For US soldiers in Germany during the Vietnam War, playing in bands was a way to escape - boredom and even combat. One group won a band contest and recorded an album. Only one member has resurfaced to tell the story.
"It would make a great movie!” Lewis Hitt says, remembering the role he played over 40 years ago in a singularly odd episode of US military history.
Now a 63-year-old semi-retired air ambulance pilot in Birmingham, Alabama, Hitt's outlandish tale of rock and roll at the tail end of the Vietnam War has all the elements of a Hollywood screenplay.
In November 1971, the US Army Special Services Division, established after World War II to boost morale with parties and entertainment shows, staged the first of two annual Battle of the Bands-style contests at an army base in Mannheim, Germany.
The musical acts that entered were a far cry from the patriotic fife, brass and drum marching bands of military tradition. Funk and rock bands dominated the line-up, consisting mostly of black draftees who performed covers of popular counterculture-themed hits.
Such rebellious behavior was not only encouraged by the army establishment, but rumours persist that they even used it for their own purposes, as an unconventional recruitment tool.
Mics instead of guns
When Hitt was transferred to Germany from active service in Korea in August 1971 he wangled a plum job with Special Services in Augsburg and joined East of Underground, a multi-racial funk band with three extrovert black singers and a raw, exuberant live sound.
For Hitt and his new musical partners, the purpose of the band was clear. "The whole drive was to get the group ready to enter this show band contest in Mannheim," he says.
"We had all been drafted and were not crazy about being in the army - it was boring. Being in the band and entering this contest was a great way to be in the army but not be in the army," recalls Hitt. "We all shared a passion for playing music but it also helped get us out of a lot of petty duties."
Exempt from repetitive infantry drills, Hitt spent his time honing East of Underground's live act for the upcoming contest at officers' parties and local clubs, sleeping in until noon and using a food allowance to avoid eating mess hall grub.
While enjoying a privileged army life was a definite advantage of band membership, there was also a more serious motivation for entering the grandly named First Annual Magnificent Special Services Entertainment Showband Contest. The band that bagged first prize in Mannheim got to tour Europe and dodge the possibility of being shipped to Vietnam.
"There is no question that the players in these bands were looking to avoid active duty in Southeast Asia by winning the battle of the bands contest," says David Hollander, producer of a new box-set reissue, East of Underground: Hell Below, on US funk label Now-Again, which collects for the first time the winning bands' albums, lost and forgotten for four decades.
Snapshot of the era
After East of Underground tied for first place in the 1971 contest with a band called SOAP, they were taken to the Armed Forces Network studios in Frankfurt for a recording session. The resulting East of Underground album is particularly remarkable, not only because it was recorded in a single day and featured virtuoso musical and vocal performances by supposed amateurs, but also because the song selection reflected the soldiers' experiences of being far from home against their will, and captured the racial tension and political issues that were pertinent to the politically turbulent times.
"There was a lot of thought behind the songs," Hitt confirms. "We weren't deeply political - we were singing about love, life and having a good time - but some songs [such as The Temptations' Smiling Faces Sometimes] definitely expressed a distrust of the government."
Limited copies of the double album with SOAP were made without the bands' knowledge, but no one is quite sure what the army intended to use them for.
"It has been theorized that an LP like the East of Underground one was given out at recruitment centers in predominantly black areas of the country in order to entice young black men to enlist, though that is purely speculative," Hollander says.
Immediately after the recording session, the band embarked on a tour of army bases across Germany before the seven members went their separate ways, never to see each other again. The photograph above is the only remaining picture of East of Underground. The band members, from left to right are: Austin Webb (vocals), Larry Watson (vocals), Bobby Blackmon (vocals), George Daniels (drums), Gus Marquez (rhythm guitar), Lewis Hitt (lead guitar). Not pictured is bassist Ronald Hall.
Hitt only found out about the album's existence when he typed East of Underground into a Google search in 2007 and discovered that music archivist Dante Carfagna had stumbled across a precious copy in a thrift store in Kansas City in 1997, turning it into a rare collectors' item.
"It was astonishing; I got thousands of search results back," Hitt says. "Then I started reading the articles and it was all about us and I had tears in my eyes."
Carfagna tipped off Hollander who then obtained permission from the US Army Entertainment Division for the first reissue of the Hell Below LP on Wax Poetics in 2007, mastered from an unplayed copy found in an office drawer on an army base in Germany. The gaps in the story were filled in when a collection of photographs, posters and set-lists from the show band contests turned up in a Special Services file in the New York Public Library.
The unsolved mystery is what happened to the other band members. Apart from Lewis Hitt, no one else has come forward. Apparently the US Army has not kept good records from the period.
Hollander speculates that most of the surviving members don't know a record was ever produced by the army.
"I assumed when the singers in our band left the army they would stroll straight into a record contract and hit the big time - they were that good," Hitt says. "It's such a mystery. I'd love to know what happened to those guys."
Author: David Sharp
Editor: Kate Bowen