing at coffeehouses, clubs, [and] wine and cheese places, etc. A lot of these places were, to put it kindly, dumps. I'd be singing my little heart out and no one would be listening, so I started making up song parodies to get their attention. I not only started getting attention, I was getting laughs. So I started doing more of that, and it developed into a comedy act. I auditioned at Dangerfield's in New York, hooked up with Rodney as his opening act, and began my comedy career, which is going on twenty-two years now. Besides doing clubs and gigs on my own, for the last fifteen years I've been on tour with George Carlin, doing theaters and casinos all across the U.S. and Canada. Our tour dates (and my CDs) are listed on my web site www.dennisblair.com .
[Lance Monthly] I understand that you perform some music during your routine. Do you ever have the urge to incorporate any Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9 songs into the act?
Dennis Blair No. Although if I ever perform for a group of priests and nuns, who knows?
[Lance Monthly] Looking back, how do you best summarize your experiences with the Holy Ghost Reception Committee #9?
Dennis Blair For a fifteen-year-old kid who aspired to be a singer-songwriter, it was a great thing to have happened. It was fun and exciting and all that, and it helped give me some of the confidence and desire to pursue a career in music.