If you looked at a list of the names of all the Baltimore bands from the past 40 years, one in particular is impossible to ignore.
Emerson’s Old Timey Custard-Suckin’ Band was not only one of the most offbeat, but also one of the longest Baltimore band names. They were an acoustic quartet — Neil Ricklan on mandolin, fiddle, guitar and vocals, Howard Lamden on guitar and vocals, Arnold Sell on banjo and vocals and Alan Singer on bass. The band began playing together at an informal jam session after Sell’s wedding in March of 1968, according to Sell.
“They said, ‘We really sounded good,'” Sell remembers. “So, we just started playing, and lo and behold, the four of us really sounded good.”
Sell and some of the other members grew up in Pimlico, not far from Emerson’s Farms on the corner of Falls and Greenspring Valley roads (where the Greenspring Montessori School is now). Emerson’s sold soft ice cream and thick milkshakes, and gave Ricklan the idea for the band name. Sell rolls his eyes at it now.
“It always seemed kind of long and pretentious to me,” he said. “I think 90 percent of the name wasn’t necessary, but in any event, that was our name.”
Emerson’s became the house band at The Upstairs, a club at Charles and Madison streets in Mt. Vernon, and played there regularly on Friday and Saturday nights. They also played Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, while Jimmy Hoffa was an inmate.
“It was interesting,” Sell said. “We were well-received. They were really appreciative. I remember one fellow — the fellow who was the MC and ran the in-house radio station — said to me, ‘The only difference between you and me is, I got caught.’ Well, I don’t know about that. There are a lot of other differences. But in any event, it was interesting.”
When they heard about a contest for Best New Sound, Lamden submitted a demo. While the band didn’t win, they did catch the attention of Bernard Stollman, who founded the record label ESP-Disk, and had recorded the Fugs, Pearls Before Swine and a number of jazz musicians. He offered Emerson’s a record deal, and they accepted.
“He said, ‘I’m going to make a lot of money off you guys,'” Sell said. “Well, he did. We didn’t make anything.”
In the winter of 1969 and 1970, Emerson’s recorded a full length debut album with producer/engineer George Massenburg at ITI Studios in Hunt Valley. Massenburg would later work with Billy Joel, Journey, Linda Ronstadt and a string of other stars. He recorded Emerson’s to one-inch tape using a simple four-track. Their self-titled album went to No. 1 in Eugene Oregon, home to the University of Oregon.
“It actually did very well around the country — particularly on college campuses,” Sell said. “I received a royalty check from ASCAP for about $7.36 from Sweden, and I had never been to Europe at that point, so that was interesting.”
Emerson’s had a small fan base in Baltimore, but never broke mainstream. After a few years, Sell left the band, and was replaced by guitarist Richard Goodman. Emerson’s soldiered on for another year or so before calling it quits, Sell says.
“I always felt like being in Baltimore is like playing on an inferior instrument, because no matter how good you are, you’re limited by Baltimore,” Sell said. “You have to leave Baltimore. You have to go to New York, LA, wherever.”
A couple band members did just that. Ricklan and Lamden still live in California. Sell stayed here, and founded marriage counseling company called Marriage Works in 1990. He’s based in Pikesville, but has a network of counselors around region. He still plays music, and has a row of banjos lined up in his home office.
“Music for me was always something that I did when I wanted to,” Sell said. “It wasn’t a means to some end. It was an end it itself.”
Listen to “Vestibule Bully” from Emerson’s Old Timey Custard-Suckin’ Band:
— Sam Sessa