Ray BerryThere was hardly a place to park when we arrived at Kingsport’s MeadowView Convention Center a couple of weeks ago to see The Carousel. There wasn’t a convention, but there were plenty of parties going behind those doors on December 1st.

Gary Taylor’s daughter asked him several months ago if he would consider getting the old band back together for her wedding reception. Her dad played guitar for The Carousel in the late sixties and this turned out to be an important era of our small-town musical as this act cultured plenty of talent like Jim Shields, Bill Robinson, Ray Berry, Fred Goodwin and David Sproles. These guys hadn’t performed together for close to forty years and although he wasn’t sure he could pull it off – here they were for one night only – forty years later on December 1, 2007.

Straight to photos…

Bill RobinsonBill Robinson (Billy-Fred) has been a close friend for many years and I’ve heard stories about The Carousel for decades. A few weeks ago, he gave me a cassette tape he had put together featuring all the recordings of the band. Here on this cassette, decorated with Bill’s latest Corel Draw cover was a complete live performance recorded in 1969 at the Kingsport Fine Arts Center. There was one mike, a handful of family and fans and this live performance was captured for the future.

Jim Shields played the Hammond Organ for this band and in many ways is part of the local mythology of Northeast Tennessee. Musicians typically talk of the Hammond because there is truly no instrument like this keyboard. Much like the Fender Strat or the Gibson Les Paul, this instrument holds a special place in the music lexicon and Shields was a virtuoso – another shooting star from Kingsport.

He died young in a car accident just as he was starting to gain national recognition working toward bands like Yes and performing with a regional act called Avatar. He was an early Rick Wakeman that people still talk about around this part of the state and after listening to this music cross over from the Fine Arts Center to the 21st century – he blew me away. His gritty Hammond soars above the raw room sound and together with the band, they have created a rare and wonderful memento of the sounds of the times and it many ways, this stuff would be cool as hell on any stage if they were playing today.

The Carousel

For me, it was a step back in time and I can only imagine the dreams these guys had back then. They have an old black and white picture and it appears they are standing at some spot on Skyland Drive. They have large patterned shirts, polyester looking pants with white shoes, wide belts and shaggy hair that gave them a hippy/beach boy persona. The band was popular throughout the Tri-Cities and performed at many venues eventually opening for Percy Sledge at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion. That story is one of my favorites from a recent Buzzcutz podcast with the band in November.

As we walked past the shimmering Christmas tree in the foyer of the convention hall, it seemed every ballroom had some party with either a dose of karaoke, DJ or live music. We soon discovered the wedding party and it looked like things were running behind. The stage was set, the lights were dark and lots of people still seemed to be eating their meals, so we opted for the Meadows Restaurant.

The Meadows is not always on the top of my mind for a weekend outing, but I like the idea because this is nice place. The food has some room for improvement and the restaurant really needs a better theme. We ordered the ahi tuna, a few salads, mushroom appetizers and a couple of bottles of wine. That was about $120 worth of food for the four of us and I don’t think there was a mention of anything memorable, other than the conversation.

It was good to discover that we could take our drinks over to the grand ballroom and after dinner we walked just outside the hallway and we heard another band. Just past the poster that read “Blevins Electric,” I could see over the shadowy tables and recognized Bennie Wilson singing on a stage with his award-winning grin. They must have seen me too, because later that night Tommy startled me from behind and I turned to see him and Bennie (thankfully) smiling as we watched The Carousel start their reunion show back at the wedding.

Tommy Starnes grinned and hassled me a bit about the Buzzcutz Podcast because Tom Bettini had challenged him several weeks back talking about the ‘Karaoke Storm Troopers’ at Get Rhythm in Kingsport. Tommy was working there at the time and he and Bettini are good friends and great local bassists. One day Bettini walked into the little bar/deli in Downtown Kingsport and was surprised to see such a great stage. Before he could ask him about booking his band, Tommy said, “It’s a karaoke stage.’ Deflated and reacting to his karaoke pet-peeve Tom still loves to give Starnes a hard time and tonight he was laughing about it, but wanted me to make sure that Bettini knew he no longer worked there.

The horn section was hot tonight. The Carousel band had a trombone player, Fred Goodwin’s son on trumpet and my old friend Ray Berry on sax. Several years ago, I played music with Ray Berry and David Sproles in a band called Tenpenny. We were one of the very first bands to play Fun Fest and with Bill Robinson as our band manager, we took a dance/eighties pop band several places during that period in my life.

I may never forget how Ray would drive me here and there in his Mustang pace car. It was one of those eighties models that was grey, red and orange with the Indianapolis decals all over the side and was popular in the early eighties. Ray loves his music too and has never given up playing his horn. During the podcast Tom Bettini immediately was charmed by Ray’s long gray hair, beard and sunglasses. Ray Berry never look better and he sounded great too and although I don’t have a recording, there are pictures to prove it.

Dave SprolesDavid Sproles had taped up his fingers before the show tonight because he always gets carried away on his congas. He’s played those drums in almost every band he’s played with since The Carousel. Sproles is an energetic performer and a front man that likes to sing, get carried away with the music and has been known to lose himself in the moment and take on the role of a pentecostal preacher he dubbed some time ago as ‘Ernie Seegabacher” and I do have the audio to prove that story.

Sproles sounded great tonight too singing ‘Sweet Soul Music.’ There are lots of great voices in this band. Bill Robinson knows every Beatles song ever conceived and his memory of music and ability to sing and play has never been more enjoyable. I’ve seen Bill play for hours on end at parties in Kingsport and he even performs at nursing homes on a regular basis – you won’t find a bigger heart in the Tri-Cities music scene and he loves to sing…period.

Rick Pridemore is a versatile drummer and has performed with many local acts over the years. Working with Fred Goodwin on bass tonight, they had a tight back-beat for this sixties R&B band that performed everything from Blood Sweat and Tears, James Brown and several soul classics. Fred is the son of Charlie Goodwin who was at the party earlier, but the loud sound system made him call it an early night.

Steve Sproles sounded like the crooner of the band. He’s a handsome man that plays the ‘good guy’ in the band. He sang all the fluid melodies tonight like Stand By Me and as he stood next to Gary Taylor, they seemed to fall into a song like they never forgot how to play them.

Gary TaylorGary was the proud father tonight too. His daughter was getting married, the old band was back together for at least one more night of great memories. He had a tuxedo shirt and a banana colored Fender Stratocaster and was the poster image for the “life is good” campaign tonight. When the band took a break, the father and bride shared their dance together and we were ready to go by the time the hip-hop started.

The new MeadowView bar is still a nice place and now they have added more room and moved it away from the guest entry, it’s a nice place to hang out, especially around the fireplace. Together with the Stricklers, we had a glass of wine outside in the adirondack chairs looking back into the gas flames from outside the window on a warm November night. That’s the way it is if you hang out with smokers these days.

Back inside, we moved over to the party where Bennie Wilson was performing. Most of those guests had left and the only people left were those who were grinning in the dark or dancing around the tables in a silly stupor.

The Bennie Wilson band is always a guaranteed good time. Bennie still performs in his red ‘Michael Jackson’ shoes and plays and sings harmonica like there’s nothing more than he would ever want to do. Gary Southerland was grinning from beneath his ball cap as he played his guitar while Tommy Starnes looks over the crowd seemingly unaware his bass is keeping a rock hard pulse with drummer Chris Simmons.

I don’t know Bennie that well. We’ve spoke for a few moments at area music stores, saw each other on stage back with the Reagan Boggs band and I took a photo last summer with him dancing with a young four year old in the streets of Kingsport. What’s obvious every time we meet is the humility and the joy which seems to come naturally from him around his music. His talent and humility were never more obvious as he sat tonight on the side of the stage next to the speaker columns and let other people take his spotlight.

It’s sort of like live karaoke. Even Jeff Tankersley from Kingsport’s Karaoke capital was in the room tonight to share the stage with one his performers who dresses up like June Carter as they both sang an old Johnny Cash tune. One mother came up to me as I shot a few pictures and told me to take a picture of her son who was working with a version of Hotel California as Bennie lip-synched the lyrics from the side of the stage.

Looking back, I was surprised at all the stories from this evening of adventure at MeadowView. Usually, there’s one big event, but it was a pleasant surprise tonight to crash more than one party and who knows what will happen next? I wish the bride and groom a wonderful future together and look forward to see what happens with the Carousel as they consider the next few years they have together and look forward to where each of them turn up next.