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Media Life: 1960s band a link to bring folk musician to Auburn

Travolta's words could live on in Auburn; Placer "Survivor" didn't survive
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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When finger-style, folk guitar player and songwriter Jack Williams arrives for an Oct. 22 concert in Auburn, he’ll be greeted by a familiar face from his musical past. Williams, an Arkansan who’s something of a wandering musical troubadour, and Auburn’s Wayne Manning have a musical pedigree that goes back to the early 1960s in a Pacific Northwest band called The Statesmen. Manning, Williams and a third member of The Statesmen – Jimmy Payne – would go on to carve out their own places in the music industry over the years after that band folded. Now working as a life coach, Manning was a key member of country singer Kitty Wells’ Tennessee Mountain Boys band for five years before deciding the road was no place to make a home. Payne would find songwriting success with “Woman Woman,” a huge hit for Gary Puckett & The Union Gap in 1967. His own songs would be country hits. And Williams, while staying below the mainstream-radio radar, would evolve into an entertainer with a unique artistry that bridges the gap between contemporary and traditional Southern-American songwriting. That niche in the folk world keeps him on the road most of the year playing concerts like the one he’s bound for in Auburn later this month. Manning is underwriting his old friend’s show, with proceeds benefiting the Auburn Placer Performing Arts Center. It’s at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 in the Pioneer Methodist Church. Admission is a suggested minimum donation of $15 at the door. Manning recalled that it was the Internet that provided him with the information to contact Williams about six years ago. Manning found a Web site with his name and a photo of The Statesmen from about 1960. That led him to Statesmen drummer Kenny Williamson but also inspired him to search for other former members of a group that mixed a rhythm and blues sound with a smattering of country and pop. LOST AND FOUND Payne was easy to find. He has his own site and plenty of information about a Nashville-based career that took off after his time with The Statesman. Like Manning, Payne was a G.I. stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington State. A bass player, Manning would stay with the band until his discharge in 1961. Both musicians would gravitate to Nashville and their paths would cross on occasion. But Williams turned out to be a surprise. Googling the name came up with hundreds of references. Manning searched through them and came across one that showed what he describes now with a smile as “this old, grizzled, gray-haired guy.” It was Williams. But a much different Williams than the youngster in the white sport coat holding the Gretsch and wearing horn-rimmed glasses in a band photo from 1960. Manning knew he had the right Williams when he read about a gig playing trumpet at a beatnik coffee house. He knew the coffee house well, having played it himself. Manning caught up with Williams in Tampa, Fla. and the two found they still had plenty in common. When Manning learned that Williams makes an annual Western U.S. tour, he secured a performance at his Unity Church in Auburn and has been inviting him back for gigs on an annual basis ever since, with Auburn and Cool venues alternating from year to year. Back in 1960, Williams was a 17-year-old high school kid whose dad was an officer in the military. Today, he’s an artist whose performances have been polished by the years in a musical journey that has seen him accompany acts as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Mickey Newberry, The Shirelles and the Del-Vikings. LASTING FRIENDSHIP Williams is a road warrior on a circuit that will take him to shows in 11 states between Florida and California by the end of the year. For Manning the friendship renewed over the past few years has been one of the most rewarding re-connections in his life. “We picked up where we left off,” he said, mentioning that he performed the wedding service for Williams and his new bride. Manning has also done some bass singing on recent Williams CDs. The legacy of The Statesmen isn’t a huge one. No records were cut. Performances were at service clubs, high schools and sock hops. The music was mostly covers of R&B hits as well as songs by instrumental group The Ventures and Northwest bands like the Wailers. But there was something more lasting. Manning remembers the time Payne passed his more expensive Chet Atkins-model Gretsch over to Williams, swapping it out for a the Sears guitar the younger musician was playing. They could see the talent for playing guitar in Williams and nurtured that. “We were two GI’s he was looking up to and today, he still credits us with getting him going,” Manning said. MORE MEDIA LIFE “Phenomenon” extra Gail Nunes is an early front-runner in the search for a suitable inscription on a small “button” plaque that will be inserted in Old Town Auburn blacktop to commemorate the 1996 movie. Nunes’ suggestion is “Phenomenon – Everything is on its way to somewhere – 1995.” Starring John Travolta, the film shot most of its major scenes in Auburn in 1995 and went on to be one of the major hits of 1996. Oct. 29 has been set for a reunion party in Old Town that promises to bring at least one of the key actors back to town. That would be Tony Genaro – “Tito” in the movie. The ‘somewhere’ quote is a comment the Travolta character George Malley makes … Whew. “Adventurous granny” Jill Larson didn’t last long on “Survivor Gabon.” Larson, a former Granite Bay resident with relatives in the Auburn and Loomis area, was the second cut from the show’s two-hour debut a Thursday ago. At age 61, she started the program as “elder” of one of the teams but after running out of gas on a run up a hill and alienating some team members by suggesting there was plenty of nutrition in elephant dung, she was voted off the show. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.