|I must admit that a couple of months ago the thought of attempting an
interview and article on Dr Hook and The Medicine Show was one of the last things on my
mind. Their hugely successful single 'Sylvia's Mother' hadn't made too much of an
impression on me and , I suspect like a lot of other people , I initially made the mistake
of not bothering to investigate their music any further, thereby being completely misled
as to their true ability. In fact I think I'd go as far as to say that 'Sylvia's Mother'
is one of the least distinguished songs they've ever done and that its success posed a
problem for the band that they are only just beginning to solve. So far they have made
three albums , the first two of which contain their individual moments, but which pall
more than slightly in comparison with the third, which is really excellent and well worth
your time and money.
But I'll talk about the records a bit more later on. First of all though an explanation for all of you who may be wondering "How come this stupid fool's wasting valuable space on a crazy bunch of drunken lascivious-looking Yanks, when such important tomes as Genesis Part 2 and Led Zeppelin Part 3 are lying around unpublished?" Well I'd like to be able to say that CBS Records organised for my lighthearted and carefree amusement, a two-week, all expenses paid , debauched extravaganza of excessive drinking , much merriment and considerable physical abuse with the Dr Hook roadshow and their entourage. But of course as you all know, that sort of thing only happens to people from the MM, so I had to settle instead for a couple of tickets to the Dr Hook concert at the Rainbow a month or so back. My reaction at seeing them for the first time was one of unparalleled confusion , a condition I didn't really recover from until a couple of days later when I had the chance to talk to the two front-men of the band, Ray Sawyer (the one with the patch) and Dennis Locorriere.
Now up until then my experience at interviewing was somewhat limited compared to that of Frame or Tobler and just about every one I'd done had gone off without any hassles and been a pleasure to do. But when it came to Dr Hook - well I dreaded the worst, an idiotic, unintelligible shambles forsure. You see in my copy of the last Dr Hook album 'Belly Up' I received a sort of promotional single consisting of Ray and Dennis interviewmg themselves, if you can call it that, amidst what sounds to me like a bunch of stoned laughing hyenas. "Bloody hell," I thought, "I'll be sitting there like a prize dummy while these two effervescent buffoons take the piss out of me for a couple of hours". But, to my eternal relief and considerable enjoyment it was not to be. In fact it was one of the most intelligent and stimulating interviews I've ever done. Not only were both Ray and Dennis possessed by a refreshingly witty sense of humour, but they showed a deep concern and almost serious attitude to their music and stage act, a stance that belies their public image of wasted, degenerate bums who just happened to make good. So this article appears because in the space of one all too short evening. I was convinced of the merit and consideration that Dr Hook deserve, and because their music is somewhat unique - often very funny, surprisingly melancholy for a lot of the time, but nearly always extremely enjoyable. Another band you gotta check out !
||Right, now some facts and info. Dr Hook And The Medicine Show comprise George Cummings on steel and lead guitar, John Wolters on drums, Bill Francis on keyboards, Rik Elswit-rhythm guitar, Jance Garfat on bass, and the aforementioned Ray Sawyer (vocals) and Dennis Locorriere (vocals & guitar). As far as their orgins and history go, Dennis tells his side of the story.' "Ray, George and Bill originally had a band down south playing whatever they could to stay alive. And then they broke up and George came up to New York and Ray went to Los Angeles, and Bill stayed in Chicago where they broke up. I met George in New Jersey and then Ray came out there, and then Bill came; so they got it all back together again only with me in it this time .|
|They said to me: 'Can you play bass?' And I said 'sure'. I couldn't,but I
lied just so that I could have a gig and I started with them the next night . And we must
have played together close to a year before we even had the name Dr Hook, One night we
walked into this club we were playing, and the guy told us that the drunks wanted to know
who we were and he had to put a poster outside, And that's what they did, they put a
poster outside, and they gave George one hour to think of a name, and he came up with the
name Dr Hook, I guess from Captain Hook-Peter Pan .But we found out recently that Captain
Hook doesn't even wear a patch, so we even screwed that one up. Yeah, that was good old
George's idea, He has the original poster . Sometime we'll have to dig that out and drag it
around with us It's funny, I don't know how all those guys from down south wound up
starting a band with me in New Jersey, but that's what happened . And then John our
drummer now is from Florida and our bass player Jance is from Northern California .
Our other guitar player Rik is from Southern California and Ray is from Alabama,
Bill is from Alabama and George comes from Mississippi. It's like we all got stuck to a
big piece of fIy~paper,"
It must be admitted that Dennis said all that in the space of about thirty seconds as if it was the standard answer to all questions about the band's history .So with the help of Ray, we'll elaborate further, back as far as his memory wishes to take him .
|"I was very into country music, very into Hank Williams, and that's exactly what inspired me, I got an old guitar and started banging around on it just like any kid would do, Butt knew at the age of 11 or 12 years old what wanted to do, There was no doubt about it. I started playing in bands in the same way that anybody who is trying to play an instrument tries to play in a band, so I did that until I became old enough to go into clubs and then got a job in the clubs. About that time Bill came on the scene and he played piano on and off at the same place as me until around 1967 when I had the car-smash which messed me up really bad on my right side." Ray'sS unfortunate accicdent occurred up by the Columibia River in Portland where he'd taken refuge from the toil of working in Chicago soul clubs and got himself a job as a lumberjack . According to an article in 'Rolling Stone' he was also pretty well mixed up due to excessive use of wine and speed and his extensive stay in hospital, if not exactly morale- boosting or inspiring, did manage to clean him up .When I recovered from the accident I went back to Chicago, which although I come from Alabama, is my retreat.Whenever things started happening to me in Mobile or things didn't go right, I would split to Chicago and vice-versa.Anyway,I went back to Chicago and I was playing in this club and it was pulling me in like $425 a week to sing with a band that couldn't play . . absolutely couldn't play; they were no good.|
|And so I did that for about two weeks, and then I went up to the club
owner who's a friend of mine and I said, 'Bobby , I can't do this'. And he said, 'but Ray
- how do you think I can pay you this much?' So I said, 'is that it? Is that the way it
goes?'.He said, 'Yeah,' so I said 'I quit - I don't want that.' So I went back to Mobile
and that's when I ran into Bill for the second time and also ran into George. I knew
George before but I'd never worked with him. And they're the first people I saw when I
walked into a club. I said, 'Let's get a group together, this is bullshit up here. Let's
try and do something ourselves.' And so that's what happened. That group formed and we
played around the south for two or three years. We had quite a few names, the most well
known of which was 'The Chocolate Papers'. When that finally broke up, George went to New
Jersey, I went to California, and BilI stayed in Chicago with the intention of getting it
all back together. After a while I called George and he said he was working, and I wasn't,
so I said 'I'm coming up with ya!" So I went to New Jersey and we happened to go to
Dennis' home town , Union City, and there was Dennis hanging out on the streets . He was
known in the bars - he played guitar at the time , he didn't play bass. So we said 'Can
you play bass?' And he said 'Sure!' So he joined us "
It wasn't long before Bill came up from Chicago to join then band and they started digging around about the time that the band had its first break. They'd made the obligatory demo-tape and by chance Ron Haffkine heard it, liked it, and proceeded to take the band under his protective wing. It so happened that Ron was a long-time friend of 'humorist-extraordinaire' and Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein who at the time was involved in writing the music for a film called Who Is Harry Kelrerman And Why Is He Saying Those terrible Things About Me'. Apparently Shel wanterd Ron to produce the score, and Ron thought it would be a great idea for Dr Hook to play the music. And eventually that's exactly what happened. The film incidentally was a near-total disaster despite the presence of Dustin Hoffman, so the band didn't receive any immediate recognition. It is perfectly clear however, that Ron Haffkine was , and is, a very important, or rather a vital part of everything the band do . That's certainly Ray's opinion: "Very key man. Because he took the whole bunch of us, and he was there from the very beginning in the bars, and he took it and he told each one of us what to do and what not to do, just like a movie director would. We needed discipLine but we weren't stupid. We were doing the same things onstage as we're doing now, but we might go to an extreme, and he would say 'No, stop it there'. After a while he turned us loose but he's a very key figure in this whole Dr Hook thing. As a matter of fact I would go so far as to say that Ronnie is THE key to the whole thing because without Ronnie we wouldn't have met Shel , without Ronnie we wouldn't have done the movie,and without the movie we wouldn't have got on Columbia." Indeed the film soundtrack resulted in them signing with Columbia during eighteen months of rehearsals at Haffkine's home - a place called The Mystic in Connecticut. They signed the contract in mid-1971 and approximately nine months later released 'Sylvia's Mother' in this country, a sickly, melodramatic song, and one of those rare singles that became a transatlantic hit, but what about the other important guy in the set-up ,the man who wrote 'Sylvia's Mother' and the majority of Dr Hook's recorded material -Shel Silverstein. "Shel is very important of course, like he used to send us tapes in the very beginning, but without Ronnie we would never have been able to interpret all of Shel's tunes. Or not even probably half of them, maybe not even a third of them - Because Ronnie would say, 'Listen to this man'. And with Shel singing on the album that's one thing, but you hear Shel singing with his guitar . . one of his songs you have to really use your imagination. Ronnie taught me personally over a period of years, like two years , how to listen to it . But he didn't go 'Sitdown and listen to it this way'. I learned from the way Ronnie interpreted Shel's songs. I would see Ronnie going crazy over one of Shel's songs, and I'd say, What's that?' And Ronnie would say 'Can't you see that?' And I'd say 'No,' and he'd say 'You missed it', Right now he could send us a demo with just him and his voice with whatever's going on in the back ground, wherever he decided to make the tape - on the beach, in an airplane, or with chicks at a party or whatever, and I can hear this tape, and I know now whether it's good for the band. I can tell immediately after hearing it once- We used to listen to his tapes about forty-five times and I'd say, 'Well I can't hear it; I can't hear it Ronnie', And Ronnie would say,'Listen man, listen to what he said', But he says it so strangely. Like' people say he ain't singing, but now after a period of two years or so, I say that the mother-fucker can sing. I say that he's saying a whole lot more than people can grasp. We were writing songs all the time even before we met Ronnie, even before we met Shel, We were writing songs but we didn't know how good they were. Then when we met Ronnie and heard some of Shel's songs, we knew' how good they were , they were a load of piss .Shel is a brilliant writer.Anything he wants to tackle . . ... he can do it,"-Ray
So 'Sylvia's Mother' was a big success and you've almost certainly heard it as many times as I have, so I think we'll leave it at that. Their first album, 'Dr Hook' (CBS 64754) was released in May 1972 and as far as I can remember, received scant attention despite the inclusion of 'Sylvia's Mother', There are only about two or three tracks that I feel really stand out, the rest being a curious, unexceptional mixture of earthy southern rock, and slly, maudlin ballads . The pick of the album is I think 'Kiss It Away', a song which Shel wrote especially for Dennis, "Shel was in the Bahamas and he sent it to Dennis in a private jet, a little cassette with Shel singing 'Kiss It Away'." I don't want to be too unfair, but it's not the most inspiring of albums although it's worth listening to for its highlights. 'Hey, Lady Godiva' and 'Makin' It Natural' (also the b-side of 'Sylvia's Mother') are good fun, but only for a couple of plays, and in fact, the tracks that have the most durability are the two earthy swamprock' (if there is such a thing) songs, 'Marie Lavaux' and 'Four Years Older Than Me'. But as debut albums go it's very satisfactory. In September 1972 a second single was released, 'Carry Me, Carrie' b/w 'I Call That True Love', and as far as I can remember bombed quite miserably, The flip-side was a track from the first album, and 'Carry Me, Carrie' was taken from the second album 'Sloppy Seconds' (CBS 65132) released five months later in February '73. This LP contains very much the same mixture of styles as the first one, but here the songs are a lot stronger and the arrangements more suitable, As with the first album everything was written by Shel Silverstein, and perhaps his two most notorious songs are included, 'Freaker's Ball' (Shel's own album goes under the name of 'Freakin' At The Freaker's Ball' , and 'The Cover Of Rolling Stone' (more about that in a minute). By this time the band had recruited Rik Elswit on rhythm guitar and Jance Garfat on bass leaving Dennis more freedom to loon about and concentrate on singing . I must say that the added instrumentation makes a surprising hell of a difference especially on songs like 'If I'd Only Come And Gone', 'Get My Rocks Off', 'Queen Of The Silver Dollar' and 'Turn On The World', all of which have a fullness of sound unmatched by anything on the first album. 'Freaker's Ball' is a track you must definitely listen to, and if it doesn't make you laugh you ought to crawl back into the hole from whence you came. . - a very funny and fiendishly clever song . The other tracks I've mentioned all make for worthwhile and enjoyable listening one way or another, but one of the album's two peaks is definitely 'The Cover Of Rolling Stone' a song which sparked off a remarkable amount of controversy when it was released as a single one month before the album, Ray explains the problems ..."We felt the need to have another hit single but you know that's what you work for. But for us it was more important not to have another hit single, but to have the people understand that we were not only 'Sylvia's Mother', We were something else too-that was more important to us-that's why we released 'Rolling Stone'. We didn't expect it to sell and we certainly didn't expect to get our picture on the cover of 'Rolling Stone. But they did appear on the cover of 'Stone and the single did sell despite being banned by the BBC in this country and by two of the biggest radio stations in the States in New York and Chicago, although for different reasons. Over there the problem was simply one of advertising (I did however hear it on Charlie Gillett's excellent Radio London programme 'Honky Tonk' where the offending words 'Rolling Stone' were replaced by 'Radio Times' - , - amazing), whereas in the States they got heavy about the reference to cocaine . Nevertheless the single sold well enough to keep their name on the tip of everyone's tongue for awhile although they waited until September '73 before they released the next single 'Roland The Roadie And Gertrude The Groupie', another humorous and very cleverly written Shel Silverstein song also to be found on the band's third and best album, 'Belly up' (CBS 655601 (November '73). Practically every song on this LP is really great and for once Messrs Sawyer and Locorriere have contributed. One of their songs, 'Come On In' is as infectiously happy-go-lucky as anything you'll have heard for some time, while 'Monterey Jack', one of Shel's compositions, runs a close second. I never thought the band could sound convincing when dealing with straight romantic material, but 'The Wonderful Soup Stone' is positively heart-rending - a marvellous song, beautifully handled . Other tracks that spring to mind are the Mexican-flavoured 'Acapulco Goldie', 'Penicillin Penny', which wins the ZigZag clap song of the year award, and 'Life Ain't Easy', their current single at the time of writing. The whole album though is definitely worth going without food for a couple of days for, so's you can save up the bread and lash out on it, There should be another single released soon called 'Cops And Robbers' but as I haven't heard it yet I can't comment except to say that it will probably feature their new drummer, John Wolters who replaced Jay David after the third album. One thing's for sure, Dr Hook And The Medicine Show will always be seeking to improve themselves- Ray: ''Yeah. If it didn't improve, I'd go back to my pea farm, It's got to improve in certain ways, There are certain levels of music that you go through. It goes back to when you start in night-clubs, that's a level. You start at two dollars a night, six dollars a night - - that's a level, you've started. And then you work your way up through the night-clubs, that's without going to the world or the whole public , work yourself up to like S400-450, 500,600 a week. Like Johnny Winter was getting $600 in Atlanta when he broke through, like nationwide. And I worked my way up singing for $450 a week and I'd find myself loving it, and then going to work with a blues band for $60 a week. Because it wasn't the money. So that's what I say, there's a level that starts when you start in music, and you go as high as you can go and there's another level. And I've labelled these people. To me they're $500 a week people. And someone asks me 'Well what about so-and-so who plays with a band?' And I say. 'Yeah, he's good but he won't leave, he's a $500 a week man'. He's got $500 a week, maybe got a family, two little kids. buying a house. He's going to stay there. He's secure. He's afraid to turn loose in case he'll miss. Me in my whole life I didn't say this. Like I gave up everything. my mother, my father. my wife, my son, every f--king thing. F--k it. I said this is not it. This can't be it. If they paid me $2000 a week to stay here and do this I still couldn't do it. So you leave and just go out for whatever happens, and you go for broke. You play rock. you know what rock is. It's a card game. You so far far and then you shoot the moon. you gamble everything. You gamble the whole business if you feel like it. But then you ask if we've got any better, and that's like with the different levels, yeah, we've gotten better because we came from this level, from the night-clubs to here, as far as you can go in the night-clubs, and then to here, professional, OK. Alright. now we did professional and it stays here until something happens. And what happened was that we changed drummers. That simple. - - we changed drummers and it went to another level and now it's there. And it's even gone to another level since we got John, and it's just a small one, a little thing above, but yeah, it's advancing. If it wasn't, like I said, I'd go home. You would too." Well, there's not an awful lot to be said after that . If you've seen the band 'live' then you'll know how important a part humour figures in their act, and you probably won't be too surprised to learn that they rehearse a great deal, although Ray says that ''all the weird shit that happens on stage is of course spontaneous !"
They'll hopefully be coming over for a full tour later this year in which case all zigzaggers from John 0'Groats to Lands End will get the chance to see them. After these inteview was finished we lurched out of the very suave Chinese restaurant to which it all took place, and after Ray had convinced a shocked and horrified Chinaman, who had been hugging him all evening , that his patch was indeed there for a purpose and not just a gimmick, we bade farewell and I headed out of the murky depths of Soho with Ray's last words ringing in my ears ."I wanna see the article when it's done man, get it all down right. y'hear''. Well here it is Ray old buddy, now let's see your face over here again soon.
Original Interview by Andy Childs .