Cover bands get no respect. They get paid, generally a lot more than the average local band playing original music, but no one remembers them the next morning. No one buys their records, if they even bother to make one, or wears their T-shirts. But in our special Music Issue, we at last pay tribute to the cover band, profiling four local standouts: the Pop Rox, Same as It Ever Was, the Invaders, and the Quorum.
The Band: The Invaders
Who: Jim Morris (vocals), Sonny Thrower (vocals, guitar), Brooks Knott (vocals, guitar), Alan Manning (bass, vocals), Bob Holmes (drums, vocals)
What They Play: Songs from the British Invasion by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Animals, and more. They are not a Beatles tribute band.
Where They Play: The Crown and Goose (recently, but no shows are scheduled currently), Irish Times, plus weddings and reunions
Sonny Thrower shows up for a pint at the Crown and Goose in Beatle boots, a dark suit, and a thick head of black hair that may not be his own.
A jovial fellow of indeterminate age, Thrower addresses you as "mate." He drops some R's precipitously, as when he says guit-ah, but lightly rolls others, in the Liverpudlian fashion. He's the leader of the band the Invaders. They play old hits from the British Invasion period and beyond, ca. 1963-69. Purists might fault one chord or another, but they do sound like an accomplished English band of the period. The Invaders play a lot of Beatles, but also a lot of Rolling Stones. "We do Dave Clark Five, Yardbirds, Kinks, Animals, the Who, you name it," Thrower says. "We can do it at the drop of a hat, jump right in. From Rolling Stones to Gerry and the Pacemakers, the next song." He says he expects to meet a bird there, and shortly she arrives. Her name is Alison Hayes, and she is the band's archivist and dramaturg. She knows the words to all the songs, and prompts the singer if things get a bit barmy onstage.
Sonny dresses like a Beatle, but in an hour's conversation, he repeatedly mentions, with reverence, "the founder of the Rolling Stones," ill-fated guitarist Brian Jones (who was, incidentally, another talented musician who preferred to play cover tunes). When the Rolling Stones played at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum in 1965, only 250 stuck around awaiting the lads' long-delayed arrival. Sonny was among them. That night, Jones played his unusual lute-like Vox Teardrop guitar. From that day, Sonny craved one. "I was obsessed with that guitah," he says. He crafted a lookalike himself but always lusted for a real one. Finally—by way of a query he placed in the Knoxville-area tabloid Bargain Mart in 1993—he found it. "What are the odds? Hey, mate, there's one hanging in a pawn shop in Athens, Tennessee." They were asking $175, but he offered $150 and took it home. It's now in the act, the band's talisman.
Thrower's crisp Mersey dialect leaks an occasional drawled vowel. If Thrower is not technically British, he has more British Invasion cred than most of us. He grew up in Knoxville around show biz, son of the owner/manager of pop and country radio station WROL. Before he hit his teens, he was drummer in a mid-'60s rock band called the Gears. When he saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, he was hooked for life. With backstage passes via his dad's connections, he got to meet Joe Cocker, Black Sabbath-era Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John, and Humble Pie's Steve Marriott, as well as an occasional American, like Janis Joplin. He didn't get to meet the Stones in '65, but later got to chat with Keith Richards on the phone, having offered him one of his vintage guitars for the privilege. It got Richards' attention, but the Stone responded, "If you're a real musician, I'd be doing you a disservice if I took your guitar."
Thrower has survived other fashions, playing guitar or bass in later bands. "I was glam in the '70s," he says. "When everybody else was doing the Allman Brothers." He played bass for an original band called Regime, but like most local rockers in their 30s, he gave it up, favoring his day job—as manager of Pigeon Forge attraction Magic World. A 1986 show at the Tennessee Theatre that gave him a jolt. It was the famous, sometimes uncanny Beatles tribute band 1964.
"It grabbed my heart," Thrower says. "I thought, ‘How can I do this?'" It took him a few years, but in 1991, he assembled five guys. "I wanted to be sure people don't peg us as a Beatles tribute band," he says. The problem with that, he says, is the fans. "They'll pick you apart—‘He doesn't have brown eyes, he's playing right-handed.'" They'd be, instead, an era band, the sort of cover band that might have performed in 1960s London.
The Invaders debuted at the Lenoir City Dogwood Arts Festival. The earliest lineup included Alan Manning on bass (he plays a 1965 Vox "Bill Wyman" bass), Brooks Knott on rhythm guitar (a "John Lennon" Rickenbacker), Bob Holmes on drums (in his other life he plays bluegrass guitar), and Jim Morris, who's also adept at the accent, on vocals. They all have non-musical careers in engineering, teaching, graphic arts, and families. "I didn't get the memo, ‘Don't quit your day job,'" Thrower says. "I have two cats, 20 guitars, and I'm flat broke."
Over the years, and spells of sellout popularity, the Invaders shared bills with Steppenwolf, Percy Sledge, Badfinger, and '70s sensation Rick Derringer. The high point, as far as British Invasion authenticity, came at the Bijou in 2002. The Invaders opened for Pete Best, the Beatles' original drummer.
The performance could hardly outdo the night before. "A band member calls me up, says, ‘Guess who we've met at a bar on Cumberland Avenue?" It was Pete Best. "They all came over to my house, on Chapman Highway. For someone in South Knoxville, Tennessee, to say we had a Beatle in the basement, and jammed with him—" Thrower hasn't quite gotten over it.
Their strangest collaboration came unexpectedly. "We were playing Charlie Pepper, and somebody said, ‘Kid Rock's back there.'" The rapper was in the house. "I said, ‘I understand you're a singer, mate, if you feel like singing with us.'" The photo of him doing so is on the Invaders' website.
Thrower never visited England before 2009, assisting a film crew making a documentary about Bram Stoker. The accent began as a lark, in the mid-1990s, during an interlude working at Disney World. He tried the British accent for a week or two at a time, striking up conversations with American strangers, convincing them he was English. During one such conversation, he remarked, "You know, I quite like your Andy Griffith show. Would you like to hear my imitation?" And he'd backslide into his native Knoxvillian, and wait to hear the astonished congratulations.
One night, he says, the Crown and Goose owner Jeffrey Nash, who's from London, seemed perplexed by how Thrower was talking. "You know," Nash said, "I've finally figured out your accent."
"Oh, no, hear it comes," Thrower thought, uncertain of whether Nash knew his British-band leader was really a local boy.
"It's Lancashire!" said Nash.
He doesn't use it all the time, but if you see him in the wig and boots, you're likely to hear the accent. "I try not to break character," says the former Disney World employee. "It would be like Mickey Mouse coming out without his head on."
After a public show at the Knoxville Museum of Art early last month, they have no public shows on the schedule. The Crown and Goose—they played at its opening, three years ago—is experimenting with a quieter atmosphere. Thrower is proud to have the original band together; they play reunions and weddings. Some shows at places like Irish Times are represented in bits on YouTube. Thrower says they've lately been offered a lucrative tour in California, but they're not sure the employed Invaders can make it.
"People say, ‘I wish it was like it used to be,'" he says. "Well, for three hours, it is like it used to be. We try to touch people's hearts. For someone out there, we might be playing the song that was playing when they had their first kiss."
Many of their fans don't remember The Ed Sullivan Show. "There are 14- and 15-year-olds obsessed with these songs, 10- and 12-year-olds singing along. It's timeless."
"We'll keep doing it whether there's anyone listening or not. But I have a feeling they will be listening."