The Amboy Dukes had just one big hit and were far eclipsed by Ted Nugent’s solo career. But the guitarist says some props for the Detroit band he was part of for a decade are wholly deserved — and overdue.
“It’s as proper as tomorrow’s sunrise,” crows Nugent, who will be on hand with four of his former bandmates from the original group to receive a Distinguished Achievement Award at Friday's (April 17) 18th Annual Detroit Music Awards. The group also will perform for the first time in more than 30 years. “We’re celebrating one of the great American milestones in rock ‘n’ roll ... the world’s greatest garage band.
“We were part of that original fist of Detroit music, the confluence of rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll and that Motown touch. My brain is jampacked with stimulating memories,” he says.
The Amboy Dukes were immortalized by dint of one song, the psychedelic rock opus “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” which was a Top 20 hit on the Billboard charts in 1968. It is the enduring achievement from a career that included six albums and 13 different members and, according to Mike Stax’s liner notes for the celebrated “Nuggets” collection, “pointed the direction for countless groups as the ’60s drew to a close.”
Nugent, the sole constant in the Dukes’ history, says it will be “a wonderful relief” to get back together with singer and Nugent’s childhood friend John Drake, guitarist Steve Farmer, bassist Bill White and keyboardists Rick Lober and Andy Solomon (Jim Butler and Johnny “Bee” Badanjek will fill in on drums). But Drake says it’s not the first time the Dukes had plans to reunite.
“We tried to do this back in ’89, and at that time Ted couldn’t do it with his rehearsal schedule and touring and everything,” says Drake, 62, who now resides in Chicago. “We let it go at that point, but the feeling was, we had a chance to do it again this time, and Ted said, ‘If we’re gonna do it right, let’s put it all together.’ ”
That led Nugent and Drake, who had played together in the Lords as teenagers, to “talk with guys I haven’t talked with in a lot of years,” according to the singer.
The pleasant surprise, he says, was that “most of them kept active in music in one way or another. It’s not like we’ll go up there and be, like, ‘What are we gonna do next?’ Everyone’s still got their chops. I like that a lot.” Nugent, 60, actually formed the
Dukes in 1964 in Chicago, when the family moved there from Detroit after his father received a promotion from the Uddeholm Steel Co. Nugent and his Windy City cohorts appropriated the name from a popular Detroit group, and before long the Dukes were playing in Chicago clubs and, he says, “just kicking holy ass.
“I brought every Detroit spirit, every Detroit attitude and just gave the middle finger to Chicago. They didn’t know what faster and louder meant there until we showed ‘em.”
Nugent brought the Dukes back to Detroit after he graduated from high school in June of 1967, re-entering a rich rock ‘n’ roll scene populated by Bob Seger and his bands, the MC5, the Stooges, The Rationals, SRC, The Frost and others. “There was an intensification even I wasn’t prepared for when I returned,” Nugent recalls. “When I got back and watched the MC5, I was not quite prepared for that.”
Reconnecting with Drake, Nugent eventually jettisoned the Chicago transplants and replaced them with Motor City musicians. The band settled into a rehearsal house in Livonia, playing “just enough shows to keep us in cereal and bread, keep the van running and the speakers working to some degree,” Nugent remembers. Jam sessions lasting up to 16 hours, usually at “outrageous volumes,” were the norm.
“Our rehearsal schedule ran five days a week, eight hours a day — at least,” says Drake, who was born Brake but changed his name after it was misspelled on the Dukes’ 1967 debut album. “That’s what held it together. The band just stayed tight all the time.”
Signed to Mainstream Records, the Dukes had a regional radio hit with “Baby Please Don’t Go,” But it would be “Journey” that put the band on the map.
Drake remembers that the song came about one day when the band was hanging around the Livonia house, eating and watching TV. “Ted said, ‘Y’know what? I bet you I can lay the next commercial that comes on TV.’ But it wasn’t a commercial that came on; it was ‘Bonanza.’ He picked up his guitar and played the theme song, and that’s where (‘Journey...’) started.”
Encouraged by Mainstream, Drake and Farmer wrote lyrics for what was then an instrumental, though Nugent contends that at the time he didn’t recognize the drug references in them.
“I didn’t have the faintest idea,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t know what those (opium) pipes were on the album cover, either. I thought, ‘Journey to the center of the mind — yeah, it’s good to be reflective, to journey inside yourself, to think before acting.’
“That still makes sense to me, actually.”
The Dukes’ journey continued for another six years after the “Journey...” zenith. A combination of various members’ drug habits, the grind of playing 300 shows a year, record company problems and Nugent’s solo ambitions ultimately led to its demise, but Nugent and Drake expect things to all be sweetness and light — and musically heavy — as the group reconvenes.
“It’ll be a great night,” says the now Texas-based Nugent, whose new reality show, “Runnin’ Wild ... From Ted Nugent,” premieres in August on CMT. “I look forward to reminding everyone what kind of Motor City hurt the (Dukes) were capable of putting on ya.”
The 18th Annual Detroit Music Awards take place at 7 p.m. Friday (April 17) at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Performers include the Amboy Dukes, Bump & Friends, Cats & the Fiddler, Mae Day, the Deaf Performing Artists Network (D-PAN), a Motown 50th Anniversary Revue and tributes to Ron Asheton and Lyman Woodard. The Amboy Dukes will receive a Distinguished Achievement Award, while D-PAN will get a Special Achievement Award. MC Serch will host. Call (313) 961-5451 or visit www.detroitmusicawards.com.
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