To much of the outside world, it may have looked like Stillwater shot overnight from unheralded opening act for Black Sabbath to the vaunted cover of Rolling Stone magazine. But rest assured: dues were paid, fans were stoked and houses were rocked through years of incendiary performances that paved the way for the charismatic quartet’s ascension to one of the pinnacle signifiers of rock ‘n’ roll success.
Starting at the bottom rung in the 1960s in disparate pockets of America’s upper Midwest, lead singer Jeff Bebe, guitarist Russell Hammond, bassist Larry Fellows and drummer Ed Vallencourt eventually found their way to one another through the shared dream that inspired countless teens to start garage bands during that musically fertile era: the fundamental desire to rock ‘n’ roll all night.
But thanks to that magical, mysterious and too often elusive combination of hard work, talent, luck, commitment and that indefinable element known as onstage chemistry, the foursome best known for hits including “Fever Dog” and “Love Thing” has endured and thrived on its inexorable upward climb.
To be sure, at times looking back on the group’s genesis, it appears that the hand of Fate was at work:
What if Fellows hadn’t recommended his Akron, Ohio childhood friend and Saint Hex/Fellow’s Fellows bandmate Vallencourt to take over when the Jeff Bebe Band’s original drummer, “Machine Gun” Ed Laverty, lit out for Canada after just two weeks in the lineup to escape the draft as the Vietnam War continued to escalate in late 1969?
What if Bebe hadn’t noticed Blues Reduction guitar whiz Hammond toting Guitar Player magazine’s April 1971 issue with Jerry Garcia on the cover and struck up a conversation when both young rockers popped into the same Ann Arbor, Michigan liquor store for Pabst Blue Ribbon sixers en route to their shared bill that evening at the Blind Pig club?
And what if future manager Dick Roswell had declined the invitation from old friends and English countrymen Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton to check out Humble Pie’s show in Cleveland on its 1971 U.S. tour, missing his first encounter with the bill’s opening act: a raw but girded-with-potential foursome called Stillwater.
Yet, without several such instances of serendipity, the rock world might have heard such instant-classic albums as the group’s 1971 debut “To Begin With….,” 1972’s more sonically expansive “Self Titled” and the group’s latest, the quasi-autobiographical, Stillwater-produced opus “Farrington Road.”
Whether it’s stepping up to a microphone in the studio or bounding on stage every night as the focal point for thousands of fans, for the man born Jeff Bebenkowski, rock ‘n’ roll is all about connection. “I connect with the people, man–I get people off!”
For Hammond, every night brings a new opportunity to fuse the personal mystique and epic instrumental virtuosity he shares with other celebrated six-string slingers including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and, of course, the electric guitar genius he watched steal the show at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix.
“It’s hard to put into words,” the soft-spoken instrumentalist says. “My guitar says everything I need to say.”
Fellows and Vallencourt, meanwhile, are secure in their indispensable roles providing both rhythmic anchor and the propulsive energy that pushes Stillwater ever forward, ever upward in their ongoing quest for new emotional depths to explore and new musical heights to reach.