In the “The Nomads” article below, I touched upon my guitar lessons with Cootch and Mabel. The photo of Mabel’s kitschy furnishings and the two of them sitting there, making music on their guitars, piqued the interest of several Drawgerites. A little more information about the Coutures, then, seems to be in order.
Cootch and Mabel were pivotal figures in my life, though I doubt they understood the powerful effect they had on me. I probably neglected to tell them at the time how much they instilled in me a love of making music, although I did thank Cootch many years later, when I visited him in a retirement home. I brought along an acoustic guitar and he and I played some old tunes together.
Clarence "Cootch" Couture and his wife, Mabel were old friends of my parents. When my mom and dad bought & refurbished a small resort on Long Lake, 9 miles north of Alpena, Michigan, Cootch and Mabel showed up for a week’s vacation with guitars in tow. For seven, sublime nights, I sat mesmerized, watching Mabel coax unworldly, ethereal sounds from her Oahu Hawaiian guitar, while Cootch sang Hank Williams songs, punching out sock rhythm chords on his yellow-sparkle Supro.
After the Coutures departed, my parents asked me if I would be interested in taking lessons with Cootch. I’d failed miserably as a grammar school coronet player, but the guitar touched my soul. I showed up at the Couture’s home the following week carrying my father’s small, out-of-tune, old flattop guitar.
Every week, Cootch and I would work our way through an Oahu Method “Spanish Guitar lesson. The Oahu company began in 1936, publishing Hawaiian guitar tablature lessons and they eventually added regular guitar and accordion lessons. Later on, the company sold guitars, amps and other music related equipment. When guitars went electric, Supro supplied Oahu with guitars.
If the impromptu jam sessions that followed my lessons weren’t incentive enough to keep me coming back week after week, Mabel’s huge, homemade sugar cookies were. I learned little from the Oahu lessons, but at lesson’s end, Mabel would head to the kitchen, emerging with three glasses of milk and a plateful of gigantic sugar cookies. Energized by white flour and sugar, we picked up our guitars again and the real fun began. Cootch & Mabel knew dozens of classic country tunes and popular standards from the 40’s and 50’s. With chord charts spread out on my music stand, I’d struggle along with the tunes, applying as much as I could from my previous lessons. I spent months wrestling with that rascally closed F chord, but I was determined to get it clean and on time. I wanted desperately to be an active participant in the magic.
This event took place some 50 years ago, yet I recall vividly the smell of the cookies and the warmth permeating Cootch & Mabel's apartment. Thank you, my long departed teachers. Making music was, for you, a spiritually enriching, joyous occasion and you led me to the temple.
A while back, I sent this picture to my pal, Steve Bartles (the bassist on John Platania - Lucky Dog).
A '57 Carvin--photo thanks to Peter at musurgia.com
He wrote back, asking if it was my Supro, a guitar I'd often talked about.
Nope, I responded, my father built that guitar. I'd learned to play his old small-bodied acoustic and I was chaffing at the bit for an electric guitar. Money was tight and Dad was handy with tools, so he decided to build me one.
Catalog page thanks to Kevin at the Carvin Museum
We probably ordered the pickups from this 1957 catalog sheet.
Supro Dual-Tone - Cherry Sunburst
PART 2: MY SUPRO
My particular model seems to be rare, but I finally found a pic on the web of a Supro Dual-Tone that looks nearly identical to mine. My Supro sported a two-teared pickguard, otherwise it looked just like this beauty. It had a contact-type pickup built into the bridge along with the two humbuckers. A great short-scale guitar. It's the one I used in nearly every band I played in while I lived in Alpena, including "Johnny Woytaszek & the Thunder Bay Polka Jax".
Me again with Dad's guitar
PART 3: THE NOMADS
This photo was taken at Al Zdan's store, Long Lake Supermarket, in probably 1958. Al is the other guy in the first photo. I was taking guitar lessons with a my first guitar teachers, Cootch and Mabel, and as I progressed, I taught Al what I'd learned. I remained the lead guitarist, but Al was an excellent rhythm player. Al began with that archtop guitar in the picture, but he switched to a double-neck Carvin-inspired guitar that my dad helped him build. My first band featured Al on his double-neck (short-scale bass on top and guitar below) with me on lead guitar and my pal, Bill Wright (now my brother-in-law) on drums. Bill was an excellent Hawaiian guitar player (now most often called lap steel), but we needed a drummer. Hawaiian guitar back then was for sissies. Al had a drum kit over at the store, so Bill became our drummer--learned it within a few weeks. He didn't need to be much of a drummer, since Al and I were greenhorn guitarists. What we lacked in technique, we made up for in innocence, blind ignorance and enthusiasm.
My guitar teacher, Clarence "Cootch" Couture and his wife, Mabel with her Oahu lap steel in 1964
Our first gig: New Year's Eve at the local Disabled American Veteran's Hall. Actually it was a bar. My father, a WW II vet, landed us the gig. We'd only learned a half dozen, maybe ten tunes. We needed a waltz, it turned out, so we played "Down in the Valley". The audience danced and when they weren't dancing, they drank. A lot. So, no one noticed the same handful of tunes being played over and over and over. When we finished up at the end of the night, the bartender, a beefy guy named Spigelmyre who ran the place, asked us how much we charged. We gave him blank stares. Huh, we're getting paid? Spigelmyre said, okay, how about fifteen bucks? He walked back to the bar, leaving three grinning teenagers tossing back Vernor's Ginger Ale. Wow, five bucks apiece! We couldn't believe our good fortune. The bartender returned to our table and handed us forty-five bucks. Fifteen smackaroos EACH! Fame and fortune was just around the corner. We learned some more songs, bought matching bolo ties and came up with a cool name. "The Nomads". The perfect name for a band that had never traveled thirty miles beyond Alpena.
Historians write endlessly about artists from the late 50's. You know, those country hicks who became cool, like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins & Elvis. Yeah, they were great musicians, but isn't it time to finally recognize those boys from Alpena: Elwood Smith, Bill Wright and Al Zdan? The Nomads.