Dingy lights of Ohio

Halfway to Cleveland

Chris Ceja, Billy Yates, Kim Massie, Don “Harpo” De Roma, Doug Johns and Mark Leach make up Halfway to Cleveland.<br>

Chris Ceja, Billy Yates, Kim Massie, Don “Harpo” De Roma, Doug Johns and Mark Leach make up Halfway to Cleveland.

“Halfway to Cleveland” is an old show-biz expression roughly meaning, “out of work” or “halfway to the bottom.” It’s the midpoint between success—with the bright lights of big cities like New York—and complete obscurity and failure, represented, in the minds of old show-biz slangsters, by a second tier Midwestern city. Apparently, Cleveland is a pretty low place to be, but if you’re in show business, you know everyone spends some time there at one point or another.

Illustrating today’s geography lesson is the band Halfway to Cleveland, a group of musicians with a collective resume that is nothing short of amazing. Individually they’ve played with, among others, Little Richard, The Band, Alice Cooper, Natalie Cole, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Junior Brown, Dweezil Zappa and even Wild Cherry. And now, they’ve made a CD with guest appearances by Buddy Miles, who was in Band of Gypsies with Jimi Hendrix, and Rolling Stones keyboard player Chuck Leavell. But, they somehow find themselves without a record deal or much reason to tour.

I recently called the Medford, Ore., office of Greta Records and spoke with the president, who also happens to be the founding member of Halfway to Cleveland (Greta Records’ sole musical venture), Don “Harpo” De Roma. When De Roma answered, furious barking in the background informed me it was a hectic day at Greta Records headquarters. After De Marco calmed down his, um … employees, he talked about his time in Cleveland and how a group of super-slick pro musicians had its genesis in an “over-the-hill garage band” from Reno.

De Roma, who had been the front man in the band The Nightcrawlers, was living in Oregon when he was enlisted to join then Reno resident Ricki Hendrix, third cousin of Jimi, for a Woodstock reunion show. Also in the Hendrix band was William Yates, former guitarist for the Southern rock band The Outlaws. At Woodstock, playing in a different project with Hendrix, were drummer Chris Ceja, bassist Doug Johns and organist Mark Leach. De Roma and Yates were amazed by these three players and immediately wanted to do a project with them.

These five went into the studio after only eight hours of rehearsal. After initial plans to record at a studio in California fell through, it was decided that the band would record in, that’s right, Cleveland. There, they were joined by Kim Massie, an amazing blues singer from St. Louis, who ended up handling most of the lead vocals on the CD.

Songs were quickly put together in rehearsal and in the studio, and the record was completed over the course of four trips to Cleveland—during the first of which, De Roma and Yates defrayed expenses by using their van to haul medical equipment between Cleveland and Reno.

The disc they produced features eleven songs, mostly mid-tempo blues numbers with elements of funk and old R&B. There are also a couple of straightforward rock songs, like “You Have a Friend,” and a sensitive, stripped-down version of Robert Johnson’s “Come On Into My Kitchen.” While some of the songs are under-written, the performances are all flawless.

The disc did get some attention from a major label, but talks didn’t go very far. The label wanted the band to re-record the entire CD—but given the busy schedules of all the people involved that proposition seemed unrealistic. The label also expressed some concern over the band’s stage show. De Roma had to break the bad news to a label rep: “I’m 52 years old—we don’t have dance routines.”

For now, the CD can be bought at www.halfwaytocleveland.com—buying the CD online will entitle you to a personal e-mailed thanks. Tired of playing clubs for pocket-change, the band hopes to tour only after they sell more CDs and get some radio airplay, which De Roma is confident they will receive in the next couple months in Dallas, Boston, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Macon, Ga., and Reno.

Though rueful of the band’s current situation—"Lynyrd Skynyrd know about us, but no one else does"—De Roma is optimistic the band will soon gain the attention it deserves, but his optimism is tempered with the knowledge that, as he puts it, "No matter where you are, you’re always halfway to Cleveland."