In 1964, the Aristocrats were voted the best band in Washington. Here’s their story.


Roger Easterling, left, and Vaughan Howard of the Aristocrats perform. (Courtesy of Vaughan Howard)
John Kelly
Columnist February 18

At the height of Aristocratsoma-n­ia — during the “Search for America’s Answer to the Beatles” battle of the bands — Skeeter Boswell stepped back from the microphone at the Washington Coliseum, turned to Vaughan Howard and said, “We’re bringing the f---ing house down.”

And they were. The Aristocrats — seven Arlington teenagers — had the place in a frenzy. There was no doubt they would be declared the winners of the Oct. 10, 1964, contest.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

I heard from Vaughan last week after my column on the battle of the bands and another of the groups that played it, the all-female Playgirls.

Those were heady times for rock-and-rollers. Vaughan, the bass player, said the Aristocrats were booked nearly constantly, gigging everywhere from Georgetown clubs to University of Maryland frat parties. The coliseum show was the high point.

Roger Easterling, rhythm guitarist, remembers the band practicing the night before in his Arlington basement. To prepare for the contest conditions, they turned their amplifiers way up. Roger blew the speaker on his Sears Silvertone amp.

“Saturday morning, dear, sweet Dad took me down to Chuck Levin’s [music store], back when it was downtown on H Street in D.C.,” Roger said. “I got a brand-new Fender Bassman piggybank amp.”

That afternoon, the Aristocrats set up on stage at the coliseum. Said Roger: “I turned the volume up to 10, the treble up to 10, the bass up to 10, the middle up to 10 and away we played. It was pretty cool.”

The battle of the bands was supposed to be the first in a series across the country by producer Bill Parker. In December 1964, the Aristocrats went down to Charlotte to be guest stars at the next installment. The winning band there was the Swingin’ Medallions, later to have a hit with the raucous “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love).”

And that was the end of Parker’s “Search for America’s Answer to the Beatles.”

I heard recently from Bob Bayer, too. He played lead guitar in, and managed, a band called the Crescendos. Bob sent me scans of the business cards he gathered back then from other groups. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of the mid-’60s Washington teen music scene. I love the names — and the qualities the bands choose to tout:

The Quarry Men: “Best in ‘Liverpudlian Sound.’ ”

The Velours: “Specialists in rhythm and blues.”

The Green Giants: “A unique sound.”

The Good Knights: “Music for any occasion, priced to suit your budget.”

The Fortunes: “Tomorrow’s rock and roll sound at today’s low prices.”

One of the cards was from the Newports, “The area’s most exciting sound.” I heard from a former Newport, drummer Bruce Davis. He’d been in an earlier group called the Confidentials, which featured a young Robert Gordon, later to release rockabilly records with Link Wray.

Bruce acknowledged the influence of the Beatles on bands such as his, not just musically. He had a flattop haircut when the Confidentials began but was soon persuaded to grow it out. A fellow bandmember told him, “There is no short hair in rock-and-roll.”

As Roger of the Aristocrats put it: “We started out with ducktails and tuxedo jackets and continental cross ties. When we ended we had long hair and leather pullover shirts and pointy-toed boots.”

Playing in the Aristocrats at the Washington Coliseum gig were Vaughn, Roger, lead guitarist Skeeter, Keith Edwards (drums), Jack O’Brian (vocals), Dave Brothers (a second lead guitar) and Mike Berkowitz (sax).

Vaughan lives in Arizona. He had a career in computers. Roger is in sales. (“Pretty much everything,” he said. “Chemicals, cars, insurance, real estate.”) Both still play music: Vaughan in a studio he built in his house, Roger at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Woodbridge.

“Everything I play sounds like ’60s rock-and-roll,” Roger said. “They put up with that in their praise band.”

Photographic memory

Last week, I wrote about an inscription hidden behind cardboard on the back of a Beatles photo that was donated to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. On Wednesday, Smithsonian specialists E. Keats Webb and Nora Lockshin used high-tech equipment to reveal it: “To Harry Lynn with fond memories from the BEATLES.”

Lynn was the owner of the Washington Coliseum. “Evidently, John Lennon’s is the most beautiful and clear signature but the others are all fairly legible as well,” historical society director Laura Apelbaum e-mailed me.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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