When Harpers Bizarre made their debut on Warner Bros. Records in spring 1967, they joined an eclectic roster of pop stars (Petula Clark, The Association), folksingers (Chad Mitchell, Peter Paul and Mary), comedy titans (Bob Newhart, Allan Sherman), MOR artists (The Anita Kerr Singers, Rod McKuen), and one forward-thinking psychedelic rock band (Grateful Dead). The group defied easy categorization, and over the course of four albums merged pop, MOR, rock, and even dashes of folk and comic whimsy into a sunny blend of harmony, nostalgia, and light psychedelia. Harpers’ four Warner albums have just been collected by Cherry Red’s El label in a slipcased collection titled after the irresistible Van Dyke Parks tune which opened their first LP, Come to the Sunshine: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings. This isn’t Cherry Red’s first time surveying the group’s discography. Between 2011 and 2016, Now Sounds released definitive, expanded mono editions of Feelin’ Groovy (1967) and Anything Goes (1967) as well as The Complete Singles Collection 1965-1970. This streamlined set has the four albums in stereo plus eight bonus tracks, two per disc, mirroring the contents of the U.S. Sundazed label’s 2001 reissues. The set is a companion of sorts to El’s recent Free Design box set, with both groups offering pristine harmony pop albeit with key differences, most notably that Harpers Bizarre was much more high-gloss and commercial.
Leon Russell might have been reluctant to return to his pop music roots when producer Lenny Waronker invited him to sit in the arranger’s chair for Feelin’ Groovy. But in retrospect, a Master of Time and Space must have been involved in any LP that listed among its credits Parks, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Richard Rodgers and Sergei Prokofiev! The California quintet’s debut long-player, heard on Disc 1 of this set, is a bold, imaginative, and downright fun listen.
Dick Yount, Eddie James, John Petersen, Dick Scoppettone and Ted Templeman came to Warner as a result of the label’s acquisition of Autumn Records. As the Tikis, they had shared bills with the Dead, and Petersen had previously belonged to another Autumn group snapped up by Warner, The Beau Brummels. Lenny Waronker keenly matched artist to song when he offered the group a completely original reworking of Paul Simon’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” Wordsmith and arranger has recalled being the one who renamed the band for a counterculture audience that wouldn’t accept the square-sounding Tikis. The punningly-named Harpers Bizarre was born.
In addition to rearranging “Bridge” as a baroque pocket-symphony (which became a top 15 U.S. Pop hit), Leon Russell brought two of his own songs, “Raspberry Rug” and “I Can Hear the Darkness.” The LP also boasted three compositions from Randy Newman, then in the midst of his own transformation from uptown soul craftsman to chronicler of idiosyncratic, character-driven songs. “Happyland” and “The Debutante’s Ball” were recorded by Harpers Bizarre along with the song that Newman has acknowledged as “the first song that sounds like me,” “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.” The budding talent even provided his own impressive arrangements; the Wrecking Crew supplied the polished accompaniment throughout. Other songs came from the realms of Broadway and classical. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Happy Talk” was removed from the exotic locale of South Pacific for a groovy (Groovy?) reinterpretation. The most far-out track, though, was the Prokofiev adaptation “Peter and the Wolf” by Ron Elliott and his frequent partner Bob Durand.
It was clear that no song was off the table for Harper’s Bizarre, so it was appropriate enough that the group’s sophomore outing (CD 2 of the new box) would be titled Anything Goes after Cole Porter’s 1934 showtune. Harpers Bizarre looked to reprise the success of their first album but with some crucial differences. For starters, two original band compositions were included, both from Dick Scoppettone and Ted Templeman: “Hey, You in the Crowd” and “Virginia City.” Van Dyke Parks, whose “Come to the Sunshine” set the tone for Feelin’ Groovy, instead closed Anything Goes with “High Coin.” One of Parks’ most-covered and most adaptable songs, it’s also been performed by singers as diverse as Bobby Vee and Jackie DeShannon. Producer Waronker marveled that “High Coin” sounded as if it hailed from an earlier era, and indeed, championing nostalgia through the somewhat ironic eyes of youth served Harpers Bizarre well: Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s 1941 “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” was also featured on the album.
Cole Porter’s songbook was additionally tapped for the story-song-with-a-twist “Two Little Babes in the Wood,” not one of the urbane composer’s most famous songs. The tune was written for The Greenwich Village Follies of 1924 and likely received its widest airing to date on Anything Goes. More recent, but still belonging to another generation, was Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Pocketful of Miracles” from Frank Capra’s 1961 film of the same name. “Milord,” a chanson popularized by Edith Piaf in 1959, showed that no melody was off-limits to Harpers. Randy Newman once again delivered the goods with the delicate “Snow” and sly “The Biggest Night of Her Life.” Songs by folkie David Blue (“You Need a Change”) and future Bread member James Griffin (“Jessie”) rounded out the eclectic, impeccably sung and arranged offerings. Anything Goes was Eddie James’ final LP with Harpers Bizarre.
Although Anything Goes hardly sounds like anything else recorded in 1967, the slimmed-down foursome emphasized the Bizarre portion of their name for their next effort, The Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre. The group created a dreamy, cinematic fantasia of seemingly disparate songs flowing into one another without breaks and with aid of musical interludes and sound effects bouncing speaker-to-speaker in stereo – think: Harpers Bizarre’s very own, modestly-scaled SMiLE.
After opening with a dash of corporate synergy – Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg’s “Look to the Rainbow” was “from the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts motion picture Finian’s Rainbow,” the label proudly heralded – Scoppettone and Templeman’s pillowy soft lead vocals and intricate orchestrations took listeners on a trippy journey through Americana. Only on Side One of The Secret Life could the old Johnny Horton hit “The Battle of New Orleans” and folk duo Ian and Sylvia’s “When I Was a Cowboy” sit comfortably alongside the swooning WWII anthem “Sentimental Journey” and the Gershwins’ showstopping “(I’ll Build A) Stairway to Paradise.” A Burt Bacharach and Hal David rarity, the sweet if somewhat politically incorrect “Me Japanese Boy, I Love You,” added to the offbeat atmosphere. Side Two’s suite injected the gospel voices of Gloria Jones, Carolyn Willis, and Sherlie Matthews into a quirkily-arranged version of Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls rouser “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” After reprising their Tikis tune “Bye, Bye, Bye” on Side One, Scoppettone and Templeman offered two original songs on Side Two, the lilting pastiche “Green Apple Tree” and the delectable, more typically sixties swinger “Mad.” The album fittingly closed with Paul Williams and Roger Nichols’ sublime “The Drifter,” as melodic a slice of sunshine pop as has ever been recorded.
The original group’s final album, 1969’s Harpers Bizarre 4, pulled back from the eccentric invention of Secret Life with a leaner, straightforward, and more intimate sound – in part because the band’s own rhythm section made more of an impression along with guest guitarists Ry Cooder and the returning Eddie James. One-third of the album (like the others, produced by Lenny Waronker) was composed by Scoppettone and Templeman including the opening “Soft Sounding Music” which wasn’t a sunshine pop anthem but rather a guitar-driven rock tune name-checking B.B. King and Jimmy Reed.
The covers were expectedly eclectic, though: a slow, lysergic cover of “Knock on Wood,” the hypnotic “Witchi Tai To,” Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin’s pretty “Something Better” (also recorded by Marianne Faithfull) and The Beatles’ “Blackbird” in gentle Jack Nitzsche arrangements, the Elmer Bernstein psych-pop movie theme “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” and even Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”
As the 2001 Sundazed reissues are long out-of-print, Come to the Sunshine affords a fine opportunity to pick up these four delightful albums with bonus cuts for a reasonable price. The eight bonus singles include Tikis tracks, B-sides, and non-LP sides including the splendid pairing of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and the Gary Bonner/Alan Gordon gem “Small Talk.” The set pales in comparison, however, to the lavish Now Sounds reissues of the first two albums with their wealth of bonus tracks (sixteen for Feelin’ Groovy and nine for Anything Goes), detailed liner notes drawing on new interviews, and period presentation. Note that those were in mono and these are, like the Sundazed CDs, in stereo. The discs here are housed in paper sleeves within a slipcase. The sleeves replicate the original front and back cover artwork but with the original Warner Bros. logos scrubbed (likely owing to the label’s rebranding as Warner Records). The 24-page booklet is designed in El’s house style (black text on a white background) and includes new liner notes, reprints of the original notes, and a handful of photos and picture sleeve images. Remastering is credited only to “Warner Bros.” but the sound is generally quiet.
Harpers Bizarre split up after Harpers Bizarre 4 and the final non-LP sides included on Disc Four, Harry Nilsson’s “Poly High” (co-produced by Waronker and Nilsson) and the gospel classic “If We Ever Needed the Lord Before.” Scoppettone, Petersen, Yount, and James reunited in 1976 for a one-off LP, As Time Goes By, and related 45s on the Forest Bay Company label. This album hasn’t been released on CD outside of Japan and would have made a fine grace note to this anthology. As for Ted Templeman, he went on to greater fame and fortune as producer of The Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Little Feat, Van Halen, and numerous others with styles far-removed from that of Harpers Bizarre. While hard rockers need not apply, those looking for breezy and often ingenious sunshine pop will surely find their own invitation to Happyland on Come to the Sunshine: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings.
CD 1: Feelin’ Groovy (Warner Bros. LP WS 1697, 1967)
- Come to the Sunshine
- Happy Talk
- Come Love
- Raspberry Rug
- The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)
- The Debutante’s Ball
- Peter and the Wolf
- I Can Hear the Darkness
- Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
- Lost My Love Today – The Tikis (Autumn single 28, 1966)
- Bye, Bye, Bye – The Tikis (Autumn single 28, 1966)
CD 2: Anything Goes (Warner Bros. LP WS 1716, 1967)
- This Is Only the Beginning
- Anything Goes
- Two Little Babes in the Wood
- The Biggest Night of Her Life
- Pocketful of Miracles
- Chattanooga Choo Choo
- Hey You in the Crowd
- Louisiana Man
- Virginia City
- You Need a Change
- High Coin
- Malibu U (Warner Bros. single 7063, 1968)
- Cotton Candy Sandman (Sandman’s Coming) (Warner Bros. single 7172, 1968)
CD 3: The Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre (Warner Bros. LP WS 1739, 1968)
- Look to the Rainbow
- Battle of New Orleans
- When I Was a Cowboy
- Sentimental Journey (Interlude)
- Sentimental Journey
- Las Mananitas
- Bye, Bye, Bye/Vine Street
- Me, Japanese Boy (I Love You)
- (I’ll Build A) Stairway to Paradise (Interlude)
- (I’ll Build A) Stairway to Paradise
- Green Apple Tree
- Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat
- I Love You, Mama (Interlude)
- I Love You, Mama
- Funny How Love Can Be
- Look to the Rainbow (Reprise)
- The Drifter
- The Drifter (Reprise)
- Both Sides Now (Warner Bros. single 7200, 1968)
- Small Talk (Warner Bros. single 7200, 1968)
CD 4: Harpers Bizarre 4 (Warner Bros. LP WS 1784, 1969)
- Soft Soundin’ Music
- Knock on Wood
- Witchi Tai To
- Hard to Handle
- When the Band Begins to Play
- Something Better
- I Love You, Alice B. Toklas
- There’s No Time Like Today
- All Through the Night
- Cotton Candy Sandman
- Leaving on a Jet Plane
- Poly High (Warner Bros. single 7377, 1969)
- If We Ever Needed the Lord Before (Warner Bros. single 7399, 1970)