The Travis Edward Pike Story … by Lenny Helsing
Pike’s story begins sometime during the early 1960s when the Boston, Massachusetts based youngster – who would grow up to become a singer, songwriter and storyteller – joined the US Navy and was posted overseas in Germany. While stationed there he would go out to clubs and bars, attracting the attention of the clientele and club owners, due to his friends arranging to get him on stage to sing a number or two with whatever band was providing the live action.
“I don’t know that I seriously wanted to be a singer”, says Travis now, “but when I was about 12 years old, and my older brother (a fair pianist by the way), had become more interested in girls than music, I’d sneak into his room and listen to his records, mimicking the singers as I sang along. One of my first imitations was of Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’, but I loved the Platters, and learned to sing all their songs. The first phonograph record I bought was a 78 rpm Epic recording of ‘It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie’ by Somethin’ Smith and the Redheads. And I sang their ‘My Baby Don’t Care’ too, so I may have entertained the idea as early as 1955, but it was little more than a childish fantasy, like growing up to be a “famous” movie star, war hero, inventor, explorer, or scientist. (I don’t think I ever yearned to be anything that wouldn’t be improved by having ‘famous’ in front of it.)
“You’ve got me thinking about the songs I sang and enjoyed most”, Travis told me, when I asked him about some of the other songs and artists that might’ve been an influence on his singing career. “In no particular order, and having discovered many of them on records, some long after they had been hits, I came up with Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybelline’ and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ maybe because of the lyric “They’re really rockin’ in Boston…” Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was also a staple for me. I often used it to open a show. Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls Of Fire,’ Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘Everyday’, ‘Not Fade Away’, and ‘It’s So Easy,’ the Everly Brothers' ‘Bye, Bye Love’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’, and later, ‘Cryin’ In The Rain’. And going all the way back to the Jesters, Paul Anka’s ‘I’m Just A Lonely Boy.’ I also liked Lloyd Price – ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, and ‘Stagger Lee,’ and I was and am still a big fan of The Coasters. ‘Young Blood’, ‘Searchin’, ‘Yakety Yak’, ‘Charlie Brown’, and ‘Along Came Jones.’ I used the Clovers’ ‘Love Potion Number 9’ for the Five Beats Vampire Show. Thinking back on it, I sang a lot of Kingston Trio, some Hank Williams, and Harry Belafonte, too. And just now, thinking about all these acts and all these songs, many of them were comedic – novelty songs like ‘Man Smart, Woman Smarter’, and ‘Mama Look-A Boo Boo’. ‘Charlie On The MTA’, ‘Tic Tic Tic’, ‘Zombie Jamboree’, ‘The Merry Minuet,’ Ray Stevens’ ‘Ahab The Arab,’ and Larry Verne’s ‘Please Mr. Custer’. I not only liked these songs, they inspired many of my equally demented offerings, like ‘Pukapuka Gagadoody’, ‘Land Of The Giant Bugs’, ‘Ali Baba Ben Jones’, ‘Till The End’ (my Vampire Song), ‘Screamin’ Caretaker Blues’ and ‘Loup Garou’(my werewolf song).”
“With that background, when I was 13 or 14 years old, I was invited to join The Jesters, a teenage rock band”, he continues. “They needed a singer who knew all the hits. We only played three gigs before the drummer, who had use of his mother’s station wagon, found a girlfriend and that ended it all. Singing with the Jesters was fun, but sock hops in church basements didn’t seem a likely career. A few years later, when my mechanically-minded friends took me bar-hopping, it was to pick up some money to pay for auto parts, not a career move. I was not a trained musician, had no fantasies about joining a band, and certainly no thought of forming one for myself.
On the weekend before leaving for boot camp, my friends threw me a farewell party. Most of the talk centered around Norwood Arena and its popular Demolition Derbies. The following Tuesday morning, as my father drove me to the Boston Naval Station to sign up and ship out for boot camp, I suggested he make a demo derby movie. Eight months later, home on leave before reporting for duty in Germany, my father screened the dailies of the demo derby he had filmed at Norwood Arena. The action was great, but it needed a rock title song, and since I was the only rock singer in the family, he asked me to come up with something. And I did.
My initial overseas assignment was in the then British Zone, where I shared an office with a middle-aged German switchboard operator, while awaiting the clearances I would need for me to assume my regular duties. Her English was excellent, so unless the phones rang, we were able to sit and chat about anything and everything, mostly in German, to improve my less-than-stellar high school German language skills – until we heard the shocking news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Still awaiting orders, I was an unassigned supernumerary with plenty of time on my hands, so when a sailor, due for rotation Stateside, needed to quickly sell his Sunbeam Alpine, I bought it at a great price. The car was fun to drive and gave me an opportunity to explore the area, but it was the very devil to control on that part of Germany’s high-crowned, cobblestone streets, especially when it snowed. Which is why, just before Christmas, I skidded into a brick wall, messed up the car’s front end, and placed myself, again, at the mercy of auto mechanics.
Frank Dieter Andres, the Autoschlosser assigned to repair my car, had two great passions – Automobiles and rock‘n’roll. The combination of my sports car, my American Hot Rod magazines, and my history of bar-hopping for tips with my mechanic friends, inspired Frank to become my German mechanicus cum fautor, introducing me at dance clubs where I sang with the house bands as I had done back home, except that rather than money, gratuities were drinks and warm smiles. Appreciative club owners provided Kurrywurst, Bauer Früstück, and my Cola. Some even quietly slipped me some cash, but in 1964, 20 Marks was only $5.00 and 50 only $12.50 US. However, in the German economy, 50 Marks was enough for a really fine meal.
That all changed when I sang at a Spring Festival in Lütjenburg, Ost Holstein, to a family crowd of young, old, and everything in between, including the German soldiers who hosted the event at their base just outside of town, and treated me like a visiting celebrity. At that event, I was approached by club owners and at least one concert promoter with offers for paid bookings – well-paid bookings by the local standards, and the Kurrywurst, Bauer Früstück, and soft drinks were still included in the offers!”
“And shortly thereafter, on a particularly harrowing, rainy night”, Travis recollects, “when I had been accidentally booked into two clubs about 20 miles apart, speeding along the wet, high-crowned cobblestone roads, Werner Hingst, the promoter, said he’d put together a band for me, made up of the bass player and drummer from “The Night Stars” in Plön, the two guitarists and saxophone player from the Vampiros from Preetz, singers all. And that’s when the epithet “Teddy die Twist sensation aus USA” was bestowed upon me, and stayed with me through all the ensuing gigs with the new group that called itself The Five Beats.”
After that, it was only a matter of weeks until the group had interest from Phillips and Polydor. “I credit that to the unflagging efforts of Werner Hingst, and the fact that many of our regular fans hailed from Hamburg, and came north to take advantage of the popular camping facilities in Behrensdorf,” says Travis. “That’s when becoming a professional rock singer first became a serious proposition – in the summer of 1964, inspired by the German, Dutch and Danish crowds who screamed, shouted, banged tables, whistled and applauded my every show, and the interest from two European record companies.”
Meanwhile, Travis Pike’s father James A. Pike, who (as alluded to earlier) was a film producer, and released Demo Derby, complete with Travis’ suitably gritty, not to mention thrillingly appealing slice of rock‘n’roll beat action which opens proceedings and fits the bill most perfectly. His title song ‘Demo Derby,’ duly completed and produced by Arthur Korb, was recorded by a group called the Rondels at AAA Recording Studios in Boston. The film – an almost thirty-minute featurette that details all the fun and commotion of the thrilling, yet wholly dangerous sport of demolition derbies, includes as its sub-plot the story of successful Massachusetts racing enthusiast Don McTavish – was well-received upon release everywhere it played, opening in many theatres all across the United States where it would accompany the then current box office smashes of the day, Frank Sinatra in Robin and the Seven Hoods, Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas, and the hotly anticipated debut film of the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night. And the ‘Demo Derby’ title song, admirably performed by the Rondels, would also be issued on 45 rpm single at the time on the Pike Productions label.
Then disaster struck. Travis’ second car accident resulted in his being rotated Stateside to Chelsea Naval Hospital for a bone-graft operation to repair a smashed-up ankle. There, across the Mystic River from Boston, during his lengthy convalescence, young Pike acquired a guitar and began writing songs, serenading the corpsmen, patients and visitors to the hospital wards. With Demo Derby and Travis’ European successes behind him, it was unsurprising that Travis’s father would soon begin working on a new, teen-themed film project, one for which he would again ask for his son's involvement in taking care of the musical side of things. This time Travis was instructed to come up with a whole bunch of original songs, with around ten of the best of them to be readied for use as required throughout the new film, which had the working title Rock Around the Hub.
Once the writing process was completed, the songs needed to be professionally recorded, and a suitably up-to-the-minute rock group who could authentically convey the music and lyrics had to be found.
Once more, the elder Pike wasted no time enlisting the help of Arthur Korb and AAA Recording Studios, plus the more than able services of hot local group Oedipus & His Mothers, who were hired for the sessions. For reasons known only to the producer, and for the credits and press releases for the movie, the band was listed as Travis Pike and the Brattle Street East, who wailed for all they were worth across some truly raw, primitive rock‘n’roll teen howlers such as ‘The Way That I Need You’, which contained some wonderfully achieved early Elvis Presley-style atmospherics. And the astonishing ‘Watch Out Woman’, an exhilarating piece that, had it made it onto the desired seven-inch 45 rpm waxing back in 1966, would’ve surely been the stuff of legend long before the year 2017. This song has everything discerning listeners require from a top choice garage punk-infused rock‘n’roll-soaked nugget: pounding drums, check; chunky guitar chords, check; fierce, blazing lead guitar break, check; a lead vocal that’s not only crammed with vitality but also liberally laced with a high level of conviction, snazz galore and a ton of attitude, CHECK!!! Small wonder that Shindig! magazine placed the UK State Records release at #3 on its 2017 Best Single list. On a controversial note, although the title track for Feelin’ Good saw the light of day as a single release at the time, 1966, on the Pike Productions label, the mixed-race vocal group who performed the song, the Montclairs – and who can also be seen in one of the restored clips now on You Tube – were seen sitting and talking together in the booth of a pizza parlour in one of the film’s scene. This was a step too far for the film censors and was dubbed much too controversial to show at that time, where high instances of black and white people segregation was still a common occurrence in many towns and cities across USA, and led to the film being dropped.
Battle of the Band Winners the Montclairs
Fast forward a year or two and we now find Travis and group successfully playing the local gig circuit they had built up all around the New England area – first calling themselves the Boston Massacre, before switching names to the somewhat less controversial Travis Pike’s Tea Party (and with a fabulous first-time 45 on commercial release on the small Alma label, ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl’).
I asked Travis what were the most thrilling moments for him when he had groups like the Tea Party happening, and while out in California, when it perhaps became apparent that this might not be working out the way he had initially thought it might. Travis recalls in significant detail the scene in which the group found themselves in 1967, leading up to their subsequent move to California the following year. “If you mean to strictly limit the answer to Travis Pike and the Boston Massacre, later Travis Pike’s Tea Party”, he says, “I suppose our Labor Day Weekend at Gunstock Acres in Gilford, New Hampshire will make the cut. Gunstock Acres, over a hundred miles north of Boston, was a resort real estate development in New Hampshire ski country, and we had been booked to provide entertainment for their potential property buyers. Thanks to WRKO Radio’s Harbor Cruise promotion, which I believe started in late July and ran into August, we enjoyed widespread name recognition throughout New England.”
Pike illuminates further, “But the weekend got off to a bad start, when Mikey Joe, driving the station wagon in which most of our gear was loaded, collided with another vehicle somewhere near Concord, New Hampshire. No one was injured, but the station wagon couldn’t be driven. We called ahead to the lodge, explained our problem, and they dispatched one of their tour vans to transport us and our equipment the rest of the way to their location. By the time their vehicle arrived, Mikey Joe had made out the accident report, supplied his insurance information to the authorities, and we were cleared to continue on. We transferred our luggage and instruments to the Gunstock Acres van, arranged to have the station wagon towed to a repair shop, where it would not even be looked at until after the Labor Day weekend, and continued on to the lodge.
The lodge was beautiful, the food was excellent, and our barracks-like accommodations were more than adequate, but that first evening, after our scheduled concert, I worried about how we’d get us and our equipment back to Boston, how much it would cost to get the station wagon repaired, and when and how we’d be able to get back up to New Hampshire to pick it up. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well that night.
Happily, on Saturday morning, Camille Turner arrived and explained everything had been arranged. Dick Turner, her husband, was our manager, and I had dubbed Camille our managerie. She had arranged for baby-sitters, drove up in her station wagon, and would stay the rest of the weekend to drive us back to Boston on Monday afternoon, and when Mikey Joe’s car was repaired, either she or Dick would drive Mikey Joe up to get it. Let me tell you what a relief that was, and I finally was able to relax and drink in the beauty of the surroundings.
There weren’t enough sales personnel to deal with all the guests at once, so they made appointments with their potential buyers and arranged personalized tours and pitched house designs in appropriate price ranges for each family. We had a lot of free time between concerts and meals, so Camille asked Karl to play some of his classical guitar pieces for her. In short order, a number of the adult guests not on tours or tied down with sales people, gathered around to listen. But there were a number of young children among those families, too, and they quickly became restless, so I rounded them up and took them to the other side of the lodge where I played them popular folk songs and performed my stories in rhyme, much to their delight – and much appreciated by the sales people. Apart from listening to me or Karl, I don’t know what George, Mikey Joe and Uncle Phil did in their spare time, but everybody seemed happy again, showed up on time for meals and the scheduled concerts, which rocked the mountainside and were probably heard echoing all the way to Lake Winnipesaukee.
However, Sunday morning, when I came down to breakfast, I was greeted by an irate mother, her little boy, and Patricia Granger, the Public Relations Director for Gunstock Acres. The mother claimed she had been up all night with her little one, who was having nightmares based on the frightening stories I told him on Saturday afternoon. I protested that I had not told any stories unfit for a child’s ears, but the mother insisted and even cited her garbled version of the offending ‘Twail’s Tale’. When I recognized it, I offered to tell it to them, right on the spot. Patricia wanted to hear it, and the fire-breathing mother was eager to point out my insensitive culpability, but both ladies enjoyed it. It looked to me like the lad’s mother was about to make him the target of her spleen, so I praised him for his wonderful imagination, and she held her tongue, at least while in my presence.
I received a letter from Patricia Granger congratulating me for my outstanding performance at their Labor Day Open House Party, praising the cooperation from the entire group, not only in our musical endeavors, but all-around attitudes and assistance, closing with a warm thank you to me, Karl, George, Mike and Phil. Until now, I always wondered why we were addressed individually, instead of by our group name, but this may have been suggested by Dick Turner, since we were in the process of coming up with a new name for the group, and before the month was out, had renamed ourselves, Travis Pike’s Tea Party.
Another personal favorite followed soon after, in November 1967 – the first sold-out college mixer sponsored jointly by the Burton House Committee at M.I.T. and the Charlesgate Hall ladies’ residence at Boston University. In his letter, the vice-president of the Burton House Committee, Jorge A. Romero wrote, “On few occasions before had the Sala de Puerto Rico witnessed such a crowd.”
That afternoon, I had been an usher at my older brother’s wedding. I could only stay about an hour at their reception, because I had to leave early to get ready for the gig at M.I.T. We were rocking a crowd of more than 1600 college students when my brother Jimmy and his bride arrived, having come directly from their reception to dance to my music at that show. That was an unexpected and unforgettable thrill for me. Another career highlight, according to a disintegrating New England Scene magazine article in Spring, 1968, came when Travis Pike’s Tea Party were received at the Providence Art Festival “with great enthusiasm.” This event was especially sweet because we were invited for our artistic merit, worthy of inclusion because we only played my original material, and we were the first rock group ever invited to perform at that event.”
“And so, to California. When we arrived, virtually unknown, we had to find work immediately or go bust, so we signed on at The Posh, a large beer and wine dance club in Pomona, catering mostly to students from CalPoly, Mount SAC, and Clairmont College. It was there we played our first Saturday night dance contest. The dancers were allowed to select the music for their dance competition, and that first Saturday, we had eight requests for ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances’, one for ‘Who’s Making Love’, and one for my original song, ‘Oh Mama’. Frankly, I was glad to have made the list at all, but the real thrill came the following week, when there was one request for ‘Who’s Making Love’ (probably by the same couple from the week before), and nine requests for ‘Oh Mama’! Having my song requested by nine of the ten couples, was awesome, and a huge morale boost to me, and the original members of the group.”
I then quizzed Travis about the origins of that excellent, lone 45 rpm single alluded to earlier, which Travis Pike’s Tea Party had recorded in late 1967 for the small Alma label. Travis answered, “Yes, ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl.’ To be perfectly honest, Lenny, I don’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but I know it was in our performance repertoire before the November 1967 MIT, Burton House Committee joint mixer with Boston University’s Charlesgate Hall, because my brother Jimmy particularly liked it, and we played it when he showed up with his bride, immediately after their wedding reception. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is, even with Judy’s scrapbook, and all the media coverage we had, some of the events of late 1967 and early 1968 are difficult for me to organize into a coherent timeline. I am sure, for instance, that ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl’ was in our repertoire when we were introduced to Squire D. Rushnell, then a new producer for Westinghouse Television, WBZ-TV in Boston. He was assembling talent for a show he had in development, Here and Now, and asked us if we would agree to be the house band for the show, with me and Karl Garrett as the music directors. Had it been offered to me, without Karl, I would have had to turn it down. In those days, I was a “natural”, by which I confess I was musically untrained, and composed and arranged everything I did by instinct. Karl, on the other hand, was planning to withdraw from Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music with only one semester left, in order to go to Spain and study with Segovia, when I met him and convinced him to join me in putting together the group that ultimately became Travis Pike’s Tea Party.”
Just where did Travis Pike’s Tea Party combo fit in with the general scene that was taking place locally at that time? “In January, 1968, we had opened shows at the Psychedelic Supermarket in Boston for Moby Grape, The Fugs, and Spirit”, recalls Travis, and in addition to our fairly regular college gigs, had begun playing our once-a-month weekends at the Rubicon Coffeehouse in Providence Rhode Island, owned and operated by students from the Rhode Island School of Design. (That gig and those students are probably how and why we were the first ever rock group to play at the 1968 Providence Art Festival.) … But back to ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl’ and its direct connection to the TV show, Here and Now. In the early April, 1968, TV pilot episodes, we (meaning everybody else in the group, under Karl’s direction), recorded ‘My World Is Blue’ and I’m pretty sure that Karl, possibly supported by the rest of the band, also recorded ‘Classical Gas.’ Of course, Karl did the arrangements, and rehearsed the rest of the band, while I hid out in the control room, “producing” the sessions. That makes sense when you consider that I was not a trained musician, but one area where I did have expertise, having been the manager of Lightfoot Recording Studios where I produced recordings for would-be folk singers and rock stars, was the control room, and there is where I earned my shared credit as a music director.
As I remember it, I was sitting in the control booth with Joe Saia, owner-operator of AAA Recording Studios, who personally engineered our sessions for Here and Now. Between takes, I pitched him on recording us on his Alma label. The advent of “The Boston Sound” had been announced in Newsweek, leading to the Friday, January 26, 1968, Jim Morse blurb in the Boston Herald announcing the several local bands that had already been signed (The Beacon Street Union, The Phluph, Orpheus, and The Ultimate Spinach), and predicted that Travis Pike’s Tea Party would be next. I had already negotiated, as part of our deal to be the house band for Here and Now, that we would perform some of our original songs as Travis Pike’s Tea Party on the show, and I believe Squire had even requested we do ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl.’”
“Considering I had Joe by the ears, so to speak”, Travis reveals, “I suggested that since he had a label, and we were already recording in his studio, and we hadn’t been caught up by “the Boston Sound” yet, that he sign us and release our recordings on his label. We’d debut our songs on our TV Show and in whatever gigs we did and with a little bit of luck, we had a very good shot at getting radio play, especially since WBZ Radio 1030, was the most popular and powerful (Class A clear channel AM) rock station in Boston. He agreed, and with ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl’ on side one, we both thought a ballad would make a good flip side. Which ballad, I seem to remember, was a toss-up between ‘End of Summer’ and ‘The Likes Of You’, with Joe favoring the latter. He even offered to bring in some players from the Boston Pops to sweeten the recording with some orchestral parts, which excited Karl, who began coming up with parts for strings and woodwinds. I backed off. The conversation, while not above my pay grade, had moved into unfamiliar territory, but as it all came together, I held out for the descending line bassoon part, which meant one musician would get paid for doubles, my singular contribution to the orchestration.
We did manage to get both songs onto Here and Now, but I think only ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl’ ever aired. We had done a total of three TV shows, only two of which had aired, when we were all put on hiatus, while the powers that be decided whether or not the show would go on. We quickly booked ourselves into some last-minute college gigs, and were available for both the First Annual Boston Pop Festival at the Psychedelic Supermarket on Friday, May 17th, where we shamelessly promoted our new recording and called upon all our fans to call their favorite radio stations to request our song. That also meant we were available for a few end-of-semester college gigs, and the Providence Art Festival, but then the roof fell in.”
“I really don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg”, says Travis, “but about the same time Here and Now was cancelled, WBZ Radio changed from its Top 40 format to something they dubbed “adult contemporary.” Suddenly, instead of preparing for our recording to take off, we were taking the summer off. Our official cancellation letter arrived around the 26th of June, and we found ourselves without any bookings, and all the local and Cape Cod summer bookings were filled. It looked like we would be hard-pressed to find work anywhere that summer. Worse, WRKO had taken over the top spot in Boston Rock Radio, and despite the calls from our fans, refused to play our record. Their head of programming even called me at home to tell me to tell my “hirelings” to stop calling in. He would never play our record, no matter how many people requested it.
Such a bizarre call. I had no hirelings calling in, so that meant WRKO was being deluged by calls from our genuine fan base, obviously much larger than I ever imagined. That part made all of us feel pretty good. But his rage and threat to never play any of our records, ever, made no sense at all.I had no alternative but to confront the monster in his den. I knew exactly where WRKO was located. Until it became WRKO, it had been WNAC, part of the Yankee Network, where my father had been employed for many years, as its TV program director. I arrived in the lobby of the studios, in Kenmore Square, across from Fenway Park, and asked to speak to the radio program director. To my surprise, I was recognized as Jim Pike’s son, Travis, and the buzz quickly spread across the lobby.
No more than a couple of minutes had passed when a guy with mutton-chop sideburns came charging down the stairs, shouting out that he didn’t care whose son I was, he would never play my records. I was a traitor! I had gone over to the enemy when I signed on with ‘BZ, and I would never be played on ‘RKO. I don’t know what he’d been drinking, smoking or sniffing, but whatever had wound him up, he was way over the top. My first inclination was to lay him out, which I could easily have done. Too easily. I had been trained, and such a reaction on my part would probably get me arrested, and certainly lead to a lawsuit. So instead, I grabbed him by his mutton-chop whiskers and kissed him off! Then turned on my heel and left, to cheers from all the gathered witnesses in the lobby.”
“We were finished in Boston”, sates Travis, “at least until the fall semester started, and faced with being unemployed and opportunity beckoning from California, I packed up the band and went west. Joe Saia was good about releasing us from our recording contract, so we could seek greener pastures in Los Angeles, but the joy that had sustained us through our hometown beginnings got lost along the way. ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl’ did show up in some jukeboxes, even as far west as California (which, apart from parts of Alaska, is about as far west as you can go in the continental United States). As far as ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl’ was concerned, it was over and done, and the band broke up in early 1970, I think.”
The ensuing years throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s would not only see Travis further honing his enumerable skills as a singer and songwriter, a creative ideas man but also as a storyteller, movie producer, director, screenwriter, editor, and ADR language dubbing director. Travis and his wife Judy would also put in the necessary time and effort required to raise their family, while all around the world generations of younger music fans were beginning to look back to the 1960s beat, garage and psychedelic periods to enrich their minds and their worlds with what they found there. “The next I heard about ‘If I Didn’t Love You Girl’, says a surprised Travis, “was that it had appeared on a British Rock compilation album called Tougher Than Stains. I looked it up, and discovered it had even previously been released in a German compilation album in the Sixties Rebellion series called The Backyard Patio.”
“As for the song’s lyrical content”, recalls Travis, “I was exploring the nearly schizophrenic Sturm und Drang of youthful infatuation, by having the lead vocal sing that he loved the girl, while the chorus protectively denied it. And later, when the lead suggests that the object of his affection never really loved him, the chorus sings she really did, both sides of the question mollifying and protecting his fragile ego. In 2017, it came out again on the New Untouchables compilation album le beat bespoké 7 and this year, a reissue of the original Alma Records 45 will become a reality, suggesting to me that it has found its place at last, front and center in an early garage band psychedelic paradigm.”
In more recent years and with assistance from his younger brother Adam, Travis began releasing a series of CD albums, including Travis Edward Pike’s Odd Tales and Wonders, Stories in Song; Reconstructed Coffeehouse Blues; Travis Edward Pike’s Tea Party Snack Platter; Feelin’ Better; and Mystical Encounter, Songs from Changeling’s Return, where he would draw upon decades' worth of rock‘n’roll, folk, pop, rock and musical theater influences to create a wealth of new and / or newly adapted material, culminating in the Outside the Box collection (with Adam Pike) of assorted takes of some greatly evolved 1960s material and new material which, as with all Pike’s recent releases comes courtesy of his Otherworld Cottage Industries. More pertinent, and indeed most significant of all for fans of 1960s teen garage rock‘n’roll sounds, is the recent You Tube appearance of the trailer for the incomparable ‘Watch Out Woman’ as performed on the Charles River Esplanade in Boston by the gloriously animated Travis Pike and the Brattle Street East and, of course, its follow-up as a beautifully presented picture sleeve (with flip-back edges) 7” 45 rpm bullet, coupled with ‘The Way That I Need You’, and issued on the State Records label out of England during the summer of 2017.
Travis had to take the damaged print he’d inherited to Deluxe Labs to clean and digitize the film so that it might be presented across the internet, where it could be viewed and enjoyed over and over. In addition to the cash layout, restoring the color enough to make it viewable also took lot of time and tender loving care, not to mention a high level of professional skill, provided by Brent Backhus, one of the inspired minions of Travis’ Otherworld Cottage Industries. If you’ve not yet had the extreme pleasure then allow me to direct you to it here:
Also, if you have a further desire to check out a more detailed analysis of Travis Pike’s full career then look no further than Issue No. 43 of Ugly Things magazine from 2016, where Harvey Kubernik has the full scoop. My own, albeit much smaller appraisal can also be found within issue No 70 of Shindig! from 2017. But rock‘n’roll aside Travis Pike’s success has been spilling out into both the literary arts and into spoken word performance.
Travis farther illuminates what, for him, became something altogether more serious, or significant. “Grumpuss was the game changer”, he states. “Originally a longer than usual story in rhyme I composed to amuse my stepdaughter, it became, over time, and largely at her insistence, the epic adventure it is today. Unlike my shorter works which I told from memory, on those rare occasions when, pressed by friends at various gatherings, I’d be persuaded to tell Grumpuss, I’d read it aloud, with expression, of course, but also in extemporaneous character voices that kept them unique and individually interesting, and separated them from my narration. Hoarse after one such 90-minute reading in the mid-1990s, I decided to do a definitive recording I could play for visitors, rather than read. Not long after, Dr. Judith Stanton, Professor of English at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts was visiting, and when asked to read it for her benefit, I played instead the two cassettes of my recording. Not only did I get to relax and enjoy the performance, but I also observed the reactions of my guests, and was free to offer refreshments between the tapes, more like a host than a trained monkey.
Dr. Stanton loved it so much, she asked if I could make her a copy that she could play for her English classes studying oral poetry. I did, she did, and in a thank you letter sent to me March 24, 1997, she wrote, “You have created a character who will enrich the imaginations of many. I sincerely hope that you can arrange for the public to meet him soon.” And so, the die was cast. Just over seven months later, on November 1st, 1997, I performed Grumpuss, live, entirely from memory and entirely in rhyme, at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England, world heritage site, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, and home to the Dukes of Marlborough, as a world premiere benefit for the Save the Children Fund. I was rehearsing the rhythmic gymnasts in Coventry, so my friend, director of photography (now an Academy Award recipient), Peter Anderson, flew over from Los Angeles to supervise the stage setting, lighting, and direct the four camera digibeta shoot. The local production staff was curious about who this Travis Edward Pike was, and Peter was always having to try to tell them. It was he, who came up with the short answer, “America’s greatest storyteller”, and that seemed to satisfy everybody. It was only later, when I was setting up to do radio interviews about Grumpuss, that I learned that there were professional storytellers. I had been telling stories all my performing life, but had never billed myself as a storyteller before. Original songs and rhymes were the staples of my performances in coffeehouse or hospital settings. So as not to upset any professional storytellers, I quickly adapted Peter’s description to “One of America’s Greatest Living Storytellers”, by which I only claimed to be “one” of no one could possibly number how many storytelling peers, and with “living”, made it unnecessary to compare myself to Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, or whoever is now or ever will be one day anointed America’s greatest storyteller.
As for Professor Stanton’s hope that I would contrive to introduce Grumpuss to the public, a VHS of that videotaped performance in both NTSC and PAL formats was released to the public in 1998, won an INTERCOM Silver Plaque Award for Special Achievement – Writing, at the 1999 Chicago Film Festival, and garnered widespread critical acclaim. In 2017, I had the original digibeta masters beautifully transferred at Deluxe and I have now released a pristine DVD version of that highly-praised performance in a Grumpuss 20th Anniversary Platinum Edition.”
Speaking of Grumpuss, I asked Travis if he could tell me when the notion that he might have a gift to be an adept story teller struck and if this then made him want to venture down further into those kinds of avenues? “I began writing short stories and narrative poetry in study halls in Boston Latin School when I was eleven years old”, Travis recollects. “I remember because I got into trouble about it. I had never had a study hall in elementary school, so when I had a “Free Period,” I quite naturally assumed it belonged to me, and as long as I didn’t annoy or distract the other boys, I’d be okay.” “In fact,” he continues, “the monitor (one of the older, grumpier members of the faculty), snatched one of my efforts from my desktop, shouted for all to hear that study hall was not intended for homework, much less private literary pursuits, and gave me five misdemeanor marks on the spot (six meant censure). Then he actually tore up my paper! His outrageous outrage in response to my innocent diversions may have discouraged other boys from embarking on similar ventures, but did nothing to curb my wilful pursuit of happiness, which I took to be a right made law in the American Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia claims to be the Cradle of Liberty, but if so, Boston, Massachusetts, provided the womb. I merely became more circumspect as I went on with my literary pursuits.
I made it through a second year at Latin School, but when the family moved to Newton, tuition would have been required for me to continue there, so I was transferred into the Newton School System. I suppose it was a bit like Tom Brown’s School Daysmeets Fast Times at Ridgemont High,although I am unaware of drug use on any of the Newton Campuses while I was enrolled – and in Newton, I don’t think anybody cared what one did in study hall, as long as they did not cause a disturbance – which suited me to a T. As a matter of fact, much of my original story that has since become Long-Grin, was composed during those Newton study halls. Once, when my father was filming a segment for John Gunther’s High Road, that famous author read some of my scribblings, asked to meet me, said my early works showed promise, and encouraged me to persist in my efforts. Unfortunately, leaving my scribblings around was considered a disturbance by my father and I was banished to my room. Not much of a punishment, given I had plenty of paper and a number of ballpoint pens.
My father was the oldest of his siblings, and married youngest, so most of my cousins were considerably younger than I. Visits were rare, but when they did come over, I would sometimes go to one side and share my poems and tell my stories, which I believe were greatly enjoyed by my young cousins, but it wasn’t until I found myself a patient in Chelsea Naval Hospital, that I began telling my tales to my peers – and getting excellent responses from my captive audiences on the various hospital wards. That experience encouraged me to tell my tales at parties, and later in coffeehouses, especially in the wee hours when the crowds had thinned and playing and singing for so few seemed rather silly. And the stories and poems were just as popular with college types as they had been with the enlisted men and children, related and unrelated to whom I had told my tales.
One would think that while I might have gotten away with it telling stories to children, bedridden young adults, and coffeehouse crowds, but they would never translate to rock fans. Not so. Rarely, usually only when a guitar string had to be replaced, an amplifier blew a fuse (or tube, in those early days), or perhaps worst of all, a drumhead succumbed to the drummer’s beat, there would come an awful silence. Just think of pop radio, without the Deejay’s non-stop chatter to fill the holes while he changed the records, and you’ll get an idea of what happened. In times like that, radio listeners might start switching channels, but live, they lost interest in the “dead” band, and turned to their own, selfish interests like, girls, boys, or automobiles. I discovered that if I held their attention with my stories, they were not only kept interested in the entertainment, but cheered when we were finally able to continue (or perhaps when I finally stopped). Soon, at parties, whether I sang or played songs, someone would ask for this or that favorite of my original rhymes, which was quite all right with me. But after I gave up the band, when I was asked to perform alone in front of a crowd, where I knew a rock band was standing by, waiting for their opportunity to shine, rather than do a solo, I’d perform one or two of my original rhymes, as an “opening act.”
“As for being a storyteller”, says Travis, “while I still ‘tell’ stories in live broadcast and print interviews, I am becoming, more and more, an author and songwriter, rather than a performing singer or storyteller. But I make no predictions for what the future may yet hold in store.”
“Ultimately”, he states, “my most memorable gig ever was my 1997, live, benefit performance of Grumpuss, for the Save the Children Fund, staged at Blenheim Palace.” He continues, “I performed the entire 99-minute fantasy adventure, playing the narrator and a number of different characters, entirely from memory and entirely in rhyme. The Queen of the Sidh (Anna Scott) and the three lovely young waifs she holds in thrall, (played by rhythmic gymnasts Aimee Johnson, Yvonne Hill, and Rose Meredith), interacted with me in short bits between the acts. The audience response, both at the live performance and subsequently, to the original VHS release, ranks it at the top of my greatest career achievements, and now, the Grumpuss 20th Anniversary Platinum Edition on DVD has been released and is sold by Amazon.”
Let us turn our attention backwards for another glimpse into what made up those original early days when Travis, aka “Teddy die Twist Sensation aus USA” was just starting out on his singing career!
“Then I’d start with my first gig with the Five Beats, the German-Italian band created especially for me from two previously popular local bands, at Gasthaus Schroeder, Behrensdorf,” Travis reveals, “which was the ‘home room’ of one of those bands. I had been warned that the crowd would be openly hostile, and the audience would include some of the previous band’s members, but from the first song of the first set, the positive crowd reaction was overwhelming. And during the first break, one of the passed over founders of the popular local band came back stage, graciously toasted me, and wished me success with the Five Beats.”
“Interesting. I just realized that many of my most memorable gigs were potential disasters overcome. I think most precious memories come from overcoming potential disasters. I lived in Lütjenburg, about a half hour from Preetz, where three of the Five Beats lived. I think the gig was in Flensburg, about an hour north of Preetz, very near the Danish border, and to save on gas and be sure none of us got lost along the way, we agreed to meet in Preetz and depart in two vehicles from there. What happened next was right out of a slapstick comedy. I think I arrived in Preetz on time, but I had to find a place to park my two-seater sports car, and then get back to the street corner where we were all to meet. I must have stood on that corner for close to ten minutes before I looked up the address of the saxophone player (who lived just around the corner), and learned that our manager, Werner Hingst, had called to say he was running late and told them to leave without me! My German was pretty good, as long as we stayed on subjects familiar to me, but I really didn’t understand what had happened, or why I had been left behind, but the family prevailed on me to stay put and wait for Werner.
Probably no more than 15 minutes later, Werner arrived, and rushed me out to his car, where Enriko Lombardi was waiting. Now, to put this all in perspective, on the Five Beats handbills, I was top billed as Teddy Pike, USA, Twist and Show Sensation. Second-billed was Enriko Lombardi, Italia, Singer and Guitarist. In fact, he was our bass player, and his electric bass had been stolen! Werner had picked him up to rush into Kiel, where he knew a store owner willing to stay open late to sell us a new bass guitar! So the two top-billed foreign “stars” were speeding on their way to Kiel, rather than Flensburg, and by the time we made the purchase and got back on the road, we were running most of an hour late, with an hour’s drive ahead of us to Flensburg. Even without speed limits, we would be more than an hour late for the gig.
There was a curfew for younger kids, and although the “Four Beats” had explained we were on our way, would be there soon, and started the show with Eddie Christers, who had been the lead singer for The Vampiros, many in the audience felt cheated and booed when we arrived. We had to push our way through the crowd to the stage. Normally, Enriko opened the show and warmed up the audience for me, but that night, I had to go on immediately, before Enriko even had time to tune up his bass!
I opened with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and within a few bars of that song, the crowd went from sullen to ecstatic. The local police, called in by the club owner to make sure the crowd would not turn into an angry mob, not only enjoyed the show, but looked the other way so some of the younger patrons could stay a bit past curfew to enjoy more of the show, and that potential disaster ended in a triumph!”
“My first gig back in the States was in 1965 when I was recovering from reconstructive surgery at Chelsea Naval Hospital”, Travis remembers. A rock band of youngsters from Natick High School asked me to come and sing with them in their talent contest. They knew if I did, they’d be disqualified because I wasn’t a student, but that didn’t matter to them. I was nothing like a twist sensation as I hobbled out on crutches, but I put the crutches aside and clung to two microphone stands while I sang three or four pop songs. The kids in the auditorium rose as one, howling for more. That’s when my father, who had driven me to the talent show, decided that if I could do that to a crowd of teenagers, he’d put me in his next movie, working title Rock Around the Hub, finished and released in 1966 as Feelin’ Good.”
If you’ve yet to hear any of the righteous, and delightful sounds Travis made back in the day, or feel you’d like to share in, or just investigate some of his musical and literary triumphs… then all you need to know about the various pursuits of the legendary Travis Edward Pike can be found at the following websites.
Happy Trails! Travis Pike said that himself… and I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Travis for all the help, advice, encouragement, patience and understanding while all this was being put together. And last, but not least, thanks for all the great music and the words, rhymes and stories cheers!
- Lenny Helsing
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