The Lost History of the Rockland Recording Studio
From the early 1960s to the early '80s, a treasure trove of local music was recorded in Rockland
Thursday, September 11, 2014 6:29 AM
When local musician Spike Hyssong began searching for a second copy of an album recorded by his grandfather in 1969, he had no idea that he was about to discover a rich piece of the city's cultural history. The Harborside Gospel Quartet recorded and released two albums on the Rockland Recording Studio label, which Hyssong just assumed was a vanity label. But in the course of his search, he learned it was much more than that as he unearthed records ranging from rock, pop and jazz to gospel and country.
A promo photo of The Ramblers from the Bay View Hotel in Rockland circa 1963. From left to right: Chuck Philbrook, Jack Matese, Fran Bates and Fred “Tommy” Thompson. (Photo Courtesy of Fred “Tommy” Thompson)
In addition to popular local '60s-era rock bands like the Tremelos, The Marauders, and Polymers Children, Hyssong soon discovered other big-name acts that recorded at the studio, including singer/comedian Jud Strunk and the "Baron of Country Music" Dick Curless. Some albums were released on the studio's own label, while others were nationally distributed by record companies like Tower, Laurie and Critique.
"As I got deeper into it, I realized that it didn't just cater to the locals, it actually had some substantial purpose," said Hyssong, who hosts the Flipside Show on Rockland community radio station WRFR. "The studio is very much a part of the Rockland history . . . [but] other than the records themselves, very little about this history has been documented."
The Rock 'n' Roll Years
By all accounts, Rockland Recording Studio was founded by a retired naval officer named Jim Deans in the back of the old American Legion Hall at 143 Maverick Street (where Swing and Sway dancing is now) in the early 1960s. Presumably, Deans built the studio as a hobby in his retirement, and it's unlikely that he ever advertised it commercially. Nowhere in any of the city directories from 1960 to 1980 does the recording studio appear. In fact, nowhere in the city directories does the name Jim Deans appear. But it is known that Deans was the caretaker for the building, and the Legionnaires let him pursue his hobby there for at least two decades.
The founding of the studio roughly coincides with a transformative era in rock music history, shortly before a generation of young musicians became swept up in Beatlemania. Founded in 1961, the Tremelos were one of the first rock acts in Rockland, playing Beach Boys-influenced surf rock. According to Bob Myers of Appleton, who played rhythm guitar, it was lead guitarist Bobby Swanson's mother who was the catalyst for the Tremelos, booking them shows, teaching them stage moves, and outfitting the band in matching double-breasted suits.
"She made us practice five nights a week," recalled Myers. "She was the one who cracked the whip."
The band made a big splash in Maine at the time, playing ski areas, street dances and dance halls around the state, including the Merry Barn Dance Hall in Damariscotta, Watts Hall in Thomaston, and the Knights of Columbus Hall in Rockland. In 1962, Myers said Swanson's mother introduced the band to Jim Deans, who agreed to give the band a deal on recording their first 45 single if they helped him do some odd jobs around the Legion Hall and insulate his studio to deaden the sound.
"What we did is we took a lot of burlap and egg crates and cardboard from down where Sears and Roebuck used to be, downtown by the waterfront," said Myers, who was about 16 or 17 at the time. "We would raid their dumpster and get their cardboard and anything they threw out that we thought might be able to soundproof the room with."
The band recorded their first single, "Jaguar," in 1962, followed by "Your Loving Man" in 1964, which by that time had taken on a more Beatles-influenced sound. But the Tremelos' career was tragically cut short in 1965, when Bobby Swanson was killed in a car accident during his senior year in high school. And with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the military soon took the rest of the young musicians out of the area.
Throughout the 1960s, other up-and-coming rock bands would record with Jim Deans, including the Rockland rock act Polymers Children. Formerly known as the Chevelles, local teens Chris Rogers, Glenn Honkonen, Weston Arey and Dickey Winchenbach were signed to New York City-based Musicor Records, which released the band's first 45 single, "Summer Rainbow/Josephine," in 1969. In 1971, Polymers Children was signed to Laurie Records, which released their second and final single, "Good Vibes/It's a Beautiful Day." With the exception of hardcore record collectors, Polymers Children has largely been forgotten today. However, before the group's untimely break-up, they enjoyed a large following, toured nationally and are said to have once received a standing ovation by a crowd of about 5,000 fans, when opening for Bob Seger at the Portland Auditorium.
Recalling his days at the Rockland studio, drummer Chris Rogers of Hope remembers Deans as a tall, elderly man with thick glasses, a deep Southern drawl and with a cigarette burning constantly.
"He was to me a Southern gentleman and a real soft-spoken guy," said Rogers. "I don't think I ever saw him upset about anything. I think he had done some sound work or had an interest in what he was doing in the military and when he got out, he found this place up here and put the studio in."
And all of the musicians interviewed say Deans invested his pension wisely in top-of-the-line sound equipment, often making trips out of state to purchase the latest recording gear, like Big Red speakers, Neumann microphones, Nakamichi cassette decks and Allen and Heath mixing boards. In the burlap-covered recording room, Deans kept a Hammond B-3, an upright piano, and in the corner, a thickly insulated drum booth. Musician Dean Fernald remembers a standing ashtray that various bands used as a percussion instrument.
"It had a hell of a sound," recalled Fernald, who now lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. "It was like a gong and people were fascinated by that darn thing. It ended up on several recordings, I understand."
While the studio itself may have been a bit rustic, for country music legend Dick Curless, the recordings met his standards for a major-label track.
Rockland's Golden Age of Country
Rockland had a thriving country music scene during from about 1950 to 1970, which country singer Bob Elston calls Maine's "golden age of country music." In the 1950s, local radio station WRKD hosted numerous country music shows like Bobby Randall and Little Joe and the Country Boys. In 1955, country host Curly O'Brien first came into living rooms from up in Bangor on WLBZ Channel 2. In Rockland, some working country bands could count on playing gigs six nights a week at clubs such as the Oasis (now the Myrtle Street Tavern), the Bay View Hotel (now where the Time Out Pub is located) and the Thorndike Hotel (on the block where Thorndike Creamery is today).
"Bands used to come up and do a tour Monday through Sunday, whether it was a Grange Hall or a high school auditorium," recalled country singer Bob Elston, who grew up in Thomaston and co-founded the Maine Academy of Country Music. "You had several American Legions, VFWs, Saturday night dance halls in that immediate area of Rockland, Thomaston and Rockport. There's no doubt it was the thing in that area at that time. People would turn out because they knew that if they didn't catch them then, they weren't going to catch them again. So it didn't make a difference what the night was."
Both local musican Fred "Tommy" Thompson and Elston say the Thorndike was a more "sophisticated crowd," while the fishermen and lobstermen would hit the Oasis for a drink after they got off the boat.
"But there were some people who would go to the Oasis who wouldn't go to the Thorndike," said Thompson, who began playing in big bands in the late '40s, before gravitating to country, rock 'n' roll, and then country again. "Once in a while a little scuffle would break, but I never saw too much of that really. I heard some horror stories from other guys in other bands, but myself, I guess we were fortunate."
Elston remembers it a little differently.
"It used to get real rowdy," said Elston. "I said, 'Fred, I used to look over from the Bay View and there you'd be at the Oasis with blue lights flashing.' And he said, 'They used to be flashing a few times when I'd look over at your place!'"
One night while playing a dance at the American Legion Hall, Elston said he mentioned he was planning on making a record, to which Deans replied, 'Well, why don't you cut it here?' At one point in the studio, as Elston's Franco-American wife Marlene Carpenter was cutting the track "French Song," Elston recalled a confusing moment.
"All of a sudden the control room door burst open and here comes Jim," said Elston. "He don't have a clue what's going on. I said, 'What's the matter, Jim?'"
"'Well,' he said, 'I don't know. Everything seems all garbled!'"
"I said, well she's singing in French, Jim! He was really dumbfounded. He had no idea what was going on when it came to that!"
Rockland was also known as the stomping grounds for the late Dick Curless, whom local radio man Terry Economy introduced to the area in 1959 while working for WRKD. In the early 1960s, Curless had a regular engagement at the Thorndike Hotel, where his band rented four rooms. Thompson recalled Curless and drummer Ray Lemieux killing time by playing miniature golf at a little course that used to be in the downstairs of the Masonic Hall. Sometimes they would head over to Deans' studio to lay down a few tracks, as well.
"I know Dick did quite a bit of work up there, but a lot of that was experimental stuff," said Thompson.
In August 1965, Curless and his band entered the Rockland Recording Studio and cut the tunes "Tater Raisin' Man" and "Friend That Makes It Four." It was just five months before Curless released his iconic trucker anthem "Tombstone Every Mile," which would climb to Number 5 on the US Billboard Hot Country charts. In February 1966, a month after what would become the biggest hit of his career, Curless went back into the Rockland studio one last time to record seven more tracks. Only one of those recordings would see the light of day at the time. Six days later, country music icon Buck Owens recorded the Curless single "Highway Man" at the Capitol Recording Studio in Hollywood, California. On the b-side was "Please Don't Make Me Go," recorded by Jim Deans at the Rockland Recording Studio.
"What's interesting is that you hear very little difference in sound quality from one recording studio to the next, which means [Deans] was using recording studio standards of the time," said Hyssong.
Curless would go on to fame, touring with Buck Owens' All American Show, and he eventually achieved a total of 22 top-40 singles during his career.
As for what contributed to the decline in the local live country music scene, Elston says that television played a big part.
"Dad was tired when he came home from work," said Elston. "He'd say, 'We should go out, I'd like to see them, but well, let's sit here and prop up our feet. We can just watch TV.' That was the beginning of a complete change."
The Studio's Later Years
Despite Hyssong's exhaustive research, the demise of the Rockland Recording Studio remains as mysterious as its origins.
So far, the last recording at the studio that Hyssong has been able to obtain is a 1979 album released by Pastor Dan Arnold of the Congregational Church on Limerock Street. However, Terry Economy's son Mac, owner of K2 Music in Camden, recalled recording a demo at the studio as late as 1982. Economy said Deans was like a mentor to the budding musician, who was still in high school at the time.
"This guy could mix," said Economy. "He knew just how to get that real authentic sound, but it wasn't the modern sound of the '80s. So to me it wasn't like being in the studio with Journey or AC/DC or any of the bands I was listening to at the time."
Matt Brown, the original owner of Wild Rufus Records in Camden and member of the band Bob Deer and the Free Silver Express, was a friend of Deans in the mid to late '70s. Brown says he doesn't know whatever happened to the equipment, but shortly after Brown left Maine in 1980, Deans wrote him and offered to sell him the whole studio.
"He was offering me the studio for $30,000, which then was unthinkable," said Brown. "I had no such money. I still to this day remember he had three or four microphones that were easily worth $30,000 now."
Brown and others suspect that the Legion had grown cool to the idea of a studio operating out of the back of the hall and pressured Deans to move on. And by most accounts, Deans was ready to give it up anyway.
"I think what happened is that Jim was getting older," said Chris Rogers. "He was probably in his late 70s to early 80s in there. I think basically his family wanted him to come back to his original place of origin. I think he was tired."
As an avid record collector, Hyssong someday hopes to locate every recording ever made at the Rockland Recording Studio. It's a long shot, but he's been scouring eBay and local dealers to find each one.
"Every record collector usually has a particular interest in which they try to collect everything relevant to that interest. Mine happens to be the Rockland Recording Studio," said Hyssong.
In recent years, some Rockland recordings have become collectible rarities that can fetch hundreds of dollars. Record collectors have been known to pay $100 a copy for the obscure folk recordings of Bob Gebelein or up to $500 for the "Bad Girls" 45 by the Southwest Harbor garage band The Marauders. Other recordings remain even more elusive, like the Rounds Brothers from Pennsylvania, who recorded while they had a gig at the Knox Hotel in Thomaston, or the local rock band the Who Knows. Recently Hyssong became focused on locating a rare single recorded by Paula Goodridge in 1967, as his only copy is so badly scratched that it's unplayable.
"I had to play the record into the computer backwards at a slow speed and then flip the sound file around and then bring it back up to speed and cut the noise about half without eating into the music too much," said Hyssong. "And it still doesn't sound great."
As soon as he sent the mp3 to his fellow collectors, the Goodridge 45 became a hot commodity. Goodridge, now Paula Goodridge Armentrout, expressed amusement at this sudden interest in a record she made as a teenager.
"It's all a big hoot as far as I'm concerned, but he says it's a collectible. I'm just amazed," said Armentrout.
Recently Hyssong devoted eight radio shows to playing songs recorded at the studio, and he hopes that others might be able to come forward who were there. Perhaps somewhere out there is the holy grail - the lost catalogue of Deans' recordings.
"I was told that Jim Deans had kept very good paperwork pertaining to the recording activities at the studio," said Hyssong. "If I could look at that, I would be able to fill in some of the holes. . . . I know there are more records out there."
If you have any information about the Rockland Recording Studio or about the musicians who performed in the midcoast area during the 1950s through the early '80s, contact Spike Hyssong at firstname.lastname@example.org or Andy O'Brien at email@example.com. To hear recordings of Rockland Recording Studio artists, visit: http://theflipsideshow.podomatic.com. And - Fred Thompson will play a country music show with Chris Fyfe next Friday, September 19, in Rockland (see press release on this page for details).