I'm Still Rooting for Them

In the mid 1960s, my wife and I started a store in Brown County, Indiana. It was called the One of a Kind Shop, and our business plan was to buy cheap junk in second-hand stores, tote it home, fix it up a little bit, and sell it for much more money to antique collectors. 

It was, for me, a time of many goofy business ventures. I started a movie theater, also in Brown County, called the Nashville Nickelodeon. It showed old-time silent movies, for which I played piano, giving me an item on my resume not generally shared by piano players in the 1960s. 

At the same time, I started a tourist magazine called The Brown County Almanack. Last I heard, the Almanack was still being published, after it was picked up by the local weekly newspaper. 

In my spare time, I wrote jingles, and at night I had the house band in a night club in Indianapolis. More stories for later.

This didn’t leave much time for sleep, especially when I started playing the Jim Gerard TV show in the mornings. So we moved to Indianapolis, and that’s yet another story, which I’ll mercifully skip for now. 

At some point we figured things out and moved to Los Angeles. I’ll also skip the paragraphs describing that move for another time, how I started getting some work, and somehow bought a house. 

I’ll pick up my account in the early 1970s when, as part of our quest to fill every cubic cubbyhole of that house with whimsically ironic effluvia, my wife and I started making the rounds of flea markets in the Los Angeles area. The most productive one was the frighteningly enormous Rose Bowl Swap Meet and Flea Market, where we dropped a lot of spare loot on egregious gewgaws from many eras. That is also where I first encountered the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band, which is the story I’ve taken a very roundabout way to get to today. Here, halfway through this endless blog entry is, finally, how it happened: 

As I rounded a corner near an exit from the Rose Bowl, the Rooters were just cranking up what they called the Buick LeSabre Dance. That peppy number was segued omtp their version of most of the score from "The Wizard of Oz." 

I stood mesmerized for 45 minutes as they ran through a typically all-encompassing set—the most compelling blend of the virtuoso and the inept I had encountered since hearing Thelonious Monk on a rough night. When the RRGTCB finished playing, I uncharacteristically introduced myself as a big-shot Hollywood type who could get them a record deal. 

This was nonsense, of course—but not totally fictional, as it turned out. I did get them a record deal, albeit one with Vanguard Records, a small New York label for whom I had done an album ("The Masters Of Deceit”—I’ve mentioned it before, but don't bother to look for it) in the 1960s. I was somehow still on speaking terms with Vanguard’s president, Maynard Solomon, and I was fully aware that he was a Beethoven scholar and wouldn't be able to resist any band that did the Fifth Symphony with choreography. 

Eventually, the Vanguard album was recorded at the fully professional MRI studios in Hollywood, and the label even paid me a small stipend for my services as producer—although those funds promptly went to fund the bailing out of a band member who had been arrested on the eve of the first recording session. 

The album was a critical success but a marketing flop. Vanguard was never known as a label which promoted its artists heavily, and sometimes it seemed that their publicity department was under a non-disclosure agreement. Potential album buyers assumed the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band was either (a) a corporate performing unit of a drain-cleaning company, (b) yet another album of Christmas Carols or (c) something left behind by space aliens. Mostly true, but in any event, the mass market left it alone. 

I did mention the album to an old friend and fellow Vanguard artist, Peter Schickele (AKA ”P.D.Q. Bach"), and he phoned Maynard Solomon to ask the label to ship him a copy. Solomon replied: "Sure. Would you like 500?" At that moment, we realized that Vanguard was not counting on Roto Rooter for boffo sales. 

The album eventually made the gradual transition from New Release to featured album to Discount Item to Collector's Rarity, with mint-condition copies now selling for more money than the band members made from it. 

A few years ago, the Lawrence Welk Organization counted its money (“A one and a two”) and found it had enough to buy Vanguard Records. When I heard about this, I called the Welk offices and inquired about the Roto Rooter album, whether it might be possible to reacquire it or something. I was told that no, there were no plans to reissue it on CD; and no, they weren't interested in allowing the band to reissue it either. "We don't do that," sniffed a Welkster. Perhaps Lawrence had issued an edict from the grave, condemning this band because he was still pissed off about Roto Rooter’s notable melding of genres between ”Bubbles In The Wine" with "21st Century Schizoid Man." 

For many years, the Vanguard album remained a vinyl-only rarity, meaning that digital listeners were deprived of the joy of hearing me walk around the studio (during "The Rite of Spring") swinging a long plastic tube into which I was chanting "Roto Rooter Roto Rooter Roto Rooter" to Stravinsky’s catchy melody. 

The Roto Rooter Good Time Chrismas Band achieved the difficult feat of being simultaneously behind the times and ahead of its time. 

The cover of the LP was quite stunning in its own stunned way, as you can see above, but at the right I’m also showing you a previously unseen alternate version of the cover, with an in-person appearance by the album’s producer, a then-young man who turned out to be, if can you believe it…me.