Cult Classic: Catfish-Live Catfish.

The story of Detroit-based blues rockers Catfish is a case of what might have been. This talented five piece band was formed in the late-sixties, and over the next few years opened for Black Sabbath, Bob Seger, Black Sabbath and Ted Nugent, and played at the prestigious Fillmore East. It was no surprise when Epic signed Catfish, who were regarded as a band with the potential and talent to become one of the top blues rock bands of the early seventies.

This was evident when Catfish released their debut studio album Get Down on Epic in 1970. Despite receiving plaudits and praise, commercial success eluded Get Down. Despite that, Live Catfish was released later in 1970 and featured a tantalising taste of Catfish’s live sound. Sadly, history repeated itself and Live Catfish failed to find an audience. That was the last album that Catfish released, during a recoding career that lasted less than one year. Their story began just a few years earlier.

That was when singer, songwriter and guitarist Catfish Hodge founded Catfish in his hometown of Detroit. This was something that Catfish Hodge had dreamt about since he was a boy.

Bobby Allen Hodge was born in Detroit in 1944, and growing up, his parents who were originally from Kentucky, introduced their son to blues, country and gospel. This was his introduction to music, which soon became his passion. 

Each day, Bob Hodge listened to the various local radio stations. Then at night, when Bob Hodge was meant to be sleeping, he listened to radio stations from as far failed as Chicago and Memphis. That was how the young Bob Hodge first heard Rufus Thomas and bluesmen John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and BB King. Bob Hodge absorbed all this new music and then on a Friday, he was able to choose one record which his mother would buy at a local record shop. For the young Bob Hodge this was the highlight of his week and was what he listened to during the weekend.

By the time he was in high school, Bob Hodge’s life was already revolving around music. Much of his spare time was spent listening to the music. However, when he wasn’t listening to music, Bob Hodge was making music. 

This came after Terry Kelly one of Bob Hodge’s friends from high him how to play the guitar. This was eureka moment for Bob Hodge, who suddenly, realised that he could follow in the footsteps of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, BB King and Lonnie Mack.

Terry Kelly also introduced Bob Hodge to a variety of new artists, including Lonnie Mack. His music made a big impression on Bob Hodge, and when he founded his first band in high school, a number of Lonnie Mack’s songs found their way onto the band’s setlist. However, Terry Mack wasn’t Bob Hodge’s only musical influence

By the late-sixties, Bob Hodge was absorbing the sounds of Detroit, and was a regular visitor to the Motown soul factory. Along with his friends, Bob Hodge sat in his car listening to the music emanating from the studios. Sometimes, Bob Hodge and his friends managed to sneak past the security guards and were able to watch the recording sessions. Some nights, they saw artists like 

Smokey Robinson recording their latest singles or album. Before long, Bob Hodge and his friends were usually discovered by an embarrassed guard and thrown out,…until the next time. This was a regular cat and mouse game for Bob Hodge and his friends. However, having watched the recording seasons at Motown, Bob Hodge became more determined to become a professional musician.

Despite that, when Bob Hodge left high school he started work at a finance company. One of the job’s he was given was collecting money from customers who had missed a payment. This included a forgetful member of the Four Tops. Whenever he was on tour, he forgot to pay his bills and Bob Hodge had to collect the payments. 

This would result in Bob Hodge having to take the forgetful Four Top or his wife to Motown, where they picked up some money to pay the bill. Naturally, seeing what was another world close up, made Bob Hodge’s mind up, now was the time to make music his career.

Bob Hodge’s first job in the music industry was as a songwriter and producer. He penned and produced Capreez’s Over You, which was released on the Detroit label Sound. That was Bob’s introduction to the music industry.

Soon, Bob Hodge was working with three up-and-coming local Detroit bands. Having hired an office, Bob Hodge started looking trying to get his clients a recording contract. One label that showed an interest in his client was Vanguard, so Bob Hodge caught the redeye to the Big Apple, and headed to see Maynard Solomon at Vanguard. Bob Hodge played him the tapes and although Maynard Solomon like what he heard, he reckoned that Vanguard weren’t quite ready for rock ’n’ roll. While this a disappointment, Bob Hodge decided to head into Greenwich Village after his meeting.

That night, Bob Hodge saw a still unsigned Jimi Hendrix playing in a Greenwich Village coffee bar. After that, Bob Hodge headed to Bleecker, and as he passed by a club that was closed, he heard music. Curiosity got the better of Bob Hodge who looked into the club, where he saw Van Morrison rehearsing. For Bob Hodge this was a eureka moment, and at last, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Back home in Detroit, Bob Hodge formed a new band Wicked Religion, which eventually evolved into the blues rock band Catfish. It was founded and led by Bob Hodge who was now known as Catfish Hodge who sang and played guitar. He was joined in Catfish by drummer Jimmy Optner, bassist Ron Cooke, guitarist Mark Manko and organist Harry Phillips. With the lineup of band complete, the rise and rise of Catfish began.

Before long, Catfish had established a reputation as one of Detroit’s top live groups and were soon rubbing shoulders with the MC5 and The Stooges. Catfish’s raw blues rock sound was winning friends not just in Detroit, but much further afield. This included in the offices of Epic.

Kenny Hodges who was an executive at Epic, had heard good things about Catfish on the musical grapevine. The word in Detroit was that Catfish were one of the top bands in the city’s live music  scene. Their brand of raw, but soulful blues rock was proving popular and music industry insiders in Detroit believed that Catfish had the potential and talent to become one of top blues rock bands of the early seventies. With this in mind, Epic swooped and signed Catfish. They weren’t going to risk anyone beating them to Catfish’s signature. The only problem would be, replicating Catfish’s famous live sound? 

Get Down.

By the time Catfish signed to Epic, they were regarded as one of the top live bands in Detroit. They had already started to spread their wings and were famous for their impressive live sound. The problem was going to be harnessing and replicating Catfish’s live sound in the studio. That was why Epic brought onboard Kenny Cooper to produce Catfish’s debut album which became Get Down.

For Get Down, Catfish Hodge had dawned the role of Catfish’s songwriter-in-chief, and penned The Hawk, 300 Pound Fat Mama, Love Lights and Coffee Song. Catfish Hodge and Mark Manko teamed up to write No Place To Hide, Tradition, and Get High, Get Naked, Get Down. The pair also added lyrics to T. Carson’s Catfish which bookended this eclectic album.

When Catfish arrived at the studio, little did anyone know that this was the only time the band would record together. That day, Catfish Hodge took charge of the vocals and played guitar. He was joined by a rhythm section of drummer Jimmy Optner, bassist Ron Cooke and guitarist Mark Manko, who were augmented by organist Harry Phillips. Producing this tight and talented band was Kenny Cooper, who had been brought onboard to help Catfish replicate their live sound. However, Catfish had their own ideas about how Get Down should sound.

The members of Catfish were responsible for the arrangements on the nine tracks on Get Down. It was hard to believe that Catfish had never set foot in a studio, and as Kenny Cooper pressed record, they seamlessly flitted between and sometimes combine elements of blues, country, folk, gospel, hard rock and good time rock ’n’ roll. In doing so, Catfish showed their talent and versatility on their debut album Get Down.

That was no surprise as each member of Catfish was a talented musician who had enjoyed the opportunity to showcase their considerable talents on Get Down. Catfish boogied their way through Get Down with a smile on their face. Unlike many similar bands, Catfish didn’t take themselves to seriously on their genre-melting debut album Get Down.

Critics on hearing Get Down, were won over by the album and believed that Catfish had a big future ahead of them. However, when Get Down was released it failed to trouble the charts. This was a huge disappointment for Catfish and Epic who had backed the band. 

Despite the disappointing sales of Get Down in America, Epic decided to release the album in Europe. While it wasn’t a hugely successful album, Get Down found an audience in parts of Europe. Meanwhile, Catfish’s popularity was growing in popularity in Detroit. That was where Epic decided that Catfish should record their sophomore album Live Catfish.

Live Catfish.

Hot on the heels of the release of Get Down, Catfish returned to Detroit, where they recorded what became Live Catfish at the Eastown Theatre. The decisions to record a live album made perfect sense. 

The problem that executives at Epic had been faced when they signed Catfish was getting the band to replicate their live sound in the studio. Catfish and producer Kenny Cooper had done their best to replicate Catfish’s live sound on Get Down. Catfish did their best to replicate the rawness, energy and spontaneity of one of one of their live performances and came very close. However, after the release of Get Down, a decision was made that the best way to replicate the rawness, energy and spontaneity of Catfish in concert was on a live album. 

It was also a much cheaper than recording a studio album, and if the album flopped, the losses would be significantly less. However, executives at Epic were hoping that Live Catfish would prove a successful album. After all, Catfish’s popularity was on the rise.

By the time Catfish arrived at the Eastown Theatre in Detroit, they had already opened for Black Sabbath, Bob Seger, Edgar Winter’s Band, Mountain and Ted Nugent. This showed just how far Catfish had come in a relatively short space of time. One of their biggest gigs was when they opened for Santana at the Fillmore East, and some say that they upstaged the headliners that night. 

That is no surprise, as Catfish were winning over audiences across America with their live show. Especially when they returned home to Detroit.

When Catfish took to the stage Eastown Theatre in Detroit, the lineup of the band was very different to the one that featured on Get Down. A new rhythm section that featured drummer Jimmy Demers, bassist Dennis Cranner and guitarist Dallas Hodge, who were augmented by the original organist Harry Phillips, who was the only original member of the band apart from Catfish Hodge.

An adoring hometown crowd welcome Catfish who launched into an explosive set. It began with Catfish reinventing Holland, Dozier and Holland’s Nowhere To Run, which sets the bar high for the rest of this six song set. Catfish then unleash a raw, but sometimes soulful and high-octane cover of Money (That’s What I Want). This gives way to the blues rock of 300 Pound Fat Mama which was penned by Catfish Hodge. The tempo rises on Mississippi River, which is a blistering slice of blues rock which features Catfish at their best. There’s no stopping Catfish now, as they unleash Letter To Nixon.It’s a mixture of social comment and blues rock that features a vampish vocal from showman and bandleader Catfish Hodge. He then encourages his band to greater heights on a barnstorming cover of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On before exiting the stage left.

After recording Live Catfish, executives at Epic realised that they had captured Catfish at their very best. Live Catfish featured a  rawness, energy, spontaneity and soulfulness that were the all trademarks of Catfish’s explosive and high-octane performance. This was the album that Epic had been hoping for, and that they hoped would transform the band’s career.

When critics heard Live Catfish they too, were won over by Catfish in full flight during what was a captivating performance. It epitomised everything that was good about Catfish live. Surely, this Live Catfish was the album that transformed Catfish’s career.

Sadly, when Live Catfish was released later in 1970, the album failed commercially. History had repeated itself, when Live Catfish failed to even trouble the lower reaches of the American charts. The only small crumb of comfort was that when Live Catfish was released in Europe, it was embraced by a small but enthusiastic audience who took Catfish to their hearts. That was as good as it for Catfish.

After the release of Live Catfish, several members of Catfish joined forces with Mitch Ryder when he was forming his new band Detroit. They featured on Detroit With Mitch Ryder which was released in 1971.

By then, Catfish Hodge had embarked upon a solo career, and two years later in 1973 he moved to Washington DC. However, Catfish Hodge never forgot the years he spent leading Catfish as they became a successful live band. Sadly, the two albums Catfish released for Epic during 1970, Get Down and Live Catfish failed to find the audience they deserved. 

Nowadays, the explosive and high-octane Live Catfish is a cult classic that, and a reminder Catfish at the peak of their powers. Sadly, Catfish who are one of the great lost blues rock bands of the early seventies, never enjoyed the success they deserved and their story is a case of what might have been?

Cult Classic: Catfish-Live Catfish.


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