By KATHRYN FLAGG
VERGENNES — Struggling to find a name for their newly formed band, Doug Hawley, Billy Yantz and Pat O’Brien stood on O’Brien’s driveway in Vergennes one night in 1964. They were teenagers — Yantz, the oldest of the three, was only 15.
The guys tossed around a few names, but as Yantz remembers it, nothing sounded quite right.
That’s when he happened to glance down at O’Brien’s father’s car — a Ford Galaxy.
“That’s how it happened,” Yantz said. “It’s just one of those things. It just hit us, all of us, just simultaneously: the Galaxies!”
The Galaxies featuring Yantz, Hawley, O’Brien, and Fred Chamberlain quickly became popular on the local band circuit in the mid- and late-1960s. Now, more than 40 years after their heyday, the quartet is readying to take the stage again at the Vergennes Opera House in a much-anticipated Jan. 10 concert.
And according to the one-time bandmates, the decision to hold a reunion concert happened in much the same way that the band picked its name: it just felt right.
Though Hawley, Yantz and O’Brien played together briefly this past summer at a reunion for the 1968 graduates of Vergennes Union High School, the upcoming January concert will mark the first time since the 1960s that all four original members of the Galaxies will play together on stage.
And for some of the band members, that means dusting off instruments that have long gone unused — not to mention memories from a time that was, Chamberlain said, “a lifetime ago.”
The band got its start in 1964. Yantz remembers being caught up in the Beatle-mania that was sweeping the country.
“I think, like any other youngsters that saw the Beatles for the first time, we were quite impressed with the music they played, the new style that they brought,” Chamberlain said. “The thought that the girls were screaming and going crazy — that was cool. We thought, ‘Hey, we want to do that.’”
It was a new way of hearing and playing music, Yantz recalled. The Beatles blew the old norm of single artists out of the water.
“What the Beatles brought was a band, four guys dressed cool, playing their own songs,” he said. “They just exploded a whole new way of bringing music.”
So Yantz asked his father to teach him how to play a few chords on the acoustic guitar, and then graduated to the electric guitar.
Hawley learned in much the same fashion — his father purchased an electric guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalogue, and Hawley taught himself to play it from a “do-it-yourself” book.
Around that same time, other bands were popping up in the area. Yantz remembered hearing the Vistas at the Vergennes Town Hall — now the opera house.
“They were incredible,” he said. He, Hawley and O’Brien would watch these guys on stage, and Yantz remembers beings impressed with the way they played.
The three had grown up in Vergennes, playing together in Little League and Babe Ruth baseball and in the Catholic Church’s basketball league. In 1964, they started playing music together, trying to imitate the songs they heard on the radio and the Ed Sullivan Show.
Chamberlain came into the mix a little while later. He was a student at Beeman Academy in New Haven, where he’d played a bit of percussion in the school band. When his sister heard that the Galaxies were looking for a drummer, she volunteered Chamberlain, even though he’d never played pop music before.
Yantz took up the base. With Hawley and O’Brien on guitars, and Chamberlain on the drums, the Galaxies started playing simple little songs, and then graduated to the hits of the day.
On Halloween of that year, they played their first gig at a dance at the Weeks School in Vergennes. Their audience wanted to hear songs from the Beatles and the “British Invasion” — and they delivered.
“There were a lot of people there, which surprised us,” Chamberlain said. “We were a bunch of kids. It was quite an event for all of us.”
From that point on, the Galaxies started playing locally on a regular basis. They were learning two or three new songs a week as the tunes hit the airwaves, and would showcase their new repertoire at each new performance.
The band’s crowning achievement, as Yantz remembers it, was the May 1965 “Battle of the Bands” in Burlington. Twenty-one bands competed for the title, and the Galaxies walked away the champions.
The achievement won the band a weekend-long stint at the Grand Motor Inn in Stowe that was broadcast on the radio station WDOT, Hawley remembered.
The Galaxies played together throughout 1965 — and then the band members started to drift their own ways. Yantz became the lead singer and bass player for his one-time idols the Vistas. The rest of the guys played together for another year or two, and then called it quits in the late 1960s.
But those first years, Yantz said, were the inspiration for the reunion concert.
“It’s this first band that really was the spirit of the Galaxies,” he said. “It was really the passion that we had as 15-year-old boys, just eating sleeping and breathing playing music.
“All four of us cherish those times,” he went on. “That’s why we wanted to get back together again.”
GETTING BACK IN SHAPE
Doing just that has required a fair amount of work from all four of the band members. Yantz, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., has been collaborating with his old friends from a distance. He flies to Vermont this week to practice with the band again in preparation for their big show.
Meanwhile, Hawley, O’Brien and Chamberlain have practiced together once or twice a week for several months, relearning the songs and instruments that they once knew like the backs of their hands. Hawley and O’Brien still live in Vergennes, and Chamberlain has since relocated to Burlington.
O’Brien has taken the rehearsals in stride. For a number of years he has performed regularly with his wife, Tammy, in the band Take Two.
Chamberlain needed practice — and drums. He hadn’t played since the early ’80s, he said, and had long since given away his drum set.
“I was terribly out of shape,” he laughed. By practicing an hour or so every day, though, some of his old speed and coordination has come back.
“I didn’t think I’d ever play again,” he admitted. “I’d been away from it for 40 years. I didn’t think I’d ever sit behind a set of drums again.”
Hawley, too, admitted that his guitar had long been collecting dust in a corner.
That said, he agreed with the other guys that it would be fun to give the band another try and air some of the tunes they once revered — music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Johnny Rivers.
“It looked like fun (back then),” Hawley said. “And it was.”
The Galaxies will appear on stage together for the first time in over 40 years on Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Vergennes Opera House. The concert and dance is beings sponsored by more than 25 Vergennes-area merchants. The concert begins at 8 p.m., and tickets are on sale for $15 from the opera house, Classic Stitching, and the Flynn Center at 802-863-5966.