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Kings of the world: (l-r) Mark Gamsjager, Mark Foster, Jeff Potter and Jim Haggerty. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Bring the Family
To the Lustre Kings’ Mark Gamsjager, good music is good music—and so much the better if it appeals to everybody

By Erik Hage

As a musical genre and a culture of style, rockabilly has always been a magnet for purists and zealots: the greaser with hooded eyes in the bowling shirt flailing away at his standup bass with tattooed arms, sweeping pompadour spilling into his face; sultry black-haired beauties with high crimped bangs, whited-out faces and deep red lips; Stray Cats-hating collectors with piles of rare 45s and a Mecca-like reverence for Sun Studios, that cradle of rockabilly civilization.

This is not simply ’50s rock & roll, but a very specific, rhythmically kinetic hybrid of hillbilly music and R&B, and a fashion mode that has wound its way from Elvis Presley through (avowed rockabilly nuts) the Clash and beyond. And outside of Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins, many of the form’s early heroes—Peanuts Wilson, Charlie Feathers, Sleepy LaBeef—aren’t household names but preciously guarded cult heroes. Rockabilly is fanaticism at its finest—and it still pulls along plenty of young, attractive hipsters and aging vinyl obsessives alike.

Head Lustre King Mark Gamsjager—with his towering, venerably gray pompadour, vintage style and Gretsch guitar—may look like a rockabilly star (and he certainly sings and plays some burning rockabilly), but he takes a more catholic approach to his band’s music, which he simply terms “American rock & roll.” He claims his favorite Lustre King shows are “When I see people in their 70s rockin’, and kids. . . . I’d rather hear that one kid likes one particular track on our album than a whole room of stuck-up rockabilly people.”

In his magnanimity, he even stands up for a frequent and sacred target: “For whatever reason, if you talk to traditional rockabilly people about the Stray Cats, they put them down,” he notes. “But they’re half the reason why people my age listen to [rockabilly]. . . . When I first heard the Stray Cats, they blew my mind.” Gamsjager’s constant refrain is that he’s an entertainer and a businessman, and he’s not out to impress what he calls “the rockabilly nazis.”

In fact, Gamsjager doesn’t leave the impression of a man solely absorbed by rockabilly or ’50s rock & roll at all, but of someone on a distinctly American music journey, from the time that he founded his high-school bluegrass band years ago to his current place at the helm of a successful national touring act that has just released a third LP, That’s Showbiz. (In fact, Gamsjager often refers to his music as “roots-based music,” and he recently played an acoustic show at the Troy Ale House—with esteemed players Bill Kirchen, John Tichy and Kevin Maul, among others—that featured everything from gospel to country to rockabilly.)

And the journey keeps rolling: Fresh off a jaunt through Texas with guitar-slinger and former Commander Cody member Kirchen (“He would get me up to do a couple of songs and I’d help him out. . . . I earned my keep”), Mark and the Lustre Kings are now out on a Midwestern tour as backing band for Wanda Jackson, the legendary first lady of rockabilly and ’50s touring partner of Elvis (who initially suggested the country-singing Wanda try rockabilly).

Gamsjager founded the Lustre Kings as Jimmy Velvet & His Traveling Companions (later the Jimmy Velvet Trio) in the early ’90s in Long Island, bringing the endeavor upstate with him when he relocated his family to Schenectady 12 years ago. (He later moved to Greene County.) Seeing how there was an actual entertainer named Jimmy Velvet, a name change soon came about.

Today, the Lustre Kings (named after a bowling-ball cleaner) primarily consist of Gamsjager, bass player Jim Haggerty, drummer Mark Foster and keyboardist-songwriter Jeff Potter, with the occasional lineup substitution or addition. Delmar native Haggerty lives in Boston, and Foster’s college-teaching duties don’t always allow him to be on the road. “The one thing I guarantee is that, if you’re going to hire the Lustre Kings, you’re going to get me,” Gamsjager points out.

The Kings also serve as a hub of sorts for the Capital Region’s thriving rock & roll scene, with folks like singer Johnny Rabb, prodigal son Eddie Angel of Los Straitjackets and former Commander Cody member and longtime RPI professor John Tichy often sitting in with the group. John’s son Graham Tichy, voted the region’s best guitar player in Metroland last year, is even a semi- regular member. (Graham also plays in Detroit rockabilly band Bones Maki & the Sun Dodgers and was a featured player in the recent Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen reunion concert in California.)

Our area rock & roll players aren’t just good on a local level—a lot of them are respected nationally, and the Lustre Kings are often at the center of things back home, whether being joined by Rabb, Angel and the Tichys at the annual Elvis tribute or on last summer’s Hudson River cruise on the Captain J.P. And it’s remarkable how the musicians feed off each other with positive energy and support each other’s efforts. “At this [grass-roots] level and with this style of music, my main thing is, you’ve got to be nice,” Gamsjager says. “The only stars are in the sky.”

Gamsjager constantly emphasizes what a joy it is to play with the members in his band, and consistently echoes his respect for other local players. He remembers that his first concert was a Commander Cody show that he hitchhiked to as a teen on Long Island in the mid-’70s. “[Life’s] a big circle,” he notes with a little bit of wonder. Gamsjager also remembers, when he first moved to town, seeing Johnny Rabb at Bogies. “He’d light up the room. . . . It was incredible,” he remembers. “The place was packed. It’s something that you can’t really re-create because the times are different.” Young guitar phenom Tichy, whom Gamsjager has known for seven years and who helped him pick songs for the latest album, also frequently crops up in our conversation. “Graham is such a good guitar player,” Gamsjager emphasizes. “I learn something from him every time he plays.”

Besides an exhaustive playing schedule—he’s a full-time musician and plays an intimidating range of functions, from private parties and weddings to town concerts, festivals and tours—Gamsjager also tries to bring nationally respected acts to our area (though he’s hesitant to call himself a “promoter”). In recent years he’s pulled in crooner Rosie Flores for an Ale House show, as well as hot young San Antonio rockabilly players Cave Catt Sammy. He’s also bringing acclaimed rockabilly revivalist Deke Dickerson to the Ale House for a show on May 2.

“First things first is . . . I have a business,” he points out. “It happens to be a music business, but it’s a business.” And in talking to folks like Eddie Angel, who owns his own label, Spinout (and who was recently up for a Grammy with Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater and Los Straitjackets), Gamsjager took the next logical step and started his own label, Wild Boar Records. That’s Showbiz—the group’s strongest, most polished set yet—is the flagship release. Future efforts include a Graham Tichy solo effort, which will be out in a couple of months.

People in the know seem to be catching on to the Lustre Kings. The 66-year-old (and still-vibrant) Wanda Jackson is a rockabilly legend with a strong cult of fans around the world, and she could pretty much have had her pick of rock & roll acts to be her band on tour. (And it certainly would have been easier—as the dates are primarily Midwestern—to call up a band in Chicago or Cleveland.) But Wanda’s promoter and husband “did his homework and talked to other people, and they all gave us the thumbs up . . . which is good!” Gamsjager says.

Indeed it is “good”—it keeps the circle unbroken and connects the dots between the brief, fervent days of early rock & roll and those who make a life out of keeping it alive. But what is it about this music that keeps it going, especially since so much of the more bloated music of the late ’60s and ’70s has fallen by the wayside? “It’s just good music,” Gamsjager says flatly, skirting any kind of overanalyzing. “It appeals to kids. It appeals to adults. It’s not offensive . . . most of the time. And you can dance to it. It’s got a good beat.”

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