By all accounts St. Xavier High School was a pretty buttoned-up place in the late 1960s: an all-male student body with a coat-and-tie dress code, daily Mass (confession optional), and a special Jesuit brand of detention called J.U.G., or Justice Under God (still in place today; ditto for the all-male thing). The chief rule enforcer back then was Patrick J. Boyle, S.J., the school’s assistant principal and unofficial dean of discipline, legendary for incidents like sending boys home mid-day for a haircut if their locks even grazed the tops of their shirt collars.
At the very same time, out in the world-at-large, the times they were a-changin’, as the song lyrics sort of go. Between war, devastating assassinations, increasingly violent protests, political theater, and even the world’s first manned lunar orbit, 1968 in particular would end up being one of the most pivotal and tumultuous years in recent U.S. history. High school and college students nationwide had begun advocating vehemently for a freer, less restrictive, and more open society; in the process they’d also managed to usher in a new era of rock music that aptly reflected the times (sex, drugs, et al). Such was the cultural landscape when St. X’s class of 1968 entered its senior year and a new principal, Father Ed Smith, arrived on campus for—among many other things—his first meetings with the student council.
One of the group’s first orders of business: planning the prom. For as long as anyone could remember, it had been a seniors-only event, separate from the junior prom and usually held at a place like the Music Hall ballroom or the Vernon Manor Inn, with young men and women in formal attire, a sedate local dance band, and Jesuit chaperones. That year, though, someone decided it was time to change things up, and convinced the two classes to combine their proms; if they did, they were promised, a nationally known rock band could play at the event.
Some say the plan was hatched by a fearless junior named Rip Pelley, with an almost inexplicable connection to music industry insiders. Some say the rock band idea was a proverbial olive branch offered by Father Smith, who’d requested the combination prom in an effort to save money, or because he’d done it that way at his previous school. Either way, what came next is the stuff of legend: The Yardbirds ended up playing the 1968 St. Xavier High School Junior-Senior prom. Lead guitarist? Rolling Stone magazine’s third-greatest guitarist of all time, Jimmy Page.
HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN
Combining the proms was not an idea St. X seniors initially appreciated. In fact, says then–senior class president Pete Ruehlmann, student council members knew many of their senior classmates wouldn’t be interested in sharing their “special night.” Ultimately, the class of 1968 voted and approved the change by a narrow margin; a big part of the incentive for those on the fence, says former student body vice president Tom Keefe, was that concept of “a nationally recognized name band. What genre? Rock and roll, absolutely. How big? Someone that, if you turned on WSAI, it was gonna be a band on the radio.” But who that band would be or how an all-boys Catholic high school in Cincinnati was going to get hold of them, no one really knew. Enter Rip Pelley.
RIP PELLEY, ’69
I was president of the junior student council. I was [also] a guitar player in a music group locally called Uncle Sam’s Population; we were far from the best group in town, but we weren’t that bad. But I actually had an agent, Stan Hertzman, who used to book me into these small, little $100-a-night gigs.
TOM KEEFE, ’68 student body vice president
Once the decision was made that [the prom] was gonna go combo, it was almost a jumping-off point [for] Rip Pelley, this junior. I knew Rip; many of us did. Rip had this unbelievable connection for a 16- or 17-year-old with the music industry.
All I was told was, “Go get the information, and we’ll vote on it.” I called [Stan] up and I said I need to book a big band, and he gave me the name of an agency in New York. So I called that agent and I said, “Give me a list of groups that might be available to play our prom and what their prices might look like.”
As strange as [it] might sound, there was a process he went through. My sense is that he would report back [to student council]: I tried this one and it isn’t gonna work or The money isn’t right, or whatever.
Long story short, we settled on the Grass Roots. The [Jesuit] prefect [for student council] heard the music—I think “Midnight Confessions” and a couple other hits; they were conservative enough that the priest was OK with it. But one of the rules was that I also had to get a bubble band—an orchestra, [like on] The Lawrence Welk Show [with] the bubbles, right?—to play in between the two 45-minute sets that the rock band was going to play. It just so happened the girl I was dating at the time, Patti Purdy, her father had an orchestra. You gotta get in with the family, right? [Laughs.] So he got the nod. They were a good, well-known group around town, performed all over Cincinnati and the region.
PATTI PURDY CHARLES, ’69 Regina High School
My dad had been playing music forever; I think we were his first prom. [His orchestra] was, I don’t know, six people, maybe five. My dad played clarinet and saxophone; there was a drummer and probably a keyboard player. They played what we would call grown-up music at the time—jazz and covers of people’s work. Rip probably thought my dad would be easy on the price, and I’m sure he was. And they knew each other. Not well, but they did know each other; we had been dating for a while.
The contracts were signed. Everything was great and fine and wonderful until I got a call from the agent in New York. It might’ve been like a month or two [before prom], and he said that something came up with the Grass Roots. I can’t remember if it was an illness or a scheduling conflict—whatever. All I remember is, I was looking up the phone number to Moeller High School to see if I could get in. So he said to me, “Well, I got a substitute that I think you’re gonna like: the Yardbirds.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s gotta be the same price.” He said, “You got it. It’s the same price.”
DAN TEMMING, ’69
You have to understand: Rebellion hadn’t really crept into the dialogue yet, but they were not your standard British Invasion–type band, like The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits—groups you used to hum along to on the radio when their songs were played. The Yardbirds were a far more edgy band, based in blues and rhythm and blues. They had had some top 40 hits. The difference for me and some other guys—we kinda knew the bloodline that this band had in terms of guitar players. They started out with Top Topham, then he left and Eric Clapton joined the band until they got their first hit. Then Jeff Beck came along and played on most of their other top 40 hits, and then he left. By that time they’re an international band and Jimmy Page, who basically was a session musician in London, hooked up with them.
So, knees knocking, I had to go back in and present this to the student council and the prefect. And it was kind of mixed. Some guys were like, Who? The prefect made me walk with him through the hallways asking people what they thought about the Yardbirds.
PAUL NELSON, former St. Xavier Director of Development and student council adviser
The principal, Father [Smith], and dean of discipline, Father Boyle were pretty law-and-order oriented. I suspect both of them knew as much about the Yardbirds as I did—not a thing.
But we were out of time, right? So I just kinda said, “Look, this is a really good group from England. And the guitar player is great, and blah, blah, blah.” However it got worked out, whether it was my art of the deal or whatever it was, we went with ’em.
There was really quite a great deal of trust put in student judgment. Not that [administrators] didn’t check and verify, [but] they were really trusting the students wanted to do something good.
KEVIN “CASEY” McKEOWN, ’69
Rip sold the whole deal to the student council. I always said Rip could sell a snowball to an Eskimo; he was very persuasive.
He could do anything for his age. He was pretty remarkable.
Rip really was a unique player in this entire process. He knew the right guy, who knew the right [band]. It was Rip working his connections. And daggonit, we went from a concept to: Rip Pelley got the Yardbirds!
THE DAY OF THE PROM
The Yardbirds’ lineup since December 1966 had been Keith Relf, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, and Jimmy Page. “Incessant touring,” wrote The Yardbirds author Alan Clayson, was a way of life for the band as they began their eighth U.S. tour in March 1968, playing at everything from Alabama’s International Speedway Fairgrounds to coliseums and college campuses (they also allegedly visited one other high school that year, in Connecticut, for a “senior class concert,” per Clayson’s book). The night before the St. X prom, they taped a performance in Cleveland for a national TV show called Upbeat.
Here in Cincinnati, Pelley had secured a special location for the prom performance: the brand new $10 million Convention Center, which had just opened in 1967. “With St. X students from all over town,” says Pelley, “I thought it was a good centralized location.”
There is no written budget from the event, but between the convention center, the orchestra, and the Yardbirds (who former student council members estimate cost somewhere between $2,000 and $2,800), “we had, like, $2 left over for programs,” says prom emcee Joe Albanese. The event was a major expense, considering St. X tuition back then was $300 per year. Whether it was funded by ticket sales, the school, or some combination of the two, no one fully remembers, but the prom’s price tag definitely raised a few eyebrows, says Paul Nelson, who notes some in the St. X community felt “that money could probably be spent in some better way.” Either way, the prom was settled and things were sailing along smoothly again until Pelley got another phone call just days before the dance, this time from the Yardbirds’ publicist.
I got a call from the Epic Records promotion person in Cincinnati at the time, Julie Godsey. She said to me, “I’ve gotta go out of town, can you do me a favor and pick the band up at the airport?” I’m like, You gotta be kidding me, right? I had a ’67 Mustang that could fit all of three people. So [on prom day] I got Casey McKeown and his girlfriend Diane Smith [now Bossee] in his car and me in my car headed over to CVG to pick up this group. And this had to be 2 or 3 in the afternoon, just hours before the gig.
Rip was excited, so I was excited, too. He thought it was like the best thing in the world to have to put them in his car.
Being the guitar player, I took Jimmy Page; he threw his guitar in the trunk of my car and hopped in to the back seat. Here I am in my tux, my gal friend Patti in her formal dress, and he got in the back seat and said, “Why are you dressed like that?” I said, “You’re playing our prom.” He goes, “What’s a prom?” He might’ve used a little more colorful language. He says, “You gotta be kidding me.” But he was really friendly. We all went to the hotel, wherever they were staying downtown, and they had us come up to the room. They were very nice. I don’t think any of us thought we would end up in a hotel room with the world-famous Yardbirds.
Jimmy Page was a little confounded by our clothing, like, “What are you guys dressed up for? And where are we going?” We were all pretty quiet. He had a very heavy accent—they all did. We did take them to their hotel, and that was kinda weird. I thought it was a little strange for a girl to be in their hotel room, but it was fine. I cannot remember if Diane was there or not. She may have been. I hope she was.
Diane was there. There were a whole bunch of people, five or six of us. We didn’t stay for long.
I was 16 years old, and I was just starstruck. Those guys were my idols. The girl I was with, Diane, was a looker, so they made [the autographs] out to her—From the Yardbirds, to Diane—and then they each individually signed [my prom program].
No one remembers how the band actually got to the convention center, but they arrived on time and ready to play. Awaiting them were a UC engineering student named Myles Kitchen and other members of local band The Crooked Mile, who’d been hired to do the lighting; a dance floor that some prom-goers swore was actually plywood on top of carpet; and a space that had been decorated by prom committee members and their moms the afternoon before, says committee member Steve Doepker, with trees scattered throughout the room, to fit the evening’s Scarborough Fair theme (in reference to Simon & Garfunkel’s hit song). The Dick Purdy Orchestra and the Yardbirds alternated playing; sometime in between, parents helped crown the prom king and queen.
There is no known surviving set list from that night, and Kitchen’s attempts at creating a bootleg tape of the Yardbirds’ performance were thwarted by the band. But the group played some of their biggest hits, wrote student Tom VonderBrink, ’69, in a letter years later: “Smokestack Lightning”; “Over, Under, Sideways, Down”; and an early version of “Dazed and Confused,” a song Page later played with Led Zeppelin. Photos also show Page playing his guitar with a violin bow at the event—a unique method he employed during his time with Led Zeppelin as well.
JOE ALBANESE, ’68 Master of Ceremonies/Prom Emcee
I guess I was the so-called ringleader. I went up there and said hello—I think Dick Purdy played first. I didn’t have anything prepared to say, so I was just winging it. And when the orchestra took a break, that’s when I probably went backstage and asked the boys if they were ready. I met the band backstage and, as you might imagine, they were flying pretty high. I didn’t take a urinalysis or anything like that, but each of them had a giant paper Pepsi cup filled to the brim with scotch and ice.
During the evening, I had to go retrieve [chaperone] Father Garvey over in the dressing room for the Yardbirds. I forget what I had to talk to him about, but I went into the room and all the Yardbirds were in there. They had their own bar set up and my eyes got about as big as saucers. They had every drink available to them, whereas we were sipping soft drinks, naturally. I thought, Man, they must have had all this written into their contract.
I couldn’t understand a word they were saying because of their British accents. The lead singer was really an attractive guy and had this real thick bowl haircut; he was short so I kind of identified with him. And Jimmy Page was sitting down; he’s really tall, and real long hair, and he mumbled a couple of things—honest to God, I don’t know what he said. Anyway, I kind of said, “OK, well, you’re on!” So I went out and introduced the Yardbirds.
We didn’t see them until they actually came out on stage. They certainly looked different. They had long hair [and] I remember one of them was wearing a very—I call it a puffy shirt, if you recall the Seinfeld episode about the puffy shirt. It had kind of billowing sleeves and was real loosely fit and interesting. They each dressed to their own style.
Everybody [at the prom] had on a formal dress or, for guys, a tux. I wore a long pink dress; I didn’t wear formals every day, so it was pretty exciting to me. Although, when you compare it to what the Yardbirds wore, it was a little overdone. They looked like you thought a British band would look. They were dressed like . . . yardbirds.
The thing I remember most is people just stood there and watched. They’re not a dance band, number one. But number two, you have to understand there was a wide demographic at St. Xavier High School at that time; a lot of the people, particularly probably the seniors, weren’t ready for the type of music and the volume that they were gonna play.
We didn’t really dance so much as stand around and look at ’em. Their music wasn’t all that danceable. But I thought it was exciting.
It did have a concert feel to it in the sense that some of the songs were very difficult to dance to: Is this a fast dance? Is this a slow dance? Is this a stand-and-watch? There were probably those kinds of evaluations taking place throughout the event.
Everybody just wanted to see ’em, you know? I think at that time we probably knew maybe half the songs that were popular—the other half were songs we really didn’t know. And if I remember correctly, I think they did a lot of jamming, too.
Most of the dates were shocked at the type of music, I guess, and the volume. That would be the best way to put it. Nobody walked out or anything, but just as a general reaction a lot of us thought, Wow, this is really, really loud—not your typical prom music. Which is the reaction I would have expected.
MIKE WHITE, ’68 prom committee chairman; prom court
They were loud, I do remember that. Blowing it down. Well, they had a bunch of Fender stacks; you get a Fender stack, crank it up to about 80—you could blow the back windows out of a place.
I was surprised they were using Fender Showman amps—those were the biggest, most powerful, loudest amps of that time. It was very loud. Of course, being a guitar player, I was really interested in [Jimmy Page’s] guitar, his second iteration of customizing [his Fender Telecaster]. It was a white guitar originally, and he stripped it down to bare wood. At first he just put some mirrors on the pick guard; he played it that way in ’67. In ’68, probably not long before this tour, he decided to change it and he stripped it, painted it. It’s got, like, red and green flames; it was kind of an abstract, almost like a dragon, combining with fire. I was awestruck at seeing one of my guitar heroes right there in front of me. Quite an experience.
They were on a stage that was just—you step up one step off the floor and you were on the stage. It’s not like going to a concert hall and watching them; you could almost reach out and touch ’em.
TOM SCHEPER, ’68 prom king
What I remember in my mind is Jimmy Page going crazy and playing like he’s on fire; that was kind of a summary of how that performance went—very upbeat, very exciting, loud, something we hadn’t seen before in person. Certainly a lot more enthused than many other proms, where it’s kind of background music playing. This certainly wasn’t that. A great atmosphere. It really was.
It was a hell of a show, I just have to say. After 45 minutes [in the second set], they were gone—no encores. They got done playing and they left, and that was that.
I think I was more like an expectant mother, running around panicked—gotta make sure they showed up, and they were on time, and everything was cool, and no broken amplifiers or microphones. And same thing with the orchestra. I got my girlfriend’s father playing and I got the Yardbirds playing and, you know, my neck was in a lasso if it failed. [Thankfully] it came off great.
Not everybody was a Yardbirds fan or not everybody was into ’60s rock and roll, which is perfectly fine. When they got done, I guess half the crowd was relieved and the other half was totally blown away.
My dad, Allan White, was news director at WCPO for years and years; I was surprised [he] didn’t send somebody over and it didn’t make the news. [When I told him], “The Yardbirds are coming!” he goes, “That’s the silliest name for a band I’ve ever heard.”
As unique a situation as it was for us—a combined prom, a national band—for them it had to be equally unique. We’d gone to proms before. I’m guessing the Yardbirds never went to a prom before and never went to a prom after.
I know I had a date. I guess I didn’t pay much attention to my date. Oh, well. You can’t win ’em all.
In the May issue of the school’s monthly Prep Magazine, a St. Xavier student noted two English teachers had their classes write essays on whether or not they liked the prom. “Out of virtually one hundred papers,” he wrote, “only five or six expressed dissatisfaction”; of those, the complaints included that the Yardbirds were “too fast,” “too loud,” and that their songs were “off-color,” writes the author, “meaning, I suppose, that there were references to kissing and holding hands in them. I, too,” he adds, sarcastically, “was embarrassed by these outrageous references to basic love.”
One other student editorial published after the prom notes that the money spent on the event could have paid eight students’ tuitions and “completely failed to convey the atmosphere one would expect at a formal dance.” But in a response published in Prep Magazine, Steve Doepker wrote that the prom was “designed to break tradition” and “had all the markings of being the best X ever had. . . . My opinion,” he adds, “also seems to be the general consensus on this subject.”
It was a tale of two cities, you know? Some people just thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and other people thought it was not what they envisioned a prom should be. But I think, overall, for the most part, they thought it was successful.
[The reaction to prom] was split. A lot of folks who love rock and roll thought it was the coolest thing in the world. The folks who really weren’t big rock and roll fans? They just kinda shrugged it off.
I think a lot of people really wanted to be able to go to that prom—it was a big deal. What it was gonna be, no one was really sure. But the fact [is], it was gonna be different.
If you had asked people to vote afterward, it would have been near unanimous that it was worth giving up our “special night.” I can remember these guys saying, “We waited three years for this special night.” It turned out to be a special night probably more so than any of us envisioned on the front end.
I think what was remarkable to me is that Rip was able to get them, and if it hadn’t been the Yardbirds it would have been someone else who was touring. It’s part of being with Rip. He makes things happen.
Unbeknownst to us, it wasn’t six weeks or two months later that that particular lineup broke up. And then in July of that year, Page put together that little band called Led Zeppelin.
[Our prom] was certainly precedent-setting for that day and age. In hindsight, who knew Jimmy Page was gonna go on and be the number three guitar player ever? So that’s like beyond, beyond an honor. If the Yardbirds would have just faded away and Jimmy Page would have just faded away, it might not have been as big of an event as the fact that you look back and you go, Hey! Led Zeppelin’s guitar player played our prom!
I didn’t know who Jimmy Page was at the time. Looking back, that’s kind of an earth-shattering event to say, “Yeah, we had rock and roll hall of famers play our prom.”
For those of us who lived and died by the rock and roll LP, Jimmy Page playing at our prom and then going on to achieve this stratospheric stardom with Led Zeppelin . . . I’m going, Why bother telling anybody? They’re not gonna believe you anyway. So it’s just kinda like our little secret.
I used to tell my kids Jimmy Page played my high school prom and they said, “Oh, that’s bullcrap.” I had a book on the Yardbirds and in the back of the book was a list of all the concert dates they ever did. And the April 1968 date is listed in there.
Do you know Ken Broo? He was a TV sportscaster who also had a radio show. A couple years ago I was riding home from work, and he said [on air]: “I just got a call from a guy who said the Yardbirds played at their senior prom. I don’t know what that guy’s drinking.” Like, Sure, there’s no way they got the Yardbirds to play at their prom. And, you know, [he] just kept making fun of it. So I hope he reads this article.
[Eventually] the Yardbirds reformed. In 2007, [they came] through Santa Cruz, to Moe’s Alley, which is a blues club. I said, “I’ve gotta go!” So I went, and it was loud. Again. [Laughs.] Two originals were still with the band. Afterward, they were selling T-shirts and CDs. I said, “Hey guys, you played a high school prom in Cincinnati—do you remember?” They acted like they did; they remembered it being in a convention center downtown and they thought it was odd that it was a high school prom.
I think as the years have gone on, the story becomes perhaps even larger than the event itself.
The greatest prom you’ve never heard of.
Special thanks to St. Xavier archivists Karl Hauck and Nick Kemper, who assisted extensively with research for this story, and to Andy Sweeney, who facilitated those connections.