art feature
 March 11, 2011

 

30 Years of heartland blues and swing
Ė The Bel Airs keep on packiní dance floors

by Bruce Rodgers

The couple had a prime spot, less than ten feet from the stage, nearly dead center. They had to get to the Trouser Mouse early to claim that table. The Bel Airs are playing after all, and the band was sure to bring a crowd to the Blue Springs bar.

No telling when she first started smiling. Probably when they first walked through the door. They were younger than many of the other couples sliding into booths near the dance floor. She hadn’t broke 30 yet, maybe four or five years off. Her date – a little older. He was smiling too but more of a grin, covered now and then by his hands propped up under his chin. Now hers broke clean across her pretty face, reinforced through each Bel Airs’ tune by some head bobbing and knee slappin’. They never seem to make it to the dance floor. But she appeared content. Besides, the dance floor can get crowded quickly when the Bel Airs hit town.

The Columbia, Missouri-based band has been putting smiles on faces and pulling people to the dance floor for three decades, and it seems like they got another 30 in them.

(l to r) David Pruitt, lead guitar and vocals, Michael Cherry, drums, and Dick Pruitt, bass and lead vocals. (photo by Bruce Rodgers)

“Kinda scary,” says Dick Pruitt, bass and lead vocals. “Have you seen Keith Richards lately?”

Brother David, guitar and vocals, acts like he’s heard the line before. “We’re going to keep going,” he says, “playing in joints and (helping) people forget their troubles, having fun and stop worrying.”

It’s a Zen-like kind of motivation, one that keeps the band members centered. David and Dick Pruitt, together with drummer Michael Cherry, call Columbia home. They have family there and it’s a place for R&R after a swing through Midwest clubs.

The draw of the bright lights and big city, and the urge for fame has been played out. In the 1970s, David and Dick followed their music muse after spending their teen years in Missouri learning their chops. Dick went west, ending up in Los Angeles.

“I joined the musicians union, toured the West and did cover band stuff,” says Dick.

He also hung out a lot in various LA clubs. One never knew who would get up to join the band on stage.

David headed for Austin, which fitted his musical interests.

“When I was a teenager, I was playing in country bands, rock ‘n roll bands. We (as brothers) would sing together and find these old gospel songs and sing for grandma or in church. So we had this country thing going but we always loved the R and B stuff, too. We like it and try to do it all.”

The brothers grew up in a music-loving home. Dick remembers listening to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. As teens, the record collecting began, blues and rock 'n roll.

“We got the first electric stuff,” remembers David, “(Paul) Butterfield, the Allman Brothers and Johnny Winter.”

By the time they went their separate ways in the ‘70s, Dick and David musical interests were a little different, but deep down the same. And they kept in touch, so much so a long distance, artist name-dropping contest developed.

Dick would call David and say he saw Mose Allison or heard Al Jarreau sing in a North Hollywood club. David would counter that he heard the Thunderbirds play or caught Stevie Ray Vaughn at Antone’s. So it went.

“We spent the ‘70s fighting off disco,” says David.

As the Bee Gees’ decade came to a close, Dick was ready for the Midwest again.

“This band I was in, Clean Slate — we were playing some pretty hip stuff, Sons of Champlin, Stevie Wonder, AWB, and then the drummer decided to move to Florida so that put the kabash on so when he drove to Florida from out west, he just dropped me off in Columbia.”

Dick started hanging out with harp player Scott Michael Henderson who was playing in a bluegrass band but “also heavy into Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf — stuff I was in to,” says Dick.

Dick told Henderson about his brother David and his guitar playing. It wasn’t long before Dick had David on the phone telling him he needed to meet Henderson and “do something.” Later, that something brought in drummer Pat O’Connor and the four musicians began rehearsing, soon putting together a demo tape. In January 1981, the Bel Airs had its first gig, and along with it the birth of the band’s signature stage prop, the Genie lamp.

“In those early rehearsal days, there was no lamp in the drum booth so we put the Genie lamp in there so you could see,” says Dick. “So when we started playing gigs, we took him on the road with us to make us feel like we’re at home. And it did.

“Whatever room you walk into, set up the lamp and you go on and own your own scene.”

And the fans noticed. If the lamp was gone or not lit, people would speak up. “I guess they want to get comfortable too,” says David.

From those early days on, getting comfortable with the Bel Airs made for crowded dance floors. The roster of clubs the Bel Airs played in the 1980s brings many a fine memory to KC music fans — the old Parody Hall on West 39th Street, the revered Grand Emporium, the Side Door bar that was adjacent to the Uptown Theater and two Midwest music clubs still going strong, The Blue Note in Columbia and the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska.

From the get-go, the success came from the vibe the band wanted to create. But there was more to it.

“That’s one thing,” says Dick. “But there’s something else we were always conscious of — mixing all this music together and making it our own.

The Bel Airs always bring a little bit of home with the bandís Genie lamp. (photo by Bruce Rodgers)

“First thing on the list is you better have a dance beat or nobody is going to care. You can look cute, be this or that, have all these fancy licks – and boy can that guy shred — who gives a damn if you can’t make the girls dance. Got to have the beat.”

Always … be it a ballad penned by Sam Cooke, story-telling country via Johnny Cash, blues a la Muddy Waters or stirring a little Memphis soul, the Bel Airs make music that brings comfort without regret and some abandonment minus the embarrassment.

It’s a band that’s way more than just good. Dick Pruitt has one of best blues voices in the country whether he’s singing Slim Harpo’s “I Got Love If You Want It” or adding surprising texture to a song Frank Sinatra was known to croon, “How Are You Fixed For Love.”

Tough to describe, one could say Dick is a tick down the register from Junior Wells, deeper than Howlin’ Wolf, absent the scratchiness, and more understandable than Tom Waits.

Brother David has complexities too, making for a superior guitar player. He does his slide work on a Silvertone with a sound similar to J.B. Hutto, like in one of the band’s signature tunes, “Going To The River.” The harder, more electric blues comes out of his Telecaster with a Gibson 175 being lifted when feeling more country. His playing style and sound can remind one of Mike Bloomfield or Steve Cropper, depending on the tune. The stage moves come natural as the guitar — his artistic extension  — is sometimes cradled in a hunched-over guitar hug, the right leg bent at the knee in a one-foot toe-stand as if posed to do a Chuck Berry-like stage strut.

Michael Cherry, formerly with the rockabilly group, the Paladins, and the James Harmon (blues) Band, is a beat-master on drums, so good he can go unnoticed. His playing is effortless without being unconsciousness or rote. In a physical sense, Cherry can remind one of Mickah Wallace, the manic second drummer in the 1991 Alan Parker film The Commitments about a working class Irish soul band, though Cherry doesn’t seem inclined to punch people like Wallace did in the film.

The Bel Airs cut their first album, Need Me A Car, on the Blind Pig label in 1984. Not long afterwards, harp player Michael Henderson headed for Nashville. In 1991, the band released Dangerous Curves and saw the parting of drummer Pat O’Connor. That’s when Cherry stepped in. Their most recent CD, Got Love, came out in 2005 on HighTone Records.

Neither Dick nor David seem all that inclined to cut another album. “We’re thinking about it,” says David without elaboration.

Dick says about 30 to 40 percent of the material the band plays is their own. The band stopped long ago using a set list. What tunes they play on stage are pretty much decided song-by-song.

“We read the audience,” says Dick.

“See what’s going on in the room,” says David.

“Every room is different; the crowd has a different personality,” Dick says. “Some want to sit there and listen; some want to dance immediately; sometimes you can’t tell.”

“And the sound is different,” says David. “Sometimes the style of playing our songs isn’t going to fit a room. If it’s a really live room, it’s got a lot of echo in it, a lot of noise in there, you don’t want to play the real fast, hard tunes. It gets all mushed together.”

The Bel Airs tour two or three days out of the week. In Kansas City, they’re booked at the Trouser Mouse and Knuckleheads with frequency. (The band will be at Knuckleheads on April 1.) During the summer, they might be out for a week or so, then its back home to Columbia.

“Balance the time,” says Dick. “Wives got to be involved from the git-go or nothing else works.”

There’s a wisdom to this band, something — along with the talent — that helps make for success and good times.

“Ever since I was interested in playing music, when I was a teenager, what I really like doing is playing MY music, playing in clubs,” says David. “I loved the live music scene. I loved going to see bands, hanging out in bars, seeing good music. So my goal has always been to do that, to play a lot of gigs. Not to win awards or necessarily to make a lot of records or sell records. I just really like playing music. So 30 years later, I still  like it.”

For downloads and other information on the Bel Airs, visit www.belairs.com. Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publsher_editeke@kcactive.com.