Hello, Mrs. Avery. May we speak to Sylvia?
Never was there a more aptly named group than Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. In all my years of concert-going, Dr. Hook stands out head and shoulders as the most stoned group I ever saw on stage. The band was ripped, but not so badly as to affect their music. In fact, I was impressed by the band’s musicianship and delivery of songs.
Dr. Hook’s pathway to stardom was a long, strange trip. The band itself was a mixture of Southern boys and New Jersey guys. Iconic front-man Ray Sawyer, with his eye patch and mangled hat, was from Chickasaw, Alabama. After losing his right eye in a car accident in 1967 he fronted a band called The Chocolate Papers. They were the house band at Gus Stevens’ Supper Club on Highway 90 in Biloxi, Mississippi (trivia: Jayne Mansfield played her last club date at Gus Stevens’ before perishing in an auto accident on the way to New Orleans).
The Chocolate Papers. Four of these guys would be in the original Dr. Hook lineup.
The Chocolate Papers eventually folded (baddump bump) with guitarist George Cummings making his way to New Jersey where he formed another band. Cummings invited former bandmates Ray Sawyer and keyboardist Billy Francis to join up and then added a key piece – 19-year-old Dennis Locorriere. Cummings and Sawyer were already in their 30s, ancient by rock standards, but they found a musical kindred spirit in the talented Locorriere who was 10 years their junior. Locorriere was a gifted singer and could play guitar and he and Sawyer had a natural chemistry together.
What the band did not have at that point was a name. Just before an early gig the club impresario asked what the band’s name was and Cummings hastily scrawled “Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, Straight from the South, serving up Soul Music.” Over the years many have thought that Ray Sawyer was “Dr. Hook,” but in fact there was no “Dr. Hook” except in the name of the band.
The unique Ray Sawyer
The band’s big break came in 1970 when their demo tape was heard by the musical director for the upcoming movie Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? The movie’s songs were all written by the immortal Shel Silverstein, a man of talents as a cartoonist, writer of children’s books and as a songwriter. Two of the band’s songs were included in the movie soundtrack and though Harry Kellerman was only a modest success as a movie the songs Dr. Hook recorded were enough to secure the band its first recording contract.
Dr. Hook’s eponymous first album was released in 1971 and contained the Silverstein number Sylvia’s Mother, which rose to #5 on the US charts. The song sounded like a send-up, which increased its appeal and which also gave the group an identity as something a bit different, which they were. Dr. Hook’s act, certainly onstage, WAS a sendup. Nothing they did seemed to be serious, perhaps with a little help from their friends.
Dr. Hook in Amsterdam. Can you even begin to imagine … ?
Dr. Hook hit the big time in 1972 with another Silverstein-composed song, The Cover of the Rolling Stone. The song peaked at #6 and the band indeed ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone in caricature. The song became the band’s signature number. Dr. Hook toured the world (and elsewhere), bringing its ribald show to stages throughout Europe and the US.
It was circa 1972-73 when I saw Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show live for the one and only time. This was in Mobile, Alabama, and at that time the city got a very surprising number of top concerts. The Mobile Municipal Auditorium seated 10,000 and was a great place to see a show. The usual setup was “festival seating” meaning no chairs on the ground floor, and that allowed my pals and me to get there early and get close to the stage.
The local promoter often packaged together three or four bands in one show – sometimes seemingly without regard to whether or not the bands complemented each other. They might grab whoever seemed to be coming through the area and book them into one big card.
I cannot remember who the headliner was this particular night but one of the supporting acts was supposed to be Frampton’s Camel, Peter Frampton’s band after he left Humble Pie and before he became … Peter Frampton. After the first act finished their set a considerable pause ensued before the MC finally announced that Frampton’s Camel would not be performing. Minor grumbling from the crowd was quickly erased when the MC shouted that we would instead get Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. The band practically stumbled out onto the stage and put on one of the most raucous and wildly entertaining shows I saw in that venue.
Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere traded barbs and jokes throughout the set and the band was in mild hysterics throughout – but nothing topped their performance of Sylvia’s Mother. The song is about a girl, Sylvia Avery, who is leaving home, moving away from her parents’ house, to go marry a man in Galveston. The singer is Sylvia’s previous boyfriend who calls the house and ends up on the phone with “Sylvia’s mother.” He begs to speak with Sylvia because he just wants to tell her goodbye but Mom tells the guy, nicely, to get lost.
Onstage in Mobile the song started innocently enough but then took an abrupt detour when Dennis got off the leash, lyrically, and improvised the second stanza. The second verse, as it was originally written by Shel Silverstein, goes:
Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s packin’ she’s gonna be leavin’ today
Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s marryin’ a fella down Galveston way
Sylvia’s mother says please don’t say nothin’ to make her start cryin’ and stay
And the operator says forty cents more for the next … three … minutes
But that night Dennis decided that Dad also needed to speak to the caller and bring up a certain issue that was obviously bugging him:
Sylvia’s father says Sylvia’s packin’, she’s gonna be leavin’ today
Sylvia’s father says Sylvia’s pregnant and you’re the one who made her that way
And Sylvia’s father says, “You mother f__ker! When I catch you you’re gonna pay!”
With that the band, and the song, broke down. Ray Sawyer collapsed and rolled on the stage floor and the rest of the band fell all over each other in hysterics. The crowd howled with delight. My pal Wayne and I had tears running down our cheeks. Dennis lurched toward the microphone and stammered, “I’m sorry. I – I just had to put that in there!” Once sufficiently composed the band finished the song and its set and retreated from the stage to a great ovation from the crowd.
That performance was very similar to this one, recorded in 1974 for television in Germany. The condition of the band is obvious, and in a lengthier version of this video Dennis actually throws up onstage. We were fortunately spared that in Mobile in 1972.
Dr. Hook cleaned up real nice
The band continued to commit endearing abominations on tour, performing at least one show in Scandinavia in the nude (ecch!). But nothing prepared Dr. Hook’s fans for what was to come next. In an incomprehensibly outrageous act, the band shocked the universe in the mid-1970s by … going mainstream. Individually and collectively, the band spruced itself up visually, trading in its stoner rags for tasteful clothing and getting its hair cut or coiffed, especially drummer John Wolters who went with the full bouffant du disceau.
With a mainstream appearance came a mainstream sound – and a stream of chart-busting hit songs. A Little Bit More hit the charts in 1976 and peaked at #11 US. It was followed closely by “Only Sixteen,” a remake of the Same Cooke tune, which shot up to #6 with a bullet!
The band charted again in 1978 with Sharing the NightTogether, another #6, and the following year with When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman at (you guessed it) #6. Sexy Eyes followed and at #5 was their highest-charting song since Sylvia’s Mother. Their final foray into the Top 40 was in 1982 with Baby Makes Her Blue Jeans Talk – (in an early rock video starring a lovely pair of jeans).
From the Cover of the Rolling Stone to the cover of … Tiger Beat? REALLY, DENNIS!
The commercial success of the band post-1975 came with compromise, something some members of the band found distasteful. Dennis Locorriere was quoted as saying the band felt like it had sold out and despite the success hated their sound. Ray Sawyer was disgusted at becoming a “product with a patch and a hat.”
All good things must come to an end and so it was with Dr. Hook. Ray Sawyer’s departure in 1983 to pursue a solo career was the beginning of the end. Locorriere and a revolving cast of band members carried on until hanging it up for good in 1985.
Since its demise the band members have seen their share of successes and failures. Ray’s solo career was barely noticeable, though he sometimes opened for his friend Mel Tillis in Las Vegas. In the mid-80s I saw Ray on the Nashville Network singing “You Make My Pants Want To Get Up and Dance.” Animated pants seem to have been a theme with Ray.
Ray eventually recognized that his “hook” was Dr. Hook and begun touring under various incarnations of that name including “Dr. Hook featuring Ray ‘Eye Patch’ Sawyer.” Ray leases the name from Dennis, who owns the rights to it. Though now 78 years old and with a voice reduced to a growl , Ray continues to tour, with dates scheduled through England in Spring 2015.
Dennis all spruced up and presentable
Dennis Locorriere moved to Nashville after the band’s breakup and wrote songs for other artists. In 2007 he was oddly included in an all-star tribute to former Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi which featured Steve Winwood, Pete Townshend, Bill Wyman, Joe Walsh and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens). The gig proved beneficial, for Wyman brought Dennis on the following year as a touring member of Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings in 2008. His most recent solo album, Post Cool, was released in 2010. In 2015 he’ll be on the road touring the UK, New Zealand, Australia and Denmark. For all the wear and tear, Dennis, at 65, looks and sounds pretty darn good.
Guitarist Rik Elswit has returned to his bluegrass and folk roots and now teaches guitar in San Rafael, CA. The latest thing I can find on George Cummings is this interview done in 2010. Three members of the Dr. Hook lineup in its heyday have passed on: drummer John Wolters in 1997, bassist Jance Garfat in 2006 and keyboardist and original member Billy Francis in 2010.