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Athens' Jesters span history - The Red and Black : Variety

Athens' Jesters span history

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Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2004 12:00 am

Contrary to popular belief, Athens did have a music scene before the advent of such "new wave" bands as the B-52's, Pylon and R.E.M.

Although some validity lies in labeling these bands as the current music scene's "progenitors," few fans realize a number of bands were slugging it out in Athens long before the arrival of these musical messiahs.

"Back when all that was going on, we used to tell those guys 'we were party-trained before you guys were potty-trained'," laughed Harold Williams, saxophonist for The Jesters, one of Athens' first rock bands.

"Not to be condescending, you understand, because I'm just really proud of all the bands that have come out of Athens over the years," he said.

THE JESTERS

Where: AthFest main stage (Washington Street, across from the 40 Watt)

When: Sunday June 20, 7 to 8:15 p.m.

Among these early bands, of course, was The Jesters -- a late 1950s/early 1960s-era group whose trademark blend of surf music and Motown covers earned it a place as a backing band for such worthies as The Platters, The Drifters and the late, great Marvin Gaye.

"(Performing) right out of the chute with Marvin Gaye was pretty awesome," Williams said. "It was love at first sight. Marvin Gaye and his whole entourage were just so nice to us, and they could tell we were totally in awe."

As a white musician playing an African-American form of music during the tumultuous Civil-rights era, Williams explained that both white and black musicians were quite conscious of America's racial barriers, even as they collaborated to tear them down.

"One of the funny things was that Maurice King (Motown's musical director) was rehearsing us and (trumpet player) Scotty kept screwing stuff up on the trumpet, and Marvin Gaye was just sort of sitting on a stool listening," Williams said.

"Maurice kept saying 'dumb-dumb!' -- he called Scotty 'dumb-dumb'-this and 'dumb-dumb'-that -- and Marvin Gaye gets off his stool and walks over and says 'Maurice! This is South Carolina! We're going to wake up tomorrow and there's gonna be 10,000 sheets right outside your window!,' and -- you know -- he said that because things were just really different back then."

Indeed, Williams said a number of things were different back when The Jesters had its "heyday."

In this era, Athens' music scene functioned primarily at a grassroots level -- subsisting mainly through parties and intimate settings. In particular, he said, the fraternities were often key players in this capacity.

"I think the difference was avocation versus vocation," he said. "There were tons of bands and tons of good players -- it didn't just happen in the 80s."

The Jesters will play at AthFest's main stage Sunday, where it will be celebrating its 40th anniversary as Athens' own original band.

Williams said the free performance will be something of a throwback to Athens' earlier grassroots days.

"We'll gladly welcome the under-50 crowd," he said. "But only if they can keep up with us, that is."

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