By ANDREW MCGINN
This much is certain: if we have any hope of ever visiting the “Land of 1,000 Dances” again, we’ll need to first become a “Land of 100,000,000 Doses.”
At this rate, for countless musicians sidelined by COVID-19, it hardly matters what’s in the vaccine if it means a return to playing in front of people. (And let’s just be honest here: some notable musicians throughout time were never overly picky about what to inject.)
The coronavirus has silenced venues of virtually any and all types — save for Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve — making for some remarkably quiet Friday and Saturday nights the past year.
Predictably, the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Association was forced to postpone induction ceremonies Labor Day weekend for the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2020 — a class that was to include the Jefferson soul band Elm Street Grocery.
And that has threatened to derail the band’s plan to reunite on stage at the induction ceremony concert at Arnolds Park.
Five of nine original members were planning to reunite for the show, to be joined by a couple of pro players from Des Moines. Plans were made to converge on Des Moines last summer from various points across the country, where they were to spend hours over the course of four or five days learning to play as a unit again for the first time in more than 50 years.
The all-important set list was already agreed upon — of special interest was a planned mash-up of “Land of 1,000 Dances,” a huge hit for soul shouter Wilson Pickett in 1966, and “Goin’ Back to Miami,” a hit that should’ve been for Wayne Cochran, the white James Brown.
Then the worst pandemic in a century upended the best-laid plans.
The hall of fame induction ceremony has tentatively been rescheduled for Memorial Day weekend.
But like everything else, it depends.
“We have to face facts,” explained Steve Hance, who co-founded the band from the ranks of Jack Oatts’ legendary jazz program at Jefferson Community High School in the late ’60s. “Everybody’s around 70 years old. We’re going to have to see how everybody’s doing.”
Co-founder Rick Arbuckle, 69, called it a “tremendous disappointment” they weren’t able to play together in September.
A year after the members learned they’d been selected for enshrinement — the announcement was made back on Jan. 3, 2020 — they’re now back at square one. Hance, who went on to have a successful corporate career, said he’ll have to take a count of who’s in and who’s out.
“Everybody was ready to play,” he said, describing the band’s mood before 2020 went south.
The event may not even take place, Hance said. Beyond that, he added, the members who agreed to perform will have to still be in a condition to get up and play.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Hance said, “assuming we can still do it.”
First of all, did you ever think you’d see the words “Jefferson soul band”?
I’ll be honest — I don’t know how else to describe Elm Street Grocery, whose sound we were able to revisit and reassess a few years ago after Hance digitized an old reel-to-reel recording that he had unearthed, made of the band’s farewell gig in 1969.
Certainly, Jefferson in the 1960s was, ahem, even more lily-white than it is today, but there was no prohibition on James Brown and Motown records. You drop the needle on JB’s “Licking Stick” and a groove is a groove, whether you live in the sticks or in the city.
That said, Oatts had to call his pioneering high school jazz program a “show band” for years to appease the local yokels who undoubtedly still equated jazz with beatniks and heroin.
Hance and Arbuckle had harbored dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom since junior high, but it wasn’t until high school that they had the chops to take credible, extended solos on the likes of James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’” or to nail a cover of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ new record.
Between 1967 and 1969, the band consisted at various points of Arbuckle on guitar and tenor sax; Hance on guitar and sometimes trombone and organ; Jim Oatts (Jack’s son) on trumpet; his younger brother Dick Oatts on alto sax; Bruce (Smith) Banister on guitar; Hank Davis on bass; Jim Heath on organ; Scott Sutherland on drums, organ or lead vocals; and Rick Arbuckle’s 13½-year-old little brother, Steve, on drums.
Filling the void left by the Bushmen, Jefferson’s first rock band, Elm Street Grocery represented Jefferson on “Teen Town ’68,” a TV show hosted by Bill Riley, the Dick Clark of Iowa.
Rick Arbuckle and Hance even managed to buy gear off the Bushmen before guitarist David Williamson and drummer David Baller left for college.
“I got this cool Jazzmaster guitar from Williamson,” Arbuckle recalled. “To this day, I regret trading that off for a clarinet.”
For their part, the Bushmen were inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
While Elm Street Grocery was strictly a high school band, a reunion isn’t exactly the same as putting the 1969 Jefferson Rams football team back on the field after an absence of 50 years.
“That set the trajectory for our lives,” Arbuckle said of the band.
For one, Arbuckle headed West, to L.A., where he still does occasional studio work and enjoyed a career in animation, notably as an editor on Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats.” A composition of his own entitled “Tenderfoot,” recorded by his band Zen Dadio as a showcase for his C-melody saxophone, is on the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning “American Beauty.”
Jim Oatts joined the jazz-rock band Chase on Epic Records, and toured with everyone from Stan Kenton to Wilson Pickett, while brother Dick Oatts headed East, to NYC, where he still leads the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra as artistic director.
Dick Oatts may be the first and only person from Greene County to have ever won a Grammy.
Banister, who also played bass in the Bushmen as a lanky middle schooler, ventured to Europe in the ’70s to study classical guitar under Regino Sainz de la Maza, the Spanish master who in 1940 premiered Joaquin Rodrigo’s famed composition “El Concierto de Aranjuez.”
Both Oatts brothers were planning to play the Elm Street Grocery reunion, in addition to the Arbuckle brothers and Hance. Other members were planning to attend the ceremony, but didn’t think they were up to snuff as musicians anymore. (Banister, who now splits his time between Jefferson and Europe, didn’t think he could get back in time for the gig due to Covid travel restrictions.)
“We haven’t played together in a long time,” Rick Arbuckle said. “Jim (Oatts) and I had a chemistry together. That’s the thing with horn players. You either hit it off with them or you don’t.”
Hance, who continues to practice away at home in eastern Iowa for a gig that may never happen, said it would be an honor to play again with his old friends.
Dick Oatts, in particular, is among the highest caliber of musicians.
“He is known worldwide,” Hance said. “To think he would take time to actually come back to Iowa and spend a few days to play with Elm Street Grocery, I was a little bit surprised, but excited about the opportunity.”
Here, then, is hoping that 2021 is a marked improvement over 2020.
“Just being with them,” Arbuckle said, when asked what he looked forward to most about a reunion. “The music is a bonus.”