I would have written about this terrific event sooner, but I caught the granddaddy of colds on my trip to the Upstate and I’ve just now been able to get my thoughts together. Comments from guitarist Rickey Godfrey add a musician’s POV, so I’ve included as many as possible.
Taking place at the renowned Handlebar concert hall/pub in downtown Greenville, S.C. on Dec. 28, this was billed as the fourth annual Homecoming Jam 2009, and was it ever a homecoming! The S.C. Upstate boasts a rich heritage of musicians that include the Marshall Tucker Band, the Toy Factory, Garfeel Ruff, Backbone, Fresh Licks and then some. Those names were all represented at the Handlebar. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be there for this show and if the packed house was any indication, I’d say I wasn’t alone.
The opening set began with Ronnie Godfrey (Marshall Tucker Band, Garfeel Ruff, Virgil) on keyboard; Donnie Winters (Winters Brothers Band) on guitar; Scotty Hawkins (One-Eyed Jack, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn) on the drumkit; Rickey Godfrey (Rickey Godfrey Band, Garfeel Ruff, Fresh Licks) on guitar and, on bass, Franklin Wilkie (Marshall Tucker Band, Garfeel Ruff, Coconut Groove, Gypsy Souls, Rickey Godfrey Band).
You know what I’m going to tell you, right? They rocked! Ronnie opened the show with a soulful rendition of “Tobacco Road.” Donnie’s slide guitar solo got the audience going and we were ready for Ronnie’s “Rainy Night In Georgia.” I have to interject here that Ronnie Godfrey doesn’t perform in public too often these days. He’s busy recording and writing, which is his big love. Long story short, if you get a chance to see him, run, don’t walk to get your spot in line. He’s that good.
Next up was brother Rickey singing “Keep What I Got,” the popular blues tune by Slim Harpo. Rickey was just warming us up. In fact, he told me later he could tell the crowd was getting into it and “really in the mood to have fun.” Well, his next tune blew me away – along with everyone else in the room – Benny Lattamore’s funk-edged soul song, “Let’s Straighten It Out.” This song will never be the same for me again. How can one family have this much talent?
After a few more tunes, they brought out former MTBers Tony Heatherly on bass and guitarist Ronald Radford (Faded Glory, Randy Travis). Rickey told me, “We’ve always regarded Ronald as one of the best country guitar players around, so he just gets up and shows everybody that it’s true. When Hawk sang ‘Sittin’ On Top of the World,’ Ronald did some fancy chicken pickin’. Then on ‘I Hear the South Calling Me’ [great vocals by Tony Heatherly here], he AGAIN dazzles the audience with aggressive playing that sounded to me a lot like Toy Caldwell himself.”
At one point guitarist Donny Duncan (Backbone) came out and did a super job on the MTB tune “Can’t You See, ” with Rickey Godfrey on vocals. This was especially fun for those of us in the audience because Donny runs a sound company these day and doesn’t play all that often. Like so many of these guys though, he couldn’t resist coming home! With Donny still on the stage, bass player and jam organizer Mark McMakin (Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’ Blues, Hard Rain) came out and sang the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out.” Great job, all around, Mark! And for the guys I missed, I apologize.
A couple hours into the evening, Garfeel Ruff took the stage, and, to be honest, this was probably the most anticipated set of the night. In existence less than five years, Garfeel Ruff was among the hottest of the Upstate bands. They had a national deal with Capitol Records and a huge following in the area. Their self-titled Garfeel Ruff (1979), soundtrack for The Hitter (1978) and Born To Play (1984) are collectors’ items today. They performed just five numbers, all originals written by the band. First up was Rickey Godfrey’s “Pine Needles Don’t Cry,” and the crowd went wild. They’d been waiting for it all night. Buddy Strong and Rickey executed their double lead guitar parts flawlessly.
The band was having as much fun as their audience. Emailing his comments to me about the show, Rickey says, “Buddy and I did a great job on Frank Wilkie’s song, “Closer To Jesus.” Scotty Hawkins on drums and Frank on bass laid down a funky groove on this song that was ten miles wide. And with folks like Wolfman and Tony Heatherly singing back up harmony … we were definitely in the blues church in rock & roll heaven. On “I’m Hungry” [written by the late Alan Pearson, GR’s original drummer who passed away in Jan. 1996], I sang it aggressively and Ronnie’s piano solo was incredible – just like in the old days!.” Rickey’s into aggressive music.
The band’s next tune was “Greensnake Blues.” Ronnie Godfrey wrote it with Alan Pearson. The crowd was lovin’ the blues and Rickey’s guitar solo was one of the best of the night. The Garfeel Ruff closer was “Purple Satin Lady,” written by Buddy Strong, vocals by Ronnie Godfrey. It’s one of the group’s best known songs, and the crowd was on its feet.
The next set was Marvin King with son Markus King – two of the most exciting guitarists around. Get this, Markus is 13 years old. He’s got some career ahead of him. The highlight of this whole set may well have been the Allman Brothers classic “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” The guys handled the double leads just like the original and it was incredible to hear. I had to laugh, when dad Marvin started to tell the audience his son’s age, Markus objected. Yeah, I remember 13. Also contributing in no small measure: Mark McMakin was on bass, Easley musician Bobby Simmons was playing keyboard and Max Hightower was on harp.
The night closed out with Donnie Winters, Justin McCorkle (yep, George was his dad) and Mark McAffee onstage. They did “Fire On the Mountain” and “Statesboro Blues,” a fitting end to Mark McMakin’s Homecoming Jam 2009.
Woo woo! Greenville, S.C. you better make room for the mighty large talent that’s heading your way. These guys are the soul of the south. They put the rock in southern rock, and they are coming together to pound it ‘til you bleed.
Then, just when you’re ready to call Uncle, they’ll jump to a soul-bending bluesier groove that leaves you lusting for more. For one night only, the Handlebar is hosting the jam of jams, the fourth annual 2009 Homecoming Jam featuring the Upstate’s finest in southern rock, soul blues, funky country AND the first reunion in almost ten years of S.C.’s favorite sons, Garfeel Ruff.
The line-up for the Dec. 28th event includes a who’s who in S.C. music:
Marshall Tucker Band will be well represented with former MTB bass player Tim Lawter; Ronald Radford, MTB guitarist (1993-1995); bassist Frank Wilkie, who took on the heavy task of replacing Tommy Caldwell after his untimely death in 1980; Tony Heatherly ; and Ronnie Godfrey, MTB keyboard player (1981-1984).
Donnie Winters, with brother Dennis formed the ultimate Southern rockin’ Winters Brothers Band during the seventies. On his own, he leans toward Americana, but who knows what he’ll bring to the stage of the Handlebar?
Greenville-based Marvin King and 13-year-old son Marcus (Marcus King & the Blues Revival) will showcase dual lead guitar work to shout out a message of rockin’ revival. Yeah!
Word has it, Michael Buffalo Smith will also be joining in the jam. A blogger (gritz.net), author (“Carolina Dreams: The Musical Legacy of Upstate South Carolina”), stage and commercial actor and musician, this MTB historian has shared the stage with the Charlie Daniels Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Molly Hatchet, Southern Rock Allstars and more.
Other musicians slated to appear include Scotty Hawkins (Reba McIntyre, Brooks & Dunn, One-Eyed Jack); and Mark McMakin (Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’Blues, Hard Rain).
All this is well worth the price of admission and your time, but add Garfeel Ruff to the mix, and it’s a no-brainer. Get your tickets now!
Garfeel Ruff Comes Home
If you were anywhere near the Upstate in the late 70s, you already know how huge Garfeel Ruff was and now the band members are as excited as their fans to be coming home.
During a telephone interview with Frank Wilkie, I can hear the excitement and anticipation as he talks about the reunion.
“Garfeel Ruff has always been my heart, my passion,” says Franklin Wilkie. “We were really influenced by George Martin [longtime record producer for the Beatles], and intent on achieving certain goals musically. Unlike other bands, we had definite sound parts. Not that we never jammed, we did, but we were practice fanatics. We worked on vocals for hours.We worked everything out and you could hear the effort that went into it. I think this reunion is way overdue.”
Ronnie Godfrey, lead vocalist and keyboard player for Garfeel Ruff said, “We were just very, very good! We played the hell out of our music; we practiced all of the time and worked our asses off to get what we wanted and boy did we ever become a great band!!
“It’s really going to be great to see the guys, rock some and have some fellowship! Of course my man Scotty Hawkins will be there to take the great Alan Pearson’s place on drums and it’s just a chance to groove with some extended family and, of course, my woommate Rickey. I know Al will be there in spirit as well. I miss him so much!
“I was just 22 when we started and 27 when we broke up. I was married with a small child and subsequently got divorced during that period and I think I probably grew up, as much as any musician can grow up, during that time. I learned that attitudes are more important than facts and it’s not what happens to you in life, it’s how it affects you! I also learned something that I kind of already knew. If you figure out what you want, visualize it, dream about it and think about it all the time, you can make it happen!!!
“Over the 30 years or so since we broke up, we have played together in all kinds of combinations and in all kinds of situations! In 1980, we decided to make the “Born To Play” record. There were some songs which were left over from the five years we were together and we just wanted to do it. In 1986, I believe, we did a big reunion concert in Spartanburg and the police crashed the thing and started, for some reason, to arrest people. The church makes sure the cops and politicians stay stupid up there in Spartanburg. The Pharisees run the town!”
Ronnie Godfrey isn’t known for his reticence.
Buddy Strong, who played guitar during the Garfeel Ruff days is a successful engineer today. He owns Southeastern Studios in Easley, S.C. Although he hasn’t played live since the last Garfeel Ruff reunion, he often plays guitar parts on Studio projects including MTB’s latest record, The Next Adventure and Ear Candy, Chocolate Thunder’s CD, which was produced by Frank Wilkie and recorded at Southeastern.
“It’s going to be fun,” he tells me. “The other guys in the band are all monster players. I love it.”
When I ask Buddy what he felt the reason for Garfeel Ruff’s great appeal during its five-year run, he echoes what the others have told me, “We treated it like a job. We worked constantly. We would record our live shows and then listen to see how we could improve. We worked hard!”
Guitarist Rickey Godfrey is grinning from ear to ear when he tells me, “I’m very excited about playing with the guys. We’ve remained good friends, all of us, and having one of the best drummers in the United States, Scotty Hawkins, playing with us, makes it even better.
“Our plan at the homecoming jam is to not only feature the band, but feature us as writers, so, we plan on doing five Garfield Ruff favorites, doing one song apiece written by each individual member.
“All of us are a lot more mature than we were back then, and we are better listeners, and certainly better musicians. I know, myself, as a guitar player, that I’m a much better player and musician than I was back then. Now, when I play, I think a lot more about what I shouldn’t do, rather than what I should do.
“I’m a lot calmer person, too, and I think all of us are more flexible as people.
“It’s also gonna be a pleasure to hear some other really great musicians at the jam. Marvin King, and Ronald Radford, for instance, are two of the best guitarists I know … with unusual talent.”
“The only sad thing I suppose is that we wish Alan Pearson were alive to be there with us, it’s amazing to me that’s it’s been almost 14 years since he died, but Scotty was groomed by Al on how to play drums and be a good musician. As a kid of eight or nine years old, Scotty used to come out and hear us all the time, so he really looked up to Alan.”
“I’m a little nervous. Buddy Strong and myself haven’t played guitars together in over 20 years, except for a 30 minute show we did in Spartanburg in 2001; so, both of us are gonna have a private rehearsal together.”
Old habits die hard.
Additional Interview Q & A
Looking back, what were some highlights of Garfeel Ruff’s career?
Ronnie Godfrey: One of the highlights for me is one that wouldn’t stand out in anybody’s memory much. It was in Warm Springs, Georgia or maybe Millageville, Georgia; I’m not sure, Rickey might remember. Original music had been our constant mantra for years; our goal was fixed and firm; to play nothing but original music one day as soon as we could get a following. Anyway, that night, we had this ritual where we would as we called it, “Stack hands!” We would put our ten hands in a clench and just feel each other’s energy before we would play. On this night, for some reason, somebody said, “Let’s play our own stuff from now on” and from that moment on, we stopped playing copy music! By the way, that night was one of the best we ever had together!
How has your music changed/grown?
Ronnie Godfrey: Garfeel Ruff was an incredible experience for me and I will always treasure it but it was only one of many wonderful things which have happened in my career. After the ruff thing I had the pleasure of playing with MTB; I played in 43 states in some of the best venues in the world; made three records for Warner Brothers and, for the three years I was there, I experienced the joy that comes from making good money, playing great music, doing what I love and being extremely fulfilled! Then I moved to Nashville and, in many ways, my career began again all over again! I have had the pleasure of writing with, singing with, and playing with and producing some of the most talented, hard-working, successful people in the world and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything! In 2006, we finished the “Virgil” record, Standin’ in A Circle! This record pretty much defines me as an artist. I had the vision years ago but it took the right players and the right time for it to happen and, if you want to know Ronnie Godfrey, IT’S ALL IN THAT RECORD! I’m not a band musician any more; I never will be again. I am fully comfortable with myself as an artist/writer/singer/producer now; I don’t feel like I have anything really to prove to anybody and I’m going to spend the rest of my days composing, playing, singing, producing and making records and I am basically at peace as an artist; more than at any other time in my life!
What were your strengths then and what are they now?
Ronnie Godfrey: My strengths come from being the oldest child. From a very early age, because my Mother had to work the third shift and would sleep during the day, my sister and I had to keep things up and running and take care of our younger brothers. This made me kind of a control freak at times but it also made me a natural-born leader. I, in many ways, was the musical organizer of the band; yes, it’s true that we voted on many things, everybody had in-put and the band certainly had some type a personalities but I think I brought an aggressive, visionary and organizational talent which helped. I was also born with a gift for music which was cultivated by some serious training at The Cedar Springs School For The Blind where I took voice, clarinet and piano lessons for 10 years before I started my professional career. Now, I’m pretty much the same; I have learned to accept things as they are much better than I did when I was younger and I hope, I emphasize hope I am aging gracefully!
What dates/events were pivotal in the Garfeel Ruff saga?
Ronnie Godfrey: Rickey is better at dates than me but I’ll do my best to be as accurate as possible. We consider the start of the band happening on December 15, 1974. In August of 74 or thereabouts, we recorded four songs for Bill Lowery in Atlanta. This was very important because, though we had already been in the studio and had some stuff on tape, this session helped to validate our sound and our band approach! I want to say it was June of ’76 when we opened for MTB in Wheeling West Virginia. What a concert that was; IT WAS A THRILL FOR ALL OF US!
In December of 1976, Roger Blare (sound man) joined the band and everything went up a notch in our sound! In February of 1978, we show-cased at Hooley’s Underground in Spartanburg for the suits at Capitol Records. Four or five of these guys showed up; one came all the way from London I think and heard the band. Afterwards, we went up to their room and visited; they seemed really blown away and they gave us a record deal! In April, I think, of ’78, we actually signed. In June and July of 78, we went to Muscle Shoals Alabama and recorded our first attempt at a record. That’s when we scored the movie The Hitter as well. In November of ’78, we made the actual record in Vermont. In March, I think, of ’79, the record was released. In August of 79, the band broke up.
Can you tell me something about your songwriting?
Ronnie Godfrey: I started trying to write when I was about 13. I had a crush on a girl at school who was much older than me and I wrote her a poem which I eventually put music to and I knew from that time on that I would write. About that time, I heard a song called “Solitary Man,” written and performed by the great Neil Diamond and I fell in love. I just started making stuff up and, by the time I was 18, I was writing songs that even I liked. This went on with some success till I moved to Nashville. That was when I really started to grow as a writer! I co-wrote a song which is Ty Herndon’s first disc called “Hat Full Of Rain,” which was certified gold in 1996. I learned how to write for the market a little better and, just recently, I think I wrote the best song I’ve ever written so, as far as I’m concerned, I’m still growing and the next mountain on the horizon is the one I want to climb! I have always looked at writing as therapy. I have written many personal songs; things only I would probably ever perform, that have given me so much peace and self-fulfillment, I would recommend that anybody who is having a personal issue should just sit down and write it out; you don’t have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to but IT’S A GREAT WAY TO GET IT OUT!
If You Want To Go
2009 Homecoming Jam & Garfeel Ruff Reunion
What: Fourth annual year-end jam and concert, organized by bass player Mark McMakin, featuring some of the S.C. Upstate’s finest in southern rock: ex-Marshall Tucker players Frank Wilkie, Tim Lawter, Tony Heatherly, Ronnie Godfrey and Ronald Radford; Donnie Winters; Marvin King and 13-year-old-son, guitar wizard Marcus King; and the long-awaited Garfeel Ruff reunion – Rickey Godfrey, Ronnie Godfrey, Frank Wilkie, Buddy Strong and sitting in for the late Alan Pearson, Scottie Hawkins (How fitting, huh?).
When: Dec. 28, 8:30 p.m.
Where: The Handlebar, 304 E. Stone Avenue, Greenville, S.C.
How Much: $11 ($2 extra at the door under if you’re under 21)
Information: MySpace.com/ MarkMcMakin; 864-233-6173