Please note: at times it may seem I’m off on tangents. However, I am simply noting the many coincidences which take place throughout this story. Bear with me?
As odd as it may sound, I was a Velvet Illusion, and practically a Flower! Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Randy “Jimmie James” Bowles, from the 1960’s band, The Velvet Illusions. I was raised in the small town of Yakima, Washington, which lies in the fertile agricultural region of Eastern WA. — Fertile because an intricate irrigation system turned the desert into an abundant garden. World-famous apples, peaches, “cots”, cherries, grapes, hops and many other crops have grown in abundance, for decades. When I was coming up in the 1950’s-1970’s, beef cattle were also being raised. In fact, I worked cattle as a teenager. Let me say: we did some awful things to those young bulls! — Lumber mills also provided a good source of employment for a number of Yakimans, who helped process the region’s timber into all manner of useful materials. A lot of citizens made their living with their hands, their strength, and the sweat of their labor.
Music was big in Yakima. It was a diversion from the hard work, but also the boredom, that went hand-in-hand in small towns. Teen bands sprang up all over town and throughout the Yakima Valley. I helped start one of Yakima’s most famous bands, The Velvet Illusions, in 1966. Contrary to what was commonly repeated years later, when we became a much-collected band, we did not originate in Los Angeles, CA. We moved there for some months, hoping to find fame. But we were from little old Yakima. (For the definitive story, please see my blog story from April 30, 2015, “Inside the Velvet Illusions, By Randy ‘Jimmie James’ Bowles”.)
I’m still not sure how we seven small-town boys managed to crank out nine incredible psychedelic/garage songs, which we compiled on our 2011 release, “The Velvet Illusions – Acid Head”, including “Stereo Song”, and “Hippy Town”, which are collected and covered world-wide. I say nine songs, even though we recorded ten, because the tenth, “I’m Coming Home Los Angeles”, was a complete disaster as far as we were concerned. We hated it. We didn’t write it. We were not happy to perform and record this example of the Great American Songbook. A wonderful thing, the GASB, but not so for too many teenage boys in 1966.
Looking back, it seems so unlikely that a legendary band, of such rad style, could have sprung from the hick town that it was, then. However, something just as unlikely happened to me in 1971, at a time when Yakima’s population hovered around 45,000 souls. It was then that I became a member of a group I light-heartedly refer to as “The American Flowers”!
Have you heard the great Japanese psychedelic band, The Flowers, aka Yuya Uchida & The Flowers, Flower Travellin’ Band, or simply FTB? From 1971-72, I found myself playing in a band with two of their super-talented members. In circa 1970, they were coaxed by an American soldier/musician who was enjoying “R&R” (rest and recreation) in Tokyo, while taking a break from serving in Viet Nam, into relocating to tiny, little Yakima! This was amid much talk of guaranteed rock stardom. Instead, these two greats eventually found themselves stuck there: the world-class, beautiful, female singer Lemi “Remi” Aso, and the modest, soft-spoken, steel guitar wizard, Katsuhiko “Katz” Kobayashi. Following his discharge from the US Army, the soldier, Yakima’s Bill Tomisser, formerly of the very popular local band Danny and the Seniors, joined with Katz, Lemi and some superb Yakima musicians (and there were some) to form Smiling Hand, possibly the best band ever started in Yakima, up to that point. They did fantastic versions of songs such as “Green Eyed Lady”, “Black Magic Woman” and “Evil Ways”. They were unbelievably good. But they were in Yakima! Not exactly a town where rock n’ roll fortunes were made. I speak from first-hand knowledge! Eventually, the “Hand” ceased to smile. Lemi and Katz found themselves thousands of miles from their Tokyo home, with no more band, and no employment. They were truly in a bind.
Because they were so amazingly talented, it wasn’t surprising that even Yakima’s country music community was aware of their presence. I attended and sat-in at jam sessions a few miles outside of Yakima, where Katz’s playing would astound all present, whether their particular thing was country or rock. Note: Katz was given the nickname, “Dale”, the name he was called when we were introduced.
Just in the nick of time, Katz and Lemi were approached by a local, middle-aged country crooner/guitarist, who was looking to spice up his band with some extra talent. He led the house band at the Mayfair Tavern on Yakima Avenue. I mentioned previously that Yakima had at least one big lumber mill. Mill workers needed a place to have a beer, to dance, and to relax. The Mayfair was the perfect spot to enjoy a “red beer” (beer and tomato juice), a game of shuffleboard, and country and old rock and roll music, three or four nights per week, without “breaking the bank” to do so.
The veteran bandleader taught Katz a slew of country standards, old and new. Katz could soon play them all with authority, from “Bud’s Bounce” to “Steel Guitar Rag”, ”Wabash Cannonball”, “Together Again”. Katz also mastered such tunes such as “In The Mood”, “Alley Cat”, “Aloha Oe”, plus many early rock songs. Lemi sang a few country numbers, including the Hank Williams classic, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. On several occasions, I visited the Mayfair and marveled at what I was hearing and seeing. East meets Western! — Surreal, man.
Well, I’m not sure why it happened, but the day came when the bandleader left his own band. Suddenly, Katz became the leader. He was faced with having to find a singer/guitarist in order to keep the job at the Mayfair. Having met and befriended Katz at those jam sessions, when I heard he was scratching around to find a “picker”, my ears really perked up. I had been fronting (guitar/vocal/writer) the best band I was ever honored to be a part of, “Felix”, which was one of the few blues bands in Yakima. (If you had a blues band in Yakima, it was a blues band! And we were a psychedelic blues band.) We were suffering the same fate as had Smiling Hand and so many good area bands. We were operating in a vacuum, where eventually, there were no places left to play. Every venture was on a downhill trajectory. So I eagerly showed up at the Mayfair for their Sunday night jam, ready to represent! Friends, I knew one country song: “Folsom Prison Blues”. But did I give that sucker my all. And I got the job! But first, I had to let Lemi give my long, hippie hair a razor cut. Yep, Ted, the tavern’s owner, said I couldn’t get on his bandstand until I cut my hair. I found out the same thing had happened to Katz. I had wondered why he hadn’t been sporting his customary long black locks.
We called the reconstituted band the Mayfair Wagon, after the tavern which we called home. We practiced diligently in the afternoons, day in and day out, as Katz, from Tokyo, taught me the essential songs which any American country singer worth his/her salt would need to know. For weeks, I was scotch-taping the lyrics to such songs as “Green, Green Grass Of Home”, “Silver Wings” and “Okie From Muskogee” to my mike stand in order to perform them.
We may have been doing some of the right songs, but we weren’t very “country”, very often. While I was learning the country repertoire, we had to fill in the set list with blues, boogie and old jump tunes. We also covered Santana and Creedence, and we did some slow blues. That was fine though, because Yakima audiences were known to enjoy a little of everything. I was playing a white Hagstrom “long and slippery” guitar a la Frank Zappa, and/or a very-early-vintage Mosrite, through a Fender Bassman amp, while Katz played pedal steel, hooked up to a late 60’s-early 70’s Honeybee fuzz tone. We had a rock drummer named Tim McKelheer, who, while diminutive in size, could pound the skins like nobody’s business. And once every set, Lemi would take to the stage and sing spot-on covers of Janis Joplin, such as “Turtle Blues” and “Summertime”. Or, she’d do a classic country number, and very well. I remember helping her learn the Joplin version of “Bobby McGee”. Lemi couldn’t decipher the lyrics, so I listened to the record and wrote them out phonetically for her. After much practice, we nailed it.
The oddest part of our music was undoubtedly the solos. Imagine having to hear my feedback guitar in the middle of Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles”, or Katz’ screaming, from-outer-space, fuzzed-out solo in “Kansas City”. Luckily, the dancers and drinkers didn’t object very often, because we kept a hellova beat, and we were after all, playing some of their favorite songs. Just not the way they were used to hearing them! I remember an area bassist, Bob Holt — a “real” country musician — sitting in with us. Bob would look me in the eye and say, in as nice a way as he could, but seriously, “Randy, that ain’t country.” – But our “precursor” to alt-country (psych-country?) was just too damn good not to win-over a large following. The club owner couldn’t say anything, because he was probably raking in more money than he’d previously seen. I mean, everyone came to see us in that little mill workers “tav”. Sunday jams would be packed with keyboard players, jazz guitarists sporting huge Gibsons with f-holes, horn players – we had ‘em all dropping in.
I couldn’t believe my luck: I was in a band with two of the most awesome, talented, out-of-this world musicians. We had so much fun playing and hanging out together. The beautiful Lemi and Katz, pictured above on their “Challenge!” LP cover, had fabulous personalities. They had to refrain from weed, due to their being visitors from Japan. But we had plenty of fun. Plenty!
Sometimes customers who’d had just a few too many red beers would approach Katz and give him a little guff, or request a song he hated, so he’d pretend to speak no English. Other times, Katz would use his supposed lack of English skills to play with people’s minds. I remember when an old dude came up to the stage and said to him, “Dale, you are some of the best”. To which he replied, “I am a son-of-a-bitch?” “No, no! Some of the best!” We all laughed, even the old man.
There exists a recording (sans Lemi) that features Katz on fuzz steel, our stalwart drummer Tim, and myself on guitar and vocals doing two songs, “Blues Medley” and “Kansas City”. The recording, made on an early-70’s cassette-corder, features our actual Mayfair Tavern performances, done for astounded, blue-collar lumber mill workers, sitting side-by-side with various “just visiting” rock musicians. The quality of the sound is not exactly commercial. But, I am giving the songs to you, as my gift. (To hear these songs for free in the sound cloud, just leave me your contact info in a Comment.)
Katz couldn’t stay in Yakima forever. He was way too unique and talented. He slowly made inroads with the Seattle, WA music community. After a long run at the Mayfair, he eventually made the move across the Cascade Mountains to the dramatically bigger, more progressive city, where he worked as a studio musician at Kaye-Smith Studios, partially owned by the inimitable actor/singer/dancer Danny Kaye. He then landed a job in R. C. Bannon’s band. R. C. was married to Louise Mandrel of the Mandrel Sisters, and he wrote hit country songs. — When Katz told me he was leaving, he handed-down to me his very own fuzz tone. We were at the Mayfair in the afternoon. He said, “Try it out.” The place was near-empty. I immediately hooked it up to my Hagstrom, and played. Beer glasses began dancing all over the rustic bar. I was never without that box, until the night it died on me.
With Katz’ move to Seattle, I became bandleader. I changed the name of our little group to Buckwheat. Local legend (I grew up worshiping his music) Chuck Gregory joined on bass, replacing Katz. (In 1966-67, my Velvet Illusions used to “battle” his band, The Fluorescents, at battles-of-the-bands produced by our manager.) Lemi and Tim, our drummer, remained, and we had a nice run at the Mayfair. There is another Mayfair tavern live recording featuring one of Lemi’s performances, where she really belts out “Turtle Blues”. I am so regretful that it’s the only recording I have which features her outstanding vocals. And her vocal is somewhat buried underneath the wall of sound our country “power trio” was producing behind/on top of her. Please find it embedded righ here, for you to enjoy, in the form of a YouTube video. My thanks to Gray Newell for digitizing the song, and to Peter Garami, my surrogate nephew, for producing the YouTube video.
Later, Tim McKelheer went on the road, and I replaced him with drummer Stan Ruehlow, another Fluorescents alum. So now, we had a Flower, a Velvet Illusion and two Fluorescents. (“The Fluorescent Velvet Flowers”?) We sounded even less country without Katz’ steel guitar in the mix. I was having to play all of the solos, and had been playing country for less than a year. How to describe our sound? Big Brother meets Merle Haggard, meets Canned Heat, meets Kitty Wells?
Sad to say, Lemi became reluctant to attend practice and learn new songs, because she was busy fronting another, true power trio (more later). Ted, our club owner, finally complained to me about her lack of new material. So I spoke with Lemi. She started crying… and resigned! I wasn’t happy about that because I was in love with her. But she had given her heart to another Yakima guitar slinger, Pat Moss. Pat was (and always shall be) a monster player. – Oddly enough, I wound up marrying one of his ex-girlfriends, Sally Jo Davis, years later. Crazy. Not only that, but Pat, whom I rank near Eric Clapton, spent a month playing with us in Buckwheat, in order to learn the country sound, I suppose. He was practically born holding a guitar. It took him only that one month to nail the country guitar sound. And he did this on a huge Gibson jazz box he acquired from local jazz great Glen Grover, in exchange for his Fender Stat. I heard first-hand how great Pat sounded playing country on a jazz box — very; but I never got to hear Glen do any of his Gabor Szabo covers on the Strat! — Yakima was full of amazing, wacky guitar players.
The “heavy” power trio that Lemi fronted simultaneously to playing in my band, was called Water Closet, and consisted of Pat Moss on guitar, the great drummer, Bill Durham, who also was an honorary member of Buckwheat, having filled in with us on a couple of occasions, and bass prodigy, Evan Sheeley. — Next coincidence please! Evan is the nephew of the owner of Lee’s Music Shop, the establishment where The Velvet Illusions procured all the Vox and Mosrite equipment we were famous for! Equipment we thought we owned. When the VI’s broke up and returned to Yakima in 1967, Evan’s uncle repossessed it, and barred us from his store.
Lemi and Water Closet were extremely good, and they had huge equipment. Sixteen-year-old bassist Evan used Sunn amps. (Yakima musicians were known for their great equipment! When I was fourteen, in 1963, it seemed that every friend I knew had a big brother who owned an SG, Strat, Tele, Rickenbacker, Precision, Ampeg amp, you name it. And Carolyn Daniels, lead singer of Carol and the Jaguars, had her own gold-top Gibson Les Paul in 1963!)
A tres’ cool, long-haired Tokyo gentleman had managed Lemi and Katz. He occasionally flew in for a visit, and I was able to get acquainted with him. It was Yuya Uchida! I was in awe of his big city hippie persona. Upon hearing Lemi and Water Closet perform, he offered them a Japanese tour. Sadly, it couldn’t happen, because Evan Sheeley, bassist extraordinaire, was so young, and couldn’t get parental permission! (Don’t feel too bad for Evan. He was later bassist for one of the Northwestern United States’ biggest metal bands, TKO; he is the bassist for the currently-touring Q5, and he owns the excellent store, Bass Northwest, which outfits some of the world’s greatest players.)
As for me, I had managed to carve a niche in the Eastern Washington country music scene, and I moved Buckwheat out of the Mayfair. I eventually signed-on to a great “sit-down” job at a happening country nightclub in Goldendale, WA, where my band, now known as The Western Electric Band, served as back-up band for up-and-coming stars and aging veterans, including the great Rose Maddox, for whom I cast my vote as one of the originators of rockabilly — or something an awful lot like it.
With Lemi and yours truly both leaving the Mayfair, we lost track of each other. I know Water Closet called it quits. Eventually, Lemi went home. I regret there are no recordings of Water Closet. — They would be “heavy”, man. I feel sorry for any Yakima rock fan is too young to have heard Water Closet, with Lemi’s wailing vocals out front. Or too young to have heard Smiling Hand, with Katz’ screaming steel. Sometimes, it’s worth it to be old. The Flowers truly had an impact on Yakima’s music scene.
Regarding Katz, because cream does indeed rise to the top, he eventually became steel guitarist for the great Marty Robbins, and held the job for years, until Marty passed. He was in the band when they received the Music City News award for Band of The Year. You can view Marty Robbins’ videos on YouTube, which feature my man on steel. Katz, sadly, passed away in the state of Florida in 2004. I was so sad when I heard the news.
Have I known “all along” that the Flowers have continued to be popular throughout the decades? No! I just found out recently, through sheer coincidence. I’m a 66-year-old solo folksinger these days. I have at least twenty recent performance videos on YouTube. I often scroll through my YT video lists to see how my “numbers” are looking. Of course, when I pull up my list, Velvet Illusions tracks pop up, and so do the names/images of similar psych groups. For months, I kept seeing an album cover entitled “Challenge” pop up, which featured a cute, naked woman right in front, along with a bunch of unclad guys. I finally clicked on the photo, and was I flabbergasted: it was Lemi, along with Katz and the rest of The Flowers! What a trip!
The Velvet Illusions’ sanctioned 2011 CD release, “Acid Head”, is available on the internet.
The 2008 Rhino Records set, “Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets”, featuring The Velvet Illusions’ “Acid Head” single is available on the internet.
Here is a link to The Flowers’ version of “How Many More Times”, featuring Katsuhiko Kobayashi and Lemi “Remi” Aso: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBCWNDumMZU
Here is a link to the Velvet Illusions’ “Town Of Fools”, vocals/guitar by the author, written by Yakima’s Jerry Merritt, formerly of Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGcsxYtpKkM
Here is a link to a blog story re: my psychedelic blues band, Felix: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/singing-the-psychedelic-blues-small-town-style/
Here is the author in 2012, performing “Town Of Fools” in Seattle, WA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkO9uOJwYcY
Photo Credit: Yuya Uchida, circa 2006, Bob Gruen, Rock n’ Roll Photographer
Thank you: Klemen Breznikar, Gray Newell, Evan Sheeley, Bill White, Peter Garami.