Willie and the Bumblebees: Out of the hive

Cyn Collins     September 4, 2005

A conversation with Cyn Collins, from the book West Bank Boogie.

Willie and the Bumblebees performed all over the Midwest between 1970 and 1984. I called together some of the Bees from the first and second versions of the band for an interview session at the Viking Bar on Labor Day, 2005.

Among the charter members of the band I spoke with that evening were John Beach, who performed with the band until 1976; Maurice Jacox, a flautist from San Francisco who learned to play sax for the Bees and was with the band for all 14 years; Howard Merriweather, drummer from the summer of 1971 until the end; Eugene Hoffman, saxophone player from the Bees’ inception until February, 1978, who continued to play with the Bees every few months after that; lead guitarist Joe Demko, who joined the Bees in 1979; and tenor saxophonist Merlin “Bronco” Brunkow, who replaced earlier Bee Dave Sletten.

Additional Bees from the beginning besides Murphy, Beach, Jacox, and Merriweather included Russell Hagen (lead guitar), Steve “Bro Brad” Bradley (percussionist), and Voyle Harris (trumpet).

After 1979, the Bees included Jose James (alto sax, lead vocals, flute, clarinet, percussion), Jerome Broughton (guitar/bass), Mark Bryn (keyboards, backup vocals), and Oli Foran (keyboards). Additional Bees over the years included Scott Snyder (trumpet), John Einweck (keyboards), Jeff Garetz (percussion), and Donald “Hye Pockets” Robertson (percussion).

Willie and the Bees recorded and produced a “mixed-media art” double 45 rpm featuring Ramon Muxter photographs, and two full-length albums: Honey From the Bee (produced in 1976 by Murphy and Dave Ray at Ray’s Sweet Jane Ltd. studio in Cushing, Minnesota) and Out of the Woods (digitally recorded in 1980 at Sound 80 in the Seward neighborhood).

Toward the end of our interview, Willie called the guys up to play horn and sing. Listening to them live, it was easy to imagine why they were one of the most popular bands around. The warmth, humor, and camaraderie was contagious. It made me want to wind back the clock.

The stories flowed fast and furiously that evening, but none was more evocative of the times than this yarn spun by Jacox, Merriweather, and Hoffman about a particularly weird gig in Fargo.

Jacox: In the early days, when the Bees traveled, we were living lives that a lot of people wished they could live and didn’t have the balls to live. When we’d go on the road and play in some of these small towns, immediately the outcasts of the town—the people who lived outside the norm of the town and were looked down upon—looked at us, and went, “This is what we’d be, if we could! They’re the kind of people we’d like to be!” Because we were their role models, they weren’t getting over too well in their towns. So they’d just flock to us.

We went to [a gig in] Grand Forks in cars. The reason we had to go to Grand Forks, kind of limping the way we were, was because I’d put Murphy in detox. He’d been in the speakeasy, The Cellar, where Jerry Collins got killed. I’d seen him wasted and the bartender almost murdered. I put Murphy in detox . . . .

Merriweather: And bailed me out of jail. . . .

Jacox: We had him in detox and had this gig in North Dakota, so we were going to try to pull this together and make the gig. So Jerome Broughton was going to switch over and play the bass, and I think we brought Charlie Bingham or somebody to play guitar.

Murphy calls me the day we’re leaving, (imitates Murphy’s gravelly voice) “Okay man. I’m ready to play again!” He was kind of on a dry drunk. We’d hired somebody, and we didn’t want him just getting out of detox to play a gig. Just getting out of detox just in time to make a gig ain’t the way it’s supposed to happen. We’ve already made arrangements for another guitar player. “Alright, you fuckers. You’re going to pay rent on my amp!” So he made us pay rent.

Now [keyboardist John] Beach’s wife is expecting, so we know Beach might be called back. Charlie Bingham had something going on too. We get to the band house that they used to have for the bands and we see they’ve got little single bunks. They’re used to bands with kids that trash places. So we’re looking at this place. We’ve driven five, six hours or seven. They didn’t care about us worth crap. Well, the owners of the club did care. They were great. But the manager of the club worked it separately.

So, sure enough, the first night at the club we come in and start tearing the place up. A cowboy bar, downtown Grand Forks. And sure enough the townies are going, “Ahhh!” We’d get so drunk and be so outrageous that people would just flock to us and hang out with us all night long.

Next morning we wake up, Beach calls home, his wife Judy’s in the hospital delivering. Beach has to go home. Bingham says, I’ve got to go home too, man.

Hoffman: That was Elijah Calhoun the Beaches had.

Jacox: They’re leaving and we’ve got three more days. We don’t have a guitar player or a keyboard player. So I go down to the bar and talk to Bea and Mac and go, “This is the way it is. We can’t do the gig man. So you can cancel us off and send us home. You’ve been good to us.”

He said, “We want to do it if you can. We heard about some guy that plays piano on campus who’s really good.”

So we called our manager down in the Cities, and told him, “Start making calls, man.”

Later, he calls me back. “I’ve got you a guitar player,” he says. “I’ve got him on the bus already. He should be there this evening. But you’re not going to like it.”

Hoffman: He was from North Minneapolis.

Jacox: I said, “Who did you get.”

He said, “Well, I called so and so and they couldn’t make it, then I called so and so and they couldn’t . . .

“Don’t tell me. Who. Did. You. Get.”

“I had to send you Eddie Lovejoy.”

I just went, “Oh, my god. No.” Eddie Lovejoy was an old friend. Great jazz guitar player. But, while everyone was dropping acid in the ’60s, his repressive wife kept him under her thumb. By the time he divorced her, a whole lot of the psychedelic stuff had passed him by. So he comes down to the West Bank, this fantastic jazz guitar player, and some irresponsible friends of ours, who I will not name, give him acid. Eddie had totally missed the whole subculture and the politics and the philosophy and everything. All of a sudden he’s being given LSD and he just went crazy. And then, he took LSD every day for about a week or two. Went completely crazy.

At the time, he was called Pope Eddie because he calls himself the Pope. He is certifiably insane, talks to himself, walks up and down the street mumbling and talking to himself and preaching at people. This is who the manager sent us for a guitar player. Brilliant guitar player, but seriously crazy.

Hoffman: Didn’t the story go, he was asked to play with Paul Butterfield and his wife wouldn’t let him do it.

Jacox: Yeah, that’s when he broke.

Hoffman: Yeah, and Eddie was just all messed up and there were these mirrors.

Jacox: I’m getting to this. Eddie comes up on the bus. First thing he goes to me, “Hi Maurice. Got any acid? Got any speed?”

I said we didn’t, and told him, “You’re going to have to do this gig without.” I talk him down. We get Eddie to the gig, I say, “Eddie, you’ve got to do this right. It’s important.”

He said, “Okay.”

We get to the gig, I’m leading the band for one of the first times ever. I’m trying to sing. I look over and we’re playing and there’s this wall with a mirror and Eddie with no guitar. There’s Eddie talking with his reflection in the mirror. I’m trying to think of what to do to bring him back because he’s gone. I walk up to the reflection, tap it, and say, “Don’t talk to him now. He’s got to play. Don’t talk to him now, leave him alone!”

Hoffman: And you also said, to the guy in the mirror, “You tell that guy that’s talking to you, that he’s got to start ­playing!”

Jacox: Eddie snapped around and looked at me, snapped out of it, went up and started playing and it was all good for the rest of the night.