Gary James' Interview With Mike Rabon Of
The Five Americans
They are best known for a song called "Western Union", which made the Top Ten on the Billboard charts. That record sold over a million copies. Not bad for a Durant, Oklahoma group name of Five Americans. The group would go on to do American Bandstand, Where The Action Is and The Steve Allan Show.
Five Americans member Mike Rabon talked with us about being in an American band at the height of the British Invasion.
Q - Mike, given the economy we have today, how are bookings for the Five Americans?
A - We don't play that much anymore. Once in awhile we do. We played last year in Oklahoma City. They opened a new History Center. It has an exhibit inside, a Rock 'n' Roll exhibit. It's at the Capitol in Oklahoma City. We formally opened that building and that's the last time we all got together.
Q - How many gigs a year would you say you do?
A - I would say very few because two of us have passed away and that leaves just three of us. Most of us have retired. Only if we're invited and we're invited a couple of times a year to go and play. But of course none of us make our living at that. I'm in teaching technology at our high school here for a long time. So, we go and play whenever we're invited.
Q - How did you make that adjustment from being in a Rock 'n' Roll band to teaching school? That would seem to me like it's a big adjustment.
A - Well, my mother and dad were school teachers. So I know about school teaching and where I live in Oklahoma, it's really the best avocation if you will. It's something that's steady. My wife and I both teach. It's a very, very good way to make a living, a steady living. And it's also a good way to stay alive for musicians because if the road don't get you, drugs or something will. So I decided after Five Americans broke up in like '71, formally broke up, I just decided that was not for me, to be on the road all the time. That's just a ragged way to live. It's OK when you're very, very young, in your mid-20s. Most all of us that aren't Elton John or Leon Russell are usually working at other jobs. We're sort of retired and out of that, so you gotta do something.
Q - Mike, that was a pretty novel idea to name the group Five Americans in the mid-1960s at the height of the British Invasion. Did people get it when they saw you perform and heard your music?
A - I think they did. Everything was so British. That was the thing to be. However, I think people were looking for a breath of fresh air there after awhile after the British dominated the charts so heavily in '63, '64, '65, '66 and '67. So we just decided we'd take the opposite tact, even though long hair was obligatory. Well, if it was down to your neck, it was long hair. It was sort of obligatory to look sort of English, but our manager told us it's time for an American band with some American songs. So we tried to go about doing that and were fairly successful at it. I think people accepted us, obviously they did. In fact, The Searchers, one of the top British bands, covered "Western Union". So, we rubbed off on a few people.
Q - Did you write "Western Union"?
A - Yes. I wrote it with our organ player John Durrill.
Q - Did you receive royalties on that record?
A - Not at first, no. Of course I'm just about to release a book, a memoir, that explains all of that. Like many artists in the early '60s or '70s, we were not very good businessmen. There were a lot of people out there who took advantage and we were no exception. So, it wasn't actually 'til our manager passed away that we started receiving that mailbox money. It was royalties. But that was routine for the day. That was the way it was. Most artists did not get what was coming to them. If they did, it would be the exception, I can tell you that. The only possible way you could make a lot of money in the music business as an artist would be if you were laying those golden eggs on a regular basis for years, if you're writing one hit record after another. You're bound to get some of it. Of course, back then there was no accounting really. Artists aren't businessmen. They didn't know and it was usually too late when they decided they were getting cheated. It was after they waited and hired a lawyer and go into court. It was just a free for all. I think all the managers and people like that are the ones that made out like bandits, at least in our case.
Q - I don't know how artists like Lady Ga Ga and Justin Bieber are fairing these days. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
A - True. True. I think the guidelines are more stringent. There's always room in any business to cheat. We were actually on the cusp of the music business, the cusp of sort of, of Rock 'n' Roll. The Beatles came out in '63. We came out in '64. It was just wide open, you know
Q - Who was your manager?
A - Our manager was a man named John Abdner Sr. He was an insurance millionaire in Dallas, Texas. He took most of our royalties away from us.
Q - That's the same guy that signed you to Abnak Records?
A - Exactly. That was last local label.
Q - I've never heard of that label. Were you the only act on the label?
A - Yeah. He built that label for his son. His son had one hit written by Wayne Carson Thompson, who wrote "The Letter" by The Box Tops and a few others. Wayne wrote them a song called "Do It Again Just A Little Bit Slower". He gave that to John of John And Robin. John was John Abner, our manager's son. Our manager's son had one hit record and that was "Do It Again Just A Little Bit Slower". I think it made it to number 22 or something like that.
Q - What kind of a place was this club you were playing, The Pirate's Nook in Dallas?
A - It was a beer joint. It was one of those beer joints at its best. It probably held a hundred people. It was a place to get our foot in the door. We wanted to record, but we also wanted to play in a club and get involved. What's weird is our name was The Mutineers at the time. The Mutineers were playing at The Pirate's Nook and that was totally serendipitous. We didn't plan it that way. It just happened that way.
Q - What year were you playing that club?
A - 1964. The summer of 1964.
Q - And so this is the club that John Abdner Sr. saw you performing in?
A - It was actually his son John Abdner Jr. that came in and saw us. We did get lucky in a way. We did get signed to an iron clad contract that took our money, but we were elevated almost instantly from those clubs by writing "I See The Light". That was released on the Abnak label, however the distribution was picked up by Hanna-Barbara. They did the cartoons for TV. So they wanted to make a little foray into the music business and they did. So, "I See The Light" and "Evol Not Love" were both HRB records.
Q - How long did it take you to record "Western Union". Was that one take? Two takes?
A - Maybe two, three.
Q - That's pretty fast, isn't it?
A - Yeah, but things were simple back then. If you practiced like we did, you worked at it. If you just set up your instruments and played... everybody was miked and it was all cut at the same time, whereas now, today, they may lay down a basic drum track, a guitar track. We just set up and stuck microphones on everybody and counted it off and played it and sang it.
Q - Was that just a single you recorded or one of many songs for an album?
A - No, no. I think we were in Oregon, the Northeastern part. We were passing through a small town in Oregon and saw a sign that said "Western Union" and one of the riders said "What if we wrote a song where a guy got a Dear John letter, which is old school for a goodbye letter; what if he got one using a high-tech method? (laughs) Like a Western Union telegram?" So we kind of chewed on that 'til we got back to Dallas. I explained that to our manager and we said "we'd like to go down and record the song." He said "What's it sound like?" I said "We haven't written it yet." (laughs) By then Dale Hawkins was our producer. He wrote "Suzie Q". So we went down to Tyler, Texas and by the time we got to the studio we had basically in our mind what we were gonna do. We wrote the lyrics right there and the music and recorded it.
Q - Now, that's different.
A - Yeah, ZZ Top did it for "Rio Grande Mud". They actually went in and recorded their band tracks in the same studio we recorded in. Then went to the motel and wrote the lyrics and came back the next day and put those on.
Q - Did you have a good feeling about "Western Union" when you recorded it?
A - Yes. We accomplished in the studio what we set out to do. It was so simple that I thought maybe it's not what we think it is 'cause it's so simple, only to realize later that simplicity is the key. We used four or five tracks for that. Today they use twenty-two or thirty-two. So, to answer your question, I wasn't actually sure. I think that anyone listening to it subsequently, including our manager and other people, no matter what they thought of the song, they could not get away from that "dit dit dit" in the background 'cause that had never been done before. So regardless of what they thought of the song as a whole, that little attention getter in the background just commanded you to listen to it.
Q - You were the lead singer for that song?
A - Yes.
Q - So, how did life change for you and the group when "Western Union" became a hit?
A - Things went up for us in the way we traveled and where we lived, that sort of thing. We had our own airplane. We had road managers and roadies. The whole ball of wax, but we still had not seen any royalties. We were on what our manager called a draw against royalties. That was a set amount, say $1,000 or $1,500 a month. We were given free reign with the credit cards and he paid for a lot of the road managers and roadies, travel, stuff like that which in turn was charged back to us. (laughs) But yes, our lives certainly did change. We flew almost everywhere we went. Our gigs consisted of thirty to forty gigs instead of four sets. One night we played in Banger, Maine and played the next night in Portland, Oregon.
Q - What kind of plane were you using?
A - We had an eight seater Beechcraft. But if we had to go someplace like Maine, we would use a commercial jet. If we had a fifteen day tour lined up, where we could hop from Waco to Midland, from Midland to wherever, we used the Beechcraft.
Q - Were these headliner gigs or were you opening for another act?
A - Most of the time they were headline gigs because "I Saw The Light" was actually number one on every radio station in Texas. Actually a three state area; Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, and so we were making as much money as you could make in those areas because Texas, like the commercial says, is like a whole other country. We didn't see where it benefited us to travel to England and get the same amount as we were getting in Stephen F. Austin College in Texas. We headlined because we were Texas guys. We were Dallas based. If you played with us in three or four states, we headlined. Now, once we got to California and places like that, many times we did not headline.
Q - What kind of venues were you appearing in? You mentioned you played this college in Texas. Did you play clubs?
A - Now, the clubs were pretty much out unless they were huge venues. We played theatres and concert halls and convention centers and that sort of thing. He would book us with Dick Clark's Caravan Of Stars and wherever that took us, that's where we went and whatever venue.
Q - How long did those tours last?
A - Usually twenty-one days. They'd have Sam The Sham, Bobby Vee, The Young Rascals and Strawberry Alarm Clock and us. They'd have about ten or twelve acts and we played a different town every night.
Q - Did you ride that bus with all those other acts?
A - Actually not. We traveled under our own steam as I think all the acts did. Mr. Clark played it pretty close to the vest in that regard in that I don't think he provided transportation. He just paid us.
Q - You appeared on The Steve Allen Show. How did he treat you?
A - He was one of the nicest guys we ever met. It was the only television show we played 'live' on. Lip-synching was the routine of the day. It was standard operational procedure. All groups lip-syched their tunes on TV. It was quicker, faster and mistake proof. But for some reason on The Steve Allen Show they set us up 'live' and we played. Actually you can see that very show on YouTube. Just YouTube "The Five Americans". Just look for "Western Union" and you'll see us right there on The Steve Allen Show.
Q - You had a solo career as well?
A - I did one album for Universal Records as well. It did very well except for the fact that Elton John and I were the only two people on the label and I got rather overshadowed. Then I toured with the little, three piece power group I had, Choctaw. I toured Aspen and the other popular clubs until I decided I was ready to get out of the business.
Q - Did you ever tell your students of your Rock 'n' Roll days?
A - (laughs) Well, a lot of 'em know it 'cause their parents have my records. But it doesn't really compute. Not like people think in their minds, kids would be awed. They just know I was a recording star of a by-gone era. It's like if someone said "Hey, my Dad was one of The Miracles." You wouldn't freak out or anything. You'd just go "oh, that's interesting."
Q - When you were growing up, did you set out to become a Rock 'n' Roll musician?
A - Absolutely.
Q - You wanted it real bad?
A - Oh yeah, from the age of eight. It was my dream and I was gonna make it happen one way or another. That's how much determination I had. And you know, it was my passion. It was my dream. It was my goal. And I did it. I made it happen. I enjoyed it. But you have to be realistic. Unless you're Stevie Ray Vaughan or somebody who can entertain people 'til you're seventy, it's not a good idea to just stay in that. There's a time for you to lay it down because someone will find you in a hotel room with a heart attack. So, I got out of it pretty much after the Five Americans broke up. Got married and enjoyed another career.
Q - The idea of finding someone in a hotel room with a heart attack would be because of the stress involved with being on the road or acquiring bad habits when you're on the road?
A - Not necessarily the bad habits. The bad habits are part and parcel of the road if for no other reason than the tours are so exhausting you need something to keep you going, much like a truck driver may need to keep him going at all hours. But it's an exhausting pace if you're popular at all. But you know guys kept doing that. One guy comes to mind, Doug Sahm. He had The Texas Tornadoes and The Sir Douglas Quintet. We just love him. But you know, they just found him in a hotel room, dead of a heart attack at age fifty-two... I don't know. Not very old. Just worn out probably. It changes by degrees. If you're a Beatle or a superstar then you can sit back and collect your royalties and stay in the business and get back out. But those that are on the margin like us and hundreds of groups I could name that had success, there's a point in time when it's time to quit.
Q - Mike, I've interviewed guys who have built a career around one hit song. They can still command decent money for a gig.
A - Right. Well, I've been there. What they'll do is, sometimes they'll call me, say out of Memphis and say "Look, we've got a house band. They know your tunes. We'll fly you out." And I see guys like that. They have a signature song, but still they're out making enough to have their own roadies. They're not making enough to fly everywhere they go. They're making a good living, but it's tough, I'm telling you. What they're not telling you is that they're hauling equipment. They're driving during the night. If you don't want or can't do anything else, then that's fine. I'm just saying that eventually I think it will get to you. I think that the road...I don't know if you saw The Last Waltz.
Q - I did.
A - Robbie Robertson with The Band says "It's a horrible God-damned way to live." (laughs) And that's true. Some guys have it down to a science, they've got it down pat. They stay booked up. But the guys who are just running around out there who've had a couple of hits, and part of their band has passed away and they're trying to replace them and they're trying to get gigs, that's not any way to live. Take it from me. Take it from a guy who's been there. People who have a wife, some children, a dog, a fireplace, they outlive those people that don't, that stay on the road. And that's a fact. Maybe they don't outlive the Paul McCartneys and the Elton Johns, but they outlive the other people that are hustling those jobs and always being "on". Being onstage can get to be easy, but never the less you're ramped up every time you go out on stage. I don't care who you are. It's a game of entertaining. You hope you have a crowd. You hope you entertain that crowd. You hope they're happy with you. So, it's a pretty stressful situation no matter how you want to paint it. If you do that for enough years, you're gonna have high blood pressure and all the things that go with high pressure jobs. The best thing to do is the way I did it, and that is just get a good, steady paying job that allows you to take time off when you need to and then go play when you're invited. Do your craft whenever you can, in your older years. I only work half a day now. I draw a nice salary. I get my royalties. I get social security. I get retirement. See, I've taught in schools long enough to have a retirement from schools and so my life is pretty easy. There's no stress hardly. (laughs)
Q - You got your stress out of the way early in life.
A - Yeah, exactly. I think that's the key. I have a really good friend who has never had a hit, but he's a great keyboardist. Fantastic. And he's played in clubs as a business all his life and he will probably outlive me. He just has it down. He enjoys what he does. There's certainly not anything wrong with that. That's great. If you love it that much, I say; Yeah for you.