Northwest Music History: Psych/Prog

Sky River Rock Festival & Lighter Than Air Fair Poster

We recently purchased an almost complete collection of Helix Magazines from the generous Jerry Jermann. One issue came with this fantastic wrap-around “Sky River Festival And Lighter Than Air Fair” poster cover. The iconic Walt Crowley is credited with it’s design.  At the time Walt was the art director of  The Helix, who’s staff and friends were mostly responsible for the festival.  Notice the clever way the wrap-around took advantage of the “ split fountain” effect-one that uses two separate colored inks at either end meeting in the middle as a third.  This example is probably the result of pouring four horizontal bands of ink (top to bottom blue/red/yellow/blue).  No matter how it was done, this is one of the best uses of the process we’ve ever seen, and it’s clear Crawley’s drawing was specifically designed with the intention to be printed exactly as it appears.
The festival itself was held Labor Day Weekend, 1968  near Sultan WA in a 40-acre pasture owned by Betty Nelson.  Although we prefer to believe the “Sky River” referred to is some unknown visionary, LSD-fueled floating waterfall  that’s inferred in the illustration, “Sky River” is actually a clever reference to the adjacent Skykomish River.  The “Lighter Than Air Fair” refers to a tethered  helium balloon on site for attendees to rise above the crowd.  In fact, the first balloon flew off by itself before the festival even began.  It took quite a bit of scouting to find a replacement, but one was found in Spokane and hastily made it’s way across the state just in time.  One of Sky River’s organizers,Paul Dorpat, later reflected on the impetus for the festival- The “Piano Drop” that had taken place earlier in 1968: ““We thought if we could do a Piano Drop and get 3,000 people to come into a narrow road near Duvall, we could probably do a festival.”

According to many who attended, the line-up shown in this Helix wrap-around came closest to the actual bill, although ultimately there were plenty of additions and no-shows.  There’s still some inconsistent memories of the performers that actually took part, but we know the Grateful Dead took part (The Grateful Dead’s full set was filmed) and we’ve been told this poster is the closest thing to the final  line-up.  Other acts are certain to have played. Country Joe and the Fish (who had taken part in an earlier event that inspired the festival-more on that later) an unexpected, unscheduled Jam between Big Mama Thornton, James Cotton (who’d supposedly flown up with The Dead) and Billy Roberts-the writer of “Hey Joe”.  The proceeds of the Festival were to be donated to Native American organizations, as well as to the black community. Unfortunately the Festival failed to make a profit and came up short  $5000.  A modest amount, to be sure…but it certainly would have made a profit if all the attendees had paid admission instead of sneaking in.

The weekend was almost completely rain-drenched even though the showers were intermittent.  It’s said that an underground spring began to flow because of the activity.  Before the final act played the crowd is reported to have chanted “no rain-no rain-no rain”  According to the reports of many festival goers the sun finally came out as the festival ended, appropriately with a performance by “It’s a Beautiful Day” It’s believed that this version of the Sky River festival  (there were three in all) was the first organized rock festival held in an open air venue in a rural area.  The much more famous Woodstock Festival would not happen until almost a year later; August 15–18, 1969.  Click here to see it in all its psychedelic glory. More Helix related posts to come.

 

The Bards

Looking back on  heyday of 50s and 60s teen-dance music in the Northwest we tend to forget there was also a very healthy  scene in eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and to a lesser degree in eastern Oregon.  Teen dances were just as popular on the east side of the Cascades as they were on the west, but we often overlook it.  Perhaps the crowd sizes were smaller, but it’s important to remember the distances between the small towns of the Inland Empire.  Bands did much of the bookings themselves in Grange Halls, all-ages clubs, teen fairs in the larger towns and relentlessly trying to get the attention of small, local radio stations that were largely forgotten by labels and distributors.  One of the many bands that would follow in the tradition of eastern Washington bands was The Continentals (later The Fabulous Contitnentals).  The band was formed was formed at Moses Lake High School in 1961/1962.  Originally the Continentals was loose-knit affair with personnel coming and going.  During the early years Ron Covey was added on electric guitar, and singer John Draney got on board. According to bassist Chuck Wallace;

John (Draney) could do a pretty good Roy Orbison and ‘Pretty Woman’ was an early addition to our repertoire. Ken McDonald was the leader of the group and named it the Continentals. His father owned the local Lincoln, Mercury car dealership but at the time I’m not sure we were sharp enough to make a connection”.

Ken suggested the band play a “real” gig and they ended up with a 1962 booking for a New Year’s dance at a local Elks Club.  The band played “Five Foot Two” and the mostly-adult crowd loved them.  Chuck says “I was playing the upright bass, Bob Hull was on piano and I don’t really recall the exact make up of that first combo.” 

After graduating from High School in 1963 Ken went off to college, and the band went through drummers Stan Gibson and Nick Varney.  But it was Bob Galloway that finally became a permanent member of the band.  Bob Hull had also gone off to college and was replaced by keyboardist Mike Balzotti, and guitarist Mardi Sheridan joined the group around the same time.  It was at this point that the band re-christened themselves as The Fabulous Continentals and added Marsha Mae, sister of Ron Covey, on vocals. Chuck Warren says:

“We were traveling the state and enjoying some success on the dance circiout but the size of the group made traveling and dividing up the paycheck at the end of the gig was a challenge”.  Early on we rented our own halls and probably hit every Grange and Armory, and City Hall in Eastern Washington. As our popularity grew we began being hired by promoters who ran dances in roller rinks and larger venues”

It’s clear the core members of the Fabulous Continentals had aspirations and were willing to work as much as possible to make things happen. Keyboardist Mike Balzotti, guitarist Mardi Sheridan, drummer Bob Galloway, and bass player Chuck Warren were at the core of the band and made a decision to scale down the band to it’s basics.  Marsha Mae was told “to stay home. Her brother Ron quit in solidarity with his sister-or possibly on the orders of his mother and father.  At this point the Covey parents asked the remaining members to “leave the basement” where they’d practiced and “never return!” The parents even went so far as to run a local newspaper ad proclaiming that Ron and Marsha Mae Covey were no longer associated with The Fabulous Continentals “Lucky for us” Warren slyly adds “Bob Galloway had a garage!”

The move didn’t seem to deter Marsha Mae’s rise to local fame and her notoriety was probably more to her parents’ liking. In 1968  she would  be crowned “Miss Moses Lake” and the year after she was crowned “Miss Washington”.  Ron Covey became involved in Moses Lake politics and spent years on the city council as well as serving as Mayor.  Later he headed ‘The Moses Lake Irrigation and Rehabilitation District Board’ but resigned (without explanation) in 2014 after a contentious four years with the MLRDB.

Once Balzotti, Sheridan, Galloway and Warren had pared down the group to a quartet they started looking for a new name.  The musical world had been turned up by the British Invasion, with The Beatles at the forefront.  Contemporary musical tastes were changing at a dramatic pace, and bands across the US were in the process of finding more British sounding names.  Peter Blecha has pointed out a few Eastern Washington bands that followed the trend to Anglicize their band name;

“Spokane’s Runabouts retooled themselves as the London Taxi, Ellensburg’s Avengers reformed as the Scotsmen and recorded “Sorry Charlie” replete with Brit accents, and a Moses Lake band, the Bards — who had originally formed as the Fabulous Continentals back in 1961 — began restyling themselves after the Beatles…Another popular Moses Lake-area band, the Page Boys, got signed by Seattle’s Camelot label, which released their single “Our Love” The members of the Fabulous Continentals were changing (like many of their contemporaries) from a primarily instrumental band playing raucous R&B-tinged garage rock to a more lyrical outfit that would be known by a name that implied a more “British” sound.   The band started looking through a Roget’s Thesaurus to find a name that would describe the new path they’d chosen…to make use of classical  lyrics and content set to modern music…and of course to “sound” British.   After a search, they decided on the name The Bards.

The band kept up a hectic schedule playing as many venues across Washington, Oregon and Idaho as possible. After years as a dance band, and the hard work as The Bards things started paying off.  Although they were writing new music all along, they made sure to keep their audiences satisfied with playing plenty of their old standards from the Fabulous Continentals days, thus keeping fans old and new happy.  After years of constant playing they were becoming the most popular band in the Northwest…on both sides of the mountains; so it wasn’t a stretch that they’d eventually come to the attention of Seattle-based Jerden Records head Jerry Dennon.

Dennnon offered the band a chance to record a few songs at Kearney Barton’s Audio Recording Inc. studio, then on Fifth Avenue.  Barton’s Audio Recording Inc. was built inside space he’d made into one of the most sophisticated studios in the Northwest, complete with two echo chambers and a three track tape recorder. The Bards initially recorded four sides with Barton. “The Owl and The Pussycat” based on the poem by Edward Lear,  “The Jabberwocky” inspired by the Lewis Carroll poem, an original composition “The Light of Love” and a cover of The Who’s “My Generation”. The sessions were engineered by Barton and produced by Gil Bateman who also produced the Sonic’s  “Psycho” and “The Bears” by Springfield Rifle among other great Northwest sides.

Even though The Bards had originated about the same time as The Wailers, The Frantics and dozens of other NW Sound bands  The Bards tried to distance themselves from what was popular west of the Cascades.

“We purposely tried not to be too “Seattle” as we felt that many of the groups over there sounded a lot alike”.

Their first recordings show they were serious about that claim. After completing their first recordings  Dennon shopped them around Hollywood and New York City, but couldn’t find a major label willing to release them.  He had proposed “The Owl and The Pussycat” b/w “The Light of Love” as a single but label execs found the lyrics of “The Owl and the Pussycat” too…suggestive… even though the lyrics were mostly an unadulterated reading of Edward Lear’s original poem.

Instead of continuing to pursue a major label, Dennon decided to release The Bards’ first single on his Piccadilly Records imprint. Picaddilly was the regionally distributed label that Jerden Records  used to float a trial balloon for local  talent they were considering signing, or as a respected regional label that might attract the majors.  The release got a bit of Puget Sound and Eastern Washington attention, but really went nowhere.  “The Owl and The Pussycat” was rooted in what we might think of as “The Northwest Sound” but it definitely wasn’t garage rock in the manner of the Wailers, The Frantics or The Sonics. There was far more folk-rock influence, and it’s clear the band were interested in a more “pop” sound-albeit one based in serious songwriting rather than playing to the masses. The prominent organ was not played in the standard local R&B and vocal harmonies were more pronounced.  Over all it’s a great tune.  Ironically it was later re-issued by Capitol Records as well as a slower version that is pure early psychedelia. Unfortunately the later Capitol release didn’t do well either, although it’s worth a listen, and some collectors even covet it over the original recordings.  They’re  great examples of early  psychedelic pop.

The Bards second release (also on Picaddilly) didn’t fare any better outside the Northwest.  Their cover of “My Generation” was solid but not particularly innovative.  The “B’ side of the single is “The Jabberwocky” which would be used again later as a B-side (as was their song “The Light of Love”). “The Jabberwocky” is set to fine instrumentation, but the lyrics of the Lewis Carroll poem seem out of place here.  A bit too forced.  This might be because the poem was far less referenced in 1967 than it has been in the ensuing decades.  At a time that most songs on radio were love songs, or all-out rockers it gets marks for innovation.

Finally on their third try The Bards hit pay dirt.  The band had heard the song “Never Too Much Love” on the B-side of Curtis Mayfield and The Impression’s 1964 hit “Talking About My Baby” The Bards were smitten.  They rushed back over the mountains to Kearney Barton’s studio to cut their own version almost immediately.  Mayfield had originally written the song and performed it in the classic R&B/Soul style that he pioneered.  The Bard’s version didn’t veer too far off vocally, aside from being less smooth than the incomparable Impressions.   The smooth instrumental harmonies and a gentle horn section were missing on The Bards version.  They did what most rock bands do when faced with ballads-they relied more on electric guitar.  The result was a truly new reading of Mayfield’s song.  Instead of cool soul it took on a more folk-rock/psychedelic  air.  It was also infectious and rose to number one status on many Northwest and British Columbian regional radio station’s playlists.  More importantly, it drew the attention of the major labels who had earlier turned The Bards down. The Bards were left to choose several offers that were coming in fast but chose Capitol Records, since it was the American home of their revered Beatles.

The result was taking their regional hit “Never Too Much Love” to a nationwide distribution deal, and would become a minor hit around the US.  It still ends up on compilations of both Northwest and psychedelic bands. In the aftermath of their “hit” The Bards remained on the road even more than they had in the early 60s.  They found themselves as openers for bands like The Young Rascals, The Turtles, The Dave Clark Five and as pick-up band for Tommy Roe.   Although they admit they found Roe to be a top-knotch performer, they weren’t as thrilled by his music.  The Bards also opened for other top national and international acts around the region.

Between opening gigs they continued headlining the kind of venues that had always provided their bread and butter; teen dance halls, roller rinks, grange halls, county fairs and whatever other spaces that hosted teen dances.  According to Chuck they were working 20-25 nights a month and in 1967, 1968 and 1969 they had put over 100,000 miles a year on the Bardsmobile, a car that towed a small trailer carrying their equipment with The Bards logo prominently displayed on each side.

“Virtually all of those miles were in the Northwestern Part of the United States. Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were Bard states. Parts of Montana, British Columbia and Northern California were part of the circuit also”

The schedule got incredibly demanding after “Never Too Much Love” and the band was afraid of becoming stale.  They cancelled a month’s worth of gigs and rented an old theater in Moses Lake (The Ritz) to write, practice and record.  It was these recordings that showed an even more original and innovative sound.  The band recorded on a reel-to-reel  and a song or two at a time was sent to Kearney Barton’s studio for mastering.  At the core of what they were writing was a sort of mini rock opera they called “Creation”. The Bards were so pleased with the results they decided to drive to Los Angeles with demos in hand to find a label interested in releasing the totality of “Creation” which would include a few other remarkable compositions that would fill out an album.

Before their move to find a label in LA The Bards recorded one more song at Kearney Barton’s studio.  This time the band chose Jeff Afdem of the bands The Dynamics and Springfield Rifle to arrange and produce.  The A-side of the single was “Tunesmith” by Jimmy Webb.  Webb was at the height of his career at the time, writing classic songs such as “Galveston”, Witchita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. The B-Side of “Tunesmith” was written by an unknown singer/songwriter born in Spokane and commuting between his home in Yakima and his gig with the Seattle based band Caliope. The song chosen was “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues”, and of course the singer/songwriter was Danny O’Keefe. O’Keefe had recorded a demo of “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” about a year before The Bards release. O’Keefe’s version had remained unreleased since it was, in fact, a demo that O’Keefe had used to find a label.  O’Keefe had also caught the eye of Jerry Dennon very early on, and O’Keefe had become friends with Jerry, and signed with his Jerden label, as well as Dennon’s Burdette Publishing. It’s likely that this was the connection that brought the song to The Bards attention

The single was released on Parrot Records (a U.S. subsidiary of London Records) who would go on to license two other Bards  re-issues.  Danny O’Keefe would have an international hit with his song a few years later, and since then his song has been covered literally by dozens of well-known artists.  Although Jimmy Webb was considered one of America’s best songwriters at the time, Keyboardist Mike Balzotti says:

“Had it been up to The Bards, ‘Goodtime Charlie’s Got The Blues’ would have been the “A” side”.
He goes on to say:
““As it turns out, a year later Danny O’Keefe made a big hit out of a similar rendition of the song!”
(The song would actually become a hit for O’Keefe in 1971, three years after The Bards).

Despite Webb’s fame and popularity The Bards were on the right track.  “Good Time Charlie” has become the longer lasting song, that still remains a staple of oldies radio, and the many other covers of it remain favorites of the fans of other artists.

. Once in Hollywood, by pure coincidence The Bards ran into singer/songwriter/producer Curt Boettcher in an elevator after they’d visited the offices of Mike Curb, one of the most successful producer/executives of all time.  Boetthcher was taken by the band right away  so he drove them to his business partner Gary Usher’s house to listen to the tapes they were shopping.  Both Boettcher and Usher were impressed.  Later the band were introduced to Usher and Boettcher’s third partner, Keith Olsen.  Boettcher, Usher and Olsen were then in the process of putting together a label called Together Records.  On paper the trio seemed like a team that couldn’t be beat.  All had been successful producers and/or engineers on a plethora of hit records.

Boettcher had produced The Association’s debut album which resulted in the hits “Along Comes Mary”  which reached number seven on the Billboard Charts and “Cherish” which reached number one. Boettcher is remembered as one of the earliest proponents of “Sunshine Pop”-a slightly more serious version of “Bubblegum Music” and although he only lived to be 41 he would go on to produce The Grateful Dead, the mixdown engineer for Emmit Rhode’s “Farewell to Paradise” and in the mid-1970s, he sang backing vocals for artists as diverse as Elton John, Eric Carmen and Tanya Tucker among a host of others.  He’d also managed to perform and record as a solo act.

Gary Usher had strong ties with the Beach Boys, had produced a few of their early singles and co-written several  songs with Brian Wilson, including “409” and “In My Room”. He’d also produced The Byrds, The Surfari’s and Dick Dale, as well as “discovering” The Firesign Theater and being instrumental in getting them a major label deal. Usher would go on to have his own successful career in the 1970’s.

At the time Keith Olsen was a respected engineer, but his incredible track record of production credits was a bit ahead in his future.  During the 1970’s Olsen produced dozens of hit artists and several number one albums.  In all he would produce more than 39 Gold records, 24 Platinum records, and 14 Multi-Platinum albums. So under contract to “Together Records” The Bards set out to record what would be an album with “Creation” at it’s core.  Their new label seemed bound to be a huge success with all of the talent on hand and with distribution through Curb. One hitch was that The Bards were still under contract with Jerry Dennon of Jerden Records, and also to Capitol Records.  They needed a new name to release any new recordings.

Curt Boettcher, as producer had been fascinated by the name of The Bards’ hometown, Moses Lake.  He suggested the band their name should be changed to “Moses Lake” The band liked the idea, so the recordings proceeded with the assumption the band name had changed.  While the erstwhile Bards were recording , Usher, Boettcher and Olsen were in the process of finding financing and distribution for their new label.  The three had been in talks with Motown in the beginning, but no deal could be reached.  The trio then returned to Mike Curb (in who’s office elevator the band had met Boettcher) and were able to secure the finances they needed to get off the ground, and a distribution deal through Curb’s organization.

Mike Curb was and is a legendary figure in the music and film business.  He had worked with artists such as the young Linda RonstadtThe Electric Flag (featuring Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles) as well as writing songs for and producing The Osmonds, Roy Orbison, and Liza Minnelli among many of the acts that would later become best sellers.  Curb would also sign artists such as Richie Havens, Gloria Gaynor, Eric Burdon, Johnny Bristol and War.  In 1969 Curb merged his successful Curb Records with MGM and became President of MGM Records and Verve Records.

Shortly after becoming President of MGM  Curb became embroiled in a crusade to rid the music business of drugs by dropping 18 acts that in the words of Billboard Magazine

“had, promoted and exploited hard drugs through music.”

Billboard added that Curb was motivated by the drug-related deaths of Janis Joplin Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Oddly enough one of the acts Curb had dropped was Frank Zappa.  Even in the 1960s Zappa had been well-known as a critic of drug use.  Apparently Curb had not gotten the memo.  He also hadn’t got the memo that Zappa had already fulfilled his contract and was in the process of establishing his own labels, Bizarre and Straight Records.

Sadly Together Records failed to live up to it’s promise.  It’s said that their only release that came near being a “hit” was used for paying staff.  The compilation  “Preflyte” by The Byrds is a collection of demos and non-released material that predated their being signed to Columbia.  The album also contains a great deal of early material recorded under The Byrds original name, The Jet Set.  The album stalled at number 84 on the Billboard charts, and other Together releases by The Hillmen, Sandy Salisbury and Charlie Musselwhite, and Curt Boettcher himself didn’t even chart.  The label was out of money, and their distribution deal was dropped.  Mike Curb was not interested in putting more money and more energy into a label that looked like it would continue to be disastrous.  No one else would touch it.  The result would also be disastrous to The Bards/Moses Lake. They’d mostly finished their album after working many months on it, but were now without a label to release it.

Producer Curt Boettcher suggested the band return to Moses Lake with him coming along as the band’s lead singer. This suggestion did not go over well with all members of the band, and going through an ordeal like the one with Together Records again was too much.  Apparently Mardi Sheridan and Mike Balzotti  had already seen the writing on the wall and left the band.  Chuck Taylor decided he’d spent too many years and too many miles on the road and wanted to return to Moses Lake to spend time with his family. Drummer Bob Galloway chose to keep the band going with a series of players until 1972.  Bob was the only original member, but “new” Bards found gigs in the Northwest, although never found the kind of success or popularity of the classic 1965-1968 line-up.  Despite their disparate reasons for dissolving The Bards/Moses Lake,  the band agrees the split was amicable.  This was reinforced when the band re-united one more time to celebrate Mike Balzotti’s 40th birthday in 1987.

The Bards work for Together Records was not a complete failure, though. The label had released a single from their “Moses Lake” sessions.  The single, “ Oobleck” b/w “Moses” was finally released under the band name, Moses Lake in 1971.  The A-side, “Oobleck “ was inspired by Dr. Seuss’s 1949 book Bartholomew and the Oobleck” with music by Mike Balzotti.   Although it has an intro that seems to go nowhere at first, and sounds appropriately Seussian, it becomes the kind of unexpected song that rings “genius” and leaves a person wanting more. Even though it’s launch was completely ruined by the concurrent collapse of their label there are a few copies to be found on the collectors market.

One other unexpected results was that without a label the band no longer had a contract with Together Records.  Their contract had not been bought-up by another label-they were, in fact, free agents. The tapes of the “Moses Lake” sessions would remain in their hands and under their control.  But life has a way of keeping us from reliving unfortunate and discouraging  past events.  Better to concentrate on the present and future than to revisit the past…so the “Moses Lake Recordings” stayed with Balzotti, without public exposure, for three decades.

Mike Balzotti was surfing the web one day and came across the site for Gear Fab Records out of Orlando Florida. Gear Fab releases what they term “Legitimate and Authorized re-issues of Psych, Garage and Rock Sounds, 1965-1972” Since the band had already come across an unauthorized bootleg of their early Piccadilly recordings along with a few later Bob Galloway-era songs, Gear Fab seemed like a natural, ethical  label to release their only album  on.  If not for this re-issue The Bards would probably be near-forgotten today.  With help from Gear Fab head Roger Maglio, the record was re-mastered for CD and released in 2002.

The album is still in print and is a great reminder of how psychedelia, pop, good songwriting , lyrics (even borrowing from the masters) and great musicianship combine to make a total much more than the sum of it’s parts. Despite the material on the album being stellar, the title is a bit cumbersome.  Officially it is “The Bards resurrect ‘The Moses Lake Recordings’ Produced by Curt Boettcher and Keith Olsen featuring ‘The Creation’. But no matter, it’s not that difficult to simply search for “The Moses Lake Recordings” Even though it sounds as if the recordings were done in Moses Lake they were not.  The title is meant to point to the band’s re-naming.  Over three decades since it was first recorded this album seems revolutionary in it’s mix of pop, garage, psychedelia, bubble-gum and prog-rock.  It’s final release is truly the end of an amazing story.

One last note;  Near the end of the documentary “I Am What I Play” Pat O’Day, the dean of west coast AM-Top 40 DJs was asked was asked what NW group deserved greater national recognition. His answer? “The Bards

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources:  Don Rogers “Dance Halls, Armories and Teen Fairs” (Music Archives Press,1988); The Bards (http://mikebalzotti.com/BardsHomePage.htm); Richard Flynn (“Woodstock Rock RTR-FM 92.1,Perth Australia”); Stanton Swihart (The Bards Artist Biography. allmusic.com); Chuck Warren “The Bards Interview” (http://home.uni-one.nl/kesteloo/bards.html); “The Bards” (discogs.com);  Mike Dugo “The Bards” (The Lance Monthly, Volume 4, No. 3, May 2002); Peter Blecha “Inland Empire Rock: The Sound of Eastern Washington” ( HistoryLink.org Essay 7490); “Resurrect The Moses Lake Recordings by The Bards” [album20909] (rateyourmusic.com); Stanlynn Daugherty “Rock ‘n Roll Group Draws Anxious Crowd” (The Lantern, [Pendleton Oregon], Friday November 1, 1968); Beverly Paterson, Review of The Moses Lake Recordings  (September 23, 2002. The Lance Monthly); Mike Flynn “Once-obsure political race in Moses Lake takes on new import for areas’s economy. (Flynn’s Harp [Columbia Basin]  November 16, 2011)

 

Jeff Simmons: From The Blues to Easy Chair to Ethiopia to Zappa and Back

By the time the mid-60s had come around The Northwest Sound has pretty much wound down.  Many former teen-dance bands were moving closer to rock and the new psychedelic sounds coming out of L.A. and San Francisco. In some ways many local artists had begun to see Seattle as a northern outpost of San Francisco.
One of the bands that emerged in the mid-60s was Blues Interchange.  David Lanz (future star of “new age” music) had been one of the band’s first members.  The band began making the rounds of Seattle venues and became very popular with the tripped-out psychedelic crowd.   Due to some of the members being drafted local boy Jeff Simmons signed on as bassist in 1967. Simmons was already an accomplished player with a gregarious, often comedic air about him  Other members included Al Malosky on drums and guitarists Peter Larson (later replaced by Burke Wallace), and Danny Hoefer.  Danny Hoefer would later go on to play in Tower of Power.
After the change of personnel, Blues Interchange found even more favor with Northwest audiences.  One result of the changes was re-naming the band to Easy Chair. The transformation caught the eye of Seattle’s emerging rock scene as well as other pockets of psychedelic blues  around the country

In 2014 the website Clear Spot would look back on Easy Chair, writing;

“Their epic West Coast blues features the unique chemistry of psychedelic guitar leads, fluid lines and hypnotic chording”.

Around this time the band was emerging they met up with notorious San Francisco manager Matthew Katz.  Katz had been the first manager of Jefferson Airplane and had ben fired even before the release of their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.   Seattle native Signe Anderson (September 15, 1941-January 28, 2016) did vocals, but soon left the band, handing over the task to Grace Slick. The firing of Katz would result in ongoing litigation over the release of original or licensed material by Jefferson Airplane.  The litigation between Katz and Jefferson Airplane was not settled until 1987.

Katz was also  involved in a dispute with Moby Grape beginning in 1968.   Katz had sold the  group members’ rights to their songs as well as their own name were signed away in 1973 to manager/producer David Rubinson without the band members knowing it. He retained rights to the name Moby Grape and a large part of their songs. Katz continued to send out various personnel under the name “Moby Grape” until 2005, the original members won back the rights to their name and started performing again as “Moby Grape” Even as late as 2007  Moby Grape (who’d won back the rights to their name) Katz  threatened to file a lawsuit against Sundazed Records (licensed by SONY) claiming ownership of the album artwork and songwriting for the first three albums.  The label was forced to withdraw the albums Moby Grape, Wow and Grape Jam.  The albums have since been re-released.

Hooking up with Katz could have resulted in disaster but he remained a savvy (though untrustworthy) entrepreneur.  In 1967 he opened the club “The San Francisco Sound” on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.  The club was  popular, but it lasted for less than a year.  Katz’s real interest was to establish a venue for bands he managed..  The meeting between Blues Interchange and Katz gave the band more high-profile gigs opening for San Francisco bands he’d booked in his club including  It’s A Beautiful Day,  Tripsacord Music Box, West Coast Natural Gas and Black Swan. Katz also convinced Blues Interchange to change their name to  Indian’ Puddin’ and Pipe. In yet another case of Katz’s dissembling, another band called Indian Puddin’ and Pipe already existed. Katz owned the names of several bands and could bestow them on any line-up he desired.  Simmons’s Indian Puddin’ and Pipe dropped the name after severing ties with Katz in 1968.  Fortunately neither the band nor it’s members walked away beholden to Katz except for the  name he’d given them-not a very good one in the first place.  Obtaining a new manager was painless.  Glen Harmon was chosen to take on Katz’s job and endlessly worked to book and promote Easy Chair. Hammon had been a big fan who worked at Boeing, but from the start of his association with Easy Chair he proved to be a natural for the jobs of promotion and management.

Meanwhile Harmon and the band sought to get a record deal  Eventually they were forced to finance their own recording at Vancouver WA’s Ripcord Studio.  The songs recorded there were  produced by Rick Keefer-who would go on to found Sea-West Studio in Seattle.  The result of their sessions was a single-sided 12′ EP that included only three songs, Slender Woman, My Own Life and Easy Chair.  Both Slender Woman and Easy Chair were written by Jeff Simmons.  My Own Life was written by Peter Larson.  With a release of only 1000 copies, it did well in the Northwest.    The songs show a slight reliance on the San Francisco Sound, but also retains a bit of the jazz-inspired R&B that successful NW bands of the 50s and early 60s had always imbued into their music.  The recordings are sparse, but have an honest, almost innocent quality.  The band would later go on to be much heavier, but their initial (and only) release is probably the most sought-after, and most valuable record by any Seattle band in the collectors market. In the past few years the EP has been re-released on CD by several foreign and domestic labels.

With some powerful gigs behind them and a popular regional hit, Easy Chair were on their way.  An opening slot for Cream at Seattle’s Eagles Auditorium may have been their high point.  They also opened for The Chambers Brothers who were then at the height of their success.  These concerts, along with opening for Blue Cheer the early Led Zeppelin enhanced their reputation.   They were offered a contract with Tetragrammaton Records but turned it down.  The label which was co-owned by Bill Cosby, a fact Easy Chair did not know at the time they were approached by the label  Soon  Tetragrammaton released a worldwide hit with Deep Purple ( “Hush”)    In 1968 the label also licensed the release of  John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’sUnfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins” in the United States. The album’s cover featured nude photos of John and Yoko on the front and back jacket cover. The Beatles and Lennon’s US label, Capitol Records, refused to release or distribute it, citing negative responses from retailers, and American audiences objection to nuditiy, so Tetragrammaton stepped in to distribute the album in the US.

Easy Chair under the name Ethiopia was slated to open for Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention at the Seattle Center Arena on August 24, 1968. During sound check, Frank Zappa and his business partner Herb Cohen listened to the band and were impressed enough to fly them to Los Angeles for an audition and possible contract with one of two new labels Zappa had created (Straight and Bizarre Records). The Zappa gig took place a week before the band (billed as Easy Chair) performed at the first Sky River Rock Festival.  Easy Chair/Ethiopia played their booked obligations in the Northwest and were then on the way to L.A.  Soon Ethiopia was signed to Bizarre Records and the band waited to record….and waited.  Although they were signed as Ethiopia, the band once again reverted to Easy Chair for a handful of gigs with Zappa.

Their finest moment during their stay in Los Angeles was taking part in  Bizarre Record’s legendary “Gala Pre-Xmas Bash” at Santa Monica’s Shrine Exhibition Hall on December 6th & 7th 1968.   Easy Chair played the shows alongside The Mothers of Invention, Wild Man FischerAlice Cooper, and the GTOs. Ostensibly a pre-Christmas gig, it was actually Zappa’s debut of the roster of Bizarre acts that he, for the most part, had personally signed. This gig was definitely one of the most important shows of it’s day and possibly one of the most important gigs The Mothers of  Invention ever played.

After months of living in hotels, recording negotiations and long periods of inactivity Easy Chair members became discouraged.  It was clear the studio sessions were never going to happen. They decided to return to Seattle.  Jeff Simmons and drummer Al Malosky stayed in LA.  In 1969 Jeff Simmons (as a solo artist) was signed to Frank Zappa’s Straight Records to record two solo albums.  Malosky went along for the ride as a sideman on the first album.   Jeff’s assignment was to create the soundtrack for Naked Angels a biker/sexploitation film .  Although it’s not meant to be high art, the film itself is fairly decent within it’s genre.  Jeff”s soundtrack stands out as well executed psychedelia and is really the highlight of the film.  The film featured Penelope Spheeris (who would later direct both Decline of Western Civilization documentaries) and Corey Fischer (one of Robert Altman’s stable of actors, and who appeared in both the film and the TV series M.A.S.H.  The film got very little attention outside it’s intended audience but Simmon’s soundtrack album has long been a favorite among his fans.

Later in 1969 Jeff released what is universally considered his best solo work.  The album Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up leans more toward the accessible music Frank Zappa had released.  In fact Zappa contributed heavily to the album as a guitarist, wrote the title track and co-produced with engineer Chris Huston.  Zappa wrote the title track and also co-wrote “Wonderful Wino” with Simmons.  Zappa credited his work on the album under the pseudonym Lamarr Bruister.  Later Zappa would work Lucille into an entirely different version for Joe’s Garage and “Wonderful Wino” later shows up on Zappa’s  Zoot Allures.  Zappa rarely co-wrote his music, so it’s apparent that he had high regard for Simmons during this period.

 On “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” a variety of players who are often heard in Mothers and Zappa’s bands show up. Simmons is featured on lead vocals, keyboards, bass guitar, and accordion. Craig Tarwater-former member of the legendary L.A. garage band Sons Of Adam plays guitar, Ron Woods (of Pacific Gas and Electric) on drums, Ian Underwood on Sax and fellow Seattle native John Kehlior, (who’d played with The Frantics and The Daily Flash) on drums for two tracks (“Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” & “Raye“).  The reception of Lucille was positive, but like all Zappa-related albums up ’til then, did not sell to the masses.

Instead of offering another contract with Straight Records, Zappa went a step further.  He asked Jeff to join The Mothers of Invention. He had already played a one-off concert of the the album Hot Rats.

Around this time Jeff reminisced about his hometown to the U.K. Music journal Melody Maker, saying:
“There’s a lot of music in Seattle, a lot of clubs and musically it’s influenced by San Francisco and even more, Chicago.  For instance when I started playing, the first people I heard were the Spoonful and The New Vaudeville Band.  But it wasn’t long before I forgot them and got into Little Milton and Magic Sam”.

In 1970 Simmons appeared on Chunga’s Revenge, which was Frank’s third “solo” album…even though Zappa included his floating roster of musicians with himself as the main character. The album was largely a transitional one, retaining some of the satire and humor of earlier albums, though heading more toward the avant-jazz of future projects.  It was also the first time Flo & Eddie  (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of The Turtles) made a studio appearance with Zappa.  Jeff Simmons had also stepped up his game with Chunga’s Revenge by playing alongside Ian Underwood again, as well as drummer Aunsley Dunbar, and keyboardist George Duke.  Others who took part in Chunga’s Revenge was John Guerin, Max Bennett and Don “Sugarcane” Harris.

In 1971 Frank Zappa began to film his ambitious art film 200 Motels.  It’s commonly held that Jeff Simmons had quit the band shortly before the shoot began, but it’s not entirely clear what happenedSimmons is seen in the documentary The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels-though not credited.  The actual film has large segments based on Jeff.  There is a cartoon segment in which “Jeff”, tired of playing what he refers to as “Zappa’s comedy music”is convinced by his good conscience (played by Donovan) to “quit the group”  There’s an ongoing (inside joke?) of characters saying “Jeff quit the group” throughout the film. “Dental Hygiene Dilemma” sees Jeff smoking a marijuana cigarette which had been dipped in Don Preston’s “foamy liquids” and Jeff’s imagining Donovan appearing to him on a wall-mounted television as his “good conscience”.  “His good conscience” asks Jeff not to steal the towels.   Studebaker Hoch appears to him as his evil conscience in the form of Jim Pons, tells Jeff to steal ashtrays and convinces Jeff to quit the Mothers of Invention, to “et your own group together. Heavy! Like Grand Funk or Black Sabbath.

Although it’s likely he was on set at least occasionally it’s claimed that had read the script of 200 Motels before the shooting and discovered it included things Simmons and others had actually said when they thought Frank was out of earshot.  It’s claimed these negative comments were based on secret hotel-room recordings.  Another version is that Zappa fired Simmons for smoking too much marijuana.  This version would be in keeping with Zappa’s firm rule of not working with musicians using drugs…at least not if it affected their professionalism.  But the former version would back up Zappa’s habit of taping discussions among band members (recorded with or without their knowing it).  They were “anthropological field recordings” as Zappa liked to call them.  It would be a more interesting story if Simmons had actually quit because he was angry about the secret recordings.  But it’s just as probable that he was fired for his objection to the  script.  Many years later full songs, out-takes and interviews were included on Playground Psychotics. The album includes a track called “Jeff Quits” and further complicates the question of whether Simmons quit or was fired.  Jeff probably was smoking too much pot and he may have well wanted to move on from Zappa.  In 1972 Frank Zappa told Jip Golsteijn of the Dutch magazine OOR:

“Jeff Simmons is a great bassist, which will become obvious to everyone during the European tour, but I thought he had another talent. He was a comedian and I wanted to exploit it, especially because we use  quite visual elements in our shows. I let (Jeff) play Rudolph the Reindeer which has always been a huge success. Initially, he had no objection, but I was told after a while that he considered himself a heavy bass player not a clown. I knew which way the wind was blowing since Jeff’s wife had  recently said something like that to me. His wife, of course, complained that he should not be misused by me and should leave the group.  Jeff told me in honesty that he was seriously considering starting his own band.  I then said ‘can’t we play that conflict in 200 Motels that he wanted to quit’?
Then at Pinewood Studios ( London), where we recorded the film, I thought we could show Jeff brooding in a hotel room and is torn by doubt. His good conscience tells him to stay in the group, but his bad conscience tells him that he will be made a fool by Zappa and that he has become the real heavy bass player he really is. When Jeff heard what this meant, he turned quite pale, because he took it as a dig, although he knew exactly what was intended. Shortly afterwards he quit the group anyway…precisely at a time when we could not afford to lose him, right in the middle of recordings. Eventually we decided to change Jeff’s portion of the film. Another part was created for Martin Liquort (Ringo Starr’s driver) that is reminiscent of Jeff.  In the scenes where ‘Jeff’ is  playing, it’s Martin in the background with a guitar in his hand. Martin can not really play.”
(Zappa’s words here have been translated to English from Jip Golsteijn interview, originally written in Dutch)

Athough Jeff doesn’t appear in the film there’s an ongoing line of “Jeff has quit the group” sprinkled throughout the dialogue as an inside joke. One long animated sequence called “Dental Hygiene Dilemna” finds a very high Jeff  struggling with his good conscience (who he believes to be Donovan on a wall mounted TV screen) and his bad conscience.  Among advice Jeff’s good conscience  gives him  is”don’t rip off the towels, Jeff“.  His bad conscience soon appears and says “Jeff, I’d like to have a word with you . . . about your soul. Why are you wasting your life, night after night playing this comedy music?” Jeff replies “I get so tense“.  “Of course you do my boy” says his bad conscience.  That’s why it would be best to leave his stern employ….You’ll make it big!”  “That’s right” says Jeff.  “And then I won’t be SMALL!” This is the real you!” Jeff’s bad conscience tells him  “Rip off a few more ashtrays. Get rid of some of that inner tension. Quit the comedy group! Get your own group together. Heavy! Like GRAND FUNK! or BLACK SABBATH “.”Like COVEN!” shouts Jeff.

Apparently it would take animation, in the absence of Simmons, to complete Frank’s vision.

Whatever the reason for Simmon’s leaving, by 1972 he was back in the fold of musicians Frank Zappa employed to record Waka/Jawaka • Hot Rats.  He also continued to tour with Zappa’s band, and took part in the 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere.  The album includes a live performance at The Roxy Theater in Los Angeles (with some overdubs) recorded the 8th, 9th and 10th of December, 1973.  The Elsewhere” tracks (“Son of Orange County” and “More Trouble Every Day”) were recorded on May 8th, 1974, at the Edinboro State College in Edinboro, PA.  Sections of “Son of Orange County” were also recorded on May 11, 1974, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago but does not contain overdubbed material.  Jeff Simmons plays rhythm guitar on all tracks and adds occasional vocals. After Roxy and Elsewhere, Jeff played live with some of  Zappa’s succeeding live performances. He’s also heard playing on some of the “official” live albums that were released after Frank’s death.  Recordings Zappa  probably wouldn’t have allowed to be released because of their poor audio quality.

Jeff Simmon’s recorded legacy with Zappa had included  him providing bass, guitar, and/or vocal for Chunga’s Revenge, Waka/Jawaka, Roxy & Elsewhere, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 1, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6, and Playground Psychotics; He’s also featured on the Beat The Boots series of bootlegs that were later released by Rhino Records.  Disc’s he’s included on include Freaks & Motherfuckers, Unmitigated Audacity, Piquantique, Disconnected Synapses, Tengo Na Minchia Tanta, and At The Circus 

Although Jeff’s history after saying goodbye to Frank is a bit sketchy, by 1980 he found his way back to Seattle.  In the 80’s, Simmons was busy performing with such bands as The Backtrackers, The Shimmering Guitars, and Cocktails For Ladies and as his alter-ego l’il Bobby Sumpner and his band The Stump Blasters. He claimed in the 1990’s, he was writing a book (“I Joined The Mothers Of Invention… For The F.B.I.”) which is now in unpublished manuscript form.  Given Jeff’s sense of humor it’s hard to know if the manuscript actually exists.  It would be hard for a publisher or editor to pass up a book based on Jeff’s time with the Mothers…even the title is intriguing!

In 1982 Frank Zappa appeared as a guest DJ on BBC radio (UK).  He played some of his favorite songs including “I’m in The Music Business” by Jeff.

In 1988 Jeff was featured in the psychotronic  “grunge” inspired local film Rock and Roll Mobster Girls, directed by Rick Werner.  Aside from being barrels of fun the film also includes more Seattle rock luminaries as well as local fans.

Over the years Simmons had worked on material for a potential new CD. He says it is the culmination of 20 years work. Finally, in 2004 he was able to release “Blue Universe” which got rave reviews.

In the webzine Jet City Blues Mark Dalton wrote:

“Jeff Simmons, a man with his heart in the blues no matter what he’s doing, has a hilarious persona as a performer that draws from this same well. Simmons has written a whole cycle of great tunes about “Treatment,” for example – with a couple such tunes residing on this CD. Simmons’ ne’er-do-well musician character is always one step ahead of those pesky treatment program guys – whether he’s “Breakin’ Out of Treatment,”or kicking back and enjoying the life of a “Treatmon’ Center Playboy” while he’s there, as he does on this CD.

In November 2010, Jeff Simmons took part in a Q&A session at the “Frank Zappa At The Roundhouse” celebration of Frank Zappa’s music in London. Jeff played with the Dweezil Zappa Played Zappa band at the same festival with special guests Ian Underwood & Scott Thunes as well.  The celebration also included the UK premiere of “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” an avant-symphonic work that is one of Zappa’s most epic and most popular classical pieces.  Besides The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, the London Sinfonietta played Zappa’s “Revised Music for a Low Budget Orchestra”.  The performance included a solo set by Jeff as a multi-instrumentalist and a long-time member of Zappa’s circle.

Archival footage of Jeff Simmons was included in Thorsten Schütte’s 2016 documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

IMDb credits Jeff Simmons for sound editor of several TV series during the 90s but I can’t confirm this is the same Jeff Simmons.  Any information would be welcome.  Also feel free to offer corrections or comments below.

-Dennis R. White. Sources; “Jeff Simmons” (Zappa Wikijawaka); Lemonde Kid “Its too late for them to get their due but Katz needs to get HIS!” (Love:  The Message Board for Love Fans, October 12, 2011); Mark Dalton, (“Blue Universe CD Review” Jet City Blues, November 19, 2005); “Jeff Simmons” (spotify.com); “Jeff Simmons” (World in Sound, worldinsound.com); “Jeff Simmons – ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” ( The Day After Sabbath, Jan 23, 2015) “Jeff Simmons” (Melody Maker, December 5th 1970);  Dean R. Hegerty,”A Guide To Straight Label Records & Compact Discs” (United Mutations, 2002); “Jeff Simmons” (lastfm.com) “Eagles Auditorium” (A Seattle Lexicon)callihan.com/seattle/pophist.htm); Jeff Simmons-Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up (allmusic.com); Alan J. Stein “Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair opens a three-day run near Sultan on August 30, 1968” (HistoryLink.org, Essay 5425. March 15, 2003); “Easy Chair” (Clearspot, www.clear-spot.nl/item/410251/easy_chair_easy_chair.htm); “FZ and Secret Recordings” zappateers.com, July 20, 2010); Jip Golsteijn “De industrie wilde het Fillmore album ontzettend geil aanprijzen”(OOR Magazine, Issue 15. 1971); “Frank Zappa at The Roundhouse”(The 405, September 17, 2010); James Bush, “Easy Chair” (Encyclopedia of Northwest Music. Sasquatch Books, 1999); “Naked Angels” (IMDb.com); 200 Motels. film “Dental Hygiene Dilemna” sequence (directors Frank Zappa & Tony Palmer, 1971); “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels” film. (written and directed by Frank Zappa, 1988); “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” film. ( directed by Thorsten Schütte, 2016) Scott Hill “From Straight to Bizarre Explores Frank Zappa’s Freak Indies” (Wired Magazine, January 19, 2012); “Jeff Simmons” (IMDb.com)