Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, October 18 2018
“The Rolling Stones were representative of the angst of the culture in the 1960s…but as far as I’m concerned, Eric Burdon from the Animals is the greatest lead singer of all time.”
The speaker is Myke Scavone, Eatontown resident and lifelong music fan, and the opinion carries a great deal of weight, since the veteran vocalist has spent more than fifty years experiencing the rock life — hearing his records on the radio, traveling the world as a modern member of an iconic blues-rock institution, and having several of his recordings proclaimed “Coolest Song in the World” by no less an authority than Steven Van Zandt.
It’s a journey that begins and comes back around full circle with the Doughboys, the combo that the singer co-founded in his hometown of Plainfield, NJ, with his teenaged peers Mike Caruso (bass), Richie Heyman (drums), and Willy Kirchofer (guitar). The band that makes a welcome return to Asbury Park this Saturday night with an encore appearance at Langosta Lounge is a seasoned and super-confident unit whose riff-driven rockers are propelled by Scavone’s classic garage-punk snarl — but they’re also in essence the same bunch of earnest kids who first convened under the name the Ascots.
“We’d learn whole albums by the Stones, the Kinks, the Animals,” says Scavone of those early days, when the latest wave of British Invasion bands would inspire scores of American teens to pick up guitars and drumsticks. Live shows would range from the old Hullabaloo Club in Asbury Park (and its many teen-club counterparts throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), as well as the roof of the Funhouse on the Seaside Heights boardwalk — and at some point in 1966, the Ascots would become the Doughboys.
Adopting the uniforms of the “doughboy” infantry soldiers who fought overseas in the First World War — an answer, perhaps, to the Revolutionary War garb sported by Paul Revere and the Raiders — the Jersey juveniles (Scavone, at 17, was the elder statesman of the group) achieved some enviable milestones, including winning a Battle of the Bands “Disc-O-Teen” competition hosted by legendary TV horror host turned DJ John Zacherle. From there, the band would get the attention of New York radio station WMCA, who booked them onto a series of “Good Guys” package shows that would find the Doughboys sharing stages with the likes of Neil Diamond, Fontella Bass, and their Plainfield neighbors, George Clinton’s original Parliaments.
Those shows for WMCA would secure radio airplay for two singles that the Doughboys saw released in 1967 on Bell Records — the label that was then home to the Box Tops, Merrilee Rush, and the Syndicate of Sound. Both the quirky-curious pop song “Rhoda Mendelbaum” and a cover of the Four Seasons b-side “Everybody Knows My Name” were “sweetened” with overdubbed strings (although, unlike a lot of other bands from that time, the Doughboys were allowed to actually play on their own records) — but neither song became anything of a hit, even if they achieved new life decades later as staples of the reunited band’s live sets.
While the ‘boys would revisit the studio to record several more (never released) tracks for their producers, their focus would remain squarely upon their sought-after status as a tight live act, and particularly their gig as official house band at the Greenwich Village landmark Café Wha? During the summer of 1968. But as the Sixties transitioned from the era of Hullabaloo to the era of Hendrix, the guys in the antique military outfits got to feeling as outmoded as a 1917 wax cylinder recording of George M. Cohan’s “Over There.”
While many another disbanded band from that era filed away their youthful dreams of stardom (and got serious about careers in the title insurance or paving stone business), the ex-Doughboys remained plugged in to the business of rock and roll — with Scavone achieving that elusive hitmaker status in the late 1970s as frontman of Ram Jam, the hard rock unit that scored an unlikely but infectious international smash with a supercharged take on Leadbelly’s “Black Betty.” Caruso would become an in-demand session player, while Heyman would drum for everyone from Brian Wilson to Link Wray, even while building up an impressive catalog of solo singer-songwriter albums (as Richard X. Heyman) that now total a dozen and counting.
That would have appeared to sound “taps” for the Doughboys (who, after all, could hardly to have been expected to still fit into their old WWI uniforms) — but an impromptu 2000 reunion at Heyman’s birthday party set some rekindled passions into motion, and with one stray gig leading to another, the combo of Myke, Mike, Richie and Willy was soon having a blast on the stages of venues from Arlene’s Grocery and BB King’s in NYC, to the Wonder Bar and the Stone Pony in Asbury Park.
Picking up the thread they’d let slack some 30 years prior, the reunited Doughboys set out to accomplish something they’d never gotten around to doing back in the day: record a full-length album. Intended primarily as a calling card “just to send out to get gigs,” the debut LP Is It Now? was begun around 2003 with Kirchofer, and consisted mostly of tried-and-true covers from the band’s live sets. But when the guitarist passed away in 2005, the surviving Doughboys opted to continue; inviting a longtime contemporary from the NY/NJ band scene: Gar Francis, well remembered by a generation of Jersey clubgoers for his time in the top-shelf Stones tribute band Sticky Fingers.
According to Scavone, it was Francis who suggested that the band shift its focus to writing its own songs — and, armed with a motherlode of material by Scavone, Francis, and the ever-prolific Heyman, the latter-day Doughboys sound crystallized as a stripped-down celebration that kept one foot planted in the timeless topsoil of classic radio rock, even as standout cuts like “I’m Not Your Man” and “Shakin’ My Soul” competed head-to-head with the toughest young bands on the scene.
With Francis fully on board, the re-energized Doughboys also stepped up their gig activity; covering an ever-wider territory of clubs (“we’ve done shows in Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina…but not any further than that, since two of the guys in the band still refuse to ever get on a plane”), and releasing four additional albums of (almost entirely) original material — from 2009’s Act Your Rage, to last year’s Front Street Rebels — on Scavone’s own RAM label.
With Scavone additionally assuming much of the managerial responsibilities, the older/wiser musicians navigated the rapids of a changing (but still potentially perilous) music business, by embracing things like social media and fan-funded pre-sales for new album projects — endeavors that assured “we never had to reach into our own pockets.”
“We weren’t doing anything much more than just wanting to get out there and play,” Scavone says of those early years of the new century, in which the veteran rockers competed for new listeners with a far younger generation of clubgoers — and at the same time, recaptured the attentions of long-time devotees like a certain Mr. Van Zandt.
“Steven enabled us to keep going, and to make fans in some far-off places,” the singer says of the exposure on SiriusXM’s Underground Garage, which would lead in turn to placing songs on the soundtracks of TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Californication. “With satellite radio, we hit the whole globe.”
And, somewhere along that route to international cult-figure status, Myke Scavone secured a gig that his 17 year old self would have dismissed as the sci-fi stuff of purest fantasy: touring the planet as harmonica player, percussionist and backing vocalist for The Yardbirds, the official 21st century lineup of the British Invasion band that gifted the world with guitar gods Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. The story of how the guy from Eatontown was summoned by original ‘birds drummer Jim McCarty to be part of that most awesome institution is a story for another day — but suffice to say that it has much to do with all those times that the Doughboys opened for the Yardbirds, and the level of respect that those onetime punks from Plainfield can inspire even in their Hall of Fame heroes.
When he’s not treating generations and nations of fans to hot new takes on “Heart Full of Soul” and “Over Under Sideways Down,” Scavone devotes his energies to the Doughboys and their own devoted fanbase throughout the rock clubs of New York and New Jersey. The band has also been keeping busy with sessions for a projected sixth album — a set that distinguishes itself from all previous full-length efforts (and harkens back to the very earliest days of the Doughboys) in that it will be all cover tunes; drawing from the works of some guys you might have heard of (Beatles, Stones, Kinks), to the late great bluesman Mose Allison, and “some pretty obscure stuff…it’s the kind of project that keeps us in touch with our roots, and it should also serve to inspire some new songwriting.”
Expect to hear some things from those new sessions when the band returns this weekend to the Langosta Lounge stage; a setting where “we get a great mix of people, and we play a real mix of covers and originals.”
“I love that there’s no cover charge…and I love working with Peter (Mantas, music booker for Langosta and the AP Yacht Club),” he says. “There’s a different vibe when you walk into a place that’s managed by people who love what it is you do…and if playing music isn’t fun, then we don’t wanna play it.”