Nearly famous musician just glad for the ride
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Making it big in a band must be a little like love. It's better to have had your chances than never had chances at all.
A lifelong musician, Norris Lytton came within inches of that big brass ring. The band, Mind Garage, signed a recording contract with RCA and played in top venues with some of the biggest names in the business.
"Missed opportunities" pushed fame away.
Like the potential gig they turned down in a place called Woodstock. And the equipment snafu at the Fillmore East in New York. Circumstantial stuff.
His dance band career started with the fledgling Esquires. As a student at West Virginia University, he played with the Epics, the Glass Menagerie and, finally, the Mind Garage.
Probably the best of everything was the groundbreaking Electric Liturgy, a rock and roll church service recorded in Nashville that was the first of its kind in the country.
At 66, the big dreams have dimmed. But oh, how he loved the chase!
"My mom and dad were childhood sweethearts. We lived on Hudson Street on the West Side hill between Hillsdale Drive and Westmoreland Drive.
"My family was musical. My dad would sit in the back bedroom and play his guitar and a harmonica that had a clip-on thing like Bob Dylan uses. Sometimes he would play the slide guitar. He had a particular interest in rockabilly music.
"My mom didn't play anything, but she loved music. She got hooked on American Bandstand, so I would rush home from school, and we would watch American Bandstand.
"My sisters liked pop music and they played instruments. In fourth grade, I started playing clarinet. I played clarinet until eighth grade.
"I was playing big-band numbers in the school stage band. One of the saxophone players quit. The band director handed me a saxophone and some music and said to learn to play those parts for the next concert. In about two weeks, I learned to do that, and I've stayed with the sax ever since. Now my instrument is bass guitar.
"As a senior at Stonewall, I played in a band, the Tekes, with Mike Corey. I had to have a letter from my parents saying it was OK for me to play in clubs. Then I started getting together with Bobby Lanham and the Osborne boys. John played trumpet and Art played sax. Their dad had an orchestra. They invited me to sit in with them. We started working on vocals and decided to try some rock and roll stuff.
"We picked up a couple of guys from Charleston High. When we played in the next Jackson Jollities, we had put together some soul music and some Beatles songs. We called ourselves the Esquires.
"We started playing fraternity parties and some country clubs and at the Owens Drive-In before the movies. Our pay was free refreshments.
"Several of us went away to school. I went to the University of Miami in Florida. I wanted to be a marine biologist, find a new food source and save the world from hunger.
"I was always interested in science and music and just about everything. I have a hard time not being interested in anything.
"I had the equivalent of their Merit Scholarship. But Miami was still very expensive. My dad had borrowed money. I saw it was a financial strain on my parents, so I transferred to WVU.
"After the first year, I got involved in a soul band here in Charleston called the Epics, again with Mike Corey. This was about 1965. I was coming in every weekend from Morgantown to play.
"From that band, two boys in school at Beckley transferred to Morgantown, and we found a guitar player and became the Glass Menagerie. We played a lot of underground music and a lot of covers and got a lot of work on fraternity row.
"We went on the road in the summer of '68. Two of our people decided not to come back, so we went back to Morgantown, found two other people and became the Mind Garage.
"There was this campus minister, Michael Paine. He let us practice at his house. He wanted us to take rock and roll music into a church service.
"We took the actual words from the liturgy and put it to music. We couldn't do this service on campus. They said it was a conflict between church and state. Some church finally let us do it. Michael got us into other churches. We played five or six masses in Morgantown.
"It's the first documented rock-and-roll church service that we could find through research.
"We played for the National Liturgical Conference in D.C. We went to New York and did a service at St. Mark's in the Bowery. ABC taped the whole service and showed it later on national TV on a show called Directions about experimental things going on in the church. We were very proud of that. We never charged for the liturgies.
"I heard 'Get Together' by the Youngbloods out in the Midwest. We used it as a warmup song in the liturgy. We were in the studio in New York during a recording session. An RCA executive walked by and said, 'We own that song.' They pulled out that song and re-released it, and it got into the Top 10. I don't think the Youngbloods ever knew anything about us.
"It was rough on us longhairs when we first got to Morgantown. We never considered ourselves hippies. We were musicians. We were living a kind of alternative lifestyle, but we were never drugged-out hippies.
"The campus was always pretty liberal, but the townspeople were very anti-that. There were conflicts. I was walking down the street one night, and two guys in suits stopped me. I said, 'Are you cops? Can I see an ID?' And they hit me. I dropped over the hill and got away.
"Another time, a guy drove up on the sidewalk and tried to hit me. It wasn't uncommon for people to throw things out the window at you.
"I saw a transition eventually. It culminated on the day they had the riots in front of the Mountainlair. This was right after Kent State. The campus kind of exploded. The tear gas came out. By the time I left, the longhair look we had was common.
"We were starting to get some national attention for club music. We had people coming from Pittsburgh to hear us play. The president of Chess Records came to see us. He said were great but that we didn't fit their label, which was blues.
"We published our own songs and had our own little label. We put out a regional single called 'Asphalt Mother.' In some circles, it's considered a psychedelic classic. It's very loud and stupid and simple. But we progressed into more sophisticated music and signed with RCA.
"We were having a good amount of success playing bigger venues. We did shows with Pete Seeger, Canned Heat, Sly and the Family Stone and a super show with Iron Butterfly. They really liked us.
"We decided to take a trip to California. We stayed a month. Our guitar player decided to stay. RCA was telling us to go into studio. So we went to Nashville and found a guitar player and cut our second album. It was Chet Atkins' studio, and he was there, and Jack got to play Floyd Cramer's piano.
"There were missed opportunities. Like the time our manager told us about a concert somewhere up in New York. He said we could perform there. He didn't know exactly where it was and said we wouldn't get paid. He didn't know who else would be there. So we turned it down and went on to Cleveland for the Dick Clark Teenage World's Fair and an appearance on the TV show Upbeat. And we did a concert with Joe South and the James Gang.
"We still had a chance to go to the New York thing, but we were just too shot by then. We heard what went on. It was Woodstock.
"Everybody has their chances. Sometimes a door opens and shuts back in your face before you get through it.
"One of our last performances was at the Fillmore East in New York. We were waiting for our equipment. The guys hauling it stopped the truck in front of the Fillmore and came in to tell us they were there. The cops towed the truck off, so we had to go on without our own equipment.
"We were stripped down to being piano, drums and bass, just a little trio with a singer. But we got a good reception. The Village Voice did a nice article about the liturgy.
"Things kind of fell apart after we went to California. RCA didn't renew our contract. I finally came back to Charleston. I played with the Overnight Gang in '72 and '73. In '73, I got married and got a real job with the state Health Department in the hygienic lab.
"They extended the plant where my dad worked, and I got hired as a lab tech and moved up to quality control manager. I worked there 31 years until they did away with my job. I started doing consulting work in chemicals, and I still do that when they need me.
"I've got three little ensembles I play with, one with Jay Michael Mollohan. He plays guitar, and I play bass, and we do old songs and some originals.
"I don't think I would change very much. I had my chances. I've had a great time. I got very close. I rubbed elbows with some hall-of-famers. The stuff we did in the church was rewarding and revolutionary.
"I'd still like to do something musically significant."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.