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 Ronstadt, The 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)