The story of Bakersfield group The Avengers
Over the course of a few months I’ve been corresponding with Gerry Blake from the awesome 60s garage band The Avengers. He saw my review of their 45 ’It’s Hard To Hide’ / ’Open Your Eyes’ on my blog and thankfully got in touch.
I managed to coax some really excellent information out of Gerry and hope fellow garage fans around the world will also dig his interview and the stories behind The Avengers!!!
01. Can you confirm where The Avengers originated from. some sources state San Bernardino others state Bakersfield, California?
The Avengers were all from Bakersfield, California, Kern County, USA. Not sure where the San Bernardino rumor came from.
02. How did you all get together to form a band. Where you all school friends? What was the original line-up?
Circa 1964 there was a ”Surf” band as we called them back then called The Avengers. Surf music was big here way back in ”B.B.” (Before Beatles). I know the British Invasion was taking place at that time however ”Surf” was still in but a rapid death was about to take place.
The Avengers were made up of two guys I had grown up with: (Henry Gonzales and Gary Bernard) The others were acquaintances or guys I really didn’t know.
Another friend of mine played the guitar and the two of us had messed around singing, guess who, Beatles songs. I was invited over so the band could ”audition” me and check me out.
I was kind of shy, not a lot of confidence and very nervous. I really hadn’t thought of it as an audition or the prospect of joining a band.
Well, I sang a couple of songs accompanied by my buddy on guitar. ”Til There Was You” was one. They thought I was ok, I guess but were astounded that I played NO INSTRUMENT! WHAT? JUST STAND THERE? (Apparently, no one was paying attention to Mick)
I really wanted to do this! So I went home and told my Mom I needed a guitar and amp. She took me down to a pawn shop and bought me a St. George guitar and to Sears and a Silvertone amp! 2 weeks later I played my first gig with The Avengers at East Bakersfield High School with my guitar turned down because I really couldn’t play!
Soon I was consumed with it. I practiced day and night until I thought my fingers would bleed: In the backseat of a car on the way to gigs and on the way home, I practiced. We played schools, private parties, etc.
We met up with a DJ on the only Rock and Roll radio station in B-Town (Bakersfield). (Or Bako, as they call it now, but it’ll always be B-Town to me) He booked us gigs here and there. (Sorry, I’m not doing a good job of sticking to your questions but I wanted you to know how it all came to be)
The original line-up was:
Henry Gonzales – Rhythm guitar, vocals
Gary Bernard – Drums
Greg Likins – Lead guitar, vocals
Kenny Zigoures – Bass
Jim Robesky – Sax and Organ
Gerry Blake – Rhythm Guitar and vocals
03. The Avengers released 5 singles on various labels. Which of these 45s did you play on?
I played on all of them. Allow me to digress: By the time we were doing the 45s, Jim Robesky (sax, organ) had left the group. But the organ had become an integral part of the sound.
Count the guitars including the bass. Jim had begun missing gigs so he showed me a couple of chords, etc, so I could at least play the important beginnings or endings of songs.
When he departed, he left the organ. I was low man on the guitar pole. I didn’t like it at first. I wanted to be a guitar player. But I was happy it happened later! So now, I was practicing day and night to learn the ORGAN! Thankfully, they didn’t force me to play the saxophone. I would have QUIT!
04. The very first Avengers song I heard was ’Be A Caveman’ from the mid 80s comp ’Get Primitive – The Best Of Pebbles – Volume 1’. This came out in England on Ubik. I thought the song was pretty damned great especially the lyrics and the ultra cool guitar break. It’s very politically incorrect – ha ha ha.
I’m not sure we even thought about how politically incorrect Caveman was. We just liked the song. It would get people dancing for sure. I don’t think the girls thought much about it either. It was a different time back then. It was just music.
We weren’t dragging any girls behind the stage by the hair. Although some of them might have gone for it! By the way, the ”monkey” sounds was one of us trying to make monkey sounds. Didn’t cut it. So Gary Paxton just looped it and sped the recording up. I was the Tarzan yell.
05. Where did The Avengers play gigs. Can you remember the names of the Clubs and venues? Did The Avengers play any gigs with other bands on the same bill. If so who were they?
We were too young to play clubs. We played a lot of school dances, as a matter of fact, became the #1 pick, if I may say so, among the kids. School dances were BIG back then. Except for he time we were playing the Stones, ”Off The Hook” and I transposed the words to “On The Rag”.
The adults were none too happy and we came close to being ”banned” from ever playing the school district again. I honestly believe it was our popularity that overcame that incident.
We played a lot of ”Halls” for private dances. Then.. it happened. We had the chance to open a show for The Beach Boys at the Civic Auditorium (BIG deal at that time). I can still remember it. We’d never played anything of that magnitude.
I recall setting up our gear and standing there (I was still on guitar) looking at this immense curtain and we could hear a lot of people out there. We actually weren’t scheduled to play. Our DJ manager pulled it off somehow.
We heard the announcer say, ”Are you ready for the Beach Boys? And there was a lot of noise. He said, ”Ok! But first, to open the show, Bakersfield’s own… THE AVENGERS!!!!…
The curtain slowly went up. We advanced to the mics. And hit the first chord of ”It’s Been A Hard Day’s Night” They went nuts. Screaming like we were mop tops from across the Mersey (Our hair was conservatively SHORT! Our school would NOT allow long hair and would SUSPEND you)
Camera light bulbs flashed over and over. They wouldn’t stop screaming. Afterward, I thought, ”Yes, YES, this is what I want to DO!! And the rest is garage band history..
We also opened for Ike and Tina Turner, The Mamas and the Papas, Eric Burdon and the Animals, War, and more. It was a great time.
06. Who were your major influences?
For me personally, The Beatles were the #1 influence.
But there were many others. Most Brit bands, of course the Stones, Yardbirds, Chad & Jeremy, etc. Paul Revere and the Raiders and a lot of U.S. one or two record groups, The Music Machine (Talk, Talk) who we opened a show for.
Jimi Hendrix, (Although we never played any.
No guitar player would attempt it. Well, there was one, and I jammed with him but we never worked together.) But there were many influences on me personally that stay with me to this day.
07. You mentioned that you did not write ’Open Your Eyes’ (although you are given the writer credit on the label). Henry Gonzales wrote the song. How did he feel about the Record Company error? Did it cause any friction?
I can’t remember even discussing it but I know how I would have felt so I’m sure he was disappointed, to say the least. Can’t say as it caused friction between us and if it did it was soon forgotten.
08. Did any of the 45s become successful. Did they get any radio plays?
I would not say any of the records were successful. Locally, because of our DJ connections and friendship with the top radio station in our area, we got a lot of airplay. Even at that, the highest on the local chart a record got was #13 I believe. We never saw any money for the records.
We did have one ”close encounter”, however. The first released record, ’When It’s Over’/’You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’ (Hurt Me was written by Kenny Johnson of Chocolate Tunnel by the way).
We played a club in Los Angeles (It was an afternoon gig). On the bill with us was a group called Sky Saxon and the Celtics (They went on to have a big hit with ’Pushin’ Too Hard’ under the moniker of The Seeds of course) who were a little older than us and thought WE were great (We thought they were outstanding).
They had long hair of which we were highly jealous of. Anyway, although at the time we didn’t understand it (Remember, we were a bunch of 16-17 yr old kids). Looking back it was a ”showcase” for some people who were there.
One of which was Bob Hudson a DJ with KRLA radio in Los Angeles. KRLA was THE biggest station in LA. After our set, we went over to meet Hudson and he told us he really liked our sound and was going to PLAY OUR RECORD ON THE STATION AND HELP PUSH IT AND WE WOULD PROBABLY REALLY MAKE IT!
We were flabbergasted. On our way out of LA we actually HEARD ’When It’s Over’ being played on the air. We thought we had arrived! Two weeks later, Bob Hudson was killed in an auto accident. As far as I know the record was never played on the station again. Bad luck!
09. Tell me about the production and the studio(s) used for recording The Avengers. Did you have enough studio time to get the records to sound as good as you wanted them to? What instruments did you all use? I know from an earlier email that Gary Paxton produced all of The Avengers records. Was the band happy with his work?
Gary Paxton was/is a genius. He had an incredible ear. He could hear things, mistakes in recordings that we couldn’t. He was a wonderful arranger and this I watched very closely and I don’t mind saying that I went on to be known as a pretty good arranger of songs in my own right. But he had the knack!
We recorded mostly in his house in Los Angeles. This guy was ALL music so what would have been his living room was the studio where we would set up. Directly upstairs in what would have been a bedroom was the control booth.
We would go over and over and over a track until Gary (using an intercom) would tell us, ”Ok, come and listen.” We were always so glad when we heard that. He would make us do something until HE liked it.
Which could be HOURS! He was a perfectionist. But I must say working with a bunch of kids who’d only been playing a couple of years must have been tough for him. Things certainly weren’t perfect. But we got it done.
We were always happy with his work. Some of the things he wanted us to do, instrumentally and vocally, we thought was kind of ”cheesy” and dumb.
It wasn’t until much later did I understand why and realize what he was trying to do (find a ”hook” or make a ”novelty” song, of which he was known: Alley Oop/Monster Mash) and how right he was.
Originally, all the instruments were pretty much all Fender guitars and amps. Gretsch drums, I believe.
and.. yes, I did use a Farfisa organ. The leg push bar on the bottom of the keyboard was how I got the sound on ’Open Your Eyes’ (The song I DIDN’T write ) and a couple of others.
You can really hear it on the lead in that song. I did HAVE a Vox Continental for a short time but I never used it. Here’s why:
We opened the show for The Animals. Just prior to our performance, the equipment manager approached Kenny our bass player and asked if we would be interested in THE ANIMALS ORGAN! We thought WOW! A VOX CONTINENTAL! COOL!
He went back to him and asked how much? He said $300. Well, none of us had $300 so we asked our manager and he said NO, NO, NO. I’m not buying an organ. We were highly disappointed.
We thought maybe we could appeal to his giving side so Kenny went back and asked him (in so many words) what would happen if it just disappeared? He said, with a sly grin, No problem. I just report it as stolen and get a new one. We figured that was an open invitation to help ourselves.
So after our set as we rolled our gear out we rolled the Vox out too! At the end of the concert a great commotion went up: SOMEONE HAS STOLEN THE ANIMALS ORGAN! Police were advised, our manager INSISTED they check our vehicles to SEE that it wasn’t us. Fortunately, it had been taken to a secure spot.
It even made the LOCAL NEWSPAPER! Two things as a postscript:
1. The guy KNEW it was us. He COULD have said so except that HE had tried to sell it to us. Illegally, for sure, since it wasn’t actually HIS!
2. The Vox Continental Organ NEVER WORKED PROPERLY! It was so bad, even had we wanted to, it couldn’t be used. Later, I actually worked for a Vox outlet in B-Town (Short-lived, at least in the states, Vox equipment was JUNK, truly) and even Vox couldn’t get it to work. That guy knew what he was doing!
Either way, they got a new organ and he was almost $300 richer by screwing a bunch of kids. Oh, the tangled web we weave.
10. Any other weird stories about those times?
Oh. Let me add this. I told you to ask me about the Batman TV series. Of course you remember the theme. Who doesn’t. In the states, they released the theme as a 45 and it was actually played on the radio. When our manager found out, he went postal.
He showed us this big spread in BILLBOARD magazine advertising the Theme from Batman by, guess who.. THE AVENGERS! I’m sure there was no band, it was a bunch of studio musicians. But there it was!
Well, this little ’ol small-time manager composes a letter to (I think it was Capitol Records) and tells them that we have released records under that name, that we own it, and to cease and desist or we would OWN Capitol Records. What a hoot! CAPITOL RECORDS? They’re GIANT!
Not long, he showed us a new copy of Billboard. Still had an advertisement for the Theme from Batman. But this time it was by THE REVENGERS! Can you imagine? Gary Paxton’s little label along with a garage band called the Avengers and a manager that made 10% a gig (probably $20-$30 a week) going up against Capitol Records AND THEY BACKED DOWN? Amazing. They could have told us to piss-off and what could we have done? Pretty cheeky, eh? Fun story though.
11. Did The Avengers appear on any TV Shows?
A couple of local shows. We certainly never were on Hullabaloo!
12. Have you any Avengers pics or publicity items?
I have one small newspaper picture with a little blurb underneath. It dates from 1966-67 so it’s a bit old and discoloured. I’ll try scanning it and send it to you. I really don’t have much else, sorry to say.
I just didn’t think about saving things for posterity. After all, we were to be America’s answer to the Fab Four so what would a bunch of old clippings and pics do?
Here’s the newspaper clipping of The Avengers Gerry saved 50 odd years ago. It’s a shot of our heroes circa 1966/67 after Greg Likens and Jim Robesky had left the band.
Left to Right: Gary Bernard, Ron Sackman (new lead guitarist), Gerry Blake, Ken Zigoures and Henry Gonzales.
13. When and why did The Avengers break up?
We began to implode around 1967. Personality clashes, women. Like most bands. None of us were drafted.
14. Did you know any of your label mates such as Ken and the Fourth Dimension and Limey and the Yanks (Sunburst), Five Of Us and The Grodes (Current)?
Yes. Actually, Kenny Johnson and his father, who had a demo studio in Bakersfield recorded a couple of demos for us and it was thru them that we met Gary Paxton.
Ken and the Fourth Dimension, Limey and the Yanks and most of those groups were studio creations by Kenny. Not that they didn’t become groups, but they were created in the minds and studio of the Johnson’s.
Kenny was a prolific writer. Although at the time I thought a lot of his stuff was teeny-bopper and mamby-pamby, I was quietly jealous of how well his songs fell together. At the time I was starting out, a big name local group was Kenny and the Ho-Dads.
15. You mentioned that the Era and Sunburst labels were inter-twined during this cool garage era. Are you familiar with Era acts The Lyrics, The No-Na-Mees or Ty Wagner?
There were a lot of people recording, doing demos for the Johnson’s. They WERE Starburst. (and others). But our relationship was kind of short-lived. Once Gary Paxton was in the picture, the most we did with the Johnson’s was go into the studio and make a demo of one of our songs for Gary.
Something else you may be interested to know: I’m sure you heard of the Rev-Lons? Another Gary Paxton creation only this time it was the ladies turn. A friend of mine, Beverly Williams (exquisite singer) recorded several records for Gary Paxton on the Ace label and the Rev-Lons did back-up vocals for her.
16. I was interested to learn from you that you know Kenny Johnson and Jerry Ritchie who were in obscure psych band The Chocolate Tunnel. Did The Chocolate Tunnel perform any gigs or were they just a studio creation with a one off 45?
I think the Chocolate Tunnel did some gigs. But it was very fickle back then. Everybody was looking to ”make it” and when it didn’t happen fast, it was, ”Ok, drop that.” and on to something else.
17. After The Avengers you formed The United Sons Of America with ex Chocolate Tunnel bass player Jerry Ritchie. An LP was released on Mercury in 1970. Did The USA perform live? How did the album come about and were you pleased with the outcome?
Yes, USA performed live many times. Eventually, as with some groups, disagreements and drugs played a large part in the demise of USA.
The album came about = We had formed a group to mostly play clubs and maybe some concerts. We were using an old bank building that had been converted into a studio to practice in. I honestly don’t remember how we managed to get permission to practice there but the studio part was run by,
GUESS WHO? – Gary Paxton.
Paxton actually wasn’t around much. But one day while we were rehearsing, I saw Gary and a couple of people, I figured buyers, in the control booth. We were breaking down our stuff and Gary came out and asked what the last song was we were playing. I told it it was ours.
Next thing we knew, Bob Todd from Mercury Records came there and listened to us. Well, actually, some very young lady that was with him was listening. After our set. He just stood looking important and glanced down at his lady-friend and she looked up and slightly grinned and nodded her head yes. He looked at us and asked, ”Would you guys like to sign with Mercury Records?”
That’s a true story. I suppose had she not liked us it would had turned out differently. The story gets even more twisted. Remind me to tell you about ” – The rest of the story.”
18. The last Avengers 45 was released in 1967. Were you playing with any other bands after the demise of The Avengers until the start of The Sons Of America? There’s a three year gap?
Yes, I was in a couple of groups after The Avengers. Nothing of note. I got married and we had a little girl, Lisa, and I ended up getting a regular job. I was 20 yrs old. Then my brother came to me one day and said, Hey, I saw this group down at this club, they said they were looking for an organ player.
That group, which introduced me to the club and lounge world, had a bass player named Jerry Ritchie. Imagine THAT! We played in this group for a few months, ended up in Las Vegas, group broke up, went back to B-Town and the United Sons of America was born.
You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore / When It’s Over (F-G 104) 1965
Be A Caveman / Broken Hearts Ahead (Starburst 125) 1965
Shipwrecked / I Told You So (Starburst 128) 3/1966
It’s Hard To Hide / Open Your Eyes (Current 109) 6/1966
Strange Faces / Softly As I Leave You (American 101) 1967
THE UNITED SONS OF AMERICA LP:
“Greetings From U.S. Of A” (Mercury SR 61312) 1970
Originally posted on ’Flower Bomb Songs’ September 2007