Where can you get the voice of a former American Top 40 radio show host, six aging non-Hall of Fame bands from the 1960s – including one-third of Three Dog Night, some Turtles and a real-life Partridge Family, and about 1800 septuagenarians all ready to party and have a good time?
On Friday, August 19, I attended a concert featuring six classic musical acts whose best days have long passed, but whose collective song catalog and period-based popularity helped define an era – the late 1960s.
The show’s MC was the former top-40 countdown show host, Shadoe Stephens, a popular DJ and gregarious 1980s replacement for AT40-originator Casey Kasem, whose famous show actually post-dated the popularity of most of the bands and songs featured on this bill.
The concert was the latest stop on the “Happy Together Tour,” featuring Chuck Negron (of Three Dog Night), surviving members of the Cowsills (i.e., the real-life Partridge Family), Mark Lindsay (of Paul Revere & the Raiders), Spencer Davis (of the Spencer Davis Group), Gary Puckett (of Gary Puckett & the Union Gap) and the Turtles (featuring Flo and Eddie…more on those names later).
All of these musicians rocked the house for over two-and-a-half hours at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, IL, a classic venue that seats about 1800 – and man did they put on a groovy show!
Now before you fellow Gen-Xers (and those younger) raise a bemused eyebrow and go “who?,” please allow me to enlighten you. No, not the Who. This six-pack assortment of pop bands have collectively sold hundreds of millions of records – mostly during the ten years from 1965-74. Between them, they recorded over 90 Billboard Hot 100 chart hits, including nearly 60 that reached the top 40, with over half of those reaching the top ten and five hitting number one.
And yes, they were popular bands during the mid-to-late sixties – a period commonly associated with social protest, civil unrest, recreational drugs, hippies and flower children, psychedelia, and a growing dislike for – or at least a healthy suspicion of – government. (You know, kinda like today.)
Oh yeah, and love. Don’t forget about love. Remember, it’s all you need. That’s what the Beatles told us in 1967, during the “Summer of Love.” And brother we could certainly use a little more of that today.
So these ’60s acts did their parts and took us back to a time where various expressions of love seemed much more abundant – and acceptable.
To set the tone historically, their heydays were during a period of transition from the first British Music Invasion of the 1960s to the corporate rock of the ’70s, from early Motown to Memphis soul (and later ’70s disco). And the acts on stage this night may very well have been some of the most popular pop bands in America during those ‘tweener years. To wit, one of them, Gary Puckett, even claimed that he outsold the Beatles during 1968 and that his band’s Young Girl album was the biggest seller in CBS Records’ history before a certain Thriller album was released just under 15 years later.
I’m sure that artists like Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Earth, Wind & Fire, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Barbra Streisand and Chicago might have something to say about that Columbia Records claim.
And as for outselling the Beatles in 1968, that’s plausible but unlikely, considering the Fab Four’s two major hits that year were “Lady Madonna” – a remake of which actually appeared on Puckett’s album – and their biggest hit, “Hey Jude,” along with the highly regarded White Album, which, although it wasn’t released until late November, it still gave them a full five weeks on the market on which to capitalize before year-end.
Puckett, on the other hand had four million-selling singles throughout 1968 (“Woman, Woman,” “Young Girl,” “Lady Willpower” and “Over You”), although his recollection during the show was six. He sang all four of those Friday night, in addition to his fifth and final top-10 hit, 1969’s “This Girl Is A Woman Now.”
Speaking of Puckett, his love songs (yes, his were ALL love songs) always struck me as if they were all about one girl. Taken together, they seemed to chronicle the coming-of-age of a taboo young love interest (sample this lyric from his biggest hit: “Young girl get outta my mind, my love for you is way out of line, better run girl, you’re much too young girl”). Yet they had this monogamist theme to them, something that – along with the Union Gap’s adult-contemporary, soft-rock music and Puckett’s unique operatic tenor vocal style – didn’t necessarily evoke the psychedelic, free-love feel of his era.
His performance on this night stayed true his sixties persona – he even wore the Union Army Civil War jacket (which he still fit) from the cover of the Young Girl album, at one point asking the crowd how we liked it.
The crowd greatly appreciated the throwback wardrobe and Puckett’s performance, even if his vocals – like nearly everyone else’s that night – had lost some of the higher end of their previous range. Almost all the bands’ songs were done in a lower key than the original recordings.
But Puckett didn’t open the show. That honor was given to Spencer Davis. Davis, at 77 years old and the senior act on this circuit, made it clear from the beginning that he wasn’t going to be performing any heroic acts on stage. For him, it was all about the music. During his entire four-song performance, he stood stoically strumming his guitar, barely moving from the spot on the stage where he had kicked off the show. He gave us Spencer Davis Group songs “Keep On Running,” “Somebody Help Me,” and their two biggest hits: “I’m A Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
In introducing “Man,” Davis name-checked the band who famously covered the tune, Chicago, and its former lead-singer, Peter Cetera. The largely Chicago-based audience showed their appreciation when Davis exclaimed, “Where is Cetera from?”
While launching into the capper, “Gimme Some Lovin,” Davis announced that he had a surprise for us. What immediately came to mind were thoughts of the song’s original lead singer, Steve Winwood, reuniting with Davis to perform before this amped up crowd of mostly 70-somethings (myself and a few others excluded). Instead, Davis himself opened the first verse, followed by the Happy Together Tour Band’s drummer very capably singing the second. It wasn’t clear that that was the surprise, but if it was, it actually wasn’t a bad one.
Davis then turned over to the Cowsills, who – both with their presence and their performance – created a few small ironies.
First, The band was the only one with a member from its ’60s lineup who had not yet turned 60. That would be baby sister Susan Cowsill, 57, who was only eight when she joined her big brothers and mother in 1967. She was barely ten when the Cowsills scored their biggest hit, “Hair,” the #2 title smash from the 1969 musical.
Susan and her two older brothers Paul and Bob, neither of whom have yet turned 70, performed some of the hits that made them famous and made them the inspiration for the ’70s TV show, “The Partridge Family,” starring Shirley Jones (as the mom in the band) and David Cassidy (as the oldest brother).
In the real-life band, that role would be filled by Bob Cowsill, who is the oldest living family member (mom Barbara and three brothers have passed, including one, Barry, during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and another, Bill, just before Barry’s memorial service a few months later).
And therein lay another irony. For all the tragedy this band has faced over the years, the three Cowsills at this show displayed a happiness level that was simply off the charts. They made fun of each other and told jokes that mocked their prolific history (“all of our hits will be introduced by, ‘this was big for us in 1968′”) and their relative youth (“we weren’t asked to be on this tour until Bob received his Medicare card last year”). They kept this nostalgic crowd in stitches the whole time.
And interspersed with the jokes were some great tunes, including big Cowsills’ hits like “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” (which they dedicated to all the “flower girls” out there), “We Can Fly,” “Indian Lake,” “Love, American Style,” and the biggie, “Hair.” That tune, a celebration of the long-haired hippy culture of the sixties, was backed by a video montage highlighting several well-coiffed hairstyles of the era, with the video proving itself a worthy accompaniment to the band’s singing and playing.
The Cowsills then departed the stage, making way for Gary Puckett’s performance just before intermission.
And then the show continued with Mark Lindsay, the former leader of the group Paul Revere & the Raiders…with the night’s levity continuing as well.
Lindsay made his entrance with the Happy Together Tour Band playing a bar or two from the Raiders’ wildly popular 1966 song, “Kicks,” before quickly launching into a medley of “Action” and “Just Like Me” (both also big in 1966). Then he performed his big solo hit, “Arizona,” to an enthused crowd who apparently hadn’t had enough when he finished. As Lindsay prepared for the next tune, a fan in the audience shouted “Arizona!” to which Lindsay responded, “I just did that!” (This would become a running interplay between audience members and Lindsay going forward.)
He then performed “Good Thing,” followed by the Raiders’ biggest (and only #1) hit, “Indian Reservation.”
There were two things that Lindsay wanted us to know about that #1 tune: 1) that it was a story that needed to be told (the song’s lyrics describe the struggles of Native Americans in this country) and, 2) that it was the biggest-selling 45 vinyl record in CBS Records’ history “until Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ came along.” Lindsay maintained that his song had held that record for nearly 30 years.
Actually only 12 years separated “Indian Reservation” and “Billie Jean,” somehow making the former song seem more contemporary than it really is.
Also, at that point, I was beginning to sense a pattern among the former Columbia Records artists in this lineup and their slight twisting of the facts. I soon dismissed their embellished stats as a right they’ve earned after more than half a century of touring and performing these same hits. Besides, it furthered my belief that artists don’t pay as much attention to these statistics as do chart historians and industry watchers like yours truly.
Lindsay, 74, then performed a full version of the crowd-pleasing “Kicks,” a song that was a #1 regional hit in Chicago while it peaked at #4 nationally (on the Hot 100). He then gave us three reminders before he left the stage: 1) don’t forget to vote for the “Happy Together Party,” 2) his name is Mark Lindsay, and 3) rock and roll music keeps you young.
Enter Three Dog Night’s Chuck Negron, another 74-year-old, well-coiffed singer who looked 20 years younger – at least from my seat in the audience. He began his set with 3DN’s first #1 hit, “Mama Told Me (Not To Come),” a song penned by Randy Newman and one that was the #1 single on the first episode of the famous syndicated radio countdown show, “American Top 40” in July 1970.
In fact, Negron’s former group joined Lindsay’s Raiders as the only two acts on this tour to have top-40 hits in the ’70s, while the others’ chart careers had all subsided when the ’60s ended. And that 3DN first #1, “Mama Told Me,” is a song that I’ve always contended was also the true first #1 rap song. In the original recording, recently deceased group member Cory Wells rap-sings the humorous vocal during each verse, before the threesome of Wells, Danny Hutton and Negron handle the famous chorus together.
Negron (and the Happy Together Tour Band) handled all the parts during this Friday night performance, with the cheerful audience, including myself, all too happy to help out.
The band then segued into more Three Dog Night hits, including “Celebrate” (in which Negron held a note so long that it would’ve rivaled the great Bill Withers’ famous 18-second marathon in the final chorus of “Lovely Day”) and “One,” which Negron cited as 3DN’s first #1 single. He was correct when you include Billboard’s rival trade publications at the time, Record World and Cashbox (both of which are now defunct). Using all three sources, 3DN had seven #1s (although only three in Billboard).
In fact, 3DN may be the only group with a 100% top-40 success rate among acts with at least 20 Hot 100 singles. All 21 of their Hot 100 singles reached the top 40, with 17 of those occurring in the 1970s, making Negron’s band (and their repertoire of hits from which Negron had to choose) more prolific than all the acts performing that night.
One of those hits was the Laura Nyro classic “Eli’s Coming,” another song originally led by Wells, but which Negron handled perfectly in his stead.
Then he closed with their biggest hit, 1971’s “Joy To The World,” and a story about how not all the band’s members were on board with the song (citing their newfound coolness factor and the fact they had just been featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine). Negron noted that he was the only one in favor of the tune, citing it as a sort-of unifying force for the group. As we all know years later, the lyrics to “Joy To The World” ramped up the cheese factor pretty good and it would end up becoming the biggest hit of 1971.
Another cheesy 3DN song that was missing from Negron’s setlist was the band’s last Billboard #1, “Black & White,” a song on which member Danny Hutton originally sang lead. I noted this because its absence was also reflected in the non-diverse makeup of the audience at this venue. As I had looked around earlier, it appeared that I was the only black person in attendance at this oldies jam (aside from also being one of the youngest in this crowd of 1800-plus). There were likely more motorized scooters at this concert than there were black folks. It was a surreal – if not surprising – circumstance, particularly considering how big these bands were in the ’60s and ’70s. It also gave new meaning to the 3DN lyric, “one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”
When I finally spotted a second African-American (during the earlier intermission), the friend who attended with me – who is not black – quipped “two can be as bad as one…,” jokingly recalling the next line in the 3DN hit.
I was undaunted. I was having too much fun with this crowd to think of it as anything more than fodder for this article.
Finally, Negron gave way to the show’s headliners, The Turtles, the California band featuring original lead singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who now go by the stage names Flo and Eddie.
The two Turtles were hilarious throughout, in keeping with some of the slapstick nature of their late-’60s hits, like “Elenore” (which they performed) and “Guide For the Married Man” (which they didn’t).
First, they made their entrance to Adele’s “Hello” with Volman donning a woman’s wig and holding a fan meant to create the wind-swept effect so often used in music videos. The band then played their own hits, including “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “You Baby” and “It Ain’t Me Babe,” the latter a classic penned by Bob Dylan.
Following that performance, Kaylan (a/k/a Eddie) took a brief serious turn in telling the story of Volman’s recent diagnosis of and recovery from cancer (he’s now “100% cancer free”). This was during a very long break in the show in which the band playfully gave us snippets of the Grass Roots’ “Midnight Confession,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” and Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” while highlighting the considerable musical and singing talents of the tour band’s four members.
Then it was back to the Turtles’ own hits with “Elenore” followed by the set-capper and tour’s namesake, “Happy Together.” Afterwards, Flo and Eddie talked more about the past and how they were still a “druggie band” – only now their drugs were Lipitor, Aleve and that blue pill with the big “V” on it.
It was an acknowledgment of the band’s various health challenges and their advancing age – although Flo and Eddie were the second-youngest among this lineup (after the Cowsills) – both guys will just be celebrating their 70th birthdays next year.
But it was also a testimony to their survival and the fact that they were leading these six acts through a 56-city tour in 2016, some 50 years after that famous decade when they were all popular – the decade of love, yes, but also one of civil unrest and weird experimentation. One that – as the saying goes – if you can remember anything about the 1960s, then you weren’t there.
I was there, but I wasn’t really, having been born in 1966. My birth year was just late enough to protect me from the “fun” of the ’60s, but early enough to allow me to appreciate the music and artists of that decade years later.
And when the show’s big finale came, with each one of the other acts joining Flo and Eddie onstage for an encore snippet performance of their signature tunes – much to the now-standing crowd’s pleasure – I was reminded once again how great the music and the bands of that era were.
And I was reminded of Shadoe Stephens’ taped introduction at the beginning of the show: “Take the most fun you’ve ever had, multiply it by 1000, double that and then add five. That’s how much fun you’ll have tonight.”
I didn’t do the math, but I had more fun at the “Happy Together” show than I’ve had at a rock concert in years.
So if it’s coming to a city near you, I recommend you go on and “get happy!”