Pearl Handle

by | Apr 28, 2024 | Uncategorized

Lost and Found: The Case of the Missing Album

50 years ago guitarist/vocalist George Milspaugh, guitarist Dan Hurc, bass player Mickey Gentile and drummer Dean Aliotta got together to play at a Halloween barn party in rural Waterman, Illinois back in 1974. That was the birth of Pearl Handle. After honing their chops at colleges and in clubs for a few years, they headed to Nashville to record an album. But before it could get released, the label and studio went out of business. A few years later, to everyone in the band’s surprise, while a friend was thumbing through cassette tapes at a truck stop, what did he find? A Pearl Handle tape! How did this happen?

Emerging in the ‘70s, Pearl Handle set themselves apart from most of the other club bands who were trying to be the next rock stars with their Southern rock/outlaw country influences that proved popular. Dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, and George in his wide-brimmed western hat, you’d think they were from Texas, not Chicago.

               Milspaugh started gigging in bands back in high school. He sowed his roots in the Kiwis, Captain Soul and Cox’s Army. Hurc and Aliotta, had already teamed in Hoona with Dean’s brother Ted. Gentile had just returned home after his college years at Southern Illinois University. Hurc, who had started out on bass, had moved over to guitar giving Pearl Handle dual guitar lead capabilities, especially important when they covered the Southern rock sounds of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

               On stage, Milspaugh fronted the band. His large physical presence with a gruff appearance while swigging down some Jack Daniels reminiscent of a roadhouse rowdy, he had a personality that you would never want to get into a bar fight with him, but if you were with someone else, he would be the first to back you up. His piercing, vibrato-soaked, in your face vocals; dynamic slide guitar chops and limber, high-kicking stage antics were the driving force of the band.

               After six years sharpening their stage presence opening for Journey and Van Halen and building a repertoire of original material, it was time to head into the studio and cut an album.

               “We got an offer from Sunbird Records,” remembers Milspaugh in an interview with Sweet Home Music. “We sent them a demo of our songs and that’s what started the whole session.”

They would head to Nashville. Working with producer Nelson Larkin of Sunbird Records, and famed country studio engineer Ron “Snake” Reynolds, they were armed with a set of originals along with a couple of songs offered up by their producer. The tracks were cut, mostly one-take sessions. They didn’t get finished before the band had to head back on the road.

“We were told we would return to finish everything in a couple weeks,” according to Milspaugh. But then, “We never heard from the studio after we returned to Chicago,” only to find out Sunbird went out of business and the band was not able to recover the tapes.

“We never heard another thing about those recordings until three or four years later. A friend of mine had called and he had just returned from a trip to Nashville. He told me he was in a record store checking out cassettes in the bargain bin, and he saw the Pearl Handle ‘Brylen’ tape.”

No one in the band had any idea. Apparently, Brylen Records, a small independent Nashville label, had gained access to the Sunbird tapes and released a seven-song album Pearl Handle (Brylen 4420) in 1982 (That “bootlegged” album now fetches $60+ in collector circles).

The trail for the Pearl Handle band seemed to end there. Disappointed after the loss of their record, and the band worn down from the years on the road, it was time to take a break.

Milspaugh would just take a break, working jobs as a bouncer and bartender at Lincoln Avenue bars. Gentile and Hurc continued on as the rhythm section for Dirt’s Raiders, a post-Boyzz band formed by their frontman ‘Dirty’ Dan Buck. They would get a demo deal offer from Atlantic Records, but that deal would also fizzle out.

None of those were full-time jobs. Mickey Gentile had taken a day job with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic where he would hold down a marketing position. Ironically, Sunbird studio producer Nelson Larkin had been named President of WEA Nashville in charge of the Atlantic Records’ country catalog. Gentile bumped into him at a company convention and inquired about the Pearl Handle tapes. No resolved was reached in that conversation, but mysteriously a while later, the original Pearl Handle tapes were delivered to Gentile’s doorstep.

Gentile sat on those tapes, not really knowing what to do with them. Then another part of Pearl Handle’s past came to light. Pre-Pearl Handle Milspaugh had been in Cox’s Army. They had released a single in 1971 on the local Chaparral label. In recent years, that record has been fetching upwards of $100 in record collector circles.

That caught the attention of Riding Easy Records, a boutique label that specializes in the reissuance of retro material. Interested in Pearl Handle, Gentile and Hurc pulled the tapes out and had them remastered. While the “bootleg” Brylen album contained seven songs, the Riding Easy release includes all 12 songs the band recorded. The purpose of releasing the album now is for the preservation of the legacy of Pearl Handle as well as to pay an homage to Milspaugh who passed away in November. The album is now available via various streaming outlets with physical copies (CDs/LPs) due sometime this summer.