The Wallets, a popular band from Minneapolis, Minnesota, played original music from 1980 – 1989. Over that ten year period the band expanded and contracted in size, moved to New York City for two years then back to Minneapolis, and toured extensively through the continental United States. Steve Kramer was the founder, composer and leader of the band. Being a visual artist he often incorporated his artwork into the live shows, album covers, posters and t-shirts.
I joined the band at the invitation of Steve Kramer, our fearless leader, in December 1980 (The band had already been performing for about a year with a different bassist). I flew to Minneapolis from NYC, where I had been living for the past 5 years playing bass guitar in Marbles, and had 2 rehearsals with the band. We then played three nights in a row at Jay’s Longhorn. At the time the band had a 4 piece horn section, two keyboardists, a conga player, 2 girl backup singers “The Wall-ettes”, a guitarist, drums and bass. It was a monstrous groove machine. As a bass player it was quite an education.
Blue Castanets – Live at Trax NYC 1981
The line-up for the band in the first few years had a core of musicians that was rotated and augmented depending on the location and demands of the show. When based in NYC in 1981/82 there were usually 8 or more band members. Sometimes we had special guests sit in with us and this continued back in Minnesota throughout the 80s, but the core size became 5 when we moved back in August 1982. Below are some photos from the early years in NYC and Minneapolis. To return to do gigs at Duffy’s and Jay’s Longhorn, we always flew on Republic Airlines (so cheap, they took all our equipment at no extra charge, except there were always many stops on the way – our ears were mega popped).
Check out “Own Outfit” from the Trax show. This live recording of The Wallets is a non-stop rave about trying to find something to wear. Steve Kramer is at his maniacal interior-monologue best. The 8-piece band features two saxes (Max Ray and Gary Downes), guitar (Jon Gordon), congas Hearn Gadbois (what a tsunami!), along with 2 keyboards (Steve Kramer and Rod Gordon), bass (Jim Clifford) and drums (Erik Anderson). John Bryn was the sound guy at the gig and saved the recording. I made the video in 2023.
The Back Story
Steve Kramer and I were good friends in high school days and we jammed together often with guitarist Steve Brooks. Those 2 guys could improvise on snatches of riffs and melodies for hours. It was like Kandinsky and Stravinsky playing tiddly winks. I valiantly tried to give the music some structure with my bass playing but it was pretty loose.
We added our friend and former classmate, Duncan Hannah, on drums and named ourselves The Hurricane Boys. After a few months we hooked up with Erik Anderson on drums for a brief stint. Erik opened up the universe when he’d hit those cymbals! We played huge house parties, one of which was broken up by police helicopters.
In January and February 1973, Steve Brooks and I got college credits for playing/jamming along with Steve Kramer in a house in South Minneapolis (January), and then in beautiful Reid Chapel on campus at Lake Forest College, Ill. (February). We compared our improvisations to Indian ragas. It all culminated in an 8 hour all-night performance, “Tones in Time”, at Bennington College, Vermont, with Bill Dixon, an avant garde jazz trumpeter, as our advisor. Rod Gordon (he sat next to me in 2nd grade at Kenwood Elementary School and later became a keyboardist for The Wallets) gave us a ride from Lake Forest, Illinois, to the East Coast for our Bennington College showcase in his ’63 Studebaker. We stopped along the way in NYC to visit Duncan Hannah, who was going to school there.
Once after we jammed all day in Reid Chapel, I had my college projectionist gig in the evening, which that night was screening a silent film, The King of Kings (1927), by Cecil B. DeMille. All three of us were crowded into the projectionist booth listening back to our recording of the day’s jam not aware that it was being broadcast into the theater while the film was running. “Mental Transcendental” would be an apt description of the viewing experience. You can get a taste of it here.
We continued playing music/jamming through the summer of 1973, and then life took us in different directions. I ended up in NYC in 1975 to join Marbles, a band in the first blush of the scene at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Steve Kramer also came to New York to pursue his art, and we’d see each other at Thanksgiving dinners, parties and art openings, but we didn’t play any music together during those years. He had a horrible accident when he fell off a building while balancing on the edge of a rooftop and landed a couple stories below, crushing his leg and most of his head. It was a miracle he survived and I had heard about the accident but I hadn’t seen him for a few months and then, one night I was having a party at my apartment on W. 48th St., and I ran out to get ice before the party started. When I came back and hurriedly was arranging stuff, my bathroom door burst open and there was this guy on crutches, with a huge misshapen smile packed with wires and shiny metal but no front teeth. His forehead had two large white round buttons, one above each eye, that had wires running through them which were wired to his jaw holding his face together. It took me a few seconds to understand that this crazy macabre cartoon was Steve Kramer. He was just beaming, so happy to be there and wobbling in my direction, arms outstretched to give me a big hug, chuckling “Hi Jim!” The guy does know how to make an entrance. My next door neighbor, Eric Li, had let him in when I was out getting the ice.
In March of 1980 I came back to Minneapolis for my sister’s wedding. The night of the bridal dinner, I heard that Steve had formed a band and was playing a gig at the 7th Street Entry downtown (He had moved back to Minneapolis to further recover from his accident). I couldn’t help myself and as soon as the dinner was over I headed down to see him. I was dressed in a suit and the maid of honor was with me dressed in a lovely gown. We were way over-dressed for the club which was just recently opened in the bathrooms of the old bus depot. We walked in and there on the stage The Wallets were in full throttle. Steve was writhing on the floor in front of the drums screaming and spitting out lyrics while the band created a frenzied froth of sound around him. To my amazement I realized that most of the band members were old friends from as far back as grade school. The guy I didn’t know was the sax player who was just killing it with his tone and intensity, kind of like a Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri all rolled into one. That turned out to be Max Ray. At the break I congratulated Steve and the band. He said he planned to move back to NYC and asked me if I would be able to join the band when they got out there. I said, “Sure, send me a tape.” Nine months later I was a Wallet.
Kojak – Live at Trax NYC 1981
Kojak was the most popular Wallet’s tune when I joined the band. Something about Steve Kramer and Telly Savalas synced-up just right.
Then there is Don HO:
TO BE CONTINUED – This Wallets webpage is a work in progress as I hunt down old tapes, photos, and previously unreleased material.