For decades now, the highly influential compilation “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968” has inspired countless garage bands across the world. The historic box set includes iconic trippy tracks from The Seeds, Electric Prunes and the 13th Floor Elevators, to only name a few.
But one of the more bluesy, R&B-tinged tunes on the set comes courtesy of Lansing rock ‘n roll legends: the Woolies. These Michigan kids were more inspired by Elmore James than The Beatles, and it’s clear in their rootsy sound. The outfit’s fiery cover of “Who Do You Love?,” a 1956 Bo Diddley song, was chosen among the roster of greats, and rightfully so. The Woolies often backed the man himself, Bo Diddley. Not a bad seal of approval, huh? That’s what set The Woolies apart from so many other area bands — they could hang with the greats.
The Michigan blues-rock outfit first formed in the Detroit area in 1964, at the height of the British Invasion. The original lineup comprised vocalist Stormy Rice, keyboardist/harpist “Boogie” Bob Baldori, guitarist Jeff Baldori, bassist Ron English and drummer William “Bee” Metros. The remarkable “Black Crow Blues,” a 1965, 7-inch single on TTP Records, was the band’s debut — though it failed to chart nationally. But they kept busy. The group played the Grande Ballroom’s grand reopening in 1966, as well as other high-profile spots at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, Cobo Hall and Detroit Olympia Arena.
However, by March 1967, The Woolies reached a new level when the band scored a Top 100 Billboard hit with “Who Do You Love?” In the following years, the band also released a stack of wax via Spirit Records, a Lansing-based label operated by band member/producer Bob Baldori. Among that discography is 1972’s “Basic Rock” LP, 1973’s “Live at Lizards” LP and 2006’s “Ride, Ride, Ride” LP, a 1965-1974 retrospective. A small stack of 45s was also issued and are still available via spirit-records.com.
Metros told City Pulse in 2015 that “Who Do You Love?” happened after a series of circumstances landed the shaggy haired musicians in California.
“We’d won the Vox ‘Band of the Land’ contest at the state fairgrounds in 1966,” Metros recalled. “That was sort of a huge break for us. It got us on a national level. First prize was a trip to Hollywood and supposedly a recording contract.
“The recording contract was complete B.S.,” he added, “but they did end up flying us out and put us up at the Roosevelt Hotel for a week. We ended up signing with Dunhill Records and Lou Adler. As a result, we recorded ‘Who Do You Love?’ at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, the same studio the Beach Boys recorded in.”
While Dunhill, which was distributed by ABC Records, tried to promote the folk-rock tune “Hey Girl” to radio, it was “Who Do You Love?” that connected with listeners in the Midwest. Despite the confusion on what song would be the 45’s plug side, the single made the national singles charts, peaking at number 95. In some regional markets, it climbed even higher. Though, by the time the record charted, Adler sold Dunhill, and the Woolies found themselves at odds with the label’s new management. The group’s May 1967 follow-up single, “Love Words” b/w “Duncan & Brady,” was its last on the Dunhill imprint.
Along with the tight, pounding rhythm section, “Who Do You Love?” also showcases Rice’s amazing vocals, though he’d exit the band the following year — Jack “Zocko” Groendal filled the open space. In the following years, Lansing became the Motor City band’s new home base.
“When we started, there was no alcohol in East Lansing, it was completely dry,” Metros said. “So if we played, it was at Coral Gables. This was before the bar scene really took off in the early ’70s, so we’d play a lot of high-school places, fraternity parties, senior proms, dances and teeny-bop clubs like Daniel’s Den in Saginaw.”
Of course, many locals remember The Woolies being a Mid-Michigan fixture throughout the following decade.
“In the early ’70s, when East Lansing had alcohol, we were one of the first bands to play Lizard’s (now Rick’s American Cafe),” Metros said. “We played there weekly for many years. As a result of that, we played all the East Lansing places like Dooley’s (current location of Harper’s). We played Grandmother’s, the Brewery and Silver Dollar—which was all the same place. There was the Allé-Ey, Mac’s on South Logan, Rocky’s Teakwood Lounge. We’d go anywhere. We played Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and New York. All over.”
During their time as a band, The Woolies were called in to back up a long list of music greats: Gary U.S. Bonds, Bobby Sherman, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder. “We also played a number of gigs with Del Shannon, who was phenomenal — what a great singer he was,” Metros said.
And any Lansing music buff knows that when rock pioneer Chuck Berry needed a solid rhythm section, he called The Woolies. Beyond shows, Berry’s 1971 LP, “San Francisco Blues” (Chess Records), was ironically cut at “Boogie” Bob’s studio in Okemos.
“What kept our career alive was playing with Chuck, he loved us,” Metros recalled of their late rock ’n roll mentor. “I’m not saying that in a braggadocio way. What I’m saying is, we followed him, we didn’t step over him. We could put in the groove. After he played with us for a week at The Dell’s (on Lake Lansing), if Chuck came to Michigan or the Midwest he’d say, ‘Get the Woolies!’”