The Dixie Dregs are an instrumental group whose music blended jazz and Southern boogie with a healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll. “One of the top jazz-rock fusion ensembles ever,” wrote Steve Huey of All Music Guide, “the Dixie Dregs combined virtuoso technique with eclecticism and a sense of humor and spirit too frequently lacking in similar projects.” Following in the wake of Chick Corea and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, they played guitar, violin, keyboards, bass, and drums at breakneck speed in original compositions. The group received six Grammy Award nominations for Best Instrumental Performance; their outstanding live performances earned them an invitation to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1978. Although the group originally disbanded in 1982, the Dregs (the group shortened its name in 1980) reunited in 1988 and have continued to tour and record.
Neither guitarist/composer Steve Morse nor bassist Andy West came from the South, but both moved to Augusta, Georgia in the mid-1960s; Morse had been playing the guitar for five years when he met West at Richmond Academy in the tenth grade. They found a keyboard player and a singer, and formed the Dixie Grits. The band played locally, though its progressive originals failed to win over local crowds expecting dance music. “After the Dixie Grits broke up,” Morse told Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player, “all that was left was Andy and me, so we were the dregs. ” Morse left the Richmond Academy, forced out because of his long hair, but was still allowed to study music at the University of Miami. There he met drummer Rod Morgenstein and violinist Allen Sloan. When the three decided to form a band in 1975, West came to Miami and they recorded their unofficial debut, The Great Spectacular, for a class project. The band added keyboardist Steve Davidowski and decided to take their music public.
After graduation, the band moved back to Augusta, living frugally in rental property owned by West’s parents. They played at a local club called the Whipping Post and built a reputation in the South as a potent live act. “Proof of the Dregs’ artistry is found in its live recordings,” wrote Patrick McCarty in MusicHound Rock. “With fast tempo, rhythm, melody and key changes, the group members’ potent musicianship rings clear without a lot of processing or chicanery.” The band’s break came when they opened for Sea Level in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1976. The Dixie Dregs’ set so impressed Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for Sea Level, and Twiggs Lyndon, former road manager to the Allman Brothers, that they contacted Phil Walden of Capricorn Records, who caught a performance in Macon, Georgia. Just before Christmas of 1976 the band signed with Capricorn and hired Lyndon as their road manager.
In 1977 the Dixie Dregs entered the studio and recorded their official debut, Free Fall. “Freefall (sic) features a good mix of southern rock, bluegrass and jazz styles,” wrote Guitar Nine, “but sounds more jazz oriented and funky than other Dixie Dregs recordings.” While Stewart Levine’s background in jazz made him a good fit as producer, the band was somewhat disappointed with the album’s sound. Before recording What If in 1978, Mark Parish replaced Davidowski on keyboards and Ken Scott was brought on board as producer. Scott had worked with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jeff Beck, and his hands-off approach went over well with the band. What If pleased the critics: “This is music without labels,” wrote Daniel Gioffre of All Music Guide, “emotional and logical at the same time, passionately played and immaculately conceived.” Music-Hound Rock agreed: “With its funky, shifting tempos on Ice Cakes’; a country, funk grin on ‘Ginia Lola Breakdown’; and the sweeping ‘Night Meets Light…,’” wrote McCarty, “the Dregs flex an impressive amount of creative muscle.”
The band’s growing reputation led to an invitation to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1978. Although they were well received, they felt a certain amount of pressure: this was their first European show and the live tracks would be used for an upcoming album. Scott also produced Night of the Living Dregs, combining the live material with studio tracks for the 1979 release. Tragedy struck that year, however, when road manager and mentor Lyndon was killed in a skydiving accident. As a manager, Lyndon had kept the band disciplined and focused, and his loss signaled a new phase for the band. They switched to Arista Records in 1980, shortened their name to the Dregs, and added an old Miami schoolmate, T. Lavitz, to replace Parrish on the keyboards.
Members include Stephen Davidowski (left group, 1977), keyboards; T. Lavitz (joined group, 1978), keyboards; Rod Morgenstein, drums; Steve Morse, guitar; Mark O’Connor (joined group, 1981), violin; Mark Parrish (left group, 1977), keyboards; Allen Sloan (left group, 1980), violin; Andy West, bass.
Group formed in Miami, FL, recording debut The Great Spectacular for a class project at the University of Miami School of Music, 1975; relocated to Augusta after graduation, performed throughout the South; signed with Capricorn Records after opening for Sea Level, 1976; keyboard player Mark Parrish replaced Stephen Davidowski for group’s official debut, Free Fall, 1977; received critical praise for follow-up album, What If, 1978; issued Night of the Living Dregs, featuring live excerpts, 1979; signed to Arista Records, changed name to the Dregs, 1980; recorded Dregs of the Earth, 1980; Unsung Heroes, 1981; added violinist Mark O’Connor for Industry Standard, 1982; group disbanded for six years before reuniting briefly, 1988; reunited, 1992; recorded Bring ‘em Back Alive, 1992; Full Circle, 1994; and California Screamin’, 2000.
While the group had a steady following, sales rarely exceeded 100,000 copies. Steve Morse decided to save money by sitting in the producer’s chair for the next three albums, Dregs of the Earth in 1980, Unsung Heroes in 1981, and Industry Standard in 1982. The latter broadened the band’s eclectic style still further with fiddler Mark O’Connor replacing Sloan. “This incarnation of the band is actually the strongest one musician-wise,” writes Daniel Gioffre of All Music Guide, “with master fiddler Mark O’Connor… making strong solo and ensemble statements.” In an effort to please their record company, two tracks on Industry Standard included vocals by Patrick Simmons of the Doobie Brothers and Alex Ligertwood, an ex-Santana member. These changes, however, failed to increase record sales and even alienated some longtime fans. Overworked and mired in management difficulties, the band decided to call it quits after playing a New Year’s Eve show in 1982.
While the band occasionally regrouped for performances in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they waited until 1994 for a new studio album. “The stars lined up and the eclipse happened,” manager Frank Solomon told Amusement Business. “The guys had remained good friends even though they split up to see what else they could do [individually].” Interestingly, Capricorn, the group’s original label, issued both Bring ‘em Back Alive, an album of live material culled from an earlier tour in 1992, and 1994’s Full Circle. The band also changed its name back to the Dixie Dregs.
In 2000 the band recorded California Screamin’, something of a reunion that featured past and present members of the band. “They may not record in the studio very often any more,” wrote Bill Meredith of All Music Guide, “but CDs like California Screamin’ do what live albums are supposed to—make you remember the event if you were there, and wish you’d been there if you weren’t.” With new recordings, Grammy Award nominations, and live performances, the Dixie Dregs continue to build on their legacy as one of the top jazz-fusion outfits.
Free Fall, Polydor, 1977.
What If, Polydor, 1978.
Night of the Living Dregs, Polydor, 1979.
Dregs of the Earth, Arista, 1980.
Unsung Heroes, Arista, 1981.
Industry Standard, Arista, 1982.
Bring ‘em Back Alive, Capricorn, 1992.
Full Circle, Capricorn, 1994.
California Screamin’, Zebra, 2000.
Ferguson, Jim, editor, The Guitar Player Book, GPI Publications, 1983.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Amusement Business, July 11, 1994, p. 6.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 7, 2001).
“Dixie Dregs ‘Freefall,’” Guitar Nine, http://www.guitar9.com (December 7, 2001).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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