Press Columnist, PressPlus - The Press of Atlantic City Online
The Beatles and the Stones might have had better first world tours than their fellow rockers in Damn Right, a group that made its big splash in the early ’70s.
Then again, it would be hard for any group, even the legends, to beat Damn Right’s tour, because here’s a list of just some of the places this band played in a six-month run: Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and, of course, at home in the United States.
So how come everybody knows the Beatles and the Stones, but nobody ever heard of Damn Right?
Well, that may be because this band never chased all the trappings of rock ’n’ roll success.
Take hit records, for example. Damn Right never cut an album, or made a single, or released any record of any kind. Then there’s the fact that in spite of all its exotic wanderings, this band never had a paying-for-playing job — their most lucrative gigs paid off in free drinks.
Oh, and maybe the actual venues the band played aren’t quite as impressive as that great itinerary might suggest. In fact, Damn Right’s main stage in its career was the main deck of the U.S.S. Milwaukee, the Navy ship where the seven members of the group were all stationed in 1972.
And now here’s the reason why this saga of one of history’s least-famous rock bands is in your newspaper today: Because today is the day when the boys from Damn Right are set to get back together for the first time in almost 30 years.
Naturally, their plans include a jam session and a major reunion tour. So far, the stops include Egg Harbor Township, Ventnor, Atlantic City and Lacey Township.
About that name
Here now is a semi-complete, unofficially unauthorized history of Damn Right, told mostly by Lenny Gatto of Lacey Township, the band’s saxophonist, co-founder and reunion-tour organizer.
The seven guys in the group all had musical backgrounds. Gatto, for instance, grew up playing the sax, and he hoped to keep playing when he joined the Navy. So he took his sax with him when he was assigned to the Milwaukee, a mobile refueler — it carried oil and supplies to other ships so they could load up at sea, without having to go back to port.
When he asked around, he found out he wasn’t the only guy on the ship who wanted in on a rock group. Within a few months, the band was up to seven guys — Ed Rothacker on organ, Floyd Shaw on rhythm guitar, Joe Perino on drums, Roy Howell on lead guitar, Gino Gallo on trumpet, Bud McGovern on bass, Gatto on alto sax and almost everybody on vocals.
The boys did some Chicago, some Blood, Sweat & Tears, some Santana and some more from the big groups of the day. It may be fitting that their theme song was from a band known as War: “All Day Music” it was called.
But most of them worked day jobs on the ship, which left them nights free to practice and play. So they did that as much as they could, and early on, they won an important backer. The Milwaukee’s captain gave Damn Right a rehearsal and storage room and set them up with some essential equipment for rock ’n’ roll, like amplifiers, microphones and mixers.
As the band kept playing, it made another breakthrough: When the Milwaukee was restocking other ships, Damn Right would set up on the deck and entertain both crews, which became one of the true perks of the life of a rock star:
“While the other guys were working their buns off, we were playing for them,” Gatto says. “It was great for us.”
They also played for the ship’s swim calls and in some U.S.O. clubs when the ship hit ports, like in Athens, Greece. By now they were the all-but-official house band of the Milwaukee, which is how they got that odd name.
The crew had a contest to name the group, and the winner was fairly tame, by sailor standards.
The end of an era
The stakes got higher for Damn Right during a Mediterranean cruise, when the captain decided to enter his rock stars in the Seventh Fleet’s battle of the bands in Izmir, Turkey.
They didn’t surprise themselves at all by winning. “We were cocky,” Gatto admits, and the win made their boss cocky enough to push his boys for the 1972 All-Navy Talent Contest in San Diego.
But right then, with the group at the height of its career, “Tragedy strikes,” Gatto says, with a smile.
Two of the guys were due to get out of the Navy soon — too soon to get to San Diego and back, so the group suddenly had to work without its lead-guitar and trumpet players.
Still, Damn Right came in second in the whole Navy, losing only to a country singer who had recorded with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, the Navy Times reported.
But shortly after the rockers got back to their ship, by then in Asia, Gatto got the orders he’d been waiting for, to report to Sicily, the home of his future wife. And shortly after that, the Damn Right era was over — until now.
Thanks to some old phone numbers and new technology, Gatto says it only took about a week to track the whole band down.
It took a little longer to set up the reunion, because they’re coming from five different states. They’re planning to stay at a hotel in Egg Harbor Township, play Saturday at the Ventnor United Methodist Church, visit Atlantic City and have a final dinner at Gatto’s place.
And unlike so many famous rock bands, the guys from Damn Right are actually looking forward to seeing each other again.
“We never had ‘creative differences,’ ” Gatto says, using a phrase that was the cause of death for so many great rock groups. “We weren’t together long enough.”
(Call Martin DeAngelis at (609) 272-7237, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)