When Reno rocked
Bands blossomed in the early days of a generation’s music
At a website called Fandalism, there is an undated interview with Reno guitarist Brian Frakes. The first question is, “What was the first concert you ever went to?”
Frakes replied, “Locally, probably the Justus V. Nationally, probably Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Centennial Coliseum in Reno in, I believe, 1968.”
The Justus V may not ring a bell for many Renoites today, but there was a time when it owned the town. The band’s record keeper, Mike Mantor, has now co-authored a book—Rock ’n’ Reno—about those times, written with one of the audience members, Gerry McCarroll, for whom they played.
“I remember going to the National Guard armory in 1965 to see the Jesters,” she said last week. “Who would have imagine that 50-plus years later I would be recording their history?”
Historians often complain that groups from service clubs to churches do not preserve their history. Mantor did a fine job preserving the history of rock in Reno and included chapters in the book written by other participants.
In the early days of rock and roll, some local manifestations were not all that inspiring. Some were just lame. Reno’s Channel 8 (first KZTV, then KOLO) once carried a lip sync show—local teens “singing” by mouthing the words of hit 45s on camera.
More reasonable was a local American Bandstand called Beat 90, with Bob Carroll as the Dick Clark of Reno.
But good rock can’t be kept down for long, and soon local garages were giving birth to bands. In the 1960s, Justus V was the best known, most admired local rock band. It began as the Jesters, a surf band (in a desert state) that evolved into the Justus V (just-us-five, get it?), and then into Justice V.
Members included Mantor, Bill Church, Steve Hatley, Paul Manketlow, Billy Ray Payne, Ron Ryser and Kootch Trochim.
“They could really sing ’Louie Louie’ and ’Gloria’ and ’Honky Tonk Woman.’ … They were the best Reno had during the time frame,” according to Tom Myers. Yes, he is a relation—brother of this writer and a student at Manogue High School during those years. He said the V was so popular that when his classmate and Justus V member Steve Hatley graduated from high school, “Hatley insisted we get someone else for the senior all-night party at the top of the Mapes. He wanted to enjoy himself for once.” John Carrico, Jr., son of the late music director at the University of Nevada and now a Reno lawyer, said, “Justus V was the Reno version of the Dave Clark 5.”
The members learned to deal with bad news coverage. On one occasion a Reno newspaper—not this one—reported that the V bandmates had all gotten haircuts in protest against antiwar sentiment—“Their answer to Vietniks.” The band denied it, and the newspaper corrected it without calling it a correction: “In the past, they sported what might be called ’Prince Valiant’ haircuts. … But because they must attend National Guard meetings, they’ve had to get trimmed down low.”
The locations for local bands were limited in a town of 51,470 in 1960 and 72,863 in 1970. Among them were the YMCA across the street from Reno High, a VFW hall on Moana Lane, Huskie Haven (a sort of teen nightclub), the National Guard armory, and the State Building. This last was the best of all, located on the present site of the Pioneer Theatre, but this was the era when local politicians considered new to be progress and old to be regress, so the State Building was torn down over the objections of community organizations. With the State Building gone, Greenbrae Bowl Coffee Shop owner Bob Renovich opened the Door, a teen nightclub, in a former Cadillac shop. Members of Justus V dubbed Renovich “Bopper Inc.,” which became the company name. The Door became the place to be in Reno for high schoolers. Renovich used numerous local bands and also brought leading groups like Quicksilver Messenger Service to Reno, both for the Door and for shows at the Centennial Coliseum (later renamed the Reno-Sparks Convention Center).
Justus V’s experiences, of course, were being duplicated by many other bands.
While the V dominated, there were dozens of other bands at any given time, with similarly changing lineups and migrations from one group to another. Rock ’n’ Reno lists 191 of them. Some band members now cannot remember the names of all the bands for which they played. The groups played Reno and also regionally, plus Las Vegas. Winnemucca, for some reason, was a particular mecca.
Guitarist Bruce Krueger, now a retired graphic designer in New York City, played with Hemrock, Rock Bottom, Eternal Five—which was renamed the Cheshires—and Fourth Street Bridge, plus two bands whose names he cannot recall. He also filled in occasionally with New Jukebox Band.
With Rock Bottom, one of his fellow musicians was David Ward, now owner of E Media Ad Group. The group cut a record with two songs—one written by Krueger, one by Ward—and “We really sold that one,” Krueger said, meaning that they marketed it aggressively to about 60 record labels. Krueger said, “One of the best of the rejections we got was from Apple,” the storied Beatles label.
Krueger said his most lucrative gigs were in the early 1970s when he played with a band in Winnemucca for $100 for two nights on weekends (more than $600 in 2018 dollars) with the band sometimes held over on Sundays to play for even more profitable weddings. He remembers the band taking a tour of the town’s brothel row but cannot remember the name of the band.
Some of the groups survived for long periods and had a measure of success. “That’s all I ever wanted to do,” Mantor said of his desire for a life-long musical career.
Jack Bedient and the Chessmen broke into playing casino lounges. Mantor said Justus V bass guitarist Bill Church—known as Electric Church—was and is one of the most successful of all Reno musicians, playing regularly on Van Morrison and Sammy Hagar recordings. He now plays with the DHC Band.
There would likely have been more, but there was—the draft. It was probably the single thing that most interfered with careers. Dropping and then picking up bands again is difficult.
“The writing was on the wall,” said Mantor of the way the group slowly died. “And as trite as it sounds, we have to go to National Guard meetings and summer camps, and we had to keep our hair short, and 1966 was not a time to be in music with short hair.” Many members of bands reference the draft as an obstacle to success.
All this was happening either before or during the rise in the late 1960s-early 1970s of the women’s movement. The local bands tended to be very male. Grant Sims played with two bands that referenced gender right in their names, Male Order and House of Lords. Paradoxically, House of Lords was one band with a female member—vocalist Evelyn Hajek, a serious singer who was also in training for opera and once took part in the Western Regional Metropolitan Opera auditions in Los Angeles. But that was an exception—and when women were included, it was usually as vocalists, not as musicians.
“I remember a few bands where they had a female singer backed up by guys,” Sims said. “But they didn’t usually play an instrument beyond maybe keyboards.”
Unfortunately, we were unable to interview the few women who did perform because they were difficult to locate. The practice of women changing their names not only injures them financially but denies them credit in the history of innumerable fields.
Sims is one musician who stayed with it. Though he is a businessperson and served as a Reno city councilmember and a Washoe County commissioner, he is still in a band—Route 66. “It’s been around about 20 years and has been a staple of Hot August Nights for about 20 years,” he said.
He remembers playing junior high dances but doesn’t remember much about the money. “Money—what’s that?” He said the money was truly not the big thing about being in a band, at least for him. “We were so young. … We didn’t do it for the money. We just really enjoyed playing and learning to play. There’s something magical when you create your own music.”
He said that feeling seemed to be shared by the public.
“Kids were really turned on,” he said. “I loved it. Absolutely loved it. It was the ’60s. I was changing. I got the bug to play.”