Sloan Hayes played keyboards in the 1970s band Starbuck. The group’s bubbly pop hit “Moonlight Feels Right” soared to No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in 1976, and the fair-haired, 23-year-old Hayes found himself sporting beads, bellbottoms and wide lapels on stages all over the nation.
Starbuck performed alongside Electric Light Orchestra, Boston and other hit-makers of the day. The band headlined ’70s television showcases “American Bandstand,” “The Midnight Special,” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” “Moonlight Feels Right” poured out of radios throughout the summer of ’76.
After Starbuck disbanded in 1979, Hayes continued through various jobs and journeys to stitch together a colorful and remarkable personal history. He’s an iconic baby boomer — born in the gray-flannel ’50s, growing up in the turbulent ’60s, making a name for himself in the swinging ’70s. He put in time as a radio producer, a furniture retail clerk, a car salesman and even a blue-collar metal worker.
Now, almost five decades since he first enrolled at Georgia State, he’s back at the university — a bachelor’s degree already in hand and a master’s on the horizon next year. Hayes plans to be a high school history teacher, sharing the life and times he’s lived.
“I hated history in high school,” Hayes says. “But as I got older, I got more interested in it, partly because I realized I was living it. The civil rights era. Vietnam. Realizing all this was going to be in history books and taught in schools one day opened my eyes.”
Now he wants to open other eyes.
“It appears to me that the younger generations hate history as much as I did,” he says. “I think I know how to reach them and make it interesting, not laborious.”
HARMONY AND DISCORD
Hayes grew up in McDonough, Ga., about 30 miles south of Atlanta, where his family had run businesses around the town square for generations. He learned to play trombone in elementary school.
“I couldn’t read music,” Hayes confesses. “I just watched the hands of the kid next to me and did what he did.”
Like countless other 1960s kids, Hayes fell under the spell of the Beatles.
“I loved them,” he says. “I saw their movie ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ They were running around having fun, and I thought, ‘Man, it would be cool to live like that.’”
At school, Hayes switched to trumpet and mastered reading the treble clef, but that was all. For his entire career as a multi-instrumentalist — playing brass, flute, keyboards, synthesizer and harmonica — he can only read notation for the right hand.
By high school, he’d fallen in love with British progressive rockers Jethro Tull, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Inspired, he took up flute and experimented with keyboards and synthesizers.
He also started playing with local bands such as The Chateaus. (“We did nothing French,” Hayes says. “I didn’t even know what the name meant.”)
Notoriety found him early. Hayes joined The House of David, an ensemble that hooked up with The Four Counts, a black quartet in the spirit of The Four Tops. A mixed-race performance at the American Legion post scandalized segregated McDonough.
“People went crazy,” Hayes says. “When word spread, parents came and pulled their kids out.”
Hayes tasted discrimination firsthand.
“It quickly got to the point where we could only play black venues in little towns like Forsyth and Covington — dinky little dives with signs everywhere that said ‘Be 21 or Be Gone.’” he says. “But I wasn’t even out of high school.”
On Labor Day weekend in 1968, not long after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a 16-year-old Hayes and his black friends cruised the McDonough town square with Hayes leading a full-throated rendition of James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
“The police arrested us,” Hayes says. “A bunch of my friends went to the police department to ask why I’d been arrested, just sitting in the car. They were told, ‘For riding around with n——.’ The official charge was disturbing the peace. I later learned that the officer who arrested me approached someone about roughing me up and putting me in the hospital.”
After the incident, the young musician and friends approached his Presbyterian minister to ask for help defusing the situation.
“He turned white as a sheet,” Hayes remembers.
So, they went to Atlanta and met with Hosea Williams, civil rights leader and famed organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“After hearing our story, Hosea called a reporter at the Atlanta Constitution and said that he wanted to have marches through McDonough,” Hayes recalls. “I said, ‘Whoa, man. I don’t want to make things worse. We just want everyone to calm down.’ He got this disappointed look and called the reporter back: ‘Never mind.’”
It was like he was about to become part of history in the making — and then didn’t.
▲ Sloan Hayes plays the keys with Brother Bait at an informal dedication of Georgia State’s Library Plaza in 1971.
▼ Sloan Hayes plays the keys with Brother Bait at an informal dedication of Georgia State’s Library Plaza in 1971.
GIGS BEFORE BOOKS
With his constant dress-code violations making life difficult, the long-haired musician opted to finish his education elsewhere. Hayes commuted in his parents’ Oldsmobile Delta 88 to Clarkston Open Campus High School (“hippy high school” as Hayes describes it). He graduated at 17 and enrolled at Georgia State the next quarter, spring 1970.
Hayes wasn’t much of a student.
“I only started college because my friends were there, and I wanted to stay out of the Vietnam draft,” he admits. “I flunked out in the minimum amount of time.”
After getting into Georgia State again, he dropped out after a year when his new band, Brother Bait, drew a following and began to tour. The group, many of whom were attending Georgia State, even played at an informal dedication of Georgia State’s Library Plaza, a photo of which appeared in the Atlanta Journal on Oct. 1, 1971.
Brother Bait gigged from Michigan to Miami in the heyday of live music. They rambled in a compact car, equipment trailing in a bulky Ford Econoline van with a trailer. They had five members, roadies, a unique sound and, after two years of touring, burnout.
Hayes came home in 1973. He considered taking over his dad’s furniture store while he played lounges in Buckhead with a new trio, the Elgin Wells Extravaganza.
“Elgin kept talking about a marimba player he’d worked with, Bo Wagner, who was an amazing musician,” Hayes says. “Bo came back to Atlanta from California and started working with us. And that was the beginning of Starbuck.”
The group rented a farmhouse north of Atlanta between Marietta and Roswell that overlooked a lake and grazing horses. Band members lived together, wrote together and practiced together. The farm housed wives, kids, girlfriends, marimbas, Moogs, Wurlitzers, drum kits and everything else the musicians needed.
Percussionist Wagner brought in a tunesmith named Bruce Blackman, and they added players, dropped others and refined their sound. The group anchored a lively Underground Atlanta scene, tearing through covers of Stevie Wonder, ZZ Top and other ’70s pop hit-makers.
Hayes was building a reputation as a keyboardist, remembers Starbuck drummer Kenny Crysler.
“Sloan’s keyboard skills were ridiculous,” Crysler says. “He’s a fast player with a complex style. It didn’t seem like anything required practice. Whatever Sloan wanted to do, he just did it. He’s the best keyboard player I ever heard.”
All seven Starbuck members were good. And they knew it.
“It sounds weird, given the odds,” Hayes says, “but we genuinely believed we would be successful. We had no doubt. We were confident we were going somewhere. We didn’t say if we get a record deal. We said when we get a record deal.”
The confidence was justified. Starbuck caught lightning in a bottle.
▲ Left: Starbuck plays “Moonlight Feels Right” on “American Bandstand” on Aug. 28, 1976. Right: Sloan Hayes (second from left) with the band at a record signing in Boston.
▼ Starbuck plays “Moonlight Feels Right” on “American Bandstand” on Aug. 28, 1976.
▲ Sloan Hayes (second from left) with the band at a record signing in Boston.
MOONLIGHT IN THE LIMELIGHT
In late 1975, a Starbuck demo got the attention of Michael St. John, a deejay in Birmingham, Ala. He pronounced their single “Moonlight Feels Right” a summertime tune and promised to play it the following spring.
He kept his word. As weather warmed, the song aired. The phones at the station went crazy and the label sent 10,000 copies to Birmingham, which sold out in a week. “Moonlight Feels Right” got into rotation, and Starbuck traveled to promote it. At WQXI, the No. 1 Atlanta pop station, band members and girlfriends called in to request it. Annoyed, the station asked Starbuck to cease and desist, which they did. But the request lines kept ringing. Again, the station asked Starbuck to cut it out.
“It’s not us,” the band protested. “Those must be real requests.”
Sure enough, over the next six weeks, “Moonlight” set a record as the most-requested song in the station’s history. Starbuck had a hit.
Fittingly, they played their first major concert in Birmingham, opening for Electric Light Orchestra at the height of their popularity.
The band toured in a motor home, playing spades for endless hours. Coast to coast, Starbuck dazzled crowds of young fans. In Boston, Hayes even had his “Hard Day’s Night” moment — excited fans mobbed their car as Starbuck left a venue.
Starbuck played with the band Boston in Miami.
“It was like a mini-Woodstock,” Hayes says. “Tickets sold out, but the crowds charged in anyway. The venue held 20,000 people, but we played in front of 25,000 people that day.”
Pop stardom followed — television, concerts, backstage hobnobbing with pop idols. But then, as history often proves, all good things come to an end. Egos split the band. Hayes left in 1978. He played lounges and small venues around Atlanta for a few more years, even dabbling in urban cowboy music during that late ’70s craze.
“One night, I looked down at my watch,” Hayes says. “My hands were in exactly the same place on the keyboard as the night before, playing the exact same song. I felt like a worker on an assembly line. That was it for me.”
Hayes searched for his next passion. He would return to Georgia State three more times over three decades. He studied nutrition but didn’t finish. He studied commercial music but didn’t finish. He studied pre-engineering but didn’t finish. Between university stints, he tried odd jobs, most notably working at AM radio stations 680 The Fan as a producer and 750 WSB as a researcher for talk show host Neal Boortz.
By 2008, Hayes had nearly retired, but the Great Recession punished him. He took to manual labor but was soon jarred by another wake-up call.
“I was laid off as a bottom-of-the-barrel metal worker sanding burrs off pieces of steel,” he recalls. “That’s when I decided to go back to school.”
Hayes woke to the epiphany that his well-lived life really mattered, that his personal solo during the second half of the 20th century could instruct and educate people around him, especially high schoolers.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
In 2015, Hayes enrolled at Georgia State a fifth time, seeking a history degree, which he earned two years later. He took advantage of GSU-62, a program that waives tuition for students at least 62 years of age. Having already accumulated 120 hours over his many terms at Georgia State, Hayes simply intended to earn a degree quickly and get out.
But in the classrooms of associate professor John McMillian and other history faculty, Hayes began to think deeper. In summer 2018, he started work on a master’s degree in history before switching to a teaching track in the College of Education & Human Development. Now, still a student, he’s teaching 20 hours a week at Eagle’s Landing High School in McDonough. It’ll be 40 hours per week next semester.
Hayes has returned to his hometown, which, back in the ’60s, wanted him to get an education elsewhere. McMillian, who taught Hayes in graduate-level classes, sees the makings of a strong instructor.
“A history teacher has to be energetic and enthusiastic about communicating what’s important and stimulating critical thought,” McMillian says. “Sloan, in a charismatic way, can share insights from his own adventurous life and turn them into valuable information in a classroom.”
For Hayes, McDonough’s not the only place that’s changed. He remembers the Atlanta Campus when classrooms were few and there was only one parking deck. Hayes jokes that in 1971 students referred to the B&D Cafeteria in the Student Center as the “bite and die.”
Hayes still entertains, too. He’s played keyboards for Atlanta’s oldest improv comedy troupe, Laughing Matters, since 1994, and he gigs occasionally in Buckhead at the Whiskey Mistress.
Next year, if all goes to plan, Hayes will — after nearly five decades — complete his studies at Georgia State with a master of arts in teaching degree (with a concentration in history).
When asked how he teaches, Hayes quotes English author Rudyard Kipling: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
“History is nothing but stories,” Hayes insists, “and when presented that way, it’s compelling and interesting.”
One thing’s for sure. When Hayes steps to the front of his own classroom, degree in tow, he won’t have stage fright.
“I can imagine somebody without a background in performing might get nervous,” he says. “But I’ve played live in front of 25,000 people and on TV in front of millions. Screwing up doesn’t bother me because I’ve screwed up in front of a lot of people. You learn from it and move on.”
Much like a history lesson.
Charles McNair publishes nationally and internationally. The author of three novels (“Land O’ Goshen,” “Pickett’s Charge” and “The Epicureans”) and one history (“Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor”), McNair was books editor at Paste Magazine between 2005 and 2015. He lives in Bogota, Colombia.
Top and bottom photos by Steven Thackston
Other photos courtesy of Sloan Hayes