Summer ‘88. Red White & Boom. My friends and I were walking back to our car after the fireworks when we stumbled onto a band playing in the courtyard of the old Hyatt on Capitol Square. We stopped and checked it out. The backdrop said The Bellows. They were rocking. They played some originals and I recall some Hendrix, including the Woodstock arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner in honor of the holiday. I'd been playing drums for several years at that point, but these guys were on another level. My brother gave me a CD of The Bellows album, which essentially began my collection of Columbus music. In many ways, The Bellows were my entry point to the Columbus music scene.
Play Records – 10423-C
Formed in late 1985 by singer Bill Boggess and drummer Eddie Cotter Jr., The Bellows took their name from Bellows Ave in Franklinton. Any Columbus resident would be familiar with the Bellows Avenue School, which can be seen from 315 South as you approach the I-70/71 split. Boggess lived on Bellows and attended the school, which was built in 1905 and named after Columbus artist George Bellows. It’s currently being renovated, but I digress.
The original lineup included Jim Miller on bass, Rob Harris on guitar and Eric Solomon on guitar and keyboards, in addition to Cotter and Boggess. In the early days, like most young bands, The Bellows played covers. Although they never set out to be a cover band, The Bellows booked their first gig in January 1986 within six weeks of forming. They needed material. In a 2021 interview with the We Love Guitar Nerds Podcast, Miller described his introduction to the band:
“My friend Eric Soloman from high school called me up and was like, ‘Listen, I’ve got this sixties project. I know it’s not what you’re into, but you’ll make some money, you'll get some experience, and you’ll have a lot of fun, so why don’t you join?’ And that’s exactly what happened. All those things happened.” The band pretty quickly developed a following and ended up winning the Rock Wars battle of the bands at East Dallas after just four months together. Nevertheless, Miller and both guitarists soon left the band.
Guitarists John Widner and Michael Dorrian joined The Bellows in 1987 as did bassist Todd Berry. Todd Berry came from Shock Tu, and Jim Miller joined Shock Tu, albeit briefly at first. Shock Tu soon broke up, but Miller would be the bassist when they reformed a couple of years later.
“We really don’t consider The Bellows to be The Bellows until… (Widner and Berry) joined the band,” Boggess was quoted in a 1989 Lantern article. At the time, Widner was just 17 and about 10 years younger than the rest of the band. Once Widner and Berry joined, the band got busy writing originals. Eddie and Bill introduced most of the originals to the group. Second guitarist Willie Clark then replaced Michael Dorrian, and the album lineup was set.
The Bellows gigged a lot and it wasn’t long before they started recording at Amerisound Studio, when it was still downtown, with Phil Wallace producing. Phil’s brother Brian was the band’s agent, as well as McGuffey Lane’s. I chatted with John Widner recently, and this was his recollection of recording There Was A Time:
“Michael Dorrian actually came up with the solo, and before it was actually recorded, Michael decided to leave the band. So, I ended up doing the acoustic solo and the electric solo. But I do remember it being kind of a big deal for me. I’d never been in a recording studio before… they rolled the tape and I was all nervous… and, alright, here’s the solo. And I nailed it on the first take, so that’s always kinda special for me when I think about that, cause I stopped and everyone was just fuckin’ silent. And I was like, ‘what’s up?’ And they were like, ‘I think we’re good. Do you wanna come give that a listen?’ Then I came in there and of course, I was my own worst critic. And they were like, ‘no, that’s it. That’s the track.’ And it stuck.”
A Cleveland gig brought The Bellows to the attention of Play Records founders John Latimer and Mark Litten, and they put There Was A Time on the Exhibit B sampler in 1988. This mainstay of the band’s setlist would be the track that Play Records would push and the band even cut a video for it. Here is director Monte Robison’s recollection:
“I got my hustle on and just sought out local Columbus, Ohio bands that would let me (a sixteen-year old kid) direct a video for them – albeit I would always have to offer to do it for ‘free’ and pay for any expenses myself. I was just happy to do it. Most videos I made cost about $500 that I saved up working at the local movie theater. All were shot on video (I used higher end video cameras with better resolution than my Sony 8mm). I rolled all of my savings from my job into my music video work thinking it could lead to a career. The very first video I did was for a local band The Bellows “There Was a Time.” Robison would go on to found the Triple Pop label and produce an up-and-coming Kacey Musgraves.
Amerisound Studio moved to Chesapeake Ave behind where The Guitar House Workshop is on Chambers Rd today and recording continued. Play released a second track, Someone Is Calling, on their Exhibit C compilation, which included tracks featuring Trent Reznor and fellow Columbus artists like Ronald Koal and Zero One.
On April 7, 1989, The Bellows held their album release party at Chelsie's. The songwriting on the album is credited to the whole band. Drummer Eddie Cotter and Bill Boggess handled the bulk of the songwriting, while the band provided arrangement input. You can hear Cotter’s Scottish music influence in their arrangement of Whiskey In The Jar, complete with a guest appearance from David Daye on bagpipes, the instrument’s bellows being another tie-in to the band name. There Was A Time also includes Cotter playing pennywhistle, helping give the band a distinct sound.
While admittedly recorded on what the Lantern called “low-budget production and sound,” The Bellows album came off as a solid representation and a surprisingly mature first album from the young band. The musicianship and pop sensibilities that were a strength of The Bellows caused them to stand out. They played crowd-pleasing retro covers from the Stones and Hendrix, but also more obscure cuts like David Gilmour’s Murder, complete with Berry on fretless bass. Meanwhile, the originals were melodic with a unique Scottish tinge. They were poppy and idiosyncratic and managed to build a solid following. "We like the diversity of the crowd they draw," said Victory's manager in a 1988 Lantern article.
Almost as soon as The Bellows was released, the band was ready to work on another album and even completed some recordings. They had an album’s worth of material ready to go. However, second guitarist Bill Clark would soon leave to join the Marines, and eventually, founding member Eddie Cotter stepped down. Although journeyman Danny Boyd (Shock Tu, Spittin’ Image) replaced him on drums and the band continued as a four-piece, Cotter’s departure would mark the beginning of the end for The Bellows, and the second album was never completed.
Widner would go on to play with The Kind and then a group I was in called the Sound Masons. He still plays regularly with Toast. He remains a good friend and one of my favorite guitarists. Eddie Cotter, Jr. plays the bodhran in several Irish bands, including The Kells and The Gabriel Hounds. Berry plays in Rich Meaty Taste. I had the chance to speak with Bill Boggess about The Bellows recently and he is still very much interested in completing that second album. Maybe a reunion gig at the grand opening of the renovated Bellows school? Whether or not it ever happens, The Bellows are a key piece of my experience with and love for the Columbus music scene.
1 Rebel 88
Made By – PDO, USA
Recorded At – Amerisound Studios
Arranged By – The Bellows (track: 4)
Bass Guitar – Todd Berry
Drums, Backing Vocals – Eddie Cotter Jr.
Engineer – Steve Haynes
Guest, Piano – Craig Allen (track: 3)
Guest, Uilleann Pipes, Highland Pipes – David Daye (track: 4)
Guitar – John Widner, Willy Clark
Mixed By – Wallace, Haynes, The Bellows
Photography By – High Tides Photography
Producer – Phil Wallace
Vocals [Singer] – Bill Boggess
Words By, Music By – Robey-Wise (track: 3), The Bellows, Irish Traditional (track: 4)