R & B High School (Pem-Day)

Two weeks ago, the New Yorker ran an excellent article about Pembroke-Country Day School, an all-boys private school in Kansas City (later to be merged into a coed school now known as Pembroke Hill). The author, 1973 Pem-Day graduate David Owen, tells the story of how primarily white senior classes from the 1960s booked rhythm and blues acts to play at their proms. Owen also adds context related to race and segregation in music and schools in those times. Click here for the article, but you may hit a paywall.

The lineup of R&B artists makes for some fine selections for Lonnie’s Jukebox. Click on the song titles to listen.

1962 – Bo Diddley: In 1962, the senior-class president was Arthur Benson, a KC lawyer and Hot Stove subscriber. He told the New Yorker, “Several ideas for the end-of-the-year celebration had been floating around, but we weren’t happy with any of them.” But a friend of Arthur’s knew a student at another high school who had connections in the music business. They followed up and were able to book Bo Diddley.

After the New Yorker article was published, there was a frenzy of emails among former Pem-Day students, including several Hot Stove subscribers who looped me into some of the conversations (I’m Van Horn, not Pem-Day). In this process, I picked up some more info, including the identity of the student at the other high school who helped book Bo Diddley. Sandy McGee, Pem-Day class of ’62, says it was his friend Larry Levy from Southwest High School. I didn’t know Larry back then, but in a typical small-world-of-KC story, Larry’s wife Marti and my wife Rita are yoga/lunch pals.

Prom night at the Kansas City Country Club was a big success. Arthur Benson in the New Yorker: “Everyone was having such a great time that at the end I asked Bo Diddley if he’d be willing to keep playing, and he said that for fifty bucks they would play one more song. That one final song lasted about twenty minutes non-stop. We were all just dancing our heads off, and when it was over we were exhausted. We stood there on the porch cheering…”

Below, Bo Diddley at Pem-Day. He no doubt played many songs from his eponymous 1958 album Bo Diddley. For Lonnie’s Jukebox today, let’s go with…

“Hey Bo Diddley”

1964 – The Drifters and The Crystals: There were two Pem-Day dances with R&B acts in 1964. Senior-class president Bill Schultz worked through Allan Bell who had recently opened a talent agency. For the spring dance, Bell booked the Drifters who came as a package with the Georgia Soul Twisters. The fieldhouse was packed and the event was profitable because tickets were also sold to the public. Many of the non-student ticket holders were Black. Schultz: “The headmaster was livid, just livid. But then we doubled down.” He was referring to the upcoming prom to be held at the Kansas City Country Club.

Below from the 1964 yearbook, the Drifters on stage with the Georgia Soul Twisters. The Drifters had been recording hits since 1959. Their two most recent top-ten hits before the Pem-Day dance were…

“Up On the Roof” and “On Broadway”

The profits from the spring dance were carried over to the prom. Allan Bell again was the booker, and he brought in the Crystals, Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, and Brian Hyland (a white guy who sang “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”). The Crystals were credited with a #1 hit in 1962 – “He’s A Rebel.” I say “credited” because they did not sing the recorded version that went to #1. More on that in the Darlene Love trivia below.

The Crystals had two top-ten hits in 1963 that I’m sure were sung that night…

“Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me”

In the photo below, the Crystals perform at Pem-Day. Irv Blond (Pem-Day ’63) tells me that the student with the black-rimmed glasses is George Myers whose love of the blues genre turned into a career. In 1985, Myers and Roger Naber opened the Grand Emporium at 3832 Main Street. The club gained a national reputation for live blues music (some years named “Best Blues Club in America”). The full calendar of live music also included local bands and other genres. The Grand Emporium was open from 1985 to 2004 and hosted some 7,400 shows.

While the Crystals were performing at the prom, several students (including George Myers) danced with the singers. As recounted by a former student in the New Yorker, “The club was horrified.” It was the last Pem-Day prom held at the Kansas City Country Club.

1965 – Booker T. & the MG’s: An interracial group that was the house band at Stax Records. Biggest hit was this #3 from 1962…

“Green Onions”

1968 – Ike and Tina Turner with the Ikettes: I already knew about this Pem-Day event. In Hot Stove #167, Tina Turner was featured in Lonnie’s Jukebox. This prompted a response from Hot Stove subscriber Hank Jonas, a member of the Pem-Day class of 1968. He told me that Ike and Tina had played at their prom, and he sent me a copy of the ticket:

Hank was one of the students pushing for Ike and Tina, and he described their arrival, “Ike came on with the band, and they started playing, and then the Ikettes came out, and a strobe light went on. Tina was wearing a leopard-print miniskirt with an ankle bracelet and no shoes. We all just stood there. We didn’t know what to do. It was amazing. It was phenomenal.”

 The president of that 1968 Pem-Day class was Bill Quirk (who 41 years later would become one of my law partners at Polsinelli when we merged with Shughart, Thomson and Kilroy). Bill had a moment of tension that night when it came time to pay the band during their intermission. A check for $1,200 had been written on the class account, but Ike insisted the deal was for a certified check. He threatened to not play the second set. Quirk to the New Yorker: “I didn’t know what to do, but my father was there, and we kind of negotiated. We had maybe three hundred or four hundred dollars in cash from ticket sales at the door, so we gave them that and my father wrote a check for the difference.” The principal assured Ike the check was good, and the band returned to the stage.

Although the 1968 yearbook has photos of the prom, there are none of the Ike and Tina show. One source believes the administration thought the Ikettes weren’t wearing enough clothes to be shown in a school publication.

This was before Ike and Tina hit it big with “Proud Mary,” but the year before their appearance at Pem-Day, they released one of their classics…

“River Deep-Mountain High” (This link is to a live show from 1966, close to what the class of 1968 must have seen)

1969 – Arthur Conley: This name may not be as familiar, but you will recognize his big song that peaked at #2 in 1967…

“Sweet Soul Music”

The New Yorker article listed Bob Kuban and the In-Men for 1967. The class of 1963 was not covered, so I checked with Irv Blond who graduated that year. It took a caucus with other members of the class (Lee Nigro, Randy Leathers and Strat Overton), and their collective memory settled on Ben Sharp and the Sharpees, a well-known regional band out of St. Louis. Ike Turner had also been based in St. Louis and members of the two bands moved back and forth.

Darlene Love: That’s the end of the Pem-Day story, but it leads to some good trivia about Darlene Love. In 1962, producer Phil Spector was trying to be the first to distribute a recording of “He’s A Rebel.” He wanted his top act, the Crystals, but they were on tour. So he enlisted the Blossoms to do the recording. The Crystals were a bigger name, so he credited the record to them. It went to #1. The lead singer of the Blossoms was Darlene Love whose singing career landed her in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“He’s A Rebel” by the Blossoms (credited to the Crystals). Below, the Blossoms with Darlene Love at lower left.

The Blossoms in 1966 (clockwise from top: Fanita James, Jean King, and Darlene Love)

Darlene Love is well known for her annual performances of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” initially on David Letterman and then the ABC morning show. The song is a track on the famous 1963 album produced by Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift For You.

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”