Rob Zipper-lead vocals, saxophone, guitar
Leigh Sagar-guitars, organ, Hawaiian guitar
Ivor Rubenstein- drums, vocals,
Also available: Freshcd 109 Otis Waygood Blues Band
Freshcd 135 Simply Otis Waygood
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They came from the North…with Ten Light Claps and a Scream
They came from the north in the summer of ‘69, armed with axes and Scarabs, long hair streaming behind them, and proceeded to slay the youth of the nation with an arsenal of murderous blues-rock tunes, synchronized foot-stomping and, on a good night, eye-popping displays of maniacal writhing in advanced states of rock’n’roll transfiguration. The masses roared. The establishment was shaken. They were the biggest thing our small world had ever seen, our Led Zeppelin, our Black Sabbath, maybe even our Rolling Stones. They were the Otis Waygood Blues Band, and this is their story.
It begins in l964 or so, at a Jewish youth camp in what was then Rhodesia. Rob and Alan Zipper were from Bulawayo, where their dad had a clothes shop. Ivor Rubenstein was Alan’s best mate, and Leigh Sagar was the local butcher’s son. All these boys were budding musicians. Alan and Ivor had a little "Fenders and footsteps" band that played Shadows covers at talent competitions, and Rob was into folk. They considered themselves pretty cool until they met Benny Miller, who was all of 16 and sported such unheard-of trappings as a denim jacket and Beatles-length hair. Benny had an older sister who’d introduced him to some way-out music, and when he picked up his guitar, the Bulawayo boys were staggered: he was playing the blues, making that axe sing and cry like a negro.
How did the music of black American pain and sufferation find its way to the rebel colony of Rhodesia, where Ian Smith was about to declare UDI in the hope of preserving white supremacy for another five hundred years? It’s a long story, and it begins in Chicago in the forties and fifties, where blues cats like Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson cut ‘78s that eventually found their way into the hands of young British enthusiasts like John Mayall and Eric Clapton, who covered the songs in their early sessions and always cited the bluesmen as their gurus. Word of this eventually penetrated Rhodesia, and sent Benny scrambling after the real stuff, which he found on Pye Records’ Blues Series, volumes one through six. Which is how Benny Miller came to be playing the blues around a campfire in Africa, bending and stretching those sad notes like a veteran. The Bulawayo contingent reached for their own guitars, and thus began a band that evolved over several years into Otis Waygood.
In its earliest incarnation, the band was built around Benny Miller, who remains, says Rob Zipper, "one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard." Rob himself sang, played the blues harp and sax. His younger brother Alan was on bass. Bulawayo homeboys Ivor and Leigh were on drums and rhythm respectively, and flautist Martin Jackson completed the lineup. Their manager, Andy Vaughan, was the dude who observed that if you scrambled the name of a famous lift manufacturer you came up with a monniker that sounded authentically American negro: Otis Waygood. Rob thought it was pretty witty. Ivor said, "…and lifts can be pretty heavy too." And so the Otis Waygood Blues Band came into being.
By now, it was l969, and the older cats were students at the University College of Rhodesia, earnest young men, seriously involved in the struggle against bigotry, prejudice and short hair. By day they were student activists, by night they played sessions. Their repertoire consisted of blues standards and James Brown grooves, and they were getting better and better. They landed a Saturday afternoon gig at Les Discotheque. Crowds started coming. When Rob stood up to talk at student meetings, he was drowned out by cries of, "You’re Late Miss Kate." which was the band’s signature tune, an old Deefore/Hitzfield number that they played at a bone-crunching volume and frantic pace. Towards the end of ‘69, Otis were asked to perform "Miss Kate" on state TV. The boys obliged with a display of sneering insolence and hip-thrusting sexuality that provoked indignation from your average Rhodesian. .Rob graduated at the end of 1969 ,it was summer and the boys were young and wild and someone came up with the idea of driving to Cape Town so they loaded their amps into a battered old Kombi and set off across Africa to seek their fortune.
South of the Limpopo River, they entered a country in which a minor social revolution was brewing. In the West, the hippie movement had already peaked, but South Africa was always a few years behind the times, and this was our summer of love. Communes were springing up in the white suburbs. Acid had made its debut. Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium was a great milling of stoned longhairs, come to attend an event billed as "the largest pop festival south of and since the Isle of Wight." It was also a competition, with the winner in line for a three-month residency at a local hotel. Otis Waygood arrived too late to compete, but impresario Selwyn Miller gave them a 15-minute slot as consolation -- 2pm on a burning December afternoon.
The audience was half asleep when they took the stage. Twelve bars into the set, they were on their feet. By the end of the first song, they were "freaking out," according to reports in the next morning’s papers. By the time the band got around to "Fever," fans were attacking the security fence, and Rob got so carried away that he leapt off the ten-foot-high stage and almost killed himself. "That’s when it all started," he says. Otis made the next day’s papers in a very big way, and went on to become the "underground" sensation of 1969’s Christmas holiday season, drawing sell-out crowds wherever they played.
In South Africa, this was the big time, and it lasted barely three weeks. The holidays ended, the tourists departed, and that was that: the rock heroes had to pack their gear and go back home. As fate would have it, however, their Kombi broke down in Johannesburg, and they wound up gigging at a club called Electric Circus to raise money for a valve job. One night, after a particularly sweaty set, a slender blonde guy came backstage and said, "I’m going to turn you into the biggest thing South Africa has ever seen."
This was Clive Calder, who had just returned from Europe, where he’d seen how the moguls broke Grand Funk Railroad. Maintained he was capable of doing the same thing with Otis Waygood, and that together, they would conquer the planet. The white blues boys signed on the dotted line. Their self titled debut album was recorded over two days in Joburg’s EMI studios in March, l970, with Calder producing and playing piano on several tracks. Laid down in haste on an old four-track machine, it is less a work of art than a talisman to transport you back to sweaty little clubs in the early days of Otis Waygood’s reign as South Africa’s premier live group. Rob would brace himself in a splay-legged rock hero stance, tilt his head sideways, close his eyes and bellow as if his life depended on it. As the spirit took them, the sidemen would break into this frenzied bowing motion, bending double over their guitars on every beat, like a row of longhaired rabbis dovening madly at some blues-rock shrine. By the time they got to "Fever," with its electrifying climactic footstomp, the audience was pulverized. "It was like having your senses worked over with a baseball bat," said one critic.
Critics were somewhat less taken with the LP’s blank black cover. "We were copying the Beatles," explains Alan Zipper. "They’d just done The White Album, so we thought we’d do a black album." It was released in May 1970, and Calder immediately put Otis Waygood on the road to back it. His plan was to broaden the band’s fan base to the point where kids in the smallest town were clamouring for the record, and that meant playing everywhere ; towns where longhairs had never been seen before. "In those smaller towns we were like aliens from outer space," says drummer Ivor. "I remember driving into places with a motorcycle cop in front and another behind, just sort of forewarning the town, ‘Here they come.’" Intrigued by Calder’s masterful hype campaign, country people turned out in droves to see the longhaired weirdos. "It was amazing," says Ivor. "Calder had the journalists eating out of his hand. Everything you opened was just Otis."
The album comprised mainly of traditional blues and folk covers done in the inimitable Otis style including John Renbourne's “I can't keep from crying” and Willie Dixon's “Help me’ alongside the afore mentioned "You’re Late Miss Kate" and “Fever”. Also included was a stunning flute/bass and drum workout on ”Watch 'n' Chain” which had recently been covered by UK blues outfit, The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. Added to the mix were several original songs including “So many ways” and “Better off on my own”.
The boys in the band were pretty straight when they arrived in South Africa, but youths everywhere were storming heaven on hallucinogenics, and pretty soon, Otis Waygood was doing it too. By now they were living in an old house in the suburbs of Jo’burg, a sort of head quarters with mattresses strewn across the bare floors and a family of 20 hippies sitting down for communal meals. The acid metaphysicians of Abstract Truth crashed out there for weeks on end. Freedom’s Children were regular guests, along with African stars like Kippie Moeketsi and Julian Bahula. Everyone would get high and jam in the soundproofed garage.
In 1970 the band returned to the studio with Calder and Julian Laxton to record their second album, “Simply”. For the most part Otis Waygood jettisoned the earlier blues influences for a more funky and riff orientated repertoire with elements of funk and soul creeping in, not unlike period pieces by the likes of Free and Grand Funk Railroad. ”Simply’ also highlighted the growing compositional skills of Rob & Alan Zipper and guitarist Leigh Sagar with the majority of the songs self penned. The lazy groove of “In the sun” and funk driven “Feel it in me” was indicative of the musical changes taking place in the band.
Otis Waygood were on a creative high, continually writing new material and later the same year they went into the studio to record what would be their swan song.
The riffs grew darker and heavier. Elements of free jazz and white noise crept in. Songs like "You Can Do (Part I)" were eerie, unnerving excursions into regions of the psyche where only the brave dared tread. Flautist Martin Jackson made the trip once too often, suffered a "spiritual crisis" and quit the band. His replacement was Harry Poulus, the pale Greek god of keyboards, recruited from the ruins of Freedom’s Children. Harry was a useful guy to have around in several respects, an enormously talented musician and a Zen mechanic to boot, capable of diagnosing the ailments of the band’s worn-out Kombi just by remaining silent and centred and meditating on the problem until a solution revealed itself.
Bassist Alan Zipper recalls: "Ten Light Claps And A Scream" was recorded around October / November 1970. Julian Laxton produced with Clive Calder looking on with Leo Lagerway engineering .Clive was spreading himself thin, having taken on other bands over the year - "Abstract Truth," "Freedoms Children" and "Suck." The EMI studio had been re equipped with a new mixing desk and multi track tape machine - 8 track I guess. The desk had a lovely warm sound. Julian made plentiful use of his famous "magic box" - some kind of phasing / echo machine he'd built and used on stage with "Freedom's Children"
Harry Poulos was in the band, replacing Martin Jackson.. we were pleased to have him - "South Africa's Stevie Winwood" - but he was burned out by then and we only caught glimpses of his genius. We wanted an organist and he kept playing guitar - heavy riffs. He was great at driving the Combi on tour though.
Benny Miller happened to be around during those sessions and played on some tracks - can't remember which. (It wouldn't be the last time.. in 1973 he rejoined briefly and played on a disastrous session at the Manor Studios when Virgin were considering signing us.)
Anyway, bored with 12 bars and the set formulae of Blues, our musical tastes were now influenced by the groups we'd been hanging out and touring with - "Freedom's Children" and in particular "Abstract Truth" who turned us on to more jazzy and melodic stuff - "Frank Zappa," "The Band," "Traffic" etc.
I'd say we lost direction.. we were trying to play "serious" music but it was indulgent and boring. We'd toured SA three times that year and saturated the market for concerts.. hence the album's title "Ten Light Claps And A Scream" which described the response we were getting. Only "Fever and "Late Miss Kate" could get the audiences going. This is echoed by guitarist Leigh Sagar: “The music had reached a higher sophistication than in the past. Things had become difficult with the authorities putting pressure on us in various ways, such as drug seeking raids and beating up our maid. We had applied for a permit to play at a multiracial event. The permit was granted but, on the morning of the gig, was recalled and the gig had to be cancelled. Meanwhile, we were jamming in secret with black and coloured musicians in our garage / rehearsal studio. By the end of 1970 the writing was on the wall and after the South African Defence Force informed Ivor that he was liable for military service, the boys sneaked back into Rhodesia, but more call-up papers were waiting for them at their parents’ homes. "Ian Smith despised us," says Ivor. "They wanted to make an example of us, so we basically escaped." At the time, international airlines weren’t supposed to land in Rhodesia because of sanctions. But there was a Jo’burg-Paris flight that made a secret stop in Salisbury. The boys boarded it and vanished.
After regrouping in the UK the band changed their name to The Otis Waygood Band and expanded their musical horizons by incorporating elements of reggae. Leigh Sagar remembers “The band then comprised the four of us with Padget King on keyboards and vocals and Tony on percussion. These two guys were of West Indian origin (but themselves born in the UK) and had taught us how to pay reggae, which I soaked up like a sponge. We began to play music with a reggae base, but somehow retaining the band's blues origins. We were playing in reggae clubs in several cities in England and had a fairly regular gig at a place in Amhurst Road, Hackney East, called Phebes.” During this time they recorded several singles for Decca Records including “Who' s your friend”, included here as a bonus track. “Rob and I had started to travel around the country setting up gigs; we decided that we had practised enough and that it was time to show the world what we had achieved (it was still the four of us). Somehow we arranged a meeting with the owner of the club [I can't remember his name]. We went to see him and he must have thought we were a little mad - 4 southern African whites looking to play in a black club - and invited us to come and play. We turned up and played at about 3 in the morning, the only whites in a pumping club. It was an experience every time I went there. The bass from the speakers playing hard reggae in the basement - the sound system of a DJ known as Fatman - pumped through your stomach. It was as if you could feel the essence of the music itself, although it could make you ill if you stood too close to them. Anyway, we were well received and started to play there fairly regularly. Much of our repertoire was reggae based but we Africans could not help but put into it something of our origins and I think that the result was something different from what was being played by other bands at the time.
Towards the end of the '70's Otis Waygood split up leaving behind a legacy of three fine albums that have stood the test of time.
NB This is an edited version of Rian Malan's essay on Otis Waygood, “Storming heaven on hallucinogenics” with additional material by Alan Zipper, Leigh Sagar and Benjy Mudie.