by Baker Maultsby
Veterans of the Southeast’s music scene will sometimes reminisce about the days when you could see REM in a small club, the Connells were hot on the college circuit, and Jason and the Scorchers and the Georgia Satellites were paving the way for later “alternative country” acts.
And every so often, someone in the conversation will think of the Accelerators – a band that hailed from Raleigh, NC and before that South Carolina’s Upstate – and declare that, without question, they were one of the very best groups of the era. Others with knowledge of the band will almost invariably nod in agreement.
They remember the band’s blaring guitars played over the rock-steady groove of an impeccably tight rhythm section. They can still hum the crisp melodies of songs like “Boy and Girl,” “(Why You) Hang up on Me,” and “Regina.”
And they might remember that while the Accelerators never sold a great many records, they garnered a positive review in Rolling Stone and glowing praise from Billboard.
One fan from those days was Cory Robbins, then a partner in Profile Records. Profile released two albums by the band – The Accelerators and Dream Train.
“Some would compare them to the Georgia Satellites or the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But, you know, I liked them a lot better,” says Robbins.
Indeed, while blues-based barroom rock was the foundation of the Accelerators’ sound, there was something that distinguished their songs from “Tough Enough” or “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.”
Music writers constantly look for pithy descriptions of musical sounds. In the case of the Accelerators, it’s difficult to put a finger on.
There was a subtle sophistication: Plenty of volume and swagger, not unlike the Satellites or the Scorchers, but also an element of cool restraint perhaps most comparable to Nick Lowe’s work with Rockpile. And while the lyrical content is in no way self-involved or gloomy, there is often the perspective of an outsider or underdog as well as an earnest, blue-collar stance.
If you’re looking to lead writer and singer Gerald Duncan to pin it down for you, he doesn’t offer much.
“It was mostly a matter of following your nose, basically,” Duncan says, though he points to a few of the sounds that shaped his musical awareness as a kid – the Wilburn Brothers on TV, songs by Otis Blackwell, hymns at the Southern Baptist church he attended.
As for his lyrical point of view, Duncan gives no firm explanation – but a few hints: “My heroes were Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali…people who were willing to stand up and take consequences for doing what was right. That was always pretty impressive to me.”
Duncan grew up in Taylors, at that time a growing community making the transition from back-road town to full-blown suburb of Greenville, SC. Duncan was the first student body president of then-new Eastside High School.
The high school political scene wasn’t the only matter commanding his attention. Duncan was learning guitar and becoming a serious student of song-craft.
“I was serious about it always,” he says. “Mostly, I started playing to write. I don’t know. I had no choice.”
It was a particularly hot time for local kids to be driven by musical ambitions. The area was in the throes of the Southern Rock heyday, with regional acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers churning out hit after hit and the Marshall Tucker Band, just 30 miles away in Spartanburg, breaking through, as well.
These groups spawned plenty of imitators. Duncan was not one of them. He quickly developed a sound that was decidedly Southern….but not Southern Rock.
At a time when “extended” twin guitar solos were the goal for any number of local rockers (and disco was the style of choice for bands whose aim was to make as much money as possible), Duncan was unusual. Other groups featured improvisational jams; Duncan wrote concise rock songs with an emphasis on lyrics.
He says, “Songs are not words and not music, they’re music and words together. They’re both part of the thing together.”
It was a thing that quickly attracted attention.
“The great thing about Gerald was that it was about rock and roll,” says Gene Berger, owner of Greenville’s Horizon Records and a longtime Upstate, SC music honcho.“He was a star,” says record producer Dick Hodgin. “His songs were different. He was a very clever wordsmith, and he had a penchant for putting these quirky songs and wordsmanship to just balls out rock songs.” Hodgin, who got to know Duncan in the 1970s, went on to work with artists ranging from Hootie and the Blowfish to Clay Aiken to the Flat Duo Jets. Since its inception he has worked as the Accelerators’ manager and lead producer. He and the band relocated from Greenville to Raleigh as a team in the early ‘80s. “Depending on which set of musicians (Duncan) had, the rock level went up or down, the rockabilly influence moved up or down, the pop sensibilities moved up or down.”
The Accelerators’ first album – Leave My Heart, released on the tiny Dolphin label – was recorded with production support from Don Dixon. The album features rockabilly-tinged pop songs that stand up alongside the work of contemporaries like Marshall Crenshaw, Nick Lowe, and Dixon.
Aside from Duncan’s customary wit, there are lyrical surprises: a glimpse at interracial romance in the South (“Regina”), the grisly story of “Stiletto,” and a tale of “Two Girls in Love.”
After the album, bassist Keller Anderson and guitarist Chris Moran exited the band, to be replaced, respectively, by Mike Johns and Brad Rice.
Rice and Johns brought a harder edge to Duncan’s songs, while Johns contributed songs and lead vocals. A Johns’ song, “Stayin’ Up in the City,” kicks of the band’s self-titled 1987 release on Profile Records.
Cory Robbins at Profile had gotten a cassette tape in the mail of Leave My Heart. Don Dixon’s name in the credits motivated Robbins to give it a serious listen, and he was instantly sold. “They just had great songs, singing, and playing,” he recalls.
Profile was best-known for breaking Run-DMC and advancing the commercial appeal of rap music. Johns was often seen in clubs wearing a Run-DMC T-shirt, but despite his show of support for his label-mates, it may not have been an altogether good fit.
Reviews were positive, in some cases gushing, and the band continued to build a following on the club circuit, where rockers like “Radio” and “You’re a Fool” as well as Johns’ cover of “Black Slacks” were favorites. But widespread commercial success eluded the band.
“We worked it, but we never could get anything going on it,” says Robbins. It didn’t help that Robbins’ partner at Profile “hated the band,” an issue that contributed to the label’s closing a few years later.
The Accelerators managed to get one more record out on Profile. Dream Train was perhaps the group’s most polished recording, and Hodgin maintains that if the band and Profile had each been able to stick things out, the Accelerators’ breakthrough may have been imminent.
Hodgin had sent copies around, including one to WRDU, in Raleigh. He was somewhat surprised to hear the lead-off song, “Boy and Girl,” blaring out of a friend’s car stereo.
When Hodgin inquired with the station’s program director, “(He) told me, ‘Man, I can’t believe how much response we’re getting on this.’ All it would have taken was a little push.”
But by then, Profile was breaking up. The band followed suit soon after.
The break-up ended an intensely creative period of Duncan’s life, marked by substantial accomplishment and equally major disappointment. He and his band had achieved what few even come near: They’d released albums with label backing; their music attracted the praise of national publications; they made a living, however paltry, touring and playing music.
But when it was over, there was little money in the bank and no clear support structure.
“Would I advise someone to do this? Not if you have any other choice. Not unless there was just no other way,” Duncan says now. “I had no choice. It’s a really difficult life, so I think you should have to do it.”
Mike Johns moved back to Greenville and ended up joining forces with Spartanburg-based singer-songwriter-rocker Matthew Knights in the short-lived Fluffy. The group released one fabulous recording before disbanding in the early ‘90s. Johns, whose soulful voice rivals the likes of Raul Malo and Chris Isaak, has continued to write and plays out on occasion.
Doug Whelchel, the brilliant drummer who had been with Duncan from the start, played with Knights for a while, too, before dropping off the radar.
Brad Rice continued to expand his range as a guitarist, and is now one of the hottest side-men on the Americana scene. He’s played with Ryan Adams and, more recently, Tift Merritt and Son Volt.
Rice was in his mid-20s when he joined the Accelerators, and the band gave him his start as a full-time touring musician. It was often five guys sleeping in a drab hotel room, eating fast food, and sitting on top of amps and speakers in the back of the stripped-out, nightclub-bound van, he recalls. But, Rice says, “Ultimately, we had a really good time. I look back on those years fondly.”
Now based in Austin (and traveling more comfortably when he’s on the road), he says he recently pulled out the two Accelerators records he was a part of. Having now worked with several of the brightest active songwriters in roots rock and country, Rice says he hears Duncan’s songs with a new appreciation.
“I always liked the music. But looking back, I didn't really realize at the time how Gerald really worked at his craft and how he thought things out and took it seriously. I have an appreciation for that now, and I think he's a very good songsmith,” Rice says.
"He had very good pop sensibilities. The songs were simplistic but not simple-minded"--a compliment Rice also pays Mike Johns and his songwriting.
In addition to serving as a session musician and side-man, Rice has delved into songwriting himself. His homemade album, Karma Bed, showcases his expansive guitar talent and has garnered critical praise.
After Leave My Heart, Duncan settled into a more workaday life in Raleigh, getting married and playing only the occasional gig with a new group of Accelerators.
In 2000, the band released Nearer. This album was recorded without Hodgin at the soundboard, but once again, Duncan’s songs captured the praise of reviewers. Rockers like “Waiting in Line” and “Cry Like a Baby,” along with the introspective title cut, stand among his best work. But as an independent release with little touring support, the album was mostly picked up by longtime fans.
One of those fans is Jerker Emanuelson, a Swedish fellow with something of an obsessive streak when it comes to American music. He runs his own label, Sound Asleep Records, which has released albums by such artists as Bill Lloyd and Tim Carroll along with the well-received Hit the Hay compilation series.
Sound Asleep is planning to release a “best of” collection of Accelerators material later this year. The album won’t likely be slated for a million-copy release, but Emanuelson’s projects have a way of making the rounds among rock and roll fans with good ears.
Perhaps the record will inspire critics and song publishers and others to take another look at the Accelerators catalog, bringing long-overdue financial rewards for Duncan. Perhaps it won’t.
Either way, Duncan says he’s determined to go back in the studio with Hodgin and make another album of original material.
Until then, he’s satisfied that he and his band-mates over the years have done the best they could. “We tried to do it for the music,” Duncan says. “We tried to do good songs and to do them well. It is unto itself the goal.”
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