By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon
We covered Wilmer before – somewhat – without delving into the whole history of the band. Previously we focused on their first 45 “Give Me One More Chance” and its killer B-side “Get It!”; and their second 45 (“I’m Free”, B-side to “Heavy Time”). Today we’ll look at their third 45, “Living In The U.S.A.”.
I only touched on the early background of these guys in the past because their story is well-known and has been covered elsewhere. So I won’t write book here. The short backstory is that Wilmer Alexander Jr., Ronnie Alberts, and Ralph “Duke” Gillotte came together in 1957. All three were from Geneva (outside Rochester). Wilmer played sax and sang; Ronnie was the drummer; and Duke was the keyboardist (and sometimes organ). “Keyboard” in the early days meant “piano”, but as the band moved into the Sixties this came to be the favorite axe of jazz/R&B organists, the Hammond B3.
The early band was completed with Bob Egan on bass and Doug Brown on guitar. Doug also wrote “Give Me One More Chance”. Later on horns were added to the lineup, though on their self-titled 1969 album, the band is presented as just the five core musicians with horns as guests. Incidentally, local heavies Chuck Mangione and Gap Mangione worked on the album too, as players and arrangers.
The band lasted from 1958 to 1974 but their ‘salad days’ were approximately 1961 to 1970. At first they played the Upstate and Central NY circuit, mostly colleges, frat parties, bars, Ski lodges, and lake resort clubs. Later they found residencies as house bands especially in Buffalo, first at The Inferno and later at the new club created by the same owners when The Inferno ironically burned down- Gilligans, in Cheektowaga.
Wikipedia describes those nights: ‘Every Wednesday night, long lines of fans formed through Glen Park and over the bridge on Glen Avenue, many waiting for hours to get into the sold-out Inferno. Wilmer & the Dukes would play such cover songs as “Reach Out” and “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops, “Shotgun” & “Road Runner” by Junior Walker & the Allstars, and “Baby Let Me Bang Your Box” by Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts. Acts they opened for included Wilson Pickett and Sly & the Family Stone.’
The Inferno had a regular R&B/ Soul day on Sundays, bringing in national acts on a regular basis, and the audience there was equally interested in Rock’n’Roll and Soul, which was perfect for Wilmer & The Dukes. And the fact that they were an interracial band doesn’t seem to have raised any eyebrows. This may not have been the case when they started though. In the late Fifities, when they were playing mostly Black clubs, the racial dynamic of the band probably stood out more – and may have been part of their novelty.
As I mentioned before, it’s seems to be more than just rumor that the screenwriter and producer of the movie Animal House (Ivan Reitman) saw Wilmer play gigs at The Inferno and was affected to the point that they became the inspiration for that film’s “Otis Day & the Knights”.
That brings us up to 1968. Buffalo-based Aphrodisiac Records released “Give Me One More Chance” which was a regional hit, placing moderately on the Billboard and Cashbox Top 100 charts. It also earned release in Canada, the UK, Germnay and France. And maybe other markets, for all I know.
The Steve Miller Band was San Francisco-based and considered part of the Fillmore/ hippie/ Frisco scene even though all members were actually from Texas or the Midwest. After a strong first album they released the even-stronger “Sailor” LP in 1968. “Living In the USA” was taken from it to be there second single and it entered the Billboard Top 100 on November 23, 1968. It never got much farther even though it was backed with the equally strong “Quicksilver Girl”.
Not long after the Miller album and 45 releases Wilmer and band picked up on “USA” and started playing it. They included it as a cut on their early 1969 album and released it as a followup single to “Give Me One More Chance” /”Get It” and “I’m Free”/ “Heavy Time” in the summer of 1969. It was a regional-only hit in upper New York state and a few scattered markets (apparently a top 40 in Detroit) but the only made it to #114 on the Billboard chart.
They weren’t quite done on record – one more single followed, pulled from the album – but there were no more singles after these four and no more albums until the CD era when the remaining members recorded as The Legendary Dukes.
In my opinion their album and all the singles are top-notch. They always put on a killer live show and it’s too bad they weren’t able to keep recording.
Living In The U.S.A. – enjoy!