Donny Hartman may be one of the nicest guys in show biz. He was the an anchor for The Chevelles, the legendary house band for Daniels Den from 1964-67 before he and his band mates began an inspired linkage with Dick Wagner to form The Frost, one of the most revered bands in Michigan rock & roll history.
The Frost was successful in creating a body of music that was melodic yet powerful like the Beatles on steroids. They dominated the Michigan soundscape scene, yet were never able to reach a national stage. They toured extensively and had a huge following in the Midwest and in rabid pockets of true believers on either coast and in Europe.
Donny Hartman was the second guitarist - a good one with one of the most distinctive voices in rock. His soulful tenor could reach the stratosphere or could root hog some downhome blues; either way it was a tasty brew.
In 1971 Donny formed the new Frost with Bobby Rigg and kept the flame alive through 1980. Since then Donny has performed with The Hellcats and the Donny Hartman Band throughout Michigan. Several years ago he started a second career as a songwriter. He placed Black Hole and Nobody Hurt Nobody with the Blues with blues icon Larry McCray. In a Cumulus-driven art form where nothing is serious; Hartman found music to be part a sacred trust. He is a true believer and a disciple of all that is pure and authentic, whether it's Elvis, Muddy Waters or Dick Wagner.
Donny is making two rare appearances in mid-Michigan with back-to-back dates at Bemos on May 31st and White's Bar on June 1st 2013.
Review:Let's go back to the beginning. You started playing professionally with Bobby Rigg and the Chevelles in '65. Is that right?
Hartman: Well yeah, it was '65. It was a really good band. We did mostly covers and a few originals. I wrote the originals. I remember we did a protest song, and I don't remember what it was, but it was a protest song. Then we recorded Kootchie Kootchie Koo. Yeah, I wrote it because of the big hits Herman's Hermits was having. It goes, “Every time I see her, oooh, oooh, oooh, can't wait to be near her, daa, daa, daa, daa, daa, daa. Kootchie, Kootchie, Koo. Stupid song. I hooked up with Bobby Rigg the last year of high school when he came to see me at the 1964 graduation party. I was graduating too, but I didn't care. I was just a rebel and nobody liked me anyway. I had that rough look and had the Elvis haircut, and my shirt up all the time and kept getting beat up by big guys. Didn't care.
Review: You were inspired by Elvis?
Hartman: I was doin' all that stuff by myself, singing Elvis and then I beat the hell out of Bob and another guy in a talent contest about a year before. That made him mad. Anyway, this guy's dad owned Walker Houser Funeral Home and he said, “Hey, I need a guy on guitar and to sing a few songs at the graduation party.” I said, “Fine.” I went in there and sang, and so he and Ralph Pinkerton came in to see me. He was in the original Chevelles. Jerry Daltz was the guitar player at the time. They only had guitars. They had no bass player. They came in, and he said, “You got to go see this guy, Bobby - he sings Elvis just like Elvis.” So they came to see me and we were standing around talking, and Bobby said, “Well we got a band, but we want to build it bigger. We want somebody else that can really sing, so we want you in the band.” So I joined that night. That was it. Then we went along with no bass player for a few months. We needed a guy who could play bass because we were trying to get some gigs downstate and we had a gig at a big bowling alley down in Pontiac. It was one of the biggest. We went down there and auditioned. Ralph, Bob and I went down without then others because they didn't want to go. The guy goes, “Man, you cats are groovy. You got to have a bass player, man.”
Review: You once told me that you saw Elvis perform in the fifties.
Hartman: My mother took me to see Elvis. My sister-in-law at the time had gotten free tickets to go see Elvis Presley at Olympia Stadium - that was 1958. I saw Elvis and I went nuts. When the show ended we got in the car and my mother said, “Well, what'd you think, Donny?” I said, “Someday I'm going to be like Elvis and I'm going to play that big building right there.” And that's one dream that came true.
Review: So in 1965 you performed at Daniel's Dens and all their satellites
Hartman: Right. We were in all the Daniel's Dens that the owner, Frank Patrick, had everywhere, and then we played Sault Ste. Marie. I remember the worst day we ever had, and I kept going, “This is ridiculous” 'cause we lived in Alpena still. We had to be at Daniel's Den at 1:00 every Sunday for the matinee. That was one of the stipulations with Frank Patrick and the contract we signed. I remember one time we were at Daniel's Friday night, and Saturday night he sent us to Sault Ste. Marie to play, and we had to be back for the 1:00 matinee. We were driving right past our home and right back down in an ice storm. So we called Patrick at 8 am to cancel and “Frank said, “I want to instill in you boys how important it is to be where you're supposed to be. You're going into a business that's going to be rough, and you're in a rough business right now. So you better be here at 1 o'clock for your show.” Then he hung up on us, and Bob and I were going “Son of a bitch.” We had to drive all the way to Saginaw for the 1 o'clock matinee.”
Review: Patrick had you play for a lot of acts. He didn't pay you a lot.
Hartman: A lot of great acts, you know, like the Shangri-Las, the Toys, Sonny and Cher, Byrds, Joe Cocker, Brian Hyland. We spent the most time with was Sonny and Cher. We spent the whole weekend with them.
Review: How was that?
Hartman: We should have been Sonny and Cher's back-up band, that is all there was to it. That would have been '65 probably. We played Daniel's Den Friday night with them and Saturday we played with them up at his big place at Houghton Lake. The guy came in. This guy was ahead of them, a black dude playing piano. He came in and while we were waiting for the show, we were practicing several of their songs and he just listened. Then he comes in and sits down and says, “Oh, my God, boys I'm really sorry, but I'm totally worn out. We were in Europe for over a month, and it was the most miserable thing I've done in my life.” They were playing a lot of blues and they didn't want to play soft pop music.
So I said, “We know all these songs.” He goes, “What?” I said, “We know all these songs. We learned all these songs. We played all these songs. I'll never forget it. We came out and we played, and I was the lead guitar player back then. We even did the backing harmonies and I remember Sonny walking over and hittin' my guitar and looking at me. He said, “You guys,” that's what he said.
All I remember is later on he had asked Frank Patrick if they could take us with them for the rest of the tour. They had a TV show in LA, and they wanted us for their back-up band.” Frank Patrick said, “That's wonderful. That's how good they are, and they're going to be good. I'm their manager, and I'm buying the Cavern over in England and everything, and they're going to be big stars on their own. So, thank you very much but no thanks.” That's one of many that I turned down.
Review: You know, there's a famous story. I know we talked about it before, but Patrick wanted to buy the Cavern?
Hartman: Oh yeah, he was real dead serious. He used to sit us down, you know, and we'd have a meeting once a month. I think it was once a month. Frank would say, “Boys, time to have a meeting.” We'd sit down, and he'd tell us what we were doing wrong, and then he'd let us bitch at him and tell him, “No, I'm doing right.” Frank was never wrong. He was a character. You know I wouldn't have had anybody else at that time. The guy was damn good to us, and he taught us about life. He was always like a father to us in the music business. “Now you boys better do this. You better do that.” He was good at it. I loved Frank Patrick. I still love him.
Review: What was Daniel's Den like for you?
Hartman: Like the coolest place in the world. I mean people would come in… I don't think there was a place like that in the world. You became a member of Daniel's Den and you had a code to follow. You know, you couldn't come in there looking like a slob or whatever. You had to dress nice, and I mean, you know. That drink thing drove me crazy. It was the coolest thing in going to a nightclub. You're not old enough, but you still get a drink that looks like a drink. And the Grande was second. The Grande was about 360 degrees different than Daniel's Den.
Review: How would you compare the sound at Daniel's Den to like the Grande and some of the other places?
Hartman: Oh, the Den had a great sound. They had that big old freakin' movie PA but after awhile Frank went out and bought a decent PA, but oh, my God. But the Grande Ballroom was on another planet. I still remember the offices. There were a lot of things to be doing there instead of sitting behind the stage. I remember opening the doors on that room to see who was playing. I still remember to this day Cream was playing and I opened the doors and damn near got shoved right back in they were so freakin' loud. I never heard anybody so loud in my life. I thought we were loud. I mean we were loud, but oh my God, it hurt. We played the Grande Ballroom I think probably as much as MC5 did. Every time we turned around we're back at the Grande. We would play the East Town and then go over and do a show at the Grande the same night.
Review: Well, I was going to ask you. I don't know if you'd be willing to do this, but could you make a few comments on each of the Frost albums, starting with Frost Music…
Hartman: Frost Music was with Jack still playing the bass guitar. We recorded in Cleveland a lot then 'cause Dick had a lot of stuff going on down there, and that's where he took Cherry Slush and others to record at the studio. We had a ton of studio time built up, free time. We had gone down there with Jack and did the whole freakin' Frost album. Then Vanguard said, “No, if you're going to sign with us, you have to come to New York and do it in our studio.” Our album was complete, in the can and it sounded way better than when we went to New York and redid it.
Review: How did you share credits of Frost songs?
Hartman: Once we got with Dick, we never owned anything. Well…anyway to me that album was one of my favorites. Rock and Roll Music was my favorite because of the live stuff. I didn't really care for the other stuff. We did pop songs when we'd try to get a hit. So we wrote Black Train and Sweet Lady Love. Those two songs were real commercial. But we decided we'd better record them. Those might be the ones that take off and we were trying to get ourselves together, hopefully getting on the Dick Clark show and then the moon.
Review: You know I bought the Frost albums as soon as they came out, and the one album I never paid much attention to was the last one.
Hartman: The last album was a great album. The whole rapport about that album… first Vanguard did the album cover without our input because Dick was fighting with them and we were losing our contract. So it was over with Vanguard. I suppose they figured, “We're going to release the damn thing anyway and make as much money as we can.” They did that gas mask thing on the cover and everything and it ruined the whole aura. That album had some incredible music on it. After that if the Frost had been friendly and stayed together the next album would have been ungodly because I was really starting to write then.
Review: So what did you do after the Frost?
Hartman: After The Frost broke up, I went out with Dick to New York and was there a couple of weeks. I helped him write “Darkest Hour,” wrote a whole verse on that. Wrote verses on a lot of songs. He was so screwed up he didn't even remember that I was there. There I am sitting out in Long Island and here's Billy Joel playing piano with him, you know. Billy Joel and I didn't even know it was freakin' Billy Joel. I had no idea. Well, Billy said, “Oh man, Donny, I wish you didn't have to go back to Michigan.” I go, “Why?” “I'd take you with me. I'm going to see my parents up in Maine, and I know how you like lobster. We could walk down to the damn beach and for $5 we can buy a five-pound lobster and eat 'til we're sick.” I said, “Don't tempt me, but I think I'm getting out of here.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I can't deal with this. I'm not lying to you, but this is a mess. This is counter-productive to me. I came out here and left my wife and my kids to come out here and work on this project and I'm not knocking you. You're an incredible musician, but the drama is a monster. Wagner, he's getting into this shit too heavy. This is ridiculous.” So I went home for a break and never went back.
Review: I wanted to ask you about your recordings. “Black Hole” is famous in most places, and I think they're great albums. I thought you recorded another album after those. Did you?
Hartman: I did. What I did was put a bunch of songs on it because people were bitchin' about no blues albums, so it's called “Blues and Ballads.” And that's all ballads you know. It's not, I mean whatever was on there, good or bad recordings, they were on there, but that's what everybody wanted to hear. “Middle of the Night” is on there and lots of good old blues tunes.
Review: You know, you're really one of rock and roll's nice guys. You're well known by many, many people. Of course you're well known by the Grande crowd. I saw that film “Louder Than Love” and did a review on it. Are you keeping in touch with any of those guys from the days in the '60s?
Hartman: They keep in touch from way back. Bobby Caldwell from the Pack- we talk at least monthly, and some of the other guys from the Pack. Herb Johnson, I talk to him. You know who I talk to a lot are guys from Seger's band because they're all my buddies. Every time those guys came up here, even with Seger, they'd go; “Well, we've got to go and see Donny,” and they'd come out and see us.
Review: Donny, one last thing. Could you tell me what was the greatest accomplishment for you or the biggest thrill as a professional musician? Was it the Frost, the Chevelles, whoever?
Hartman: The only thing I can say to you is that I dreamed about someday playing all the big venues. The biggest accomplishment to me is The Frost in 1968 and '69. We were the only band in Detroit that could fill Cobo Hall and Olympia Stadium on our own merit. No other band, not MC5, not Bob Seger or Ted Nugent, none of them. The Frost could fill Olympia on our own. We filled Cobo Hall, and it was almost a thorn in our side because when all the English bands came across, they wanted The Frost to open so they'd play to a full crowd. And that's the truth. I wanted to play Olympia Stadium like Elvis did. I got to do that!
Review: What about the flip side. Any major regrets?
Hartman: My major regret is we never got to play Europe because The Frost would still be playing there. Yeah, I know that for a fact. I was told we had a following in Europe; never got to go, and then when you look over there and see that The Zombies, Gerry and the Pacemakers and all those great bands are still over there performing and making a living.