Scott Morgan,
The TVD Interview

Though every bit the equal of any figure in Motor City music lore, Scott Morgan’s name has yet to reach the status of sanctity outside of the most cultish of rock-soul circles. Given his fifty-year resume, that fact constitutes an oversight of the highest order.

It was the voice of Morgan that powered the soul-soaked garage tunes of his first band, the Rationals, on their near-definitive versions of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” the startling abandon of the latter being matched only by the honeyed restraint shown on a Carole King number, “I Need You.”

Soon after, he linked up with Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 to form what is either the greatest rock and roll band you’ve never heard of, or the greatest rock and roll band you’ve ever heard: Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. A union of the finest working musicians in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band placed the established concept of high-energy rock as laid down by the MC5 and the Stooges into an incinerator. The dual guitar onslaught of Smith and Morgan, who emerged as a first-rate rhythm player, careened the band into territories uncharted, while the rhythm section of Stooges’ former skin-splitter extraordinaire Scott Asheton and Up bassist Gary Rasmussen counteracted fire with thunder.

And they released just one song.

The Morgan-sung “Electrophonic Tonic,” an absolute whirling dervish of a song from the word go, was purposed as the B-side to the earth-imploding masterpiece that is “City Slang,” only to be pulled from its slot after internal dispute. Considering the pull of “City Slang” barely made it past Ann Arbor city limits, this misfire likely did minimal damage to any theoretical mass audience the band might have reached. Besides, the thought of tacking both songs, each individually powerful enough to provide heating for every building in the Great Lakes region, onto a seven-inch piece of black plastic is as farcical as it is hazardous.  

After about five years, SRB dissolved and Morgan pushed forward by fronting the Scott Morgan Band, whose 1988 album Rock Action featured former Rendezvous bandmates Asheton and Rasmussen for much of the eighties, then continuing into the nineties and next century with a number of different groups, playing alongside Hellacopters frontman Nick Royale in both the Hydromatics and the Solution as well as working with fellow Detroit legend Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman fame in a couple one-off projects like Dodge Main and a collaborative album called 3 Assassins.

Morgan remains active these days with various projects, most significant being his new album, Rough & Ready, which saw release on October 27th. On top of that, a reissue of the lone Rationals record is on the horizon, as well as one for the Sonic’s Rendezvous Band box set that was put out by UK label Easy Action back in 2006.

We caught up with him to talk the new record, the now-mythical conception and chronology of Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, and the plentiful boons of growing up in the rock/soul capital of the world.

I wasn’t even aware that you were working on a new LP until about a couple of weeks ago. Can you tell me just a little bit about what went into creating it?

Well we’ve been working on it for two years and finished it up last winter. We found a record company here in Detroit called Rouge Records. It’s a brand new label and we’re the first band on it. We’re going to press 12” vinyl at Third Man in Detroit, since they just opened up a new pressing plant here. We’d like to get to other places outside of Detroit but we’re going to start here. We’re going to do a record release party on December 1st in Hamtramck. I live in Ann Arbor so we’re going to play at this famous club here called the Blind Pig. It’s the only rock club in town, really.

So what happened was, I was asked to do this show with a rock band called the Sights who were on the label of the Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha. They added horns and singers to it, so it’s a pretty big band now. They asked me to do a show with them and I did like one song. Then, we got more offers so we kept going and decided to start recording and write songs for an album. Basically we were doing a lot of soul music, which is my favorite kind of music. There’s some stuff that I guess you could call rock, but just a lot of variety really.

After listening to it, I’d definitely say it’s more of a straight-ahead soul record compared to, say, your work with the Hellacopters or Deniz Tek. More cool and restrained in that sense especially with those great backing vocals like on “Shades of Night.”

Yeah it’s definitely not a rock album, but we’ve got a lot of roots in rock. My first band, the Rationals, was kind of around the same time as the MC5, the Stooges, Bob Seger, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Easy Action will be reissuing the first Rationals album on Record Store Day, but we’re working on this release right now. It’s called Rough & Ready, and it’s just billed as Scott Morgan. They decided not to call it the Sights since they’ve changed so much. They’ve been going for about ten years and have toured with Tenacious D, and they just kind of added the singers and horns to it so it’s a little more involved than it was when they were just a rock combo.

My writing partner is the leader of the Sights, Eddie Baranek, and we probably wrote twice as many songs as we actually recorded. We wrote the first half of it at Ghetto Recorders, which was a famous garage rock studio where a lot of Detroit bands like the White Stripes recorded. Then they shut down so we moved to this new studio in Hamtramck and finished the album there. We happened to meet these guys from Rouge Records who were interested in doing something with the Rationals, but since that wasn’t available we ended up doing Rough & Ready. After I finished my vocals, I asked how it sounded and was told to come listen to it, and I said, “Rough and ready,” so that’s where the title came from.

Was there a camaraderie among the musicians from Detroit and Ann Arbor? It sounds like you kind of ran in the same circles as the Stooges, the Five, and Deniz Tek.

Definitely. Everybody just hung out with each other. There was a lot more friendship between the bands back then, and also between the bands and the fans. The artists and the fans weren’t as separated. You could sit down on a couch with Pete Townshend and just talk. It’d take four security passes to get backstage and do that now.

Deniz went to Pioneer High School, which was pretty famous in Ann Arbor. Bob Seger went there, and so did the Stooges and a local soul singer named Deon Jackson. A lot of famous musicians went there. Bill Kirchen from Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Max Crook who played with Del Shannon. Detroit and Ann Arbor just seemed to be chock-full of musicians. Of course, Detroit is best known for its soul music and jazz. They had a really good public school system that taught a lot of the people who ended up in Motown’s studio band, the Funk Brothers. They got their high school education, but it was really an advanced music education in Detroit high schools.

What do you think it was about Detroit and Ann Arbor that made that area such a hotbed for rock and roll and music in general?  

I couldn’t tell you [laughs]. When Henry Ford started the five-dollar day wage, which at the time was a lot of money, you had people coming from the South, Appalachia, other places in the Midwest, and Eastern Europe, so you ended up with a blend of all those musics from all those different places. That was the beginning of it, and it not only gave people a musical education but also the money to go out to shows and buy records. Motown started around 1960, and then we went into what they call high-energy rock and roll.

Then would you say that Sonic’s Rendezvous Band was almost an inevitable kind of thing, that you had all these closely connected musicians coming together and doing this supergroup thing?

Well I went to school with the Ashetons and Iggy, so when they started the Stooges, I knew them really well. The Asheton family had grown up in Iowa, which is where my father was from so I knew Scott and Ron really well. I had known Fred from the MC5 since they were contemporaries of the Rationals. It was kind of natural that when the Rationals, the MC5, and the Stooges broke up, we decided to put a band together that ended up lasting for five years. A lot of the stuff that we did was recorded live or recorded as demos. Finally, we got a request from Easy Action in London to release a Sonic’s Rendezvous Band six-disc box set. So they put together a six-disc box set when we’d only released one single, which is pretty amazing.

Regarding your working relationship with Fred, what kind of dynamic was there between the two of you? My understanding is that you two split songwriting duties not in the Lennon-McCartney sense but more like one of you would write a song and then that would kind of get the other person going and then he’d write a song in response.

We made a conscious decision when we started working together to not do any MC5 or Rationals songs and write our own material. I’d known Fred from the Five, but we had never worked together previously, just a couple small things. He and I took a trip out to Los Angeles to check out the scene there but decided to just go back to Detroit and start working there, so then we started writing material. Eventually, Scott was no longer in the Stooges so we got him to play drums. We added a couple of bass players, Brian Cook and Gary Rasmussen. Then we just played a lot. We recorded two songs, “City Slang” and “Electrophonic Tonic,” but only ended up releasing the first one. The band then just kind of broke up.

And it wasn’t until ’98 or so when the Sweet Nothing live record was put out.

Yeah, that was our road manager who put out the Sweet Nothing and City Slang albums, and then he just stopped. At that point, I met the Hellacopters and they asked me to come to Amsterdam to record a lot of the stuff that we never recorded. This was after Fred died. So we recorded a lot of Sonic’s Rendezvous Band songs and some of our own stuff as well. We constantly wanted to write new stuff and not lean on the past too much, although everything I did before SRB was important. I was always into soul so after we did the Amsterdam stuff with this band called the Hydromatics, I went to Stockholm and did a couple of solo records there with the leader of the Hellacopters, Nick Royale, as the Solution. We did two albums and several tours in Scandinavia and Western Europe. Then, I decided, “Well, if we’re going to do soul music, we might as well just do it in Detroit.”

Who had the greatest influence on your development as a singer? It can be somewhat tricky to pinpoint any just by listening to your records.

We grew up with Motown, really, ’cause it was just right down the road from us. We would go to the Motown Revue when we were like fifteen-years-old and get a chance to see Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, everyone who was on that label. Radio was also playing a lot of Aretha Franklin and that sort of thing. We were exposed to a lot of soul music. Then, once we discovered Stax Records, we started listening to people from Memphis, Chicago, and the East Coast. The Rationals recorded a Carole King song (“I Need You”) and some of the Brill Building writers. Etta James, of course. Just a lot of soul music, that was my biggest influence.

Were you into any of the stuff off Fortune Records?

Yeah, but that was a really small label. Nolan Strong did a song that we were really influenced by called “Mind Over Matter.” There was a band called the Dynamics that did a single with songs called “Misery” and “I’m The Man.” Nathaniel Mayer with “Village of Love.” It wasn’t just Motown. Parliament and Funkadelic—that was all Detroit. We were also influenced by people like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and country people like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline too. Because Detroit was such a melting pot of people from all parts of the eastern half of the United States, all of those types of music, from hillbilly music in Appalachia to soul music from Memphis and New Orleans, got blended together in our writing. But, like I said, we didn’t want to lean on what we had already done. We wanted to keep moving ahead. We didn’t want to be an oldies band, basically.

Speaking of jazz, it feels like Fred seemed somewhat intent on venturing deeper into free jazz territory if “American Boy” is any indication. Were you open to that particular creative avenue?

Sure, a lot of those people like Kenny Burrell and Yusef Lateef grew up in Detroit. We really liked jazz but we weren’t really a jazz band. Fred was always into Coltrane. He wanted to be a sax player. In fact, we both did. I studied flute and saxophone, and the MC5 really liked jazz music so they worked that into their repertoire, stuff like Sun Ra, along with the rock music that was coming out of England. You’d get a little bit of everything at the Grande Ballroom, like English rock and Chicago blues. Radio stations like CKLW (“The Big 8”) were also very important. Back then, the formatting was very regional, but we would hear stuff from New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, so there was a real mix of music involved in Detroit radio.

I know the Grande was closed by the time Sonic’s Rendezvous Band started up. How did the group come to be so tied to the Second Chance?

We were kind of the house band, so we played there several times almost every month. At the time, it was the rock club in Detroit. Everybody played at the Second Chance. James Brown, Ricky Nelson, Cheap Trick, the Patti Smith Group, just about everybody was playing in Ann Arbor. Joni Mitchell even lived here for a while. After he left Buffalo Springfield and released his first solo album, Neil Young came and played for about forty people, including myself, in this played called the Canterbury House. You could sit there and be close enough to reach out and touch him.

So it sounds like there weren’t a ton of gigs outside of Ann Arbor. Was that a conscious decision? I imagine you guys could’ve played in other rock towns like Boston and New York.

Not with Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. We didn’t really get out any farther than the Detroit area. We would sometimes play in Toronto, Chicago, and Cleveland, but it was pretty much based around the Great Lakes area. We could’ve played in other places. Patti wanted us to go on tour with her, but Fred wanted us to go on tour by ourselves so we just ended up hanging around the Midwest, a pretty small part of the country. Like I said, when we first started the band, we didn’t want to be another MC5 or another Rationals. We wanted to be our own band and write our own material. There wasn’t really that much interest business-wise, so we were kind of like an indie band.

Rough & Ready is now out on vinyl and ready for the purchasing. Be sure to check in with Morgan’s site, as well as with Rouge Records, for more info regarding the record and yet-to-be-announced performances.

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