April 12, 2022

From the Vaults: Bobby Harshman

  Let me give you a hint:  The above named artist and his musical partner are probably best remembered for their song I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight?  It was released in 1967 and entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #87 before it climbed to #7 on the Cash Box chart and #8 on the BH 100.  If you guessed either Bobby Hart or Tommy Boyce, we will accept your answer as close enough, but the ‘Bobby’ part is probably a dead giveaway.  I remember Boyce and Hart because I had the aforementioned song in my stack of drum practice 45s.  They also figured prominently in the credits for some of The Monkees’ biggest hits and as an avid reader of record labels and jackets, I knew of them before I Wonder . . . became an AM radio hit.  

     Drummer/vocalist Micky Dolenz has been getting a lot of press lately.  Since the passing of Michael Nesmith on December 10, 2021, Dolenz is the last Monkee standing so every platform seeking comments about his old band buddies have turned to him.  He and Nesmith were still touring together the month before the ‘Hatted One’ passed away.  Having already begun his Dolenz Sings Nesmith album before Mike died, Micky recently announced he will be taking their last touring band out to celebrate the music of all his late band brothers (including Peter Tork and Davy Jones).  Dolenz first met Bobby Hart in April of 1966 at the first Monkee’s recording session (which also included Tommy Boyce).  They became fast friends over time, enough so that Hart asked Dolenz to write the Foreword for his book Psychedelic Bubble Gum – Boyce & Hart, The Monkees, and Turning Mayhem into Miracles (2017 SelectBooks, Inc. by Bobby Hart with Glenn Ballantyne).  Micky says he had never written a Foreword for a book before, but he was happy to do it for his old friend.

     Just to set the stage, I will share a bit of what Dolenz had to say about the start of their relationship:  “I know that Davy, Peter, Mike, and I created a bit of whacky mayhem in the studio when Tommy and Bobby tried to get us to all record at the same time, but looking back, I’m not surprised.  After all, the producers of the television show were constantly encouraging us to be whacky.  They were actually training us to be spontaneous, improvisational, a bit irreverent, and . . . whacky.  But once we started recording the first Monkee album the process became professional and rewarding.  I spent many happy hours creating hit records with Bobby and Tommy.  To this day, I always credit them with not only writing many of our biggest hits, but, as producers, being instrumental in creating the unique Monkee sound that we all know and love.”

     Let me clarify Micky’s ‘professional and rewarding’ remark a bit.  According to Bobby Hart, the first attempt to get The Monkees on tape was a matter of ‘Steeerike 1, 2, & 3, yer out’.  The basic tracks had already been recorded with Hart’s own band (more on them in a bit) so all he and Boyce had to do was run the tape back and get the group to add their vocals.  The first time they qued the tape, nothing came out of the studio.  The guys had dropped their headsets and were clowning around like a bunch of, well, Monkees.  The same thing happened with takes 2 and 3, so after the session was abandoned, Boyce and Hart made their first decision on how to get The Monkees on tape:  No more than one of them in the studio at a time, a rule they rarely bent.  Once the producers built a rapport with Dolenz and Davy Jones, things went much smoother.  With two lead singers in the bunch, it put them on the right track to sell a lot of records with a weekly built in promotional tool second to none:  a hit TV show.

     Robert Luke Harshman was born in Phoenix, Arizona on February 18, 1939.  Young Bobby was shy and introverted but that didn’t keep him from believing he could have a career in entertainment.  Early on, he fashioned his own radio studio with a small record player so he could practice the smooth DJ pater he was hearing on the country stations his family listened to.  Active in the Pentecostal church (his father was a minister), his background in church and country music did not hint at his future success in pop music.  Young Bobby dreamed of being ‘somebody’ and determined early on the best way to fulfill his dreams was to find a nearly invisible and emotionally safe way to do just that.  Radio, he reasoned, was the key to his American Dream.

     Upon his high school graduation, he sent off the paperwork to enroll in the Don Martin School of Radio in Hollywood.  Before he could begin chasing his radio dream, Bobby enlisted in the service and did his basic training at Fort Ord, California.  His tour of active duty was only six months and the last four months of Harshman’s  hitch found him attached to Armed Forces Radio working out of The Presidio in San Francisco.  The programing was mostly John Philip Sousa songs, but he was finally getting his first dose of being a real DJ.  After Bobby was discharged, he spent the Christmas holidays back home with his girlfriend Becky and his folks.  After catching a ride with a high school buddy, Benny (who was returning to college in Pasadena), he found himself standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine with a duffle bag of his belongings at his feet.  It was New Year’s Day, 1958 and the eighteen year old Bobby had two twenties and a ten in his pocket.  The future, as Tom Petty would later sing, was wide open.

     The first order of business was to find a job so he could afford his lavish Hollywood living arrangements:  A $19-a-week studio apartment with a hot plate, a couple of pans, and a Murphy bed.  Having learned from his dad how to set movable type and operate the old hand-fed letter presses in their garage at home, he at least had a marketable skill.  Bobby had used that skill to land an after school job where he became proficient operating an automated Hidelberg press.  On his second day in L.A. he combed the Yellow Pages for print shops.  After knocking on a few doors, he entered a shop with a sign out front that read “Record Labels, Inc.’:  “An affable older gentleman greeted me warmly, pointed to a row of Heidelberg automatic presses and asked, ‘You know how to run one of these things?’  I summoned my most confident voice and told him, ‘Sure, Heidelberg presses are my specialty,’ and he hired me on the spot.”  For an aspiring radio man, working in a shop printing labels for record companies like Specialty, Chess, Checker, Imperial, Era, Gone, Ember, Del-Fi (and a host of other independent record companies) made Bobby feel like he was getting into the business even it it was on the bottom rung of the ladder.

     Living on ‘one lonely chess sandwich for lunch’, Bobby none-the-less began saving money to make his first record.  Passing by a small recording studio each day, he would read their sign that said, “Come In & See What Your Voice Sounds Like.”  He was determined to save the $10 he would need to do just that.  One Saturday, Bobby finally got up the nerve to enter the studio. There he over dubbed his vocals for You Are My Sunshine backed by the Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano bed he had recorded firstWhen the sound engineer played back the results, Harshman couldn’t believe what he had created sounded like something he could hear on the radio.  As he recalled, “From that moment on, I was hooked.  It was only weeks before I dropped out of disc jockey school (which he had been attending at night after his day job) and was spending every Saturday, and nearly all the money I was earning at the print shop, making music at Fidelity Records.”

     One afternoon, a man stuck his head in the studio door at Fidelity and inquired, “Anyone in here play the banjo?”  Bobby soon found himself holding a rented tenor banjo from the famed Music City store on the corner of Sunset and Vine.  When they entered another small studio across the street, Harshman strummed along on the banjo and sang Red River Valley and Oh, Susanna for which he received a ten spot:  “Yippie!” I thought to myself, “I just turned professional.”  A few weeks later, a stranger at the studio told Bobby, “You should go down and see this record producer by the name of Jess Hodges.  He’s had pretty good luck at getting labels to sign his singers, and I think he’ll like the way you sound.”  Hodges worked ten blocks away in an office mall of little freestanding English-style homes called Crossroad of the World.  After listening to Bobby’s recording of You Are My Sunshine, Jesse told him, “You sound pretty good, kid, but what I’m looking for are singers who have their own material.  Go home and write some songs and then come back and see me.”  Bobby had never written a song before but in his mind, he left the office thinking, “Well, I am just one hit song away from stardom.”  Naive, yes, but everybody has to start somewhere.  Bobby Harshman was no longer on the path to become a radio personality.  There would be several changes in direction as he tried on different musical hats as a songwriter, performer, and eventually as a producer.

     Hart (who was eventually renamed by a record producer because ‘Harshmans’ made the credit line on record labels too crowded) spent the early 1960s bouncing back and forth between both coasts.  During periods when the flow of royalty payments for his creations lagged behind his bills, he performed at amusement parks, stadiums, and at clubs (many of the latter in Las Vegas).  Through his many contacts, he assembled a crack band who dubbed themselves The Candy Store Prophets.  Although the cast of players was rather fluid (many went off to join the bands like Canned Heat or to play with artists like Kris Kristofferson), other musical acquaintances like Leon Russell would recommend able replacements.  How Boyce & Hart got involved in The Monkees will be covered in a future FTV devoted to the Pre-Fab Four, but suffice to say Hart’s touring band became a much bigger part of The Monkees success than most realize.

     Hart was already a sought after producer when he began working for ColGems, the label created by the Screen Gems and Columbia partnership that produced the TV show.  Typically, Hart would arrange the songs featured in each episode (whether his compositions or one from the bevy of writers who pitched songs for the band).  The Candy Store Prophets would then book the studio time to make the backing tapes before one of The Monkees would be brought in to do the vocals (remember the ‘one Monkee at a time’ rule?).  They were a well oiled machine as they had to be in order to get new music done on a weekly basis.  Hart was hard at work prepping music for both the show and the band’s first album a full year before The Monkees debuted on the small screen on September 12, 1966.  Their secondary goal was to put the music featured on the show out as singles and albums.  The third goal was to tour the band in their off time to further fan the flames of Monkee-mania and thereby sell a lot of records.

     The Candy Store Prophets acted as the backup band for the Monkees’ first tour.  As a performing band, The Monkees were green as far as concerts were concerned.  They all had stage experience (TV, theater, bands, solo gigs) but were new to playing together as a band.  Dolenz was a guitar player/vocalist who got the drummer’s job because that was all there was left.  He admits he didn’t even know how to set up the drum kit at their first concert.  The Monkees did play their own instruments and sing the vocals while touring but with support from the Candy Store Prophets.  Each of The Monkees’ solo spots were backed by the CSP band who also supported The Monkees when they performed together.

     The rumor ‘The Monkees don’t play on their own recordings’ was a minor dust-up and did not affect their popularity one bit.  It wasn’t completely true and over time, they did take more control over ‘their music’, but in the early days, most of the hits were filtered through Hart and the CSP.

When the The Monkees insisted on more input to the recording process, the suits got tired of fighting with them and gave in to their demands.  Hart simply says, “They got what they wanted, but they lost what they had,” as their record sales slid and their TV show was canceled.  Again, a more detailed account of this chapter of The Monkee’s story will be forthcoming in a future FTV.

     Bobby Hart knew Tommy Boyce for 35 years before his partner’s untimely passing in November of 1994.  Though the duo wrote more than 300 songs and helped sell more than 42 million records together, Boyce was prone to changing directions in both his career and his life.

Tommy had survived an aneurysm but it was still a shock to all when he took his own life.  The contents of the note he left behind were never released so there has never been a clear answer to the obvious question, “Why?”.  Hart sought more stability in his life as he continued to search for spiritual growth through meditation and by becoming a follower of Paramahansa Yogananda.  Hart’s lifelong quest for balance in his life has meshed well with Yogananda’s writings which stress, “The importance of striving for excellence and success in this material world,” without losing focus on one’s search for God.  

     Bobby’s first marriage to his high school sweetheart Becky was doomed by the stress caused by him being on the road constantly early in his career.   Hart has somehow maintained a relationship with their two sons Bret and Bobby, Jr. in spite of his years as an absentee parent.  The second love story of Hart’s life also suffered;  both he and his new partner Claudia found it hard to maintain their relationship when both were kept on the run with their respective careers.  Sadly, Claudia had moved on to a less happy relationship that was just ending when she was tragically killed in a car accident.  His second marriage to MaryAnn has lasted in part because they have both embraced a life dedicated to the teachings of Yogananda.  At 83 years of age, the three time award nominee (Academy Awards, Golden Globe, and Grammy Awards) remains active in the Los Angeles music scene.

     Fittingly, Hart ends his book reminding readers that he arrived in Hollywood, “With childlike dreams and no expectation of the coming Age of Aquarius.  Yet even during the turbulent sixties, Tommy and I found the primal power of focused creativity and the sheer sense of fun that comes from never taking this world too seriously.”  Perhaps the words he and Boyce penned many years ago for The Monkees’ theme song say it best:  We go wherever we want to,

Do what we like to do.  We don’t have time to get restless, There’s always something new.  We’re just trying to be friendly, Come watch us sing and play.  We’re the young generation, And we got something to say….Hey, Hey, …. You probably know the rest.


Top Piece Video:  Boyce and Hart doing their best known record under their own names: