Before the Family Stone: The Viscaynes

Sly Stone started his career as a teenager in Vallejo, California with a group called The Viscaynes.
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The Viscaynes in 1961 (clockwise, from top left): Frank Arellano, Charlie Gebhardt, Vern Gebhardt, Charlene Imhoff, Sylvester “Sly” Stewart and Maria Boldway. Courtesy of Charlene Imhoff.

The Viscaynes in 1961 (clockwise, from top left): Frank Arellano, Charlie Gebhardt, Vern Gebhardt, Charlene Imhoff, Sylvester “Sly” Stewart and Maria Boldway. Courtesy of Charlene Imhoff.

By Bill Kopp

The music and career of Sly Stone and his group The Family Stone is well known. What’s less explored is his earliest work, recordings made when he was still Sly Stewart, a teenager in Vallejo, California. Those original singles are now impossibly rare, though various tunes have surfaced on compilations over the years. But now two new releases – on different labels, unrelated to one another – are compiling music from that early chapter of Stone’s history.

From ORG Music comes The Viscaynes & Friends, a 10-track vinyl LP featuring the seven best (and best-known) sides from Stone’s first pop group, alongside three related tracks. And a CD release, Sly Before the Family Stone features 19 cuts. Some of those feature The Viscaynes as well, and there’s no overlap with the ORG record; Sly Stone completists will want both. And they’ll want to know the back story of The Viscaynes; for that it’s best to turn to Charles “Chuck” Gebhardt, one of the group’s singers.

A coterie of music-minded students at Vallejo High School in the San Francisco Bay area got together in 1961 as a group. Billing themselves as the Viscounts (pronounced VIE-counts) they worked up arrangements of popular vocal group tunes. Vocalist Chuck Gebhardt and his brother Vern were among the members of the group. He admits that when the Viscounts began, they had “not a lot” of musical training or expertise. “Just a lot of singing in back rooms, living rooms, bathrooms … a lot of it at my house on Highland Street in Vallejo,” he says. “Wherever we could do it, really.”

The group’s members had come together through shared interests. All were members of Vallejo High School’s choir, and several took part in stage plays. “We were also in talent shows,” Gebhardt says, which could be an intimidating prospect. “Because Vallejo High School sounded like Motown all the time,” he says. “Everybody had a lot of talent. We felt very lucky that we got to do what we did.”

The Viscounts name didn’t last long. After a New Jersey pop group with the same name scored a Billboard Hot 100 hit (No. 52) with a cover of Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne,” Gebhardt says that “we were advised to change our name.” The group members spent an entire evening trying to come up with a suitable one.

In some ways, being forced to change their name was a blessing for the young group. “Everybody got it all confused,” admits Gebhardt. “Is it ‘vis-counts,’ or ‘vie-counts?’” But they didn’t want to re-brand in a way that might lose them whatever momentum they had already established. “If we kept the ‘V’, people could still associate us with the Viscounts,” Gebhardt recalls thinking. So they settled on a variant of their original name: The Viscaynes. “We thought, ‘There’s a Chevrolet called the Biscayne. If we change one letter, they’ll think that’s cool. And maybe they’ll give us a car,’” he says with a chuckle. “It never happened,” he deadpans. “We never heard from Chevrolet.”

Another classmate, Sylvester “Sly” Stewart – later known as Sly Stone – almost didn’t join the group. Raised in a very religious household, he was forbidden to play music outside of his home or at the Church of God in Christ. “His mom and dad were very strict when it came to his performing,” Gebhardt says. “They were great people – sweethearts, really – but music outside the church was a touchy thing.” Sly was already busy as a longtime member of a family gospel group, The Stewart Four, featuring himself plus siblings Rose, Vaetta and Freddie. That ensemble had cut a record, “On the Battlefield” b/w “Walking in Jesus’ Name” back in 1952.

But Sly really wanted to join The Viscaynes as well. “He had to make his parents a promise to get his grades up, and they finally – reluctantly – let him come over to our group,” Gebhardt says. The Viscaynes had been auditioning for a singer to replace a departing member. But when Sly showed up, “it wasn’t even close,” Gebhardt says. He was in. And in addition to being a fine singer, “Sly could play any instrument you could lay out on a gymnasium floor,” he says. “It didn’t matter if it had a couple of broken strings; he could still make music with it. The guy was – and is – a musical genius.”

For live performances, The Viscaynes would often be backed by one of several local bands. They often played with The Continentals, a band that featured saxophonist Jerry Martini. He and Stewart became good friends, and would later spend nearly a decade together in Sly and the Family Stone.

Most of The Viscaynes’ repertoire consisted of cover tunes. Gebhardt says that the group chose material that lent itself to adding vocal harmonies. “With the band behind us, we’d rehearse and develop the music. We’d try to make it a little different than the originators of the songs themselves.”

The group got a break of sorts when performing a song popularized by Thurston Harris, “Little Bitty Pretty One.” The Viscaynes took to the stage at a talent contest. “Halfway through the song, the judge, Pete Marino said, ‘Okay, you’re in,’” Gebhardt proudly recalls. “For some reason, we had this sound that just flowed together, with two girls and the rest of us guys. It just blended.”

All members of the group contributed to developing the song arrangements. “Frank Arellano would do some, and (the rest of us) would throw little bits and pieces in,” Gebhardt says. “We’d either like it or not like it. We would sit around and jam.” Sometimes during those vocal arranging sessions, a piano player would join in. Eventually pianist Mike Stevens was added to the lineup.

“We would add little nuances into the songs, so they became a little more ‘ours,’” Gebhardt says. But The Viscaynes didn’t leave the original versions too far behind. “Because we weren’t quite good enough,” he admits. “Creativity is something you have to have. Our choir director was able to help us out, and then when Sly came into the group, we started to have even more of that.”

The Viscaynes were a fairly democratic group, one without an appointed leader. But Sly Stewart’s talents meant that he often took a leading role. “He would make sure that our pitches were right,” Gebhardt says. “He could hear that right away.” He recalls one vocal practice. “Sly said, ‘Do you guys all want to be leads, or do you want to actually have some harmony? I think we’ll do some harmony; how does that sound?’”

Belying his eventual reputation as an erratic personality, the young Sly Stone was considered an engaging fellow. “He was a great guy,” Gebhardt says. In addition to being in The Viscaynes together, he and Sly “did plays together – he was a pretty darn good actor – and we played basketball and football.” Gebhardt says that Sly and Arellano in particular became very close friends. “Our group was like a family,” he says. “It wasn’t one of those things where you just come in and sing. We actually did things together all the time.”

Gebhardt’s memories of the teenage Sly Stone do, however, comport with one characteristic that would come to define the celebrated musician. “He did have a tendency to be late for things,” Gebhardt allows. “One of the reasons why we almost didn’t get to go to audition for the Dick Stewart Talent Show was that he was late.” Sly was late to arrive at some of the dances The Viscaynes had booked as well. “But we got to him to be a little more punctual,” he says. “We fixed that. At least until he left our group. Then, I think he went back to being … a little bit late.”

Looking back at the group – and viewing it from the outside – The Viscaynes seem remarkable for a number of reasons. Years before groups like The Rising Sons, The Mynah Birds and Love (and of course Sly and the Family Stone) would feature integrated lineups, this teenage vocal group was made up of a cross section of society. Gebhardt says that though the group included males, females, whites and African Americans and people of different faiths, “it wasn’t a big deal to anybody. Nobody cared; we just did what we did. We sang and we enjoyed life. The world might think it was a big deal, but we didn’t.”

Gebhardt allows that Sly and one of the other group’s singers, Maria Boldway “did have a little bit of a thing going on, but nobody (in the group) ever cared. That’s all I can tell you.” The idea that people of various races and ethnic backgrounds were somehow different never seems to have occurred to The Viscaynes and the friends in their orbit. “My dad was a football coach at the college,” Gebhardt explains. “He was always trying to recruit people, to get them to play football for him. So we had people at my house of every different race and breed that you can ever imagine.”

That kind of thinking meant that it wasn’t a big deal when – after The Viscaynes had ended – billed as The Hart Brothers, Gebhardt and brother Vern, were booked at the Milwaukee 13 Club in Hayward, California. “It was an entirely black audience,” he recalls. “But they liked what we were doing.” As far as The Viscaynes, Gebhardt says, “I’m very proud of the fact that we had that relationship and that whole deal of not worrying about ‘who’s who and what’s what.’ We just enjoyed it.”

Even though the group members were all in their teens, The Viscaynes scored some high profile gigs. “We played at the Carpenters’ Hall, which was gigantic,” Gebhardt recalls. But the young (and more than a little green) singers ran afoul of the grown-up world at that particular show. “I picked up a tambourine during our performance,” Gebhardt recalls with a chuckle. “And I got fined $50 – a lot of money back then – for picking up that tambourine, because I didn’t belong to the Musicians’ Union. You don’t break those rules when you’re in a union hall.”

Gebhardt says that The Viscaynes played at the Ranger’s Hall in Vallejo almost every weekend, and they performed a number of times at the Solano County Fairgrounds. “We did a lot of dances and proms and weddings,” he says. “We’d actually go up to other high schools and perform for them in their big auditoriums.”

But they ventured out of town quite often as well. “We did a number of shows at Travis Air Force Base,” Gebhardt says. “And we played a lot of places up in Lake County.” Even in small towns like Clearlake, The Viscyanes – all of whom were 16 or 17 years old – were booked together for overnight stays in in motels. “I guess they didn’t care that we were a mixed group, either,” he says.

Viscaynes_Cover

Once the group had cut some records, there was demand for performances as far away as Los Angeles, more than 350 miles to the south. Everything happened in a whirlwind for the group; that may help explain why Gebhardt is a bit fuzzy on a few details. “I think we were at the Hollywood Bowl,” he says, “But I can’t remember.” He is, however, sure that the group appeared at the famed Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip.

The opportunity to cut records came about through winning of talent shows. “They were like the American Idol or The Voice of today, in miniature format,” Gebhardt explains. The Viscaynes scored a trophy for taking first place at one hosted by TV personality Dick Stewart of KPIX Dance Party. “We had to (complete) every weekend up and down the state of California,” Gebhardt says. “I still have the trophy. It’s about six inches tall.” After the group won that contest, a record contract was inked. “We didn’t get involved with that,” says Gebhardt. Parents and lawyers took care of that stuff; I don’t even know what the contacts were.” He notes that the members of the group “never made any money” off of the contract. But they did earn the right to record a pair of songs.

In the summer of 1961, Gebhardt had a summer job with the Vallejo Unified School District, cutting grass. One day he was mowing a lawn when his parents showed up. “We’ve got to go to record,” they told him. They headed to a studio in the basement of the Geary Theatre in San Francisco’s Theatre District.

Several hours passed before the group – backed by The Continentals – waxed suitable recordings of “Stop What You Are Doing” and “I Guess I’ll Be.” “It took awhile to get what (the producers) wanted,” Gebhardt says. “But they finally got it.” Viscaynes vocalist Charlene Imhoff took the lead on the latter song. The 45rpm single was released in October ‘61 on the tiny Tropo Records label, and it soon got some airplay on Bay Area Top 40 station KYA-AM.

One afternoon soon thereafter, Chuck Gebhardt found himself mowing the very same lawn. “Next thing I knew, a limo pulled up, and my mom got out,” he recalls. “Come on; we’ve got to go to Los Angeles,” she told him. Gebhardt hesitated; he was only halfway done with the grass cutting. “I can’t just leave!”

“You’ve already quit,” his mother told him. “It’s all taken care of.” He got in the car, and the limo took the family to the airport in San Francisco, where they boarded a plane – “the first plane trip in my life,” Gebhardt adds – to LAX. Once in Los Angeles, the group made its second recording of a Sly Stewart original. “We first recorded ‘Yellow Moon’ at a studio in the Bay Area,” Gebhardt recalls. “But I guess they didn’t like it very much.”

“Yellow Moon” features a slightly odd-sounding lead vocal from Sly Stewart. “I don’t know why,” Gebhardt says, “but what they did was speed it up just a little bit. So instead of Sly with his nice deep voice, it has a little different twist.” The B-side of “Yellow Moon” would be another Stewart original, “Heavenly Angel.” Neither the A-side nor the flip was credited to Stewart, though; the composers are listed respectively as George Motola (the session’s producer) and Earl Washington, both also co-credited to Rickie Page, Motola’s wife.

A third song, “Uncle Sam Needs You,” was also cut; it was released as a single as well, with “Yellow Moon” on its B-side. “We did quite a few songs,” Gebhardt recalls. “We were there for a week.” On its release, “Yellow Moon” became a minor hit on the west coast.

Even though they were all still in their teens, the members of The Viscaynes could appreciate the talent within Sly Stewart. But even they didn’t realize just how deep of a creative well lay within the young musician; the work he did with The Viscaynes only hinted at that potential. He wasn’t at all involved in the production side of things with the group, Gebhardt says. “I don’t think that they knew he had that ability at all.”

Various online sources assert that The Viscaynes backed Richard Berry – famous for “Louie, Louie” – on a session credited to Jasper Woods. That song, “Hully Gully Papa,” was released on VPM Records, the same label that put out “Yellow Moon.” But Gebhardt’s memory contradicts that story. “I don’t remember doing (recordings) with anybody but us,” he says. “It’d be neat if I could say, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ But I’d rather have the truth out there.”

Those same sources suggest that The Viscaynes had already broken up by the time “Yellow Moon” began to get airplay. “That’s weird,” says Gebhardt. “Because we hadn’t broken up until Frank went into the Air Force and Sly was doing more stuff with Tom Donahue and Autumn Records.” He says that the group didn’t formally decide to disband; it was more a matter of its members drifting in different directions. “Sly was being taken to San Francisco and being catered to down there,” he says. “And it was almost like we were finished with what was going on.”

Gebhardt says that Sly did his best to make opportunities for his friends from The Viscaynes. “He kept trying to bring us back into (musical projects); he was loyal, and we were family.” Nothing significant came of those efforts, though, and the group members all went on to other things.

But even after The Viscaynes were over, the former members still hung out together on occasion. Gebhardt recalls one night when several of them (including Sly Stewart) visited San Francisco’s Condor Club to take in a performance by the famous topless dancer Carol Doda. Gebhardt recalls that as soon as the show was over, Sly told his friends, “Come on; let’s go say hi to her!”

As they approached the dressing room door, a club employee shouted at them. “You can’t go in there yet; she’s not dressed!” Gebhardt recalls laughing and saying to Sly, “We just saw her on top of a piano and without any clothes on, and now we’ve got to wait here in the hallway!”

Once Sly found greater success with The Family Stone, he invited his former bandmates to visit his parents’ home, one he had recently bought for them. “They took us into the house and showed us all around,” Gebhardt recalls. “His mom said, ‘You’ve got to come in and see, Charlie.’”

Sly Stone in later years; a rare appearance with The Family Stone during Hippiefest 2015 at Count Basie Theater on August 23, 2015 in Red Bank, New Jersey. Photo by Mark Weiss/Getty Images.

Sly Stone in later years; a rare appearance with The Family Stone during Hippiefest 2015 at Count Basie Theater on August 23, 2015 in Red Bank, New Jersey. Photo by Mark Weiss/Getty Images.

Neither Charlie Gebhardt nor any of the other Viscaynes have seen nor heard from Sly Stone in many years. But Gebhardt still thinks highly of his former bandmate. “He’s like a nomad now,” Charlie says. “And it’s a shame. Because he could actually be doing something (music-related) right now. And (even) if he wasn’t singing the music, he could be putting music together for somebody else to sing. Because I bet he’s got a million songs.”

Though their time in the spotlight was brief, Gebhardt has nothing but fond memories of The Viscaynes. “It gives you some memories,” he says. “The experience was unbelievable. You got to be a rock and roll star. And that’s something that none of us, I don’t think, would ever trade.”