Author: Martin, George

It’s sad to lose a bandmate

Back in the 1970s I worked for the Oakland Tribune as a copy editor, headline writer and layout person. The Trib in those days had an annual Music in the Home section, which was basically designed to encourage advertisers (piano stores, stereo stores, music stores, record shops, etc.) to buy targeted ads.

I had been busily learning to play the banjo the previous couple of years and was getting to where I could actually play. Some friends and I jammed most weeks and I suggested to the Tribune editors that a story about a bluegrass “garage band” (actually a living room band, but who counts?) would be an appropriate cover story.

My piece ran in the Sunday paper and a day or two later my phone rang and a voice asked if I was the person who had written the bluegrass story. When I said yes, the fellow introduced himself as John Kasley, resident of San Pablo (just a few miles from my house in Richmond) and asked if he could come to the next jam and bring his guitar and his banjo.

John came the next time we played and he proved to be a perfect fit. He had a nice Ode banjo and a guitar made by Richard Johnston and Frank Ford with a gryphon inlaid on the peghead (this was some years before they started their famed music store in Palo Alto). He sang well and knew a lot of songs; was very familiar with all the first generation greats of the time -- Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanleys, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers and Reno & Smiley.

Our weekly jam started to evolve into a band, called at first the Boomtown Lulus and later just Boomtown. We started playing at the historic Central Pool Hall in Point Richmond. Some people in the jam didn’t want to be in a genuine band and they drifted away. Others, most notably David (now known as Gus) Garelick, a really good fiddle player, arrived. The bass slot had a few different players; Sue Shelasky (now Walters) is the one I most remember. Harry Yagligian played lead guitar for some time. A fellow named Tom Vallowe was the mandolin player. After the band broke up I never saw him again.

The summer of (I think) 1974, Dave Garelick crashed the taxicab he was driving and broke his collarbone. We were playing every weekend at the Warehouse Cafe in Port Costa and really needed a fiddler. John said, “I know a girl who plays the fiddle really well.”

The young woman who showed up the next weekend was indeed a really good fiddler, and sang like a bird, too. Her name was Laurie Lewis, and for about two months until Dave got better she was our fiddler and sang a bunch as well. When Garelick got back, we had a couple of really good shows booked, a centennial party for the Oakland Tribune and a concert I promoted at Oakland’s Woodminster Amphitheater called “Bluegrass Under the Stars.” Laurie stuck around for those gigs to give us a twin fiddle sound, then she went off to form the Good Old Persons and become a bluegrass star.

Boomtown eventually broke up and about a year afterward I was invited to help form another band. The group was complete except for a guitar player-lead singer when I joined, so I called John and we became part of Fresh Picked, with Joyce Hennessey on banjo and bass (I played bass when she played banjo), Steve Scott on mandolin and Richard Brooks, now the president of the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Assn., on fiddle.

We did a kind of “musical chairs” number in Fresh Picked. When John played banjo I switched to guitar and when Joyce played banjo I took the bass. The funny thing was that Richard Brooks was really an outstanding banjo player, better than all the rest of us, but he was deeply involved with the fiddle and not interested in putting down his bow to take a turn on the five-string.

I left the band, due to family obligations, and I don’t know when it finally broke up, or why. Later John played guitar for Ellis Island, a Bay Area Klezmer band. I remember the few times I saw them play, marveling at the ever-changing chords he had memorized.

John worked for Standard Oil (now Chevron) and eventually got transferred to Louisiana and later to Singapore. I saw him a few years ago when he came through Berkeley on a visit as he was retiring and settling in Williamsburg, VA. He and his wife, Kathy, apparently had a pretty good life worked out. Kathy plays Celtic harp and does healing music at senior living facilities. John helped found the Hampton Roads Mandolin Ensemble and worked (volunteered is my guess) for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

John had a longtime desire to walk “The Cotswold Way,” a trail about 100 miles long that goes from village to village through he rural West of England from Chipping Camden to Bath. Here’s a short description I copied from a Web site:

“The Cotswolds has a well-deserved reputation for picturesque rolling green hills, honey coloured sandstone housing and villages full of antique shops, traditional cafes and historical architecture. It’s no wonder the Cotswold Way is a firm favourite with walkers who return year after year to experience the beauty and tranquillity the area offers.”

He was doing that on May 15 when he apparently suffered a fatal heart attack on the trail at the age of 66, way too young to die, in my book. We had a lot of fun together. I can remember moving his fm radio antennae around his San Pablo house trying to find the sweet spot where Cousin Al Knopf’s KFAT bluegrass show would come in. I remember our long road trip, stuffed in a Ford Falcon van, to play the centennial celebration of Etna, a little town in Siskiyou County. Lots of practice sessions, lots of free pizza, lots of music.

We sang duet harmony to the Bob Wills classic, “Time Changes Everything.”

Yes it do.
Posted:  7/11/2013

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