February 28, 2024

From the Vaults: Whatever Happened to . . .?


     The title of this FTV started as a mental exercise of me trying to make a ‘Top Ten’ list of bands I liked to listen to back when I was first learning to be a rock and roll drummer.  I thought, “Maybe it would be fun to follow up on some of them and see what happened to them.”  The reality of my age caught up to me when I had to admit that many of my influences are dead.  From The Monkees (all gone except for Micky Dolenz), to The Doors (Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarak have departed), to The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Jimi, gone, Noel Redding, gone, Mitch Mitchell, gone)(the list goes on), it became apparent focusing on the soundtrack of my early musical life would read more like a listing of obituaries.  

     Undaunted, I began searching the web for random bands and artists I have not thought of in a while just to see if they are still with us and if they are, what they have been up to lately.  These are presented in no particular order of importance, just the order in which I thought of them.  To avoid the ‘obituary angle’, I am going to avoid the ‘who died when’ stuff and stick to what happened to the band over time.

     The Music Explosion – A garage band out of Mansfield, Ohio, they are mostly remembered for their one hit A Little Bit ’O Soul.  I loved this song and it was one of the first ones that made me think I could drum and sing at the same time.  Their hit was the product of two English songwriters and originally recorded in 1964 by the beat group The Little Darlings.  LB’OS was released by the Music Explosion on the Larurie Records label in 1967.  Their only album contained several songs that were blatant rewrites of existing songs.  These copycat tunes came from a duo of producers named Kasenetz and Katz whom we will discuss again in a little bit.  Music Explosion drummer Bob Avery later toured with another band I got to like playing in my high school band, The Twig:  Crazy Elephant.

     Crazy Elephant –  An American bubblegum pop group, they were mostly a studio band made up of members of the Marzono-Calvert Studio Band.  The masterminds behind this conglomeration were Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz of Super K Productions.  K and K made it their mission to toss bands together to write wildly popular bubblegum songs that would get a lot of airplay before disappearing from the charts.  Crazy Elephant’s Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’ was exactly one of those tunes.  I loved it for the driving tom tom part that introduced the song and ran under all the verses – it was always a danceable moment whenever we played it.  The K- boys wrote a fantastical biography about the band being made up of Welsh coal miners but when they said they were discovered working 18,372,065 feet underground (that would be 3,480 miles and place them well into the Earth’s inhospitable mantle) it was obvious to anyone with a brain it was all hogwash.  The song was released on Bell Records in 1969.  At least one member, Kenny Cohen (vocals, saxophone, flute) kept active going on to play with the Eagles, Santana, Rod Stewart and B.B.King.

The Music Machine – Probably one of the first bands to try and make it big by putting as much effort into their look as their music.  Their music was fine but one could not help notice they all had dyed black hair, black outfits and wore one black glove on their right hand (something about showing their solidarity with each other).  The Sunset Strip band was lead by Sean Bonniwell and they, too, are remembered mostly for one song, Talk Talk.  Bonniwell’s half spoken vocal and the fuzz guitar riffing literally burst from your radio.  In later years I found their first album and it is an interesting mix including their take on The Beatles Taxman.  They began as a folk trio called the Ragamuffins and they progressed to what could only be described as a proto-punk style leaning into psychedelia.  Their image got them on a lot of the music shows catering to teens but they fractured in 1967.  Bonniwell later formed his own Music Machine  (Bonniwell’s Music Machine to separate him from the original band name).

Tommy James and the Shondells – James grew up in Niles, Michigan and got his first break when a local DJ at WNIL, Jack Douglas, formed a small record label called Snap Records.  Using the WNIL studio for a base, he recorded some local bands and the Shondells had a local hit with a cover of a Jeff Barry – Ellie Greenwich song called Hanky Panky (1964).  Lacking resources to promote his label, the song was soon forgotten, at least until 1965 when Pittsburgh dance promoter Bob Mack started spinning the song at his clubs. A bootlegged copy of Hanky Panky sold enough units (80,000 in ten days) to take it to number one on the Pittsburgh radio stations.  Mack and his talent booker, Chuck Rubin met with James and the three headed for New York City to find a record deal.  All the major labels politely turned them down and they found out why.  Roulette Records head Morris Levy had called all the other labels and scared them off by telling them, “This is my freakin’ record.”  Levy had well known mob connections so James signed with the only option, Roulette Records.

     The original Shondells had broken up so Tommy made the rounds singing with various bands at Mack’s clubs until he found the perfect fit with a band called the Raconteurs.  They became the new Shondells and by July of 1966,  Hanky Panky had claimed the top spot on the national record charts.

     More hits would follow and there were only three things James did wrong in his early career.  Levy’s connections to the Genovese crime family made Roulette Records basically a money laundering operation.  James estimates they stiffed him for somewhere between $30 and $40 million in royalties.  The second ‘oops’ was not accepting an invitation to perform at Woodstock.  It wasn’t totally Tommy’s fault as he was in Hawaii when the Roulette secretary called him and relayed Artie Kornfeld’s invitation to, ‘play a show at a pig farm in upstate New York’.  James declined the offer to travel 6,000 miles for the gig as described, saying, “If I’m not there, start without us, will you please?”  The third involved his drug use which caused him to collapse on stage during a concert.  Though he was pronounced dead at the scene, he survived and took it as an omen it was time to retire to the country and take a break from the music biz.

     James moved on into solo work and after a warning from Levy about what was about to happen, he was working in Nashville when a bloody mob war broke out in NYC.  His connection to Levy brought death threats.  Tommy’s future problems with the mob were averted when he was finally allowed to leave the Roulette label in 1974.  James waited until all the major figures from the Roulette label had passed on before he wrote his own account that was published in 2010 (Me, The Mob, and The Music).

     Over 300 artists have recorded Jame’s songs and he still performs from his home base in New Jersey.  Since 2018, he has hosted a weekly radio program on Sirius XM (Gettin Together with Tommy James)

The Ohio Express –  To explain the existence of The Ohio Express, we need to get back to Kasenetz and Katz whom we mentioned in connection with The Music Explosion.  Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz owned Super K productions and the best way to describe their operation is to call it a ‘Bubblegum Music Factory’.  They K-boys used as many as 25 different musicians to crank out radio friendly BPM (Bubblegum Pop Music) hits.  These were fed to a live band who played them at gigs and appeared in the pictures on the record sleeves.  For the most part, the musicians who played in the live band (Sir Timothy and the Royals who were renamed The Ohio Express by Super K) rarely played on the actual recordings.  In a few cases, the touring Ohio Express band were not even aware they had a new song climbing the charts until fans requested them during shows.

     Singer/songwriter Joey Levine was the voice behind their biggest hits after The Ohio Express moved on from Super K to a label known for their bubblegum pop records, Buddah Records.  Levine’s demo recording of the BPM staple Yummy, Yummy, Yummy caught Buddah head Neil Bogart’s attention and he rushed that version into print.  It took all of two months for the single to reach R.I.A.A. gold disc status (one million copies sold).  The die was cast and between 1968 and 1970, the ‘group’ scored three more top 40 hits (Down at Lulu’s, Chewy Chewy, and Mercy) with Levine’s vocals and nary a note provided by the touring band.  The touring Ohio Express did appear on a few album tracks but there is no record of Levine performing live with the band.

     In the post-Levine years, the band continued but never reached the top 40 again.  The band was quietly retired in 1972 but that doesn’t mean they went away.  The records continued to bring in revenue as they cycled through a myriad of compilations like the Nuggets series.  Classic Rock radio usually avoids bubblegum tracks but they still spin the Ohio Express hits because they moved a lot of records back in the day.  As happens with bands composed of interchangeable parts, various members kept touring as The Ohio Express including a Las Vegas residency and occasional reunions of various ‘original’ members.  Drummer Tim Corwin has taken over lead vocals fronting all new members and this line-up still tours the oldies circuit 

The 1910 Fruitgum Company – As label mates of The Ohio Express, the Fruitgum Company started out as Jeckell and The Hydes in New Jersey circa 1966.  They joined Buddah Records in 1967 and released five LPs before disbanding in the 1970s.  Their first hit single, Simon Says used the same head nodding singalong template employed by the other Super K bands and reached No 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.  They toured as openers for major acts like The Beach Boys and had another top ten hit with 1-2-3 Red Light (#5 in the U.S.).  Like the Ohio Express, they can count more than 20 musicians who have gone through their ranks.  Original members Frank Jeckell and Mick Manseueto reformed the band in 1999 and as of 2019 were still performing their own hits as well as other songs from the 1960s.

The Electric Prunes – yet another band with a rotating cast of more than twenty, so we won’t even try to bring you up to speed other than to say vocalist James Lowe is the only constant member.  They came together in Los Angeles in 1965 as a garage surf-rock outfit called the Sanctions.  They became Jim and the Lords when they recorded a 12 track demo in a home studio in March of 1965.  The record remained unreleased until Heartbeat Productions put it out in 2000 under the title Then Came the Electric Prunes.  A real estate agent introduced the band to a sound engineer from RCA Studios named Dave Hassinger.  He had recently worked on the Rolling Stones album Aftermath and was looking for a band to produce.  Hassinger suggested a name change and according to Lowe, The Electric Prunes moniker started off as a joke.  He  convinced them to use it anyway:  “It’s the one thing everyone will remember.  It’s not attractive, and there’s nothing sexy about it, but people won’t forget it.”  Having come close to joining a band named The Self Winding Grapefruit in 1967, I never blinked an eye at the name because I had the Prune’s first single in my stack of practice 45s as soon as it came out.

     What separated The Electric Prunes from the rest of the Top 40 bands?  They were one of the first to embrace the use of electronic elements in their songs.  The opening of I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night is a good example.  Lowe explained how they discovered the sound when they were still recording at the home studio:  “Dave cued up a tape and didn’t hit ‘record’ and the playback in the studio was way up [producing] an ear-shattering vibrating jet guitar [sound].  Ken had been shaking his Bigsby wiggle stick with some fuzztone and tremolo at the end of the tape.  [Played] forward it was cool.  Backward it was amazing.  I ran into the control room and asked ‘What was that?’  They didn’t have the monitors on and hadn’t heard it.  I made Dave cut it off and save it for later.”  When they used it on I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night, it caught the listener’s attention and helped propel the track to No 11 on the Hot 100 chart.  

     Wiki defines their first album as, “exotically combined effects, and violin-like guitar riffs, mixed with a diverse, if uneven, selection of pop songs.”  Lowe was married and working at the rocket engine design firm Rocketdyne when the band was formed.  After the original Prunes disbanded, he worked in music production with Todd Rundgren’s band The Nazz and MTV darlings Sparks.  When the 1990s brought a re-interest in his old band, they re-convened and still perform on occasion.  My lasting impression of The Electric Prunes was James Lowe cradling a Zither when they made appearances on the various youth oriented music shows.  There weren’t many pop bands that made it to the top of the charts utilizing an ancient instrument like a zither.

The Prunes pioneering use of electronic sounds and explorations of early psychedelia made them trailblazers and yes, nobody forgot their name.

The Grass Roots:  Yes, there is still a touring version of The Grass Roots out there but it no longer has any original members (the list of past members soars past 50).  The last touchstone to their 1965-75 heyday, bassist/vocalist Rob Grill, passed away in 2011 but even he was a third generation member of the original group.  The songwriter/producer team of P.F.Sloan and Steve Barri had written several songs for a band project they called ‘Grassroots’.  They were trying to cash in on the newly emerging folk rock scene and the two recorded a demo of Where Were You When I needed You.  The demo (now attributed to The Grass Roots) was sent to several San Francisco Bay area stations where the song drew moderate interest.  Next, they went in search of a group who could perform as The Grass Roots.  A band that had won the Battle of the Bands at a Teen Fair in San Mateo, CA fit the bill.  The new Grass Roots (nee – The Bedouins) recut the song with their vocalist Willie Fulton (who would later become a member of Tower of Power).

     The band began getting airplay in Southern California in late 1965 and Dunhill Records owner Lou Adler began using them as a backup band for The Mamas and The Papas and Barry McGuire.  They also served as the house band at a Hollywood nightclub called The Trip.  They broke away from Dunhill when the label would not let them record their own songs.  They  returned to the Bay area and kept gigging as The Grass Roots until Dunhill ordered them to cease.  As Where Were You…peaked in the Top 40, Dunhill set out to find a new Grass Roots.  A Wisconsin band Sloan and Barri had worked with were offered the chance but they declined.

     Many consider the GRII band to be the classic, hit-making version of the band.  They were called 13th Floor when they submitted a demo to Dunhill and the rest was, as they say, history.  Rob Grill was a guitar player who got the GR bassist gig when the 13th Floor/GRII bassist was drafted.  The band went through two replacements before Sloan heard Grill sing and knew his voice was perfect for the Grass Roots material.  My formative drum playing years included a healthy dose of Grass Roots songs and one of the first times I played in front of a crowd was at a block party my folks hosted in our basement.  I bashed along to Let’s Live for Today and did a little showing off with what the 13 year-old me considered to be fancy cymbal fills.  Having the neighbors clap gave me a lot of confidence I might be able to drum in a real band one day. 

     This little trip down memory lane only scratched the surface at 8 groups.  No doubt we will need to revisit the ‘Whatever happened to . . .’ files again.


Top Piece Video:  The Electric Prunes performing their big hit – Zither (or Autoharp if you prefer) in hand!