The hot August sun was fading beyond Kansas City’s Wheeler Downtown Airport, and the musicians of Blackwater Junction were finding their groove.
Those listening to the band, consisting of high school friends from 42 years ago, knew the musicians were in their element. The horns synched, guest singer Mickey Younghanz sugared the lyrics, and heads began to nod.
“Spinning Wheel,” a tune made famous by Blood, Sweat & Tears, filled the outdoor patio of Paul & Jack’s Tavern in North Kansas City, where many looked around and found familiar faces from their school days north of the Missouri River.
Four decades had passed, but these guys, a bit grayer now, were still making memorable music.
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“What they are playing today was what they were doing in high school, and it was incredible,” says Charles Cottitta, a graduate of Winnetonka High School. “We were in awe of them. They had the tightest horn section in town.”
The next number, Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” provided listeners their cue. An area in front of the stage morphed into a dance floor, with Younghanz’s wife, Paula, leading the way.
The show last Wednesday capped a reunion that brought the band, as well as many classmates from across the Kansas City area, back to the Northland tavern to catch up and hear the music that marked their youth.
The sound had called them home.
As the story goes, Blackwater Junction was born from two bands — the Grenadiers and the Soul Estate — and featured a horn ensemble consisting of jazz-trained student musicians from Oak Park and North Kansas City high schools.
The group played at school dances, community centers that hosted teen nights, and private parties in the Kansas City area from 1969 to 1971.
There were a lot of local rock bands back in those days, and some did well, said the band’s promoter and manager, Ron Banks, who organized practices and booked the gigs.
“We were a nonunion band, and that prompted our eventual demise, because if you weren’t union, you couldn’t play in certain places,” said Banks, who now lives overseas. “Had we been union, we would have played at One Block West, Cowtown Palace, Freedom Palace and places like those.”
With their roots in jazz, band members found a natural spot in the rise of pop music at the time. Soul music was melding with brass sounds, and students who studied jazz at school or through private lessons gravitated to rock.
Keyboardist Bruce Burton pointed to one catalyst for the group’s musical direction: FM radio station KCJC, with “a long-haired hippie named Little Willie who spun all kinds of discs.”
Willie played whatever was new, including the edgier Led Zeppelin and Chicago Transit Authority, which later shortened its name to Chicago.
“I heard Chicago Transit Authority and fell in love,” Burton recalled. “It was a different style with significantly more complexity.”
Burton shared his discovery with band friends, and they started covering the songs.
“What made Blackwater Junction different and unique (from other bands) was that these were kids playing jazz,” Banks said.
Although Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears were seasoned musicians, Blackwater Junction was high schoolers just picking it up.
“Not that many bands could do the intricate jazz arrangements,” said trombone player Don Davis, who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and plays in orchestras.
Blackwater Junction made its mark by winning competitions called battles of the bands. WHB-AM radio, a popular station at the time, sponsored the events. Banks and band members became friends with DJ Phil Jay, who plugged their shows.
Weekends were filled with dances featuring live music, and Banks booked gigs wherever he could get them.
At one show, the suburban band members found themselves playing in a different part of town. Burton recalled that the high school audience seemed to be enjoying themselves. Some people danced. And when the music stopped, the musicians heard applause.
Then one young man approached Burton and told him, “Y’all are bad.”
He and another band member were taken aback.
“We were unaware that ‘bad’ actually meant ‘good,’” Burton said.
A New Year’s Eve party held at an apartment complex’s clubhouse off Vivion Road was particularly memorable. An open bar lightened the mood, and when the time came for the band to finish, those attending took up a collection to have the musicians stay.
Blackwater Junction nearly doubled its booking fee.
“We took advantage of the open bar,” Davis said. “And the more we drank, the better we thought we sounded.”
That same night, the young guys also learned a little something about women a generation ahead of them.
“I was not acquainted with the custom of women, especially middle-aged women, who kissed anyone at midnight,” Burton said. “They kissed their dates, and then they started kissing us.”
Before long, as the tunes turned to Dixieland, the band started a conga line that snaked through the venue.
A few years back, Banks was in town and met with a few band members. Over drinks they hatched the plan of “putting the band back together,” Blues Brothers style.
Emails and phone calls over nearly two years resulted in a 40-year reunion in 2012. Many band members were returning for the combined reunion of Oak Park, Winnetonka and North Kansas City high schools.
They practiced for three days and performed a concert on the fourth day. That night they vowed to be back in 2014.
“We had no idea how the 40-year reunion would play out,” Banks said.
But the band members came to recognize more fully that their shared experience had formed a foundation for their lives.
“Those days were a beginning for me musically,” said Lee Watkins, who went on to study at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “It’s a bond shared through the years. We all keep the same roots.”
They call the connection a brotherhood.
“The minute I walked into the room, it was nothing but hugs and handshakes,” said Randy Shepherd, whose specialty is guitar and vocals.
Three days before last week’s show, the band transformed the downstairs of Mickey and Paula Younghanz’s house into a rehearsal studio. Furniture was pushed aside in the carpeted room as the musicians took their places. Outside, the muffled horns seeped into the suburban neighborhood off North Antioch Road.
Mickey Younghanz was not an original member of Blackwater Junction, but he agreed to play with it for the reunion when Rick Coomes, who plays alto saxophone, asked him.
Younghanz is a performer, Banks said, and the band had always needed a frontman to help with the vocals.
“Sometimes you have problems with egos in the way, but we didn’t have the egos,” Banks said. “It was all about the band and music.”
Younghanz, who attended North Kansas City High, has lived his entire life north of the river and has sung with many bands over the years, adding a soulful sound to the mix.
“The main thing to remember (about this week) is that these individuals are getting together and devoting their time,” Younghanz said. “It’s not for themselves. It’s for the people who may have remembered them.”
Technology helped with the planning and preparation, which brought members from Texas, Boston, Indiana and Switzerland, where Banks now lives.
“We are better organized this time than the first time, when we didn’t even know if everyone was still alive,” Coomes joked.
Social media had connected everyone a few years ago. YouTube now allows them to pull up tunes on the spot. Other technology isolates the sound of a single instrument, at just the right spot in the music..
“Before, you would just drop the needle (on the album) to find the place you needed,” said drummer Allen Wiley.
As the first set wrapped up last Wednesday at Paul & Jack’s, the crowd had flowed onto an upper deck. Many were standing.
More than 200 people had shown up for Blackwater Junction’s second reunion gig, nudged there by high school friends through Facebook.
“Social media prevailed,” Watkins said after the band took a break.
News of the show brought Jack Wells, who played trumpet at North Kansas City High.
“One of the reasons I came was that I felt it would be like a reunion,” Wells said.
Lynn Werner Driggers of Liberty came to hear her old neighborhood friends, Burton and guitarist Bill McDonald. She was on hand for the band’s reunion in 2012 and follows the musicians on Facebook.
“Two years ago it brought back a lot of memories,” she said. “They just put out the word, and a lot of (out-of-town) people were saying that they wished they could make it back.”
At the break, McDonald, a finance professor at the University of Notre Dame, revealed that he was still a hometown boy — at least when the Royals were on the field.
“Are we winning or losing?” he asked.
A subtle warm breeze had replaced the summertime heat when the sky darkened.
An incoming flight made its way to Wheeler Downtown Airport as the brass sound ricocheted around the industrial structures and parking lots in North Kansas City.
Lyrics from Blackwater Junction’s opening song, “The Letter” by the Box Tops, seemed to acquire new meaning:
Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane. Ain’t got time to take a fast train. Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home…
Blackwater Junction: Who’s who
Bruce Burton, keyboards
Rick Coomes, alto saxophone
Don Davis, trombone
Bill McDonald, guitar
David Palmgren, tenor saxophone
David Rector, bass
Randy Shepherd, guitar and vocals
Lee Watkins, trumpet and vocals
Allen Wiley, drums
Jeff Wright, percussion
Ron Banks, manager
Facebook group: Blackwater Junction & Friends