By Rick Coates
The story behind how progressive rockers Kansas formed seems like it could be a scene out of the Forrest Gump movie.
When Kansas kicks off the national acts portion of the National Cherry Festival Bay Side Music Stage on Wednesday, July 6, not only will they be bringing their hit songs Carry On Wayward Son, Point Of Know Return, Dust In The Wind, Hold On, and The Wall -- they will also bring links to some obscure moments in rock music history.
The origins of the band date back to the late 60s though the band uses their 1974 label deal with legendary Don Kirshner as their official formation year.
Formed in Topeka, Kansas and morphing out of the band White Clover, Kansas would rise to the top of the rock scene in the late 70s and early 80s. When their self-titled album debut was released in 1974 the group wrote on the back of the album jacket: From the beginning, we considered ourselves and our music different and we hope we will always remain so.
That being different according to founding member and drummer Phil Ehart stemmed from the groups early influences and experiences. Just out of high school, the members of White Clover in a one-year period were jamming with Jim Morrison and The Doors, hanging out with Jerry Garcia, being told that Santana was opening for them, and having Janis Joplin come up to them and tell them you guys are pretty good. But it was the circumstances of these chance encounters that put the group in some of rock and roll musics most obscure moments.
Its funny when you look back on it, we got our start as a cover band but our problem was we couldnt play cover songs very well, said Ehart. So what we would do was play our originals, but we would say, all right here is the latest from Led Zeppelin and people would look at each other and say that is new Led Zeppelin -- and we would do that all they way through, just naming big time bands and saying it was new and then we would play our stuff. There were some bluesy covers from R&B bands and The Doors that we did so it all blended together.
The formula worked and White Clover landed a lot of gigs around Kansas before a promoter invited the band to come to the French Quarter of New Orleans to be the house band at a club called The Roach for the summer.
He promised us 90 shows in 90 nights and I think we ended up playing 89 nights, said Ehart. We all stayed in a one room apartment and gigged every night from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. We spent our afternoons writing songs and developing the Kansas sound. We were drawing inspiration from a lot of bands who were considered to be different -- a lot of progressive bands like King Crimson and even The Doors, who were among our favorites.
One night during a gig at The Roach the manager came up to the band during their break to let them know a special guest was in the house.
He said that guy over there at the bar is Jim Morrison and he wants to know if it is okay for him to come over and meet us. We were huge fans and we had already played a couple Doors covers that night so we were in awe, I think I was only 19 at the time, said Ehart. So Morrison is shaking our hands and telling us how great we sound. Then he asks if it is okay if he comes on stage and sings Light My Fire with us and wants to know if it is okay during the instrumentals if he reads some of his poetry. Like we were going to say no.
It was surreal and we are looking at each other and during the instrumentals he opened his notebook and started reading his poetry. The song ends and he walks off the stage and out of the club. We figured no one would ever believe us.
Shortly after the Morrison moment, the promoter of the New Orleans Pop Festival (just a few weeks after Woodstock) approached the band asking if they would like to be on the bill that would include The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Chicago, Iron Butterfly and at the time a relatively unknown Santana.
This promoter was saying we were going on after some band called Santana that he described as a bongo congo band, said Ehart. We figured we could blow these guys out of the water. Well by the time the festival hit they had just played Woodstock, their album was charting and they were an overnight sensation. Fortunately for us because they put on an unbelievable show and we were thinking there, is no way we can follow them the curfew hit so they moved us to the next day.
Ehart remembers walking off the stage and hearing a gravely voice yell out to the band.
Hey you guys sounded great, where are you from, and we look over and it is Janis Joplin sitting outside of her trailer, said Ehart. We ended up hanging out with her for awhile and that was pretty wild.
Wild Clover would return home after the festival, continuing the club circuit around Kansas and returning occasionally to New Orleans for gigs. In January of 1970 they had another interesting visitor after one of their shows.
We are in our room and the next thing you know Jerry Garcia was there talking to us. We stayed up until about 4 a,m, talking to this guy, said Ehart. Well the funny thing is, while he is hanging out with us the rest of The Grateful Dead were at their hotel and the cops raided the place and they were all arrested and Garcia was with us so he missed the whole thing. That bust would inspire their song Truckin and here we are a part of it by pure coincidence.
In a radio interview about the incident, Garica described how he was hanging out with a group of what he considered hippies that would eventually become the band Kansas.
Nearly a year later the band got another call that would eventually make them a permanent part of rock music history.
Bill Siddons, the manager of The Doors called and said Jim remembered jamming with us and that The Doors were playing New Orleans in December and he wanted us to open for them, said Ehart. We went out and played our set and then The Doors went on. Well we are hanging out in the dressing room and Morrison comes and gets us and says Hey, we want you to come out and jam with us for the last song. So we did and of course we were in awe.
What Ehart and his band mates (most of the original members of what would become Kansas) didnt know was the significance of that moment.
Turns out that was the last performance by The Doors with Jim Morrison. He ended up going to Paris and died several months later, said Ehart. So when Morrison passed away we realized that not only did we open for the last ever Doors concert but we were on stage performing with Jim Morrison on the last song he ever sang in concert.
After 37 years Kansas has kept their promise of being different, and they will prove that Wednesday night, July 6, at the National Cherry Festival Bay Side Music Stage. For ticket information (the V-Pass is back, only $15 which is good for all four shows or $7 individual tickets are available) go to