It wasn’t exactly Madison Square Garden, but, for several years, it was the closest Delaware had to a big-time musical venue, and it was just a cramped, high school gymnasium.
From 1969-75, Mount Pleasant High hosted some of the biggest names in popular music. It’s mind-boggling to think that Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famers like Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Chicago, B.B. King and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, as well as other popular acts like Grand Funk Railroad and Vanilla Fudge, pulled their tour busses into the parking lot off of Washington Street Extension.
“It was an amazing time,” said Nile Stanley, a member of the Class of 1972. “Looking back, some of the best memories of my life was seeing those bands, even though I had never heard of most of them at the time.”
“It was more than amazing,” said Andy McConnell, another member of the Class of ’72. “When I’m traveling around the country or just talking with friends and I tell them about the bands we had at our high school, they don’t believe me. And I don’t blame them – I still have a hard time believing it, myself.”
The link between a high school in suburban Wilmington and those big-time bands was Jody Ambrosino, a teacher and coach at the school who also ran a side entertainment business called Amboy Productions, which gave Mount Pleasant an inside track when it came to bringing the bands to Delaware.
Probably the band that, in retrospect, was the biggest draw at the time it played at Mount Pleasant was Chicago, which had recently shortened its name from Chicago Transit Authority. When Chicago played at Mount Pleasant on Feb. 18, 1970, they were promoting one of their best and biggest albums, Chicago II, which featured mega-hits like Make Me Smile and Colour My World. That album eventually went platinum, which means it sold more than a million copies, and it was nominated for a Grammy Award for best album of the year. Luckily for Mount Pleasant, the school had booked the band before it hit the big time.
To put that appearance into perspective — during its 1970 tour, Chicago played at huge arenas like the Pittsburgh Civic Center and the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and it also played at legendary venues like Fillmore East in New York, Fillmore West in San Francisco, Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, Winterland in San Francisco, the Capitol Theater in New York and The Warehouse in New Orleans. Throughout that 161-date tour, Chicago mostly played at colleges, including what was then called West Chester State College, and the band only played at four high schools, including, of course, Mount Pleasant.
But the act that impacted Stanley the most was B.B. King, who was unknown to Stanley and many of the students at the school.
“I had no idea who he was at the time, but listening to him changed my life,” Stanley said. “There were just a few black students at Mount Pleasant at the time and we weren’t into the blues at all. Then B.B. King came out and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a real eye-opener. It was so deep and emotional that I immediately became a blues fan and started listening to it all of the time. That music had so much more power than the pop tunes you heard on the radio and things were never the same after I heard it. It was like a religious experience.”
Few students that go to Mount Pleasant today have heard of Vanilla Fudge, but that was the first big-name band to play at the school, on February 20, 1969. Vanilla Fudge was huge at the time, with hits like You Keep Me Hanging On and Season of the Witch. And here’s an interesting side note: During that 1969 tour, a newly-formed band from England opened for Vanilla Fudge during the early part of the tour – Led Zeppelin.
Unfortunately, Led Zeppelin wasn’t on the road with Vanilla Fudge when they played at Mount Pleasant. Still, it’s fun to imagine that band blowing the roof off of the high school gym. Alas, Vanilla Fudge, led by drummer Carmine Aspice and bassist Tim Bogert, broke up less than a year later, although they have since reformed and still tour with three of the original four members.
Another great band of that era that most current students at Mount Pleasant have never heard of was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but that group generated the most excitement when they played in Bellevue on March 16, 1971, because it had played at Woodstock less than two years before appearing at Mount Pleasant. Butterfield had an amazing career – early on, he played with blues giants like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, and later his band played at the infamous Monterey Pop Festival and, of course, Woodstock. Butterfield died in 1987 of a drug overdose, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Chicago was the biggest name at the time, but the best one-two punch to appear at Mount Pleasant came in 1974, when Jackson Browne opened for Linda Ronstadt.
“I really wasn’t into them too much at the time, because I had become a big jazz and blues fan, but, of course, when they came out and played, I was blown away by how good they were,” said Stanley, who also worked at Mount Pleasant’s radio station, WMPH-91.7 FM, which still plays an eclectic range of music, from today’s hip-hop hits to the music Stanley and his friends listened to when they were Green Knights.
Maureen Brennan Williams was a 15-year-old sophomore who had “been listening to Doctor My Eyes” on Browne’s first album “on repeat for at least a year.”
“I thought I was the coolest person in the world – Jackson Browne was at my high school!” said Brennan Williams. “I have been in love with him ever since.”
“I had a Jackson Browne album at the time, but didn’t know much about Linda Ronstadt,” McConnell said. “Of course, when she came out and played it was pretty amazing how good she was and what a terrific voice she had.”
Something else about the Ronstadt concert that amazes McConnell when he looks back on it now – Ronstadt’s back-up band at the time included Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who, a few months later, would start their own band, which they called the Eagles.
However, the best story from that concert comes from Brian Abrams, a 1970 graduate who was 20 when he returned to his alma mater for the Browne-Ronstadt show. He and a friend, Randy Richter, didn’t have tickets to the sold-out concert, so they got to the school early and hung out in the boys’ locker room until showtime, then they snuck through the back of the stage and found ringside seats to the show.
But that’s not even the best part of their once-in-a-lifetime tale. While they were back stage they struck up a conversation with one of the roadies, who invited them back to the bands’ local headquarters, the Tally-Ho, which used to be a bar and hotel at the corner of Concord Pike and Naamans Road. So, they followed the roadie back to the Tally-Ho, and before they knew it, they were sitting in a hotel room with a bunch of people, including Jackson Browne. The two of them sat there, star-struck, as Browne and bandmate David Lindley played guitars and sang.
“It was surreal,” Abrams said. “We kept looking at each other like, ‘Is this really happening?’ We were in there for hours and everybody was as nice as could be. It was quite an experience.
“That was a very, very special time at Mount Pleasant,” Abrams added. “And we were incredibly lucky to be there when it happened.”