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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" (16).

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" (13).

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 event.

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 news reports. 

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 play.

"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 their opinion.

"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 was promotional.

"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 band.

"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 of underhandedness.

"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 heard. 

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 age.

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. 

Works Consulted

Goodall, H.L. Jr.  Living In The Rock And Roll Mystery: Reading Context, Self, and Others as Clues.  Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

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. 

(Copyright © 1992, P.J. O'Connor; used with permission.)

Also by Patrick J. O'Connor:
Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music In The West
Discovering Differences in the Blues: The Rural and Urban Genres
Folk Music Clubs In Wichita: Melody And Protest
Minstrel and Medicine Shows -- Creating a Market for the Blues
Moody's Skidrow Beanery: Moody Connell, 1960s Hoboes and Beatniks
The Weasels: Underground Success of A Kansas Rock Group
Site author: George Laughead, manager, WWW-Virtual Library, at www.vlib.us . Thanks to Lynn H. Nelson, who explains HNSource, the first history site on the WWW. Posted: 10 February 2009.
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