Friday, October 15, 2010

Sweet Leaf

Interview with Steven Calloway conducted August-September 2010.
All photos courtesy of Steven Calloway.

Special thanks to Brandan at Lone Star Stomp for clueing me in to this record.

Sweet Leaf (1974)
Top row: Calvin Drum, Steve Calloway
Bottom Row: Leon Salazar, Dave Cirullo

Steve Calloway picked up his first guitar when he was a fifth grader at Fountain Elementary.

"My parents bought me a Silvertone at Sears," he said. "I took lessons for two years, but I didn't want to learn the music they wanted me to - I wanted to play rock and roll."

At the tender age of 10 Calloway got his first paying gig, with The Unknowns. The group also included 12-year old Bobby Montoya, and both of their fathers. As word got out about the young guitar phenom, he was soon recruited as a member of the Tyme System.

"Once I got out of East High School, in 1969, it was either go to Vietnam or go to college - I decided to go to college."

In 1972 Calloway joined up with John Withers (later of Little Ricky and the Roosters), Gary Fowler (Nightingales), and former East classmate Leon Salazar, in the band Kemikol, but after a few years, he was looking for another group.

"Leon played drums, and he introduced me to guitarist Calvin Drum, and bassist Dave Cirullo, and we decided to form Sweet Leaf."

Contrary to the obvious drug euphemism (and the name of a drug-referenced Black Sabbath song), Calloway insists marijuana slang was not behind the band's name.

"We really didn't name the group after pot, we really didn't - we just liked the name," said Calloway. "That said, we knew that people would probably equate it to that."

Unlike most garage bands of the day, Sweet Leaf members managed the band like a well-oiled machine. "We kept books, and paid income taxes," said Calloway. "We were booked a solid six to eight weeks ahead. In fact, the worst year we ever had was being booked for only 49 weeks."

Excerpt from Sweet Leaf promotional pamphlet

The band promoted itself heavily, printing up brochures, calling cards, and color photos. They bought a used school bus, tore out the seats to carry their equipment to gigs, and had the name of the group painted across it. "Unfortunately it broke down in Chugwater, Wyoming," Calloway admitted.

In 1975 the band had amassed an impressive catalog of original songs, written mainly by bassist David Cirullo. Ever the self-promoters, they decided it was time to put out a single. Funded by Cirullo's parents, the group headed to Clovis, NM to the famed Norman Petty studios.

"I really don't remember how we got Norman Petty to record us - but I do remember we spent about eight hours in the studio with him. We had never been in a studio before. He did the mix for us, and helped us with the harmonies."

(NOTE: The Norman Petty studio history website shows a second Sweet Leaf record - "Gonna Make You Love Me" / "She Said Yeah" on the Musicor label (1489), however Calloway confirmed that the band never recorded a second single during its time together, and the notation of a second single is in error )

Pressed on the band's own Elmwood record label (named after the street where Cirullo's parents lived), the single was sent out to stations, nationwide. The band credited Cirullo's parents, Mary and Ben, as producers on the disc.

"Indian Man" was chosen as the A-side. The song, written by Cirullo, told the story of Sitting Bull - complete with war cries accompanied by heavy guitar riffs. The single was a natural fit for the group, whose drummer, Leon Salazar played up his own Native American roots wearing braided hair, feathers and turquoise.

Listen to "Indian Man"

The soft rock, Cirullo-penned flipside "I Need You" showcased the group's diversity beyond the normal hard rock set list they were known for.
Listen to "I Need You"

"The single got a lot of of play in KDZA, in Pueblo, and it got us a lot of jobs, including opening for Freddie King, and the group Sugarloaf."

The band also began to perform a more theatrical show.

"We started doing a fire act – we would light the drums on fire and we almost burned down a bar in Lamar. I think we caught the dance floor on fire."

Sweet Leaf
Calvin Drum, Steve Calloway, and Leon Salazar (1976)

In 1976, Dave Cirullo decided to leave the group, and the band continued as a trio, with Calvin Drum moving from guitar to bass.

By the early 1980s, Calvin Drum wanted to leave the band, and was replaced by Steve Johansen.

"My daughter was born in 1983, and I started getting a different attitude about things," Calloway said. "That's when I decided to quit - the band formally broke up in 1985."

Calvin Drum passed away in 2004.

Leon Salazar still lives in Pueblo, but was unavailable for comment on this article.

David Cirullo retired with the Pueblo County Sheriff's office, and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Calloway went on to play in Land Sharks, and took occasional local gigs. He currently works as the manager of local supermarket.

"It's a young man's game, the parties wouldn't start until 2:00 a.m., and I just couldn't do it anymore." he admitted.

He still has his Silvertone guitar.

Steve Calloway and the author
(September 2010)


Friday, October 1, 2010

Steel City Band

Interview with Greg Gomez conducted August 2010.

The Gomez brothers had a destiny - at least according to their father.

"He wanted us to work at CF&I (steel mill), and follow in his footsteps," said Greg Gomez.

But the siblings had other ideas - they wanted to make music.

Right after graduating from Central High School Greg, and his younger brother Charles, formed a band, Abraxas (after the Santana album). They enlisted Dave Carleo on keyboards, Denver bassist Joe Garcia, Albert Vargas on trumpet, and Frank Montoya on guitar.

"I played sax and did lead vocals, and my brother was on drums," Greg said.

Soon the band, and their brand of Colorado funk, was hitting the road, playing clubs throughout the state, as well as Arizona.

"We were doing everything from Parliament to Funkadelic to the Gap Band," he said.

As their popularity grew, it became apparent that they would have to rename the band.

"We thought we would get some negative feedback from people who thought that we were a Santana cover band, or something. So we decided to change our name to The Steel City Band - after where we were from, Pueblo."

In 1979, in an effort to receive more exposure, and land nationwide gigs, they decided to record a single at Boulder's Mountain Ears Studio.

Fronting the $3,000 to make the record was their once skeptical father.

The single featured the disco Latin soul A-side, "Reality," written by Greg Gomez, and its flip, the Dave Carleo-penned "New Life."

"We only had $3,000 to make the record and get it distributed," Greg Gomez said. "$1,500 to do the recording, and with what was left, we got 5000 records pressed. We sent them out to radio stations. We were pretty naïve about marketing. We gave some away, and sold some. At a parade in Pueblo, we just handed them out."

The record was pressed on the band's own Salt Creek label, named after their hometown, near Blende.

"Reality" received extensive airplay on the West Coast where, according to Gomez, it shot up to number one on one Los Angeles radio station playlist.

"Then things just started happening. We did a world tour, we went to the Middle East, we played Vegas."

While playing a gig in Las Vegas, a member of the Hilton family asked the band if they would be interested in performing in his Reno hotel. The job was to be the warm-up act for Sonny Turner (former Platters lead singer).

"Sonny liked the way we played. We were originally booked for two weeks, and it ended up being a couple of months."

The constant touring took its toll on some of the members of the band. "Some of the guys got homesick for Pueblo and left, some guys met girls and got married. We added new members and just kept touring," Gomez said.

The group would go on to tour the Philippines, New York, and the southern U.S., as well as a regular gig at the Ramada back home in Pueblo.

Currently the Steel City Band is made up of the Gomez brothers, who still perform around southern Colorado.

The brothers have also recently reformed the Abraxas band, with Rob Smith, Louis Lucero, Felix Cordova, and original members Dave Carleo, Carlos Crull, and Dave Vega.

On Sept. 25, 2010 Abraxas headlined the annual Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Fest.

The Steel City Band's original single is also considered a rare private issue Latin soul/funk collectible - at least according to recent eBay auctions. In June 2010, a copy of the record sold for $349 (it previously sold for $280 in June 2008).