Port Huron’s storied musical past is focus of new film

‘Something in the Water’ to debut at McMorran Nov. 11

by Jim Bloch
Voice (Clinton Township, MI)
November 3, 2017

Put your ear to the pavement on Military Street in downtown Port Huron and you just might hear the beat of an almost unimaginably vibrant live music scene - one that vanished more than a half-century ago with the burning of the Dome in 1971.

"In the '50s, there were 17 clubs in Port Huron doing music almost seven nights a week," said Chris Troy, the St. Clair-based producer and director of the new film "Something in the Water: The History of Port Huron Music, Part I."

Local clubs featured bands like The Satellites, who played swing and doo-wop as the house band at the Satellite Bar from 1959 to 1963. The Satellite Bar sat about where the Community Foundation of St. Clair County building is today on Military Street, a couple of doors south of Water Street.

"Bob Seger played the Satellite Bar," said Dan Hedt, a guitar fixture on the Port Huron music scene since the early 1960s, playing with Nobody's Children, The Unjust 5, Liberty, Crosscut Saw, Straight Shooter and many more. "The Frost played Port Huron High. Starting in the '60s, for 20 years, this was a musical hot bed."

'One of the biggest musical events in 50 years'

Troy's film premieres at McMorran Auditorium Nov. 11.

Hedt called the premiere of the movie "one of the biggest musical events in this area in 50 years."

"Chris dug up people who haven't been heard of for years," Hedt said.

Immediately following the film, two local headliners from the late 1960s, The Words and The Case, will play short back-to-back sets.

The Words will include original members Gary Holmes on guitar, vocalist Rob Carson and keyboardist Hrant Hratchian. Jimmy Summerville will play bass, instead of his brother Tommy, who followed Dave Kiswiney, who went on to play for Ted Nugent from 1979 to 1990. Donnie Burton will fill in for original drummer Dave McDonald.

"I was between ninth and 10th grade and didn't have my driver's license," said Hratchian.

The other band members were in college.

"They'd have to pick me up," Hratchian said.

The band typically opened with the Beatle's Sgt. Pepper. Troy is urging the band to play its 45 rpm recording "Runaway Love" at McMorran.

The Case will feature original members Burton on drums, Chuck Claerhout on keys, Rich "Bozo" Davis on bass, Greg Bell on guitar and Kim Patterson on vocals. In its heyday, The Case played gigs with The Frost and The Rationals and toured with Frijid Pink.

"They were the real deal," said Hedt.

The movie surveys the years 1950 to 1971, the year the Music Dome was burnt down by its owner Dan Foster.

"The hair was getting longer, the skirts getting shorter," Foster told Troy.

Drug use was also increasing.

"It just wasn't fun anymore," Foster added.

The club featured regional bands heading for the national stage, such as the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, along with a churn of local bands.

"The Dome was always a happening place," said Hratchian. "They tried to keep kids from drinking, so no one over 21 was allowed."

Dreams of stardom play out in Port Huron

All kinds of musicians on their way to fame entertained in Port Huron. The city was close enough to Detroit to be firmly in its musical orbit. With the Blue Water Bridge, Port Huron was a convenient stopover for bands on their way to gigs in Canada. The city's big bar scene offered plenty of clubs in which to play.

In the early 1960s, Joni Mitchell played the Folk Cellar, below the old Military Street Cafe. So did Gordon Lightfoot.

In a coup, Troy interviewed Mitchell for the movie. Her album "Blue" was named the top album by NPR this summer in its "Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women."

Neil Young played the Red Fox in the basement of the Harrington Hotel. Diana Ross played Arena Gardens, located about where Dunkin' Donuts now sits in Fort Gratiot Township. Glenn Frey, a founder of the Eagles who grew up in Royal Oak, played the Blue Water Bowl. Frey died in 2016.

Following the permanent departure and retirement of their guitarist, Charlie Winters' band the Continentals missed out a chance to tour nationally with the Beach Boys and the Kingsmen, of "Louie, Louie" fame.

"Port Huron is one of a million towns where these dreams of stardom and these inner struggles were playing out," said Troy.

In the early 1960s, country luminaries like June Carter, George Jones, Hank Williams Jr. and Loretta Young played the Outpost, which is still operating on 24th Street.

Later, Johnny Cash played McMorran, in the same space where Troy's movie will be screened.

'Something in the Water, Part II'

Something in the Water, Part II, which is expected to be completed in about a year, covers the Port Huron music scene from 1971 to 2000.

"I came on the scene in the 1980s," said Troy, who played in bands like Private Parties, Gothic Box, Drunk Uncle and Sod Farm. Troy now leads Rattletrap. "I can't believe how much I learned making the movie."

Meet, for example, Lonnie Barron, a Louisiana-born rockabilly singer who had been stationed at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County, worked as a disc jockey at Marine City's WDOG and was on his way to a major record deal when he was shot dead in his home on Gratiot Boulevard Jan. 9, 1957, in Muttonville, long since gobbled up by the city of Richmond.

"Singer Shot Through Head," reported the Mount Clemens Daily Monitor-Leader, a direct forefather of The Voice's sister paper The Macomb Daily.

Roger Fetting, enraged by his wife Bettie's fan letters to and apparent involvement with the singer, killed the singer in his bathroom. Barron was already dressed for his gig in his "ornate cowboy boots, a red western shirt and cream colored trousers...His body was surrounded by boxes of fan letters."

Known for songs like "Teenage Queen" and "You're Not the First Girl," Barron's funeral in Port Huron attracted 3,500 people, most of them teenage girls.

If you were one of them, or one of the fans who later packed the Satellite, the Dome or the Arena Gardens, see you at McMorran Auditorium Nov. 11.

See the film

McMorran Auditorium is located at 701 McMorran Blvd. in Port Huron. The doors will open at 6 p.m. Nov. 11. The two-hour movie will begin at 7 p.m.

A cash bar, a red carpet and a 20-piece exhibit of memorabilia from the city's musical past that Troy is billing as the Port Huron's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will also be included.

Tickets cost $10 each and can be purchased at the box office, through Ticketmaster and at the door.

The screening is sponsored by Wolverine Market and Citizens for a Vibrant Community.


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