Fat

Formed in 1968 in and around Springfield MA, Fat is going strong and is as beloved as ever more than five decades later. The derivation of the band’s name is simple, suggested by a hip, beatnik-inspired friend who spoke of all things cool and righteous as being “fat.” The Fat story is far more complicated, filled with big-time success, hope, disappointment, disillusion, resilience, and redemption. And some very enduring music. 

The seeds of Fat are sown at Holyoke Community College, where front man vocalist and songwriter Peter J. Newland connects with guitarists/songwriters Michael Benson and Jim Kaminski. Along with bassist Guy DeVito and drummer William “Benji” Benjamin, the band starts out playing covers of songs by their favorite bands: Cream, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Hendrix. But early on, seeing Jefferson Airplane at the Springfield Civic Center, Newland looks up at the stage and thinks, I wanna do that. What do we need to do to do that? From then on, the band’s focus is writing original songs. And these songs are good enough to lead to associations with big-league managers, producers, and record labels.

An early tape, recorded in 1968 in a two-track recording studio at what was then the Passionist Monastery in West Springfield, leads to a visit by producer Eddie Jason (a.k.a. Ed Germano), who’d go on to own the Hit Factory. The producer is particularly taken by the young band’s scrappy energy and a Newland original, “Black Sunday.” Six weeks later, the band is in midtown Manhattan, first at A&R Studios, then at RCA Studios, recording what becomes their first album, with Jason behind the board. 

The self-titled album is released on RCA Records about a year later, but the powers that be aren’t quite sure how to promote the record, and the band finds itself on bills in New York with Bobby Sherman and Bread. As Newland recalls, “Given that I was young and full of beans, and had that rock and roll arrogance thing going on, I was very unhappy about that.”

Back home, Fat is pioneering the music scene in the Pioneer Valley. In 1969, they play 12 dates at Steve Nelson’s club, The Woodrose Ballroom, in South Deerfield, both as a headliner and as an opening act. In December, they open for a new band with their first album just out, The Allman Brothers. In 1970, when the Woodrose moves its shows to the Paramount Theatre, about a half-hour south in Springfield, they land an opening slot for The Velvet Underground on January 9. Also on the bill are Barry T & the Studebakers, a new band fronted by Barry Tashian and Bill Briggs, formerly of The Remains. (An image of the concert poster appears on page 326 of Steve Nelson’s Gettin’ Home memoir.) 

After the Woodrose, things continue to improve when the band play shows with Paul Butterfield one night and Little Richard the next, and with acts including Steppenwolf and Eric Burdon and War. Then with Jerrold Kushnick as manager, Fat lands a slot at the Strawberry Fields Festival in Ontario, Canada, in August 1970 with Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Grand Funk Railroad, and others. But, recalls Newland, “Right when they figured out where we fit, there was regime change at RCA. We were going down to record our second album and we cut our new single [in late 1970], ‘Still Water,’ but they were unhappy to find out it was a Vietnam protest song. That straw broke the camel’s back.”

But that first album’s viability and major-label luster was a big deal for fans of the band. Legendary Western MA-based songwriter and performer Ray Mason has recorded nearly three dozen albums as a front man for the Lonesome Brothers and with his own Ray Mason Band. Says Mason, “The first time I heard Fat was at an outdoor concert at Forest Park in Springfield in the late ’60s. With a combination of originals and choice covers (including Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage”), they proceeded to show me and my buddies that this was what a great band sounded like! With original tunes like “House On The Corner” and “Black Sunday,” I later wore out their self-titled RCA album. What I’m trying to say here is that Fat have always knocked me out!”

Throughout the ’70s, members of Fat not only worked together but lived together, further adding to the tight-knit feel of the band. The back cover of the RCA album, in fact, is taken at one of those group houses, in Pelham, MA. 

Even without a recording contract but with an ever-growing catalogue of power-packed original music, embracing soulful rock and blues with hip jazzy inflections, the band remained strong with a fiercely loyal following throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, and become house-packing regulars at the Rusty Nail in Sunderland, MA. In the early- to mid-1970s, Fat frequently finds themselves sharing bills there with the likes of Cold Blood, James Cotton, Taj Mahal, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. 

In the mid-1970s, guitarist Kaminski leaves, replaced by Peter’s brother Christopher on guitar; Drummer Benjamin leaves, too, eventually to join The Elevators, whose Frontline album would be released on Arista Records in 1980. William Perry from Cricket Hill is his replacement.

In 1975, the group forms the area’s first Indie label, Dream Merchant Records, and its members—Peter and Christopher Newland, DeVito, Benson, and Perry—proceed to record and self-produce their second LP, Footloose, with assistance from esteemed engineer Ed Begley (Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone). The album sells well regionally, and Fat is firmly established as a major musical force in a vibrant scene that also includes Clean Living and Mitch Chakour and the Mission Band. In Boston when Fat plays such clubs as Brandy’s and Bunratty’s, they connect with Bonnie Raitt, Billy Colwell, and James Montgomery.

Looking for new management and armed with copies of the solid-selling Footloose album, Newland likes to say he “bribed” his way backstage at the Springfield Civic Center during a Charlie Daniels Band show, in hopes of connecting with promoter Shelly Finkel of powerful Cross Country Concerts. It works, and on September 30, 1978, the band officially signs on with Finkel and partner Jim Koplik as managers. 

In early January 1979, the band is off to Miami’s Criteria Studios to record what they hope will be their third album, with Felix Pappalardi (Cream, Mountain) producing. Around this time, Fat also records with producers Murray Krugman (Blue Oyster Cult) at Bearsville Studios, and Mick Ronson (there’s some classic, unreleased material from those sessions), but it soon becomes clear, Newland says, that “Felix was gonna be the guy.”  

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, manager Shelly Finkel connects with the legendary Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records and gives him some Fat home demos. As Newland recalls, “Jerry liked it and encouraged Ahmet [Ertegun] to sign us. And while we’re at Criteria, Ahmet flew in from his place in the Caribbean. We met him at the airport and he came back to the studio and we listened to the tapes with Ahmet. He liked the band very much. He said, ‘You guys are the new Rolling Stones. We are going to take rock and roll back from the English with this band.’ We shook hands on a deal that day.”

But at the time the band signs with Atlantic, just after the record industry’s sugar-high of Saturday Night Fever and its subsequent pre-MTV plunge, money dries up and companies are quickly starting to tighten their belts and suddenly don’t have slots on their rosters for so-called “developmental acts.” Fat gets caught up in this, and despite having recorded an album’s worth of new material, the Atlantic deal falls through. 

“When the Atlantic deal fell apart,” Newland continues, “it hit everybody really hard. We’d worked really hard and got to [what we felt was] the ultimate deal, the deal we’d all been looking for, and when that fell apart, we just kind of imploded for a while.” 

Christopher Newland, DeVito, and Perry leave the band, with Peter Newland and Michael Benson remaining to keep the fire burning. Which they did, beginning in late 1979 with a succession of new lineups. The first sees the two stalwarts being joined by bassist Peter Frizzell (Clean Living) and drummer Barry Blinn (Mama’s Little Jewel). This quite-different incarnation of Fat, a power trio with front man vocalist, was dubbed Hell’s House Band, with Newland the creative force driving it. “I did not take the loss of the Atlantic deal and the breakup of the band well,” reflects Newland understandably, “and I was pretty angry. In one sense, it made for some angry, violent, beautiful music.”

The harder-edged Fat sound, though, doesn’t ring true with some of the band’s loyal fan base, who want to hear the old Fat songs. In 1982, the band, now with Newland and Benson joined by Joe Rudolph (bass) and Mark Kislus (drums), releases a new single, recorded at Dream Merchant Studios in Ashfield, MA. The record, the high-energy rocker “Livin’ Like an Outlaw” backed with a timeless ballad, “When Will I Meet You?” has the feel of classic Fat, and when this new version of the band plays a record release party at the Springfield Civic Center Exhibition Hall on June 19, 1982, the place is packed, the fans in attendance clearly loving their local heroes. 

Throughout much of the 1980s, Peter Newland and company continue playing clubs and bigger halls like the Paramount Theatre in Springfield. But in the late-’80s, Fat officially calls it quits, although in retrospect it was just a multi-year hiatus. Fast forward, and Ron Hurst, a longtime member of Steppenwolf and friend of venerable Fat bassist Guy DeVito, inspires members of the original band to get back together, and that happens at the Waterfront Tavern in Holyoke in February 1992. The magic returns, the band is resurrected, and with a few exceptions early on have been playing together several times a year, most recently with original members Peter and Christopher Newland, Guy DeVito, Jim Kaminski, and “Benji” Benjamin, joined by guitarist Mark Pappas and second drummer Chet Pasek. 

Into the third decade of the new millennium, Fat brings in special guests including James Montgomery, Mitch Chakour, and Ray Mason to such venues as Court Square in Springfield and the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, and before sold-out full-to-capacity crowds, is as energetic and as good, if not better, than ever. And one of the wonderful things about Fat is that in 2020, 52 years after the band’s formation, all its members, past and present, are still alive. “Yeah,” Peter Newland says with a mischievous smile, “we sometimes jokingly say that we just didn’t make enough money to kill ourselves.” And the songs, from all phases of their career, shine as brightly as ever, getting loud and standing ovations from music lovers of all ages.

Reflecting on 50-plus years, Newland concludes, “Now you just put the key in, turn it on, and you let it run. We finally learned not to try to redesign it, or re-control it. We found something that works together as a beautiful machine.”

Selected Recordings: 

Fat: Fat (RCA LSP-4368, 1970 LP). Later re-released on CD as Fat: The Early Years, with bonus tracks.

Fat: Footloose (Dream Merchant OU812, 1976 LP).

Fat: Past Due (Dream Merchant OU813, 1995 CD). Tracks recorded in 1978 and produced by Felix Pappalardi at Criteria Studios.

Fat: “Livin’ Like an Outlaw” b/w “When Will I Meet You” (Dream Merchant DM 101, 1982 45)

The Elevators (including William Benjamin): Frontline (Arista AB 4270, 1980 LP)

Christopher “Columbus” Newland (guitar): Arrow: Knock Dem Dead (Mango 1988, LP)

Guy DeVito (as producer): Salamander Crossing (self-titled CD, Signature Sounds, 1995)

Peter J. Newland: Nomad (Dream Merchant DMR 2000, 1999 CD) 

Guy DeVito (bass, vocals): John Kay & Friends: Live at the Renaissance Center (Shout Factory, 2004 DVD)

Jim Kaminski: Jim K and Co. 5 (Meltdown Records, 2013 EP)

 

(By David Sokol with additional material provided by Steve Nelson)

 

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