Chocolate Watchband bassist Bill Flores passed away in his sleep in northern California on March 8th. Alec Palao pays homage to a true gent.
Billy Flo has left the building. His passing probably won’t make the national news or even the notices of the music rags, but for a hardcore quota of true believers, it is still a very sad day. Bill was the pulsing heartbeat of the legendary Chocolate Watchband, perhaps the greatest articulation of vintage garage rock’n’roll that ever stalked a stage. And I am proud that I could call him a friend.
I personally owe Bill a huge debt, for it was his magnanimity in granting a first interview that ushered me in the exciting world of this group amongst groups. He understood how special the Watchband was, especially in the glory days of 1966 and early 1967 when the band’s definitive line-up – Bill, singer David Aguilar, guitarists Mark Loomis and Sean Tolby and drummer Gary Andrijasevich - ruled the Bay Area at venues such the Continental, Bold Knight and Losers South.
Originally from the East Coast, Bill settled in the Santa Cruz area in 1960, and had gotten his start on bass with quasi-surf outfit the Shandels. When the short-lived original line-up of the Chocolate Watchband split in late 1965, its founder Mark Loomis joined the Shandels, but soon hatched a plot with Bill to form a new band, one that would capture the energetic mod-rock zeitgeist of the Kinks, Stones and Yardbirds in a truly spectacular fashion. The new-look Watchband with Aguilar at the helm debuted in May of 1966 and in Bill’s words, “we came out smoking, and took over!”
Going down a storm not just in the South Bay but at the recently opened Fillmore in San Francisco, the act was soon signed to Ray Harris and Ed Cobb’s Green Grass Productions, which arranged recording sessions and movie appearances. However transcendent the classic Watchband may have been in the flesh, it is that handful of totemic vinyl and eye-popping celluloid that resulted from the brief year or so this line-up was together that has sealed the band’s immense reputation since. Singles like the visceral ‘Sweet Young Thing’ and baroque ‘Misty Lane’; the moody, otherworldly blend of garage and psychedelia encountered on the albums “No Way Out” and “The Inner Mystique”; and of course their incendiary turn in the otherwise cardboard B-movie Riot On Sunset Strip.
When the personnel suddenly fractured in the summer of 1967, Bill and Sean kept the group going and in fact, not counting some down time, there was a Watchband of sorts right up to the dawn of the 1970s, invariably with Bill on bass. He subsequently joined forces with Gary in Muscrat Fun, a unit that almost got inked to the Airplane’s Grunt imprint in the early 1970s. Bill would continue to play with various northern California outfits for many years to come. But the Watchband had a legacy, the unique nature of which Bill was both cognizant and especially proud. He once admitted, “I’ve been in groups that [lasted] two and half times longer than the whole time I was in the Watchband, but didn’t have anywhere near the impact. It was a magical band.”
Always affable whenever we talked, I grew to really enjoy hanging out with Bill, as he was the king of bon-mots and one-liners, which just seemed to roll off his tongue. The man really should have had his own talk show. He also retained that twinkle in the eye that had no doubt charmed the ladies back in the day. Bill and his wife Debbie would occasionally make it down to Cindy and my annual Christmas party, where of course he was the guest of honour, the courtiers lining up to pay homage and Bill lapping it all right up.
Nostalgia for former glories is all very well, but when David – always the X-factor in any Watchband reunion – decided it was time to put back on his rock’n’roll shoes after several decades of academia, Bill was right there, and I had the opportunity to see him actually walking the walk, which was a thrill, to be sure. Indeed, he would participate in all their initial reunion shows, and he relished being back in the limelight. However, from 2000 on, ill-health saw Bill increasingly unable to commit, and so I took over his spot. It says a lot about Bill that this never affected our friendship, but after a while I could sense he would like to get back on stage for one more victory lap, which I happily encouraged. Sadly, a major medical emergency after a Watchband show in Portland in 2007 brought the reality that his gigging days were pretty much over.
As bass player for the reunited Watchband, I’ve spent copious hours studying Bill’s lines from the original records, and doing so has only reinforced my admiration for him as a musician. He had this intentional, behind-the-beat looseness that adds an intangible soul to even the most frenetic of numbers. I would defy anyone to precisely figure out the weird atonal bends he pulls off on tracks like ‘Don’t Need Your Lovin’’ and ‘No Way Out.’ I’ve even resorted to playing the same models of Gibson or Eko instruments that he used, and yet I just can’t sound like Bill – nobody can.
Bill’s personality was just like his bass playing – bouncy, upbeat, full of feel, always in the pocket. Let's raise a glass to the king of the Watchband groove.