“Nashville Could Eat Its Young!” The Athens Rogues Story

E. Mark Windle 22 August 2020

“To us, back in 1968 Nashville was all country. Not a place for our stuff” recalls Gerald Fleming of Georgia’s Athens Rogues. “Especially the soul part. Producer and musician and label owner Pete Drake really took a huge chance on us. We guess we were the first of our kind; the thing that made us stick out was that we were a rock ‘n’ roll and soul band, made up of a bunch of white kids from Athens, with a recording contract out of Nashville!”

Athens Rogues were founded circa 1967, with most members former High School pals including Gerald Fleming (lead vocal, keyboards), Glenn Brown (vocal, lead guitar), Jim Cleveland (vocal, rhythm guitar), Bill Walker (drums), Dennis Carter (bass), Terry McGee (trombone), John “JB” Barrett (trumpet), and Larry Moor (saxophone). Pre “Athens” Rogues included David Woods on saxophone and vocals. Prom bookings and University of Georgia frat parties a speciality.

“JB (on trumpet) and I were close friends at Athens High. I graduated a year before him. We were both trumpet players in the high school band. I went on to the university and into the college band on trumpet, actually my primary instrument for years. I didn’t see the guys for a bit. New scene, you know. JB and the guys and I had never played together in any other setting other than academic at that point. I had been performing with a band throughout my high school years that was very successful regionally. That band had been initially built by my brother Horace, who was five years my senior and a killer trumpet player/singer, called The Rhythm Rockers. The Rockers were working every week and booked as much as a year in advance – that was pretty awesome back then, and I felt like I was swimming around in money. Then, after a four year run, my brother decided to drop out of The Rhythm Rockers to pursue his PhD up at Vanderbilt. BAMM! End of that. There I was with a ton of gigs and connections around the region, but with a band that no longer had its signature sound.

My mom had mentioned that Johnny and some of the old band guys had been practicing at the navy school, and that they had a bunch of horns. She suggested maybe I could talk to them about siding for me with The Rhythm Rockers while I looked for a replacement for my brother. JB and the guys had sounded pretty good, raw as hell but good, and I had always liked the ones of Johnny’s guys that I knew. They had a different sax man jamming with them, David Woods, who is one of the really good guys you meet in life. Playing rock ‘n’ roll would be fun. I loved horn sections. I wanted a chance to play keyboard, write big arrangements and had a pretty advanced keyboard rig for the day, as I was training at the time to play classical piano. We started a dialog about the possibilities and the next thing you know I made an arrangement with the cats that played for me in the Rhythm Rockers. I gave them a ton of gigs and let them keep the name until done. That saw the birth of The Rogues, as we were called then. The “Athens” delineation came later.

You remember the highlights the rest of your life. But mostly the good parts. It’s easy to remember some of The Rogues stuff because of the rather surprising chain of events in such a brief period of time. Whereas we were not the most gifted of bands, we played well together, booked well, were quite popular, were not afraid to explore and had the good sense to stay in the studio as much as possible. Rehearsal was just a matter of course in everyday life. Not long ago, somebody suggested that we were one of the first of the significant American “garage bands”. Quite often the practices turned into gatherings. Toward the last days of the band there were more than a few that became large, crazy orgy-type gatherings no less; hard to do those in a garage! But our sound was pretty good for its day because of the time we spent together.

“We recorded some demos at a local studio owned by Jerry Connel and John Harold called “Project 70 Sound” (you think a really forward-looking name in the `60s!). That’s where “She Could Love Me” and others took shape. We had made some demo tapes at the University of Georgia School of Journalism. Those tapes were absolutely horrible. Wasn’t the school’s fault. We used an “after-hours-free-time-with-whatever-student-can-turn-the-machines-on” type approach. Not exactly a masterpiece of engineering but it did start something in Athens. The Athens music breakout was now in the making. Not bad overall, The Rogues were recording and now everybody wanted to join in!”

On a freezing January morning in 1968 Gerald, JB, Jimmy Cleveland and Dennis Carter packed their equipment and a demo tape and made the 260 mile trip to Nashville. A full day was spent making cold calls to just about every producer and publisher’s door on Music Row, attempting to garner interest from any record label and getting doors slammed in their face at each music house . The boys started big with the likes of Columbia and RCA who failed to show any interest. Twelve hours later, as light was fading, they turned up at Pete Drake’s Stop Records. Pete took pity, and gave them a chance to play their demo tape. The first few bars of “She Could Love Me” bowled him over (to be rediscovered and revered on the UK rare / northern soul scene and the US beach music scene, of all things, some thirty-five years later).

“On our first trip into Nashville, when we had showed up at Window Music that night, Pete had fallen in love with my car” says Gerald. “I had that 428ci Ford Torino. Boy, did he think that was a great ride! We ended up in this huge parking lot somewhere near the park, cutting doughnuts and doing burnouts and just being…kids. So, about a week after we got back to Athens, Pete gives me a call and says, “You inspired me to give myself a present. I’ll show it to you when you get up here.” When we rolled back into Nashville for the sessions, we met Pete at the studio first thing…and there he was, timed perfectly for our arrival, cutting doughnuts in the parking lot of Starday in a brand new pearl blue Oldsmobile.”

Two months later Drake took the band into Starday Studios in Nashville to record three tracks: “She Could Love Me”, “Sally, Sally From Tin Pan Alley” and “ESP: Extra Soul Perception”.

“The sessions were held at Starday Studios in Nashville. Just a simple layout there. Brick building with an upstairs apartment, which, I believe we spent the session time in for practice and crashing. Pete brought us “ESP: Extra Soul Perception” (clever back in that day…haha!) and it was this horn jam. It was hot!”

The final recorded version of “She Could Love Me” required a three part harmony but as Gerald was on lead vocal, Glenn and Jim needed another singer. The session for “She Could Love Me”, “Sally, Sally from Tin Pan Alley”, and “ESP” was cut on 4-track. High-quality tape tracks, but still only four, so choices were limited on how many times you could stack parts, and whereas Dennis and Bill could sing…during a national emergency perhaps…you really wouldn’t want to go there, and we desperately needed three-part back-up vocals to help beef us up. So, that meant either utilizing a tracking technique called “ping-ponging”, which allows adding tracks but greatly reduces fidelity, or settling for two-part backup harmony since I would be singing the lead at the same time and, consequently, not available. Meanwhile, this young guy I took for about thirty and dressed as we had become accustomed to seeing the studio cats in the city dress… you know, Nashville 60s hip, a bit of coin in his threads and nice boots…had been hanging out in the main studio with Pete and us and the engineer, and Pete had introduced him to me as “one of Elvis’s singers”. Later in the day when tracking decisions came to bear, and, when asked, the guy said, “Oh, hell yes! I’d be truly honoured to sing with you cats! Whatcha want me to do, Pete?” What a cool dude! He just fitted right in like we’d been on the road together.” Gerald only recently realised that the individual was Neal Matthews Jr. – one of Elvis’ Jordanaires.

“In the end, we were gone in a flash, but at least we had the distinct honour of having been produced by Pete Drake. White boys doing black boys’ music in the Deep South in the sixties …in Nashville! Are you out of your fucking mind? There were ‘names’ for kids like us. But it was Pete Drake who had the balls, not us. We were the first to break out of Athens, Georgia. Athens Rogues had gotten a major producer and a contract in Nashville, playing soul and rock ‘n’ roll no less and had done it in record time! We may be all but lost to mainstream music history, but we know what happened on that crazy day. Important to remember too that the groups and the music were just a reflection of the time. Kennedy had died right in front of us. America was in a war we didn’t even understand. The world was on fire. Under the boardwalk you didn’t think about the distinct possibility of death under the palms of some distant beach. And so we sang “I Love Beach Music”, and did the Shag under the moonlight out on South Myrtle and down on Panama Beach and Lauderdale, and had babies because of those nights, and in some elusive way began defining the boomer generation of the south. Those times saw the beginning and the ending of the American Camelot.”

“She Could Love Me” did enjoy some local radio time, but sales success were limited. By 1969 The Athens Rogues had disbanded.

“I know that John Barrett is alive and well and in North Georgia up in the glorious Great Smoky Mountain area. Terry McGhee and I spent future time together musically, both in the University of Georgia concert bands as well as in one of the cutting-edge next-gen horn bands after the Rogues. He was an ace T-bone man, and I recruited him into “Nickels and Dimes”, my ensuing band and possibly the best rock horn-band in the south at the time. Terry is now a successful MD. Glenn Brown is an influential attorney here in Athens, GA. Jimmy Cleveland is sales rep with one of the major firms of our fair city. I’m not certain about the rest of the guys. Johnny says everybody’s still hale and hearty. I suppose that’s pretty amazing in itself. Pete passed away years ago, and the world is less for his passing and a damn-site better for his having been here! He smoked too much. It hurt him. He was 55 years old when he died. Pete had vision. He was a kind and generous person and a gifted musician and producer. I am honoured that he was the first producer to sign me and I am humbled that he was my friend. What he did with the band in Nashville was a brave thing in 1968, even if you were Pete Drake! Back then Pete was established, but you must remember that he was not yet the legend he was later to become. Frankly, in the eyes of some of the Nashville old guard, he was considerably outside the dotted lines with us. And Nashville could sometimes eat its own young.

I’m the only one of the band that made the trade a career. To say that I was fortunate would be perhaps the understatement of the century. Not only did I get to play and record with a host of killer bands and solo artists over a 50 year career, but I was allowed to be the proverbial “fool and his cheque book” without any detectable ill-consequence that I can tell (while working for the passion of my life! And, believe me, one would have to hate life to hate that life!). Because of the brief shine of The Athens Rogues I had established just enough reputation in the Atlanta studios to be considered for projects, particularly writing, arranging, recording and gigs, within a pretty tight music inner circle that led me to a gate-opening gig with another East Coast legend group Bits and Pieces and also Classics IV. After that, I kinda picked my situations as a free-lancer, although I did stay for a year or two here and there. I have very few useful or marketable skills in the basic sense of the terms, but I have lived in eight different countries, been cast in “Smokey and the Bandit”, studied sword in America and Japan and became a sword master and sandan (a 3rd degree black belt in kendo), and was involved in some heady Formula 1 R&D related work.

Whatever is said of me I would like it known somewhere along the way that I am extraordinarily grateful that anyone…anywhere…would care to reflect on what little we did back in the day when we scarcely knew what we were doing at all. I want to think that somehow what we did escaped the vulgar and the base, because I know that what we did in those early days of a song like “She Could Love Me” was of pure, and quite often innocent, intent. Jeez! We were kids. Funny thing about the Rogues was, we were really good kids. We loved our moms. We had cute little girlfriends and we drank a bit but didn’t even mess around with drugs or the groupies…yet. And to think…I have been allowed to travel this journey my entire life!”

Regarding the Stop label itself; in 1973 co-owner and songwriter Tom Hill went into partnership with Moe Lytle to set up Gusto Records (selling Stop to Gusto), another Nashville label. These days Gusto is known as the largest independent reissue label in the States, owning much of the back catalogue of King, Starday, Federal, Wand, Scepter and Musicor, and even owns the long running Starday Studios where reformatting and new recordings continue to be made today.

This article is an excerpt from “House of Broken Hearts” by E. Mark Windle, available to order from the new book section.

Published by E. Mark Windle

Freelance writer, biographer and soul music lover.

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