When one thinks of bands assembled by audition, The Monkees usually spring to mind. Davy, Micky, Peter, and Michael had been assembled by Screen Gems for the purposes of starring in a new television sitcom, and by sheer force of will became a “real” band making some of the era’s most intoxicating music. But The Monkees were far from the only group to come together in a less-than-organic fashion. Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings imprint has recently celebrated another such band, Rhinoceros, with the release of the 3-CD collection The Elektra Albums 1968-1970.
Producers Paul Rothchild (The Doors, Love) and Frazier Mohawk (Kaleidoscope, Nico) hit upon the notion of a made-to-order band for their label home of Elektra Records. They held auditions and ended up with a versatile seven-piece combo initially consisting of Canadian band Jon & Lee & The Checkmates’ John Finley (vocals), Alan Gerber (piano/vocals), Iron Butterfly’s Danny Weis (guitar/piano), ex-Buffalo Springfield replacement member Doug Hastings (guitar), The Checkmates and Electric Flag’s Michael Fonfara (organ), Iron Butterfly’s Jerry Penrod (bass), and The Mothers of Invention’s Billy Mundi (drums/percussion). (Mundi was a last-minute fill-in for Jon Keliehor.)
The supergroup – with some personnel shifts – recorded three albums for Elektra before breaking up. Esoteric has collected all three of those on The Elektra Albums: Rhinoceros (1968), Satin Chickens (1969), and Better Times Are Coming (1970). Rhinoceros introduced the band’s big and heavy yet R&B-infused sound on a slate of original songs and two Little Richard covers (“I Need Love” and “You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want to Discuss It).” Yet it was only met with moderate success; Weis and Fonfara’s high-octane, organ-and-guitar-driven instrumental “Apricot Brandy” just peaked within the top 50 of the Hot 100. (It did have an extended life when BBC Radio One picked it up as the theme for two programs.) “I Will Serenade You” only achieved hit status when Three Dog Night recorded a slightly reworked version as “Let Me Serenade You.”
Jerry Penrod departed the ranks following the debut album, with Peter Hodgson stepping in on bass for sophomore album Satin Chickens. (Hodgson, Finley’s cousin and another ex-Checkmate, had originally been approached before Penrod joined the band.) The band opted not to work with Paul Rothchild and so Elektra A&R chief David Anderle, with whom they’d worked backing David Ackles, was selected to produce. The album – which opened with a brief instrumental rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” in suitably jazzy fashion – fared only slightly better than its predecessor but its original songs found the bandmates leaning even more heavily into a soul-based sound which would find fullest flower on Album # 3. They even acknowledged that other “manufactured” group with “Monkee Man.”
Behind the scenes, Rhinoceros was in disarray, compounded by the fact that their management had fumbled an opportunity to play Woodstock. Billy Mundi, Alan Gerber, and Doug Hastings all jumped ship after Satin Chickens. Duke Edwards and Larry Leishman came in on drums and guitars, respectively, while the piano slot was left unfilled. The six-piece unit pressed on for one more LP: Better Times Are Coming, with Guy Draper producing at Phil Ramone’s A&R Studios. (Ramone engineered some of the sessions himself.) Draper, with whom the band didn’t get along, did help them shape a funky, groove-based soul sound indebted to Sly and the Family Stone or The Chambers Brothers. The songs were uniformly fine, too, including the period statement of “It’s a Groovy World.”
Friction among the members led to Rhinoceros’ breakup. But before they said their farewells, Finley, Weis, Fonfara, Hodgson, and Leishman joined with Zeke Sheppard and Richard Steinberg reteamed with Paul Rothchild as Blackstone. Their lone LP appeared on the GRP label in 1973, adhering to the concept Rothchild had proposed to them at Elektra of half-covers, half-originals. Blackstone covered The Neville Brothers, Sam Cooke, Dr. John, and others, but the album didn’t make much noise. Rhinoceros didn’t reunite until 2009 when Finley, Gerber, Weis, Fonfara, and Hodgson took the stage at the Kitchener Blues Festival in Ontario, Canada.
The slipcased collection contains three CDs in paper sleeves, with the first and third albums recreated as gatefolds. The 16-page booklet has an essay by Malcolm Dome drawing on fresh interviews with John Finley and Danny Weis, and Ben Wiseman has newly remastered all three albums. This set is no-frills – it doesn’t offer any bonus material – but it’s a fine tribute to a band that didn’t change the world but nonetheless left behind consistently well-played, interesting rock and soul.
Cherry Red’s Morello imprint has recently celebrated the late Jerry Jeff Walker with a new 5-CD box which was announced before the outlaw country hero’s untimely death from cancer on October 23 at the age of 78. The set is entitled Mr. Bojangles: The Atco/Elektra Years after Walker’s most famous song. “It’s about a guy I met in a jail cell in New Orleans,” he once remembered. “We were both in the drunk tank over a long weekend. He told stories, and to me he was the ‘eyes of age.’ I never saw him again.” From such inauspicious roots came Jerry Jeff Walker’s unlikely but enduring standard. The song also gave the title to the singer-songwriter’s 1968 Atco Records debut which opens this collection.
The former Ronald Crosby entered Atlantic’s New York studios with a couple of albums behind him as one-half of the folk-rock/jazz duo Circus Maximus. For the album that would become Mr. Bojangles, he also pursued a hybrid sound. He was joined by folk multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg on lead guitar and additional players including future jazz legend Ron Carter on acoustic bass, Gary Illingworth on piano/organ, Donny Brooks on harp, Danny Milhon on dobro, Jody Stecher on fiddle/mandolin, Bobby Cranshaw on electric and acoustic bass, Jerry Jemmott on electric bass, and Liza Minnelli’s future musical director Bill LaVorgna on drums. Tom Dowd, multi-track recording pioneer and accomplished producer and engineer, helmed the album and brought his R&B background. In the end, Walker once recalled, “it came as close to being a country record as I could have done in New York in 1968.” Alongside country-flavored cuts like “I Keep Changin’,” the album also addressed styles including bluegrass (“I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” and folk-rock (“Round and Round,” “The Ballad of the Hulk”).
The ballad “Mr. Bojangles,” a touching portrait of a downtrodden song-and-dance man in his twilight years, was complemented on the LP by “My Old Man” and “Gypsy Songman,” which both touched on complementary themes. Atco cut a unique single version (not included here) of “Bojangles” at Memphis’ Sun Studios with Walker backed by a different band, but neither the single nor the album version ensured the song its long life. “Mr. Bojangles” had its day in the sun when The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took it to the Top 10 in 1971; it later became a signature song for Sammy Davis, Jr. and has been covered by everybody from Bob Dylan to Nina Simone.
In 1969, Walker followed Mr. Bojangles with Five Years Gone. Eschewing New York or Memphis, he recorded the LP in Nashville with a “Who’s Who” of session men from the city, some of whom had also backed Bob Dylan on his Tennessee pilgrimage. Walker was joined by a band including Kenneth Buttrey on drums, Charlie McCoy on vibes/organ, Mac Gayden on guitar, Weldon Myrick on steel guitar, Henry Strzelecki on bass, Pete Wade on dobro and guitar, “Nashville” David Briggs and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, and the returning Bromberg. Elliot Mazer, soon to work with Neil Young in Nashville on Harvest, produced. Despite its country pedigree, Five Years had a lightly psychedelic, contemporary singer-songwriter feel with a strong folk-rock influence. The album also included a reprise of “Mr. Bojangles” in its original 1967 version which Walker described as “drunken.” The story goes that, after Walker and Bromberg played the demo during a November 1967 all-night radio show on New York’s WBAI, the station was inundated with requests for the song. That gave Walker the confidence to re-record it professionally.
Bein’ Free, from 1970, wrapped up Walker’s Atco tenure. Tom Dowd was back as producer, this time recording at his home base of Criteria Studios in Miami with future Jimmy Buffett pal Michael Utley (organ/electric piano/tack piano), Jim Dickinson (piano/tack piano/dobro), Charlie Freeman (guitars), Tommy McClure (electric bass), Sammy Creason (drums), Don Brooks, (harmonica) and future Bee Gees collaborator Albhy Galuten (electric piano). Walker continued to hone his individualistic style, employing humor on his socially conscious, observational songs. This time, the sound was a bit more rooted in the blues, but the album wouldn’t have been out of place classified as folk or country, either. It set the stage for his move to Texas and switch to MCA Records, where he remained for more than a decade save a brief sojourn to Elektra in 1978-1979.
That sojourn is where Morello’s collection picks up for its final two discs. By the time Jerry Jeff had joined the Atco sister imprint, he had settled in Texas where he became a fixture on the Austin music scene. 1978’s Jerry Jeff surprisingly only featured one original composition: “Her Good Lovin’ Grace,” a touching tribute to his wife Susan. The other tracks were drawn from the songbooks of such writers as John D. Loudermilk, Guy Clark, and Rodney Crowell as well as Bobby Rambo of Walker’s backup group, the Bandito Band. Produced by Michael Brovsky, it was a boisterous session with appearances by The Ramirez Horns. Jerry Jeff seemed to indicate solace and contentment for the artist, and he self-produced its 1979 follow-up Too Old to Change. This time he didn’t contribute any new songs but again tapped Rodney Crowell for the oft-covered “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” Guy Clark’s wife Susanna penned the twangy “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose” on which Carole King dropped by as Jerry Jeff’s duet partner. Jerry Jeff even brought his personal stamp to Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s timeless “Me and Bobby McGee.” But the affiliation with Elektra was short-lived, and Walker returned to MCA.
Like Esoteric’s Rhinoceros release, Mr. Bojangles: The Atco/Elektra Years lacks any bonus material such as that mono single version of “Mr. Bojangles.” It’s a simple slipcased package with each disc an individual paper sleeve replica of the original album art. The 16-page booklet has liner notes from Spencer Leigh, and Alan Wilson has mastered all five albums for this set. Though Jerry Jeff Walker may be gone, his gifts as a storyteller continue to enrich listeners. This set is affordable one-stop shopping for one chunk of his considerable catalogue.
The last title in our Box Set Bonanza today is from the British rock-and-roll revivalists of Fumble. Cherry Red’s Grapefruit imprint has released a 4-CD collection, Not Fade Away: The Complete Recordings 1964-1982, from the group that supported David Bowie on two tours including the U.S. leg of the Ziggy Stardust jaunt. David Wells’ essay begins with a bold statement: “Of all the rock ‘n’ roll revival bands operating in the seventies, Fumble were surely the most interesting.” But the music contained on these four discs proves it.
Guitarist Des Henly and bassist Mario Ferrari first joined together as half of The Iveys (not the pre-Badfinger group of the same name), making local noise and recording a primitive EP that opens this collection. Initially inspired by Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard and then in thrall to The Beatles, The Iveys’ musical trajectory wasn’t unlike nearly every other young band of the day. A trip to Sweden garnered them a 45 on the country’s Columbia label (also included here among the pre-Fumble material) but The Iveys broke up in 1967 when one member got married and another joined the Army. Henly and Ferrari pressed on, enlisting pianist Sean Mayes and drummer Barry Pike. They’d left their bands to join the Iveys duo as The Baloons (sic). Under that name, they’d met with a measure of success, supporting Traffic, The Move, and Spooky Tooth, and playing multiple engagements at the Cavern Club.
As they continued to perform together, the foursome began gravitating towards a nostalgic rock-and-roll sound imbued with a slight wink but impeccable musicianship. To reflect the change in their sound, they decided a new name was necessary. The Baloons became Fumble (singular). A support slot with Slade led to an appearance on Terry Wogan’s radio show and a signing with EMI. The label’s prog imprint Sovereign might have been an odd match, but Fumble sounded like nobody else on the label. Hipgnosis designed the eye-popping, controversial cover of 1972’s Fumble, and labelmate Annie Haslam of Renaissance dropped by to share duet vocals with Henly on the oldie-but-goodie “Ebony Eyes.” Produced by John Sherry and Rod Lynton, Fumble also included an Elvis-aping “One Night” and “(Let Me Be) Your Teddy Bear,” as well as the Goffin/King copyrights “It Might as Well Rain Until September” and “Take Good Care of My Baby” and Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” Gene Pitney’s “Hello, Mary Lou,” a 1961 hit for Ricky Nelson, was chosen as the single. While the productions were less polished and the vocals sometimes tongue-in-cheek, the arrangements largely hewed to the original versions. The first disc of Not Fade Away: The Complete Recordings has the full original Fumble album plus non-LP singles and a previously unreleased alternate version of “Ebony Eyes.”
Soon, they were sharing bills with actual rock-and-roll idols Chuck Berry and Bill Haley not to mention touring with David Bowie. CD 2 opens with their sophomore album, 1974’s punningly-titled Poetry in Lotion. (Johnny Tillotson’s “Poetry in Motion” was not one of the song selections.) It appeared on Bowie’s U.S. home of RCA and was helmed by Shel Talmy of The Who and The Kinks fame after rumored liaisons with Bryan Ferry and Mick Ronson didn’t pan out. Unlike Fumble’s debut, Poetry was split between oldies (“Runaround Sue,” a spare, dramatically rearranged “Not Fade Away,” The Box Tops’ relatively more recent “The Letter”) and original songs (“Here We Go Again,” “Marilyn,” “Free the Kids”) penned by the band members. What the songs had in common was, as Wells quotes the late Sean Mayes, “We’re trying to bring back enjoyment and simplicity to music like it was before The Beatles and Dylan. Fumble do their music for the kids – we don’t want to know about the in-crowd nostalgia scene.” But Fumble still couldn’t score a hit single; “Not Fade Away” was the choice this time and despite its clever stripping-down of the song, it didn’t connect with listeners. Poetry in Lotion is joined on the second disc by a clutch of non-LP singles for RCA and their subsequent home of Decca (some written by their next producer, Mike Hurst) plus three previously unreleased outtakes including two different arrangements of The Animals’ Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil-written anthem “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
Fumble had a bit of an identity crisis, going from classic rock-and-roll to tougher ’60s rock while still penning original pop songs which were being overshadowed by the classics. The third disc of the box reflects their varied activities post-1977. After Elvis Presley died in August of that year, Fumble was conscripted by impresario Jack Good into his West End tribute extravaganza Elvis – The Musical; four selections from its still-unavailable-on-CD cast recording are included here. (Shakin’ Stevens and P.J. Proby also starred in the musical.) Good then featured the band in a revival of his music television show Oh, Boy!; it began life on stage before returning to TV. Fumble contributed two songs to its soundtrack album, both of which are reprised here. In the midst of all this, Sean Mayes returned to the Bowie fold (appearing on the Heroes tour and the Lodger LP) and Fumble recorded a single for Dick James’ DJM label. The full live album Rumble with Fumble: The Official Bootleg, culled from a 1976 tour, was also released in 1979 and appears on the third CD. (The liner notes mention a one-off single release from South Africa coupling new recordings of “Oh! Carol” and “No Money Down,” but it’s oddly absent from the box.)
The final disc presents Fumble’s 1982 album for the German Electrola label plus one non-LP side and a BBC session. It’s Only a Rock ‘n’ Roll Game, produced by Holger Hagar Muller, stuck to the formula of blending energetic originals with well-known covers. This time, they got around to “Poetry in Motion” as well as Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp?” and Eddie Cochran’s “Weekend.” The group’s jointly-written, rockabilly-flavored “Feel Like Rocking Tonight” opened the album and was an apt mission statement. Fumble was tiring of the pop grind, however, and realizing that a commercial breakthrough wasn’t likely in the cards despite their successes onstage and on television. But they never really broke up, reuniting often for Christmas gigs.
The liner notes helpfully inform us that Des Henly has fronted his Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus for the past two-plus decades, and Mario Ferrari and Barry Pike join him once a year to revive the Fumble sound. Sean Mayes tragically passed away in 1995 as a result of AIDS. He was just 49 years old. Savoring this box – housed in a clamshell case with each album in a mini-sleeve plus a thick, 40-page copiously illustrated and annotated booklet – it’s clear that Fumble was, indeed, a pretty darned interesting band.
All three titles are available now at the following links. Click directly to Cherry Red to order from the label and find the complete track listing for each title! Please visit our full Holiday Gift Guide here.
- Rhinoceros (Elektra LP EKS 74030, 1968)
- Satin Chickens (Elektra LP EKS 74056, 1969)
- Better Times Are Coming (Elektra LP EKS 74075, 1970)
- Mr. Bojangles (Atco LP SD 33-259, 1968)
- Five Years Gone (Atco LP SD 33-297, 1969)
- Bein’ Free (Atco LP SD 33-336, 1970)
- Jerry Jeff (Elektra LP 6E-163, 1978)
- Too Old to Change (Elektra LP 6E-239, 1979)
- Fumble (Sovereign LP SVNA 7254, 1972) plus bonus tracks
- Poetry in Lotion (RCA LP SF 8403, 1975) plus bonus tracks
- Rumble with Fumble: The Official Bootleg (Rumble LP CP 114, 1979) plus bonus tracks
- It’s Only a Rock ‘n’ Roll Game (German Electrola LP 1C 064-46 547, 1982) plus bonus tracks