Norman Mayell, drums
Born in Chicago, Illinois; began playing with a Dixeland band called the Vesteens at 16; has played with Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins and Mike Bloomfield; studied Flamenco while in college at the University of Hawaii.
I dedicate this site to my
good and long time friends in the Sopwith Camel. They, along with myself,
survived one of the most unusual cultural movements of the century.
What began like a pebble thrown into a quiet pond became a tidal wave of
creative energies affecting
every level of popular culture and questioned, for a time, the deeper
matters of civilization. By the latter part of 1967, the wonder and
beauty of the psychedelic experience was packaged and sold like a vacation.
The dance halls became like a vacuum, routine and vibeless.
Excerpts from my Autobiography
by Norm Mayell
I began playing the drums or should I say snare and cymbal in the basement of my house in Elgin, IL in 1958. I used to listen to Chicago blues stations like the Big Bill Hill Show, Rock with Rick and Jam with Sam. They played the strange seductive message that white kids like myself couldn't resist. My favorite was Sam. He would create the illusion on his radio show that he was going downstairs to the basement with some tasty BQ chicken. In the background was a soulful crying harmonica. Turning on a blue light and settling down to eat, he would begin to play some records. Then all hell would break loose and on would come Muddy Waters singing about black cat bones and mojos. Wow!
My first band was the Vesteens (we wore vests) and I was the primitive. The other three musicians could play each others instruments and played dixeland and knew all the standards. I wanted to play rock and roll and R&B tunes. We played in pubs by the Fox River, at Elgin High School dances and in basements for our girl friends parties. After high school I went to Hawaii 1960 and studied Philosophy and History. In a couple of years I returned home and went to Chicago and started making sandals at John Browns sandal shop in Old Town. I met Mike Bloomfield in front of Big Johns Night club on Wells Street talking to Big Joe Williams who was leaving for a road trip and Michael needed to put a band together. I had no idea that he was recognized as a player emerging out of the folk/blues era and had been written up in Sing Out Magazine. He asked me to get some drums and help complete the band that would play to a packed house in Big Johns. And so we became the first all white electric blues band in Chicago in 1964-65 known as "The Group". Charlie Musselwhite played harp and sometimes Mark Naflin or Brian Friedman sat in. Silver Sid Warner became the base player and Mike "Gap" Johnson was on guitar. On December 1st. John Hammond Sr. from Columbia Records came to see us and booked time in Chicago's Columbia Studios on December 4th, 1964. That session was finally released in 1997 on the Michael Bloomfield "Essential Blues" CD with a rememberance by Al Kooper. John Hammond didn't know what he had; white guys high on dope playing blues while the Rolling Stones were waiting in the wings across the Pond. The story of the "Group" was written by Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom; entitled "Michael Bloomfield-If You Love These Blues-An Oral Hustory" in the year 2000.
I returned to Hawaii while Michael joined Paul Butterfield. I surfed alot and in 1964 dropped Sandoz acid I bought from a guy with the Tim Leary group who had left the East Coast and was selling on campus. My first trip was in Manoa Valley listening to Charley Mingus singing "Don't drop it, Bebop it, Don't let them drop that atom bomb on me.", while the walls were billowing and the air was orchid scented filled with prism colored particles from other galaxies. There was a very small scene of acid heads that smoked reefer and took peyote in Hawaii. Just before I left, I was living with a girl in Waikiki, making Gods Eyes. Our neighbor wore a cape and was from Venus. He maintained that fiction all the time. I was amused that he spoke our language with no trace of a Venusian accent.
When I came to San Francisco in 1965 I was barefoot and had a paper bag of belongings. I found the young Patricia I was told by the Gods Eye girl would put me up. She lived on Hyde Street just off of California Street in a three story Vic with an stage in the basement called the Orb Theatre. Her room was draped out in Middle Eastern clutter. Marijuana was piled on the table and from a broken record player, playing from the middle out and therefore backwards, came the music of Jimmy Smith's "Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolf." I knew the recording inside-out, I quess.
The only space in the house was a large closet on the first floor next to a pay phone and, well, I only had a paper bag. John Mann was the landlord. I managed a set of drums and set them up on the stage downstairs in the theatre and began playing again. Everynight after midnight a stripper named Holiday from North Beach that lived in a room behind the stage with a view of the Chinese laundry would come home with someone from the Beat generation. She would begin dancing up the aisles onto the stage, around the drums, say goodnight and exit through the back.
I vaguely remember auditioning with the Quicksilver quitar players and a young girl (Denise Kaufman) who later played with the Ace of Cups. She introduced me to the Ken Kesey crowd in La Honda. I rode in the famous bus to a free speech demonstration at UC Berkeley. The campus was packed with students. Hells Angels were every where and the Pranksters were giving away Acid. It was extraordinary theatre. Exciting and spooky!
One day Peter Kraemer and Terry MacNeil who lived two blocks away near Polk Street came to my stage looking for a drumer and I soon left my small theater behind to be in the Sopwith Camel.
Earlier When in college at the University of Hawaii I met and lived with William Sievers. He played folk quitar in the Travis picking style and was now living in San Francisco a few blocks from the Firehouse Theatre on Sacramento Street. He bought a 12 string Framus electric guitar and I brought him to meet Peter and Terry. Sometime after that I called Martin Beard after reading his classified ad. He had the same Hofner bass as Paul McCartney and was in fact from England. No question, he was in the band.
So, we rehearsed in George Ebey's No. 10 Truck, No. 26 Firehouse Theatre for one month upstairs and played downstairs in the fire trucks bays on Lincolns birthday February 12th, 1966 for the first time in public. We were pretty good and had a few songs that sounded like hits. We played a few cover tunes from folkrock to blues like every other band did and we had our own brand of improvisational music. It was psychedelic in nature on the one hand and an attempt to rock classical style passages on the other hand. Then there was the old time stride style of music that was part of Peter's Virginia City experience, my band days in the Vesteens, Terry and Martin's knowlege of piano standards. The psychedelic music was ignored by Eric Jacobsen and Kama Sutra Records and so the world remembers us for the old timey sound.
The period after our debut at the firehouse was upwardly mobile. We played the Matrix, we played the ballrooms and we played any political benefit we were asked to. We used a VW bus and then an ambulance to take equipement around. It seemed that in less than 6 months time we were offered a record contract from Kama Sutra Records and asked to go to New York to travel with the Lovin Spoonful. Before we left out three story Vic in the Fillmore, I did a Tarot reading with Batman bubble gum cards. It told a story of how Batman and Robin would be kidnapped in a dangerous dark Gotham night by Mafia type characters. They would use us as a musical front for evil, like running numbers in Manhattan and selling our records out of the trunks of their Cadillacs in order to avoid proper accounting procedures. It all came true!
We arrived in the Village on the corner of McDougal and Bleeker in front of the Night Owl Cafe. Allen Ginsburg and one of the Fugs, greeted us with hugs and kisses. I bet that didn't happen to many bands. We were the first hippie band out of the Bay Area. We opened at the Night Owl Cafe with Lothar and the Hand People. It was to get weirder as we toured the coast playing second bill to the Spoonful and promoting our hit record "Hello-Hello".