In the summer of 1978, I got my first paying DJ job, spinning tunes one night a week at the roller rink in my hometown. Although it was cool to be up there in the DJ booth with all the equipment, apart from that, the job wasn’t very glamorous. I got paid practically nothing, in cash, straight out of the till. If there were two dozen people there, it was a good night.
The owner of the place was a nice guy, and at least one week he took out a newspaper ad saying that MHS disc jockey Jim Bartlett would be spinning tunes there. He occasionally gave me advice on music, though, and it became pretty clear pretty fast that his taste was vastly different from mine. And whenever he suggested something, I’d feel conflicted. He owned the place and paid me my pittance each week, but it was my show, and I presumed that he’d hired me because I had some degree of expertise. Sometimes he’d bring in records he wanted me to play. I only remember one of them: “Witchi Tai-To” by Everything Is Everything. “This was a Number-One hit,” he insisted, even though I knew beyond doubt that it wasn’t. Conflicted or not, I played it, although I’m sure that the audience (made up mostly of pre-teen girls) didn’t care about it. And after that night in 1978, I wouldn’t hear it again for maybe 30 years.
“Witchi Tai-To” by Everything Is Everything was not a Number-One hit. It was a Top-10 hit in Columbus and just nicked the Top 10 in Detroit, and it made the Top 20 from Sarasota, Florida, to Phoenix, Arizona, to St. Thomas, Ontario, to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, in the winter of 1969. It climbed to Number 61 in Cash Box and 69 in Billboard. The song was written by group member Jim Pepper, who was a jazzman by trade and a fairly avant-garde one, influenced by Ornette Coleman, among others. Pepper’s jazz associates encouraged him to explore his Native American roots in his music, and “Witchi Tai-To” is the most famous piece that resulted. It’s based on a peyote chant Pepper learned from his grandfather.
The song was quickly covered by several other acts, most famously the folk-rock duo Brewer and Shipley, who recorded a superlative seven-minute version after they heard the original late one night on KAAY from Little Rock, Arkansas. Up here in Wisconsin, it was cut by the Ladds, a LaCrosse-area group. Their version was picked up for national release by the Bang label, but Bang apparently decided that the Ladds was too generic a name. Bang renamed the group Today’s Tomorrow, and their “Witchi Tai-To” is said to have topped the charts at WOKY in Milwaukee for a month in the spring of 1970, although I can’t find the charts themselves to back it up. Their version is also pretty faithful to the original.
It’s only been a couple of months since I wrote briefly about “Witchi Tai-To.” I’m doing it again today because I heard the song the other day, and I can’t get the damn thing out of my head. No matter who does it, “Witchi Tai-To” is alluring and seductive, the sort of thing that would enhance, or maybe even provoke, a mystical, spiritual experience.
Maybe that’s why the roller-rink guy dug it so much all those years ago: peyote.