THE SUN DAYS WITH THE RADIANTS
by Randy Haspel, 2007
The door between the control room and the studio at Sam C. Phillips' Memphis Recording Service on Madison Avenue, home of Sun Records, sprang open and Sam Phillips came bounding through asking enthusiastically:
''What's that you're playing''? ''It's just a tune from our song list, Mr. Phillips''. We were just warming up. Sam replied, ''Keep playing that song. I want to get it on tape''. I had heard this conversation
somewhere before. I answered, ''Mr. Phillips, that song was a big hit just a little over a year ago''. ''I don't care what it was'', replied the inventor of rock and roll. ''I think it's a hit record''. I cut my eyes quizzically at my bandmates.
Could Sam possibly believe that six teenagers who grew up in 1950s Memphis would not know the Elvis legend? We were the spawn of Elvis and knew every detail of his meteoric rise to glory,
including the story of how ''That's Alright Mama'' came to be. But that was 1954, and this was 1964. was Sam Phillips, a decade later, trying to pull an Elvis on us?
age 15, and leader of Randy & The Radiants, I wasn't about to second-guess the man who had discovered not merely Elvis, but Howlin' Wolf and Ike Turner as well. When Sam returned to the console and announced ''We;re rolling'', we played and sang with all
the enthusiasm we could muster, and then prepared to do it again. But after hearing the playback, Mr Phillips declared, ''It's a hit! I don't need a another take''. And so, ''The Mountain's High'', made famous by Dick & Dee Dee in 1961, became the first
single on Sun Records by Randy & The Radiants, released December 11, 1964. The flip side was an original called ''Peek A Boo'', written by my partner and friend Bob Simon. Of course, ..Mountain High'' was not a hit. When Bob and I first heard the song
on the car radio, after I had slammed on the brakes and our screaming had died down, I turnes to him and said, ''That wasn't very good, was it''? I thought the band had a crisper tigher sound when we played live, but Sam Phillips recorded us in a way that
every instrument bled into the microphone of every other, and it all sounded so raw. It took me years to understand that Sam's recording philosophy was to find talented amateurs and attempt to bring out abilities in them that even they did not know they had.
If Phillips had issued ''Mountain's High'' to gauge the band's popularity, what happened next took him by surprise. A Bob Simon song called ''Walk Softly'', written at age 14, was heard
by former Sun artist and producer Bill Justis, whose instrumental ''Raunchy'' had earned Sam a gold record in 1957. Justis recorded Bob's song in Nashville with a singer named Joanne Tauchstone, and the release, on Monument Records' subsidiary Sound Stage
Seven, became an instant regional hit. Sam Phillips had to wonder how a song by an artist that he had just signed could have got away. After that, Bob's songs were given priority in our recording sessions.
The Radiants came to Sun Records through a circuitous route. For Bob and me, this was already our third attempt at assembling a band. We began singing together in 1958 when I was 10 and Bob was nine, and as soon as our fingers
were strong enough to hold a metal string against a fretboard, we started playing guitar. Bob grew up a block from my family's house in East Memphis, and we had much in common. Other than attending the same school, we both had older sisters who loved to dance
and used their little brothers to practice the latest steps. Rhythm and blues had taken over as teen music in segregated Memphis, thanks to the legendary disc jockey Rufus Thomas and Dewey Phillips. radio station WDIA 1070 featured rhythm and blues late in
the afternoon, after the gospel programs were over, with Rufus', ''The World's Oldest Teenager'', at the microphone. But WDIA went off the air at sunset, so their entire listenership, black and white, tuned to pop station WHBQ to hear Dewey's manic program,
Red, Hot & Blue, mixing gospel with doo wop, and rock and roll, all accompanied by his repid-fire, country boy drawl. When Dewey introduced Elvis to the world, hundreds of young Memphis boys ran out to find guitars. At first, Bob and I played songs at
each other, like a tennis match, until the day when, while we were singing the Skip & Flip versions of ''Cherry Pie'', Bob broke into spontaneous high harmony and it stopped me cold. ''Where'd you learn to do that''? I asked. Bob replied, ''I didn't learn
it. I just hear it''. Being older, I instructed, ''Keep Doing it''.
Entering Junior High, we formed a group called the Casuals, but became victims of our own success.
As our popularity grew, my school grades dropped, until my parents insisted I leave the band, as Bob had done several months earlier. Back-up singer David Fleischman moved up front and the group became Flash & The Memphis Casuals, whose 1966 single, ''Uptight
Tonight'', is the title track of a recent Big Beat garage band anthology. I never considered the Radiants to be a garage band. We were a living room band that started in 1962 when Bob and i and Gregg Grinspan became a vocal trio in search of a group. Gregg
found Howard Calhoun in class, who had a band called the Embers, named after a popular local restaurant. As ''The Embers'', featuring the Radiants'', Bob, Gregg, and I came out in matching yellow shirts and did dance routines, before we gathered around the
microphone to sing. We settled on the radiants after the first few gigs, several years before the Chicago vocal group with the same name came to prominence. Our song list consisted many of rhythm and blues hits by Hank Ballard, James Brown and the Drifters.
There were only a handful of teen bands in Memphis, but the two best were Tommy Burk and the Counts, and the LeSabres. These two groups represented the division in loyalties within Memphis'
teen culture. The Counts were a tightly rehearsed band, with two horn players and harmony vocals. They wore matching blazers with their own specially designed crest on the pocket, to add an air of nobility. The LeSabres were wilder; they wore leather jackets
and retained the oily Elvis hairstyle with the ducktail in the back, but were equally as entertaining. The LeSabres' crowd were working class kids, greasers and hoods; the Counts' fans were generally Ivy kids (for Ivy League) with Money to spend on clothes.
The Radiants didn't want to be like Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps; we wanted to be like the Counts. We began to play school dances, churches, YMCA's and backyard parties. By 1963, after the usual personnel changes, our line-up was fixed. I sang lead and played
rhythm guitar. Bob also sang lead, wrote songs, and arranged harmonies. Howard Calhoun and Mike Gardner played bass and drums respectively. Bill Slais Jr played sax and sang back up, and Ed Marshall played lead guitar. We had other singers, including Tony
Rossini, a Sun recording artist in hos own right who had left another outfit just to come and sing with us.
The Radiants were still considered up and comers, but we were
perfectly placed for the events of early 1964. I had first seen a picture of the Beatles in Life magazine after their 1963 Royal Command Performance but didn't give it another thought until I heard ''I want To Hold Your Hand'' on the car radio. I drove directly
to the record store, but they only had the single. When ''Meet The Beatles'' was released a week later, I got the early tip and listened to it over and over with fellow Radiants and other mesmerized friends. Once we saw the lads on Ed Sullivan, it was all
over. This was the realization of what we aspired to; a self-contained band who played their own instruments, sang all the vocals and recorded their own songs. No one had to tell us as musicians that the Beatles were going to be the next big thing. At our
next rehearsal, Mike loosened up his trap cymbal and played with the slashing motion used by Ringo, and Ed tightened his guitar strap and wore it higher like George. I sang the John songs and Bob sang the Paul songs, while Howard deciphered their chord changes
Bob Simon had been a precocious songwriting talent since he was 12. His first attempts were folk songs, but he soon showed a gift for melody and structure.
The first rock and roll song he played for me was too good to be anyone's first song, and I actually accused him of plagiarism. The tune, ''True And Sweet'', had a chord structure similar to Major Lance's ''Monkey Time'', only Bob wrote his song a year earlier
than Curtis Mayfield. I became his biggest songwriting fan. Bob was so accomplished and dedicated that I never considered trying to write a song of my own until the ripe old age of 19. The Beatles gave Bob focus and direction and sent him into overdrive.
After the Fabs' breakthrough, and the accompanying British Invasion, the Memphis music scene exploded with new venues for teen dances. Every skating rink and department store was looking
for bands with youth appeal. The Radiants were already professionals, but when we added a half-dozen Beatle songs to our set lists, our bookings grew too numerous for us to handle. We had begun to play a series of Saturday night dances in a hot gymnasium at
a local YMCA, a popular gathering spot for kids from all over the city, sponsored by a small radio station in nearby Millington, Tennessee. The station's staff included Dewey Phillips, in the decline of his career, as well as John Dougherty, an unassuming
young man closer to our age, whose on air name was Johnny Dark. As the crowds continued to grow, we asked John if he would be interested in managing us. We had never had a manager and he had never managed but, almost immediately, our bookings skyrocketed,
as did our asking price.
John also booked us at college fraternities, who up until that time had lived on a steady diet of southern soul bands like Doug Clark and the
Hot Nuts. It was rarity for sophisticated college men to hire high school students to play, but if they wanted the new music, we had it. We set up for Sigma Nu at Ivy-walled Southwestern College in Memphis, and after our first set, John approached with a blond-haired
fraternity man in a white -V-necked tennis sweater, looking like he had just stepped out of Gentleman's Quarterly. Introduced as Knox Phillips, he extended his hand warmly. ''You guys are great'', he opined. ''Johnny's been talking about you, and we wondered
if you'd be interested in coming down to the recording studio and playing for my father''? We had no idea that a portion of Johnny's high school years were spent living in the Phillips family home as a surrogate brother to Sam's two sons, Knox and Jerry.
The next Sunday afternoon found us at Phillips Memphis Recording Service, and though this modern facility had been there since the late 1950s, it was still referred to as the ''new studio''.
Sam greeted us in the lounge wearing a Ban-Lon shirt and a yachtsman's cap, and was gracious and charming. He told us Knox had raved about us and that he was excited to hear us, making us feel at home while simultaneously applying a little pressure to live
up to those reviews. We hauled in the equipment and, after a few songs, Mr Phillips offered a five-year contract with Sun Records. Knox's enthusiasm had sealed the deal and he was going to participate, for the first time, in observing his father's production
techniques, and to learn to work the console soundboard that looked like the cockpit of a giant airliner. The contract required both our parents' permission and signatures, since we were underage. After we had all joined the local musicians union, the Radiants
did the session that produced our first record.
For a while, the band's name alternated between the Radiants and Randy & The Radiants, a moniker that was beginning
to stick. Although I wasn't promoting a name change for the sake of my ego, I didn't object very much either. Sam made it official when he printed it on the label with the yellow rising sun. He felt it made us sound like the first wave of British bands: Gerry
and The Pacemakers, Freddie and The Dreamers. It also avoided confusion with the Chicago Radiants, but added more with Randy & The Rainbows. For years since, I have had to explain that I was not the guy that sang, ''Denise''.
Dewey Phillips himself first played out record on the radio station in Millington, and tough it didn't sell many copies, it was a beginning. We lip-synched the record on disc jockey George Klein's Saturday afternoon
television show, Talent Party, and when Bob's ''Walk Softly'' began climbing the charts, a columnist named Robert Johnson took a special interest in us, and began writing a series of articles about out adventures. The crowd and the excitement grew, until one
afternoon at rehearsal in the late autumn of 1964, John showed up with some news. Memphis had a brand new Coliseum that had never hosted a rock concert, and almost a year after the Beatles had first appeared in the States, no British band had yet played in
the city. ''You know the Dave Clark Five have booked at the Coliseum in December''? said John, so calmly that I believed he was just informing us he had used his contacts to get us good seats. Instead, he paused dramatically, ''You guys are opening the show''.
Our cheers could be heard down the block.
The concert's start had been changed from evening to afternoon to accommodate all the young fans. It was the Mid-South Coliseum's
first experience with the world's second most popular band, and the security was tighter than a presidential visit. The Radiants were locked in our dressing room by noon, four hours before showtime, so we tuned and retuned our guitars and stewed over the fact
that we had heard that opening acts in other cities along the Dave Clark Five's tour had been booed. When the announcer finally shouted ''Here's one of Memphis' favourite bands, Randy & The Radiants'', we ascended the back stairs to the stage into a world
of flashbulbs and the ''endless scream''. Our hometown was treating us like stars, but we were all back in class the next morning. In that one week in December 1964, our first single was released. Randy & The Radiants became the first rock band to play
the Coliseum before 12,500 screaming fans, and I turned 17 years old. Going into 1965, the Radiants were the hottest band in Memphis. We were on television, radio and in both local newspapers, and the Dave Clark Five show put us on the road all over the South.
Our jobs took us from West Tennessee into eastern Arkansas and deep into the Mississippi Delta. We were welcomed with equal enthusiasm at high school proms in Little Rock, Arkansas and graduation dances in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Since we only played on weekends,
our roadwork made our Memphis appearances into mini events. The band's big news was that Sam Phillips wanted us back in the studio.
Outside the control room, Sam Phillips
was always friendly and welcoming, but once the session started, he was all business. If a mistake was made, Phillips began clicking the playback button in the headphones; the signal to begin again. It wasn't uncommon for us to do a song 15 or 20 times, yet
have Phillips decide he liked take 2. He pushed me to give the vocals everything I had. Sam didn't pass out compliments idly. The most he would say was, ''That was pretty good. Let's try one more'', but it gave me pleasure to sing an old rhythm and blues phrase
that I had worked up, just to see him smile. Both Sam and Knox were now looking for the most commercial sounding tune for our new single. Along with Bob Simon's songs, Sam brought in songs by teenage writers Donna Weiss and Mary Unobsky, and John Monasco,
piano player for our favourite local group, Jimmy Day and The Knights. Bob had written another ''I don't trust my girlfriend'' song called ''Truth From My Eyes'', which I particularly liked and upon which I sang the lead. Bob found comfort in composing his
most personal thoughts, then allowing me to voice them. Sam Phillips' favoured a Donna Weiss song, ''My Way Of Thinking'', which opened with a variation of the distinctive guitar riff made famous by the Kinks in ''You Really Got Me'', it was the cleanest we
had yet sounded, but the band felt uneasy about releasing a song that was so derivative of another groups's style, something that Sam Phillips himself used to always decry as a ''followers mentality''. The band lobbied hard for Bob's song to be the A-side.
We didn't believe that Sam had ever heard of the Kinks.
If Sam Phillips served as a father figure to Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee, Johnny and the first generation of Memphis
rock and rollers, our experience with him was more like working with your actual dad. Knox served as our liaison and a voice between the generations, and thus Sam Agreed to ''Truth From My Eyes'' as our new Sun release, and in Memphis it took off in both popularity
and sales, Johnny Dark accepted a disc jockey position in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. We carried on without him as best we could, but found ourselves unable to sufficiently exploit our hit record, other than to play it live. As the radio world revolves, John got
a job at Memphis' WMPS AM60, and though he was no longer out manager and it seemed the record had run its course, he gave it a second life. It became the most requested song on WMPS to begin playing it again. Randy & The Radiants appeared to be on the
brink of a breakthrough.
But despite the unflagging support of Knox Phillips, Sun still did their promotion the old fashioned way and seemed to be caught off guard by
the single's success. Our friends and rivals, the Gentrys, had made a record called ''Keep On Dancing'', the local popularity of which resulted in a major label release and a Top 5 national hit. But Sun was among the last of the old school independents, and
Sam had stopped leasing masters back in the 1950s. His brother, Judd Phillips, was as amiable with strangers as Sam was tacitum, and he was pressed back into action to travel to the major cities of the South, both to promote ''Truth From My Eyes'' and to arrange
for the first major Randy & The Radiants tour. In the midst of a generational shift, however, and showbiz being what it is, the tour never materialized. We all had more pressing problems.
Bob excluded, the radiants all graduated high school in 1965, the year Selective Service began drafting half a million men to go to Vietnam. Enrolling in college offered a student deferment, and so all the band was going to attend Memphis
State University. At 16 and still under the charge of my parents, I was being told that it was time to put away childhood things and leave Memphis for college as had long been planned. When I expressed my desire to stay home and attend Memphis State, i was
told, ''Not if you expect us to pay for it''. The Radiants were making good money, but not enough for college tuition, so it was determined that I would leave the band in the fall of 1965 to attend the University in Knoxville, four hundred miles away. We continued
to play and record as if nothing was goin' of to change, but come September, I entrusted my Fender Stratocaster to Bob and bid the band farewell. When I left Memphis, we had a number one song, one of the hottest bands in town, and two years to go in a recording
contract with Sun Records.
With Bob as lead singer, the Radiants added a second horn player and maintained status as one of the most sought-after bands in the South.
When I finally returned home for a Christmas break and went to hear the band, their experience and maturity had made them into an even tigher performing unit, which is a self-deprecating way for me to say they sounded better after I left. Knox Phillips was
now recording the band, including some of Bob's most promising commercial songs, and Sam had diverted his attention from the record business to the family-owned radio stations, but there were no further releases. Soon after, Sam Phillips sold Sun Records.
And following Bob Simon's high school graduation, he too was sent away to college. The band hung on for a while longer, but when Howard Calhoun, its best musician, quit, that effectively ended the joy-filled, five-year union of the Radiants - at least the
first incarnation. But that's another story.