70's Staunton band "Barnstorm" releases rediscovered tapes
A local band that performed prolifically in the 1970s has finally released re-discovered demo tapes that were 45 years in the making. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
For teens and young adults in Staunton in the 70s, there was one hometown cover band that reached iconic status – playing every gig in the area from the Moose Lodge to college frat parties to Fourth of July celebrations at Gypsy Hill Park.
Their name was Barnstorm.
[Barnstorm playing "Feels Like the First Time"]
John Whitfield, now the director of Blue Ridge Legal Services in Harrisonburg, was one of its founding members, as a high school student.
JOHN WHITFIELD: I was the guitarist and a vocalist.
Whitfield's older sister, Carolyn Dull – now a Staunton city councilor and former mayor – played multiple instruments and sang.
CAROLYN DULL: My oldest brother told me "it just wouldn't look right. A girl in the band?" Yeah, I made him eat those words! … So I learned to be dangerous on a lot of things … whether it was keyboard or drums or harmonica or saxophone or guitar or bass guitar.
The lineup changed over the years, with the oldest Whitfield brother leaving, and friends from what was then Lee High School joining. Stephen Kirby, now retired from the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center, joined in 1972.
STEPHEN KIRBY: I came in as a drummer, some vocals.
Their lead singer and rhythm guitarist was classmate Karen Fitzgerald, who went on to become a reporter and editor at the News Leader. She passed away in 2007 at age 52.
WHITFIELD: She had such a musical voice. A beautiful, beautiful voice, that when she sang it just glistened and sparkled.
[Karen Fitzgerald singing "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing"]
WHITFIELD: And she was also just a lot of fun – she was always kidding, always joking, always had a great sense of humor and kept us laughing. She was like a sister. The whole band was kind of like a family, because we played so much. Back then, we were playing, I don't know, every weekend both nights, and sometimes we'd play during the week.
Jennifer Vickers, who graduated from Lee High School in 1970, recalls seeing them at Gypsy Hill Park.
JENNIFER VICKERS: I never saw them in clubs or something like that, because it was still early in integration. So the places that I saw them were in public, like at the Fourth of July celebration. … At that time, I think that I was really into Santana, and John played a lot like Santana.
Larry Barrett, who graduated in 1975, also played guitar in a few bands around this time.
LARRY BARRETT: You know, you can tell when somebody's enjoying what they're doing. When they were performing, and boy, I sure miss Karen's voice … they really enjoyed what they were doing.
Diane Livick met Fitzgerald at Blue Ridge Community College, and became a fan.
[Barnstorm playing "Still the One"]
DIANE LIVICK: I just can't hardly think of a group that they didn't appeal to, because of the diversity of the music that they did, from the old-time rock-and-roll of the 50s on up to learning new things in the 70s.
They played gigs all over Virginia and West Virginia, and occasionally North Carolina.
KIRBY: I did the last shift on driving, because I couldn't trust brother John or Carolyn to stay awake driving, and I would see the sun coming up on 81.
A lot of the band's memories from these days revolve around travel mishaps – like the time Whitfield lost control of their van on a sheet of ice.
WHITFIELD: We went off the side of a mountain, going to West Virginia and flipped it three or four times. … Nobody was hurt. The van was totalled – the "Roger Dodger."
DULL: Equipment was strewn down the mountain. [laughs]
WHITFIELD: Yeah, it was a mess and we didn't make the gig. And Carolyn and I were stuck on the side of a mountain in the pitch black!
In 1977, they started recording a demo tape with 12 songs. They got the instrumental parts done, and Fitzgerald's vocals. But then the four-track reels sat on a shelf, largely forgotten. Kirby, Fitzgerald, and guitarist Allen DePriest left the band in quick succession as they pursued job opportunities and relationships, or got turned off by the disco taking over the Top 40 charts. Whitfield and Dull closed the Barnstorm chapter for good in 1979, when they started a country band.
Decades later, in the thick of the pandemic, Whitfield went looking for those old demo tapes. He got Dull and Kirby together to finish recording the parts that were missing or too quiet on the original reels, and taught himself how to digitally master the songs. This fall, he released the collection on Youtube.
WHITFIELD: A lot of people, a lot of our friends in Staunton particularly, loved Karen and really miss Karen. … And this was the last recording, I think, that she'd made with a band, so I wanted to share that with people who remembered Karen, and have them remember her and her voice and her talent.
As her college friend, Livick, remembers –
LIVICK: She had a lovely voice. She was a beautiful person. She was a sensitive person.
Cathy Sterrett, who grew up with Fitzgerald and the Whitfield family, has asked for these songs to be played at their 50th high school reunion next year.
CATHY STERRETT: Karen's voice was so unique. … She could bring tears to your eyes when she sang, it was so pure. … People in my generation, in this town – Barnstorm was a very big part of our growing up.
[Barnstorm playing "Say You Love Me"]