When Bethesda Was Cool
In the 1970s downtown Bethesda was the center of the local music universe
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“Mangrum said, ‘Let’s fuck this place up,’ ” says Joe Lee, who at the time owned local musical mecca Joe’s Record Paradise. The angry entertainer got so out of control that club management finally threw him out. “It was right out of Spinal Tap,” Thomas says.
Slickee Boys at the Psyche Delly
If the Psyche Delly had a favorite son, it was Root Boy Slim. Born Foster MacKenzie III, he grew up wealthy in Silver Spring before attending Yale University on a scholarship. After leaving Yale, he moved to Bethesda, took the Root Boy moniker, formed the Sex Change Band and became a club fixture. His music was a raunchy mix of rock and blues—crowd pleasers included “Boogie ‘Til You Puke,” “Rich White Republican” and “Xmas at K-Mart.”
Cheri Grasso, a 1967 graduate of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, was a backup singer and also served as caretaker of Root Boy Slim’s overflowing trunk of onstage outfits. On any given night, he might wear a devil suit with a tail, a silver basketball uniform with red velvet cape, or a white 10-gallon cowboy hat and an orange and white-checked 7-Eleven clerk’s uniform. Now and then he sported a turban “borrowed” by a fan who worked in The Kennedy Center’s costume department.
“The audience would throw things onto the stage, and Root would throw them back,” Grasso says. “Rutabaga would fly by…tambourines hurled across the stage…you had to watch out for your life up there.”
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Opened in 1964 by local music aficionado Bobby Edwards, the Red Fox Inn on Fairmont Avenue was the epicenter of a vibrant bluegrass community in the Washington, D.C., area. Like the WHFS offices and the Psyche Delly, it was a bare-bones venue—folding chairs faced a low-rise stage, and a patchwork of album covers were stapled haphazardly to the walls.
Photo by Dave Nuttycombe/Nuttycombe Archives
The anchor was The Seldom Scene, which played every Saturday night. The band, formed in Bethesda in 1971, helped make the Red Fox “the biggest bluegrass club in the U.S., or even the world,” says Tom Gray, the band’s bassist from 1971 to 1986. “I remember seeing bewildered Dutch and Japanese tourists walking around looking for the Red Fox Inn,” Cerphe recalls.
Weasel says Jerry Garcia often went to the Red Fox to play after visiting with him in the WHFS studio. However, Emmylou Harris was the star performer. A struggling single mom in the early 1970s, Harris lived with her parents in Columbia, Maryland, after failing to make it as a folk singer in New York City. While auditioning for D.C.-area gigs, she landed a Red Fox slot in 1970. By 1971, she was playing the venue about once a week.
“She’d come into my studio for a live performance and just nail it,” Cerphe says. “She had a voice that sent chills down your spine.” Harris and The Seldom Scene regularly performed and recorded together.
After several years, Harris had a falling out with Red Fox management. “She found out The Seldom Scene were making more than she was and confronted the owner,” Gray says. Ownership told her “she was riding on our coattails,” Gray says today from his home in Kensington. Harris stormed out, and in future years played there only as an occasional guest of The Seldom Scene, he says.
Harris released her first major label record, Pieces of the Sky, in 1975. Her career soared to superstar status, and she’s continued to record and tour ever since, frequently playing in and around Washington, D.C. She returned, along with The Seldom Scene, for a reunion show at the former Red Fox Inn, now Positano Ristorante Italiano, in 2013.
The first venue to leave Bethesda was the Red Fox Inn, which closed in 1981. By 1977, The Seldom Scene had started performing regularly at The Birchmere in Alexandria, and eventually took their following with them, moving the center of gravity for local bluegrass to the other side of the Potomac River.
In 1983, the owners of WHFS, of which Jacob Einstein had a minority share, sold the 102.3 frequency to the owners of WTOP, who scrapped the progressive format and the WHFS call letters. Einstein used the money from his portion of the sale to purchase WLOM-FM in Annapolis, severing the physical roots in the Bethesda community and ending the unique local synergy with the Psyche Delly. His Annapolis station played progressive music, but it was less anarchic, DJs and former listeners say. A short while after launching WLOM 99.1 in late 1983, Einstein got the old call letters back and WHFS 99.1 was born. In 1987 Einstein sold WHFS 99.1 and it was moved to Lanham, Maryland, where its playlist became dominated by mainstream artists featured on MTV.
Lou Sordo sold the Psyche Delly in 1979 and retired to Florida. The club’s new owner, Massoud Mortazavi, expanded the club to hold 250 people, but in the process, lost some of its energy and intimacy. In early 1983, not long after WHFS 102.3 left the area, the club stopped hosting live music. A revival in 1984 petered out within a year.
The WHFS offices are now home to RAC Solutions, a company that offers computer and audio visual rentals. The Psyche Delly eventually became Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle, where today you’ll find a photo of the old Psyche Delly hanging on the wall.
A few vestiges do remain. The Tastee Diner celebrated its 80th anniversary last year. The Nighthawks and The Seldom Scene still play locally. Bangham is at work on a documentary about his old comrade Root Boy Slim, who died in 1993. Though they’re no longer connected to Bethesda, you can still listen to Weasel and Cerphe—Weasel hosts a progressive show on Towson University’s WTMD-FM, while Cerphe broadcasts an online program on Music Planet Radio.
Keene, who returns to the area often to visit family, barely recognizes Bethesda today. “It’s perfectly fine and affluent, but it’s bland without any counterculture,” he says. “There’s no scene—teenagers today go downtown to the 9:30 Club or other places.”
At the end of a long conversation about the good old days, Thomas, the former Psyche Delly manager, sighs and says, “I hope kids in Bethesda today are having as much fun as we did, but I don’t know.”
Weasel’s a bit more bullish, citing Bethesda’s new group of live music offerings, such as Villain & Saint. “The scene is coming back,” he says. Then he laughs. “Well, maybe it is skewing a little older.”
Good Old Days
Back row from left: Cheri Grasso, Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert, Adele Abrams, Jay Schlossberg; front: Dick Bangham. Photo by Liz Lynch
An in-the-works documentary, Feast Your Ears: The Story of WHFS 102.3 FM, has generated a groundswell of enthusiastic nostalgia for a radio station with “way more listeners than I ever thought,” says Potomac-based documentarian Jay Schlossberg, the film’s executive director. He’s interviewed scores of former disc jockeys, back office personnel, listeners and musicians. The documentary exceeded a $65,000 Kickstarter goal last year and boasts more than 19,000 Facebook followers. Schlossberg hopes to have a rough version ready for previews this summer, with his eyes on an official release in December.
Former WHFS DJ Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert is working as a consulting producer on the film, helping to flesh out the history of the station and commandeer some of his old colleagues to participate. The long roster of on-camera interviews includes power pop artist Marshall Crenshaw, singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones and guitarist Nils Lofgren, who is a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
Musicians, local and beyond, are rallying around the project. Last summer, NRBQ (New Rhythm and Blues Quartet) hosted a celebration after a show at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, at which they sold T-shirts and bumper stickers to raise money for the film. Starland Vocal Band keyboardist Jon Carroll joined Schlossberg and Weasel on a local TV show to talk it up. Schlossberg also put together benefit performances by acoustic pop duo Marti Jones and Don Dixon, and an event this past May with singers/songwriters Jonathan Edwards and Danny O'Keefe at Montgomery College.
In an age when radio is often preprogrammed, Schlossberg believes the documentary has “touched a nerve.” In addition to getting a huge response from former listeners still living in the area, he says he’s gotten calls from others now living in Georgia, Oregon, Michigan and Louisiana. “They’ve never forgotten WHFS,” he says.
James Michael Causey can be reached at email@example.com. Vintage photos were collected from the following sources: Dick Bangham/Synchro; Don “Cerphe” Colwell/Music Planet Radio Archive; Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert; Joe Lee, Al Sevilla/Music Planet Radio Archive; Jay Schlossberg; and the author.