by Daniel O'Connell
Originally published in: My First Band - June 1999
Detroit, Michigan 1964-1969:
O'Connell and Milkovich were knocking-about musically for about a year with Randy Laberty (singer), Laberty knew Tasseff and the band was O'Connell, Milkovich, Laberty, Tasseff and Craig Spenser. Spenser quit so Tasseff knew of the Dempsters (Laberty was not "alpha" about band). The band quickly solidified and landed a premier gig at Dick Clark's series of "Carnaby Street" shows at the State Fairgrounds where they opened for the likes of the Yardbirds, Surfaris, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Velvet Underground and more. The Wha? also played Ann Arbor's fabled Fifth Dimension club (again opening for the Yardbirds), and shows with other emerging area talent such as The Rationals, The Underdogs and The Woolies. Most significantly, the band grabbed a spot in the opening weekend lineup at the Grande (October, 1966) following a chance meeting between O'Connell and "Uncle" Russ Gibb "Dempster and I met Russ Gibb at Northland about one or two weeks before the Grande's first night. He had reams and reams of those "Seagull posters". Gibb was handing them out at Northland, he hussled us, or we hussled him, into being an opening act for the first night.... perhaps it was the second night a Saturday...... in any event it was to my recollection because the Chosen Few had broken up and canceled the show...... Scott Richard was then forming (or fermenting), so we took one of the opening slots."
Fourty something quiz: Hey, you know what's really cool about being fourtysomething?
A: You finally see many situations for what they were: ie: I was/am a better singer than Scott Richard! ;)
"So, Russ Gibb gave us heaps and heaps of those "Seagull" posters..... so many I covered my entire bedroom wall with them...... still had stacks of them to staple in the basement, write notes to my parents on, paper airplanes....... not one of them survived! Had to pay 50 bucks for a re-issue by Gary Grimshaw two years ago!" Following that, they became a regular opening act at Grande shows, frequently for the MC5 and Scot Richard Case in the early days of the Ballroom."We could do the Yardbirds fairly accurate, also the Stones covers and...we looked good."
O'Connell, Tasseff, Milkovich, and Dempsters lasted until Tasseff was sent to St. John's Military Academy. Performances were infrequent based on Tasseff's weekend visits home and holidays. Eventually Tasseff was replaced by Doug Daller (keyboards) a High School friend of O'Connell's, when the guitarist pushed his Super Beatle amplifier off the stage and quit.
"Tasseff was heartbroken over his girlfriend so he quit the band...... I think it was Elaine Edgar who also had the coolest Beatle jacket, (see last Beatle concert costumes), I had a big time crush on Elaine that Tom didn't know about at the time. I remember my dad driving Tasseff home before we finished the set so he wouldn't have to mix-it-up with Tom and Bob Dempster after the show. Tasseff was a pretty fearless fella."
In the summer of 1969 The Wha? played a few final gigs, after which Detroit's proverbial "warm-up" band then scattered.
Daniel O'Connell - bass/vocals
Tom Tasseff - guitar/vocals
John Milkovich - drums
Tommy Dempster - guitar
Bob Dempster -vocals/fashionable clothing and hair
One Teen Summer, my parents took my brother and I to New York City. My mother Helen, being the loving and generous person that she was, suggested that I invite my band mates Tom Tasseff and Bob Dempster to also come along with us on the Vacation. It was a Teen Summer because I can never recall the date. Teen Summers are those that can only be recalled or identified by episode, one's senses, or encounters at the time..... never a specific day, month or year. I always have to search for when the Beatles played their Shea Stadium concert... the Sheriff Badge Beatles, the quasi military/neru jacket Beatles. There were posters and flyers glued on walls, streetlight poles, even the sidewalk. To my best recollection, I missed the concert by two or three weeks. It was 'that' particular Teen Summer in NYC....
We all tumbled into a hotel near Fortysecond Street, just slightly ahead of the 'sleaze factor' that was approaching that particular street. Unaware of at the time... Tasseff, Dempster and myself were doing our best Keith-Moon-in-a-hotel-room impersonations. As an artful stroke to our masterpiece, Coca Cola bottles from our 11th story window raced their way to the street below, to the sidewalk, and between pedestrians. Timed to thoroughly confuse the arriving or departing patrons, our most teenful glee was shattering our crystal bombs just in front of a Go-Go type club across the street from our hotel.
On the first evening, my parents to us took Greenwich Village to witness the 'pop culture' going on there at that time. After buying our mandatory 'beatnik art' from one of the many art stands and shops, we spied the Cafe Wha? and decided it looked the most interesting. We were totally unaware of the Cafe Wha? entertainment legend, but all of us, especially my mother Helen, thought the name was a real... 'gasser'! In we went.
After visiting the club that night, my parents felt comfortable enough to allow Tasseff, Dempster and myself to go out unsupervised as long as we stayed together at the Cafe Wha? or in the Village. One particular visit to the Cafe Wha?, Tom Tasseff sprayed his hair blue with 1960ish coloured hair spray... a shade of blue that could only be marketed to 'working girls'... or Tasseff. That same evening Tasseff strapped on his matching blue Gibson SG Deluxe... and played along at our table... my teenage embarrassment meter was fully pinned.
The Cafe Wha? was/is located in a basement, the passageway or stairs being dark and claustrophobic... reminiscent of Jack Lemmon or Tony Randal on a night-on-the-town with a blonde bimbo or a beehived wife. The club is long and narrow with the stage to your left as you enter the room. Correctly or incorrectly, I recall a second stage, or attached portion of the main stage, on a slight angle to the room towards the back of the club. It was on this stage that we saw a Lenny Bruce-type comic... who knows?... although I doubt it was Bruce, a simple Beatle time-line check will confirm if Bruce was dead or alive at the time.
One of the acts that really appealed to Dempster were the Country Gentlemen. This particular group was a cocktail of Beau Brummels, Dave Clark 5, Blues Magoos, Royal Guardsmen and Shadows of Night. Although Dempster appreciated the Stones and Yardbirds, he had a 'teen bopper' in him that could not be denied. Much the same way as my 'closet hillbilly' today... my band occasionallysquirms as I call off during our set; Six Days on the Road or Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man... and refuse to look me in the eye when I confidently suggest that we could execute nifty arrangements of BR-549 and Hank Williams songs.
After the Country Gentlemen performed their set, I noticed that the lead guitarist of the Blues Magoos was seated in a dark corner with a 'hidden demeanour'* about him. (Years later, through experience in the music business, I would come to recognize this 'demeanour'* as the seated slouch or posture many musicians assume when they are about to 'check-out' another artist of exceptional talents... just a touch of nervousness, apprehension, and of course, curiosity... often in the darkest area of the room but as close to the stage as possible. If the particular spy-musician smokes, most usually handle their tobacco with the hypnotic caress of a Turk with a cigarette.)
*while I was in Barooga Bandit, opening all of the shows for Dire Straits' first U.S. tour, I witnessed several well established artists at our dates 'examining' Mark Knopfler and DS in this same way. My most memorable recollection is Bob Dylan at the Roxy Theatre in LA.
Jimmy James and the Flames set foot on the small stage, we were about six feet from him. (The Cafe Wha? is only about 25 feet wide at best.) As far as we knew, Jimmy James was just a freaky black guy who played guitar. And play guitar he did... in addition, I had never witnessed such an unusual vocal pattern from a performer. That Teen Summer Night Tasseff and I were completely knocked off our musical cornerstones, and I noticed that the guitarist for the Blues Magoos was..................frozen! Jimmy James played 'Hey Joe', 'Like a Rolling Stone' and several other songs that I'm sure made their way to "Jimmy James" albums. He also played some standards that were appropriate and vogue during the 1960's. It was a frightening show... stage erotica... the first such I had witnessed.
Beatle Boots were of course very popular at that time. I used to buy my boots at Northland in Southfield Michigan. Just before the NYC trip I had worn out my most recent pair. I noticed Jimmy had a pair of boots exactly the same as my tattered brogans back home in Detroit. After his show Jimmy was hanging about the Cafe Wha?, the way most musicians do between their first and second shows... sort of relaxed, bored of the club, mind off somewhere else... Jimmy was leaning on the doorway where the club collects the entrance cover charge.
Although still flabbergasted by his talent, (especially playing guitar behind his back... and then with his teeth), I nevertheless felt comfortable enough in complimenting him on his performance. He nodded in true appreciation with only slight detachment. Then I popped the question: "where did you buy your boots?" Very sincerely, but also looking around to see if anyone was watching, he turned his head into me while he hung his right arm and shirtsleeve on the doorway, he said: "Flagg Brothers, Fortysecond Street." There was a lyrical and minor key to the melody of his voice, and as he said those words, I've always recalled how his voice also dropped or tailed-off as he told me cautiously where to buy my cool Beatle Boots. Sometime much later, (in 'teen-time'), I recognized the same man and the same voice dropping or tailing-off the exact same way to the words: "not necessarily stoned, but beautiful".
At the time we didn't realize we had witnessed Hendrix, but when we did, we reckoned by our Beatle time-line that we saw him just before or the same week as Chas Chandler's 'discovery' of Hendrix at the Cafe Wha?
Tasseff, Dempster and myself were so impressed with the Cafe Wha? experience, we wanted to name the band in honour of the place. Dempster proposed calling the band "Cafe Wha?", I convinced him to settle with simply "the Wha?"... we painted "Wha?" on cardboard sized to pressure fit into the front of the bass drum head... and off we went... half-cocked, stupid, and marginally out of tune!
Stones, early R&B, Yardbirds. Also: Stones, Yardbirds...Yardbirds, Stones... Stones, Stones, Yardbirds, Stones, Yardbirds and Stones, Stones, Stones, Stones, Yardbirds.......
Major influences from "local musician legends":
O'Connell: Greg Arama of the Gang as well as a deep appreciation of Jim Butler (drums in the Gang).
Milkovich: Jim Butler of the Gang and Pete Berg of the Red White and Blues Band.
Tasseff: Will anyone ever come close to knowing the mind of Tasseff?
Tommy Dempster: I think Tommy was influenced by his brother Bob more than anyone else.
Bob Dempster: Bob seemed to pay attention to John Brake of the Lords, Dave O'Brien of the Gang and perhaps just a bit to Rob Tyner of the MC5, but only during the early days of the MC5.
Doug Daller: Doug was the classic keyboardist who spent huge chunks of his childhood practicing piano and organ. Doug never displayed any "local" influences that I'm aware of.
O'Connell: Vox Westminster, Red Epiphone solid body bass.
Tasseff: Vox Super Beatle. Placid-Blue Gibson SG Deluxe
T Depmster: Red Gretch Guitar and any combination of borrowed amplifiers.
Milkovich: Slingerland drums, Zildjan cymbals.
B Dempster: One of those great big phallic like chrome Shure mics made for stand mounting. Any combination of borrowed and liberated PA equipt. I think the band finally ended up with some Vox columns and one of those state-of-the-art Shure amp/mixers.
O'Connell's house at 19724 Glastonbury
The "Whamobile" a 1965 White Ford Econoline, lovingly driven either by O'Connell's mother Helen or father Bernard.
We were Belushi's KILLER BEES ten years BEFORE Belushi was! Brown pants, tan chucka boots, yellow and brown stripes roll-neck sweaters identical to SNL's Killer Bees.
Carnaby Street with Dick Clark at the State Fair Grounds. The Surfaris, Sam the Sham & Pharaohs, Royal Guardsmen, Velvet Underground....... and we opened for the Yardbirds!
Gig from Hell!:
An MSU fraternity one winter. The frats were "rushing" that particular evening. Short version: Treated the band (anyone other than their homo-erotic male group) very badly. Three cheers for corporate America!
A dance at Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) in NW Detroit. We were "burned" (not paid) by our disc jockey host Dick Purtain. "Dick" promised us (my father included) $20 cash for gas-money. This was a standard courtesy to groups back then in the ol' days when musicians shot their own breakfast.
Where are they now?
Tom Tasseff: is a college professor of English in Iowa. Tasseff left Michigan as Barret Strong's publistist (Heard It Through the Grapevine fame).
John Milkovich: Lived in San Francisco enjoying successful construction sales. Recently relocated to Arizona.
Bob Dempster: Presently lives in the northern suburbs of Detroit and continues to perform in the Metro-Detroit area.
Tom Dempster: Tom Dempster is living in the Detroit area and playing Rock & Roll music with his band.
Daniel O'Connell: Spends his time with family between their metro-Detroit and Nassau/Paradise Island homes, is manager to David Knopfler, owns a portion of Bluesfest International, several other capital ventures, and performs each Thursday night at the Wagon Wheel Lounge in Northville, Michigan.
Doug Daller: I have completely lost contact and information about Doug Daller. Does anyone know how I may contact Doug?
Information contributed by Daniel O'Connell to e-mail O'Connell: firstname.lastname@example.org
For the record...
This is great that Dan put this together.
Dan has a vivid memory and imagination.
I suggest... to never... never go to lunch with Dan if he's buying.
The Wha?'s Milkovich, B. Dempster, T. Dempster, Tasseff and O'Connell (sitting)
at the stage entrance to the Grande Ballroom.
Sound check, afternoon of opening weekend.
Photo by Bernard O'Connell
Above: The Wha? in their Killer Bee getups.
Below Left: Flyer for a BMF dance, Below Right: Fender's Battle of the Bands,
Cobo Hall, Detroit, 1967.
Robert Dempster returns to the Cafe' Wha? in 2001.
Daniel O'Connell performing with his band on a typical Thursday night at the Wagon Wheel lounge
Robert Dempster performs with his band GREENHAUS.
Check out Dempster's CD's