Monday, 26 November 2018

The McCoys: "Hang On Sloopy" Tops The Pop Charts And Kickstarts Rick Derringer's Rock 'N' Roll Career!

The McCoys get ready to take off!
Cover photo from You Make Me Feel so Good 
(Bang Records, 1966)
Originally published in American Music Press (1992)

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)
Ronny Brandon is next up, but Rick is apparently struggling for an interesting titbit to share about the organist. "Now, he's the only member of the McCoys that doesn't live in the same town as the rest of us," he states and then a bit awkwardly adds, "And he does a real good job for us, too."

The "newest addition to the group," bassist Randy Hobbs is introduced next. "But he does a real good job for us also," remarks Rick. And he makes sure to point out that bassist Randy is "not the same as the Randy on the drums."

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
Fourteen-year-old Rick had already been playing the guitar for five years, and his 12-year-old brother Randy had been drumming for four, when the Zehringer family moved from Fort Recovery, Ohio to Union City, Indiana in 1962.

"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. 
As they were all underage, the group's first gigs were uneventful affairs: battles of the bands, high school sock hops and proms.

"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)
However, Rick insists the band never used their youth as a gimmick. "I'm sure that's the way some people looked at it, but the thing that made it not a gimmick was that we were pretty good."

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
But Berns thought the song, given a breezy beat and played by four young boys with Beatles' haircuts, could become an even bigger hit on the pop charts.

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
Rick also imprinted the song with a short, but distinctive, guitar solo. "They said, 'Go for it!' And I went for it," he enthuses.

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
 "I heard it played over a loudspeaker in Red Square," he says. "Moscow had decided to play rock 'n' roll for the people, and when they turned on the speakers in Red Square 'Hang on Sloopy' was the song that was playing!"

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.)

Meanwhile, the photos on the album's back cover (snapped during the McCoys first promotional tour with the Strangeloves) showed four squeaky-clean, happy-go-lucky moptops playing onstage, riding atop a stagecoach, and merrily spending their royalties.

"Hang on Sloopy" b/w "Fever"
Japanese picture sleeve 45 (Stateside Records, 1966)

"Wherever we stopped they'd take photos," reveals Rick. "They'd go, 'Get up on the stagecoach guys! Go ahead! Hold the guns! Perfect! Put on the fur coat! I can see it now!"

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)
"No one played a full set," says Rick about the Caravan of Stars shows. "Each band would play for 20-minutes or half-an-hour." As far as sorting out who headlined and who opened, he adds, "We weren't too concerned about it; everybody had big hits. There wasn't much jostling around about who was the biggest."

More so than details about the individual shows, he remembers one night's long bus ride: "The bass player from Freddy and the Dreamers was sitting next to me. He started telling me about his life from the day he was born, and he was pretty much charting his life on a daily basis. At about year six I was falling asleep. Everybody else on the bus had long since fallen asleep. I fought for hours and hours to stay awake."

Poster for the Jimi Hendrix Experience
with the McCoys and the Soft Machine 
November 16, 1968
Rick later discovered that his conversation with the British bassist was an introduction to the effects of speed! "I was such an innocent," he exclaims. "This guy was on bennies, and I was trying to listen to him all night!"

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
With success came the realization that keyboardist Ronny Brandon couldn't actually play and needed to go. "In the beginning it was fun 'cause he happened to have his own organ," acknowledges Rick. "Nobody else owned keyboards in those days! So, we could put up with the fact that he couldn't play by showing him what to do and laughing about it. But all of a sudden we were getting paid a lot of money to be good."

The keyboardist was fired, but "he turned around and sued us," chuckles Rick. "He said his job in the band wasn't 'musician.' He was the heartthrob of the McCoys!" Ronny lost his court case and was replaced by Bobby Peterson.

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
In 1966, the McCoys released a second (and final) album on Bang. Featuring a cover photo of the boys boarding a teeny airplane, You Make Me Feel so Good yielded one single (a cover of the Richie Valens' classic "C'mon Let's Go") which very nearly cracked the Top 20. Not bad, but not nearly the phenomenon "Hang on Sloopy" had been.

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
Although Bang would continue to issue McCoys 45s (sometimes combining non-album cuts with random tunes from the second LP) well into 1967, only the title track b/w "Runaway" would come close to troubling Billboard's Top 50.

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)
Rick admits that the Mercury albums "didn't sell at all." But he proudly states, "It's good stuff. John Lennon had both of those records in his collection."

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
"When I started working with Johnny on that first album, I thought it would be an opportunity to do a better record for more numbers," says Rick. "And I thought it would be a good opportunity to unleash a new name. Zehringer was always hard for people to pronounce. At the supermarket, my family will answer to any page that starts with Z! So, I was looking for a professional name, but then your family feels bad: 'What? Isn't my name good enough for him?' So, it's very hard to find a name that you can justify to your family as well as yourself."

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:

* 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.

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