Go retro: 1960s band back in Escanaba for sesquicentennial

ESCANABA – If you lived in Escanaba during the 1960s and ’70s, chances are you have heard about one of the area’s most popular bands – The Riot Squad.

The group’s first appearance dates back to October 1965 when they performed under the name The Roadrunners at St. Patrick’s Grade School in Escanaba, according to Jim Joque, an original member of the band.

“The gymnasium was filled with middle school students, a few parents and nuns,” recalled Joque. “Although the kids were ‘grooving’ to the music, the adults seemed unimpressed. One parent said to me, ‘It sure is loud.’ But he also commented that he was surprised it sounded so good.”

Shortly after the group’s debut, they performed under the new name, The Riot Squad at the town hall in Bark River. This marked the start of the legendary Escanaba rock band, which lasted for eight years.

The Riot Squad began with five friends, ages 14 to 16 years old, who attended Escanaba and Holy Name high schools and included Joque, Bob Anzalone, Dan Curran, Brendan Williams, and Greg Curran. Each member lended their musical talent through their vocals or by playing a certain instrument.

The band contracted with a local booking agency owned by Gene Smiltneck called Showbiz Talent, said Joque, a relationship which lasted throughout the life of the band.

In 1967, the band released a remake of Ritchie Valens’ “Come on Let’s Go” and a flip-side remake of Gerry Marsden’s “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey” on the Peninsula Record label.

The record was vital in increasing The Riot Squad’s number of bookings in the area, which led them to upgrade the equipment they used.

According to Joque, the group did not continue with all original band members. Additional Riot Squad members included Kathy Kolich, Karen Beck, Tom McGovern, and Dale Stannard.

The band’s performances included renditions of The Bee Gees, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and other Top 40 music from the time and they performed at teen dances throughout the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.

“We were one of a few groups that wore uniforms in the late 1960s, having four different changes during a night performance,” said Joque. “The group added in a few choreographic moves, and our musical timing seasoned with age.”

The summer of 1969 was a boom for the band with non-stop performances as far down as Green Bay and Marshfield and into the northern parts of Lower Michigan.

It was during that summer the band added a three-member horn section and had a warm-up band travel with them toward the end of the tour.

“All was great in these respects,” said Joque. “However, stress mounted from being together so much during this band boom and the group’s morale quickly diminished. Ultimately, the members decided we were nearing an end to the Riot Squad as we knew it.”

A single-vehicle accident involving the group in September 1969 left band members scarred, bruised and one member hospitalized. Soon after the accident, The Riot Squad gave its final performance at a youth center in Munising before disbanding and heading in different directions.

“What happened was you had four years of basic guys and then I wanted to have a horn section,” recalled former lead singer Greg Curran.

“It ended up that the band actually broke up but the other members wanted to go in the direction of heavier music.”

Curran became the lone member of the band and was left with their name, the group’s van and trailer – which he used to reform The Riot Squad into a horn band that continued from 1969 to 1973, culminating in a final performance at the Sherman Lounge in Escanaba.

Throughout these years, several musicians passed through the band including Bob Derouin, Loreen Zeno, Larry Willette, Greg Tolman, Matt Gadnis, Greg Swank, Fred Bingman, Tom Vardigan, Don Stoor, Mike Backlund, John Adams, and Bob Ling.

“We had basically a seven-piece band,” said Curran. “It was basically a multi-faceted thing because you couldn’t use the horns all the time, so it was just a lot of people playing a lot of different instruments.”

That first summer alone, he estimates the band performed about 90 one-night gigs, performing songs by groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

The Riot Squad continued to perform at teen dances throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada.

“The back of the bus held all the equipment,” said Curran. “We had seats up front. In the middle we had a big room and we had that room paneled and carpeted and had a floor for a little bit more warmth. There was a lot of sleeping in sleeping bags.”

Both Curran and former band member Greg Tolman noted although people think traveling in a band would be a lot of fun, it had its ups and downs.

“If I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing. We did have a good time but what the people don’t see is the amount of work involved. When you’re a musician, you’re a musician 24/7. You don’t call in sick,” said Tolman.

Curran said years later it’s interesting to see how influential The Riot Squad was to the formation of other local bands, such as Rocking Chair and the Reunion Band each of which included former band members.

In fact, the band’s influence remains evident with their June induction into the online Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame, where they are listed amongst big names like Diana Ross and Ted Nugent. The Riot Squad was nominated for the honor by Steve Seymour from the Record Rack, and through online voting from fans, they received the highest number of votes and are the first U.P. band to be voted into the hall of fame.

“It just kind of blew up and then the next thing we knew we ended up finishing first in that contest,” said Curran. “Not only did we get in, but we got the most votes. If you think about the population they have down there with the 700,000 people in Detroit, it’s pretty tough for somebody from Delta County to get the most votes.”

With many former band members in town for the Esky 150 celebrations, Curran said a performance by his current band The Cadillacs during the sesquicentennial has turned into a sort of musical reunion.

“Various people in Riot Squad, we’d like to get people up at different times during the night,” he said. According to the group’s Facebook profile, approximately nine former members are expected to perform.

The Cadillacs will take the stage July 8 at 5 p.m. by the municipal dock in Escanaba.

The Esky 150 celebrations kick off today with the opening parade down Ludington Street at 7 p.m., followed by a B.B. Seacrist 50’s concert in Ludington Park. A wide range of activities are planned for all ages through July 14. For a full list of events, visit www.esky150.org.