The Original Sensational Showmen

The Original Sensational Showmen
National Guard Armory-Concordia - 1965

Monday, March 23, 2009

Washington County News-Washington, Ks. Week of 3/23/09

Former Clifton-Clyde band inducted into Kansas Music Hall of Fame

By Tom Parker
At the 2009 Kansas Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Concert, held March 7 at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, the Sensational Showmen officially took their rightful place beside other Kansas musical luminaries such as Pat Metheny, Chet Nichols, Martina McBride, Melissa Etheridge and Kansas.
Sharing the stage with the Sensational Showmen and the Sensational Showmen at the 2009 Kansas Musical Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Concert were, you guessed it, the Sensational Showmen. They, too, officially took their rightful place beside other Kansas musical luminaries.
In fact, at one point during the ceremony there were about 40 people on stage, all of them Sensational Showmen, all being honored for the music they produced in the 1960s and 1970s.
For the sake of clarity, it might be easiest to identify the three groups with their towns of origin, such as the Sensational Showmen Clifton/Clyde/Concordia, the Sensational Showmen Chanute/Fort Scott, and the Sensational Showmen Parsons/Pittsburg.
For even easier identification, the groups can be remembered as #1, #2 and #3.
“We were the first,” said Phil Pfister, formerly of Clifton and now president of an architectural glass construction company in South Carolina. “Our band was the original group.”
The Sensational Showmen went on to three incarnations, each from different parts of the state. Unknown to the original members, a clause in the contract allowed the manager to retain the name if the members quit.
SS #1 was formed in 1964, consisting of Pfister, lead guitar and vocals, Larry Jackson, bass guitar, trombone and vocals, and Ron Balderston, trumpet, organ and lead vocals. Pfister and Jackson hailed from Clifton, Balderston from Clyde. Other members were recruited from Concordia, including Robin Hood, drums, Paul Justyna, saxophone, Bob Burns, rhythm guitar, and Mike Srite, trumpet and organ.
“We were just a bunch of 15-16 year olds making music,” Pfister said. “We were in it for fun and to be popular with the girls.”
The band played many outdoor dances in Clifton and Clyde as well as performing at local schools, National Guard armories, community centers, fairs, carnivals, clubs and bars. Their repertoire consisted mainly of top 40 hits from the ‘60s, with those by Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and James Brown being their favorites. “We enjoyed those kind of songs more than the Beatles,” Pfister said. “And we choreographed our moves—we didn’t just stand around playing our instruments.”
The band spent hundreds of hours practicing and learning songs by listening to 45 records and copying the sounds strictly by ear, Pfister said. They didn’t have sheet music but used their ears and then arranged the songs, not only for the guitars but for an entire horn section as well, which use a different key. “I don’t know how we had time for everything,” Pfister said. “We had a lot more energy in those days.”
As the group became more popular, their travels took them on the road, from Oklahoma to Minnesota, playing all summer long and every weekend.
“It was a very hectic schedule,” Pfister said.
That very hectic schedule lasted four years.
“We decided to call it quits somewhere in South Dakota in the summer of ’67,” Pfister said. “We were burned out.”
After coming home to Kansas, they split up and went their own ways. Jackson and Burns continued their musical careers for a while, others sought careers and Pfister joined the Air Force. In 1980, he moved to South Carolina with his wife, Patty.
Though Pfister had kept tabs of where former band members had wandered off to, he hadn’t seen them for 40 years, until a fateful e-mail popped into his inbox with news of the Kansas Musical Hall of Fame’s induction.
Prior to the notification, Pfister had never heard of the hall of fame. “I didn’t even know of the organization until I heard from a board member from Beloit who said we should try to get votes to be on the list,” Pfister said.
But because only hall of fame board members could vote, and because they were all from the eastern side of Kansas, the group felt it unreasonable to pursue the nomination. Only when the Parsons/Pittsburg group lobbied members to vote for them did the hall of fame decide to honor all three incarnations.
Bill Lee, president of the hall of fame, finally concurred.
After contacting several former members, Pfister traveled to Concordia where he reunited with Justyna, Burns and Hood. Gone were the fresh-faced youngsters in their velvet finery. “We’re getting so old now,” Pfister said.
Being nominated gave Pfister an urge to rush out and buy a new guitar, just like one of the many he’d used during the years he toured with the band. “If I would have kept all the guitars I played in those few years,” he said, “I could probably retire. They’re all very valuable now.”
He still owns a 12-string guitar and a 6-strong acoustic guitar that his son plays regularly.
At the induction ceremony, five of the original seven members were in attendance: Srite, Balderston, Burns, Justyna and Pfister. Hood was in California and couldn’t attend. Jackson passed away in 2002 but was represented by his family and his youngest son, Nick, who took the stage with the others to accept the award on behalf of his father.
Looking back on those years as the Sensational Showmen, Pfister said he thinks they were quite good. “The equipment was not as sophisticated as it is today,” he said. “You actually had to sound good back then. We had top notch equipment and were proud of how we sounded, and how we appeared on stage—clean cut and dressed to a T.”
Members of the Sensational Showmen #1 didn’t play at the ceremony. “I haven’t picked up a guitar in 30 years,” Pfister admitted.
However, members of the Sensational Showmen #3 did, and did well, Pfister said.
“They deserve credit for still being able to play,” he said ruefully. “They sounded good.”

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