Bobby Church, Lee Ward, Rex Phenning, David (?) and Mike Marchesano
Thanks to Susie Martin-Rott, author of the forthcoming book
Playin’ The Peninsula: Garage and Teen Center Bands of the I-4 Corridor, we were able to ask some questions
of Bobby Church of Florida’s Undertakers, the band best known for the classic “Love So Dear.” In addition to hooking us up with Bobby, Susie also provided a
fitting introduction for our interview:
Bobby was born in Owensboro, Kentucky. When he was two, he contracted polio, which affected his legs. At age 2-1/2 he was fitted with his first set of braces,
and over the course of his youth had multiple surgeries, alternating from walking with braces and crutches to having to use a wheelchair to get around. He never
let it stop him from pursuing his music. After he quit playing in bands, he worked at several Orlando area radio stations (WLOQ, WDBO, WORJ, Y106 and WDIZ) as an
on-air personality. Bobby is now wheelchair bound, suffering from Post Polio Syndrome, but is quite self-sufficient and has recently started playing his guitar again.
He still has a number of friends in the music and radio community in the Central Florida area.
An Interview with Bobby Church
60sgaragebands.com (60s): How did you first get interested in music?
Bobby Church (BC): Mom and Dad always played records when I was growing up. In the fourth grade they bought me a big ol’ blonde acoustic guitar and I wanted to be Ricky Nelson or Conway Twitty. That of course was before The Beatles…
60s: Was The Undertakers your first band?
BC: My first band was The Malibus - in jr. high school, 7th or 8th grade - at Glenridge Jr. High. The lineup of that band was Brad Rundlett, Bill Stephens, Mark Burhow, Ralph Marotta and myself. We played at the school dances and Winter Park Recreation Center for about a year. We had to stop practicing at my house because the neighborhood association filed a petition to make us quit. My mom hired a lawyer and tried to fight them, but the judge ruled against her.
60s: Where and when was The Undertakers formed?
BC: The Undertakers was started by me in 9th grade at Glenridge Jr. High in about 1964 or 1965 after The Malibus broke up. The band was still mostly kids I went to school with.
60s: Who all comprised the band?
BC: For a while in the beginning The Undertakers was a five-piece: Me, Lee Ward, Rex Phenning on bass, David on lead (I can’t remember his last name) and Mike Marchesano on drums. Eventually we got down to the recording version of the band, which was: Lee Ward on keyboards (Hammond B-3 with a Leslie); Fred Detrick on drums; Bobby Church on guitar and lead vocals; and Rick Foreman on bass/sax.
Sorry to say I don’t see any of the other band members. Last I heard Fred was in Alabama, and Lee and Rick are supposedly still in the Orlando area. I don’t know if they are still playing or not.
60s: How would you describe the band's sound? What bands influenced you?
BC: Our sound was a combination of Vanilla Fudge and The Young Rascals, sort of a mix of rock and soul. We did other people’s songs, but our own arrangements; not just a straight cover. We only stole from the best.
60s: Where did the band typically play?
BC: The KoKo Nut Club, which later became the Tiki Club, teen center and school dances and other events like the Fourth of July fireworks display at Winter Park. We also went outside the Orlando/Winter Park area quite a bit to play the bar circuit around North Florida, Gainesville and down south to the Lauderdale area.
Everyone had a youth center back then: Orlando, Winter Park, Lockhart, Ocoee. The Tiki Club in downtown Orlando was a bar during the week and held no-alcohol teen dances on Sunday. We played them all: Surfer’s Club, The Blue Room, The Lions Den, the Bikini Club in Daytona, The Place, Stables in Lake City (North Florida), The Purple Door in Winter Park, The Bee Hive and The Happening in Ft. Myers, The Carrera Room, and The Purple Banana in Sanford.
We also played many college gigs at Rollins College, Orlando Junior College, University of Florida and Stetson University, and some “Pier” shows at different beaches: Daytona, Cocoa, Satellite Beach, and Cape Canaveral.
In addition to the teen centers, The Undertakers played a lot of military base clubs: McCoy AFB in Orlando, Patrick AFB in Cocoa (often at their “Comet Club”), a lot of WLOF radio remotes in conjunction with the 7-11 Convenience stores (they used to have what they called “ICEE” parties when the ICEE drink first came out). And we played some shows for their competing station, WHOO, in Sanford, Leesburg and other towns near Orlando and several times at the Central Florida Fair.
In March of 1967, we competed in something called the “Talented Teen Search”. We must have done pretty well because we played for it on March 7, March 15, and March 19 and also were on WESH-TV on the 19. I don’t remember if we actually won anything or not but we got a lot of exposure.
60s: How far was the band's "touring" territory?
BC: From South Georgia to South Florida…Gainesville, Panama City, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Ft. Lauderdale. For some reason I don’t remember us every playing Tampa though. We may have, but it was a long, long time ago.
60s: Did The Undertakers participate in any battle of the bands?
BC: We were in several battle of the bands against The Rockin’ Roadrunners, maybe the Sounds of Tyme; I really can’t remember any of them now. We won a lot of them though. Our records got some local airplay, which helped.
60s: What other local groups of the era do you especially recall?
BC: We The People, The Rockin’ Roadrunners, The Go-Mads, Purple Underground, The Outlaws, Allman Joys. We worked a lot so we really didn’t get to go see as many of the other bands as we’d have liked to.
60s: Did The Undertakers have a manager?
BC: My father, Bill Church, managed the band for most of the years we were together. He was good at getting us nice business cards and photos made and letting us use his station wagon to pull our trailer. Our trailer was a converted horse trailer! But I did a lot of the public relations and bookings myself. The band also had “Go Go Girls” who could be added to the show for an additional fee.
60s: How popular locally did The Undertakers become?
BC: Both of our singles charted well in the local area on both the local AM rock stations of the time, WLOF and WHOO, and we opened shows for national acts like The Standells and The Young Rascals…so I’d guess we were pretty popular. People still remember and talk about us, so that’s a good sign.
60s: What were the circumstances leading to the Pine Hills 45 ("Love So Dear" / "Lonliness To Happiness")?
BC: “Love So Dear” was actually our second record. Our first was “Searchin’” backed by “The Reason Why,” also on the Pine Hills label. For “Love So Dear,” we camped out at the studio for three days and recorded a lot of different sounds and within those three days wrote the whole song pretty much there at the studio. A friend of ours, Frank Renew, also provided some inspiration and direction for us. I paid him one dollar later on for that since he didn‘t get songwriter credits.
60s: Where did The Undertakers record?
BC: In Pine Hills, sort of a suburban part of Orlando, at Don Gore’s little recording studio. We also got our brakes fixed there. He had a brake shop in the back and a recording studio in the front. Sessions were drug-free, that I remember. Don Gore gave us as much time as we needed to get the tracks down the way we wanted them. That kind of studio time would be a real luxury now.
60s: The Undertakers reportedly backed somebody named H.F. Gore for a country music single: “No One Will Ever Know” b/w “Washington Report.” How did you hook up with Gore?
BC: Yes, we did play on the H. F. Gore single, which was recorded shortly after “Love So Dear,” in the same three-day session. I can’t remember now if H.F. Gore was in fact Don Gore who owned the Pine Hills studio, or someone related to him that he recorded. We really weren’t a country band, which is probably obvious from listening to our singles. Sorry to say I really don’t remember much about the sessions involved with the Gore record, and don’t even have a copy of it. One thing I still remember though is Don always announcing, “Tape’s rollin’”!
60s: Did The Undertakers write many original songs? Who was the band's primary songwriter?
BC: I was the primary songwriter. We had a few originals, probably a dozen or so. Lee Ward wrote some as well. Of the four songs we recorded on Pine Hills, I wrote three. The rest of our show was made up of our rearrangements of other people’s material.
60s: How much (if any) LSD influence was intended when writing/recording "Love So Dear?"
BC: One dollar’s worth (laughs)…
60s: Do any (other) '60's Undertakers recordings exist? Are there any vintage live recordings, or unreleased tracks?
BC: Other than our two singles, I don’t know of any live recordings or unreleased stuff; if there are, I’d sure like to have a copy of them! I did find a few copies of lyrics and sheets in a box a couple weeks ago for some of the songs, but no recordings.
60s: What were some of the local TV appearances the band made?
BC: I found a log of some of our TV appearances:
06 Feb 1966 - Cerebral Palsy Telethon
19 Mar 1966 - WESH Channel 2 appearance (related to the "Talented Teen Search" competition)
04 Mar 1967 - WESH Channel 2 at 1:00 pm (I think some local teen show)
29 April 1967 - WESH Channel 2 (we had to be there from 11:30-1:00 but not sure now what for)
23 Sep 1967 - Channel 13 in Ft. Pierce (we had to be there from 12:00-2:00 but only played two songs on TV
09 Dec 1967 - WESH Channel 2 at 10:30 (probably to promote our show later that day opening for The Hombres at the Tiki Club in Orlando)
60s: What year and why did the band break up?
BC: Let’s see, probably about 1969 after our equipment got stolen. That pretty much ended things since we didn’t have any money to replace it. I did some solo stuff at The Key Coffeehouse in Downtown Orlando. Pretty much all the solo acts in town played there at one time or another; people still talk about that place. Then I left for Memphis to play some solo stuff for a while and pretty much lost track of the rest of the band.
60s: Did you ever join or form any bands after The Undertakers?
BC: I played solo for awhile, moved around quite a bit, then moved back to the Orlando area, where I played guitar in a band called In Kahootz for a while with my now brother-in-law John Garvin on bass, a lead player named Rocky Rolens and his wife Joni on keyboards and John Masscintoni on drums. I haven’t played much in the past few years but lately have been messing around with my acoustic guitar and a banjo I’ve had but never learned to play. I think I’d like to play some again; nothing big, just work up a couple of solo sets.
60s: How do you best summarize your experiences with The Undertakers?
BC: It was probably the highlight of my life from birth until I was 21. It gave me a lot of confidence, I met a lot of people, it helped me start my career in radio, and I met a lot of women and some of the best friends in the world.
Lee Ward, Fred Detrick, Ricky Foreman and Bobby Church
Ricky Foreman, Fred Detrick, Lee Ward and Bobby Church
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