Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Several months ago David Reynolds, writer for British Rock fanzine FIREWORKS, reached out and asked if I would do an interview about DC Star for the Summer / 2022 99th Special Edition of the magazine. It took me by surprise but after doing some quick vetting on David and the magazine I said “Hell yea I would be delighted!”
It seems that David had run across DC Star’s 1985 Mirage / Atlantic release “Rockin’ In The Classroom“ for the first time and it all caught his ear. He has been writing a feature article for the magazine entitled “Bands That Time Forgot” and said DC Star fit the bill perfectly.
The 2 hour interview was done with great skill and the article turned out to be one of the best “speed pitches” for the group I’ve read. Bear in mind that the article was somewhat focused on the Atlantic release that caught his attention. But with the quick and fairly accurate front end and back story it is humbling to have DC Star remembered and honored objectively the way the band deserves.
The copy of FIREWORKS magazine they sent is amazing, full of articles on over 50 acts, and with a free 18 song promotional CD attached. Unfortunately the only US retailer that carries FIREWORKS is Barnes and Noble. You can subscribe and order the $12 magazines and other stuff from their site but the postage for a mag to the US is also $12.
In consideration of our US fans the magazine’s editor Bruce Mee gave us permission to share a transcription of the entire article on our website and share a link to it on Facebook as long as it contains the link to the magazine … how cool is that!
We hope you enjoy the article and will take a look at FIREWORKS magazine too!
By the way, for those of you fans looking for those next DC Star releases; “Memories And Fantasy” has been delayed just a bit to November 1st and **Unplugged** will debut by Thanksgiving! The music is all finished but we are using internet scheduling for best impact.
- David Simmons / David and Goliath Music
'Band's That Time Forgot'
FIREWORKS ARTICLE Feat. DC STAR Issue 99 SUMMER Jul-Sept 2022
For every band that landed a major record deal, went on to enjoy multiple album releases and gain gold or platinum awards, there were hundreds more who fell by the wayside. Indeed, sometimes getting the one thing that pretty much every group aspires to – a recording contract with a major record company – has proven to be one of the main reasons for an all too quick demise. That was a fate that unfortunately befell DC Star.
A good-time Hard Rock band from Clinton, Maryland (around 21 miles from Washington D.C.), at their peak in the early 80’s DC Star enjoyed significant exposure on Rock radio and a heavy touring schedule that allowed them to expand their popularity on the east coast of the United States as far south as the Carolinas and as far north as New England. Interestingly, the group’s roots can be traced way back to when one David Simmons first picked up the guitar in 1971. After gaining lessons from Billy Smith, who was the guitar playing brother of school friend Tim, David would quickly learn the instrument proficiently to form his first band alongside his tutor. Henry Smith (the guitarist for a local band called Crusader Rabbitt and the elder brother of Tim and Billy) sat in on bass.
“I first learnt to play the piano when I was a young kid,” David told me when I caught up with him for a chat recently. “My mother taught me. She could also play ukulele and guitar, but I didn’t get my first guitar until I got my first job. I played clarinet in the school marching band up in Rhode Island, but I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 16, by which time my family had moved down to Washington D.C. My first job was working in Sam’s Crab House (a seafood restaurant) and within six weeks I’d saved up to go to Chuck Levin’s Music Center to get my first decent guitar, which was a Fender Mustang. So I started up a band called Spring Fever with Billy Smith, after he taught me how to play. His brother Henry played bass with us. They’re still great friends of mine.”
By 1972, on the hunt for a more permanent bassist, David and Billy encountered a fellow guitarist by the name of Jeff Avery playing in another local band called Syn. Avery covered Cream, Grand Funk Railroad and Black Sabbath in his power trio alongside bassist Bill Baker and drummer Wade Richards.
“We saw Syn play a show at a little recreation centre in Clinton and we were just blown away,” recalls Simmons. “Jeff, who was 15 years old, could play all that Cream, Grand Funk and Sabbath stuff note for note. He had every lick Eric Clapton played in Cream down, that’s for sure. It was pretty scary. He’s a prodigy.”
When Wade Richards ultimately joined a more widely known outfit at the time called Sassafras Tea, Avery and Baker hooked up with Simmons and Smith. John Thomas was added on drums and before too long they also had a bone-fide frontman in erstwhile Slow Rush vocalist Bart Windsor.
“We were doing all kinds of stuff back then - Grand Funk, Cream, Moby Grape, even some Beach Boys songs, as Billy’s brother Henry was a big fan of theirs. Bart was five or six years older than us and he looked, talked and acted like Joe Cocker. We added some Joe Cocker stuff to the set when Bart was with us.”
All of this had led to the band becoming well known on the college scene and to them playing night clubs they were actually too young to get into legally as customers. However, in the summer of 1973 Windsor left Spring Fever to join Bush Hog.
“Bart hooked up with the guitarist from Looking Glass in this group called Bush Hog and went out and did a couple of tours of the country opening up for the J.Geils Band. He later went on to become a magician and had a group in D.C. called the Magic Rhythm Band, where he dumfounded everyone with all kinds of tricks on stage during their shows.”
After Windsor’s departure Billy Smith then quit Spring Fever to go to college. Sticking together, the trio of Simmons, Avery and Baker chose to start afresh, hooked up with former Gideon drummer Warren Early and found a new vocalist in the form of Kenny Taylor. Despite being only 15 years old at the time, Taylor made a lasting impression at his audition.
“Kenny’s brother David, who became our soundman, drove him over to my house where we rehearsed in the basement and we decided to play ‘Buck’s Boogie’ by Blue Oyster Cult, but the version as played on the compilation album ‘The Guitars That Destroyed The World’ released in 1973 to impress them,” remembers the guitarist. Ripping through covers of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Honkey Tonk Woman’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ with Kenny singing sealed the deal. Taylor was in.
The new group adopted the name of Medusa, in honour of the Trapeze album of the same title. As 1974 turned into 1975 the band became extremely well known locally for playing a great mix of original and cover songs (Trapeze, Montrose, Rush, KISS, Cactus, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Who and, a little later, Moxy). Things began to progress nicely.
“It was very easy for us to cover that stuff because Kenny was a very capable vocalist,” notes David. “His range just got better and better.”
After the loss of Bill Baker, who decided to leave the group – he was replaced initially, by Henry Farmer and then by Steve ‘Ziggy’ Davis – Warren Early would also depart the band, with Wade Richards joining in his stead. Such upheaval resulted in a name change from Medusa to STARZ.
“We were going to call ourselves DARTS,” offers Simmons. “That was using the first letters of Davis, Avery, Richards, Taylor and Simmons. But then we thought STARZ was better, by using the ‘Z’ from ‘Ziggy’ instead.”
During this period the band regularly played at places such as ‘Bogies’, the night club on Connecticut Avenue NW in Georgetown, Washington D.C. that served as a launch pad for Angel’s career. Indeed, David informs me that he and STARZ were opening for Angel at ‘Bogies’ during the timeframe back in ’75 when those initial Angel gigs at the venue led to them being picked up by Casablanca Records.
“They were loud!” he recalls. “They were louder than God’s thunderclap. They only had ten songs in their set and about half of those were covers. They started their set with ‘The Tower’, which is arguably the one great song they did. They were pretty thin on material at that time. The next thing you know they got signed to Casablanca. Frank DiMino had a great voice though and Barry Brandt, the drummer, he hit those skins hard, man! Punky had taken in some of our gigs before and he definitely had a delicious guitar sound. I was in awe. In fact we actually played ‘Highway’ that Punky’s old band, the Ralph Morman fronted, ‘Daddy Warbux’, had performed.
“’Bogies’ though was a little dump,” David laughs. “The club was actually on the third floor of the building it was located in and so I wish I had a hundred bucks for everybody who fell, or was thrown, down the stairs!”
While Angel indeed got picked up by Casablanca and headed West to L.A., back in Maryland David and friends gained the attention of a record label by the name of Secant (whose owner Caltrick Simone had links to Tony Bongiovi, of New York’s Power Station recording studio fame) and given the opportunity to record and release their debut 45 in 1976 featuring ‘Blue Sparks’ and the B-side ‘Keeper Of The Keys’. Having replaced Wade Richards with the more experienced Pat McGowan on drums, the tracks were produced by Caltrick Simone and mastered by Tony Bongiovi. In fact, David believes ‘Keeper Of The Keys’ to be one of the best songs the band ever recorded. “It’s magnificent,” he beams.
However, by this time the quintet suddenly found themselves in a bit of a situation regarding their name. This followed the release in 1976 on Capitol Records of the debut album by the New Jersey-based, Bill Aucoin managed five-piece who were now claiming full rights to the Starz moniker. Despite believing they had a strong case with regards to ownership of the name, the Maryland boys were convinced by a friend in the industry that it wouldn’t be a good way for them to enter the music business themselves if they were involved in litigation. As a result they would change their handle to DC Star, after a brief dalliance with DC Starz failed to please Aucoin Management.
“As a matter of fact, we’d already had the single pressed up by then, so one weekend we had to use black marker pens and dot the ‘z’ out of DC Starz on the labels of the 5000 45’s we’d just received,” recalls David.
With Pat McGowan making way for new drummer Glenn ‘Gonzo’ Jones in 1978 and ‘Ziggy’ Davis having been superseded by a returning Henry Farmer on bass, the heavy touring schedule the band undertook in the late 70’s as well as gathering together a large catalogue of their own songs, eventually lead to a development deal with a company linked to the Media Sound recording studio in New York called MediaMax in 1980. This led to meeting Dan Hartman, Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson and the opportunity to work with SPARX drummer turned solo artist Hilly Michaels and engineers Stephan Gelfas and Michael Brauer.
“Through that arrangement we got to work with a lot of people including Doug Lubahn (Dreams/Clear Light/The Doors/Pierce Arrow/Riff Raff/Billy Squier bassist). Kenny and I wrote ‘I Wanna Rock Tonight’ (one of DC Star’s strongest songs) with Doug. It was a fun time.”
The first tangible fruits of this liaison with MediaMax led to a five-track picture disc release issued in 1982. DC Star were matched up with the aforementioned Michael Brauer in recording the tracks that featured on this project. The EP thus offered up road tested favourites ‘Is It You?’, ‘Don’t Call Me Punk’, ‘Makin’ Time’, ‘No Friend Of Mine’ and ‘Wasted Time’. Brauer is a man who has gone on to achieve a great deal of success as a producer and engineer in the business. Working with DC Star he not only recorded the five songs on the picture disc, but also a number of other songs that remained unreleased from the sessions.
“We were still playing five nights a week,” States David of this period. “We worked ourselves hard in that respect. We became prisoners of the road and therefore didn’t have the time to develop our music like we’d wished or wanted to, but we did what we had to do. So the recording sessions we did were mostly after we played shows and we’d go through to noon the next day and then head out and drive to the next gig. It could be a grueling pace.
“Working with Michael Brauer was incredible though. He’s a remarkable guy. It was a privilege to work with him. At the time he was working with Luther Vandross (the ‘Never Too Much’ album). I think we were the first Rock band Michael worked with, so that’s something I’m incredibly proud of. And, “ David notes with a laugh, ‘he only threw me out of the studio two or three times…”
“The picture disc was actually the result of not getting a deal from those demos we’d recorded with Michael,” he continues. “We knew picture discs were a gimmick and the fidelity of the material would be compromised, but we did press up black vinyl copies for promotional purpose to send to radio stations that sounded better than the picture discs. We then got involved with the Miller Brewing Company, who were behind a number of radio station promotions back then.”
DC Star was featured on a number of radio promotional albums alongside other up and coming local talent in both Washington D.C. and the New York areas. However, the most notable of these records was radio station WAPP FM 103.5’s ‘New York Rocks 1983’, ‘Is It You?’ found itself alongside contributions from Twisted Sister (‘Shoot ‘Em Down’). The Southern Cross Band and a certain John Bongiovi (as he was credited on the album) with an early rendition of ‘Runaway’, DC Star also recorded radio commercials for Miller, cutting themes to two of the company’s big radio commercials (‘Welcome To Miller Time’ and ‘Made The American Way’) as part of a two year marketing deal they had gained with the brewing concern.
“The hook up with Miller was huge for us,” confirms David. “We probably got five times more airplay on the version we submitted of ‘Is It You?’ to Miller than the one that went on our EP. We ended up playing on the same bill as John Bon Jovi (who had just signed with Mercury at that point and who made a special appearance playing ‘Runaway’) at a Miller sponsored event at the Beacon Theatre in New York in 1983.”
The full story on DC Star’s tie-in with Miller and how they would end up winning the contest instead of Jon Bon Jovi can be found on David Simmons’ website at www.davidandgoliathmusic.com/dc-star-history, but needless to say, during the early 80’s the five-piece became not only familiar to listeners of Rock radio, but very familiar to gig goers on the east coast, playing with the likes of Journey, Blue Oyster Cult, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, Twisted Sister, Zebra and even shows with the Ramones!
The first time we played with the Ramones was out on Long Island at ‘Hammerheads’ in West Islip and we opened our show with ‘Sinner’ by Judas Priest with flash boxes going off! I remember the first time we played with Twisted Sister too. After they’d finished their first song, ‘Under The Blade’, Dee Snider told the audience that we had sounded so much like Judas Priest it scared him! We actually opened for Priest when they were on the ‘Hell Bent For Leather’ tour when they played a show in Virginia. That was amazing, but sometimes you can’t really savour the moment because you’re so involved in doing your own show and have to deliver the goods, no pun intended. But it’s still a great thing to be able to claim.”
The Hilly Michaels connection occurred when MediaMax hooked the band up with the great man and another upcoming engineer/producer by the name of Stephan Galfas. The latter went on to enjoy a quite illustrious career as a producer for an array of other artists. “Working with those guys would fill two chapters in a book I should write!” laughs David.
The results of working with Michaels and Galfas were released in 1984 as DC Star’s debut album ‘Livin’ In A Rock & Roll Whirl’. This was a nine-track record, the second side of which was recorded live. The album was issued, like the aforementioned picture disc, on Escape Records, no relation to the now long-established UK label Escape Music, of course.
“That record was probably the best thing we ever put out as it was arguably a good representation of what we were like live. There’s not an overdub on that live stuff. It’s live in front of 100 people, there by invitation, at Sheffield Audio in Baltimore. And then we went back to New York with Hilly and Stephan and remixed the tracks at Media Sound, a studio inside of an old church at 311 West 57th Street. The album was a great thing to do because other local acts like Kix and the Ravyns already had records out. Zebra had gotten signed and Twisted Sister got signed too, so we knew we just had to put something out as well..”
With Kenny Taylor sounding not unlike Louis St. August, the front man with Boston-based hard rock band Mass, at times (with DC Star, when at their heaviest, as a whole comparable to St. August and friends), the album was most certainly a step up from the picture disc. It would also eventually form the basis of the band’s major label release, ‘Rockin’ In The Classroom’, which was issued by the Atlantic affiliated Mirage Records a year later.
“It’s a bittersweet story with a sad ending,” responds David on gaining a major deal. “Livin’ In A Rock & Roll Whirl’ was a top selling record with Schwartz Brothers, who were the biggest record distributors of the mid-Atlantic area in the US. We had done all kinds of promotion for the album and when it came out ‘I Wanna Rock Tonite’ started getting played a lot on radio. It did very well. Now our manager at the time, David A. Sherbow, had previously worked mostly with Black acts and he had got a couple of record deals for a couple of Black groups. David knew people at Mirage Records, as at the time the label was mostly one that produced Black acts.”
Mirage did have a bit of an interest in Rock acts though. Having previously released albums from Charlie and Xavion, the label would also add to their Rock roster with the acquisition of Fierce Heart. “They gave us a deal where they effectively distributed ‘Livin’ In A Rock & Roll Whirl’”, David offers on the subject of signing to Mirage. However, Mirage not only re-packaged the album, it seemingly had a bit of work added to it, was re-titled and now featured a reworked cover of Brownsville Station’s ‘Smokin’ In The Boys Room’ as the new title track ‘Rockin’ In The Classroom’.
“That was something the label wanted us to do,” states David on the cover tune, whose song writing partner Ray ‘Goliath’ McCrory came up with the alternative lyrics. “The thing was that Kenny wasn’t really into the cover song. Based on what Kenny was capable of you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. So I can understand why it wasn’t a success.”
Before the album was released, with their popularity at its peak, the record company then apparently pulled off a move that turned out to be quite damaging to their new signings progress…
“The label got Schwartz Brothers to halt sales of the ‘Livin’ In A Rock & Roll Whirl’ album immediately, which happened November 1984, just before we would be ploughing into the biggest time of the year with the Christmas dates we had booked. So we have no records out there, the radio isn’t playing ‘I want To Rock Tonite’ anymore. The ‘Rockin’ In The Classroom’ album wasn’t released for another five months, by which time radio was all over the ‘We Are The World’ album instead. When our record did get released, it got shipped straight into the cut-out bins west of the Mississippi.”
It's worth noting that while Billy Squier keyboardist Alan St. Jon had helped out on the original album, Earl Slick and Carmine Rojas now somehow managed to get playing credits too! But, some of the embellishments that appeared on ‘Rockin’ In The Classroom’ weren’t to David’s liking…
“They put electronic drums on ‘I Wanna Rock Tonite’ and ‘Rockin’ In The Classroom’. We were broken hearted. We had put ‘Livin’ In A Rock & Roll Whirl’ out around Labour Day in September 1984 and had been banging the shit out of it and were poised to make a lot of noise with that record. But then we got offered the Mirage deal, got naturally excited about it because there was a budget for two videos – we never shot the second – but by the time the record came out it was almost Easter and no one really cared. Mötley Crüe then came out with their cover of ‘Smokin’ In The Boys Room’ in June ’85 and that got played and became a hit (it reached #16 on the ‘Billboard Hot 100’, becoming the band’s first Top 40 hit) whereas ours didn’t. They did a much better job of it, so my hat’s off to them in that respect.”
With ‘I Wanna Rock Tonite’ having always been intended as the first single, a song for which they made a video, the appearance of the Crüe version of ‘Smokin’ In The Boys Room’ as a single certainly nixed any chance of what should’ve been an inevitable single release for the title track of DC Star’s ‘Rockin’ In The Classroom’ that’s for sure. However, decisions made at an ever-higher level would also have an impact on the band long-term….
“ As fate would have it, around this time the drinking laws got changed to 21 nationwide. (In 1984 , the United States Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act which penalized any state which allowed persons under 21 to purchase alcoholic beverages). The lifeblood of the clubs was made up of underage girls, always was. The club business was already long in the tooth, but when the drinking age got raised, by the end of the first year about 40% of the venues that were part of our playing circuit closed down. So the money started going down. By 1987 there weren’t even half the places left we could play and so our income seriously diminished. As much as we cut back that was hard for us to take with the expenses we had, paying for an apartment building and a house we had, a crew, health insurance, etc. The band stuck together until a big bank loan we had got paid off because we didn’t want to start life outside of the band having been declared bankrupt, y’know?”
With Glenn and Kenny choosing to leave the band, DC Star soldiered on a little longer with new members in the form of Myles Evans on drums and John Frederick on vocals. Although the band eventually split in 1989, the original five members would reunite on occasions for one-off shows on an annual basis right up to 2002. A re-ignition of interest in the group in the early part of the new millennium led to the possibility of a more substantial reunion. However, by that point Kenny was suffering from ill health and would sadly pass away in May 2011. Dave Simmons, who unfortunately is no longer able to play guitar due to issues affecting his hands, does intend to keep the fire still burning. There are planned releases of a wealth of previously unreleased material and and a ten song ‘Best Of’ collection currently available on his website.
“I originally remastered a lot of this stuff back in 2009 when I thought I could coax the band back into doing a reunion tour.” He says. “But unfortunately that didn’t happen for a number of reasons, most of all due to Kenny’s failing health.”
There appears to be a few hoops to jump through before all of that new material will see the light though, but it’s something he certainly wishes to pursue and he’s philosophical about the fact that he’s no longer able to play guitar. “I liken the career of a musician to a professional athlete,” he says. “When a professional athlete’s career ends then it’s over.. You can do all the crying you want but it won’t change anything. You have to accept someone else can run faster than you now.”
Although DC Star may have not made as big an impression as they deserved after all the work they had been putting in since the ‘70’s, at least they were able to share some great experiences along the way. They could also play a bit too!
While ‘Rockin’ In The Classroom’ has been reissued on CD by the Canadian label Unidisc, keep an eye out for those planned reissues of a wealth of other material DC Star recorded in their time… Rockin’ in far bigger venues than just the classroom!
- David Reynolds www.fireworksmagazine.com
Preview material from DC Star’s new release UNFINISHED BUSINESS here!