Excerpts from “A Gathering of Promises” by Ben Graham (Zero Books, 2015)


Back in Houston, the action was already shifting away from La Maison to the Catacombs, which opened at the beginning of 1966 at 3003 South Post Oak Road.   Although the dress code specified "school  clothing," the Catacombs was a pretty hip space,  with low ceilings and black wall  painted in fluorescent designs, and  two rooms with a stage in each.  Support bands would play in the back room, then the headline act would start immediately afterwards on the main stage. The Catacombs was managed with  great personal energy by Bob Cope, and  owned by Ames Productions,  the company founded by  brothers Richard and Steve  Ames.  With  money from the local oil industry (their family owned Ames  Oil and Gas),  they  not  only  bought into the Catacombs, but managed several local bands and  ran  their own record label, Tantara.   While older brother Richard looked after business, Steve Ames was a musician and songwriter himself and played keyboards with Neal Ford and the Fanatics, who during the  latter part of 1966 were not only the house band at the Catacombs but the most popular band in  Houston.  By this time however, Ames, who had only one kidney, had  already retired from stage work, finding  that the late nights and travelling were seriously affecting  his health.


Formed at the end of 1964 by singer Neal Ford, at age 20 already a veteran of several teen-pop singles with the Ramadas and the VIPs, the Fanatics mixed hard-edged, Kinks-and-Stones­ derived rock with solid R&B, folk-rock and novelty pop.   Though hardly psychedelic (Ford absolutely forbade any use of drugs or even alcohol when the band was working) they were no strangers to fuzz, driving Hammond organ and the odd weirdly menacing chord sequence or guitar riff.  Yet this  was  always combined with an adherence  to  old-fashioned  showmanship that demanded smartly matching  outfits and  corny  synchronized  onstage routines such as the band all crouching down in a line and rowing across the stage with their  guitars.


The original line-up featured Ford alongside guitarists Johnny 'String' Stringfellow and Jon 'Big Jon' Pereles, plus  WT 'Dub' Johnson on  bass,  John 'Baby John' Cravey on drums and  Dennis Senter on  keyboards, who didn't last long enough to acquire a nick name. After the Fanatics' debut single in January 1965, “I Will Not Be Lonely” (a garage classic) he was replaced by Steve Ames, with brother  Richard coming in as the band's manager.  At the beginning of 1966 the Ames brothers established Tantara Records in order to release The Fanatics' second single, the moody, psych-tinged folk-rock of “Bitter Bells”.


Steve Ames stayed with the Fanatics through the summer of 1966, a time when the band's profile rose steadily, with local airplay, appearances on the Larry Kane Show and increasingly well-attended shows, including opening  slots for the Beach Boys and the  Lovin' Spoonful.  They were regularly mobbed  by screaming girls, and  gigs often deteriorated into  near-riots as the local kids decided to re-enact the scenes of Beatlemania  they'd seen in the newsreels with the Fab Four's closest  local equivalent.


In June the Fanatics released a cover of “All I Have to Do is Dream” on Tantara, but shortly afterwards  Ames  left to concentrate on management and production.  He was replaced on keys by 18- year-old Lanier Greig,  a far flashier player whose frenetic organ runs became characteristic of the classic Fanatics line-up.


The band's fourth single, “I Will if You Want To”  (September 1966) had a brooding majesty that was distinctly psychedelic, with John Stringfellow's greasy slide guitar echoing over the spare, rolling  rhythm, and Greig's understated keys descending into an aural abyss of loss and despair on the bridge.  The Fanatics' profile was boosted still  further when Ames signed them nationwide to Nashville's Hickory label,  who released the bizarre,  cod-gothic single “Shame on You” in January 1967.  It was the flip, “Gonna  Be My Girl”, however that  became a number one single on both of Houston's major  radio stations, resulting in the Fanatics requiring a police escort whenever they played a show in  town.  In February 1967 they  were  clear winners of a Houston Post Battle of the Bands,  yet to tell the truth  their star was already on the wane, as Hickory guided them in a middle-of-the-road direction increasingly at odds with the times, and  Ames Productions  focused their attention on another of their  small stable of acts: the Moving Sidewalks.



If Thursday's Children and  the Lemon Fog seemed behind the times in 1968, then the  once-popular Neal Ford and the Fanatics must have come over as positively antediluvian,  with their old fashioned show-business values and  choreographed stage show.  Yet Ford's onstage athleticism was not a million miles from the sort of performance for which Iggy Pop would later be acclaimed; stage diving, executing splits and somersaults, climbing the wall, and balancing on balcony railings.  Moreover, the  band  was  still capable of rocking hard when allowed, and Ford was a decent songwriter, not afraid to experiment with fuzz and other weird effects in the studio.  But their more adventurous songs were too often left in  the can, and the Fanatics' November 1967 album for Hickory was hamstrung by too many written-to-order  bubblegum confections and middle-of-the-road ballads.  In 1968 the  clean-living Ford even  turned down Mickey  Newbury's “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” because of its sly drug connotations, which didn't bother Kenny Rogers' First Edition, who turned the  song into a soft psych-country classic.


The symbolic turning  point came when Neal Ford and the Fanatics opened for Jimi Hendrix on two   Texan dates of his spring 1968  US tour,  and were all but booed off the stage.  The first show, at San Antonio Municipal Auditorium (February 15th) apparently went down well,  but the following night at  Dallas Fair Park Music Hall the jeers from the audience got to the band. With their Hickory deal expired, they lost confidence and momentum and never really recovered; Ford quit in May 1969, and the Fanatics struggled on without him until mid-1970.



At the end of August 1968 the Catacombs club hosted the KNUZ Pop Festival, a major event and  the biggest show ever  held at the club, featuring the Mothers of Invention, Country Joe and the Fish and  Canned Heat in a ten-hour show  for just five bucks.  The Moving Sidewalks, along with Neal Ford and the Fanatics and Matchbox, were to be the local support.  But disgruntled with the way Ames Productions were handling their album, the Moving Sidewalks decided, on the spur of the moment, to miss the gig and drive out to Los Angeles instead.  They played Gazzarri's and  The Galaxy on  Sunset Strip  minus organist Tom  Moore, who  assumed  they were having him  on and refused to get out of bed when they pulled up outside his house at midnight, trailer loaded with their equipment.  He was  left to explain the  band's no-show to Steve Ames alone.



Things got worse soon after when Moore was drafted to fight in Vietnam; the Moving Sidewalks continued playing as a trio, but  started to feel  like they  were  chasing their own tail, going round in  circles playing the same old club circuit, while their album release date  was  continuously put  back.  Following a performance at Spring Branch High School Senior Prom in May 1969, the Moving Sidewalks parted company with Ames Productions.  By this time  they already knew that Flash was dated in  its   psychedelic trickery, as well as being  too in thrall to Hendrix, and  the  remaining  trio  were  desperate to go  back  into the studio to record new  material, which Ames refused to allow. The  final  straw came  when Don  Summers too was drafted, and on the 6th and 7th of June the Moving Sidewalks played  their final shows at Love Street Light Circus.  Against their wishes, Flash was finally released at the end of August.


Gibbons and  drummer Dan Mitchell were determined to carry on however, and with Steve Ames out of the picture they signed a management contract with an ambitious Texan music impresario in his early  thirties named Bill Ham.  Ham had caught the Moving  Sidewalks opening for the Doors, and had  introduced himself  to the band afterwards.   On the 4th of July 1969, Gibbons and Mitchell were back onstage at Love Street, with former Fanatics keyboard player Lanier Greig playing organ and laying down bass parts with his foot pedals, while Bill Ham looked on approvingly.  This new configuration of the Moving Sidewalks also had a new name: ZZ Top.



Even after 1983's synthesizer-and-drum­ machine-driven Eliminator album sent ZZ Top into the upper echelons of pop music worldwide, Billy Gibbons never forgot his roots, and championed the likes of the 13th Floor Elevators at every opportunity.  In 2013 he reformed the original line-up of the Moving Sidewalks for a series of sold-out live performances; sadly Lanier Greig died in February that same year.

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