No state tops Mississippi when it comes to honoring late bluesmen. The powerful proof is the Mississippi Blues Trail which consists of 200 plaques erected across the state to honor sacred sites like B.B. King’s birthplace and the supposed gravesite of the charter member of The 27 Club, Robert Johnson.
Maybe one day there’ll be a Mississippi Rock Trail that would honor rockers from the Magnolia State, with a plaque in Greenwood noting the birth and the slow career death of the Gants, a group Tom Petty called “the Mississippi Beatles.”
Little Steven Van Zandt agreed with this sentiment calling the four lads “the most British-sounding band in 1965 in Greenwood.” Little Steven even played on a bill (“Underground Garage Bikini Beach Party a Go-Go”) with the group in 2006 at Tampa’s Seminole Hard Rock Casino. He noted: “You talk to them, and they’ve got that Southern thing going on. And then they sing and they sound like the Beatles, like they’re from Liverpool. It’s hilarious.”
The Gants’ hometown of Greenwood even honored their local heroes in 2018 with a plaque. The only surviving member, singer Sid Ferrell, may have wondered, “With the right management and the right record label, my band may have had a plaque in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland—and not in front of American Legion Post 29 in Greenwood.”
Herring wistfully summed up the life and death of a band forever on the cusp of greatness: “You have to have three things to really make it. You have to have Triple-A talent. I never felt I was great on the guitar, but I could hold my own with anyone singing. Two, you have to know the right people. And, three, you have to have a lot of luck. The luck part is where I think we fell short.”
And, it was the group’s bad luck that the Vietnam War shot down their dreams when they were teenagers. Ferrell recalled: “We got invited to do a tour from Boston to Miami but we (Sid and drummer Don Wood) were in high school. So we went to our principal and told him what was going on and could we get out (of school) for a month or two. And he said, ‘Well, no, you can’t. If you do, I will have to report you to the draft board and you will go to Vietnam.’ And that kind of shot our feet right out from under us. That changed our careers.”
The other two Gants-ers, guitarist Johnny Sanders and bassist Vince Montgomery, were attending Mississippi State and were also warned by the local draft board that if they hit the road to back their hot version of Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” (that reached #46 on the charts in 1965), they would be smelling hot napalm in the morning in Vietnam.
But in a twisted twist of fate, after Herring and Wood took their draft board physicals in 1967, both were declared 4-F–due to high-frequency hearing loss from playing their music. It didn’t help that the group produced few original songs and recorded mostly cover songs, including Them’s “Gloria.”
Herring begged the group’s label, Liberty Records, to release their version. A year later and while driving home from a Gants’ gig, Herring heard on his car’s radio “Gloria” and thought that Liberty’s execs had released their take on the tune. Alas, Herring discovered his pleading fell on the same deaf ears that would keep him out of a war. He disgustedly turned off the radio when he realized that the band spelling out G-L-O-R-I-A for the illiterate masses was the Shadows of Knight, who took the song to #10 on the charts.
Of the originals the Gants did record, “My Baby Don’t Care” and “(You Can’t Blow) Smoke Rings” are superb but forgotten pop masterpieces. But at least the star-crossed band wound up crossing paths with the rock stars of the day, opening for the Animals, The Yardbirds, the Dave Clark Five, the Blues Magoos, and the Box Tops. And while the hits were few, the group experienced many Spinal Tap-ish anecdotes, like the time the follically-challenged Montgomery decided to wear a cheap Beatle wig for a concert only for the hairpiece to fall off in mid-song.
Towards the end of the group’s not-so-illustrious career, Liberty Records, perhaps trying to make amends for their “Gloria” release gaffe, sent them to LA to record (future Bread leader) David Gates’ song “Greener Days.” Unfortunately, the single failed to launch the Gants’ forever-stalled career and two of the boys in the band left to learn a trade that actually paid a livable wage. Montgomery became a lawyer and Sanders an obstetrician. Wood and Herring toiled as session men and writers at guitarist Steve Cropper’s Memphis-based Transmaximus International (TMI) studio.
Today, Herring is the last Gants man still standing, as Montgomery and Wood died in 2011 and Sanders in 2012. Their premature demise left three holes in Herring’s heart and a ring on a finger. He lamented: “After the guys passed away, I had this ring made and it is inscribed on the inside with ‘Sid, Johnny, Vince & Don. 50 yrs. of great music & brotherhood.’ I loved those guys with all my heart. I miss them bad.”
But should the band reunite in Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven, Herring will approach his pals and remind them: “We made a bet one time – $50 to the one that was here last. So, I’m gonna get $150 when I get up there.”
Photo: The Gants in 1966 imyBoy1, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…