scan of a poster for Lee Michaels, The Rhythm Dukes and Robert M. Savage at The Family Dog On The Great Highway, March 6-8, 1970)
I did extensive research into the performance history of The Sons Of Champlin from 1966 through mid-1970, and as a result I became familiar with the history of The Rhythm Dukes. The Rhythm Dukes were a Santa Cruz Mountains band from 1969 to about 1972, with various members, but they were founded by Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson of Moby Grape, so the Dukes have always been historically associated with The Grape. However, after a variety of somewhat mysterious personnel changes in late 1969, The Rhythm Dukes were revitalized in 1970 when Bill Champlin joined Miller and the rhythm section to make a somewhat serious attempt at success. Some recorded evidence suggests that this configuration was a terrific band, if short-lived, and I felt I should document what I have been able to find out about their performing history.
The Rhythm Dukes
I wrote about a 1969 version of The Rhythm Dukes elsewhere, specifically about a surviving tape from December 1969 at The Family Dog, so I will not repeat all of it here. Suffice to say, the original formulation of The Rhythm Dukes featured both Miller and fellow Graper Don Stevenson, along with bassist John Barrett and drummer Fuzzy Oxendine, all of whom shared a house in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Although Stevenson had been the drummer in Moby Grape, he played guitar and shared vocals in the Dukes. The original Rhythm Dukes did one tour in the Summer of 1969, but they were often billed as Moby Grape, much to their dismay. Sometime in the Fall, Stevenson left the group.
The Rhythm Dukes played a number of Bay Area shows in Fall 1969, but the exact lineup or lineups remains a mystery. The surviving tape features a five piece band, with Jerry Miller as the sole lead vocalist, and a saxophonist as well as a pianist/rhythm guitarist joining Oxendine and Barrett. The material is also obscure, although they sound pretty good for an opening act at The Family Dog.
The Sons Of Champlin
I have written an extensive performance history of The Sons, so I needn't recap it. However, by early 1970, despite a loyal Bay Area following and two excellent Capitol albums, the Sons were frustrated and broke and they decided to go "on hiatus." Effectively that meant they were breaking up, although they continued to finish an album they owed Capitol (released in 1971 as Follow Your Heart). How the plan for Champlin to join The Rhythm Dukes came about remains unknown, and since band members are usually cagey about their future plans (so as not to offend their current bandmates), I'm not aware of how long the idea was afoot. Nonetheless, Moby Grape and The Sons Of Champlin went way back together, and I suspect that Miller and Champlin knew each other from their predecessor bands as well (The Frantics and Opposite Six, respectively). More importantly, bassist Barrett and drummer Oxendine had been in a band called Boogie that rehearsed at the Sausalito Heliport along with The Sons. Oxendine had even been in The Sons briefly in mid-69, when the band experimented with having two drummers. So there were plenty of connections between Bill Champlin and the other members of the Rhythm Dukes.
Bill Champlin played his first show with The Rhythm Dukes in January, 1970. After The Sons gave their "Farewell" performance on February 21, 1970, Champlin moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains and made The Rhythm Dukes his primary musical endeavor. What follows is my chronicle of the known performances of The Rhythm Dukes with Bill Champlin. Anyone with additional information, updates, insights or corrections is encouraged to email me or put them in the Comments.
Rhythm Dukes Performance History January-June 1970
The Sons were still actively touring at this juncture, but Bill Champlin joined the Rhythm Dukes for this Wednesday night show at The Matrix. The show was mentioned in Ralph J. Gleason's SF Chronicle column that day (above).
>February 20-21, 1970: Family Dog At the Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Big Brother and The Holding Company with Nick Gravenites/Rhythm Dukes with Jerry Miller and Bill Champlin
Because the poster for this shows circulates comparatively widely (for a Family Dog On The Great Highway event), it often represents one of the few ways in which the Miller/Champlin collaboration was known. However, the dates on this poster conflicts with the heavily publicized shows the Sons played as their "farewell" shows (Berkeley on Friday February 20, and Contra Costa Fairgrounds on February 21). However, a close look at the SF Chronicle listings for the weekend show that Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys had replaced The Rhythm Dukes at The Family Dog.
This show is known from a J.Freiermuth poster on the Rhythm Dukes website, although I don't know the exact address of the venue. There's every reason to assume that the Rhythm Dukes played a fair number of shows in the Santa Cruz/Monterey area, particularly on weeknights. However, the Santa Cruz area was much less populated than it is now, and while the shows were probably very fun, the club scene would not have been that lucrative.
March 6-8, 1970: Family Dog at The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Lee Michaels/Rhythm Dukes/Robert M Savage
An eyewitness reported that Lee Michaels was “impossibly loud.” This would probably have been the effective debut of the Champlin/Miller version of The Rhythm Dukes in the Bay Area (poster up top).
March 11, 1970: High Street Local, (Santa Cruz), CA: Rhythm Dukes
March 20-21, 1970: New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA: Rhythm Dukes
The New Orleans House was Berkeley's home for original rock music, giving groups that were lower on the bill at the Fillmore West or Family Dog a chance to headline.
This show is known from a Richard Moore poster on the Rhythm Dukes site. It is interesting for a number of reasons. Opening act Snail had evolved out of two local bands, Talon Wedge and The Bubble, and they would go on to be local heroes for the next several years, even putting out two albums. Snail never made much headway outside of Santa Cruz County, but they remain a headline act in Santa Cruz clubs even today (they have a reunion every decade or so).
Equally interesting is the use of Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. The Civic, at 307 Church, would have been the perfect 60s rock venue, in a hip college town not far from San Francisco, but for a variety of reasons the City of Santa Cruz refused to sanction that. Their refusal opened the door for the temporary success of The Barn, a much wilder venue a few miles Northeast, in Scotts Valley, and I have discussed the history of The Barn elsewhere. This show headlined by The Rhythm Dukes seems to be the first to use the Civic for a rock show since 1967, and that is an interesting piece of Santa Cruz rock history in its own right.
April 10-12, 1970: Family Dog at The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Albert Collins/Rhythm Dukes/A.B. Skhy
On April 16, 1970, old friend Bruce Walford recorded a demo tape of The Rhythm Dukes at The Sons’ rehearsal facility (The Church in San Anselmo). The 10 tracks appear to be recorded live in the studio, with some modest piano and harmony vocal overdubs from Bill Champlin. Bill sings lead on 8 of the 10 tracks, all but one of which turned up in some form in the Sons repertoire in the next few years (the exception was a cover of “Kansas City”). The Rhythm Dukes, however, had a more laid-back bluesy feel than the Sons uptempo, swinging sound. The material was officially but privately released (a mere 34 years later) on a cd entitled Flash Back. The accompanying Rhythm Dukes website has some nice photos of the band and posters.
April 23-25, 1970: The Matrix, San Francisco, CA: The Rhythm Dukes w/Jerry Miller and Bill Champlin
For about a year, thanks to the Millard Agency (Bill Graham's booking agents) and some local promoters, there were regular rock shows in the Monterey area, mostly at the gym at the local Junior College. This little scene did not quite have the momentum to sustain itself, but many San Francisco-area bands played there for that year.
This show is known from the Richard Moore poster on the Dukes website. Potter's Wheel was the Santa Cruz incarnation of a Bay Area band called Phoenix.
May 22-23, 1970: New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA: Rhythm Dukes w/Bill Champlin/Nargul
June ?, 1970: The Matrix Rhythm, San Francisco, CA: Dukes w/Jerry Miller and Bill Champlin
A poorly reproduced May/June 1970 Matrix calendar makes the exact date difficult to read.
June 19-21, 1970: Family Dog at The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Flying Burrito Brothers/Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys/Rhythm Dukes with Bill Champlin, Jerry Miller
Cabrillo College was a Junior College in Aptos, not far from the UC Santa Cruz campus. It's not clear when Bill Champlin left the Rhythm Dukes, but since he was booked at the Family Dog the week before, I have to think that he played this show as well.
July 3, 1970: The Matrix, San Francisco, CA: Bill Champlin and Friends
It's not at all clear if this was a Rhythm Dukes show or Bill playing with other musicians. I am more likely that to believe the latter. The exact date of Champlin’s departure from the Rhythm Dukes is unknown.
At some point in the Summer, Bill Champlin moved back to Marin County. He may have finished a few shows with the Rhythm Dukes, but he left the band and they continued on without him. Champlin started to hang out at The Lion's Share in San Anselmo, playing impromptu gigs with various musicians, including former members of The Sons. One thing led to another, and by September, 1970 The Sons Of Champlin were back in business under the improbable name of Yogi Phlegm. They rapidly returned to their original name, however, and went on to long career--with some significant interruptions--that is still lively today.
The Rhythm Dukes continued on until about 1972, weathering not only Bill Champlin's departure in 1970 but Jerry Miller's departure in 1971, when Moby Grape reformed once again. What little recorded evidence remains of The Rhythm Dukes suggested they were an excellent live band, although an actual live tape of the Dukes with Champlin remains elusive. The Rhythm Dukes have even been known to reform on occasion, including once in 1992 at the Crow's Nest in Santa Cruz, when Bill Champlin joined in once again.