Band of gold: Double Axel celebrating 50 years of playing rock 'n' roll

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Jul. 25—HANNAWA FALLS — Double Axel, a rock 'n roll band begot in the 1970s when the live music scene in Potsdam was a dynamo of energy, talent and creativity, is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and its three band members have thoughts on the reasons for reaching that milestone, ranging from personal chemistry to being at the right place at the right time.

But in Brushton, Franklin County, one fan among the thousands has her own reasons as to why she thinks the well-traveled band has created such a north country legacy.

"They're just such people-oriented persons," Tammy B. Crinklaw said. "They look like everyday guys that you would just stop to visit with. Some of these other bands around try to look like something or somebody. They try to dress alike or try to have an image. These guys aren't like that. They just come the way they are. They're just all-American guys."

The guys were gathered in late June at the Hannawa Falls home of Alex M. Vangellow for a rehearsal prior to the band's July 10 "Under the Big Top: Double Axel's 50th Anniversary Party" at Mama Lucia's parking lot in Potsdam. Band members — Mr. Vangellow, Frank Johns and Robert R. Zolner — despite 50 years of crisscrossing north country roads heading to bars, beer blasts, high school proms and private events through all types of north country weather, appear fit, limber and ready to rock for many more years to come.

Double Axel was born in the basement of Theta Chi fraternity and was originally a four-piece band. It became a trio in 1995. Its gigs have ranged from Rochester to Vermont, the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, nightclubs and high schools throughout New York state. The children of longtime fans are now among those at their crowded concert venues.

The three say they are humbled when fans share their special memories related to the band and their gigs: the likes of a first kiss, a first date or meeting someone special. Creating such memories has become all the more special this year following the pandemic year that sidelined the band's live shows. Mr. Vangellow calls it "the drug of playing."

"We played at the Norwood Village Green a couple of weeks ago and it was marvelous just to be out playing for real people who were having a good time and enjoying themselves," he said. "Just seeing people dancing and tapping their feet — that's all it takes."

Mr. Zolner said band members share the same musical passion.

"We all feel the same way, otherwise we would not have done it for so long," he said. "I don't think we take ourselves too seriously."

"The fact is, there are thousands of bands that play the same stuff we do. And probably a lot of them play way better," Mr. Vangellow said. "But I don't know, we've got that little something extra that a lot of those other guys don't have, otherwise we wouldn't have lasted that long."

The roots

Mr. Vangellow plays drums, keyboard, guitar and sings. Mr. Zolner, who also lives in Hannawa Falls, plays guitar and sings. The pair can often be found on the Raquette River, just off their back yards, water skiing. The third member, Mr. Johns of Saranac Lake, plays bass and joins with vocals.

Mr. Vangellow, a native of Penfield, Monroe County, is a graduate of Clarkson University. Mr. Johns, a native of South Glens Falls, and Mr. Zolner, a native of Ravena, Albany County, graduated from SUNY Potsdam.

In 1975, Mr. Vangellow and Wally Siebel co-founded Northern Music and Video in Potsdam. Mr. Zolner worked at the store, which closed in 2014, for 35 years. Mr. Johns retired in 2008 after a 35-year career as a biology teacher at Lake Placid Central School, where he also coached a high school girls basketball team.

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Johns, who has a background in trumpet, was playing for a Potsdam-based band called Paul Lee and the Walkers. Mr. Vangellow eventually joined Mr. Johns in the group.

"It was a soul band," he said. "Paul was a Clarkson student but was from Boston."

When Mr. Lee left, the band became a trio, consisting of Mr. Johns, Mr. Vangellow and drummer Pete Thomsen. In those days, Mr. Vangellow played keyboard.

"We decided that we needed another voice and another instrument," Mr. Vangellow said.

But they knew who they wanted to fill that spot.

"We tell the story of getting Rob, because it's a pretty funny story," Mr. Vangellow said.

At the time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mimeographed posters with announcements were common across college campuses. Mr. Vangellow and Mr. Johns created just one poster, saying The Walkers were auditioning for a guitarist, and pasted it on a door at Mr. Zolner's apartment. He couldn't miss it and went to the audition.

Mr. Zolner recalled that at his audition, he made one strum of his guitar, which was followed by the exclamation, "You're hired!" "We knew what we wanted right out of the box," Mr. Vangellow said. "There were no other posters made and no other auditions given."

"We commandeered Rob, put it together and that's when we came up with a new name and we just started playing," Mr. Johns said.

"As soon as Rob joined, we were working a lot," Mr. Vangellow said.

The band became Double Axel in 1971.

In 1973, drummer Rick Washik replaced Mr. Thomsen. Mr. Washik was at the drums until 1983, when he decided to leave the band and was replaced by Brian Tupper.

At the time of Mr. Tupper's departure, Mr. Vangellow and his wife, Linda, lived in Canton, with a studio in their barn.

"I always had a set of drums out there and loved playing the drums," Mr. Vangellow said. "I was kind of adept at it. So we decided to try it and if we needed to get somebody, we'd get somebody. But after the first couple of shaky nights, it started coming together and we found we were having fun. The three of us were invested in it and the ones who cared about carrying it on. Getting somebody new in at that late date would be tough. So we decided to keep going."

For a few years, 1991 to 1995, the band included female vocalist Patricia Merrill.

All former members left on good terms, Mr. Vangellow said.

"Life gets in the way," he said of the departures. "You have to honor the rest of your family and that sort of stuff. It was all very amicable. We still had the fire and wanted to keep going."

Mecca of music

Live music at the time of the band's creation was flourishing in Potsdam, the three said.

"This was truly a mecca of quality music," Mr. Johns said. "You had the colleges, Crane and a lot of people around. People just fed off each other."

"The caliber of music at that point in the early '70s and through the '70s was pretty amazing," Mr. Vangellow said.

"I remember when we first started, we'd go and play at this place called The Warehouse and these bands would show up, like the Jam Factory," Mr. Johns said. "We'd go, 'Wow! We've got to do this.' We started drifting this way and that way and then we'd hear another band and started drifting that way in the way we played things. They were very influential, a lot of great musicians. We saw a lot of local music that really moved us."

Many of those musicians stopped playing or moved away, Mr. Johns said.

"We didn't go anywhere," he said. "We just stayed right here and it just kept working for us."

"It was the right place at the right time — all those magical things that all hook up," Mr. Zolner said. "You don't know what that is, but we were fortunate enough to have been in that place at that time. That same thing? If you tried to do the same thing today? It might not even work."

Once Double Axel got on a roll, there was no stopping it. Gigs piled up. Its reputation for quality rock 'n roll grew. Bookings seemed to make time fly by.

"We were always booking months ahead," Mr. Zolner said. "So I'd say, 'Well, I guess we're playing that much longer.' And that thing just kept on going and going. As it is now, we're booking into next year already. It kind of just drags you along — that demand."

Mr. Zolner said the days before the 1990s, when social interaction involved going out and interacting personally with people instead of moving fingers over a smart phone, helped to build a foundation of fans for the band.

"You went out. That's what you did," Mr. Zolner said. "If you wanted to go somewhere, you wanted to go where the action was happening."

Adding to this insight, Mr. Johns exclaimed, "It's where the girls were!"

"That's a very good point," Mr. Zolner said. "Because in the music we chose to play, we weren't like a very heavy rock band where we were just pounding away; not like there's a genre that guys want as opposed to what girls want. But we definitely played music that girls could dance and relate to. There was always a bunch of good-looking girls at a Double Axel gig. And guess what? Guys were going to be there because that's where the girls were."

Consistency and quality

Owners of venues where the band played and developed a following enjoyed the consistency the band provided.

"We always showed up on time, sober with no problems," Mr. Zolner said. "What's not to like? We're bringing in a big crowd and the guys aren't a hassle."

Meanwhile, their attention to detail, what Mr. Vangellow called the band's "thumbprints" on songs, from Bee Gees to Genesis, reverberated with fans.

"Many times, we'd do a two-hour practice on one song!" Mr. Johns said. "One song, over and over again, until we got it exactly the way we wanted it."

"People would come up to us and say, 'I heard that song you play on the radio. Those guys don't do it right,'" Mr. Vangellow said.

"It wasn't just a throw-together thing," Mr. Zolner said. "We spent hours. And I think subliminally, people reacted to that. They didn't know why, but we know why and it's the work we put into it and the pride we have in putting out a product."

"I think we've always considered ourselves interpreters," Mr. Vangellow said. "We love to take other peoples' material and interpret it our own way. Sometimes, it's just like they did it because it's a challenge enough. And sometimes, we take it apart and change everything about it so that it would suit our instrumentation and our vocal style."

At the Northern Music and Video, its store radio in the 1970s and '80s was constantly tuned to Ottawa-based CHEZ 106.1. The radio station featured a progressive music format heavy with Canadian content at the time. Mr. Vangellow and Mr. Zolner would hear a tune, from, say Power Blues Band ("Thirsty Ears") or Jerry Doucette ("Mama Let Him Play") and think how they would put their own touches on it. And when they played those tunes at gigs located out of the station's broadcast range, the reaction was ear-popping, with fans thinking the tunes were Double Axel originals.

"It added to our repertoire," Mr. Zolner said. "It was a cool influence."

Originals

The band has recorded a couple of albums of original material.

"The original stuff we did was more of an excursion, or something for us to do together, like a self-expression kind of thing that's separate from the entertaining side of things," Mr. Zolner said. "For the most part, as far as the band goes, it's playing songs that we know. We're a cover band. We cover songs. There's nothing wrong with that. There's always a little bit of inspiration, but we never had the goal of starting to write our own songs because we need to get a record deal. There's always that little tug inside you that you wished you could have done something more, or could we have done this? But then, we'd probably hate each other by now."

Double Axel is now traveling the north country on its 50th Anniversary Tour, giving many fans a chance to reminisce about good times and music shared with the band and to create new memories, as the band has no plans of slowing down.

'Local celebrities'

Mrs. Crinklaw, the Brushton resident, became an extreme Double Axel fan when they regularly performed at the Green Bowl on the Mill Road outside of Burke on Little Trout River.

"It was a bar out in the middle of the woods, in the boondocks basically," Mrs. Crinklaw said. "You had to drive up this very windy driveway, and you're like, 'Where am I going?' You got back there and it was this big, old building that used to be a home, I think. They turned it into a bar in the '50s or '60s, I guess."

Mrs. Crinklaw's mom and dad, Sandra Malette and Thomas Malette, who both died in their 60s, would tell Mrs. Crinklaw about the good times they had at Double Axel concerts during the band's early days.

Mrs. Crinklaw's first husband, Thomas Ghostlaw, died of cancer in 1997. Mrs. Crinklaw said they never attended a Double Axel gig. She's been with her second husband, Kevin Crinklaw, for 23 years. Their second date involved Double Axel.

"They're so easy to dance to and just a great bunch of guys," Mrs. Crinklaw, a psychotherapist, said.

She recalled an incident at the Green Bowl experienced with Kevin on their first night there as a couple. It was their second date. The band had just sat down during a break.

"They had seen us dancing and invited us over to sit with them to have a drink," she said.

From then on, whenever Double Axel played at the Green Bowl, Tammy and Kevin were there.

"We didn't miss one week of them being there. Even twice when I was very sick and not feeling well at all, we still made it there," Mrs. Crinklaw said. "They were just kind of local celebrities to us. Even though they were from Potsdam, when they came to the Green Bowl, everybody dusted their shoes off and headed out there."

There were other bands that played there, but none like Double Axel.

"You could get a seat on those nights," Mrs. Crinklaw said. "It wasn't packed. When Double Axel was there, there were no seats. You had to get there early if you wanted to sit. And once you got your seat, you didn't need it. You put your coat down and sat your drink on the table, but you didn't sit much. When they were there, I don't think we sat out two dances all night long. We were exhausted by the time we got home."

It was a sad occasion in the Burke community about a dozen years ago when the Green Bowl closed, and especially with it, the realization that Double Axel would lose its local venue.

"We were all very upset," Mrs. Crinklaw said. "It was closing night. I remember the last song (an arrangement based on the Beatles' "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!") and everybody hung around after for quite a while talking to them. All of us stood out in the parking lot for a good hour-and-a-half after they had stopped playing. Half of us were crying. We were crying because it was just like an end of an era for us. I remember standing there talking, saying, 'This is so sad, my parents came to see them' and that hopefully, they'll stay together and keep playing."

The Crinklaws were there in Potsdam on July 10 for the band's "Under the Big Top: Double Axel's 50th Anniversary Party."

Mr. Vangellow, reached a few days after the event, described the anniversary party as "monumental."

"It was so far past my wildest expectations," he said. "We just wanted to document the milestones, and it was so far past that. It's hard to believe 50 years later, but in the blink of an eye, 50 years is gone."

The Crinklaws arrived after the party started, and it was crowded with dancing, appreciative fans who took away yet more unforgettable Double Axel memories; a mix of music and camaraderie as they basked in the heart of rock 'n roll forged in St. Lawrence County.

"So what we did was we just sat in the car with the windows rolled down," Mrs. Crinklaw said. "We listened for a good portion of the night, and for some of the night, we got out of the car and on the slow songs, we danced on the sidewalk. On the fast songs, we sat in the car and reminisced. That was kind of lovely."

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