By Robert Haydon
Memories of the Marksmen Combo, “Suzanne,” and Once-in-a-Lifetime Rock and Roll Friendships
Above, the Marksmen Reunion Concert, 1983, at St. Mark’s School of Texas. Left to right: Baron Cass, Buddy Miller, Robert Haydon, Boz Scaggs, Rodger Gaulding, and Steve Miller.
In 1959, Major Buis, Master Sergeant Ormand, three South Vietnamese guards, and an eight-year-old boy were ambushed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, in the mess hall as they watched an after-dinner movie. The Americans were the first official “military advisor” casualties of a disaster that was looming on the horizon. By the end of 1963, there were 12,000 advisors serving in the war-torn country, and by 1965, the first marine contingent came ashore at Danang. In August of 1960, I, like many other young men of eighteen, was sent my Selective Service Registration Certificate, an unpunched ticket to Vietnam.
It was during these early 1960s that I was waging my own private war against education. High school was the very rust on my existence, and it really had no place on my schedule. I had been attending a private school in Dallas, but by the summer of 1960, I received a letter stating that I needn’t return in the fall. They didn’t seem to appreciate my approach to learning. My report cards, all similar in their reflections of my study habits, spoke of a youngster who was “moody, uncooperative, and making no attempt to complete the assigned lessons.”
Indeed, I was recording the most astonishing grades, such as an F+ in History, a D+ in English, an E+ in Math, and an F+ in Economics. To me, school was more of an endurance test than a learning process.
Years earlier, in 1957, my father had been presented a job offer that he couldn’t refuse, so the Haydon family moved from the small-town atmosphere of Kensington, a suburb of Washington, D.C. to the wild west of Dallas, Texas. I was enrolled in a private school, the same institution that asked me to leave in 1960, but before I left, I met a fellow guitar player, classmate Steve Miller.
At the age of seven, Steve moved to Big D (Dallas, Texas) with his family, and at the time, he had no inkling that someday his walls would be covered with Gold Records, his shelves decorated with awards, or of the U.S. Postal Service using “Fly Like an Eagle” as their TV theme song. He was just a kid who liked to be around during his father’s live recording sessions with Les Paul and Mary Ford, T-Bone Walker and a “Who’s Who” list of 1950s blues musicians.
An uncle gave Steve his first guitar, and he was off and running. Through his own process of musical osmosis, Miller retained many of the remarkable guitar riffs and styles that played out in front of him. It was the first down payment on his future as a musician.
After a brief stay in the suburb of Lakewood, his father moved the family to a very open, modern home of his own design near White Rock Lake, a location that afforded the amenities of a prosperous east Dallas. As a part of the construction plans, Mr. Miller added a pool and a large pool house/game room/shop that became affectionately known as “the barn.”
I was a fourteen-year-old fledgling guitarist in 1957 when Steve and I were both freshmen at St. Mark’s School of Texas. Following his own instincts to mold a band, he gently steered me away from “I Walk the Line” or “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” and introduced me to Jimmy Reed and the straight blues lines of “Honky Tonk.” We got together every weekend at the barn and a list of songs evolved of mostly original material such as “Rockin’ Rs,” “Mr. K,” Windmill,” and “Haydon Opus III” (neither of us remembers anything about these songs but we still have the list). Notably, the first paying job that the future rock legend played was for his neighbor’s 12th birthday party; we each earned five dollars.
After months of practicing, and adding drummer Baron Cass, who had played at some school functions with Steve, we called ourselves “The Marksmen Combo,” and though it’s debatable, we were probably the first rock band in Dallas to play a regular schedule. Steve says, “The Marksmen Combo was a huge jumping off point for me. I was 13 years old and in the ninth grade at St. Marks when Baron, Bob and I decided to put together a band. We had been watching the Ozzie and Harriet Show on television, where at the end of the show Rick and his band, featuring James Burton on lead guitar, would sit in with a dance orchestra and do a few songs. We decided that was how we could get some jobs and it turned out to be true.”
Letters went out to high schools, churches, country clubs, fraternities and sororities. In our first few months we performed for private parties before landing a weekly gig supplying rock music for a youth dance class. Word of our popularity spread through the local schools and we were pleasantly surprised when Nieman Marcus invited us to provide the entertainment for a teen fashion show at their posh downtown store. At the end of the performance, a crowd of girls gathered around us for booking info. “Every show we played was fantastically exciting,” remembers Steve. “A hundred kids would rush the stage to hear us play a fifteen-minute set.”
Adding to the excitement, we were asked to bring our rock and roll to 600 screaming girls at the National Cheerleaders Convention on the SMU campus. This was followed by a feature article in Prep, a new magazine for Dallas teens. We were booked solid and Steve remembers, “I taught my older brother, Buddy, to play bass so he could drive us to our gigs, and we never looked back. Boz Scaggs and Rodger Gaulding joined us as vocalists the next semester, and we started doing a full evening’s material, about four entire sets, or four hours.”
In a 1974 article in The Dallas Morning News, Steve said, “…we’d play all over Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. …We were insufferable at the age of 15; we were all rich.”
The band remained in this configuration for the next four years. “It was a great band, lots of harmony, lots of Texas blues, and very professional. …We became lifelong friends, and that’s how music became the most important thing in my life. Recordings that we made at 15 sound good to this day. We learned how to entertain people, play good music, and be self-sufficient. These are lessons that still serve me well and it all started with The Marksmen Combo.”
Though I was intrigued by our music, I was more interested in commercial rock and roll. So while I enjoyed the money and the experience, I still wanted to do something quite different. I was spending a lot of time writing songs and recording them at a local studio. This didn’t leave much time for the troublesome and time-consuming task of keeping up with school.
In the spring of 1961, the Bay of Pigs fiasco played out on the Cuban beaches, Rick Nelson released “Travelin’ Man” and Audrey Hepburn introduced Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I was now attending Highland Park High School in a Dallas suburb. My grades were not soaring; in fact, they were a continuation of my previous achievements, and by the time the second semester of 1962 rolled around I was passing just one of my four classes. The school was frustrated but they didn’t give up. I kept my baritone part in the choir, and, on a whim, they decided to attempt to find some art talent, so I was enrolled in an art class. My overall grades improved, including an A+ in Art, and I even made the honor roll.
Meanwhile, change overtook The Marksmen Combo. College caught up with us when Steve, and then Boz, left for the University of Wisconsin, and Buddy, now married, was completely in his studies. Baron Cass moved to bass, Charles Hyman to the drums, and Doug Simril added his lead guitar. Hyman and Simril were also students at St. Mark’s, so by sheer coincidence we were able to continue our membership with Marksmen personnel. Steve made note of his new surroundings in a letter sent to me after the move to Madison. His frustration was obvious: “I wish I could say I’m doing as well but I can’t… It’s been a drag. Most of the bands here are about as good as the Marksmen were three years ago – need I say more?”
On October 22, 1962, the President’s Cuba blockade dared Russian ships to deliver more missiles. The world was close to the war that would end all wars and take everything living with it. Mankind was on the line. There was a worldwide sigh of relief when the blockade was lifted in November and life staggered back to normal.
But not for me.
During the time of the Missile Crisis, I had enrolled in Highland Park as a “special student” and I only came to school for one or two classes each day. I pulled the band together one weekend and we recorded, “Suzanne,” a song I’d written for a girl who made Biology class more interesting. I left a copy of the tape with the engineer, and placed my 45 demo on a bedroom shelf where it quickly gathered dust.
In the summer of 1963, I had finally graduated from high school. To their credit, the advisors and teachers never gave up on me and art class did turn out to be the missing factor that determined my future. I was 21 years old. At my parents’ gentle coaxing, I decided to take some college courses, mostly art, at the downtown Dallas College campus. I always drove the back roads into the bustling urban traffic, but on the evening of November 22, the streets were all but deserted. I easily found a good place to park and walked to the main entrance where on one of the heavy doors there was a quickly scrawled message. It said, “Due to the events of this afternoon, all classes will be cancelled for the remainder of the week.”
I had no idea what the message was referring to, so I went back to my car and turned on the radio. It confirmed what the late edition newspaper headlines screamed, “President Dead, Connally Shot!” That night, the news released a constant stream of facts and innuendo. Dallas had an image problem.
Ron Chapman was a well-known and popular DJ at station KLIF in downtown Dallas. The KLIF studios, with a grand picture window view of Main Street, backed up to the Sellers Recording studios where I did all of my recording work. The two businesses shared a common stairwell. One morning, as Chapman was climbing the steps, he heard a melody that captured his attention. The engineer was playing back the tape of the 1962 recording of “Suzanne.” Ron came through a back door to ask about the song. After getting some background information, Chapman indicated that he would get airplay on all three of the Texas stations associated with KLIF but he needed Bob Sanders, the engineer, to find a label.
After Christmas, I received a call from my new manager, Bob Sanders, who was set to release “Suzanne” in late January. I needed to sign a contract and fill out the BMI paperwork, but most of all, he wanted the band to be ready to perform. That wasn’t a problem because we were now the house band at LouAnns, a well-known Dallas club that during the 1940s had been a show place for the big bands. I had also played this club with Steve who remembers it well: “We even backed Jimmy Reed at LouAnns when we were all sixteen-year-olds, wearing our seersucker suits and RayBans, of course.”
In early January, the Crickets, minus Buddy Holly, came for a two-nighter weekend performance. Sonny Curtis, an original member of the band, offered story after story about the Crickets and the elementary days of rock and roll. He kept us spellbound at every break, but of special interest was his discussion of the Beatles, a new group from England. Apparently, the two bands had been touring together and Curtis said to watch for this foursome in the USA. Music was on the edge of a huge upheaval and the good old rock music would be left behind. I had to wonder if my little song about a girl from biology class would meet the challenge.
The KLIF Top Forty chart that was introduced at the end of January showed no sign of “Suzanne.” Sanders was confident. “Give it time,” he said.
Ron Chapman, using his radio persona, Irving Harrigan, made “Suzanne” his Pick Hit of the Week and on the first chart of February, my song had moved into the 30 slot. I was elated. Steve called from Wisconsin to congratulate me and he was looking forward to playing next summer. The heavy bookings continued as “Suzanne” moved to number 14 and the very next week to 8. The Beatles headed the chart with three No. 1 songs when on March 7, 1964, “Suzanne” appeared at number 3. We were offered a spot on the Beach Boys short Texas tour, and were overwhelmed to be performing in front of 17,000 fans at Moody Coliseum on the SMU campus.
During the summer of 1964, we beat out the competition to become the house band at the first Disc-A-Go-Go in Dallas. There was a big celebration at the opening where many local and national stars joined the festivities, but as I looked out over the dance floor and the crowd, I saw a cloud of cigarette smoke risking to the ceiling. We kept to our contract and stayed not only for what was expected of us, but played an extra month even though all of us were suffering from respiratory problems. With no regrets, we quit.
Steve was in town again at the end of summer, and we both knew full well that the run was almost over. We played a country club dance and afterwards he brought me home where we began unloading equipment. He looked over and said, “Well Bobby, I guess this is it.”
We walked in circles under a street lamp, smoked cigarettes without inhaling, and talked of the hundreds of shows we had shared. The cigarettes finally gave out, we shook hands, and wished each other the best. The rock and roll ride with future legend Steve Miller was complete.
Today, all of us realize what an extraordinary experience we shared. Those early 1960s in Dallas with the Marksmen were not only exceptional from a historical viewpoint, but also because they represented the building blocks of two future music stars. Both Steve and Boz credit the period spent with this band as being instrumental in establishing the roots of their eventual success. As of 2016, both are still performing.
Buddy, Baron, and Rodger have enjoyed successful business careers in each of their respective fields. Doug Simril, who took over on lead guitar after Steve left, died in 1989, but had toured with Steve, Boz, and in his own groups. He was remarkably talented and was held in high regard by everyone who knew him. Charles Hyman, our second drummer, after receiving his training at The Dallas Theater Center, went west and put together a significant acting career. He has appeared in a multitude of TV shows and movies including “Cagney and Lacey, “ “Star Trek,” “Law and Order,” “Dukes of Hazzard,” and “Alice,” and more than twenty other titles. He has also performed in many live productions.
Ironically, after my rather tattered high school experience, I enrolled in SMU and attained a full scholarship over my final two years on the way to a BFA degree that has served me well. I’ve spent my life working in both the music and art fields.
When asked about the Marksmen Combo years, Buddy, three years older than his famous brother, said, “Steve was a self-made guitar player. He picked up various bits and pieces from others such as James Burton, jazz artists Red Norvo and Art Tatum, and even from Ray Blount, who played with The Light Crust Dough Boys.”
As far as the visits from Les Paul and Mary Ford, he says, “I was in love with Mary. She was just beautiful. Of course, I was only ten years old.”
About the band, he says simply, “The Marksmen Combo was a great band. No other band was playing what we were doing.”
And from Boz Scaggs, “It was a formative time for those who went on to become professionals and it was a good time as 16 and 17-year-old kids to get a taste of life on that side of the microphone.”
Rodger Gaulding, harmonica and back-up singer, remembered, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a bunch of kids; not everybody gets a chance like that.”
Baron Cass, drummer and bass, adds, “It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I feel I’ve really been blessed to have worked with such great people. When I look back now… well, we were rich from playing so much, but we were rich in other ways, too.”
In 1983, the original Marksmen played a reunion concert at the St. Mark’s School stadium. We hadn’t lost a beat, and performed a rousing show even though Boz arrived from California just minutes before we went on stage. Whatever it was that we had in the 1960s, we still had it.