Van Dykes' Blues Still Burn After A Long Time Offstage

November 20, 1990|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff writer

The show was described as a Van Dykes reunion by the participants, but don't you believe it.

Judging from the smooth, comfortable, tightly knit style of playing on display Saturday, either these guys never went away or we've all been in another room for the past 20 years.

The locally based Van Dykes, one of the best rhythm-and-blues groups ever to play the Washington-Baltimore-Delaware region, performed a benefit show at the Stanton Community Center's gymnasium in Annapolis.

Part of the proceeds from the event was slated to go to support youth activities at the Stanton Center.

The Van Dykes were at the peak of their fame during the early 1950s and late 1960s, thanks to performances on the old Buddy Dean Show out of Baltimore and at places like Carr's Beach, Sparrow's Beach and Bembe Beach, as well as their hit songs, "Stupidity" and "King of Fools," both released on the Atlantic record label.

The band, largely a family affair, includes brothers Albert Brown on lead vocals, Roland Brown on drums, Bill Brown on bass and Lonnie Brown on piano, plus former Elvis Presley band member Delbert Pushert on tenor sax, John Bryan on trombone and John Coates.

The regular singer, Calvin Offer, was unable to attend, so another family member, Jobo Brown, shared the vocals with the rest of the group.

Before the show, Roland Brown, who had been in the band almost since its birth, recalled its origins.

"The group started back about 1953," he said. "I became a part of it in about 1954. It started with Reginald Harris, Lionel Thomas and some more young fellows that were at the time attending what was Bates High School.

They had the idea for a band, got together like some other youngsters, and in '54, when I picked it up, we just kept on playing. The guys who are in it now just came on one by one."

Community activist Zastrow Simms, a longtime fan of the group and a former member of Mayor Dennis C. Callahan's administration, attended Saturday's performance.

"Thirty years ago they were the toast of the East Coast. They played Carr's Beach, Bembe Beach and the college circuit, weddings, bar mitzvahs, everything -- and they really brought the races together, their audiences were real salt and pepper," he remembered, looking over the predominantly black crowd. "I can still see some white folks tonight, but not as much as before."

In 1968, Simms noted, when nationwide rioting was sparked by the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, the group worked with him and former Annapolis Mayor Pip Moyer to keep things calm in the city. A few days after the shooting, while cities all over the nation were being torn by rioting, more than 1,000 people showed up for a Van Dykes concert.

"The Browns are one of the oldest black families in Annapolis," Simms said. "They have a tradition of service to the community. Plus, they can play just great. I can't emphasize that enough."

In one form or another, the group was active for about 15 years, then gradually dwindled out. About 1986, members decided to start performing again on a part-time basis.

"We'd always been tight within the group itself," Roland Brown said.

"Everybody is in the neighborhood, so we'd see each other constantly. We talked about it and talked about it, and really Lonnie was the one who got it off the ground. He said he was going to see the guys and bring it back together."

But the Van Dykes aren't some museum rockers, trotted out for a trip down memory lane. They are seven very good musicians, playing with the kind of smooth energy that only comes from equally large amounts of talent and experience.

And their performance Saturday night indicated that, despite an 18-year layoff punctuated by only occasional gigs, they can still show the world how it's done.

"It was a great little band," Melvin Clark of Annapolis remembered, "one of the first bands to come out of Annapolis. They were very popular on the East Coast, in Washington and Baltimore. They were basically the No. 1 band in the area."

Another Annapolitan, Jackie Taylor, described the Van Dykes quite simply as "the best! I was young the first time I saw the band, but man, they had everything. This was the best in town; anyplace they were was packed."

Annapolis photographer Tom Curley, who played with such other R & B groups as the Pipedreamers, the Mad Hatters and the Sweet while growing up, called the Van Dykes "my inspiration in high school. I first saw them in the early 1960s, playing at a Hill Street block party."

He recalled his groups' sharing the bill with the Van Dykes, as well as other, now more prominent, names like Patti LaBelle and John Lee Hooker.

"They sound good now," he said, "but in their prime, they were really something to hear."

"It's not like the old days, but it's fun," band member Pushert, owner of Del's Styling Ranch on Route 450, said. "Thirty years ago, when you said the Van Dykes, it was like saying James Brown. We had a hell of a band."

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