The Golden Staircase Story

Josh Mitchell
Howard Wooden

Who are these guys?

 

Golden Staircase was an acoustic musical trio based in lower Michigan during the late 1970's and early 1980's. Their unique acoustic style of guitar playing with tight vocal harmonies along with haunting thought provoking original pieces was a true fusion of many musical genres that inspired any number of future singer songwriters today. In their brief 3-year formation they produced a vast array of material that still seems relevant. If you remember them, welcome back. If you are hearing the recordings for the first time, enjoy. Your musical and spiritual senses will thank you.

 

The Beginning

 

It was the fall of 1972 when two high school seniors would meet in Southeast Michigan. Josh Mitchell the son of a University Of Michigan professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Howard Wooden from Grosse Pointe, whose father was an executive VP with the Grand Trunk Railroad. Both had auditioned and were selected for the 1973 Youth For Understanding Chorale and String Ensemble which started weekly rehearsals in Ann Arbor in preparation for a tour to Central and South America in the summer of 1973. Each weekend chorale members would stay in the homes of Ann Arbor choralers and Howard would often stay with Josh's family. Their chorale experience would be the seed for a mutual interest in music.

 

As college freshmen, Josh at Michigan and Howard at nearby Eastern Michigan they decided to travel back to Central America by car and thus quit school to earn money. However that plan fell apart and the two friends drifted apart with Howard heading to Western Michigan to play football while Josh's family planned a sabbatical trip to Egypt.

 

It would be a few years before they would reconnect and during that time, both had become serious guitar enthusiasts. Music brought the two friends back together.

 

Wooden & Mitchell

 

Howard & Josh lived 80 miles apart, but their enthusiasm for guitars and singing naturally led them to begin writing their own music. Josh had settled into playing twelve-string guitar inspired by Leo Kottke, Pierre Bensusan, and others. Howard switched to classical six string influenced by Gordon Lightfoot and Jim Croce. Their original work begins to develop and between visits, cassette tapes were made and sent back and forth. When working together, they would record their sessions. Assembling enough material to fill an evening's show, they began performing in a variety of small clubs, restaurants, and coffee houses from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor.

 

A typical Wooden & Mitchell show began with cover songs that ranged from Broadway, country, blues, and pop all done in an acoustic style with tight harmonies. The second set was usually entirely original most of which would become the first recording.

 

The First Recording Session 1979

 

Wooden & Mitchell had seasoned into a musical act and off they went to Brookwood studios in Ann Arbor to record with engineer/owner David Lau, known for his successful recordings of University Of Michigan musical groups. Howard & Josh did not have a lot of money, so to pay for their session, they helped David with the remodeling of his attic into a future nursery. Their session was simple: play each piece as if in concert. David placed microphones and twelve songs were recorded in two hours. A bit of EQ and Echo and the project was done.

 

With a 100 Cassettes in hand, the duo began branching out to other parts of the area between Kazoo and A2. As the duo progressed to performing concerts, radio shows and festivals, their reputation expanded and a small following was emerging. One place in particular became a 2nd home. A restaurant/bar in the Lake Michigan coastal town of Grand Haven, MI.

 

Paupers

 

Grand Haven, MI, located on the East Coast of Lake Michigan is often called Coast Guard City USA and is a vibrant summer attraction for tourists in the summer. Located just south of Grand Haven on RT 31 was a Diner/Bar called Paupers. Owned and operated by the Jastrzembski family since the 1960's. Paupers was by day a diner and by night a watering hole for sun burned tourists, Coast Guard Sailors and State Police Troopers who enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the "all folks are welcomed here, as long as you want to have fun" attitude of the owners. While the normal evenings were always fun, it was after hours when Paupers became the grand "haven" for many people.

 

It was here that Wooden & Mitchell found a place to play regularly, tighten up their material and experience all the benefits of the musician life. Playing weekends gave Josh and Howard the opportunity to focus on their music (and the Lake Michigan summer life), and the secure house of regulars who urged them to keep expanding their skills. Over the course of several summers, Paupers provided familiar reassurance and it was where they met bassist Gary Duncan.

 

Gary Duncan

 

It was a perfect summer to be Gary Duncan. Young, good looking, single, Bass Player. Gary had adopted the Jastrzembski family as his summer family and they embraced him. The Paupers owners had two cottages side by side, on the dunes of Lake Michigan. One for the Dan & Amy's family that had been mostly converted into a full time residence and the other a typical Lake Michigan cottage - rustic, simple, and well worn by time and young people activities. Gary lived in that and it is also where Josh & Howard would stay when performing on the weekends. When the three met, Gary was "working" for the family in a variety of ways including the almost impossible task of digging out the sand beneath the permanent house in order to construct a real foundation. It was an almost impossible task. Imagine shoveling sand from underneath an existing structure

To another location and attempting to also lay concrete block for foundation. Typical of Gary's work ethic and belief system.

 

Gary's musical background came from the Rock & Pop world, but here is how he describes hearing Wooden & Mitchell for the first time: "I can remember one afternoon in the Pauper's kitchen when Dan popped in a cassette from a duo that was auditioning to play there. We were blown away at the intricate guitar work and the quality of the vocal harmonies. The lyrics were intelligent and evoked emotion and thought. It was impossible to place it in any known genre. We were listening to something new and exquisite. Something that had class and integrity."

 

The late night sessions naturally led to expanded musical experimentation jams, and the more Gary joined in, Josh & Howard loved the added sound to the two guitars. Gary not only appreciated the music, but he intellectually understood it.

 

Golden Staircase

 

Despite their growing following and the admiration of musicians, it was not easy for the eclectic acoustic duo to find acceptance in the commercial musical world. Josh & Howard needed to expand their sound and adding a bass player who could sing and already understood the music seemed to be a natural answer. 

 

Gary joined the group and Wooden & Mitchell became Golden Staircase. In order to promote their new group, Gary went into Brookwood studio and added his bass to the first session tracks. Howard & Josh were writing new material and plans were made to record a new trio album. 

 

Meanwhile, GS pursued new musical opportunities. Agents and venue owners loved their sound, but needed more commercial material to satisfy their audiences. This was a turning point. Josh Mitchell urged the group to not go down the commercial road. He understood that what made the group special was staying true to their original sound and spirit. However, the pressures of making a living and the lure of the musician's life and commercial success were too big to resist. This was the beginning of the end.

 

Over the next year Golden Staircase performed in may bars and restaurants throughout the Midwest honing their commercial material to please their venues and becoming accomplished performers. Whatever was W&M/GS was slowing slipping away and in spite of a successful 2nd recording session of four new songs, the group was about to end.

 

The constant tension ended when Josh made the move to pursue graduate studies in Washington State and eventually to Chicago. Howard and Gary continued on as a duo for a bit, but eventually Howard moved to Vermont. Gary stayed in the western Michigan area.

 

Golden Staircase left behind an amazing catalog of music that transcended genres and had the amazing attribute of inspiring listeners musically, intellectually and spiritually. They also left behind a vast collection of original material never recorded. That is indeed the biggest loss. 

 

A New Start

 

Howard & Josh stayed in touch over the years. Gary was harder to contact, but the three friends have renewed their relationship. Howard & Josh each possessed many of the practice tapes from the early days which contain the lost songs and Golden Staircase has decided to record a new project. There is no tension and no pressure, this time their music is the focus. New Wooden & Mitchell music recorded by Golden Staircase will be made.

 

Where Are They Now?

 

Josh Mitchell is now teaching at Georgetown University, where he has been since 1993.  After his years with Goldenstaircase, he lived in Seattle for three years, followed by a number of years in Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. in political science.  His years in Washington have given him time to continue playing 12-string guitar, and write more acoustic music.  Still with Georgetown, Josh moved his home to the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 2005, and now splits his time between Georgetown’s main campus and Georgetown Doha, Qatar campus.

 

Howard Wooden moved to Vermont and for a time was a small school teacher and Principal before returning to full time music as a member of the Folk group Woods Tea Co. which toured for 28 years around the US performing 120+ shows a year and were featured on two PBS music specials: "An Evening with the Woods Tea Co." and "A Lively Evening with the Woods Tea Co." Howard owns and operates HS Studio an audio/video/graphic arts studio serving the New England region. 

 

Gary Duncan continued playing music after GS and will continue always in some form. There have been three major working bands interdispersed with continuing education and studio work. He is always looking for people to jam with. It's his therapy.  In 1990 he was introduced into the medical field and became a Respiratory Therapist working in Kalamazoo. He went on for his Masters and became a Physicians Assistant specializing in emergency medicine and continued to work in Southwest Michigan. Recently, he excepted a position on the Big Island of Hawaii as director of midlevels for an ER Physician group known as HEPA. Already he has hooked up with local musicians and is playing out in downtown Hilo cafes. They love music in Hawaii.

Gary Duncan