With Music the Ammunition -- Battles
of the Bands in Wichita in the 1960s
by Patrick Joseph O'Connor
Popular Culture Review
(University of Nevada, Las Vegas) August 1994
Reprinted in the book Moody's
Skidrow Beanery, Kansas Underground From Beat To Hip
Communication is generational.
This line of demarcation can be seen in the lyrics of The Who's 1964
release "My Generation":
People try to put us down
Just because we get around.
Things they do look awful cold.
Hope I die before I get old.
This no doubt oft-used example
is still serviceable, particularly when the song itself is played or
imagined, the latter aided by the current proliferation of "oldies"
radio stations. The full message of the music can be attended.
However, not all new generations
are liberal. They can be conservative. Most likely they
are a mixture of both philosophies. But they preach change.
And this is where rock comes in. It reaffirms the downtrodden,
that is, the young, less powerful generation's view of the necessity
for rectification. Robert Palmer wrote "the early rock 'n'
rollers [were] firmly rooted in the music of earlier years...white country
music, hillbilly boogie, and black blues" (13). This music
was played by groups on the outside of mainstream society. The
message was one of separateness and often self-reliance.
The young are onlookers for
most of their lives. They have definite ideas of the need for
things to be done differently. These ideas--for instance, ecological
concerns, racial harmony, government fiscal accountability--are generally
well-founded, though it often happens that as people age, they lose
their ideals and take on the same or similar faults.
Rock music provided a venue
and a voice. David Szatmary held that technology aided its spread,
pointing out that the transistor radio and the car radio "offered
an inexpensive means of experiencing...rock and roll" (20).
The new music became a localized
phenomenon through the simplicity of the instrumentation and arrangements.
A novice could be playing with his or her friends after a few months
work on their own, and these garage bands might be performing in public
a few months later. Often there were one or two members who were
rather proficient at their instrument, and could lead the others.
The wild content was a mirror
of teen turmoil brought on by the expectations (self-engendered as well
as societal) they were forced to meet. Of course, the bobby-soxers
held similar seances with song, using the 78s to "send" them,
and many of their number played horns and other instruments in large
and small bands. Rock, however, was a democratizing influence.
Musicians played, largely by ear, the guitar, bass guitar (a four string
guitar that could be mastered more easily than the bass viol), and drums.
Vocals were simple, often painful recitations along the order of Dion
and the Belmonts' "[Why Must I Be A] Teenager In Love" and
Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues."
Robert Pielke found rock to
be the "artistic expression of America's cultural revolution"
(18). It was a new beat, using forms and instruments borrowed
from the African-Americans. Szatmary called rock and roll "the
most frenetic version of an already spirited rhythm and blues"
There are as many different
types of rock as there are in other genres of music. Pielke points
out that musical terms such as blues or rock or country "are clearly
intended to portray the consciousness of the participants, the way the
music is interpreted, its meaning, the intentionality of everyone involved"
H. L. Goodall, in his abstruse
work, agrees with this, saying "rock and roll is not just a musical
style but also a social attitude that informs a wide variety of social
and professional constructions of reality" (xix).
Taking a basic symbolic interactionist
approach, Goodall concludes that we should look at clues "that
suggest, given the current poststructural, postmodern, and feminist
dialogue, a reexamination and renewed appreciation for the interdependence
of self, Other, and context in studies of humans as symbol-dependent
co-constructors of social and professional realities" (xix).
Try saying that to a rocker between sets.
In rock music, each type had
its adherents and battles of the bands were resurrected from the big
band era. Prizes were awarded, from $50 worth of musical merchandise
to a demo and chance for a recording contract. The rock bands
were not paid, and their various factions brought fans into the arena,
increasing patronage of the club or radio station that sponsored the
Wichita had a number of such
battles in the '60s, a decade that will always be known as one of social
revolution. Pielke writes "...this is what the sixties were
about: the affirmation and clarification of a new set of fundamental
values, such as radical individuality, pleasure, pacifism, nonnationalism,
and a nonreligious spirituality" (35).
These battles took place in
a number of locations, from the parking lots of shopping centers to
the Cotillion, a circular structure that was Wichita's pre-eminent dance
music setting. This paper will explore the competitive rock process,
using interviews with participants and cultural analysis through contemporary
Phil Uhlik opened a music store
on West Douglas in the mid-1960s that catered to rock musicians.
There the youngsters could look at the latest combo instruments and
hear of the easy-payment plan. Uhlik also provided a place to
"We had the Workshop on
[403 E.] William. [Dwayne] Zambo was managing the store back then.
We ran battles of the bands at the Workshop. That's how we got
started in business in Wichita. The prize was a gift certificate
for merchandise at the store.
"That's when the guitar
was coming on strong. We couldn't get enough guitars. In
the '60s, Gibson and Fender got behind on their shipping and we had
to sell substitutes, like Harmony or Kalamazoo."
At the time, a good electric
guitar would sell for close to $300.00 and an amplifier could be as
much. When microphones and sound system was added, the set-up
cost could be daunting. There were vastly cheaper instruments
that could be had for as little as $50 for brand new guitar and amplifier,
to aid beginners. In addition, good used instruments played as
well as new and the music stores always took in trades.
"The Workshop [open Friday
and Saturday night] was primarily a place to play. We just sold
pop. We weren't interested in making money. There wasn't
much trouble. We had chaperones."
Uhlik is still in the business.
"I would say that there is more interest [in live music] the last
three years. You see more bands playing."
There are also some competitions,
though they are designed for the individual musician. "The
different clubs these days have guitar wars or drum wars."
While this might encourage
technical proficiency, the different rock styles and inherent messages
of the bands has been lost. Straight-ahead hard rock is the order
of the day in these wars.
Richard Leslie, whose father
built the Cotillion in 1960, worked as a janitor at the ballroom during
his high school years and also appeared on stage in some of the battles.
Radio station KLEO was co-sponsor
of the battles. "They were the AM rock station in
town." The November 2, '66 Wichita Beacon tells of
a KLEO battle at the Cotillion with the Jokers, Bushmen, Bird and the
Worms, and Sun and the Shades competing. Tickets were one dollar.
The Cotillion, capacity 2000,
had rock and roll from the start. "Dick Clark's Caravan of
Stars used to come through. There were also national rock shows
who played here, like the Yardbirds. I remember Vanilla Fudge
had a pillow concert. They encouraged everyone to bring a pillow
to sit on the floor."
Leslie recalled many of the
bands that presented the most competition to his group, The Bird and
the Worms (so named because they had a female drummer).
"There were the Jokers;
we had a pretty good rivalry with them. And the Outcasts.
The Outcasts were able to play Hendryx and the heavier material.
They pulled it off better than anybody."
At the close of the concert,
which might have showcased up to four bands, the audience expressed
"The way you used to vote--when
everybody came through they got a ticket. After the bands played,
they put it in their favorite's ballot box."
Leslie recalled little damage
or vandalism. "The '60s were different from today.
Those were not violent times. If you had gangs, they were just
kids who ran together. They weren't carrying guns or anything."
The battles at the Cotillion
ended "in about '70. There are probably as many kids playing
in bands [these days] but there aren't as many places to play.
I'd say there are maybe a third as many strong regional acts as back
in the '60s. Then you had Mike Finnegan and the Serfs, the Flippers,
and the Blue Things out of Lawrence."
Currently, the Cotillion is
"doing everything: the Over-28 dances on Wednesdays, concerts with
old rock stars, heavy metal acts, comedians, male dancers, and the Emerald
Ball on St. Patrick's Day. I don't see how we could be any busier."
Rick Meyer's chief instrument
is a tenor sax he's had since 1964. His first band was Doug and
the Inn-truders, and he also played in the Breakers that featured another
sax, trumpet, and trombone. Meyer recalls competing in the battles
of the bands at Joyland (an amusement park), the parking lot of the
Seneca Lounge, and at the Cotillion.
"That was in the days
of the horn bands. We had two basic costumes, the red tux and
the blue tux. The way the economy is today, I don't think horn
bands will ever come back. Too many mouths to feed."
Neal McGaugh spent most of
his high school years playing in rock groups, ending up in the Outcasts.
"The Workshop had some battles of the bands, but it was mostly
one or two bands. We didn't get prizes, only prestige. It
"The first ones I remember
were at the Hobbledehoy [3813 N. Broadway]. I was playing drums
and Darryl Osburn was singing. We did covers of Paul Revere and
the Raiders, the Zombies, and a couple of Rolling Stones tunes in that
"The YWCA had a teen place
downtown, on the third floor of the Attic [140 N. Topeka]. They
didn't have battles. Frontier Land [an amusement park] had a lot
of battles of the bands.
"We pulled some stuff
there one time when I was playing with Darryl in the Outcasts."
This band of high school youths, which also contained Clif Major, Ron
Williams, Doug Emrich, and Wayne Avery among others, became one of the
major contenders in Wichita's rock market.
"Zambo, [manager] from
Uhlik's, got a strobe light, the first in town. Mike Finnegan
[one of Wichita's first rock recording artists with a September, '66
release by his group, the Serfs] was one of the judges. We also
had a smoke machine, and a theramin.
"Finnegan jumped up and
down in his chair. We won that one. Got about $80.00, and
that was pretty good money in those days. When the battles moved
to the Cotillion, that's when all the big rivalry started--'65, '66.
We always ended up battling big horn bands, The Red Dogs, Doug and the
Inn-truders. We didn't get too far against them. We didn't
have the kind of music that the judges liked. We were doing Yardbirds,
Animals, and Rolling Stones material, with a couple of Muddy Waters
and Howling Wolf songs, brought in by Clif."
The band played parties and
dances, at the Attic and Workshop as well as surrounding towns.
"If we made $100 we thought we doing good."
The Outcasts took part in something
called The Kansas Talent Festival. "It was kind of a high
school talent contest--amateur acts. The grand prize was a recording
contract and $300 worth of equipment. They had everything from
jugglers to a Northeast Kansas high school jazz band. It was at
the Cotillion in '66. We won that somehow or other. The
guy that put that together was from New York. He was living in
a little motel room on South Broadway.
"We went over to collect
our prizes a day or two later and the guy was gone. I'm sure he
made a bundle [promoting the contest]."
While this damaged the aura
of fair play in the battles and competitions, there were other suspicions
"There was one a band,
A Bit Much. We always had trouble with those guys. The Cotillion
used to have great [PA] speakers. Darryl heard it was rigged and
we were going to lose to those guys. He took his mike and put
it in one of them and popped 'em right out." A Bit Much indeed
won that night.
"The thing about the battles
was that everybody took it too seriously. We didn't have a real
strong community of musicians. I still run into musicians who
remember who won a particular battle. Different band members were
not friendly with each other. There were no jams with other members.
I know I didn't like any of the horn bands."
McGaugh found that while the
battles "weren't good for developing a rapport with other players
in town," they were "good for exposure to wider audiences.
The first time I saw the Weasels from El Dorado was at a battle.
They did a lot of the material we did, and had the same line-up."
This was lead and rhythm guitars, bass, drums and vocalist. A
friendship developed between the two groups, based on similar tastes
and possibly aided by the fact of different home towns.
"The battles got the more
underground bands [like the Outcasts and the Weasels] a chance to be
heard. You'd have four or five bands instead of one. People
would end up hearing more bands and liking them."
McGaugh recalls the genres
to be: top 40, show bands, psychedelic, but no blues. "The
top 40 got all the good-paying jobs."
One of his more memorable gigs
was when "Ike and Chloe [Parker] came up to us at the Attic and
asked us to play at Ginsberg's reading at the Vortex."
They performed after the poet
read. "I didn't know who he was. We didn't get paid."
In the '60s there were suddenly
all these teens with whom nobody knew quite what to do. Music,
raw and up-tempo, or saccharine balladry, came into use as an outlet.
Rock bands were formed and the places provided by Uhlick and others
sanctioned this. Parents and other supporters could advocate increased
musicianship and showmanship, and organizations like the YWCA could
give the teens supervised places to meet on weekends.
The music store owners and
club proprietors had a private interest in this, selling band equipment
[why buy $700.00 dollars worth of amplifiers if you'll only use them
in your garage?] or 3.2 beer [when the drinking age was 18], but it
was generally a worthwhile undertaking. The forces of youth were
directed into frenetic, posed, delightful habits of communication, instead
of vandalism, gangs, or unproductive drug use.
No doubt there was a bit of
the latter three, but there is a lesson from this aspect of the '60s:
youth must have a voice, for the care and betterment of their generation.
The Wichita Beacon recognized
the burgeoning audience of teens and in 1966 increased their weekly
youth page to an entire section, "Young Ideas '66."
Along with syndicated articles about the need for good grooming and
other modifying pieces, different rock groups were featured nearly every
week and their members interviewed, giving the young a chance to be
One of the Soule Survivors,
Baptiste "Bat" Shunatona, in the December 7, '66 Wichita
Beacon, made claims that he was "born in a covered wagon"
and also that he was "a retired midget." Obviously he
was enjoying the attention, playing with the role of being in a band,
speaking for a generation who did not take the "straights"
seriously, and who applied the same attitude to themselves.
The battles of the bands in
the '60s aided the teens as they formed differing camps, the variant
styles of rock providing a cushion from the pressure and distress of
parents and adult society. Neal McGaugh admirably assessed the
pros and cons of the battles: they were good for giving the less popular
and more challenging forms of rock a chance to be heard; yet they fostered
disharmony in the community of musicians, creating rivalries and preventing
exchange of musical ideas.
The spirit of the '60s finally
caught up with the competitions in Wichita, replacing them with expressions
of brotherhood and sisterhood. People were trying to love one
another, a message particularly brought forth in the idiom of psychedelic
rock. There were love-ins in Riverside Park, music provided for
free by area bands for the public benefit. And there were jobs
for bands in the several bars and clubs.
The rock band members who had
competed through high school, at the height of interest in the music,
were older and no longer had to prove their worth. Many of course
left rock to pursue more mature interests. Others continued to
perform in Wichita and across the nation, the appeal of performing the
contemporary music carrying them through the rigors of approaching middle
The '60s battles of the bands
gave many of them an initial exposure to the stage, to promoters, and
to audience derision or acclaim. Certainly the experiences helped
shape the band members' conduct in and out of the music world.
And the public was served with live performance, ever a benevolent influence
in isolated environs.
Goodall, H.L. Jr.
Living In The Rock And Roll Mystery: Reading Context, Self, and Others
as Clues. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University
Palmer, Robert. The
Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll. Jim
Miller, editor. New York: Random House, 1980.
Pielke, Robert G.
You Say You Want A Revolution. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1986.
Szatmary, David P.
Rockin' In Time, A Social History Of Rock And Roll. Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987.