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Sonics front man Jerry Roslie enjoys a rock & roll retirement
Near-sighted people are working for the weekend. Those of us in it for the long haul pine for something more than two free days a week: retirement. Jerry Roslie is no different, except his version of rest and relaxation is much louder than most.
In 2007, the then-63-year-old singer/keyboard player reunited with his band the Sonics for a performance in New York City that has led to approximately 15 gigs in places such as Seattle, Spain, Norway, England and Belgium. Other than a three-song reunion set in 1972, the shows mark the first time the group have been a fully functioning act since 1968.
Needless to say, a lot has changed since the world last heard from the Sonics. Ironically, the further Father Time takes us from the Sonics’ initial run, the closer music has come to sounding like these proto-punk forefathers. From 1960 to 1968, the Washington quintet—Roslie, guitarist Larry Parypa, bassist Andy Parypa, saxophonist Rob Lind and drummer Bob Bennett—played a rougher, more-amplified version of rhythm and blues that unknowingly laid a foundation for soon-to-be birthed garage, punk and grunge scenes. Original compositions such as “The Witch” and “Strychnine” and fuzzed-out takes on Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel,” Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and the Contours’ “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)” influenced Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana and the Hives, but Roslie says this legacy could never have been predicted.
“We didn’t think anybody was paying attention to us,” Roslie says. “We were told it was hard to get played [on the radio] because it was so wild. You’d hear Bobby Vinton, and then ‘The Witch’—most [DJs] couldn’t get away with that. But the song did pretty well when they did.”
The difference between the Sonics and their contemporaries wasn’t so much the songs, Roslie says, but the method through which the material was presented. “Our competition was good musicians,” Roslie says. “We were all in the same boat, but our style was different. We were more forceful about it. They played good, but they played kind of pretty. We’d get up there and turn everything up and start screaming.”
The Sonics broke up in 1968, and soon after, Roslie entered the 9-to-5 world. He worked for nearly two decades in the asphalt-paving business, owned a roofing company, and sold new and used Chevrolets and Corvettes. The idea was to close the musical chapter of his life to focus on “other things,” but the singer “always kept an eye out for good deals on instruments” and currently owns a complete drum kit, a few guitars, a bass, a Hammond organ, a piano, a synthesizer, microphones and a PA system.
“I was thinking, ‘Maybe someday I’ll want this stuff,’” Roslie says. “I’m glad I saved it. I figured when I got too tired of all that asphalt hard labor, I could tickle the ivories again.”
Offers for a Sonics reunion flooded the band for years, but it wasn’t until their version of “Have Love Will Travel” was used in a television commercial that the idea began to take shape. Members were fearful that a half-assed attempt would embarrass them and their past, so Roslie, Larry Parypa and Lind (along with new bassist Don Wilhelm and drummer Ricky Lynn Johnson) began practicing approximately once a week for a year before playing became a possibility. Even with a steady rehearsal regimen behind them, the Sonics were still worried about disappointing fans.
But Roslie is also this “retirement” time to bask in the glory that is the Sonics circa 2009. Although the Tacoma, Washington, resident readily admits he and his band mates don’t resemble the strapping lads who grace the cover of 1965’s Here Are the Sonics or 1966’s Boom, Roslie is appreciative of the slice of teenage naivete that, for now, serves as his retirement.
“It’s something else,” Roslie says. “So many people in the crowds are younger. Forty years later, I look out into the audience, and it’s the same-looking group that was there when we were teenagers. In New York, they were stage-diving, and I was thinking, ‘This is great!’ In Spain, I was walking, and these kids started bowing down to me. My ego was going, ‘Holy cow. Man, you still got it.’”