Now here we have a band that remained something of a mystery for many years. With a little digging back in 2013, when putting the liner notes together for Rock Candy’s reissue of Speedway Blvd.’s solitary album (released by the label in 2014), further detail came to light of a rather fascinating back story to their formation. Yet it’s a tale I would dearly love to uncover more about when it comes to this short-lived, New York based quintet.
Back in 2013 it was a combination of being unable to trace some band members – and others seemingly having said all they needed to say in their fantastic performances on the album – that hampered attempts to know much more. Although it’s appreciated that the band member who has gone on to achieve the highest profile had contributed some notes to the original CD release of the album, it was frustrating not to get him on board second time around. Especially when you consider that what this band did unleash has to go down as one of the greatest, one-off album releases of all time. Speedway Blvd. put together something so truly mind blowing it has just elevated the album, for me at least, way beyond what other bands were achieving back then in the early 80s. It really doesn’t sound like anything anyone had recorded before or, indeed, has since.
Interestingly, Speedway Blvd. were brought together by two guys who were not in the band and certainly had nothing to do with the actual composition of the songs, but they nevertheless had a distinct vision for the project. The two in question being the legendary ‘bubblegum’ producers… Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz.
Having first met at the University of Arizona, the duo later agreed to join forces in New York where they began to manage a variety of musical acts; one being the Palace Guards, who cut a single for the Mercury label in the early 60s. Legend has it that the duo were so unimpressed with the quality of the single’s production that K&K reckoned they could make a far better job of it themselves, leading to a particularly lucrative career in production work and being ultimately responsible for introducing ‘bubblegum’ music into pop culture thanks to singles from such ‘acts’ as 1910 Fruitgum Company (‘Simon Says’) the Lemon Pipers (‘Green Tambourine’), Ohio Express (‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy’) and Crazy Elephant (‘Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’’) all of which were released by future Casablanca Records mastermind Neil Bogart on Buddah Records.
However, by the 70s ‘bubblegum’ had lost its flavour, so Jerry and Jeff began working with former Lemon Pipers guitarist Bill Bartlett, by this time a member of the Cincinnati based Starstruck. A Pop Rock group, Starstruck had recorded a lengthened version of Lead Belly’s ‘Black Betty’ as a 7” on their own TruckStar label in 1975. A regional hit around their native Ohio, the track was picked up by K&K and, as it turns out, re-released under the Ram Jam handle through Epic Records in 1977.
K&K put together a whole new group around Bartlett under the Ram Jam name in order to record a full album’s worth of material. The ‘Ram Jam’ version of ‘Black Betty’ went on to become a worldwide hit, reaching #18 in the States and Ram Jam’s self-titled debut went Top 40 in the US, peaking at #34 on the Billboard album chart. A follow-up record, the rockier ‘Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Ram’, was released in 1978, but failed to emulate anything like the success of the debut.
Speedway Blvd. were a group derived from another assembly of musicians put together by Kasenetz and Katz originally using the Ram Jam moniker. Guitarist Gregg Hoffman, bassist Dennis Feldman (previously with Wiggy Bits) and drummer Glenn Dove had all played together in a touring line-up of Ram Jam alongside ex Bloody Mary keyboard player David Beck (a later member of the New York outfit Mayday) and vocalist Sherwin ‘Ace’ Ross; the latter replacing Ram Jam’s original vocalist Myke Scavone.
While Ross went on to play in a New York group titled Hard Knocks and would branch out into acting and the fashion world, the trio of Feldman, Hoffman and Dove remained together and would, with the help of Kasenetz and Katz, be joined by keyboard maestro Jordan Rudess and the amazing vocal talents of Roy Herring Jr.
Now, way back in the days of ‘bubblegum’, Kasenetz and Katz had founded K&K Studios, in Great Neck, on Long Island, New York. Mr. Rudess, who also lived in the area, had first met the duo back in 1974 as a 17 year old doing some recording at said studio. A classically trained pianist, Rudess had studied at the fabled Juilliard School of Music in New York since he was 9 years old, but had begun branching out into other musical areas during his teens with the purchase of a Mini Moog. Since quitting Juilliard, Rudess had moved to Maryland and had played in a Prog Rock group called Apricot Brandy, but his next involvement with K&K came upon his return to New York towards the end of the 70s, with an invitation for him to check out the latest project they were working on: Speedway Blvd. Vocalist Herring Jr. had also been asked to become involved in the project. Roy was a man with previous recording experience; firstly with his own Soul Funk group Hidden Strength (who released a brilliant, self-titled LP through United Artists in 1975) and then as a backing vocalist with Jazz Funk Rock duo the Brecker Brothers.
K&K’s latest venture quickly gained interest thanks to the duo’s long-time relationship with Epic Records. Once Epic’s A&R rep Lennie Petze had heard some of the songs the new group had been laying down under the production control of K&K, a deal was agreed. The album, a ten-track affair, has a very New York vibe running through it (think Balance here, folks), especially on the likes of ‘Chinatown’, although in some respects there was also an L.A. flavour, with Los Angeles being referenced in the closing ‘A Boulevard Nite’ which was a bit of a reprise of the opening ‘Speedway Boulevard’. It’s this latter track that gave the band its name.
Roy Herring Jr. was an astonishing and inspired discovery, his soulful voice being tailor-made for the material he and his bandmates were coming up with and equally at home singing Rock music as he had been performing the Soul he delivered with Hidden Strength. The multi-cultural nature of Speedway Blvd.’s membership further enriches the group’s sound as they cross musical boundaries, marrying Reggae with Hard Rock through ‘(Think I Better) Hold On’ and ‘Prisoner Of Time’ for example. When they ROCK though, as they do on ‘(Call My Name) Rock Magic’ it is utterly jaw-dropping stuff!
Sadly, what should’ve been the start of something huge for the group resulted in the whole thing never getting further than K&K Studios’ front door. However, there is some grainy, jumpy footage to be found on YouTube of the band going through a live version of one of the album’s songs in rehearsals. And it sounds amazing.
It’s just utterly ridiculous to think that Speedway Blvd. never played a single gig together, the album seeing release in 1980 but sinking straight into the cut out bins with next-to-nothing promotion. Two singles appear to have been released, in promo guise, in the form of ‘Out Of The Fire’ and ‘(Think I Better) Hold On’, but it all seemed half-hearted and neither made any impact whatsoever at radio.
Of course, Jordan Rudess has since become the most well-known of the five who recorded under the moniker of Speedway Blvd., having long gained a solid reputation for himself as a solo artist and as a member of Liquid Tension Experiment and Dream Theater. Dennis Feldman meantime re-joined his old Wiggy Bits bandmate Peppy Castro in Balance and then went on to play with the Michael Schenker Group, Heaven, Skull, Michael Bolton and Paul Stanley.
Although Gregg Hoffman was apparently involved in a short-lived Ram Jam reunion in 1994, the guitarist ultimately quit the music industry to work for his family’s bakery business. Glenn Dove meanwhile had been interested in the work of psychic mediums from an early age and had therefore long studied the subject in great depth alongside his equally developing love for music and playing the drums. As more and more people began to seek him out for spiritual advice and readings he found himself becoming more focused on that line of work, eventually committing to it full-time (becoming one of New York’s best-known psychics) and leaving the music business far behind him. Or so it seemed, as he would (in 2006) later perform with a Long Island Progressive Rock tribute outfit called Afterlife playing ELP, Rush, Kansas, Genesis and Yes covers. Incidentally, Dove had also played drums on an album by a New Wave band called The Rebekka Frame titled ‘Haystacks’ in 1985.
The last I heard of the mighty Roy Herring Jr. he was living in Los Angeles, still creating music and involved in production and songwriting. He now records his own music under the name of Mr. Roy with a single entitled ‘Witchcraft’ available through iTunes and Amazon. The Hidden Strength album was reissued on CD through the Soul Brother label in 2002. Having briefly made contact with Roy in the hope of capturing his thoughts on his tenure with Speedway Blvd. for the CD reissue, I sadly heard no more from him.
Still, if you’ve never encountered the Speedway Blvd. album before, I implore you to check it out. It really is a fantastic, unique album, yet one that any fan of the likes of Balance, Aviator, Angel and their ilk should adore. The musicianship is just on another planet.
This article appeared in Fireworks Rock & Metal Magazine Issue #98