THE COBRAS (Dyer Brook, ME)

Young and dapper — the original Cobras lineup in August 1964 at the Northland Hotel in Houlton, Maine. Left to right: Jay Leavitt, John Gordon, Holly Leavitt, Gary Leavitt, Eddie Moody.

Instant heart attack! Talk about an unrelenting, two-sided stinger of a disc … The Cobras' "I Wanna Be Your Love" 45 hasn't budged from legendary status for decades. It's got all the ingredients — maniacal gruff vocal yowls, venomous guitar, nonstop bass runs, over-the-top drumkit action — and first-rate songwriting to match. I mean, what else sounds like "Instant Heartache" out there? A bit of Boston folklore, courtesy of Erik Lindgren: "Jeff Conolly (DMZ/Lyres) was on a film shoot with Iggy Pop and there was some downtime. Jeff played him the Cobras 45 on a boom box and Mr. Pop was supposedly downright frightened by the intensity of the songs." Of course, we can't vouch for what chemicals were in Ig's system at the time, but hey … they scared the Stooge!

The Basement Walls is proud to present the definitive account of Maine's finest export next to lobster, the Cobras:


The Leavitt children, from Dyer Brook, near the Canadian border, were born with music in their blood — their mom played in bands in the 1940s and all of her brothers went on to careers in music. Twin siblings Jay and Holly Leavitt started performing as a harmony vocal duo at the age of three years old and their act continued until they were age 10. Circa 1961 when Jay was 14, he joined a band called The Embers with Eddie Moody on guitar, Bobby Rutledge on keyboards and Jay on drums. They played proms, rec center dances and shows in the Houlton area, and eventually changed their name to Jay & The Embers.

In early 1964, Jay and Holly's older brother Gary had returned home from an Army stint in Germany and wanted to play rhythm guitar in the group. Since out of town shows had started to materialize and keyboardist Bobby was not allowed to travel, he was replaced by Holly, a child prodigy on piano who had taken lessons since the age of six. Gary had a car and a license, so they built a gear trailer and rechristened themselves as The Cobras. The initial lineup was Gary Leavitt (lead singer, rhythm guitar), Holly Leavitt (keyboards, vocals), Jay Leavitt (drums, vocals), Eddie Moody (lead guitar) and John Gordon (bass). The lead vocals were split up between Jay, Holly and Gary, with the harmonies arranged by Holly.

The Cobras were a "dance band" and played all the rock and roll hits of the time, and their popularity skyrocketed almost immediately. (According to Holly, the only music in the area at the time was Canadian folk music sung in French, so the kids went crazy for rock and roll.) The northern Maine area was bustling with teenage baby boomers, between the military and civilian populations employed at Loring Air Force Base, and plenty of French Canadian girls would cross the border into Maine to catch shows. Gigs were plentiful and the crew always took first place in the battles of the bands. By all accounts, The Cobras were freakin' loud, with stacks and stacks of Fender amplifiers that often would blow away the headlining acts.

Standing as tall as their amps at the Cobra Club in 1965. From left: Dick "Huey" Taylor, Holly Leavitt, Gary Leavitt, Jay Leavitt, Scott Emack.

The Cobras performed often and everywhere, starting with proms and college gigs in Northern Maine and Canada, a steady gig at the Van Buren Hotel, and then as word spread, the band secured repeat weekend shows at the University of Maine and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. (Jay remembers a humorous incident when the band packed up to head home after a weekend of gigs at Dartmouth, and he set down a wad of $2,500 cash on the roof of the car, then forgot about it and drove off!) They backed up Freddy Cannon in July 1964 and also opened for Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, the Hondells and the Barbarians, all at the Caribou Armory.

Since Jay and Holly were only 15 years old and playing in clubs, Gary made up fake IDs that said they were three years older. (Holly even maintained National Honor Society status while gigging three nights a week during high school.) Holly recalls a radio station celebrating their 21st birthday on the air, when in fact they just turned 18!

In August 1965, Eddie Moody and John Gordon left the band and were replaced by Scott Emack on lead guitar and Dick "Huey" Taylor on bass. (It's Huey's intense bass lines which grace the 45.) At this time, the group had steady jobs at The Outpost in Caribou and the Yacht Club in Van Buren.

As if the Cobras weren't cool enough with their ear-piercing stacks of Fender amps and reputation as the best band in Maine, their parents then upped the ante by opening up their own nightclub. After Jay and Holly graduated high school in 1965, the Leavitt family leased an old missile site in Caribou, Maine, which had been converted into a restaurant — and thus the Cobra Club was born. The family left their home in Dyer Brook and moved into the living quarters, which was actually the old military barracks. The club was a separate area and would pack in 1,000 people on weekends. One thousand!

You knew things were gonna get real loud, real fast, when the Cobras' gear trailer pulled up.

In mid-1966, Holly decided that she would inevitably leave the Cobras as the birth of her daughter was only months away. Gary composed "I Wanna Be Your Love" and "Instant Heartache" to record as a document of the band before Holly left. In October or November of 1966, Gary and Jay drove the four hours south to Ace Recording Studio in Boston, while a very pregnant (8 months!) Holly and her husband flew into town. The brothers were joined by respected studio guitarist/producer and fellow Mainer Bobby Herne, who provided the blistering solos on both tracks. The airtight performances are a testament to the tireless gigging miles the band logged in during the previous three years. Nobody can remember why there is no organ present on the recording, even though Holly's backup vocals are evident.

As Holly left the band in December 1966, lead guitarist Scott Emack also decided to pursue other interests. The Cobra Club closed, and at this time, the Cobras decided to move to Boston as some interest was shown by record companies and booking agents. Gary's wife, Ruthann Van Tasel Leavitt, joined on vocals and tambourine, and Bobby Herne replaced Scott on lead guitar. Along with the move came a name change to the King Cobras (also King Cobra).

Jay recalls: "Upon moving to Boston, the gigs were a little tough at first, being that the club circuit was mostly R&B with horns and the Cobras were an intensely hard and loud rock and roll band." But the band soon landed a summer gig at the 5 O'Clock Club in Salisbury Beach, Mass.

After the summer ended, Jay left the King Cobras to join a later incarnation of The Ones (post-Ashwood House label LP), where he stayed for nearly two years. As the band dissolved, Jay again joined forces with Gary to form Euclid. He pulled along Ones bass player Maris Neiburger and lead guitarist Harry Perino, then picked up Ralph Mazzota (post-Lazy Smoke) as a second lead guitarist to create a fuller sound with guitar harmony leads, according to Jay. In October 1969, Euclid signed a recording contract with the Flying Dutchman Productions subsidiary label Amsterdam Records and released the "Heavy Equipment" LP, produced and arranged by Bobby Herne. (Jay: "The final master was butchered by engineer Les Paul, Jr.") Euclid continued touring until 1972, when all four members became studio musicians in Boston, New York and Florida.

Sadly, Gary Leavitt was murdered by bikers in Montreal in 1974. Dick "Huey" Taylor and Bobby Herne have since passed away. Jay's son, Leigh Leavitt, followed in his dad's footsteps and is an accomplished drummer.

The Cobras history was provided through conversations and written correspondence with Jay and Holly Leavitt and Scott Emack, with help from the 1999 "Paper Talks" magazine article by Ruthann Van Tasel Leavitt. All photos except the King Cobras flyer were provided to the magazine courtesy of Carmen Leavitt and Ruthann.

Special thanks to Jay and Holly. Dedicated to the memory of Gary Leavitt.


Backstage at a Caribou Armory dance: Jay, Gary, Holly, Huey, Eddie.

Fender stacks to the max! The Cobras causing some permanent ear damage at the Caribou Armory, 1965. From left: Jay, Huey, Gary, Eddie and Holly.


Left: Chatting at the Caribou Armory with Presque Isle radio personality and DJ Del Hodgins. Right: December 1966, shortly after Gary's wife Ruthann joined. From left: "Huey" Taylor, Ruthann Van Tasel Leavitt, Jay Leavitt, Gary Leavitt.

No flower power, just power — heavier times as the King Cobras in Massachusetts. From left: Jay Leavitt, Bobby Herne, Ruthann Van Tasel Leavitt, "Huey" Taylor, Gary Leavitt.

Promotional photo from the archives of late Bobby Herne. Courtesy of Erik Lindgren.



THE COBRAS
I Wanna Be Your Love / Instant Heartache
Big Beat
(BB-1002) late 1966 / early 1967

Hand-modified “King Cobra” labels.

1 comment:

  1. I saw those guys at The Monaco in Sainte-Rose, Québec. Not that far from Edmunston N.B. From 1967 to early 70. This was a good time.

    ReplyDelete