by Jay Gabler
January 21, 2016
Everybody's heard about the bird — the "Surfin' Bird," that is. As we discovered when we booked the Trashmen at The Current's 10th Birthday Party last year, though, not everyone today knows that song came out of Minnesota.
"Surfin' Bird" was one of the biggest national hits to come out of the Gopher State during the 1960s, along with the Castaways' "Liar, Liar" and the Gestures' "Run, Run, Run." Rick Shefchik's new book Everybody's Heard About the Bird promises — and delivers — The True Story of 1960s Rock 'n' Roll in Minnesota.
Shefchik takes readers back to the fertile Minnesota music scene in the most pivotal decade of music in the 20th century. It was an era when Bill Diehl ruled the airwaves with his top 40 show on WDGY (just before new rival KDWB went on-air at the frequency 630 AM, they tricked WDGY into running teaser ads for a mysterious "Formula 63"); when local bands filled the floors at venues like St. Paul's Prom Center and Big Reggie's Danceland in Excelsior; and when everyone (even George Harrison, when he was in town) bought their gear at B-Sharp Music in Northeast Minneapolis.
The story starts with Augie Garcia — the St. Paul rocker who cut all his pants into signature Bermuda shorts — and Fargo's Bobby Vee, whose band very briefly included a young Bob Dylan. The Trashmen, the Castaways, and the Gestures are all extensively covered, as are the trio of bands Shefchik refers to as "the big three" bands who ruled the scene in the mid-60s: the Underbeats, the Accents, and Gregory Dee and the Avanties.
Along the way, Shefchik shares stories of the national and international headliners who influenced the local scene — and, occasionally, even swung through town. On their first U.S. tour, the Rolling Stones played Big Reggie's (Mick Jagger shared the rueful memory last year when the band came back to play TCF Bank Stadium) and were upstaged by their local openers, Mike Waggoner and the Bops. The Beatles were much more warmly-received, giving a press conference that was broadcast live by WDGY — and by KDWB, via a phone booth with a guy holding a receiver in the direction of the Fab Four.
One of the best stories in Shefchik's book concerns Chuck Berry, who played the St. Paul Armory in 1964 and became indignant when he learned that his openers, local band the Escapades (whose fake British accents convinced him they were from England), hadn't been paid yet. "You gotta stay on top of this," offered Berry by way of business advice — as he pulled a gun on the promoter and got the guys their money.
As the '60s peaked and then ended, mixed-race bands like Dave Brady and the Stars finally started to have some success, while other artists like the Stillroven explored psychedelia. The Underbeats moved to L.A., renamed themselves Gypsy, and became the house band at the Whisky a Go Go.
Everybody's Heard About the Bird suggests that an era ended as the scene shifted from ballrooms to bars; as radio playlists nationalized and homogenized; and as albums rather than singles became the dominant medium of recorded music. Great things were ahead, of course for music in Minnesota — but it's worth looking back at days when local music rode the wild surf.