Band members Related acts
line up 1 (1971-72)
- Greg Davis -- slide guitar, percussion, backing vocals
- Barry Johnson -- drums, percussion
- Billy Jones (RIP 1995) -- lead guitar , backing vocals
- Billy Lehnert (aka Robert France) -- vocals, acoustic guitar
- Mel Senter -- bass, keyboards, backing vocals
- Richie Simpson -- drums
line up 2 (1972-73)
NEW - Jackie Cook -- guitar, vocals (replaced Billy Jones)
- Billy Lehnert -- vocals, acoustic guitar
NEW - David Mayo -- bass, vocals (replaced Mel Senter)
NEW - Richie Simpson (RIP 2008) -- drums, percussion (replaced
- Amboy Dukes (Billy Lehnert)
- Smiling Phases (Greg Davis, Billy Jones, and Mel Senter)
- The Village Sound (Richie Simpson)
Rating: 3 stars ***
Catalog: TMS 1004
Country/State: Memphis, Tennessee
Grade (cover/record): NM /NM
Catalog ID: 5495
For a city recognized for the blues and soul acts it churned out, Memphis sure seems to have supported a lot of rock bands in the 1960s and 1970s. I've lost track of the number of acts that were unknown to me that trace their roots back to the city. The short lived Acrobat is yet another in the ever lengthening list ...
Singer/guitarist Bob Lehnert's initial brush with success came in Detroit with The Amboy Dukes. Through a series of circumstances in 1966 Lehnert found himself with legal ownership of the 'Amboy Dukes' name. Lehnert and a young guitarist by the name of Ted Nugent subsequently reached an agreement whereby Lehnert relinquished rights to the name in return for a slot as lead singer in Nugent's band. The partnership only lasted a few months with Lehnert dropping out of the band (he was replaced by John Drake), eventually moving to Memphis in the early 1970s.
In Memphis Lehnert attracted the attention of Trans Maximus Studio who hired him as a photographer and after hearing some of his material, agreed to help him finance a band. Lehnert quickly latched on to slide guitarist Greg Davis, lead guitarist Billy Jones, keyboard Mel Senter (the three having been members of the recently defunct Smiling Phases) and drummer Barry Johnson. Billed as Acrobat the quintet were given rehearsal time at the TMI studios and within a couple of months were ready to record. Co-produced by David Mayo and J.R. Williams 1971's cleverly titled "Acrobat" served a showcase for Lenhert's talents. In addition to handling lead vocals, he wrote, or co-wrote all nine tracks. Propelled by Lenhert's dry, but likeable voice musically material like 'Wake Up', 'Harmony' and 'Feel No Regrets' found the band pursuing an agenda that fell somewhere between Firefall-styled country-rock and CSN&Y/Manassas rock (check out the opener 'Wake Up'). It wasn't blatant, but 'Be a Man', 'Escape' and several of the songs seemed to have a slight spiritual flavor to them. Take comfort in knowing it wasn't enough to send an atheist running for the doors. Propelled by some killer twin lead guitar from Davis and Jones one of the LP highlights was 'Be a Man'. Equally good and tilting towards the rock side of the equation was 'Feel No Regrets'. Full of strumming guitars and pretty melodies the collection may not have been the year's most original offering, but it was never less than enjoyable.
"Acrobat" track listing:
1.) Wake Up (Bob Lehnert) - 3:35 rating: *** stars
The opening section of 'Wake Up' reminds me of a Firefall tune with a bit of Stephen Stills and Manassas Latin influence thrown in. In contrast, the refrains sound like a totally different song that got stapled into the structure. Nice enough (liked the steel drums), but ultimately derivative.
2.) Relate (Bob Lehnert) - 2:36 rating: *** stars
Did I put a Poco album on my mistake? Pleasant, but nothing more than formula early-'70s country-rock.
3.) Harmony (Bob Lehnert - David Mayo - David Long) - 3:30 rating: *** stars
While the strumming guitars remained firmly rooted in country-rock, 'Harmony' featured a more complicated structure and some heavy instrumentation. It's a bit of a stretch, but if there were such a genre as country-progressive, this might be a candidate for inclusion.
4.) Be a Man (Bob Lehnert) - 5:24 rating: **** stars
'Be a Man' started out sounding like another country-rocker, but actually shifted gears into a nifty little guitar riff and into one of the album's few out-and-out rockers. That made it one of the album highlights.
Another standout performances, 'Feel No Regrets' showcased some tasty acoustic guitars and was another track that found the band dipping their toes into more of a rock orientation. Maybe even a little progressive influence ... Senter turned in a dazzling performance on bass.
2.) Better than Today (Bob Lehnert) - 2:11 rating: **** stars
If Pure Prairie League managed to score a top-40 hit with 'Amie', then this one should have charted as well. TMI certainly thought the song had potential, tapping it as a single, but naturally if went nowhere:
- 1972's 'Better Tomorrow' b/w 'Escape' (TMI catalog number 75-0108).
3.) The Objective (Bob Lehnert - Billy Jones) - 2:32 rating: **** stars
For some reason the opening section of 'The Objective' always makes me think Michael Nesmith solo work. And then the violin and synthesizers kick in and the tune switches over into Moody Blues territory. Weird mash-up that struck a chord with me.
4.) Escape (Bob Lehnert) - 3:45 rating: **** stars
I'm a pushover for good acoustic guitar so 'Escape' grabbed me at the start and wouldn't let go. Add in the nice harmony vocals and this was another highlight.
5.) Behind Our Eyes (Bob Lehnert) - 5:08 rating: **** stars
Imagine early Neil Young (if he had far stronger and commercial voice) and you'll get a feel for this beautiful ballad. Usually heavy orchestration all but smoothers songs like this, but the languid melody and Lehnert dreamy vocals were strong enough to withstand the heavy strings. Great song.
In an effort to support of the album the band relocated to Atlanta, but within a couple of months were back in Memphis where they played occasional local dates and apparently started to record a sophomore LP. Unfortunately personality conflicts and the lack of success saw the group collapse before the second LP was completed.
In case anyone's interested, here's a little bit of information on the band members.
Guitarist Jones committed suicide in February, 1995.
Senter became a pediatrician and still lives in the Memphis area.
Second generation Acrobat drummer Richie Simpson went on to work as a sessions player, including a stint with the Glasser Brothers. He passed on in December, 2008.
And so, out of the blue I got an email from Robert Lehnert providing some additional history and background on the band.
My name is Robert Lehnert. I began my musical career as co-leader of The Amboy Dukes with schoolmate Ted Nugent in Arlington Heights, llinois in 1964. After High School I enlisted in the Navy (Viet Nam draft era) and Ted took the band to Detroit. When I got out I moved to my childhood home of Memphis in 1969 and took up singing and writing again while working as staff photographer and story editor for Memphis Music News, a local music scene magazine. This position opened a lot of doors for me in Memphis.
Eventually I was signed as a staff songwriter at TMI Records, Inc. owned by Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs and Stax Records. The label was an affiliate of RCA in Memphis. This was 1970-75. My songs were recorded by a few of the label's artists and I did some session work as well. However, my writing was more introspective than most pop at the time and the label decided to record my group initially known as Rodeo and then changed to Acrobat for our first release "Acrobat" TMI/RCA 1971. We had a regional hit with a cut called "Better Than Today" which was definitely country rock akin to Pure Prairie League and The Eagles. Should have kept the band name Rodeo....
We were one of a dozen Memphis rock bands that tried to "make it big" during that time recording at the boom of Memphis studios and big label production deals.
I also started promoting concerts using my associations with Nugent and his agency and knowing many of the local bands and the national acts I met covering the studio "beat". It was a much simpler time.
Alex Cooley, a big time concert promoter out of Atlanta who brought shows to Memphis as well, discovered me and hired me to be his "boots on the ground" guy there in Memphis and when our album came out Alex decided he could help us by managing the band and getting us signed up with DMA (Diversified Management Agency) and Brass Ring Productions out of Detroit, with whom we both had ties through concert promotions and Nugent who was signed to them as well. In 1972 Acrobat moved to Atlanta. All the traveling through the mid south doing concerts and clubs and more recording in Memphis ended in 1975 when I was offered the position of Musical Director with the Chicago Free Street Theater.
Several financial backers, lots more traveling, more recording and lots of band members later I finally retired the Acrobat name in 1979 when in San Luis Obispo, CA the "original music endeavor" was finally exhausted and I started doing covers to make a living as a club musician. Casinos, cruise lines, country clubs, corporate events and night clubs.... I've been performing ever since with my wife, life and musical partner Mandy. Please see: www.robertmandyfrance.com
Robert Lehnert (June 2013)
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