E. Mark Windle, June 2021.
Whilst new bass guitarist Van Coble was an only child whose birth father who was killed in service during World War II, his childhood was otherwise reasonably comfortable. His mother Helen, who was a nurse, eventually remarried. The musical talent came from his Helen Coble and her sister:
“My mother enjoyed opera and was blessed with a wonderful singing voice, although she never pursued it professionally. An aunt played guitar and kick-started my interest in playing the instrument. I remember family gatherings: Sunday lunch and singing around the piano during the holidays. I was given my first guitar at the age of ten as a Christmas gift…a Harmony Acoustic. I was also surrounded by country blue grass loving family musicians. But my thing was rock ‘n’ roll. I would stay up at night, listening to Little Richard and Buddy Holly on the radio. When I heard Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” I thought, hell I’m playing the wrong stuff! Next thing I know I’m buying a Fender guitar and amp. When I hurt my leg badly, I got a whole lot better at the guitar, having a lot of time on my hands.”
In his early teens Van performed with various groups. In the late ’50s he played regularly with Donnie Brooks and the Heartbeats, then with Jerry Boone and the Lazy Rockers. Performances were staged at events including the Fraternal Order of Police parties (FOP being a pseudo-union not short of controversy, particularly in later years), and at the Fireman’s Hall, a quirky medieval folly-like structure built by Charlotte firefighters, containing an assembly hall and six-story training tower. In the 1960s, WGIV events were held at the Hall, sponsored by WGIV and hosted by DJ Larry Keith. It quickly became known as a gathering place where young people could dance and listen to local bands. Musicians and singers would be paid $5-$15 each for performances. The Lazy Rockers were a staple at FOP events and the Hall, but also covered Myrtle Beach and had a long running stint at the Pecan Grove Supper Club (which would later become the first Go-Go club in Charlotte). Eventually the Lazy Rockers split up, and Van would continue perfecting his musicianship performing with different groups playing the local night club and frat party circuit. He played with Louis Gittens and the Corvairs until 1963. Gittens was a popular singer in Columbia and a favourite around the University of South Carolina.
Van first met The Tempests future drummer Nelson Lemmond when they were both in The Darnells. Like Van, Nelson was also an only child:
“My family descendants were immigrants who had settled below Charlotte around 1750 from Northern Ireland and Scotland. Through the generations they did fairly well to educate themselves. I was born in 1946. A real baby boomer. My father ran a successful appliance store for thirty years from the 1930s, and my mother was a primary school teacher. My childhood was a happy if lonely one – we lived in Indian Trail, a rural area outside Charlotte. It was a small town with no great wealth, though everyone knew each other and there were no class differences. You were judged by your character. By these standards, our family was well off. We lived on a farm bought by my grandfather. I still have the farm. Dad was constantly listening to jazz and I had two cousins who were also keen. Harvey Clay Nesbit was the essence of Carolina Cool, and Raymond Underwood who played trombone. Their attitudes influenced me more than anything. I listened to a lot of jazz and R&B and ended up collecting a lot of records in my youth. By the time I was ten years old my friend Henry Deere and I were going to see rock ‘n’ roll shows – Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, even Elvis among others. I liked sitting behind the bandstand and listen to the drummers. Being an only child I was used to the company of adults. As a musician, I was always the guy in the back working on the next set rather than chasing girls. Maybe I should have drunk more beer!”
Nelson was an active and educated man. As a native of Indian Trail he was the co-captain of Sun Valley High School football team, but music became a major part of both his young and adult life. His first drum lessons were taken at eleven years of age. By his teens he was in the Musicians’ Union, playing gigs with those a lot older than him. He would experience an extremely diverse range of musical styles, playing with a part-Sioux Indian who had a Lawrence Welk type band, other bands performing standards of the day, and of course plenty of rock ‘n’ roll. Nelson’s parents would take him to the gigs and collect him afterwards. One night coming home from town with his two cousins, they stopped by The Owl Club, to hear local band The Plaids play. Though nowadays a busy commercial setting, at the time The Owl Club was set in the countryside way outside of Charlotte on East Highway 74, now known as Independence Boulevard. It was a smoke-filled nightclub, run by an ex-boxer and gambler.
Plaids band member Ken Carpenter, recalls the early origins of The Plaids:
“Before Nelson joined us, I originally played guitar and sang with a band called the Rock-Olas formed in 1958. While playing on a Saturday night at The Owl Club, a skinny kid by the name of Jesse Smith walked in. Jesse had his Wurlitzer electric piano and Premier Amp in the back of his Ford Falcon and asked to sit in with us. The stage was small, so he set up on the floor and we started to play. I remember that he also had a great left hand and could play the bass runs. A plus for us because we didn’t have a bass player at that time. Being our first night at The Owl we weren’t sure what to expect. But it didn’t take long to see that this wasn’t your local country club. Big Al, from Taylorsville, N.C. owned the place. I guess the name Owl Club was partly because he was open until the early morning hours. We played that night and endured a couple of fights without getting our equipment destroyed. Big Al told me he really liked the guy on piano and asked how much it would cost me to include him in the band. After some financial negations we agreed on a price. Jesse became a member of The Rock-Olas that night.”
The Rock-Olas played together for a few months before undergoing several personnel changes. “We played for a couple of weeks with the new line up and felt it was time for a new band uniform” continues Ken. “We bought matching plaid jackets and tan pants. The band members were all into R&B and thought that The Rock-Olas sounded too rockabilly. So we decided on a new name – you guessed it – how about The Plaids!”
When Plaids drummer Larry Suster left the band to join the army, a vacancy arose, and Nelson Lemmond came on board – this was around the time he heard them play at The Owl and Nelson was about sixteen years old. Ken remembers the band lying about his age to get him in the club. The band grew in number from then on, picking up Denny Allen (on saxophone) on the way following performances they watched at Harwood Lakes Music Hall and Peppermint Twist Club, again on Highway 74. The band members worked well together and progressed musically. The Owl Club remained their venue for a short while until a police raid and subsequent citations for multiple alcohol related violations. On the last weekend there, the owners were arrested:
“When they were marched out Jesse Smith started playing the theme from Dragnet on the piano” says Nelson. “The next morning that was on the front page of The Charlotte Observer. It was the only time my mother ever interfered with anything I ever did in music. The newspaper stated that they had been charged with selling White Lighting bootleg liquor over the bar. When this came out, The Owl Club was pretty much closed down.”
Friday and Saturday nights at The Owl were now over but The Plaids had a contingency plan. Sunday nights were for The Jokers Lounge, one of the first lounges in Charlotte, located on Monroe Road. By 1962 The Plaids had put together a new song list and took to the road. They hooked up with the Hit Attractions booking agency, and Bill Lowery out of Atlanta, generating a lot of work from college parties. The next few years consisted of performing on the weekend in nightclubs and traveling the south east playing the beaches and college clubs, taking in just about every university throughout the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee. Their repertoire by this time included a mixture of genres but leaned heavily toward R&B, playing covers of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, James Brown and Solomon Burke.
Only one recording was made in the 1960s by The (Fabulous) Plaids: Let’s Learn About Love / I’m Coming Home (to You). Admittedly both sides were less representative of The Plaids’ earlier influences. The release came after the departure of Nelson Lemmond, when the band were looking for a new sound. Nelson had left for college by 1965:
“I had a spell with The Darnells, Bobby and the Pearls and a couple of other groups before I went off to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for my bachelor degree majoring in 20th century European history. Winston Churchill was my hero. If he didn’t stand up to Hitler in 1940 I would wonder what Western civilization would look like today. Anyway, whilst studying I still found time to start a band called The Seductives with Ellison Honeycutt, trumpet player Dave Norris and our lead singer, a black guy named Walter Morrow who was the only one who wasn’t a U.N.C. student. They were a bunch of great guys to be around. We were pretty popular around campus.”
Nelson and Van Coble would first perform together in Charlotte to play at Groove A-Go-Go and Winston’s Lounge as part of The Darnells. Other members included Jerry Jenkins (bass and vocals), Nelson on drums, Hymie Williams (trumpet), William Ford Price Jr (alto saxophone). “Hymie had played trumpet with Miller and Dorsey in the 1940s and was almost blind from the Korean War – unless he saw a good-looking girl! We were good friends, most between twenty and thirty years of age and were pretty decent players. Jerry later went on to record for Hi in Memphis. Music-wise we covered the Top 40 and R&B. Sad to say, we didn’t do anything in the studio” says Van.
Nelson fell ill at the end of the summer. After complaining of grumbling abdominal pains for around a week his symptoms escalated to require hospital admission. A ruptured appendix was diagnosed. During the post-operative recovery period the best option was to stay put on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina.
“After the semester started and I got stronger, I played with The Aqua Lads for about six months – this was before they did “I Remember”, their Goldbee recording. The following year I concentrated on my studies and then found myself travelling Europe for nine weeks during vacation. Hey, I even played drums in Yugoslavia! Our last stop was London. It was funny to hear a cab driver cursing in English!”
On his return from his travels, Nelson was looking for a new band:
“My love for soul music and blues was strong. I had known for a while that Roger had been looking for another possible recording contract and was short on band members. They called me having lost their drummer. I warmed to the idea pretty quickly. At the beginning of 1967 I brought up the subject of joining The Tempests with Van Coble and flute and baritone sax player Tom Brawley. Van was already very active musically, making reasonable money, and initially cautious but when he heard Hazel’s vocal talent that pushed it for him. It was a fairly quick process. Before we knew it we were rehearsing and auditioning for the Branches, and the rest of the band agreed: WE’RE IN!”