The Rockets’ AY Article: 2005
Rockin’ With The Rockets
by Mel White – AY Magazine – May 2005
Little Rock’s most popular band proves age don’t mean a thing if you’ve got that swing.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon on a gray November day in Little Rock. Downtown, a crowd of people ranging from Barbra Streisand and George Clooney to John Kerry and two George Bushes have just watched the dedication of the new William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center, huddling under umbrellas in
the intermittent drizzle.
Inside the bar at Cajun’s Wharf, the sprawling restaurant on the Arkansas River, members of the popular group The Rockets are taking instruments out of cases, plugging in cords, adjusting reeds, oiling valves, tuning, warming up. It’s sound check, the tedious routine that every band goes through time and time again, making sure all the yards of cables are plugged into the right holes and all the dozens of knobs are turned to the right settings. Drummer Chuck Robertson thumps his kick drum; Lynn Fitzgerald plucks his bass strings; trumpeter Clifford Hawkins runs through a scale or two. Vocalist Davis Hendricks chants the Ancient and Exalted Mantra of the PA System: “Check one two, check one two.” It’s the part of the job that partyers won’t think about later, when they’re out there dancing to “Honky Tonk Women.”
From the back of the room, the sound engineer says, “Bill, let me hear some guitar now,” and Bill Ramsey bangs out a few chords on his Fender Stratocaster. Inevitably, problems have shown up. Keyboardist Phillip Wallace’s microphone is fading in and out, and some of the stage monitor speakers seem fuzzy. Finally, everybody’s happy enough with the volume, tone and mix that they’re ready to do a song. Robertson clicks his drumsticks four times and the band slides into the laid-back intro to Earth, Wind & Fire’s bittersweet 1975 hit “That’s the Way of the World.” The ten musicians know their parts the way a Swiss watchmaker knows gears and springs, and the sound is tight and polished.
The Rockets have done this hundreds of times in the ten years they’ve been together, first as Johnny Roberts & the Rockets, and for the past five years on their own, after Roberts retired. The band advertises itself as having “over 3 hundred years of Rock & Roll playing experience on stage.” That statistic might not mean much to the tattoo-and-piercing crowd down at Vino’s listening to a teen band play original songs no one will ever hear again but it’s just the ticket if what you want is to dance to a really killer version of “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
And that’s exactly what lots of people want to do: The Rockets stay continually busy playing parties and weddings, including many top social functions, charity events and country-club dances. For eight years in a row now, they’ve been voted “Best Local Band” in a Little Rock newspaper poll. Tonight they’re playing for “William Jefferson Clinton’s Arkansas Party,” an invitation-only event for people who helped get the Clinton center open on time.
“I thought the Dillard wedding would be the biggest job we ever played,” Wallace says, referring to an heir of the department-store empire. “But this is going to be bigger.”
Even divided by ten, three hundred years of experience equals quite a bit of salt mixed with the pepper of hairs and beards, but the Rockets don’t pretend to be youthful hip-hop hipsters. Instead, their maturity and experience mean a band that shows up on time, performs professionally and delivers solid sets of classic rock, from Chuck Berry to Barenaked Ladies, from the Beatles to Dave Matthews.
“I’m the youngest guy in this band, and I’m 44,” Wallace says. “Buck Johnson over there is 69. We joke that people mistake him for Gandhi. When he takes his hat off he looks just like him.”
“Buck” Johnson is the guitar-playing persona adopted by the man many people know as Jim Johnson, the Little Rock painter, musician, marathoner, mountain-climber, and, not least, co-founder of Arkansas’ largest advertising and public relations company. (Johnson, someone for whom the phrase “a man of many talents” might have been invented, has occasionally answered to the title “the Marquis de Sade” at least to the members of the somewhat loosely organized and iconoclastic running club that he established.)
All the members of the Rockets (except Johnson, who is nominally retired) have day gigs, e.g.: Phillip Wallace works for a major medical center; keyboardist Joe Marchese owns an advertising agency; saxophonist Charles McCollom has a career in the National Guard. While the band makes enough money to be worth the wear and tear on middle-aged bodies and the late nights driving home from dances, paychecks aren’t the primary factor that keeps its members going. The truth is, playing music is fun, and the Rockets are proof that it’s still fun when the AARP membership forms start showing up in your mailbox. “If you’re having fun on stage, that’s what matters,” Johnson says. “You may miss a chord every now and then, but if you’re having fun, nobody cares.”
At eight o’clock the Rockets make their way to the stage at Cajun’s, which is already packed with people, and start with that all-time great party song, “Celebration,” by Kool and the Gang. Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” is next, and, regardless of the fun that’s being manifested, it’s hard to pick out any missed chords. The band prides itself on the variety of the music it plays, a reflection of the differing backgrounds of its members, who have been part of literally dozens of different bands, from hard rock to soul to easy-listening club combos. (Marchese remembers that his first actual paying job in a band was playing the accordion, which probably wasn’t too cool even in the Sixties.) “Quite frankly, we play some songs that I’d just as soon never hear again,” Wallace says. “But they’re songs that people really enjoy. When you’re doing a song and you look out and the dance floor is full of people singing along with you, you know they’re having a good time.”
The first set demonstrates the Rockets’ range. Johnson plays blues harp on “Long Train Running” in a medley with a loud, hard-rocking “China Grove,” after which sax man Keni Reed steps up and sings Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind.” Joe Marchese sings Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” featuring extended sax and trumpet solos, as well as some George Benson-style scat singing in unison with keyboard lead. McCollom puts down his tenor sax and sings “Wonderful World,” followed immediately by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Now there’s a segue you won’t hear every day
“Now we’d like to feature the oldest man in rock and roll,” Wallace calls out. “The one, the only, Mr. Jim Johnson!” After that dubiously distinctive introduction, “Buck” sings “Mustang Sally,” which is pretty much the epitome of a song that people dance and sing along with. (“I can’t sing anything that requires any tone quality,” Johnson says later, laughing. “But I’ve been doing that song so long that it’s become a tradition.”) By the end of the night, eight of the ten members of the Rockets will have done the lead vocal on at least one song, including guitarist Bill Ramsey, who in his animated way on stage seems to be having the most fun of all.
“Joe and I grew up in that era,” Ramsey says at the break. “We saw the Beatles on TV and thought, ‘That’s for us.’ There’s so many of us in the band, and with the age range we have, that’s where the diversity comes in. I think that’s why the band is so successful.”
The Rockets have been around long enough now that they’ve developed their own regular seasonal schedule, which includes the Heart Association ball in February (the largest fund-raising party in Arkansas) and a perpetually sold-out New year’s Eve dance at the Embassy Suites hotel in Little Rock. Before new jobs, Wallace quizzes the client, asking about the age range of guests so the band can develop a suitable song list. At a wedding, the first set might be heavy on Sinatra and other pop standards (while the parents and grandparents are still around), with the last set full of contemporary tunes (when the old folks have gone home and the young friends of the bride and groom are still ready to dance).
“Unlike a lot of bands, we’re a democracy,” Wallace says. “A couple of times a year we sit down and put together a list of maybe ten songs we might work up, and everybody gets to vote on which ones we end up doing. We know that we’re not all going to like all of them, but we’re all willing to compromise to come up with a list that will please the greatest number of people.”
When the Rockets take the stage again at Cajun’s, they get a big response for their version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and of course for Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. All sorts of people are on the dance floor, from black-clad twenty-somethings to people who might be their grandparents. In the front door walks a married couple high-powered Little Rock lawyers and certified Friends of Bill and before they even have time to stop at the bar for a drink the Rockets go into the first verse of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” The wife grabs the husband’s hand and they head up front to boogie.
This is just what the band wants to see: people responding to songs they know, sharing that primal and essentially unfathomable urge to move in time to music. I don’t mind, ’cause you mean that much to me
“This is more fun now, because we don’t have any pressure,” Bill Ramsey says. “We don’t have aspirations to be rock stars anymore. We’re playing music that we love and the people like it, too.”
© 2005, AY Magazine. Reproduced with kind permission.