February 26, 2017

The heavy sounds of Stone Wall

Greg Whitfield, (from left) Ken Mairs and Allen Blasco of Stone Wall at the Fun Fair, Municipal Auditorium, June 1969.

Greg Whitfield, (from left) Ken Mairs and Allen Blasco of Stone Wall at the Fun Fair, Municipal Auditorium, June 1969.

If the Classmen (clean-cut brothers, managed by their father) were Kansas City’s equivalent to the Beach Boys and the Chesmann its Beatles, Stone Wall could be likened to Kansas City’s Cream or Led Zeppelin.

A power trio with roots in the blues, Stone Wall was led by singer-guitarist Allen Blasco in combination with three different rhythm sections (1968-76).

Allen Blasco of The Clergymen at the Hullaballoo Scene club, March 1968.

Allen Blasco of The Clergymen at the Hullaballoo Scene club, March 1968.

As a young teen (1965-68), Blasco led The Clergymen, whose ever-changing array of musicians included Ray Goldsich, later to become known as radio personality Ray Dunaway. They were good enough to headline the Hullaballoo Scene club, a spinoff from the 1965-66 NBC television show that opened in 1967 on 85th Street just east of Prospect Avenue.

Stone Wall played many times at the summer Sunday Volker Park love-ins of the 1970s.

Stone Wall played many times at the summer Sunday Volker Park love-ins of the 1970s.

But with the coming of Hendrix, Cream and Blue Cheer, 17-year-old Blasco wanted to emulate that heavier sound, and he had the chops and the equipment to do it. He and his band mates (Ken Mairs, drums, Greg Whitfield, bass, v.1; Lee Cline, d, Rick Bacus, b, v. 2; Pete Jacobs, d, Alan Cohen, b, v.3) played venues ranging from Volker Park love-ins (there’s a great YouTube video here) to Municipal Auditorium, as part of then-future Cowtown Ballroom impresario Stan Plesser’s June 1969 Fun Fair.

Short-lived Aquarius attracted top-name local bands.

Short-lived Aquarius attracted top-name local bands.

While Stone Wall gigged all around town and at such outlying venues as St. Joe’s Frog Hop Ballroom and The Jolly Troll in Holton, Kan., they struggled to create original songs and thus interest from major record labels.

Blasco went on to form and/or play with such bands as Neon Blue and the reformed Riverrock.

The passion of Stan Plesser

Stan Plesser on a trip to London in the 1970s, while representing the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

Stan Plesser, who died Sept. 1 at age 79, arguably did more to foster the pop music scene in Kansas City than any other single person.
From 1963 to 1971, his Vanguard Coffeehouse, 4305 Main St., brought the stars and semi-stars of the folk movement to midtown. His subsequent (1971-74) Cowtown Ballroom, 3101 Gillham Plaza, and Good Karma Productions not only brought rock’s brightest stars to shine on local kids like me, but they gave Kansas City such gravitational pull that artists from elsewhere (e.g., Danny Cox, Brewer & Shipley) made their homes here. Plesser’s advice helped to shape southern Missouri’s Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and he managed them to Top 10 international success.

Detail from the back of a Vanguard Coffeehouse menu

Deservedly, he is the central figure in Joe Heyen and Tony Ladesich’s excellent 2009 documentary film “Cowtown Ballroom: Sweet Jesus.”
Plesser was a Jewish New York native who moved to KC as a high schooler, and passion was his byword long before it became a 21st-century buzzword. He often recalled how the Vanguard had no cash register – just a box – so that no clanging bells would intrude on performances.
He loved KC’s jazz and blues heritage, and believed it helped to create a discerning folk-rock audience. He brought the symphony orchestra to his hippie haven.

The Vanguard became a movie house shortly after this show in April 1971.

“There was something different about Kansas City,” Plesser said in a 2010 interview. “To me, it was always the people. The Vanguard sensitized people to embrace the new culture, and when Cowtown came along, they were ready to listen. The Vanguard was not an interesting building. What made it really good was the people. The artists noticed something different. … They were like friends to these people. It was not like just going to a concert.”
Plesser, who arranged for international radio syndication of concert recordings from Cowtown, likened Kansas City during his heyday to Austin, Texas, and the “Austin City Limits” public television show.
“They created something,” Plesser said. “They had a passion. That’s what makes things happen, especially in the arts. And Kansas City has the kind of history that will allow it to happen again.”

Detail from Vanguard Coffeehouse poster