In 1970, America had (more or less) embraced the loving invasion by the hippie hordes, and Philadelphia, Pa., rivaled any town when it came to countercultural action. The city where jazz titan John Coltrane began his musical ascent may be better known as the home of R&B’s “Philly Sound,” but it was also the primordial breeding ground for a pretty red-hot rock scene. Clubs like The Electric Factory and The Kaleidoscope featured musical acts that equaled Manhattan’s famed Fillmore East, offering tie-dyed and red-eyed music fans the chance to witness such artists as Cream, The Velvet Underground, The Allman Brothers Band and even jazz great Stan Kenton. Local bands like The Mandrake Memorial and The American Dream held their own with the touring acts, but one group jumped ahead of the pack and seemed poised to ascend to the level of rock royalty. The band was called Wax and it was known for its stellar live performances, featuring a unique sound that was a weird amalgamation of art-damaged acid rock, blues, jazz and full-throttle boogie (sometimes in the same tune) which somehow worked.
Formed in 1969, the band featured an adept lineup of vocalist David Kagan, guitarist Rick Levy, keyboardist Rob Hyman and a rhythm section of Beau Jones and drummer Rick Chertoff. With the help of a bulletproof management team, John David Kalodner and Bill Sisca, Wax was soon signed to Bob Crewe’s Atlantic Records-distributed CGC label for a then-sizable amount of $50,000 and started taping in Manhattan’s famed Record Plant. After Crewe’s label folded due to financial problems, Wax was given the bum’s rush and band members were back in Philly, without a record deal.
In May 1971, managers Kalodner and Sisca had the foresight to get the razor-sharp band to record a set in a two-hour live session. Now, nearly 40 years later, Light Year Entertainment has released Wax’s “Melted” (lightyear.com
) -- an impressive artifact that begs to ask, “What if?” Listening to “Melted” is all the more bittersweet, since Wax had a sound that would eventually be called progressive rock, a style that would enable bands like Yes and Kansas to become megastars. Songs like “Things She Likes To Do” and “Only Twenty” shift from balladry to ballsy rock with a seamless confidence. The baroque psychedelia of “I’m Just A Banked Flame” finds company in other iconoclastic-sounding acts of the day like Traffic or Vanilla Fudge. Perhaps what’s most impressive about “Melted” is that the entire album was recorded live in the studio, with no overdubs or studio trickery. It’s a noble testament to a time when musicians were judged by the merits of their technical skills and originality. With an average age of 23, Wax come across as stone equals to any rock band kicking out the jams in those heady days.
After Wax faded into obscurity, the founding members went on to greater glory. Keyboardist Hyman co-wrote Cyndi Lauper’s megahit “Time After Time” and co-founded ’80s hit-makers The Hooters. Drummer Chertoff went on to become a Grammy-nominated producer and worked with acts like Joan Osborne, The Chieftains and The Band. Manager Kalodner is considered one of the most successful A&R men in the biz and has worked with everyone from Phil Collins to Foreigner, as well as Aretha Franklin and Aerosmith.
Guitarist Rick Levy, as it happens, eventually moved to St. Augustine. He went on to raise a family and has found success as a player and manager working with the likes of The Box Tops, Herman’s Hermits, Tommy Roe and Jay & the Techniques, they of the delicious soul hit “Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie.” He’s been a fixture on the Oldest City’s music scene for many years, currently with The Falling Bones.
Levy is stoic about Wax’s great “near-miss” with rock fame. “Inside of six or seven months after forming, we were playing with Chicago, John Mayall, Manfred Mann, Todd Rundgren’s The Nazz and The Flamin’ Groovies,” he says. The band’s sudden windfall of management deals, big money and shot at glory sound similar to an equally talented band that failed to launch, Haight-Ashbury’s Moby Grape. “Oh, absolutely; we had a lot of money thrown at us, and suddenly we’re in the studio and you have John Lennon recording ‘Imagine’ in one room and The Who taping ‘Who’s Next’ in the other and we’re just trying to do this thing and then -- boom … the IRS shuts us down.”
Levy credits vegetarianism, yoga and the spiritual practice of transcendental meditation as keys to his longevity and peace of mind. “Since 1972, I meditate twice a day for 20 minutes. Now it’s just like brushing my teeth.”
Sadly, Wax bassist Beau Jones recently lost his long battle with cancer. His death galvanized the surviving members to reform for a memorial concert in his honor, scheduled for this month in Allentown, Pa. And nearly 40 years later, the Wax album “Melted” is finally finding greater notice and critical acclaim.
“It’s been a pretty amazing turn of events,” says Levy. “The music, the camaraderie, friendships and people coming out; it’s truly extraordinary.”