The Van Dykes are back!
Yes, those Van Dykes. The guys who used to play the Famous Ballroom and the Arbutus Teen Center. The guys whose music made a million memories in the years of doo-wop and horn-driven Atlantic soul.
They haven't played in years. They have gone gray and started wearing glasses, retired from careers as barbers and mortgage collectors. Some are grandfathers. Yet here they are, crowded into a middle school band room, trying to shake the rust off their chops and turn a ragged sound into music.
"We're blasting! We're blasting!" says Albert Brown, all enthusiasm and encouragement. Brown, 57, is the tenor saxman and leader. He calls out for "Knock on Wood," the Eddie Floyd classic from 1966.
They start, stop. There's a snag. The guitar is talking too much.The horns aren't tight. Someone is lagging on the beat. They try it again.
"Play it sort of with some dynamics, kind of light, you know. Start off heavy, and then OK?" says John Bryan, 57, the tall, lanky trombonist. He nods around the room, counts off the beat -- one, two, three.
The horns take off. Roland Brown, 59, keeps a steady beat on the stripped down drum kit -- snare, cymbal, high hat, bass drum bandaged with tape where the foot pedal has hit countless times. The old joy starts to fill the room. No one worries about tomorrow night's benefit gig at Catonsville Community College.
"I've played with those guys so long, it's almost like a marriage," says Bryan. "We can look in each other's eyes, and we can know where each other is going."
If you're from around here and won't see 50 again, you might remember the Van Dykes. They played everywhere, backed Ike and Tina, the Coasters, Solomon Burke, LaVerne Baker, everybody who was anybody on the black rhythm and blues circuit.
There wasn't a decent Top 40 tune they didn't know. They even hit the charts once with "Stupidity," a mid-Atlantic smash of some note. That was a lifetime ago.
Now, they're getting ready for one more show, this time for
ReVisions Foundation, a Catonsville organization that helps the mentally ill become functioning members of society.
"It took a very special person to get us to go back," Brown says one day over lunch at the Wyndham Hotel in Annapolis.
It took Joe Loverde, 53, a die-hard fan with the tenacity of a salesman. Loverde grew up in Irvington, became part of the band's inner circle, even sat in on drums occasionally. Without him the Van Dykes might still be in retirement. The band broke up in the early 1970s and has played a handful of times since then, most notably 10 years ago when Loverde brought them together for a benefit.
This time around, there was plenty of resistance when Loverde called. Brown, a small-businessman and warehouse supervisor at Warstila Diesel, was skeptical. The Van Dykes were just a name. They weren't a group anymore. Del "Fat Daddy" Puschert, who brought his tenor sax to the band in 1956 after a road tour with Elvis Presley, knew a reunion meant hours and hours of rehearsing, long nights trying get everything right. Puschert, 64, retired from the musician's life. He spends a good part of the year seeing the country.
"I didn't want to do it. I've had my time, and I was kind of burned out," says Puschert, voice full of southern Anne Arundel County drawl. "The thrill is not there like when you're young. I can still play the damn thing, but I don't need the money."
The Van Dykes also had lost a member. Their guitar player, John Coates, died last year. At his funeral they played "Amazing Grace," sending their comrade home in the style of a New Orleans jazzman. The death broke the chain linking them together. A reunion meant a constant reminder of the loss.
When Loverde asked, the Van Dykes said, "No." But he wouldn't let go. "I'm a salesman," he says. "And you know the old saying, 'persistence overcomes resistance.'"
He kept calling Brown, nudging him. He did a little pleading, pushed a few emotional buttons. It would be like going back to 1960 when the Twist was on the radio and each release of the Top 40 meant learning a new dance. For a few hours, everyone could step back to those nights cruising around in a 1956 Ford convertible, those nights of sensual slow dances and a sweetheart's soft, yielding lips.
And, there was the matter of one's own sense of mortality. In another 10 years the whole gang will be staring down 70.
Loverde told them: "Albert. Delbert. My God, this could be the last time for all of us."
In the beginning, they drew Van Dyke beards on their adolescent chins and took odd jobs to buy each other's instruments. They listened to Big Joe Turner and Little Willie John on WANN-AM. They loved the driving rhythm and blues and nascent rock and roll.
They were students at Bates High School, the only public high school open to blacks in Anne Arundel County in 1952. Roland Brown, the drummer and founding member, was in 10th grade. Within four years, the Van Dykes were worth hearing.