The dB’s: Tar Heelers in the Big Apple (Part 1 of 2)

Two critically-acclaimed albums from the dawn of the alternative rock era have long been found in the United States only as imports. But new reissues of The dB’s Stands for deciBels and RePercussion will make these important and influential albums available on vinyl for to 21st century audiences. Ahead of those releases (and live dates in support of them), founding members Peter Holsapple and Will Rigby spoke with me (this story appeared previously in Spin).

North Carolina likes to claim The dB’s as its own. And while it’s true that all four members of the influential indie-rock band (Holsapple, Rigby, Chris Stamey and Gene Holder) are originally from the Tar Heel State, The dB’s have always considered themselves a “New York band.”

That perspective has much to do with how the group came together. Songwriter and guitarist Chris Stamey was born in Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, but by his early twenties he had moved to New York City. There he connected with former Big Star members Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. He launched an independent record label, Car Records, and released Bell’s single “I Am the Cosmos.” He also played live dates with Chilton.

Before moving to NYC, Stamey had been a member of Sneakers, a band that also counted Rigby and Mitch Easter (later the leader of Let’s Active and co-producer of R.E.M.’s early releases) among its members. And even before that, in 1972 Stamey had been in Rittenhouse Square with Easter and Peter Holsapple. So when The dB’s came into being, its members were already well-acquainted with each others’ musical skills and artistry.

But back to New York City. “Chris had moved up there at the end of ‘76,” recalls drummer Rigby. “In 1977, I was not playing; I was just kind of sitting around. Chris asked me and Gene to come up in the Spring of ‘78.” The idea was a modest one: they’d play a few gigs together. The plan didn’t extend beyond that.

Once the North Carolina rhythm section arrived in New York, they quickly realized that merely playing “just a few gigs” with their old friend wouldn’t be enough to keep them occupied. And all three agreed that they needed a fourth member – on keyboards, the thinking went – to round out their sound.

Enter Peter Holsapple. “I had been playing with Mitch in a band called the H-Bombs in Chapel Hill,” he recalls. “Alex Chilton was ostensibly the producer of note on some recordings we did at Trod Nossel Studio in Connecticut.” A serious Big Star fan, Holsapple decided that it might be fun to move to Chilton’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. “And it was an excuse to get away from college,” he admits with a laugh.

Holsapple says that what he found was “not much happening.” He did work variously with Chris Bell, and with Chilton and Sam Phillips Studio engineer Richard Roseborough. “Richard took me under his wing, and we recorded some stuff,” he says. Those tracks wouldn’t see the light of day until many decades later when released in 2018 as The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs. Alex Chilton.

But Holsapple wasn’t happy in Memphis. “It was miserably hot,” he says. He made regular trips to the library, leafing through weekly copies of the Village Voice. “I kept seeing ads for Chris Stamey and The dB’s,” he says. “They were playing these shows, and I was like, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be interesting to go up to New York?’”

At luck would have it, right around that time Holsapple received a telephone call from Will Rigby, who told him, “Chris is interested in having a keyboard player. Would you be interested in auditioning?” Yeah, he would.

“I drank myself stupid the night before I left, “says Holsapple, who today is many years sober. “I got up to New York; Will met me at the airport.” After a quick shower, he replaced his puke-stained shirt for a clean one and went with Rigby to the audition.

On arrival, Holsapple found that Stamey had set up a vintage Ace Tone combo organ, a cousin to Vox and Farfisa keyboards that produced a distinctly retro sound. “Chris showed me some songs,” he recalls. “And it appeared that I had passed the audition.” Pausing for effect, he adds, “But I never got it in writing; we’re still waiting on that.”

Holsapple says that his entry into The dB’s was a natural fit. “These were people who I knew from growing up in Winston-Salem for most of our lives.” They all shared a sort of common language, musical and otherwise. “It was a lot easier than trying to join a band that was a bunch of New Yorkers,” he says.

The new four-piece dB’s played their first gig in late October ‘78 at NYC’s Irving Plaza. Part of a four-act bill with The Fleshtones headlining, Holsapple says, “unfortunately, we kind of sucked.” An audience tape of the show reveals that he’s overstating the case a bit; the band is audibly nervous, rushing through the tunes, but they don’t quite suck. “We could play circles around a lot of bands in New York,” Holsapple says, “but our vocals were… highly tentative.” Nodding in agreement, Rigby adds, “We had a bit of a reputation for equipment problems, too.”

To be continued…