Getting the band back together, four decades later: An interview with Durham's The Bondsmen | Music

Getting the band back together, four decades later: An interview with Durham's The Bondsmen

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Somewhere around late 1965 or maybe early 1966—that’s as close as they can get it—six Durham teenagers put together a band called The Bondsmen. Like every act back then, says founder Ken Haywood, the clean-cut sextet “had a name cooler than they ever sounded.” Augmenting the traditional rock setup with a Vox organ and a trumpet, the group made a raucous noise that was in tune with North Carolina’s homegrown scene of the ’60s.

But after four years, they were done, at least until very recently. Having played together for the first time in 35 years this past summer, The Bondsmen returned to their old stomping grounds in the Bull City for a show at Motorco. Ahead of the December gig, we spoke with Haywood and touched on Durham’s music scene of the late ’60s, the rise of garage rock and the fallibility of memory.

INDY: So what’s it like reconvening a band that ended its run in 1970?
KEN HAYWOOD: Well, if you can imagine six-to-eight guys that went through what we went through, the gigs that we played, the competitions that we entered, the ones that we won, the ones that we came in second … We won a van one year, we won PA gear. When you get down to specifics—what was the model number of that, what year model was that truck—by the time you get to be plus-60, some of that stuff is gone. We’re sitting around talking about tunes. We had a repertoire of 100-to-125 tunes. That was a band that was together for a maximum of four years.

That’s a lot of work.
Obviously we must have practiced a lot. That’s the only thing I can come up with. We started when we were in junior high and high school. As a matter of fact, at the beginning, only one of us had a driver’s license, [bassist] Jim Bowen. He was the elder statesman. Everybody else had to get rides to rehearsal and rides home. We were a dance band, really, when it comes down to it. We were a dance/party band, but we didn’t hesitate to rip into a 10-minute version of “Light My Fire.” That was one of the things that was so much fun back then. You don’t want to do that now—who wants to hear the guitar player noodle around for five minutes on two chords? Nobody that I know.

Who were your musical heroes?
There was so much new stuff happening at the time, and we ran the gamut from Bob Dylan through Motown through the Stones, Clapton. Jimi Hendrix was huge. The Memphis stuff. The Alabama Muscle Shoals was huge. I was a huge Booker T and the MGs fan. I pretty much styled my playing, if there is such a thing, after Steve Cropper. People ask me, what kind of guitar player are you, I just say: Listen to Steve Cropper. 

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The last time you played in Durham was in 1970. What do you remember about that gig? Why was it your last one?
I have no idea what that last gig was. I think it was just the timing. The first wave of kids who graduated—Gene Gallegan, Tim Hutchinson, Jim Bowen—they graduated a year ahead of everyone else. And so they went off to college, and that’s when we brought in Hubert Deans and Jim Ward. We did not replace the trumpet player. We just brought in a keyboard player and a bass player, and we played on for another year or so.

And that’s all she wrote … until this past June, when The Bondsmen reunited at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte. Was that a major undertaking?
When they contacted us, it was a very long shot. As it turned out, everybody was able to make it, even Gene from upstate Pennsylvania. We had all of the players. Initially, there were six of us—the other two guys who came in when the other three left made us a total of eight players, and we were all onstage.

And you pulled it off.
Any band, I don’t care who you are, is built around the vocals. If Archie Thomas, our lead vocalist, had come in and his voice was shot, this thing would have never happened. If Phil Pearson (aka Phil Lee) had come in being a world traveler/troubadour but couldn’t play drums anymore, this thing would have never happened. Turns out, over the many years, he hadn’t played consistently, but he comes into a rehearsal and probably played better than he played back in the day. We’re all more mature; we all have a little bit more of a sense of what not to play…We’re definitely not clam-free when we play these tunes. The train wreck is right around the corner, but at the same time, we pulled it off pretty well. We were all beaming at the end of that night.

Garage rock is a pretty major genre now. You’ve got a band like The Black Keys filling up the PNC Arena playing basically blues-heavy garage rock. What is it that makes it endure this way?
What we were doing, I don’t know that we necessarily called it garage rock. We definitely didn’t call ourselves a garage band. But thinking back on it, that’s the category we would fall in. There were bands in Durham around the time we were doing our little thing that were kick-ass, serious bands. We were high school kids. We were doing it for fun and girls.

A lot of people don’t get this: Durham was a hot spot. Durham was a place between D.C. and Atlanta where touring acts came through. It was a place to come and play the Durham Civic Center. I remember leaning against a wall, down at the Civic Center. I was too young to get in when Ike & Tina Turner were down there. I just leaned against the wall, sat on the sidewalk out there beside the building with a couple of buddies, and just felt the bass.


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