Where Are They Now? 50th Anniversary of “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead”
Interview with Fifth Estate drummer Ken Evans
Giveaway: Autographed book “Connecticut Rock ‘n’ Roll”–Tony Renzoni, foreword by Ken Evans
By Warren Kurtz
On June 10, 1967, the creative cover version of “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead” by Connecticut’s Fifth Estate debuted in Billboard’s Top 40. On the exact day of the 50th anniversary of this milestone, Goldmine spoke with the Fifth Estate’s drummer Ken Evans about that hit, other songs from the group, other Connecticut acts including Gene Pitney and the Wildweeds, what the Fifth Estate is doing now, and connections to Ronnie James Dio and AC/DC.
GOLDMINE: Happy anniversary! 50 years ago today “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead” debuted in Billboard’s Top 40. Where were you when this news broke?
KEN EVANS: Thank you. We had singles on the radio for a couple of years and were used to them bubbling up slowly with local and regional hits. This one was a goof, done on a dare when someone challenged us, thinking it would be impossible for us to make a hit out of “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz.” One of our two guitarists, Ricky Engler, had purchased the latest copy of Billboard. We had debuted in the Top 100 a couple of weeks previously, our first single to do this. We were in a little restaurant in Stamford, Connecticut, by Stamford High School. Even though this was the ’60s, it felt like a “Happy Days” ‘50s setting. Ricky opened up the magazine and shouted, “We’re 33 with a bullet!” The “with a bullet” part was key, as that meant your record was on a rapid rise, up the chart. We screamed, “Look at this! My God!” We celebrated with a round of hamburgers and Cokes for everyone.
GM: I can picture the band doing this, the only group to make the cover of Tony Renzoni’s new “Connecticut Rock ‘n’ Roll” book.
KE: I love that photo as it is a rare one, showing all six of us including singer Chuck Legros. I am second from the right. The book is pretty cool and covers the era nicely in a way that is interesting and readable versus being encyclopedic.
GM: In the foreword you wrote for the book, you began with another Connecticut act, Gene Pitney, and the tour you were on together.
KE: The tour was one of the biggest in 1967, with Gene Pitney as the featured act. A very young Ronnie James Dio was in the opening act as Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. We were on the bill along with the Buckinghams, the Happenings, the Easybeats, and the Music Explosion.
GM: The Music Explosion were from Ohio, so they received airplay in my region, not only with “Little Bit O’ Soul” but also their next single “Sunshine Games.” I also liked “I See the Light,” the flip side of “Little Bit O’ Soul.”
KE: They became our friends on the tour. I just spoke with their bassist, Burton Stahl, about a month ago. We did the Upbeat show with them in Cleveland and did another episode of Upbeat with the Velvet Underground. One night on the tour, I played George Young, from the Easybeats, a demo of our song “Do Drop Inn” and that version had bagpipes on it. George was from Scotland originally and you could see a light went on in his eyes and he asked, “That’s good, I’d like to use that idea sometime if it is OK.” I said, “I don’t think I have the right to stop you.” So, he used a bit of the sound on the Easybeats’ next single, “St. Louis.” Far more importantly, he used the idea later when he and the Easybeats’ Harry Vanda produced George’s brothers’ band AC/DC on the song “It’s a Long Way to the Top” (If You Want to Rock ‘n’ Roll).”
GM: With Gene Pitney as the featured act, I can imagine he sang a lot of hits and maybe some flip sides. A flip side of his that I later learned, due to an up-tempo cover by Ron Moody and the Centaurs from Richmond, is “If I Didn’t Have a Dime (To Play the Jukebox).”
KE: Gene’s vocal power was incredible. After his reign in America he continued to be huge in England. We received airplay there as well and other places internationally. Our song, “That’s Love,” was retitled, but not re-sung as we did in five languages with “Witch,” as “Isso e Amor” in Portuguese for Brazil. Bill Shute and Chuck Legros invented an instrument, which bore their last names, “shugro,” for the song. They took an old guitar, gutted it, turned it into an eight string guitar based on four sets of double strings. It sounded a bit like a sitar, but we couldn’t use it as much as we wanted to as we couldn’t keep it in tune. Even though we had international success, we only toured North America, including Mexico and Canada.
GM: On CHUM radio in Toronto your “Heigh Ho” single made the Top 40. Growing up in Cleveland, we could receive Canadian radio and that’s where I first heard a cover of the Wildweeds’ “No Good to Cry” by the Poppy Family, who had a hit in the U.S. with “Which Way You Going Billy?” “No Good to Cry,” written by Al Anderson, was the only one of their charting U.S. singles to not be written by Terry Jacks. Susan Jacks told me, “We liked the song a lot. Terry slowed down in his writing after the first album and we looked for songs that were different and something we could put our spin on. To be honest, I had wanted to sing it with a little more edge but Terry didn’t want me to sound too rock, so I lightened up a lot on it. It’s a really good song.”
KE: Big Al Anderson certainly gave that song an edge with the Wildweeds. He was from Windsor, Connecticut and went on to NRBQ afterward. We played around the region with the Wildweeds three times as “No Good to Cry” entered Billboard’s Top 100 the same month as “Witch.” By then we had a variety of singles people knew in the region. As 16 year-old kids, Kevin Gavin signed us to United Artists’ Veep subsidiary and for our 1964 single “Don’t You Know.” It beat the Dave Clark Five and the Animals on DJ Murray the K’s “Song of the Week” contest in New York City. Murray wasn’t too happy that a local band beat the British Invasion records he promoted, so he refused to play our next single “I Just Don’t Care,” but we were able to perform it on the Hullabaloo television show. We were known as the D-Men back then. After Murray the K refused to play another D-Men single, we changed our name to the Fifth Estate. Our first single under that name was “Love is All a Game” on the small Red Bird label, which was fading, so airplay was scarce. But, when “Witch” hit it big, Murray the K played it a lot and didn’t even know it was us. WBZ radio in Boston was a big supporter too. We did an outdoor show in Boston in 1967 with the Wildweeds. Al Anderson’s guitar playing was great. We came on the elevated stage. Ricky Engler and Bill Shute, in our band, were great guitar players too. Doug Ferrara was on bass and I was on drums, holding down the rhythm section on this very windy day. Wayne Wadham was playing his Baldwin organ and it blew over on to the parking lot.
GM: The first book on music that I bought growing up was “Flip’s Groovy Guide to the Groops” in 1968. In it you are listed as “Furvus Evans.” Where did that name come from?
KE: In the middle of “Witch,” Wayne inserted a classical piece, “Terpsichore,” from German composer Michael Praetorius. But that wasn’t his real last name, it was a Latinized name. I wanted a Latinized name too. We were down south on tour in Dothan, Alabama. On tour, we would hang out in the day and always packed a football to throw around. There was a University of Alabama football player, I think named Furvus Atkins. The guys started calling me Furvus when I was throwing the ball, so I got my Latinized name that way. The venue was the Cow Palace. In addition to concerts, the place was used for rodeos. We were not a political band, but we did record what I would call cultural songs, like “Night on Fire.” As we were setting up for the concert, in the civil rights era south, we saw drinking fountains still labeled by race. We didn’t like that and refused to perform until they tore those signs down. It delayed the show by about 45 minutes, but the signs were torn down. We tried to do what we could to improve things. In some places, like New York City, we played to all hours of the night until 3 a.m., then tear down our set, and begin driving back around 4 a.m. to Connecticut and maybe see the sunrise. That is what inspired our song “Morning, Morning.” We squeezed our tours into Thursdays through Sundays, as we arranged our college classes to be Mondays through Wednesdays. Wayne, I swear was a genius, was at Dartmouth. A couple of us, including me, were at U Conn in Storrs, Connecticut. All our fathers fought in World War II, but these were different times and staying in school meant you could defer getting drafted for the Vietnam War. We would have loved to tour more and play bars, but we had classes to attend and homework to get done. I guess we were one of the most educated bands.
GM: This decade you have released a pair of CDs “Time Tunnel” and “Take the Fifth” with Shel Talmy as the executive producer. I love the new songs including “One of a Kind” and “Thing’s Change.” Bill and Rick are on guitars, Doug on bass. Who is Bob Klein in the band?
KE: Shel Talmy produced the Kinks and Who in the early ‘60s. We had sent him some ideas for our songs. He said, “You play my kind of music.” We said, “You inspired us with the Kinks and the Who with your kind of music.” “Time Tunnel” was on our own label and then the California record company Fuel 2000 said that they really liked it and wanted to release it, so we traded out a couple of the songs for newer ones and “Take the Fifth” was released. Bob Kline had been in a band called the Wheels and then he replaced me in 1969 when I left the Fifth Estate. Soon we will be working on a new album. In the meantime, the Fifth Estate will be performing at the Stamford Legends of Rock show at the Crown Plaza in Stamford on October 28, tentatively. The Wheels will be there, Bob Kline’s old group. Their guitarist Mickey Leonard went on to the Simms Brothers Band in the ‘70s on Elektra. The Barons, who included future producer and the president of the Millenium label, Jimmy Ienner, who sat in the back of the class with me in first grade, as mentioned in the book, will perform, and then the Fifth Estate will be on for the final hour.
In addition to the Fifth Estate, the Wildweeds, Gene Pitney, and the Barons receiving coverage in Tony Renzoni’s new “Connecticut Rock ‘n’ Roll” book, a range of acts from the ‘50s through the ‘90s are covered. We learn that the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” was originally intended as the flip side of “The Jones Girl” and that it was recorded in a Connecticut church. The Playmates’ novelty car record “Beep Beep” boosted production and sales for AMC’s Rambler. The Carpenters, originally from New Haven, covered the Wildweeds’ “And When She Smiles,” with Karen Carpenter singing “And When He Smiles,” a rarity for decades. There is powerful garage rock revealed including “Going All the Way” by the Squires. Michael Bolton and Bruce Kulick were in a band named Blackjack with songs including “Love Me Tonight” in 1979. Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I” emphasized the Lilith Fair sound of the ‘90s. Additionally, there are many acts to discover who sound inspired by the Ventures, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues and more.
GIVEAWAY EXTENDED THROUGH AUGUST!
To win an autographed copy of “Connecticut Rock ‘n’ Roll” all you have to do is put your email address in the box below by August 31, 11:59 p.m. You will immediately be entered in the Giveaway and as a bonus you will receive Goldmine’s informative weekly eNewsletter (collecting news/tips and exclusive articles and interviews with your favorite classic artists), and then on September 1, 2017 we will randomly draw a winner from the entrants. We have two autographed books to give away, so your chances are doubled.
For more information on the Fifth Estate: