There have been many great musicians we have all listened and danced to over the years in the Arkansas River Valley (ARV). If you were asked to name the top six of these music legends, who would they be? To make the task more manageable, limit your list to performers who still reside and perform in the ARV.
I posed this question to several area club owners, event organizers, fellow music lovers, and musicians themselves, and the results of this unscientific process provided the following legends.
No way am I just going to list the names of these legendary performers. What’s the fun in that?
I believe there could be no better modus for announcing these great entertainers and share their stories than to schedule all of them to perform on a single night at local ARV music venues.
I’m sure the legendary, late Bill Neumeier could have arranged such an event. Unfortunately, I don’t have his connections to make this happen in the real world. However, stretching the realms of reality and your imagination, I can take everyone on a Magical Mystery Tour of Music Legends of the Arkansas River Valley in print and photos. LET THE SHOW BEGIN!
Only a rookie would begin an evening of dancing and partying on an empty stomach. I thought we would begin with a stop at an establishment that not only serves up delicious “soul food with a flare,” but is also co-owned by the first legend of the evening, Larry Bedell, aka Larry B, and the restaurant is Larry B’s Rhythm Room featuring: Hazel’s Gourmet Chicken & Waffles, in Van Buren, AR.
Think Larry B and your feet start to stirring about and your whole body soon follows because you can’t just sit still when this man is “doing his thing.”
Bedell has been doing his thing since the age of nine, when he and brothers Tommy, Joe, and Ernie formed “The Fabulous Elites” in 1964. The 16-piece R&B band toured the midwest for eight years.
After the Elites folded, without missing a beat, Larry, brother Ernie and five other musicians formed “KC Express” and went on to be signed by Stax Records Company, home of legendary artists like Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, and many others.
After KC Express disbanded in 1977, Bedell moved to Los Angeles, CA, to work with great artists and entertainers at Mavericks Flatts, whose alumni included Gwen Brisco, Howard Hewitt, Earth Wind and Fire, Love Machine, Buzz Cooper, and others.
In 1986, he was invited to play keyboard and vocals for a country/rock/soul group in Fort Smith called Razorback, produced by Peter Sullivan, the former President of Apple Records. He accepted and calls the area his home to this day. The group later changed their name to Grayghost.
Bedell continues to showcase his talents performing solo and with his four-piece band “Larry B and the Cradle Rockers,” in addition to running his recording studio, Razz-Ma-Tazz Entertainment Group.
In 2018, Bedell, his wife Hazel, and longtime friend, Executive Chef James “JT” Thomas, opened the Rhythm Room. Now his fans can enjoy listening and dancing to his smooth, rich, soulful sounds while enjoying fine food and a full bar.
A great beginning for the evening; however, it’s very difficult to pull ourselves away while Larry B’s still performing, but there are several more stops ahead on our tour.
After remaining to hear everyone’s favorite, Bedell’s driving rendition of “Purple Rain” we loaded up in the bus with a designated driver, to cross the Arkansas River on the Midland Boulevard Bridge, cruising into downtown Fort Smith.
THE BEAT GOES ON
After dropping everyone off on the west end of town, we begin strolling down Garrison Avenue, waves of live music reverberating off the man-made brick canyon walls.
We are drawn into the open courtyard of La Huerta Mexican Restaurant by the electrifying guitar riffs of the next ARV music legend and guitar-hero, Mr. Charisma himself, Gary Hutchison.
A lifelong student of the guitar, Hutchison pursued a mix of classical and one-on-one training from local musicians to master his craft, a learning process that he says continues to this day.
Hutchison played his first professional gig at the age of 14, and since turning 21, has made his living from the guitar.
His first major success was performing with the band, Southern Fried. They released an independent album and toured like rock stars all over the US, opening for major groups like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Asleep at the Wheel, and others. National music magazine Cashbox listed them in the top 3 unsigned acts in the US.
He followed this in 1994 by joining the Oreo Blue band. The group has produced ten independently released original CDs that have sold copies in more than 30 different countries. Oreo Blue produced a full-length CD/DVD video tribute to Jimi Hendrix that was endorsed by the Hendrix family. In 2006, the Oreo Blue Experience was named the #1 Hendrix tribute for the year by Voodoo Child magazine. Hutchison himself received the Ozark Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
His version of “All Along the Watchtower” on the ukulele probably has Hendrix thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Oreo Blue has been invited to participate in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN, by both the Ozark Blues Society and by the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Society.
Hutchison, a non-stop dynamo of energy, balances performing with teaching guitar and other instruments. He also has plans to increase Oreo Blue’s performance schedule in the coming year, providing his fans with even more opportunities to enjoy the Gary Hutchison Experience.
Sitting under a star-filled sky on historic Garrison Avenue, our normally rowdy troop is now silent, with everyone spellbound as this master performer puts on a performance that those present will later swear can never be replicated again, only to discover Hutchison creates this once in a lifetime atmosphere at every show.
With the salt around the rim of the glass all that remains of our second margarita, we step back onto “The Avenue” to stroll east.
SWEET FOOD AND SWEET MUSIC
In the mood for something sweet, we proceed down the avenue to score a piece of delicious bread pudding at ARV’s own taste of New Orleans, R. Landry’s New Orleans Café. This also happens to be where our next legend is performing, singer, songwriter, mulita-instrumentalist, producer, soundman extraordinaire, and consummate music-god in every way possible, Tom Ware and his son Anthony.
Ware picked up the guitar at ten years old in defiance of his mother who insisted he play the piano. However, he did learn to play the piano, along with mastering the fiddle and just about any other musical instrument that put out a sound that interested him.
He joined his first band, “Reefer,” in junior high and played at school dances. They also performed at a political rally for former senator David Pryor.
Having a degree in electronics, Ware pretty much became responsible for setting up and maintaining the equipment in the groups he played. Although at the time he didn’t see this as a positive, it provided him with a valuable segway into the production side of the music business. He built the first fully-equipped recording studio in Fort Smith, Eternal Boogie Studio.
Ware has an extensive list of achievements in the world of music, one that continues to grow in both production and performance. He was a founding member of the group Razorback, which later became Grayghost. The group charted six singles on Billboard Hot 100, completed world tours, and appeared on national television.
He also toured the U.S. and Canada with the Australian folk group, Bluehouse. He has shared the stage with Willie Nelson, Three Dog Night, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and many more. As a solo artist, he has released three CDs, Arkansas Blue, Timewarp, and Sticks and Stones.
He performs regularly in numerous configurations of area musicians. On our tour night, we are lucky to enjoy Ware performing with Lacey Schaffer-Thomas, whom he has teamed up with for over 38 years. Schaffer-Thomas was also a founding member of Grayghost.
Together, Ware and Schaffer-Thomas were chosen to represent the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Society in this year’s International Blues Challenge held in Memphis, TN.
What a performance the pair put on…Ware with his effortless mastery of the guitar and Schaffer-Thomas’s heartfelt vocals. It’s tempting to spend the remainder of the evening listening to the pair, but we have places to go. The exit was made easier for me having heard my favorite song, Ware performing an original,” Wandering in The Wasteland.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF GARRISON AVENUE
ARV is blessed with a number of guitar heroes. The next legend was included on every guitar player I queried list, Mark Albertson.
Albertson has been surrounded by music since he was a baby. His dad played in a band early in life, and when visiting his mom’s family gatherings in the Booneville area as a child it was only natural for everyone to join together in music. Whenever his mom and dad would hear of a local church struggling with attendance, the pair would perform to help them out. Young Albertson would play bass guitar to accompany them.
He was ten years old when he first started becoming serious about playing the guitar. Six years later, he and other musicians he’d met performing in church formed a group called Borderline Band and played at the Van Buren Meadors Inn. His first lead role in a band was a group named Meant To Be, a three-piece band performing blues, country, and rockabilly.
In the 29 years since leading his own group, Albertson has pursued work primarily in fields related to the music industry. There was a phase of his life when working in the cable industry where he had put down his guitar. However, when that position phased out, he happily picked up his guitar and resumed the career he was born to live.
As had several of our other legends, Albertson has represented the Ozark Society at the International Blues Challenge on three separate occasions. He has also performed on a CD for Coco Montoya, and currently pursues a solo career as well as playing in his band, the Mark Albertson Trio.
However, when asked about the highlights of his career, Albertson’s quick response was the friendships he has developed over the years with his fellow musicians. Just sitting in and jamming with the great area musicians is what he enjoys most.
Tonight, as we settle in the cozy atmosphere of Harry’s Downtown, Albertson has the audience grooving to his cover of David McKnight’s, “Tumbleweed.” He followed this by showcasing his intricate picking style on the acoustic guitar performing “Them Ol’ Grey Bones.” Albertson has some 500 tunes in his songbook that include religious, blues, classic rock, and more, so he is well prepared to please his audiences no matter the venue.
GETTING ON OUR SOUTHERN ROCK
Exiting Harry’s, we resume an eastward migration along the main drag. As Albertson’s music is fading into the darkness, we are soon blasted by the hard-driving music of our next legend, Judge Parker. Just as children followed the music of Hamelin’s Pied Piper, we are drawn through the gates of The Sound Room, totally under the spell of their “Along For the Ride.” We parade past the tables and bar, straight to the dance floor seeking a more intimate experience with the music.
Brothers Larry and Arthur Pearson were also introduced to music through their dad, who played guitar, and their mother, who sang. Both brothers played in various local bands as they grew up. Motivated by the thought of having to work a real job the pair worked extra hard to make a living in the music industry, and they still do, performing between 100 to 150 gigs annually.
Since they formed Judge Parker in 1988, the band has had several members filter through, but the heart of the band has remained the entire duration, being Larry and Arthur. Judge Parker accompanied Black Oak Arkansas for a couple of years. Following this, William Lee Golden of Oak Ridge Boys fame asked them to join his new group after being voted out of the Oak Ridge Boys.
The band’s classic southern rock vibe resonates well with European audiences. When touring in countries such as Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, they are headliners and treated like the rock legends they are. By staying true to their southern roots, the group has shared the stage with Johnny Cash, June Carter, Marshall Tucker, Molly Hatchet, Jackyl, Blackberry Smoke, and many others.
Judge Parker is also known for giving their time to support worthy causes such as Feed the Children, American Cancer Society, Battered Women, and a long list of other organizations. The band is particularly excited about the release of a video they have been working on, “When the Bullet Hits the Bone”. Producer Timothy Eaton (of Gregg Allman, Eagles, Cat Stevens, En Vogue, etc. fame) has created this mini-film to launch a new CD.
As the band transitions into another original song, “Sweet Delta Water,” many in our group drift off the dance floor to order a beer and enjoy Larry’s southern soulful sound.
THE GRAND FINALE
The night is getting late for our troop of vintage party animals, but there is one legend remaining on the list. This group was unfailingly on the list of practically every band I queried, Mr. Cabbage Head and the Screaming Radishes.
Filing out of the Sound Room, with the women waving and blowing kisses to the members of Judge Parker, we boarded the bus to head down the broadest and most impressive main street in the Natural State. Crossing the Arkansas River once again, we foray northward to one of my favorite music venues in the area, Warren’s Rec Room, in Alma, AR.
The Cabbageheads had a name before there was even a band. Founding members Rick Tinder and Ricky Young were driving to Fayetteville, throwing around the idea of forming a nine-piece band, complete with trumpets, saxophone, trombones, flute, strings, and drums. They wanted to have the instruments to perform tunes by Chicago, The Temptations, Tower of Power, and all the other show and dance bands.
The pair stopped for gas, and Ricky picked up a V8 drink. As they drove along Scenic Highway 71, Rick was telling about a friend with a deformed ear everyone affectionately called Cabbage Head. As he told this, Ricky was reading the ingredients of the V8 to accidentally read “screaming radishes” for strained radishes. And a legend was born.
The Cabbageheads have been performing since 1984 with pretty much the same members. They also have a list of what they refer to as their “alumni members” who sit in with them, that includes most every legend listed above and many others.
The Cabbageheads are the mid-south’s favorite party band. Its members are well-rehearsed talented musicians who enjoy having as much fun as the audience when performing.
As lead singer Ricky Young explains, “If we were in it for the money, we would be doing something else.”
Over the years, the group has regularly performed at benefits to support many local non-profit organizations. In recent years they were awarded membership to the Arkansas Arts Council: Arkansas Arts on Tour Roster of Performing Artists. With this inclusion, 501c3 non-profit agencies hiring them for benefit concerts may apply for grant money which pays a portion of their fee.
As our group entered the doors of Warren’s, we were instantly transported back to the 70s as the Cabbage Horns blasted our eardrums with the opening of Chicago’s rock classic “Questions 67 and 68,” and then Ricky’s dynamic accompanying vocals.
The Rec Room isn’t going make much money from liquor sales from our group of party animals because I don’t think anyone will be leaving the dance floor as the band professionally transitions nonstop from one rock classic to the next.
Our troop ends the evening giving these music legends a standing ovation for all the great years of entertainment, and a resounding “More! More! More!”