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Are the Astronauts Colorado's first great jam band? G. Brown thinks so. Although the often pejorative term has been associated more with the genre-bending improv scene, Brown, director and curator of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, thinks it fits. In an era when bands would go out, play their hit singles note for note, take a bow and get off the stage, the Astronauts would just go on for a while, improvising.
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A homegrown Boulder band (four out of five of its members went to Boulder High School), the Astronauts were tapped by RCA Records, which was looking for a band to compete with the Beach Boys. Although they started off playing R&B and rock-and-roll hits of the day, they agreed to play surf music, despite the fact that none of the members had ever surfed and they all lived about a thousand miles from the closest ocean. During the band's heyday, in the mid-'60s, the Astronauts — who are being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame this weekend, along with Flash Cadillac, Sugarloaf and KIMN — were actually bigger in Japan than the Beach Boys.
"They had no idea they were selling millions of records over there until the check came in the mail," says Brown. "Then they ended up and going over and doing two tours where they were treated like the Beatles, with fifty-foot-high billboards erected in their honor. There was a mob scene at the airport, and then they come back here and play Tulagi's."
It was at that same storied Boulder club that Brown and Chuck Morris, the Colorado Music Hall of Fame's chairman, first met, in the early '70s. Brown was a freshman at the University of Colorado, and Morris was booking at the venue. Morris, of course, went on to a long career in the concert business, including stints at Feyline, Live Nation and AEG Live Rocky Mountains, where he is currently the president and CEO. Brown, meanwhile, chose a path in the media, first as a writer — he was a music critic for the Denver Post for 26 years — then as a radio personality on the now-defunct KCUV, and later as an author, penning the book Colorado Rocks! — A Half Century of Music in Colorado in 2004.
"All those decades, we talked about a need for a Colorado Music Hall of Fame," Brown points out. "We were just kind of stymied in that we really didn't have a place to put it. And when AEG Live took over the Broomfield Event Center and turned it from a sports arena into a concert venue [now 1STBANK Center], Chuck took the ball and ran with it. We had a place to finally headquarter the thing."
Last year on Earth Day, the pair helped launch the Colorado Music Hall of Fame as a nonprofit benefiting the University of Colorado's music school, with an induction ceremony that paid tribute to the Hall's first inductees, Red Rocks Amphitheatre and one of the state's most celebrated exports: John Denver. The ceremony, which was held at 1STBANK Center, included a concert with appearances from the late singer's family and former bandmates, plus performances by Olivia Newton-John, Lee Ann Womack, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Michael Martin Murphey, Richie Furay, John Oates and others.
The next ceremony centered on the induction of legendary promoter Barry Fey and Denver Folklore Center founder Harry Tuft. That ceremony, which took place this past February on the University of Colorado campus, at the Stadium Club at Folsom Field, attracted an array of local luminaries, including Otis Taylor, the members of Firefall, Chris Daniels, John Magnie of the Subdudes, Dick Weissman, Nick Forster and Kenny Passarelli. Instead of inducting annual classes, going forward the Hall's plan is to induct peer groups. This month's group of inductees includes the Astronauts, Flash Cadillac, Sugarloaf and KIMN Radio, all of which are near and dear to Brown. "Those bands are the ones that started our rock scene back in the day," he says, "playing clubs and things like that. They were the first bands of the rock era to have a national presence out of Colorado."
Flash Cadillac formed in the late '60s as an antidote to the serious, progressive, psychedelic hippie rock of the time, says Brown. The guys, who were students at CU, greased their hair back, put on shades and started playing '50s rock and roll, and word spread quickly. Their shows were the biggest thing in Boulder in 1969 — but part of the reason was that people were prone to getting naked at them. The band's original drummer hatched a bunch of group-participation bits like the Skin to Win contest, where the band would give away strange prizes. "After a week or two of that," Brown recalls, "everyone knew it was skin to win, and everyone just got naked in the beginning. They're playing in front of a room of naked people."
Aside from being one of the state's great party bands, Flash Cadillac also held the distinction of being the first band without a record deal to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. But the notoriety didn't end there: The group also played the sock-hop band Herbie & the Heartbreakers in the George Lucas film American Graffiti and had three songs on the soundtrack, as well as an appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. And the Happy Days episode "Fish and the Fins," Brown reveals, was written especially for Flash Cadillac.
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