The youth of today may not be aware of it, but one of the biggest hits of the 1960’s was recorded by a band with roots in Randolph, Darke, and Mercer Counties. “Hang on Sloopy” was #1 in the United States in the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 1965 and is the official state rock song of Ohio. It also is the unofficial fight song of the Ohio State University Buckeyes and can be heard at many Ohio State athletic events being played by the OSU bands. American sales alone were over one million copies.
“My Girl Sloopy” was first recorded by the L.A.-based R&B vocal group, The Vibrations in 1964, for Atlantic Records. It was a hit, reaching #10 on the R&B chart, and #26 on the US pop chart. In April 1965, The group members were Don Bradley, Carl Fisher, Dave Govan, James Johnson, and Ricky Owens. The song then became a local hit in the Pacific Northwest in a cover version by James Henry & The Olympics (Jerden Records), but it was quickly eclipsed in August when the Indiana pop group The McCoys released their iconic retitled version. “Hang On Sloopy” went to #1 in the United States in October 1965.
The McCoys was started in 1962 in Union City by brothers Rick and Randy Zehringer. The band was a backup band for a radio station in nearby Dayton. They backed such performers as Ray Stevens and Chuck Berry and others when their bands were not there for live performances at the radio station. Rick Zehringer recalls, “I was born in Celina, Ohio just across the border from Indiana. My brother Randy played drums and I played guitar when I was nine. When I was in the eighth grade, my family moved 12 miles across the state line and we lived in a town called Fort Recovery. For some time, I’d been fascinated by the electric bass. In 1958, it seemed the instrument of the future. When I was 12 or 13 in Union City, Indiana, a neighbor named Dennis Kelly said he’d like to play it and if I’d show him how, he’d buy one. He got a brand new Fender bass with amp and I showed him song from the Ventures’ LP, The McCoys. While he was playing it, we arrived in wonderland because we realized with him and me and Randy we had a band.” Initially the band named itself after the aforementioned Ventures record, but quickly became the Rick Z Combo, which some promoters thought sounded too much like a jazz group. Settling on Rick & The Raiders, they performed gigs throughout the Midwest and cut a single for the small Sonic label, titled “You Know That I Love You,” which benefited from some local airplay. Eventually they beefed up their sound with the addition of organist Ronnie Brandon and began tapping into the big beat sounds of early 1960s pop and soul. When Kelly left for college, Randy Hobbs took over bass chores. The group’s selling point as an act was the hot scrambling guitar leads of Rick Zehringer, but as a group they were professional enough to appear on the bill with bigger name acts, whom they sometimes upstaged.
In early 1965, The Strangeloves, a New York City rock band, wanted to make the song “Hang on Sloopy” the follow-up to their hit single “I Want Candy” and began performing it in concert. However, the Dave Clark Five, with whom they were touring, told the Strangeloves that they were going to record their own version when they returned to England, copying the Strangeloves’ crowd-pleasing arrangement. The Strangeloves realized that the Dave Clark Five’s cut would probably outsell their own, but they weren’t ready to release a new single yet because they were still enjoying the success of “I Want Candy” from a few months earlier. The answer presented itself when a young rock group named Rick and the Raiders opened for (and provided backing for) The Strangeloves in July in Dayton, Ohio. The Strangeloves, who were, in reality, three successful writer/producers from Brooklyn, New York, recruited Rick and The Raiders to release the song under their name. Their 16-year-old leader, Rick Zehringer, was flown to New York to record his lead vocal over The Strangeloves’ already-recorded backing tracks. It was decided to change the name of Rick’s group to The McCoys to avoid confusion with another popular band of the era, Paul Revere & the Raiders. Brandon recalls that the record company saw a photo of their old drum head with “The McCoys” on it and that became the groups name. He also states that the record company was thinking of forming a band called “The Hatfields” for them to feud with. The single was released on Bang Records and entered the chart on August 14, 1965, effectively beating the Dave Clark Five to the charts. The single went on to hit #1 on October 2. Inspired by the Bang Records logo which featured a derringer pistol, Rick himself began using the stage name Rick Derringer.
According to Rick Derringer, the original version of “Sloopy” was written by a “high school kid in St. Louis” and sold to Bert Russell, a.k.a. Bert Berns. The inspiration for the song is said to be Dorothy Sloop, a jazz singer from Steubenville and a student at Ohio University.
The song was a huge hit. “Everything happened so fast,” recalls Brandon. “We were just kids I was the oldest at 19, the youngest was just 16. Randy was so short that he had to stand to play the drums. I’m not sure but he may have started a trend,” he continues. “We toured for two months with the Rolling Stones.” A ticket from that tour is on display with an assortment of McCoys memorabilia at the Randolph County Museum in Winchester. The price of that ticket was a mere $5.
“We broke the song in Dayton, and the phones at the station wouldn’t stop ringing requesting our song,” says Brandon. “Hang On Sloopy” overtook Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” the Dave Clark Five’s “Catch Us If You Can,” and the We Five’s “You Were On My Mind,” to reach number one in October of 1965. Overseas, “Sloopy” became the first top five hit for the British independent label Immediate Records, which was owned by Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Capitalizing on their overnight success, the band began touring the country and even appeared on the season premier of ABC-TV’s Shindig! However, the band was still in high school, and toured with chaperones and tutors. “Hang On Sloopy” spent eleven weeks on the charts and inspired a successful jazz rendition by the great Ramsey Lewis. As a followup, Bang chose to issue the group’s big beat cover of Peggy Lee’s 1958 classic, “Fever.” Peppier and less sultry than the original, the McCoys’ version rose to number seven on Billboard ‘s Hot 100. Attempting to avoid the dreaded one-hit wonder syndrome, the group began cutting the first of two albums for Bang—rare for any teen pop act that wasn’t the Beatles.
According to Brandon, the group wanted out of their contract with Bang Records, they contacted a lawyer in Union City and at the age of 21, he was the only member whose parents did not sign for him, thus if he left the group, it would be easier for them to get out of their contract. “They really did me a favor,” says Brandon. “I had a wife, and shortly after I left the group, the other members began getting into the drug culture of the time.” Brandon recalls that bassist Randy Hobbs recorded an underground album with Jim Morrison, of the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. “I’d love to hear that,” he continues.
In 1985, the Ohio General Assembly approved “Hang on Sloopy” as Ohio’s official rock song. The Ohio General Assembly adopted an official rock song after Joe Dirck, a columnist for the Columbus Citizen-Journal, wrote a column about the State of Washington considering the adoption of its own rock song. The Ohio General Assembly responded by making “Hang on Sloopy” Ohio’s rock song. Ohio is the only state to have an official rock song.
Here are the versions of “Sloopy” that charted in America:
1964 - The Vibrations (as “My Girl Sloopy”), #26
1965 - The McCoys, #1
1965 - The Ramsey Lewis Trio, #11
1965 - Little Caesar & The Consuls (as “My Girl Sloopy”), #50
1970 - The Lettermen, #93
1975 - Rick Derringer, #94
Ron Brandon and his wife Kim owned and operated Our Pizza House in Winchester until they retired in 2012. Ron attended grade school at Butler School went to school in Arcanum, Ohio for three years and graduated from high school in Greenville. The band played the Great Darke County Fair in 1964. He left the band in 1968, having played on both of their albums. “For the 50th anniversary, Rick Derringer played in Union City and I got on stage and played ‘Sloopy’ with him,” Brandon reminisces.
Derringer went on to perform with Edgar Winter, and have a successful solo career as well and still performs to this day. He has recently been signed to play at this year’s Union City Arts Festival in September.
A small display of memorabilia from the McCoys can be seen at the Randolph County Museum in Winchester. These items were on the wall at the Pizza House when Ron and Kim were there. When the couple moved recently, they no longer had room for the items and donated them to the Museum that proudly displays this area’s contribution to Rock & Roll history.