The Wolfman Jack Shock n Rock Review
excerpt “History of the Groove, Drummer’s story”
Russell Buddy Helm copyright 2013 all rights reserved
1977. Wolfman Jack and his Shock n Rock review at Knott’s Berry Farm family amusement park was an annual Halloween event. He had a cracker jack big band with Elvis’ horn section and a lot of guest artists like Booker T and Johnny Rivers. I was on conga drums and percussion, looking like Desi Arnaz. Wolf was a big man with a black manicured beard and thick black hair making him look like a real wolfman. He wore a rich long black velvet robe covered with silver magical symbols. Tonight he had a live falcon on his arm. Just before we began the show, the Knott’s Berry Farm bird wrangler carefully removed the cowling from the regal bird of prey’s golden head. His eyes flashed aggressively. Tethered, his claws dug into Wolf’s leather protected forearm. The Wolf was always game for coolness such as a falcon perching on his arm. The stage set was a graveyard inside an old radio with a glowing tuning dial running along the top of the red and gold teaser curtains. A large white snow owl with a six foot wingspan, a large raven, a vulture and an eagle were tethered to tombstones around the beautiful, scary graveyard set. Big gnarly old trees made out of tumbleweeds from the Western shoot out attraction set the tone for Halloween night at Knott’s Berry Farm. The big band was on risers around the graveyard; Jimmy, one of Elvis’ guitar players, Motown bass player, Jr. Walker on tenor sax, two trumpets, trombone; the full compliment. It was a great honor to play in Wolfman Jack’s band. He had launched successful careers for so many musicians. I was down in the graveyard, dry ice fog curling around my wellingtons, facing piano player John Herron, veteran of every great rock n roll band from Electric Prunes, to Flo and Eddie to Hoyt Axton. He was Wolf’s musical director and had also been with Tim Buckley. Wolfman Jack was famous for introducing rock n roll to the world from XERB back in the early sixties and he played himself in ‘American Graffiti’. The theater was packed with parents and children dressed in Halloween costumes. We started with ‘Monster Mash’. Wolf didn’t really sing but his gravelly voice was world famous as a DJ. Lyrics were hand lettered on grey gaffer’s tape stuck on the stage floor down front where Wolf worked the crowd with his funny rock n roll jive talking. We then pushed into ‘Fire’ by Arthur Brown. The three vampirella backup singers floated around the stage, threading through the gravestones, avoiding the edgy birds of prey who were trained and used to crowds but something unexpected started happening. The pyro crew had been overzealous preparing ‘flashpots’; small dishes of flash powder timed to ignite during the songs, sending up clouds of smoke as the girls danced by. There was too much gunpowder in the mix and the flashpots exploded like incendiary grenades. The musicians were busy reading music charts that had been rearranged up to the last minute before curtain. Sparks jumped higher into the curtain teasers above the set. I was standing up, playing conga drums and watching the whole scenario unfold. The first flashes scared John on the grand piano, he ducked away from the flying sparks, looked irritated, but kept playing. Jim Helmer, Patti Labell’s drummer, was intent on reading his charts. I was the only one to notice sparks float up and settle into the branches of tumble weeds above everybody’s eyesight behind the teasers. The dry branches caught fire immediately and flames erupted but still nobody noticed. I was trying to send a psychic message to John but he was directing the band, and hammering the 88’s with his free hand. The flames grew, then burning embers dropped down on my conga drums and on the backup singers. They faltered in their harmonies. Wolf was down front getting it on with the happy crowd. The falcon on his arm smelled the smoke, spread his large wings and tried to get airborne but was caught on the short tether, pulling Wolf’s arm up in a ridiculous salute. The rest of the birds tried to fly but where tied down on short tethers attached to the gravestones. The great Snow Owl fought against the rope, his six foot wings whipping the air. All the birds’ wings beat frantically. John finally looked up. He followed my eyes up to the flames as I continued pounding on the conga drums. He went ashen. “What do we do?” I gave him the ancient show biz circling hand signal; “Keep it rolling.” I heard a child in the audience, “Mommy. I smell smoke….” A wave of fear swept through the hall. Wolf was down front and felt the change in climate, he backed up, casually glancing at John, who nodded subtly up to the flames. The band played on.
Wolfman Jack, the ultimate showman and professional entertainer instinctively knew what to do. “Alright everybody! I want you to clap your hands together. On the beat, just follow Buddy and Jimmy.” Helmer slammed his right foot into his bass drum pedal and smacked the snare drum hard enough to hear it in Arizona. The Wolfman stayed on top of the situation.
“Everybody! Stand up! Keep clapping your hands! Move to the beat! Now get into the aisles. Keep clapping to the beat!” Everybody stood up, the smell of smoke was everywhere now but Wolf’s voice commanded attention. “Everybody move to the beat, Come on now, move on up the aisles. Keep clapping to that beat. Keep clapping your hands everybody, keep moving. Now get on up the aisles. Go on, keep moving nice and easy. Keep the beat going now!”
The doors to the auditorium were closed from the outside where the seating attendants were standing in the lobby preventing anyone from entering without a ticket. The parents and their kids kept clapping, smoke burning their eyes, they pushed the doors open, clapping their hands and burst into the lobby. Everyone kept the beat going and very orderly, considering the circumstances, got out of the burning theater.
The Knott’s Berry Fire department eventually arrived and put out the fire. The birds of prey were taken to a safe place and we regrouped for our second show. Wolfman Jack, the hero of the night, stepped back and tripped over a pipe and broke his ankle, the only casualty. He did the remaining shows from a wheelchair and using a long walking stick like Gandalf the wizard..
excerpt “Drummer’s History” Russell Buddy Helm copyright 2013 all rights reserved