Our local music historian waxes nostalgic about the Bay St. Louis of his youth, and how local bands influenced his life.
- story by Pat Murphy
As a teenager, live music and dances became a regular part of my world in small-town Bay St. Louis .The venues where these were held varied. They included the Bay Youth Center (behind S.J. Ingram Elementary on Ulman), The Jaycee Hall (upstairs in the 200 North Beach building), upstairs in Main Street's KC Hall, the National Guard Armory (on Longfellow), the St. Stanislaus big rec hall, Bay Catholic Elementary cafeteria (on Second), and the Bay Waveland Yacht Club.
People have told me about a band named The Nomads. They supposedly were the first rock ‘n’ roll band around the Bay. This band included Mickey Demoran, Harry Ward, Long Beach car dealer Chuck Ryan, Greg Necaise and Steve Saucier. I never saw the band perform because I was still too young, but it's said that they were very good.
There were country bands around with The Dixie Revellers being the oldest and most established. This band went back to the early 1950s, but in my youth the band included Dalton "Blackie" Sones, Tommy Moran Sr. and George Day, among others. Jay Heitzmann even played drums with the band later in the sixties. As a youngster I didn't hear much live country music, but it was definitely around. (Read about country musician Tommy Moran here.)
During my early teen years there were two bands that played at the local dances. They were Isaac "Bo" Darensbourg (known as Guitar Bo even back then) with the Claudettes Combo, and Henry Jay and the Starfires. Later in high school more of the legendary New Orleans entertainers were featured at yacht club and CYO dances in the Bay St. Louis/Pass Christian area. Performers like Art Neville, Irma Thomas and Deacon John would later become regulars in the area, but in the early 1960s the Starfires and the Claudettes owned Bay St. Louis.
The Claudettes Combo
I'll talk about Guitar Bo and the Claudettes first because I have known and been friends with Bo since I was five years old. Bo was about fourteen at the time and did yard work and odd jobs for Ms. Susie Weston a couple of houses over from us. I would walk over and hang out with Bo while he worked, and he looked out for me.
The Claudettes Combo was very popular and featured Bo on guitar, Charlie Laneaux on vocals and sometimes drums (he was a janitor at St. Stanislaus, known and liked by all of us), James "Bro" Baker from Pass Christian on drums, and his younger brother Irvin Baker on saxophone.
Named for the Everly Brothers song, “Claudette,” the Claudettes played for dances downstairs in the recreation hall at St. Stanislaus. They also played 100 Men Hall as well as wedding receptions and house parties in the Bay/Pass Christian area.
Bo later married Miss Dee and became the performing duo that we all have come know and love. Bo has been a lifelong friend to me, and I care for and respect this man a great deal.
Bo performed countless times in Bay St. Louis's 100 Men Hall through the years. In a wonderful, lasting tribute to this lifelong Bay St. Louis musician, an image of a young Guitar Bo has been prominently featured in the new mural recently painted on the exterior of this historic structure.
Henry Jay & the Starfires
My mother's father, George Stevenson, was best friends with Bennie Hille, the local Oldsmobile-GMC dealer on South Beach Boulevard. His dealership was located next to the Star Theatre. Irwin "Squeeky" Hille was the youngest of the Hille boys and a year or two older than I was. As kids, we had always been friends. Squeeky was also a member of the St. Stanislaus marching band, playing snare drum.
My story of Henry Jay & the Starfires begins with a Christmas morning tradition. As a youngster we would visit the Hille family every Christmas, and the adults would share a little Christmas cheer.
I remember walking into the Hille living room that Christmas (1960, I think) to find that Squeeky had received a set of champagne sparkle Gretsch drums as his Christmas present. It was a magical moment for me – and definitely for Squeeky Hille.
Henry Jay says that he had only been playing guitar for about a year when one Martin "Squirrel" Morreale showed up at his house and told him that Squeeky and Martin wanted to form a band. They initially named the band the Scavengers.
I liked the name at the time, and I still like it. During this time it was very popular to name bands after cars (the Corvettes, the Triumphs, the Stingrays, the GTOs, the Mustangs, etc.). Seeing as how Squeeky's dad, Mr. Bennie, was the local Oldsmobile dealer, the band was renamed the Starfires after the Oldsmobile Starfire, and later as Henry Jay & the Starfires.
Also included in the original band was Squeeky's cousin Rhett Maynard on baritone sax, and Howard Carver on trumpet. A short time later guitarist Robert Bourgeois from Waveland joined the band on bass, and Jan Marks replaced Howard Carver on trumpet.
Early on Rhett Maynard left the band, and later Jan Marks moved away. Whitney "Stinky" Carvin joined the band playing trumpet, and my future bandmate Mike Willumitis began playing electric bass with the Starfires. Both saxophonist Squirrel Morreale and Stinky Carvin were St. Stanislaus bandmates of mine, and these two guys were responsible for starting me on my path in the rock ‘n’ roll business.
The St. Stanislaus band hall always had an old grand piano up front, and one day when I walked in, Martin and Stinky were plinking out chords on the piano. I badgered my way into having them show me some stuff on the piano.
That day I learned the piano intro to Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" and how to play a circle 6th progression. I went home and practiced over and over on the old upright at our house, and I was on my way.
One of the biggest events occurred in about 1963 when the band released a 45 RPM record locally. The band drove up to Picayune and recorded "My Lynda" and "Shoestrings" at the WRJW-AM radio station with BJ Johnson, one of the station's DJs, engineering. "My Lynda" was penned by Henry Jay, who was dating a girl named Lynda at the time.
Jay tells me that the flip side, "Shoestrings," was composed at the recording session with Martin Morreale saying, "What about something like this?" and playing the intro. To be perfectly honest, I have always really liked "Shoestrings." The name came when Morreale looked down at his shoes and asked, "What about naming it ‘Shoestrings?’"
Everyone in town just knew that the Starfires were on the way to being the next big thing! I remember Mr. Bennie Hille walking into my grandfather's store with a box of records under his arm and hawking records to all of my grandfather's customers. My grandfather finally gave him a five-dollar bill and received six records, which he gave to me as soon as Mr. Bennie left the store. The band bankrolled and released the record on their own.
Jay Heitzmann tells me that the Starfires were the first non-black act to perform in Bay St. Louis's legendary 100 Men Hall. This was way back in 1964 or 1965, and Heitzmann says that they really had the joint jumping and that everyone really enjoyed the band. He said that he thinks it might have been Wilbert "Bro" Dorsey who booked the band into the hall.
By 1966 the Starfires were no longer performing. Jay played drums with the Dixie Revellers and later went to Nashville and played drums on the road with Charlie Louvin, of the legendary Louvin Brothers. Later he would also play solo and duo gigs locally. Jay has been involved with video production for years and still lives locally.
Squeeky later performed with Speedo & the Rocket 88s (another Oldsmobile name!) and is retired, living in the Bay. Martin Morreale left music and now resides in Las Vegas. Howard Carver lives quietly in Waveland.
Mike Willumitis and I went on to play together in bands like the Subway Prophets and Tomorrows Dawn into the early 1970s. Mike served with the Bay fire department for many years but relocated to North Carolina after Katrina. Whitney "Stinky" Carvin went on to a law enforcement career in Harrison County. Both he and Rhett Maynard are now deceased.
Guitar Bo and his wife Ms Dee continued to work and be involved in the music business until 2018, when Bo's health began to decline. I visited with Bo not long ago, and we always enjoy seeing each other.
In truth, the Bay St. Louis music scene of the early 1960s was probably no different than 500 other small towns across the United States. Most small towns did have some type of live music scene. I guess the fact that I got my start growing up, listening to and being influenced by these bands makes the experience all the more special to me. I do look back on these times with a great fondness.
POSTSCRIPT from Pat: When I began putting this story together, I started thinking about the Starfires' record. It would be my guess that no more than 500 of these records were ever pressed. My copies are all long gone. I would say that "My Lynda" is about as rare as records come. On the obscurity scale of one to ten, the record is probably a solid thirteen. Imagine my astonishment when a casual Internet search returns both "My Lynda" and "Shoestrings" on YouTube! I have included the links to these below. Enjoy.
Link to "My Lynda" on YouTube
Link to "Shoestrings" on YouTube