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Sleepy John interview with Tom Williams

September 16, 2014

Sleepy John interview with Tom Williams

Sleepy John formed in Lewiston, Idaho back in the late ’60s
and recorded some really great material, which never officially came out until
Rich Haupt of Rockadelic Records and later Roger Maglio of Gear Fab Records
released an their album. Sleepy John is best described as heavy blues rock with
Hammond organ. Their name is reflecting legendary blues figure Sleepy John
Estes. The material was apparently recorded in one of the band member’s
basement, which add’s a nice underground sloppy raw feel to their music.
Thanks to Roger Maglio we came in contact with the original
member, which will tell us the whole story of this long forgotten and newly
discovered band, which was recently also featured on Guerssen Records from
Spain.
Formed in Lewiston, Idaho, the original band line-up came
together in 1969 and featured the talents of lead singer/keyboardist David Lee,
lead guitarist Frank Trowbridge, bassist Jim Bartlett, and drummer Tom
Williams, who we are in contact with.

To begin with, when and where were you born and was music a
big part of life in the Williams household?

I was born in Lewiston, Idaho in 1948 and I have two older
sisters. I am the only musician in the
family. 

Was there any major events that turned your life around and
you began learning an instrument?

My father was a railroad man but started a roller skating
business during the Great Depression to have something to fall back on in case
he lost his railroad job. Eventually the
family built a roller rink which hosted all kinds of events from skating to car
shows, professional wrestling, and rock and roll concerts. A few of the groups that played there in the
‘50s were: The Four Nights, Little
Richard’s band (without Little Richard) and Gene Vincent. So these musicians along with all the ‘Top
40’ songs of the 1950s that were used for skating music are probably what
really hooked me.  By then I was already
drumming on anything I could make into a drum.

At what age did each of you begin playing music and what were
the first instruments that you played?

I first began drumming when I got a toy drum for Christmas
around 1950. Next I began playing drums in the school band in fourth
grade. I continued with band, orchestra
and symphony orchestra through my junior year in high school. Dave and Frank each began at very early ages
as well. Dave’s father owned a piano and organ store and Frank’s folks were
popular Country musicians in Southern Idaho. 
His mother who played pedal steel was a huge influence on Frank.  His folks also had a radio show they did
with Box Car Willie.
How old were you when you joined your first bands?  What were the names of the bands and what
role did you play in them?

I think I was fourteen. Dave and I formed our first band the summer of ’63. We called it the Lounj Men.  It consisted of guitar, bass, organ sax and
drums.  We wore gold blazer jackets with
Beatle Boots and played mostly instrumental songs by groups like The Ventures.
Dave’s family moved to Boise the following summer where he
met Frank. The rest of the Lounj Men
stayed together and added an additional guitar. We changed our name to The London Company, built a p a system so we
could do vocals and started playing mostly British pop. One day our bass player comes to rehearsal
with a brand new Rolling Stones album. This changed us for life. Being Idaho boys this was our first real
introduction to the blues. We then
continued to do covers but modeled our band after The Stones, Yardbirds, Them
and throw in a little Frank Zappa just for kicks. London Company continued until the end of the
school year, 1967.
Meanwhile Dave and Frank followed a very similar route in
Boise with two very talented bands, The Wondering Kind and Destiny.
Later that summer in Lewiston I joined The Village Music
Wagon which was a kind of a top 40 band with a San Francisco rock
influence. This is where I met bass
player, Jim Bartlett. The VMW band broke
up in 1968.
Did any of those bands release a single or recorded any
material?

“Free” did a studio recording of three or four originals but
nothing ever came of it. The Sleepy John
recordings were never intended for release. They were only used to promote the
band.
What would you say influenced you?

My early drum influences were guys like Buddy Rich, Gene
Krupa and Sandy Nelson. This was when I
only had a snare drum. I improvised a
lot. Early ‘60s NorthWestrock bands introducedvery hard driving drums which
really distinguished the NW from other
regions of the country. In the later ‘60s it was probably Charlie Watts, Mitch
Mitchell and Keith Moon.
What’s the story behind formation of Sleepy John? How did
you guys come together? Did you know each other from before, were you
classmates in school maybe?

After Village Music Wagon broke up Jim and I found guitarist
Clark Osterson, whose heavy Clapton and Page influence took us into our Hendrix
and Cream three piece excursion and we began writing originals. We first called the band “Free” and then
changed it to “Valhalla”. We moved the
band to Seattle in the summer of ’69 where we ran into Dave and Frank staying
at the same boarding house we were staying at. Dave got a gig with a band
called Silver Bike and Frank was not playing but had a job in a tire shop.  While we were in Seattle Clark decided that
he would leave “Valhalla” as soon as we returned to Lewiston. Jim and I asked Frank if he would join us and
so in December he moved to Lewiston and surprise, Dave came with him and Sleepy
John was formed.
How did the practice session look  for members of Sleepy John?

We had a rehearsal building near the Snake River with no
houses around so we did not have to restrain ourselves at all. 

Were you part of the local scene back then? Were there any
good bands, you would like to mention?

Yes, Sleepy John was definitely a part of the local
Lewiston, Idaho scene before relocating 100 mile north to Spokane, Washington.
Lewiston had a very strong music scene for a small town. There were many fine area bands. Another notable group of the day to come from
Lewiston was Stone Garden, who has also had releases on Gear Fab and
Rockadelic Records. Founding member of
Stone Garden, Paul Speer, was also our audio engineer on both Sleepy John
recording sessions. (Interview with Stone Garden can be found here)

Who were some of the artists you shared the stage with? What
are some gigs that stand out?


Some of the groups my bands have opened for are The Zombies,
Moby Grape, Bad Finger and most notably, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of
Invention. The Zappa concert was
probably the most notable of all. It was
at the Spokane Coliseum and I got to spend some time alone with Frank Zappa in
the dressing room right before the show. By the way The Mothers rehearsal was amazing!

The Bards, Bazarak and Sleepy John Outside the Go Go (1970)
What can you tell us about material you recorded? Where did
you record it, what gear and instruments did you use?

There are two sessions of originals; the first one was in
the spring of 1970, recorded in the basement of Jim Bartlett’s parent’s house
in Lewiston. The second session was
recorded at our Sleepy John house in Spokane in the summer of 1970. As I had mentioned, Paul Speer recorded both
sessions for us using a two track reel to reel tape recorder. On both sessions it was all live with the
drums either behind hanging blankets or in a separate room with the door closed
and one recording microphone in the middle of the room.  he only effect used on the recording
equipment was a homemade reverb unit, basically a long spring in a
box. Instruments used were, 1969 Gibson ES 150 guitar with (we think) a Fender
Super Reverb amp, Hammond M-1 organ with a Leslie speaker, Gibson EBbass
guitar with an Ampeg amp, Slingerlanddrums with double 20” bass drums, a set of
congas and a cow bell.

How did the songwriting process look like? Was this
something spontaneous coming out of jams or planned process?


Jim and I, as well as Dave and Frank, came to Sleepy John
with a fair amount of original material. The first days were basically high energy jams where we just got real
familiar with each other and a distinct sound began to develop. Once we had the introductions out of the way
we began writing and arranging. We hit
it very hard until we had enough material to start playing gigs. Most of our song began with an idea, maybe a
riff or some lyrics one of us would bring to rehearsal then we would jam on it
to develop feel and dynamics, then we would put together a rough arrangement
and go out and play it and let it mature.

In what time span did you recorded material featured and now
reissued on Guerssen Records. Rockadelic only included 8 tracks, but you
recorded a lot more, which can be found now on this new reissue.


On the Guerssen release, River, Al Capa Strong, Searching for
the World, Seasons, You Say and Dragons were recorded in Lewiston in the spring
of 1970 with Jim Bartlett on bass and sharing vocal duties. Nothing, and Trying to Fly were recorded in
Spokane that summer with John (Bosco) Jackson on bass. There is a cd that was
released in 2004 on the Gear Fab label which I believe has all the songs on it
from both sessions.

Where were the recordings archived for so many years and how
did Rich Haupt of Rockadelic Records approached you?

I think a few of us had copies on cassettes that we had all
stuck away in boxes and forgotten about. There were a few floating around and I guess one just happened to get
into the right hands and eventually to Rockadelic Records. If I remember right, a rock historian and fan
in Seattle named John Berg is the one who introduced Rich to Sleepy John and
was instrumental in pushing that project forward.

This may be a bit of a difficult task, but can you please
comment each song?

I’ll take a stab at it. When the other guys read this part of the interview I hope they’ll
forgive any mistakes I have made. We all
remember things a little differently so here it goes.
River
“River” was written by Dave and arranged by the band. It was always well received and we kind of
used it as a hook at the start of our live sets to engage the audiences which
allowed us to throw in some of our more off the wall songs. Lewiston session.

A Capa Strong
This was a jam tune Jim and I played in 3 piece Valhalla
band. It was inspired by a group called
The Collectors, from Vancouver, BC. It
really evolved with Sleepy John. The
lyrics are fantasy or dream-like and were written and sang by Jim Bartlett.
Lewiston session.
Nothing
Written by Dave, Nothing was a song about nothing, a pretty
song with nice dynamics. Spokane session.
Dragons
Another fantasy song about Nights in armor slaying dragons,
written and sang by Dave. I always
thought it would make a good sound track for a short, kids animation. Lewiston
session.

Prelude to a Dream
“Prelude to a Dream” was a group effort again, a jam with a
nice jazzy feel. It was another tune we
liked to throw in as a bit of a break for the audience as well as us. Lewiston
session.
Seasons
This song, or I should probably say ‘work’, written by Dave
and group arranged, was like a ‘Rock Symphony’ telling a story (I’m not sure
what the story is) with many movements each different in rhythm and mood but
always coming back to a common theme. It
ends with a huge crescendo. This was probably our longest arrangement at nine
minutes and thirty seconds long. Lewiston session.
Losing My Plow
This was written by Frank in Seattle as he sat in his
apartment playing to the rhythm of his Frigidaire refrigerator. Itis reminiscent of the radio show his folks
hosted in Southern Idaho in the ’60s. The
barnyard noises in the intro and the applause was all just us making noise in
the microphones. We put it in our set
following one of our ‘heavier’ tunes and if people weren’t paying attention
before, they were now. Lewiston session.
Hard Workin’ Woman
Dave and Frank co-wrote this one. It was our attempt at a more commercial
song. It had a nice driving feel to it,
not too long and the lyrics were easy to relate to and understand, a good dance
tune. Spokane session.
I Just Happen to Be (In Love With You)
I think Jim and Dave and Frank wrote this one, again
something different.  Lewiston session.
 Monday Blues
We thought we needed a ‘slow blues’ song. Dave wrote some lyrics and we just jammed it
out, simple. Lewiston session.
You Say
Written by Dave and group arranged, “You Say” was a study in
redundancy. We’d take a catchy riff or
two and see how many times we could repeat it and not loose count. This is a cool, driving song with some nice changes
and a really good set or show ender. Lewiston session.
Trying to Fly
This was one of my favorites from the Spokane days, although
this recording doesn’t do it justice. This was written by Dave and Frank and
started to point us in a bit of a new direction. Spokane session.
Blue Sky
Another nice jazzy tune, lyrics by Dave and group
arranged. Spokane session.
Cowboy
Idaho was a mecca for hard core Country and Western music in
the 60s. “Cowboy” was our spoof on
Country Music, with lyrics like “catchin’ all the long-hairs and run ‘em out of
town”. This was always a crowd
pleaser. Lewiston session.
Searching For the World
“Searching  for the
World was another jam song that eventually had an arrangement to it. This song really moves!  It is very driving, with some really nice
solos, breaks and riffs. Very
representative of early Sleepy John. 
Lewiston session

What’s your opinion about counterculture of the ’60s, ’70s?

Looking back today is different than looking back 20 or 30
years ago. Today, with so much chronicled
and so many books and documentaries about the culture of the ’60s and early ’70s
it is hard for anyone to say this was not a very important time in our global
evolution. I am proud to have been a
small part of the music scene and to have a vinyl record that is finding not
only new legs as a historical document, but new fans who appreciate the music.

Were you influenced in any way you can remember by
hallucinogens?

Speaking only for myself, no, I don’t remember.

What happened after the band disbanded? This was around
1972, right?

Yes, that’s right. I
actually left the band in ’71 and moved home to Lewiston where I went back to
college, managed my folks business and got married. The band continued on with a new drummer and
remained a popular band throughout the region for the next year. Frank put together a group called “Blind
Willie” with a couple other Southern Idaho friends and pretty much carried on
where “Sleepy John” left off only as more of a strong original band with a
country rock feel, eventually with three guitars and powerful song writing and
four part vocals.
Dave came back to college in Lewiston. Shortly after that Dave and I were called to
Seattle to join a 1950’s show band, The Unholy Rollers. That band was a very successful show band
featuring fast paced music and comedy with strong musicianship, vocals,
choreography. We toured the US and
Canada constantly for five or six years. Frank eventually joined and our Sleepy John recording engineer, Paul
Speer, even did a few tours with us. 

Dave Lee, Lawson Hill, Bosco (John Jackson), Dave Lesher and
Frank Trowbridge. Not pictured is Tom Williams
Are you still in contact with other members and what
currently occupies your life?

Yes. We stay in
contact and see each other at least once a year. In 2010 we put together a Lewiston, Sleepy
John reunion concert and included all the bands we could that played in
Lewiston during the 1960s. It was two days of amazing fun, playing and visiting
with old friends we had not seen in many, many years.

I have been married to a super woman now for 34 years and we
have one wonderful daughter and live on a small farm outside of Seattle. I
retired a few years ago and have begun playing drums again after nearly thirty
years in a number of local groups. I
stay quite busy!
Thank you for taking your time. Would you like to share
anything else with It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine readers?


Klemen, I would like to thank you for your interest in
Sleepy John and wanting to share our story with your readers. We are honored. This was a magical time that still lives on
for us thanks in large to Rich Haupt, Roger Maglio, Guerssen Records and to you
and many other folks around the world. I am amazed!
Also, just to let everyone know, Jim, Bosco, Frank, Dave and
I are all still involved in music in some way and doing very well.

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2014
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2014
3 Comments
  1. James Grow

    These were magical times in the Lewis-Clark Valley. There were a number of bands at that time. Sleepy John, Stone Garden, Rocksberry Cops to name a few. Great days.

  2. James Grow

    These were magical times in the Lewis-Clark Valley. There were a number of bands at that time. Sleepy John, Stone Garden, Rocksberry Cops to name a few. Great days.

  3. Anonymous

    The Zombies mentioned in the interview were one of two fake groups that a promoter put on the road, after the then defunct band's name was up for grabs. One of those fake groups evolved into ZZ top...The one that is probably referred to in this interview was the one from Michigan which I saw in Lewiston (Casey's) and they were very good. https://www.buzzfeed.com/danielralston/the-true-story-of-the-fake-zombies-the-strangest-con-in-rock?utm_term=.pw5X10EpM#.bswPlnwrD

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