An Interview With Wild Bill Vaughn
Major Player During The ‘60s In Philadelphia And Michigan
Interviewer’s note: Wild Bill Vaughn has been entertaining audiences for more than forty years. Born in Grand Ledge, Michigan, Vaughn formed his first band with childhood friend Tom Kirby, drummer for Tonto & The Renegades. After moving to Philadelphia, Vaughn formed a few more bands of his own, and in 1968 recorded two excellent songs. He’s been in the music business ever since, and is still a popular local entertainer and performer. His inspiring story is one that perfectly summarizes the true meaning of rock and roll, and of music in general.
[ Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
Bill Vaughn I've been playing since the age of four! My father bought a new Gretch, back in 1954, and we kids were told, "Don't ever touch this guitar, unless you know how to play it.” Well, being a bit of an outlaw even then, my first thought was not about the admonishment and warning of possible punishment, but rather, "How am I going to know, (or learn) how to play it, if I can't touch it?" I did try to get my father's attention on this question, for several weeks. But back then I lived in a family where children were seen and not heard—or especially not heard from regarding questions or inquiries about issues.
So, after trying to do it the right way, I wound up taking matters into my own hands. I started sneaking around during the day, while Dad was at work, set on the couch (the guitar in corner beside it), and carefully dragged it up on my lap. My mother and grandmother, both preoccupied in the kitchen most of the day (and good little tike that I usually was for the most part), never checked on me. When I heard my mother start to clatter the dishes, while setting the table for dinner, I knew it was close to time for Dad to get home. So, I'd put the guitar back in its place, leaning in the corner, between the couch and the wall just a foot or so, just left of the couch. It stood in the corner without a case.
One day my dad, home early from work, came through the front door, which was directly into the living room, and the couch was only a few feet away. There I was, guitar in lap, and a killer growling face from my father. I thought I was dead at that point! But over those several weeks I had managed to learn a couple clear notes on the guitar to a song by Brenda Lee, called "Hot Diggity, Dog Diggity . . . Oooh What You Do To Me", which was popular back in the mid ‘50s. My father simply said, "You'd better know how to play that thing!" So, I very nervously started very cleanly picking out the few notes that I managed to learn, and sang only the chorus of the song over and over, for him, just waiting to be slapped into the next month.
I managed to impress him enough with that simple first step of learning to avoid a major beating. His face melted into a reasonable smirk. Then he commented, "Okay! Just make sure you are very careful with that guitar" and he then proceeded through the walk into the dining room. After almost passing out—not from fear, but relief—I was now allowed to legitimately handle Dad's guitar. My first full song, with three chords, was achieved by the age of five and a half or six. It was “Hound Dog” by Elvis.
My grandmother bought me a used 1949 Sears Silvertone 3/4 acoustic from a neighbor for four dollars, for my sixth birthday. It was smaller and more suited to my advancement in learning. By seven, I could fully perform several songs including an old Vaughn Monroe song called, "Ghost Riders in the Sky."
Unfortunately, my Dad never taught me anything—at least not intentionally! But I would pay attention to his playing, which he did only on occasion and strictly for his own pleasure, and picked up some things by just being observant. He was only a guitar thumper, as he put it, and couldn't play a clean chord. There was always a muted string no matter what he played. And he could only strum a rough rhythm, while he'd sing the words. Most of his material was old late ‘30s to late ‘40s songs. I think he only knew about nine to ten songs, as well. I guess I also did learn some things "not to do" by watching him, as well. And I surpassed his abilities by the (time I was) eight.
[ Lance Monthly] Your first public performance was with Tom Kirby, the drummer for Tonto & The Renegades, at a school function.
Bill Vaughn Yes and no! Well, . . . not exactly my first. My first was at age eight at my grade school (then in Philadelphia) at Kirk Bride Elementary for a class show-and-tell in 1958. Then, a month later [I played] at a school special assembly intentionally put together for me, as I had impressed the principle and several teachers. In some respects, my younger years’ story was a bit like Elvis’.
I played a regular jumbo Gibson guitar and performed “Hound Dog” as one of my songs. They all thought it was cute, as they thought I was emulating Elvis with the knees shaking. But in fact I wasn't! My knees shaking were from the weight of the full sized guitar, and its size compared to my little body frame at age eight. I did do several school events like this, and as a solo until the age of eleven.
The performance I did with Tom Kirby was in 1963. We were both in Jr. High at the time. I didn't know Tom at that time. I had just moved up back to Grand Ledge, Michigan, from South Philly, and lived with my aunt and uncle for a while. I was born in Grand Ledge in 1950.
It was a talent show at Grand Ledge High School. My Aunt Judy suggested I enter as a solo act as she liked my singing and playing. I was going to perform my now infamous "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and an original instrumental I had put together my first month up here, called “Spooky.” (This wasn’t the one that came out years later by The Classics IV!) Tom had entered the talent show to back another fellow for a different act.
The night of rehearsal for the show, Tom and I met back in the high school's choir and band room, where everyone was warming up and rehearsing their particular acts. I do not recall who it was, but someone had overheard me and my performance practice. They came over and said I should meet Tom, and proceeded to take me over and introduce me to him. Now thinking about it, I believe it was his older brother, Randy, who over heard me.
After hearing me play a little and Tom did a little drumming behind what I was playing, someone remarked that we should do the show as an act. His original partner agreed and actually decided to join Tom and me and include Tom's older Brother, Randy, as an additional singer. He could sing harmony to what I was singing. We all agreed to do this, so we informed the coordinator of the show of the change of plans and act. Randy suggested the name Grand Aires when asked what the act would be called. This stayed with us for several months. We then proceeded back to the band room and started trying to practice a couple songs for the show. We only had thirty minutes left to practice. I played a combo lead/rhythm guitar and sang, I believe, "The Twist" by Chubby Checker. Tom's original partner sang a Ray Charles tune and played rhythm behind me. Randy did vocal harmonies to us both and, of course, Tom played drums. We only practiced these songs once or twice that night.
On the night of the show, we went on fifth. I started first with “The Twist.” The crowd went nuts! Then Jim did the Ray Charles tune. I don't recall which one, but it was another up-tempo one. The act went flawlessly in spite of the limited practice / rehearsal. It was as though we had been playing together for years. We were totally stunned by the reaction of the audience! They responded as if we were already some big stars. And Tom, Randy, Jim, and I found ourselves being chased around the halls of the high school by a bunch of girls—from both Jr. and Sr. High-School—just after we got off stage.
Now remember, The Beatles hadn't come out yet. I also had long hair, like a Dutch boy! It was longer then the Beatles’ hair when they first appeared on the scene. But we experienced the same kind of response as they did, being chased by a bunch of groupie-eyed girls from about ages eleven to eighteen. We finally hid in the boy’s room, on the other side of the school for about thirty minutes or so when the coordinator came looking for us to do an encore. We were now very surprised—an encore at a talent show? As we made our way back to the stage area (and trying to avoid the gang of girls that had been after us earlier), we were brought back on stage after the last act was done. The crowd was actually chanting our name after the regular talent portion had ended.
We hadn't rehearsed anything for an encore, so amongst the screaming from the audience, I just started playing the original version of "Twist and Shout!" Tom picked up on the cue and jumped in; Jim knew most of the chords, and also kicked in . . . and as I started to sing, Randy started to sing harmony to my vocal. I guess I had picked the right song (out of thin air), as the rest of the band was familiar with the song, too. And it added to our instant and growing popularity . . . on the spot.
We didn't win the contest. Not because we weren't good, but rather because the crowd had asked for an encore. I recall them telling us we would now simply be considered an entertainment act, separate from the talent portion and not as contestants. Our performance was like professionals. And they felt it a bit unfair to the other acts, which were amateur compared to both our performance and the response of the audience. We accepted that issue, as I recall! But for the remainder of the evening we were dodging our newfound groupies. While flattering now, in retrospect it didn't seem so. It was more scary then flattering, as none of us had experienced anything like this nor [had we] seen it before, either.
So, The Grand Aires were born. We lasted several months and were very, very much accepted by both the town of Grand Ledge and by our fellow students—and many adults, as well. We performed several other shows through the months we were together. Randy also managed to get the high school to use us as their prom band later that year. However, Tom's original partner didn't stay with us after the talent show, so we brought in another guitarist. I believe it was Bill Ford, who also went on with Tom when I left to go back to Philly for a family problem. They (Tom, Bill Ford, and a couple other guys I knew of) became another band called The Henchmen and then eventually became Tonto & The Renegades.
[ Lance Monthly] Once in Philly, were you ever aware of Tom's success as a member of Tonto & The Renegades?
Bill Vaughn I didn’t know what was happening until (after) I returned from Philly. I heard what Tom had done or was involved with but made no effort to rejoin him or the band as they already had something going. We remained friends and I worked a bit of solo stuff—some folk songs—and continued to compose some originals. I also continued to move every few months back and forth between Grand Ledge and Philly, so it would have disrupted the band had I tried. I was considerate of that fact then, as well.
I was satisfied with the fact that Tom, Randy, Jim, and I, and the group known as The Grand Aires were the very first of that type of rock band ever in the state of Michigan. I didn't know that then, but found that out over a period of years. Most [bands] were a kind of club band, [playing] mostly evening or dinner club music. The Grand Aires were a pure coincidence of chance and talent (beating The Beatles here by only a few weeks or so) and were better as a team (collectively) than as solo performers. And it just worked!
[ Lance Monthly] Your first band after The Grand Aires was The Androids, correct?
Bill Vaughn Yes! My first attempt at starting a band after The Grand Aires was The Androids! We were together in Philly for roughly seven months through mid '64 just into '65. We played a few of my original instrumentals, as well as cover songs of the time. But The Androids were very much my idea.
I was into this space and robot theme at the time. And it was the only band I was in that actually wore custom-made, silver-metallic, form-fitting uniforms or costumes. [The costumes] resembled Star Trek: The Next Generation a bit. The original Star Trek wasn’t out yet. We resembled Data, except our uniforms looked very shiny silver, almost a bit like armor plating, but not stiff looking or moving at all. [They were] very futuristic. And yes! We did rehearse in a rented garage, on Dickerson Street in South Philly, just across from my old elementary school.
We performed at several area teen clubs and local beach areas just across the bridge in Jersey–including the old Atlantic City before the gambling came in—and at a few private parties. Again, we were totally different from The Beatles in general demeanor and with that Android look. Some of my instrumentals were a bit spacey sounding, as well. This band, and a little of the Superman background story, was, in my opinion, the inspiration later for my song, “Elunoids.”
[ Lance Monthly] When did you join The Crystal River Mud Band? Was it the same group as The Androids, or an altogether different band?
Bill Vaughn The Crystal River Mud Band was a short-lived group. It, too, was a bit accidental and a totally different band. It came together in 1968 for only three to four months. It was originally started before I got back to Philly by my brother and an old friend, who were inspired by The Androids back in ’64 and ’65.
While I was back in Grand Ledge (my brother and friends) started a three-some band and were performing a few jobs (with no name) when I returned to Philly. I was asked to join by both my brother and friend, Vinny, after their guitar player quit. We rehearsed in my bedroom, at my mother’s house, for a couple weeks. We were very good, again, out of the box, but that was due again to us knowing each other and our abilities. We could read each other’s little cues, like reading minds.
I had composed a song called, “Crystal River Run” back in Grand Ledge before I came back. All my songs were composed and had to be memorized until I could get them down on tape. I couldn’t actually write sheet music, nor read sheet music. I still can’t to this day! I didn’t even know what chord was what until just a few years ago. I could hear and follow, but never knew a G from a C, etc., until I was almost 48 years old. Playing by ear, I could play anything by just hearing it. My brother was the same. Our little brother Bobby, who is ten years younger, eventually followed in our footsteps but after we were long gone from the house. He also did it on his own, as well.
The Crystal River Mud Band consisted of my younger brother, Carl (17), who played some guitar, sang and played cardboard boxes for drum sounds; an old and longtime childhood friend from the neighborhood, Vinny Botarro (17). Vinny played drums and sang; a friend of my sister named Jack (19), who played bass and guitar but didn’t sing; and me, just short of being 18 years old. My brother and I are the same age for 26 days out of the year. We’re 11 months apart.
After hearing the song “Crystal River Run,” Carl and Vinny worked with me on working out the rest of the pieces from my original ideas. I gave them all credit for the song, including Jack, on the copyright. Vinny suggested we record it at a little studio up on Market Street, near old Willie Penn and City Hall. It took us another couple weeks to pull the money together, with me paying for most of it. It was $185.00 total, which included five copies cut on wax / acetate 45 discs. It was only good for thirty to forty plays and they were about worn out. A master tape never really existed for it, as we could only afford to rent the tape during the recording time. We only had two hours and one was spent setting up.
We were going to record another song of mine called, “It’s A Beautiful Day” from 1965, but I had broken a string that was critical to that song’s sound. Having no spares at the time, and no time to go get another, we settled for another original of mine called, “He Said Son (Don’t Give Up Now),” which I could do even minus the missing string. The band had heard me do it a couple times, but we hadn’t ever rehearsed it at all. Besides, it was only side B anyway. When it came time to cut the 45s (acetates), the tech asked what the name of the band was for the label marking. Vinny and Carl came up with the Crystal River Mud Band, based on the song. I thought it was appropriate and went along with that.
We played a few local gigs, including a couple college campuses, and the song actually got a few plays—about ten or twelve on a local station. Jack knew a disc jockey that did us a favor. I can’t remember the name of the station, but I do believe it was a small local downtown pirate station around Second Street. The station was listened to by a lot of teens and a college kid back then, and was how we got a few of our gigs on campus. Jack left his copy of the 45 with the deejay. I don’t know if he ever got it back, and we lost touch within just a couple of years. I can’t even remember Jack’s last name, but I do recall it was a Polish name, as we Italians were always kidding him and he always had fun with it as well. He was a good guy and was an adequate player! My brother Carl now lives down in Florida near Disney World somewhere. Vinny is still in Philly, and I have no info on Jack!
[ Lance Monthly] What about The Crystal Ship? Again, was it the same group as The Crystal River Mud Band, or an altogether different band?
Bill Vaughn The Crystal Ship was another band I helped put together with another friend, Jerry Griffin, when Carl and Vinny wanted to (or had to) quit playing because of their jobs. The band disbanded. Jack had already left before then for the same reasons.
[ Lance Monthly] Where was The Crystal Ship formed?
Bill Vaughn The Crystal Ship was put together in Philly in 1968, shortly following the Mud Band. Jerry and I started playing a bit of guitar together, off and on, as friends in ‘66. Soon we had enlisted a friend of Jerry’s, Richie Cummins (who I had met just about the same time as Jerry) and another old friend of mine, Joey Borrely. Joey had also played in The Androids.
After a couple months of practicing, we also brought in a front man singer to supplement my vocals, as no one else sang in the band. His name was Barry (sorry - I can’t remember his last name). We weren’t close, but he was a school buddy of Jerry’s. He was only a front man, singer and occasionally played a little tambourine and a couple maracas. We didn’t let him do much there, as he couldn’t keep good time and would throw the bass and drummer off every now and then. But he had a good voice. He resembled Jim Morrison of The Doors in both appearance and vocals.
Rich played drums. Joey played rhythm guitar, and Jerry and I switched off on bass and lead guitars. I also played a little piano and organ now, and left most of the vocals and harmony to Barry. We (before Barry) decided on taking on the name, “Crystal Ship” because the group liked the song I had done with The Crystal River Mud Band.
The name was still a result of the song, but they felt it better to use “ship” to imply going down the river rather than a mud bank. Mud was my brother Carl’s sense of humor. It was only an on-the-spot decision after recording the song, anyway. We just kept it after the song was played on that pirate station, and started getting a little work from it. We had to be called something, I guess.
[ Lance Monthly] Did The Crystal Ship ever perform live in a public venue? If so, where did you typically gig?
Bill Vaughn Yes! We did play a few, but nothing of significance! We played around
[ Lance Monthly] How would you describe the band's sound?
Bill Vaughn We could mimic whoever’s music we were playing at any given time, but our own sound on some of my originals was a bit more like The Who and The Beatles combined with maybe a touch of Credence.
[ Lance Monthly] Didn’t The Crystal Ship record a demo?
Bill Vaughn The only demo actually recorded in a studio was “Crystal River Run” and “He Said Son (Don’t Give Up Now).” They were done by The Crystal River Mud Band, not The Crystal Ship. It was Jack on rhythm guitar; Vinny on drums and harmony vocals; Carl on bass and harmony vocals; and me on lead/rhythm guitar, and primary vocals with one overdub by me.
[ Lance Monthly] Were you the primary songwriter?
Bill Vaughn Yes! I wrote all of [our songs] for the most part, although I always gave credit to everyone who helped smooth out the pieces that I actually came up with for them. I figured it was always about the band, not just me! Many band members I’ve performed with, if they helped record the song and had rehearsed the particular parts I had showed them, were listed as co-writers on the copyright after the song was worked out fully to my satisfaction.
The Crystal Ship never wrote any songs together. They primarily played what I had written, and previously performed with other bands, along with covers from the late ‘50s to mid-‘60s. We never recorded either . . . not even our rehearsals. Jerry Griffin played a rough attempt at a lead for “Blue Guitar” back in ’67 (before we put the band together) while we were goofing around at his house, leading to my lead piece eventually for the song. I gave him co-writer credit on the copyright, as I felt he had inspired my version and should get some credit for it. But the actual recording was done entirely by me, later in ’67, before both The Crystal River Mud Band and The Crystal Ship. In fact, neither band ever actually played the song, or rehearsed it for any gigs.
No one at the time could pick up on the slight complexities of that particular song. It was even difficult for me to actually record it. Timing was critical! I recall it being frustrating as I was working on the recording of each piece. It probably didn’t help that it was mostly experimental, as well. It just turned out better than I thought it would. And that’s why I probably attempted recording “Elunoids” in the same fashion. I had hoped it would turn out as good.
[ Lance Monthly] What year and why did The Crystal Ship break up?
Bill Vaughn We broke up the same year, in 1968. There were ego problems, both with Barry and with the drummer, Richie. They both quit, as they felt (they claimed) they had better things to do than practice three times a week and then only get a few jobs out of our efforts. They argued constantly about what we should be doing. They both wanted to do just one type of music: Jazz! Joey had a bad heart and was slowly getting ill or worse, so Jerry and I just stayed in touch. I went back to Grand Ledge. That’s where I initially started work on “Elunoids,” but I put it on hold for a few months.
[ Lance Monthly] Where did you record "Blue Guitar" and "Elunoids"?
Bill Vaughn Well, “Blue Guitar” was recorded in ’67 in Philly in my home bedroom. “Elunoids” was written (or composed) in ’67, but I did not start recording it until I came back to Michigan . . . and then I put it on hold for a few months. I had recorded an (early) version but added another verse and waited to see if we were successful with our moon landing, before I started recording over the original I had started.
The (later) version was done a couple weeks after we landed on the moon. It is only different by two issues. One, I added a verse about walking on the moon; I then added the wind blowing effect over it all as a way to try and make the tape hiss work for me rather than just be there. Blowing in the mic while turning the tone knob back and forth in a four to five second interval added an accidental sound that sounds like phase shifting wind. Covering the entire pre-recorded other tracks covered it all with that sound, but it’s a pure accident that just worked out to compliment the song. I didn’t plan it that way. Over the years of home recording and overdubbing myself, I’ve found that some mistakes sometimes work out better than if you had tried to plan
[ Lance Monthly] What was the inspiration for "Elunoids"?
Bill Vaughn I had always been interested in flight and space; that’s how I came up with The Androids and the costumes. After we broke up in ‘65, I was thinking of what it might be like to be literally from a different world and have to grow up here, in secrecy. I then combined that with the baseline of Superman’s background, when I discovered that part of his story—only minus the super powers. [The song is about] just another humanoid-type being, but they refer to themselves as Elunoid-beings, rather than Humanoid beings. Of course, I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer and a little off and out in left field. So I’ve been told!
But I consider that being unique, and not entirely like everyone else. And, of course, we’re all unique in some ways. I wanted something unique within my music; something out of the norm of what had been happening. I didn’t care if I made any money being unique; I just wanted to leave my particular mark on the world, with what I loved to do best: Music! Nothing major, maybe; but a mark, nevertheless!
[ Lance Monthly] How often and where do you perform today?
Bill Vaughn I am still composing—but cannot read or write sheet music and play by ear—playing and performing on a limited bases. I still do old rock, mid-‘60s rock and rockabilly, Outlaw Country, Old Country, folk, blues, ballads, and a few instrumentals. I still have many requests for some of my originals. I have about 130 (that I’ve composed) over the past 42 years. I do a solo act right now, but I have been slowed a bit by MS. Most of my performances are for handicapped Veterans and children’s medical needs, and generally charitable work. I’ve played more fundraisers and benefits than I have paid gigs. But it’s all worth the effort!
I’m still well recognized here in my hometown and in mid-Michigan, in general for both what Tom and I did back in ’63 and for another country project I did for my hometown in ‘84 on through ‘87 with a country band named W.B. and The Western Union. I wrote and we recorded a song about Grand Ledge called, “Good Ol’ Boy from Grand Ledge MI (48837).” The zip is part of and at the end of the song as well. The album was titled, “Thanks Grand Ledge!” It was also just a demo, and not even mastered.
There hasn’t been much work for me in any other areas because of my medical and low-income circumstances. I still play to help others, so these God given talents don’t go to waste! Also, probably in sheer defiance or against all odds! I am still a bit of a rebel! And I never did know when to quit. I do believe that out of everyone I’ve played with back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I’m the only one still performing music.
I don’t have any regrets! And I hope my story, along with Tom’s, helps all those who are interested in what it was all about: The passion for our music! And it was all-inclusive! It can’t be dissected just into one or two elements, either. Many well-known rockers and bands—including punk and garage bands—have probably done or touched some country or other genres during their careers, both those who made the big time, and those who didn’t; those who will and still, those who won’t!
And what really flatters me? I’m often invited to rock and punk rock parties and asked to play my original music—both rock and country! But, of course, my country doesn’t sound like the pop country they’re putting out today. It’s a bit more like new age folk and outlaw like Waylon and Willie.
Here’s a special thank you for the opportunity to hopefully inspire my follow performers and composers. I hope what we did back then can help and inspire those still to come and to all who aspire, too. Rock on with passion!