Pro-Co Sound – Kalamazoo – Bryce Roberson (Uncle Dirty)
We miss him, his great ear and his guitar playing…Ronnie Fray
SysTech (Systems & Technology in Music, Inc.) from Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a collaboration between Greg Hochman (Keith Emerson’s Moog tech, later the North American sales director for Soundcraft) and Charlie Wicks (later the founder and CEO of Pro-Co).Together with Bryce Roberson (a.k.a. Uncle Dirty, ex-lead engineer at Chess Records), they formed the Sound Factory in Kalamazoo in the early 70’s. The company (consisting of Charlie’s Sound Factory, Greg’s SysTech and Bryce’s Uncle Dirtys recording studio) occupied an old factory site on Kalamazoo Avenue.
Because of the brilliance of the principals, Kalamazoo became a Mecca for musicians from Detroit, Chicago, and beyond.
Around 1969, Bryce also worked as a sound engineer at Great Lakes Studio (Dave Kalmbach) in Sparta, Michigan. He was also a fabulous guitarist who could play most any style of music.
From “The Steel Guitar Forum” February 8, 2002 by Larry Bell:
A Rat is a distortion device manufactured by a Kalamazoo MI company called ProCo.
They have made a number of devices through the years, but their claim to fame, other than the Rat, is their high quality cables and PA snakes.
At one time, in addition to the Rat, they made several rack mount effects devices. Ralph Mooney used a ProCo rack mount flanger to get the leslie sound on “The Wurlitzer Prize” for Waylon.
The Rat, TurboRat, Vintage Rat, and BRat are described on their home page (link above). I’ve seen Paul Franklin use one, in addition to many other steel players I’ve talked to or seen.
Hope this explains it. At one time (back when Gibson was in Kalamazoo), ProCo was located in a music complex including a music store, guitar repair facility, recording studio, and ProCo here in Kalamazoo. I used to hang out there when I first started playing steel, in the 70s. My first steel guitar session was at “Uncle Dirty’s Sound Machine Studios” — run by Bryce Roberson who cut his teeth at Chess Records. Now, ProCo is all that’s left. The company does pretty well, but it’s really difficult for a small company to survive in these economic times.
MCI JH16 Board 1978
What a rich history that building has! Not only Gibson Guitars, but ProCo, Systems and Technology (Moog Synths), Uncle Dirty’s Recording Studio, and another I can’t remember. So cool to watch all those guitars moving from one area of production to the next in various stages of completion.
The best Gibson guitars were made by the ‘Kalamazoo Gals’
The “Banner” Gibson guitar is considered one of the finest acoustic guitars ever made.
Over 9,000 of these Banners were carefully built during World War II.
But Gibson company records show the company had shifted to producing goods for the war effort and not instruments, and most of the men who made those Gibsons at the headquarters in Kalamazoo were off fighting the war.
So who made these guitars that are still prized 70 years later?
That question and his love of guitars drove Connecticut law professor Dr. John Thomas to discover the remarkable answer, which he turned into a book called “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s Banner Guitars of World War Two.”
Thomas’s quest started with a photograph he found of a group of women standing in front of the Kalamazoo Gibson guitar factory in the 1940s.
“To say that picture haunted me probably is not much of an overstatement,” said Thomas. “I pinned it to the bulletin board in my office and just kept finding my attention going back to it, wondering what were all these women doing in front of that factory during World War II.”
Gibson records stated that no guitars were built during the war. Thomas eventually made it to the Gibson corporate headquarters in Nashville, where he went through thousands of pages of shipping ledgers to discover that 24,000 instruments were in fact shipped during the war.
While wondering why Gibson would deny making these guitars, Thomas found himself thinking back to that photograph. So, he took out advertising in local Kalamazoo papers asking to meet anyone who worked at Gibson during World War II.
Twelve women responded. One of them was Irene Stearns.
“I put my name in every place I could think of, because jobs were hard to find when I got out of school,” said Stearns. “One day they called and a neighbor came running over because we didn’t have a phone and said, ‘Well, you better go down to Gibson, they have a job for you.’”
For her job, Stearns made single strings. She knew nothing about making guitars when they hired her.
Thomas found that none of the women he interviewed who worked on guitars had any training, but they did all have experience in sewing, crocheting, or needlepoint, which Thomas believes was helpful.
In order to test the quality, Thomas started a project x-raying different Gibson guitars from before, after, and during the war.
“The women’s guitars . . . were more refined. Every little plate, every little brace, every little piece of material in the guitar is sanded just a tiny bit thinner, just a tiny bit smoother, and that’s the difference. And I contend that people can hear this. That’s why they sound so great.”
Stearns said that this is the first time that anyone ever cared about the work she did at Gibson.
“It was just a crummy job at the time. Any job, you know, so I could make my 20 or 25 cents an hour, and you’d go any place to do that. And I didn’t think it would ever be thought about again. Who would ever think that?”
So why did Gibson pretend that this never happened?
Thomas feels that part of it was that Gibson did not want people to know that they were diverting workers to nonessential production during the war. The other part was uncertainty over whether consumers would buy guitars made by women. So, these guitars were sold as “new old stock,” guitars that were made before the war and stockpiled until after the war.
Since Thomas’s research, Gibson has acknowledged and embraced this history.
For more information on Thomas’s book, go to kalamazoogals.com.
-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio Newsroom
Listen to the full interview above.
Arthur Chrysler I recorded drum tracks at Uncle Dirty’s with Danny Watson – 1976.
Ronnie Fray August 24 at 8:07pm We used to drive down to Kalamazoo on any given day (from G.R.) to buy stuff from Charlie and have our axes re-strung and set up by the pros. Bryce was always recording upstairs. Z.Z. Top was there one day installing new pickups and we went across the street (kitty-corner) to the theater to watch Roy Buchanan wow us! Oh yea, and we played in just about every bar in town!! AH, memories!
Mark Van Allen As far as Bryce Roberson, I met him through Nancy Rogers as she had done some session work at Uncle Dirty’s and booked us a session for a band demo to help with booking. Bryce did a good job. One of the songs we did was a steel instrumental cover of ‘Wichita Lineman” and Bryce asked me if I could play the same thing again… I said “I guess so” and do my best to play the same melody line. My first experience with doubling, and that and other things piqued my interest enough for me to go back and hang around asking questions and trying to soak up some knowledge. If I would be sitting there long enough Bryce would say “why don’t you do something instead of just hanging around!” So I’d sweep up or make coffee or roll cables, and gradually he’d have me moving mics around and so on, on a good day I could get him to explain how a limiter worked, or why he picked the frequencies he did to EQ. I’ve been involved in recording in some way ever since.
Great to stumble over this site! I have very fond memories of Pro Co, Sunrise Guitars and Uncle Dirty’s- Tish helped me get equipped for my first gigs with my first band “Last Call” with Nancy Rogers on drums, back around 1976-77. We cut a band demo with Bryce and I just started hanging around the studio bugging him with questions and helping when he’d let me… indeed a cantankerous cat but also very helpful and full of great stories. That’s where I got my start in recording. The Sunrise guitars and Sunrise pickup were helmed by Pat Murphy and Tim Shaw who later went on to join the custom guitar sections at Gibson and Fender. Their solid bodies were very evocative of the much later Paul Reed Smith designs, and fantastic guitars. The Sunrise pickup was a favorite of touring pros like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and are still being made by another company. Those were indeed great times, I count myself very fortunate to have started in music in such a fertile climate. Thanks so much for the help, Tish, wherever you are! Mark van Allen
The “Sound Factory” at 131 W Kalamazoo was a second home to the early Force (Phoenix) band in the 70’s! Charlie Wicks built our first “real” P.A. system, we recorded a 45 upstairs with Bryce “Uncle Dirty” Robertson, and our frontman Bobby Friss even had a custom guitar built by Tim Shaw’s affiliate Sunrise Guitars at the same time they were creating the ZZ Top “Texas” guitar. Here’s a rare picture from 1976 at the Back Door in Kalamazoo, Uncle Dirty joined us on stage (playing Tommy Minelli’s Travis Bean) and that’s Bob Friss playing his new Sunrise guitar!
Sidenote: We stayed at the “rather unkept” home of Charlie Wicks’ while they built the P.A., Charlie wore the same ProCo T-Shirt for days on end, it was ironic to see Charlie years later at a NAMM show after ProCo had gone “worldwide”….wearing a tucked-in dress shirt and even a tie!
RIP Charlie Wicks and Bryce Robertson