If you were a “hepcat” teenager in the late 1960s who happened to live no more than a few dozen miles west of Tulsa, chances are good that you saw and heard the Undertakers, a five-man rock ‘n’ roll outfit that pretty well ruled that turf for a few golden years. Among the teen hotspots they regularly played was the Joker in Cleveland, Okla., where, in 1967, a friend of the band’s named Dick Culbertson set up a brand-new Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder and two mikes and recorded 60 minutes of the group’s SRO performance that night.
In those days, simply getting something down on tape for your own use was a big deal, and actually getting the music to the public was an even bigger deal. Home recording was far from ubiquitous then, and the process involved in putting out a record was far more costly and time-consuming than it is today, when a musician with reasonable technical proficiency can cut a CD, create the packaging and put it on sale without ever having to leave his computer. Sure, bands got picked up by record labels, but the distance between Mannford, Okla., where most of the Undertakers lived, and recording centers like L.A. and New York seemed as far away as another galaxy.
For those reasons, it’s unlikely that the young members of the group ever thought their recorded performance would go much further than the 1/4-inch tape on their friend’s machine.
As it turns out, they were wrong.
Forty-five years later, those 60 minutes are finally being released – on vinyl – as the premiere offering of In Person.Records, a new label based in Sand Springs. It’s the brainchild of 23-year-old Jake Shaeffer, son of Undertakers lead guitarist Larry Shaeffer, the concert promoter and booking agent who owned Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom for nearly two decades. To hear Jake tell it, he grew up at least as impressed by his dad’s record collection as he was by Larry Shaeffer’s role as one of Tulsa’s entertainment heavyweights.
“Years and years ago, I got into vinyl records, stuff like Buddy Holly, because that’s what dad had at home,” explains Jake. “I didn’t listen to it because I thought it was cool; it’s just what I had. If you were in eighth grade in Keystone Middle School, listening to Buddy Holly on vinyl was probably the most uncool thing you could do.”
A few years later, that all changed.
“My brother, James, was a big White Stripes fan, and they were putting out a lot of vinyl,” he says. “That was the first time I noticed kids buying new vinyl.”
As it turned out, kids like Jake were buying old vinyl, too, searching out hard-to-find rock ‘n’ roll and blues records, many of which had never been transferred to disc. He became a collector of LPs and obscure music. Given that passion, it was natural that his attention would soon fall on the tape of his dad’s band.
“I’d always heard about the Undertakers,” he says. “I knew the guys who were in the band, I’d seen the old pictures. And about 10 years ago, I finally heard a cassette tape of the show. I loved that I could finally put a sound to these old photos – and the music wasn’t bad at all. The vinyl collector in me thought it would be cool to do their first record.”
First, though, he had to convince his father.
“For a year or so, I’ve been pushing him into it,” Jake says. “He told me, ‘No one wants to hear us make our noise. No one would want to listen to it. No one would be interested. It’s not even a professional recording,’
“I told him, ‘That’s cool right now. People like to listen to the scratches and the pops. This is real music, flaws and all, and people like that old garage-rock sound.’”
“It was gentle persuasion,” adds Larry Shaeffer. “He finally just wore me down.”
Once Larry was on board, he and Jake turned to Undertakers bassist Terry Colberg – who, notes Larry, “has been the curator, the guy who hung onto the photos, the memories, and the original tape.”
“About a year ago,” says Colberg, “I ran it through a graphic equalizer and onto the computer. I digitized it because I wanted to make a disc for all the guys.”
Now, the music on the tape has been even further enhanced, and by one of the top mastering engineers in the business, Kevin Gray. Based in Los Angeles, he’s worked on recordings by such artists as the Who, the Doors, the Beach Boys, Jefferson Starship and Steely Dan.
“He remasters big acts to be put back on vinyl,” explains Larry. “He told us that the Undertakers reminded him of the garage band he was in. His band had even played some of the songs we played. And suddenly, an exorbitant price went down to something very reasonable.”
Following the remastering, the record goes to Chad Kassem in Salina, Kan., who is, says Jake, the largest vinyl distributor in America. “We’re doing 1,000 copies total, on 200 grams, the thickest vinyl we can get,” he adds. “Two-hundred-gram vinyl is more of an aesthetic thing. We want it to be as close to a record pressed in 1967 as it can be – weight, look, feel, smell, everything. The first 100 will be signed and numbered, with reproductions of five handbills for the band and a copy of the band’s business card.”
Unlike many bands, the Undertakers got along well until the end, when the military draft broke the group up. As guitarist John Claybrook remembers, “We just had fun and cared about playing good. There was no ego from anybody.”
That was true from the very beginning, according to lead vocalist Jimmy Allen, when the group had to cobble together whatever equipment it could. “I remember that our first microphone stand was homemade,” he says with a chuckle. “It had a Nash Rambler hubcap for a base. Our first gig was at a Mannford High School assembly, and all Mike had was a snare drum. We were raw. But we got better.”
Indeed, it wasn’t all that long before the group was drawing big crowds virtually every weekend in teen venues around the area.
“We put our songs in medleys, so we never stopped playing when we were on stage,” adds original drummer Mike Porter. “The guys had real good imaginations, and they did things that put our own mark on the songs.”
Often, those marks came about because the band members weren’t all that familiar with a number they were doing. “Sometimes we wouldn’t even practice a song,” remembers Jimmy Cunningham, who took over for Porter when the latter left for the Army. “Someone would hear a song on the radio and say, ‘Hey, have you heard this one?’ And we’d just jump in there and do it.”
That’s one of the things that make the project so attractive to Jake Shaeffer. “They didn’t write their own songs,” he says, “but what they did were a lot of the classic songs of the ‘60s. So this record is a way to document a little part of the ‘60s. And the fact that it’s my dad’s band makes me smile.”
At this writing, The Undertakers is set for a July 4 release. In addition to being offered on Facebook and other online sources, it’ll be available in Tulsa at Starship Records and Tapes.