The tale of The Grass Roots is a convoluted one, involving a couple of bands, a pair of auteur songwriter-producers, and a handful of famed session men. But if the behind-the-scenes story is one with numerous twists and turns, the appeal of the music recorded under The Grass Roots’ name is blissfully simple: great songs, great productions, great performances. 24 polished nuggets from the Los Angeles pop-rockers – many of which still remain in rotation on oldies radio today - have been collected on Real Gone’s Complete Original Dunhill/ABC Hit Singles (RGM-0227, 2014). As the title indicates, the set focuses exclusively on charting A-sides released between 1965 and 1973, on which the evolution of the group’s sound can be traced. And The Grass Roots were no slouches in the hitmaking department, notching fourteen Top 40 hits, one gold and one platinum single. Led by Rob Grill, the band teamed with the Los Angeles Wrecking Crew for some of the period’s most sublime AM pop which is getting its full due from Real Gone.
At the heart of The Grass Roots’ story is the team of Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan, who together or separately penned six songs here, or one-quarter of the group’s hits. Producers and A&R men at Lou Adler’s Dunhill label, Sloan and Barri transformed the San Francisco band The Bedouins into the first Grass Roots, introducing them with a strong cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” retitled “Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man).” Sloan, who with Barri had penned the Dylan-emulating single “Eve of Destruction” for Barry McGuire on Dunhill, championed a folk-rock sound for the band, and further streamlined it into the ultra-accessible, utterly catchy “Where Were You When I Needed You.” No matter that the track was laid down by Sloan with the Wrecking Crew pros; with Willie “Bill” Fulton of The Bedouins replacing Sloan’s lead vocal, the song gave The Grass Roots a Top 30 single. The Bedouins only feature on one more single here, though – Sloan and Barri’s “Only When You’re Lonely.” Though the production of the ballad was strong – with overtones of both The Byrds and The Association – it wasn’t as hook-filled as “Where Were You,” and scored the band a minor hit. Before long, The Bedouins were out and The 13th Floor was in, rechristened as The (new) Grass Roots.
This new iteration of the band – with Creed Bratton, Rick Coonce, Warren Entner and Rob Grill, the latter a last-minute replacement for a drafted member – had the good fortune of recording Sloan and Barri’s most hard-hitting production yet. “Let’s Live for Today” was adapted by Barri from an Italian song previously recorded by The Rokes and The Living Daylights, and was a little over three minutes of powerfully anthemic pop. The music, anchored by Sloan’s indelible guitar part, was harder-rocking but the message as urgently sung by Rob Grill was perfect for the Summer of Love with the specter of the Vietnam War looming. The Grass Roots were rewarded with their first Top 10 hit despite some controversy over the lyrics “Baby, I need to feel you inside of me/I’ve got to feel you deep inside of me....” Real Gone helpfully includes both the original 45 and the censored version (“Baby, I need to feel you beside me,” etc.) here.
The Grass Roots struggled to follow up the huge success of “Live for Today” with Sloan and Barri’s piano-driven “Things I Should Have Said” and psych-pop-tinged “Wake Up, Wake Up.” Sloan moved on after the band recorded his pretty “A Melody for You,” which expanded the group’s sound with prominent horns and strings. With Sloan out of the picture, his partner Barri guided The Grass Roots to a new sound leaning towards rhythmic blue-eyed soul. In his A&R capacity, Barri also led the band towards suitable material that the band could reinvent. This new style debuted with “Midnight Confessions,” a cover of a Lou Josie song previously waxed by The Ever-Green Blues. The brassy, dynamic “Midnight” hit the Billboard Top 5 in 1968. The Complete Hit Singles hits its stride with the sequence of songs curated by Barri: “Bella Linda” from Ivan Mogol, the composer of “Let’s Live for Today”; the Marmalade’s “Lovin’ Things”; and The Forum’s dramatic “The River is Wide” with a retro Spector vibe.
There's more after the jump!
Good as those songs were, The Grass Roots eclipsed their success with 1969’s “I’d Wait a Million Years.” Penned by Gary Zekley (“Yellow Balloon”) and Mitchell Bottler, it was a true sonic follow-up to “Midnight Confessions.” It fared almost as well as “Midnight,” too, and Zekley and Bottler would return one more time to work their magic on The Grass Roots with the band’s final Billboard Top 10 single, the irresistible, AM radio-ready “Sooner or Later” (“...love is gonna get you!”). The Roots’ next, and final, group of charting singles came almost exclusively from two duos under Steve Barri’s aegis – Dan Walsh and Harvey Price, and Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter. By then, though, Creed Bratton had departed, and the group expanded to a five-piece with the addition of Dennis Provisor (keyboards/vocals) and Terry Furlong (lead guitar). Provisor even earned a number of writing credits including the hidden gem here, 1970’s “Walking Through the Country.” Warren Entner also had an A-side to his credit, the rocking “Come On and Say It” from the same year, and was joining Barri and Grill as a producer for the band.
Price and Walsh guided the band to such hits as “Heaven Knows,” “Baby Hold On,” “Temptation Eyes,” “Glory Bound” and “Love is What You Make It,” the latter a solo Price composition. “Temptation Eyes,” recalling the sound and thrust of “Wait a Million Years,” made it to the Billboard Top 15. Lambert and Potter (“Don’t Pull Your Love,” “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got),” “Country Boy (You’ve Got Your Feet in L.A.”)” were beginning their tenure as reigning L.A. hitmakers. Their Grass Roots material shows the same slick pop instincts as their later triumphs, particularly on “Two Divided by Love.” But the latter material on the disc is also the most formulaic. Before the time period covered on The Complete Original Dunhill/ABC Hit Singles was out, the band had endured further personnel changes with the departure of Coonce and Provisor and the addition of Reed Kailing, Virgil Webber, and The Bedouins’ Joel Webber. After leaving Dunhill in 1973 following the Alotta Mileage album, The Grass Roots followed Lambert and Potter to their Haven label for 1975’s self-titled album. A 1982 reunion on MCA, Power in the Night, found Grill fronting a new band. He would continue to tour with “The Grass Roots” until his death in 2011.
As produced and copiously annotated by Ed Osborne (with comments from Steve Barri) in the 24-page booklet, The Complete Hit Singles is the best single-disc overview of the band’s music yet, and deserves a spot on your shelf. (Rhino’s long out-of-print two-CD Anthology is another must-have.) Sound quality of these rare, original mono singles is stellar, too, as remastered by Aaron Kannowski from both master tapes and pristine vinyl. Here are 24 tracks of pristine pop from a band whose catalogue deserves much more attention on CD; let’s hope we don’t have to wait a million years for more action (album reissues, perhaps?) from The Grass Roots.