Kirby St. Romain
Former guitarist with Scotty McKay, Kirby St. Romain Band, house band for The Coasters, The Drifters, Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, Willie Nelson and others
Also longtime comedian in Las Vegas and various cruise lines
Paul: Hi Kirby, tell about your rock and roll childhood.
Kirby: I started playing and singing while I was still in High School at Thomas Jefferson with Forest Murphy and Eddie Wurst back in the garage band stage of my life. Not sure if you would actually call it a garage band as Forest's mom let us play inside the house.
The name of our first band was the Road Runners. I kinda stumbled into it. The old Yellow Belly drag-strip had a Battle of the Bands. They knew I had been singing for a while, and I was the only one that knew the words to the Chuck Berry songs. None of the other guys wanted to sing...or could. That's how I got started - started singing because no one else wanted the job.
Paul: Did you have any choir or music experience?
Kirby: Not really. I took piano back at Catholic School as a kid, but I decided that piano wasn't cool. So instead, I got a trombone. I guess it was kinda like Music Man. The guy comes into town with his trombone and all the kids follow behind. Well, the trombone thing didn't work out like it did for Robert Preston. And I wasn't taking lessons, so if just kinda fizzled out, meanwhile my little brother Michael had got himself a guitar. The folks had got him a Silvertone electric guitar from Sears. And they bought me a snare drum.
After a while I got tired of the snare drum too, so I picked up Micheal's guitar and started playing it. And then ran into a couple of guys at TJ that played guitar too. One of them had this Fender guitar. I had never heard of them. That's gotta tell ya something.
Anyway we would just kinda hang around, listen to old Jimmy Reed records and try to figure out what he had been playing. Chords, where to go, where to go... that's how 'The Roadrunners' got started.
I was playing with The Roadrunnners at some school and they had a special guest, Scotty McKay. And we backed him up. After the gig, he came over and asked me if I wanted to play a job with him. I thought he was asking about the whole band. He wasn't. To make a long story short, I had borrowed money from my dad to buy a bass guitar as we didn't have a bass in the band. And I was quite literally new to it, but Scotty liked the way I played and ended up leaving the band and playing with Scotty for a long time.
As a matter of fact Scotty is the one who got me into the recording studio to do my own stuff. It turned out to be "Summers Coming" which I wrote in the back seat of his car on the way to the studio. We already recorded the A side of the record with a tune called 'Walk On' and needed a B for the release. Two DJs from KLIF heard it, Chuck Dunaway and Bill Enis and they played it for Diamond Records in NYC and they agreed to distribute it. Made it to the Top 50 that year. The next time I walked into KLIF, they said 'You want to be on American Bandstand in Philadelphia?' I says 'sure, I guess...' So I went on the Dick Clark tours.
After all that was over, I decided to go back to school at North Texas State. To make money, I worked on the weekends at Louann's. It was the 'Kirby St. Romain Band' - we were kinda the house-band for a few years.
You know people would ask me all the time how Ann could get all these stars to come to Louann's. Well, she would get them in the middle of the week which was normally a down time for them, and very inexpensive. And she would only book the star, then she would call me and my band would come back them up so they didst have the bring their own band.
One night she brings in Chuck Berry. Well, we normally had a rehearsal or two. Not with Chuck. He says 'when I stomp my foot, we are starting and when I stomp it again, the song's over'. So we get up on stage, Chuck didn't bring his own amp so he looks around for one, see's my bass amp is the biggest so he goes over, plugs in, turns all the dials up full and starts playing! Nearly destroyed my bass amp - bass is not really compatible playing the same time as lead guitar.
Paul: Who were some of the other folks you played with at Louann's?
Kirby: Oh man, there were a bunch, we backed up Ike and Tina Turner, The Coasters, The Drifters, folks like that. Ann would get so many of the acts on their off days for a really good price. It was really smart of her to fly in only the headliners. She was a sharp gal.
Paul: Tell me about Ann.
Kirby: Oh yes, she was really fond of me because I was going to college. She had a lot of respect for that. And I was working for her on the weekends and whenever else she needed me. Anytime I would show up, she would take me back in the kitchen and fix me something to eat. She was really something.
Paul: Its quite interesting for Ann to have been so successful after Lou died. She ran the club by herself for nearly two decades.
Kirby: She was really a tough old bird, she didn't take any crap from anybody. She could wheel and deal with the best of them.
Paul: And the rest of her family?
Kirby: I knew Chelle. Great gal. I ran into her years later when I was working on the cruise ships and she was a passenger. She slid a note under my door to let me know she was onboard. It had to be twenty years since the last time I saw her. And I knew Tony, her son.
My guitar player back in the Louann's days was Bobby Rambo. Bobby was always hitting on Chelle. Between sets Chelle was the DJ, playing records to keep the crowd going. Bobby would be all over her. And momma-bear Ann did not like that! She would go over and break that up before anything got going.
Paul: What kind of money were you making at Louann's?
Kirby: Oh, it wasn't great, probably $100 for Saturday and Sunday but it was a lot for back then. Ann would come by at the end of the night with an envelope full of cash to pay the guys. We'd divvy it up and that was that.
Meanwhile I was doing a bunch of recording at Bob Kelly's studio, he was a DJ at WRR radio. He'd call me and I would come by and we would record. Bob, Jay Linsey, Jerry Brown and Frank Cole were starting this vocal group called The Expressions, which would be about 1964. They were purely vocal and would go to various clubs and play with whomever the house bands were to back them up.
They signed with Nat Goodman who also managed a group called The Diamonds. He told The Expressions that they were not going to be able to play Las Vegas unless they played their own instruments like The Diamonds. That was okay but they didn't have a drummer. So I see Bob Kelly at the Palace Theater one night and he says 'I've seen you mess around with the drums at the studio before. You think you learn how to play your drums good enough to go on the road with us?'
I says 'Well, sure.' You know I did! So I spent some time learning how to play the drums but still working with my group at Louann's.
Paul: So tell me about leaving Louann's and the Kirby St. Romain Band.
Kirby: Well, just after the club closed for the night back in the summer of 65, I got all the guys together and told them that I was leaving the band to go on the road with The Expressions. All of them had other jobs to go back to expect for Bobby Rambo. Of course he went on to be one of the great guitar players of all time. He was nominated for a bunch of Grammies and ended playing with folks like Jerry Lee Lewis, The Five Americans, Carol King, Ronnie Dawson, Jerry Jeff Walker, B.W. Stevenson and folks like that.
Bobby is still playing. Every once in a while we have a revival of The Expressions and Bobby will show up for that. We usually do it in a little placed tucked way away called the The Pocket Sandwich Theater.
Paul: And then the Expressions
Kirby: I joined The Expressions in 1965 at a club in Oklahoma City. At the same time, I was just graduating from college. And the night I graduated from college, I wasn't there, I was onstage in Phoenix, Arizona at the Playboy Club because we had already gone on the road. I felt kinda bad for my mom and dad as they didn't get to see me graduate, that really bugged me for a long time.
Anyway unlike a lot of folk at North Texas, I wasn't into music there. You were really considered an elite musician if you went there for music. I got my degree in 'radio and TV broadcasting and communications'. And I never got a job in the Radio and TV. Not a single one. It was music all the way for me.
So we crisscrossed the country. It wasn't like now with the big motor-homes. You pretty much loaded everything into whomever's car was biggest, hooked up a trailer and took off. No roadies, just doing whatever was necessary.
Paul: So tell me more about coming back to Dallas
Kirby: Oh man, we were really popular in Dallas. They loved us at The Loser's Club there on Mockingbird. We used to pack that place. I still have the second hand smoke to prove it. I still have clothes to prove it. Back in those days you could smoke in the clubs and it was like playing in a dense fog.
We played Louann's quite a bit too until Ann sold it. I really loved my time there. Ann was the best.
I was with the Expressions for 10 years. In January of 1976 I left the group. It began a hard time for me, I learned the hard way 'you don't leave one job without another one in the wings'.
Paul: So was that when you started doing stand up comedy?
Kirby: Well, I had been doing some with all my bands, but it's a whole different world when you get up there by yourself without a group of guys backing you up. Just you, the microphone and room full of people. I literally had to re-learn how to preform as a entertainer as a solo act. I ended up moving to Reno, Nevada where I got a job as an Entertainment Director for one of the hotels, the Riverside Hotel. It turned out to be a job in name only. A lady named Jessie Beck was the owner. She kept trying to move me to the front desk, she said I would be much better there...
So I left there and did a bunch of menial jobs. One of them was being a bartender at Shakey's Pizza Parlor. One day this big guy walks in and says 'I'm looking for Kirby St. Romain'. It turned out to be Donnie Brooks, had a #1 hit in 1960 called 'Mission Bell'. So I started to work for him in Reno. Then he would call me for work in Los Angeles and would fly me in. He hooked me up with different agents, so I started doing even bigger shows like Johnny Cash, Jimmy Rogers, Red Skelton, it turned out to be quite amazing.
Then I started working on the cruise ships, 1983. It was a total disaster, it was a brand new ship, the New Amsterdam for Holland America and it was already falling apart. That nearly kept me off cruise ships forever. Anyway a couple of years later I had moved to LA as that's where most of the work was and was working at the Elks Club in Long Beach. An agent there said 'I've got these the little ships that make runs to from San Pedro down to Ensenada on 3 and 4 day cruises. So I decided to give it one more shot and had a blast. That was the Azure Seas, and then they bought this new ship, The Stardancer, so I ended up splitting my time between them
Paul: And of course that is where we met. I was Chief Purser on the Stardancer when you were headliner.
Kirby: Oh yes. Those were the days.
Paul: Charlie Dawson and Mike Moloney. And the bands like Garnett Morse and Dayle St. Dennis, Bill Doyle and all those singers whose names escape me right now. Ben Decker doing his best to juggle while the ship was going hard from port to starboard. I really loved my time on that ship, such a great staff from Pursers to Deck to Entertainers.
Kirby: Oh yes, all my friends . Lots of nights in Stanley's Pub after my sets were over.
I loved going to all the places on the cruise ships that I probably never would have gone if not working on this ships. And remember the Stardancer also had the basketball court down in the hold.
Paul: Oh yes. We could carry 100 full size RVs to go with 1,000 passengers. It was amazing.
And you are still working after all these years. Quite remarkable my friend. Thanks so much for your time. And as always, it's been a blast!
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