Roanoke’s musical history was on the mind of one reader.
Q: Why don’t you write something about the Vikings, a group that played the Coffee Pot back in the ’60s and ’70s? They were so popular back then that if you wanted to hear them on the weekend, you had to make a reservation Monday.
A: Never did I write about the band personally, but others have. I saw the group several times at the Pot and elsewhere. Count me among those who loved the sound and scene.
Subsequent research uncovered a bunch of stuff I did not know, mainly because the Vikings got started long before I was legally eligible to drink beer, even at age 18, if you can remember those days.
For instance, before being regular entertainment at that ageless Brambleton Avenue saloon the Pot, the Vikings were the house band at another nightspot called the Rathskeller.
Beg pardon, where?
Not sure how many movie matinees and Floyd Ward dance recitals I attended at the American Theater downtown on Jefferson Street, but the number was formidable. Nor do I recall how many newspaper columns have appeared in this space with the beloved palace of entertainment as the subject.
Yet unknown to me, there was a hipster bar with live music in the American’s basement.
A reporter’s mea culpa for getting scooped hurts.
“The Rathskeller was a nice little bar,’’ last surviving founding Viking Tommy Holcomb said. “We only played there about a year. I have some fond memories of going to the Texas Tavern after every gig.”
Holcomb and best pal Allen Nelms were juniors at Roanoke’s Jefferson High School in 1961 when they rode the bus downtown to a pawn shop and spent a combined 50 bucks on a couple of guitars.
The Kingston Trio was hot as a city bus in July and three-part harmony tunes such as “Tom Dooley” and “Tijuana Jail” were looping through young Roanokers’ ears courtesy of Burt and Muriel Levine’s WROV-AM.
Tommy Holcomb and Allen Nelms pictured and heard themselves as renowned folk singers-to-be.
All this and much more Holcomb skillfully told in a three-part 2006 Vikings retrospective in the Roanoker later reprised at wrovhistory.com.
After Holcomb invested hours ensconced in his bedroom struggling with the three chords required to play his first song “Frog Went A-Coutin’ ” — “F was a killer chord, especially on a guitar with strings one-half inch above the fret board” — he and Helms were on their way.
The duo had to have a third for the requisite harmony, so they recruited “veteran” guitar picker Lane Craig. Versatile musician he was, Craig also had a five-string Kay brand banjo “the strings of which sounded not unlike stiff cardboard.”
The instruments may not have been pro grade, but the boys’ vocal ability was solid. Craig sang bass, Nelms baritone and Holcomb tenor.
That fall, they recorded a couple of songs at Salem’s old WBLU-AM on invitation of announcer Barney Nash, who wanted to play the material on his show.
The trio had no name at that point, lukewarm leading contenders being Cavaliers and Vikings. Aleta Jo Nash — Mrs. Barney — gave the nod to Vikings as a temporary measure.
“The name quickly became outdated and we attempted to change it several times throughout the years, but it never worked,” Holcomb wrote. “People knew us as the Vikings and, like it or not, we became stuck with it.”
Senior class members of newly opened Patrick Henry High School’s first class by then, the trio played high school functions, social occasions, telethons, beauty pageants (Miss Virginia twice). Roanoke Times entertainment critic Jesse Chapman wrote a nice piece, the photo taken at a WDBJ -TV (Channel 7) recording session. They were on WSLS-TV (Channel 10) as well.
Thirty dollars for the three was considered rich compensation. Often as not, performances were gratis. They dressed similar to their musical heroes the Kingston Trio: matching striped shirts and solid slacks, Weejuns, white socks.
Although they could never lose the Vikings moniker, all three earned status as Cavaliers. Craig was a University of Virginia baseball player; Nelms and Holcomb went to UVa as well.
Craig died in 2015 at age 72, Nelms three days before last Christmas at 74.
The Vikings continued to find work during their college breaks. Upon returning to the Star City after graduation, they lucked out because a house band at the Rathskeller called the Innkeepers was on the verge of a breakup.
The Vikings added Innkeeper standup bass player Tyler Pugh and moved into the house-band slot. It was in that room that they met two more future members. One was famed WROV DJ Fred Frelantz. The other was Joy Ellis, then Joy Willey.
“They’d have open mic nights there,” Joy Ellis says now. “I was pregnant with my first child and I just wanted to sing.”
Frelantz joined as a vocalist first. Joy came along in 1969, by which time the Vikings were regulars at the Coffee Pot, the Rathskeller having closed.
“Adding Joy was one of the best things our band ever did,” Holcomb said. “She was an excellent singer and people just loved her.”
Band members came and went. Holcomb moved to another music venture in Atlanta and was replaced before returning to Roanoke.
In the mid-’70s, Holcomb, Ellis, her husband Grant (my cousin, by the way), Leroy Smith, Gene Elders, Ralph Nash, Joey McCray and Tim Ferguson (who eventually replaced Nash on the drums) had a run of regional success as Woodsmoke.
The Vikings shut down in 1976, as members focused on career and family.
There were several highly successful Vikings reunions in the 1980s at the Coffee Pot and now shuttered 2001 off Franklin Road. Another get-together was staged in the rain at Festival in the Park. The weather left band members expecting an empty Elmwood Amphitheater.
Thousands showed up.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Nelms told reporter Madelyn Rosenberg in a 1998 Roanoke Times advance on another reunion. “It took me a long time to come back down. All those people sitting in the wet? It was something else.”
A multiyear attempt at national recognition under the band name Roanoke backed by local investors to the tune of $670,000 and helmed by big time music business guy Wes Farrell did not work out.
“Wes tried to make us into a rock ’n’ roll band and we weren’t really a rock ’n’ roll band,” said Holcomb, still disappointed but without regret today.
Frelantz died in a 1986 fire.
The last Vikings reunion was in 2003 in a Hotel Roanoke gig with the Royal Kings and Rhythm Doctors.
The all time Vikings roster is a long one. At one time or another, Ann Francis, Steve Snedegar and Dewey Anderson contributed along with Holcomb, Nelms, Craig, Pugh, Smith and Frelantz.
Another reunion possible?
“It will be pretty unlikely,” Holcomb said. “So many are gone.”
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