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'60s garage band rocks into retirement age


By Don Heupel, AP

The Invictas pose with their 1984 hearse outside the California Brew Haus in Rochester, N.Y. Band members, from left, are Bruce Hickey, Sammy Gruttadauria, Dave Profeta, Dave Hickey, Jim Kohler and Herb Gross.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — In a dim bar on a cramped stage, the Invictas are getting ready to rock.

Twanging and tuning are a band of rockers in khakis with white hair, day jobs, grown children and — improbably — plans to keep playing power chords when their cohorts are fine-tuning golf swings.

"I'm pumped!" drummer Dave Hickey jokes as he walks in. "I took my Geritol, I took my vitamins!"

The Invictas made their bones in this city by packing houses and ripping through Louie, Louie, Satisfaction and their own hit, The Hump.

That was in the '60s, though. Reunited band members are now entering their 60s.

This is geezer rock at the other end of the spectrum from Mick Jagger prancing around stadiums for fat paychecks. This is what happens when a garage band refuses to die.

The money is lousy, the hours crummy, the age questions sometimes sarcastic. Is there a statute of limitations for singing Sweet Little Sixteen?

But the Invictas are undaunted. Practice guitar notes ping as a few people look up from their beers.

The evening before the Invictas' show, Herb Gross, 62, drives to practice in the band's '84 hearse. It has a rumbling exhaust and "The Invictas" painted on the side, just like the hearse from the band's heyday. Passing drivers stare. This is OK by Herb, who aside from being the Invictas' singer is a professional ad man who works tirelessly on behalf of his band.

Herb put together the band's summer tour of local bars and festivals from his home in Charlotte The "Skip 'n Go Naked Tour" (named after a drink, not the activity) starts at the California Brew Haus, a big, shopworn bar next to Kodak's massive industrial complex in Rochester.

Also practicing is bassist Jim Kohler, 63, the oldest Invicta, who also looks the most rocker-like with shoulder-length gray, curly hair. He calls himself the Keith Richards to Herb's Jagger, and like the famous duo they are both wiry men with big personalities. Dave, a 59-year-old grandfather, plays drums. His brother Bruce Hickey, 57, plays guitar.

They mostly look like suburban dads. Bruce even rides to the gig in a minivan and borrows his son's amp, which blows a fuse at practice.

They stumble on the bridge of "Midnight Rambler" during practice and have trouble finding a groove. Still, they seem confident it will all gel the next night. After all, it always used to.

The band came together at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1961. The eventual four-man lineup consisted of Herb, Jim, Dave and Mark Blumenfeld, who now lives in California and is not involved in the reunion.

The Invictas caught fire playing at a local joint called Tiny's Bengel Inn. Though homegrown, they looked like a British Invasion band with their long hair and riding boots. Some bands played better, none played harder.

Their breakout single, The Hump, was recorded in 1963 in a studio packed with pals, cases of beer and a keyboardist they bailed out of jail. The song is not dirty, technically, but urges listeners to "Do the Hump," a dance that goes like this: Hands behind head. Pelvis in. Pelvis out. Repeat.

The tiny-label single got some play on the East Coast and was a hit in western New York, leading to the still-repeated claim by the Invictas that they outsold the Beatles locally.

"Girls were chasing us. We could play pretty much wherever we wanted to play," Herb says.

An album, The Invictas a Go-Go, was hastily recorded during a weekend in New York City in 1965. The band hated the slapdash album. Worse, the grind of touring around New York and the Northeast started to wear on them.

With Jim facing the draft after graduation, he joined the Air Force. Dave enlisted, too. Herb reconstituted the band with Bruce and other replacement players, but the Invictas fizzled away by the early '70s, re-forming once more in 1980, but only briefly.

Life went on. Herb started his own advertising firm. Bruce, Jim and Dave all got into the printing business.

Then two years ago, Dave and Herb were watching a blues band perform in Rochester when the singer invited them on stage. Herb, a few beers in, came up and sang. To his surprise, the crowd yelled for The Hump.

Herb had a Blues Brothers moment. He told Dave: "We have to put the band back together!"

Being in a garage band is complicated once you're AARP age. It takes longer to recharge batteries after late-night shows. While the Hickey brothers live in the area, Herb flies up from Charlotte and Jim drives a few hours from Erie, Pa. Herb sunk thousands into the hearse. And there's the time away from their families. Jim's wife asks him at Applebee's before the gig: "This is temporary, right?"

To a man, they say the reason they do it is simple. It's just so much fun.

It helps that baby boomers have held on tight to the musical tastes of their youth. Beth Navarro recalls sneaking into Tiny's when she was underage to dance to the Invictas. Now 55, she began catching their shows again last summer with her husband.

"Sometimes you think, 'Boy, I've lost it,'" she says. "But when I see them I think, 'We're still hanging in there!'"

Navarro is at the bar for the Invictas' tour kickoff. The audience is a bit sparser than the band is used to — some middle aged couples plus Bruce's kids and a pack of their friends, one of whom keeps yelling, "Bass solo!"

Still, Herb looks up from his guitar and promises, "We're going to play our hearts out for you!"

Augmented by two crackerjack musicians, lead guitarist Dave Profeta and keyboardist Sammy Gruttadauria, the group tears down memory lane with Brown Sugar, Mustang Sally and You Really Got Me.

Herb blows harmonica and wades into the audience. He leans back and chops at his guitar. He lifts his Invictas ball cap to finger back his damp silver hair. Jim is loose-limbed on the bass while Bruce stands steady. They all sing "Yeah!" for the chorus of Mony Mony.

Navarro and her friends dance by the stage and are joined by the younger group. By the time Herb asks, "You guys ready to Hump?" the small crowd is primed. Young and old put their hands behind their heads and shimmy as the band sings.

Soon enough, it will be back to the grind. Tonight, the Invictas are dealing with age the way so many baby boomers do: by ignoring it.

"When I was kid, your parents were old. But this is the baby boomers," Jim explains. "Why can't I get up there? I'm 63 years old. I'm having the time of my life! I probably won't break even. I don't care."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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