At a barn in Lookingglass late on a Saturday this month, Hercules and the Chicken Fat People ended its rousing set with a gentle song everyone in the audience knew by heart, “Timberjack.”
In the late 1960s in Roseburg, the song was the sundown sign-off for rock station KYES, which was managed by a charismatic young Chicagoan named Tom O’Hare.
He seemingly rode into Roseburg to change lives, including those of five shaggy-haired Roseburg kids, who formed the biggest act in town — Hercules and the Chicken Fat People.
“They were huge,” recalled 1968 Roseburg High graduate Carol Johnson, whose classmates held their 45th reunion in that Lookingglass barn.
O’Hare took the quintet under his wing and booked shows around the San Francisco Bay area and the Northwest, landing opening slots for some main attractions, e.g. The Grateful Dead and The Chambers Brothers (“Time Has Come Today”).
Today, they are a judge, a marketing manager for an insurance company, a city planner and a professor of ophthalmology. One stuck with music as a career and recorded a successful solo album. None of them are quite sure what happened to O’Hare.
The band broke up after college, and it would be 40 years before Hercules and the Chicken Fat People played again. Now the group gets together once a year at the keyboardist’s beach house near Bandon. This year, they played five shows, including the class of 1968’s 45th reunion. Three members of the band graduated from Roseburg High that year.
Hercules and the Chicken Fat People began in 1963 as “The Gas Company” — guitarist Mike Butler, drummer Gregg Gorthy and bassist Phil “Skip” Hanford, who quit the group to play football upon entering high school. Rick Roll, Paul McKee and Chris Johnson joined, and the core of the group was set.
Gorthy had an innate internal metronome. Johnson was a spark plug multi-instrumentalist with perfect pitch. Butler a natural front man with great vocal range. Roll had been classically trained on guitar and could invert any augmented seventh chord, on the spot. And McKee, with his long blond locks, was “as pretty as any girl in school,” recalls friend of the band Virgil Robinson, several years below them in school.
Their thoughtful rock was weighted with many influences, though the overall effect was vintage Summer of Love psychedelia.
Gorthy, now city planner for Jefferson in Marion County, remembers living and breathing music.
“It was a real big thing back then,” he said. “And not just to us, to everyone.”
When Virgil Robinson was 13, he heard the band play at the Roseburg YMCA. He grew out his hair and started playing guitar.
“That was the end of normal life for me,” he recalls. “These guys were big for me. I always tried to follow their lead.”
Their musicality and their packed shows at teen clubs got O’Hare’s attention.
He had come to Roseburg by way of San Francisco to operate his own station and exercise total creative control. Band members remember a natural hustler who opened doors by force of personality.
He was one of those bright lights, destined to burn out early, Gorthy remembers. “And he did. I don’t think he ever found his place in life.”
Each summer before 1968, O’Hare booked the boys in clubs up and down the West Coast and kept them busy with shows most weekends. Through his connections in San Francisco, he arranged for the band to play the Avalon Ballroom and the orchestra shell at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, just off the Haight-Ashbury district at the epicenter of the counter-cultural movement. There they played for a crowd of thousands.
“We were among the beginnings of a change in musical and political change in America,” bassist Paul McKee said. “When we played we were extremely welcomed and appreciated. We felt right at home.”
Keyboardist Chris Johnson recalls many top bands playing free shows in public places.
“At that time, the financial aspects of popular music were not nearly as important as the innovation and quality of the new music scene,” Johnson said. “It was a thrill to be part of.”
Hercules played one free show in front of the music store Roger Calkins Music, which had purchased ads with a brand new music magazine, Rolling Stone. Someone took a photo of the band playing outside the store and it ran in the magazine’s first edition, with John Lennon on the cover.
They watched Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane play the Fillmore Auditorium. Through a family friend of Roll’s they even performed at the home of celebrity attorney Melvin Belli, “The King of Torts,” and saw how the jet set had it.
“It was quite eye-opening,” Roll said.
But it wasn’t all good times. Club owners failed to pay up. Gear was stolen. Outlandish characters tried to rip them off.
“We ran into the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Johnson, now a glaucoma specialist at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
After high school they took the band to college in Eugene minus Gorthy, who stayed in Roseburg. They changed their name to the Ouroboros and went out on the road again after college, this time without Johnson, who by this point had become interested in the workings of the human eye and left Oregon for grad school.
They toured the country once more before the project finally ran out of gas.
Mike Butler kept playing, eventually transitioning to country and jazz and recording a top 100 solo country album. He lives in Salem. Roll went to law school and wound up a circuit court judge in Tillamook County. McKee, now of Forest Grove, entered the public relations field.
This month, they got together again. They played five shows, including three functions for the RHS class of 1968. The reunion ended at Bunnell’s barn in Lookingglass, with the band closing with Lawrence Welk’s “Timberjack.”
“When you’re all done chopping down the poplar and pine, Hurry back, hurry back, Timberjack.
There’s a black-haired gal whose lips are sweeter than wine. Hurry back, hurry back, Timberjack.”
The band told the crowd they’d return to play the 50th reunion.
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.