An Interview with Jim Bugnel and Jerry Plunk of The Flaming Ember
Major Players during the ‘60s in Detroit
With two relatively huge hits to their credit, The Flaming Ember from Detroit was a white band that was often times mistaken for a black group due to their heavy duty soul sound. And, after one listen to "Mind Body and Soul" or "Westbound No. 9," it's easy to see why. Having recently reunited, the group is currently updating a previously unreleased album with new songs, and hope to reissue CDs of both old and new music via their website, www.flamingembers.com
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
Jim Bugnel I had two older sisters that constantly played and danced to their records at home. But, what really got me interested was when I went to a dance at the Riverside Roller Arena in Livonia Michigan and saw Ann Margaret, The Royaltones, The Thundertones and a number of other groups play live. I was in the seventh grade and that made a big impression on me. I wanted to be like them so I started practicing my guitar.
Jerry Plunk I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, home of Carl Perkins and rockabilly music. I don't ever remember a time in my life when I didn't love music. My dad use to play guitar and sing on radio. Jackson, Tennessee was also a rhythm and blues hub. Sonny Boy Williamson is also from Jackson. He was one of the greatest blues singers/harmonica players that ever lived. Blues, rockabilly and rock and roll were born in West Tennessee, so I couldn't help but be influenced by all of it. My first band was The Spy-dells, formed in 1960 in Detroit.
[Lance Monthly] What was your first band, Jim?
Jim Bugnel In the ninth grade, I met a few kids in my class that had guitars and one had drums. We got together in one of our basements and tried to learn a song. We had three guitars and a drum, and we decided that, since I knew about five chords and the others knew three, I was the lead guitarist.
There was a talent contest coming up at school and we wanted to be in it so we learned two songs after much practice. We played "Honky Tonk" by Bill Doggett and I can't remember the other song. We wore black ban-lon shirts and black pants and shades; we were cool. Anyway, we won the contest and kept practicing.
Then one of the guitarist dropped out and took his guitar with him, so I had to go out and buy an electric guitar since mine was acoustical. I got a white Gibson SG, which was technically the first of the Les Paul line. We called ourselves The Electratones and we learned "Johnny B. Goode," "Wipe Out" and others. We played for local disc jockeys on weekends at dances for free. The two big jocks in Detroit at that time were Don Z and Lee Allen.
When we hit the tenth grade, we met a guitar player from another band from our school and we talked him into joining us. That's when I went out and bought a Fender Jazz bass and started playing bass. We called the band The Landeers and we started playing all over the place--including clubs. We did some recording at United Sound in Detroit and we met Del Shannon there finishing up a session. How cool was that meeting Mr. Runaway?
We got a gig at a bowling alley/lounge called Norwest Lanes and Lounge outside Detroit. We played five nights a week all through high school. Bob Seger was playing at another bowling alley up the road with a band called Doug Brown and The Omens. Oh . . . we also won a Battle of the Bands contest and we beat out Billy Lee and The Rivieras, who [later] became Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. Anyway, at the club we were playing, they used to have jam sessions on Sunday afternoons. We used to get about 500 to 600 people in this club. The Flaming Embers played at one of the jam sessions and that's how I met them. Both bands became very good friends and we used to go where they were playing and sit in with them.
[Lance Monthly] What year was The Landeers formed?
Jim Bugnel The Landeers was formed in the tenth grade in 1963 in Livonia. The band members were Jim Bugnel on bass, Dick Hodge on lead guitar, Wink Higgins on rhythm guitar, and Larry Greg on drums. We were together for three years, and during that time we got a manager named Jim Hoak. He was an advertising executive and a regular at Norwest Lanes and Lounge where we were appearing. He changed our name to The King's Pirates for a short time and dressed us up like pirates. Well that didn't last for long and we went back to The Landeers. Incidentally, Jim Hoak went on to become a famous hypnotherapist and was on all the big talk shows. He helped people lose weight and quit smoking.
We went in to the studio at United Sound in Detroit with a singer named Ronnie Paturka to record some songs. We all had a hand in writing them. This was in 1964 and we had Popcorn Wylie play piano on the songs. We recorded six songs and I remember I played lead guitar on two of them. The titles were: "Don't Try And Shake Me Down," "Hey Yeah," "Jungle Bird," "Long Distance," "My Girl, My Girl," and "So Wrong." Patlow Productions had the records pressed and he got some local play on a few but nothing significant. We were excited though. That was the session [where] we met Del Shannon, and he was a superstar at that time. I asked him if he would call my girlfriend and say hello and he was happy to do it, but when he called she wasn't home. What a bummer.
I met my girlfriend in the tenth grade and we were married after graduation in 1966 and are still married. Her name was Linda Mathews.
[Lance Monthly] Where was The Flaming Embers formed?
Jerry Plunk The Flaming Embers formed in Detroit in 1964.
Jim Bugnel Jerry and Joe were playing together in a band called The Mysterions and in 1964 they formed a new group. Joe brought in Mike Jackson and Jerry knew Bill Ellis from a previous band and they formed The Flaming Embers. They got the name from a Detroit restaurant. I met them in 1965 at a jam session at the club I was playing at and we became friends. I couldn't believe what great musicians they were and as a matter of fact I patterned my bass playing after Mike Jackson.
Then in 1966 I got a call from Mike saying that he had an opportunity to get a job at United Airlines and was going to take it. He asked me if I would join the group and take his place. I was shocked and excited at the same time and said yes. He had asked me before he told the group that he was leaving, so I told him he'd better ask them first if they wanted me to join them. They said I would fit in with them perfectly and then Jerry called me and welcomed me to the group. I was ecstatic. At first it was kind of awkward but after a couple of weeks we started to gel.
[Lance Monthly] What did you think of the band before you joined them?
Jim Bugnel As I said we'd been friends for a couple of years and I was always very impressed with them. They made me feel very welcome.
[Lance Monthly] Whom did the band entail at that time?
Jim Bugnel Jerry Plunk, lead vocals and drums; Joe Sladich, vocals and lead guitar; Bill Ellis, vocals, piano, organ, guitar, harmonica, sax, trumpet, flute (and he also owned that instrument that was used in "Runaway" by Del Shannon); and, of course, Jim Bugnel, vocals, and bass. This is one of the misconceptions that I keep reading about, that Mike Jackson replaced me in the group, but it's the other way around.
Jerry Plunk Joe Sladich (guitar) and Mike Jackson (bass) called me to join them. I brought Bill Ellis (organ, piano, guitar, sax, and harmonica) with me. I'm the drummer. We all sang but I am the lead singer.
[Lance Monthly] Where did the band typically play at first?
Jim Bugnel We played mostly clubs around Detroit.
Jerry Plunk The Flaming Ember first played at nightclubs.
[Lance Monthly] How would you initially describe the band's sound? Was the British Invasion an influence at all?
Jim Bugnel We had a hard driving sound to our music, whether playing hard rock, R&B, soul, funk and even some show tunes. But our roots were in blues and soul. We liked Albert King, Albert Collins, James Brown, Paul Butterfield, Johnny Winter, Bobby Blue Bland, etc. We really didn't sound like any other band because the musicianship was such that we could play any kind of music we chose, and did.
If we heard something we liked, we played it. It didn't matter what genre it was. We took great pride in that. We liked a lot of different bands and music. We had great four-part harmonies and sounded as black as any black group. We really loved soul music but we also played Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Cream, Three Dog Night . . . you name it. We played Beatles and Rolling Stones stuff, but the British Invasion didn't have much influence on us, although we did like Tom Jones a great deal.
We loved Elvis. He truly was The King. He changed with the times and always seemed in style. Because Jerry and Bill were from the south, we did a number of country tunes, too. We could get rotgut funky, too. James Brown flew us in to Cincinnati to back him up on a show because his band couldn't play for some reason. He had heard us at The 20 Grand in Detroit and was impressed with our funky sound, and the fact that Bill Ellis played the horn and organ at the same time, which made us sound like we had a horn section.
Our guitar player, Joe Sladich, was a great blues player and could play some of the best soul rhythms I ever heard. Jerry has such a unique voice and our harmonies make everyone think we are a black group.
Jerry Plunk The Flaming Ember's sound . . . we were probably the most versatile band in the business. We loved and performed every type of music. But playing in night clubs you had to do Top-40, so we chose what we liked best out of the Top-40: Mostly soul and R&B. The British Invasion had very little influence on us. It was England selling us what we sent them ten years earlier ... just a weaker version.
[Lance Monthly] The Flaming Embers released a single on Fortune Records: "Gone Gone Gone" and "You Can Count On Me" in, I believe, 1965. Where was the single recorded?
Jim Bugnel These were recorded before I joined the group, so I can't tell you about the actual session. However, we did another session there recording the soundtrack that was used in a beach party movie, the name of which I can't remember. Jack and Devora Brown owned the studio and, as I recall, it was in the back room of a store. It had a dirt floor and all kinds of boxes around. It wasn't like any studio you would imagine and I'm amazed at some of the stuff that was recorded there.
Remember "Village Of Love" by Nathaniel Mayer? It was recorded there. I remember others recorded there before they went over to Motown and other labels. Some big hits came out of that back room. There was just a tape recorder, some play back speakers, a small control booth area, and some microphones. It was very primitive. I believe Jerry and maybe Joe wrote the two songs, but the group also recorded about seven more tunes there at that time. [Interviewer's Note: According to the list below, there were in actuality three more songs recorded.] John Lee Hooker came in once when the band was recording and showed Bill a trick to make his harmonica play more bluesy.
Jerry Plunk "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "You Can Count on Me" were released in 1964. I wrote both sides, [and they were] recorded at Specialty Recordings. I remember we took off about a week from the club just to record records. That was two of the sides we recorded. I remember Danny Dallas was the engineer who later on owned his own recording company.
[Lance Monthly] Do you have any information on the other songs recorded there?
Jim Bugnel The songs recorded at Fortune Records by The Flaming Embers before I joined were: "Gone Gone Gone," "You Can Count On Me," "Rain Go Away," "Woe Is Me," and "Music Music Music." We still have some tapes of the songs, but they are not very good quality. I also have tapes of The Landeers songs too, but again not real good quality.
[Lance Monthly] Why did the band change its name to The Flaming Ember?
Jim Bugnel When we signed with Holland-Dozier-Holland, Eddie Holland wanted it to sound like a single entity.
Jerry Plunk We changed our name to The Flaming Ember because our manager, Eddie Holland, of the historic writing group Holland, Dozier and Holland, wanted to make the statement that we were one (Ember) as opposed to many (Embers).
[Lance Monthly] How many singles did the Flaming Ember(s) release in total? What are your favorites?
Jim Bugnel I believe we recorded about four or five singles including the stuff with Ric Tic Records: "Hey Mama Whatcha Got Good For Daddy," "Bless You My Love," and a real favorite was our version of "Tell It Like It Is." That takes care of my favorite Ric Tic recordings. Now with Hot Wax I liked a number of them, but if I had to pick a few I'd have to say "Mind Body & Soul," "Shades Of Green," "Westbound No. 9.," "I'm Not My Brother's Keeper," "Sunshine," "Heart on Loving You," and "One Step Beyond."
Jerry Plunk The Flaming Ember(s) released two singles with Fortune and six singles with Ric Tic. We released eight singles with Holland, Dozier, [and] Holland. My favorite was one on the Sunshine album called "One Step Beyond." As far as the singles . . . I loved them all.
[Lance Monthly] What do you think today when listening to the band's two albums: Westbound No. 9 and Sunshine? Do you have any recollections about the recording?
Jim Bugnel I always remember the first time we met Lamont Dozier at his house in Huntington Woods in Detroit. He had a big white Grand Piano in his living room and he played "Mind Body & Soul" for us, and the song knocked us out. We spent the whole day rehearsing the song and getting the harmonies down, and shortly after that, we went into the studio and recorded it.
We were very excited when it was released, and we were doing interviews all over the place. I forgot to mention that all through our recording career our background girl singers were Telma Hopkins and Joyce Wilson who later became Dawn with Tony Orlando. They were only about 17 or 18 when we met them at Ed Wingate's house while we were with Ric Tic Records. We have remained friends ever since and I run in to Telma once in a while out here in Los Angeles. We remember the good times we had when recording the records.
Jerry Plunk The thrill of recording, layering on, [and] watching it grow into a big-time product. The harmonies (Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, who later went on to become part of Tony Orlando and Dawn) and the thrill of recording with the biggest songwriters in history: Holland Dozier and Holland. And, of course, the thrill of creating music with my guys.
[Lance Monthly] The Flaming Ember was the first white act to perform at several previously black-only clubs. What was the crowd reaction typically like?
Jim Bugnel Well I'll tell you, when we were with Ric Tic Records, we got a lot of recognition from the black recording industry. George Clinton was a friend of ours and he wrote "Hey Mama Whatcha Got Good for Daddy." We were also doing the music tracks for other artists so we had a reputation for being a funky group. The black people were well aware of us, so when we played the 20 Grand for the first time, the place was packed with superstar artists and record people. We were well received and got a standing ovation. We met Joe Louis who came with Wilson of Wilson sports equipment, and a few of The Temptations were there, along with other Motown and Ric Tic artists. I remember, after doing our show, I was walking down the center isle and a lady sitting at the bar stopped me and said that we were really great and I said, "Thank you very much." Then when I got to the end of the bar, the owner asked if I knew who that was that stopped me and I said no. He said that it was Dionne Warwick. What a compliment.
I remember Mr. Wingate was so proud of his white boys playing soul music. We were at his house rehearsing and he came in and showed us an invitation for us to play at the Apollo Theater on Thanksgiving night. He said that we were the first white group ever to be asked to play the Apollo, but he wouldn't let us go because we had other commitments at that time. Mr. Wingate called me one morning at 6:00 a.m. and said, "Get the boys together. You're going to Las Vegas to appear with Soloman Burke, Tomico Jones and Mr. Vegas, Louie Prima, at the Sands Hotel." How's that for a wake up call?! When we were with Hot Wax Records, Eddie Holland said we were invited to play at the Watts Festival in L.A. but since the riots just ended he thought we might have some trouble so we didn't go.
We appeared with all the major acts in the industry and the stories about the road I guess will have to wait, but I do want to tell you that in 1971 we received a Christmas Card from The King, Elvis Presley. We never met him but he liked our records. We heard from a record promoter that he was at a party in Los Angeles and Elvis was there and he mentioned us to him and Elvis said he had thought of doing Mind Body & Soul at some time. We'll never know if he was thinking about it but the thought is exciting.
Jerry Plunk Initially the reaction at black clubs was shock and "what are these white guys doing here?" Immediately, when we started playing, they were amazed that these white guys were as good as anyone out there. They loved us even more since we were white and doing black music.
[Lance Monthly] The band appeared multiple times on UPBEAT, as well as on AMERICAN BANDSTAND. What do recall about these appearances?
Jim Bugnel One thing that always happened to us was when we would arrive to do a show they were always looking for a black group. They didn't believe it was us until we started the show. We did UPBEAT quite a few times because Buddah Records was our distributor and always put us on the show. We got a lot of exposure from that show. Dick Clark said the same thing when we arrived at his studio, he couldn't believe we were a white group. We also did the HY LYT show.
I'll tell you a story: Eddie Holland held off releasing our Westbound No. 9 Album in L.A. because there were two black stations in L.A. that would not play songs by white artists, so he waited until Westbound No. 9 hit No.1 on those stations and then he released the album in Los Angeles and booked us on BANDSTAND.
Dick Clark was such a nice person to us. He gave us a whole week in Los Angeles on him the first time we came. We appeared on so many shows I can't remember all the names. We did a show at NBC Rockefeller Center with Tiny Tim and Cheryl Tiegs. We were appearing in Rochester, New York that night and the taping of the show was running late and we had a flight to catch at Kennedy, so NBC had a helicopter fly us off the roof to Kennedy where they were holding the flight for us. Boy, did we feel like big stuff.
We also did a show in Chicago at the train yard. It took all day to tape "Westbound No. 9." It was like a video where we were playing while coming off the train. They had a train go by us and blow steam on us and that was hot, let me tell you. The police had the whole area roped off for us, and caterers brought a lunch for everyone. Man, it was a giant buffet right out on the tracks; a meal fit for a king.
Jerry Plunk AMERICAN BANDSTAND: I was thrilled and honored to finally play on the number one rock and roll show in the history of music. To appear with Dick Clark was great. He was humble, a professional. What you see is what you get. He is one of the nicest people I've met in my life.
UPBEAT: It was a thrill as well. It was one of the most popular shows on TV. It was in Cleveland, which was pretty close to Detroit.
Other shows we were on: BOSS CITY in Hollywood at Desilu studios; The HY-LIT show in Philadelphia (a couple of times); SCENE 70 in South Bend, Indiana; THEN AGAIN at Radio City Music Hall in New York; and SWINGIN' TIME in Canada (many times). We were in one movie called SOMETHING ELSE. We did the soundtrack to another move, A HUNDRED AND ONE ACTS OF LOVE. We did concerts with just about every major act in Black music and multitudes of concerts with White acts as well.
[Lance Monthly] Why did the band break up in the '70s?
Jerry Plunk The band didn't really break up. We just went in different directions to get together years later.
Jim Bugnel I'm sure you have heard this story before. We were real disillusioned because we hadn't received any royalties from Holland-Dozier-Holland; they wouldn't sign us with a major agency like William Morris. They wanted complete control over everything. We were told by other record people that William Morris Agency wanted to sign us and so did some other major agencies. We never got the exposure we could have had with a major agency; otherwise, we would have been a Super Group. Imagine having four Gold Records and still not being set for life.
Joe also had some personal issues that were interfering with his playing and it all came to a head. Joe left the band and we replaced him with Mark McCoy. We had just finished the Sunshine album and we were depleted and fed up. We went our separate ways and they released the "Sunshine" single and album. Jerry and Bill stayed together and formed another group for a while and so, when they took the pictures for the album; they used two other guys in place of Joe and me. That's why you don't see our picture on the album, but our names are on it.
Jerry and Bill finally got fed up with Holland-Dozier-Holland and we got back together and went after our royalties, but to no avail. We got released from our contract with Holland-Dozier-Holland and we wrote and recorded a new album with Mark McCoy on guitar. By now we didn't trust record companies much so when we went to New York with the new album, it was always the same story: You need an agent; we don't talk to groups etc., so we sat on the album. We had great material on that album and it was different from our other material so we were excited. We now are going to update the material on that album and hopefully release it soon.
[Lance Monthly] The Flaming Ember was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1999. Why rockabilly?
Jim Bugnel I think mostly because Jerry and Bill were from Tennessee and Jerry is from Jackson, Tennessee where the Hall is located, so it's kind of a "favorite son" sorta thing. They have a whole wall of pictures and records of us, and Jerry donated one of his favorite outfits to the Hall. But I do have to say that The Flaming Ember were very popular in the south. We sold out everywhere [when] we went down South and that might be part of why we were inducted. I'm just flattered that so many people remember us.
Jerry Plunk We were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame . . . rockabilly and rock and roll were born in Jackson and Memphis, Tennesee, as I said earlier. Henry Harrison, owner of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, recognizes not only rockabilly but also rock and roll artists such as Bill Haley and The Comets, Elvis, and Roy Orbison. Although we're probably the only soul/R&B artists in the Hall, it's because I am a part of Jackson/West Tennessee. Wink Martindale is also inducted; he's from Jackson, too.
[Lance Monthly] The Flaming Ember has reunited. What was the impetus for the reunion?
Jim Bugnel I hadn't spoken to anyone in the band for many years and one day I located Jerry's number and called him. We talked for several hours remembering old times and both felt that The Flaming Ember story was unfinished. We decided to try to locate Bill and Mark and see if they were interested. They were very excited and we decided to meet at Jerry's cottage on the Tennessee River to practice.
On the way there, I missed my connecting flight in St. Louis and had to drive to Jackson with two gentlemen that I met on the flight from California. Then Mark was driving in from Detroit and got lost in a storm and drove his car into the Tennessee River. The car went in up to the back seat and Mark had to climb out the window to safety. His cell phone went into the water so he couldn't call anyone and he sat out in the rain the whole night.
We were panicked because we hadn't heard from him for almost 24 hours. We finally got a call from his sister in Detroit and she told us what happened and where he was. It turns out he was about two miles from the cottage at a car dealership in Shilo buying a new car. Bill and Jerry went over and picked him up. He was really shook up, tired, and waterlogged, so we fed him and put him to bed. I'll remember that week as one of the best times of my life. We enjoyed seeing each other so much we just had a great time.
Jerry Plunk The Flaming Ember reunited because of the rockabilly Hall of Fame [as] we were invited to perform, so we put the group back together. We practiced at my home on the Tennessee River. That gave us the bug to play. Many people have asked us to get back together. We have CDs in America and other countries coming out periodically, so we know people are interested. There's a lot of money to be made out there. We figured now we can do it and enjoy it. If we don't enjoy it . . . well, we can always walk away since our livelihood doesn't depend on it.
[Lance Monthly] How often do you plan to perform?
Jim Bugnel We hope to perform at least four times a month, it depends on how the bookings go. We do plan to record some new material and update the material on the album we recorded with Mark after Joe left the group. Then we'll see if there is record company that would be interested in The Flaming Ember. We'll see what happens. We are available to talk to any record companies and agents/promoters that are interested.
Jerry Plunk We have definite plans on recording again. We will tour as the opportunities present themselves. There are several things being lined up as we speak.
[Lance Monthly] Is there any chance a U.S. reissue of the band's '60s and '70s recordings will become available any time soon?
Jim Bugnel I have seen a number of sites on the Internet that have a variety of our recordings from Ric Tic and Hot Wax. Westbound No. 9 (The Hot Wax Sessions) double album is available now on Holland-Dozier-Holland Gold Series on Sequel/Castle Records. We are thinking about putting together a Flaming Ember(s) compilation on several CDs and offer them on our website, www.flamingembers.com - Check it out.
Jerry Plunk CDs have been reissued several times . . . one of the newest CDs is Back to Back with us and Glass House. Things are still being reissued all over the world.