Smiling from ear to ear, with their toothy grins from a faded picture hidden in back of my photo album, is an old snapshot taken in the hot summer, sometime in the 60’s. It shows a tanned group of boys with ‘duck-tail hairstyles’ playing music against the background of what appears to be a lake. Only it wasn’t a lake. It was that old Potomac River, and I remember it well.
The group in the picture called themselves the “Lion’s Men” though they certainly weren’t men, on their way: oh yes, but still boys.
In the photo they appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, probably going all out for the $100 purse in the summer band contest, in Quantico Park, Va.
There’s John Davy thumping the stand-up-bass, Eric sweetening the banjo, (practical joker). Murray Dean, staring somewhere off into that still summer day, killing the drums. My personal hero, W.J. is playing lead guitar; and Benny, the baby of the group is on the sax. Their faces are wreathed in tight smiles, and adolescent uncertainties.
The local radio station was flashing them out over the airwaves. Judges with their shirt-sleeves rolled up, looking hot enough to explode-lean forward on their elbows, wiping the sweat that rolled down in rivets. Major Jackson, from the US Marine Corps was snapping their pictures as if they were celebrities indeed.
It is a satisfying scene, and you might never guess that those cool, laid back faces, were in fact rigid with fear; and in their minds, bargained with the Almighty to just let them live through that set on that hot afternoon, and they would never, ever, play in public again! W.J. told me this in a weak moment.
They didn’t quit of course, and in fact lurked on the fringes of the music business for years. They changed their names a few times, but to me they were always the “Lion’s Men” and I thought they were the coolest band to ever hit the shores of old Virginia.
They played wherever the spirit and hard cash lured them; turning up like rented palms at parties and wedding receptions. As their reputation heated up they were happy to pound out a little music at state fairs-and-apple festivals. Lion’s Men were the favorites for school dances. But, probably their finest hour came when they were ask to play a jazzy song or two for the President of the United States. Occasionally, the grand old fellow rolled through town on one of his “whistle stops.”
Later they played the taverns: The House of Insults, Mae’s Place, Dark Eddy’s, and naturally the “Hut.” All gone now, but really jumping once upon a time. I guess they figured the music business was no parade, but they’d get down the street one way or another. So they picked up the pace, and made the rounds.
For a long spell, everywhere they went was full of back-slapping buddies and plenty of pretty girls flirting over the shoulders of dancing partners. Free drinks; and the tangy smell of summer in the air. Ah, they had it made!
As I remember they played their hearts out for the longest time, though actually, they never made the “big time.” Just a jazzy bunch of local boys with a gift of music who played good rhythm that made your feet itch to be on the dance floor.
Of course they never had any professional training. In fact their shirts didn’t even match-and their showmanship was……elemental, to say the least. W.J. would say something corny like “Introduce yourselves boys,” and they would turn and shake hands with each other. Ba, ba, ba, boom! Usually, the whole spiel fell flat.
Funny thing though, in time they did muster up quite a following, becoming popular in spite of the same old songs they wailed over and over. They might break a guitar string, or forget the words; they just, “Da, da, daaad” and kept on playing.
Actually all we kids needed was a good beat that we could hum after the lights went low, and they gave us that. Wrapped in their music on a warm summer’s night, the Lion’s Men touched our hearts.
Maybe it was just the moon and those giddy, carefree moments. Anyway, we stuck out our elbows and held ourselves, chins up; my we thought we were in high cotton indeed!
So when the house lights finally came on for the last time, and the boys packed up the band, said their grinning goodbyes, and swept away somewhere into this big world, they took a slice of our lives with them.
We still try to sing those old songs every now and then. And sometimes the whisper of a haunting melody rides in on a Hunter’s Moon; dizzily we search our fading memory, trying to remember the words; the dress we wore at a certain dance where life roared by. The trashy taste of orange Nehi, and strawberry flavored lipstick. How sweet it was!
Anyway, there in my photo album, the “boys” are forever captured in time, grinning in their moment; standing on that rickety stage in the park on a breathless summer day, staring intently, and just trying to do their best.
Micki Cottle was a long-time columnist for The Sampson Independent who occassionally regales readers with her wit and charm. She is also a member of the Sampson County Historical Society.