The Countdown 5 interview

June 29, 2018

The Countdown 5 interview

The “5” consisted of 5 distinct individuals that melted into a musical powerhouse. Mack Hayes was the lead singer with a wide and versatile vocal range, comfortable with fronting the band. John Balzer was, hands down, one of the most talented, versatile, and innovative guitar players around as well as a fine singer in his own right. Tommy Murphy was a premier bass player and backup singer. His skill on the bass guitar provided the floor and the punch to all the music. Fan favorite Tommy Williams, affectionately known as “Willie” was king of the beat. His skill on the drums combined with Murphy on the bass resulted in a rock solid rhythm section that was the envy of many bands of the time. Steve Long played sax and keys and was a singer also. Steve was the most uninhibited performer of the group. When he took over the mic for a lead vocal, he energized the crowd with moves that would make Mick Jagger jealous! The “5”, while serious about their music, was a showy, entertaining rock & roll band that cut up with the crowds, did a lot of choreography, and was dedicated to putting on a good show. There was always a lot of movement to go with the music, and extras like left handed guitar whiz Balzer playing the guitar behind his back and with his teeth, and Williams jumping up and down on his drum kit during “Shout”! A typical set list would include tunes like “Shout”, “Ooo Poh Pah Doo”, “Midnight Hour”, “Mustang Sally”, “Louie Louie”, “Satisfaction”, some Beatle tunes, “Purple Haze”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “When a Man Loves a Woman”, “Wild Thing”, “Wolly Bully”, “My Girl, and some Paul Revere tunes.

Where and when did you grow up? Was music a big part of your family life? Did the local music scene influence you or inspire you to play music?
Mack Hayes: I grew up in Texas City, TX. Near Galveston, TX. My father, Dallas Hayes, was a plant worker but a life long country/bluegrass music lover. He played tenor banjo and mandolin. The Lawrence Welk Show was very big in our house. And after retiring, my Dad was one of the founders of the Bay Area Bluegrass Association in League City, TX. He played with several bands throughout the rest of his life.
Steven Long: I began piano lessons at age 8 in my hometown of Dickinson Texas. I also began to play trumpet and saxophone in school band.
When did you begin playing music? What was your first instrument? 
Mack: My father thought that Myron Floren, accordion player in the Lawrence Welk Orchestra was just the greatest musician/performer (go figure). Sooo, at the age of 12, I took accordion lessons. Played with a local country band on Saturday mornings on local KTLW radio stations for a short while.
Steven: Trumpet was my first instrument but the metal mouthpiece caused my lips to blister. I switched to sax with the wooden or plastic mouth piece for that reason at age 12 and continued in the school band all through collage.
Tom Williams: I became interested in the drums when I was 8 years old and my older sister was a drummer in the high school band. My first job playing was in junior high playing with Chuck and Mike at a country western beer joint called the Lone Star Tavern.

Tommy Murphy: Christmas 1959 I got my 1st electric guitar which I immediately loaded in the car and took to Tom (Willy) Williams’ house to show it off. It wasn’t long until we were on the way to the local pawn shop to get him a drum set. That’s the way it all started. Neither of us could sing or play, but we were ready to give it a shot.

What bands were you a member of prior to the formation of The Countdown 5?
Mack: My first band was D & the Dominoes which was the precursor of the Countdown 5. 
Steven: Only school bands.

What was the first song you ever composed?
Mack: My song writing began as a result of the CD 5. We decided that we were going to have to write our own material if we were going to have a hit record(s). Not positive but I believe “Uncle Kirby” was one of, if not the first, song I ever wrote. I later had some success with a couple of Houston pro sports team songs. In 1979 the Houston Oilers were the hottest team in pro football. I was scheduled to do a local TV show in early December of that year in which they wanted me to sing a regular song and a Christmas song. So as a lark for the Christmas song I wrote a parody of the 12 Days of Christmas called “The 12 Days of Oilers Christmas” and sang it on the mornings show. To my surprise it garnered so much attention (the Oilers were very popular) that I went straight to the studio and recorded it, got cassettes out to all Houston radio & TV stations, and by that evening everyone was playing it. I went back in the studio and, with two musician friends of mine Jerrel Elliot and Clark Walters, wrote 12 Days of (blank) Christmas for 10 other NFL teams that were headed for the playoffs. We got a national distributor to release in the various cities and sold almost 400,000 singles. What a hoot!

That little stunt led to me writing and recording “Luv Ya Blue” to spearhead the famous “Luv Ya Blue” promotion of the Houston Oilers. I wrote new words to the chorus of the Beatles “Love Me Do” and augmented with original melody and lyrics for the verses. I actually copyrighted the song as written by Hayes/Lennon/McCartney. I performed at every Oiler home game the 1980 season on the sidelines with my “Luv Ya Blue” Band in the Astrodome. The Oilers used the song throughout the 80’s & 90’s.
In 1980 I wrote and recorded as song for the Houston Astros basball team called “Go Go Astros” that the team used throughout the 80’s. Then in 2017 the Astros really started winning and the song was revived by Houston radio and TV media as the Astros went on to win the World Series.
Steven: “Shaka Shaka Na Na”
Can you elaborate the formation of the band?
Mack: The original band, known as “D & The Dominoes” was formed in the summer of 1962 by childhood friends Tommy Williams (drums), Tommy Murphy (bass), and an older fellow named Elesio Delao in Tommy Williams’ garage in Texas City, TX. Delao left and was replaced by me (singer & keys) and two more musicians that were recommended, Starling Mosley (guitar) and Steve Long (sax & keys). Within a matter of a few months, Mosley left the group, and while searching for a replacement, they played in a Battle of the Bands in Texas City and were impressed with a left handed guitar whiz named John Balzer, who was backing some fellow named Johnny Lee in that same contest. John joined the band that day. Finally, D & The Dominoes was set: Balzer, Hayes, Murphy, Williams, and Long. The home base for D & The Dominoes for the next few years in the spring and summer was the legendary Bamboo Hut, and later the Grass Menagerie, Galveston Beach Clubs that were THE summer destinations for college kids from all over the U. S. The “5” played through sweltering heat, heavy rain storms and even the threat of a hurricane or two. It was gruelling but all the while they were honing their skills, getting tighter, more creative, and they were drawing huge crowds. Spring Break and Splash Days at the Bamboo Hut were amazing. Around 1964, the group teamed with Don Gomez, a BOI professional who saw their potential, and signed on as their manager. It was at the Bamboo Hut that D & The Dominoes caught the eye of a Houston TV producer who signed the group to be the featured band on a weekly TV show called “Impact”. The show, a local version of Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is”, was filmed at various Galveston beach locations. The producer wanted us to change the name of the group to something echoing the new space industry being established in the area; hence, the “Countdown 5” was born. Suddenly the group became very focused and dedicated to writing and recording their own music in pursuit of a national hit. The transition from The Dominoes to The Countdown 5 included moving from what today would be absolutely primitive sound equipment to the thunderous power of a wall of silver roll and pleated Kustom Amps and speakers, the first in Houston, and a portable drum stage more suitable for large concerts all transported by a great team of roadies Pretty impressive back then.

Tommy: I don’t remember how, but we got hooked up with a guy named Eliseo Delao, a singer/bass player who preferred playing my guitar over his bass. The first time I picked up his bass I was hooked ,so we traded guitars. I have been a bassman ever since. The band was named “D & The Dominoes”. We landed a gig at a dive in Galveston called “Poor Ole Larry’s”. There were a couple more musicians, Starling Mosley and Bob Mills, before the band was finalized with me, Willy, Mack, Steve, and John. Al Caldwell, my brother in law & Beaumont, TX, radio legend, would sit in whenever we needed his help. He was a seasoned pro piano player, singer, and showman rooted in the true Rock & Roll style of his friend Jerry Lee Lewis. He thought us a lot about stage presence, how to move, and what an entertaining band should look like, but most of all he showed us what Rock & Roll was, what it was intended to sound like, and how to play it. Valuable things to know and I am grateful that Al shared them with us.

When and where did The Countdown 5 play their first gig? Do you remember the first song the band played? How was the band accepted by the audience?
Mack: Well going back over 55 years, this is where it gets hazy. The first gig I can remember playing was when it was D & The Dominoes. It was a teen dance at the Nessler Civic Center in Texas City, TX. It was part of the city’s regular teen dances. And as I remember, the audience reaction was pretty darn good.
The first place we played as the Countdown 5 would have to have been at the Bamboo Hut in Galveston.

Tommy: In the Summer of 1964 “D and the Dominoes” opened the season at the “Bamboo Hut”. We hired a manager, Don Gomez, a University of Texas dean of registration at the time. That turned out to be a match that would change the Rock scene for the Gulf Coast and all the bands that played there. We returned to “Hut” the next summer season and from 1964 to 1968 we owned the summertime in Galveston. We got the exposure, and “The Hut” was elevated from a beer stand on the beach to the number one hot spot in the area. We were signed to be the house band on a new Houston TV show called “Impact”. The show was designed to show off the local talent with special big name guests. We did the show for 18 weeks in 1966, and it was the catalyst for changing the name of the band to the “Countdown Five”.

What sort of venues did The Countdown 5 play early on? Where were they located?
Mack: We played the Galveston beach 6 nights a week plus Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the Bamboo Hut and later the Grass Menagerie during the spring and summer. Then in the Fall and Winter we would play Texas (Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Austin, Corpus Christi, Beaumont, etc.) and Louisiana (New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Lafayette, etc.). The Houston area gigs included the appearances on the Larry Kane TV show, Catacombs, Teen Hall, Taylor Hall, the Golden Fleece, Alvin American Legion Teen Dances, the Dome Shadows (with Jimmy Clanton), La Maison (with Paul Revere and the Raiders), etc. There were also many of the Battle of the Bands at venues like the Houston Arena Theater, Menard Park Amphitheater in Galveston, as well as many others. Those are where we battled against the great Houston bands like the Moving Sidewalks (just pre ZZ Top fame), the Clique, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Coastliners, and others. In fact the Coastliners and the Countdown 5 were picked at one of the battles to go to Dallas to compete for the state title.

After a couple of our songs made the charts, we opened concerts for many of the major recording acts of that era as the made their Gulf Coast swing on tour; acts such as Paul Revere and the Raiders, Dave Clark Five, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, the Grass Roots, and several others. All in all it was great fun. I’ll never forget the first time we opened a concert for one of the major acts. This was during the height of the Beatles era, and at that concert level the kids tended to show their appreciation by mobbing the performers. It was quite an eye opener and while it was a thrill, it was often pretty scary!

Tommy: The “5” was out there finding new places to play and breaking ground for all the groups that were popping up all over. We were playing the best college gigs, the best High School dances, the best clubs, the most fun frat parties, and always returning to the Galveston beach for the summer. At one of our shows, we produced at least one a year with KILE radio in Galveston, we decided to do a tribute to Brian Epstein who had just passed away the day before. We quickly put together a Beatle medley ending with “Penny Lane” the latest of their hits. When we finished our tribute the crowd just stood there with their mouths open. We had pulled it off. What a feeling that was. We travelled mostly throughout the Gulf Coast (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, etc) with a couple of roadies and a friend or two that wanted to tag along. We even had a Priest ride with us once. Of course there were our favorites. Robert B. McIntire, the famous morning news man from KILT Radio, Houston. Author Pryor our best roadie who took care of us, and my Bro Richard Nemeth, our road manager. So there we were trucking down the highway like a band of gypsies. I have great memories of that crazy laugh till your face hurts fun.

What influenced the band’s sound?
Mack: We were certainly influenced musically by the Beatles, Stones, and a few other pop groups, but performance wise we were influenced by the Raiders and a trio called “Clarence Perry and the Perrymates” who played at a small bar in Pasadena, TX, called the Rusty Bucket. Clarence was the most extraordinary singer, guitar player, and showman that we had ever seen at that time.

Did the size of audiences increase following the release of first single?
Mack: Yes, the DJ’s along the Gulf Coast really pushed our records. By the time we were opening for the national acts, the kids knew our records as well as the main acts.
How did you get signed to Pic 1 and later on to Cinema Records / Toucan?
Mack: Pic 1 was a label belonging to producer who was quite a character. His name was Huey Meaux and he had a studio in Pasadena, TX. Huey was a flamboyant fellow with a thick cajun brogue. While he was quite a producer, having made B. J. Thomas, Roy Head, Freddie Fender, the Sir Douglas Quintet stars, he was somewhat infamous in the industry. We only did a couple of tunes with him very early our career.

Cinema was a collaboration of Andrus Productions in Houston (a studio in which the CD 5 were stockholders) and Don Altfeld (who wrote “Little Old Lady From Pasadena” with Jan & Dean) in Las Angeles. Toucan was another Andrus label, the name and graphics by our bass player Tommy Murphy.

Where did you record your singles? What kind of equipment did you use and who was the producer?
Mack: As I mentioned, we did a couple of tunes with Huey Meaux. Then we bought into Andrus Productions in Houston, TX, and did nearly all the rest of our recordings there. Walt Andrus produced some of our stuff but mostly we produced ourselves. I can’t really recall the equipment. Our guitar player John Balzer was a whiz on that kind of thing.

Tommy: We became part owners in “Andrus Productions” the best recording studio between Memphis and LA. Our booking agency “Associated Artist” was doing well, and “Peddler Publishing” was growing, also. We had our own record label “Tucan”, and unlimited access to the studio where we spent much of our time. 

Please share your recollections of the sessions. What were the influences and inspirations for the songs recorded? 
Mack: The sessions ranged from long gruelling nights to some wild ass parties with fellow musicians coming by for a beer or two and joining in on the crowd/party noise tracks that we used on some of the songs. I never really liked the process of recording. It was so tedious for me.

Tommy: Late in 1967 “Uncle Kirby” / “Speculation” was released on our label, “Tucan”. If you listen real close you can hear McIntire and the guys from most of the area bands chanting “George of The Jungle” in the background. The strange key board sound is Mack on his accordion. The bongo player was John on the back of my acoustic guitar. It was the kind of fun crazy stuff that seemed to be a part of all our recording sessions.

What happened after the band stopped? Were you still in touch with other members? Is any member still involved with the music?
Mack: The band finally broke up in 1969. We have all kept in touch and still live within about a 40 mile radius of each other. I’m the only one who continued in the music business. I now have a steady gig for the last 6 and 1/2 years playing guitar and singing at a beautiful marina restaurant in Kemah, TX Friday and Saturday nights. I call it my little semi-retirement. However, I still do conventions, corporate events, etc., throughout Texas from time to time.

Tommy: In July of 1969, Steve left the group. Later that year I, too, left to come off the road and spend more time with my family. We are all still good friends and keep in touch.

Looking back, what was the highlight of your time in the band? Which songs are you most proud of? Where and when was your most memorable gig? 
Mack: The highlight of my time with the CD 5 was doing the concerts with the national acts. It was exciting and a great learning experience. One of the most memorable was when our manager told us we were going to open for the Dave Clark Five, second only to the Beatles at that time. Well we though we had hit the big time, and were all expecting to be heading to LA or New York or maybe even Europe for the concert. Turns out is was at a 5,000 seat arena in Nederland, TX, just outside of Beaumont. No offense to the folks in Nederland (we were very popular in the area at that time), but we thought it must be a joke, or a bogus group. Turned out it WAS the Dave Clark 5 and the concert was terrific, just not as glamorous as we had envisioned! 

Steven: I suppose the highlight was studio work and recording original music as well as producing records for not only our group but also other bands. Most memorable was our opening for Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Animals etc.

What are some of your favorite memories from band and the 60s in general?
Mack: Well this sounds like something an old dude would say, but back then things were much more simple. I know there was a lot of conflict with the hippie movement, protests against the Vietnam war, etc. But that was mostly just noise to me. We were young and on our own pursuing a dream that not too many folks get to even try in their lifetime. While we never became super star recording artists, we did actually achieve almost everything we set out to do. That was and is very fulfilling to me. We worked very hard and had a lot of success, we just couldn’t overcome the more-than-a-million to one odds of hitting super-stardom.
Steven: Opening for the big bands at the major Houston venues before thousands was unforgettable. The sixties was a time of great highs and lows. Coming of age amid the turbulence and assassinations of King, JFK, RFK was a terrible time.
Tom: Mack and Murphy covered all our early years as D & the Dominoes and then the Countdown 5. All accounts by them are just as I remember. We had a blast! We have stayed in touch over the years including a couple of guys who were very instrumental to us, R.B. McEntire of KILT Radio fame and Richard Nemeth, our road and equipment manager in the early years. Friends for life!

Tommy: Over the years we played hundreds of gigs, wrote and recorded dozens of songs, had several releases, and a couple of our tunes make the national charts in America and Europe. We performed shows with folks like Johnny Preston, Johnny and Edgar Winter, The Dave Clark Five, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Joe Tex, B J Thomas, The Fifth Dimension, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Seals and Crofts, Canned Heat, the Five Americans, Steppenwolf, The Ohio Express, Sir Douglas Quintet, Roy Head, Box Tops, the Grass Roots, and many more.  It was a great time with great memories. What a ride!

What were some of your favourite bands?
Mack: Beatles, Bread, Chicago, all the Motown groups. Actually pretty eclectic.
Steven: All of the British Groups as well as the great black artists. I really enjoyed our gig with the great Joe Tex.
Is there any unreleased material? Gear Fab will make a very special release. Please tell us more about it.
Mack: Roger has worked very hard on this project, and has been very patient with us in the process. There are several (I can’t remember the number) unreleased songs on the CD.

Many songs that we recorded back then that the master tapes were lost to us. It is really a thrill to hear them again, thanks to Roger!

Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
Mack: To have this come back into my life after more that 55 years is quite amazing to me. I was overwhelmed last year with the radio & TV exposure I received when my “Go Go Astros” song was revived after 37 years. I very much appreciate the fact that Roger Maglio is the guy who has made this happen. Many of us from that era are still wearing the scars of bad recording and publishing deals. Roger has healed all of that. It has drawn all of us in the Countdown 5 closer than ever. We are looking forward to the release of the CD! And, Klemen, thank you for your interest in the project. I admit that I had to look up Slovenia. Looks like a beautiful place. Maybe I can go there someday!
Thanks again,
Mack Hayes
– Klemen Breznikar
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