VINTON–The likelihood of a group of middle school-aged students starting up a band in a basement, becoming all the rage throughout the region, and then touring Europe with the USO seems slim.
However that is what happened with the aptly-named Odyssey Band from Vinton. Greg Chewning and Duane Rice who shared a common interest in music became friends in grade school. They spent hours listening to the jukebox in the basement of Greg’s parents, Bob and Bootie Chewning. Greg played drums by ear; Rice had been taking guitar lessons in Lynchburg and at Ridenhour. The boys picked up the popular tunes of the day and wanted to form their own band.
Duane’s dad Jim was a musician. He helped them get the band going, played bass for a time, and served as manager, chaperone, and driver. Eventually he became their soundman and Duane took over on bass.
Chewning heard Ronnie Cochran performing in a talent show at William Byrd Middle School and asked him to audition for Odyssey. He tried out in the Chewning’s basement–he thinks playing “Johnny Be Good.”
Cochran had learned guitar from his dad. He remembers summers spent in his grandmother’s yard on Ruddell Road listening to the sounds of live bands playing at the Vinton Municipal Pool down below.
Memories are shaky on which members joined the band when and in what order, but Jon Perdue and Timmy Hall also became members of Odyssey.
The boys decided they need a girl to sing vocals in the band so Bootie Chewning drove over to girls’ cheerleading practice and asked if anyone could sing. Renee Dean could, so Bootie took her back to her house to fill out the group.
Duane’s brother Todd eventually was put in charge of lighting at age 12. Daughter Angie Chewning was a roadie from the beginning.
All (except Jim Rice) were students at William Byrd. Most played by ear. They weren’t members of the school band or chorus, but they were good musicians, with supportive parents, who Cochran said became almost a family during their years in the band.
The band rehearsed frequently in the Chewning’s basement. Bootie Chewning describes her husband Bob as “a saint” who sat in his recliner reading the paper and falling asleep while crowds of children and their families filled the basement and the “floor was rocking.”
Their first performance was at graduation at Hardy Road Elementary School (now W.E. Cundiff), recruited by Principal Frank Stone in 1974 when he wanted some music at the graduation ceremony.
The band was “talked up” by their families and their reputation spread by “word of mouth.”
They went on to play at countless proms, homecomings, parties, and special occasions, not just in the Roanoke/Vinton area but in nearby states.
With a lead guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, and vocalists, they were publicized as a dance and variety band playing “fast-moving Top 40, beach, and 50’s medleys.”
Jim Rice obtained a special license so the group could perform at events and venues where alcohol was served, leading to shows at Billy’s Barn, Caesar’s, Paulo’s, the Hunting Hills Country Club, the Greenbrier and Homestead, Roanoke’s Festival in the Park, and the annual Junior Miss Pageants. They opened for the Platters at Caesar’s night club.
They first traveled to “gigs” in station wagons driven by Bootie Chewning and Duane’s mother, Shirley. Later there was a customized van and then a bus, reminiscent of the Partridge Family.
Rice recalls that often she and Chewning received calls in the middle of the night that the bus had broken down and they needed to pick up the band members. Tommy Wood was frequently called upon to tow the bus back to town.
In 1981 Odyssey was hired to travel to entertain the troops stationed in Germany, Italy, and Austria on a six week USO tour which ended up lasting from June into September because of dates added on the end. Several had graduated from high school just days before. It was the first plane flight for most.
The group performed their one-hour show for audiences that ranged from four to 6,000 in venues that varied from outdoors to rooms the size of a kitchen.
They had auditioned for the USO opportunity at Billy’s Barn in front of a government representative who came down from Washington for that purpose. Their booking agent at the time was Perry Caligan with King’s Entertainment. Their parents had started out as their agents in the early years.
The USO was looking for a young variety band about the same age as the soldiers they would be performing for and Odyssey was a good match. Jim Rice was unable to miss work from C & P Telephone to go with them so Perdue acted as manager.
They landed in Germany and performed at military bases and folk festivals throughout the summer. They performed at remote bases which had never had any entertainment and at large military installations. Often they performed two or three shows a day, driven from place to place by a bus driver who spoke no English.
On one occasion they performed in Czechoslovakia near the front lines for six soldiers fully dressed in military gear holding weapons. They were warned to stay away from the fences because of land mines.
Cochran remembers that they were “treated like rock stars” on the tour. In fact, “groupies” followed them from base to base to see them perform. At some concerts there were MP’s with Dobermans at the front of the stage to restrain the audience. He said it was amazing to be treated as if they were Elvis or the Beatles.
He also said the troops were very grateful to them for coming to perform.
Each band member was paid $50 per day on the tour with the understanding that they paid for their own meals (mostly free) and lodging (generally about $4 per night)—a very good income for the times.
They had been well-paid throughout their high school years, able to go to school during the week, and playing with the band on mostly-booked-up weekends.
Locally they played music from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, beach music, some country, and classics by Elvis and the Beatles in a variety show. On occasion they would learn special numbers from the 40’s or 50’s when the event demanded.
They changed costumes several times during the shows, collected by Bootie Chewning from sales and discounts at tux rental stores, Goodwill, Family Dollar, and the like—wherever she could find matching outfits at bargain basement prices. Her rule was that they all dress alike to “look like a band.”
As for what happened to the band–Duane Rice said that he and Chewning stuck with the band for 11 years. Some members came and went as they left for college and jobs. Cochran performed professionally with other groups until 1988 when he became an insurance agent and investment broker. He now owns Cochran and Associates Inc. in Blacksburg, affiliated with New York Life.
Rice went on to work for UPS; Chewning for US Foods. Chewning does the sound for services at Thrasher Memorial UMC in Vinton. Rice plays bass with the Humble Praise group at Thrasher. Timmy Hall and Renee Dean married and moved to England. Jon Perdue is the production and broadcast manager at Brigham Young University.