Now Sounds is back with its first release of 2016, and with it, the label is spreading some California sunshine. Harpers Bizarre’s The Complete Singles Collection 1965-1970 compiles all 26 sides issued on 45 RPM singles by Warner Bros. Records, including tracks from the group’s early incarnation as The Tikis and numerous mono mixes never before available on CD. The resulting release, which follows Now Sounds’ reissues of Harpers’ Feelin’ Groovy and Anything Goes albums, is a refreshing journey through some of the most inventive, happily frothy and sun-flecked pop music of all time.
Every band starts somewhere, and Harpers Bizarre’s beginning was as The Tikis – a British Invasion-inspired four-piece combo. Dick Scoppettone, Ted Templeman, Dick Yount and Ed James released a pair of singles on the Bay Area-based Autumn label in 1965, and these four sides kick off Now Sounds’ compilation. “If I’ve Been Dreaming” b/w “Pay Attention to Me” revealed a band already well-schooled in Beatle-esque pop. The latter side was, in particular, a breathless rave-up and perhaps the most outright rocking track ever released by any iteration of the group. The Tikis’ second single was credited to The Other Tikis as a response to a Tennessee band’s cease-and-desist letter, but Other or not, the band stayed on its path. The catchy A-side “Bye Bye Bye,” penned by Scoppettone and Templeman, owed a debt to the sound of Autumn’s leading act, The Beau Brummels, but didn’t the Brummels owe a bit of a debt to the Fab Four themselves? B-side “Lost My Love Today” has a bit of a fab “No Reply” flavor with a Brummels-style folk-rock twist; fascinatingly, Dick Scoppettone’s track-by-track commentary reveals that the songwriters were aiming for a James Brown/Shirelles hybrid! The Other Tikis might have fallen short of that goal, but they nonetheless ended up with a slice of potent pop-rock.
Moving over to Warner Bros. and gaining John Petersen (late of the Beau Brummels) as a fifth member, The Tikis morphed into Harpers Bizarre under the aegis of producer Lenny Waronker. (Wordsmith and arranger Van Dyke Parks recalls being the one who renamed the band for a counterculture audience that wouldn’t accept the fifties-sounding Tikis.) He imaginatively matched artist to song when he offered the group a completely original reworking of Paul Simon’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”
In Simon and Garfunkel’s original version, the song is built on casual, low-key charm. In the arrangement crafted by Waronker and master orchestrator (and future Master of Time and Space) Leon Russell, “The 59th Street Bridge Song” became an ambitious pocket symphony, complete with choir and baroque instrumental interlude. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that this big reworking retained the innocent, carefree spirit of the original. Waronker enlisted the musicians of the Los Angeles Wrecking Crew to support the group, including Russell himself on piano, Glen Campbell on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, as well as Joe Osborn, Carol Kaye and Lyle Ritz (bass) and Mike Deasy, Al Casey and Tommy Tedesco (guitar). The intricate yet happily light-as-a-feather “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” established the Harpers Bizarre sound that would sustain the band through its Warner Bros. years, and scored the band a Top 15 hit. Feelin’ Groovy became the title of Harpers Bizarre’s first long-player, too.
Warner Bros. recycled “Lost My Love Today” for the B-side of “Feelin’ Groovy,” but a second single was drawn from the LP. Van Dyke Parks’ “Come to the Sunshine,” with another remarkable arrangement this time courtesy of Perry Botkin Jr., could well have been the group’s mission statement. It was backed by Randy Newman’s arrangement of his own “The Debutante’s Ball” from the period in which the craftsman of elegantly soulful dramas like “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” and “I’ve Been Wrong Before” was still finding his own, singular voice as a songwriter. (Liza Minnelli also recorded the droll “Debutante’s Ball.”)
Another pair of 45s were culled from Harpers Bizarre’s sophomore album Anything Goes (1967) including a revival of the Cole Porter-penned title track. The urbane tunesmith’s 1934 Broadway standard was arguably even more relevant in the freewheeling days of 1967 than it was decades earlier; Waronker and Botkin pulled out all the stops including a gorgeous choral interlude and a lavish orchestration, while Van Dyke Parks played the distinctive piano. Its B-side, the Addrisi Brothers’ TV theme “Malibu U,” was an homage from Harpers to the television program which had featured them. Like “Anything Goes” (Billboard No. 43), the next A-side “Chattanooga Choo Choo” barely missed the Top 40 (No. 45). The 1941 Mack Gordon/Harry Warren tune was another throwback for the “subversive choirboys” that proved rewarding; it hit No. 1 on the Easy Listening chart. A decidedly more modern song made the flipside. Templeman and Scoppettone’s “Hey, You in the Crowd” was Harpers’ usual concert opener. There’s a bit of “Up, Up and Away” flair in Botkin’s chart supporting the typically wonderful vocal arrangement by the composers.
Unfortunately, the hits were to dry up for Harpers Bizarre. But The Complete Singles Collection vividly proves that the loss was the public’s, as the quality of the group’s releases on 45 RPM remained high. Nick DeCaro, whose credits are too numerous to mention, arranged the sweet ‘n’ soft Kenny Rankin tune “Cotton Candy Sandman (Sandman’s Coming)” for a 1968 single; the song would find its way to the band’s fourth album, 1969’s Harpers Bizarre 4. It was backed by “Virginia City,” a Scoppettone/Templeman original graced with a country flavor and the banjo of Doug Dillard. 1968 also brought one of Harpers’ finest moments not from an album: a non-LP single of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” b/w “Small Talk.” Mitchell’s then-new song was given an airy, frothy treatment by the band but it was ultimately eclipsed on the hit parade by Judy Collins’ version. The B-side is one of the true gems in the Harpers catalogue, though. The beguiling “Small Talk,” from the “Happy Together” team of Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, was arranged by Nick DeCaro in hushed, delicate style befitting Harpers Bizarre. The song was also recorded by a virtual “Who’s Who” including Claudine Longet (produced by DeCaro and featuring her then-husband Andy Williams on harmony), Lesley Gore, and Gary Lewis, but Harpers’ stands tall among the song’s finest interpretations.
Harpers Bizarre continued to try various styles on subsequent singles, rousingly reinventing Johnny Horton’s 1959 smash “The Battle of New Orleans” in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Botkin chart from third album The Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre; taking in dreamy psychedelia on Elmer Bernstein’s theme to the Peter Sellers comedy I Love You, Alice B. Toklas; reinventing Wilson Pickett with a trippy “Knock on Wood,” the only single to be culled from Harpers Bizarre 4 upon its release; and even trying an old gospel standard with “If We Ever Needed the Lord Before.” Harry Nilsson’s career was on the ascendant as Harpers was struggling in the charts, and he wrote and co-produced 1970’s “Poly High” for the band, featuring typically delicious harmonies, but the offbeat song didn’t restore Harpers’ fortunes.
Late in their Warner tenure, the group members began to exert more control over their recordings. The band finally got to play, rather than just sing, on one of their records with 1969’s spellbinding “Witchi Tai To.” Original songs from the Scoppettone/Templeman team were also stunners, including the attractively escapist “Green Apple Tree” and bluesy “Soft Soundin’ Music” which returned the band to its Tikis roots with Ry Cooder on rocking guitar.
After enduring a two-year period without a hit record, Harpers Bizarre broke up in 1970. The band would reunite sans Ted Templeman for 1976’s As Time Goes By, but that record, too, disappeared without a trace. The group left behind a still unmatched legacy of delightfully soft-soundin’ music, and indeed, Now Sounds’ singles anthology plays like a captivating journey through the musical landscape of the 1960s. As usual for the label, the packaging is nonpareil, elegantly designed by producer Steve Stanley in perfect period style. The 24-page full-color booklet is packed with Joe McGasko’s liner notes and Dick Scoppettone’s illuminating track commentary, while Alan Brownstein has beautifully remastered all tracks from the original Warner Bros. masters. (All songs other than “Poly High” and the bright closing track “Mad” are in mono.) Without a doubt, Harpers Bizarre’s The Complete Singles Collection will leave you feelin’ groovy – and eagerly awaiting expansions of The Secret Life… and Harpers Bizarre 4!