Nashville resident Rick Chudacoff traces his musical evolution all the way back to Omaha, tying in four longtime friends and three musical acts that dominated Omaha’s musical scene in the 1970s.
Chudacoff, Leslie Smith, Lester Abrams, Arno Lucas and Ron Cooley played together in various line-ups from the late 60s through the late 70s, forming the Les Smith Soul Band, L.A. Carnival and Crackin’ in succession, before relocating Crackin’ to New York then Los Angeles around late 1972.
The principle members of the three groups will gather in Omaha for a series of shows Sunday, August 26th and Monday, August 27th at the OM Center, 1216 Howard St.
“It’s going to be an amazing reunion,” Chudacoff says.
The five band mates have maintained close friendships since Crackin’ dissolved in 1978, often playing on each others’ projects. They have gathered recently before to play old material, but this performance will comprise the farthest-reaching revue of the music they made together, Chudacoff says.
“We did a similiar show five years ago, but it was mostly based around Crackin’,” he says.
Chudacoff’s funk and soul evolution started just as he graduated from Central High School. It was the summer of 1967 and Chudacoff had met Ron Cooley, who was playing in the Sights and Sounds Blues Band.
As the two worked to assemble a new combo, they sought out several singers. Eventually, the search led them to Leslie Smith. The burgeoning line-up connected Central grad Chudacoff to North High School musicians.
By the fall, they had become the Les Smith Soul Band, adding Arno Lucas and playing mostly soul music. The final piece came later on when Lester Abrams joined up as the group’s drummer. With his involvement came added chops and a new direction.
“He was a few years old, more experienced,” Chudacoff says.
Soon the band turned into not just a soul band, but funk band, Chudacoff says. That stylistic evolution was spurred on by Abrams’ presence.
And just as that line-up solidified, Smith left the country for military service. The band changed its name to L.A. Carnival due to Smith’s departure and to signify Lester Abrams (L.A.) guiding hand in the group’s sound.
The band played regionally, splitting time between proms, organized dances and bookings at teen-oriented clubs. Sandy’s Escape became one of the main spots where L.A. Carnival played.
As a mixed band featuring both white and black members, they also drew a crowd from all over the city. Chudacoff says that had both positive and negative effects.
“We brought together the white and black youth in a social atmosphere away from their respective schools,” he says.
For many, it was a chance to make friends across those racial lines.
But the racially-charged atmosphere in the late 60s and early 70s also led to tension and fights. Omaha at the time also had more widespread riots and racial tension, compounded by a 1968 visit by Alabama governor and segregationist George Wallace.
Chudacoff says through that period of racial growth and evolution, L.A. Carnival kept on and began to build a head of steam with its mix of smooth soul-funk. After serving in the military, Smith even rejoined the gang as a member of L.A. Carnival.
But by 1971, the band splintered apart as members left to pursue other interests. Lucas and Chudacoff got involved with a rock project that echoed acts like the Allman Brothers Band and Traffic.
L.A. Carnival’s resurgence began back in 2002 when Stones Throw-affiliated label Now & Again Records reissued a slew of the band’s recordings.
That band was called Crackin’ and it eventually would lead to another reunion for the five friends that had gotten to know each other in the Les Smith Soul Band and L.A. Carnival.
By 1973, Crackin’ had relocated to upstate New York, hoping to record in Woodstock and use their new homebase as a launching page to fame and fortune. That didn’t immediately happen for the band though, Chudacoff says.
Meanwhile, Smith had settled in San Francisco after playing as a member of the touring show for the musical Hair. Abrams had moved out there too.
So Lucas and Chudacoff reconnected with Abrams and Smith, bringing Crackin’ around to a new, rock-oriented iteration of the funk and soul the four had always made together.
Record label success greeted Crackin’ in California as they cut one record for Polydor and three for Warner Brothers before disbanding in 1978.
After that run, Abrams hit on success with the Doobie Brothers, co-writing “Minute By Minute” with Michael McDonald. Chudacoff struck chart success in 1980, writing “Steal Away” with vocalist Robbie Dupree. Dupree is set to perform as part of the OM Center show.
The group’s performance will also include stories of the bands and Omaha’s music scene while presenting the songs sequentially. In addition to Dupree’s cameo, the performance will include Bob Bordy from Crackin’, as well as bringing out other past L.A. Carnival or Les Smith Soul Band players, including two horn players that Chudacoff says he hasn’t seen in almost 40 years.
Earlier in the week, the band mates will be teaching workshops and seminars at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, 3504 South 108th St. Information on those sessions can be found at omahacm.org.
The musical revue is Sunday, August 26th and Monday, August 27th at the OM Center, 1216 Howard St. at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 day-of-show. For more information, visit omcenterdaily.com.