Wednesday Apr 28 2010
Forever young- the life and times of Gene Thorpe
By: Kathleen McCoy Grover
Behind the Bars column
The awe and wonder of the Fountain of Youth is no mystery for Gene Thorpe. The endless spring of the intangible and sought-after mystical flow originates from the music found rising up from deep within his very core. Gene’s awareness of the rhythms of life began as a kid. The eldest of three siblings, he grew up near Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y. No matter where he turned his ear, the diverse sounds of the city came together to form an orchestra of perpetual life. During Gene’s early years, many a weekend was spent at the exciting Coney Island Carnival, where kewpie dolls made by Gene’s family were handed out as prizes to carnival customers. The carnival world stimulated Gene and taught him to listen and learn from the pulse of life. Along with the sounds of the city, the piano accompanied Gene’s earliest memories as he often sat at its keys, with his companion tape recorder. In 1953, Gene’s family relocated to Stockton to follow his fascinating and vibrant grandfather, Gene Greene, when he took a management position at Harris Manufacturing. Gene was six when his grandparents’ friend, “The Singing Cherokee,” starred in his own country-music television show. It was in the days of no age restrictions; the youngster accompanied his grandparents to the bustling bars, listening to “The Singing Cherokee” and his band play the now classic hits of Hank Williams, Web Pierce and Ernest Tub. During the mid 1950s and 1960s, Gene’s family operated a service station. After school, it filled Gene with a steady stream of hot convertibles flowing with older teenagers dressed in the era’s coolest clothes. These portable dance floors passed through blasting the timeless hits of Elvis, Fabian, Dion and Bobby Darrin on their tube radios while Gene changed car tires and repaired bicycles. He discovered his own form of ‘portable music’ in a Hohner harmonica, which became his constant companion. Gene’s focus on music matured on the radio’s sweet elixir of old time rock ‘n’ roll, generously poured out by the Kings, Roy Orbison, Bill Haley and The Comets, and so many more. Next, Gene added guitar and drums to his expanding repertoire of musical abilities. When the young teen experienced his first rock ‘n’ roll band in an open-air show, filled with the sound of electric guitars, it swept him away. He was hooked. The eager prodigy met piano salesman Carl Corbin in 1960. Gene spent all of his spare time with Carl, who mentored the young teen not only in music but also in the vital skills of an entertainer. “Once I learned how to play, all I wanted to do was play,” Gene said. Gene frequented jams around his neighborhood, honing his skills with other musicians who shared his passion. Gene’s gigs were often out of town playing drums. Wanting to sing locally and move away from drums, he joined forces with three musicians. They picked tomatoes to earn money to buy guitars, amps and an Army surplus P.A. system and created the group, The Persuaders. They played the 1965 California State Fair’s Battle of The Bands. After a year of hard work and even more fun playing many local dances and parties, the band dissolved in 1966. The Yellow Submarine trio formed that same year with Frank Sorci on keyboards and Bill Miller on drums, followed by The Concern with Gary Powell, Verlen Thom and Laura Flowers. Also in 1966, Gene landed a job at the Vox Room Guitar Center in Sacramento. He started as a janitor, then worked with inventory and moved on to selling anything that had to do with music. Gene joined Dave Williamson, Ron McElroy, Ron Cook and later, Rick Taylor, to form the young band, The Yukon Daily. “We rehearsed like machines, night after night, song after song. We were steeped in the blues and early rock styles,” Gene said. “We opened shows for the popular bands Buffalo Springfield, Steppenwolf, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Quicksilver Messenger Service and many others. I can still play a whole night on the songs I learned from that period of my life between ‘67 and ‘70.” Next came a short stint with a band called Movie. Then came the first version of The Simultaneous Avalanche Band. After a long summer on the road in Lake Tahoe and Nevada and having all their equipment stolen, Simultaneous Avalanche’s first incarnation disbanded. Rejoining Simultaneous Avalanche, Gene had a ”wild time” playing rock, blues and pop while touring Canada and 29 states, including Alaska and Hawaii from 1970 to 1976. Gene returned to the music store when Avalanche came home in 1976. That same year, Sacramento Entertainment Guide and Directory hired Gene. “My musical career and the band were always my first priority,” Gene said. His monthly magazine column went from covering 20 clubs a month to more than 100 clubs and events. Gene met his wife, Shari, in 1978, when she stopped by the Tutor House in Carmichael where his band was playing. The serendipitous meeting immediately changed their lives. In 1980, Sacramento’s music scene began to change rapidly and so did Gene. He left The Vox Room to start a new talent agency called GTA, headquartered in Skip’s Music, “one of the largest and most progressive music stores in the United States.” He also put together Powerglide, which in 1981, won the Shire Road Battle of the Bands. “We went on to play many top Northern California nightclubs and became one of the more ‘in demand’ corporate bands on the Sacramento music scene.” Gene’s drive and ambition took him to yet another level when, in 1984, he decided to back away from the music business. Gene sold GTA to Stephen Grace and entered the real-estate business. His performance-based work ethic, combined with his years as an independent contractor, served him well. However, Powerglide still landed gigs. Gene never did leave the music business. In 2002, after working with fellow musician, Realtor and friend Ron Barringer, he opened Pavilion Realty and also formed The Fabulous DeVilles band. This year, Gene was elected president of the Placer County Association of Realtors. Gene’s melodious fountain of his youth keeps him forever young. Together with the Fabulous DeVilles, he keeps that grooved record of music alive and rockin’ with the songs that gave birth to the legendary kings of rock ’n’ roll. Kathleen McCoy Grover, “My Life, Your Music,” is a Lincoln resident.