How Neil Armstrong Booted A Sulphur Band Off Of National TV
By Brad Goins
Like many who witnessed the event when it happened, young Sulphur resident Maurice Fontenot was deeply moved when he saw Neil Armstrong become the first person to walk on the moon. “It’s almost like it was yesterday,” says Fontenot. “It was such a turning point.”
These are powerful statements coming from someone who would have good reason to feel a little bitterness about the moon landing. You see, Maurice Fontenot was scheduled to appear on national TV when the moon landing took place. Because Armstrong’s landing pre-empted all TV programming, Fontenot did not appear on the airwaves when all his family and friends expected him to.
It all started when Fontenot and his brother decided to start a rock band. Fontenot can remember the day the Wild Childs began — July 15, 1967. He was 17 and his younger brother John Kenneth was 15. Both brothers had been active in Sulphur school bands for years. They’d spent the last year learning guitar, and had finally decided to take the leap into performance.
While Maurice’s younger brother was attracted to some of the more complex rock, such as the Beatles, Maurice was into “Top 40; not so much the English bands.” Maurice favored such now-forgotten bands as Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Grassroots — bands that were close to the mainstream of rock. He also liked some R&B, notably Sam and Dave and Otis Redding.
As soon as mother Beatrice heard a band was being formed, she took over the job of booking dates for the band. She did that job for the duration of the band’s existence.
Other members in the band’s original line-up were Russ Reynolds on lead guitar, Joe Gwinn as lead vocalist and Doug Brooks on drums. Maurice Fontenot played rhythm guitar and brother John Kenneth played bass. All five knew each other well from Cub Scouts. Maurice’s mother was the den mother of the troop.
In 1968, another guitarist, Mike Allen joined the Wild Childs, bringing its membership to six. In the same year, Fontenot suffered a severe hand injury that obliged him to switch from bass to keyboards.
Why did band members choose the name “Wild Childs” as opposed to “Wild Child” or “Wild Children”? “It just flowed,” says Fontenot. “Everybody in the band liked it.” Looking back on the name today, he says, “it didn’t make a lick of sense.”
Like most bands of the day, the Wild Childs started off very small. Their first gig was at a neighbor’s birthday party. Each band member got $10. Mother Beatrice travelled with them to this party and to every other venue where they played.
At first, Wild Childs played in Southwest Louisiana. But they felt they were fortunate to get even a small smattering of applause in the area. “Around here,” says Fontenot, “audiences just did not react; not at all.”
With the lukewarm response the band received in SWLA, members decided to tour the northeastern U.S. and became a show band.
A Show Band
Instead of performing for audiences the size of those in SWLA venues, the band was now playing for 5,000 to 7,000 a night.
To become a “show band,” The Wild Childs received instruction from experts on Las Vegas shows who knew how performers could work an audience.
Fontenot was told to establish eye contact with each person in the front three rows. These people would then become invested in the show. And when the first three rows were invested, the rest of the audience would follow.
“Keep driving and driving and driving,” he and the other band members were taught. They were told to bring the audience up then bring it back down, and to keep that process going. “We weren’t just playing music,” says Fontenot. “We were performing.”
It was important to be able to bring the audience up and down. The band found out by experience that it was a bad idea to leave an audience in a frenzy. After one especially energized performance, band members left the venue to see “50 females” gathered around the band’s bus. They appeared to be “tearing clothing off” drummer Doug Brooks. After that, Wild Childs tried to end the show with a mellow crowd.
Enter Dick Clark
In the mid-1960s, when Dick Clark produced Where The Action Is, a weekday rock music TV show, the band Paul Revere and the Raiders performed on the show with great success. Clark went on to form another daily rock show — Happening ‘68 — that was hosted by Paul Revere and band mate Mark Lindsay.
When Happening ‘68 announced it was having an amateur band contest, Fontenot wrote Dick Clark a letter saying he’d like to enter his band. In response, Fontenot got a letter asking for a demo tape. The tape was to include no original material (so that Clark could avoid licensing hassles) and should be 1:30 long.
The Wild Childs went into Oday Boudreaux’s studio in Sulphur; recorded a short version of the Ohio Players’ song “Down at Lulu’s” for $6; and sent the tape to Clark. After waiting several months, they got a call one Friday telling them they were to fly into Los Angeles on Sunday.
As they were performing during the three rounds of Clark’s amateur band contest, Wild Childs got to hang out with many of American’s rock ‘n’ roll elite. Acts they sat around with backstage included Three Dog Night, the Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt and, of course, Paul Revere and the Raiders. Most of the music performed on the show was lip-synced. But the Beach Boys were on hand to perform a rare live number with The Raiders.
“We were a bunch of nobodies in L.A.,” says Fontenot. “But they all treated us like equals. We came back [to Southwest Louisiana] with a new outlook about what we should act like.”
Wild Childs won all three rounds. Among the judges who pronounced them the champions were the Monkees’ Peter Tork and the Grassroots’ Warren Entner.
The band’s $10,000 prize package included Vox amplifiers and Indian mini-bikes that traveled at 45 mph and “got us into a lot of trouble,” says Fontenot. Perhaps the most important prize was a contract with Mercury Records.
There was only one imperfection in this pretty picture. The show in which the Wild Childs won the contest didn’t air on the day it was supposed to.
That day was July 20, 1969 — the same day that Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. All television programming was pre-empted so that live coverage of the moon landing could be shown on all networks.
Dick Clark’s response to the pre-emption was to push the airing of the show back a week. When it finally hit the airwaves, Wild Childs was back home and a crowd “of hundreds” gathered in Muller’s Department Store to watch the show. The store organized a fashion show in honor of the event.
The entire episode of going through the national band contest and winning it “was life-changing,” says Fontenot. “We came back [to SWLA]. Things started to happen for us.”
One thing that didn’t happen as they wanted it to was Mercury Records’ support of their recordings. “We got caught in a bad spot with Mercury,” says Fontenot. At the time of the record deal, Mercury had made the commitment to switch entirely from rock music to country.
When the band went touring, says Fontenot, they sold thousands of copies of their “big” Mercury single “Love Again.” The single got good rotation on radio stations in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. But the country-oriented Mercury company refused to do any advertising or promotion for the single. Without that, it was dead in the water. The Wild Childs never managed to chart.
‘I Was Big On A Vocal Band’
Before the Clark show, the Wild Childs dressed in matching outfits, just as many of the bands of the time did. But after band members hung out with some of 1968’s top rock musicians, they adapted the leather fringe jackets and psychedelic bell bottoms of the time.
The year of 1968 brought major personnel changes to the band. Two vocalists, Joe Wilkerson and Rick Hamberlin, were added. “I was big on wanting a great vocal band,” says Fontenot. At the time, Three Dog Night was churning out hit recordings with an ensemble that featured a large number of singers.
The Wild Childs also added sound man Sidney Richards as the off-stage mixer. That gave Wild Childs eight members onstage and one member off.
Fontenot lauds the depth of talent in the band. Of the eight members who performed, seven sang, five could play guitars, three could play keyboards, three could play drums, two could play sax, two trumpet and two trombone. Fontenot remembers stunning audiences by closing shows with a Sly Stone number for which three band members came to the front of the stage and formed a brass section. The wind instruments came out of nowhere.
The band stayed on a national tour until 1971. Then circumstances began to tear the band apart. One of these was the Vietnam War. Fontenot was drafted. Another member chose to go into the Navy rather than be drafted.
But another problem was the exhaustion of three years of national touring. “We were flat wore out,” says Fontenot. For the most part, the band members lived on the Wild Childs bus. “There were days when you had a choice of eating or sleeping.”
‘Do You Mind If I Quit?’
Eventually some members of Wild Childs would regroup under the name of McKeiver. They would eventually start a second band, Hot Choice, which incorporated some disco when that sound became hot.
As trained show musicians and instrumentalists, they were successful, earning $1,500 a night. But they played three to five nights a week, traveling as far away as New Orleans and Austin. All this time, Fontenot kept up his full-time work at the plants.
But eventually, circumstances tore at the band’s fabric again. Fontenot kept thinking about the two kids at home who wondered why they didn’t see daddy more often. Things came to a head one night when a female singer, a bass player and a drummer quit in one day — all without consulting with each other beforehand.
Fontenot was worried about taking his doubts to his wife, who had always been a strong supporter of McKeiver and Hot Choice. When he reluctantly asked her, “Do you mind if I quit?” she gave him a big smile and a big hug. Aside from occasional DJ work, Fontenot’s days of performing onstage were over. It was 1979.
Studio And Video Work
While stage performance had always worn Fontenot down eventually, he’d always enjoyed studio work. As the 1980s began, he completed and released two studio albums for his band. He also made an early music video for HBO. “It gave me the bug to get into production,” he says.
He caught the bug so bad that he ordered a $12,500 Ichikawa camera from Japan. He was, he says “doing well at the plants, but hated them.” He waited a few months to receive the camera in the mail. Then one day, he was laid off at the plant. He came home to find his Ichikawa waiting for him. He and his wife put the camera up in their main room on a tripod. Now, what do we do with it? they wondered.
One day, a cable technician working in the house saw the camera and asked, “Do you guys do that?” When they said yes, he said he might know someone who’d be interested in their services.
Through this contact, Fontenot and his wife began making and selling cable TV ads, eventually forming a company called AFV. At first, they had a devil of a time. The ads, for which they charged $4.99 each, just weren’t selling. Fontenot got the idea of raising the price to $10.99 per ad, and they sold out for 10 years. Apparently people had been afraid that they were being offered something for nothing.
Fontenot eventually moved into outdoors production, handing the production for Ron Castille’s and Cajun Phil’s fishing shows. Fontenot became disillusioned with outdoors shows production companies, which often wanted to have full ownership of the programs’ content while at the same time allowing a program only two commercials per episode to raise revenue. Fontenot saw the whole thing as a recipe for business disaster.
So he and his second wife Susan Melton started their own show: Bayou Country Outdoors. It’s been running for 26 years and is still going strong.
‘We Played As A Band’
Today, Fontentot is 70. His long career has led him from musical performance to showmanship to recording to video production to television production.
He believes that when his band came together in 1967, there were 27 bands in SWLA. He thinks there was a tremendous pool of talent. But most of it either fell prey to audiences who weren’t involved or the host of personal conflicts that can destroy bands.
Fontenot thinks that over the years, he learned the formula for making a successful band. First, the band owns everything: its instruments, equipment, transportation. Everything.
Second, it’s essential to find people who are extremely talented but are also able to keep their egos in check.
In the long years since 1971, five of the original nine members of the Wild Childs have died. Rick Hamberlin (vocals) died of a congenital kidney disease. Russ Reynolds (lead guitar) died of cancer. Mike Allen (second lead guitarist) died of heart disease. Sidney Richard (sound mixer) died in a car wreck. And Joe Wilkerson (singer) died in a freak accident in which his car fell on top of him when he was working on it.
It should have been some consolation to these people who died so young to listen to their old Mercury single and realize that they were talented and tight enough to play psychedelia about as well as it was ever played.
After all this time, Fontenot still has an acute sense of what was special about the Wild Childs. “We never lost a member” due to in-fighting or big egos. “We played as a band. We were not soloists.”