Perfect Sound Forever

ERIC AND THE NORSEMEN


by Jack Partain
(June 2013)


"From the wind blown hills of the icy northland..."

For a few years in the mid-1960s, in cities and towns throughout the Midwest, the words "From the wind blown hills of the icy north..." sent chills vibrating through the spines of thousands of bored teenagers and college kids. Whether broadcast late at night over the airwaves of Oklahoma City's KOMA radio or intoned over a loud speaker in a small concert hall, VFW, or National Guard Armory in a sleepy, otherwise silent Kansas town, those words promised the most important thing of all - a night of fun. It promised an unpredictable night of excitement, dancing, socializing and, hopefully, limited parental supervision. They promised the sort of night which might lead to a first cigarette, a first beer, or a hurried, secret kiss from the girl you'd been in love with since the first grade. It promised a night of rock and roll, a night like all of those kids in New York or L.A. or wherever screaming their lungs out at The Beatles seemed to get every night. In short, those words promised the arrival of Eric and the Norsemen, "The Wildest Show in the Midwest."

"You have to understand that this was an era like no other," says Mike Willman, a founding member and guitarist for the Norsemen. "Bands like Eric and the Norsemen could book into small towns playing National Guard Armories or other venues and there was little competition. High school kids would flock to hear live music, to dance and party. There's never been a time quite like that and will never be again."

Formed in the fall of 1964 in Lawrence, KS, by Willman and Roger Johnson, a pair of rock and roll loving Jayhawks who'd met in a fraternity at the University of Kansas, the Norsemen were never the most popular or accomplished band to emerge from the fertile Kaw River Valley scene of the early and mid-1960’s (which included bands like Spider and the Crabs and the Fabulous Flippers) but they are among the most acclaimed and best remembered. Their gigs were legendary spectacles of both showmanship and musicianship, and their summer tours helped to spread the gospel of rock and roll throughout the sleepy Midwest, catapulting the iconic, larger than life images of bands like The Beatles from television and radio into real life visions of rock and roll professionalism played out by guys who could very well have been your next door neighbor. In fact, Johnson and Willman, formed the band after realizing that all of the guys in the bands that they admired were just regular people and not the gods they appeared to be on stage. Johnson had formed The Shan-dells in high school, in his hometown of Eureka, KS, and Willman, sort of joined after a trip back to Eureka for Thanksgiving.

"It wasn't anything big and we weren't very good," laughs Johnson today.

But they persisted, riding on the influence of early rockabilly, Elvis Presley, and especially the "Surf Music from the Rockies" of the Astronauts.

"We'd played in a few pick up bands around the University of Kansas with various people in bands that were just thrown together who'd never played together," recalls Johnson. "I remember we played an FHA convention in Topeka as an intermission thing during lunch. I sang a little because the other guys didn't know the words to anything so I said we can do "Twist and Shout." And, of course, The Beatles were everywhere at that time, and you'd see in the news and everything where girls were screaming and running after The Beatles. And in Kansas, the high school girls wanted to do the same thing. So we performed for a screaming crowd at an FHA convention in Topeka and we weren't even a real band that a guy out of Kansas City named Jim Mckenzie put together. We sang "What'd I Say" and "Twist and Shout" and the girls loved it because they got to emulate what they'd seen on TV!"

But there was a moment of realization, where the idea of playing rock and roll started to seem like something more than a hobby.

"One day, The Fabulous Flippers came to Eureka, and we'd heard them on KOMA radio," says Johnson. "I was just awestruck when I saw what they were doing. I mean, they put on a show. And I looked up on stage and said to Mike 'Hey, look at that!' Two of the guys on stage were guys we'd played with in pickup bands and I hadn't even recognized them because I was just so awestruck! Later that week, Willman and I had been hanging out and it was late and night and we were probably both still drunk and we were looking up at the stars just dreaming. And we decided there that we should put together a band."

From that point, things moved quickly for the band. The name was first priority.

"I'm really not sure where our name came from, but there were many discussions that the best groups out there were all called 'Somebody and the Somethings',” says Willman. "Like Paul Revere and the Raiders or Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. The more bizarre the better, it seemed. One night while sitting in our bizarre frat room painted black and decorated with a giant Tiki God's head stolen from I can't remember where, lying on huge fur pelts we used for carpeting, we began toying with the idea of something related to Norsemen. Fur vests. Norsemen. Eric. Sailing off to pillage. Way too much beer. Eric and the Norsemen. That was it!"

But they still needed a band. Both Johnson and Willman played guitar, and Johnson would eventually take over the duties as frontman, but a rhythm section was obviously necessary. A friend told Johnson of a drummer and Jim Kocher, a drummer from Clay Center, Kansas, who'd played in his high school band, was hired with almost no audition. The bass, however, was a different story.

"An odd thing happened," remembers Willman. "One of the real 'geeks' in our fraternity was an engineering student named Ken Kramer from Hugoton, KS. Ken was not only the brightest person I'd ever met, he may have also been the most talented. He was not only a math whiz, he could build or fabricate anything and had time for hobbies and other pursuits. He rented a garage in the heart of Lawrence where he kept an assortment of tools. We didn't even know he did that. Ken had absolutely no music background and hadn't played in high school. But he heard us talking about starting a band and it somehow captured his imagination. Unknown to us, Ken had been working to build his own bass guitar. It was modeled after a Fender Jazz Bass or "P" bass. He built it from scratch in his workshop and it was amazing. He walked in with it one day and said, 'I'd like to be part of the Norsemen'. Well, what could we say? We didn't have a bass player. We needed one. He was a fraternity brother. So, yeah. Why not? We didn't know yet if this thing was real or not, but we would soon find out."

And just like that Eric and the Norsemen were born. Johnson had an artist friend draw up a Norsemen's head that would become the bands' iconic logo, and used it to print up business cards for distribution. He soon realized that just having a band wasn't enough, that the band needed gigs, and he set to work.

"I got out an atlas and I traced out a fifty mile radius of Lawrence and wrote down every little town I could find," Johnson says. "And I sent out letters to all of the JC groups, Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs, VFW's, and Kiwanis Clubs, saying that we were a band and that we'd love to come play for your function and how much we'd play for. And we played out first show on Friday night, the fifth of February 1965 in the basement of the city building in Liberty, MO."

"It was amazing," says Willman. "We actually had a pretty good crowd. We had young girls all around us, standing and dancing in front of the stage. They mobbed us when we were finished and actually told us we were 'Better than the Beatles!' We may have been young and naive, but we weren't stupid. We were horrible but they loved us. We had made music together and it was amazing. We had girls falling at our feet and it was easy. Four kids from small towns in Kansas had hit the Midwest music scene."

At the time Lawrence, which is a bustling center for live music today, only had a few live music venues, but the Norsemen continued to find gigs and by the end of the school year, the band was having so much fun, they decided to go on tour. Johnson was acting as agent and manager for the band, and after scrolling through his rolodex, booked a few months worth of gigs around Kansas, and the band hit the road, stubbornly honing their chops as they went. Over the years, the band developed into one of the premier acts in an area which, at the time, was dominated by the artists under the umbrella of Mid Continent Entertainment and legendary manager John Brown, based out of Lawrence.

"We would start from stage dark," says Johnson. "And Willman would play a high pitched intro from below his bridge going up the strings. Then I would step up to the mic and say 'From the windblown hills of the icy northland... I give you the Norsemen.' At the time, we started, the Sean Connery James Bond movies were (also) just starting and the Bond theme was what we used as our opening. We'd play five or six songs in a medley. We were a very high energy band. We had rules for the band, from very early on about performing live. One of those rules was as little talking or tuning in between songs as possible. We wanted the songs to come BAM BAM BAM. We didn't want to be standing around on stage. There was always something going on.

"Another rule we had was when we were playing to pick out someone in the audience and make eye contact," Johnson continues. "As soon as you make eye contact, find someone else, continually. So they get the feeling 'Wow, they're playing for me!' If you made friends with the crowd and interacted with them, they'd have a positive experience and you'd have a spot in their mind. At breaks, we didn't go out and smoke cigarettes or anything like that- we went out in the crowd and talked to people, met people. So every night, every time we played, the kids felt a personal relationship with us. They'd crowd closer to the stage and tell their friends, 'Hey i know that guy!' Talking to people after we were inducted (to the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2006) people kept saying 'You guys were different, you guys were approachable.' Other bands were too cool and would go hang out in back, but we were social and it worked for us, because we were not that good! We had a spark of magic at the time. We were at the right place at the right time and it couldn't be done again!"

The tour continued all summer and wound through Kansas, Missouri, and parts of Nebraska and was highly successful. The band averaged $150 a night, good money back then and became known for their onstage antics, like playing shows while standing on speakers, which, by today’s standards might seem tame but in the mid-1960’s, in a place like Kansas, was the reason the band gained the reputation "The Wildest Show in the Midwest." When school resumed in the fall, the Norsemen returned to Lawrence to regroup and consider the band. Though the tour was both more fun and more successful than anticipated, changes needed to be made, both in personnel and management.

"Kenny Kramer, who played bass, was a great guy, he was a genius," says Johnson. "But Kenny was not a showman. His schtick was to stand stone faced on the stage and be known as the silent one. But we were trying to be 'the wildest show in the midwest'. It didn't fit, and at semester break (December, 1965), we let Kenny go."

"In stepped Forest "Tree" Cloud, another fraternity brother who had played in several bands around Lawrence and who had a personality that seemed to fit with the rest of the band. This would become the classic and most recognized lineup of the Norsemen as the band would ramp up their profile. Prior to embarking on their first tour the band had landed a gig at the prestigious Red Dog Inn in Lawrence, the premier venue in Lawrence in the 1960's, and one of the great venues in the Midwest (today known as Liberty Hall) for which they had to join the Musicians Union. The Red Dog was owned by promoter and musician John Brown, who headed Mid Continent Entertainment, under whose management bands like The Blue Things, The Fabulous Flippers, and others dominated the Midwest show circuit. The Norsemen kind of, sort of, hoped to sign to Mid Continent, and after their gig at the Red Dog, the band met with Brown who showed a polite lack of interest."

"I went up and talked to him after the gig and basically asked him if we could be a Mid Continent band," says Johnson. "And his response was basically, 'don't call us we'll call you.'"

So the Norsemen were left to their own devices again in the summer of 1966, and here's where the change in management began to take place. Another summer tour was planned but this time, after the brush off by Brown, The Norsemen decided to step up their game by incorporating radio ads into their promotion. The band turned to KOMA in Oklahoma City which not only played rock and roll music but also sent their signal throughout the entire Midwest at night, and offered cheaper advertising rates than larger stations, like WLS in Chicago.

"We decided that if we were going to do this, we had to have advertising and we decided on radio because that's where kids got there music, from AM radio," says Johnson. "At that time, all small market radio stations had to turn their power down low at night. So small market stations went off the air and large market stations could blanket the coutnry and KOMA came in every night and it would cover everything from Missouri to the Rockies, all the way up to Canada. They were a prime market, and they weren't expensive. We bought nightly commercials on KOMA for $10 a piece. We bought a schedule of $100 a week, and for a band that's only making $150 a night to committ to $100 a week, we were taking a chance."

The chance, of course, paid off.

"Within a month, we were a $300 a night band,” Johnson continues. “The ads would come on and say 'From the wind blown hills of the icy north, Eric and the Norsemen will be appearing at...' and it would give our whole schedule. It was like a drag racing commercial. In one three week span, we played 24 dances in 21 days. We played every day and twice on Sunday for three weeks and then took a night off. We did that all summer and we got better.”

But, despite the fact that the band was getting better, the audience still had one question. Who was Eric?

“I was the frontman for the band, the primary lead singer,” says Johnson. “And everybody thought I was Eric. They'd ask ‘Who is Eric?’ and they'd say ‘Roger is Eric!’ And people would say ‘Why do they call you Eric if your name is Roger?’ Well, who ever heard of Roger and the Norsemen! Now, later I've gotten letters where people are talking about ‘Eric’ and I’ve realized that they're talking about Willman. Mike is a stud. He's 6' 5' and tall dark and handsome and girls would just swoon over him. He would sing “Scotch and Soda” and girls would just melt. So a lot of girls thought that he was Eric.”

The summer tour, Johnson recalls, was the most idyllic that the band experienced. They played throughout Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, even reaching into Colorado and South Dakota. The band had regular a regular Sunday gig in Nevada, MO at the Lake Pavillion.

“People would come from all around to see us in Nevada on sunday nights,” Johnson recalls. “The town swimming pool was in a lake and there was another little island that had a pavillion where William Jennings Bryant had spoken in 1904. They served snacks, had a dance floor, and sold beer. It was the strangest beer joint I'd ever been in because it was also the concession stand for the swimming pool. So there would be little kids there and people with families! Once there was a guy who called himself “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street” who was having a revival in Nevada. There were threats all summer long that “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street” was going to come down and confront us for playing music and dancing on Sunday in a beer joint! All the kids were said to me ‘Oh, you'll tell him won't you Eric! You'll get him!’ But fortunately The Chaplain never did come down and confront me.”

When the band returned to Lawrence in the fall of 1966, an old friend was waiting to speak to them.

“When we got back to Lawrence, John Brown called us up to his office and offered us a contract,” says Johnson. “But he offered us about a third of what we were already making! We didn't have to pay anybody to book us, we didn't have to pay anything but our own expenses. So we said 'thanks but no thanks' and he told me: ‘I admire you guys.’ He basically said 'you're one of the only bands who have the cajones to do it on your own.' And for the next two years, we always played regularly for John, often replacing The Blue Things on Wednesday nights at the Red Dog Inn. It wasn't a smart move but we were smart enogh to know that we weren't musicians and we were never going to be musicians. We were just having fun going to college. We knew we weren't going to make it big.”

And just when it was all going so great for the Norsemen, things sort of fell apart. People were preparing to graduate and others faced a much grimmer fate: the Vietnam War and the impending draft. Tree was set to graduate in the fall of 1967 and Kocher and Johnson had received notification from the draft lottery and went through basic training. In early 1967. the band recorded a 45 for Chrome Records, covering the classics "Scotch and Soda" and "Get it On," now a highly sought-after collectors item. The band played one week in June and then decided to take a break in the summer of 1967 and eventually went through another lineup change. Tree had joined the Navy and was replaced by Frank Berrier (bass) and Mitch Bible (who brought a long-sought organ to the band) - he loves to point out that it took two guys to replace him. The addition of a organist changed the sound of the band.

"Mitch wanted to add a lot more R&B," says Johnson. "It improved our sound and we were really sounding good at that time. But music was changing. We played "Purple Haze" by Hendrix and we played "Sunshine of Your Love," but neither one of those were good dance songs. Music wasn't nearly as good to dance to and instead of buying a six pack and looking for girls, kids were standing out by their car smoking dope. The whole thing was changing, we weren't making as much money, we were getting out of college and we called it quits. And I'm the one responsible for that. I'm the one that said 'We're through.'"

The Norsemen have remained friends throughout the years and have reunited several times for live performances. In 2006, the band was inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame.

"We made a lot of people happy," Johnson says now. "And that was what made it worthwhile for us."


ALSO SEE THE ERIC AND THE NORSEMEN WEBSITE


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