Like many baby boomers, my husband Randy and I often listen to the “oldies” while traveling. A few years ago, while listening to the ‘60s channel on the way to Florida, I found myself saying, “The Darndest Things played this song,” and “The Darndest Things played that song too.” Years ago I had told Randy about the The Darndest Things, a local band I loved that played often in my hometown of Oakland City, Indiana, in the late 60s. Finally, though, after hearing me over and over again identifying songs they had played, my husband asked, “How many songs did they play, anyway, and what made them so special?” Those questions led me to reminisce about those years and to try to answer him.
Fifty years is a long time, and as much as I tried to remember, I could come up with very few pieces of real information. Drastic action was needed. I had always avoided reading the diary I had kept in 1968, the year I was fourteen—let’s just say that “Love Is Blue” was my theme song that year and let my adolescent angst go at that. What I did remember was that I had faithfully recorded every dance I went to in my diary and every band that played. Finally, I marched upstairs to the attic, pulled out a dusty box and dug through newspaper clippings, greeting cards, ticket stubs, and old pictures until I came up with the diary, its green cover worn and cracked, the tiny lock broken. I looked at it like it was a stink bomb that might go off the minute I opened the cover—but I did it anyway. Boom—no stink, but in the very first entry–
January 1, 1968—Dear Diary, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!! Since you just start January 1, I want to tell you what happened December 22, 1967. What a night!…. Well… there was a dance at the Temple. The Darndest Things played!
The diary told the rest of the story—
By the end of that dance, the boy I had been wanting to dance with for a year came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. Just as I turned, and he asked me to dance, lead singer Doug Whitaker announced, “This will be our last song of the night. Are there any requests?” My dance partner said, “Louie, Louie,” and despite the fact it had been requested several times that night, The Darndest Things launched into one of my favorite garage band songs—The Kingsmen’s version of “Louie, Louie,” and we danced.
My heart pounded, but somehow, I didn’t trip over my feet.
I wished that “Louie, Louie” had more verses, but unfortunately it was over much too soon. I wasn’t the only one wanting more—the crowd, including my dance partner, asked the band for one more song. The band members looked at each other, nodded, and rocked into “Good Lovin’.” Thrilled, I got to dance one more time with this special guy.
For a shy, almost 14 year old girl, it was a magical night.
The Darndest Things would appear over a dozen times in my diary of 1968, and I knew they were a big part of 1967 and 1969 too. Who was this band who could figure so importantly in my world? I knew some of the members, but not all, so with a little bit of research, I got the full lineup of this good looking group of rockin’ guys: Gary Wildt on drums; Phil Williams on keyboard; Brent Siebe on bass guitar and trumpet; Doug Whitaker, who also provided the sound system, on lead vocals; Charlie Hall on guitar; and later, Tony Bailey on back-up and harmony vocals, as well as the trumpet, baritone, and tambourine. This band brought the visceral essence of the sixties into our lives in a way our transistor radios couldn’t.
The Darndest Things covered over fifty hits of the mid and late sixties and played them true to their roots. At my first dance, they taught me quickly that live music rocked! All of this got me to wondering why this group’s sound was forever branded in in my mind. For most people, the music from their teen years stands out in a way that will always capture the feelings, the drama, the anxiety of that essential time in their life. Why is this so true?
Sometimes science can help us understand the secrets of the heart. Psychologists and neuroscientists have found that we are all bonded to the music of our youth more than the music of any other time in our lives. Hearing this music later in life triggers the memories and emotions we had from the ages of 12 to 22, a time when our brains undergo rapid development and our emotions make us feel that everything that happens is incredibly important. Music is the background to many of the “firsts” in our lives—first dance, first love, first kiss, first heartbreak. No wonder the soundtrack from this period stirs up so many feelings. Even when we look back on these events as adults and know they weren’t really that big of a deal, listening to the music of that time still reminds us of exactly how important they felt. All I have to do is to read the excruciatingly detailed entries in my diary from the year I was 14 to know this is true.
For many baby boomers in Oakland City, the music of The Darndest Things was a big part of this period of identity formation. We were lucky in the years 1967 – 1969 to have them play frequently at local dances—some at the Oakland City teen center (The Teen-a-rena), the school, street dances, the skating rink, the Masonic Temple, Carnaby Street at the Gibson County Fair, and the Oakland City Sweet Corn Festival. A constant theme in my 1968 diary was “There was a great dance tonight—The Darndest Things played!” And did they ever—they played the heck out of many of our favorite songs, sounding so much like the originals, their live music so danceable that almost everyone was up and moving.
The beginnings of the band went back to Gary Wildt, from Mackey, who recalled buying a set of drums when he was in the 7th grade, learning how to play them, and later forming a group called Gary and the Esquires. Once he had a car and a band, Gary’s drums found a home in the trunk of his car—easy to get to for all the dances he would be playing. In 1967, after a short stint with another group, he came together with Phil Williams, from Oakland City; Brent Siebe, from Lynnville; Charlie Hall, from Elberfeld; and Doug Whitaker, from Oakland City; to form a new group. Tony Bailey, from Oakland City, would join them in 1968. When the group was discussing possible new names in ‘67, Phil’s father, Oakland City’s first mayor, Union Williams, suggested The Darndest Things.
Other forces besides these young men’s musical ambitions had begun to change the musical world for teenagers. Local groups like this exploded into music venues all over the country in the 60s and were often called “garage bands.” Most of these bands were also called “cover bands” because they played mostly the songs of popular groups of the time. Southern Indiana had its share of groups, with the Corvettes, the Koinsmen, and The Turks some of the best known in this area, and many others not as well known. Several of these played at our local dances too.
The Corvettes were by far the most successful regionally and even recorded 10 songs on 45s that sold well in the tri-state. “Our Love Won’t End” was the best known and was written by group member Neil Long in 1965. The sale of these records and frequent playing by WJPS deejays made the Corvettes a household name and very much in demand. That group would eventually change some members in 1970 and become known as Free Reign. Occasionally, a garage band like this would break into the Top 40 and achieve nationwide success; the Corvettes came tantalizingly close. Groups such as The Kinks, The Troggs, and Paul Revere and the Raiders made the leap. However, most garage or cover bands, like The Darndest Things, would break up as their members moved on to college, careers, or even Vietnam. Nevertheless, in the brief period of time these local groups played their music, the hearts of teenagers were lifted.
Back to my husband’s question about the number of songs The Darndest Things played. Incredibly, group members came up with 52 songs on their playlist, with over 25 different bands and other artists represented. Most were fun fast dance songs, such as “Time Won’t Let Me,” “ Five O’clock World,” and “Money,” but there were also several nice slow dance songs in their repertoire that would quickly change the atmosphere of any night, songs such as “And I Love Her,” “Poor Side of Town, and “Mr. Dyingly Sad.”
Learning to sing and play all those songs required much more time and an ear for music than they would today. Now, with the help of the Internet, we can easily look up song lyrics and find web sites, like Songster, which provide written music and audio for the instruments used in the songs. In the 60s, such handy means weren’t available—time, talent, and teamwork were required to recreate a popular song.
Like most of us, the members of The Darndest Things first heard new songs on the radio—probably WJPS on AM 1330 in Evansville, possibly played by The Real Rodney Russell, Jim Stagg, or other WJPS disc jockeys. Individually, group members heard songs they liked and brought them to the attention of the band. Everyone would decide whether to add the song to their playlist or not. When the decision was made to try one, members would usually buy the record, if they didn’t already have it, to listen to the song over and over and learn their parts on their own, by ear.
Doug Whitaker, who did the majority of the lead vocals, would listen until he could come up with the lyrics. Since I so often got song lyrics wrong in those days, I know this wasn’t easy. Doug’s voice was just right for so many of these hits.
Charlie Hall was good at hearing and figuring out the chords and patterns; he could also transition from picking to rhythm seamlessly. Phil Williams said of Charlie, “When we played he was a very quiet and seemingly bashful guy. He was so humble about his tremendous guitar talent. Sometimes he would hit a really impressive guitar lick that would just blow us away. We’d look at him and he would just grin a little. I think he knew it was good, really, really good.”
Brent Siebe, who was described by one band member as an especially gifted musician, was good enough on bass that if he heard a song a few times and Charlie had the chord sequence, Brent could play it.
Tony was also good at hearing and identifying chords and back up harmonies. He added several instruments and a lot of polish to their arrangements. Gary Wildt could pick up songs quickly and would nail the drums.
Mastering the organ, an essential instrument in the rock heyday of the 60s, Phil Williams would listen and play until he had the organ part down pat. Several of the songs covered by The Darndest Things showcased the organ role: The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” including Ray Manzarek’s distinctive introduction; “96 Tears,” by Question Mark and the Mysterians (actually recorded in a garage); “The House of the Rising Sun,” by the Animals; and “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” by the Swingin’ Medallions.
Once the group felt they were ready to play the song together, Gary would count the beat, and they began, stopping when someone missed a chord, forgot a lyric, or missed a beat. Whoever noticed a problem would speak up, and whoever made the mistake would try to correct it. Once they felt comfortable with their work, they would include the song in their performances. Some songs became favorites and were performed more than others. After several performances of their favorites, they sometimes ad-libbed on their own parts to keep the songs fun and fresh and to keep the creative juices flowing. But having talent wasn’t enough if you had no place to play.
In the 1960s, Oakland City was a vibrant town, with many shops and eating places. Community leaders and organizations, concerned about the growing restlessness of the youth of that day, made efforts to provide fun activities for the young people of the town. The Teen-a-rena was an organization that had been established in Oakland City in 1959 to provide safe and wholesome activities for area teens. As Top 40 music became more popular, the Oakland City Teen-a-rena became the sponsor of many dances in the small town and were always looking for groups to play. Meanwhile, The Darndest Things needed a place to practice as a group. Fortunately, they both found each other and set up an arrangement in which The Darndest Things would practice at the Teen-a-rena on Mondays, and in return, they would play one dance per month free of charge.
While the dances in Oakland City were approved by my parents and many others, the activity wasn’t without its detractors. After all, it was the 60s, a time of generational clashes. For a brief time the Teen-a-rena was open on Wednesday evenings to preteens, and two letters to the editor in the Oakland City Journal were written by mothers who felt it wasn’t right to hold activities on that day since some churches had Wednesday night meetings. One of the letters was against dancing altogether.
In that letter, signed simply, “Concerned Mother,” the writer asked, “Have you ever known dancing to lead to anything but heartbreak and trouble later on in life…?” Reading this made me sad. For my friends and me, dancing was a way to socialize, to have fun, and to be too busy to get in trouble. We were getting lots of exercise while we were at it.
Disgruntled parental reactions certainly weren’t limited to Oakland City. All over the country teen centers and what some called “Hullabaloos” opened and offered dances featuring local bands. Some of the complaints in various newspapers were that the dancers loudly spilled out into neighborhoods, and alcohol was sometimes present. On the other hand, most small towns with teen centers were attempting to provide an activity fun enough to draw teens that could also be overseen by adults in a reasonable way.
Joy Beauchamp sent a letter to the editor of the Oakland City Journal in response to the two mothers mentioned above, explaining the purpose of the teen center, which was to “have a wholesome atmosphere, no intoxicating liquor, no smoking, no swearing, no rough housing.” He added, “At no time is the center open without adult supervision.” He even talked to some ministers in the town on the question of whether dancing was wrong, coming away with the understanding that under some circumstances it might be, but under these circumstances it was not. Mr. Beauchamp was a lifetime honorary member of the Oakland City Teen-a-rena and, along with others, had spent a great deal of time and effort to insure that teens had a safe place to go. He later opened a recreational area with a lake, camping, and rides on his country property, called Joyland, to provide more fun activities for young people.
No place is perfect, and I don’t know what happened elsewhere, but inside the Teen-a-rena, I saw nothing inappropriate. Sometimes people would leave the dance, and I heard rumors about what happened then, but I agree with one fan, who said, “I honestly don’t remember anything bad going on at the Teen Center back then. Maybe I was too busy dancing! I loved that place and absolutely loved The Darndest Things!”
Another local organization that provided many dances as a safe activity for teens was the Lions Club, which sometimes sponsored dances at the skating rink. Especially popular though were their street dances, which gave teens something to do and also raised money for worthwhile causes. The Oakland City Journal noted that one street dance where The Darndest Things played had 325 in attendance.
In the Oakland City Journal notices about upcoming events, parents were encouraged to participate in the street dances too and were admitted free. I don’t remember seeing many parents, but I do remember that having a block of Washington Street roped off and dancing in the street to a live band was a blast. Now that I’ve gotten older and get overheated easily, I wonder about the hot, humid nights that we danced our socks off downtown. It must have been hot work for the bands too, whose stage for the events was on the back of a flatbed truck.
In my diary, the only time I ever mention the weather is when I worried that a street dance would get rained out. Phil Williams recalled that at one street dance The Darndest Things had only played a little when a drizzle started. They broke their equipment down, and the Lions Club announced we could all head to the ice rink, where the group set everything up again, and we had an “indoor street dance.” After that particular dance, the notices about the street dances contained a rain-out location.
The fact that there were many dances offered in Oakland City was especially good for kids like me whose parents wouldn’t let them go to some of the out-of-town venues, such as Lamey’s Grove, on Highway 41 between Princeton and Evansville. The Corvettes played regularly at this site, with the large white barn-like structure often holding as many as 1,200 dancing young people. Likewise, the Calumet and the Rustic in Jasper were off limits for me and a lot of other teens but were great fun for those who could go. The dance hall between Francisco and Princeton, called Midway, was close enough that more local parents let their kids go there. This dance location was on a curve of Highway 64, out in the country. To emphasize its rural location, I have heard that Sonny Kixmiller of the Corvettes, who sometimes played there, told a story that during one performance, an escaped cow wandered up to a window and stuck its head in.
The Darndest Things enjoyed a great deal of success locally. They were in demand and played at events like the Labor Day celebration in Princeton, which was the second largest Labor Day event in the country. Carnaby Street at the Gibson County Fair one year featured The Darndest Things, The Koinsmen, and The Turks. The Princeton Clarion reported on February 16, 1968, that in Oakland City, an all-time record of 171 attenders were at the sock hop at the Teen-a-rena, and the group breaking the record was The Darndest Things.
In the Princeton Clarion, May 15, 1968, a brief article stated that many requests had been made by teens and their parents that one night per week at the Princeton Youth Center be exclusively for the older teens. The Clarion reported that the Princeton Jaycees had listened to these requests and decided to make Fridays limited to teens ages 16 – 19, adding, “Bands appealing to the older set will be featured. The first band to play will be a popular Tri-state group, The Darndest Things.” Many more newspaper articles described the band positively, including a April 4, 1969, Clarion article, saying, “All college and high school students are invited to enjoy a night of dancing to the music of The Darndest Things, a well known local group of talented young musicians.”
One article about an upcoming dance sponsored by the Lion’s Club at the Catholic Church may have gotten a little carried away in trying to appeal to local teens, declaring, “Don’t miss this big Psychedelic Freak-Out!” Some group members laughed when hearing that description. Phil recalled that the closest they ever came to psychedelic effects was when he made a flashing light that created a strobe light effect: “I mounted a large fan on a pole, using an old automobile wheel for a base. I replaced the fan blade with a round plywood disk. I cut a small hole (4″ – 5″ diameter) in the disk. I mounted a bright spot light behind and real close to the disk. When the motor ran, the opening in the disk passed by the spot light and the effect was a quickly flashing light that gave the ‘psychedelic’ look to the dancing audience. We did not have the money to invest in ‘psychedelic lights’. But we did occasionally have a little creativity!”
While The Darndest Things were the background music to many important moments for the young people of our small town, the group also played at the same type of venues all around the region, more so as time went on, as they became better known. They played at other teen centers and schools, American Legions, skating rinks, parks, proms, a university fraternity dance, and even the Tri-State Autorama at Roberts Stadium. In their last few months together, Rex Walters of the Corvettes got them some additional gigs.
In fact, as the popularity of The Darndest Things spread in the region, they didn’t play in Oakland City as often, so we had some other garage bands introduced to us too. In addition to the better known ones, we had bands such as Yesterday’s Paper, The Unpredictables, The Bossmen, and Chocolate Haystack. The Unpredictables had the opportunity to be on the Dick Clark show, “The Happening,” and the notices about Yesterday’s Paper always included a note, such as the following—Yesterday’s Paper will be “featuring the oh so blonde girl drummer.” While these groups played good music, and I enjoyed them, my favorites were always The Darndest Things— for me, they couldn’t be beat for danceability; they had a nice range of sound; and I felt like they were most in touch with the crowd.
Some group members of The Darndest Things shared memories about their band. Tony and Phil recalled carrying all their equipment up the rickety fire escape at the Lynnville Fire Station to play for a dance on the second floor, which was more like a third floor because of the height the downstairs ceiling had to be. The amps and the organ were particularly heavy to carry up the mesh type stairway. Fortunately they survived the climb up and down. One benefit to the location was that the slightly sagging upstairs floor was great for dancing.
Gary recalled the band giving in to a crowd that begged them to play an hour longer at the Birdseye prom, helping to make the prom-goers’ night extra special.
On a more humble note, Phil recalled that they were once scheduled to play at the Linton, Indiana, Canteen, where they weren’t known by locals and which turned out to be empty for three hours.
Brent, Phil, and Tony discussed their only recording, in 1968, which happened with the assistance of Michael Barton, a Wood Memorial music teacher at that time. The acoustics in the band room were less than ideal, and everything was on a single track reel to reel recorder with no chance for do overs, no producer, no director, no sound checker, no tune up correction. In addition, the piano they had to use did not match their organ, which was problematic because the guitars and bass were tuned to the organ. For many of these reasons, the group members weren’t completely happy with the results of the recording. However, this gave them a taste of what it might be like to record in a real studio where they would have everything they needed to sound their best. Who knows what might have happened if they’d had more time together as a band before life moved them on in different directions?
One of the songs they recorded at that time was an original that Tony Bailey had written with some assistance from Phil Williams. The title was “Think of Yourself.” Tony later co-authored some songs with Phil Hamm, sending one to Screen Gems Columbia Publishing House, which sent them a contract to buy publishing rights to the song. Even though nothing else happened with the song, the experience was exciting and fun.
Brent and others recalled the Tri-State Auto-Rama at Roberts Stadium in Evansville, Indiana, as an important but unusual gig. Instead of playing to people dancing, they were playing to empty seats and people walking around looking at cars. A queen contest was part of the event, and the twelve queen candidates came and sat close by to listen. Tony remembered that a week or so after the car show, a question appeared in a column in an Evansville paper asking, “What was the name of that band that played Friday night at the Evansville Car Show, and how can I contact them?” He added, “None of the guys or their mothers ever owned up to sending the letter!”
I have been very conscious, writing most of this piece in May and June of 2019, that it had been fifty years since the last official performance of The Darndest Things. More than one group member has talked of that night. For the first time, the group had put on the dance itself, rather than going through a sponsor. They also spread the word that this would be their last show, and the ice rink was packed for this dance. They made more money from this dance than from any other event, which Gary said up until that point, was not a lot more than gas money.
There was one more performance. In 2010 the group had a reunion, where they shared a meal, caught up with each other’s lives, and played some music. This time it was for their kids and grandkids. I wish I could have been there!
For those of us who were teens during the time that The Darndest Things played, there are many memories. Most people I have asked said that they “loved them,” “they were cool,” or they “loved to dance to them.”
A couple of more unusual memories included Pattie Young Clutter describing how she loved the music of The Darndest Things but was too young to enter the teen center for the dances. Nevertheless, she danced her heart out outside the building where she could still hear the music until she was covered with sweat.
Jayne Kinnaman Berryman recalled being in the 6th grade when she went to the teen center to ask each of the group members for their autographs, which they graciously provided.
For me, some memories shine like a splash of glitter in the moonlight. Back to the Holiday Dance at the Masonic Temple–the night of my first diary entry. I had started working as a carhop at my mom and dad’s business, Johnson’s Restaurant, and I had saved money to buy orange plaid pants and a poor boy shirt by Bobbie Brooks from The Smart Shop in downtown Oakland City. Looking around before the dance started, I nervously tugged at the bottom of my shirt.
Walking through the crowd that night with some friends, trying to see who all was there, I caught whiffs of fragrance–Brut, British Sterling, and English Leather from the boys– and Heaven Scent, Tabu, and Estee Lauder Youth Dew from the girls. A large group of boys stood close to the stage, talking. There, with them, wearing a maroon velour turtleneck, was the boy I had wanted to dance with for a year. I emphasized in my diary that he was the “tuffest guy at the dance.” My stomach fluttered for a moment when he turned, and I thought maybe he looked at me. The Teen-a-rena, sponsor of that particular dance, asked Union Williams to kick off the event. Mayor Williams welcomed everyone and called Sandy McGillem Reid up to the stage to receive a transistor radio as a prize for recruiting the largest number of Teen-a-rena memberships—26 memberships at fifty cents each. We all applauded. Mayor Williams then introduced The Darndest Things. Gary hit eight drumstick beats, and Charlie hit the guitar lick leading into The Boxtops’ “The Letter.” The crowd formed into couples and groups for dancing, and The Darndest Things once again made a little magic in the night.
I wish to thank the members of the Darndest Things who shared information for this project. A special thank you goes out to Phil Williams and Tony Bailey. Also, photos were provided by Phil Williams.
- Most of the information in this article came from phone interviews and e-mails with members of The Darndest Things.
- With the exception of those listed below, newspaper articles used were from the Oakland City Journal and The Princeton Clarion.
- Davis, Rich. “Free Reign Appearance Will Be Tribute to Neil Long,” Evansville Courier and Press (September 9, 2010).
- “Hullabaloo Scene Opens,” The Oil City Derrick (Pennsylvania) (May 23, 1967), p. 11.
- “Raises a Hullabaloo,” The South Bend Tribune (May 12, 1968).
- Stern, Mark Joseph. “Neural Nostalgia,” Slate (August 12, 2014).
- Tri-State Bands of the 60s,” North Knox High School Class Of 1970 & Friends http://www.northknox70.com/class_custom5.cfm