When sitting down with bassist Jim Stunkard, vocalist Carl Raynes and guitarist Hayden Burlingame of Tulsa's Fabulous Mid Life Crisis Band, one thing is obvious: this isn't your standard rock band. In fact, nearly nothing about the band fits the mold of what you'd expect from one of Tulsa's most unexplainably popular and well supported cover bands.
What's so different about the group? Where would you like to start? The fact that the members ages range from their low 50's to mid-60's? That the band rarely ever plays in typical bars or nightclubs? That an evening's set list doesn't include any original material or songs from 1980 forward, much less the latest pop hits? Or maybe just the simple fact that the goal has never been to become the area's biggest band, but merely to have fun and enjoy doing what its members love, albeit as well as possible?
Somehow, Tulsa's Fabulous Mid Life Crisis Band has carved its own niche and played by its own rules, yet managed to build a strong and loyal following wherever it goes. Perhaps the most humorous part of it all is that its members never set out to form a band to begin with and ended up playing some of the biggest stages in Tulsa.
Turn Back the Clock
To understand how Mid Life Crisis came to be, we need to back up. It was 1995 and as Jim Stunkard explained "I got a call from a friend (drummer Johnny Winters) asking 'Do you want to come over and jam?' It sounded cooler and more fun than playing along with a record, which is what I had been doing, so I said 'Sure! Why not?'"
"I hadn't played in a band for 25 years," he said. "Most of us hadn't played in an organized fashion for that long." Nevertheless, a bond was formed -- largely around a guys' night out, drinking a lot of beer and playing "Mustang Sally" repeatedly -- and what started out as a once a week jam session eventually turned into a band.
"At first, it was just five guys getting together on Tuesday nights in the garage. We had fun, but no real desire to do much with it," Stunkard said. "Then Steve Parkhurst got us a gig and talked his company into booking us for their Christmas party."
As luck would have it, more parties were to follow and the band gradually started to take off. In May of '97, Stunkard placed a call to Carl Raynes, who had sung for Boss Tweed in the '60s, with an invitation to join the group as lead singer. Within a short span, it was clear that the group -- which had been performing as F.O.G. (Five Old Guys) -- was now a band of six and they eventually settled into a new moniker, and settled on Mid Life Crisis Band (another tongue-in-cheek nod to the band's age), at the suggestion of guitarist John Dougherty.
Before the group knew it, the weekly jam session and a handful of company parties grew into more parties and the band found itself in demand. Over the course of 16 years, that demand has continued to grow and although the band has seen a few personnel changes over the years, the core of Raynes and Stunkard -- along with guitarist John Dougherty and keyboardist Steve Parkhurst -- remains intact.
Finding a Balance
Of course, it's no easy task to keep a band going for over 15 years. There are inevitably personnel and scheduling issues, but that hasn't been a stumbling block for the band. Granted, a few members have changed over time, but all have departed on good terms and transitions have been relatively seamless from the outside.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that everyone in the band are obviously good friends. They may have initially met and come together to play music, but a bond has formed over the years that has developed into a genuine friendship and camaraderie between a group of guys that are all (for the most part) on the same page in life and in what they want from the band.
"I think a big key (to success) is finding people who want to play on the same level and I think we've done that," Raynes explained. "We've all got day jobs and can't be out until 2am every night. I wanted to play one or two weekends and maybe a couple week nights a month, though, and we can do that. If you have one guy that only wants to play three times a year, that's not going to work out well -- not to mention the band is never going to be very good. I think we've all found a medium where we can all balance work and families and the band, and are pretty happy with it all."
Part of that happy medium comes with including all of the band members in decision making. That extends to everything from song selection to venues to which job offers it accepts. By following the lead of its members, the group has carved out its own niche while it avoids many of the gigs that other bands thrive upon. Possibly most peculiar to some is the band's general absence from nightclub gigs.
"That's something we discussed early on: playing clubs," Raynes said. "And we decided we didn't want to. Now, Jim's the only smoker left in the group, but the other members don't and we decided that just wasn't where we wanted to play."
After starting out with a focus on playing and having fun, the band's first few shows were parties, such as Parkhurst's Christmas party or playing a party for Raynes' company at Grand Lake. Since then, the band has played a few club shows, appearing at Pickles on occasion or playing the patio at Blue Rose Café, but the vast majority of its shows are outdoor events and parties.
"One year we played roughly 90 gigs and we decided that was too many," Stunkard shared. "So we raised our price to thin things out a little, but people kept paying. For five years it went that way, until we finally got it to where we're comfortable and that's how we got to where we are now."
"Where we are now" is a schedule that sees the band plays an average of 60 shows per year. In most instances, the group carries four or five shows per month -- sometimes more, occasionally less. This past October was the heaviest of the year, seeing the group play a dozen shows over a three week period, highlighted by two shows on the Oklahoma Stage to close out the Tulsa State Fair, Oktoberfest, TU Homecoming and charity events for the March of Dimes and Badges & Barbeques. Sprinkled in between were rare weekend stands at River Spirit Casino, a business opening, birthday party and wedding reception.
Although that made for a busy month, you can be sure each gig was agreed upon by the entire group. Not only do the members all sit down and verify calendars so that everyone is present at every performance (barring a few, rare exceptions), everyone has their say in what shows the band does or doesn't take on.
"The hardest part is that everyone has stuff going on," Raynes explained. "We all have jobs and families and other things going on as well. We want to play all of our shows with everyone, so we'll all sit down and block out the time when we book a show -- or when we won't be available."
"This whole thing is a real joy and we still do it for the fun," he continued. "There are some gigs that we turn down, either because everyone couldn't be there or because it just didn't sound fun to us. That's our call."
Aside from the camaraderie in the band, one of the things that keeps Mid Life Crisis running smoothly after so many years is the manner in which it operates. All of the original members came together after leaving music to begin careers and raise their families. It's only natural, then, that once they returned they would bring the lessons from their life experience with them: both in building relationships and business acumen.
Like true businessmen, once the gigs and income started coming in consistently, the group started reinvesting back into the band. Eventually, Steve Parkhurst convinced the band to buy a trailer, perhaps the first major step in its expansion. Now, Mid Life Crisis has its own sound system, light rig, and yes -- trailer, to get the band and all of its gear to and from the shows.
"Once we had a trailer, at that point we realized it was starting to get serious," Stunkhard chuckled in retrospect. "Instead of just a bunch of guys hauling our stuff around in our cars and vans, now we actually looked and acted like a band."
"We treat this like a business," Rays emphasized. "If we said we'll start at eight, we start at eight. Then we play 'til midnight. Whatever we've contractually agreed to, that's what we do. When people hire us, they know what to expect."
A Band Transformed
Somewhere between the garage in '95 and the larger stages of 2011, Mid Life Crisis went from a group of buddies drinking beer and playing old favorites to, well... a group of buddies drinking beer and playing their old favorites in front of a large and appreciative audience. In other words, it became a legitimate band, not just a group of enthusiasts. Part of that transformation was physical.
Over the course of time, members did change as original drummer Johnny Winters stepped aside and Steve Parhurst's younger brother Tim (who had played with him in The Varmints in the past), took over for a year. Marc Boyce then stepped behind the kit in '98 and served as drummer until relinquishing duties, due to medical difficulties, to Dr. Charley Stewart in 2005. Stewart has balanced a career as an anesthesiologist and anchoring the Mid Life Crisis Band ever since.
Guitarist Hayden Burlingame, in many eyes, may have been the game changer for the group. A lifelong musician, he has toured the country with a band he formed following dropping out of OU, The Ushers, which had substantial regional success. After that band ran its course, he earned a degree in Contemporary Music at Rogers State College in the Leon McAuliffe School of Music. Two years of studying under legendary guitarist Eldon Shamblim, who served as guitarist and arranger for Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. When Junior Brown left the program, Burlingame stepped into his role teaching the Lab Bands in the music program. After touring the Midwest for another three years as guitarist and music director for a radio conglomerate, he returned to Tulsa to help raise his family as his third daughter arrived.
Although he got his realtor's license, Burlingame continued to play in Tulsa in a number of bands, including the Cactus Slayers and London Squares. His career in Tulsa has included membership in a number of bands including Brian Parton's Nashville Rebels, Tex Montana's Fireball Four, Route 66, Dave Barber and the Rocket Rangers, and multiple additional outfits.
Of course, it's all something that Burlingame plays down in person. To hear him tell it, "While they all went off and started careers, I quit school and went off to join the circus and joined a band. I was on the road for about 10 years, then came back and got a music degree." Although he has established himself professionally as a realtor, he still laughs that "Music is my fallback."
In fact, when asked what he meant by a passing comment that he never thought he'd be here, he reflected on an evening at SXSW music conference in 2011. "I'm a bigger music fan now than I was when I started, even though I've been in so many bands," he said. "I never really thought about it that much, but other than a few people like myself and Steve Pryor, there aren't many people who started playing around the same time and kept at it and never stopped or took a break."
The final piece of the band came when Scott McGhee joined Mid Life Crisis, expanding the group to a five piece. McGhee had played drums with Burlingame in The Ushers as well as his later bands The Cactus Slayers and London Squares, as well as a handful of other bands. With Stewart well established in his role behind the drum kit, however, McGhee has transitioned to percussion and singing behind Raynes, with an occasional turn in the spotlight -- filling out the band's roster and sound.
Overall, it's all been part of the group's transition from friends and hobbyists to a legitimate and respected band. As front man Raynes explains it, "Before, I a thought of us as performers or entertainers more than musicians. We did a more than adequate job with the music, but I didn't think of us like that. It's been the perfect example of 'the sum is greater than its parts.'
"I love the guys who started with us, but they basically got tired of it and stepped away," he said. "It was a great experience, but it all made us good enough that people like Charley and Hayden and Scott wanted to play with us."
"I remember the first time I heard 'Pinball Wizard' and 'Tommy,'" Raynes continued. "I knew I want to eventually be in a band that was good enough to play those songs and now I am. It's a great treat to have a podium to sing the songs I always wanted to sing."
The X Factor
So, how as a group that started out as a handful of acquaintances turn into one of the city's most popular bands? Especially when it primarily plays parties and special events and only covers classic rock songs? Perhaps it's due to that focus.
"We're in the party market," Raynes stated early in our discussion, with Stunkard in full agreement. "That's what we do -- we play parties and we bring a party with us. It's all about having a good time."
Those parties have stayed rooted in classic rock covers. In its early stages, when still jamming in the garage, the group was initially all over the place, but soon made a conscious decision to focus on the classics and specifically songs from the '60s and '70s.
"We've discussed playing some newer stuff, but there are so many oldies we still haven't played yet," Raynes said. "We stay in the '60s and '70s and try to stay true to the originals."
In fact, staying as true to the originals as possible is a great part of the band's appeal. Even after 15 years, rehearsal may have shifted from Tuesday nights to Mondays, but Stunkard estimates that the band has kept that weekly rehearsal schedule at least 80 percent of the time for the duration of the group.
Those rehearsals aren't just a shallow run through, either. Stunkard and Raynes shared that in fairly typical form, a recent rehearsal saw the group spend the greater part of an hour working out the particulars of "Day Tripper" and making sure the harmony vocals were correct.
"We spent a good amount of time working out 'Hotel California' to get it just right and when we finally rolled it out, we had a lot of people tell us how good it was. One night this guy came up to me after our set and said 'That sounded great! My band spent six hours a day for a month trying to get that one down and we never sounded that good.' I asked 'What kind of band are you in that you can spend six hours a day rehearsing?' and he said 'It was a prison band,'" Raynes laughed.
Much like its operations are run as a business, the music is taken seriously as well and aside from playing as close to the originals as possible, the band very rarely veers from its initial vision. People know what to expect from Mid Life Crisis, both business-wise and in its set lists. Although the group continues to work up new songs to keep things fresh for the band, its active playlist includes 50-60 classics, with a catalog of roughly 100 songs total that can be called from.
After 15 years as a cover band, however, I had to ask about the temptation to pull out or work up an original for the set. While Stunkard and Raynes agreed that their own songs likely wouldn't stand up next to the classics they play ("My band wrote a lot of songs in college, but they all sounded like 'Hang on Sloopy,'" Raynes laughed), they ultimately know what the audience comes out to hear.
"I put myself in the shoes of that guy in the audience," Stunkard said. "He doesn't want to hear that, he wants to hear 'Mustang Sally.' Even if we played our own songs, they haven't had time to hit them in the heart and I think that's the real secret: these songs mean something to people, they hit them right here -- in the heart."
That's what puts the band in front of so many people each year. They might not be active music fans -- in fact, for many of them, Mid Life Crisis may be the only band they see play over the course of a year, but they know and love the songs and know what to expect.
As a result, The Fabulous Mid Life Crisis Band plays roughly 60 shows per year: everything ranging from an annual gig to open Utica Square's summer concert season (a show that normally draws an estimated 5,000 people and is currently scheduled for Thursday, June 7 this year) to High School reunions and wedding receptions to corporate events and fundraisers like Wild Brew and the St. John's Street Party. The group has also held an annual spot at the State Fair's beer tent, a gig that got upgraded to the main stage this year, and was even hired as the band that unofficially opened the BOK Center, playing at the corporate/sponsor and public receptions, as well as the outdoor stage before The Eagles' official opening concert.
Perhaps the most important of those shows are the fundraisers. "We've helped raise a lot of money for worthwhile causes," Raynes reflected. "But we've only ever played one free concert in our career."
That rare occurrence came up this summer when Kasey Davis, from Kingspoint Village Shopping Center called Jim Stunkard asking for help organizing a benefit concert for the victims of the tornados that devastated Joplin on May 22, 2011.
Once Stunkard received the call, he went to work. "I told the guys we were doing it and no one argued, we were all on board," he said. His work wasn't limited to playing however. Following the call from Davis on Tuesday, May 31, Stunkard started making calls himself and the entire event came together in three days for a concert in the shopping center parking lot on Friday night, June 3.
Tulsa Stage and Top, and Omni Lighting and Sound stepped up with the necessary staging and sound equipment and artists lined up for the evening with performances by Easy Street band, Jeremiah Kirby, Fiawna Forte, The Red Alert and Rebecca Ungerman. Mid Life Crisis headlined the evening and closed out the show in strong form.
Lauer Media also stepped up and recorded the evening to produce a live CD and DVD of the event with the Red Cross on hand to collect donations. With a public campaign through radio and TV, word got out and the audience came and gave to the cause. Initial plans were to offer a live CD of the event for a $25 donation, a CD and DVD for $50 and a CD, DVD and MLC t-shirt for a $100 donation. On the night of the event, however, the excitement of the evening and the cause led Raynes to up the ante and make it two t-shirts. In hindsight, he shakes his head and laughs, as the band never expected the response that was received, but gladly writes it off for a good cause.
At the end of the evening, nearly $20,000 was raised, with all donations going directly to the American Red Cross, dedicated to relief efforts in Joplin, Mo. It was definitely a group effort with every artist and company involved adding to the overall success of the event, but Stunkard's contribution and the participation of The Fabulous Mid Life Crisis Band were definitely key to the evening.
"I'm still just blown away by how Tulsa responded," Stunkard reflected. "It was amazing to see how many people came out and were willing to donate for the cause."
With post-production and manufacturing finally complete, the DVD's for the show finally arrived and started going out to those who donated in late October and although nothing firm has been planned as of yet, Stunkard admitted to eyeing the possibility of holding a screening of the DVD to raise further funds for Joplin and the American Red Cross.
When speaking with the band, its members are humble about the entire experience, but from the outside, it's hard not to recognize the event as a high-water mark in the band's career. Surely, the attendance was a sign of its popularity, but the band's contribution to the community and Joplin's relief efforts says more about its heart and intentions. That and the fact that the group consistently delivers the songs that its fans know and love is why it continues to be embraced as "The Fabulous Mid Life Crisis Band."
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