Class in session: Kansas Music Hall of Fame honors latest crop of inductees
In the early 1990s, Lee McBee was performing at a Texas press conference for the Benson & Hedges blues series when an unexpected guest joined him onstage.
McBee surrendered the microphone to B.B. King, who proceeded to sit in with the band for a full set. Although the legendary King did all the singing, McBee continued to wow the crowd with his distinctive harmonica playing.
“There’s nothing that feels so good as B.B. King turning around and looking at you after a solo and saying, ‘Son, that was beautiful.’ It brought tears to my eyes,” McBee recalls.
That’s one of several career highlights for McBee, a Lawrence resident since 1970. The blues standout will be experiencing another one Saturday in his hometown when he is inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame.
Others joining McBee in this year’s class are Danny Cox, The Dinks, Larry Lingle, The Sensational Showmen, Shooting Star and fellow Lawrence acts The Serfs, The Young Raiders and Billy Spears.
“I’m going to try and be worthy of the honor people are bestowing on me,” McBee says. “This is really cool. All my family is coming in from all over the country, from California to Florida. Everybody is real proud of me.”
The fifth annual Kansas Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony will feature live performances by McBee, Cox, Spears, The Young Raiders, The Sensational Showmen and Shooting Star. The show is slated to end with an all-star jam on the song “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
“I’m going to play all-original material,” McBee says. “I’ve got a thing I wrote for my wife called ’12 hours from You’ that’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.”
The 57-year-old musician has shared the stage with a number of artists already inducted into the hall. But he is particularly pleased to be going in with fiddler Spears, a friend and occasional collaborator.
“I think pound for pound, when Billy had that band that included (guitarist) Junior Brown, I think that was the best band that ever called Lawrence home. Those guys were jaw-droppingly good,” McBee says.
“If Billy hadn’t gotten hurt (in reference to a 1978 accident where the violinist broke his neck diving into a swimming hole), he would have gone on to do far greater things.”
At age 78, Spears continues to perform in Lawrence on a regular basis.
“I’m just glad to have the guys from the ’70s band coming back to share the stage and play with me,” Spears says of the ceremony. “I think it will be special.”
Spears first began his music career at the age of 12 when he joined brothers Ronnie and Dale for a live gig on a radio show. By his early 20s he was traveling in bands with Ferlin Husky and T Texas Tyler.
“Those were good days, and I felt special to be playing with people who had recordings out,” Spears says.
He moved to Lawrence in the mid-1950s.
“Lawrence is full of different music. All styles. It is a good town for musicians,” he says.
Now in its fifth year, the Kansas Music Hall of Fame still has no tangible location to call home. However, organizers insist the simple deed of honoring past and present musicians justifies the ceremonies.
The voting, which is done by Hall of Fame members and prior inductees, doesn’t just center on musicians. It also hails those who represent other phases of the industry.
Jim Halsey of Independence is this year’s recipient of the Directors Award. His career spans more than 50 years as manager, agent and impresario to country artists such as Roy Clark, The Oak Ridge Boys, Waylon Jennings, The Judds, Reba McEntire, Tammy Wynette and Mel Tillis.
This year’s Bob Hapgood Award goes to Bobby Poe & the Poe Kats. This Coffeyville act of the 1950s featured noted piano player Big Al Downing and guitarist Vernon Sandusky. The Poe Kats served as rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s backing band, which was featured on the classic cut “Let’s Have a Party.” Poe later became a prominent manager, promoter and “tip sheet” publisher.
The most high-profile selection among this year’s inductees is Kansas City rock act Shooting Star, which dominated the area music scene during the 1980s. According to guitarist and founder Van McClain, the band has sold in the neighborhood of 5 million records worldwide.
“For us, the induction is a pretty big deal,” McClain says. “Our original singer, Gary West, is going to sing and play. He hasn’t done that with us since 1987.”
The first American band ever signed by Virgin Records, Shooting Star’s debut album hit the charts in 1979, leading to a string of AOR singles over the next few years, including “Last Chance,” “Tonight,” “You Got What I Need” and “Hang on for Your Life.”
“We had a really weird career. We never had that breakthrough hit that would have pushed us through to all the markets,” McClain says.
Part of it stemmed from the band’s choice of a record label, the result of a bidding war between A&M, Atlantic and Virgin Records.
“We went with Virgin,” he explains. “We loved those guys. But in hindsight, we wish we hadn’t. They were hugely underfunded back then. In those days they were trying to expand into America and just couldn’t do it.”
McClain is one of the three original members to still perform together (joined by drummer Steve Thomas and bassist Ron Verlin). West retired from live music in 1987. Original violinist Charles Waltz tours with the Irish band The Young Dubliners and will be unable to attend the induction. Keyboardist Bill Guffey died in 2007.
Shooting Star earned two Gold and one Platinum album, according to McClain. As recently as two years ago, the band released an album that went to No. 1 in Germany.
“In America, we have places where we do really well and cities where they’ve never heard of us. That’s predicated back in the day by radio play in certain markets,” the 52-year-old McClain says.
A current version of the group, which also features Dennis Laffoon, Ronnie Platt and Janet Jameson (who previously played with Billy Spears), still performs about 30 concerts a year. Though now considered a hobby by the band members, it’s a fairly dedicated hobby.
“Because we never really hit the level of success that we were supposed to, our fans are nuts about us,” McClain says. “We have these pockets of people we call Shooting Star Maniacs. We have a huge fan club. It’s weird for a mainstream rock band to have such a cult following.”
(courtesy of the Kansas Music Hall of Fame)
Danny Cox (Kansas City)
A singer and actor from Cincinnati who has made Kansas City his home for most of the past four decades, Cox was a big part of the Vanguard/Cowtown folk music scene in KC and has recorded for national record labels. He’s acted onstage and appeared in feature films.
The Dinks (Beloit)
Their two novelty songs on the Sully label are favorites with record collectors, but it’s their song “Penny A Tear Drop” that was a hit with Kansas fans. Beginning as the Raging Regattas, they became The Dinks at their first recording session in 1966.
Larry Lingle (McPherson)
In a long career that took him from bands in his hometown to singing and playing with two bands already inducted into the Hall of Fame, Topeka’s Jerms and Lawrence’s Fabulous Flippers, Lingle ended up in Los Angeles disco bands before spending 1981-1993 as one of Frankie Valli’s Four Seasons. He will also be inducted this year as past member of The Young Raiders.
Lee McBee (Lawrence)
One of the best harmonica players around, this gravelly voiced blues singer has a regular gig every Sunday at BB’s Lawnside Bar-B-Que in Kansas City. He’s recorded under his own name and fronting the Dallas band Mike Morgan & The Crawl.
The Sensational Showmen (Concordia; Chanute/Ft. Scott; Parsons/Pittsburg)
A succession of bands using this name played in Kansas from the mid-’60s into the mid-’70s. The three lineups who were together the longest and are best remembered by the music fans of Kansas are the ones chosen for induction. The original group from Concordia will be at the ceremony along with the two later versions who have had reunion performances in recent years. The final lineup of the Showmen, from Parsons & Pittsburg, will be performing at the induction ceremony.
The Serfs (Lawrence/Wichita)
Formed in 1965 at his KU fraternity house, this was Mike Finnigan’s first band in Kansas, but it wouldn’t be his last. Finnigan was inducted into the Hall of Fame already, but the entire band deserves induction for its blues-based music, much of it written by Topeka native Lane Tietgen. While recording their album for Capitol in New York City, three of the guys were invited to jam with Jimi Hendrix, and they became a part of history when two tracks from the jam appeared on Jimi’s “Electric Ladyland.” Because of illness, Finnigan will be unable to attend the ceremony, but a couple of the other members will be in Lawrence for the show.
Shooting Star (Kansas City)
This Overland Park band was on the verge of superstardom more than once during the 1980s. Their fresh, original material got them record deals with Virgin and Geffen. Recently they introduced a new lead singer (Ronnie Platt) and new violinst (Janet Jameson) for a series of live dates. A new album is in the works.
Billy Spears (Lawrence)
Fiddler Billy Spears began playing professionally back in the early 1950s and traveled with top country acts including Ferlin Husky, Jean Shepard and T. Texas Tyler before settling in Lawrence, where he continues to live and perform. His bands have included many of the area’s top players, and many have gone on to successful careers in country music. The best known is guit-steel player Junior Brown, who cannot attend because of a prior commitment.
The Young Raiders (Lawrence)
This band took up where the original Rising Suns left off. After losing their equipment in a wreck and giving up the band’s name, the guys decided to go back out on the road as The Young Raiders. Eventually about a hundred of the best musicians from Kansas and the surrounding states would serve time in the band. Many of them are still playing professionally.