The McCoys get ready to take off!
Cover photo from You Make Me Feel so Good
(Bang Records, 1966)
By Devorah Ostrov
Just out of high school and about to embark on a major tour with the Standells and the Rolling Stones, Rick Zehringer launched his group's debut LP with some cheesy introductions.
"Before we present our first album," the teenager says a little shyly, "I'd like to introduce the McCoys to those of you who don't already know us..."
Rick begins with the band's drummer, Randy Zehringer, who he thinks "is the very best drummer in the whole world." He explains, "Now, the reason I have to tell everyone that is because he's my brother, and when I don't say he's the best drummer in the world I get in an awful lot of trouble when we get home."
Hang on Sloopy (Bang Records, 1965)
Finally, for the benefit of what they must have imagined to be a very young following, Rick announces, "The instrument I play is called the guitar." And he almost apologetically tacks on, "I try my best to play it."
It takes a full two-minutes to "Meet the McCoys" before Randy on the drums kicks into the group's 1965 worldwide smash hit "Hang on Sloopy." Rick would soon change his surname to Derringer, hook up with Johnny and Edgar Winter, write "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo," and become an international guitar hero. But it all began with the McCoys. (Actually, before they became the McCoys they called themselves the Rick Z Combo and had a fling with the moniker Rick and the Raiders.)
* * *
The Rolling Stones, the McCoys and
the Standells - June 28, 1966 at the
Buffalo Memorial Auditorium
"I started playing the year Elvis became famous," Rick recalled during an afternoon soundcheck at Nightbreak, where later that night he debuted some fiery new material. "So, I was in awe of that kind of rock 'n' roll. And my uncle played guitar. He played a lot of country music, so I listened to a lot of that. I listened to anybody that played guitar. I watched The Lawrence Welk Show just because he had a great guitar player in those days. And Ozzie and Harriet because Rick Nelson's band had a great guitar player."
The Zehringer's new next door neighbor, 15-year-old Dennis Kelly, expressed a desire to play the bass. So, with Randy on drums and Rick assuming the group's leadership on guitar and vocals, the trio began rehearsing. "I'm a Leo," he muses. "I guess that automatically made me the leader. I was always telling them what to do."
According to Rick, the first song they learned to play was an instrumental by the Ventures called "The McCoy" (from their 1960 LP Walk, Don't Run). "We decided that if we called ourselves the McCoys we would also, coincidentally, have a theme song. It was the only song we knew, but it was our theme song!"
Magazine clipping about the McCoys being named Teen-age Heart Ambassadors
by the American Heart Association. What's their favorite food? asks the reporter.
"Give me a nice juicy steak any day," says 18-year-old Rick.
"We played things like Kiwanis Club meetings," laughs Rick. "They'd say, 'Oh, the little kids from down the street would be great entertainment for our meetings.' From that, we got a regular thing every week on a local radio station [WDRK in Winchester, Indiana] where we did a show from the front window of a department store. We went from that to Greenville, Ohio where we got a gig every Saturday night at a local armory. The proceeds from our shows eventually paid for the building of Greenville's community swimming pool."
"Fever" b/w "Sorrow" - German picture sleeve single
(Atlantic Records, 1966)
When Dennis graduated high school and went to college, working during the week became difficult. Randy Joe Hobbs eventually replaced him on bass, and they added keyboardist Ronny Brandon.
Fate finally intervened in July 1965 when the McCoys opened (and doubled as the back-up band) for the Strangeloves in Dayton, Ohio.
The Strangeloves weren't really a band as such, but the studio persona of songwriters/ producers Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer (FGG Productions). In mid-1965 the threesome had released "I Want Candy," a Bo Diddley-inspired tune that became the first big hit for Atlantic's new offshoot Bang Records, headed by Bert Berns (AKA Bert Russell).
A prolific songwriter himself, Berns' impressive catalog includes "Twist and Shout," "Piece of My Heart," and "Here Comes the Night." In 1964, a black vocal group called the Vibrations had taken the Bert Berns/Wes Farrell-penned song "My Girl Sloopy" to the top of the R&B charts.
The Gene Pitney Show
featuring the McCoys - May 18, 1966
So, while touring the US with "I Want Candy," it became the Strangeloves' quest to find such a band. Dayton was the last stop on the tour, and they hadn't found anyone remotely Beatles-like.
"Not knowing this," says Rick, "we happened to wear our Beatles suits that night!"
One version of the McCoys' backstory suggests that Rick recorded the song's vocals over an already existing backing track. But during our interview he recalls the Strangeloves asking, "You guys wanna come to New York and record 'My Girl Sloopy?'" The boys said something along the lines of, "You betcha!" And the very next day, Rick and Randy's parents drove the group to New York to record the song.
While the original lyrics remained intact, its three verses were cut to two (the third verse would pop up on later Bang compilations) and for obvious reasons the title was altered to "Hang on Sloopy." As Rick observes, "The chorus says 'Hang on Sloopy/Sloopy hang on...' It doesn't say 'My girl Sloopy.' It made sense for us to change it."
Tonight: KNAK presents a Battle Of The Bands
Tomorrow: The Rolling Stones, the McCoys & the Standells
In early October 1965 "Hang on Sloopy" hit #1 on the US Billboard chart. Eventually, the McCoys' version of the song would become a worldwide smash hit. Rick still remembers the thrill he got the night he came back to his hotel room after playing a show in Washington D.C. and turned on the news.
|The McCoys - Bang Records promo photo|
Hang on Sloopy the album quickly followed the single. Produced by the Feldman Goldstein, Gottehrer team, the LP contained three FGG-penned songs, including the excellent pop ballad "Sorrow" (featuring bassist Randy Joe Hobbs on lead vocals and harmonica), which later became a UK hit for the Merseys. (In turn, David Bowie covered the Merseys' version on Pin Ups.)
The remainder were all covers: "I Don't Mind" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" were well-known James Brown numbers; "All I Really Want to Do" came from the Bob Dylan catalog; "High Heel Sneakers" and "Stormy Monday Blues" were R&B standards.
Two tracks — "Fever" (perhaps best-known as Peggy Lee's signature song) and Marvin Gaye's "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" — proved resilient enough to withstand FGG's cursory production job and exceled as pure pop. (Released as the follow-up to "Hang on Sloopy," "Fever" became a Top Ten hit in its own right.)
"Hang on Sloopy" b/w "Fever"
Japanese picture sleeve 45 (Stateside Records, 1966)
From the beginning Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer viewed the McCoys as little more than puppets, and whether the band liked it or not, their image had already been decided upon: they were to be marketed as a teenybopper's dream date.
"We didn't have much say about anything," states Rick. "They pretty much chose what we did and where we went." (To this day, he bristles when asked his favorite color. "I don't remember what I said in those days," he grumbles.)
Touring with Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars" (a buss full of chart-toppers driving cross-country; something Stiff Records would later revive) assured plenty of adolescent adoration. As part of "The Gene Pitney Show" they played alongside Bobby Goldsboro, B.J. Thomas, the Outsiders, and Chad & Jeremy. While the "Pop Music Festival" in Ft. Worth, Texas paired them with the Doors, the Box Tops, the Standells, the Seeds, and the Electric Prunes.
Back cover photo for the Infinite McCoys LP
(Mercury Records, 1968)
Poster for the Jimi Hendrix Experience
with the McCoys and the Soft Machine
November 16, 1968
In 1966 the McCoys (along with the Standells) opened several shows on the Rolling Stones tour. Immediate Records, headed by Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, had issued "Hang on Sloopy" in the UK and Rick figures the tour offer was made to cover their bet. "They wanted to make sure it became a hit," he says, "and one way to ensure that was to put us on the road with them."
So, what was it like? Again, it's an offstage incident that Rick most clearly recalls: "We all rode in the same charted airplane with the Stones every day. And everybody had compartmentalized food trays. There was the entrée section, and another section for the salad, and a dessert section. One night, the Stones were all up in the front of the cabin, in a big booth area. Us and the Standells were sitting around, and everybody's having their dinner. We all got done about the same time and the Standells and the McCoys are looking at each other going, 'You guys got any dessert?' At about that time, the stewardess came in from the front of the cabin by the Stones' booth, and she had a tray piled high with cups of ice cream. As she entered the room the Stones turned to everybody else going, 'You don't get no dessert! You don't get no dessert!'"
* * *
Autographed McCoys poster for a
show at the Springbrook Gardens
Teen Club - August 15, 1967
However, the band had other things to be unhappy about. As Rick points out: "We had been writing our own songs before we did 'Hang on Sloopy,' but we went into a situation where these producers had an agenda of their own which included them finding songs and them writing songs."
"We were also disenchanted with what was happening to our image," he continues. "There was a kind of music coming in that people started calling 'bubblegum.' It included groups like the 1910 Fruitgum Co. and the Ohio Express; all the bands from that era got lumped together, and with 'Hang on Sloopy' we became one of those. We were labelled as teenyboppers, and it bummed us out because it had no relationship to the music, in reality, that we were doing."
According to Rick, the McCoys were by nature an R&B band. "We had been playing songs like 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag,' 'I Don't Mind,' and 'Hi-Heel Sneakers' in our set. That's why, after the McCoys, we were able to become Johnny Winter's back-up band. That's why we were able to become the house band at The Scene in New York City. That's why we were able to have Jimi Hendrix come down and jam with us three or four nights a week while we were playing there. We were basically an R&B band. People just didn't know that."
The McCoys — Mercury Records promo photo
L-R: Randy Zehringer, Rick Zehringer, Bobby Peterson & Randy Hobbs
As disenchanted as the band was with the record company, so was Bang now with the McCoys. "We were disposable as far as they looked at it," says Rick. "To this day, record companies look at young musicians as exploitable, and they exploit them as long as the records sell. And when those records stop selling, they feel they can dispose of the band. We were kind of at that stage."
Advert for a Pop Music Festival in
Ft. Worth, Texas featuring the McCoys
Timing wise, it couldn't have been better for band. "We were looking for the first opportunity to get away from Bang Records," asserts Rick.
So, when the McCoys contract with Bang ended after the second album, the group didn't ask to renew it. "I think the record company was pretty surprised!" he laughs.
Although Rick didn't reveal the specifics of the Bang contract — which their parents had to sign as the boys were all underage — he did state: "Our parents sold us down the river without realizing it. We read it, and we realized it didn't look very good, but we had nothing to compare it to."
Mercury Records offered them the freedom to write and produce their own material, and in 1968 the band released Infinite McCoys, the first of two (shall we say unconventional) albums for that label. "It was the height of the psychedelic period," says Rick, "and we jumped right on that bandwagon. Our stuff was pretty psychedelic, pretty avant-garde, pretty experimental."
Hang on Sloopy: The Best of the McCoys CD
(Columbia/Epic Records 1995)
And he points out that what those LPs accomplished was more important to the band than sales figures: "They broke the mold and showed people that we weren't teenyboppers."
In 1969 the group shed any remnants of their teen-dream image when Texas blues-guitarist Johnny Winter hired them as his band. Of the four McCoys, only keyboardist Bobby Peterson didn't the make the move. "He chose that moment to have a nervous breakdown," notes Rick.
However, Winter was obviously still apprehensive about their teenybopper past. "Our bubblegum image wasn't very pleasant for Johnny to think about," allows Rick. So, rather than call the collaboration Johnny Winter and the McCoys, the group oddly became Johnny Winter And. "That way we didn't say — And The McCoys," observes Rick.
By the time the Zehringer brothers hooked up with Winter, Randy had shortened his surname to Z and Rick had altered his to Derringer. Why the change?
Advert for the All American Boy LP
Rick Derringer's solo debut on Blue Sky Records
His inspiration might have come from the pistol used on the Bang Records label, but a more interesting story says he saw the name in a dream — a scenario Rick is happy to support during our interview: "I saw the possibilities in a dream. My middle initial is D, and somehow the Z fell off and the D moved over, and I became Derringer! I thought, 'This is great! My family will dig it 'cause it's almost Zehringer. It sounds almost the same.'"
Following incredibly successful collaborations with both Johnny and Edgar Winter, Rick finally launched his decades-long solo career with 1973's All American Boy on Blue Sky Records. You can find out more about Rick Derringer by visiting his official website: www.rickderringer.com
* Many thanks to Dyan Derringer for her help with arranging this interview.
* Thanks also to Jørgen Gram Christensen for finding many of the images that I've included here.