Friday, October 2, 2009

Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco April 29-30, 1966: Grass Roots/Sons Of Adam/Big Brother and The Holding Company

This post is part of a series analyzing every concert at the Avalon Ballroom. Above is the Wes Wilson poster for the event (FD6--thanks to Ross for the scan).

For the Avalon's second event, Chet Helms turned to a mixture of San Francisco and Hollywood groups. Given the lengthy pop history of The Grass Roots, with huge AM radio hits like "Midnight Confessions," it seems strange at this remove to see them as regulars of the early days at the Fillmore and The Avalon. In fact, however, the original Grass Roots were a strange hybrid of Bay Area and Southern California, and the little told story of the original band is a protoypical "only in the 60s" tale.

Two LA songwriters, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, produced and wrote for numerous acts (for example, they wrote Barry McGuire’s hit “Eve Of Destruction”).  Often, when they had a good song, they simply recorded it themselves and simply made up an appropriate sounding group name. They had written and sang on some records as the Grass Roots on Dunhill Records.  When they found some radio success on California AM stations with a song called “Where Were You When I Needed You” in late 1965 , a band had to be created to support the records.  “Where Were You When I Needed You,”  with a lead vocal by P.F. Sloan, strangely, was a radio-station only single and was not for sale.

Sloan and Barri found a San Francisco band called the Bedouins, and sent them out as The Grass Roots. The Bedouins were apparently a pretty good local band, and are known to have won a 1965 Battle of The Bands at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds. In about October 1965, Bill Fulton, the new lead singer of The Grass Roots (nee Bedouins) sang lead on the next Grass Roots single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” The band was offended that their lead singer merely sang over pre-recorded tracks performed by session musicians, rather than getting to record as a band. 

In late 1965 and early 1966, The Grass Roots (nee Bedouins) played numerous gigs in Southern California, particularly at The Trip in West Hollywood. At The Trip, where they played every night for almost a month, they played their own sets and backed Barry McGuire for his set. McGuire was another Sloan/Barri act, riding high with his folk-rock hit "Eve Of Destruction." The Grass Roots also played numerous TV gigs, often backing other acts like Barry McGuire or The Mamas and Papas. At the same time, the band played County Fairs and other teenage gigs, where besides the Grass Roots two singles, they mostly played the same blues and R&B tunes that they had played as The Bedouins.

By April of 1966, The Grass Roots were actually relatively popular, as “Where Were You When I Needed You” has been re-released by Dunhill Records and was now getting national airplay.  Producers Sloan and Barri had replaced Sloan’s lead vocal with a new take by lead singer Bill Fulton, so there were now two versions of their best known song.  However, while the Grass Roots still only had two singles, The Sons of Adam only had one, which wasn't a hit, and Big Brother hadn't recorded at all. It was a tribute to the thriving underground scene that the Avalon Ballroom could do well for two nights on groups with such a skinny track record.

Sons Of Adam, whose roots lay in Baltimore, MD, were a Yardbirds-style band from Southern California. The Sons Of Adam were extremely popular in Hollywood clubs, and they had a sensational guitarist in Randy Holden, a sonic legend who blew away everyone who heard him. The Sons Of Adam had only released one single in December 1965 (on Decca), but by all accounts they were a smoking hot live band. The band that played The Avalon was the original and by all accounts the best lineup of The Sons Of Adam. Besides lead guitarist Randy Holden (later in The Other Half and Blue Cheer), guitarist Joe Kooken (aka Jac Ttanna, later Lee Michaels road manager), bassist Mike Port and drummer Michael Stuart (later in Love). Supposedly there is an extant live recording of this lineup (albeit not of this show) that will be released someday, at least according to Ugly Things Magazine (Greg Provost's Sons Of Adam article in Issue 26 tells the whole story).

For purely homegrown undergound talent, Chet Helms booked Big Brother and The Holding Company. Chet Helms was the manager of Big Brother, as well as being the proprietor of The Avalon. Big Brother, in various configurations, had began by playing in the basement of 1090 Page Street, where some of them lived, and had performed at what were essentially ‘Rent Parties.’  Peter Albin’s parents owned the rooming house at 1090 Page, and his older brother Rodney managed the building.  Chet Helms had been putting on the Wednesday night events in the basement, so the band of residents played in the basement. Chet Helms subsequently invited neighbor Bill Ham (from 1839 Pine and the Red Dog ) to put on light shows. By early 1966, band had chosen their name and the group's personnel had stabilized: James Gurley and Sam Andrews on guitars, Peter Albin on bass and Dave Getz on drums. The band's public debut under the Big Brother name was at Berkeley's Open Theater on January 15, 1966.
Albin, Andrews and Gurley had all been folkies, and did many of the typical bluesy songs that other bands did (like “I Know You Rider”), but Big Brother’s music featured loud and jagged improvisations.  Lead guitarist James Gurley had been a fine fingerpicking folk guitarist, but the addition of an amplifier and LSD made Gurley into one of the first ‘psychedelic’ guitar players.  Sam Andrew and Peter Albin sang some songs, but many Big Brother numbers were instrumentals with Getz’s jazzy drumming anchoring the self-procalimed Big Brother ‘freak rock’ sound. In this early period, Big Brother’s show-stopping set closer was an instrumental version of Grieg’s  “Hall Of The Mountain King.”

Next: May 6-7, 1966: Daily Flash/Rising Sons/Charlatans/Big Brother and The Holding Company

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