HAYWARD -- Eight days before the Beatles first appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, changing popular music in America forever, Lenny Lee and the Nightmen stepped onto a stage at Sunset High School, making local history by winning the first Hayward Battle of the Bands.
Every February since then, the competition has drawn performers from throughout Northern California, making it what may be the longest running Battle of the Bands. The tradition continues Saturday, with 10 bands vying for the top prize at the 50th competition.
Other Battles of the Bands have come and gone, but Hayward's has continued, reflecting current musical tastes, from early rock 'n' roll to punk, grunge, new wave, metal, reggae and now back to rock, said Mick Flaire, 58, a Hayward resident and Battle emcee since 1976.
"The music has evolved with the times," he said. Some say that's the reason the competition, run by the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District, has survived.
The park district, after doing research, cannot find another Battle of the Bands that has lasted as long, said Mike Maine, the district's recreation coordinator for youth and teens. "We submitted an application for a world record to Guinness, but they're in Europe and wanted us to pay for them to come out to verify our claim. We couldn't afford that."
The Battle moved from Sunset High to Chabot College in the late '60s. In its heyday through the 1980s, it often sold out, drawing about 1,500, said John Gouveia, the district's general manager. While attendance has dropped off, the park district is expecting a fairly good turnout this year.
In the 1960s, the Hayward district operated more than a dozen teen clubs, then common in the Bay Area, and often hosted dances with live local bands. The first Battle was organized by recreation supervisor Leroy Pegis, as a venue for those bands to compete.
Lenny Lee and the Nightmen, an R&B group, was one of those bands. "Since we couldn't play clubs, we were relegated to teen clubs," said Bob Gonzalez, of San Jose, who played alto sax with the Nightmen. "There were a number of them that supported music for teens."
The Nightmen played at youth clubs throughout the area, traveling as far as Merced and Turlock, and entered several different Battles of the Bands to get name recognition. It helped that several band members had cars so they could drive themselves to gigs.
"We were never one of those bands whose parents had to take them. That made us even more cool," Gonzalez said, laughing.
Although the Nightmen didn't realize they were making history in Hayward, he remembers their performance that night. "James Brown had released 'Live at the Apollo.' We did Side One of his album," Gonzalez said. "The lead singer wore a real nice tailored suit, and we had matching sports coats. We would do all the dance steps that show bands did."
And the prize? "Each member of the band got a copy of 'Live at the Apollo.' That's how popular that album was at the time."
Coming in third at the first Battle were the Playboys, with Skip Veatch on guitar. Then a senior at Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, Veatch doesn't remember much about that night. "Oh, jeez, that was a long time ago," he said. "But it was scary. There were a lot of people in the audience."
A few Battle competitors went on to fame, like bass player Cliff Burton, who later joined Metallica, and guitarist Jim Martin, now in Faith No More. They were both in EZ-Street, which played in the 1979 Battle. But most performers have pursued nonmusic careers.
Veatch became Alpine County sheriff and then a county supervisor, retiring last year. He still performs occasionally, but playing country, not the surf music and rock 'n' roll the Playboys were known for.
While the bands and music at the Battle have changed over the years, one constant remains: emcee Flaire. "As long as they keep calling me back, I'll keep doing it."
The ebullient Flaire said he most enjoys giving pep talks to bands backstage before they go on. "I tell them this is your 12 minutes, your time to shine."
A tribute to the Battle's past is planned at this year's event, with footage from a recent reunion of performers. Rundown Radio, the 2010 winner, and Ten Days, 2012 winner, also will play. The headliner is Y&T, known as Yesterday & Today when it won 1974's Battle.
One of the bands competing is Jordan and the HashMites. Growing up in Hayward. Jordan Bunting, 28, was aware of the Battle, but his group hadn't entered until this year. "If we don't win, we don't win; we're just there to have a good time," he said.
The new crop of bands each year fuels Flaire's enthusiasm.
"I used to be worried there wouldn't be kids to take our place," said Flaire, who competed in four Battles. "But there is always another crop of young bands that want to be part of the Battle, part of the legacy."
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday; doors open at 6 p.m.
Where: Chabot College Performing Arts Center, 25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward
Tickets: $12 advance, $15 at the door. Can be purchased at Matt Jimenez Community Center, 28200 Ruus Road, Hayward, or HARD district office, 1099 E St., Hayward
Details: 510-881-6700, www.haywardrocks.com