Although a handful of contemporary artists have played around with orchestras, the symphonic rock impulse is most commonly associated with '60s groups like the Moody Blues, Procol Harum and, of course, Spinal Tap.
But when it comes to '50s rock, that's something else entirely. Even orchestral pops icon Arthur Fiedler might have questioned how early classics like "Jailhouse Rock" and "Sweet Little 16" could survive, much less benefit from, orchestral accompaniment.
So did the members of Flash Cadillac even consider the fact that their idea to combine early rock 'n roll with a full-scale orchestra was more than a bit unusual?
"Well, only in the sense that it hadn't been done before," says Flash Cadillac co-founder Warren Knight. "Some of the songs really lend themselves to it, and then some are a little bit of a stretch. And some of them, you would never dream of. But they work."
After more than 100 symphony dates in nearly 50 states, the group has vindicated what must have seemed a bizarre concept back in 1992, the year they first joined the Colorado Springs Philharmonic for a live date at The Broadmoor. It wasn't all '50s music they include some '60s rock and Motown favorites but Knight says "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Layla" are about as contemporary as it gets.
This wasn't the first time the band fought the odds and came out on top. While most of the current members live in Cañon City, Flash Cadillac got its start in Boulder, at a time when Knight was working on an engineering degree and moving from guitar to bass.
"I went back to my folks' home in Security over Christmas break and went down in the basement with my bass guitar, a little amplifier and three record albums," he recalls. "I brought Nashville Skyline by Dylan, Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds and Beggars Banquet by the Stones, and I just started teaching myself. I started out without too much knowledge, but at least I didn't have so much talent that it was gonna get in the way."
Soon afterward, Knight hooked up with drummer Harold Fielden.
"Harold was wandering around Boulder for a year this was in 1968 trying to talk musicians into greasing their hair back and playing songs from the '50s, and people looked at him like he was crazy," says Knight. "So when he finally found knuckleheads like Linn [Phillips, guitarist] and myself to actually try out this concept, his friends shared his joy. In fact, 600 people showed up for our first show at this little house in Boulder, just because Harold had been such a networker."
Sons of the beaches
The newly minted Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids played their first paid gig a week later and went on to become one of Colorado's most successful bands. By 1971, they had dropped out of school, relocated to Los Angeles and undergone some lineup changes, the most significant being the addition of guitarist-vocalist Sam McFadin. From there, things only got better.
"One of the first concerts we did was at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, opening for the Beach Boys," says Knight. "We came out and played oldies, and the crowd just ate us up. We stole the show, and the Beach Boys held a grudge against us for quite a while after that."
In the coming years, the group would share stages with Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, Uncle Heavy & the Pork Chop Review, ZZ Top and, on the eve of the San Francisco Fillmore's closing, a reunited Moby Grape. Apart from Grand Funk fans throwing Cokes at them, they managed to win over audiences with their over-the-top energy.
But it was a more subdued Flash Cadillac that would make its breakthrough in the film American Graffiti, thanks to George Lucas' casting director catching one of their early live shows.
"We hadn't been around movie people at all, but we could tell that George Lucas had a real clear vision of what he wanted," recalls Knight. "Flash Cadillac in '72, we were wild and all over the place. And he said, 'No, I want it to be toned down. I don't want you to move around so much. You're here in your little red blazers and black ties. You wanna be the polite little dance band from up the road."
The band would later play "Susie Q" accompanied by a helicopter and a throng of Playboy bunnies in Apocalypse Now, but it was its performances of "Louie Louie" and "She's So Fine" in American Graffiti that really launched the group's career.
Within two years of the film's release, they'd recorded Sons of the Beaches. Featuring strong original material, the album established them as serious bearers of the rock 'n roll flame unlike their kitsch-inclined East Coast counterparts Sha Na Na, who themselves started in the late '60s and snagged an appearance at the original Woodstock festival. ("I must admit we were kind of envious," Knight recalls.)
"Sons of the Beaches may have been the best album we recorded, but the only problem is that we were on Private Stock," Knight says of the short-lived label formed by Bell Records refugee Larry Uttal. "They were pretty much known for soul singles, and this was more of a surf concept album."
Sammy & the Sarcastics
Despite nonexistent album promotion, the band continued touring throughout the decade, eventually spawning a side group called Sammy & the Sarcastics.
"We started that in 1982 because Flash bookings were slim and we needed some extra income," says Knight. "Unfortunately, that economic necessity continued for 12 years, so we became one of the more popular club bands in Colorado Springs."
Flash Cadillac continued to soldier on, finding new audiences with the symphony tours, until McFadin's unexpected death in August 2001 threatened to end it all.
"After Sam died, I was very unsure whether to keep doing this or not," says Knight, who was by this point the band's only original member. "But after a couple of months, Scott O'Malley, our agent, and I just started talking about how we still had some symphony shows on the books for the following spring. It could have gone another direction after Sam died, but we just thought, 'Well, let's see how it goes.' And it's still going."
In addition to the upcoming show with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, a Flash Cadillac 40th anniversary performance has just been booked for March 6 at the Boulder Theater. The show will feature guest appearances from some of the group's earliest members.
Four decades on, Flash Cadillac has itself become part of the rock 'n roll history that it continues to celebrate. In terms of live performance, the group may well be the best of its kind.
It could also end up being the last. Knight doesn't see a lot of bands carrying on that live rock 'n roll tradition.
"It'll be 50 years this February," he says, "that Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens did their last show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. As long as people still enjoy it and I can still stand upright, we'll probably keep going."
I miss you, Lenny! My family and I thank you for all the special times…
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