The enigmatic Lee Michaels is back. No, the cult favorite singer-songwriter who once graced the rosters of A&M and Columbia Records hasn’t recorded a new album; he’s been happily retired from the music business since the early 1980s. But Michaels has given his blessing to a definitive new compact disc box set collecting all seven of his A&M albums originally released between 1967 and 1973 as well as a new single-disc anthology drawing on the same period. Manifesto Records’ The Complete A&M Album Collection and Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels both cast welcome light on the artist best known for the hit single “Do You Know What I Mean.” Each album collected in this slipcased box has its own distinctive flavor within the rocking, funky, blue-eyed soul framework which gave Michaels his own niche on A&M’s breezy California pop roster.
1967’s Carnival of Life introduced Michaels and his band, sounding a bit like an American Spencer Davis Group with Michaels as Steve Winwood. The unfussy production by Larry Marks (a veteran with credits from Lee Hazlewood to Liza Minnelli) of this uptempo album retains an urgency and energy likely honed in the five-piece band’s onstage performances which Michaels sought to capture on his debut. Though a solo album, it sounds very much like a “band” record with searing lead guitar, forceful drums and anchoring bass joining Michaels on organ, piano and harpsichord. The psychedelic flourishes don’t overwhelm this eclectic, electric album which delivers the pure high octane rock of “Hello,” the heavy jamming on “Another One,” aggressive blues-rock of “Love,” and the soul grooves of “Why” and “Tomorrow.” Even if a “hit” single wasn’t in the cards, Michaels was clearly an artist worth watching.
As recalled in the liner notes to Recital, an acid trip courtesy of Owsley “Bear” Stanley inspired a change in direction for Michaels’ sophomore effort. The self-produced album featured a new band – including Johnny Barbata on drums, the Wrecking Crew’s Larry Knechtel on keyboards and Drake Levin of the Raiders on guitar – led by Michaels on layers of piano, harpsichord and organ; and an inclination towards taut, melodic tunes with Michaels’ funky R&B leanings. His voice was more up front and the songs more tightly arranged with prominent, driving piano. Though the amusing ad replicated in the box set’s booklet trumpets Recital as “a totally wigged-out experience,” it’s rather more down-to-earth with funky pop (“If I Lose You,” a just-rocking-enough song that should have been Michaels’ early bid for AM success), balladry (the lyrically biting “Blind”), mordant story-songs and character studies (the out-of-real-life “Grocery Soldier,” “Basic Knowledge”) and just the right amount of quirky nuggets (“Fell in Love Today” with Blue Swede-predating background chants, the finale montage “Spare Change” which lives up to its title as it strings together disparate musical outtakes that Michaels didn’t develop into full songs). Recital also features one of Michaels’ finest and most questioning songs, “War” (“How would you feel if you had to fight the war/What would you do if they called on you/How would you like to shoot your brothers down? Could you march on if it had to be done?”)
Yet the change in sound didn’t result in increased sales, and A&M balked at another costly production. Michaels’ answer, then, was to go into the studio (with Larry Marks back at the board) with just one fellow musician – drummer Bartholomew Smith-Frost a.k.a. “Frosty” – to record the follow-up in less than seven hours in the studio. The eponymous Lee Michaels has just five tracks, all with a live-in-the-studio, furious organ-and-drums attack with Michaels at the Hammond BC, a precursor to the B3. Adding to the spontaneous feel of the album, one song was repeated from Carnival (the closing track, “My Friends”), one was a cover (T-Bone Walker’s blues staple “Stormy Monday”) and one (the opening medley) featured a ten-plus-minute drum solo which occupied one-half of the first side of the original vinyl! Only “I Want My Baby” provided much of a breather. Perhaps ironically, Lee Michaels was the artist’s first album to crack the Billboard top 100 as it gained airplay on hip FM radio. The presence of the catchy “Heighty Hi,” an unabashedly pro-drug anthem, doubtless didn’t hurt!
With 1970’s Barrel, Michaels might be said to have found the happy medium between the widescreen production of Recital and the stripped-down approach of Lee Michaels. For Barrel, Michaels was joined by Drake Levin and Frosty (as well as producer Marks) but otherwise played all of the instruments on this raw set himself. The funky blues-rock sound was by now familiar, but lyrically the songwriter stretched to compose his most topical LP to that point. Michaels took pointed aim at the Vietnam War and its effects on the nation (“Thumbs,” “What Now America,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) and even at the police (“Mad Dog”). He continued to mine blues-rock with a smoking cover of Moby Grape’s “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” and remained a top-notch purveyor of blue-eyed soul on cuts like “Day of Change” and “Think I’ll Cry,” while “Games” was a lighter slice of pop. Despite the odd title, the romantic, piano-driven “Uummmm My Lady” is one of Michaels’ loveliest compositions. Today, digging into this Barrel reveals one of Michaels’ most diverse early sets.
In the liner notes to the box, Lee Michaels reflects on 1971’s 5th as “a throwaway album” – and of course, as so often happens, it became the biggest release of his career. A “poppy” response to A&M’s lack of enthusiasm for the topical, edgier Barrel, 5th featured four classic R&B covers (Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya,” Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness,” Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”). The Motown magic of the Holland-Dozier-Holland-penned “Witness” rubbed off on Michaels, and the single went Top 40. Jackie Kelso’s honking saxophone heard on “Hand Jive” added a new color to Michaels’ sound.
But the biggest success of 5th, and indeed of Michaels’ career, was “Do You Know What I Mean.” With lyrics penned just hours before the recording session, “Do You Know What I Mean” was hardly written as a “career” song. It wasn’t even intended as a single, initially relegated to the flipside of the rousing gospel track “Keep the Circle Turning” written by bassist Joel Christie and featuring the great Merry Clayton on vocals. (Among the many wonderful memorabilia images in the box set’s booklet is a 93/KHJ-Radio countdown of “L.A.’s Favorite Albums,” with 5th sharing the Top 10 with Paul McCartney, Carole King, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, and the Moody Blues!) But the infectious, rollicking pop-rocker “Do You Know What I Mean” gave Michaels and A&M the hit they had been seeking. Today, he calls the tune “a complete sellout” but confesses, “I like it more now than I did then.”
How, then, to follow 5th and its smash hit? With more of the same? Most would have taken that route…but not Lee Michaels. A&M couldn’t have been too amused when Michaels did a complete about-face for Space and First Takes. (Nobody could accuse him, after all, of repeating himself.) Featuring the artist-producer on guitar for the first time as well as organ and keyboards, Space consisted of just four tracks: two epic-length jams and two shorter, more traditional songs still between the 4-5 minute range. The opening “Own Special Way (As Long As)” as well as “Hold On to Freedom” both bear traces of his funky blues-soul sound sans much melody, but Space largely exists in a grungy, proto-punk vein with Michaels trading primal guitar licks with the returning Drake Levin, and Keith Knudsen and Joel Christie chiming in on drums and bass, respectively. Michaels, eager to escape his contract, wasn’t even trying for a hit single. He would conclude his tenure at the house Alpert and Moss built with the next and final release in Manifesto’s box set.
Lee Michaels Live was recorded in front of an audibly appreciative crowd at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall on the tour for Space and First Takes. Echoing the ferocious two-person approach of the artist’s earlier self-titled album, Live featured just Michaels and a drummer, Keith Knudsen (later to join The Doobie Brothers). Its twelve tracks (and relatively little chatter in between) trace the trajectory of the artist’s A&M career, with cuts from every album except Carnival of Life. Oddly, “Do You Know What I Mean” was not included on the tight album though Michaels recalls performing it at every concert after it acquired hit status. “Heighty Hi” is present, expanded to a 10+-minute length, and even the ballads like “My Lady” take on a funkier, sparser feel here. One song, “Forty Reasons,” actually made its debut on Live.
The Complete A&M Album Collection, produced by Dan Perloff and designed by Lisa Sutton, features each one of Michaels’ seven albums for the label in beautiful replica gatefold digipaks. A 40-page color booklet features illuminating album-by-album liner notes by Brett Milano drawing on a new interview with the artist; the booklet is also lavishly illustrated. These recordings sound better than ever in the crisp, detailed and vibrant remastering by Bill Inglot and Dave Schultz. The same team is responsible for the 20-track Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels, which is drawn from the A&M recordings and also features an essay by Milano within its own digipak. Heighty Hi also includes the non-LP single B-side “Goodbye, Goodbye,” which is not included on the box set.
Though reports circulated years ago on the Internet of Michaels’ untimely demise, he’s alive and well – and cooking! In the early 1990s he established the popular restaurant Killer Shrimp in Marina del Rey, California, and he still plays music for himself at home. Manifesto’s new box set and compilation both provide a trip back in time to an exciting period when anything was musically possible. The time is right to rediscover Michaels’ hip and uncompromising rock ‘n’ soul sounds. If you don’t already know what I mean, you will soon!