“The girls were pulling our clothes off. It was vicious. We loved it!”
— Lee Balsbaugh
The crowd at the 1960 Evansville All-City Teen Sock Hop was likely bigger than the population of The Jiants’ hometown of Marion, Indiana. “It got so out of hand that we had to have police protection,” keys player Lee Balsbaugh recalled. The quartet were riding their hit regional single “Tornado,” a loud, fast, out of control rockin’ bopper downing power lines at radio stations all over the Hoosier state.
They formed at Marion High in 1957, rejiggering the school’s Giants mascot for their own primitive rock n’ roll purposes. “To be clear, we were not a rock n’ roll band when we started out,” Balsbaugh said. “Our drummer wanted to play jazz, and our audience wanted to hear jazz, so we ended up playing ‘Caravan’ and hits from the ’40s for that first year.” It was at the urging of guitarist Jerry Hedges that they morphed into the wild group heard on “Tornado.” “Jerry’s parents were deeply into country music, and wanted him to be like Hank Williams,” Balsbaugh said. “But he was into Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. For a while we were the only band in Marion playing rock n’ roll.”
At the urging of the elder Hedges, the decidedly non-RnR Claud Nash took a flyer on “Tornado” for his country-friendly Claudra label, a portmanteau of Claud and his wife Audra’s names. The late 1959 session took place in Nash’s Marion studio, where the group ground through fifteen takes to get it right. “My fingers were actually bloody after too many takes with that glissando at the end,” Balsbaugh said. Vocalist Andy Anderson tore through the tale of a woman with swinging hips who twisted veins, with drummer Ron Wolfe behind him at breakneck speed. The whole thing lasted just a minute and 52 seconds. Balsbaugh estimates that the initial January 1, 1960 release was about 5,000 units, all with Claudra’s earnest “It’s not who makes it—It’s how it sounds” motto draped across the label.
Local station WJPS captured a 1960 Evansville show live to tape, a recording intended as an album release, but the tapes burned up in a fire three weeks later. With half the band on the verge of losing their scholarships and the other half heading south to Florida after graduation, the Jiants were at a crossroads. “We had an audition with Chess, but in the end we never made it to Chicago,” Balsbaugh said. The Jiants amicably called it quits in 1961. “It sure would have been nice to meet Chuck Berry, though.”
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