Excerpts from “A Gathering of Promises” by Ben Graham (Zero Books, 2015)
Back in Houston, the action was already shifting away from La Maison to the Catacombs, which opened at the beginning of 1966 at 3003 South Post Oak Road. Although the dress code specified "school clothing," the Catacombs was a pretty hip space, with low ceilings and black wall painted in fluorescent designs, and two rooms with a stage in each. Support bands would play in the back room, then the headline act would start immediately afterwards on the main stage. The Catacombs was managed with great personal energy by Bob Cope, and owned by Ames Productions, the company founded by brothers Richard and Steve Ames. With money from the local oil industry (their family owned Ames Oil and Gas), they not only bought into the Catacombs, but managed several local bands and ran their own record label, Tantara. While older brother Richard looked after business, Steve Ames was a musician and songwriter himself and played keyboards with Neal Ford and the Fanatics, who during the latter part of 1966 were not only the house band at the Catacombs but the most popular band in Houston. By this time however, Ames, who had only one kidney, had already retired from stage work, finding that the late nights and travelling were seriously affecting his health.
Formed at the end of 1964 by singer Neal Ford, at age 20 already a veteran of several teen-pop singles with the Ramadas and the VIPs, the Fanatics mixed hard-edged, Kinks-and-Stones derived rock with solid R&B, folk-rock and novelty pop. Though hardly psychedelic (Ford absolutely forbade any use of drugs or even alcohol when the band was working) they were no strangers to fuzz, driving Hammond organ and the odd weirdly menacing chord sequence or guitar riff. Yet this was always combined with an adherence to old-fashioned showmanship that demanded smartly matching outfits and corny synchronized onstage routines such as the band all crouching down in a line and rowing across the stage with their guitars.
The original line-up featured Ford alongside guitarists Johnny 'String' Stringfellow and Jon 'Big Jon' Pereles, plus WT 'Dub' Johnson on bass, John 'Baby John' Cravey on drums and Dennis Senter on keyboards, who didn't last long enough to acquire a nick name. After the Fanatics' debut single in January 1965, “I Will Not Be Lonely” (a garage classic) he was replaced by Steve Ames, with brother Richard coming in as the band's manager. At the beginning of 1966 the Ames brothers established Tantara Records in order to release The Fanatics' second single, the moody, psych-tinged folk-rock of “Bitter Bells”.
Steve Ames stayed with the Fanatics through the summer of 1966, a time when the band's profile rose steadily, with local airplay, appearances on the Larry Kane Show and increasingly well-attended shows, including opening slots for the Beach Boys and the Lovin' Spoonful. They were regularly mobbed by screaming girls, and gigs often deteriorated into near-riots as the local kids decided to re-enact the scenes of Beatlemania they'd seen in the newsreels with the Fab Four's closest local equivalent.
In June the Fanatics released a cover of “All I Have to Do is Dream” on Tantara, but shortly afterwards Ames left to concentrate on management and production. He was replaced on keys by 18- year-old Lanier Greig, a far flashier player whose frenetic organ runs became characteristic of the classic Fanatics line-up.
The band's fourth single, “I Will if
You Want To” (September 1966) had a
brooding majesty that
was distinctly psychedelic, with John Stringfellow's greasy slide
echoing over the spare, rolling rhythm,
and Greig's understated keys descending into an aural abyss of loss and
on the bridge. The Fanatics' profile was
boosted still further when Ames signed
nationwide to Nashville's Hickory label,
who released the bizarre,
cod-gothic single “Shame on You” in January 1967.
It was the flip, “Gonna
Be My Girl”, however that became
a number one single on both of Houston's major
radio stations, resulting in the Fanatics requiring a police
they played a show in town.
In February 1967 they were
clear winners of a Houston Post Battle of the Bands, yet to tell the truth their
was already on the wane, as Hickory
guided them in a middle-of-the-road direction increasingly at odds with
times, and Ames Productions focused
attention on another of their small
stable of acts: the Moving Sidewalks.
If Thursday's Children and the Lemon Fog seemed behind the times in 1968, then the once-popular Neal Ford and the Fanatics must have come over as positively antediluvian, with their old fashioned show-business values and choreographed stage show. Yet Ford's onstage athleticism was not a million miles from the sort of performance for which Iggy Pop would later be acclaimed; stage diving, executing splits and somersaults, climbing the wall, and balancing on balcony railings. Moreover, the band was still capable of rocking hard when allowed, and Ford was a decent songwriter, not afraid to experiment with fuzz and other weird effects in the studio. But their more adventurous songs were too often left in the can, and the Fanatics' November 1967 album for Hickory was hamstrung by too many written-to-order bubblegum confections and middle-of-the-road ballads. In 1968 the clean-living Ford even turned down Mickey Newbury's “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” because of its sly drug connotations, which didn't bother Kenny Rogers' First Edition, who turned the song into a soft psych-country classic.
The symbolic turning
point came when Neal Ford and the Fanatics opened for Jimi
two Texan dates of his spring 1968 US tour,
and were all but booed off the stage. The
show, at San Antonio Municipal
Auditorium (February 15th) apparently went down well,
but the following night at Dallas
Fair Park Music Hall the jeers from
the audience got to the band. With their Hickory deal expired, they
confidence and momentum and never really recovered; Ford quit in May
1969, and the
Fanatics struggled on without him until mid-1970.
At the end of August 1968 the
Catacombs club hosted the
KNUZ Pop Festival, a major event and the
biggest show ever held at the club,
featuring the Mothers of Invention, Country Joe and the Fish and Canned Heat in a ten-hour show
for just five bucks. The Moving
Sidewalks, along with Neal Ford and
the Fanatics and Matchbox, were to be the local support. But
with the way Ames Productions were
handling their album, the Moving Sidewalks decided, on the spur of the
to miss the gig and drive out to Los Angeles instead. They
Gazzarri's and The Galaxy on
Sunset Strip minus organist
Tom Moore, who assumed
they were having him on and refused
to get out of bed when they pulled up outside his house at midnight,
loaded with their equipment. He was left to explain the band's
to Steve Ames alone.
Things got worse soon after when Moore was drafted to fight in Vietnam; the Moving Sidewalks continued playing as a trio, but started to feel like they were chasing their own tail, going round in circles playing the same old club circuit, while their album release date was continuously put back. Following a performance at Spring Branch High School Senior Prom in May 1969, the Moving Sidewalks parted company with Ames Productions. By this time they already knew that Flash was dated in its psychedelic trickery, as well as being too in thrall to Hendrix, and the remaining trio were desperate to go back into the studio to record new material, which Ames refused to allow. The final straw came when Don Summers too was drafted, and on the 6th and 7th of June the Moving Sidewalks played their final shows at Love Street Light Circus. Against their wishes, Flash was finally released at the end of August.
drummer Dan Mitchell were determined to carry on however, and
Ames out of the picture they signed a management contract with an
Texan music impresario in his early
thirties named Bill Ham. Ham had
caught the Moving Sidewalks opening for
the Doors, and had introduced
himself to the band afterwards. On the 4th of July 1969, Gibbons and
were back onstage at Love Street, with former Fanatics keyboard player
Greig playing organ and laying down bass parts with his foot pedals,
Ham looked on approvingly. This new
of the Moving Sidewalks also had a new name: ZZ Top.
Even after 1983's
synthesizer-and-drum machine-driven Eliminator
album sent ZZ Top into the upper echelons of pop music worldwide, Billy
never forgot his roots, and championed the likes of the 13th Floor
every opportunity. In 2013 he reformed
the original line-up of the Moving Sidewalks for a series of sold-out
sadly Lanier Greig died in February that same year.
the Neal Ford & The Fanatics Page