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BACK FROM THE GRAVE

There are plenty of ways to kill a good group, and the members of Denver's Freddi-Henchi Band have tried most of them. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, death--the act's history reads like a rhythm-and-blues version of Valley of the Dolls. So it's something just short of a miracle that a viable version of the combo is reuniting this week. Or, as vocalist Henchi (real name: Marvin Graves) puts it, "It surprises a lot of people that we're able to do this. And it surprises me, too."

Throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, the Freddi-Henchi Band was the biggest draw in the state, renowned for its raucous R&B originals, its elaborate choreography and a wild atmosphere that trailed after the players like a purple haze. But too much fun can kill you, and in Henchi's case, it nearly did. "Back then it was sex, drugs and rock and roll, and we tried to live that life every night," he says. "But we were a little naive--we didn't have the education about what that can lead to. We were the guinea pigs." Adds singer Freddie Gowdy, "Don't call us legends. Call us survivors."

The band got its start in Phoenix in 1966 as Freddi-Henchi and the Soulsetters, an all-covers conglomeration that revered James Brown, Otis Redding and Smokey Robinson. Freddie and Henchi (from "Henchman," a tag Graves earned on the wrestling team at Arizona State University) were the frontmen, and the supporting cast was strikingly diverse. According to Henchi, "a Pima Indian, Arnold Andrews, played keyboards. An Apache Indian, Bobby Fraijo, played saxophone. Then we had a Mexican guitar player by the name of Chuy Castro and a Mexican drummer, Eppy Guerrero. And this Italian guy, Jesse Escoto, played bass."

Once Phoenix had been conquered, Henchi and company departed for Los Angeles and what they hoped would be fame on a cosmic dimension. What they achieved instead was smaller-scale success that occasionally threatened to become more than that. Dance, an LP the act made in 1968 for the independent Tower imprint, was subsequently reissued by Reprise, part of the Warner Bros. label family--and Reprise put out a handful of Freddi-Henchi Band singles, too, as did Epic. The recordings never tore up the charts, but they were prized by a considerable following in California as well as communities along a southwest U.S. touring circuit. The musicians' first trip to Colorado occurred during this period: While opening for Chuck Berry and Dobie Gray in Dallas, they impulsively agreed to play a two-week run at a club in Fort Collins. The commitment soon turned into six weeks and established a fondness for the area they'd remember two years later, when the excitement of living in L.A. had worn off permanently. In 1970 they relocated to Boulder and began packing clubs up and down Colorado's Front Range.

As for Henchi, he was also packing his nostrils. "I got into cocaine through social usage," he says, "and it became a habit--although I was the last one to realize it. I guess I just liked it too much."

For several years, however, Henchi's hobby had far less impact on the band than did a pair of tragedies: Andrews, who everyone called Budgie, was killed in an automobile accident on Highway 36, and Guerrero overdosed on heroin just a little more than a month after he was dismissed from the group for erratic behavior. Still, Freddie and Henchi soldiered on, aided by comrades like ex-Sugarloaf contributors Bob Yeazel and Larry Wilkins. The lineup shifted regularly, but the good-time quality of the music and the accompanying showmanship hardly varied.

Until the Eighties, that is. As a new decade dawned, Freddie admits, "I had a battle with the bottle. My confidence level started going way, way down." In the meantime, Henchi's drug use began to adversely affect the band. He started arriving late for shows--and even when he was on time, he and the other members would be so busy bickering that actually playing seemed like an afterthought. Adding to the frustrations was the fate of an album recorded in 1981 at the now-defunct Caribou Studio: While numerous music industry types were briefly hot on the project, it never saw release.

Finally, in 1984, Henchi left. "I thought I was burned out on the band routine and taking care of all my responsibilities," he says. "But now I know it was the drugs." Over the next five years he bounced from job to job--he worked for the state agriculture department, he managed a restaurant--while at the same time regularly increasing his cocaine input. He eventually took to selling the stuff in order to afford enough for himself. By 1989 the situation came to a head. First, he was busted for possession. Shortly thereafter, he was shot twice during a scuffle with an ex-girlfriend and a man who conspired, he claims, to steal both his stash and his cash. The woman was slain in the altercation, but Henchi suffered comparatively minor injuries. Upon his release from the hospital, he scored four ounces of cocaine and headed straight to a hotel to medicate himself. The police arrived moments later and charged him with using and selling drugs. He wound up with two ten-year sentences for his crimes, for which he served an in-stir time of over three years.

As for Freddie, he spent the last half of the Eighties trying to keep the group afloat. He was angry at Henchi for leaving, but not so mad that he deleted his friend's name from the band's appellation. "It worked out okay, because a lot of people thought Freddi-Henchi was one guy, anyhow," Freddie reveals, laughing. "They'd come up to me and say, `Hey, Freddi Henchi, how you doing?'" But the steam had gone out of the act. A 1989 overseas tour sponsored by the USO was the sole highlight from this sad, slow period. Freddie notes, "We went from being the hottest band in Colorado to playing a bowling alley in Thornton. That was when we hit rock bottom. I don't think we actually broke up. We just gave up for a while."

Things began to look up in late 1993, when Henchi was freed and discovered that, to his shock, he had not succeeded in alienating all of his friends. One, former Olympic skier Hank Kashiwa, even gave him a job at Volant Ski Corporation, which Kashiwa owns. Before long, Henchi and Freddie were talking again, and with both of them clean--Henchi hasn't used cocaine since he was imprisoned; Freddie hasn't had a drink in six years--they began to talk about getting the band back together. Now, with the help of a crew of new and old bandmates--Yeazel, Jerry Krenzer, Harold Lee, Tony Bunch, Phil Weightman and Mark Rasmussen, supplemented by unnamed blasts from the past--they're ready to face the public again.

Right now, neither Freddie nor Henchi will predict whether the reunion show will be a one-shot or a harbinger of things to come. "I think we're going to wait and see--feel it out," Freddie reports. Laughing, he continues, "We don't want to wind up back in that Thornton bowling alley, you know?"

"We're older now," Henchi concedes. "We used to do a lot of dancing and acrobatics on stage, but I don't imagine we'll be that active. We don't want to hurt ourselves. Otherwise, it'll be just the same--except we'll have a little less hair."

The Freddi-Henchi Band. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway, $7, 777-5840 or 290-