Golden anniversary approaches for the ultimate bar band

It's been nearly 50 years since Dr. Bop and the Headliners featuring The White Raven played its first gig at Nitty Gritty.
a perhaps 1970s-era photo of the band called Dr Bop And The Headliners, lined up in black and red suits with lead singer Al Craven in a white jacket in the center.
Courtesy of Al Craven.
Dr. Bop and the Headliners featuring The White Raven.

What Al Craven remembers most of that May 1976 night at Lambeau Field isn’t the rain — although it was a deluge — nor the wind, which blew the plastic canopy off the stage before the band started.

Sprinting onto the field through the fabled Lambeau goalposts was a hoot, but even that’s not what Craven most remembers.

What the lead singer for a Madison-based 1950s-style rock ‘n’ roll band remembers is the disbelief on the face of the Green Bay Packers head coach, himself a legend.

“It was maybe the second song,” Craven said last week by phone from Sarasota, Florida. “It was pouring. The National Guard was holding a tarp over us. I looked to the end of this huge stage, and Bart Starr was staring at us with this incredulous look on his face. The rain was pelting him but he wasn’t moving. He was just looking at us with his mouth open.”

As it happens, this month marks the 45th anniversary of that Lambeau Field extravaganza, a bicentennial celebration that featured Starr as emcee and comedian Bob Hope as the headliner.

Except that the true headliner that night, both in name and in the degree of excitement generated, was Dr. Bop and the Headliners featuring The White Raven (Craven).

Al Craven Aka The White Raven in a tee shirt with silver hair and black glasses in a recent photo with twinkly lights behind him.

Al Craven, aka The White Raven, lead singer of Dr. Bop and the Headliners.

And perhaps the more significant anniversary arrives in a couple of months. July 2021 will mark 50 years since Dr. Bop played two weekend nights at Madison’s Nitty Gritty, the band’s first-ever gig.

They lit it up, and word spread quickly. Just a few months later, Dr. Bop opened for Chuck Berry in Oshkosh.

“They were absolutely amazing,” Ken Adamany, the longtime Madison music impresario, once told me. Adamany managed them. “Everybody had to have this band. You couldn’t have a nightclub if you couldn’t book Dr. Bop.”

The band was founded by a Madison West High School graduate named Mike Riegel, who studied art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison but loved music, and played around campus with friends.

One day in 1971, Riegel asked Marsh Shapiro, who owned Nitty Gritty — one of the few music venues back then — how Riegel and his buddies could get on the Gritty stage.

Marsh told me later that he suggested they play ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. Riegel, who saw himself as a serious musician, was dubious. Fifties covers? But they did it, with used tuxedoes, and behind a few drinks. Riegel, the drummer, christened himself (and the band) Dr. Bop. Everyone had a stage name.

The Cap Times took notice on Wednesday, July 28, 1971: “The simplistic yet savage beat of pure, unadulterated 1950s-style rock ‘n’ roll returned to Madison in the form of Dr. Bop, a pick-up group of local musicians operating from hand to mouth between gigs. The group delighted teeny-freaks and Presleyites alike last weekend with a two-night stand before a packed house at the Nitty Gritty.”

What they lacked was a dynamic lead vocalist. Riegel thought he had the answer. He’d played on the Madison campus with Craven, who, after graduating, had moved back to New York state to teach.

Late in that summer of 1971, Riegel phoned Craven and asked him to come to Madison for a weekend and sit in with the band at the Gritty.

“He was already calling me the White Raven,” Craven says. “That name came after a night of drinking when I ended up falling in the snow. Mike pointed down and said, ‘White Raven!’”

Craven flew to Madison. He recalls the scene in the Gritty dressing room: “The only requirement was I drink a pitcher of beer before going onstage. They gave me a coat to put on, and I went on and I believe I sang ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Runaway.’ That was the beginning of it. After that, I was in the band.”

The others included Ken Champion on guitar, Ned Engelhart on bass and Larry Robertson on keyboards (early on, Bob Kenison took over for Robertson).

Craven commuted from New York until February 1972, when he relocated to Madison. The band, meanwhile, went national.

“It exploded so quickly,” Craven says. “Ken [Adamany] put us out there. He had a lot of confidence in us. No matter where we played, people seemed to like it.”

That was as true in blue collar clubs in East St. Louis as in college venues in Ann Arbor and Champaign. Dr. Bop hit big at Lucifer, in downtown Boston, where the band recorded a live album, and they did a week of shows at the legendary Whiskey-a-Go-Go in West Hollywood.

“There was an energy I’d never felt before,” Craven says. “We were having such a good time and the guys were such great players.”

The band broke up around 1978, though Riegel and Engelhart kept it going — especially Engelhart — in different incarnations for many years.

The break-up had never been acrimonious, but Riegel’s death in 2005 — from cancer, at 60 — brought everyone back together. There was a memorial gathering at the Nitty Gritty. All the guys were there, along with notable fans like Paul Soglin, jazz great Ben Sidran and the poet John Tuschen.

Engelhart died last July. Craven, hoping to organize a memorial, has been stymied so far by the pandemic. He’s been in Sarasota for a couple of years now and recently turned 75.

There is little or no recorded video of the band in its heyday, though there are still photos matched with the music on YouTube. Craven says he’s hoping to post some cassette tapes Riegel gave him in the late 1990s, adding that the best place for updates is likely the Dr. Bop and the Headliners featuring the White Raven Facebook group.

He regards, with some wonder, the approaching golden anniversary.

“It was a quick 50,” Craven says. “What a magic carpet ride. It’s hard to believe some of the places we played and the fun we had. A crazy, wonderful time.”

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