The Musical Legacy of Paul Magnan
When I speak about music and how I got started with it, it seems like such a normal topic to me. It seems somehow unique and unusual to some people to learn that I am a musician. But to me – and especially back then – I just assumed that all families had similar experiences with music.
My father was a musician. Almost all of his brothers and sisters were, too. Vocalists and guitar, piano, bass, and percussion players were all mixed together in one house. They were a bunch of talented Magnans that played a wide variety of styles. They either played together, separately, as duos, trios, and with other bands. They performed with big 20-plus member orchestras, playing dance and swing music. They also worked in country music combos, as well as polka and standards. It was one way of making money when times were tough for everybody.
I was the fifth child out of eight. The entire musical gamut had already been run with the four older siblings by the time I arrived. Frank learned guitar, Vickie played piano or accordion. Joe also played accordion and Peg played piano. Accordions were big for quite some time and if you could play some polkas, you could get some gigs. Weddings and polka parties paid well, from what I have heard.
When it came to me, it turned out that my first steps were going to be with brass instruments. A trumpet was purchased and thrust into my hands and my lessons began. They were conducted at Farrow’s Music on South Division, next to Fat Man’s Fish Fry.
Around 1965 we had a black and white TV, and the King Family variety show was on television every week. Everybody in that family sang and played multiple instruments. Sometimes I think my father saw that type of act coming together for us, as it did for him and his siblings. But for us, it was not to be. No matter how many dance or music lessons he marched us into, fate and some youthful rebellion changed the outcome of his vision.
Ultimately, it was my sister Peg and I that ended up becoming working professional musicians. Peg played in a dance band called the Royal Aires. They were quite popular in West Michigan for a number of years. Peg still plays and sings occasionally, and is a member of her church choir.
My path gradually developed as I started to teach myself how to play guitar and bass on my Dad’s DanElectro double neck. My father would alternate between the stand up bass and the electric, depending on the gig or venue. One neck was a six stringed electric guitar and the other was a four stringed bass. I spent hours in our basement teaching myself how to play. I learned the rudimentary aspects of reading music through the trumpet lessons and singing at school.
We also had a piano on our front porch. When my sister Peg was done rehearsing, I would sit at the piano and teach myself the songs that I heard other bands play, and what I had heard on the radio. I figured out how to play the chords on the piano as well as the melodies. What I couldn’t figure out on the guitar I would work out on the piano, then come back to the guitar to play it. This ended up being a method I used for figuring out chord progressions and melodies which I still use today.
During these early years, I performed a bit at school functions, in my Dad’s band as a featured act, but nothing significant. I was the little kid that played trumpet.
The first band I was a part of included my best friend at the time, Ted Smith. Also, Jim Steigmier, a mutual grade school friend and Pete Agnello, who resided close to our neighborhood. Ted and Jim played guitar. I played bass (my Dad’s Danelectro) and Pete played drums. Actually, they were his Dad’s drums from the big band days. He had a huge bass drum with a small table on top that held percussion instruments like maracas, guiros, claves, and the like. He also had one cymbal, a high hat and a floor tom-tom. We were called The Revolution Kind. This was a name we obviously derived from the British music invasion influence. We taught ourselves about a half dozen instrumentals. I can’t recall if any of us were brave enough to sing at that time. Maybe we did, I just can’t remember. If we did, it was probably Jim who sang a few tunes.
If we won a battle of the bands at Burton Elementary school we could get a job playing for a dance. We won the battle the very first time we ever played to an audience. Then we played the dance, repeating our short song list several times. I think the four of us got paid something like $25.00 for the whole band. We were pretty proud of our achievement. We immediately went down to the Fables in Burton Heights and bought ourselves some burgers. As we stuffed ourselves with our well -deserved purchases, we proclaimed that we were now professional musicians, as we were paid to provide music to an audience.
This may have been our only paying job in this band. I could be wrong. There may have been a party or something, but nothing as significant as the dance.
Although both of my parents worked, my family struggled to feed eight kids. My Dad worked during the day at American Seating and played in clubs at night with his band The Four Townsmen. He played clubs like the Southern, Scotties, and the Morton House. My Dad also had a talent agency. Most of the kids in the family were expected to have a part time job to contribute. Now that I was beginning my musical career, my newspaper route soon lost its appeal.
So, I left The Revolution Kind so I could join a group that was working steadily. This did not set well with the other members. I lost my friend Ted in the deal, and never felt too good about it. Jim and I did not speak for quite some time, but Pete always remained friendly. And by the way, Jim went on to become a very accomplished and celebrated blues performer who goes by the name of Jimmie Stagger. Jim and I were fortunate to mend fences years later. Pete played with some very popular bands in West Michigan.
Then I joined a band that was called Cupid and the Intrepids. I was still lugging around my Dad’s double neck guitar, and borrowing his Gibson bass amp. These guys came from families with money and lived on the North end of town. They had all the equipment they needed. I played a couple of gigs with them, but really never fit in with their crowd. I had just become a freshman at Catholic Central High and was starting to feel that this band change that I made, might have been a bad decision. However, it opened up an opportunity. Someone saw me play with Cupid and the Intrepids and it created the chance to work in a new band with a guy named Dick Webster. My performing life changed significantly after we got acquainted.
Dick and I brought guitars and other equipment to an upstairs apartment on the northwest side. He was part of a band called The Attitudes. Bob Cwiklinski, an original member of this same band, and also a classmate, was there, too. He played accordion. I know there were two other members in this band, but they were not there that day, and for some reason it was just the three of us. After going through a few songs I found a private moment to speak with Dick. I told him that although Bob was a nice guy, I was not interested in playing polkas. I told him the Beatles, Stones and just about everybody else including Motown, did not have an accordion player….. A Hard Day’s Night just doesn’t seem quite the same on an accordion. We needed something else. I said to Dick, “how about two guitarists, a bass player and drums. I’ll play the bass. You play the drums. Now we just need a couple of guitar players”. The hunt began.
Dick knew of a guy in our class at school whom he had heard played guitar. Dick approached Gary Johnson and asked him if he wanted to do something more with his guitar playing and informed him that we were looking for one other guitarist. Gary said he’d give it a try and that he did know someone else. They both were taking lessons at the same place. His name was Paul Scalici. Now we had a foursome. Now we had a band. Now we were “The Boyfriends.” I spent the next 3 ½ years learning how to become a better musician, vocalist, entertainer and how to promote myself in the world of entertainment, from one of most significant mentors I would meet – Bill Webster, Dick’s father.
I was left without an electric bass and amplifier when my Dad had gigs to play. So Bill Webster took me to the music store and had me select a bass guitar. They didn’t have a Hoefner, but I did pick out another violin bass made by EKO. He bought me an amp and built a JBL speaker cabinet to specifications and loaded two JBL D140- 15 inch speakers into it. Bill Webster let me pay him back with my gig money over time. So I was finally free of borrowing my Dad’s equipment, and had a great rig to play through. Bill Webster was a business man, and I think he knew a good investment when he saw it. I learned many life lessons from Mr. Webster and I don’t think I would be where I am today, if it wasn’t for him.
The Boyfriends played at a lot of the Battle of the Bands competitions back in the day…..I mean a lot! One time we played two in one day. And we won them both! It’s how you got heard in new locations. We always invited booking agents to come hear us.
One time we won a battle of the bands in Holland, I believe. We got a little dough and a chance to win $5,000 and a recording deal for a 45 record, if we competed in another Battle of the Bands in Gary, Indiana. Once we got to this theater in Gary, we were in a dressing room. Our group was primarily a vocal band, so we were warming up our vocals and harmonies. A musician from one of the other bands heard us as he was walking by and came in to listen to us.
He said that we sounded great, and he looked forward to hearing our performance. He told us that he thought we were going to be hard to beat, and that he had heard about us and had seen some of our photos at clubs where we had both played.
Eventually we all performed and the program ended. Then we found out that the group with this same fellow who came by earlier…..and our band…. were tied!
So we played again. Then they performed again. The M.C. measured the audience’s applause with a meter. If you were there you would have sworn that we had it in the bag, but the other band was declared the winner.
Later we found out that Gary, Indiana was the winning group’s home town, and they were favored to win. It turned out that the group that won was The Jacksons.
The Boyfriends spent almost three years playing every homecoming dance, teen club, and quite a few concerts across all of West Michigan; and many, many nightclubs. We met Bob Segar, Ted Nugent, SRC, Brownsville Station, The Frost, MC5, The Quatro Sisters (Pleasure Seekers) as we played at the same venues in Michigan. We played every Friday and Saturday night during the school year. During the summers we performed up to five nights per week and sometimes we managed to play 2 or 3 gigs in one day! You name any club that was in West Michigan, and we played it. We lived and breathed the band, and we all put 100% into it. We had the time of our lives.
After graduation from Catholic Central, the Boyfriends played a lot during the summer of 1969. We performed for more adult venues, like bars and nightclubs. Dick Webster, our drummer and co-founder, left for military service. It was time to start thinking about our futures as individuals. The Vietnam War and the draft was impending. College was the big question of the day, at least for me. Jim Ranta was one year behind us in school. Gary would be going in the military soon, and I think Ronn Burke was looking to take his musical career in another direction. I was essentially a mess and wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around.
Eventually, I was somewhat pushed out of the band. Probably because others wanted to go in another direction, they wanted to play different music. I definitely was not as dedicated as I was before, especially with the loss of Dick Webster to the army. So I enrolled in college, got involved in religion, played in a Christian group with Dave Bixby called The Group. Generally, I was just trying to find my way in life.
After bouncing from one college to another, I eventually moved to Toledo, Ohio, where I found work and attended the University of Toledo. I started playing rock and roll again, and either formed or played in several bands. I also worked at a music store called Durdel’s Music, at their downtown location, for several years. I had progressed enough with my piano playing that I began to teach beginner and intermediate lessons, along with guitar lessons, and eventually managed this store.
While I lived in Toledo I played in bands named Gabriel, Studio One, The All Small Band, Binkley and Magnan (duet), and The Music School. I played guitar and piano/organ and sang in these bands. Gabriel and the All Small Band were the most popular. I was also featured vocalist and performer for Music under the Stars, which was a summer series in a traditional band shell with an orchestra. I also played bass with the Al Johnson blues band for a time. I played at many clubs in Toledo and Detroit, including the Grande Ballroom. It was a benefit for Dick Wagner, whom I met while in the Boyfriends. I played with many great musicians and earned many great friends.
I was a sideman with many bands. I worked as a bass player, piano player or backup vocalist and performed in every state in the continental United States. I also spent some time in Nashville, subsisting with a little studio work from friend’s and the musician’s union referrals. This kept me fed, while I hawked my songs down Music Row. I played a couple of clubs on songwriter’s nights, like the Exit In club, and Ernest Tubb’s music store at midnight. I have a collection of rejection letters which I still keep today, but was still fortunate enough to hear some of my songs, which were recorded by other musicians as demonstration records.
I have also lived in Boulder, Colorado, Los Angeles, Kansas City, New Orleans, Orlando, and for a very short time in New York City. During these years I traveled quite a bit on a bus with various bands.
While in Michigan I played piano/organ, guitar or bass guitar with the Paul Magnan Band, Stallion, Randy Johnson Band, Country All Stars, Dale Thomas/Rusty Chaps, Morris and Magnan, Horsefeather, Timmy Johnson Trio, Larry Ballard band and many others.
Over the years Ronn Burke and I crossed paths and even lived together once or twice. I think Ronn took pity on me when I was dead broke, and let me stay with him. In the mid- 1980s, when I finally got on my feet and had a family, I saw Ronn perform occasionally, and always enjoyed his music. But I had not spoken with the other members of the Boyfriends, and most I had not seen in over forty years.
Club owners and concert venues expressed interest on several occasions to bring the Boyfriends back together to perform. I know that other members in the band had told me they were approached about this prospect, but that was about as far as it went.
Club owners and concert venues expressed interest on several occasions to bring the Boyfriends back together to perform. Later on, I found out that other members in the band informed me they were approached about this prospect, but that was about as far as it went.
In the fall of 2013, I was approached by Jim Ranta through Facebook. Jim wanted to meet up after all these years. He had a pair of concert tickets for Daughtry. I said yes, so we met up. Jim had become a physician and was part of a family practice. Jim told me there was some interest in getting the band back together to perform at our school reunion, and asked if I was interested. I said yes, as long as Ronn wanted to. I had heard Ronn had recently left his long term band Natchez Trace, to concentrate on recording and solo work. It turned out that Ronn said he was in, if I was in. We scrambled around to locate the rest of the band’s contact information. Then Jim made all the calls and we all met up at a restaurant.
And there I was, almost 45 years later with the four guys I had spent my high school years with, from 1967 through 1969. As we sat together at the table we recalled many of our ‘road adventures’ and memorable gigs. Dick Webster, Gary Johnson, Jim Ranta, Ronn Burke and myself. We were all in one place for the first time in 45 years!
Together we discussed our desire to play together again and agreed to put the band back together. We set up some rehearsals to prepare to play for our classmate’s 45th reunion. The reunion was set for July 2014, and it was October 2013 when we decided to put the band back together. So we had plenty of time to get the rust off. Dick had to find a drum kit. Gary still had almost all of his equipment from back then, and Jim brought a new Hammond organ. Ronn and I still had our gear.
After a few months of rehearsal at Dick’s house, people started dropping by and the word was getting out that we were going to perform together one more time. Many members of our extended families and some fans from back in the day wanted to see us and started to make plans to “crash” the class reunion.
The Boyfriends decided that they didn’t want that to happen, as it would be unfair to our classmates. It was suggested that we play somewhere else to appease these party “crashers.” So we organized The Boyfriends Family Picnic. Staged on Dick’s property in Middleville, we set the date for the end of May, and sent out invitations. Dick and his family facilitated all of the preparations.
The turnout for the picnic was pretty good. Several hundred folks turned up, even though the event was not advertised to the general public. We performed a couple of practice sets. A film crew was there because there was interest in the band’s history. They wanted to produce an independent documentary. There was lots of food to enjoy, as well. We were reacquainted with some of our fans from back in the day. Overall, this event went very well, so we set our thoughts on the possibility of doing more with the band.
The class reunion went even better than the family picnic, and the band was well received.
Our reason for getting back together was accomplished. We discussed continuing with the band, thinking that we should explore that option.
Ronn suggested we take a short break, set a date within a couple of weeks to meet again, and give everyone some time to think about what they really wanted to do.
We met a few weeks later at Ronn’s place with our families in tow. After some discussion we agreed we all were having a great time together, desired to play some more great music, and figured we would have opportunities to perform. We’ve spent the last six months rehearsing as much as we can, and are now beginning to accept engagements for 2015. We are all looking forward to performing again and we are enjoying our renewed friendships, as well as the music.