Scat Cats History
Here's a column I wrote about the Scat Cats in February 2003.
John King would go on to play drums with the Steve Miller Band on the platinum-selling album “The Joker.” But in the early sixties he was an impressionable high school kid, a member of the D-B marching band, who spent as much time daydreaming as drumming.
And then he saw the Scat Cats. “They blew me away. It was the first time I had ever heard funk.”
The Scat Cats were a straight ahead, get-up-and-dance band.
There were other popular local bands around town at the time, the Monzas, the Velvetones, the Almanacs. A 1965 Times-News story about a group called the Bouncin’ Beats estimated there were 25 to 30 local bands playing sock hops and fraternal clubs at the time.
But there was only one Scat Cats.
If you could have picked one local band that everyone thought was going to make it, it was the Scat Cats.
And they almost did.
But let’s start at the beginning. Except that nobody in the group can remember exactly when the beginning was.
It must have been around 1962 because Donnie Flack, the drummer in the Scat Cats, says he and his brother Arthur were still students at Douglas High School, Kingsport’s black high school in the days before integration.
“There was this talent scout named J. Wolf passing through Kingsport and he heard Sonny playing guitar.” Sonny would be Sonny Sanders. “He asked Sonny if there was anybody else around who could play and Sonny said, ‘Yeah.’”
Sonny introduced Wolf to the Flack brothers and a singer named Joe Manual. Wolf dubbed them the Scat Cats - hepcat was a term for a cool guy at the time - and bought the group members uniforms. “And he never asked for anything in return. He just went around the country doing stuff like that. He moved on.”
But the Scat Cats stayed in their hometown.
“That first year we didn’t do a thing but play places in town. The Rollerdrome, I think it was called, this skating rink downtown. East Tennessee State, all the colleges, just about every high school. We did a lot of proms, VFW, Elks, the Teen Center we played quite a bit. I can’t think of a place we didn’t play.”
If you were a teen in Kingsport in the sixties, you saw the Scat Cats play. You knew how good they were. And you wondered how much longer Kingsport could hold on to them. Not much.
Donnie says that after the first year, “Then things really broke loose.”
A booking agent put together a two-week tour of the south with Johnny Nash, Lightning Hopkins and the Scat Cats. Donnie recalls, “The other guys were a lot older. Me and Arthur were playing in night clubs and we weren’t even supposed to be in night clubs.”
The tour wound up in Miami but Donnie says it was such a success “they did not want us to come home. We just had our pick of places to play.”
And they picked the Mary Elizabeth, a luxury hotel once famous in the jazz world for hosting Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Lena Horne. “Our club was open all day and all night and we did the night bar. This place drew everybody. All the stars and the performers came in after their shows.”
The Scat Cats were living high.
“There were these two guys lived on the top floor, singers. They were just starting. They didn’t have any records. When they would come back in from their shows, they could not wait to get on stage and sing with us. They had this little short bow-legged guy for a manager. ‘These guys need a good band,’ he told us. ‘They like you all; you’d make a good team.’ But the club owners told us to leave him alone, he was the biggest crook in town.”
So the Scat Cats turned the two singers down and returned to Kingsport. “It was about six months later they came to Johnson City to the Armory. We went to see them, me and my brother and Sonny to catch the show.”
The two guys the Scat Cats knew from Miami started their show off with “Soul Man,” followed it with “Hold On I’m Coming,” then continued with the rest of their hits.
“It was Sam and Dave. They seen us and they died laughing. They said, ‘We told you.’ Here we were back home not making any money and they had five or six hits. And that little bow-legged guy was still managing them. We made a mistake. We could have been their band. I told my brother we did a good one. We had a booking agent and they just told you where to go. If we’d had a manager we probably would have been hooked up with them.”
But it wasn’t over for the Scat Cats. They kept playing in the area. There was a famous concert at the Civic Auditorium in about 1965: a fight broke out and people scattered everywhere, even the band members. Except for drummer Donnie Flack. Jim Beck, who was at the show, remembers, “Everybody was running and he just kept playing.”
In the early seventies the Scat Cats traveled to Nashville for a recording session with Columbia Records. By now Manual had left the group, replaced by Kenny Springs. “Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins sat on in the recording,” Flack recalls. The result was the single “Walking in the Rain” and it was a pick hit in Billboard, landing the Scat Cats bookings up and down the east coast. They later recorded for Spot Records under the name Kenny Springs and the Scat Cats, releasing “Nobody Else But You” backed by “Let Nobody Love You.”
But bookings fell off, life went on. The Scat Cats stayed in touch.
Joe Manual moved to Oakland, California and opened a package store. “He got shot and killed when some guys robbed him,” says Flack.
Sonny Sanders moved to New Jersey. “He was in for the Fourth of July. He had an accident working in a factory so he can’t play guitar anymore. But he has a deejay service with six guys he contracts out.”
Flack says Kenny Springs now lives in Bristol. “He had a son, Kenny Junior, they call him Scat. He’s got a band down in Nashville doing commercials. He sings just like his dad.”
Donnie and Arthur are still in Kingsport.
The Scat Cats story does have a happy ending. The group is now back together: Donnie, Arthur, Kenny. “And we’ve added the Wells Brothers from Bluff City.” The Wells Brothers are another group from the sixties. “They mostly played in Virginia; Roanoke and that end. They never did do any recordings.”
And Donnie Flack is proud to announce that the Scat Cats are now accepting bookings. “Just have people call me at 246-8582.”
The group has been practicing for about a month now. Donnie says, “We rehearsed the other day. Oh, what a good feeling.”