The rento-tour bus is trundling from Sydney to Newcastle . The assembled cast of the highly popular rock group Doctor Hook and fellow travellers are just starting to wake up. Well you know , it had been a 9.30 a.m. start ~ the day after the group's first Australian concert which had gone down wonderfully well in front of an audience that had ranged from grandmothers to hard rockers to hippies to small children. Then there had been the ritual celebrations afterwards. And now, just after midday, eyes are starting to become unglazed and focus on the new day . Ray Sawyer - the Doctor Hook with the eyepatch - is feeling a trifle hungry . He sits on a narrow bus-chair armrest and looks wistful.
"You know," he says in his soft spoken US Southern gentleman drawl "It's Mother's Day tomorrow ... mother sure would like a candy bar... " "Y' know ... Ah wouldn't mind if this bus stopped and I could buy a candy bar ... for ma mother or course. Cos I'd eat it myself, but it's the thought that counts." Everyone smiles, hahahaha .. that Ray Sawyer, everything he says , you gotta smile the way he says it .
"Hey! Stop the bus !" yells Dennis Locorriere. Dennis is the singer without the eyepatch but if anything personifies Doctor Hook in Australia it's his voice . He sang their three Big Hits here -Sylvia's Mother, Only 16 and A Little bit More. Dennis has been described as a full on maniac He has a big oval face that moves so fast, through about 110 or so expressions per minute. He has to wear a beard to anchor down his mouth . No , that's closer to Dennis' own brand of fantastical hyperbole than cold stone sober truth . But then who wants to know about being cold stone sober - certainly not Doctor Hook. And when you're around them , mostly neither do you.
Seemingly there are very few overcasts in the Doctor Hooks' life, no matter what the weather's like outside. They've gone through near starvation , broken promises by the score, bar room dives, bankruptcy, they've done tour schedules a team of Green Berets would blanch at. And always ended up laughing . But right now , back in the bus the question of a candy bar is starting to eat at Ray Sawyers stock of sunshine . I mean, if you started waking up at 12.20 pm and realised you were on a rento-bus to Newcastle without a candy bar and you felt like buying one for Mother's day and the bus thunders by one veritable oasis of calories after another you'd probably start to look a bit testy around the corners or the mouth too .
"You know what?" drawls Ray. "I reckon they think I'm jokin' . Well I'm not" Instantly Dennis leaps into overdrive,"You know," he yells , scrambling to the front of the bus. "Everyone sorta thinks we're just joking when we say we wanna do something . That's cos most people don't realise when we're being serious and when we're not. Now I realise it's pretty hard cos most of the time we don't realise ourselves. But I wanna tell you somethang riiiiight now.Right now, we are serious ... I think "
That rave gets a nice round of applause and pretty soon the bus hits a traffic jam and pulls into a garage for a munchies stop. No big thing .A candy bar comedy routine isn't meant to be one of those illustrations that somehow sum up something in a group. Except their ability to turn even the most trivial situation into a revue skit. In any case , we're eating some really drekk examples of roadside cafe fish 'n' chips.
|"When we're on stage , we ain't no more crazy than we are in the day time !"
Doctor Hook are pretty much unclassifiable. You can call them a country rock band and that only starts to hint at what they do . You can call them a high energy funny rock band specialising in country-orientated rave-ups, and that leaves out a lot too .Y'see Doctor Hook are more than a band, they're ... well, lets start with a cliche and work towards something more substantial . They're mnore a way of life . Actually a way that's pretty rare these days - a self-help, be-of-good-cheer-no-matter-how-deep-the-gloom-appears, way of life. Goddamnit - Sometimes they're near enough inspirational.
Ross Ryan for instance, in this case serving as the support to Dr.Hook throughout the tour, can't help regarding them with boggling eyes. He's never seen anything as amazing in street clothes he assures me .They wear their street clothes on stage too, and you ain't seen anything like 'em there either. Doctor Hook do a very up show. At first glimpse they appear a bunch of lunatics carreering and capering all over each other,jumping up and down and screaming and whoopping and swapping instruments, they just explode in front of an audience and they don't even use flashpots . It's all done with kinetic energy folks and done so fast you initially can't workout who's jumping over who .
When you become orientated to the pace you start to sort it out . Dennis Locorriere is the one who's always in motion. A quarter of an hour into the show he looks like he.s just come out of a swimming pool and he moves on stage with a strange liquid rush like he's dancing on a dunlopillow . Ray Sawyer is calmer. The man whose eyepatch gave the group its name and the charter member of the whole shebang , he has sweet country licks in his fingers and country roots in his soul
"I was born so far South ,I didn't get to hear any sorta music 'cept country music" he opines in a clearly authentic Southern lilt .
Dennis hails from industrial New Jersey , a long,long way from Sawyer's Alabama birthplace . They are the two main frontmen of the band . But most of the other Doctor Hooks work as hard as most other frontmen from most other bands , while keeping a lower profile than Sawyer or Locorriere . Meet Rik Elswit (gtr) , Billy Francis (Keyboards) , who clamber and hi-jinks and scamper and who also , not coincidently , let fly with a full nights worth of highly melodic instrumental work . Then there's John Wolters (drums) and Jance Garfat (bass) who stay pretty much anchored to their instruments. They're also rock tight solid and fluid like all good U.S. rhythm sections tend to be. The backbeat never falters for Doctor Hook . Then there's Willard Henke (Gtr) He stands to the left on stage and doesn't get involved in the hurly-burly . One reason is , he keeps cracking up at what the others are doing . Willard joined Dr. Hook last year when Rik was hospitalised for a series of dates the band had to fulfill to remain financially viable .
"When I saw what sort of stuff Willard was playing," says Rik, "I said 'You guys have got to be crazy if you don't keep him!' It means we can get into all sorts or things - melody guitar lines and all that. And we can keep on doing the act onstage and still keep the music real strong "
That's Doctor Hook on stage. Two main men, a back up of two supporting comics , a background of three 100% musical members. And Jean Dixon would strike out trying to predict what they'll do next.The two shows I saw were both of the same mould with the opening Sydney show being brassy and breezy and so stompin' the floorboards were smoking . The Newcastle show was more low-key and personal, befitting the smaller venue. Doctor Hook are maestros of stage craft .They sum-up an audience from the opening bars and play to 'em accordingly . Their aim is to get everyone up and pumpin' and smilin' by the ~end, but they'd much rather tickle 'em to happiness not lash 'em to ecstasy with power chords . Yeah. There were enough differences between the consecutive nights to make me want to see em again when they return to Sydney for a second show on May 24 'cos I reckon I'll see something different again . Fact is, I felt like paying concert price for the bus trip to Newcastle.
|"Ladies and gentlemen - Dr Hook have announced they'd rather not give a show
tonight . Instead theY're inviting you all on a tour coach ride around the block 500 times."
If you've paid your money and the announcer says that , don't demand a refund ..... GO ! !
And you never know ,they might. They've done crazier. They're a Band who're always so close to the edge , you keep on looking for them to fall, which they hardly ever do, but sometimes they grab a double whammy dose or inspirational insanity, flap their wings and really take off.
You've probably read of their most famous escapades. Like the time they were playing Scandinavia and after the support had come and gone, the stage manager rushed to the microphone and explained Doctor Hook had seen this local band they wanted everyone to see , and could everyone give a big welcome for Charlie Chillum and The Clumps (clump is Danish street jive for a rolled-up ball of hashish), Dennis came out with green hair, plastered into thick strands hung at right angles to his ears and played drums. Rik had a blue face and did't wear glasses. I never caught what everyone else wore, only that it was in keeping. After half an hour of this unscheduled glitter band playing heavy metal boogie , the crowd revolted and booed them offstage.
Then there was the time (at a festival on the Continent) when 40,000 sexually liberated punters took up the chant of "Take your clothes off" . "So we did " Ray Sawyer grins. "And then 45,000 people started yelling "Put 'em back on." I dunno what they were expecting " . It's this daft mixture of zany. 'hey-that-was-good-what'll-we-do-next pranksterism and their melodic musical skills, that make Doctor Hook the onstage pleasure that they are . But the ultimate meat to any show is the songs and first up stretching waaaaay back to the early 70s these were provided by a character called Shel Silverstein . Shel Silverstein is a small baldlng roly-poly character who's a virtual one man arts factory . For years he was Playboy's most noted and individualistic cartoonist. He writes , he paints , he travels extensively, he writes some of the most charming sardonic pornographic and clever songs in the folk/country/pop area eg The Uniicorn for The Irish Rovers was a piece of melodic whimsy , but for Dr Hook and The Medicine Show (as they were called in '71) he came up with an astonishing variety .There was Sylvia's Mother , a ballsd with haunting melodv that worked both as a straight weepie and as a sardonic send up of whimpering teenages love . There was Queen of the Silver Dollar , a country stomper .There was Cover ofThe Rollin' Stone , a satiric investigation of the possibilitiss of fame set to a tingling beat . Shel's influence on the bandisn't all that telling within an Australian context , only one of the three Sylvia's Mother was a big hit here . But in America tehy all roared up the charts . In fact , all songs on Dr. Hook's first two albums were composed by Silverstein . Even nowadays , withe association not as strong as it used to be , Silverstein is noted five of the ten tracks off Hook's latest LP "A Little Bit More."
"Hook 'n' Silverstein .... Silverstein 'n' Hook..."shouts Dennis Locorriere . " A lot of people ... that's all they knew about . Sure , we have a real close association with Shel .... Hell - we're good friends - but it's probably not the way you heard it . The guy who actually took us and translated us to Shel, and Shel to us , was Ronnie Haffkine - the guy who produces our records. Everyone capsualises the story of how Shel walked into a New Jersey bar one night and there we were. But what was happening,every night there was a guy wandering and having one too many , saying "Hey ! I can make you guys stars !" and we were the guys that fell for it everytime . We'd haul our equipment outta the place and make tape demos for anyone"
In 1971 , Dr Hook was a pretty loose outfit . Ray Sawyer had worked his way through the states from Alabama to New Jersey with Billy Francis the keyboard player. One night Dennis Locorriere was doing his usual folkie thing - looking through the New Jersey bars for a band who might want a drummer or background vocalist/guitarist for a jam. And it sorta grew from there . Rik Elswit and Jance Garfat joined after their first album in 1972 .
Ron Haffkine heard some tapes tapes someone had made of the band and thought they might be right for the soundtrack of a movie he was on as musical director. It was the Dustin Hoffman vehicle "Who is Harry Kellerman and why is he saying these terrible things about me ?" Shel Silverstein had had written the score. "Prior to that , Ron and Shel had been friends for 12 years, so they knew each other even though this was the first time they'd worked together", offers Dennis."Shel was knocked out by the way we did his material and Shel is such a marvellous story teller we liked him at once... but I'm not even sure we' have understood Shel if it hadn't been for Ronnie 'cos Shel has a strange singing voice. Each time he'd sing a ballad to us we'd sorta look at each other and say 'Well hell - what are we supposed to do with that !' and Ronnie knew how sensitive Shel was, so hed warn us just to stay still...I don't know if you've ever seen Shel but he takes you right by suprise if you don't know what to expect"
Right. I saw him once on the Playboy After Hours tv show when old Hugh Hefner plunked a guitar in his hands and said 'Sing Shel' and ran. Shel sang in a voice that was like the whispered scream or someone getting his bollocks caught in barbed wire. He sang The Unicorn and I want to tell you, if I hadn't known how the schmucky thing went from the Irish Rovers' version, I wouldn't have known what Shel was trying to do. Ronnie's job as translator, at times must have been close to deciphering the Rosetta Stone.
Dennis also gives Ron Haffkine a major share of the credit for his own expressive, sweet vocals. "Ronnie is the kind of cat who, when you sing a song - I guess 'cos he was involved with Shel, and Shel being a storyteller - when we do vocals, we do vocals 200 times. Even when it's right the first time ,You know what I'm saying ? ... we go through it another 200 times to make sure the story is told right. We get those little nuances in the words, to make sure the story is told right.It's made me 200 times the vocalist I used to be. At the start, he might have liked the vocal quality I had , but mY diction was terrible, things like that. Ronnie's a real objective ear for us, y'know. That's not what we were talking about, we were talking about Shel. But it's real important to know that Ronnie's the guy in the background .He seems to get left out of the scene a lot It's always Hook 'n' Shel ... Shel 'n' Hook. But I dunno if there would have ever been the link if it hadn't been for Ronnie.
"In fact I dunno if there would have been a Hook if it hadn't been for Ronnie. He's been with us all along, through the bankruptcy 'n'all. He's got a great attitude. He tells us no matter what's wrong, no matter how down things are, you always have something nobody can take away and that's the way you want to feel about yourselF at that time... you always got that choice. Like if we had folded about the time or our bankruptcy , had not gone back to playing in bars, we would not have headlined a major tour of Australia. And Australia is a country I love . That sounds like ... corny you know .... everyone says that. But I really am getting an enormous buzz out of Australia. And if we had just lay down when we were broke, it would have been like crawling towards the horizon and falling sixty yards short ....we would not have seen our success in Europe. We wouldn't have done Only 16 or A Little Bit More...." Ah, the power of exuberance.
The bankruptcy Dennis refers to happened in '74. Basically it was a case of Too Much Too Soon, Not followed By Enough o The Same. From a bar-room band to a hot band with three top singles took about a year. And suddenly the band required An Organisation. A Booking Agency. An Office. A Manager. A Road Manager . Lighting Men. Sound Men. Equipment Men. And Doctor Hook, being a friendly bunch, suddenly found there were about 14 families depending for their daily bread on the continuing success of Dr. Hook.
It didn't happen. The hits dried up for two years. The band's price plummeted. They found themselves doing crazy things like earning $1,000 for a gig that had cost them $4,000 to get to and back. Finally there was no recourse but to call a Special Emergency General Meeting , declare themselves bankrupt and ask everyone what they wanted to do next. Everyone - band, roadies,soundmen and producer thought, 'Well we were having fun doing it yesterday. So what the hell - let's have fun doing it again tomorrow .'
So they went back to the bars. The album they'd been recording they called (what else) Bankrupt and when it finally came out (replete with cover showing a red balance sheet and the band juggling with handfuls of money) it contained Only 16. Suddenly the Dr. Hook was back on the road again. But not in America, right away. Only 16 was first picked up on in England and the Continent. So the band went there. They did amazingly well. "Most U.S. bands lose money or just break even on touring England " says Gary, Dr. Hook's soundman. "But we made money. It kept us alive." They gigged through England, took buses over the Continental Alps, played everything from clubs to concerts to festivals. Were loved nearly everywhere. Only 16 finally made it in America and Australia. They put out A Little Bit More and the single did terrific everywhere. The album did best in England and Australia . They've never really had a big selling album in America - a constant disappointment . They hope the next one titled after the new single Walk Right In will be it . After all there's not just the seven guys in the band,there's a whole Dr. Hook clan to support . At the moment the band still have some debts though their earning capacity is healthy indeed.
Put them on radio or tv and suddenly they've got a full house. Ticket sales for their Sydney show were lagging before they arrived. What, with Bryan Ferry selling out 5 concerts in all, the competition for bums on seats was fierce. But as soon as Hook had stepped off the plane and barraged radio and TV show's , their concert was sold out -KABOOM. No problems. And a big smile for promoter Gary Von Egmont. Dr hook promise everyone a good time so winsomely you naturally feel like turning up. And they deliver whatsmore. In the end, it's always Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere who capsualise the whole band. Sawyer, soft spoken and easy going (with, however, a tendency to dig his heels in and become as stubborn as ten mules when things move too far outside his way of liking) is an entertainment veteran having played country music for 25 yrs. His solo album shows a flair for countrified melody and a tendency towards soft, narrative ballads. But he's tough and sharp and his eyepatch is no gimmick, it's the result of an automobile accident back in Alabama in the late '60's.
"Everywhere I go" , he says. "I get calls about it. One guy in Sydney, his wife approached me.
She said her husband was too embarrassed to go out in public. Well I could
understand that - I went through the same thing . When I was looking for an eyepatch,
I couldn't find one that didn't look really bad. Or else you could get a pleated cloth one, it
rode up so everyone could see the scar . Finally I went to a leather maker and said
'If I sketch it for you, can you make it?' He said sure. It'd taken me nine months to work
out what it had to be and I drew it for him.
Read Sydney Concert Review
Return to Main Index Return to Magazine Menu