Gary James' Interview With Ken Evans Of
The Fifth Estate
The Fifth Estate had a good run on the charts in the mid-60s with a song called "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead". Does that ring a bell to anyone out there? To get the history of the band, we spoke with The Fifth Estate member Ken Evans.
Q - Ken, let's start with the present. As we speak, is The Fifth Estate still touring and recording?
A - We are recording basically. Various forms of us have been playing, but we're basically all back together, the original five except the original keyboard player (Wayne Wadhams) passed away about two years ago, but the fellow who took over for me on drums in 1969, Bob Klein, Bobby Lee Klein is his nickname, played in the band after I did in '69. He's a great keyboard player and singer also. So, he's really taking Wayne's place. So, we're all five original guys from the '60s. They're not too many bands that have all their original people from the '60s at this point. We're working with producer Shel Talmy. On the album it's gonna be four of us. Bill Shute, the original lead guitar player couldn't commit to the amount of time it was taking to do an album. But he will, if necessary, and it might very well be, when we play he would be with the band. So, we would have really five of the original members.
Q - So, how many dates a year are you averaging on the road?
A - Right now, we're not. We don't have any dates on the road right now. We have six or seven, possibly seven if this other one comes about, lined up for when we finish recording, which hopefully would be no later than the end of September (2010). So, before the end of the year (2010), six or seven dates.
Q - I see you have Ringo as one of your friends on MySpace. That is impressive.
A - (laughs) Well, let me put it this way. I don't know Ringo specifically and I don't 100% know what that is all about. All I know is, in the old days, in the mid-60s, Brian Epstein had considered signing us.
Q - I was going to get to that.
A - And we were in his offices in New York and The Beatles did come through and that was the closest I ever got to knowing Ringo. As far as friends on MySpace and all of that, everybody in the business knows each other, knows each other's music somehow. I mean, I was even surprised that Shel Talmy, who had been doing The Who and The Kinks, had always respected us even way back when. He said he was in England at the time, so he didn't talk to us. He said we were always a band he would've liked to have worked with, so he's getting his chance. (laughs)
Q - You were on Hullabaloo when Brian Epstein co-hosted the show.
A - We were on a lot of TV shows, but we were on Hullabaloo when he was co-hosting with Michael Landon.
Q - Do you remember who else was on the show?
A - Probably the other biggest name was Peter And Gordon, who were managed by Brian Epstein and produced by Shel Talmy. Small world, huh?
Q - What did you think of Brian Epstein? When you met him he was the most famous manager in the world.
A - Well, we were pretty much in awe of that whole thing because we were just kids from Stamford, Connecticut, a little town outside of New York City. It's like the second New York. At that time it was very much a blue collar town and it was on the shore. We thought it was like the East Coast Liverpool. Do you know what I mean?
Q - I know what you mean.
A - We used to go into New York City to play in Greenwich Village, a lot like The Beatles went to London to play. It was pretty much the same thing. Brian had an office in New York, Nemperor. What did we think of him? Well, we thought that just the fact that he even knew who we were was pretty damn cool. Quite frankly, we were a lot younger than most of the bands and people he was dealing with. I think by the time The Beatles broke and were over here they were in their 20s...21, 22, 23, 24. Our bass player, when we were on TV, I think had just barely hit 16 years old. He might have been 15 still. I'm the oldest. Doug, our bass player was the youngest. So I was probably 18. That's a five or six year difference between the age group of The Beatles and us, maybe more because if one of the guys in The Beatles was 24 and Doug was 15, that's 9 years. We were almost a generation younger than them, although we were competing and playing in the same market. That made it kind of tough on us. To be honest, when we were on, we weren't quite as seasoned as The Beatles for sure, or The Stones at the time. They were all older than us.
Q - So, why didn't Brian Epstein sign you guys?
A - Well, I'll tell you precisely why, as my understanding of it. There had been some going back and forth for a number of months and then John Lennon came out with that comment how The Beatles were bigger than Christ, right then we started not hearing back from them anymore. What happened was he got so involved with trying to keep their thing together and it was becoming so intense. The tide had really turned for that act from being really the darlings of the world to the point where people were burning their records. When they were flying into the Philippines, they were being shot at in the airplane. Everything was disintegrating for them and it really caused pretty much, as we understand it, a breakdown for Brian. He became very, very sort of withdrawn, nervous. He started taking more medication than he needed to take I guess and he died right within that year. By '67 he was dead. So we got kind of lost in the shuffle.
Q - You said when you were in Brian's New York offices, The Beatles came through. All four Beatles at once?
A - All of 'em. We were really in the hallway and they just kind of brushed by and went in. We didn't really get to talk to them. It was no big thing.
Q - Did you try to talk to them?
A - Not really. Let me put it this way, at that time they weren't huge, huge. They hadn't done Shea Stadium or anything like that yet, but they had done Ed Sullivan. We had done some big TV shows and we were well-known. Girls were pulling our clothes off. So it wasn't quite the disparity that you might think, that you really wanted to run over, grab 'em and force yourself on 'em. It was another act, but a well-known act.
Q - You saw them when? 1965?
A - It was '65.
Q - I know they played Shea Stadium in '65 and '66.
A - I don't think they were quite that big when we saw them there. By '66 they were monstrously huge.
Q - I guess if I had seen them there, I would've shouted "John, how you doing? Paul, how you doing?"
A - No. No. We weren't that...
Q - Kind of guys?
A - It wasn't like you were right next to them where we were. It was down the hall and they said Hey, The Beatles are coming up. So, they went in and we were waiting. And that was it. It isn't like you had the opportunity. They were pretty well protected, let me put it that way.
Q - Bodyguards?
A - People around 'em.
Q - I always thought of Greenwich Village as a place for Folk music. But your group, The D-men, played there in clubs, six nights a week?
A - Yup.
Q - What clubs did you perform in?
A - Greenwich Village as far as I know from my viewpoint as a musician was always a good area of New York for music in general. It's true that a lot of the Jazz and everything was uptown and they had Birdland and all these different places, but there was Jazz downtown. There was a lot of Folk. The Village was probably really known for Folk right in the late '50s, early '60s, no doubt, but Rock 'n' Roll was just starting to happen. It happened once in the late '50s with the original group of people and then it died out for five, six, seven years. But now there was some Pop recording and some Jazz, but there wasn't much Rock 'n' Roll. When we were playing in the city in '64 it was just starting to happen all over again. When The Beatles broke, we were playing right along with it at the time in New York. We were one of the early bands playing Rock 'n' Roll in Greenwich Village. You're absolutely right. There wasn't a lot of Rock 'n' Roll going on right then. But it all started again, right then. We played at a club called The Downtown. Well, we played at almost all the clubs down there. But the first one we played at, and we played at really six nights a week, my God I can't remember how many sets. We started at 9 and ended at 3. I think it was pretty much five sets a night, six nights a week. That was a club called The Downtown. That was originally known, and if you can go online you can still find some things about it, it was originally called The Society Downtown Club in the '30s and '40s. It was originally a Jazz club. Speakeasy during prohibition. It still had the Speakeasy door and they still checked all the people out, just that way when you came in. You came in and went downstairs and there was a big, huge bar up around the outside. The table and seating were all like theaterized down to the dance floor and stage. So it was a pretty cool place. It was the biggest club in the city. We did our thing there for quite awhile. I think the first artist to ever play there was Billie Holiday and just about anybody of any name Jazz wise played there at one time or another. Everybody. Louis Armstrong. So it was a big, well-known club, but after that it was just large enough where it was too large after awhile and it didn't survive as well as some of the smaller ones. But we also played The Village Gate with The Byrds. We played any number of clubs there. Most of them you mention in the Village we would have played at least once if not a half a dozen times and then at some of the uptown clubs, the biggest, best-known one up there was Trude Heller's in those days.
Q - That was a big name club.
A - Yeah. We played there regularly on and off for several years.
Q - Didn't a lot of movie stars come into that club?
A - That was where it was quite acceptable for a movie star or well-known people to come in and see Rock 'n' Roll music. We were like the freaks of the world at that point.
Q - You must have seen and met quite a few movie stars.
A - My understanding is, although I can't prove it 'cause I never saw anybody that night when Epstein's office checked us out, I don't think he was there personally, he sent somebody. That was the club he sent them to. And that's usually where Ed Sullivan or the people who ran Hullabaloo went to see acts they would want on. They would want to see them perform before they had 'em on. I'm sure that's where we were seen and asked to do a lot of those things. It was from our playing at that club. There was something about that club. It wasn't your standard Rock 'n' Roll club like The Village where people mostly drank and danced. I think it had tables and even served a decent dinner, early on. All these clubs, when you played them, you started early and you went late. This was not like these days where a band plays a one or two hour show. This is a club where people could come in ad be well-dressed. They could have something decent to eat. They could hear music they couldn't otherwise hear elsewhere. Something new, up-coming.
Q - Were you loud?
A - Not by comparison with a lot of the bands in the '70s later on. First of all, sound systems didn't exist to the extent that you could be that loud. Even later when bands were starting to use monitors, we never did. We were so used to just playing that you go onstage and you play. It was probably only in the late '60s whenever we were at theatres and whoever was running the sound system and wanted something really loud that we were loud. But we were never intensely loud. We tried to get by more on our music. The Beatles did that. They weren't intensely loud. They sang well, played good songs. Bands later started getting into heavy Rock, which we did. We maybe didn't do it quite as loud as some, if loudness really counts. We tried to have a fair amount of harmony and singing along with it. Playing and singing in tune. (laughs) Something that hasn't always been in style.
Q - Did you go to parties put on by Brian Epstein's management company?
A - No. Let me put it this way: there were parties in New York that were part of what we were into and all of the artists. When you said that Brian put on; I don't know if it was he or whoever in his organization had us into New York to the offices and that was like a party. They didn't just have you come in and sit there, put a lamp on you and sweat you out like a third degree. It was like, "come on in, have something to eat..."
Q - Sing a song?
A - No. They knew what we were like. They'd seen us enough I guess. So you could call the meetings we had parties I suppose, but the real party parties that we had in the City were just musicians and people who played and we went around with. Some of the people they were involved with were there. You never knew in those days. You're rubbing against everyone and basically whether they're just getting to know you or like you or whether they're thinking about signing you or whether this or that is gonna happen...who knows?
Q - When you were in New York, were you playing under the name D-Men or The Fifth Estate?
A - We started out in our hometown as The D-Men. That was because some of the guys had names that began with D and our manager thought it was a cute, wonderful idea. We were all little kids. What the hell did we know? We started doing well with it. We had that name when we were on Hullabaloo really. But it started becoming a problem because people were confusing it with Demon and started thinking there were all kinds of occult or satanic type rituals going on everyday with the band. We were 16 years old. We didn't know what a ritual was.
Q - It would've been the perfect name had you come along in the 1980s.
A - It probably would have been. That's right. But what it was costing us, and this was the difference in those two ages; a lot of the playing dates we had, especially around our home area and getting going, were in church halls and they stopped hiring us 'cause they were getting confused with the name. So we changed our name to The Fifth Estate and that's a whole other story. That came about when we were on tour in the Midwest and we were playing a lot of Blues clubs in Chicago. There's a name for that area, a name for that section of town. Old Town. They had any number of Blues clubs. Some of those places we hit on the way out and on the way back. We ran into something we had never seen before and it still exists today. I wouldn't exactly call it a newspaper. It was not a magazine. It was something in-between. It had a lot of far out ideas in it, both politically and every other way that you could imagine. We said The Fifth Estate. That's pretty cool. It's like they're not the real Fourth Estate newspaper, they're like something else, more progressive, if that's the right word. So basically we ended up thinking that would be a good name.
Q - You're known as "Furvus". Where did that name come from?
A - Well, that's a whole different story. We were on tour down in the South. We were playing, I guess you would call them arenas then, but they weren't as nice and modern arenas as they are today. One of them I can recall was in Dothan, Alabama, was otherwise known as the Cow Palace, where they would have rodeos. A lot of the college football teams would practice in those places when it was either raining out or bad weather. We were setting up for a show. I don't know if it was the University Of Alabama or whoever it was had just completed a practice and they were just turning the place into a Rock concert place. Our stuff was all being put up there and we had time to kill. So, what we used to do, and there were lots of bands on this tour, before they put out all the seating, we started a little football game. I was usually the quarterback for our team and there was a player on the University Of Alabama by the name I think of Furvus Atkins. He was pretty famous at the time and I was throwing the ball around and they started calling me Furvus 'cause I played like him or something like that. So that's an almost totally un-related music reason. It was from being able to throw a football and be athletic I guess, which you do kind of need when you play drums. A lot of people don't realize how much it takes.
Q - So, who wrote "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead"?
A - "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" is from an incredibly famous tune from The Wizard Of Oz. Virtually everyone who's anyone has recorded that tune, from Glenn Miller to Ella Fitzgerald. It even had an affect on The Beatles and this was probably where, at a party in New York City again, it all relates back to that somehow, when we saw who wrote some lyrics for us, kind of got challenged by a bunch of people and he said "These guys can make a hit out of it." Somebody said "Well, how about Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead. I bet they can't make a hit out of that." And you know, we went ahead, put it together and did it. I think the only reason we actually did that was because we were fairly influenced by the British thing going on. We liked a lot of the British comedy. There's a certain dryness and a certain cleverness and intellect to some of the British stuff that a lot of the American stuff didn't have at the time, maybe still. I don't know. There were two or three comedians over there like Peter Sellers and him who were on a TV show over there that ended up heavily influencing some of The Beatles work and their personalities and their sense of humor. Their actions came from this program. It was called The Goon Show. "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" was the theme song for The Goon Show. That's where Peter Sellers came from. That's how he got discovered. This is a program that influenced Monty Python. Monty Python is pretty much a later take-off of The Goon Show.
Q - So, how well did that song do for you guys?
A - It did great. Nationally on Billboard it made it to number 11, but it was number 1 in most of the large cities as we went around the country, places from Seattle to Oklahoma to Florida. I think it may have only made it to number 4 or 5 on a couple of stations in New York. I don't know in New York if it made it to number 1 or not. But it came close in most of the big city radio stations. What it did for us is it got us onto, in 1967, several of the top tours that were out.
Q - Who are you talking about?
A - Well, if it wasn't The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or The Who right then, I mean outside of The Monkees, that we didn't consider was a real band, they were pretty much a fabrication for TV, although they did learn to play their instruments, there wasn't much real great at the national level, Rock 'n' Roll from America at the time. Most of it was from elsewhere. And so, we played with The Easybeats, "Friday On My Mind", also produced by Shel Talmy and The Buckinghams. They were Americans from Chicago. In fact, I just talked to a couple of them a couple of months ago. And bands like The Lovin' Spoonful. Boy, I haven't thought about this in awhile. We also went out with the band from California that "I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night". We were with The Turtles. But we were out with the biggest acts there were at the time.
Q - How did that song translate to record sales?
A - As far as I understand, it was a million and a half over time and it's still selling. The Wizard Of Oz as a movie is the number one, all-time most watched movie of all time. Most of the music in it is so well known, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand have all done these songs. So this song is sort of ageless. To me, it's not the favorite thing we've done. It was kind of a gimmick and a gas. It was actually more of a gas and to me more acceptable at the time and at the time period in the '60s with what was going on. When we played it 'live', you know The Beatles' tune "Yellow Submarine"?
Q - Sure.
A - It was kind of a feel thing. It was kind of the weird hipness is how it came off to the audience. It came off very much like that. But that probably wouldn't be the case today. People probably wouldn't know exactly what to make of it.
Q - You were on the TV show The Clay Cole Show with The Rolling Stones. What was that like?
A - Clay Cole was a regional TV show out of New York. It wasn't national like Hullabaloo. And we did many, many regional shows... Upbeat out in Ohio in the Midwest where we were known fairly well. Clay Cole had us on three times, which means we either did something right or were working very cheap. (laughs) One or the other. Probably both. We were pretty good and we worked cheap. The first time we were on was in '64. We spoke to Clay again at a thing held in our old home town of Stamford, Connecticut called Beat Expo 2009. The first time we were on his show, there was something that barely qualified as a dressing room, but it was. When we went in, The Stones had just finished with it and they were out taping their segment. We went in and used it. You asked if we were on the same show. I don't know. Those were all taped shows. They were taped 'live' before an audience. They didn't always play you on the same program. They might tape ten segments and put the segments together whichever way they wanted them.
Q - Now see, I didn't know that until I interviewed Helen Reddy and she told me that was the way it was done for The Midnight Special. I don't believe anyone in TV land knew that.
A - I don't think they wanted them to know it. It was funny, I was always joking around with somebody and I'd go up to Clay and say "Hey Clay, when we fuck up in front of 2 million people here, it's gonna be on tape so that means we get to do it again, right?" He goes "No. No. Tape is very expensive. You play it once, you better play it right." (laughs) So that's pretty much what happens with The Stones. The Stones did their segment and went out and we were in there. I don't know, I think one or two of 'em wandered back in to pick up some clothes.
Q - Did The Stones impress you?
A - We didn't know who they were. We didn't see them perform 'cause we were getting ready to do our thing. I mean, they hadn't existed.
Q - Does that mean you don't know who walked back into the dressing room?
A - My recollection is it was Bill Wyman and Brian Jones.
Q - Brian Jones. What a great thing it would have been if you had known who he was.
A - Yeah, but we were all like the same thing. They thought they were good. We thought we were better. We were right. They were wrong. What can I tell you? (laughs) That's the way you had to think or you didn't survive. The Stones were just other musicians at the time. They were not big at all at the time we were doing Clay Cole. They were just some band of kids over here from England. Just like anybody you might see down playing in New York today. Grab any bunch of kids down there and look at 'em and go "Hey, that could be The Rolling Stones in 20 years." So, these things to us being in the business were not so terribly impressive. I think right at that time they probably only had maybe their first couple of singles out. Maybe their first album by that time. This was their first TV appearance in America. If their first album was out at the time, I'd be surprised.
Q - Why didn't The Fifth Estate go on to do bigger and better things? Why didn't you ever get the acclaim as say The Rolling Stones got?
A - We had been an earlier Rock 'n' Roll band than a lot of the other bands that came along in the later '60s, like The Doors. By the time The Doors came out and started doing their thing, we had already been playing four or five years big time. Our name was already kind of where it was kind of going to be and what I felt had happened, and a lot people agree, is that earlier segment of the '60s, that '63, '64, '65 area was so heavily dominated by The British Invasion and British acts, that many of the American bands that were out there and pretty decent, didn't have so much of a chance as they might have had. That's kind of what's brought about this garage band thing these days because that's the prototypical definition of a garage band: a pretty good American band right during that period that was good enough. You didn't get to put records out. There was no home product. You had to have somebody think you were good, take you to New York and record you, or take you someplace, spend money on recording you. These kids didn't have any money to put into that kind of thing. So, somebody had to think you were pretty good. So, to get on vinyl, you had to be half-way decent. So those are American garage bands, but with the British thing happening, once our thought pattern goes in a certain direction, it's very hard to convince people otherwise. It takes a long time. So that whole thing right there was so intense that there were just a lot of bands that I thought were very good, a lot of my friends bands were probably better than we were in many ways and they didn't have a chance.