We are proud to announce a great speaker for this month’s ARCA meeting. Ronnie Melton, who was the keyboardist and a founding member of the Hard Times/Rites of Spring from Birmingham will be speaking to us about those magical days in the band and should have some great stories to tell. Ronnie is the latest in ARCA’s great speaker line-up and we are all looking forward to his visit.
One of the best all around bands in the Birmingham area in the mid-60s was The Hard Times. The band could learn just about any song and would later win a ‘Battle of the Bands’ contest which landed them a national recording contract and an appearance on Dick Clark’s ‘Where The Action Is.’ They performed with great acts such as Herman’s Hermits, The Animals, Tommy James, Tommy Roe and The Byrds.
It started in February of 1964. The significance of that date? The Beatles appeared three times on the Ed Sullivan show, what else? Every boy in the county wanted to be a rock star, so brothers Ronnie (keyboards) and Mike Melton (bass), Ron Parr (guitar) and Daily Vandergriff (drums), all from Woodlawn High School, formed a band. They needed a vocalist. Mike Gunnels, who had already been in another band for about three months, came on over. He brought with him a fellow band mate, Mike Pair (guitar). They had originally called themselves the Tempos with three other members, but finally settled on these five members and changed the band’s name to the Hard Times. They took this name from a Bob Dylan song.
After playing various gigs around the area, they went into Boutwell Recording Studio in 1966 to make their first record, a song written by Mike Gunnels and Ronnie Parr. The record was produced by Steve Norris, a local DJ on WSGN. The result was the beautifully melodic “Losing You.” This song was well written, well produced and well performed and soon became a regional hit. [You can listen to “Losing You” and the B side of the record, “You Couldn’t Love Me” at the top of the column to the left of this post.]
The band began to play pretty much every weekend, then seemingly everyday throughout the southeast. They would practice in a garage behind the Melton’s house in what was called the ‘rumpas room.’ It was not at all out of the ordinary for them to hear a song on the radio and, within a week, be performing it. One story which shows this musical versatility is when they were scheduled to back up Arthur Alexander, who was coming to Birmingham. They quickly learned the songs he was to perform, but at the last second, Alexander had to cancel. He was replaced with Tommy Roe. The Hard Times worked for only two hours to learn the songs of Tommy Roe, which they did successfully.
Then on July 17, 1966, WVOK held a Battle of the Bands talent Search. The winner would receive $500, a national recording contract with Cameo/Parkway Records (Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, etc.), an appearance with WVOK’s Herman’s Hermits Show on July 23, 1966, plus an appearance on Dick Clark’s ‘Where The Action Is.’ Many, many bands from all over teh southeast competed, but The Hard Times won hands down. This recognition also allowed the band to now be booked through Lowery Talent out of Atlanta.
One unfortunate circumstance is the fact that there was already a band in California called “The Hard Times” who appeared regularly on ‘Where The Action Is’ and recorded on the World Pacific label. The Birmingham group had to change their name. The name they decided on was The Rites of Spring.
The newly christened ‘Rites of Spring’ went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the home of Cameo/Parkway and recorded two songs written by Gunnels and Parr, “Comin’ Back To Me” and “Why?” [You can listen to both songs at the top of the column to the left of this post.] Both songs were produced by Terry Knight, who also produced Grand Funk. The Rites of Spring remember Knight as being weird in these sessions, not saying much from the booth, just staring into space. Chubby Checker was also there some of the time, observing.
The record was released, but never went any where because the label didn’t push it, although it did receive some airplay in New York City. “96 Tears” had just come out on the same label and it took off quickly, so “Comin’ On Back To Me” was forgotten about, but did manage to crease the Hot 100 Chart at #100 for one week. The band never made one cent off of this record. They do remember, when they originally arrived at the studio, walking past a scraggly looking bunch on the front steps of the building eating some cake with their fingers. They learned later that this was ? and the Mysterians. A few months later the Cameo/Parkway label closed up shop, which is another reason they didn’t push the record. They simply did not have the money. The original recording contract was for two records, but the second record was never made because of the label faltering.
They band flew to L.A. to shoot ‘Where The Action Is’ and had difficulty getting into their hotel rooms. This was during the Sunset Strips riots of 1966 and the band had long hair. They were undoubtedly some of those evil hippies. Two plus two equals five, I guess. Dick Clark Productions had to call the hotel so the band could be checked in. The filming of the show was successful, but their episode didn’t air for a few months. It aired on March 16, 1967. They were the first Alabama band to appear on national television. ‘Where The Action Is’ ended its run two weeks after that broadcast. The Rites of Spring seemed to have closed down a record label and a successful music television show. Obviously, this was no fault of the band, just super bad timing.
Soon after all of this, things began to change for the band. Vandergriff was drafted. His replacement on drums was Jasper Guarino. The band only lasted about eight months after the ‘Action’ appearance and played its final gig in August of 1967. Ron Parr enlisted in the army and was sent to Vietnam. Sadly, he was killed in April of 1968 when the tank he was in hit a mine and exploded. Ronnie and Mike Melton, Mike Pair and Jasper Guarino are all still in Birmingham area, Gunnels moved to Nashville and Vandergriff to West Virginia. One final note, the band’s road manager, Erik Kontzen, died in June of 2011. He played many instruments himself and occasionally played sax with the Hard Times/Rites of Spring. A tribute concert was recently held in his honor consisting of many musicians from various Alabama bands including Ronnie Melton from the Hard Times.