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'60s NH girl band 'The Shaggs' on stage again in off-Broadway musical

By JASON SCHREIBER
Union Leader Correspondent

June 20. 2011 10:46PM


THE WIGGIN SISTERS of Fremont never had big dreams.

Their father was the one who was determined to make them into rock stars and get them a guest appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show.'

More than 40 years after Austin Wiggin Jr. forced Betty, Dot, Helen and Rachel Wiggin to form a 1960s girl band called The Shaggs, the odd music made by these sisters lives on.

The story of the Shaggs has now taken center stage in an off-Broadway musical being shown in the heart of New York City.

There's also talk of a movie.

It's a far cry from the tiny stage at the Fremont Town Hall where the girls were first introduced in the late 1960s and played Saturday night gigs - even though they never felt they were ready to perform.

Co-produced by Playwrights Horizons and the New York Theatre Workshop, "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World" has drawn large crowds since it opened June 7.

The Wiggin sisters, Betty Porter, 60, and Dot Semprini, 63, now of Epping, and Rachel Gould, 57, of Rochester, were on hand for opening night. The musical reflects on their life, their father's dreams of fame and fortune, and their music, which has often been described as way offbeat and out of tune; some people hurled soda cans at the sisters during a town hall performance.

Cult following

In an article about The Shaggs published in The New Yorker in 1999, author Susan Orlean wrote, 'The music is winsome but raggedly discordant pop. Something is sort of wrong with the tempo, and the melodies are squashed and bent, nasal, deadpan. Are the Shaggs referencing the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman, or are they just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars?'

But something strange has happened over the last four decades. Their music has gained a cult following and earned praise from music legends like Frank Zappa, Bonnie Raitt and Kurt Cobain. Some see their music as groundbreaking, innocent and honest. One of their most famous songs, 'My Pal Foot-Foot,' is about Dot's cat, Foot-Foot.

"I never would have thought that it would get this far," Rachel said.

Tim Sanford, artistic director at Playwrights Horizons, said the new musical is driven by the story of the Shaggs.

"I find their music really effective and unique and lyrically profound. I think their story is very compelling and peculiar and filled with tragic irony,' said Sanford, who said their songs are 'pure' and offer a 'glimpse into their souls.'

Fame foretold

Their story began when the Wiggin girls were teenagers growing up in Fremont.

Austin remembered that his mother had read his palm when he was younger and foretold that he would one day have four girls who would become famous musicians.

So he formed a band and pulled them out of school so they could practice. They took private voice, guitar and drum lessons in Manchester.

The girls would practice during the day while their father was at work and perform for him after dinner each night. When he didn't like what he heard, their father would order them to sing it again.

While the girls listened to some music growing up, they had little exposure.

"We weren't allowed to go to any concerts and we weren't allowed to go to any school dances," Dot recalled.

Dot wrote the songs in her bedroom, sang, and played lead guitar. Betty also sang and played rhythm guitar, while Helen, who died in 2006, was on drums and Rachel was on bass.

'Best worst rock album'

As soon as their father felt they were ready, the girls hit the stage every Saturday night at the Fremont Town Hall. With nothing else to do in town, young people paid a buck and packed the town hall.

Today, the Wiggin sisters admit that performing publicly wasn't easy. Betty said she never thought they were very good.

"I just never really wanted to do it to begin with. It was just something our father wanted,' she said.

But they sang for their father, and people came.

"They made fun of us," Rachel said.

"I suppose if I felt we were better, I would have been fine with it," Betty added.

The sisters produced their first album, "Philosophy of the World," in 1969. The New York Times called it 'maybe the best worst rock album ever made.'

Dad died in 1975

When their father died in 1975, so, too, did the band. The girls quit a short time later and never planned to sing again.

"Once we disbanded we figured that was the end of it," Dot said.

But there's still this fascination with their music and their story.

Betty and Dot traveled to New York City in 1999 for a 30th anniversary reunion concert at the Bowery Ballroom with the band NRBQ that attracted fans from as far away as England and Japan.

The sisters hired a music lawyer in 2000 when talk began about making their life story into a movie. Dot said they're still negotiating with a film company interested in buying the rights to their life story.

Musicals about their life have been shown in Chicago and Los Angeles in recent years. The new musical in New York City runs through July 3.

"Some of it was emotional. It brought back a lot of sad memories because Helen is no longer here and my mother and father are gone,' Dot said, 'but there were also some good times, too. I enjoyed it. The actors were phenomenal.'

Vision realized

Mary Gatchell, a professional musician who grew up in Epping and now lives in New York City, joined the Wiggin sisters on the musical's opening night and said she felt it was respectful to their music and their story.

Gatchell, who has known the Wiggins for years, recalled the first time she heard their music.

"I had never heard anything like it in my life. It was like experimental music and I thought it was the wackiest, most creative stuff I had ever heard,' she said.

While the Shaggs never became traditional rock stars, their father's wish was fulfilled.

"The vision to make his daughters be a group who would be something, that actually came to pass in a way that he never could have predicted or envisioned," Sanford said.

Dot agreed.

"He's probably up there with a big smile on his face," she said.



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