After graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1964, bandmates Rick Fleek, Larry Howard, Bill Johnson, and Richard Poor headed for Seattle to slay the music world dead. And for a moment they were rock stars.
“We made a splash,” said Johnson about the impression the Gatormen made in the Emerald City. “We got tangled up with Pat O’Day and Chuck Bolland,” he said about the two Seattle DJs at KJR Radio who controlled much of the Seattle music scene.
The DJs set the Gatormen up with a number of gigs in the best forums in Seattle, including opening for Ike and Tina Turner at the Seattle Civic Center.
“Oh yeah. That was a big, big venue. The biggest place we had played in previously was the Armory in Juneau,” Johnson said about the gig.
The Gatormen had never heard of Ike and Tina Turner, Poor said.
“And they blew our socks off,” he said. “I couldn’t believe you could play music like that,” he said.
Arriving in Seattle just as the Beatles were coming on the American music scene, the Gatormen jumped on the British moptop look and grew their hair out. They were possibly the first band in the west coast to have that look.
“We walked into a Dave Clark Five concert and started a riot,” Johnson said. “We went in just like anybody else and pretty soon all these girls mobbed us. Everyone was in a frenzy,” said Fleek. “We ran into the bathroom and security guards cleared things out,” Johnson said.
Teenage girls loved the look but it was a different matter when the band took lunch at truck stops while traveling between gigs.
“The truckers wanted to take us out back and beat us up,” Poor said, laughing.
“They had a hit,” said Dennis Egan, Juneau’s state senator, referring to “Namu the Killer Whale,” a record that sold well on the west coast. While in high school, Egan recorded a number of songs written by the Gatormen as they jammed in the Governor’s Mansion when Egan’s father Bill was governor. Dennis Egan is a 1965 graduate of JDHS.
“They were the best band in Juneau,” Wendy Parker Swedell said of the Gatormen. “We all had our favorite Gatormen just like we all had our favorite Beatle,” she said about her teenage girlfriends. Swedell graduated in 1963.
The Gatormen developed as part of a very active Juneau music scene.
“Everyone wanted to be Elvis Presley,” Johnson said.
There were many bands including the Playboys with Alex Jackson, Gene Cunningham, Danny Hughes and Pat Leach. The Playboys later became the Corvettes. The Continentals included Ronny Mierzejeweski and Freddy Slone. Roger Wentzel and Hill Barrington were with the Countdowns. John Elsner and Jerry Niemi played with the Gatormen for about a year. Steve Cantillon, Robert Shelly, Fred Brow and Gary Mahoney also had a band.
The idea for the Gatormen began when freshmen Fleek and Johnson attended a dance in the high school cafeteria and watched the Playboys fire up the crowd.
“Johnson and I flipped out,” Fleek said. “We thought it was the coolest thing we had ever seen. We figured we had to be rockers ourselves. The only problem was we didn’t know how to play,” he said, laughing.
So they recruited Poor, who knew how to play. Poor became lead guitar player and was the most accomplished musician in the band, Johnson said. Later, in Seattle, nationally prominent rock bands would try and recruit him away from the Gatormen.
“The three of us literally started playing two strings at a time and just evolved from there,” Johnson said. Poor, Fleek and Johnson were all from Douglas and had known each other since grade school.
“The problem was we didn’t have a drummer and we needed one if we wanted to play for an audience,” said Fleek.
That problem was solved when Johnson wooed drummer Larry Howard from the Playboys.
“I don’t know what Howard’s IQ was but he taught himself to play the piano. I mean really play, classical stuff. As far as music went, Larry and Rich had all the talent,” said Johnson. Howard died in November 2009.
With Johnson on rhythm guitar and Fleek as the base player, the Gatormen started playing at all the proms and high school dances. They were soon getting requests from around Southeast and would jump on the ferry for gigs in Ketchikan, Sitka, Petersburg, Skagway, and Haines. After graduation they traveled to Anchorage to play at the Cinnamon Cinder, a popular teen hangout and then headed out to Seattle.
After about six months of playing in Seattle both Johnson and Howard called it quits.
“To this day I don’t know why,” Poor said. “I think it was home sickness. They got out of their comfort zone and weren’t as serious as Rick and I were about making it a profession.”
“We were burnt out on it and maybe homesick. I don’t know,” said Johnson.
To keep the band going, Poor and Fleek recruited two Anchorage players, Wayne Carter and Walt Melewski. The group returned to Juneau and recorded some of their new songs with Egan and took the results to Seattle where they received a recording contract with Camelot Records.
One of the recordings was the hit “Namu the Killer Whale,” a song about an orca that was placed in an aquarium after getting trapped in fishing net in 1965. The Gatormen did the music on the record while another group, the Dorsals, recorded the vocals.
The record contract represented the high water mark for the Gatormen.
“We were on the edge of making it,” Poor said.
Fleek was then drafted and sent to Vietnam. To replace Fleek, Poor recruited Fairbanks guitarist Walt Melewski, but as it turned out Fleek was irreplaceable.
“In November ‘65 I pulled the plug and came back to Juneau. The Gatormen went on for a while then folded,” Poor said.
“Rich and I though we were going to slay the music world,” said Johnson about that moment in the high school cafeteria.
That, of course, didn’t happen but Johnson said he wouldn’t trade his Gatormen experience for the world.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was very eye opening especially when we got down to Seattle.”
Poor and Fleek, both retired, have continued to play and write music including producing CDs. Johnson stopped playing in the 1980s and now lives in Seattle where he owns a flower business.