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Ozark Mountain Daredevils
'Dares in the Field' was taken in 1973. Band members at the time were, from left, John Dillon, Mike "Supe" Granda, Buddy Brayfield, Randle Chowning, Steve Cash, and Larry Lee.
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Ozark Mountain Daredevils
By Kenny Knauer
“If you wanna get to Heaven, you got to raise a little Hell!”
The opening notes of this familiar song floated out over the packed auditorium in the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield. Many longtime Daredevils fans in the audience said they thought they had indeed “gone to Heaven.”
This song was more than just a regional favorite; it hit Billboard magazine’s “Top Ten” when released.
And who could have been more appropriate to christen the October 2006 reopening of the Gillioz Theatre than the Ozark native sons? Bob Bryant, a longtime board member of the Springfield Landmarks Preservation Trust as well as a business partner of John Dillon, an original Daredevil, suggested the band be the first act to play the restored theatre when it reopened this past spring.
The band had already held a “trial revival” of the original Daredevils at Wildwood Springs Lodge at Steelville last year. The concerts were completely sold out. In fact, Bob Bell, owner of the lodge and the organizer of the “Living Room Concerts” held in the cozy venue there, says, “People flew in from all over the world—England, France, Australia, and Israel—to hear them. It was really cool because it was the first time in twenty years these original members had played together,” Bob says.
“The audience was wound up, and it was a magical night,” he says.
The Daredevils played at the Wildwood Lodge again this year. The concerts were more than just jumping back on a bicycle and going out on stage, even with the wonderful harmonies of four of the original members, Randle Chowning, John Dillon, Larry Lee, and Mike “Supe” Granda. It was time to rehearse with their fellow members, Ron Gremp, on drums since 1989, and lead guitarist Dave Painter. One of the best keyboard players in the Ozarks region, Kelly Brown, joined the mix.
News of the Daredevils’ three-night Revival Concerts, coupled with the desire to see the restored Gillioz Theatre complex, prompted a sellout of all 3,300 seats in less than twenty-four hours.
The band has enjoyed similar success over the past forty-two years with a winning combination of great song writing skills, beautiful harmony, hard work, and good luck. Founded in Springfield in the early 1970s by self-described “educated hillbilly hippies,” they were first known as The Family Tree. The group originally came together at a legendary club at Springfield, the New Bijou Theater, as a group of songwriters playing each other’s songs.
In the beginning, it was Randle, Larry, and John, all from the Springfield area. John brought in Steve Cash and Randle brought in Supe, a “city boy” from St. Louis who was studying at Southwest Missouri State University, known at Missouri State University today. Local keyboard artist Buddy Brayfield rounded out the group.
According to John, the single biggest break in the band’s early career was when friend, songwriter, and later Daredevil Steve Canaday made an audacious, unscheduled visit to CBS Records’s senior executive John Hammond at New York City. Hammond had already completed a legendary career at Columbia Records. When Steve informed Hammond’s secretary that he had a tape for Hammond to hear, she assured him Mr. Hammond would probably not see Steve without an appointment. But Hammond began listening.
“Mr. Hammond never turned around from reading the newspaper until Steve Cash’s song, ‘Black Sky,’ came on,” John says.
Hammond must have thought that they had something. He sent one of his artist and repertoire men, Mike Sunday, to hear the group in Springfield.
“His rep gave us five hundred dollars for studio time to record some songs,” Supe says. “They might have expected four or five, but we recorded twenty-three.”
That demo tape led to a management contract with Good Karma Productions of Kansas City and a record deal with A&M Records of Hollywood, says Randle. “David Anderle and Stan Plesser (Good Karma) knew Glyn Johns, a well-known British record producer, who had just produced two Eagles records. He listened to it, liked the authenticity, and agreed to produce the Daredevils’ first album.”
The Daredevils were a songwriter’s band.
“We loved the group The Band, how they played multiple instruments. Glyn Johns wanted a non-L.A. band, and we were authentic,” Steve says.
Steve and Larry recall the band’s delight when Johns said they were to record their first album in England at the famed Olympic Studios at London. Many other famous bands had recorded there, including the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. They would be staying in a two-hundred-year-old manor house near Headley Grange at London that some said was haunted.
There was some anxiety among the band’s members regarding recording in such a renowned studio with a prestigious producer. John wondered if the “organic nature” of their roots-style music would survive a transatlantic transplant.
Their first album, which was self-titled, was an immediate favorite, with “If You Wanna Get To Heaven,” by John and Steve, reaching the top ten song charts. There were a variety of crowd-pleasing styles and harmonies on the album. It featured Randle’s “Country Girl,” Larry’s mystical “Spaceship Orion,” and John’s “Standing On The Rock.” Steve showcased his harmonica styling with the concert favorite “Chicken Train.”
Larry Lee still says he enjoys the album.
“It never gets boring, because every song sounds different from all the other ones,” he says.
The band started touring to promote the album and began work on their second, which was written and recorded in the band’s backyard, near Bolivar and Stockton Lake.
The Car Over The Lake was recorded in 1974 in a mobile studio parked in the yard of a marvelous Southern-style mansion named Ruedi Valley Ranch. Glyn Johns again produced the album for A&M Records.
The band and their friends agree that Glyn must have suffered a “bit of culture shock” coming to the rural Ozarks from his usual haunts in Hollywood, New York City, and London.
This album was even more successful than the first. Steve Cash and Larry Lee collaborated on “Jackie Blue,” which soared to the top of the Billboard charts. The band toured to promote the albums while writing more original material. But the road took a toll on marriages and relationships, and band members longed for families back home.
Randle was the first of the three original cofounders to begin a solo music career. He produced the album Hearts on Fire in 1978, and in 2005, he and Larry collaborated to compose the CD Beyond Reach.
Buddy Brayfield also left the band to enter osteopathic medical school. He now practices at the Lake of the Ozarks and chose not to join in the Revival Concerts.
Larry Lee decided to “get off the tour bus” to put down roots. He moved to Nashville and began a successful career as a songwriter, studio musician, and producer for some of the biggest country music acts, such as Alabama, K. T. Oslin, and Juice Newton. He also played in Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefer Band.
The core group of remaining musicians had a momentous decision to make at the end of 1982. They had finished their record contract with A&M Records and had released one album with Columbia Records. The record industry was in a deep slump, John says, with major acts dropped in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“We saw the handwriting on the wall, since we had not had a recent, successful single release to point to,” he says. “So, even though Columbia was contracted to produce another record, they weren’t up for the costs.”
More musicians left the group; Randle’s Norwegian replacement guitarist Rune Walle left, as did Buddy Brayfield’s replacement on keyboards, Ruell Chappell. Then some of the best musicians in the Ozarks joined John, Supe, and Steve, including Terry Wilson on guitar, Joe Terry on keyboards, and Steve Canaday on drums.
John Dillon remembers the period from 1983 to 2000 as “the missing years.” Memories of the venues all ran together as the band played every place that “ever had a name.” The band toured the length and breadth of the Canadian Provinces, Alaska, all of the major cities in Europe, and every first-, second-, and third-ranked city in the United States. They played the Calgary Stampede and sold more records in Canada per capita than anyplace else in the world.
As the new century dawned, the musicians began to pursue other interests. It was time to find a day job that didn’t involve travel. Supe moved to Nashville in 1990 and played with major acts like The Byrds and Carlene Carter while working in a studio.
Interested in writing since he was fifteen, Steve Cash signed a three-book deal to write The Meq Trilogy. “Rock ’n’ Roll got in the way for thirty-five years,” he says. “When I finally could, I sat down and started writing.” Two of the books have already been published.
John Dillon and partner Katherine Dowdy were busy restoring historic buildings on the public square at Ozark.
When Larry Lee and Randle Chowning moved back to Springfield in 2005 and 2006, a reunion seemed possible. Daredevil fans hope for more.
Today, the band is touring and has released a few live albums on CD and DVD, particularly one in 2008 of their performance at the reopening of the Gillioz.
This story was published in the December 2007 issue of Missouri Life. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life.