Just off Broadway on West Ninth Street, which was recently renamed Patriots Way, is the Joyce-Herbert VFW. From the outside you would never guess that the building houses thousands of intriguing artifacts in its museum. Past the exhibits is a hangout for veterans and their friends. It looks more like a party hall than a honky-tonk bar, but today the sound of old-time country music fills the room, and the crowd is on the dance floor.
The front man might look familiar if you’re a music buff. George Cummings was once the deep-voiced lead guitarist of the band Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. In the 1970s it had hits like “Sylvia’s Mother” and “The Cover of Rolling Stone.” The southern-infused rock band was known for its wild performances. It had success playing songs co-written by Shel Silverstein and appearing in films and on TV shows like American Bandstand.
Cummings, who was a Marine, still plays music any chance he gets. For five years he’s been leading the unofficial house band of the VFW.
“We used to be called FOG, for Four Old Guys,” Cummings says, but they discovered that there was already a band by that name. Nameless, they soldier on with a mix of rock, country, blues, and jazz.
Tonight their performance will benefit the National Home for Children, which aids the bereaved orphans of veterans. Fundraising with Post Commander and bandmate Glen J. Flora is a big part of Cummings’s work with the VFW. Flora is on drums; Cummings on guitar, harmonica, and lead vocals; Bobby Dokus on piano and vocals; and Jack Gourdine II on bass.
The band finishes playing, and Cummings shows me around the museum. The room is full of memorabilia that ranges from faded love letters to gleaming awards. A World War II German machine gun catches my eye. One display features Bayonne’s three Medal of Honor recipients. Cummings says that a fourth posthumous recipient is being vetted by Congress. There’s so much to see and learn here. Flora says that about 8,000 students visited the museum last year.
Mississippi to Manhattan
Cummings hails from Meridian, Mississippi, where he started playing guitar at age 12. In college he played football and baseball as well. His music career took off when he moved to New York in 1964. “I got a room at the old Y on 34th Street,” Cummings recalls. “I had bussed up here by myself and walked around Manhattan for about a week, and one day walked by this church on 42nd Street and 10th Avenue. A band was in there trying to work up this song I had known for a long time, and I was listening to them, on the outside looking in. Finally someone came out and asked me what I wanted, and I said, ‘Hey man, I can show you how to do it.’ So I grabbed the old guitar and showed them how to play it, and all of a sudden I had about 15 new friends.”
He also had a band. The group brought him across the river to a gig in Union City, a “live music Mecca” at that time, he says. He got hired by a band called Mike Rocky and the Debonaires and played with them for about a year.
“Then I got a little homesick, so I moved back down to Mississippi, and I met some guys over there. One of them was the guy with the eye patch from the Dr. Hook band,” Cummings says, referring to singer Ray Sawyer. “We started up a band called the Chocolate Papers. Anyway, we were playing out in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Ray got into a little scrape with the law and had to leave town real fast. I headed back to New Jersey and got the guys up here one by one. I sent them tickets, and we reformed up here, and I named it Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. We started playing the bars and clubs and got a little break after about a year.”
Talk About a Break
“We were getting offers from record companies, so we ended up signing with CBS Records through old [record producer] Clive Davis,” he says. Next the band went to the West Coast to record music: “Then we hit the road pushing the album. That’s when it got hard; we were flying every day and running, not eating right, not sleeping right, but that’s the music business.”
“Our first record, our biggest record, called Sylvia’s Mother, it still sells,” he says. “We got gold records, played TV shows, did a movie with Dustin Hoffman. We hit the old trail, but it got old. People got big-headed thinking they were stars. We used to be brothers. We used to be friends. I ended up with severe bronchitis and after about five years of not missing a gig the old doctor told me, he said, ‘You better straighten up and get well or you ain’t gonna be here long.’ I went to this wacky manager who was stealing our money and working us to death and I said, ‘Look, I need some recuperation time.’ and he said, ‘You got to be on the plane tomorrow. We got a tour lined up,,’ but I jumped ship and I went my own way.
“I finally got better, and we decided to move on back near our own people,” Cummings says. His wife was originally from Jersey City, so they left the West Coast with their baby son and relocated to Bayonne in the late 1980s.
Bayonne and Some Bucks
After leaving the band, Cummings received no royalties for his musical contributions. “I didn’t have money to buy any justice, you know what I mean, to legally get what I contractually signed for,” Cummings says, but recently that changed. “Three years ago a friend of my wife heard about these folks called Artists Rights Society. I had this big box of everything I had signed, like contacts and things, so she made copies of all of it and dropped it off, and they thought there was something to it, so they said, ‘Alright, here’s the deal, we can get you something, but we split it 50/50’, so I said, ‘’Alright.’ For 30 years I got 0/0, not a dime, but the records were still selling.”
Cummings received a settlement and now gets a portion of the band’s earnings.
“Hey, I’m not the only sad story in the rock-and-roll game, but I’ll never stop,” Cummings says with a grin. He advises young musicians to go for it: “Hang in there and keep practicing and don’t give up. If you really love music, just maintain your course.”
That’s what Cummings did. “I’m just a drifter on life’s highway,” he says, “but in the old music game I’m here to stay.”—BLP
16 West Ninth St.
Open Saturdays noon to 4 p.m. or call for a group reservation