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Issue:May 2003 Year:2003
Photo of
Photo By
The Monarch

The Monarchs:

Louisville's Music Royalty

Sill Looking Homeward

By Kevin Gibson

The roll of a kettle drum, accompanied by a shrill falsetto: "Ahhhhhhhhhh!" And before the soft strains of a French horn can make their cue, most any Louisvillian over the age of 30 instantly will recognize the intro to "Look Homeward Angel" by the Monarchs.

In 1964, that song went to No. 43 on the Billboard charts, remained on the charts for 13 weeks and went to No. 1 on local and regional charts and made a huge splash in radio markets all over the U.S. and beyond.

And it was supposed to be a B-side. "What Made You Change Your Mind," a follow-up to the band's regionally successful "This Old Heart," was the intended A-side single, but it was "Angel," a ballad that featured layers of instrumentation and lush four-part harmonies, that got the airplay.

"It was an old Johnny Ray song," recalled Louie "Dusty" Miller, who played bass on that record and plays bass for the Monarchs today. "I think Mike (lead vocalist Mike Gibson) found it. We had a strange thing happen, because Nashville had a weird rule. You had to have a musician for every track laid down. You couldn't overdub. There was about 18 guys on that record. We cut it at 1 o'clock in morning at Allen Bradley's studio" in Nashville.

"They had an old guy down there that ran that musicians' union so tight. He came in on every session and everyone had to have their union card. Everybody left the studio and they took Mike back in and overdubbed the lead track. The other union engineers walked out in protest and filed a grievance with us."

And that hit single was done in two takes, not including the vocal overdub. "We did it once and they said, `Let's try it again,' so we did it again and they said, `That's it, let's keep it.'

"I remember Roger Miller was sitting there and was going to cut a session after we were done."

And so went the brightest moment for one of Louisville's golden age rock `n' roll bands. The Monarchs, now in their 42nd year of existence, found themselves in the midst of a rock revolution. And they were young men with jobs and plans to start families and live a typical American life.

"People ask me all time," said Leon Middleton, the Monarchs' saxophonist since 1962, "'Did you think you would still be doing this back in early '60s?' I didn't have a clue it would last this long. It's phenomenal the group is still here today. In all sincerity, we haven't lost touch with what we think is the Monarchs sound. We have developed our own sound and we will Monarch-ize anything we copy. Any song we rehearse ends up having our sound."

Monarchs at Slugger Field

Indeed, this is a band that released an album in 2001, saw several of its original tunes - including "Look Homeward Angel" and "This Old Heart" - re-released last year on a compilation of original Louisville rock and that continues to play high-profile shows regularly for large and receptive audiences.

These guys have been around roughly as long as the Rolling Stones - and the Monarchs didn't go on hiatus.

Rock Around The Clock

The Blue Angels was the first incarnation of the Monarchs in 1960. The Blue Angels was a five-piece band that was getting nowhere fast in terms of paying gigs.

"We struggled like everybody else," said Miller, the Monarchs' unofficial historian (in other words, the guy with the best memory). "It was a group of guys from St. X. We started as the Blue Angels but we were so bad nobody would hire us."

"Mike (Gibson) bought set of drums and learned to keep beat and I had had about ten lessons on guitar," Miller said. "And that's how it got started. We said `Let's see what we can do, gang.' We scraped together every penny we could, bought a real cheap sound system and went from there."

When things started to get rolling, Miller and then-drummer/singer Gibson were joined by guitarist Don Leffler, plus two guys from the St. X band: Tim Hughes initially played sax and Paul Schuler played trumpet and occasionally drums.

Soon, the group had expanded to nine players, bought a 1949 Packard ambulance to haul its equipment and started getting paid -- $20 per show.

"I guess it was in '62 that we kind of reformulated," Miller said. "Mike got off the drums; we had the Lange cousins, Louie and Bobby and picked up a guy named Jimmy Smith, who was short term. I switched around to bass and we picked up a guy by the name of Ernie Donnell as lead guitarist. Then we added Butch Snider as drummer and Leon Middleton came on as sax player. Jimmy Smith went in the navy and Jimmy Wells came on board and that was pretty much the group that did `Look Homeward Angel.'"

But there were actually two records before "Angel." And they received airplay - this was a time when local bands were heard and their audiences started at home. AM radio stations like WAKY and WKLO were as likely to play the Monarchs or one of the other local "star" bands - the Epics, the Trendells, Cosmo and the Counts - as they were to play Elvis Presley.

So it was that the Monarchs' first 45, "Over the Mountain," was heard on Louisville radio.

"We cut that in a studio on Third Street for $60," Miller said. "We had about 200 printed up and walked around to WAKY, WKLO, stations like that and begged them to play it and damned if they didn't. It was a crappy song, but we thought it was good at the time."

Crappy or not, it led to increased gigs and led the SAMBO Agency (now known as Triangle Talent) to sign the Monarchs.

Later that year, the band traveled to RCA Studio in Nashville to record "This Old Heart," a James Brown song, with the B-side "Till I Hear it From You" by a Louisvillian named Charles Woodring. The danceable "This Old Heart" quickly became a local radio hit and began to get airplay regionally as well. It would land them on a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars - "They thought we were a black group," Miller said - tour of the Eastern seaboard.

"We cut it on a Sunday," Miller recalled. "They'd never had a bunch of white boys in there screaming and hollering like that. They made us leave through the back door because Elvis was coming in front door. Bill Porter, our engineer, also was Elvis' engineer. They didn't allow us to meet him, but we caught a glimpse of his entourage coming in."

"We were leaving in taxi cabs and he was sitting out there in a limo," Middleton added. "He was sitting outside the studio. Seems like there were three limos sitting there. It was probably midnight and we were finishing up. We heard his group there rehearsing -- it was the Jordanaires. That studio was little three-track system; Chet Atkins, I think, was running the studio at the time. That's where Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline recorded and the list goes on an on. We were pretty honored just to be in there."

They were listening to the final product when Elvis' entourage showed up. "After you finished a session," Miller explained, "you'd play it back for `oohs and aahhs' -- or `oh crap.' We've had some `oh crap' sessions as well."

An interesting note about that record: A young guitar player named Paul Penny, who played with the Carnations and the Trendells, made the trip to Nashville with the Monarchs to work on another project - but he was in the studio for the recording session. During recording, the engineer decided a keyboard part would improve the song, along with a keyboard solo. They turned it over to Penny, who barely knew the song and he added the solo.

As a result of that recording, by 1963 the Monarchs were more than just a local band playing sock hops - they were starting to get respect and paying gigs all over the region.

Up The Charts And On The Road

By this point the band wanted to stretch out and explore the vocal harmonies that had become their trademark sound. "Look Homeward Angel" had the makings of the perfect project to do just that.

After the recording was complete at Owen Bradley's Nashville studio - and the union grievance fell by the wayside - the record was released to radio and it immediately caught on.

"The hardest part about that record is it went up the charts too fast," Miller said. "They were trying to get it to hit all of the nation at one time. But it was going up different charts too quick. They were trying to slow it down for (national) airplay."

As mentioned before, it stayed on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks. Many old charts from radio stations around the country can be found on the Internet and a quick searched turned up some interesting evidence of the impact "Look Homeward Angel" had. The CHUM chart from Ontario, Canada, on May 4, 1964, lists "Angel" at No. 28 ("This Boy" by the Beatles was No. 1). In Detroit, "Angel" was WKNR's No. 1 on April 1 of that year; and on KQV in Pittsburgh, "Angel" was No. 27 on March 10. "Look Homeward Angel" was released in the U.K. as well.

"We didn't find out till later it was a big hit in Germany and in South Africa," Miller said. "And we got $109 apiece for it."

By this point, however, the demand for the band had peaked. The Monarchs went on the road, which helped the single's airplay and would drive it to No. 1 in 17 different markets that year. And the band members got very little sleep.

During the heyday of early 1960s, Miller remembered, one time the band played 25 times in 18 days, including three shows in 22 hours at one point. "We would play a prom from 8-12 or 9-1, then drive like a maniac down to the Belle of Louisville. We'd play until 6 in morning and we'd go back to work. We'd go days without sleep."

"We used to work down at the Golden Horseshoe and Club 68 in Lebanon, Ky., back in early '60s," Middleton said. "Making that trip down to Lebanon, when there weren't even any highways -- there were some real interesting trips. All of us wondered how we survived."

"We opened for the Beach Boys back in the '60s," Miller said. "I was sitting next to this guy and we were talking and bullshitting. I said `You're playing with Beach Boys?' He said, `Yeah, Brian Wilson is on one of his drug binges, so I'm playing piano and singing. By the way, my name is Glen Campbell.'"

It wasn't always celebrities who made for the best road stories, however.

"One time we were on the way to Ohio to work a debutante ball as the `twist band,'" Middleton said. "It was me and Dusty and Ernie Donnell and Ernie was kind of tall and thin, with dark features. We got lost in a part of Cincinnati people probably wouldn't want to be lost in. We were in our hearse - it had `the Monarchs' on the door, but it was pretty much intact. Ernie had just gotten off work and was tired, so he was lying in the back of the hearse. It was dusk and Dusty and I were trying to figure out where we were. We yelled back at Ernie, `Do you know where we are?' and we were at an intersection where there was beer joint on one corner and lots of people standing outside. Ernie said `Let me see,' and he pulled the curtains back to look out the back of the hearse -- and you should have seen them scatter."

Middleton related another story. "We were coming back from Owensboro and Mike Gibson and Dusty and I were in Mike's car. Mike didn't realize when we left Owensboro that we needed to get gas. It was real early in the morning and this was before there were 24-hour food marts. We nursed that car all the way back to Dixie Highway literally by stopping at mom and pop gas stations that were closed and draining what gas was left in the hose. It was a very long night."

Middleton paused and said, "When we look back on all the adventures we had during that three- or four-year period, we all wonder how we are still living today. If our kids were to go through what we did, it would scare us to death."

The End And A New Beginning

With 1964 and the success of "Look Homeward Angel," however, came the Beatles and the British Invasion. The landscape of pop music changed forever, as guitars dictated the state of the art.

For the next year or so, however, the Monarchs traveled along the East Coast, appeared on radio and television. The band opened for performers like Del Shannon, Jay and the Americans, Bo Diddley, Johnny Tillotson and Dee Dee Sharp. The travel was paying off. "Look Homeward Angel" went to #1 in 17 major markets and was breaking into the Top 10 throughout the country.

But the Monarchs' follow-up record, "Climb Every Mountain," didn't fare as well as "Angel," and the band members' lives were beginning to change as well. Families, jobs and the military began to compete for the Monarchs' time and the band slowly went to the back burner.

"Mike Gibson and I got out of the group in '65," Miller said. "I was in grad school, then I went into the Marine Corps."

But some of the guys in the band continued to play gigs here and there under the name the Monarchs. By the late 1960s, Miller and Gibson and some of the other originals were beginning to do guest appearances at shows.

"We were doing guest appearances as early as 1968," he said, "a few times a year with the originals. We would play a one-hour set. We were doing it for the fun of it because we really enjoyed it."

Then in 1972, the original lineup was back together as the subject of a newspaper story. It was a true reunion, as many of the band members hadn't seen each other in several years. They exchanged stories, introduced their families and reminisced. At some point during the evening, someone posed the question, "How much would it take to get you all back together again?"

As a joke, one of the Monarchs said, "$1,000."

"You're hired," came the reply.

"Talk about scrambling," said Miller. "We didn't even have any equipment!"

The band put together enough equipment for a full, four-hour stage show and the ball was rolling again.

"That started it again and it's never quit," Miller said. "In fact, it's bigger now than it ever has been. We're averaging playing about once a week and we're booked up a year in advance. We make up to $10,000 a night."

And the Monarchs again became a big draw during the 1970s and '80s. They often appeared with headline acts on reunion tours of bands from the 1950s and 1960s and stayed as busy as they wanted to stay.

"The Righteous Brothers is the greatest group I ever played with," Miller said. "They were the two most professional gentlemen I have ever been associated with. And Frankie Valli is biggest jerk ever walked the face of this earth."

Frankie Valli? What would make Frankie Valli think he had the right to arrogance?

"We never did figure that out," Miller said. But the story goes that in the mid- to late 1970s, the Monarchs were booked to open afternoon and evening shows for Valli at the Fairgrounds. Immediately, he liked the Monarchs' dressing room better, so he had them moved to another. But before the show, the Monarchs didn't even get to do a sound check.

The Monarchs played the afternoon show and got such a positive response that Valli asked that they be removed from the bill in the evening - he charged that "it can't be the original group." Imagine his surprise to find out it indeed was the original Monarchs. And they did another stellar show that night.

Over the last few years, many of the band members have changed. Butch Kaufman took over on lead vocals in 1981, as Gibson stepped down. Tim Rake came in as lead guitarist in 1999. Dave Williamson took over on drums in 1986, while John Zehnder is now the keyboardist and vocalist Craig Zirnheld came on board in 1998. The only two original Monarchs left are Miller and Middleton.

Interestingly, Greg Middleton, Leon's son, joined the band in 1999 as an additional keyboard player. A second generation Monarch is now in the fold.

"He was there when he was toddler and we were practicing in my basement," the elder Middleton said. "He had absolutely no aspirations to work with group. He was playing with another group when we asked him to work with us and he actually had to think about it. I'm thinking, `What is there to think about?'"

"Becoming a Monarch put some stress on whether I wanted to do it," said Greg Middleton, now married with two young children. "But I had filled in with the group for years and I had been playing out for years. When you get into a group like the Monarchs you have to put in a certain amount of time and energy. People come to a Monarchs show expecting to have a good time and that's what you're there for. With my situation and family at the time, it was great opportunity for dad and I to spend some time together at something we both love to do."

The recent CD releases were accompanied by a video documentary on the band, produced by local broadcaster Reed Yadon. It is available at www.themonarchs.com or at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers, as are the CDs.

Meanwhile, the Monarchs can still be seen around town at various events large and small, from now until who knows when.

"We can't, at this point, envision ourselves not doing it," said the elder Middleton. "We've been doing it so long we can't think we won't keep doing it. We realize at some point we will be retiring. Will the group continue to go forward? Yes it will. The other guys will maintain the integrity of the musical style we set out. I don't think there will be a time in this area when there will not be a Monarchs."

Added Miller, "I don't see it ever ending. People sometimes say, `Oh you're stars,' but we say, `No, we're just bunch of guys playing music and having a good time.'"

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