0

Heard it from the Grapevine

ALBANY -- Robin Hughes, who plays percussion and leads the "Solid Gold Dancers" as part of the Macon-based Grapevine Band, makes a promise to anyone considering hiring the ensemble.

"Check back with us after the show," Hughes says, tongue firmly planted in cheek. "If we don't have at least three people on the floor gatoring by the end of the night, we'll give you your money back."

Humor and good times are prime elements of a Grapevine Band show. But just hear them break into the funky intro to Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" or listen to their dead-on take of Otis Day and the Knights' "Animal House" classic "Sham a Lam a Ding Dong" ... (you know, "You put the oo-mow mow, oh-oh-oh-oh, back into my smile, child)," and you know this is not all fun and games.

Founded by brothers Jim and Larry McLendon and their friend Donnie Brooks in 1987, the Grapevine Band has become Georgia's premier party band by offering a mix of great music, showmanship and professionalism that is something of an anachronism in the music business.

The Grapevine boys have shared stages with the likes of the Tams, the Drifters, Clarence Carter, the Four Tops, the O'Kaysions, Chubby Checker, the Coasters, the Platters, Percy Sledge, Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame ... in other words, just about anyone who matters in Beach, R&B or old-time Soul music.

"This is our golf game," Jim McLendon says during sound check before the Grapevine Band plays a command performance at a recent wedding reception. "People ask me why I still do this, and I turn it around on them.

"I ask them if they play golf, and when they say they do, I ask them if they're very good at it. They usually say 'Not really.' That's when I tell them that with this band I get to party every Saturday night, and I get paid to do it. Plus, I get to spend the evening watching good-looking girls."

McLendon, 63, is the elder statesman of the Grapevine Band, whose 11 members are in their 40s and 50s. Each is a skilled musician in his own right, drawn to the band by a desire to keep alive the music that inspired them during their glory days.

"I go back to Albany High School, back to the University of Georgia, every Saturday night," Hughes says. "For those three or four hours when we're onstage, we're kids again."

"It's a different story on Sunday morning, though," McLendon adds ruefully.

Jim McLendon, the Grapevines' drummer, played with trumpeter brother Larry and others in local bands until college ended and real life intervened. His new wife made it clear that if he wanted their marriage to last through the first year, it was time to give up the musical dream.

"But on our 20th wedding anniversary, she bought me a set of drums," McLendon said. "I guess that was either her blessing to start back playing or her way of saying she was over having me around."

The McLendons, Brooks -- who sings lead vocals and plays bass -- and a couple of other neighborhood musicians started jamming together in 1986, and they were invited to play at a show in Athens the next year. In October of 1987, they played their first official gig at Macon's City Auditorium for a crowd of more than 1,000.

"We played all five songs we knew," McLendon said. "We were glad we weren't asked to play an encore because that was all we knew."

Over the next year or so, the new band polished its act and recruited fellow true believers needed to give it the full sound Grapevine Band members were looking for. As the lineup grew, so did the band's sound, its repertoire and its reputation.

Now the McLendons, Brooks and Hughes are joined by Larry Lee (vocals/bass), Mike Causey and Rob Walker -- both of whom are guitarists past and present for legendary Southern Rockers Stillwater -- Greg Mullis (trombone/vocals/keyboards), Jim Larimer (saxophone, flute), Neil Rigole (keyboards/vocals), Miller Kent (percussion/security ... he's a U.S. Deputy Marshall), and Robbie Oplt, who handles sound, stage and equipment management.

"We don't have a lot of turnover in this band," Jim McLendon said. "We're all professional people, people of integrity, and we don't play bars and places where you get into trouble. We play parties, corporate events, conventions, wedding receptions and other special events."

The Grapevine Band, which plays throughout Georgia and into surrounding states like Florida, Alabama and North Carolina, has built a strong following in Albany and will perform here June 4 at the Albany High School Class of 1966's 45th reunion.

"Albany's become a good place for us over the years," Brooks said. "We play a lot of shows in that area, and we have folks from Albany come to our shows in Macon and other places around the state."

The Grapevine Band played 10 or 12 shows a year for the first couple of years of its existence, but as the band's reputation spread, the number of shows grew to 20, then 30, then 40.

"We haven't done less than 40 shows a year in quite a while," Jim McLendon said. "We have 47 scheduled this year."

Spending a little time with members of the band offers insight into their camaraderie and their humor (as when Brooks tells the hilarious story of how the "diabetic attack" of a member of a well-known soul supergroup kept that band from performing and forced the Grapevine Band to play in their stead). And band members' sharp matching outfits and showmanship onstage are crowd favorites.

But it's the music that matters most to the band.

"People hire us to hear certain songs," Larry McLendon said. "Like, we have to do 'Mustang Sally,' 'My Girl,' 'Shotgun.' Most of their requests we've all played before, so that's not a problem.

"But we don't have a routine; we don't play the same show every time. There's some spontaneity with each show. And we're not going to play a song if we can't do it justice."

"Of course, that sometimes depends on how much we've had to drink before the show," Jim McLendon quips.

Fans get get their money's worth when they party with the Grapevine Band, but members of the band get as much as they give when they take the stage.

"We're all blessed with a little bit of talent that allows us to play for three or four hours, to just connect with the audience and turn the night into a fun time," Lee said. "We all are able to put our worries away for those three or four hours, and that's a thrill for me."

Members of the band are quick to kid each other about leaving their glory days behind, but that doesn't mean they sit around worrying about playing that inevitable last show any time soon.

"We all know the end is in sight, but if you talk to the 11 people in the band, you'll no doubt get 11 end dates," Jim McLendon said. "I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm still having fun. And as long as it's fun and I'm physically able, I plan to keep playing."

So clear some space on the dance floor when the Grapevine Band comes to town. At some point, gatoring will ensue.