“What are you doing?”
Those four words in 1972, spoken by Jim McCarty to Johnny “Bee” Badanjek — bandmates in Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and the short-lived Detroit — lit the fuse for The Rockets and ignited an 11-year, six-album rock ’n’ roll ride for which the group will receive a Distinguished Achievement Award at tonight’s 19th annual Detroit Music Awards.
The journey wasn’t always smooth, mind you. The Rockets had only limited commercial success — a 1979 cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” was its lone Billboard Top 40 hit— and the group was dogged by rancorous personnel changes and late frontman Dave Gilbert’s battles with substance abuse. But the Rockets earned a solid reputation as a hard-touring, roof-raising live band, whether it was headlining or opening for the likes of Kiss, ZZ Top, REO Speedwagon, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band and others.
Even now, The Hell Drivers, which has reunited Badanjek and McCarty, see evidence of The Rockets’ regard every time the group kicks into favorites such as “Turn Up the Radio,” “Desire” or “Takin’ It Back.”
“Every time we play them, wherever we play them, the place goes crazy,” says Hell Drivers frontman Jim Edwards. “The interest in the Rockets stuff is through the roof. People love it.”
Badanjek, 61, finds the response somewhat vindicating. “(The Rockets) was a great band that never got its due, I don’t think,” the drummer and painter explains. “It’s always hard in the music business; sometimes you get the breaks, and sometimes you don’t and that’s the way it goes. But it’s a band that worked hard and could really deliver, especially on stage.”
Before launching The Rockets, Badanjek was working with Edgar Winter in New York; Winter wanted him to move to Manhattan and go on tour with his group, but Badanjek had young children at home and preferred to remain in Detroit. That’s when he called McCarty, who was in Memphis, and broached the idea of working together again.
“I told him, ‘I’m gonna go back to Detroit and put a band together. That’s where you should go. You should come back home and we’ll put a band together, a Detroit band,” Badanjek recalls.
The first incarnation of The Rockets, a quartet with Badanjek singing from behind his drum kit, played almost nightly around Southeastern Michigan and Northern Ohio, checked out by fellow musicians in bands such as the Kinks and Blondie.
“The word was out; everybody who came to Detroit knew we were the hot band to see,” Badanjek says, recalling visits by David Bowie and a memorable night at the old Red Carpet Lounge when Iggy Pop, who was sitting with Bowie in a corner, walked across tabletops to join The Rockets for a rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
The group was eventually burned out by its grueling schedule, however, and took a break in 1975. But it came back together after Badanjek met manager Gary Lazar, who not only got the group a recording contract but also brought The Rockets to Don Davis, owner of Detroit’s United Sound Studios. Davis advised them to get another singer, leading to Gilbert joining the band after an audition at the Roadhouse near Ann Arbor.
“He did a couple of tunes,” Badanjek remembers, “and McCarty and I looked at each other and said, ‘This guy is unbelievable!’ He was a very charismatic singer, worked the stage prowling like a cat, was handsome ... ” But, he adds, Gilbert was also “a pretty wild guy. He was like the Keith Moon of singers, pretty much in his own world.”
The Rockets’ world held up, though — at least for a while. Three of the group’s albums — “Rockets,” “No Ballads” and “Back Talk” — hit the Billboard 200 chart between 1979-81, while “Can’t Sleep” and “Desire” logged space on the lower half of the Hot 100. Badanjek and McCarty’s pedigree also afforded the band some respect amongst its peers.
“We knew who those guys were from the Detroit Wheels and had a lot of respect for them,” notes Paul Stanley of Kiss, which took The Rockets out as openers on two major tours. “The caliber of musicianship was pretty formidable. We knew we’d have to stay on our toes with them opening every night.”
The Rockets’ dissolution, following a live album recorded at the Royal Oak Music Theatre and a farewell concert at the Pine Knob Music Theatre in 1983, is often laid at Gilbert’s deteriorating condition (he passed away in 2001). But Badanjek counters that “there were a lot of factors, a lot of little ones. Yeah, Dave was pretty much shot; he needed a long vacation from rock ‘n’ roll to get his voice back in shape and get his head back in shape, but everyone was pretty frayed by that point. It was everybody’s idea that, ‘OK, let’s go and do a Pine Knob show, one last one, call it quits and go from there.”
The Rockets name may well take flight again, however. Since The Hell Drivers formed in October 2008 at Mario’s in Madison Heights, the group — which also includes Marvin Conrad on bass and Danny Taylor on keyboards — has packed area clubs and released a popular live album recorded at Callahan’s.
Now singer Edwards and a variety of agents and talent buyers are encouraging Badanjek and the 65-year-old McCarty — who also has a blues band, Mystery Train, and maintains part-time membership in the group Cactus — to adopt The Rockets moniker in order to get more lucrative gigs, particularly outside of the Detroit area and in the summer festival season.
Badanjek, who’s been writing new material for the group, says the duo is seriously considering the change, but with mixed feelings.
“It’s something we don’t want to go back to,” he explains, “My thing as a songwriter is to say, ‘Let’s move on. We’ve done that. Let’s go on to the next thing.’ But people are saying, ‘We love you guys. We’d like to help you, but it would be easier if you would just be The Rockets instead of The Hell Drivers.’ And people will help us.
“We’re talking about it. Right now we’re having fun. People embrace it, and (the band) smokes. McCarty’s on fire. A lot of people our age who are out there on the oldies circuit don’t have have the energy we have. So we’ll see ... ”
The 19th annual Detroit Music Awards takes place at 7 p.m. tonight (April 16) at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave. The Hell Drivers, Critical Bill, the Sun Messengers, Ro Spit with Monica Blaire, Julianne, Muruga & the Rainforest Band and the James Jamerson Jr. Band will perform. The Rockets, the Sun Messengers and Thunder Audio will receive Distinguished Achievement Awards. Wolfman Mac, of “Chiller Drive-In” on WXYZ-DT-2 (Channel 7.2) and the RTV cable channel, will host. Tickets are $20. Call 313-961-5451 or visit www.detroitmusicawards.net.
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