It was the early 1970s, and the times they were a-changing. Hair, clothes, attitude — and especially music were being revolutionized, expanding in mind-bending directions, opening up new avenues for experimentation and innovation. In Greensboro, a trio of local musicians — Scott Manring, Dennis Worley and Bobby Kelly — was stirring things up as well, redefining acoustic music with their band, the Sentinel Boys.
The name came from the living quarters of one of the musical miscreants involved, a basement in the ramshackle uptown apartment complex on West Market Street dubbed Sentinel Studios by its inhabitants and hangers-on, a motley crew of artists, musicians, dreamers and vagabonds.
Worley actually lived there with local artist Don Morgan, who in his prepainting years hosted an off-air and off-the-wall radio station with friend Mike Spainhour capturing broadcasts solely on cassette tapes circulated among a lucky few. Somewhere in the rather murky timeline of the studio antics, the boys coalesced into a working (sort of) band that developed a rabid local fan base for their eclectic presentations.
The neighbors were the first ones to take notice of the Sentinel Boys, and they didn’t welcome them with open arms. “They got tired of the nonstop free-form jams coming from downstairs,” Worley says. “We’d get notes from all the neighbors saying, ‘These are apartments, not recording studios!’”
Free form is as good a term as any to describe the Sentinel Boys’ sound. It was a lively mix of styles and genres from folk to jazz to bluegrass to rock blended with whatever else crossed their path and struck their fancy.
“The only rule we had was we had to like it,” Worley says of the Boys’ eclectic tastes reflected in their music. “Bluegrass, jazz, whatever — McCoy Tyner one second, bluegrass the next. Made perfect sense,” he deadpans. “We just felt like if we liked it, probably everybody else would. If we got into it, hopefully it would rub off.”
Kelly says the band members were big fans of world music before there was such a label. “Remember the label Nonesuch Records? That was a big influence on us. We loved hearing that strange and beautiful music. It just so happened to combine with a time when jazz had done sharp left turn, Miles (Davis) had gotten electrified, and the whole world was rotating in a different direction.”
Locals accepted it, supporting their shows enough to allow the Boys a nearly two-year run doing Friday nights at Aliza’s Cafe beneath the Hong Kong House on Tate Street. The band took it out of town as well, playing gigs at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill and an outing to the coast and up to Boone, even venturing as far as Richmond and Washington, D.C.
But the Boys’ eclectic offerings didn’t endear them to all club owners. “Some of them admired our courage or lack of good sense, I don’t know which,” Kelly says. “We’d literally do a Flatt and Scruggs song and then do a John Coltrane or McCoy Tyner the next. People didn’t know what to think, man. Occasionally people would go, ‘Yeah, this is great. Don’t call us, we’ll call you about that return date,’ but no death threats or anything.”
By all accounts even the local gigs were loosely organized, to say the least. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you how we all knew we had a gig to go to,” Worley says. “We just sorta showed up. Got through somehow.”
Pricing was a key factor. The band charged a very reasonable 50 cent admission fee at first, but when they tried to raise it to a dollar, all hell broke loose. “I’ve got the poster,” Manring says, “got the original poster where it was 50 cents, and it was crossed out and said $1, and that’s when people mutinied and that’s all written on the poster. There’s blood on it and everything. It’s a killer poster.” Manring has since passed on his trophy, now framed up, gifting it to Kelly after the project the two worked on to restore and remaster some of the original Sentinel Boys tapes onto an anthology offered to the public as the first and only commercially available product of the nearly 50-year-old band.
The year 1973 is the agreed upon date for the band’s startup, and it kind of stuttered to a halt around 1978. But in between, they created some exceptional music. The three were all extremely gifted musicians, who despite their youth, had a good deal of experience playing and recording in many and varying styles.
Scott Manring and Worley were the vocalists, with Manring also handling guitars, mandolin, Dobro and harp and was the principal songwriter. Dennis Worley also wrote, played guitar and could sing like a fallen angel. With Bobby Kelly on bass and Mu-tron, it provided a groove deep enough for a Rhino to lie down and wallow in.
The songs were novels compressed into small packages, spooling out intriguing tales bristling with snarky, sophisticated witticisms.
“They were just such great players, and they’d all had such great experience, and they’d already recorded some,” Manring says of compatriots Kelly and Worley. “(Worley) was just an amazing singer, and his tunes were spot-on. They just were all so good,” Manring. “I guess the tunes just fit what we knew how to do, or we fit what we knew how to do to those words. But I think for a songwriter, he’s hard to beat. He’s got a lot of class, and for the stuff to be so sophisticated and so cool, it was different, you know. It was just a cut above to me.”
Worley tosses the praise right back at Manring’s for his songwriting skills. “He was writing all kinds of nice hooky songs. Just hooky all over the place — he was writin’ ‘em left and right.” Kelly says he thought Manring’s tune “Life’s Little Problems” predated Dave Matthews by about 30 years. “Yeah, like I said, Hooky? My God!” Worley exclaims. “I’d say it even had kind of a Little Feat groove to it. Wasn’t really New Orleans, but had that nice beat, man.”
The songs on the anthology, which Kelly, his younger brother Pat, and Manring have been working on for about three years, still stand up today. “I change my partner occasionally, control my baby astrologically,” Manring says snarkily on “Zodiac Waltz,” a Cajun-flavored, Appalachian-tinged, shape-shifting chunk of Americana before there was even a term for it. That’s Manring on the husky, soulful vocal lead, a skill he also demonstrated with David Sheppard as the B.R. Boys and later as a multi-instrumentalist and singer for the Swamp Cats. He now accompanies Laurelyn Dossett on tour and also serves as an instrumental jack of all trades from underneath the stage providing sound effects as well as the occasional onstage accompaniment to Dossett’s road company shows for the some of the six plays she helped create with Triad Stage’s Preston Lane.
Kelly slithers around sinuously on “Samba,” supporting Bruce Swaim’s trilling flute. Kelly one of Tornado’s founding members, is also a revered sound tech and engineer who has helmed many local gigs and sessions. “I engineered and produced all three of the Swamp Cats’ albums,” Kelly says proudly, “and I engineered and co-produced the B.R. Boys record.” He has also toured with Johnnie Whitlock, Bob Margolin, Hubert Sumlin, Nappy Brown, a well as being a member of Blues World Order, and Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojos.
One of Worley’s tunes, “Soot’s Lament” comes across like Neil Young fronting Stonesy country honk. Worley, also a founding Tornado member, had previously played with Fred’s Hat Band with Kelly. Another of his tunes on the anthology, “Hobos,” sounds like a cross between Tim Buckley and Crosby, Stills and Nash. “I would say that’s a fair assessment,” Worley says, “because they loomed pretty large, both of them.”
The anthology displays a side of the Boys that early fans of the band might not recognize and some didn’t care for at the time. The band expanded and plugged in. Kelly’s brother Pat remembers the reaction of a friend of his brother’s coming back rather disgruntled from one of the early plugged-in shows. He said, “I went down to see the Boys, and they had all these amplifiers and electric guitars. It was almost like when Bob Dylan went electric — some fans weren’t all that pleased. ”
The Boys brought in flautist/saxophonist Bruce Swaim, a preacher’s son from Winston-Salem who could blow like a demon, moving to D.C. and working with Danny Gatton, Martha Reeves, Millie Jackson, The Spinners, The Four Tops and The Temptations and currently fronting the Bruce Swaim Quartet. And to add some thump, David Licht came onboard. Licht would soon move to New York as a founding member of the globe-trotting Klezmatics, also playing with Bongwater and Eugene Chadbourne in Shockabilly, as well as with Itzak Perleman.
The band added more percussive propulsion with Greensboro businessman Al Clinton on Congas, then took on Tom Wimbish on keys. Scott Sawyer lent his guitar skills on occasion, percussionist Frank Worrell showed up frequently as well.
The music got funkier, and friendship with local drummer Chuck Cotton led to an invite to sit in with the band he was in, Funkhouse, who went on to become Betty Davis’ backup band, recording the album “Nasty Gal” with her. Betty was married to Miles Davis.
“We finally got to where we connected with some of the guys we looked up to in the jazz community around here who were our elders, and then they wanted a piece of it,” Manring says of the Boys’ newfound funky side. “And it was cool as sin. It was liberating in a way without having to be a piece of commerce, just to play music like that.” And even though some might have had initial doubts about the young intruders, they soon won over the crowd. “You don’t dance into that world and dance around like you know something unless you can get in there and do it,” Manring says. “And we got in pretty good from time to time.”
That’s evident on the tapes, as is the meticulous research and remastering efforts. Everybody thought that Manring had written”Greensboro Blues,” because he was the one who brought it to the band. But when it was time to list the credits for the songs, Manring denied ownership, revealing it was a David Olney tune he had recreated from memory after seeing him perform it live.
“I never said I wrote it,” Manring said. “I was helping with the digital project and a lot of it was supplying the music actually,” says Pat, who had accumulated treasure trove of Boys tapes over the years. “Bobby kept saying we need to get David Olney’s blessing to use the tune because we don’t want this to turn around and have some legal suit on our hands.” Pat finally reached Olney through his website, and Olney gave his permission to use the tune. “He said something like, ‘I’m honored that yawl would be playing my tune.’”
The music and the memories still endure. People still come up to Bobby and say they remember him from Sentinel Boys. “I had no idea anybody even had a glimpse of what that band was all about,” he says, seemingly surprised that people still wanted copies of the music. “Ironically, we had always recorded even our first rehearsals, down to every gig in some form or the other so we could learn from it. My brother became the archivist for that stuff and has the tapes I had given him and forgot about. He supplied a lot of material that Scott and I had forgotten about.”
Worley says he’s gotten Sentinel feedback over the years as well. “I hear things. It was fun, man, it was just a real fun thing to do. And everybody loved it.”
The project and the band mean a lot to Manring as well. “You don’t meet too many people like them. You don’t meet all these cats who have these real sophisticated tastes. And everybody was just really smart and cool and good and could do a lot of stuff — an amazing bunch of people. There were really pretty solid people, and I think our friendship today stands to speak for that.”