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Prime Times: Michael Erlewine on The Prime Movers Blues Band, Iggy Pop, and Ann Arbor in the 1960s
Though they never released a record in their heyday or topped a concert bill outside their hometown, The Prime Movers were unquestionably one of Ann Arbor’s most important bands of the 1960s.
While some 38 musicians would eventually rotate through the group, its core lineup came to include drummer James Osterberg, christened “Iggy” by the band; keyboardist Robert Sheff, later famed as the avant-garde composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny; guitarist Daniel Erlewine, known today as one of the world’s top luthiers; and vocalist/harmonica player Michael Erlewine, who would go on to found the All Music Guide, All Movie Guide, and a host of spinoffs.
One of the first white American bands to devote themselves to Chicago-style blues when originators like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were still in their prime, the group was regularly on the bill at Ann Arbor’s Canterbury House, Clint’s Club, Mother’s, The Ark, The Schwaben Inn, The Fifth Dimension, and The Depot House. The Prime Movers also appeared at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and Living End, and even the Fillmore and Matrix in San Francisco. But their devotion to the blues led them to turn down an offer to sign with Motown and split with manager/A-Square Records founder Jeep Holland, who sought to force them into a pop-rock mold. As a result, The Prime Movers’ powerful sound became just a fading memory to those lucky enough to hear them in person.
But stashed away in the basement of Michael and Daniel Erlewine’s brother Stephen were well-recorded tapes of the group in action at Clint’s Club and The Schwaben Inn. In 2008 a track appeared on the Ace/Big Beat compilation A2 (Of Course), then a 45 rpm single was released by Third Man.
Finally, in late 2019, Sundazed Records’ Modern Harmonic imprint issued a full 10-track CD and two-LP set of The Prime Movers' work. Highlighted by the stabbing, string-bending guitar leads of Dan Erlewine and the soulful organ of Robert Sheff, the 1966-7 recordings also feature the future Iggy Pop singing their Yardbirds-style cover of “I’m a Man,” which reveals more than a hint of what was to come two years later in The Stooges.
I spoke with Michael Erlewine about the band’s history and the recent release of their music, more than 50 years after it was recorded.
Q: Tell us a little about your background. Did you grow up in Ann Arbor?
A: I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then my parents moved here in about the sixth grade. I went to Angell school, Burns Park school, St. Francis, Tappan, and then Pioneer finally, but I never graduated; I left school. I'm very hard to teach. I'm a good learner, but I'm really good at teaching myself stuff and I just didn't like to be taught. That's why I got into Black musicians and stuff because these guys knew about life. I mean they knew everything I didn't know anything about. And they were kind enough, not all of them, but many of them, to not give me a hard time, but just to be a friendly person. Which I appreciated deeply, so I was totally devoted to them, and I still am for that matter.
Q: What was your impetus to start a band?
A: It got started by doing all the folk revival stuff. And it took us a while to realize that the blues, of which there was very little available in the folk circle except for country blues, didn't need reviving, it was still virile and just playing across town, on Ann Street, or wherever it is, behind a racial curtain of some kind. In 1961 I was traveling with a little-known instrumentalist called Perry Lederman. And he was, at the time, part of the folk revival that started in the late '50s, when I was in high school. And I was traveling with him, and then I also was traveling with Bob Dylan, who wasn't famous then. But we would hitchhike together and spent time in New York together and did stuff like that. I also helped put on one of the first concerts that Dylan did in Ann Arbor. It was at the Michigan Union and I remember sitting with him next door in the MUG waiting for The Michigan Daily to come out with their review. The review was good, so he was happy because he was nervous, he was worried. Then he checked out of town, wherever he was going. I also hitchhiked with him up to Cambridge. I did a lot of hitchhiking, to the West Coast and back, and to New York, maybe 10 round trips.
I spent the year of 1964 in Berkeley. I was supposed to be studying, mostly, but I was finding out all the things that Ann Arbor knew nothing about because we were culturally way behind Berkeley. It took a long time for us. I remember the first coffee house in Ann Arbor was the Promethean, on William. They didn't even have espresso, right. We’d just smoke cigarettes and drink Café Wien—Viennese coffee, which was good. But Berkeley was another world. I would go see Perry Lederman and we would hang out together occasionally and go to the Jabberwock, and places like that where the music was played. So when I came back to Ann Arbor, I was kind of carrying with me the aroma, or the scent, or the sense of what Berkeley was about, which was like totally blowing my mind. I also took acid out there for the first time, May 6 of 1964. It was actually Sandoz acid. It was actually the original stuff.
When I came back I had been stirred at my roots, and I was looking around for something, and my brother was already a guitar person. I think that I'm the instigator of that band just because I wanted to satisfy something inside me. I was no longer satisfied with whatever I was, which wasn't much. And so Dan and I started it together and I picked the name out, and we got Robert Sheff, who was an incredible pianist who could read orchestra staves, a full page of them, just on sight. He just was our friend, and we lived in the same house together. So did Dan, so did Iggy for a while. We all lived at 114 North Division.
So we started the band and called it The Prime Movers. And it was soon called after that The Prime Movers Blues Band. We did gospel, Swan Silvertones-type stuff. The Swan Silvertones are basically an a capella group, and then there’s other groups, like the Mighty Clouds of Joy and so forth. Just incredible music. You know, I like roots music, I like to be moved deeply. There's a lot of people that were just playing the blues, and today it's more like reenactment. Not very often do I feel the kind of stuff that moved me with a Big Walter Horton or a Muddy Waters or Magic Sam. That's over. That's not gonna be repeated. Thank God it was there once. When I first heard Magic Sam in Chicago, he was an incredible singer, he just chilled, made the hair just stand up on the back of my neck. So that kind of experience kept me close to the Black music and not so interested in following the Beatles or whoever. It's all nice, nothing bad to say about it, but I didn't listen to a lot of that.
So I think all of that fueled trying to start something right here in Ann Arbor at the time and that's where it came from. And we didn't want to be a frat band. In fact, Iggy, James Osterberg came from a group called the Iguanas, that you probably know. And we called him Iguana for a while. Just as a kind of punishment because we didn't, it’s not cruel, but we didn't respect, we didn't want to be that kind of band. So we called him Iguana, then after a few weeks it was Iggy, and he liked the name. So that's where he got his name. Everyone's claiming they gave him the name Iggy, but it’s simply not true. He got it while he worked with us and he became our drummer. And he became a good drummer, he worked really hard at it.
Q: Was he your first drummer?
A: No, we had tried all kinds. The first drummer was a guy named Spider, I think his name was Mike Wynn, we called him Spider. And my cousin Robert Vinopal played bass for a little while, but it wasn't his deal. So we just gradually morphed into the main band, which was myself, my brother Dan playing lead guitar, Jack Dawson, who was a music school student who played the trombone and stuff like that, playing bass, Robert Sheff played keyboards, and Iggy played drums for a while then Jesse Crawford, J.C. Crawford, afterward.
Q: Is J.C. the guy who became the MC5’s “spiritual advisor” and famously introduces them on the Kick Out the Jams album?
A: He did that later on. We probably are guilty of pulling him out of Eastern Michigan University or making him want to come join us because he did. We were pretty happening right then. We played at The Ark when it was just beginning a number of times, and on and on and on. We just never became really famous. Mostly probably because of me. I didn't want to play anything but what I wanted to play. And that was all Black music, Little Walter and stuff like that.
Q: Early on you were managed by Jeep Holland, who ran Discount Records on State Street and started both a booking agency and the A-Square label that recorded local bands like The Rationals and Scot Richard Case. He got you gigs at teen-oriented venues like The Schwaben Inn and Mother's. Despite your passion for the blues, did you have to adapt to the demands of this different audience?
A: We were the house band at Mother's. Mother's was created by Peter Andrews, who knew nothing about music to begin with and gradually learned about it. We became the house band backing up The Contours, Shangri-Las, and stuff like that. It was Jeep Holland who wanted us to do the teen circuit, and he was a difficult person to work with, and I'm not the only person to say that. But he wanted us to wear suits and ties and do all this Beatles kind of stuff, right, which was just not our nature. We were trying to do the blues everywhere we went, period. We did a few other songs, we could do some Rolling Stones, you know, “Hey, you, get off of my cloud,” stuff like that. We would do what we had to do, which makes us kind of like the frat band. And sometimes we were paid to leave. We somehow got booked into a polka club and they actually paid us just to get out of there because we didn't know.
My favorite story is, we were booked in a club in Grand Rapids—maybe it was called The Blue Note, I can't remember exactly. But we drove, the whole band, and we were there for a week and they had a series of rooms above where they put the band up. So we drive into the parking lot, and there's a huge banner across the whole club. It says, “The Prime Movers, the Junior Walker music.” We didn't know a single Junior Walker—we loved Junior Walker, but we didn't. So we literally ran out and bought one of his albums. At that time we had some horns with us, so we were doing “Shake and Fingerpop” by that night. But I don't think that you are correct in thinking that we were schizophrenic, that we were playing one kind of music here and another there. Not really. We only knew certain stuff. So mostly we played everything we knew and we probably leaned toward the rock and roll traveling around at teen clubs. But I think we put 'em through a lot of blues, whether they liked it or not.
Q: The Prime Movers also regularly performed at an Ann Arbor bar, which catered to an older African-American audience. This was very unusual in those days. What was that like for a young, white band?
A: We ended up playing for a long time down on Ann Street, that one block of Black businesses, in Clint's Club. And that club was right next to another club where there were young Blacks. So the people we played to were their mothers and fathers, and I'm sure they were enormously embarrassed that we were there. We had some Black people playing with us, but mostly we were a white band. And here we were and their parents liked our music because we're playing the Chicago blues stuff the way that they would remember it. And if you go right next door, you got, you know, R&B basically. We played there four nights a week, for $35 per night for the entire band. And we were happy to do it and had a wonderful time.
Q: Working in bars, I assume you occasionally saw a few dust-ups.
A: There was a lot of rough stuff. I remember trying to move our equipment in at Clint’s Club and seeing the proprietor at the time beating someone on the head with a hammer on the floor. Or at The Schwaben Inn, I remember when it took nine police cars to break up a fight between the townies, of which I was one, and what we called the pinheads, the students from the University of Michigan. They would get into fights there. And that took nine police cars to break up. We were back behind our equipment kind of cowering.
Q: You parted ways with Jeep Holland before he really got his record label going, but did you have any other opportunities to record?
A: For some reason, a subsidiary of Motown heard about us. Here's these white guys in a Black bar in Ann Ann Arbor playing Black music, right. Or trying to. They would come up with their big limousines and they would drive us around and they courted us. For instance, they invited us into Detroit and they arranged for us to have lunch with the Everly brothers. Just the Everly brothers and my brother Dan and myself. That of course blew our minds because we worshipped that music. The Everly Brothers are just some of the most beautiful music that our country has ever produced. They finally got around to where the rubber met the road, and then they sort of said, “Well, what we want you to do is we're going to give you songs”—that were probably made by really great people—“And we want you to sing those.” That didn't go far with me. I didn't want to do that. I know that what we were doing was just probably fumbling doing our very best to do Little Walter pieces and do Howling Wolf pieces, but I was very happy doing that. I was deep into it and that just was so fulfilling in its own self. I never felt I became arrogant. I think that I was always a student of this music and we never became well known or anything, but I was always respectful of it and deeply, deeply loved it. So as soon as they found that out, that was the end of the limousines. They wanted us, we might have made a lot of money. It could have.
Q: As The Prime Movers became one of the most in-demand groups in Ann Arbor, in the summer of 1967 you decided to head out West?
A: Well, everyone was going to San Francisco. It became what's called the Summer of Love, right. So we packed up everyone. No, Iggy was gone. And we got into our 1966 Dodge van, which [Ann Arbor guitar luthier] Herb David put up the money for, loaned us the money, which we paid him back and were very grateful for. He was a great influence and a personal friend. And we just literally drove, with Ilene Silverman who was playing bass for us, and her boyfriend Harvey. I think five or six of us were in one van, with all of our equipment. And we drove out there. I remember waking up as we crossed the Continental Divide in the midst of a herd of sheep, unable to even move.
Anyway, we finally got out there and we had no money, we had money just to barely get us there. But thank goodness for The Butterfield Band, which was our favorite band in the world. Michael Bloomfield and Mark Naftalin were very friendly. Butterfield was always cool, he was too cool to be friendly, but I think he was shy in kind of an introverted way. But anyway, Bloomfield saw where we were struggling and he got us a place at the Sausalito heliport where we could sleep. And then we got a gig, there was a rib joint, Black rib joint there in the heliport. And we played there to eat. Just outside, not inside. And then when The Electric Flag ran into trouble at the Fillmore, Michael Bloomfield had us replace them. So we opened for Cream. One of the first times that Cream ever played there, in August of 1967. Then we watched Eric Clapton and those guys shoot up speed in the green room. So that whole thing was a trip. I mean, literally, a trip.
And we played at The Matrix and we auditioned at The Avalon and The Straight Theater and there's even a poster that someone made out there of our band. So that was kind of what we did. And then we drove all the way back.
And this was the summer where Detroit had the riot, or uprising, so you had to be careful. And in fact, they even put up sawhorses and shit down on Ann Street.
Q: They thought that Ann Arbor’s Black residents might do something like that, too?
A: Yeah. Which, nothing like that happened. And they were worried about this little one-block-long thing. And then finally they gentrified that whole area and that little block was gone, you know, and never returned.
Q: Even though the Prime Movers never recorded in a studio, several of your live shows were taped on semi-professional gear, with a full album finally appearing on Sundazed/Modern Harmonic in 2019. Why did it take more than four decades for your music to surface?
A: We were too snobby. We weren't about to try to record, just to record. We just were doing what we were doing. We probably should have, but that's not the way we were thinking. What happened was that people like Al Valusek would come into a place like Clint's Club and he would have a Wollensak, or a suitcase-size recorder. And he would set up on a chair next to him and record. So the only stuff we had came out of my brother Stephen’s basement years ago and they were reel to reel. And instead of the best music that maybe we'd ever done, it wasn't that. It was just some Schwaben Inn recordings and some Clint's Club recordings. That was it, right. Just one night, out of endless nights. So that's, again, dispiriting. But what the heck, it is what it is. It's not the best stuff we ever did, but we were stretching out. We were trying to play music until 2 a.m.
Q: You play harmonica and sing on every song except the last one on the album, which features Iggy on a cover of Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man.” Given his subsequent fame, why weren’t more vocals by him included?
A: ‘Cause that's all we got. He didn't sing much, he just did that song. But Iggy was a good drummer. He was a nice person. We all loved Iggy as a person, but he was very ambitious. Basically what we did was give him a liberal education. He knew nothing about art music, classical music. He knew nothing at all about it. And so I think we educated him. I think he made fun of that education that we had that he didn't, but he also absorbed an enormous amount from us that I think made him ambitious, ambitious in the way that he ultimately was.
Q: One other thing that stands out about The Prime Movers is your graphic legacy. There are so many striking photographs and flyers, many of which are visible at the wonderful fan site of Italian rock historian Bruno Ceriotti. Can you tell me about that?
A: My father was a really good photographer, and I'm a really good photographer, I knew about photography. And through just the goodwill of people like Al Blixt, who was wonderful, and Andy Sacks was wonderful, and Tom Copi also was wonderful, it was part of the thing. We were happy to have it done, they were happy to do it. We were not going any special place. We weren't going anywhere, because we didn't go anywhere. It was just all what was happening, right.
I did almost all the posters, those are all my designs. I did it because the other guys were too lazy. They would go and put up posters. If I didn't do that, if I didn't do the booking, it just wouldn't have been done. They stayed up late and smoked pot and drank a lot. Not all of them. But a bunch of them, that's what they did. And I also kind of had to be the straw boss to make them practice. I very much believed that we had to actually work on the material, and learn to do it. So that wasn't always the most popular thing for them because they wouldn't be getting up until two o'clock in the afternoon or something. They'd be up all night. I have one funny memory of being awakened in the middle of the night. This is at 114 North Division, the second floor, and going into the one big room. I think it was J. C.'s room at the time, Jesse Crawford's. And there are all these motorcycle rider types of people. And I ordered them all out of the house and didn't realize that these are tough guys, but I think that I was so intimidating, fierce, that they just marched out. And then later I sort of said, "Ooh, they wouldn't have had to go." What could I have done, other than give 'em a hard time.
Q: With The Prime Movers working so steadily, you must have been financially self-sustaining?
A: There was no money. Yeah. Self-sustaining on nothing. OK, fumes, right? We didn't have any money. I mean, we played The Grande Ballroom a number of times, but never for any serious money. We were, I guess, in it for the music. Just because we were having a good time. We liked doing what we did.
Q: How did the band finally wind down?
A: Well, it started in summer of 1965, and it went for a few years and then different people like Iggy left, and Robert Sheff became The Charging Rhinoceros of Soul and other stuff like that. And it finally became just my brother Dan and I occasionally playing at places like Mr. Flood’s Party. Then they just called us The Erlewine Brothers. They had an elevated stage above like a booth. So you were really up there, you had to climb up there. It was quite a place and we knew the guys that owned it.
Q: How do you look back on The Prime Movers today?
A: It was like a tribe. It was a group of people that were all in sync with each other somehow and were all living together. I mean, living in time, right? This was our life, so it was just an important thing to do, that was all that we could do.
Frank Uhle shows movies, hosts a show called Radio Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa on WCBN, and writes about local history. His work has appeared in Kicks, Psychotronic Video, and Ugly Things. The forthcoming book Cinema Ann Arbor will be co-published by Fifth Avenue Press and University of Michigan Press.
Michael Erlewine has written extensively on music, Ann Arbor cultural history, astrology, photography, and other subjects. Free book downloads, videos, and more can be found at:
Below is a collection of photos, concert posters, advertisements, and an article featuring The Prime Movers. Cue up this nearly 10-minute instrumental by the band and let it play as you peruse more Ann Arbor music history.
The Ann Arbor News did a short profile of The Prime Movers in October 1966. which you can see below or on AADL's Old News site here. Iggy Pop is quoted in the interview, but in the photo that ran with the article, we see Michael Erlewine (vocals) and Dan Erlewine (guitar) in the foreground with Jack Dawson (bass), Tom Ralston (drums), and Bob Sheff (organ) in the background. The venue is The Schwaben Inn in Ann Arbor.