Norfolk Virginia in the sixties was a city that was built on the idea that a sailor must be milked of all monies possible. In the early sixties, East Main Street was the most solid block of bars in the world, If a storefront wasn't a bar it was a Naval Tailor. You could buy tailor-made Navy uniforms, both dress blues and whites. Civilian Clothes were sold there too, and since a ship's captain would make good any bill his sailor incurred, credit was automatic for anyone wearing a uniform and Naval Tailors and Jewelers abounded.
The naval tailor business was so good because no girl in Norfolk would look at a sailor or ( horrows! ) talk to one on pain of a severe beating from her father and being blackballed from Norfolk society. With a civilian suit on, the salesman said, the Norfolk girl would be fooled long enough for you to do your business and slip back aboard your ship. Once the clothes were sold, the easy to recognize navy shoes were replaced too.
A sub group of the naval tailor business was the locker club. Sailors could not bring their girl-fooling civilian clothes aboard their ships, so lockers were rented to sailors to keep their rags of sin in. You normally got a few months of free locker rent when you bought your wardrobe of shame. Some locker clubs had bunks to sleep off a drunk and a few pool tables and cokes for sale. Most locker clubs were located upstairs from the clothing stores.
The main item for sail for the naval jeweler was the birthstone ring and the birthstone pin. The sailor was approached by a good looking girl after he had been at sea for six months and he was sold a pin or ring for his mother that had a birthstone for every child she had. I've seen sailors leaving naval jeweler' crying and sobbing "Mother!" when he was shamed for being so ungrateful to his sainted mother. A few cheap engagement rings were sold to sailors that told the ultimate lie to the fallen Norfolk barmaid that he promised to marry.
In the early sixties, every bus went to downtown Norfolk and East Main Street. East Main Street was a fascinating place to me where people appeared to make a living by playing their guitars in bars. At fifteen I was big for my age and sneaked in the Rock and Roll bar, "Las Vegas" , where Jimmy Springer and the Trailers played. Jimmy could actually sing and sound good thru a 35 Watt Bogan PA set, His guitarist had longish hair and had "LOVE" tattooed on his left fingers and "HATE" on his right. He had a very skinny blond drunk girl playing a Danelectro Longhorn bass. I knew I was better than the drunk blond bass player and began to wonder if I could take her job. I wasn't willing to perform her other duties however and looked to other bands to play with. Jimmy played a piano that had only a few octaves and sang covers and a few original songs including one named "Satisfied" in which he appeared to go insane with "the feeling" and roll around on the floor screaming "I'm Satisfied, So satisfied".
East Main Street was almost all bars and many had tiny rock bands and many Country bands in which I had no interest at all. The end of East Main was in sight as it was being leveled by the city. The old Burlesque Theater that I newer saw was the last fixture standing. The VietNam war was still going strong but it was on the wrong coast. All the main sailor population was on the West coast. The bars were slowly torn down and many just moved to the main gate on Hampton Boulevard. Five Rock bars and a Pick-Up bar and two gay bars were left downtown off East Main St that remained.
I graduated from High School and discovered to my shock that nobody wanted to hire an eighteen year old acne scarred bass player with no amplifier that couldn't sing. So I was off to the Army for three years and this account must skip that period. On discharge I was back trying again and this account begins again in 1965.
On the completion of my service to my country I attempted to stay in Fayetteville North Carolina but was run out of town by the police and ran back home to Norfolk. All my Army band buddies in the Airborne were in the Dominican Republic and I left word to all get together in Norfolk.
The guitarist that liked my sister had just been in the group "FourOfUs 4" that had played the Jamaican Lounge for about a year. The Jamaican Lounge had a lunch counter in the front and a club in the back. About five waitresses sometimes danced with the sailors and served drinks. There were pictures of strippers in the windows because Mr. Blue ( the owner ) had once owned the only strip show in town, the Burleque on East Main. I later played the Jamaican for about three months in 1969 with a no-name group. The Jamaican sold beer and wine coolers with names like the Bamboo Swizzle. Norfolk was a beer and wine only town with no liquor sold by the drink.
The Congo Lounge was another two stage club with a bar in the front and one in the back. To get in the back there was a cover charge. The walls of both were covered with a formica type covering that did really strange things to the sound. A group with a man and wife named Tom and Marie worked there with Linda Skelton, a good girl drummer that sang a song called Sugar Town. Sometimes they had three part harmony going with a bass player friend of mine Jeff Pratt. They had the first group in town with a Farfisa organ. I sat in at the Congo Lounge a few times but never can say I really played there.
Bell's Peppermint Lounge
Bell's claim to fame was that Chubby Checker once played there. A huge umbrella covered the ceiling with a sparkling disco ball. It was upstairs and a regular bar was downstairs with my friend Carol tending bar. I spent about six months sleeping on Carol's couch when she lived with a friend Tommy Spavin, a salesman at Forman's and Kelly's men's shop. I played with a drummer Jimmy Allsbrook. Jimmy had a bad rep for not paying his people sometimes and I was afraid of not getting paid the whole time I was there. But to his credit, he was strictly on the up-and-up with me. Ronnie Hedland, an excellent drummer and organist too sang and a New Orleans guy played guitar. The New Orleans guy had a pompadour and was the first person I knew that did drugs. Jimmy played Bells in the winter and played a place called the King's Table in Virginia Beach in the summer. I played Bell's one whole winter and went on the road with the Continental Mark IV. Ronnie the organist got his draft notice and escaped to Canada one night and left us stranded in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. A guitarist named Pancho also worked there a lot with a drummer named Hoot Gibson. Hoot Gibson also worked there with a singer/guitarist named George Thomas.
Romeo's was a near beer bar. Near Beer bars could get away with having "hostesses" who would sit and talk with you drinking champaign cocktails while you ran up a huge bar tab. I learned to sing at Romeo's with George Thomas playing guitar and Hoot Gibson playing drums. George once dated my mother-in-law and was probably the one who got my wife to thinking how cool it would be to date a musician. George was a good club type singer with a million songs he could do a good job on. There was no heat and in the winter the owner would drag out a huge jet engine looking space heater thing that would heat the place. When the club was empty, George would let me practice singing.
Along with the Jet Lounge, the Continental was the only gay bar in Norfolk. I played the Continental for a few months in the seventies with a male go-go dancer. My wife was actually jealous of his buns. The Continental had a back room that couples disappeared into occasionally and the occasional customer would show up in only a bed sheet fashioned into a toga.
Ocean View was a slum of Norfolk that started out as a poor man's beach resort. Ocean View Amusement Park had a respectable roller coaster and on Saturday nights there were fireworks. There was a dance hall with a band called "Harlem Harry". Harry had a guitarist that would unfasten his strap and straddle his guitar like a horse and ride it across the stage. He had two sax players and a trumpet I believe. Harry beat a High School band I was in out of the job at the dance hall.
Tom and Marie were breaking up on stage at Vito's and the best bassman in town, Jeff Pratt, decided to go with them when they left. Tom, Marie and Jeff could all sing well and Jeff thought that group had the best chance of ever becoming anything. Vito Marinelli put together a replacement group with Bobby Booth on guitar, Me on bass and a singer, Lee J. Maveric. Vito had noticed that Philippine Sailors spent a lot of money and liked Cha Cha's and he wanted a band that played Cha Cha's. He hired us on the condition that we would play mostly Cha Cha's. My arch enemy competition was an excellent singer/guitarist/bassist/songwriter, Hoppy Ward. The only reason I could ever beat Hoppy out of a job was that Hoppy would get a few beers in him and cuss out his girlfriend over the stage microphone during a song.
We started at Vito's on New Years Day 1966, and played there over a year in a no-name band with Gene Prince playing guitar for a while when Bobby Booth went on the road with a local band that had a hit, "Leave Me Alone" by the Kampus Kids, later the Kampus Kindsmen and still later ( and now ) Rick and the Legends. Vito's had the largest dance floor in town and the Philippine Sailor idea worked out well until a beer bottle hit my future wife in the head and I ran all the Philipineos out, not actually knowing which one had actually thrown the bottle. Vito's Shake-Shake room was another two room layout with a bar and grill in front and the night club in back. Vito collected huge paper mache mask and he had them hung all over the walls. He got them from closed amusement park fun houses. There was a closed casino upstairs and two dressing rooms in the back. Behind the stage was a mural of Paris. We had a strobe light and ultraviolet lighting on the dance floor.
We never got extremely popular at Vito's and spent much time trying to figure out why. We had a black singer which we didn't think was the problem. The waitresses were all motherly looking women that turned off the horny sailors that could have been it too, but mostly we thought it was because Vito's had a high ceiling and always looked empty, no matter how many people were in there. Also Vito couldn't stand loud music and whenever we got rolling good he would come up and tell us to turn down.
The Purple Onion
The Purple Onion was next door to Vito's and featured a Country band consisting of a guitarist/singer and his wife playing bass and a drummer. They always attracted better looking girls there and I talked several into coming next door for free drinks. I would sneak over there during breaks and listen to them to the dismay of my future wife. I explained that when I got too old to rock I could still play country. The singers wife played a Kay bass that I've never seen sense. He would finish a song, take a drag off his cigarette, guzzle a beer and start the next song in seconds.
The Jolly Roger
The Jolly Roger was always packed with a tiny dance floor and featuring a manager, Scott Ingram's, band call the "Wild Thing". Pancho played guitar and they had a Hammond B3 organ and they all had girlfriends that anyone could date by going to the Norfolk Beauty College. The girls there weren't known for their brilliance and would date almost anyone that would ask them. Their girlfriends came up with an almost "beehive" hair doo for them all teased up and sprayed with dayglow colors! This wasn't new in Norfolk as another group called "Tel-Star" had before done the same thing. They were a big thing locally and kept their style until several of the guys began loosing their hair. The band made the incredible sum of $100 a week! But they played seven days a week with jam sessions on Saturday AND Sunday. The top local bands played there until they collapsed from exhaustion.
I may have been in the last band that played Ben's Kitchen. It was a tiny bar on the beach with an extension dance room built on the back. During WWII it was famous for a black piano trio, The Ink Spots, that worked there and played until all hours. It also had the bar and grill in front and club in the back configuration. There was a nice apartment upstairs that a friend and sax player, Stan Peck, lived and threw some wild parties. I say Stan was a sax player, but he was much to cool to actually play. His reed was always split or too soft or too hard.
The Whing Ding
The Whing Ding was next door to Ben's Kitchen and was run by Benny Drew. Benny worked with an agent that booked groups from New York that needed a place to get tight. It also had those horrible formica walls and the only place you could hear the bass play was in the men's room. The two room configuration ruled and you paid an admission to enter the dance hall. I played there with a Scott Ingram booked group named the Mark IV until we were fired after a few weeks. I never heard of any of the groups that formed there ever making it really big. I would go there and compare my talent with the best New Yorkers. With those groups, the lead singer was also the bass player. I could play bass as well, but my equipment wasn't as good and I couldn't sing.
The Ebb Tide
The Ebb Tide was a mile or so down the street from the pile of clubs above. It was designed as a night club and had excellent acoustics and appearance. Unfortunately an old lady across the street from the club kept it permanently shut down by complaining constantly. When someone else would buy the place, she would put on such a show at the public hearing that the commissioners would never let them get a beer license.
The Esquire Lounge
The Esquire was on Little Creek Road, near Ward's Corner. Rudy Westley and the Palasades, a class country group, played there. I played there for a few months around and including New Years '66. Russell Williford who once played with Gene Vincent was on guitar. Rudy was a really good singer that looked like a star. The drummer with the old Tel-Stars still played with his Tel-Star boufant dayglow hair. I followed a good rock guitarist, Gene Prince, who had fallen on hard times and was playing bass. Gene was quitting and gave me a good deal on his Harmony bass. Rudy decided that he was not going to let Gene go. The police were called and I wound up with the bass and Gene's job playing there.
The Main Gate
The Main Gate on Hampton Blvd was the Naval Tailor and Naval Jeweler center. Most radio stations blasted ads of "Sea Farer" blues and whites all on easy credit. A few no-band bars were on the corners including the famous "Crazy Cat" bar with it's animated neon sign. A huge near-beer bar operated upstairs on one of them where the famous Tel-Stars played. The unbelievable waitresses and some independents wore tailor made very low-rider navy whites that had been tailored. To say that they "fit" is an extreme understatement. The navy white shirts were shortened until they were little more than a halter with the navy flap on the back. These girls made a good living getting sailors to buy them non-alcoholic champaign cocktails and keeping half the money collected. The money a sailor got for a six month Mediterranean cruise went through his fingers quickly there.
A Saturday night at the main gate was a sight to see during the VietNam war. A tide of white uniforms would descend on the area. Drunk sailors would be emptying their stomachs in the gutters and the Navy Police the Shore Patrol would be everywhere. Fights broke out for little or no reason and another drunken binge would be suffered by the residents of Norfolk Virginia.