When people think of Vox equipment, many names come to mind, including Brian Jones, Johnny Thunders, and the Chesterfield Kings, over several decades. But in the 1960s, in the Midwest, around Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa, there was one band that did as much to popularize the sound and look of Vox equipment, including guitars, keyboards, and amps, as any chart-topping outfit of the era: the Wild Things.
The group came out of Missouri, starting out as a neighborhood band based in Sedalia that included Ted Engle on guitar, Bob Bledsoe on keyboard, and Jack H. Lewis on drums. That lineup only lasted a short time, however, and Bledsoe's mother didn't want her son hanging around -- in Lewis' words, quoting her -- with "hooligans." Bill Lovell came in on keyboard and Charlie Ford joined on bass, and they were good enough to get a contract to perform at the Missouri State Fair in 1966. At this point, they were still more of a dance band than a rock & roll outfit, and added a fifth member in guitarist/tenor saxophonist Steve Thorn, a student at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, MO. Marshall soon became their new base of operations, and Thorn was able to convince the others that they had more of a future as a rock & roll band. At the time, their prospects looked a little limited, as they worked off of a single amplifier, but it was around that time that Lovell's wife, Widgie, who owned a music store called The Vox Box in Marshall, took over management of the Wild Things. She arranged a sponsorship deal with Vox, and suddenly, the band not only played well but looked incredibly cool with Vox equipment -- "Super Beatles," "Royal Guardsman," and "Buckingham" model amplifiers and teardrop-shaped guitars and basses. By the time the psychedelic boom hit in 1966-1967, the Wild Things were ready with their own music. They played across the state of Missouri, and in Iowa and Kansas, and turned professional.
The Wild Things were never bigger than a successful regional act, but they had a chance for something more in the way of a career. Steve Thorn wrote a pair of songs, "Tell Me" and "My Girl," that went over very well at their live shows, which they decided to cut at Damond Studios in Kansas City, MO. "Tell Me," in particular, was notable for showcasing the then-new Vox Fuzz Box on the lead guitar part.
"Tell Me" was a piece of crunchy garage punk vaguely reminiscent (apart from the presence of the organ) of "The Good's Gone" by the Who. "My Girl," by contrast, was a slow ballad that was very similar in beat and tone to "This Boy" by the Beatles, with the band making a valiant attempt at harmony singing. The single was never a hit, but it sold respectably in the region, driven by the A-side's appeal. Between "Tell Me" and their live performances, the Wild Things became a major innovative force in the Midwest, introducing new sounds to listeners and other groups in the area around Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. And they got to play as far away as Rochester, NY (at a club called "The Grange").
There were lineup shifts along the way. At just about the time they released their single, Ted Engle's family moved to Washington state. Jeff Peak passed through on rhythm guitar for a short time, and bassist Charlie Ford enlisted in the Army in 1967, and was succeeded by Alan Criswell, who not only doubled on bass and trumpet but, according to Lewis, could play them both well at the same time. Thorn eventually left and was succeeded by Mike Tichenor on lead vocals and guitar, and he was replaced by Raymond Henderson as lead singer and blues harpist, with Tom Nicholas coming in on guitar. Bill Lovell left in 1968, hoping to pursue a less arduous lifestyle than touring allowed, and was succeeded by Bobby Richardson, who brought with him a Hammond B-3 organ. The latter, a bigger instrument than most local bands ever got near, only enhanced their sound on-stage. It was that version of the band that toured the most extensively around the Midwest and border states, and on whose work -- along with the single by the earlier lineup of the band -- the group's reputation was built.
In 1969, the last original member, Jack Lewis, was drafted. He was replaced by Wayne Woods, and the band kept going right into 1970 before it disbanded. Following his return to civilian life, Lewis joined Nicholas in the Thomas S. Nicholas Band, who recorded several songs by the guitarist and got to cut an entire LP for Columbia Records in the early '70s. And Steve Thorn, still reportedly playing guitar and sax, was leading a group called Night Flight at the end of the 1990s.
Heard today, the Wild Things' work is amazingly fresh and honest, and intense. Had they continued into 1968 without the intrusion of the military draft or other forces playing on their lineup, they might've broken out to a solid career as a support act. As it was, between the key members being called into the Army or the Navy, the group limped to the close of the decade. But in 1998, Collectables Records issued Cicadelic '60s, Vol. 8, which featured "Tell Me" and "My Girl," introducing a whole new generation of listeners to this glimpse of garage punk greatness.