A pundit once described the American involvement in Vietnam as "the first rock & roll war," and East of Underground were a band whose story reflects some of the ways that notion played itself out. The United States Army has a long history of using music both as a recruitment tool and as a way to shore up morale among troops, and in the 1960s, as rock & roll and soul became the dominant popular music among young people, the Army's Entertainment Division began including more contemporary sounds in their programming. Off-duty soldiers enjoyed hearing modern sounds at enlisted men's clubs, and landing a spot in an Army band was considered a good way for personnel to avoid dangerous combat duty. East of Underground was a multi-ethnic seven-piece band formed by American soldiers stationed in Germany in 1971, eager to make music and create a home away from home during their stay in Germany as the war in Vietnam was at its height. That year, the Army staged what they called "The First Annual Original Magnificent Special Forces Entertainment Showband Contest," and East of Underground were one of many groups that entered the competition. Playing a tough, enthusiastic fusion of R&B, funk and pop/rock tunes of the day (including numbers by James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, and Santana), East of Underground's sound was dominated by the vocal harmonies of Bobby Blackmon, Larry Watson, and Austin Webb, accompanied by tight, concise arrangements laid down by guitarists Lewis Hitt and Gus Marquez, and the rhythm section of bassist Ronald Hall and drummer George Daniels (the latter claimed to have worked with James Brown). East of Underground won second place in the contest; one of the judges was Kurt Loder, who later became a respected rock journalist, and in a review of the show he described them as "a beautiful soul band with three exceptionally good singers." Along with the first, third, and fourth place winners, East of Underground were given studio time in the Armed Forces Radio Network's recording facility in Frankfurt, Germany as one of their prizes, and they cut an album's worth of material. East of Underground's studio session was issued as a promotional album by the Army, but it received scant distribution and quickly fell into obscurity, and after the group's members finished their military commitments, the band broke up. Many years later, the album came to the attention of the crate diggers at the magazine Wax Poetics, and in 2007 the magazine launched their affiliated record label with a reissue of East of Underground's LP. At the time, little was known about the group and its members, and Wax Poetics produced a short film (also called East of Underground) about the album and the efforts to unravel the mystery of the band. In 2011, Now Again Records reissued the East of Underground album in a special box set that also included albums recorded by the three other winners of the 1971 show band contest, Soap, the Black Seeds, and the Sound Trek. So far, guitarist Lewis Hitt is the only member of East of Underground whose whereabouts have been confirmed; he works as an ambulance pilot in Alabama and still plays guitar in his spare time. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

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