Once they could draw up to 5,000 fans to dances and concerts around the Midwest. Now they draw only themselves, their old promoters and a few friends to a reunion at the Eldridge Hotel.
They were The Fabulous Flippers, a Lawrence-based rock 'n' roll band that packed the house when they played the Red Dog Inn, now Liberty Hall.
College students, then, they spent summers and weekends traveling by bus from concert to concert from Texas to Minnesota.
Last weekend, for a few brief moments seven former band members were back together and the Flippers lived again.
"The amazing thing is after 25 years we can still play together, said Gary Claxton, who played trumpet with the band for two years. "It's sort of like riding a bicycle, only with more blowouts."
THE BAND came together in 1964, the brainchild of Lawrence promoter John Brown, who was associated with the Red Dog Inn, and Terry Weirman, one of the original musicians.
Brown, who now lives in Colorado, auditioned musicians throughout Kansas and Oklahoma for the band; once they were accepted, they moved to Lawrence, where many also went to Kansas University.
What made the Flippers unusual was their emphasis on a big sound and stage show uncommon for the four-member Beatles clones that popped up during the British Invasion. The Flippers came complete with a brass and saxophone section, keyboards, guitars and vocalists.
"They incorporated the old Oklahoma jazz and rhythm and blues sounds in the '50s," said Randy Winters, who once promoted the Flippers. "Basically they were a bunch of white boys playing black music."
Based in Lawrence, the band had its offices and some living quarters at 918 Mass. Brown managed to get the group's music heard on KOMA, a clear-channel radio station based in Oklahoma City. With the air full of Flippers, who came from all over Kansas and Oklahoma, the audiences began to line up for dance dates in places like Little Chute, Wis., Ellendale, N.D., Decorah, Iowa, and Vermillion, S.D.
IN 1966, the group released a hit single called "Harlem Shuffle" that went to No. 1 in the Midwest, Winters said. In the meantime, most of the members of the group continued their KU studies.
"We had an evolution from heavy rhythm and blues to a more sophisticated sound," said Daniel Hein, one of the vocalists. "We'd go into towns and the first thing we'd do is go into the black area. Then we'd find the used record store, and we'd learn the music off these records. These were old songs, but our audience hadn't heard them, and they thought they were terrific."
It was tough enough getting into a Flippers gig as many as 5,000 people showed up for concerts in Minneapolis.
"We had to have a police escort to get into some places," Winter said. "There was a period between 1965 and 1968 when it was the only group playing this kind of music."
ALONG WITH the music came the stage show and the Flippers say they had quite a show.
"Denny (Loewen, the other singer) and I would throw our microphone back and forth," Hein said. "There was a lot of rehearsed choreography."
Jerry Tammen, who was a drummer with the group, recalled, "The lights would go out, and I'd have a drum solo with day-glow sticks.
"They'd shine a black light on the sticks, so it looked like the drumsticks would be stopping in the air in an arc 10 or 12 times."
As the Flippers' popularity grew, so did the money the players still speak with awe about how their educations were enhanced by Flipper funds. Nor did their social lives suffer.
"All we wanted was chicks," said Doug Crotty, a saxophone player with the band. "We had an infinite supply of chicks."
BUT FOR all their regional success, the Fabulous Flippers never made it nationally. Members started leaving the group in 1967 for a variety of reasons. Tammen said he got tired of all the travel.
"We traveled on the road all the time," he recalled. "We were playing together six years, and we almost never once played a dance two nights (in a row). In the summers we'd go 65 straight days on the road without a break. Then during school, we'd leave Friday afternoon and we'd be on the road all weekend."
Other group members, like Claxton, simply graduated and moved on. Claxton, now a developer in Des Moines, went to work as a journalist covering the Nebraska campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.
"I felt it was just time to move on and do something else," he said.
CROTTY, WHO now is an attorney in Garden City, was drafted and served 19 months in a U.S. Army band in Vietnam.
"When they got off, we'd play `I Left My Heart in San Francisco,' and when they were leaving, we'd play `California Here I Come,'" he said. "I played that for 365 days straight."
Other group members stayed in the music business, however. Winters moved to Chicago and helped book groups like The Monkees. Tammen, who recently returned to his hometown of Larned, owned clubs in California. Dennes Frederick, the bass player, went to Nashville, and Roger Lewis, a trumpet player, moved to Wichita where he now plays with the Wichita Music Theatre and teaches.
"The experience of playing in front of a large number of people has always been invaluable for me," Lewis said. "For trumpet players, one of the most unusual things was learning good breath to support your playing. When you're playing acoustic, without amplifiers, in front of that many people, you need to get a lot of wind through your instrument."
THE FLIPPERS finally ended their reign in 1970, but according to the group's alumni, its influence lives on. The Flippers had a direct influence on groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears: Members of both saw the Flippers play and adopted its sound, according to Winters.
"I think the Flippers were about three years ahead of their time," he said.
At the recent reunion, few regrets were expressed by the ex-Flippers as they looked over faded color photographs of themselves and their friends, dressed in '60s fashions that today seem as ancient as hoop skirts and knickers.
You wonder if they think, late at night, what would have happened if they had stayed together. They talk about a shot at opening for the Rolling Stones on their first U.S. tour, a shot that slipped away.
Even if they do wonder what might have been, they won't say. Instead, they say they were never addicted to success just to good music and good times.
"We didn't know anything about the music business," Tammen said. "We were just a bunch of kids. We had the idea that if we hung in there until we graduated, we could earn a lot of money and then go our own ways. And that's what happened."