Fireworks Magazine Online 80: Hotel & Hittman - Bands That Time Forgot


Dave Reynolds looks back at some of the great acts who slipped under the radar.

Hotel, the six piece AOR band from Birmingham, Alabama only released two albums in the decade they were together – a self-titled affair in 1979 and a pretty spectacular sophomore release entitled 'Half Moon Silver' a year later – but while they appeared not to have made much of an impression beyond a couple of singles that graced the Billboard Hot 100 – they are still much revered in the Southeast of the US and certainly by collectors of quality US Melodic Rock the world over.

Hotel - Band

Originally formed in 1973 as Tumbrell Hotel by vocalist/pianist Marc Phillips and guitarist Tommy Calton (who had previously played together in the Alabama club bands Rainwater and Wooden Music), the initial line-up of the group became the house band at The Knights Of The Round Table club in Homewood for around a year. The foremost objective as far as Marc Phillips was concerned was "to get a record deal."

"We had all been in cover bands playing Beatles songs or whoever else was popular at the time," Marc explains. "I particularly wanted to write my own material and become an artist in my own right. The band (at that point comprised of Phillips, Calton, erstwhile Wooden Music vocalist Beverly 'Raspberry' Owen, bassist Joe Breckenridge and drummer Van Neff) was certainly still a cover band when we started to play the bars and night clubs here in the Southeast of the United States, but we were intent on adding our own songs. We all had an incredible work ethic. We put in long hours. We were full-time musicians who would be playing shows until 2 or 3am and then spend three of four hours a day rehearsing before we'd play again that evening."

Various musicians moved in and out of the band, now simply known as Hotel, as Phillips and Calton began to slowly develop the band's status. By 1975 the group had became a pretty big draw at The Cobblestone, a new club on Morris Avenue (downtown Birmingham's oldest street). By the following year the band had settled on what would become the definitive line-up of Hotel with the recruitment over time of bassist George Creasman, guitarist Michael Reid, drummer Michael Cadenhead and the multi-skilled Lee Bargeron. The latter was already working as the band's soundman by this point, but his talents on keyboards, guitar and backing vocals had not gone unnoticed. Marc Phillips though, feels there wasn't any one person who made a gigantic difference in taking the band forward. "Hotel developed slowly," he recalls. "It was more about finding the right people and keeping those who shared the same goals and work ethic as you. In the same way that labels invested more time in bands in order for them to develop back then, we as a band invested the time in getting it right and finally found a line-up that had the right chemistry and mindset. As a result of getting it right we landed a deal with Mercury Records in 1977."

Unfortunately, the band's tenure with Mercury was short lived, mainly thanks to the record label's lack of commitment to giving the group an album deal.

"We released a single, 'You'll Love Again', with Mercury in 1978, which charted on the Billboard Hot 100 (reaching #71), but the record company never got behind it. So our producer (former Capitol A&R man Dain Eric, who had been introduced to Hotel by their good friend and fellow Alabama artist Buddy Causey) got us out of the contract and we wound up signing with Scotti Brothers. We managed to secure the rights to 'You'll Love Again', so we were able to include it on our first album."
That first album was recorded with Dain Eric at the production desk. "We spent a good two or three months on it," Marc recalls. "We cut it at the Creative Workshop in Nashville. Back in those days Nashville was still very much all about country music, so when we were looking to record the drum tracks we needed a better room than the ones they had in order to get the bigger sounds we wanted. We wound up setting the drum kit up in the studio lobby to get the natural reverb we were looking for. The people there looked at us as if we were crazy, so we certainly broke new ground for recording in Nashville!"

There's a tendency for the debut to be overlooked due to the band's second effort being an utterly astounding affair, but it shouldn't be ignored as it contains a well delivered, quality selection of songs that compare extremely favourably to the likes of Player, Louisiana's Le Roux and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. It also showcases Phillips' fantastic vocal talents in switching between the smooth AOR of 'Right On Time', the balladry of the piano led 'Old Silver' (inspired by a painting that Marc still has on a wall in his house) or 'Hold On To The Night', the Hard Rock of 'City Lights' and hugely melodic 'You'll Love Again'. The latter songs now clearly seen as precursors of the sublime Melodic Rock Hotel would pursue on 'Half Moon Silver'.
The album's artwork was certainly inspired too, setting up a rather neat brand theme that would be continued on Hotel's second album. "That was all pretty clever," acknowledges Marc. "I remember we took advantage of that and had towels and key fobs made with the logo on them to tie in with it."

Curiously, although Scotti Brothers releases were distributed at the time by Atlantic, Hotel's debut album was released in 1979 through a deal secured with MCA.

"That was one of the things that puzzled me," responds Marc, who also queries the label's subsequent decision to pull the promotion of the band's first single, 'You've Got Another Thing Coming', just as it was generating airplay across the States.

The single peaked at #54 on the Billboard Hot 100, but would more than likely have gone on to greater heights.

"We were on tour with Wet Willie at the time we learned about the promotion being dropped. I've never understood that. We were also the first band to release an album on MCA that had the new price increase where an LP now cost $7.99. So someone would go in to buy an album and see ours at $7.99 and the new Tom Petty record at $6.99. Who were you gonna buy? I just think we were bought and sold as a tax write-off. Between Scotti Brothers and MCA no one took responsibility for anything. They always had someone else to blame."

To support the album on the road, Hotel managed to secure the Southeastern leg of the Little River Band's '79 US tour. They also played dates with the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Toto and Louisiana's Le Roux. "The guys in the Little River Band wanted us to go with them to play dates further up the East coast instead of taking Sea Level, but the tour support from the label got pulled. It just seemed like MCA didn't want us to succeed."

Despite the frustration already being felt that they were signed to a label that had little belief in them, Hotel nevertheless were already writing material for the second album by October 1979, with recording commencing in early 1980. Dain Eric was once again in the producer's seat, with recording resuming at the Creative Workshop in Nashville.

"We'd always go find somewhere to rehearse and write. We took a bit more time with the second album, but it was interesting to me how MCA decided that they would release the title track as the first single. The record label had been on at us to go Rock and go heavier on the second record yet they fell in love with the Crosby Stills and Nash-like harmonies of the title song, which is an acoustic number. As good as the song was, releasing it as a single killed the band. Maybe that was the label's idea. The album was so diverse that radio didn't know what to do with us. I think we actually lost a little focus on that second album. The first album was very stylistic."

Yet perhaps the diversity of 'Half Moon Silver' is what makes it such a special record. It's a master class in Melodic Hard Rock on a par with anything the likes of Le Roux, Night Ranger, Player or Toto ever recorded. The absolute highlight on 'Half Moon Silver' is the towering magnificence of 'Wanting You Too My Love'. The guitar solo work on this track by Tommy Calton is worth the price of the album on its own.

Whereas many of the songs on the first album were influenced by real-life events – 'You'll Love Again' was inspired by Marc's parents' divorce – the second album tended to focus more on fictitious events, but beautifully told.... the opening track 'A Place In Time (Refugee)' being a solid case in point. You can almost smell New York City thanks to the band's wonderful lyrical imagery. A smoky, riverside bar room somewhere in the Deep South is also vividly conjured up on 'Ned And Mary'. "We really did try to paint pictures in the minds of listeners with a song like 'A Place In Time'," confirms Marc.

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The band, and Phillips in particular, put in a consummate performance on 'Half Moon Silver' and they deserved so much more with such a brilliant record. They were let down badly by a record label that couldn't even be bothered to give them the time of day.

The band continued to tour, notably with Hall & Oates, but it quickly became obvious that their days with MCA were numbered. With the eventual loss of their record deal the group began to splinter; bassist George Creasman being the first to leave in early 1982. He was briefly replaced by Eddie Usher before Lee Bargeron gave his notice. By the summer Hotel had disbanded.

Eddie Usher had already joined Marc, Tommy and drummer Steve Sample Jr. in the Calton-Phillips Group, which the singer describes as "a cover band trying to make a living" playing material by the likes of The Police, Squeeze and Genesis. Due to venues regularly billing the band incorrectly as Cotton-Phillips, Clayton-Phillips or Carlton-Phillips, the band's agent persuaded them to change the problematic moniker. The group, having now added former The Mortals member Lolly Lee on vocals and guitar, opted for Split The Dark. "It's true that we found ourselves billed as Split The Dog for one of our first gigs in Memphis," Phillips laughs.

Initially still a cover band, Split The Dark's desire to push their self-penned songs led to the recording of what would turn into an independently released six song EP, 'Keep It To Yourself', in 1983 that placed a more contemporary hi-tech topping on the Hotel sound. The EP was only released on a local level. At the time they had no access or knowledge of any overseas interest in Hotel that might have made a difference had they looked to export the record. Line-up changes ensued, and by the time Split The Dark won MTV's Basement Tapes competition with the video for 'Always A Chance', Sample Jr. and Lee had departed and the remaining trio were joined by drummer David James and keyboard player Scott Macdavid. However, as Seattle Hard Rock troupe Rail found out a few years earlier, winning a national contest on MTV was one thing, gaining major record label support as a result was a different matter. While Rail at least got an EP deal, Split The Dark found life significantly more difficult. "We did 14 or 15 showcases for major labels but despite the fact we won the competition we just couldn't get signed," Marc sighs.

The decision to add another guitarist, a certain Damon Johnson, to the group at the expense of Scott Macdavid and record further material did little to ignite label interest. By 1988 Johnson and Usher had joined Witness and Split The Dark quietly faded into the Alabama music scene's history books.

While Tommy and Marc Phillips finally went their separate ways they have always remained friends. In fact, the definitive line-up of Hotel will be reunited in October for a long overdue catch-up. Phillips, having released a brace of solo albums still plays the bars and clubs adding his own material to a selection of Hotel songs and covers from the likes of U2 and Sting. He is a fascinating character who has also published an autobiography, 'Pouring It Out On Me', detailing a musical career that began in the 60s, his thankfully successful battle with stage 4 throat cancer and finding God.

Although Hotel's music is available on iTunes, the two albums have yet to see an official release on CD. This, as I tell Marc, has to be resolved. He certainly agrees. Stay tuned...

For further info on Hotel and Marc's solo releases please visit


Hittman - Band

Having once described Hittman as the best unsigned band in the entire universe, it was quite rightly only a matter of time before the five-piece from New York did gain a deal. Unfortunately, the music business being the often vicious beast it is, trends - even within the Heavy Metal genre - had moved on once the group had put pen to paper with the German SPV label in early 1988. Although they had released their debut album later the same year, Hittman had become a band out of time.

With the kind of unified look that betrayed the fact that the five guys concerned had been hugely influenced growing up in the late 70s by the likes of KISS, Angel and Judas Priest, Hittman's problem appeared to be that they were not heavy enough to compete with the likes of Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer and not glam enough to be on the cover of 'Metal Edge' alongside Poison, Bon Jovi and Ratt. They were, much like the L.A. based Malice, caught between a rock and a hard place. Yet, believe me, having been fortunate to have seen them on two occasions prior to being signed, they were an awesome live band.

Still, nearly 30 years on and Hittman are back! No Remorse Records will be releasing expanded versions of both the eponymous debut album and its controversial follow up 'Vivas Machina'. There are plans too for a brand new album. So what actually happened to this highly-touted outfit and where did it all go pear shaped when they displayed so much promise?

The band was formed by guitarist Jim Bachi and bassist Mike Buccell in 1984 having recently departed the Long Island group Attila. They were joined by erstwhile Takashi drummer Chuck Kory and, initially, vocalist Scott Knight (Armed Forces). However, things didn't work out with the latter and Dirk Kennedy (who had previously been in a formative line-up of Anthrax) entered the picture.

"I answered an ad in The Music Paper," recalls Dirk. "It had been a few years since I left Anthrax and I had decided to pursue a more formal vocal training and studied with Marty Lawrence who taught a lot of big opera stars, Joe Lynn turner, Tony Harnell, Melissa Manchester and so many more. I wanted to add a bit of range and finesse to my voice, which at the time was mostly just impressions of other singers - Dio, Dickinson, Meine etc. I formed my own band (Excalibur), did a few shows and then looked for something more professional. I answered the ad and that turned out to be a band called Hittman."

Having only been together for a mere four months, the new line-up quickly recorded a hugely impressive demo in the summer of 1985 that soon found its way, as these things did back then, to a number of European Metal publications, including 'Metal Forces' for whom yours truly was writing for.

"We were floored when we saw the review," recalls Dirk. "We thought, "Holy shit, this guy gets it." We all framed the review and were so proud. From that moment we felt we were doing something right."

The band had not actually played any gigs at that point, but that was quickly rectified when they made their live debut opening for Stryper at the Nassau Community College on November 11th 1985. Recruiting former Alien guitarist Brian 'Don' Fair to the line-up bolstered Hittman's dynamic sound, but he didn't last that long (departing in the summer of '86) and he was quickly replaced; firstly by one-time Anthrax guitarist Greg Walls and then John Kristen. The latter was clearly the missing piece of the puzzle, giving added depth to the Hittman metallic onslaught that enabled them to perfectly blend together the very best elements of Queensryche, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Accept and even a little KISS.

"It was all about finding the right fit," notes Dirk about the line-up changes. "Don and Greg just didn't work for different reasons. Musically, Don was with us, but he just didn't fit on a professional level. Greg just didn't fit musically. He was a much more aggressive player and not as melodic as our music needed. I got his number from Scott Ian who told me "he's not the right guy, believe me" and he wasn't. We stole John from a local band and he was exactly the right guy. He was perfect for us and he's my best buddy to this day. I can't imagine Hittman without him. The gods were good to us the day he came."

Having seen the band play with both Fair (at L'Amour East in Queens in May 1986) and Kristen (an all day Metal fest event in Connecticut headlining over Manilla Road, Liege Lord and Britny Fox a year later), I can certainly vouch for the difference the addition of John Kristen made to the group, contributing to a really other-worldly guitar sound alongside Jim Bachi that became Hittman's trademark. With the unbelievably tight rhythm team of Buccell and Kory behind the two guitarists, Dirk Kennedy's vocals soar magnificently onwards and upwards. Here is a guy who can certainly go toe to toe with Bruce Dickinson and Geoff Tate. I can't stress enough that Hittman really were a phenomenal live band back then, and at that time the plan originally was to record a mini album and release it independently.

"EPs were all the rage back then and we wanted to have total control for our first release and take it from there, much like Queensryche had done with 206 Records."
Hittman had recorded six songs ('Metal Sport', 'Dead On Arrival', 'Back Street Rebels', 'Behind The Lines', 'Test Of Time' and 'Secret Agent Man', the latter a metallic cover of the theme song from the popular 60s US TV show of the same title) for the planned EP, but then they began to get offers....

"We got a lot of offers that went nowhere," Dirk wryly adds, "and then SPV arrived."

Signing a deal with the newly launched US office of the German label, the tracks cut for the EP were added with 'Will You Be There', 'Breakout' and 'Caught In The Crossfire'. The package was released as a nine track album through SPV's Steamhammer imprint in late 1988. However, the debut album's release was massively affected by the sudden closure of the New York office of SPV, and by that time the whole Metal world had moved on. Hittman had missed a golden opportunity.

"In a nutshell, we signed with an American label owned by a German company. We had originally signed to SPV USA because we wanted a smaller label with an American distribution system, but on the very day of our release they shut down their US operation and our contract reverted back to German law and we were in limbo while they decided what to do with us, which was nothing. They then licensed the album to Roadrunner in the USA without consulting us. We tried to stop it and couldn't. It caused a lot of bad blood resulting in non promotion and support from SPV.

The offer of a deal with Mercury/PolyGram came and went due to legal hassles with SPV. Was the quintet not tempted at that point to just dissolve the band and start again under a different name?
"SPV famously wanted a million dollars to let us out of our deal. A band they didn't care about because they (the German office) didn't sign us. But they wanted the money which was the entire amount of our deal. We did think about changing the name, but were told we'd still be under contract."

There was a second album, tentatively titled 'Precision Killing', planned, but due to the ongoing problems with SPV there was a massive gap before the actual next album appeared. The Bob St. John produced 'Vivas Machina' (translation: 'Living Machine', which effectively described how Hittman felt about themselves as a unit) was eventually released in 1993. It was a very adventurous album that found Hittman (with a new drummer in Mark Jenkins) in a different place entirely. I know Dirk was aware it confused the heck out of a lot of people. He is, understandably, still a huge fan of the album, but does admit it was, at the time, a big step to have made. What are his thoughts all these years later?

"'Precision Killing' was the planned second album. We wrote it, made demo's and played all of it live. But by the time we were actually in the studio making a new record it was four years later. A concept album (like 'Precision Killing') seemed like a mistake. It was kind of 'Operation: Mindcrime'-esque. Not really original anymore, so we wrote new songs. 'Vivas..' is more a fourth album, if you know what I mean; the one with the potential hit AOR singles on it. It's catchy, it's competent but lacking the fire of the debut. This we all understand now. I do however like the album. I think it's mostly my fault for trying out a new raspy style vocally.

"People compared me to Jon Bon Jovi, which isn't so Metal," Dirk laughs, but one listen to the likes of 'Renegade Man' will make the point about the comparison. "I was always such a clean singer. It was fun to bring something new to the table, but I went overboard. But man, 'Mercy' is on that record. So is 'Answer My Prayer' and 'Words'. These are some of my proudest moments."

Despite a German tour in May 1993 alongside Skew Siskin and Sargant Fury, the whole business side of music eventually got to the band members, so when did the decision to 'disband' come? "We NEVER disbanded officially," states Dirk. "We just started working on other projects, which led to a 25 year hiatus."

Kennedy was planning a solo album ('Life Is Now') for a long time, which eventually surfaced, but what did the others get up to?

"Jimmy is a major songwriter in L.A. and does soundtrack and commercial work. John is a family man; Chuck is one of the biggest pyro-technicians on the planet and works with the likes of KISS and Iron Maiden. So yeah, we kept busy!"
Although there was intended to be a reunion in 2009 nothing came of that, but when the amiable Mike Buccell sadly passed away following a fatal road accident involving the Newsday delivery truck he was driving in November 2013 it seemed the band really was history. What prompted the remaining quartet to get back together?

"Mike had personal problems that caused the 2009 reunion to fall apart and we stood by him. We always planned to pursue the reunion again, but when he died we thought maybe that's it, but we're doing this for Mike and for his daughter Kylie. She loved the music her dad was such a big part of."

Hittman are currently working on a reissue of the first album (the original CD version of which now carries a huge premium over the vinyl LP on the second hand market) with 'Vivas..' scheduled after that. What extras do they have up their sleeves for the expanded editions?

"Jimmy and I have been working like demons. The first release in late summer/fall this year is the debut Hittman album. With a huge booklet, the original Hittman demo remixed and mastered and many Hittman demos no one has heard. It'll be on CD and perhaps limited edition vinyl and digital.

"Next year we're putting out a new album. It's being built from the ground up. No demos, no old tracks. Just the band and its influences from the day the band started. So don't expect Modern Metal. It will be Metal in its most classic form. The new album is being written and demoed as we speak. It's too early to say who will release it, but it'll be in time for the shows next year. We'd like to play as many festivals as possible and travel to the places we didn't get to go before. Like Japan! We have so many fans from there and they write all the time. We now look at this as a new beginning and look forward to taking it to the people in 2018 and beyond."

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