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Celebrating four decades of The Dogs!

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Celebrating four decades of The Dogs! (edge photo by Kevin Bennett)

One of Maine’s most enduring musical ensembles is celebrating a milestone this year as The Dogs commemorate 40 years as a band by recording new music for the first time since the late 1980s.

Meanwhile, The Dogs’ concert schedule is busier today than it has been in years, thanks in part to the three most recent members to join the band.

The Dogs’ lineup in 2019 features the band’s two founding members – lead guitarist Curt Bruton and drummer Buddy Adams – along with bassist and business manager Walter Stanley, guitarist and vocalist Rich Stacey and vocalist Cheryl Oliver, the first female member of The Dogs in the 40-year history of the band.

Before they became The Dogs, Bruton and Adams, along with musicians Shawn Russell (bass) and Dennis Garrett (co-lead and rhythm guitar), were known as Spunk. Rhythm guitarist Bob Riley had preceded Garrett in the band.

“For a while, we were also known as Puddin,’” according to Adams. “We played a lot of different things, including a whole set of Beatles material.”

“That was just one name of many,” Bruton added. “We went through some name changes before we settled on The Dogs.”

The name was inspired by an image hanging on the wall in the band’s first practice room - the basement of bassist Shawn Russell’s home.

“That was the first place we sort of gelled,” Bruton remembered. “He had a pool table down there and one of those ‘dogs playing poker’ prints hanging on the wall. We said ‘Let’s just call ourselves The Dogs.’ That’s really where the name came from. At first we weren’t sure it was the right thing to do.”

The transition from Spunk to The Dogs involved some high emotion, a little humor and a touch of violence, according to Bruton.

“We had just finished a gig in Houlton and were having a heavy discussion about the name,” he said, recalling the moment he knew The Dogs was the correct name for this band.

“There were a few people hanging out after the gig and we’d been going on about this new name – The Dogs,” he added.

The band wanted to know what these Houlton fans thought of the group’s newly proposed moniker.

“They said ‘Leave it alone. You guys are good as Spunk,’” Bruton said. “When we told them, we were going to change the name to The Dogs, their reaction was violent. One of them said ‘I hate that name. I’m going to throw this beer bottle right through that window and I’ll never come see you again.”

After the shattered glass settled, the band members looked at each other and smiled. Despite fans and even booking agents and clubs protesting the group’s name change, Bruton and Adams say they remained defiant.

“When that moment happened, we knew it was the right move,” said Bruton. “Anything that can provoke that kind of emotion – even if it isn’t good – tells you it’s something that will stay in your head.”

The Dogs have always been a Bangor-based band, although Walter Stanley is originally from the Harrington area and Curt Bruton is from Portland.

“Through the decades, people have assumed we’re from elsewhere,” Bruton said. “We’ve never fought that because there were times when that actually helped us. Some people think we’re from Boston, but most people assume we’re a Portland band.”

When Bruton was in his teens, he was a guitarist in a busy Portland band populated with members ten years his senior. That lineup had done some work with a Boston-based singer and songwriter named Robin McNamara.

“Robin went to New York to audition for the cast of ‘Hair’ on Broadway and he got the lead role,” Bruton said. “He did some demos and was picked up by producer Jeff Barry, who put him on his own label.”

One of McNamara’s songs became a substantial hit in 1970 when ‘Lay a Little Lovin’ On Me’ hovered around the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

“We ended up recording a lot of material with Robin,” recalled Bruton. “Jeff Barry had a bunch of other clients and he needed a bass player.”

Bruton was tapped to play bass on commercial jingles for Maxwell House coffee and Coca-Cola. He also wrote bass parts on a jingle for Lee jeans. “This was all done in New York City at A&R Recording studio in 1969 or so,” Bruton said.

To work in a New York City recording studio – especially in those days – you had to join a union. Bruton says he was a member of five unions, including three musician’s unions, SAG and AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).

At the end of a recording session, Bruton would receive a check for his services, including a fairly substantial sum from A&M Records for material Bruton had recorded with McNamara.

“We were playing in Cape Cod and I walked into this bank wearing full rock and roll regalia, holding my check out to let them know that I was really supposed to be there,” Bruton said, as the current lineup of The Dogs breaks out in laughter.

Bruton says the entire bank stopped and stared at the unusual sight before them.

“We were hippies and a lot of people looked at us strangely,” he said.

Bruton recalls the female employees of the bank couldn’t stop smiling and giggling as his various forms of identification were authenticated.

“I get back outside into the van with my envelope full of money and the band was giggling and laughing. Suddenly, I realized why everyone was giggling. I had walked into the bank with my fly unzipped.”

At a time when few Maine bands had the resources to make a record (Oak and The Blend among them) The Dogs recorded their first album (1979’s self-titled LP) roughly a year or so after settling on the new name.

“The first album was a Mark Wellman/Rick Bronson production,” Adams said. “I remember we had so much studio time available but not enough songs ready to record.”

According to Bruton, he sold the project to producer Mark Wellman based on two songs he had written.

“He said ‘We’ll give you the studio time, you bring your original songs and maybe we’ll end up with an album,’” Bruton recalls.

What Bruton didn’t tell him was that most of the songs recorded for that first album by The Dogs were written to order the night before the sessions.

“There were a few times when I would show the songs to the band in the studio just before we recorded them,” Bruton added, Adams nodding along in acknowledgement. “Everyone pretended they already knew the material.”

The perfectly simple, eye-catching logo for the band adorned the debut album.

“My kid brother, Tom Bruton, did that first logo for us freehand,” said Bruton. “It looks computer generated but he drew it. He has a successful graphics company in Bath called Studio B Graphic Arts.”

The management of Maine band The Blend (then signed to MCA Records) began to show an interest in The Dogs and placed them in front of many large audiences.

“In a relatively brief period of time, we became extremely popular,” Bruton recalled. “Every day was extremely busy. We had no time for anything other than the band. We were playing every night of the week and had events happening during the day, every day.”

Over the years, The Dogs have shared stages with some big names in music, including The Edgar Winter Group, Badfinger, Marshall Tucker Band, John Cafferty and a rocker who had some fun backstage with Buddy Adams – Eddie Money.

“Eddie Money put me in a headlock and gave me noogies,” Adams said, his bandmates erupting in laughter.

The most memorable opening spot, according to Bruton and Adams, arrived with a surprise phone call at a time when the band was looking forward to a two-week break.

“Two hours before Black Sabbath was scheduled to play the Bangor Auditorium, the phone rang,” Adams remembered. “The band they had booked to open, cancelled. They had to round us up and a couple of us were getting ready to leave the state. We played a full set of original songs that night and it was a great show.”

This episode occurred during lead singer Ronnie James Dio’s stint as lead vocalist with Black Sabbath (1979-1982).

“The promoter put on a nice spread for us backstage,” Adams said. “We had fresh chicken cordon bleu and a barrel full of Heineken. We went out and played our set and came back to find it all over the walls and dripping off the ceiling. Black Sabbath destroyed our dressing room. It was actually kind of cool.” The members of The Dogs burst out in laughter as Adams tells this story.

Bassist Shawn Russell put a decade of service into The Dogs before moving to Presque Isle to open Shenanigan’s bar and restaurant with his wife Nancy in 1989. Russell died in July 2011 following a lengthy battle with cancer.

Dennis Garrett moved on in 1986. Other key players in The Dogs during the 1980s and 1990s include keyboardist Greg Deering (also a producer and engineer on the band’s early albums, Deering is a member of Little Rodeo), guitarist Gary Rand (currently of Scarborough), Chris Messier and the late Rick Haseltine.

“Rick was a phenomenal guitarist, but he switched over to bass when he played with us,” Adams said. “Gary Rand was an important part of the band for about 10 years.”

The Dogs recorded two further albums during the 1980s – “New English Rock” and 1989’s “Dogs Third”- the latter album bearing the image of a familiar sight around the Portland area during the 1980s.

“That’s ‘the dog man,’” Bruton said when I asked about the image. “He lived on the streets of Portland with his pack of dogs that were never leashed but had been trained by him to obey commands. You used to see them everywhere. He became our unofficial mascot.”

Bruton and Adams have overseen numerous lineup changes in their band over the years, including stretches when The Dogs were a four-piece group and a trio.

During a brief period prior to their current, more rock-based incarnation, The Dogs were more country than rock and roll. Bassist Walter Stanley is one of the key players responsible for The Dogs’ recent renewed lease on life.

“Before The Dogs, I hadn’t played in a band for 15 years,” Stanley told me. “Buddy and I were both members of the Bangor Elks. He said they needed a bass player. We put together a Sunday afternoon jam session to bring people in and generate money for a new sign for the Elks.”

During this period, The Dogs were billed as The Prairie Dogs, with lead singer Dave Eaton. The setlist consisted of mostly country music.

“I think the band looked at the Prairie Dogs as a means to get them through a window until they could return the focus to rock and roll,” Stanley said. “We paddled along with that name for a while. Then we met Cheryl.”

Cheryl Oliver’s voice is a specimen of beauty. You’ve likely heard her without realizing it in the commercial jingles for Central Maine Harley-Davidson. She and Rich Stacey handle many of the band’s lead vocals these days.

“I had heard The Prairie Dogs because my employer at the time had hired them to perform at a banquet,” Oliver told me. “I didn’t know about The Dogs. When they were having all of their success in 1981, I was busy being born,” she said as the band laughed. “Sorry guys.”

Oliver had sung in a couple of bands prior to joining The Dogs. That she is singing at all today is nothing short of miraculous.

In 2012, Oliver sustained a very painful vocal injury which required nine weeks of intense vocal therapy. The injury had pulled her voice box to the right.

“It was very painful to talk and even more painful to sing,” she said. “I really thought I would never sing again. I was diagnosed with Muscle Tension Dysphonia. It was very scary.”

One night shortly after completing vocal therapy, Cheryl and her husband joined Walter and his wife for dinner.

“I had just written a song for my dad,” Oliver said. “I sang it for Walter and he liked it. He said that I might think about singing again but I said no. I didn’t want to take a chance to injuring my voice again.”

Stanley convinced Oliver to attend a couple of band rehearsals. When she joined in on a few songs, she says it felt natural to sing with these musicians. In 2016, she officially joined The Dogs.

“I didn’t know how much I missed singing until I joined the band,” she said. “They’ve made me a stronger person in terms of confidence because I’m discovering I can do more vocally. I also discovered that I can balance being a mother by day and a rock star by night – and then drive home in my mini-van. It’s like I’m having an out of body experience when I’m singing with The Dogs. I don’t feel like it’s just me up there. I feel like we’re all pulling this together.”

Guitarist and vocalist Rich Stacey also became an official member of The Dogs in 2016, co-fronting the band with Cheryl.

“I love the history of this band and I’m very happy and proud to be part of it,” Stacey told me. “I didn’t get to witness the success they had when they were putting out the albums so I’m cherishing every moment I have with this band.”

Last autumn, The Dogs entered the recording studio at New England School of Communications in Bangor. Further sessions followed, including the session photographed in March for this story by Kevin Bennett.

NESCom student recording engineers Garrett Ross and Ethan Fuller are set to graduate this month and have been working with the band on tracks for a fourth album, tentatively set to be released later this year on CD and digital download.

“The sessions have gone very well,” Walter Stanley says. “The music sounds great and everyone is very upbeat about this.”

Stanley, Oliver and Stacey are cited by both Bruton and Adams for bringing The Dogs back to life.

“That’s a valid statement,” Bruton said. “We needed something relevant to happen, other than memories of 1979. We have to keep marching forward. Having front people like Rich and Cheryl is very important for a band that wants to stay iconic and create something together that lasts. A lot of the positive things that have happened to this group in recent years can be traced to Walter Stanley. His business sensibility and his drive are key to keeping us going.”

“I’m proud to say that I’m in one of the versions of The Dogs,” said Stanley. “I’m proudest of that fact that I’ve been able to help rebuild The Dogs brand. I believe we’re trending in a very good direction.”

“A long time ago, I was told to always play with people that are better than you,” Stacey said. “I don’t know if that was a slam or just wise advice. I love playing with this band and singing with Cheryl.”

“It’s the best,” Oliver added. “I love singing with Rich.”

As Buddy Adams looks back on 40 years of The Dogs, he says he’s proudest of how far his daughter has gone in the entertainment business. Hayley Adams worked on the “Family Guy” series for five seasons and “American Dad” for two seasons. She’s worked on the shows “Anger Management” and “Border Town” and is currently script supervisor for the hit Netflix series “Big Mouth.”

“I remember bringing Hayley to our street dances,” Adams said. “I’d bring her up onstage and she would look out at that big crowd. We sent her to Emerson College and now she’s working with John Mulaney and Nick Kroll. I think – indirectly – she went into that business because of what I was doing with The Dogs.”

During my interview with the full band, Buddy Adams’s wife, Rena, dropped by with two scrapbooks full of press clippings, photos and tour itineraries dating back to the late 1970s.

“We played in Augusta last weekend and somebody brought these in and gave them to us,” Adams said. “It’s quite a flashback looking through all of this stuff.”

Fortunately, the last four or five pages of this scrapbook were left blank. With the band’s current forward momentum, it’s only a matter of time before they’re filled with new images, articles and memories from the present-day lineup of this iconic Maine band.

“I’m proud of everyone’s commitment to this band,” Curt Bruton said. “I’m also proud of the fact that something like this happens (referring to The Maine Edge) or someone brings in surprise scrapbooks full of band history that we didn’t know existed. When I started out, it was with the intention of making it in the music business. It may be kind of a parallel plateau but yeah, I kind of did.”

Long live The Dogs.

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