Unsung Grande Ballroom greats dust off the gear
Published: June 6, 2012
Savage Grace and Jagged Edge play the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030, on Friday, June 8.
Think Grande Ballroom, and the MC5, the Stooges, the Rationals, the Amboy Dukes and Alice Cooper spring to mind. Perhaps the SRC, Frost and Mitch Ryder's Detroit too. Those who were there will recall shows by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac and the Who. But there were a few bands — many of whom were as eyebrow-raising as the aforementioned — that didn't hit such levels of notoriety, including the Chosen Few, Frut, Jagged Edge, and Savage Grace. But the latter band was as deserving of attention as anyone.
Some backstory: Savage Grace first came together as the Scarlet Letter in 1968, though the name was changed when former Hideaways singer Al Jacquez joined shortly afterward. Armed with truckloads of Midwestern work ethic, the group rehearsed six days a week for months.
"We were Midwestern boys so we rehearsed and worked," Jacquez says now.
Possibly because of the band's name, they were tagged as a hard-rock band from the start, but the sound had as much to do with R&B and the Beatles.
"I'd gotten into thinking of rock 'n' roll as a way to use my musical gifts when the Beatles came out, so that was an influence, that whole English invasion," Jacquez says. "Then my guitar teachers pointed out that, if we were interested in the English cats, why not check out the people that they were emulating. Sure enough, people like B.B. King, Albert King, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and then obviously Motown writers like Smokey Robinson and people like that came up real fast. I never really thought about what kind of a band I was in other than it being a rock band. We weren't going after any demographic. That's not how we approached the music."
Jacquez recalls the Grande Ballroom as being a "marvelous" place. "I remember the first time walking up those steps with some gear and thinking that the place was a music palace," he says. "People would tell you that they used to have big swing bands in there. It was a great place to play and the audience was great. They were very demanding and very attentive. They would get close to the stage so you could see them and work off of them, so it was a very organic feeling. Some of the bands that came in from England loved it ... "
The band, completed by late guitarist-songwriter Ron Koss, guitarist John Seanor and drummer Larry Zack, created a decent buzz for about three years, and toured with Jimi Hendrix.
"Jimi thought people looked upon him as a great clown during that period of time," Jacquez says. "I remember one show; he played a great set but the pyrotechnics and all that was not part of the show. I remember sitting outside the warm-up room listening to him and thinking, this guy can really play. It's nothing to do with clothes and drugs. He could really play. Unfortunately, it wasn't too long after our tour that he died."
The tour was mildly complicated because both Savage Grace and Hendrix had released covers of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" as a single. "We were shameless," Jacquez says. "I think, back then, people were a little more full of themselves than they are now. It was our tune, we had to play it. It ended up being one of our signature tunes, so there was really no way around playing it."
While bands the MC5 and the Stooges didn't exactly set the world on fire back in the day (though you'd never guess that now), they've landed on a pedestal reserved only for rock 'n' roll legends. Much of that glory transcends cheap nostalgia because those bands were, obviously, a confluence of timing, intuition, anger and art. That's not to say Grande Ballroom reminiscences hurt their cause. None of that for Savage Grace.
"If you looked back at the time, we sold a lot of albums, and I'd maintain that we were drawing better than either of those bands," Jacquez says. "The critics ended up latching onto the thing that they did in a different way to us. Savage Grace did well for a long time because we worked. We played a lot of gigs. Unfortunately, the scene here started to die and a lot of that work went away."
The band's three albums hold up, those are 1969's Savage Grace, 1971's Savage Grace 2, and 1994's reunion album Savage Grace 3: One Night in America)
"In retrospect I wish that someone had said to me, scream less and sing more," Jacquez says.
[But] there was also a certain chemistry happening there that people appreciated. For a long time I couldn't listen to that stuff. Only over the last few years, with people asking me to sing some of the tunes, I finally got over myself and started listening to it in perspective. I think Ron [Koss] was a great songwriter, I'm proud to sing anybody's songs, and my intention is to sing them the best I possibly can."
Savage Grace broke up in '71. Jacquez got married, had kids and he stayed in music, playing with bands like the Suspects, Guardian Angel (with Scott Morgan), Lightnin' and, more recently, blues-rock outfit Measured Chaos. However, he could never completely remove himself from Savage Grace and, over the years, the band has re-formed, albeit with a revolving line-up of musicians. Koss had a heart attack and died in 2004 so, today, Al Jacquez pretty much is Savage Grace.
"Mark Gougeon from Mitch Ryder's band played on the third record, and he is in Savage Grace 2012. The rest of the band is Mark Tomorsky from Measured Chaos, and Frank Charboneaux plays drums. We just couldn't work out the logistics with the original guys, them being in LA now. I had so many requests from people to go sing this stuff again, so I thought what the heck."
When Suzi Quatro cancelled her Detroit Music Awards appearance in April, Savage Grace filled in last minute. The set went over well, and now Jacquez is preparing for a show this week in Ferndale. Jagged Edge, friends from back in the Grande days, are supporting.
Jacquez takes a breath. And then he says, "We'll immerse ourselves in the tunes and play them in the spirit they were played back then. There will be places where we'll have fun and it'll sound different. Until the very end, that's what Savage Grace did really well — played in the moment."
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