By Elmer Ploetz
Jimmy Calire will be playing with an all-star cast led by Doug Yeomans when he returns to Buffalo on March 8 for Szelestfest 6, the annual event celebrating legendary Buffalo keyboard player and bandleader Stan Szelest.
Calire can still remember the first time he saw Stan & the Ravens play.
It was at the Glen Park Casino in Williamsville, a Sunday afternoon show close to 60 years ago.
“I was about 14 years old,” Calire said in a recent phone interview. “Stan & the Ravens were playing, and it was Stan and Sandy Konikoff and it might have been Tommy Calandra at the time, but there was Nicky Salamone and Chuck McCormick.
Szelestfest6: 4 p.m., Sunday, March 8
At the Sportsmen’s Tavern
326 Amherst Street, Buffalo
“They were playing, and it was just breathtaking to me as a kid. I thought these guys were really old guys, but they were only a few years older than me, really. Stan might have been all of 18 or 19!”
But one of the trademarks of Stan Szelest, even from that young age, was that he had a presence and he had the ability to shape his bands to his vision.
“The power of the playing, the ensemble playing, Chuck McCormick’s solos … the overall feeling of the music was very different from your straight eighth-note rock’n’roll. It was very visceral,” Calire said.
Calire didn’t get to actually talk to Szelest until a few years later, but Stan & the Ravens set a high bar for rock ‘n’ roll in Buffalo that all of the other bands looked up to. Calire’s band, the Rising Sons, became known as almost a junior Stan & the Ravens.
“Stan was a great piano player, but that’s only half of the story, really,” Calire said. “Where he became a big influence was that he was a great bandleader and a visionary when it came to the way a band works.
“How do you get the most music and create the strongest effect out of a four-piece band? That’s why any of the drummers and guitarists and anybody who played with him, really, got schooled in ensemble playing and how do you play as a group, the synergy.”
Those Ravens were disciplined. Szelest was strict.
“When you’d go to the Hideaway and Stan was sitting sideways, his left hand would come back and he’d snap his fingers, and bang, bang, that meant take it down two levels,” Calire said. “And you’d better do it!
“Without the dynamics, there’s no romance or power in the music, and he knew how to control it. That’s besides being able to get that out of his players, he would convey that, even if it meant throwing an ashtray at them.
“With Sandy Konikoff, he’d go ‘Sandy, knock off the nerve rolls.’ He’d call them nerve rolls, any extensive noodling.”
Calire was one of Szelest’s heirs apparent on piano. Ernie Corallo would come out to see him play some and occasionally Calire sat in with Szelest at the Hideaway.
The problem for the Ravens was that Szelest was also going out of town to tour with Lonnie Mack (best known for his instrumental hit version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”). That left them out of work while he was gone.
The way Calire recalls the story, Raven members Gary Mallaber and Calandra suggested that they recruit Tony Galla from the Rising Sons to front the Ravens while Szelest was out of town. That way they could also write new material.
“Stan didn’t want any part of that,” Calire said. “Maybe it didn’t match his vision and he just wanted to be the front man.”
So instead, Mallaber and Calandra went with Galla, Calire and guitarist John Weitz to form what would become Raven – a legendary band among Buffalo audiences.
“I’ve got to tell you, when that five-piece group got in the room together, the roof came off,” Calire said. “Talk about synergy, that band was just through the roof. Some of it was the combination of the people, but we were like his (Szelest’s) step-children. We knew where it came from.”
There was one area where Raven never matched Stan & the Ravens, though.
“The only thing we didn’t have – and was our downfall in the end – was a leader,” Calire said. “We didn’t have anybody to act as the leader the way Stan did. We didn’t have anybody to say, ‘alright, guys … boom.’ Everybody was hard-headed.”
“We tended to be too loud a lot of the time. Nobody could tell anybody to do anything. So while we had great energy and a lot of creativity …”
Calire says he learned from those musicians. He calls Calandra (who went on to form the BCMK studio and record company) probably the greatest bass player he has ever heard – anywhere, every. Calire says Calandra had a technique of tapping the string and getting harmonics that was ahead of his time – creating almost a talking drums effect.
Calire recalls a visiting string quartet from Hungary that had a residency at the University of Buffalo. When they saw Calandra play, he said, they called Calandra the best string player they had ever heard – anywhere – because of that technique.
He also taught the young Calire the technique of holding something back to lift the audience even higher at the end of the performance.
Weitz, meanwhile, was almost an intuitive partner for Calire, with the two playing almost a form of musical handball – bouncing places between each other.
Raven came to an end after a short but epic career that included recording an album on Columbia Records and sharing the stage with Jimi Hendrix.
At one point, Calire recalls Garth Hudson of the Band coming to a Raven show.
“Raven is playing at The Scene in New York. I look over and there’s Garth Hudson, who is probably my favorite rock keyboard player,” he said. “So I walked over to meet him and he looked up and said, ‘where’s Stanley.’ I said, ‘he left the band.’”
“Then he paused and says, ‘I like the way you pull the drawbars,’ that’s the Hammond B3.”
Calire actually ended up playing with Szelest again. They played together in a band out of Woodstock with Garland Jeffreys as the lead singer. Grinder’s Switch had recorded an album on Vanguard in 1970 with Jeffreys, Szelest, Ernie Corallo and Konikoff. Calire joined them as a second keyboardist, giving the group the same Band-like two-keyboard sound that it had on vinyl.
Calire played around Buffalo until he was hired in 1976 to play keyboards and sax for the folk-pop band America.
After that, he moved to California, specifically Ojai in Southern California’s Ventura County. He was a long-time music director of the Ojai Arts Center and still is music director for the Ojai Presbyterian Church. A self-described musical “mutt,” he’s done everything from composing chamber music to jazz to R&B and big bands.
He said he still shudders when he hears some West Coast takes on the blues compared to the rock solid rhythms of the Buffalo musicians he grew up with.
Calire said that if he has a regret about his Buffalo days, it’s that he didn’t catch some of the music he could have.
“We were surround by greatness. They were all there,” he said. “All those great jazz players, Sammy Noto, Don Menza, Larry Covelli, Stan & the Ravens, Joe Madison, Richard Kermode, Spoon (& the Houserockers), Big Mac (Adams) & the Heart Attack, they weren’t just good, they were great. And Buffalo music is the same as Buffalo sports, it never gets the credit it’s due.”
Calire said he’s looking forward to the SzelestFest show at the Sportsmen’s.
“Just to see those guys and play with those guys and play with (Jim) Beishline … I love playing with those rhythm sections,” he said. “It’s just like getting on a bike. It’s like going home. It will be automatic from the time we count 1-2-3-4 and in. … My roots are Hideaway groove playing. It’s where I started and our musical grandfather was Stan.”