Led Zep’s Fearsome Manager Gets a Book of His Own

Peter Grant (standing) with Led Zeppelin, Marine Drive, Mumbai, India, 1972. Photo from the Grant Family Collection/Courtesy of Da Capo Press

Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond – The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager By Mark Blake

304 pp., $27, Da Capo Press

As any Led Zeppelin fan who has thumbed through Hammer of the Gods, seen the concert film The Song Remains the Same, or flipped TV channels showing any innumerable rock docs on TV can attest, manager Peter Grant was a formidable and frightening figure.

At 6’ 3” tall and weighing over 300 pounds, anecdote after anecdote about the balding, heavily-bearded Grant showcase him using physical threats – with occasional  follow through – to get his way or get a point across, whether confronting Zep T-shirt bootleggers or record company heads alike.

He was a heavy both in the literal and metaphorical sense, and it would surprise no one that his “fantasy sequence” in The Song Remains the Same shows him dressed up like a 1930’s gangster – complete with pinstripe suit – gunning down music biz execs in suits or, really, anybody who would diminish or derail the success of his beloved band and in particular, leader/guitarist Jimmy Page.

And while some of those stories are apocryphal and some steadfastly true, Grant’s story and life are much deeper and nuanced than most think of the thuggish caricature (which he himself happily promoted).

He’s largely been chronicled as an addendum to the larger Zep story, but here music journo Mark Blake (who also penned the Pink Floyd bio Comfortably Numb and Queen book Is This The Real Life?) makes Peter Grant the center of his own story. Which, ultimately, both surprises the reader with new things and confirms opinions already held.

Blake’s work was greatly benefitted by unprecedented access to Grant’s family, circle of associates (including members of Zeppelin themselves in previous interviews), personal papers, and the full cooperation of his estate. So we get the clearest picture yet about how, say, his offbeat upbringing and familial relations (he never knew his father) could make him find a sort of substitute family with the world’s biggest rock band.

Growing up, Grant had a series of colorful jobs including wrestler, club bouncer, bit actor, and artist minder – delivering performers like Little Richard and Gene Vincent around town when they toured England. He also learned some of his harder, Mafia-style tactics working for the notorious manager/promoter Don Arden (Sharon Osbourne’s father). He also learned to build his career from names familiar to rock nerds like producer Mickie Most and accountant Allen Klein.

Peter Grant would eventually manage the Animals and then the Yardbirds. And  when the latter group split into two factions, he cast his fate with Jimmy Page who wanted to create a harder band with a harder sound. That would become Led Zeppelin.

Peter Grant dessed as Santa Claus with the Yardbirds (Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page), Chelsea, London, Christmas, 1967. Photo from the Richard Cole Collection/Courtesy of Da Capo Press

As Blake’s narrative winds into the early and mid ‘70s when they were arguably the biggest band in the world, the familiar tales of excess and bawdiness come reeling out. And while Zeppelin were hardly the only group living the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” mantra to the limits and beyond, theirs took on a darker tinge in both the press and public’s mind – again, not wholly stoked by Grant.

His own life began to unravel with a cocaine addiction, bizarre behavior, and his wife leaving and taking their two children, a loss of which many Blake interviewed said he never got over. Page and drummer John Bonham were similarly falling down a hole of narcotics and booze. When Page accidentally spilled some ink from a pen into a pile of cocaine, for days after you could tell who was partying with the guitarist by the telltale streak of blue coming from their nostrils.

Paranoia and bullying became the norm as the band’s circle on tour grew wider and wider to include various gofers, assistants, bodyguards, “physicians,” friends, and groupies. The quality of the albums and live shows started to suffer, and the atmosphere around the band got heavier.

Blake reports that band members were actively discussing replacing Grant as their manager, but the 1980 “death by accidental suicide” of Bonham (who choked on his own vomit after drinking something in the neighborhood of 40 shots of vodka) effectively ended the career of Led Zeppelin. Surviving band members and Grant  chose not to continue as a unit.

In the last decade and a half of his life, Peter Grant found some sort of redemption. He gave up drugs and lost about half of himself in body weight. But he kept mostly secluded in his English castle (complete with a moat), only occasionally and half-heartedly looking for new bands to manage or involved himself with. Because after you’ve managed Led fucking Zeppelin, well…

Grant would also pop up at music conferences and panels, regaling wide-eyed audience members and industry professionals with his well-polished tales of Zep and Bad Company, even as former members of those groups distanced themselves from him personally.

In the end, Bring It On Home both bolsters and fleshes out the “Peter Grant” of lore with the Peter Grant of reality. And while it could be argued if he was “rock’s greatest manager” (though he did pioneer some practices still in use today), he certainly could be the one most passionate about his charges with his head and his heart into his job.

This review originally appeared on HoustonPress.com

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Eric Clapton’s Life, Loves, & Lean Guitar Strings

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Eric Clapton onstage in Rotterdam, 2006. Photo by Chris Kuhl/ChrisKuhl.com/via WikiCommons

BOOK REVIEW

Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton by Philip Norman

448 pp., $30, Little, Brown & Co.

Among music book scribes, Philip Norman stands near the top in terms of influence and skill. His 1981 Beatles tome Shout! set the stage for the modern rock bio (as well as dirty up a bit the clean image of the Mop Tops with tales of their pre-fame days). And he has penned similarly door stop-size tree killers on John and Paul individually, Mick, and Elton (no last names needed).

Now, he turns his attention to classic rock’s most revered guitarist and often reluctant front man, Eric Clapton. Authors Ray Coleman, Harry Shapiro, Michael Schumacher and even Clapton himself have told the story. And though it does cover some familiar material, it’s Norman’s stab that will likely do down as the definitive work of the man who was the subject of the famous graffiti that appeared in London during his Yardbirds days, “Clapton is God.”

Raised in a situation in which he was told his grandmother was his mother, then only to be rejected by the real thing when she reappeared with a new family in town, the quiet, coddled boy became obsessed with music, and in particular the blues – having first heard the song “Whoopin’ the Blues” by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on a BBC radio show.

He became proficient – very proficient – first showcasing his work with the Yardbirds. And in the first of what would be many quixotic comings and goings in bands, left when they became “too” commercially successful and not in his view sufficiently pure to the music. Similar whims would have him popping in and out of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominos before establishing his solo career.

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Norman details the soap opera-worthy romantic entanglements of Clapton, his best friend George Harrison, and Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd – certainly rock’s greatest muse for inspiring not only the Beatles’ “Something,” but Clapton’s “Layla,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” and “Wonderful Tonight.”

Though in reality, it wasn’t much of a triangle. Harrison – whose attentions were mostly geared toward Krishna and cocaine – didn’t flinch when Clapton declared his love for his wife. By that time, the ex-Beatle had grown fairly cold and distant to the stunning blonde, while flaunting his own many affairs in her face at the same time (including one with former bandmate Ringo Starr’s wife, Maureen). Clapton was pursuing not only Pattie, but her own younger sister as kind of a bizarre substitute.

That Clapton and Harrison’s friendship would outlast either of their marriages to Boyd is telling (and she told her own story in her great memoir Wonderful Tonight). But in one strange incident that Norman tells, Harrison at least once decided to challenge Clapton.

Not to a duel with pistols, but with instruments. Clapton found himself summoned to Harrison’s mansion to be confronted by two electric guitars, two amps, and an audience consisting only of Boyd and actor John Hurt. And though Harrison gave Clapton the inferior instrument and kept plying his confused friend with brandy while he drank only tea, “God” emerged the winner of this sonic pissing match.

Not hedging his bets, Clapton also consulted New Orleans musician Dr. John for a little voodoo help, for which the burly piano player gave Clapton a straw box with written instructions for some sort of love ritual. Instead, he turned to heroin and shut himself off in his mansion with a resilient teenage girlfriend, Alice Ormsby-Gore, for three years. That was before he spent years as a hardcore alcoholic, which let to drunken concert appearances. While standard rock lore names Keith Richards as the Ultimate Survivor, it could also be argued that Clapton should have been dead 20 times by now.

However – as was the case in many instances in his life – as soon as Clapton achieved his goal or won his prize when Boyd finally left Harrison for him after years of approaching and occasional coupling, he almost immediately began to slowly distance himself. And even finally getting his prized Pattie didn’t deter his voracious appetite for other women. Throughout, Norman paints Clapton as often selfish and pretty much a shitheel and dog when it came to women – sober or not.

And while it does sound like Slowhand is more about the highs and lows of Clapton’s personal life and struggles than his music, Norman does get into that as well – though not nearly as much as a fan might want. Clapton eventually reclaimed his life, sobriety, career, and has made a new family for himself with a wife and young children. He continues to record, play sporadic shows, underwrote and sat for interviews in the surprisingly candid documentary on himself Life in 12 Bars, and even just released a Christmas album.

Norman’s narrative benefits greatly from original interviews with scores of people including Boyd, former manager Roger Forrester, childhood friend and relatives, and fellow musicians and former flames. All in all, Slowhand (Clapton’s nickname derived from the “slow clapping” of Yardbirds audiences to show their impatience with the glacial pace that he replaced frequently broken guitar strings onstage) is a comprehensive and deep dive into a singular pool of talent.

This review originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Judy Collins on Stills, Songs, and the Summer of Freedom

Stephen Stills and Judy Collins portrait by Anna Webber 12/05/2016 Los Angeles CA

Stephen Stills and Judy Collins: A 50+ year relationship of romance and music (but mostly music!). Photo by Anna Webber/Courtesy of Jensen Communications

As musician couplings go, the romantic tenure of singer/songwriters Stephen Stills and Judy Collins was fairly brief – less than two years in the late ‘60s, as both of their careers were in sharp ascension. She as a folksinger and he about to launch Crosby, Stills and Nash. Though their time together was the inspiration for not only one of classic rock’s greatest songs, but a highpoint of the musician/muse canon with the Stills-penned “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” on CSN’s debut record.

“He was possibly the most attractive man I had ever seen,” Collins wrote of their initial 1968 meeting in her most recent memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. “His eyes found mine, and we gazed at each other, transfixed. I knew then that he would change my life.”

But while their romance didn’t last, their friendship has, and fans of both were treated to last year’s collaborative record Stills & Collins along with a full band concert tour. The trek found them playing their respective hits as well as exploring the nooks and crannies of their catalogs. It went so well both between them and their audience, Stills and Collins decided to extend their bookings.

“It’s been great right from the beginning. I think we knew when we started out that we’d be on the road again because it was so successful,” Collins says – fittingly – while on the road making her way toward Houston. “Everything was selling out and we had such a good time.”

Judy Collins has had more than enough hits to fill out a CD, though her best known songs have tended to be interpretations of folk standards and covers like “Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell), “Send in the Clowns” (Stephen Sondheim), “Cook with Honey” (Valerie Carter), “Someday Soon” (Ian Tyson) and the standard “Amazing Grace.” She was well into her career when she was both challenged and encouraged to write her own material from an interesting source: Leonard Cohen.

“After I recorded his song ‘Suzanne,’ we became very close. He was always sending me things to record, but he told me ‘I just don’t understand why you’re not writing your own songs,’” Collins recollects. “I didn’t have an answer for him because frankly, I had never thought of it. So I just started writing. And that’s how you get hooked! But you can’t know what you know until you know it!” Collins’ own originals would include “Since You Asked,” “My Father,” “Holly Ann,” and “Secret Gardens.” A version of Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is indeed a highlight of Stills & Collins.

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Released in 2017, Stills & Collins is the epitome of a comfort record, a sonic journey of two old friends exploring familiar tunes that have more than a little to say about their own relationship, past and present. Its ten track include covers (Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care”), reinterpretations of their own previously-recorded songs (“So Begins the Task” and “Questions” from Stills, “River of Gold and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” from Collins).

There’s even material they wrote about each other (Collins’ “Houses,” and Stills’ “Judy”). The latter is a lost tune that Collins didn’t even know existed until the 2007 release of Just Roll Tape, an off-the-cuff studio performance that Stills cut solo in 1968 after guesting on a Collins session.

As to why the record didn’t include any new, original collaborations, Collins laughs. “It’s hard enough just to get on the road to do the shows! And [writing new songs] is a big commitment.” While they are keeping a chunk of their set list the same from the previous tour, Collins notes they’ve also added “You Don’t Have to Cry,” “The Highwaymen,” Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and a new song that Collins has written called “Dreamers,” a very topical tune about the children of illegal immigrants in this country.

That’s nothing new for Judy Collins, whose resume of fighting for liberal and progressive political and social causes is long. She participated in many concerts and protests against the Vietnam War, fought for women’s issues, and even testified in the trial of the Chicago Seven.

But perhaps the cause that made the most impact on her was when she traveled to Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 to try and register residents in mostly poor black neighborhoods to vote. A summer that, unfortunately, resulted in the murder of three young student activists by men with ties to both the local sheriff’s department and the Ku Klux Klan.

In Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, Collins recalls with awe traveling with activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer’s preferred method to get her message out would be to stand in a neighborhood street singing spirituals as the top of her lungs until doors and windows opened and curious residents would gather around her. It was then that she would go into her pitch and discuss the importance of voter registration and actually voting to a sometimes fearful community.

Collins was sometimes the only white face to be seen. “It was very real, I’ll tell you that!” she says today. “It was scary because we were there when the three kids were murdered, and everyone knew they’d been murdered by racists. It was not an easy trip.”

Back to the recent tour, she says that Stills is continuing to surprise her by telling her just how many of his songs she directly inspired – including “You Don’t Have to Cry,” which he revealed to her only recently. But none will every top the importance and impact of “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” with its “do do do do do” chorus and several movements.

As Collins offered in her book, she still has a gut reaction to hearing it, even after the thousands of listenings over decades. “Whenever I hear the song – in a grocery store, in an airport, on my own CD player – it resounds like a call from mystic lakes,” she wrote. “It pierces the heart of this girl and all the other grown-up girls who think it tells their story.”

Asked about it today, she says the appeal (even beyond her subjectivity) is plain: it’s just a damn great song.

“I think everybody feels that way about it!” she laughs. “I think that’s why it plays all the time on the radio!”

A version of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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CCR’s Doug Clifford Keeps on Chooglin’

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CCR during the cover photo shoot for “Cosmo’s Factory”: Doug Clifford (whose nickname was “Cosmo”), Tom Fogerty, John Fogerty, Stu Cook. Photo by Didi Zill/Courtesy of Craft Recordings

While it’s easy to assume that the Year in Rock 1969 was wholly dominated by English acts like the Beatles (Abbey Road), the Rolling Stones (Let it Bleed), the Who (Tommy), and Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin II), there was heady competition from an American band who were at the peak of their chart success, releasing an astonishing three full length records in that one year.

In fact, Creedence Clearwater Revival would release a total of seven albums in just four years and a few weeks, chalking up massive selling hits on both AM and FM radio like “Born on the Bayou,” “Proud Mary,” “Fortunate Son,” “Down on the Corner,” “Green River,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Up Around the Bend,” “Suzie Q,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” and an expansive cover of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” – just to name a few.

It seems that John Fogerty (vocals/lead guitar), brother Tom Fogerty (rhythm guitar), Stu Cook (bass) and Doug Clifford (drums) out of the San Francisco Bay area were busy, busy boys. As of today, they’ve sold 30 million LP records in the U.S. alone.

Now, all seven of Creedence’s LPs (Creedence Clearwater RevivalBayou CountryGreen RiverWilly and the Poor BoysCosmo’s Factory,  Pendulum, and Mardi Gras) have been collected in on massive box set The Studio Albums Collection (Craft Recordings). It also features a hardback book with extensive liner notes and a treasure trove of photos, record covers, concert posters, and more.

These 180 gram vinyl records have also never sounded better, using a precision lathe cutting process to improve the sound called “half-speed mastering,” which was completed at Abbey Road Studios from the source masters.

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Box set by Craft Recordings

Doug Clifford remembers his reaction when he first held the box set in his own hands. “It was quite a flashback, and I remember the first single we put out after years of trying, and here we are 50 years later and the fans are still there and the music is still viable. It’s a very humbling, warm and fuzzy feeling!” he says.

And the sound has impressed him – not that he could have ever predicated that vinyl would come back. “I mean, here you have world’s hardest material, a diamond with a very sharp point, running over the surface of a soft piece of plastic! Whoever thought of this!” he laughs. “And the half speed mastering really creates an amazing sound, especially in the mid and lower mid-range.”

The members of Creedence Clearwater Revival (or CCR for short), began playing together in bands in the mid ‘60s with names like the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs before changing their name to the more familiar one in 1968. And while their club band set list included many rock and soul covers, their original material – all written by John Fogerty – had a much bluesier, gritty sound, buoyed by Fogerty’s otherworldy voice. Many listeners just assumed that the band rose up from the Deep South or the bayous of Louisiana. And their album covers did little to dispel the myth.

“It was pretty funny to us! People thought we came from the swamp!” Clifford says. “But we were doing what we always did, and we were students of music that came out of the south and the early rock and roll side. When we all first met, we had virtually the same record collections. So we started with [common] references.”

As the liner notes spell out, most of Creedence’s 45 rpm singles were in fact double-sided hits that became their best known material. In an era where FM rock was gaining a lot of power – the format being basically developed by San Francisco DJ Big Daddy Tom Donahue –  CCR still managed to also get heavy airplay on AM stations. But according to Clifford, the pace that the band was working at didn’t seem crazy in the flush of their success.

“At the time, with the rapid pace we were working, we were burning singles at twice the speed! But we didn’t plan it that way. The songs were usually pretty different from each other,” he says. “You just try and keep the wheel moving. We were deep in the process. John Fogerty had a theory that if we were ever off the charts, we would be forgotten. But none of our peers did it that way. We followed the orders of keeping the machine going and marched on.”

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John Fogerty, Stu Cook, Doug Clifford, Tom Fogerty. Photo by Joel Selvin/Courtesy of Craft Recordings.

One of the surprise pleasures of The Studio Albums Collection is hearing a lot of the band’s deeper original cuts (“Ramble Tamble,” “Commotion,” “Sailor’s Lament,” “Tombstone Shadow,” and the anti-Nixon “Effigy”) as well as covers of rock and soul oldies like Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby,” Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” and Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me.”

“Those [covers] were the songs we would play in our early shows in the clubs before we had our own hits and was what we listened to growing up,” Clifford offers. “Most people today just buy greatest hits albums and sometimes the original albums of a band aren’t in print anymore, so I’m glad that [this box set] will expose people to a lot of our other material.”

Of all the songs on the albums, Clifford says that “Born on the Bayou” was and is his favorite of all. As a drummer, he says playing this quarter-note song opens up space and makes the backbeat simpler, but more powerful than frenetic playing. When asked about his own contribution to the CCR sound when the singing, guitar, and bass can more easily stand out, he notes that he aimed for a combination of standing out and support.

“All the attention in band is usually on the singer and the guitar player and even early on in rock ‘n roll, the sax player. But to be your best, you have to keep the groove going, what the guy in the truck driving down the road hears,” he says.

“If [the drummer] is on it, they make everybody else sound better. Gene Krupa brought the drummers out of the shadows! I saw him in a special when I was 12 or 13 and they showed mostly him and not the band and he was in the white sport coat with the movie star looks. And he had real personality.”

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Stu Cook, Tom Fogerty, John Fogerty, and Doug Clifford. Photo by Ed Caraeff/Courtesy of Craft Recordings.

By the time of the band’s last record, the group had been reduced to a trio with Tom Fogerty quitting. John’s often controlling and autocratic ways in the studio and about the band’s musical direction chafed at the other members—but then again it was John Fogerty who was writing all the hits, and the ship needed a captain. Bad blood, sniping in the press, and lawsuits between bandmembers, their record label Fantasy, and label owner Saul Zaentz flew back and forth fast over the decades.

Unfortunately, relations between the four members never repaired. Tom Fogerty died in 1990, with the brothers never reconciling. At their 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, John Fogerty refused to play with his bandmates, so Cook and Clifford watch from their seats as Fogerty and others played the music that brought them there in the first place.

Still, Clifford was excited to be honored. “You’re voted in by your peers, and that meant a lot to me,” he says. We had made a mark in music history as one of the biggest bands of our time, and we continued to pick up fans through the generations.”

John Fogerty told his side of the story in the 2015 autobiography Fortunate Son (which Clifford says he has not read). Fogerty continues to play CCR material in his concerts, while Cook and Clifford have done the same since 1995 with other players in Creedence Clearwater Revisited – a name which John Fogerty unsuccessfully tried to stop them legally from using. CCRevisited have dates booked through the next year, but Clifford will end 2018 with a groundbreaking show.

“We’re playing New Year’s Eve – which we don’t normally do. And two shows, which we don’t either!” he laughs. “So we’re working on ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ I hope we get it right in time!”

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Houston Press.

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Ace of Cups Runneth Over…50 Years Later!

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Ace of Cups in 2018: Mary Alfiler, Denise Kaufman, Mary Ellen Simpson, and Denise Vitalich. Photo by Rachel Wright/Courtesy of Shorefire Media

Here’s a quick challenge: Discounting the mostly-singing girl groups of the ‘60s, name an all-female rock band. Go!

Most people will cite the Bangles or Go-Go’s. Or maybe the Runaways. Music nerds might even pull out Fanny or the Shaggs. But pre-dating them all was the five-member Ace of Cups, who formed in 1967 right in the heart of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district along with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

They had chops, played everywhere around the area, and were a popular live draw. They opened for the Band on their very first show under that name and had a big fan in Jimi Hendrix, who name checked them in the English music paper Melody Maker. The reason they’re not better known, though, is because Ace of Cups never got to release an album, passed over by every record company that descended upon the Bay Area at the time.

Incredibly, more than 50 years later, most of the original lineup has reunited to record their “debut” Ace of Cups (High Moon Records). Featuring their ‘60s material (some of it rewritten) and newer songs, the sprawling double CD has 26 tunes – and there’s another 10 in the bank.

As to why they never got a record deal, it’s something that singer/guitarist Denise Kaufman puts down to simple sexism. Well, mostly.

“It’s not 100% of the reason, but I bet it was 80%!” she says today. “There were no other all-women bands who were a commercial success from the record company’s point of view. We didn’t look like those girl groups like the Shangri-Las. And we weren’t a bunch of appealing young guys that girls could scream about.”

Kaufman adds that while women like Janis Joplin (Big Brother), Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane), and Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth) were certainly prominent in their bands, they were mostly fronting and singing – not playing.

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Ace of Cups in the late ’60s: Mary Ellen Simpson, Denise Kaufman, Diane Vitalech, Mary Gannon, and Marla Hunt. Photo by Lisa Law/Courtest of Shorefire Media.

“I have never heard from any of those record company executives who came to check us out or check out the San Francisco scene about why we weren’t signed, but I’d be very curious to know why,” Kaufman says.

The original Ace of Cups were Mary Ellen Simpson and Denise Kaufman (guitars), Mary Gannon (bass), Diane Vitalich (drums), and Marla Hunt (organ/piano), with all but Vitalich taking turns at lead vocals. After playing together for a few years, members started leaving as they began to have children – something their male counterparts did not have to worry about. A different lineup finally called it quits in 1972.

Simpson, Kaufman, Gannon (now Alfiler), and Vitalich put down the material for Ace of Cups after a year and a half of sporadic rehearsals (Hunt, who works on artistic projects with her husband, did not participate). Prior to this record, the only way to hear Ace of Cups music from the ‘60s was 2003’s If It’s Bad for You Buy It, a compilation of rehearsals, demos, TV appearances, and live material.

The record’s songs follow across what Kaufman refers to as “trans genre,” skipping across pop, rock, blues, and even country sounds. Above all are the vocal harmonies of the four women, largely untouched by the passing of decades.

“We worked really hard on the harmonies. That is pretty much our passion. I love to write counter melodies, and I just really love hearing voices together,” Kaufman offers. They also called upon some of their friends from the era like Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, bluesman Taj Mahal, singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, and actor/musician Peter Coyote to make guest appearances. And Kaufman notes that Ace of Cups backup vocals were featured on ‘60s records by the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Electric Flag.

When that last band was forming under the guidance of guitarist Mike Bloomfield and drummer Buddy Miles, they even used the Ace of Cups’ communal Marin County home to store their equipment and rehearse. Ace of Cups also got to know Jimi Hendrix, and were invited to open a free show the guitar genius was headlining at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park one week after his star-making performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

“He was so soft spoken and kind. He stood with Buddy Miles in front of us while we were playing and took pictures,” Kaufman recalls. It was hardly the first – or the last – free show at the Ace of Cups would play. As Kaufman put it in a recent short PBS documentary on the band, “The music supported the community, and the community supported the music.”

“That was the core of what was going on in the Bay Area at the time. There were a lot of free shows and benefits, and our manager said we played as many of those as paying gigs!” Kaufman laughs.

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Ace of Cups in the ’60s, clockwise from left: Vitalich, Gannon, Simpson, Hunt, and Kaufman. Photo by Casey Sonnabend/Courtesy of Shorefire Media.

“There was as definite sense that we were part of a larger community. The Diggers were feeding people in the park. You had the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic for treating people. There was free legal aid. And all kinds of worthwhile causes and organizations. Sometimes it was even just helping someone raise money for art projects or someone to pay the rent. We even played at our local tiny post office for National Post Office Day!”

And while many ideals of 1967’s Summer of Love haven’t exactly translated into 2018’s reality – and the entire term itself has become something of an all-catch fantasy propagated by documentaries and songs – Kaufman still holds steadfast to her hippie beliefs. Both then and now.

At one point, she thought that economic culture in this country could become one of bartering. She recalls growing vegetables in the band’s garden, then taking them to the local health food store to trade in for cheese.

“I remember thinking “this could total work!’ The world didn’t have to be dark and threatening and we could nourish connections with each other,” she sums up. And music was a crucial part of making that happen.

“Getting together with people was a really important value at the time. It was about the experience of sharing things with people and connecting with them. You have to remember the ‘50s! We weren’t following the script, and we knew the world could be better.”

A version of this story originally appeared in The Houston Press.

 

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The South Rises Again with The Dixie Dregs Reunion

The once and current Dixie Dregs: Steve Davidowski, Steve Morse, Andy West, Rod Morgenstein, and Allen Sloan. Photo courtesy of MSO PR.

This year’s tour by the Dixie Dregs – titled “Dawn of the Dregs” –  marks the first time that the classic mid-‘70s lineup which released the band’s first two albums The Great Spectacular (1976) and Free Fall (1977) have played together in more than four decades.

And a lot has changed in that time. Like the fact that, available right now on YouTube, is a good chunk of the concert the band played just two nights before, filmed by a fan in the front. And Morse is not thrilled.

“It’s a double-edged sword. It allows people who can’t or don’t want to go to the shows to see this music recorded in a tiny microphone and then start the troll comments. And that’s on the plus side!” he says. “On the negative side, it makes us not want to play new material that hasn’t been released yet, because then it’s out there. For most bands, I think that would also mean less experimentation or taking a chance in being spontaneous during a show.”

When it’s suggested that perhaps venues could ban cell phones or at least video recording during a show, Morse says it’s a great theory, just not workable in reality.

“You can’t take away cell phones. It’s people’s lifelines,” he says. “And these phones have a better recording capability than a lot of actual video cameras back in the day. People stream entire shows without giving a thought to intellectual property rights. It’s the majority versus minority, and a majority of people think it’s OK right now. But hey, every day is another adventure on this tour. Two days ago, my classical guitar was stolen. It was purchased without being bought. It relocated itself!”

The Dixie Dregs in 1975: Steve Davidowski, Steve Morse, Andy West, Rod Morgenstein, and Allen Sloan. Photo courtesy of MSO PR.

The Dixie Dregs have long occupied a special niche in music. For while their name, their affiliation with Capricorn Records, and the era of their heyday immediately brings to mind the category of “Southern Rock,” this mostly-instrumental group actually incorporates plenty of jazz, classical, and even prog rock into their music.

Initially formed in 1970 as Dixie Grit by Morse and bassist Andy West, they changed their name to Rock Ensemble II and then Dixie Dregs in 1974. By the next year, the lineup had included Morse, West, Steve Davidowski (keyboards), Rod Morgenstein (drums), and Allen Sloan (violin). It’s this group taking the stage on the current tour.

“This was the lineup at the time we were the least jaded, most hopeful, and had the most amount of new material to bring to the scene,” Morse says, though admitting that those times still weren’t easy for the group.

“It was uphill as far as being established in the record industry. We had no real vocals. We were too rock for jazz and too jazz for rock. And not country enough to be country or classical, but we incorporate all of those elements. People were confused about what our music was supposed to be based on a word,” he says. “It makes it more interesting to us, and I believe the audience likes the variety. We even later dropped the ‘Dixie’ from our name.”

Capricorn Records CD cover

The band had some lineup changes, putting out more records like fan favorites What If and Night of the Living Dregs, and broke up in the early ‘80s, but just a few years later would begin coming back in various variations for tours that have continued to this day – Morse and Morgenstein being the two constants. Morse would go on to have a solo career, and since 1994 has been the lead guitarist for Deep Purple.

For Dixie Dregs shows, understandably, the audience is a bit different, especially today. And Morse has no remorse about the reasons some come to see the band on the current 33-date tour.

“There’s something special about revisiting the music that was happening in your life when you’re going through a lot of changes. We played at or near a lot of colleges, and people want to relive that,” he offers. “And to that end, the tour is wildly successful. Except this time around, people aren’t spilling beer on you or the air is so thick with smoke and people aren’t whooping and hollering!”

For the tour’s setlist, Morse says it “coalesces around the classics.” But the band still wants to challenge itself and its audience, so they also pull out deeper, more complex material like “Day 444,” a particular favorite of the guitarist’s.

“I had originally tried out to be in a bluegrass band but didn’t get in. When you’re a guitar player, on stage you will be expected at some point to come out like a sharpshooter, take your gun out and hit six targets on the fly,” he says. “You’ve got to be fast and you’ve got to have something to say.”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Dennis Tufano: From the Buckinghams to Bobby Darin

Dennis Tufano today: From the Buckinghams to Bobby Darin. Photo courtesy of Dennis Tufano

One would think that a band whose members were barely out of high school – but had the #1 song in the entire country – would be able to celebrate without restriction. That achievement happened for the Buckinghams in February 1967 when their two-minute-and-seven-second infectious slice of pop, “Kind of a Drag,” hit the peak position.

But there were also, um, a few issues. For exactly at the time that the Jim Holvay-penned tune was blowing up, the Chicago-based Buckinghams found themselves without a manager, without a recording contract, and had lost their keyboard player.

Lead singer Dennis Tufano certainly remembers the sweet and sour of the situation. “We were going through a lot of changes, and ‘Kind of a Drag’ was only released to fulfill a contract before our company released us. And it was never promoted” he recalls. “We were in a meeting and John, our drummer, walked in and he looked kind of down. He had a copy of Billboard that said the song was #1! We didn’t know what to do! But destiny seemed to carry us in the right direction, and things fell into place.”

Going back, the Buckinghams didn’t even start out with that name. Tufano, along with Jon Poulous (drums), Nick Fortuna (bass), Carl Giammarese (guitar), and Dennis Miccols (keyboards), were the Pulsations. But after being tapped as the house band for a local WGN-TV variety show, a producer suggested a more English-sounding name to jump on the All Things Beatle Bandwagon. A station security guard suggested “The Buckinghams,” and the band could always add that it was a tribute to the city’s famous Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park.

The classic Buckinghams lineup: Marty Grebb, Dennis Tufano, Nick Fortuna, John Poulos, and Carl Giammarese. CD cover by Columbia/Legacy

“We all wanted to be English back then! That’s what was happening!” Tufano laughs. “But we were still a little nervous about changing the name because of what people would [assume] about us and where we came from.”

Tufano notes that the “fear” seemed to be well-founded when the band was invited to perform several songs on the Smothers Brothers television show. “We were talking to Tommy and he said ‘Wait a second, you don’t have accents!’ and we said ‘Yes, we do – we have Chicago accents!”

But assuming they were from Across the Pond, the stage set that had been designed for them to perform on was festooned with…British flags. And as the band was not interviewed on the air, everyone watching at home understandably assumed they were part of the British Invasion.

Surprisingly, this sort of band naming was uncommon practice. Other contemporary chartmaking American groups with British-sounding monikers included the Beau Brummels (“Laugh, Laugh”) and the Count Five (“Psychotic Reaction”) of California, the Knickerbockers (“Lies”) of New Jersey, and Texas’ own Sir Douglas Quintet (“She’s About a Mover”) – whose lineup included a majority of Hispanic members!

The band first became popular in Chicago before breaking nationally. This was at a time when major cities and regions to had their own bands with songs that may or may not have become hits in other parts of the country. And local DJs played a huge part in that. “If we only had social media in that time!” Tufano laughs. “Back then your record had to really spread to an audience. Today, if a band hiccups, everybody knows about it!”

Marty Grebb replaced Miccols on keyboards after “Kind of a Drag” became a hit. The band would go on to spin a series of AM gold classics over the next few years including “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)” and “Susan.”

“People tell me all the time about these songs and what it means to them to hear them again, and with me singing just like on the records. I’m just glad that my chops are still in shape!” Tufano says. “Fate and destiny worked out for me, and I’m having a ball!”

Photo courtesy of Dennis Tufano

The also briefly had fellow Chicagoan James William Guercio as a manager, who encouraged the group to add horns to their records. And while the sonic mix didn’t quite work out for the Buckinghams, Guercio finessed it as a producer with two other “horn rock” acts: Blood, Sweat and Tears and – most famously – Chicago.

By 1970, the group was through and members went their separate ways. Tufano and Giammarese formed a duo and recorded three albums before Tufano went to pursue an acting career. Poulos died of a drug-related heart attack in 1980. Tufano, Fortuna, and Giammarese played together at one-off gig in Chicago, and the remaining four man classic lineup reunited only once to play a benefit for Grebb with ex-Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine sitting in.

A new version of the Buckinghams with Fortuna and Giammarese (now handling lead vocals as Tufano declined to join the reformation) debuted in 1983. They have toured ever since.

Tufano has toured with a tribute show to Bobby Darin. In a bit of a pop culture side note, he and duet partner Mindy Sterling were the original voices performing the theme on early episodes of TV’s “Family Ties.” Before producers had the song rerecorded with bigger names Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams.

There was an opportunity in recent years for the trio to reunite and play again as the Buckinghams for a one-off PBS fundraising concert in the popular “My Generation” series. But according to Tufano, his former bandmates nixed the thought, and so Tufano did it solo. Ironically, he says that show – and it’s frequent re-airings – in turn reignited his solo career with the material.

The three men retain a fragile détente about the use of the name “Buckinghams” in their own separate promotions, trying to tamper down any “confusion” in the booking marketplace. “I’ve always maintained our friendship, and they had my blessing” Tufano offers. “They got nervous when I started singing again…but we’ve worked it all out.”

Dennis Tufano’s datebook is filled with appearances on package tours, solo dates, and more Bobby Darin shows. But he the biggest surprise for him is seeing the age of some members his audience. Age on the lower end of the scale.

“I see these young people coming to my shows and I’ll ask them ‘What are you doing here? Were you dragged?’ and they say no, they either grew up with the music from their parents or they find it on YouTube. You can Google and have access to anything! They say it’s fun and happy music, and they can understand what’s being said.”

But increasingly, Tufano says he’s hearing something else, perhaps inevitable due to the passage of time. “When they come up and tell me that this is music that their grandparents used to listen to, I have to stop it right there! But I’m 71, and it’s wonderful to be singing the songs I did when I was 19.”

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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