Home News Local news From the Summer of '71 to Sapphire Bay: Orleans Returns to Rock St. Thomas

From the Summer of '71 to Sapphire Bay: Orleans Returns to Rock St. Thomas

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Feb. 4, 2007 — Turns out the Mamas and the Papas weren't the only rock band to have a formative experience in the Virgin Islands — some of the guys from Orleans spent a couple of months getting their act together here in 1971.
By the mid '70s, Orleans would dominate the charts with soft-rock hits like "Dance With Me" and "Still the One." They'll play those songs and more when they return to St. Thomas on Saturday, Feb. 17, for a benefit concert at the Sapphire Beach Resort, promoted by Steve Simon and Jim Tunick. Orleans and Tunick have connections dating back to 1969.
"Here we are 38 years later playing a show in St. Thomas called 'Dancin' in the Moonlight' and promoted by Jim," says Larry Hoppen, the lead singer.
Orleans has gained attention in recent years for reasons positive (one band member just got elected to Congress) and negative (for years Orleans' 1976 Waking and Dreaming has made the rounds on the Internet as one of the worst album covers in history). But at the beginning of the '70s, a couple of guys who would form Orleans still played in a band called Boffalongo.
"It was the summer before Orleans got together," Hoppen says. "Boffalongo was still going. We rented a building over by Coki Beach and called it the Grass Shack nightclub. That was in July and August of '71. I was 20 years old, and let me tell you, that was a lot of fun!"
The crystal water blew him away.
"This was way before they had Coral World and stuff," Hoppen says. "I did a lot of snorkeling. It was pristine in '71 compared to the way it is now."
Hoppen's band, which came together in Ithaca, N.Y., even had a connection with the Mamas and the Papas, who spent the summer of '65 on St. Thomas and St. John.
"The guy who brought us down was our manager and friend Bobby Simone," Hoppen says. "He ended up serving as the bartender at the Grass Shack. Bobby had been a road warrior with the Mamas and the Papas in the '60s."
Hoppen's band also has a connection with a '70s hit by another band. The title track to Orleans' latest CD is a song called "Dancin' in the Moonlight," a smash in 1973. According to Hoppen, Boffalongo recorded the first version of the song in 1969 — at a studio owned by Tunick in Bearsville, N.Y., the next town over from Woodstock.
"Pretty much nobody ever heard that record," he says. Along with Hoppen, Boffalongo included the future drummer for Orleans, Wells Kelly, and Kelly's brother Sherman, who wrote "Dancin' in the Moonlight." Orleans came together in Woodstock, in 1972, rounded out by guitarist and songwriter John Hall and Larry's brother, Lance Hoppen. Another band from the area ended up recording a version of "Dancin' in the Moonlight."
"Our good friends King Harvest had the big hit," Hoppen says.
Of course, Orleans and King Harvest were hardly the only artists around Woodstock in the early '70s. The small town in the Catskill mountain range provided a home for some of the era's biggest music stars, including Bob Dylan, the Band and Van Morrison.
"We were based there for about 25 years," Hoppen says. "There were three really good nightclubs that were open seven nights a week. We used to see guys like David Sanborn and Paul Butterfield, and guys that played with Van Morrison. It was wonderful, and of course the '70s were a great time for that."
The band took its name from a city whose music the members loved, particularly acts like the Meters and the Neville Brothers.
"We immediately started playing locally in Woodstock," Hoppen says. "We started playing a club, the Cafe Espresso — if you've ever been to Woodstock, you know it well. The owner of the club was going to book us for another gig and asked for our name. We said, 'We don't have a name.' He said, 'You gotta have a name — how are they gonna know who you are?' We must have gone through about 200 names. I said, 'Look — we're playing stuff from New Orleans. Why don't we just call it Orleans?' Not one of us hated it, so we stuck with it."
To record their first album in 1973, Orleans traveled from Woodstock to a music mecca below the Mason-Dixon Line, the famous recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., that gave birth to classic songs by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and many others. Two members of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section produced the album.
"Roger Hawkins played percussion and Barry Beckett played piano," Hoppen says. "We made that album from scratch to final mix in two weeks, and to this day it's our hardcore fans' favorite album. We tried to just get the live feel. A funny thing about that studio is we used to have to stop recording every time it rained, because it had a tin roof."
Two years later Orleans broke through to a national audience with the ballad "Dance With Me" in 1975, followed a year later by "Still the One," quickly picked up by ABC Television as its theme song for the next year and a half. The songs have continued to show up regularly on radio and in commercials ever since.
The band went through a series of ups and downs after that peak, with Hall leaving for a solo career and helping to organize the "No Nukes" concert, album and movie beginning in 1979, foreshadowing his political future. Wells Kelly died in London of a heroin overdose in 1984. After a series of personnel changes, Hall returned to the band in the early '90s, and played with Orleans regularly until his campaign for Congress became too demanding in 2005. The campaign got nasty toward the end — at one point Hall's opponent sent out a mailing that included a picture of the infamous Waking and Dreaming album cover.
"The best she could do was to pull out that album cover and say we were all gay," Hoppen says.
But Hall persevered despite his hairy, topless past, and today represents New York's 19th Congressional District in the Hudson River Valley. With and without Hall, Orleans has supported a number of progressive causes in its 35 years as a band.
This decade has provided something of a resurgence for Orleans. The band released a live album in 2003 celebrating its 30th anniversary, sang an a capella version of the National Anthem before a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston and will release its first-ever live DVD this year. The band has introduced more Caribbean-flavored sounds into its repertoire in recent years, including the cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Trench Town Rock" that opens Still the One Live.
When the band performs Feb. 17 at Sapphire Bay Resort, expect more than just a a series of songs, Hoppen says.
"Obviously we're gonna do all our hits," he says. "We're also gonna tell a bunch of stories. We do some really funny stuff. It's a really good time, and it's high energy."
The concert is a Rotary Club fund raiser for the Nana Baby Home, a non-profit organization that cares for children on St. Thomas. Rotary members Simon and Tunick express excitement about the Orleans appearance.
"I have loved the music of Orleans for over 30 years, and I still sing along every time I hear them on the radio," Tunick says.
The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the gate, according to a news release. Tickets can be purchased on St. Thomas at Modern Music in Havensight, Modern Music at Nisky Center and Chelsea Drugs in Red Hook. On St. John, tickets can be purchased at Connections in Cruz Bay, Connections in Coral
Bay and at Chelsea Drugs in the Marketplace. "Food and beverages will be available all evening, so bring a blanket, bring a chair, but please be cool … no coolers," the news release says.
For additional information, contact Steve Simon at 693-8120 or email him.
"We are thrilled to be coming back to St. Thomas after all these years," Hoppen says. "I can't tell you how thrilled we are."
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