The Boys in the Band

Last evening I went out to see The Emperors, one of my favorite local bands.

I saw them for the first time at a high school dance in 1963. I was a new Californian, awkward and shy. I was aware that there was such a thing as dance steps, but I didn’t know any of them. I’m not sure why I went to that dance, but looking back I think I must have been cajoled into it by some friends who had my best interest at heart and thought it would do me good to get out of my shell.

Last night, almost 60 years after that first time, I saw the band again, likely for the last time. No, they are not quitting. In fact, last night they made several announcements from the stage about their upcoming gigs, and even referred to how long they’d been playing around Southern California (5,000 years, they estimate). But I doubt I will be in the area long enough to catch another show: I just don’t have enough money to stay in California.

The Emperors may have been the first live rock band I ever saw. Sure, it might have been Dick Dale and the Deltones, The Pyramids, or Eddie and the Showmen, but The Emperors band is the one I remember as my first. They were wearing matching tight, sparkly, electric blue sequined suits, and if memory serves they were playing New Orleans-style rhythm and blues, a genre known as “race music” only a couple of years earlier, and unheard of at lily-white high school dances in Southern California. They had — it seemed to me — all-new Fender instruments and amps, and they played loud. Even then I could tell they were total professionals, even though they were just a few years older than I was. They were well-rehearsed, well-organized, terrific musicians and, impressively, they sang together beautifully. I danced with a girl that night, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the band, and within a few weeks I had started my own band. The years passed and I lived in other places, including on the road, but whenever I returned to home base, there were The Emperors. The personnel began to change by the 1970s, but the quality remained as high as ever. I learned an important lesson from that: When a band is working regularly, you can find new members pretty easily. I think the drummer — Steve Watts — has always been the leader, as he seems to be the only original member. Maybe some day I’ll get a chance to ask him how “easy” it really was.

But I gotta hand it to them for their incredible longevity. I mean, one of the new guys has been in the band 50 years. I’m sure they must have tried for a record deal along the way, and probably did some songwriting and recording, but as good as they were I don’t think they ever had a hit record, and except for one time in the late 70s I never heard them play an original song. I don’t know any of them personally, and I don’t know the ins and outs of their history, but to me it looks as if they simply decided to be The Best Party Band in Town, and it would be hard to argue that they have not made it. They have become the ultimate cover band.

They are an institution now, and I mean that in the best possible way. When they’re playing, you don’t go to “see a show” or to “hear a band.” You go to be in the presence of The Emperors. Last night in a park just inside the Orange County line, a few thousand people showed up to do just that. The crowd looked to be four generations of fans, from great grandparents to babies. Many went up close and danced in front of the outdoor stage, and many more sat on camp chairs and blankets in the grass. Looking around I could see that I wasn’t the only one who has known the band since the 60s. I hope something happens for the younger ones in the audience, something they will still remember when they are old, something that connects them to their youth, as the music of The Emperors calls to me across the decades.

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