On a cul-de-sac in Greenbelt, in a typical suburban home, seven employees of a decades-old Maryland company are gathered in the kitchen. Paychecks are handed out, and forms distributed for signatures — in duplicate — ratifying the recent election for officers of the corporation. After everyone has signed and the small-talk dwindles, the group repairs to the basement, where they will pick up guitars, drumsticks and saxophones and practice some Chuck Berry songs.
This is the weekly rehearsal/business meeting of the Fabulous Hubcaps, one of the oldest continuing bands in the area. For 37 years, the oldies cover band has bop-shoo-wopped and diddy-wah-diddied on stages all over the United States, from the White House lawn to county fairs. They are a musical outfit, sure, but the Hubcaps are especially proud to be a Maryland corporation.
“My particular dream or passion wasn’t to be a weekend warrior, cut up the cash backstage,” says Denny Cook, 62, a founding member and the band’s frontman and treasurer. The gravel-voiced Cook joined the group at 26 after a career as a DJ. This is the only band he’s ever been in. “I wanted it to be some sort of structured business,” he explains. When the band officially incorporated in 1984, “I was very pleased.”
Instead of “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll,” Cook was inspired by “paid workman’s compensation, unemployment insurance and social security and Medicare taken out of the check” — all of which, Cook firmly declares, are provided by the Southern Maryland Band, trading as the Fabulous Hubcaps. Cook adds, “I’d really like to emphasize that we are an American tax-paying organization.”
Drummer Barry Holober, 59, in whose large kitchen we are sitting, joined the band in 1982, and since then, he says, he has “not missed a paycheck going on 30 years.” Like most Washingtonians, the band is paid on the 15th and end of every month.
“It might not be a lot some of the time, but it’s always going to be something all the time,” says Cook.
It’s the fantasy of every kid who picks up a guitar to play music for a living. Which is exactly what the Hubcaps are doing, but the band members are living lives that more closely resemble those of electricians than hotel-room-trashing rock stars. There’s a lesson here for those starry-eyed kids and the gazillion hipster Brooklyn bands vying to be the next big thing: Electricians are always in demand. So, too, are workaday musicians who give the people what they want.
Only two of the Hubcaps have day jobs, and that’s by choice. Singer-keyboardist Tommy Dildy, 65, is a sales manager for an audio-visual rental company in Beltsville. Saxophonist Don Mark, 62, works in marketing for the Baltimore Orioles. Mark says he told owner Peter Angelos that the band comes first. “And he’s cool with that.”
The corporation includes a manager and a four-man crew who drive to gigs in a large company-owned truck filled with many thousands of dollars’ worth of speakers, lights and cables. “We’re self-contained,” says bass player Jan Zukowski, 60, who became a Hubcap eight years ago after spending 29 with the Nighthawks, the only D.C. band older than the Hubcaps (by two years). The spiky-haired Zukowski appreciates stability — his marriage has lasted 39 years, also rare in the music business.
In fact, his wife, Terry, and Cook’s wife, Carolyn, used to work the merch table. They retired those duties last year. “We used to come to every job then,” says Terry, who also notes that both she and Carolyn were Playboy bunnies together at the Baltimore Playboy Club. Terry met Jan when she was a Rockette and he was playing with legendary D.C. band the Cherry People in Georgetown clubs.
Terry credits her long-lasting marriage to the fact that she understood show biz. “I’ve seen a lot of girls go after a guy in a band and once they married him go, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’ I knew I’d never marry a lawyer or a doctor, that would be too boring.”
In the ’80s, the group was playing as many as 240 shows a year. “We’ve had some pretty good financial years,” says Cook. “I think the best year we ever did was close to $900,000. And that’s a hell of a lot of gigs, because we don’t make no 15 or 20 grand a shot.”
But the recession has cut deeply into entertainment budgets. Even a carnival had to cancel because people couldn’t afford to play bingo, and it was the bingo money that paid for the band.
“Yeah, from my perspective as financial officer, I was definitely getting worried,” says Cook. “I thought we were going to go under.”
But just as the Hubcaps survived disco, they are surviving the Great Recession.
On a recent Friday night, the Hubcaps were at a 400-seat theater at Carroll Community College in Westminster, Md., 65 miles north of Washington. It’s a fundraiser for Emory United Methodist Church, which needs a new roof. Organizer Karon Moore says people ordered tickets from as far away as Cumberland and Harrisburg, Pa. The sold-out room is filled almost exclusively with white hair and bald heads, people who can remember when the oldies on tonight’s set list were newies.
Other than drummer Holober, who also sings, every Hubcap sings and plays at least two instruments, with the choreographed switching of guitars, mikes, keyboards and horns keeping the show lively. And there are as many costume changes as at a Lady Gaga concert. For a girl-group medley, Cook and Mark perform in drag, wearing bright pink poodle skirts and big bouffant wigs. Similarly, an Elvis medley is a medley of Elvii: Cook as ’56, Dildy as ’68 and Mark as Vegas-era Elvis. Guitarist-saxophonist-fiddler-arranger Coe Anderson sports an oversize cowboy hat behind singer-saxophonist-pianist Lynn Roxy’s cowgirl-style Patsy Cline — which precedes Dildy in bandana and pigtails as Willie Nelson.
Through all the spectacle, the churchgoers sit as politely as if in pews. There is some nodding to the beat, though the applause is generous.
Gladys and Will Wallett from nearby Taneytown are longtime fans and they love the costumes. “A quick glance and you’d think it was Willie Nelson!” Will says during intermission. “And sounded just like him. They just do a beautiful job.”
The Methodists will reward the Hubcaps with a strong standing ovation at the end of the evening.
The Hubcap audience may be graying, but the inspiration for the band came from that most iconic of youth culture events: Woodstock. Founding member Rocky Simon was in the muddy crowd that August weekend in 1969, and when the teenager looked up at the stage he realized, “Hey, I can do that!” Simon’s epiphany was not prompted by Jimi, Janis, Sly, Ravi, Arlo, Crosby, Stills or Nash. No, it was Sha Na Na — Bowser and the boys, cutting up through a set of ’50s doo-wop.
Simon was aware that Sha Na Na “were kinda making a parody” of the Eisenhower era, “but I had an appreciation for the ’50s. And I said, ‘Hey, if we can come up with a group that sounds like the original, I think there’s a market out there for it.’ ” Which is why Simon and company shied away from emulating Hendrix or Santana. “That was a little competitive at the time,” he says.
So Simon enlisted Cook, his own brother and friends from another group to form “the Southern Maryland Band, featuring Harvey Hubcap and the Doo Ron Ron.” “Harvey” appeared at midnight for a set based on the history of rock. This part of the show became so popular that it eventually became the entire act, with the name clipped to the more manageable Fabulous Hubcaps. There have been 25 or 27 Hubcaps over the years. “I lost count,” says Holober.
Simon, who will turn 60 in a few weeks, retired from the group in 2007, tired of the traveling. Now living in Lewes, Del., he rarely performs anymore, though both his sons are pursuing music careers. “I pretty much leave it to the youngsters now.”
The accepted truth of rock-and-roll is that it is the music of youth. Although grandfather-several-times-over Mick Jagger refuses to retire, many in the boomer generation are doing just that. So far, nine fans have been buried in official Hubcap tour jackets. A touching tribute, but also — nine fewer fans. While there have been several proposals onstage during shows, these were usually second or third marriages.
“Our fan base may be dwindling a little bit,” says Holober, “but a lot of those people have relocated down to Florida, getting out of this weather.” Each January for the past several years, the Hubcaps have performed at various gated communities in the Sunshine State. “A lot of the people that we play for down there were fans of ours in Pittsburgh and New Jersey and anyplace where it was zero below zero in the wintertime,” says Holober.
Manager Jane Noelte says she avoids the term “cover band,” and acknowledges the difficulty of promoting a band without radio recognition. “Even though the band tours all over the country,” she says, “they’re not deemed a national act because they haven’t had a hit record. It can even be one of those one-time wonders, but if you don’t have your own record out there, it hurts you.” For example, on the strength of its 1978 No. 20 hit “Slow Ride,” Foghat is booked solid through the end of the year.
The band has released several CDs, including 25th and 30th anniversary discs and a Christmas collection. But the songs on them are hits from 30, 40 or 50 years ago, and though they sound extremely close to the originals, all the tunes were written by and associated with other artists. In the ’80s, the group did record some originals, one of which reached No. 28 on the independent music charts. “We took a shot,” says Cook. “But our fans, they didn’t want that. Didn’t want it.”
Still, the band is planning another CD, to feature “new” songs they’ve learned — often based on requests — and members not included on previous albums. It will be called “Keep on Rockin’.”
The day after the Westminster gig, the Hubcaps are 30 miles south of Washington at the Dale City VFW. Despite torrential rains, about 300 people crowd the hall and the dance floor. “Elton is Rod,” goes the message backstage, as a last-minute set list change is decided, substituting a Rod Stewart medley for an Elton John medley. Tonight is more dance than show, and there’s a party atmosphere in the room. Of course, alcohol is served here.
Once again, longtime fans cheer the group into an extended encore of Motown hits late into the night. The storm outside has passed, fortunately for the crew loading out the gear. After a couple of days off, the band is scheduled for back-to-back shows in Tupelo, Miss., birthplace of Elvis Presley.
“I think the first time I said I can’t do this anymore was 15 years ago,” Cook says, to laughter from his bandmates. “I said, I’m done.”
“But you know what?” says Roxy, “You keep on rockin’.”
Nuttycombe is a freelance writer.