For 34th year, the Admirals chart course for Ocean City

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ignite the charcoal, crack the crabs. Then rise to your feet for a salute to another tradition of Maryland summer: the Admirals rocking Ocean City.

The Baltimore band, formed by seven teen-agers at the Lutherville teen center in 1958, debuted in Ocean City in 1961. It inaugurates its 34th straight summer there next Monday, opening for seven days at the Sheraton Fontainebleau Hotel. The Admirals are also booked at the hotel Aug. 15-21 and Sept. 12-18.

"If you went around Ocean City and asked people, 'Of all the bands that have played clubs and hotels in the area, which one comes to mind?' " says Bob White, 41, director of programming (( and promotion at radio station WANN in Annapolis, "I think 85 to 95 percent would say the Admirals."

Mr. White first heard the Admirals with his parents at Ship's Cafe in the early 1960s. A dozen summers later, when the band played at the Fenwick Inn, he became devoted.

"They were Baltimore and the surrounding area's No. 1 variety band," Mr. White says. "They had a large sound and played everything from country to big band. And they had the unique ability to feel out an audience and then play just the right tune to put everybody in the mood."

The band has no original members, although Bernie Robier, business manager and trombonist from the Peabody Conservatory, joined 32 years ago. A founder, Tom Berry, 49, who owns Towson Liquors, played for 20 years, and another founder, Jay Stermer, who owns three Admirals dry-cleaning stores in Florida (named after the band but not affiliated with Admiral Cleaners here) played for 28 years.

Yet if you heard the Admirals at your senior prom three decades ago, you'd recognize the same accomplished, danceable mix of top 40 hits, obscure gems and novelty tunes today. The band's sound and style have persevered through cultural phenomenons and musical trends, including the protest music of rebellious youth.

"That wasn't us," says Mr. Berry, the original bass player and business manager. "We weren't mad at anybody. We played music that made people happy."

Seven teen-agers responded to a notice in 1958 to form a band at the Lutherville teen center. After a few clumsy rehearsals, a raw, rockabilly band named the Admirals faced an audience of its peers at the center, which was actually the cafeteria at Lutherville Elementary School.

"At the beginning, the kids threw money at us," says Mr. Stermer, 15 at the time. "We'd hear it banging off the saxophone and stuff. They wanted the records put back on. 'Get rid of these guys.' "

Each teen center had its own band. The centers were incredibly popular. "This was a phenomenon that was big," Mr. Berry says. "But now it's just an era that's gone with the wind. . . . The worst thing you did back then was get caught smoking in the bathroom."

He means smoking cigarettes. By the mid-1960s that meant marijuana. Drugs eventually doomed the teen centers. But by then, nobody slung coins at the Admirals anymore.

A little extra

"The reason the band survived was because it graduated from being a pretty lousy guitar band to a horn band," says Mr. Stermer, the musical arranger. "The horns gave us some class, ** that little extra kick."

They also hired a black singer, Will McLamb. This was a bold, controversial move in the segregated early 1960s. It seemed harmless to the Admirals, because Mr. McLamb was a school chum from Lutherville. Plus, he could sing like Ray Charles.

The band began performing songs by Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Curtis Mayfield and, of course, Ray Charles. And it stretched its repertoire beyond rhythm and blues.

Mr. Robier recalls rehearsing every Wednesday night in the basement of Mr. Berry's parents' house, and then watching Steve Allen and his orchestra on TV. The Admirals worked original music from the show into its act.

"The kids at the teen center didn't know what the hell it was, but we liked it," Mr. Robier says. "That's the thing that made this band different from all the other bands in the city. We didn't just listen to rock. Nobody was playing 'Absent-Minded Lover' but us, and we're still doing it today because it's such a great song."

"Absent-Minded Lover" is an old Louis Prima and Keely Smith song. Mr. Berry did a great Keely Smith.

The Admirals graduated to nightclubs about 1962, notably the renowned Hollywood Park and Club Venus. Hollywood Park was a ramshackle bar on Eastern Avenue in Essex. The Admirals opened shows, played between shows and sometimes backed the headliners, which included Bill Haley and the Comets, Lloyd Price, the Drifters, Coasters, Shirelles and Platters.

When Michael Athas, co-owner of Hollywood Park, opened the Las Vegas lounge-type Club Venus in Perring Plaza in 1966, he hired the Admirals as the house band. "It was a big jump for us," Mr. Berry says. "It was a big jump for Baltimore."

Mr. Athas brought in for one-week engagements such stars as Mel Torme, Gordon MacRae, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Flip Wilson, Tiny Tim, Rodney Dangerfield, the Four Tops, Fifth Dimension and the Four Seasons. The Admirals played as a dance band between shows.

"What we were good at was covering other people's songs," Mr. Berry says. "We were expert at it. You thought you were hearing the original."

Mr. Stermer even wrote mistakes in original songs into the band's arrangements.

"They sounded like the records," Mr. Athas says of the Admirals.

"That's what people wanted to hear back then."

Bastille days

The Admirals left Club Venus in 1967, backed Stevie Wonder at the Baltimore Civic Center, toured with Aretha Franklin and the Four Tops and then, in January 1968, opened at the Bastille supper club in Washington. The Bastille, Mr. Berry says, became "the hottest thing in D.C." A polished, humorous and versatile lounge act, the Admirals played before packed houses that included members of Congress and celebrities, including Ed McMahon and Dustin Hoffman.

The Admirals were hired to play for a party at Vince Lombardi's house and at President Nixon's inaugural ball. They toured the country, Puerto Rico and Canada. It played the Calgary Stampede, the world's largest rodeo, 15 years in a row.

"I remember working nine months straight, I think seven days a week," Mr. Berry says.

Tommy Vann, who fronted his own groups, the Echoes and the Professionals, sang for the Admirals from 1972 to 1977. Mr. Vann, who lives in Abingdon in Harford County, works in karaoke these days.

"Some of the best musicians I ever worked with were in the Admirals," he says. "It's extremely unusual for one band to maintain its legacy through all those years. You won't find another band that's done it."

Now, with nightclubs hiring fewer live bands, the Admirals play at corporate functions, openings of mall department stores, National Football League awards banquets, weddings, private parties and dances.

And of course, every summer, there's Ocean City and such venues as the Pier Ballroom, Hunka Munka, Bobby Baker's Carousel, Ship's Cafe, The Gazebo and Fenwick Inn.

"How have we managed to stay together so long? Well, the musicianship of the group has always been good," Mr. Robier says. "The musical arrangements have always been interesting. We've always worked steady. And the egos haven't gotten out (( of hand.

"Ask the Mills Brothers why they've stayed together so long. I'm sure it's not merely because they're brothers. It's a hard thing to define."

But it's impossible to forget.

Says Mr. Robier, at 50 the oldest Admiral: "People still come up to me and say: 'I remember you. You played at my senior prom.' "

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