1960s Sacramento band plans latest summer reunion

08/18/2012 12:00 AM

08/17/2012 11:10 PM

Back when they were young, the members of the Parish Hall Blues Quintet played before huge Northern California crowds as the opening act for the Yardbirds, the Grateful Dead, the Doors and other top bands.

Today they play a comfy, invitation-only reunion for family and friends once a summer amid the flowers and greenery of guitarist Carl Ramirez's Rancho Cordova backyard. A potluck dinner takes place before the music-making.

"We still have that chemistry, that connection," said John Roina, the band's drummer, who at 65 is retired from the Yolo County Office of Education. "Playing music gives us a nice connection with the past and the history we shared."

As baby boomers around the country reach retirement, many of them reach at the same time for the guitars they threw into the closet when real life sidetracked them from their early love of music.

They came of age in the 1960s, when the surf music rage and the British invasion combined to inspire a generation of junior high and high school boys to jump on stage and make some noise. And then they grew up, courtesy of Vietnam, the working world and the demands of raising families. Now some have returned to the music they left reluctantly in their teens and 20s.

Coming to a garage near you: grandparents rocking out on the kind of high-end equipment they couldn't afford when they played at high school dances three or four decades ago, and now they have all the time in the world to play the music they've always loved.

How widespread is the trend? It's hard to tell. But Skip's Music founder Skip Maggiora – himself a veteran of Sacramento's 1960s rock circuit – estimates that half his stores' clients are boomers who played in bands when they were young.

"You can spot them when they come into the store," said Maggiora. "They're adults looking at instruments and listening to kids practice. When you talk to them, they refer to themselves as someone who used to be a musician, but now they're a doctor."

The store's four-week Weekend Warriors program, established in 1991 and licensed now in five countries, caters to boomers who miss being in bands.

Participants are state workers and contractors, lawyers and farmers and dentists – but in their hearts, they're rock stars. They rehearse to "Mustang Sally" and "Bad Moon Rising." And before they know it, they're back on stage before friends and family, just like the old days.

"When you're kids, it's kind of contagious," said Dennis Newhall, a longtime radio announcer and co-founder of the Sacramento Rock & Radio Museum. "If two guys in school have a guitar and drums and start making noise, it's easy for everybody else to jump on the bandwagon."

That's how it happened at Sacramento's Encina High School. The best-known group was the New Breed, the band that became what Newhall calls the top local rock act in the 1960s. Two boys who knew each other in 1959 in junior high – Ron Floegel and Tom Phillips – got together with a Little League friend who knew how to sing, Timothy Schmit. They later added another member, George Hullin.

Before Schmit went on to Poco and the Eagles, posters for big rock shows in the region in the late 1960s typically listed the New Breed as second on the bill. Third, in smaller print, was another band with roots in Encina High School: the Parish Hall Blues Quintet.

They got together in 1965, after Encina High student Bob Smith – now 63 and a retired chiropractor who lives in Shingletown – heard Mike Andrews sing and play harmonica at a backyard party. Smith invited Andrews to play in a band.

"I went home and told my mother I had a job, and it wasn't in a gas station," said Andrews, now 65 and retired from the Sacramento County Office of Education.

Smith and Andrews placed an ad for a lead guitarist in The Bee and found Carl Ramirez, now 67 and a retired state worker. He was an Air Force kid whose father had just been transferred to Sacramento from England. When the band's drummer dropped out, they recruited Andrews' Encina classmate John Roina.

Andrews came up with the name after playing music at a teen club in his church's parish hall.

The fifth member of the quintet, the bass player, changed through the years, but the core of four remained unchanged through graduation parties and assemblies in 1965 and 1966. Sacramento music manager Gary Schiro recruited the band into his stable of local acts in 1967.

"We went from graduation parties to the concert stage," said Ramirez.

Their first concert was opening for the Grateful Dead.

"My favorite memory is from that night," said Roina. "We were playing, and I looked over to my right. There was Jerry Garcia standing at the edge of the stage. He's smiling and bopping back and forth, and he gives me two thumbs up."

Roina left for college at San Francisco State later that year. Smith was drafted into the Army in 1968 and went to Vietnam in 1969. Ramirez joined the Air Force in 1969, one step ahead of the draft, and Andrews kept an iteration of Parish Hall alive for another year after that.

And then they went about their grown-up lives for another three decades, until a mutual acquaintance got them back in touch through email.

"I had no idea where they were all those years," said Ramirez. "I'd stopped playing music altogether."

Their first backyard reunion was in 2003.

Their music sounded as bluesy as ever, but the men themselves had changed with age, growing grayer, heavier, some of them limping a bit. They even exchanged email photos – in an informal, online before-and-after – so they'd recognize one another when they met again.

Life caught up with Smith most devastatingly. He was paralyzed in a Shingletown volunteer fire department accident in the late 1990s.

Because of his health problems, he won't attend this year's reunion on Aug. 25. But Andrews and Ramirez will be there; so will Roina. (They will be joined by local musicians Wayne and Donna Proctor Smith in this year's version of the quintet.)

"When we met again after all those years, it was a real nice feeling," said Ramirez. "It felt like we'd never parted."

And when they play, even just to practice in Ramirez's living room, they're back in touch with who they were decades ago, when they were young, before life got in the way.

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