INTERVIEW BY STEVE KELEMEN
For over 5 decades Larry Palmiter and Roger Benham have been the driving force behind The Blue Echoes, Lansing, Michigan’s undisputed kings of Rockabilly. They were and still are Rock & Roll in it’s purest form – raw, dramatic & fun.
I was born, Roger Lee Benham, to Marion and Julia Benham on April 26th, 1941 in Lansing, Michigan. I grew up in Lansing in my early years and went to Everett school. I used to listen to Gene Autry on the radio out of Chicago, Ill. I idolized Gene Autry and Roy Rogers singing in those days. I couldn’t wait to start playing guitar and singing like them. My dad and mom started me taking lessons when I was eight years old. We moved around with music teachers and finally settled at Norman English Studios in Lansing. They had great teachers and a lot of recitals to play in. My first solo was at 12 years old at Sexton Auditorium in Lansing playing and singing “Love Me Tender”.
My parents moved to Holt, Michigan in 1955 and I started high school there. I played in church every Sunday and my sister, Marian, played accordion with me.
I sang in the high school choir all four years and sang lead in the operatta “The Lowland Sea”. I also competed in national competitions on guitar and going to IML (International Music League). In 1956 I won first place in my category playing a song called “Louise” and won the world championship at the time. Quite an honor for the studio, “Norman English”, as well as me. One of my fellow guitar mates as the studio was Tom Schmitt. He was a member of a high school group called ‘The Echoes’.
Tom was going in the military right out of high school and the group would be needing a guitarist. He asked me to come and audition with the Echoes. I did, and they liked me and I liked them. I joined them in late 1957 or early 1958. That is how I became a member of the band.
Rock’ the Battle Creek, MI
High School Gym Early 1959
Growing up during the 1950’s was a unique experience. With all the early rockabillies coming on the scene, the likes of Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Elvis. Wow, what an era. I remember standing in line with my mother, aunt and sister for over two hours to see “Elvis” in his first movie “Love Me Tender”. There were so many artists coming on the music scene you could hardly keep up. But did we have a lot of influence to choose from. Our hair styles were a result of seeing these stars as well as our cars of the time. Leaded in hoods and trunks, leg pipes, dual exhausts, chopped tops and coon tails were just a few.
We used to cruise the gut, as they say, up and down Washington Avenue looking for girls and parties. Hanging out at Kupi’s sandwich shop, the “Trio” sandwich shop or heading out to Sully’s drive in.
We hung out a lot at WILS radio studio’s. We knew all the jock’s personally. The number one jock was “Eric-o” and he had a heck of a following. Eric was behind us a lot in those days and even tried to help us get a contract with Decca records. Though it never materialized it was a trip well spent.
Some of the other jocks were Hank Stevens, Gene Healy and Dusty Walker. We used to play all their record hops in the area. We probably was the first real rock and roll band to come out of Lansing, Michigan. We wrote and played a lot of our own material.
Some of the groups that followed us were the Chances and the Saharas. We used to go to a lot of concerts in those days as well as appearing in a lot of them.
Sometimes it’s hard to explain that era, you just had to live it. I know I wouldn’t trade those times with my friends, my family and the Blue Echoes for anything. It was great.
THE BLUE ECHOES
Back stage at the Civic Center after a
Rock & Roll Show in 1959 in Lansing, MI
TOP ROW: Left to Right: Bob Coscarelli, Larry Palmiter, girl (unknown), Roger Benham,
Bob ‘Dino’ Richards, Carl Easlick (co-producer Glissen Records)
BOTTOM ROW: guy (unknown), Dick Fabian – Disc Jockey ‘WCER’
Dave Smith – palyed sax on ‘Summertime’
Bill Thomas – Our Detroit Agent (1959-1960)
The Blue Echoes were originally called the Echoes. They were a foursome out of Resurrection High School in Lansing, Michigan. The members were Larry Palmiter, Bob Devetri, Tom Schmitt and Bob Coscarelli. The group started in 1957. I, Roger Benham, took Tom Schmitt’s place when he went into the military.
Bob Coscarelli dropped out in 1958 and a friend of mine from Holt, Bob Richards, took his place. Bob Richards and Bob Coscarelli shifted back and forth in the early days. Because we had so many Bob’s in the group we had trouble identifying each when we talked. Bob Richards middle name was Dean and we started calling him ‘Dino’. From then on his title was ‘Dino’, kind of like ‘Ringo’ who came later. Dino was an awesome drummer. He could play anything and got into a lot of drum duals on the road. He usually won them to. We were playing a lot in the early years. We had engagements almost everyday somewhere. If it wasn’t a record hop, it was a radio interview or a charity function or promotion of some kind. I remember Arc Distribution out of Detroit, our agent, had set up a promotional tour of Detroit. We started out at noon with a luncheon, radio interviews,record hops, and the likes. When we finished up after 1:00 A.M. we had traveled over 300 miles and were still in Detroit.Can you believe that. We did a concert appearance at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum with over 10,000 screaming teenagers and a host of stars on the agenda. Bobby Darin, Ronnie Hawkins, Johnny and the Hurricanes, Neil Sedaka, Cathy Carr, were just a few on the show. Wow what a show and meeting all of these stars in person. A lifetime of memories and something I will never forget. I remember the group was walking down the street in Detroit sometime after that and some girls were walking down the street also when one of them said, ‘Hey, there’s The Blue Echoes’. That was real cool at the time. Big city, small town group starting to make a name for itself.
The Blue Echoes have been primarily a four piece band through the years. Some others who played in the band were, Ron Good, Jim Black and Dave Smith.
Larry and I have did a duo together for several years. We added my son, Craig Benham, to the group a couple of times. He is a drummer. In the last six months we have added a sax player, who doubles on Hammond organ, by the name of Mark Laforete. We are now back to a four piece group. Over the years The Blue Echoes have recorded six different records on three different labels. We Have a lot of material written which we plan to record in the near future. Larry and I have been playing together since 1958. That is fifty four years and counting.
Bob ‘Dino’ Richards passed away on July 8, 1998. Bob Devetri passed away sometime in the mid 2000’s.
BON MUSIQUE RECORDS
Bon Musique which means ‘good music’ in French was a record label that was owned by several Michigan investors. We recorded ‘Debbie’ b/w ‘It’s Witchcraft’ at the Don Lee Studios, which was located at his parents home, at 130 Eureka St., in Lansing, Michigan. Don Lee Bloomquist also had a record out called ‘Echo’, an accordion solo.
Don Lee recorded us and experimented with some echo on the recordings. It kind of matched with the name. When the record was ready to be released we were still known as “The Echoes”. A group out of Detroit known as “The Echoes” came out with a song called ‘Baby Blue’. We had to change our name fast and rectify the labels as well. I believe Chet Atkins had a song called ‘Blue Echo’. So Larry suggested calling us “The Blue Echoes”. This is how the group evolved into its presence.
‘Debbie’ b/w ‘It’s Witchcraft’ was the only rockabilly record cut for this label. To our knowledge about 3000 records were pressed and delivered to the public for sale. ‘Debbie’ hit #1 in the Lansing market and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks. I was a senior in high school when it came out. The audio-visual club would play it every noon hour over the P.A. system. That was cool.
Music has always been a large part of my life. I was married in 1962, to my wife Georgia, had three children, Pamela, Craig and Chad. My wife died of leukemia in 1981. I opened a music store in 1965, starting in my basement and evolved into a full grown business. I closed the business in 1979 due to family issues. I remarried in 1996 to my wife, Joyce.
LAWRENCE ‘LARRY RAY’ PALMITER
I was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan. We always had a piano in the house, mom was a pianist. I used to play around with the piano a lot.
My mother was also a collector of recordings. I always had lots of music to listen to growing up.
I went to the same school for 12 years, Resurrection School. We had music appreciation all through grades 1 to 8. In high school I was in the choir. I was also in 2 operettas, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. In senior year I had occasion to sing solo in church.
THE BLUE ECHOES
I started my group in twelfth grade with classmates Bob Divietri and Tom Schmitt on guitars. We started playing at parties etc. Another classmate, Bob Coscarelli joined us. The four of us won a citywide talent contest. That’s when disc jockey, ‘Eric-o’ Fersuth of WILS radio became interested in the group. We used to hang around the radio station and polish up and tape our songs. After graduation Tom went into the service so he introduced me to Roger Benham who came in to play guitar.
Eric especially like our original song ‘Debbie’. He thought it could be a hit. We recorded it along with ‘It’s Witchcraft’ at Don Lee’s Bloomquist studios. It was released on Bon Musique Records in January 1959. It went to #1 in Mid-Michigan. It was then picked up by Arc Distribution in Detroit.
We then were paraded all around the big city to talk to DeeJays and appear at school dances. We also did a promo tour trip to Chicago.
We met the Crewcuts at Ingham Co.Fair. They put us onto their publishing co. Asbury Music BMI. We used that publisher for all the rest of our original recordings. We also met and appeared with Danny Zella, Johnny and the Hurricanes, and the Ski Brothers. In Detroit at the State Fairgrounds we were side to side with Neil Sedaka,Bobby Rydell, Carl Mann,Carl Dobkins Jr. and many more.
At the Light Guard Armory on 8 mile we played with Jack Scott,The Royal Teens and Dicky Dee. That summer we were featured at the Ionia Free Fair. We even had a sit in by no other than Stevie Wonder at one of Eric-o’s dances in Lansing.
We recorded ‘Cool Guitar’ at Eastlick Studios with backup vocal by The Fidelitones. When Dave Smith joined on sax we cut ‘Rebel Train’ at Bloomquist. We formed Alderay Records soon after.
We switched to Ron Good on sax, added Jim Black on guitar and vocals, and hit the road. During this time we released “O’ Misery’ in the mid 60s.
In ’65 we cut “Tossin’ ‘n’ Turin'” in Detroit with Ed Emery on drums, Dino on Bass and I switched to keyboards.
Our last 45 release in the early 70’s was “Man From Nowhere” recorded at Bob Baldori Studios in Lansing.
Roger and I realized after going to watch the Ventures in their 50th year tour that we had been playing together for longer than that. We are now starting our 54th year of working together. And are even spreading everywhere via Youtube and the internet. Our recordings had spread further than we ever realized, but it is surely very flattering. We are by no means done. We are getting ready for a cd of both favorites and plenty of original material.
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The Blue Echoes 1961
Left to Right: Ron Good, Bob ‘Dino’ Richards,
Larry Palmiter and Jim Black (Johnson)