Love weren’t the only long-haired multiracial folk-rock band inspired by the Byrds’ success. When the Byrds had toured in 1965, their residency at Ciro’s had been left vacant, and three new bands stepped into the spot. Love immediately made a mark, as did the Leaves, but the band who most impressed the other musicians in the audience was the Rising Sons.
While the other folk-rockers were taking inspiration from the white singer-songwriters of the time like Bob Dylan and Tim Rose, the Rising Sons were listening to the folk blues of Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Reverend Gary Davis, as well as to the electric blues of Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. If the Byrds were the Beatles of the LA folk-rock scene, then the Rising Sons were its Rolling Stones, with a harder-edged, bluesier, sound rooted in emulation of older musicians rather than chasing current trends.
The band was led by Taj Mahal, a 22-year-old blues singer and harmonica player from New York who would often sit in with blues musicians from the previous generation, people like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, and Ry Cooder, a 19-year-old guitar virtuoso who by his mid teens had already had endorsement deals from guitar manufacturers (he’d been playing since pre-school, having been given a guitar after an accident in which he lost an eye, as his parents understandably became protective and wanted him to have an indoor hobby). The original lineup was rounded out by bass player Gary Marker, rhythm guitarist Jesse Lee Kincaid, and drummer Ed Cassidy, but after Cassidy broke his hand he was replaced by Kevin Kelley, the cousin of Chris Hillman of the Byrds.
The Rising Sons quickly gained a reputation as one of the most exciting bands in LA. At their very first show, in fact, Don Van Vliet and Doug Moon of the Magic Band were in the audience, and Marker saw Van Vliet grab Moon, point to Cooder, and say “There! That’s the shit I’m talkin’about! That’s what I want you to play!” Vliet asked Cooder after the show to give the guitarists in his band some tips on bottleneck playing.
With such a reputation, it was inevitable that the Rising Sons would get signed to a record label, and soon they were in the studio, recording with Terry Melcher for Columbia Records.
Only two tracks from these sessions were released at the time — a single coupling Candy Man and Devil Got My Woman, and it’s clear to see that even though these were both traditional blues songs, Melcher was trying to mould the band into something recognisable to the pop audience of the time. Candy Man is done in an uptempo acoustic style that’s reminiscent of nothing so much as the “good-time music” of the Lovin’ Spoonful, while The Devil’s Got My Woman (as it was titled on the single) is very much in the same style as the Rolling Stones’ early, bluesy, work.
For many years nothing else from the sessions was released, and the legend of the Rising Sons grew, as the various band members all had successes with later projects, to the extent that it seemed astonishing that an album had never been released. When in the 1990s the sessions were finally released on CD, though, it became easy to see why they had been shelved.
Quite simply, whatever they were like on stage, in the studio the Rising Sons were a band without a style of their own, musical chameleons who took on the personas of other musicians. In some cases, such as .44 Blues, done in the style of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, this produced excellent music, while sometimes, as in Dust My Broom, they duplicate the original Elmore James recording so closely as to render their own version pointless.
And then there are the songs that were attempts at hitting the pop market — among them the Dylan trifle Walkin’ Down The Line, and several original songs by Kincaid — competent but uninspired songs given sub-Knickerbockers pseudo-Merseybeat arrangements which serve only to show how feeble a great set of musicians can sound when playing music they don’t like, and that this would never be a band known for its two-part Everly-style close harmonies. These are so utterly uninspired in both performance and arrangement that one is frankly amazed that the people playing them ever managed to get paying work as musicians, let alone become some of the most celebrated musicians of their generation.
The one time everything comes together perfectly is Take A Giant Step, a song that was clearly a Melcher suggestion, being not by Roosevelt Sykes or Willie Dixon but by the songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. This one was done in the style of Love’s amped-up, aggressive, take on folk-rock, and sounds like the work of a different band from anything else they recorded. While the song itself is not one of Goffin and King’s best, Taj Mahal in particular clearly enjoyed it enough to rerecord it as the title track of his third solo album, and the enthusiasm shows in the arrangement and performance.
Other than a couple of slightly stiff fills by Kelley, everything here is exciting, with multiple layers of Cooder’s bottleneck guitar giving a bluesy twist on the jangling arpeggios of folk-rock, playing a riff that seems like an Elmore James inspired take on the riffs of recent Beatles records like I Feel Fine and Day Tripper, while Kincaid alternately doubles the jangling and provides brutal slashing chords. The track is filled out by some genuinely great harmonies (which it’s almost impossible to believe are the work of the same people who sang on the Merseybeat-esque tracks). Everything comes together perfectly, and of all the tracks they recorded, it’s impossible to understand why this one, at least, wasn’t released.
But it wasn’t, and the song was eventually used in a very different arrangement, as the B-side to the debut single of a very different type of band.
Take A Giant Step
Composer: Gerry Goffin & Carole King
Line-up: Taj Mahal (vocals), Ry Cooder (guitar, vocals), Jesse Lee Kincaid (guitar, vocals), Doug Moon (bass), Kevin Kelley (drums)
Original release: Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, The Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, Columbia CD CK 52828
Currently available on: Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, Columbia CD
People have been telling me for a while that I should set up a Patreon account, and so I’ve decided to do so — . Basically Patreon lets you give me small amounts of money every month if you like my writing. I don’t expect many people will take me up on this, but since some people have actually asked me to do it, I thought I might as well.
Assuming I get enough Patr(e)ons to make it sensible to continue with, anyone who pledges over $5 per month will receive free copies of any self-published books I put out while they’re pledging (I expect approximately three books a year). I might do other special stuff for backers, if I get any. But don’t feel obliged to back me if you don’t want to — the blog’s not going anywhere either way.
Gene Clark always hated to fly.
The Byrds’ first UK tour had been a disaster, from the moment they stepped off the plane, when they were served a writ by the British band The Birds, who felt that their name was too similar to avoid confusion. The band had been hated by British audiences for their apparent aloofness and the fact that they never spoke on stage, most of them had got sick, the sound engineers had been unable to get the balance right in their live shows, and the single they were there to promote, a version of Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do, had struggled on the charts thanks to Cher having released a rival version. The music press were also out for blood, seeing the band’s billing as “America’s answer to the Beatles” as an unwelcome insinuation that the “British Invasion” was over and America could produce her own bands again. Shows had to be cancelled due to illness, while others were cancelled due to lack of ticket sales.
The result was a tour that was described in the Melody Maker as “flopsville” and “very, very dull”, and which led to Chris Hillman, the band’s bass player, later doing a desperate PR interview for the British music press in which he effectively apologised for everything about their shows.
The only positives for the band had come during their time in London. The shows there had been as unpopular as anywhere, but they’d been able to hang out with the Beatles and introduce them to the music of Crosby’s new obsession, Ravi Shankar, and had spent more time with the Rolling Stones, who they’d met earlier that year when the Stones were in LA.
In particular, Gene Clark had tossed a few musical ideas around with Brian Jones, and had come up with a melody and a few lines about their awful trip, but he put the ideas aside when they returned to LA, as they had an album to record.
Their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, provided them with another hit single and showcased Clark as the dominant creative figure in the band, with all but one of the originals being written by him (and two more Clark songs were dropped for cover versions, due to the other band members’ resentment over Clark’s prominence on the album). It also marked the end of the band’s relationship with Terry Melcher, who fell out with the band over publishing rights, and over his continued attempts to replace the band members with session musicians (he cut a track of It’s All Over Now Baby Blue with session musicians playing a Jack Nitzsche arrangement, and tried to get McGuinn to overdub guitar on it to turn it into a “Byrds” track).
While they toured in support of the new album, as part of a Dick Clark package tour, the Byrds took another look at the song Gene Clark had started working on about how much he hated their trip to the UK. Clark already had the basic song worked out, but McGuinn and Crosby helped him polish it. The song was originally titled Six Miles High, as both a reference to the height of the plane that flew the band to the UK and a drug reference, but it was changed to Eight Miles High in order to sound a bit more like the Beatles’ Eight Days A Week. Crosby helped Clark finish off the song, and suggested they go for a sound somewhere between Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane, and McGuinn responded by coming up with a guitar part that was essentially the main musical motif from Coltrane’s India played on his twelve-string, with a few high, vaguely sitar-y, notes thrown in. McGuinn has since claimed that the idea of the lyrics came from him, but only since Clark’s death, and Crosby has always backed Clark’s claim to have originated the song.
The band’s original attempt at recording the song, which Crosby still argues is the superior version, was not released by Columbia, ostensibly because it was recorded at a studio they didn’t own. In truth, though, both the original version and the eventual single, both produced by Allen Stanton, are nearly identical, both featuring stellar performances from everyone involved. Over what is by far the best drum part Michael Clarke (never the most competent of drummers) ever played, Hillman provides a steady bass throb, Crosby slashes the rhythm guitar part, and McGuinn plays what is (if you haven’t heard the Coltrane piece from which he’s “borrowing”) some staggeringly inventive guitar, completely unlike anything else in the pop music world at the time. Freed from Terry Melcher’s thin AM sound, the recording has more bass end than anything they’d done before, and over the top McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sing the song’s lyrics about a “rain, grey town” where “nowhere is there love to be found” in gorgeous three-part harmony.
It should have been the Byrds’ biggest hit, but a combination of factors including the experimental nature of the guitar part, a lack of promotion from Columbia, and a radio ban (which started several weeks after the single had been released, but certainly didn’t help matters) ensured it didn’t quite make the US top ten.
And nor would any further Byrds singles. The same month that Eight Miles High was released, Gene Clark announced he was quitting the Byrds, and once he was gone the band never had another top ten hit.
The single biggest reason for Clark quitting the group was that he didn’t want to travel with them any more — ever since he was a child, he’d been terrified of flying.
Eight Miles High
Composer: Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby
Line-up: Gene Clark (vocals, tambourine), Roger McGuinn (vocals, twelve-string guitar), David Crosby (vocals, rhythm guitar), Chris Hillman (bass, vocals), Michael Clarke (drums)
Original release: Eight Miles High/Why The Byrds, Columbie 4-43578
Currently available on: Fifth Dimension Columbia Legacy CD
Arthur Lee and Johnny Echols seemed to be fated to make music together. They’d lived only a couple of streets away from each other, and gone to school together, in Memphis, but had been separated when Arthur’s mother had divorced his father, a musician who had played with Jimmie Lunceford’s band, and moved to Los Angeles. But shortly after, Echols’ family also moved to LA, and they ended up once again at the same school.
While Arthur Lee had played musical instruments from an early age, having taken accordion lessons before switching to organ, Echols was the first to perform rock music, with a small group at school. Music was in the air at Dorsey High, the school Lee and Echols went to — Billy Preston and Mike Love were at the school at the same time — and in their social circles; Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown moved in to the apartment block in which Echols’ family lived for a while.
However, Lee soon joined Echols’ group, and his dominating personality ensured it was renamed renamed Arthur Lee and the LAGs in homage to Booker T and the MGs. They became low-level musical fixtures around LA, writing songs and producing sessions, and playing under the names of any black band that had had a hit — they performed as the Coasters one day, the Drifters the next — as their manager assumed that nobody knew what those bands looked like. They got away with it largely due to Lee’s ability at vocal mimicry, but were also helped by Echols’ showmanship. Echols would play the guitar with his teeth, or behind his head, and it’s possibly no coincidence that around this time Lee hired an unknown guitarist called Jimi Hendrix to play his very first session, on an obscure single called My Diary by Rosa Lee Brooks.
However, the LAGs were doomed as soon as Echols got taken by his friend Billy Preston (who had complimentary tickets after getting to know them in Hamburg) to see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in early 1964. Within days, Lee and Echols had bought wigs to make themselves look like they had long hair, and formed a new band that performed under the names The American Four and The Weirdos.
The new band had a white rhythm section, and was one of the first (if not the first) integrated bands to play the LA scene, which was still very segregated. Lee also made a deliberate choice to start trying to sing like the white pop singers of the time, originally as a joke, but as he put it later “What started out as a put-on materialized as something real and positive.” They were playing, not the soul and R&B that Lee and Echols had previously played, but top forty covers — Wooly Bully and Gloria — and put out one single, a song called Luci Baines that didn’t even try to hide the fact that it was a rip-off of both Hang On Sloopy and Twist and Shout.
This new style lasted nearly a whole year, until Lee saw the Byrds playing at Ciro’s. Both Lee and Echols quickly became part of the scene around Sunset Strip, hanging out with the Byrds, artists Carl Franzoni and Sue Vito, Jim Morrison, and Bryan Maclean, among others.
Their band once again changed its name, this time to The Grass Roots, inspired both by Malcolm X and by the pun on the word “grass”, and for a time had an extra guitarist, Bobby Beausoleil, who would later go on to be infamous for his part in the Manson murders. However, in what seems in hindsight a very wise move, they soon replaced Beausoleil with Bryan Maclean.
Maclean had been around the music scene for a while himself, and had learned guitar from Frank Zappa, with whom he shared a love of Stravinsky, and at one point had been invited to join Zappa’s band. He had also worked for a time as a roadie for the Byrds, and David Crosby in particular had taken him under his wing. He’d also auditioned for a new TV show that had advertised looking for “Ben Franks types” to play as a fictional band called the Monkees, but even though he was in fact a regular at Ben Franks (an all-night restaurant where all the hippest people hung out), he didn’t make it onto the show.
With Maclean as a member, the band had finally found a perfect balance — Lee, the aggressive, charismatic, unpredictable frontman, Echols the guitar virtuoso and mediator, and Maclean the sensitive, folky, melodist. The only problem now was their name — P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri had started recording and releasing singles under the name The Grass Roots, in what Lee always considered an act of deliberate theft of the name by Lou Adler. Inspired by a bra shop called Luv Brassieres where Lee had worked, the band became Love.
Their first recordings, made at Art Laboe’s Original Sound studios, have never surfaced, but Love recorded an entire album there in late 1965. By this point, they’d changed their rhythm section — their original bass player had quit to find steady work, and Ken Forssi, formerly of the Surfaris, had replaced him, and soon brought in his roommate, Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer, to replace Don Conka, the band’s drummer, who by this point had become unreliable due to drug addiction.
They were soon signed to Elektra (with a contract that stated “All checks shall be made to Arthur Lee on behalf of the group”, much to the band’s later annoyance), and went into the studios with Elektra label head Jac Holzman, co-producer Mark Abramson, and engineer Bruce Botnick.
Their earliest demo had consisted of two songs. The more commercial one, Hey Joe, a folk song that David Crosby had taught Maclean, was out of contention as a single because another LA band, the Leaves, had recorded it with the same garage-punk arrangement that both Love and the Byrds performed it with, so instead they went for another choice, a cover of a Bacharach and David song originally performed by Manfred Mann. They took the song, My Little Red Book, and brutally stripped out all the complex chords and the unusual timing, turning it into a thuggish, hard-hitting, amphetamine-paced rocker. The original’s swimmy Hammond organ and polite Paul Jones vocal had turned into snarling, yelling voices and stabbing guitar.
Burt Bacharach hated it, but Love had arrived.
My Little Red Book
Composer: Burt Bacharach & Hal David
Line-up: Arthur Lee (vocals, tambourine), Johnny Echols (vocals, guitar), Bryan Maclean (vocals, guitar), Ken Forssi (bass), Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer (drums)
Original release: My Little Red Book/A Message To Pretty Love, Elektra EK-45603
Currently available on: Love Rhino CD