For 34th year, the Admirals chart course for Ocean City

July 11, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

Ignite the charcoal, crack the crabs. Then rise to your feet for a salute to another tradition of Maryland summer: the Admirals rocking Ocean City.

The Baltimore band, formed by seven teen-agers at the Lutherville teen center in 1958, debuted in Ocean City in 1961. It inaugurates its 34th straight summer there next Monday, opening for seven days at the Sheraton Fontainebleau Hotel. The Admirals are also booked at the hotel Aug. 15-21 and Sept. 12-18.

"If you went around Ocean City and asked people, 'Of all the bands that have played clubs and hotels in the area, which one comes to mind?' " says Bob White, 41, director of programming (( and promotion at radio station WANN in Annapolis, "I think 85 to 95 percent would say the Admirals."

Mr. White first heard the Admirals with his parents at Ship's Cafe in the early 1960s. A dozen summers later, when the band played at the Fenwick Inn, he became devoted.

"They were Baltimore and the surrounding area's No. 1 variety band," Mr. White says. "They had a large sound and played everything from country to big band. And they had the unique ability to feel out an audience and then play just the right tune to put everybody in the mood."

The band has no original members, although Bernie Robier, business manager and trombonist from the Peabody Conservatory, joined 32 years ago. A founder, Tom Berry, 49, who owns Towson Liquors, played for 20 years, and another founder, Jay Stermer, who owns three Admirals dry-cleaning stores in Florida (named after the band but not affiliated with Admiral Cleaners here) played for 28 years.

Yet if you heard the Admirals at your senior prom three decades ago, you'd recognize the same accomplished, danceable mix of top 40 hits, obscure gems and novelty tunes today. The band's sound and style have persevered through cultural phenomenons and musical trends, including the protest music of rebellious youth.

"That wasn't us," says Mr. Berry, the original bass player and business manager. "We weren't mad at anybody. We played music that made people happy."

Seven teen-agers responded to a notice in 1958 to form a band at the Lutherville teen center. After a few clumsy rehearsals, a raw, rockabilly band named the Admirals faced an audience of its peers at the center, which was actually the cafeteria at Lutherville Elementary School.

"At the beginning, the kids threw money at us," says Mr. Stermer, 15 at the time. "We'd hear it banging off the saxophone and stuff. They wanted the records put back on. 'Get rid of these guys.' "

Each teen center had its own band. The centers were incredibly popular. "This was a phenomenon that was big," Mr. Berry says. "But now it's just an era that's gone with the wind. . . . The worst thing you did back then was get caught smoking in the bathroom."

He means smoking cigarettes. By the mid-1960s that meant marijuana. Drugs eventually doomed the teen centers. But by then, nobody slung coins at the Admirals anymore.

A little extra

"The reason the band survived was because it graduated from being a pretty lousy guitar band to a horn band," says Mr. Stermer, the musical arranger. "The horns gave us some class, ** that little extra kick."

They also hired a black singer, Will McLamb. This was a bold, controversial move in the segregated early 1960s. It seemed harmless to the Admirals, because Mr. McLamb was a school chum from Lutherville. Plus, he could sing like Ray Charles.

The band began performing songs by Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Curtis Mayfield and, of course, Ray Charles. And it stretched its repertoire beyond rhythm and blues.

Mr. Robier recalls rehearsing every Wednesday night in the basement of Mr. Berry's parents' house, and then watching Steve Allen and his orchestra on TV. The Admirals worked original music from the show into its act.

"The kids at the teen center didn't know what the hell it was, but we liked it," Mr. Robier says. "That's the thing that made this band different from all the other bands in the city. We didn't just listen to rock. Nobody was playing 'Absent-Minded Lover' but us, and we're still doing it today because it's such a great song."

"Absent-Minded Lover" is an old Louis Prima and Keely Smith song. Mr. Berry did a great Keely Smith.

The Admirals graduated to nightclubs about 1962, notably the renowned Hollywood Park and Club Venus. Hollywood Park was a ramshackle bar on Eastern Avenue in Essex. The Admirals opened shows, played between shows and sometimes backed the headliners, which included Bill Haley and the Comets, Lloyd Price, the Drifters, Coasters, Shirelles and Platters.

When Michael Athas, co-owner of Hollywood Park, opened the Las Vegas lounge-type Club Venus in Perring Plaza in 1966, he hired the Admirals as the house band. "It was a big jump for us," Mr. Berry says. "It was a big jump for Baltimore."

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