Rodney & The Blazers

During the first half of the 1960s, when the Beach Boys and the Beatles were bombarding the American charts and rewriting the rules of rock, Kansans Rodney and the Blazers were crossing the country as rock & roll throwbacks, a raucous, wild combo that was more Little Richard than British Invasion, and more R&B than pop. Although they didn't manage to break out nationally, they recorded a plethora of outstanding sides in varying styles and proved to be a very influential Midwestern band, employing both a saxophone and a trumpet (expanded into a full horn section later in the decade by admitted fans Chicago) and touring as one of the first truly biracial aggregates.

Bass player Rodney Lay Sr. and drummer Bob York kicked around together in a band known as the Off Beats throughout the last couple years of the 1950s. By 1960, with the addition of Bob "Sir Robert" Scott on saxophone and Pete "Peaches" Williams on guitar, they had transformed themselves into Rodney and the Blazers, named after their habit of wearing blazers instead of normal jackets for their stage show. It wasn't their only idiosyncrasy in appearance -- they also dyed their hair silver and wore sunglasses onstage. Don Downing was soon added on piano as well as sharing lead vocals with Lay, and they were soon playing regular gigs every Friday night at the El Rancho Opera House located between their Coffeyville hometown and Independence, KS. That summer, they recorded and released their first single, "Teenage Cinderella," on their own Kampus label. It became a number one hit in several large markets around the country, particularly in Phoenix, Syracuse, Fargo, and Philadelphia. A Pittsburgh station even phoned Lay to tell him that the city's most important disc jockey had predicted that Lay would be the next Elvis. The single, however, did not have enough distribution behind it to go national (although it was later re-released on the Dore label without the band's consent after Johnny Tillotson's manager shopped it around Hollywood -- the band predictably received no royalties).

Rodney and the Blazers kept very busy in 1961. They played at the Seattle World's Fair and New York City's famed Peppermint Lounge, as well as travelling to gigs in Arizona, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and British Columbia. They also completed a six-week tour with Bill Haley & the Comets that ended in Mexico City, upon which all but Lay and York left the band. The two returned to Coffeyville and set about putting together a new band. Over the next couple years, various members including Gene Bongiorni, Sam Beck, Skip Knape, Chan Romero, and Dennis Winton came and went as the band continued playing throughout the country and in their home region. A teenage Leon Russell was a huge fan (and perhaps borrowed his silver hair/sunglasses look from them), always turning up in the crowd when the band played Tulsa, as was future Bread leader David Gates. For a while the band featured a female vocalist when Mary Taylor joined up for some Las Vegas shows. When Jerry Lee Lewis was being blacklisted by the recording industry for marrying his teenage cousin, Rodney and the Blazers even spent some time touring with him. By 1964, the band was making 2,500 dollars a night but spending it just as quickly as they made it on various extracurricular pursuits. Still, they appeared on national television show Star Route that summer and had begun negotiating a possible European tour in 1965, but the band ended up breaking up soon thereafter. Lay and York continued to work together throughout the intervening decades, forming various bands, most notably the Wild West, which joined Roy Clark on Hee Haw in the 1980s. ~ Stanton Swihart

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