In any phone interview, there's always a few elements bound to hit the cutting room floor...and my chat with White Summer's longtime drummer, James Watkins, was no exception. Now that the dust has settled on my
original writeup of the reunion show, here's a glimpse of what else we talked about during those 45 minutes...in this installment, we look at White Summer's beginnings and philosophy as it roared through the '70s. For additional information, please scroll down further below to James's press release.
THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS
JAMES WATKINS (JW): We've got a band, in certain circles, that is very well-known in this area for a long, long time. There's only three of us. We have a terrific bass player [in Randy Brown] from Saginaw, MI, who toured with the band for about five years – and then myself, and Jimmy Schrader. We're both from Benton Harbor originally, although we don't live there now.
There's no question that the blind guitar player [Schrader] is the star of the show. There's no doubt about that. It's not that the whole band is not good, but the guy is just jaw-droppingly fantastic on the guitar. The thing was, he couldn't find a band – because everybody was like, “Well, I'd have to lead the guy around to the bathroom, or on the road...”
But when I heard that boy play in his basement, within less a minute, I said, “You know what? I'll lead you anywhere you need to go, buddy.” And I'm telling you, I've seen all the greats live – Jeff Beck, [Eric] Clapton, Al DiMeloa – and this guy is every bit as good any of 'em. He never made it to the big time, that's true, but a lot of that's luck, as I'm sure you know.
CR: Or, as I like to joke: if you're making a Sweet/glam rock [style] album at the height of disco, don't expect as many people to return your calls.
JW [laughs]: That's exactly it, that's what I'm saying – we had an ugly band during the pretty band days, and a pretty band during the ugly band days! We never could quite get the timing right.
PLAYING LIVE: “HE LIVED IN A WORLD OF SOUND”
CR: At the time you started, what was your original goal, once you found that synchronicity with Jimmy onstage?
JW: Since he was blind, he lived in a world of sound. And I started closing my eyes when I played, which I hadn't done before I met him. But I started closing my eyes when I played, and strictly go into a world of sound only, the world he's in – and we eventually developed such a communication. We did a lot of ad libs, a lot of improvisation. But I always knew what he was gonna do, and he always knew what I was gonna do, after a couple years. This really is a magical thing, when that develops.
CR: Very much so. Well, one of the things I've been listening to a lot lately, is LIVE AT LEEDS – and, of course, that's what that album's all about. So I imagine you were getting pretty much to that level, every night.
JW: Yeah, sure! Well, we wanted to make music. We wanted to write songs, wanted to be artists, and – of course – wanted to make a living doing it, so we wouldn't have to do anything else. That's what our goal was, right there.
CR: In the grand scheme of things, we didn't quite get there – and yet, you succeeded, because we do still talk about you guys, after all this time.
JW: It's strange, 'cause if you look at it from one side of the coin, we were a huge flop. But on the other side of the coin, we were pretty successful, more successful than any other band from around my area, Southwestern Michigan. It's really kind to figure what to make of it, even today.
BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS (...AT THE HOUSE OF DAVID)
CR: I imagine that [playing at the House of David Beer Garden] was an interesting time for you, too.
JW: There was no music at the House of David for a long time. I don't know how many years, but it was quite awhile. And I met a friend, one of my best friends, actually. A friend of his cousin was an ascendant of the House of David, and he took me over there to meet a guy who'd been a bandleader.
He was, like, ninetysomething years old, a real nice old fella...sat down and played the piano for me. And I got to telling him, “We'd like to have some rock 'n' roll shows at the House of David” – because I'd only loved the place since I was a little boy. My dad used to take me there. Anyway, he said, “Well, you know, I like you. You can do anything you want there.”
We put on Blood, Sweat & Tears there, September 2, 1977, and we were the warmup act. I think they played one of their hits first, “Spinning Wheel,” and [for] their second song, they played a 20-minute, slow, jazzy tune. They were great musicians, but it seemed like an odd choice, you know? We just warmed them up with some pretty hard-driving rock 'n' roll – not heavy metal, but pretty hard-driving rock 'n' roll – and the crowd started chanting, “White Summer, White Summer!”
I'll tell you, I was embarrassed by it. I had nothing to do with it, but he [Blood, Sweat & Tears lead singer David Clayton-Thomas] got mad, stomped off, and went down to the dressing rooms – which, if I remember right, were below the stage – and it was heck coaxing him back out there. But he finally did get back out, and resume the show. It took awhile. He was really mad about that, because we were nobody, we were just a local act. So it was an insult to him, with three platinum albums on the wall. I could understand his feelings about it, but...
CR: Hey, that's showbiz, right?
JW [laughs]: Yeah, I guess!
E.C. WAS HERE (...AND SO WAS NEIL)
CR: So, how come, when Eric Clapton said, “This is the best band I've ever seen in a bar”...did any of you ever start clearing your throat: “Hey, Eric, we've got some [open dates]...”
JW [laughs]: Well, you know, I'll tell you what happened: he was surrounded by about 50 people, I think. All I know is, I got offstage, and I saw a mob of people in a circle, or a semi-circle, over near the bar – and I asked somebody, “What's going on over there?”
They said, “Eric Clapton's over there!” I said, “No, he's not!” They said, “Yes, he is! He's sitting over there at the bar.” So I waded my way through all the people, pushed 'em aside, got there to him – and he said, “Oh, you're the drummer?” I said, “Yeah.” And that's when he said what he said [“This is the best band I have ever seen in a bar!”]. Then he said, “Can I come back tomorrow night, and jam with you guys?” “Geez, of course!”
CR: Wow! “Oh, I think we can manage that...”
JW: So that night, I called my mom, my brother, my sisters, my aunts, my uncles, my nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, acquaintances, and probably even a few strangers, to say: “Tomorrow night, Eric Clapton's coming down to sit in with us!” And he didn't show up [much laughter at this point].
CR: What was the encounter with Neil Young like, by contrast?
JW: Well, that was a lot different, and I'll tell you why. Neil Young's mother lived in New Smyrna Beach [FL], and she was on her deathbed. So he came to New Smyrna Beach, which is 15 miles south of Daytona. Not much of a tourist area – it's kind of an area for locals. Very nice, though, beautiful, on the ocean.
Anyway, his mom's dying, and he's here for that – so he's not in the greatest of moods – and the place wasn't that big, either. He was sitting right in front of me, about 15 feet away. This time, I didn't have to ask what was going on, 'cause he was right there, and no one was bothering him. So he was just like another dude sitting at the club, and I sat the whole break with him.
He told me what was going on, and by golly, he sat through whole 'nother set! He got up to leave, right as we finished the second set – and that's when he said, “You know, I gotta tell you, I've never sat and listened to another band play this long.” And I was like, “Wow! That's a great thing to say.”
CR: That almost made you feel like a made guy, didn't it? High praise, indeed.
JW [laughs}: Yeah, it was. It really was, yeah.
OUT OF THE '70s (INTO THE '80s)
CR: And then, of course, you end up having to leave Southwest Michigan, because the drinking age goes up, disco comes in – you're kind of getting hit from all directions, basically...
JW: Of course, Michigan was part of the Rust Belt. It was really slowing down, and Florida was just starting its real boom time, particularly Orlando. Orlando went from a town of 40,000 people to what it is today, two million people. So it's booming, this place is dying, and the drinking age is still 18 down there. We had instantaneous gigs, where we'd just pack up and go. So we did.
THE WHITE SUMMER REUNION CONCERT AT CZAR'S (By James Watkins)
The White Summer band will come together to perform a reunion concert at Czar's, downtown St Joseph, Michigan, November 25 at 10:00pm. White Summer has produced five albums of original material, but they are most famous for their thousands of live appearances that never fail to generate tremendous excitement and large crowds. The many hardcore fans of the band are affectionately called "Whiteheads," and some have been known to travel 1,000 miles to see White Summer.
The story of the White Summer band begins in 1973. The group was formed as a power trio of eighteen-year-olds from Benton Harbor: Jim Watkins (drums and vocals); Rick Lowe (guitar and vocals); and David Wheeler (bass guitar). The boys had been close friends since the sixth grade, when they attended Pearl School together. Early influences included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and home-state favorites Grand Funk Railroad. The name of the band comes from a Mayan Indian term, the White Summer plateau, which means the highest level of human consciousness.
The band's first bar gig was at Babe's Lounge. They also put on many shows at high school dances, outdoor festivals, and nightclubs. White Summer performed many times at the old Shadowland Ballroom, and were one of the last bands to play that hallowed venue.
White Summer released their first album in January, 1976 -- the White Album. WIRX played the record in its entirety several times. Les Paul was in the control room during one of the recording sessions at Sound Machine Studios in Kalamazoo and praised the boys' sound.
White Summer was the last band to ever play the House of David Beer Gardens. In 1977, the band performed on that fabled stage in front of 5,000 fans as the opening act for Blood, Sweat and Tears. When the crowd began chanting "White Summer" during a long instrumental song by BS&T, singer David Clayton Thomas marched off the stage in anger. It would be twenty minutes before he could be coaxed into continuing the concert.
In the mid-1970s, there were perhaps fifty clubs that featured live rock bands in Berrien County. But the drinking age in Michigan was raised from 18 to 21, and that combined with the Disco fad killed the live music scene. In 1979, White Summer moved to Ann Arbor before relocating to Florida one year later.
White Summer went on to become one of the top rock acts in Florida. The group traveled around in its signature big white bus and by the end of the 1980s became famous for its classic rock shows, especially in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and in the Florida Keys. By the end of that decade, White Summer featured a repertoire of 1,000 songs and was known as the "All Request Band," meaning the audience was challenged to try to "stump the band."
White Summer opened for many top rock acts, from the Buckinghams to Black Oak Arkansas. The band developed a reputation as a "Musician's Band"—more musicians would come to see them perform than any other group. Eric Clapton caught a set at Sloppy Joe's in Key West and exclaimed, "This is the best band I have ever seen in a bar!" Neil Young saw two sets in New Smyrna Beach and said, "This is the longest I ever sat and listened to a band."
White Summer performed at Walt Disney World and played for two months at the Hard Rock Cafe in Cancun, Mexico. In 1990, White Summer won a Jammy Award as "Best Classic Rock Band," while Jim Watkins won the award for "Best Classic Rock Vocalist." In 1991, White Summer appeared in front of its biggest crowd ever—25,000 souls—at the Indian River Music festival with Don Henley, Michael McDonald, and Arlo Guthrie. A major music magazine called White Summer's set "the highlight of the day."
White Summer never neglected its Michigan roots. The band did a two year tour of its home state in the 1980s that covered a Michigan map with pins for the cities they had played. Three times the group returned to Southwest Michigan. One of their most memorable performances came at the 1988 Venetian Festival when they played in front of 5,000 people directly on Silver Beach.
In 1984 White Summer returned to play at Chief's Bar in Millburg. That gig started out as a joke as the drummer's sister lived in Millburg and used to dare him to bring White Summer to Millburg. Chief's built an addition for White Summer to accommodate its fans. The group became the house band at the Ramada Inn in Benton Harbor for six months in 1987, during which time it occupied one entire floor of the hotel—24 rooms. In 1989, White Summer lived and played at the Sweet Cherry Resort for six months.
The 1982 White Summer Red Album drew the attention of Warner Brothers. During negotiations for a record contract, one of the three band members—Danny Misch from Chesterton, Indiana—suddenly left the band for personal reasons. That was the end of that.
In 1984, White Summer recorded the Dreams Come True album in Detroit at the old Motown Studios. That record received airplay on over 100 radio stations. The band was nearly signed by United Artists, but the deal was squelched at the last minute by a top executive who didn't like the way the band looked. He said, "If I close my eyes, White Summer sounds as good as any band in the world." This was during the big-hair-band days. Video killed the radio star.
The last White Summer album was recorded in 1990 at the Platinum Post Studios in Orlando, in between sessions by Al Di Meola and Judas Priest. There are many videos of White Summer's music on YouTube but one has to be careful as two other groups are on YouTube that have stolen the name. Both are young kids, one group from Canada and one from Australia. They have been asked to cease and desist using the name "White Summer" but have ignored these requests.
White Summer has featured many different lineups over the years. The constants have been drummer/singer Jim Watkins (since 1973) and virtuoso guitarist Jimmy Schrader (since 1976). Two former members, Jeff Aldrich and Ron Rutkowski, are deceased.
Jimmy Schrader was born sightless in Benton Harbor and attended the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing. Jim Watkins needed a guitar player in 1976 and a fellow musician told him about Schrader. He said, "I know a fantastic guitar player but he is having a hard time finding a band. He was born blind, and refuses to use a cane or a guide dog. So, if you hire him, you will have to lead him around everywhere you want to go and everywhere he needs to go." Watkins went to hear Schrader play his 1957 Fender Stratocaster by himself in his basement through a double-stacked 200 watt Marshall—turned wide open (on 10). It was as loud as a freight train. Within one minute Watkins knew that Schrader was his man.
For a long time, Jimmy Schrader was simply called "the blind man" by rock music fans, and White Summer "the band with the blind guitar player." But by the mid-1980s, Schrader had been given a new appellation: The King -- as in the king of guitar. He is truly the star of the show and a world-class guitarist.
For five years in the 1980s, bass player Randy Brown from Saginaw toured with White Summer. He is such a powerful player that his nickname is "The Jimmy Schrader of Bass Players." No higher compliment could be given. Brown had previously toured the world as a trumpet player in a jazz-rock group.
White Summer disbanded after 1991. Jim Watkins retired from the music business and got a real job. Today he writes internet magazine articles on HubPages. Jimmy Schrader never stopped playing and today is in a top-notch Florida band called Bad Mannerz. Randy Brown lives in Vero Beach, Florida, and plays in his church and occasionally in other venues.
Since 1991, the White Summer band has come together every other year to do a one-night-only Reunion Concert, either in Florida or in Michigan. The lineup for these shows is always Jim Watkins, Jimmy Schrader, and Randy Brown. Adam Watkins—Jim's son—plays a set on the drums while Jim goes out front to sing. The last such show enthralled a jam-packed house at Czar's in June, 2009. The "Whiteheads" are getting ready for the sets that will be all classic rock—Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top, Robin Trower, Montrose, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, and Stevie Ray Vaughn (and others). A White Summer show is always a party. Be there!