Updated: May 28, 2022
In 1979 I was playing in a variety dance band called “Cloud.” It was a typical club band of that era, doing whatever was in the top 40 at the time. It was a working band; 6 nights a week, 50 weeks a year (we would take off the first two weeks of January). We were a little unusual in that we had no keyboards.
The band consisted of bandleader Jack DeVault on guitar, sax and vocals (he could double on drums if needed), Marc Gullen on drums, vocals and flute, Gary Sutton on vocals, congas and trumpet, Jimmy Everett on bass and myself on guitar and vocals.
In October of ‘79 we were playing at Harry Starkers, one of the more upscale clubs in Kansas City, when in walked a couple who were massively overdressed. They were obviously show biz folks.
It was Don and Meg Norvell. Never heard of them? Well I had.
The backstory on the Norvells and how they wound up in the club that night will take some telling that involves the Kansas City mob, a porno movie theater, a massage parlor and the band, "Cloud".
The Avanti Arts Theater was a pornographic movie house on Main Street in Midtown Kansas City. A couple of doors down was an adult bookstore, and of course there was a lot of prostitution and drug activity going on in and around the premises.
So by inference, which will be supported by subsequent events, the Kansas City mob was involved in those activities.
At some point in 1978, the owners (I think there were two guys) decided to get out of the porno movie business and convert the theater into an old-time-style burlesque showcase. Burlesque would involve musical acts, comedians, dancers (not the x-rated kind) and various other variety acts.
I think it’s safe to assume that the change would negatively affect the business of the bookstore as well as the adjacent activities going on.
They sunk a bunch of money into the renovation and brought the Norvells Show into town as the name act for the grand opening of the New Avanti Arts Theater.
There were various ads for the Norvells in the Kansas City Star newspaper from November of ‘78 on, wherein the venue was called the Main Street Follies.
I remember a story on the Norvells in the Kansas City Star Magazine, which was a weekly arts and entertainment magazine, published by the Kansas City Star newspaper and distributed with the Sunday Edition of that paper. A search of the Stars‘ archives yielded multiple references to the Norvells, all in the context of the Avanti Arts theater (AKA Main Street Follies), with allusions to robbery, cocaine trafficking, murder and other nefarious activities:
The Norvells were a husband-and-wife variety act that did comedy skits, complete with characters and costumes, but the big thing they did which was the climax to every show was an adagio routine.
This was seriously impressive dancing. Think a combination of ballet and gymnastics. Check out the lower right-hand picture above. One of the definitions of adagio is:
a duet by a man and a woman or mixed trio emphasizing difficult technical feats
Don and Meg were good, real good.
According to their press, they had taken first place at the 1976 Tokyo Acrobatic Adagio Competition.
I thought their comedy stuff was corny and full of schtick but the adagio skills were truly amazing.
So…shortly after the New Avanti Arts Theater opened to much fanfare with the Norvells as the big-name draw, one of the owners left town on vacation.
While he was gone his house blew up.
That’s why, among the other reasons given in the newspaper clipping above, the New Avanti Arts Theater went back into porno; message received and understood, thank you very much!
And so it was that Don and Meg were stranded in Kansas City.
An Italian someone (I met the guy but never knew his name) who owned a strip mall up north of the river gave Don a job managing a massage parlor that was the anchor business of the strip.
So Don and Meg were living in an apartment over the massage parlor and doing private shows for rich people in Mission Hills on the weekends.
It was after one of those shows that Don and Meg came into Harry Starkers and saw Cloud performing.
That very night, Don comes up to Jack DeVault - Don was very New York with his accent and attitude, and emphatically says,
“This is a great band! I’m gonna write a show around this band! We’re going to Vegas!”
DeVault bought it.
Jack recently told me that he was unaware of the history and the mob connection; the idea of having a show written around his band and being part of a real show that toured and played in Las Vegas was so appealing - he wanted it so bad - that the wool was pulled over his eyes and he didn’t see or think through anything about the situation; he just dived in and dragged the rest of us along with him.
Well, most of the rest of us; Jimmy Everett would have none of it and promptly quit the band.
Turns out he was the smart one.
In recent conversations it has become clear that I was connecting the dots more than DeVault was. Even though I was the youngest guy in the band, I was experienced enough to know that the music business and the mob were intertwined. It was very common for bands to be playing in mob-connected clubs. I had already been exposed to plenty of that. So the mob connection wasn’t a deal-killer for me. Plus, my wife was pregnant and I needed the job.
So I went along with it and stayed loyal to DeVault, even though the idea of “show” didn’t appeal to me; I just wanted to play my guitar.
In my opinion, in hindsight, I suspect Don Norvell saw us as an opportunity to get the hell out of Kansas City, and escape the mob-infested cesspool he found himself in.
Don Norvell was true to his word. He wrote a show around the band, and he did it quickly! It just so happened there was a closed nightclub right next door to the massage parlor. So we set up in the empty nightclub, stored some gear in the massage parlor and in late November of ‘79 started rehearsals.
To replace Jimmy Everett, DeVault brought in Larry Fike, who had worked with Cloud previous to my tenure.
Larry was a keyboard player who played key bass, sang and played valve trombone. He had perfect pitch and was the first kick-ass Hammond B3 player I ever worked with; there have been many since then. It’s one of my favorite formats in which to play. He is one of the unnamed keyboard players in my blog, Perils of Perfect Pitch. He is the one to whom his perfect pitch had no drawbacks; he could hear, he was musically knowledgeable, he could transpose and he could read - he had it all. He was an amazing musician.
He was a large man, maybe 6’3’’ and 300 pounds but he had a gentle demeanor, was very soft-spoken and had a limp handshake. Kind of a gentle giant.
He also had an impressive collection of sadomasochistic porn that he carried with him on the road. This was long before the internet made that kind of thing more accessible; I had never seen anything like it and have no idea how he obtained it.
Did I mention he traveled with a live Thompson submachine gun? Yeah, he accidentally shot a hole in his hotel room floor one night.
In addition to Larry, Don added Brian Tracy to the band. Brian had already been involved with the Norvells to some degree but wasn’t known by any of us in the band.
Brian played keyboards, sax and he could sing. The Norvells Show was where I met Brian; we became close friends and worked together for years after that.
Have you noticed that I was the only band member who didn’t double on a second instrument? And everybody sang! That’s six vocalists, all capable of singing lead. On top of all that, Meg Norvell could sing and so she occasionally appeared with the band as a special guest.
Imagine; two keyboard players, two drummers, a percussionist, two guitar players, six singers, two sax players, a trumpet player, a flautist and a valve trombone. All that with just six guys. It really was an extraordinary band.
Don also enlisted Danny. I never knew Danny’s last name. DeVault called him “kind of a shady character.” Now that I think about it, I don’t even know if “Danny” was his real name. I know absolutely nothing about him.
Danny was a stagehand/technician. He operated the spotlight and set off the flash-pots, fog machine and so on according to the choreography of the show. He was also the bus driver. I got the feeling there was some history between Danny and Don but that was all it was; a feeling.
My memory is that we rehearsed six nights a week for a month in that empty nightclub next to the massage parlor.
The “working girls“ would come over when they had a break and watch us put the show together. Sometimes Don would have to leave for a few minutes to take care of a problem next door.
At the same time, he was working on getting the other things together; a promo package, lights for the show, flash-pots, a smoke machine, different tux outfits for the band and a tour bus.
We had powder blue tuxedos with frilly shirts. We had dark blue tuxedos with red glittery vests. We changed clothes every break. We had comedy skits with costumes. We had a ceiling-to-floor tinsel curtain that hung behind the stage, hiding all the amps.
We had lights that illuminated the tinsel curtain with different colors. The tinsel would move and sway to the air currents in the room and vibrations coming from the amps immediately behind it producing a sparkly, colorful backdrop. Very Vegas-y. DeVault loved the tinsel curtain so much he used one for years after the Norvells episode.
We carried lumber in the bus and built the stage everywhere we went. It took us 8 hours to set up.
The lights and special effects alone were $20,000. Keep in mind this was 1979. $20,000 in 1979 is equivalent to over $77,000 today! And that doesn’t count the bus!
Where did that money come from?
The band members used their own personal gear; instruments, amps, microphones, pedals, cables etc., but the only thing I had to buy was a pair of shoes.
One night the owner of the strip mall came in to check us out. He had a German Shepard on a short leash, a .45 tucked into his belt and I swear to God he talked just like Vito Corleone in The Godfather!
Towards the end of December ‘79 we played a couple of shows locally, working out the kinks, and then hit the road after the holidays.
The first week in Chicago was one of the worst mis-bookings I have ever experienced.
The booking agent that brought us to Chicago was some connection of Don’s. This guy didn’t just use the f-word in every sentence; he used it between syllables in multiple words in every sentence!
That guy created more compound words than anyone I’ve ever met.
Anyway, he booked us a week with an option on a second week into a large supper club, I’m thinking maybe a 400 or 500-seat capacity.
I was somewhat skeptical because of the name; The Nashville North. But hey, I was just a bottom-of-the-totem-pole, youngest-guy-in-the-band guitar player. I was the only guy who didn’t double on another instrument so what did I know?
Any skepticism I had was confirmed when we walked into the place; there, in all her glory, was a stained-glass window of Dolly Parton. It was like entering a church.
We did zero country. Zero, zip, nada.
“We. Are. Going. To. Die.”
It was worse than the Blues Brothers at Bob's Country Bunker; there was no chicken wire.
The instant we walked onstage we were, according to the catcalls from the crowd, a bunch of faggots because of the way we were dressed. One night, from somewhere out in the darkness, one of the hundreds of audience members yelled, “We didn't come here to listen to this shit!" - and we hadn't played anything yet!
You can imagine what they thought of the dancers - ballet dancers.
The band’s “dressing room” was actually a storeroom. If you were quiet for a minute or two, rats would come out.
We threw out all the choreography of the lights, fog and flash pots and just played our Pop dance music along with any country song we could scrape together until the crowd was on the verge of getting really ugly. Then Don would cue Danny and the fog, smoke, explosions and lights would all go off at once in a concussive roar of noise, flashes of light, fire, smoke and fog.
The crowd would go crazy - they loved that shit! We would then take a break and reload the flash pots with powder and reset everything for another set.
That's how we got through the week - six nights in a row.
At the end of the week the club owner took us all out to dinner (a nice gesture) to inform us he wasn't going to pick us up on the second week option, for which we were very grateful. He was just as much a victim as we were.
"You guys got a great show" he said, "you're just not right for this room."
Talk about stating the obvious.
During the course of the dinner conversation with the club owner we discovered the booking agent had told him that we had a Country-and-Western floor show and that we were all from Arkansas!
The booking agent had told us it was a way to get us into town so he could bring other club owners to see us. But we had to throw out the show just to get through the week because it was such a horrible mis-booking. So nobody really saw what we could do. Ooops. Show-biz.
At the end of that first week, Don called a band meeting, sat us all down and said,
“If this show was going to be everything I said, playing big clubs and theaters, and then into Vegas, would you still be interested in sticking with it?”
As I remember it, Gary Sutton and I were the only guys who flat-out said, “No!”
That answer was effectively giving notice, but I was trapped on the road. I couldn't just catch a bus and go home; I had my gear to think about. It took almost 2 months to get home relatively unscathed and leave the Norvells behind for good.
In the middle of the week at the Nashville North, when it became apparent we weren’t going to have a job the next week, Don went scrounging for another gig with, I assume, the help of the sleaze-ball agent.
He found one, I know not how, in a motel on the south side. Yeah…the south side of Chicago. It was right next to Midway Airport and the jets flew in low over the motel on their takeoffs and landings.
I remember accompanying Don and Jack DeVault to take the contract to the guy. He was behind the counter, which was behind bars, with, yet again, a German Shepard and a pistol on the desk.
As part of the deal we got one meal a day plus rooms, for which we would pay at the end of the week after getting paid.
We set up in the ballroom and used it as a showcase. We generally weren’t playing for the public but for industry people; club owners, agents and so on.
One night as Marc Gullen was filling a flash-pot with powder it blew up in his face. He was blind for about 15 minutes, but recovered. Lucky.
One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen happen onstage occurred that week.
I said earlier that we carried lumber in the bus and built the stage wherever we went.
There were three levels. The bottom level was whatever the stage or floor of the venue was. That was Jack and Gary; they were the front guys. The second level was Larry Fike and myself. The third level was the drummer, Marc Gullen, and directly behind and above me was Brian Tracy on keyboard and sax.
Behind the third level was the ceiling-to-floor tinsel curtain behind which were all the amplifiers.
We're in the middle of some rock-n-roll tune and it’s time for Brian to whip out a screaming sax solo. Danny swings the 1500-watt spotlight around and focuses on Brian, who is sitting behind his keyboard. Brian scoots his chair back to get the bell of the sax up to the microphone and the back legs of his chair slide off the back of the stage. He falls backwards off the stage, heels-over-head, crashes through the tinsel curtain into my amp, which makes a horrible noise when he hits it.
I turn around and all I can see in the spotlight is the bottoms of his shoes sticking up through the tinsel curtain, flailing around. I realize he is stuck, upside down, so I quit playing, step up to the third level and stick my hand through the tinsel curtain. He grabbed my arm and I pulled him back up onstage.
The rest of the band was cracking up but didn’t quit playing; the show must go on!
That second week in Chicago I roomed with Danny. I’m gonna say some things about Danny that I’m not going to say about some (not all) of the other guys because I don’t even know who Danny is, or was. The others I considered my friends and, you know, bro-code. Plus - none of my business. Suffice to say, being on the road with this outfit was a constant Sodom and Gomorrah.
Danny was a prostitute magnet. He had a couple of women hanging around the whole week. They were a team. One of them gave me a business card that had a phone number in the middle and a word in each corner:
“Professional” - “Imaginative” - “Helpful” - “Clean.”
Apparently they were independent contractors; I never saw a pimp - and I was looking, believe me!
There was a quintessential black Chicago Blues band playing in the Lounge downstairs. They played from 8:00-4:00 six nights a week.
I would get off my gig at 1am, go back to the room and change clothes, and go sit in with the Blues guys till 4:00. I enjoyed that a lot more than playing our show.
One night I went to my room to change clothes and one of those hookers was passed out in my bed! Apparently Danny had given her a key - or had left her there for me to find when he finished with her. Maybe he thought he was doing me a favor. Danny was a piece of work - and not in a good way!
She didn’t wake up (or regain consciousness) when I came in and changed clothes and was gone when I came back after 4:00. I called housekeeping and had the bedsheets changed before going to bed.
We finished out the week there. For some reason, Don was convinced the check was bad. At least that’s what he said. The day after our last night was Sunday, the following Monday was President’s Day, the banks were closed, and we were due to open Monday night in St Louis. So there was no way to take the check to the bank before leaving town.
We never got paid for that second week in Chicago. I’ve wondered if we did get paid and Don kept all the money. Wouldn’t surprise me.
So on Sunday we were all packed up, sitting in the idling bus in the parking lot and Don comes running out of the office yelling, “Go Danny! Go Danny! Go!”
DeVault muttered to me, “He’s running out on the bill - I hate this shit!”
I think that’s when DeVault started thinking about getting out.
I said the next gig was in St Louis. More like East St Louis - Cahokia, Illinois to be exact. The club was called, The Red Carpet and the gig was 9:00-3:30 for six nights.
We rolled into town on Sunday evening and dumped our stuff at the club, got a cash advance from the club owner so we could eat and piled into the band trailer. Yeah, the club owned a trailer in which the bands stayed.
So there were two bedrooms and one bathroom for 9 people and a cat. Meg had a cat. We also had a big Doberman, but he stayed in the bus to guard stuff.
Of course Don and Meg took a room. So the rest of us camped out where we could.
We devised a schedule for taking showers that spread things out to try and preserve the hot water.
That evening, Marc took his shower after Danny. Suddenly, we hear Marc yell from the bathroom,
“DANNY’S GOT THE CRABS!!!”
He had smelled the medicine - and knew what it was.
Everybody started itching and scratching.
DeVault: “Goddam it Danny, if I take a case of the crabs home to my wife I’m gonna kick your ass!”
“I don’t understand it” said Danny, “She seemed so clean!”
I showed Danny the business card.
“Maybe you should sue for false advertising!” I said.
I was so glad I’d had housekeeping change the bedsheets the week before! Thankfully, none of us caught the crabs from Danny.
The same night, our first night there, we were eating Kentucky Fried Chicken which we paid for with the advance from the club owner, when there was a knock on the door. It was the local union rep wanting the work dues for the week - upfront!
That was just one incident in a long list that caused me to punt the musician’s union in the mid-eighties.
DeVault told him, “You’re not getting a damn cent till we get paid! And we won’t get paid till Saturday night minus the advance we took just so we could eat tonight after not getting paid for the gig last week! Now what the hell is the union gonna do about that!?!”
After slamming the door on the guy he said, “I’m not gonna pay that bastard anything!”
Needless to say, though the gig was a rousing success, it was brutal. Five dance sets and an hour-and-a-half show is a long night. Every night was a marathon.
Don and Meg did their adagio routine on the dance floor while the band played the Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet. One night during a lift Meg conked her head on the mirror ball. That was pretty funny.
The backstage area had several nice dressing rooms that always had random people hanging out. We were changing clothes in rooms containing complete strangers, usually women. That was very convenient for certain band member’s proclivities. Again, Sodom and Gomorrah.
At about 1:30 every morning there would be a big influx of people arrive that were already drunk and partying. They were coming across the river from Missouri, where the bars closed at 1:00, to Illinois where the bars stayed open till 4:00. Yay.
After the gig we would go get breakfast somewhere. There would be a bunch of women, groupies and various folks that would show up and hang around the band. A lot of them I recognized from the dressing rooms at the club.
Every morning after breakfast as we drove the bus back to the band trailer to get some sleep the sun would just be rising.
At some point during the week in Cahokia, DeVault, Gary Sutton and I hatched a plan to escape the situation with gear and money intact.
All three of us were married. Jack had a toddler; my wife was pregnant with our first-of-5. Larry Fike was married but was not included in the plan for reasons that will become clear later. Mark Gullen and Brian Tracy were not married nor were either of them in any kind of committed relationship.
The next gig was 3 weeks in Bismarck, North Dakota, but there was a week off between Cahokia and Bismarck. Don was planning on spending most of the week in St Louis and driving to Bismarck straight from there.
Jack, Gary and I told Don that we were going to rent a car and drive to Kansas City to be with our wives for a few days between the two gigs. We would leave our gear with the bus. We figured that would reassure Don that we weren’t bailing on him with no notice.
Don said, “No problem, man. Don’t worry about coming back to St Louis; we’ll swing through Kansas City on the way and pick you guys up.”
So the three of us did just that; left our stuff with the others, rented a car and drove home on Sunday.
Later in the week the bus broke down between St Louis and Kansas City and sat overnight on the side of the highway in freezing weather. One of my guitars (a Martin N-20 classical guitar) was damaged but not totaled. I continued to use it for years after that.
Six days after leaving the tour in St Louis, on Saturday evening, Jack, Gary and I met up with the Norvells Show to make the trip to Bismarck.
Only now we had a car. We were taking Gary’s little 2-door Toyota hatchback. At that point Don knew that our days with the show were numbered.
I had suggested just taking our gear off the bus right then and going home.
Jack’s reasoning was this; the gig in Bismarck was three weeks. We would be getting paid and it would give him time to put another band together over the phone. With the three of us still together all he needed to find was a bass player and drummer. He would also have the time to line up some gigs for the new unit.
That way we would return to a viable situation with gigs on the calendar and not lose the 3 weeks or more of work because we were starting over from scratch. Besides that, though he felt no loyalty to Don Norvell, he didn’t want to leave the other three guys in a situation that was untenable: a three-week gig that started in 48 hours and no time to replace us with new guys who wouldn’t know the show.
Jack’s position made sense and so Gary and I agreed.
The trip to Bismarck was harrowing. I rode on the bus and Jack and Gary followed in the little Toyota.
We left Kansas City about 6:00 in the evening on Saturday night. By about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning we’re somewhere between Sioux Falls and Fargo running on empty and it’s 20-below-zero outside. That’s actual Fahrenheit, not wind-chill. The Dakotas in February.
Don is standing in the front of the bus next to Danny, who is driving. Over and over he says,
”Up there! I see some lights! There’s gotta be a gas station there! Get off there, Danny!”
Every time we’d get to the exit and nothing. Some streetlights on the overpass and a desolate two-lane stretching into the darkness on either side.
After an hour or so of this I’m starting to get nervous. How long will the bus run on empty? We’re looking around for stuff that would burn.
"Thank God for the lumber we use for the stage!" I thought. I wonder if Larry would’ve let us use his magazines to get the fire started.
In those pre-cellphone days, road bands would have CB radios for emergencies - and entertainment. I remember a road trip with Cloud previous to the Norvells where Marc Gullen was reading the Penthouse Forum out loud on the CB, complete with character voices and sound effects! He was a popular guy with the truckers.
Anyway, Don finally made CB contact with a state trooper who subsequently found us. This guy escorted us off I-29, down a two-lane for several miles to a crossroads that had a gas station. By this time it’s dawn on Sunday morning. The trooper goes to the house across the street, wakes up the owner, makes him open the station and gas us up.
The trooper told us that was the only gas station for a 300-mile radius! And it wasn’t even on the interstate!
Later that afternoon on I-94 between Fargo and Bismarck the bus broke down again. We lost a couple of hours - maybe 3 - but Don and Danny managed to fix it and we made it into Bismarck Sunday evening. That gave us the whole day Monday to set up in time for the opening show on Monday night.
Kansas City to Bismarck is normally about 12 hours. It took us almost 24.
The gig in Bismarck was actually pretty comfortable. The hours were 8:00 to midnight. That’s 2 dance sets and a show. A nice break after the 9:00 to 3:30 in Cahokia.
It was the nicest place in town. We were staying in the same hotel the showroom was in so we never had to go outside.
I did leave the hotel and wander around on foot one day; I was surprised at how small the town was in light of the fact that it was the state capitol.