Known as the “Train to the Stars,” the Super Chief was one of the first diesel-powered sleeper car locomotives in America. Capable of reaching speeds of 100 mph, the train could make its Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in less than 37 hours, half the continent speeding past its windows, as it carried a clientele of movie stars and former presidents.
Not far from the Super Chief’s terminus in LA was an Orange County rock band hoping to capitalize on that reputation for power and glamour. Bassist Dennis Koker, guitar player Mike Carousal, and vocalist Bob DeMalignon were friends from high school who—inspired by the electric blues coming from other end of the Super Chief line—played in a series of bands throughout adolescence. Also on the scene were brothers Dan Shattuck and James Shattuck, on guitar and drums respectively, cycling through the same clubs.
By 1968, the brothers Shattuck joined the three friends to form Super Chief the band. Accordingly to DeMalignon, the Shattucks brought “more of a psychedelic sonic fusion” to the blues engine the other three had been workshopping. With a new band came a new sound, exploding the blues into a prototype of future hard rock. After receiving cease-and-desist letter from the railway’s lawyer, the diesel-fueled band began billing themselves under infringement-free name of Supa Chief and became regulars at West Hollywood rock shops like the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go.
The band was lucky to land a support slot at the Newport ’68 Pop Festival in Costa Mesa, the first music fest ever to log more than 100,000 paying attendees. The festival organizers were looking for a local band to play opposite the main stage while the big-name acts took their time setting up. Seen by thousands of people, Supa Chief soon signed a recording contract with Criterion Music Corporation, who hoped up-sell their contract to a major label. “What they had to offer was a lot of studio time, freedom. They helped produce us,” said DeMalignon. The band rolled into Criterion’s in-house studio on Gower St. in Hollywood, behind the CBS lot. Manning the boards was producer Don Drowty, formerly of Dante and the Evergreens, a doo wop group that had scored a 1960 hit with a cover of “Alley Oop.”
What emerged was “Red-Brained Woman” b/w “Animal Woman,” two of the heaviest songs in the band’s catalogue. The sound comes on with a primitive Neanderthal stomp and a thick guitar crunch too dark for acid rock but too early for heavy metal. Released in 1969 on Criterion’s Prince Records, the single was spun by underground stations like KPPC, KTBT and KNAC, becoming a regional hit in Southern California. According to plan, the majors came calling: Polydor re-released the single in France and England and planned for a full-length album.
With a major record deal and an album’s worth of material almost finished, Supa Chief was about to come charging down the rails at full speed. Unfortunately, the trappings of fame descended before they’d even arrived. “Things kind of went haywire,” says DeMalignon. “We were in the middle of drug-ville at a time when people were experimenting quite a bit … but it really didn’t turn out well for us.”
Koker and Carousal, blues purists, had also grown unhappy with the red-brained direction of Supa Chief and left to pursue a more traditional sound. DeMalignon and the Shattuck brothers tried to continue on as a three-piece but soon went bust. By the end of 1969, Supa Chief’s wheels had ground to a halt. Most of the songs recorded for their unnamed album are today too deteriorated to hear. “Like so many,” said DeMalignon, “we let it slip away.”
Their namesake, the Super Chief train, didn’t last much longer. It was decommissioned when Amtrak took over U.S. passenger rail in 1971. Pistons silent, engine cold, a legend of power and glamour all that remains of the mighty as an era passed by at 100 miles per hour.
More Warfaring Strangers
First Step Beyond