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50 years ago in a high school gym, this no-name band became Aerosmith

Aerosmith at Nipmuc Regional High School in Mendon, Nov. 6, 1970, the first time Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and their bandmates performed under that name.
Aerosmith at Nipmuc Regional High School in Mendon, Nov. 6, 1970, the first time Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and their bandmates performed under that name.Courtesy of Ed Malhoit

The band had been playing together for a few months, and they were getting pretty good. But they could not for the life of them decide on a name.

The young guitar player led a previous group called Flash, and another known as the Jam Band. The singer had one back in New York called Chain Reaction, previously known as the Strangeurs. Now they were billing themselves in a plain brown wrapper, as “Joe’s new band” or “Steven’s new band.”

That, they knew, couldn’t last. How about Spike Jones, after the novelty bandleader? Too confusing. The Hookers? Uh, nope.

In high school, the drummer had toyed with the word Arrowsmith, from the Sinclair Lewis novel. What about a retrofitted version of that?

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“It was the only name nobody didn’t like,” recalls Joe Perry, the guitarist. “Nobody could think of anything the matter with it.”

As it turned out, the name has served Perry’s band well. Within a few years, he and the singer Steven Tyler and their band mates perfected a rock ‘n’ roll swagger that took cues from the Rolling Stones and would go on to influence Van Halen and Guns N' Roses. Having established themselves as one of the best-selling rock bands of all time, Aerosmith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

It’s been 50 years since the band’s first appearance with the name. That show, on Nov. 6, 1970, took place at the old Nipmuc Regional High School, now a middle school, in Mendon.

Joe Perry grew up in nearby Hopedale. He’d met Steven Tyler — then still known by his birth name, Steven Tallarico — around the Lake Sunapee area of New Hampshire, where they both spent their summers. To pursue their rock ‘n’ roll dreams together, they’d moved into an apartment on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue with drummer Joey Kramer and bassist Tom Hamilton. (Guitarist Brad Whitford would join the band a little later, replacing Ray Tabano.)

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Aerosmith's Tom Hamilton and Steven Tyler in 2012, performing outside the Commonwealth Avenue apartment building where the band members lived when they first began performing together in 1970.
Aerosmith's Tom Hamilton and Steven Tyler in 2012, performing outside the Commonwealth Avenue apartment building where the band members lived when they first began performing together in 1970.Bill Greene

In those early months the band landed a lot of gigs around Perry’s hometown in Worcester County. With help from Dave Meade, a high school friend, they arranged some shows at the Hopedale Town Hall, and several more at the Lakeview Ballroom in Mendon. They got the gig at Nipmuc Regional through a young history teacher who was serving as the sophomore class adviser.

“The girls in the class were very friendly with the boys from Hopedale,” says Carl Olson, who is now retired. The students were tired of the usual “record hops.” Could they hire a band for the next dance?

Olson went to the principal to get permission. The band wanted $50 to play.

“His eyebrows kind of went up,” Olson remembers. “He was a very conservative gentleman, but he finally agreed.”

No one can quite recall what songs the newly christened Aerosmith played that night. They almost certainly played their versions of “Route 66” and “Train Kept a-Rollin’.” They may have played one or two originals — “Movin' Out,” maybe, or “Somebody,” both of which would appear on their debut album in 1973. (That’s the record that also features a certain power ballad with the name of “Dream On.”)

There were maybe 200 people on hand, says Meade, who was there. Other than Tyler’s complaint about how loud Perry was playing, the show was not particularly memorable. They had better shows at the Hopedale Town Hall, Meade says, which had exceptional acoustics.

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But the students, by all accounts, enjoyed themselves. Tyler took the stage wearing a Nipmuc Regional basketball T-shirt, which he’d pinched from the boys’ locker room. After the show, the janitors informed Olson that they’d found some empty bottles of cheap Boone’s Farm wine out behind the gym.

The golden anniversary of the first Aerosmith gig kicks off what the band hopes will be an extended period of retrospection, says Perry. They’re discussing an upcoming release that could showcase a recently discovered rehearsal tape from the period before the band was signed to Columbia Records. The original reel-to-reel tape turned up, Perry believes, in the band’s old van, a 1964 International Harvester Metro delivery truck. The van made news when it was pulled from the woods on private property in the town of Chesterfield a couple of years ago.

The original Aerosmith tour van, which was located in Chesterfield and later restored.
The original Aerosmith tour van, which was located in Chesterfield and later restored. The History Channel/Screenshot

“There was a lot of stuff tucked in the corners — ticket stubs, a notebook, gas receipts,” Perry explains, speaking by phone while lying in the sun at his Florida home. It’s a pristine recording, he says: “Even though some of the lyrics are different and it’s a little different in the arrangements, if you played it side by side with the first album, you might find it hard to figure out which is which.”

In those days, the band had a close relationship with Frank Connelly, the powerful concert promoter who’d brought the Beatles to Boston. They called him Father Frank. In turn, he gave each of the band members a nickname.

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According to Perry, Hamilton was “Low Gear.” Whitford was “Light Horse,” and Kramer, who loved the Three Stooges, was “Soitanly.” Tyler was “LM,” short for “Loudmouth.” And Connelly called Perry “Flash,” though he was unaware that was the name of one of the guitar player’s first bands.

In 2012, the city of Boston closed off a section of Commonwealth Avenue in front of the band’s old apartment for an afternoon promotional concert to mark the release of their most recent album, “Music From Another Dimension!” Tom Brady and Robert Kraft were on hand, and the band played on a flatbed truck for an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand.

“We thought a few people would show up, but they really rolled it out for us,” Perry says. “We were stunned.” They’d driven by the old apartment to reminisce once or twice before, he says.

“We had quite a few adventures there. Some made it into the books, and some didn’t,” he adds with a laugh.

Perry and his family recently sold the horse farm they kept for years in central Vermont, not far from where he once attended boarding school. He still has a house on the South Shore, in Duxbury, but with homes in the Sunshine State and Los Angeles, these days he’s rarely in New England.

He’s been meaning to get back to Hopedale for a trip down Memory Lane, he says.

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“It would be great to do a gig at the Town Hall again,” he says. “We’ll see.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.