Lyrics were usually about girls, but they could be about anything. The key ingredient to garage rock was FUN. Songs were relatively easy to play and would sound good blasting at a “teen club” or a school dance. The songs appealed to kids of all ages. They still do.
In the United States, some cities were home to an exceptional group of bands whose recordings have been in demand for more than 40 years and whose music still sounds fresh. Those cities include San Antonio, Tacoma, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago — and Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids was the home of Fenton Records, an extension of the Great Lakes Recording Studio. Both were owned and operated by local native Dave Kalmbach and his partner (in business and in life), Bruce Smith.
The timeline is rather sketchy. From about 1959 to 1964, the studio was located at Our Theater, 737 Leonard St. NW, where the first few Fenton singles were recorded. Kalmbach also operated a recording studio in the basement of his parents’ home in East Grand Rapids, where other early Fenton singles were recorded. He also lived and worked in California for a short time. By 1964, Kalmbach was established at the Sparta Theater in the village of Sparta, where most of the Fenton recordings were made.
Local musician Dave Kalmbach started Fenton Records in 1959, first recording at Our Theater on Leonard Street NW.
It is impossible to paint a clear picture of Dave Kalmbach. There isn’t much hard data about the man, and only one known photograph exists. Lots of rumors and stories fly around, but the man basically remains an enigma.
A gifted musician and a whiz with electronics, he lived with his parents in East Grand Rapids. He had a disassembled pipe organ and an elaborate recording studio in the basement. Before the Fenton years, he had a moderately successful band called Dave and the Shadows, which released some singles, recorded at Chess in Chicago, and appeared on local television.
The first Fenton single was by Dave and the Shadows, and one of only three LPs put out by the label was a Christmas album by his group. Fenton Records and the Great Lakes Recording Studio were very successful artistically, but not financially. Many Fenton singles hit the top-40 in Grand Rapids. One, “Think Twice” by the Pedestrians, was WLAV’s No. 1 record of 1966, and through some quirk of fate, the song went on to hit No. 1 in Orlando, Fla., and Mobile, Ala., the following year.
Here’s how the studio operated: Bands from all over West Michigan came to the studio, paying Kalmbach about $20 an hour, according to Aris Hampers, a member of the Soul Benders, a band that did four sessions with Kalmbach at the Sparta studio.
Kalmbach, along with engineer and sometimes producer Bryce Robertson, would record a couple of the band’s songs. The recording sessions took place during hours when the theater wasn’t showing movies. Kalmbach would have the records pressed at American Record Pressing in Owosso, which also pressed the records for Motown, as well as the first Beatles’ single on Vee-Jay (a year before the band appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show).
Not all Fenton records have a “Fenton Records” label. If Kalmbach didn’t personally like a band or their song, he would use a different company name, such as “Duboney” or “Jafes.” Sometimes bands would request a different label name. Muskegon’s Aardvarks were on “Vark” and Lansing’s Plagues were on “Quarantined.”
The Quests, from Grand Rapids, recorded three singles at the Sparta studio. Lyle Hotchkiss, the band’s lead guitarist, found the experience deeply rewarding.
“I don't recall a single moment of angst while I was in that studio. He would never challenge me on any idea that I had. If it was what I wanted, then he would just comply. It was a great atmosphere for a kid of only 18 years.”
— Aris Hampers
“Dave was very accommodating and patient with us,” Hotchkiss said. “He always deferred to our judgment. Dave gave us a great sound, but we never achieved an error-free recording at Great Lakes. Maybe that’s part of the magic of the Fenton recordings: real music by real garage bands — perfect imperfection. What Dave helped us to achieve could not happen today.”
Hampers also enjoyed his time recording with Kalmbach.
“He was very laid back and quiet,” Hampers said. “No yelling or screaming — quite the opposite. I don’t recall a single moment of angst while I was in that studio. He would never challenge me on any idea that I had. If it was what I wanted, then he would just comply. It was a great atmosphere for a kid of only 18 years.”
Despite the chart successes, Kalmbach had to leave Grand Rapids in a hurry in 1970, owing a lot of money to a lot of people all over town. The recording equipment at the studio in Sparta was repossessed, and the movie theater was shut down permanently. Of many unresolved Fenton questions, the biggest is about what happened to the master tapes. Nobody seems to be sure.
“A few years ago, I tried to get a hold of copies that Dave should have had,” Hotchkiss said, “but I couldn’t find information on their existence.”
In the ’80s, somebody with a Wisconsin address was selling Fenton master tapes using a classified ad in Goldmine Magazine, a publication aimed at record collectors. Nobody knows who, if anybody, bought any of them.
“Dave is sitting on a ton of unreleased tapes,” Hampers said. “I made the offer to work on those at no charge so we could get them released. His friend said he would discuss it with Dave, but I never heard back from them.”
After Fenton closed down, Kalmbach moved to Detroit and worked briefly at a recording studio. He moved to Toronto for a while, and finally settled in Pennsylvania, where he still lives. Today, Kalmbach has multiple sclerosis and has become reclusive.
“When (the Soul Benders) had our CD release party at my store in 2000, I somehow got an invitation to him,” Hampers said. “I was absolutely floored when he showed up. He was in frail health and was walking with a cane, but it was a great reunion. He stayed for the whole thing, and afterwards, we just sat and talked for a long time. He looked bad but smiled a lot. He had a companion there who was taking care of him. At one point, (the companion) pulled me aside, out of Dave’s hearing range, and said that he hadn’t seen Dave that happy in a long time.”
In 1967, when the Beatles released the “Sgt. Pepper” album, garage rock turned to psychedelia, which led to such folk hippie stuff as The Grateful Dead, then Rock with a capital R — serious business — and eventually progressive rock — bands like Kansas, Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson.
But garage rock didn’t die. Even as the music created by mainstream rock bands became more esoteric, there were always a few bands keeping the flame alive. It seems to have a revival every 10 or 15 years. The first was back in the mid-’70s, with punk rock groups like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. They were directly inspired by a compilation called “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era,” which was put together by Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye and released on Elektra Records in 1972. Rolling Stone Magazine called it the 196th greatest album of all time.
Another recent garage rock revival was in the early 2000s, when groups such as The White Stripes and The Hives had their moment. In the last few years, another bunch of garage-y groups came along. The Black Lips, Nobunny and The Strange Boys all sound like they could’ve recorded for Fenton.
Another garage rock revival is probably brewing somewhere right now. There are always kids with guitars in garages and bedrooms and basements.
There’s always something to scream about. GR