Eagle Grant started off his 2010 TV special live from Portland’s Memorial Coliseum with a few covers - “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water” (Elvis), “Maybe Tomorrow” (The Everlys), “Tell The Truth” (Ray Charles). Each was treated with respect, but not slavish mimicry. “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water” was rocked even more than Elvis, while “Tell The Truth” started more like a ballad, but ended up more raucous than Ray’s treatment. As he had done for many years, he finished up with “Imagine.”
Eagle then went into his own repertoire – the heartbreak of “Lonely”, the yearning of “Can’t Get To You” and “Invisible”. This brightened with “Marry Me” and “Living In The Country” and went totally insane with “Running”, followed up by “Jody’s Song”.
He told the audience “Hey guys, I brought along a few good friends. I hope you don’t mind if they join me. Let’s start with a guy named Neil. You may have heard of him. I’ll see if I can help him out with a few of his songs.” The band, Neil and Eagle then worked though a medley of “Helpless”, “Heart Of Gold” and “Rocking In The Free World”. He then helped a piano player perform “You Win Again” and “Great Balls Of Fire” and a singer from some British group do “Rock And Roll” and closed with “Kashmir”. As had been true for these recordings for a few years, the concert did well in the ratings and the cd and dvd from the concert were best sellers, despite the bad press he got when he joked “I myself suffer from memory lapses – I can’t remember all those people who say that they loaned me money before I was famous.” The easily offended thought that he was being disrespectful to true dementia sufferers.
Even though Eagle and his band Slash were semi-retired, all of the musicians as well as the audience loved the reunion concerts.
The Eagle story started in Vernonia Oregon on June 15th, 1937. His father had steady work as a logger and his mother was a school teacher, so they were relatively well off in that depression year when he was born. Given how closely Eagle’s career paralleled Elvis’s in many ways, the background of their parents has been thoroughly examined. Whereas Elvis’s dad did prison time and his mother was an overweight unhealthy woman, Eagle’s parents were much more like “Ozzie and Harriet”. The differences between Elvis’s and Eagle’s childhood may have had a lot to do with how they turned out so differently.
Eagle’s sister Jody came along March 7, 1940.
His first name has drawn a lot of curiosity and by now almost everyone has heard about the eagle that nested close to their house when Eagle was born, and it may very well be the origin of his name. As his father Frank has said, he wanted his son to have a name that symbolized freedom and pride. This explanation is quite reasonable and may be the whole truth. It is lesser known that his mother Jane had a boyfriend named Joe Eagle before she met Frank. Coincidence?
Frank liked country and western on the radio, so Eagle grew up listening to a lot of Hank Williams and the other Hanks, Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubbs and the Sons of The Pioneers. The whole family loved singing the Sons Of The Pioneers songs – “Cool Water”, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Riders In The Sky”. Frank made a little extra money playing guitar with the local country group “The Saddle Mountain Boys” at Gene’s Bar.
Jane preferred pop singers like the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Vaughn Monroe and Perry Como.
Eagle’s earliest musical education was learning guitar from his father starting when he was five. He started piano lessons a couple of years later. He excelled at both. He would always beam when playing boogie-woogie piano. Sentimental ballads usually left him cold. He didn’t take up the saxophone until high school.
Like most of the men and some of the women in the area, Frank and Eagle hunted the woods for deer in season and fished in the Nehalem River. Later in life Eagle fished, but didn’t hunt after his teenage years.
Eagle was and is a little short, but he played all the schoolyard sports as soon as he was old enough, and excelled at some of them. Later on when sports were more organized, he played on his grade school and high school baseball, basketball and football teams. After a concussion he received in football, he gave that up, but lettered in basketball and baseball, relying a lot on his reflexes and foot speed. From his fifties into his seventies he organized and played in celebrity softball games to support Alzheimer’s and related dementia research. Both his Grandmother Rose and Uncle Fred had suffered early onset dementia, and he was very wary about it happening to him.
His concussion was a sign of his competitive nature. He didn’t do anything half way. When he had the football, he tried to run through bigger players. When he hit a double, he tried for a triple, which frequently got him benched. After the game was over, whatever the result, he was always happy as long as the team went out for cokes and burgers at Shelly’s Shack. If the burgers were burnt, there were always the waitresses to look at. He generally tried to get the attention of Shirley, who was a year ahead of him at high school. She generally pretended to be aloof, but was secretly impressed by his popularity and athletic success. After a couple of months, she agreed to go out with him.
They got along fairly well, but Eagle couldn’t get past first base. Shirley always held him off by declaring she was a good girl and didn’t want a bad reputation. The frustration for Eagle continued until her pregnancy. Their history was pieced together from interviews with Eagle and Shirley. Joseph, the interloper, refused repeated attempts to get his side of the story. He is currently in a long term care facility after three marriages and three divorces.
Shirley was at Shelly’s Shack one summer afternoon, when a new Buick pulled up with a couple of guys in their early twenties. Shirley was the only other customer in the diner at the time. One of the guys that she later learned was Joseph asked her if she was home from college. She was very flattered by him taking her for a more mature girl, and just said “No, I’m between things right now”, rather than admit she was still in high school.
Joseph asked her “Hey, it’s a beautiful day, why don’t you go to Seaside with us. We’ll be back by dark.”
Shirley didn’t have to be anywhere until bedtime and was feeling a little daring, so she said “Sure”.
On the way, she sat between Sam, the driver, and Joseph. Joseph casually laid his hand on her thigh. Not wanting to seem like a baby, she didn’t object. At the beach, Sam understood that he was the third wheel and went off in search of single girls.
Joseph and Shirley split a towel on the beach. It seemed natural for them to apply suntan lotion on each other, but Joseph didn’t push it. Joseph told her he was having a great time, and wanted her phone number so he could see her again.
He called her on Wednesday and asked if she wanted to double date to the beach. Compared to Eagle, Joseph seemed much worldlier, so she was convinced that she had moved on past an ordinary local boy.
Joseph picked her up alone and explained that Sam had picked up a cold, but that they could have a great time at a secluded cove that he knew. He had thoughtfully brought along a picnic and some beers.
After playing at the cove, they ate and drank some beers. Shirley had never drunk much and was a little woozy. She barely knew that he was taking off her halter. He seemed to be quite dexterous at that job. She was telling herself she would stop him soon. He had already gotten further than Eagle ever had. When he started tugging at her shorts, she protested mildly, but had drunk too much to put up much of a fight. Quicker than she could imagine, he was in her. At that point, she tried to fight him off, but it was too late.
They were silent for the rest of the trip until he dropped her off in Vernonia. His parting remark was, “I’ll call you sometime.”
A month later when he called again, she told him that she was pregnant. He was indignant. “I thought that you were a grownup who knew about birth control. If I had known that you were just a kid, I would have pulled out. Don’t get bent out of shape, I know a doctor who can handle it. I’ll set it up and I’ll pay.”
The first thing than ran through her mind, was “How does he already know how to handle it. How many times has he been through this before?”
It went against everything that she had been taught by family and church, but she decided to get the abortion rather than try to be a single mother at seventeen. She believed that she had been raped, but she knew it would be “He said, she said.”
Because she felt so shamed and foolish, she avoided dating anyone for several years, until she met Jenson at her church when she was twenty-three. She immediately trusted him because he seemed so open. His very young wife had died in a car accident and she felt that they might be able to heal each other. They married a month after their first date and started a family a year later.
Eagle didn’t learn the truth about Shirley until years later when he came home to visit his family in Vernonia. He felt that it was time to clear things up with Shirley. It took awhile, but he eventually buried his anger towards Shirley and became sympathetic towards her. Going forwards, their families would get together whenever they were in the same area.
Eagle’s next relationship was less interesting, but much more rewarding. Abby was a year ahead of him and in his band class. When he asked her out, he did not know that she had already developed a crush on him. On the third date they “went all the way” in the back seat of his Oldsmobile. After that, they would go to a cheap motel in St. Helens. Their parents guessed at what was happening, but the families got along well and just counseled their children not to get pregnant or impregnate before they were ready.
According to Eagle, by the time he was in high school, his music tastes had started to change. One night, he thinks it was in 1950 or 1951, while spinning the dial on his radio, he heard the blackest voice he had ever hear say “This is the River Otter KRB 1060 with all your favorite rhythm and blues. Let’s hear Louis Jordan’s “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town”. From that moment on, whenever Eagle could receive the weak KRB signal, he would be listening to “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, “Honey Hush”, “The Fat Man”, “Money Honey”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and what many say was the first rock and roll song “Rocket 88” with Jackie Brenston vocals (he later learned that it was with the Ike Turner band). Roy Brown, Dinah Washington, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, B.B. King, the list went on and on. He found a music that was sexier and more passionate and humorous than anything that he had heard before.
His immediate response was to learn to play the harmonica, inspired by Little Walter, especially on “Juke Joint”. Shortly after he mastered that instrument, he concentrated on getting a band going. He bought a bunch of 45s in the black district in North Portland and played them for some of his musician friends who he thought would be interested. The scene was something like that in England in the early sixties. Four of his friends who had been brought up on country and pop were eager to try something new (to them) and far more exciting than what they were used to. They all agreed that Eagle would sing and play harmonica during the bridges, based on his better voice and slightly more experience with r&b. Sam Freeberg was the best guitarist, James Brown, who later changed his name to James Brother to avoid confusion, was a natural on saxophone, Steel Gordon (full name Horace Steel Gordon – he hated the name Horace) was a little weak on bass, but got better with practice and Andy Jones was adequate on drums. Based on the town’s logging background, they called themselves Slash.
After a few months they were performing their favorite covers at high school dances. In many cases they had to revise the lyrics to keep from offending the parents. “Sixty Minute Man” had to get changed a lot. Some of the songs had the same heartbreak and sorrow of the country songs they were used to, things like “I Need You So”, “Drown In My Own Tears” and “Bad, Bad Whiskey”.
Most of high school went well for Eagle. Besides his sports successes, he was well liked, even though he made some bad choices in girlfriends. He did well academically except for some problems with math. The classes about countries of the world were his favorite. The thought of the world outside of little Vernonia fascinated him. He was elected class president in his senior year. One of his biggest accomplishments was in fashion. As a sophomore he adapted the greaser look with a ducktail, turned up collar, tight tee shirt and jeans worn low. As a junior, he got tired of looking like everyone else and went with a crew cut, chinstrap beard, flannel shirt, black Can’t Bust ‘em pants and logger boots (without the cleats) , completing the logger assemble. Rather than rebelling against the older generation, he copied the loggers in town. His look was taken up by many of his male classmates, kind of retro cool.
His geography teacher, Jeff Snood, recalled him in a 1962 interview. “Eagle was very well liked. He was almost always happy, although there were times, like when his dog died, or a girl broke his heart, that he would be down. He usually had a smile and a joke. He had his pranks, like the noise makers that he put in people’s lockers that would make screams or farts when the locker was open. We never learned how he did that. He had his fake trip and somersault routine. I guess you could say he was high spirited, but never mean. He irritated some teachers, but between you and me, they were tight-asses. As you certainly know now, he was quite musically talented. One thing that served him well later in his career, I don’t know if he planned it, was his fascination with other countries and peoples. He took several years of Spanish, which turned out serving him well when he toured Latin America. Despite all that, I’d have to say that the best thing about him is that he liked just about everyone, and he was liked in return.”
Andy Jones graduated a year before Eagle and the others. He had top grades, was the class valedictorian and got a scholarship to Stanford, partly based on their program encouraging small town students. The senior year concerts for the rest of Slash were accomplished with whomever that they could get to drum on a given day.
After they graduated from high school in 1955, the rest of Slash was not particularly interested in keeping up the band, but they all stayed close enough to play together on weekends. Steel Gordon went to the University Of Washington in Seattle for marine biology, Eagle went to Portland State for business and music and Sam Freeberg and James Brother went to Oregon State in Corvallis to study forestry. Abby went to the Washington State campus in Vancouver to become a vet.
All of the band members had part time jobs to support themselves through college – Steel sold seafood at Pike’s market in Seattle, Sam and James were janitors and Eagle was a short order cook. Abby worked as a waitress.
Besides playing together, they would hang out around Williams Avenue, which was known to some in Portland as “Congo Strip” because of the majority black population. It took awhile, but as the club goers got to know the white interlopers better, Slash was allowed to sit in with the bands. In Andy Jones’s absence, Emerson Jones, a drummer that they met at the Cat Club started to play with Slash. Emerson was from Alabama and had grown up with country music there before his father got a job in the Kaiser Shipyard during World War II. They had lived in the integrated Vanport before the flood of 1948. After the flood his family had to move to the segregated North Portland area.
The entire band except Steel picked up smoking joints while in Portland. It was something they did casually and discreetly off and on for the rest of their lives.
Emerson had a better grasp of jazz and R&B than the rest of Slash which they appreciated. He made Slash more acceptable at Jefferson High, which had a large number of black students and at black clubs. Despite a few ugly incidents, he was mostly accepted in white venues.
In 1955 Elvis was unknown outside the South, but “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley became a sensation, despite being ignored earlier, when it was featured in Blackboard Jungle. Either directly, or through white covers, America was going crazy over Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Bill Haley was popular, but not sexy and a little old to connect with the teenage record buyer. Mercury records were a major label then and wanted an Elvis substitute. Eagle represented a reasonable Elvis type, a white singer who combined country and r&b. His crew cut and beard, plus a saxophone in the band set him apart from most of the Elvis wannabees. When Slash was signed to Mercury the company execs had only heard some of their live shows.
They joined Gene Vincent at Capitol and Eddie Cochran at Liberty as rockabilly singers who followed Elvis as well as Elvis’ contemporaries at Sun - Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
Because Eagle had some experience in business law from his college studies, he made certain that Slash had legal representation when they signed the contract with Mercury. Slash had the right to audit all of their earnings. His buddies from North Portland had plenty of horror stories about being cheated out of money by club owners and record companies. Samuel George, one of the best saxophonists had to take a job as a janitor just to scrape by.
They started recording in 1958. All of Slash wanted to include some blues or r&b, but the artist & repertoire man David Jennings insisted that they cover a combination of popular C&W, rockabilly and pop in order to reach the largest audience. The record simply titled “Slash” was a typical 12 songs of two to three minutes each, six to a side:
2.You Are My Sunshine
3.You Win Again
6.Singing The Blues
9.I’m Moving On
11.We’ll Be Together Again
12.You Always Hurt The One You Love
They did what they could to make the songs stand out from the original versions. “Sixteen Tons” was just drums and vocals. “Detour”, “You Are My Sunshine” and “I’m Moving On” were turned into up tempo rockers, like Ray Charles did a few years later. “Singing The Blues” was done slowly and sadly. “We’ll Be Together Again” was done with a tear in every word. Horns and strings were added in places.
Detour was the A side of the single and Stormy Weather was the B side. It peaked at 25 on the Billboard charts and the album made it to 60 on the album chart. Neither stuck around long.
Jennings admitted that his ideas hadn’t turned out well. He said “Listen guys, I can get you a West Coast tour in a couple of months. Why don’t you see what you can come up with that might work better than the first LP. The guys decided they would work on some of their favorite r&b songs that hadn’t been covered by white groups already. On the tour and on their next LP they did numbers from the 1940s and early 1950s: “Chicken Shack Boogie”, “Keys To The Highway”, “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts of Town”, “House Of Blue Lights”, “Rocket 88”, “Night Train”, “The Fat Man” (Fats Domino’s first hit), “Shake A Hand”, “My Babe” and “Drown In My Own Tears”. They also played around with “Cry” the hit from local star Johnny Ray. At that point, they wanted a couple of more songs, but couldn’t find anything else that they wanted to cover.
Eagle and Steel decided they needed to write some of their own songs if they wanted to do anything but covers. At that point, they were too obscure to grab anything good from professional song writers. Eagle already had a couple of things he’d been thinking about.
His sister Jody had always been sad. She may not have been clinically depressed, but she didn’t have close friends, and mostly kept to herself. When she was twelve her best friend and neighbor Frieda was killed in a car accident. They had planned to go to the beach with Frieda’s parents, but Jody had a cold and had to stay home. The Ford that Frieda’s family was in blew a tire and rolled into a creek - nobody survived. All of the Grant family grieved, but Frieda had been Jody’s bestie since they were five, and never fully recovered.
All of the Grant family tried to help, but Jody was wounded too deeply. She wasn’t plagued by bullies or mean girls in school, but she projected a vibe that kept anyone from getting close.
Eagle always had thought that the underlying cause of Jody’s fugue was that she thought that she wasn’t worthy after she lost Frieda. There wasn’t any logic to that because she had nothing to do with Frieda’s death and Jody had always been bright and strong, but emotions don’t have logic.
He hoped a song for her might help. Writing it was easy. “Jody’s Song” started:
“When you are along in your room,
Filled with fear and gloom –
If you don’t know which way to turn,
Here’s what you should learn
As the cliché goes, it just wrote itself.
Eagle made sure he got Jody’s permission to name the song after her. Unusual for her, she was interested in hearing it. Eagle made her wait until the album was released.
Steel had been listening to Buddy Knox and Buddy Holly and was into the Tex-Mex sound. He was thinking a little bit “Tequila”, a little “Not Fade Away”. He checked with Emerson to see if he could approximate the percussion in those songs. It wasn’t much of a stretch. After kicking it around with Eagle and the other guys, he decided that there was no way to comfortably match words to the shifting tempo, staccato drums and bongos and stuttering guitars. “Hellion” became their first instrumental.
On the west coast tour starting in LA and going north through San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, their covers went over fairly well, but their new songs got a lot of attention. The kids loved dancing to “Hellion” and “Jody’s Song” got rapt attention. The crowd at first didn’t know what to think about the song, but it struck a responsive chord among a lot of the teenagers. The press was very kind and they got big crowds after their LA set.
By the time that they got to Portland, reporters were asking about “Jody’s Song”. At first nobody in the band wanted to do anything that would embarrass Jody, but she called Eagle and told him “Listen, I know that you want to protect me, but I think this song is helping me and it can help others. Give them the whole story when they ask and even if they don’t ask.”
Eagle had already checked on royalty rates for songwriters. The band jointly decided that the royalties would be split 30% for each of Eagle and Steel and 10% for each of the other band members even though Eagle and Steel were the only credited songwriters. Since “Jody’s Song” and “Hellion” were more popular than their cover songs and also had bigger royalty payments, they went with those for their next single. Those two with ten of their covers made up the next LP.
By the time the single and LP “Second Cut” were released “Jody’s Song” was a cultural phenomenon. It was the centerpiece of an article of Time magazine about the troubles of teenagers. It was widely debated about whether it helped or hurt the troubled. Talking heads and celebrity shrinks dissected it. “Jody’s Friends” clubs popped up all over the country and Jody herself was invited to give lectures and write her story.
In late 1958 both “Second Cut” and the single were number two on the charts and hung around for twenty weeks, mostly on the strength of “Jody’s Song”. There were copy cat songs, but none approached the popularity of “Jody’s Song”. After that hit, Slash was largely left alone by Artists & Repertoire.
While the band was working on their follow up, they got caught in a draft. It affected the members unequally. Emerson was quite a bit older than the others and had already served in the army, Eagle had a bad knee from his football days and Steel had married his sweetheart right after high school and already had two children. They were all in the clear, but James and Sam were drafted.
In July 1958 Life Magazine did an article about the King and The Heir Apparent before Elvis was shipped to Germany. The article went through all of the contrasts between Elvis and Eagle, as well as their similarities.
Contrasts: Heights (particularly Elvis with lifts), hair, beard, fame, region.
Similarities: Musical tastes, small town origins (Tupelo, Vernonia), larger town migration (Memphis, Portland), uncommon first names.
When interviewed jointly and separately, they both said all of the right things. About their relative success:
Elvis “This Eagle has quite a future ahead of him. I’m a fan of him, his band and his music.”
Eagle “It is a huge compliment to be mentioned in the same breath as the King. He may be the biggest entertainer of all time.”
About the draft:
Elvis “I’m proud to serve my country, and I’m sure the draft board knew what they were doing when Eagle was rejected.”
Eagle “I’m sure that Elvis will serve honorably, and had I been qualified, I would have done my duty.”
Most observers couldn’t see the attention to Eagle, but the Life issue did get huge newsstand sales.
Later both of them would privately give out significantly different stories.
The whole band had just time for one more tour and one more record. After the success of “Second Cut” they did included a couple of instrumentals, some of their own compositions and some classic blues. They couldn’t top “Another Cut”, but “Third Helping” and the single from it made the top ten.
Mercury had been urging Eagle to have a solo career, since bands at that time were not as popular as singers. Since Slash would be breaking up while James and Sam were in the army, they decided to take a break for awhile and do some separate work. Emerson and Steel continued as Slash with studio musicians for recording and local players when touring. Neither of them were singers, so they signed Jack Sampson, an R&B journeyman, who also played guitar. Given the background of the players, they mostly played classic blues and R&B.
Eagle’s first solo album featured some Hank Williams rocked up a little, like “Hey Good Lookin’”, some original compositions by Steel and Eagle like “Can’t Get To You”, and some R&B covers like Rays Charles’ “A Fool For You”. On his first tour as a solo artist he had non-slash musicians. Just for a prank, he would start the concert with a greasy Elvis pompadour, and throw the hairpiece into the crowd after the last number. His set list included Slash numbers, songs from his solo album and covers of songs that he liked, such as “Henrietta.”
As fans of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the band could see using that model to perform as an Eagle solo act, Eagle with Slash, and Slash alone.
Without the rest of Slash neither the album nor the single made it past the number five on Billboard, but Eagle’s national tour based on their first three albums and putting the handsome and charismatic Eagle up front did very well. It also gave them a chance to try out new material and do some covers of songs that they loved, like Buddy Holly and the Cricket’s “Not Fade Away”.
Because Eagle had been the big draw and front man for Slash, the reconstituted band without Eagle was relegated to second tier tours and slower record sales. They continued to include a number of instrumentals on their recordings, both covers and their own compositions. They got packaged with people like Little Richard and Eddie Cochran. Touring with Little Richard proved that they hadn’t seen it all.
The end of 1958 was momentous for all. Steel and his wife were having their third child, Eagle and Abby got engaged, Sam and James were home on leave, and Emerson’s son was the most valuable player on his grade school baseball team. Together with Andy, who had just gotten a job at the new electronics firm Hewlett-Packard in the Bay Area and Jack, they gathered at the new house Eagle had built for his parents.
Sam and James were not too happy about enlisted life, but in the absence of any wars, they didn’t have it too hard. Jack was pleased about his relatively high profile and good income compared to what he had as a local sideman. Steel and Emerson were relatively content, but expressed the desire to get involved in side projects. Emerson wanted into some combo like Dave Brubeck’s and Steel wanted to play with someone like Buddy Guy. Andy was running financials in his head, trying to decide if he could get married and pay down college debts. Eagle was glad to be home with friends and family and Abby.
They were going to have ham for Christmas dinner, until the Grants remembered that Sam was Jewish. Even though Sam was highly secular, they went with turkey. It was cold and wet that December and no one wanted to leave the house. Eagle had thought about it in advance and he had plenty of room in the main house and the two guest houses for all of his friends and family. Everyone except Steel, who stayed at the Best Western with his large family, stuck around for at least part of the holidays from Christmas until New Year. The Christmas in Vernonia tradition began thusly.
Amongst all the fun and games, Andy turned serious. He started with “Hey guys, do you have a plan? I loved the music and hope to get a chance to play with you sometime again, but you have to think about your future. This will sound boring, but what if one of you gets sick. Do you have any insurance? I know it’s a long way off, but what about retirement. Do any of you put any money aside? Sure some careers last a long time, like the Mills Brothers, but most acts are popular for a few years and that is if they are lucky. How many hits have Tony Martin or Georgia Gibbs had. They aren’t rolling in money.”
“Money isn’t the only problem. There are women, alcohol and drugs to worry about. Hank Williams died at twenty nine as you know. There are the divorces and the shattered families.”
“My life may not be as exciting as yours, but I’m going to have a stable life, and a healthy life. I’ll have health insurance and a fat retirement, I know boring. At least give it a little thought.”
Sam jumped in immediately “I hear you. Just about all the musicians I know died young and broke. We do need a plan. What we don’t need is a fake colonel running our careers.”
Eagle had already been thinking about the future. “I may not be ahead of you Andy, but I’m at least even with you. We need to finish our degrees. I’m close and am planning some time off to complete my requirements. No touring 300 days a year, that’s suicide. Limit the drinking and keep the doping to low level, discrete grass consumption. Musically, I hope that we can innovate without getting too far out. The more of our own material we play, the better the royalties. I mean to apply my business courses to make sure we get the best contracts possible, but if we need someone else to handle our affairs, let’s get the best.”
Steel said “All three of you insufferable buzzkills, but you’re right. But before we become Amish, let’s have another brandy.”
Everybody kicked it around, argued about details, but ended up in agreement.
They all got accountants who made sure that they put money into retirement accounts, paid their self-employment social security and income taxes.
They were able to enroll in a small group health insurance plan. They didn’t want any of those benefits for sick musicians.
Sam and James had to return to their bases and Andy had to return to work, but the rest of the guys stuck around to work on new material in Eagle’s home studio. Slash had an offer to do the winter tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and some other guys, but decided they were too fat and happy to leave Vernonia. It only took two months to find out how lucky or smart they were. Don McClean later immortalized that fateful tour in “American Pie”.
In 1959 Sam had throat problems and couldn’t sing for months. The rest of Slash decided to make the best of the situation and did an album of rock instrumental covers. They picked “Moovin’ ‘N’ Groovin’” and “Ramrod” from Duane Eddy, “Raunchy” from Bill Justis, “Tequila” from the Champs, “Sleepwalk” from Santo And Johnny, “Peter Gunn” in the Duane Eddy version, “Rawhide” and “Rumble” from Link Wray, “Harlem Nocturne” like the Viscounts version and “Wailin’” and “Tall Cool One” from their neighbors to the north, the Fabulous Wailers. Their take on the hits was close enough to the originals to satisfy the fans, but different enough to justify their recording. The album sold well, so they continued to emphasize instrumentals in future albums.
Eagle with Slash decided to make a Christmas album for yearend 1959. They included a few rockers like “Run Rudolph Run” and “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” as well as some of the traditional number- “Blue Christmas”, “Silver Bells” – all the guys liked the movie it was from “The Lemon Drop Kid” with Bob Hope, and “White Christmas”. Their “White Christmas” was hailed as the best since Bing Crosby, as opposed to Elvis’ version which was widely hated. As usual, they had a couple of numbers that Steel and Eagle wrote – “Holiday” and “Christmas Forever”. Holiday covered all of the holidays, so it would be played year around. “Christmas Forever” became a perennial classic and was adopted by various religious peace groups, protesting first atomic power, and then the various ill advised wars the US got involved in. The album sold well every year, including the cd version which was introduced in 1983 with some bonus tracks.
By 1960 all of the guys were married and most had started families. Abby had a baby boy named Frank after Eagle’s father. Settling in made Eagle nostalgic for the pop music that he had heard as a boy. His album “Reflections” included songs from the early 1950s and before done something like the original versions, without being sappy. In addition to “Sentimental Journey”, “Harbor Lights”, “Stardust”, “Prisoner Of Love”, “Wonderful, Wonderful” and more pop standards, he threw in western classics “Riders In The Sky” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. The songs that he and Steel wrote for the album were “Invisible” and “Marry Me” covering the bad and good of romance. Reflections brought Eagle a whole new older audience, and sold well. Some of the songs were included in all of his live performances.
All of the guys had been talking about a tribute to some of their idols that had died in the 1950s. Hank Williams was obvious, as were those that had died in the last year – Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Eddie Cochran. No one could really come up with anything except the one hit for the Big Bopper.
It was easy to decide on which Eddie Cochran and Ritchie Valens songs to play. They chose Cochran’s “Something Else”, “Summertime Blues” and “C’Mon Everybody” and Valens’ “Come On Let’s Go”, “La Bamba” and “Donna”. With so many good Buddy Holly songs, it was much more difficult to choose. “Not Fade Away”, “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be The Day” were easy choices. Most of the guys except Eagle wanted “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” to have something from the end of Buddy’s career. Eagle wanted less sappy songs - “Tell Me How”, “Think It Over” and “I’m Looking For Someone To Love”. Because they were already up to fifteen songs they had to leave out “Early In The Morning” and “Love’s Made A Fool Out Of You” which also had some support. The album was titled after the song that Eagle and Steel wrote to commemorate the musicians who had died, “Their Music Lives.” They used Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” and “Your Cheating Heart”.
Eagle and the rest of Slash had planned to quietly set up a fund for the healthcare and death benefits for sick or dying musicians from the profits on the sale of the tribute album, but a lot of bad press about making money off the misfortune of the beloved musicians caused them to make public the details of their charity. Once that got out, the sales of the album went into overdrive and became their number two hit album after “Second Cut.”
Years later there was a lot of speculation about whether Don McClean’s ”American Pie” reference to “The Day The Music Died” drew inspiration from “Their Music Lives” in any way. McLean was silent on any connection. The Commodores had a similar idea in 1984 with “Nightshift” in honor of Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye who died that year.
When 1960 rolled around, neither Steel nor Eagle had any song ideas. After trying for weeks they simultaneously said “Greatest Hits”. To be honest, as anyone could tell from the album, only four of their songs could really be called hits, so they decided to call the album “Greatest Hits And More”. Even after stretching the definition of hit to the breaking point, they only came up with ten songs amongst Slash and Eagle recordings. In order to complete the album, Steel and Eagle agreed to stay at Eagle’s house until they came up with something. Over a week in April, they composed “Nehalem”, a stream of consciousness, folkie meditation on the river that ran through town and “Julie” which was inspired by a girl they all knew in high school, some biblically.
“Greatest Hits And More” became a steady, unspectacular seller for years. The surprise was the single “Nehalem” and “Julie”. “Julie” was considered the A side and got a lot of controversy followed by a lot of sales. Lines like “Dreaming of you got me through the night” and “I love you at night whether you are with me or not” were interpreted by a lot of people as references to nocturnal emissions and masturbation, correctly as Eagle and Steel admitted later. Most horny teenage boys and some teenage girls could identify with either the singer or Julie. The real life Julie, still a buxom beauty after three years of marriage and two children, considered suing until she was told truth is a valid defense. The other thing that stopped her from suing was that she would have to be exposed if she went to court.
A month after the song was released; she called Steel about the song. He told her “Julie, you are hearing the song wrong. Yes we did lust after you and sometimes more, but that is what teenage boys do. Listen to the song again and you can see that we worshipped you, we didn’t condemn you. You were our teen queen. OK, we wanted you in bed rather than on a pedestal, but is that so bad?” Partly because Julie had a high school crush on Steel and Eagle, she changed her thinking about the song. A few years later, she would be telling everyone she could that she was the “Julie” in the song. When she was thirty she wrote a memoir “The Guys In The Band” about her relationship with Eagle and Slash.
“Nehalem” has a very strange trajectory. At first, it was an ignored B side. A couple of months later, a Seattle meditation and yoga instructor Alana Wald decided that it would be good for her classes. The slow, hypnotic sound was ideal for inducing a trance like state. She decided to experiment with it a bit with her sound engineer husband George who had edited other music for her classes. When George and Alana were done “Nehalem” had become a twenty minute instrumental with added strings. They sent a tape of what they called “Waters Of The Nehalem” to Eagle and Steel to get an opinion.
Eagle and Steel had the same reaction: “What the hell?”, but were too polite tell that to the Walds. After kicking it around for awhile, they sent a letter to the Walds. The pertinent part of the message was:
“Mr. & Mrs. Wald:
You’ve done something interesting there. I don’t think that we can use it, but if you want to market the “Waters Of The Nehalem” under your names, we’d be happy to split royalties. Just contact our lawyer Jerry Jameson.”
“Waters Of The Nehalem” became the next big thing. Like “Purple People Eater” and “Sukiyaki” it had few antecedents and was initially a category of its own. Later it was recognized as a classic example of “New Age” and made its way into twenty three compilations at last count.
1961 was a unique year for Vernonia. The 1924 lumber mill which had been the heart of Vernonia had been shut since 1957. MGM wanted a fire for its movie “Ring Of Fire” and International Paper was willing to burn down its mill for the movie. The filming and the burning were exciting events for the town and the end of an era.
The film starred David Janssen, Frank Gorshin and the lesser know, but beautiful, Joyce Taylor (nee Crowder). Despite Vernonia being the site of the fire, the train derailment took place in Washington State, where the wrecked train can still be found.
When Eagle and Slash heard the movie would be mainly filmed in Vernonia, they lobbied for parts as actors and to perform the music. They were refused on both counts, but some claim that some of the band can be seen in crowd scenes.
Eagle and Steel were particularly disappointed when Duane Eddy got to do the soundtrack. In a joint statement to the Oregonian, they said “How can anyone think that somebody else should be picked for the music over a famous local group?”
Steel said “Screw this, I’ve got a plan. We’ll make our own ‘Ring Of Fire’ music, and do it before the official soundtrack comes out.”
“OK, I think that we make a single with one side instrumental and one side vocal, what do you think?”
“Let’s get on it NOW.”
They came up with the single well before the soundtrack was released. The instrumental, “Oregon Fire” was built around actual sounds from a forest fire. The vocal side was “Escape”, which was an up tempo song with simple lyrics which could be interpreted either as leaving a vengeful lover, or getting away from a natural disaster.
The single was different in that it was the only one ever released listing the artists as “Eagle and Steel”. “Escape” reached as high as 25 on the US charts and the flip side “Oregon Fire” made it to 75, beating Duane Eddy’s “Ring Of Fire” which only reached 84. The flip side, Bobbie, didn’t chart.
Subsequently, you wouldn’t find the Duane Eddy camp and the Slash camp in the same room. Words like “jealous bastards” and “one trick pony” were thrown about, but the enmity stopped short of violence or legal action.
The guys hadn’t been paying much attention to the economy, even though the mill had been closed down for several years before it burned, but now they started to wonder. Before the mill shut down many of the men in town worked logging in the woods or at the mill. For several years a lot of the men and women had to leave town or commute to work. A lot of the men stayed home while their wives worked. James was the first to verbalize their concerns “What can we do for Vernonia? Eagle, you took some business courses, do you have any ideas.”
“Off the top of my head, I think that we should do something we understand. I can’t see starting a rock crusher in town or any heavy industrial. Maybe a recording studio?”
Steel chimed in “I don’t know how many people the studio would support, but maybe it could be a part of a tourist attraction and we could get a ‘Slash Store’ with memorabilia and a theme park with a restaurant.”
Andy was up from California “Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. I know that Eagle’s been doing some recording at home, but you’re going to need a lot of technical expertise. I know someone who could help there.”
“Me. My work at H-P gives me the background in electronics that you need. As far as construction goes, I think that Eagle did a lot of work on his own house.”
“Is everybody in?”
There was no dissent.
The city of Vernonia was happy to approve the project. It beat trying to get a prison to locate there.
Eagle worked on the plans and Andy came up with the list of recording equipment that they needed. Emerson had the most experience recording and supplied his input. James insisted on a purple and orange paint scheme based on an old rust bucket car he had owned. The other guys worked on the construction as time permitted.
Half way through Sam said “We may have blown it.”
“We are shooting way too low. We should have a radio studio and film production facility. I don’t know if you ever knew, but I took a lot of broadcasting and acting in college” said James.
After putting their heads together, they went back to the city government with their proposed revisions in order to enlarge the function of the studio. An even happier Vernonia said (in bureaucratic talk) “Go for it.”
Mid way through the project Sam said “Makes me happy that we got a lot of song writing royalties and didn’t invest in women and dope. Otherwise, we never could have afforded this setup.”
There was a round of “Amen Brother.”
Getting the low wattage radio station a license was no problem either. It didn’t reach much beyond the north Coast Range of Oregon except in ideal weather when it reached Portland. The call letters came naturally KVRN.
When the combined facility was finished sometime in 1962 – no one remembers exactly when – everyone asked “Now what?”
Emerson said “Obviously we record ourselves, but then what? I think we need to do two things. Start our own label and find people to record. At least that takes care of the recording studio.”
James responded “We can’t record ourselves while we’re under contract to Mercury.”
“OK, until we are out of the contract, we record other artists. Let’s start with that and worry about the radio and film later.”
They began with some local country and folk artists. They started with family, “The Saddle Mountain Boys” and then gathered up anybody in the area that they thought were talented enough. The tapes were made in Vernonia and the records pressed in Portland until they got a small record plant started in Vernonia. Slash records settled for purely Northwest distribution and lost money for the first year or so.
After the local talent pool was exhausted, Slash records went after the mostly black acts from the time that Eagle hung out with Emerson during Eagle’s time in Portland. Vernonia had gotten used to seeing Emerson and Jack in town, but the influx of the number of black musicians was initially unsettling to the white population, many of whom had roots in the South. After a few months though it was just taken for granted.
Neither Slash nor Eagle had the time to record while starting up their record company. In 1963 they got a call from Mercury. The band thought Mercury wanted a new record. On the contrary, the president himself said “I heard that you have your own record company now. I don’t know if you have been paying attention lately with the distractions you have, but your record sales haven’t been red hot lately. As your record sales go down, we have less money for promotion and in turn your record sales go down even more. I’m afraid that we want to terminate your contract early. We will pay you a modest settlement, if you agree to let us out early.”
After a quick huddle, Eagle said “We’ll get back to you in a week.”
Sam spoke up first “They haven’t done jack for us for several years. No wonder our sales have declined. I say let’s take the best deal we can get and record Slash on Slash. We are bigger than any of the acts that we are recording now, and that will help the label. Plus we get a bigger cut on all of our sales.”
There was general agreement as evidenced by nodding heads and “Hell Yeah”s.
It turned out that Eagle and Slash weren’t ready to record anyhow. After putting all of their effort into getting the studio ready, they had no new songs in the pipeline and James wanted to work on broadcasting and film.
While Slash was losing money on making recordings that couldn’t get national distribution at first, James got KVRN going. He got a local minister, Jim Jenkins, to do a Sunday morning religious program. He found a bunch of wannabe entertainers to do some children’s programming live from the local school after hours. Everybody pitched on the parody “My Gun Is Accurate” serial. The band wives filled in as femme fatales. After that became popular, they starred “As The Stomach Turns”. Emerson worked as a disk jockey, doing a show like the influential River Otter had done ten years earlier. Eagle hosted the country and western show, playing oldies from the country pioneers and rockabilly from the fifties. Sometimes Slash played live. Even then, they only had enough programs to cover a few hours a day, but it was still popular locally.
A few months after KVRN was up and running, Curt Renfield, program director and Portland station KEBB was visiting relatives in Vernonia. After listening to the Vernonia station for several hours, he decided that he wanted some of their programming for KEBB. After kicking around possible complicated technical solutions for several hours, Curt and James decided they would just run taped recordings from Vernonia to Portland. It didn’t take more than an hour. The Vernonia shows were a hit in the Portland area, and KVRN became profitable through the sales of their shows.
When the guys looked at the record charts, they saw that they weren’t the only act in decline. As of 1964 it was mostly the English invasion and Motown. A lot of their favorites hadn’t had hits in years. Sam said “How about we produce some of our favorite acts. Make them a good deal on royalties and get a chance to hang out with some of the guys that we grew up with?”
Everyone agreed. They made a dream list: Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Louis Jordan and Jack Scott.
Jack saw more opportunity to be a session musician in Portland than what was happening in Vernonia, so he took off.
The negative responses mostly resembled one of “Who the hell is Slash”, “Show me the money”, or “Won’t travel”. Only Carl Perkins and Fats Domino were interested.
After a lot of hassle getting contractual things straight, Domino and Perkins were recorded in a mix and match with Slash, their own musicians, Slash and Eagle songs, and Domino and Perkins songs. After a month of recording, there was enough material for five albums. The combined residual interest in Slash, Perkins and Domino made the albums huge local hits. At that point, Mercury came back to Vernonia to make a deal for nationally distributing Slash records. Finally, Slash records was in the black.
James had gotten the radio station to run on its own and decided that he was a film maker. Because of the shoestring budget he had, he had to be very cagey. He decided to do drive-in exploitation movies in black and white to start. He did the directing, producing, screenwriting and some of the acting. He rounded up talent from the Vernonia Theatre, local colleges theatre arts departments and Portland live theatres. Before going too far, he found an interested movie distributor in Seattle who would book just about anything that was cheap enough in order to provide double bills, which were the norm in those days.
The first movie was an attempt to cash in on the “Beach Party” movies that started in 1963 with Annette Funicello (known as Funny Jello to horny teen guys) and Frankie Avalon. In order to exploit the popularity of the Beach films yet add something extra, James made “Alien Beach Party” which added aliens in cheap costumes to the beautiful boys and girls grooving on the beach. It was filmed in Seaside over five days on a rare week of beautiful weather for $11,200 and earned its cost back almost immediately.
James was smart enough to make about five films a year, go out of production for five years while they were parceled out, and then repeat. He was able to keep it up for fifteen years, after which the market for cheap schlock died. Expensive schlock is still popular to this day. Some of the titles make the plots clear – “Vernonia Victim”, “Abandoned In Astoria”, “Teen Lust” and “Murder Hill”. James saw the word “synergy” in the “Vernonia Times” one day, and thereafter included Slash musicians in every film. A couple of the Slash actors had some success in Hollywood. One of these Sally Hawks played the lead in B movies and smaller parts in A movies, mostly based on her talented chest. Another, Derek Tooms was type cast as a villain because of his scarred face received in a car accident.
James made one straight movie, “Doris’ Dilemma”. No one would show it, and he never tried it again.
Other than James and Jack, the rest of Slash didn’t have either much work or inspiration. That changed when Steel was going through some old albums and was inspired by “Muddy Waters At Newport”. They didn’t need new songs to play a concert and record live. Audiences rarely liked new material anyhow. The rest of Slash and the manager of the downtown Portland theatre Paramount were all enthusiastic. The show and the recording took place June 12, 1964. The album “Second Life” was their biggest in several years.
While that album was going up the charts, the British invasion bands were looking for opening acts. The Animals, Beatles and Rolling Stones were all acquainted with Slash, but were not as keen as they were on Larry Williams, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins, but they were fans. Slash’s case was helped by the fact that they were younger than those other acts, and they were affordable. On tour Eagle and Jack shared vocal duties.
Growing families and producing records, radio and film took up just about all of Slash’s time during the late 1960’s. During that time, they only made one concert album and one studio album to middling effect. Eagle’s solo career was abandoned temporarily.
During all of the 1970s Slash was out of favor. They settled for working on the radio station, film production and local concerts. They put out a few poorly received albums and did some local concerts. The guys were all raising families and really did not like the strain of cross country travel. One thing that gave them a boost was the reissuing of earlier LPs on cassette tapes. A similar thing happened in the early 1980s when their albums came out on cds.
Despite their music being in the doldrums, there were some major events that decade.
Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died in 1970. Slash decided to put out a tribute album, but they couldn’t do justice to Joplin with male voices, but they were fortunate that Emerson knew of a woman who could do Joplin vocals. Jacqui Washington was a biracial blues singer of little renown, but a great voice. When each of the band members heard and saw her, they all wanted her in the band. She was a little over five feet with an hour glass figure and great pipes. Her looks and voice had to increase the band’s appeal.
Rather than do the intended tribute album, the band recorded an EP with her and went on a short tour so they would all get used to each other.
About the time they ready to record the tribute to Hendrix and Joplin, Jim Morrison died in Paris. At that point, light bulbs went on all over. “Let’s record a three album tribute to all of them – one album per performer”.
Early on they decided not to make them greatest hits albums – they would contain the greatest hits, but they would also have slightly more obscure songs that Slash liked. Janis’ album had “Bye Bye Baby”, “Ego Rock”, “Cry Baby” and “Get It While You Can”; Jimi’s had “Stone Free”, “Dolly Dagger”, “If 6 Was 9” and “Mannish Boy”; and Jim’s “Alabama Song”, “Break On Through”, “Crystal Ship”, and “Back Door Man”.
Jacqui sounded different, maybe better, than Janis.
It was easy for James to come up with the name for the three record set – “JJJ”. The individual albums were simply called “Janis Tribute”, “Jimi Tribute” and “Jim Tribute”. After a few months of selling the three record set, they began to sell the individual tribute albums. The release scheduling was either good marketing or cynical. Reasonable people have disagreed.
In 1976 after working with Slash for several years, Jacqui went on to record on her own through the 1980s with mixed success.
In 1972 Eagle was invited to talk at the Vernonia School. Because the school was small all students sat in the auditorium for his speech, including young Frank.
“First thing kids, you may not care about my music. You may think it is no longer relevant. That’s all right. Here is what is relevant – I got an education, and reached my goal. Maybe Slash isn’t the biggest band in the world, but we have sold millions of records and have fans around the world. I’m not saying that should be your goal, or that you should even be interested in music. What you should do is find something at which you excel. Of course, I hope that it isn’t bank robbery or murder (mild laughter). How about education? Without learning some math and business skills, Slash would have been prey to all kinds of crooks in the music world.
Rather than preach to you anymore, how about a few songs? Mild applause.”
After doing a couple of numbers, Eagle asked “Any questions?”
A high school junior, Beauregard Holley asked “Where do you think you are now and where do you think that you are going? Do you feel satisfied with where you are?”
“I’ll start with the second question. Yes I am satisfied. I’ve got a wonderful family and I think that together with Slash we’ve accomplished a lot. If we don’t get another hit ever, I’m good with that, but we’ll keep trying. Where I am is verging on middle age with a couple of kids still in school, getting a middle age spread and slowing down just a little. Can’t be helped. No one can be sure where he is going. I hope that I will stay involved in music, maybe develop some more interests, and eventually have some grandchildren, but not too soon – you hear that kids?”
Most of the rest of the questions were about groupies or famous musicians he had met. The last question was from a freshman Frank Spenser. “What do you think is the burning issue of the day?”
“That’s easy. We should never have been involved in Viet Nam and should get out now. It was never in our national interest and is causing hatred for us around the world, as well as destroying our youth and a whole country.”
That answer was met with mixed boos and cheers. Principal Hall leaped up and said that “Those are not the views of this school or Vernonia”.
Eagle’s views were picked up by a local reporter and spread around the world. Slash lost many older fans, but gained a lot of younger fans.
In 2006 Eagle was asked about Holley, then a nationally famous self-help guru, and Frank Spenser, then the president of the United States.
“I’ve followed Holley after he got on TV and wrote his book. His question seemed odd at the time, but I now see how it fits into his teaching. He was known around Vernonia as kind of weird and seems to have stayed that way. Further, it seems strange that he is trying to keep his background a secret, even though a lot of us know his history. I talked to President Spenser after the assembly and was quite impressed.
In early 1973, James contacted his friend Larry Atkins at KOPB, the Oregon public TV broadcasting station in Portland Oregon about Christmas specials from Vernonia. Larry agreed with James that it would be a natural – a traditional rural Christmas celebration with local rock stars, family and friends. If it worked well, they could sell it to other public television stations. It helped that it would be much like the Christmases that already took place at the Eagle place.
Indeed, the show continued until the late 1980s showing at many of the public broadcasting stations around the country. It was corny, but the standard reaction was a warm glow to see local heroes and the likes of Carl Perkins and Fats Domino acting naturally while wandering the woods and opening presents from under the tree. Much of the show was unscripted, just people hanging out. During that time they would release a holiday EP with songs from the show each year.
August 16, 1977 Elvis died. James got the guys together to try to make sense of it. They had all heard the talk of drugs and health problems, but it was still a shock. They remembered hanging out with a fairly healthy and sane Elvis years ago, so his early demise hit hard. James said “What a fucking waste. The guy was a natural. He had the looks and the talent. He could take a country song or an R&B song and make it better. You listen to Ray Charles do “I Got A Woman” and it’s an interesting story. When Elvis did it, it was sex on vinyl.”
Sam said “I don’t know if it was Colonel Parker, the drugs or his own head that did him in. Most of his recent recordings were crap. If he’d stood up against Viet Nam or in favor of integration, we might have made a lot more progress because he had so much influence.”
“So what do we do about it?” asked Eagle.
Emerson “Tribute album. But we don’t do the iconic songs; we do the other stuff that we love.”
Everybody agreed. It was hard to limit the songs to twelve, but:
Santa Claus Is Back In Town
Merry Christmas, Baby
Stranger In My Own Home Town
Trying To Get To You
I Got A Woman
I Was The One
My Baby Left Me
easily made the cut.
With three Christmas songs on the list, they made sure that it was released in November. There was a great deal of backlash again about profiting off a dead idol, but Slash did what they could to make it clear that it was out of respect. Sales were fairly poor, but it sold moderately every year as the Elvis legend continued.
There were a lot fewer good times in the 1980s. While Eagle and Slash profited by branching out into other entertainment venues, the personal side was not so good.
March 7, 1983 Sam died driving off the road into a tree at 80 miles per hour. Nobody had seen it coming, but he had been more morose and drinking more. He had several drinks before taking off that night, but it was thought that it was suicide rather than an accident because there were no skid marks.
All of the guys were depressed, but no one felt worse than Sam’s wife Rebecca. Her story “This had been building up for awhile, but it had gotten real bad. He always had been moody, but lately he was bad mouthing the other guys and flirting or more with some of the fans. He had become a functioning alcoholic. Just before he took off that night, I suggested therapy or counseling and his last words were ‘Let’s talk about it if I come back.’ He drove off and that was the last time I saw him. I never put it in words before, but now I can see that he was suffering from severe depression.”
That year, an old “Chirstmas In Vernonia” was broadcast. There were no new Slash Christmas shows for several years.
October 10, 1985 Emerson went into a diabetic coma and never came out. Everyone around Slash was shocked because they thought his diabetes was under control.
Starting in early 1988 Jane Grant started to show early signs of dementia. Words escaped her. She forgot her social security number and phone number. By the end of the year she didn’t recognize her husband or her children. When Frank and Eagle couldn’t look after her anymore, they put her in an institution in Lake Oswego, Peaceful Valley.
With Slash out of business, Frank, Abby and Eagle had plenty of time to visit Jane, but after awhile they seemed to scare her rather than give her any joy. Out of desperation, Eagle and his father sang her favorite songs. They were pleased and amazed that she smiled whenever they performed her favorites from the 1930s and 1940s. Jody came out when she could, but it was difficult for her with her young children and her career. The younger Frank took time out from his teaching job to join his father and grandfather entertaining his mother when his schedule permitted
Eagle noticed that going back and forth from Vernonia to Portland was wearing on his father. He told him “Dad, you need to take it a little easier. Between Frank and me, we can entertain Mom for awhile. Kick back, watch some TV.”
A couple of weeks later, Sheriff Merle Watkins called with more bad news. “Wish I didn’t have to do this. Your father had a fatal heart attack while hunting.”
In a later interview Eagle admitted “That was the worst time in my life. It shames me, but I was relieved that Mom couldn’t even tell that Dad was gone. Her dementia spared her that. When she left us a couple of months later, it was a relief and a release.”
Abby decided that she needed something to keep her mind off the domestic front and got a job writing local news for the twice weekly Vernonia Express. Young Frank was old enough that he didn’t need any looking after, so she had the time. As a part of her job, she learned the history of the town and a lot about those that lived there. She reported “On this date in history” and “Landmarks” including new jobs, marriages and births. Writing the news inspired her to start writing fiction based on her reporting as a hobby.
Eagle and his son had been too busy with their respective careers to spend much time together until they spent a lot of time visiting Jane. For the first time in his life, Frank lost someone really close to him and he was badly shaken. Based on their duets with his father and trios with his father and grandfather, he went to Eagle with a proposal. “Hey dad, if Slash and your solo career are sidelined, how about we do a low-key tour as a duo and maybe even make a record. We can be the new Everly Brothers. We both need to take a break from grieving and do something. Anyway, I’m sick of hearing my students ask ‘Can I get partial credit?’”
Eagle frowned and said “Yeah, but there’s a big problem with your idea.”
“Which one of us is Don and which one is Phil?”
For the first time in a long time, they both laughed their asses off.
It was axiomatic that they would do some of their favorite Everly tunes – “I Wonder If I Care As Much”, “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Cathy’s Clown” as well as the big hits “Bye Bye Love”, “Wake Up Little Susie”, “Bird Dog” and “Problems”. They also favored some of the songs covered by the Everlys – “Lucille” and “Temptation”. To honor Eagle’s parents they threw in some old songs like “Stardust” and “Deep Purple”. The Slash songs were necessary – “Jody’s Song”, “I Can’t Get To You” and the others. Frank had been playing bass for awhile and they filled in with other musicians as necessary.
What was planned as a lark went on for four years, many concerts and a couple of albums. Eagle and Frank got a chance to make up for the time that one or both had been too busy to spend time together.
By 1992 they had gotten a little tired of all the time they had spent together and were both thinking that they wanted to cut back. Frank had had enough of a break and wanted to go back to teaching. Additionally, his girlfriend Anne was pregnant, and he thought it was time to get married and settle down anyway.
The other surviving Slash had been working on solo projects or joining other groups either in the studio or on tour. James had one middling hit, but the others hadn’t done much.
Most of Slash had been Star Trek fans and had watched Star Trek the Next Generation. That gave James and idea which allowed Slash to regenerate – Slash The Next Generation. He knew that Emerson III, Emerson’s grandson, was also a drummer, and Dora, Sam’s daughter, was a guitarist. Slash NG could be built around those two and Slash the old generation could produce them.
Since the 1960s there had been boy bands that had mostly traded on looks and dance moves over singing and generally weren’t good musicians. Slash NG would emphasize gender and racial balance, and musical talent, and still be easy on the eyes.
After getting Emerson Jr. and Dora into the fold, they auditioned for bass, sax and piano. They put “Forming A Band” notice in all of the major Oregon newspapers with a priority on musical skills, and less emphasis on dance ability and looks. After going through resumes and try outs, they settled on Jeff Hanson on sax, Sara Grand on piano and Miles Stanton on bass. The group was very sensitive to their reputation as musicians. At first on tour only the regular members of Slash NG (or as they were called NG for short or derision by those who thought that they were No Good) played, but in the studio there were lots of other musicians.
NG performed from 1993 until 1997, and on occasional reunions thereafter. They never made it big, in part because the boy band crowd was mostly tweenagers who had little interest in a band that had two female members. Dora, who was a little long in the tooth at 32 when the band was formed, didn’t fit the youth image. Because some of the band couldn’t dance while playing their instruments, their choreography was limited. After the first year they added guest artists like Jacqui Washington, but it didn’t help. Only the pretty boys appealed to tween girls, and no one else was interested in anything remotely resembling a boy band.
After the end of the NG experiment, Jeff, Sara and Miles went back to school and eventually got day jobs.
In 1996 Andy Jones called the surviving original Slash members and said “I’m on a mission from God. We’re getting the band back together” roughly paraphrasing the Blues Brothers. But seriously guys, I’ve taken early retirement at Hewlett-Packard with a large retirement fund. I’ve been gigging with the HP All-Stars all the time I’ve been down here and I’m ready to restart Slash. Is everybody in?”
The consensus was “Yes”. Eagle had found out recently that Abby was the main breadwinner in the family. Her romantic suspense series “Vernonia Thrills” had become a top seller with millions of fans. Her knowledge of the community had given her enough information about local romances and crimes to inspire the ongoing story. Eagle had taken a back seat as her editor, but he wanted to get back to his music. James was still playing, but didn’t like who he was playing with or the music he was playing. Steel had become a City Commissioner. He was proud of what he was doing, but it was mostly bureaucratic boredom.
Andy came back to Vernonia for the organizational meeting. They came up with the following rules:
If it isn’t fun we will quit.
If it interferes with fishing or grandkids’ soccer we won’t do it.
No one mentions the Slash club.
There are no rules.
Eagle asked Steel “Are we writing any songs?”
“Do we need the money? Can we write songs better than the ones that have already been written? Do you have great ideas now?”
“OK then. Keeping in mind the band rules, no writing unless we come up with something great.”
The band reunion was temporarily set back by the huge floods of 1996, which were replayed in 2007. In both cases the guys did what they could do aid in Vernonia’s recovery with both sweat and money.
As a result, the band, now named Slash OM, for Old Musicians, became something like the local act Johnny Limbo and the Lugnuts, which was formed in 1978 as a gag. They were like Johnny Limbo in that they mostly played oldies and put on a show. They were different in that they were older and had success before they became a cover band.
Slash OM would play Elton John’s “Rocket Man” with Eagle wearing a ridiculous Elton John uniform, including oversize glasses, and then go into a straight version of “Mystery Train”. They added a regular horn section to improve the sound. Jacqui came back for female vocals. Every concert was concluded with John Lennon’s “Imagine” which encapsulated the philosophy of the group.
Their first album had a piano theme. They titled it “Nothing But Fun” in accordance with their mission. They recorded Jerry Lee Lewis songs featuring Eagle Grant and his pounding piano, Little Richard and Elton John songs. The cds were sold at concerts and by download and through the mail.
As their albums covered more artists like the Beach Boys, Donna Summer and Johnny Cash, they got the interest of the originals and talked them into guest appearances. Much to their surprise, Jerry Lee Lewis wanted to play with them after hearing their versions of his songs. Of course “the Killer” insisted on doing songs his way.
They barely broke even, but that was enough.
All of them kept their day jobs or hobbies, if any, but continued to tour and record as it fit into their schedules. Eagle and the Slash survivors are cruising into a happy and active old age in Vernonia.
Fake author’s note: The material used in this biography comes from other biographies of the group and associates, news articles, memories of the living Slash and the diary of Sam Freeberg thoughtfully supplied by his wife. See the full acknowledgements and notes.
True author’s note: This is a work of fiction. Interactions between Slash and actual people are false. The story does contain historical information, such as the deaths of various real people. It is a tribute to the music I grew up with and an attempt to have a happy rock story. This is the second completed part of the Vernonia trilogy. Cool town with a cool name that rhymes with Caldonia. This is the last to be written of the Vernonia trilogy, and the second to be published after “Here” which was serialized in AWS.