What are you doing?"
Those four words in 1972, spoken by Jim McCarty to Johnny "Bee" Badanjek — bandmates in Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and the short-lived Detroit — lit the fuse for The Rockets and ignited an 11-year, six-album rock 'n' roll ride. For its efforts, the group receives a Distinguished Achievement Award at tonight's 19th annual Detroit Music Awards.
The journey wasn't always smooth. The Rockets had only limited commercial success — a 1979 cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" was its lone Billboard Top 40 hit, and the group was dogged by rancorous personnel changes and late frontman Dave Gilbert's battles with substance abuse. But the Rockets earned a solid reputation as a hard-touring, roof-raising live band, whether it was headlining or opening for the likes of Kiss, ZZ Top, REO Speedwagon, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band and others.
Even now, The Hell Drivers, which has reunited Badanjek and McCarty, of Sterling Heights, sees evidence of The Rockets' regard every time the group kicks into favorites such as "Turn Up the Radio," "Desire" or "Takin' It Back."
"Every time we play them, wherever we play them, the place goes crazy," said Hell Drivers frontman Jim Edwards. "The interest in the Rockets stuff is through the roof. People love it."
Badanjek, 61, finds the response somewhat vindicating. "(The Rockets) was a great band that never got its due, I don't think," the drummer and painter said. Before launching The Rockets, Badanjek was working with Edgar Winter in New York. Winter wanted him to move to Manhattan and go on tour with his group, but Badanjek had young children at home and preferred to remain in Detroit. That's when he called McCarty, who was in Memphis, and broached the idea of working together again.
The first incarnation of The Rockets, a quartet with Badanjek singing from behind his drum kit, played almost nightly around Southeastern Michigan and Northern Ohio, checked out by fellow musicians in bands such as the Kinks and Blondie.
"The word was out; everybody who came to Detroit knew we were the hot band to see," Badanjek said. He recalled visits by David Bowie and a memorable night at the old Red Carpet Lounge when Iggy Pop, who was sitting with Bowie in a corner, walked across tabletops to join The Rockets for a rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter."
The group was eventually burned out by its grueling schedule, however, and took a break in 1975. But it came back together after Badanjek met manager Gary Lazar, who not only got the group a recording contract but also brought The Rockets to Don Davis, owner of Detroit's United Sound Studios. Davis advised them to get another singer, leading to Gilbert joining the band.
"He did a couple of tunes," Badanjek recalled, "and McCarty and I looked at each other and said, 'This guy is unbelievable!' He was a very charismatic singer, worked the stage prowling like a cat, was handsome ... " But, he added, Gilbert was also "a pretty wild guy. He was like the Keith Moon of singers, pretty much in his own world."
The Rockets' world held up — at least for a while. Three of the group's albums — "Rockets," "No Ballads" and "Back Talk" — hit the Billboard 200 chart between 1979-81, while "Can't Sleep" and "Desire" logged space on the lower half of the Hot 100.
The Rockets' dissolution — following a live album recorded at the Royal Oak Music Theatre and a farewell concert at the Pine Knob Music Theatre in 1983 — is often laid at Gilbert's deteriorating condition (he passed away in 2001). But Badanjek counters that "there were a lot of factors, a lot of little ones."
The Rockets name may well take flight again, however. Since The Hell Drivers formed in October 2008 at Mario's in Madison Heights, the group — which also includes Marvin Conrad on bass and Danny Taylor on keyboards — has packed area clubs and released a popular live album recorded at Callahan's. Now singer Edwards and a variety of agents and talent buyers are encouraging Badanjek and the 65-year-old McCarty — who also has a blues band, Mystery Train, and maintains part-time membership in the group Cactus — to adopt The Rockets moniker in order to get more lucrative gigs.