Rock ’n’ roll bands have been asking the drummer to give them a beat since rock ’n’ roll bands were first invented. Or, in Kent Whitt and the Downbeats’ case, since rock ’n’ roll bands came to Modesto.
Credited as the first rock band in town, the group was founded in 1958 by high school buddies. They played school assemblies and pep rallies, clubhouses and dance halls. Really, they played anywhere anyone wanted to hear some live rock ’n’ roll.
“In those days, we were just living at home and going to school,” said bandleader Whitt. “The only things we concerned ourselves with was having a cool car and someone to cruise with and playing music.”
The band was started by Modesto High classmates with Whitt on drums, Connie Hightman on guitar and vocals, Bob DeLeon on keyboard, Bill Gross on bass and Danny Toledo on sax. Toledo, who died young, was replaced early on by Bob Hedman, who passed away this summer. Area musician Roddy Jackson joined the group a little later after playing in another of the Central Valley’s first rock bands, the Merced Blue Notes.
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Now, all the men will be recognized for their part in local rock ’n’ roll history with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Modesto Area Music Association. The band will be celebrated during the MAMA Awards show Tuesday at the State Theatre.
The 15th annual MAMA Awards will honor the group, along with more than 230 artists, events, promoters and venues nominated in 20 categories this year. The public is invited to vote for the winners online through Sunday night. Trophies will be handed out in everything from rock and pop to Americana and hip-hop, alternative to jazz and blues, heavy metal to rockabilly, as well as DJs, comedians, youth bands, cafes, popular festivals, other events and more. New categories this year are reggae and punk.
The Downbeats will be among a dozen bands performing live at the invitation-only show. All of the surviving members, now in their 70s, will reunite for the performance, except for Gross, who lives in Arizona. Filling in for him will be longtime area musician and friend of the band Israel “Izzy” Alvarado on bass.
Most of the musicians met at Modesto High and played in the school band together. They transitioned from oboe and bassoon to the more electrified instruments to play the most popular songs of the time.
The Downbeats gained a reputation that took them around the valley, from Stockton to Merced and far, far beyond. They were regulars at the California Ballroom in Modesto, the fairgrounds in Turlock and Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, among other venues.
“Back in those days, there were only two rock ’n’ roll bands: the Merced Blue Notes and us. So we had kind of a captive audience, I guess,” Hightman said.
Among their fans was valley resident and future Three Dog Night founding member Mike Allsup. The rock veteran will give the introduction for the band at the MAMA Awards.
In 1963, the Downbeats embarked on a five-month USO tour, which took them to military bases in Alaska, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Guam and more. At one point, the group played before a crowd of more than 5,000 in Tokyo the same night The Beatles played Ed Sullivan’s show in 1964.
After the tour, many in the band left to fight in the Vietnam War. DeLeon, Gross and Hedman were drafted, and Whitt joined up. Their service signaled the end of the Downbeats’ performance careers.
Whitt went on to have a career in the military, earning a Bronze Star in Vietnam, serving as an Army Ranger and then retiring as a major in the Special Forces in 1984. He became a bandleader for a cruise line based in San Francisco and then an independent TV producer in Los Angeles, before retiring and moving back to the Modesto area in 2005.
The other men went on to careers in different fields. DeLeon still works as a Modesto real estate agent, and Hightman worked various jobs over the years while playing music.
The band officially has reunited just once since its glory days, in 1984 for its 25th Modesto High School reunion. Whitt thought that Class of 1959 show would be its last. But then the MAMA Awards came calling.
“It’s very flattering. We’re all excited and we’re surprised we’d be remembered so well,” he said.
The band will perform a 7-minute medley of some of the biggest hits of the 1950s at the show, from “Great Balls of Fire” to “Tequila” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Whitt said the enduring appeal of the music they played is easy to understand.
“Fifties rock ’n’ roll has universal appeal,” he said. “It was happy music, simple music. We happened to hit at a time when music was just fun. It’s like a feel-good movie. You just love to hear it.”