Even seasoned songwriters like Steve and Brian Butler — the South Jersey siblings behind the rock bands Quincy and Smash Palace — would find it tough to tell their story in a single tune. Or even an album.
Their bands have been far more successful than most, but have never made a hit record. A beloved member of Quincy was stabbed to death in 1976; Quincy lost the use of its name after lawyers for producer Quincy Jones threatened suit; and the late Tom Petty once publicly trashed a song the Butlers wrote for Byrds legend Roger McGuinn.
But the Butler brothers’ joy in crafting sturdy, melodic, and heartfelt rock endures. They and their bands share a hard-earned reputation for the energy and musicianship of their shows at legendary New York venues like CBGB and in countless clubs, coffeehouses, and bars in South Jersey, Philly, and beyond.
“As Quincy, we did a tour of the Midwest in the summer of ‘76 in Brian’s Volkswagen bus,” Steve said during an Inquirer interview with him and his brother last month in Haddon Heights, where they grew up. “One night we stayed in our tour manager’s mother’s basement in Minneapolis.”
Smash Palace is scheduled to play a concert at the McLaughlin-Norcross Memorial Dell in Haddon Heights Park on June 16. The latest Smash Palace album, 21, is the band’s 13th record and will be released this summer; there’s a link to the new tune, ”Strange Things Happen,” on the band’s website. Brian cowrote the songs and sings on the album but no longer does live gigs with the band.
Raised in a family that deeply appreciated American popular music — their mother, Florence T. Butler, wrote songs that big bands performed live on a Camden radio station — the brothers yearned to rock like the Beatles, the Zombies, and other mid-1960s British Invasion bands.
“Brian’s very first band practiced in our living room,” said Steve, 65, a singer and guitarist. He’s also a retired Haddon Township High School history teacher with a grown daughter and two grandkids.
“Our mom was very supportive and loved the music. Our house at 10th and Garden was where everyone would hang out. It was the place to be,” he added.
“I was in a band with a friend who loved the Rolling Stones, and Steve was really anxious to get in on it,” said Brian, 72, a graphic artist who lives in Merchantville.
“I suggested we write songs together. We wrote our first song, ‘Think I’ll Go and Find Her,’ when Steve was 12 and I was 17.”
The brothers formed Give and Take, their first band, in 1968 after Brian graduated from Haddon Heights High School. Steve was still in middle school.
“I rode my bike to practice and other guys in the band were like, ‘Oh, God, our lead singer rides a bike,’ ” Steve said. “Our first gig was at Paul VI High School. Those dances were huge, and Hy Lit, the Philly DJ, introduced the band. I was petrified.”
Even then, the Butlers knew they had something special going on between them musically. “When you sing harmonies with your brother,” Brian said, “it sounds better than [with] anyone else.”
The brothers Alex and Gerald Takach had recently moved to Haddon Heights and were auditioning for a talent show at the high school when Steve heard them play for the first time. “They stopped me in my tracks,” he said.
From Los Angeles, where he is CEO of a video production company, Gerald Takach, who uses the last name Emerick professionally, remembered the four brothers becoming a cohesive creative force as a band.
“We had no real jobs, and we were penniless and living in a house in Collingswood that no respectable family would have ever lived in, with a couple pieces of furniture we found in the trash,” he said.
“But we were on cloud nine. There was an old upright piano in the dining room and a set of drums in the living room. It was like a songwriting co-op,” added Emerick, who contributed or cowrote many Quincy tunes. One of them was “Quincy Girl,” a tribute to a Philly street dancer whose name became that of the band itself.
“We really got our sea legs playing on that Midwest tour in ‘76,” he said, and then paused.
“Our first gig back might have been the one at JC Dobbs on August 13, when my brother Alex was killed.”
During a break in what Emerick remembers as a “spectacular” show at the legendary South Street bar, Alex, who was living a few blocks away, went home to get a jacket.
According to the police report, Alex was walking back to the bar “when he was approached” by a man “who engaged in a brief conversation before [producing] a knife and [stabbing] Alex once on the left side of his chest.”
The suspect “fled south on Orianna Street. Alex walked to the bar, where he collapsed outside on the sidewalk. Police ... transported Alex to the hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced at 12:05 am. The motive is unknown.”
No arrests were made and the case remains unsolved. Alex was 24 years old.
“I didn’t think I would get this emotional just now,” Emerick said, pausing again. “Alex and I had this incredible affinity about music. It was like having a twin die.”
The Butler brothers also were devastated. “Alex was my best friend all through high school,” Steve said. “We hung out every day.”
Said Brian: “I just couldn’t believe it happened. It was impossible. I remember being so distraught, and Ger was almost comforting me. In the weeks after, we pretty much left it up to him to decide [whether to continue the band]. But it was what Alex would have wanted, and that emboldened us to just go for it.”
Quincy also got a boost in 1977 when keyboardist Wally Smith, a.k.a. “Metro,” joined the band. A player comfortable in jazz as well as rock, Smith brought to Quincy his enthusiasm for Elvis Costello and other post-punk, new wave rockers from the U.K. and New York City.
“I was playing in other bands, and I ran into these Quincy guys a lot and they said, ‘We want to steal you. You got room for another band?’
“It was the ‘70s. The mindset was that everybody wanted good things for each other, and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” added Smith, who teaches at the School of Rock Main Line in Berwyn; he also performs with Smash Palace.
By 1978, Quincy had become what Steve called “a fine-tuned machine” and responded to a Village Voice ad for CBGB live auditions. “We played at 4 a.m. to an audience of five people and didn’t hear back for weeks,” he said.
It turned out that the club’s legendary owner, the late Hilly Kristal, loved Quincy so much he wanted to manage them. In that long-gone era when a major-label recording contract was the principal route to all-important radio play, Quincy found itself being courted by the major labels.
They signed with Columbia in 1979. “A golden moment,” said Brian.
But getting out of their management contract with Kristal, along with other issues, delayed the making of Quincy’s debut album for a year. They made a video (a young woman with feathery ‘80s hair falls in love with their album cover at the mall) and were touring to promote the record’s release when they got the cease-and-desist letter from Quincy Jones’ lawyers.
By 1982, after attempts to make a second album faltered — an EP under the new band name Lulu Temple eventually was released — Quincy was no more. But in 1984 the Butlers’ new band, Smash Palace, had a sleeker look, songs with plenty of hooks, and a second major-label recording contract. “It was like winning the lottery twice,” said Brian.
Jane Evans, who helped her late husband, Chris Evans, manage Smash Palace, remains a fan.
“They were such great guys, and not all bands were,” Evans said from Los Angeles, where she has had a long film production career. “I loved their music and I really believed in them. They had talent, and everybody who got involved with them thought they were really going to make it.”
But “the week our record comes out, our A&R guy leaves Epic and goes to Polygram,” Steve said. After asking to be let out of its contract for a better deal, which fell through, Smash Palace went on a hiatus that lasted until 1999. The band signed with an indie label called Zip and put out 11 more albums.
The upcoming 21 is being released by In the Pocket, an indie label run by David Uosikkinen, a founding member of the Hooters and the drummer for Smash Palace. Six of the 10 songs on the new album were recorded at Gradwell House studio in Haddon Heights.
Making music “is in the blood. It’s what we do,” said Brian. “In the past when I’ve stepped away, I always had the feeling that something was missing. We played in venues where the crowd went wild. We’ve experienced that.”
Added Steve, “If we’d made millions, I’d still be doing what I do now, because I love doing it. We’ve had so much more fun since we’ve been in complete artistic control of our music. We just do what we love to do.”