Deck the hall
Kansas Music Hall of Fame inducts its sophomore class
Kansas native Bill Lee recalls seeing an early performance by The Byrds in the mid-1960s after he had moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. Then he was quite astonished to find a mention of Bonner Springs High School in the liner notes of the band’s first record. He soon discovered Byrds founder Gene Clark grew up in the area.
As the years have passed, the novelty of running across substantial musical talent from Kansas has waned.
“I’ve experienced too much of it to be surprised,” Bill Lee says. “But there’s talent everywhere. I choose to celebrate that from Kansas and Kansas City.”
Lee, a 25-year radio veteran and author of “Kansas Rockers – The First Generation,” put that plan into action in 2004 by helping to establish the Kansas Music Hall of Fame. He says the organization was created “to promote public interest in the musicians of the past and encourage those of the present and future.”
Lee’s Byrds encounter has come full circle. Nearly 40 years later, Lee and the late Clark’s family are gathering to pay tribute to the musician.
On Saturday the sophomore class of the Kansas Music Hall of Fame will be honored at Lawrence’s Liberty Hall, 642 Mass. Clark will be joined by fellow inductees Eric & the Norsemen, Melissa Etheridge, Jerry Hahn, Kelley Hunt, The Jerms, King Midas & the Muflers and Spider & the Crabs.
“He’s one of two area musicians to be in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Kansas Music Hall of Fame,” Lee says. “Big Joe Turner was the other, and he was inducted last year.”
Most of the artists honored will also perform at Saturday’s show. Clark’s son Kai will present a tribute to his father. The Grammy-winning Etheridge will be absent because she’s appearing at a cancer benefit. The mayor pro tem of her hometown of Leavenworth will accept her award.
“Before she’s done, (Etheridge) will probably be the most successful pop musician to come out of Kansas, surpassing the band Kansas,” Lee says. “She’s more than just a musician. Through her personality and circumstances she has transcended that thing of being a ‘girl with a guitar,’ ‘the female Bruce Springsteen’ or whatever.”
Another well-known female musician being celebrated at the 2006 ceremony is Lawrence’s Kelley Hunt.
“I’m gone so much (touring), especially in the last few years, it’s really caught me off-guard to be recognized like this in my home state,” Hunt says.
While the R&B singer-keyboardist considers herself “amazed and grateful” at the honor, she also admits it comes at an awkward time during her career.
“Sometimes you feel like you need to be further along,” she says. “I feel like I’m smack dab in the middle of the big roller coaster ride and I haven’t reached that top part yet.”
Hunt, who recalls playing her first professional gig at the Emporia Country Club in 1973, will be importing her entire band from Nashville for her live showcase. She says numerous people have congratulated her while on tour this year for being inducted into the new hall.
“There is a stereotype about what Kansas is or isn’t. I’ve found when I go out to either coast or to Canada, there’s a bit of a curiosity factor,” she says. “In advertising things for me, being a woman is a bit of an oddity. Writing my own music is really out there for blues-based music. But the kicker is ‘from Kansas.'”
Behind the ‘Green Door’
“We thought we were having a good time. We didn’t know we were making any kind of history,” says Johnny Neal.
The vocalist and bassist first gained prominence in The Jerms, a late 1960s/early ’70s rock band who formed at Highland Park High School in Topeka.
While the band endured a variety of roster changes, Neal was in the lineup that recorded the nationally released single “Green Door.” The 1968 Jim Lowe cover became “a regional bubbling-under hit,” he says, earning a 95 rating on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” and cracking the Billboard Top 100.
The Jerms relocated to California after the single came out. Neal recalls opening for legendary bands such as Three Dog Night and Black Sabbath.
When the group failed to earn an album deal, the members decided to move back to Kansas. Neal quit and opted to remain in California where he has been living and performing in various blues acts ever since. (Drummer Willie Leacox would also stay and permanently join the band America.)
Neal says, “I got away from The Jerms, but I never got away from music.”
The Kansas Music Hall of Fame ceremony itself will be slightly revamped this year. Rather than alternate between live acts and inductions, all the dedications will take place in two blocks.
“One of the complaints I got from people last year was they ran into old friends they hadn’t seen in 20 or 30 years and they didn’t get time to talk to them because there was always something going on onstage,” Lee says. “This will give them a little more time to socialize.”
What hasn’t changed about the hall is the lack of a permanent venue. And that condition resulted in a considerable loss this year.
Lee was one of the victims of the Boardwalk Apartments fire in October. His personal collection of Kansas music and memorabilia – believed to be the largest in the state – went up in flames. Lee claims he’d accumulated around 2,000 albums from area artists, 4,000 singles and several hundred CDs and tapes.
He says people have responded to the catastrophe by donating “posters, albums, CDs – a variety of things.”
However, Lee believes that the lack of a physical location for the hall is not a detriment.
“To be honest, it’s not a real big priority,” he says. “The reason it’s not is because it takes more money than we have, and it takes more people than we have right now. …There are other halls of fame that have been around for 10 or 12 years that don’t have a place. Our main emphasis is in honoring the musicians.”
The significance of that was recently put into perspective for Lee.
“We’re dedicating this show to Jim McAllister of Chessman Square,” he says. “He was inducted last year. He died a month ago from pneumonia, so we’ve lost our first inductee.”