Carl's Scrapbook: The 60s: Garage Bands

Ron & the Starfires

The "Starfires" were a group of older (than us) musicians who were contemporary with our first rock and roll band, the Dynamics. The Starfires were composed of Ron Whitney (vocals, harmonica and rhythm guitar), Chuck Brown (lead guitar) , Allen Keefer (drums), Ross Williams (bass) and Jack Pilkington (sax). They were the local favorites and I spent many a Saturday night standing against the north wall of the Auburndale Teen Center listening to that crude, driving, funky ol' rhythm and blues. The Starfires broke up probably in late 1961 when Ron took a job with the U.S. Agriculture Inspection Service and was stationed in Georgia. He would return to Florida some months later and was known to sit in occasionally with Kent LaVoie's "Rumors", the band that Chuck had been playing guitar with.

Ron & the Starfires 1963Soon after Ron had returned, he and Chuck decided to reform the Starfires and continue their quest for rock and roll nirvana. But, since most of the band had gone their separate ways and were no longer available, they called and asked me ("The Dynamics" had also recently broken up) to play lead guitar for them. I was almost 16 years old and more than eager to play with the older musicians who had first kindled my desire to play rock and roll and I still have that maroon After-Six dinner jacket (the band's uniform) stuck back in a closet somewhere. Ron sang and played rhythm, Chuck (the former lead guitarist) played the bass and the job of drummer was filled by a local minister's son, Ray Lee. We first went on stage, Saturday, February 7, 1963 at the Auburndale Teen Center (incidentally the band was paid $40.00). Although relatively short-lived, several live recordings and a couple of good photos of the quartet survived.

This four-man configuration lasted until mid-September when the drummer failed to show up one night for a gig at the Bartow Teen Center. When his car was finally located at a bar on Highway 17 (on the way to Bartow), it became abundantly clear that in order to do the job that night we would have to have another drummer. The original drummer for the Starfires, Allen Keefer, was given a call and he agreed to play the night. Also sitting in that evening was my first cousin, Gerald (Jesse) Chambers, on bass guitar. He had been playing with the now only recently defunct "Legends". From that night and for the next three and a half years this was the Starfires line-up. Shortly after these personnel changes, the band's name was changed to Ron and the Starfires because it had come to our attention that several groups up north were also using the name "Starfires".

From the beginning, Ron & the Starfires was basically an R&B band, doing mostly the blues and rhythm and blues songs of the late 50's and early 60's. We leaned heavily toward the stylings of such artists as: James Brown, Jimmy Reed, the Impressions, Jerry Butler and Ray Charles -- sprinkled with a little Jerry Lee Lewis, Lonnie Mack and Joey Dee -- as well as some of the more popular doo-wop tunes of the time. With the coming of the "British Invasion" of the mid-60's, the show became more of a 50/50 split of R&B and the English rock music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Zombies, Animals, Dave Clark 5, etc.. We also had several original songs as part of our shows. That mix of music would keep the group in high demand for several years to come.

Ron Whitney worked as the band's manager and developed a circuit of jobs that kept us busy year-round. Since Ron and Allen both had day jobs (both worked for Tampa Electric Company, the local power company) and Chuck was a full time student at the University of Florida, we only booked jobs (usually) on Friday and Saturday nights. It was rare that we had one of those nights off and almost never had both off. Occasionally we had jobs during the week but not very often. There is an excellent record of our entire work schedule (6 years) on the "Ron's Date Book" page. From the Fall through the Spring we played high school functions from Palatka to Clewiston mixed with countless college and university events covering most of the state.

Ron & the StarfiresIn the Fall, probably half of the jobs that Ron and the Starfires played were at or around the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. Chuck (Charlie) Brown was a student there and had gotten the group's first frat gig (as an audition) at the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house, where he was a brother, on January 18, 1964. When the '64 Fall term started, the Starfires opened the new Pi Kappa Phi house on Fraternity Row playing their first "Rush" party in that new house. We were soon made honorary Pi Kappa Phi pledges that allowed us certain "house" privileges and became known around town as the Pi Kapp "house" band, a relationship we would enjoy for most of the sixties. We were always booked in advance to play their Homecoming party, as well as a good number of their other events each term. As our popularity spread, Ron and the Starfires branched out to the other houses on the row and around town. We were probably one of the most used bands at the University of Florida during the mid-60's. Other popular bands around campus during that era, were Leesburg's Nation Rocking Shadows, and a local Gainesville band, the Maundy Quintet, that sported a couple of guitar players by the names of Don Felder and Bernie Leadon (both would eventually play with the Eagles).

During the summers, Ron & the Starfires were regulars at the Polk, Lake, and Pasco County Teen Centers, as well as the Orlando Youth Center, the Ormond Beach Teen Club, "The Wedge", "The Daytona Beach Pier" and Cocoa's "Tiger's Den", just to name a few. We always enjoyed great popularity on the East Coast while only seldom venturing in to the Tampa Bay and West Coast markets.

It was in Daytona that the Starfires became friends with manager Mike Stone and his group "The Nightcrawlers", who were enjoying a regional hit in the southeast U.S. with the song "The Little Black Egg". Mike set up a recording session at Criteria Studios in Miami (with Lee Hazen engineering), where he produced several original songs Ron had written, as well as a couple of cover tunes. We did manage a minor regional hit in the Gainesville and Daytona areas with the tune "The Grass Is Greener", on the independent Lee-C record label although it was actually the "B" side of the single, "Why Did You Cry".

Ron & the Starfires played opening act for quite a number of sixties artists including: The Searchers, The Zombies, The ShangriLas, The Birdwatchers, Tommy Roe, The Nightcrawlers, John Fred & His Playboy Band and Rufus Thomas and often shared the stage when in Daytona with The Allman Joys.

In the fall of 1966, Charlie Brown started "Law School" at the University of Florida and could no longer devote time to playing in the band (I never understood it - maybe his priorities were just out of whack).

Lyla - Starfires 45 rpm recordDuring this short period between organists, we returned to Miami for our second recording session, this time with producer Brad Shapiro. Our initial tracks were recorded at Bobby Dukoff's Studio and overdubs were done at Criteria Studio. Keyboards for the sessions were provided by Bobby Puccetti, from the Birdwatchers and the session yielded the single (on Henry Stone's Kim Records label), "Lyla (Chambers/Chambers/Whitney)" b/w "Crawl Into My Shoulder (Conlon)". The single was pressed and released but very little, if any, promotion was done. For some reason, the artist was Ron Starr on the single. I don't remember what the excuse for that was but it was probably some record label chicanery. Several other tunes written by Charlie Conlon were also included in the sessions and, in my humble opinion, were the best and most commercial recordings that the Starfires ever made. Unfortunately, the original masters seemed to have been lost, but I did manage to get them to run me a board mix after the session so at least I have a rough cassette of the session, which you can hear a part of HERE.

Ron & the Starfires continued to perform and grow musically for several years after Charlie Brown left the group, but this was definitely the end of an era in all of our musical lives.

Muggins WillardCharlie Brown's place in the group was filled by Muggins Willard of Groveland, Florida, an organ and piano player that was lured from the Nation Rockin' Shadows, a rival band from the Leesburg area. Muggins (his real name, although he later had it legally changed to George Clayton Weir) was an enthusiastic addition to the Starfires and worked really hard to do some of the more technical songs that we had not before been prone to attempt. The group was near it's technical peak — although possibly at the expense of that raw edge that had characterized the Starfires for so many years.

After a few months, Ron & the Starfires decided to fulfill a long-time dream and added horns to the group. The first additions were two trumpets, played by Howard Shumate from Auburndale and the other was Roy "Cowboy" Burns from up around the Groveland area. This sound would prove to be a little thin and eventually the configuration was changed to locals, Howard Shumate on trumpet, Don Flentke on saxophone and Larry Howard on trombone. Larry would later become a guitarist with the notable southern rock band, Grinderswitch. It is regrettable that there are no pictures of these extended versions of the Starfires. Although the music was probably the best the group ever made, the eight-way split made for some difficult times in the money department. The band still played a lot of fraternity parties, teen centers, proms, and occasional shows.

During June, 1968, Ron & the Starfires played their first full fledged bar gig (other than some one nighters played at the Temple Bar on Friday nights in Gainesville, to fill out week-ends during the fall) at Griggs’ Sword and Sirloin located in the Southland Shopping Center in Auburndale. Griggs was an upscale (for a small town) dinner club on the edge of town. But unfortunately, the restaurant was razed by fire on a Sunday morning just before the band was booked to start their second stint there that following Monday. On the positive side, we had not already loaded in our equipment for that coming week.

Toward late 1968, the group dropped the horns for monetary reasons but retained Howard Shumate for a short time as a second keyboardist.

 It was also in this time-frame that I married Barbara Suzanne "San" Chase, my first wife. She was 18 and I was 21 and during the next 5 years would give me two beautiful children, Craig and Wendy, before breaking my heart in about 1973. I swore I would never get married again - and that proves you should never say never and never say always.

Soon after getting married, I left the "Starfires" to play with "We The People", an almost legendary band that worked out of the Orlando/Winter Park area. My place in the Starfires was filled by guitarist Larry Howard, who had formerly played trombone with the larger version of the band.

The end of the sixties would all but bring an end to Ron & The Starfires although most of the group did reappear in 1970 as "Cinnamon" and then again in the mid-70s as a lounge act going under the name "Matanzas". The very fact that the band lasted as long as it did, testifies to it's level of dedication and it's popularity. We had a great run and I for one am extremely thankful to have survived the fun. It would be 1990 before the original band members would once again play together -- in a reunion show for the Auburndale High School Class of  '65 and then again in 1991.

On January 19, 2001, the original "Ron & The Starfires" members once again played a few tunes (to the delight of the audience) at the PolKats Reunion Show that featured many of the former Polk County residents who had gone on to make a mark on the national music scene. On August 31, 2002, the group reappeared at (and won) the Battle of the Bands and Garage Band Reunion held at the Lake Mirror Center in Lakeland, and even once more in 2004 for the AHS Class of '69 Reunion.