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'British Walkers' Adopted Accents to Join Craze

By John Kelly
Monday, July 6, 2009

In the spring of 1964, a young singer and guitarist from Northern Virginia named Bobbie Howard traveled to Philadelphia to shoot some publicity photos with his R&B group, Bobbie Howard & the HiBoys.

That was the name of the band when it arrived in Philadelphia anyway. But it wasn't when it left. Before the photos were snapped, Bobbie took the photographer aside and made two requests: Could he be pictured walking the photographer's English bulldog, Elizabeth? And when the photos were printed, could he change the name of the band to "the British Walkers"?

And thus was born Washington's very own Beatles, the hottest act in town at a time when America was under full assault by the British Invasion. The fact that the British Walkers' British accents were a little shaky and they were from Arlington, not Liverpool or London, didn't hold them back a bit.

"Bobbie Howard was the best lead singer I think I've ever heard," said Joe Lee, owner of Joe's Record Paradise in Rockville. In 1964, Joe was a teenage music fan hanging around D.C. clubs. "Bobbie Howard was in the same mode as Rod Stewart but much, much gutsier."

Bobbie was an interesting fellow to Anglicize himself. "He was basically a hillbilly," Joe said. Signed to Epic Records at 16, he fell in with guitar slinger Link Wray and then struck out on his own as Bobbie "The Kid" Howard and the Ponies (featuring Trudy Cooper, "sensational girl drummer"). But the British Walkers brought him the most success.

"The band was as much a rhythm-and-blues group as a rock group," Joe remembered. "They looked like a bunch of guys from England, but they listened to all the same soul stations as I did in the '60s." They melded a Moptop look with a Stax Records sound.

The resident act at the Roundtable in Georgetown was the British Walkers, playing six nights a week with the occasional night off to open for such (real) English bands as the Yardbirds and the Animals. Many musicians cycled through the band, including doomed guitar great Roy Buchanan and Orleans singer (and eventual U.S. congressman) John Hall. By 1967, the band had run its course, and Howard left to try his hand at other groups -- a band called the Sweet (not that Sweet), Mordecai Jones. He vanished from the music scene in 1971, leaving behind a handful of singles -- "I Found You," "Watch Yourself" -- that are much prized by collectors.

What's he been doing the past 40 years? Selling Cadillacs in Florida. Flying helicopters in Alaska. Racing unlimited hydroplane speedboats around the country.

Local roots rock figure Billy Hancock tracked him down recently. "I didn't even own a guitar anymore," said Bobbie. Billy and Joe Lee persuaded him to get the band back together for a series of reunion gigs this month.

"We were the first American group I know of that got on the British bandwagon," Bobbie said on the phone from Frederick, where he's been practicing with former Walkers Steve Lacey (drums), Jack Brooks (bass) and Geoff Richardson (guitar).

"We made a ton of money off it," said Bobbie. "The name was good. We looked good. We were all business." (The name? It was a brand of shoe.)

Said Bobbie, 67: " I did everything I wanted to do. I really did. I wrote, I arranged, I produced, I toured."

He was never able to persuade his kids, now in their 20s, to follow in his footsteps, though. His sons were uninterested in the rock-and-roll life. "I said, 'You'll get a ton of girlfriends.' They said they had girlfriends, they didn't need any."

The British Walkers will perform Friday and Saturday at Winston Billiards Cafe in Rockville. Call 301-315-2235 for tickets. The band also will appear July 19 and 20 at JV's in Falls Church; call 703-241-9504. To hear some of the group's music, visithttp://www.myspace.com/thebritishwalkers.

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My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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