Saturday, February 6, 2010

June 21-22, 1968 Fillmore East Vanilla Fudge/Georgie Fame/James Cotton Blues Band/Loading Zone

(this post is part of a series analyzing every show at the Fillmore East)

This weekend at the Fillmore East featured different headliners on Friday and Saturday nights, with the same opening acts in support. Vanilla Fudge headlined both Friday night shows, while Georgie Fame was the Saturday night headliner. The James Cotton Blues Band and San Francisco's Loading Zone opened both nights.

June 21, 1968 Vanilla Fudge/James Cotton Blues Band/Loading Zone
The Vanilla Fudge are now remembered as a kind of joke, and with some justification as their music seems pretentious and heavy-handed.  Nonetheless, they were not only popular but influential in their time.  They were significant influences on Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Three Dog Night, and Jeff Beck’s desire to form a band with Fudge members was instrumental in breaking up the original Jeff Beck Group.

The Fudge were from Long Island, where they were one of the house bands at a huge dance hall in Long Beach called The Action House.  They practically invented ‘heavy’ rock, doing songs slow and loud, with plenty of Hammond organ and feedback mixed in with highly emoted R&B style vocals.  Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice were very well-recorded, and their thunderous attack was transformational for English musicians, particularly for members of the yet-to-be-formed Led Zeppelin.  The Fudge had released a heavy rock version of the Supremes “You Keep Me Hanging On” (the album version of which was 7 minutes long), and the effect was enormous.  In America and England, musicians everywhere realized you could turn one kind of music into another.

The Vanilla Fudge’s only real weakness is that they weren’t ultimately very good.  Nonetheless, they were first, and they sold a ton of records in the meantime.  At this time they were touring behind their third album Renaissance (Atco Jun 68). The early show was reviewed by Billboard magazine critic Fred Kirby, so we have a detailed description of their performance. Kirby was extremely enthusiastic about their performance, showing how what seem like cliches today do not at all seem so when they are invented. Kirby enthusiastically describes heavy covers of "Eleanor Rigby," "You Keep Me Hanging On," Junior Walker's "Shotgun" and Beethoven's "Feur Elise and Moonlight Sonata." Kirby also describes Carmine Appice's virtuouso performance in a 10-minute (!) drum solo, followed by a bass-drum duet where "the two alternated phrases in a style similar to Indian music."

To modern ears--well, my ears, anyway--I have little patience for the idea of Ravi Shankar as a member of Cactus, because I think "been there, done that." While that's true enough, its important to recall that Vanilla Fudge were the ones who went there and did it first. They were among the first groups to become popular by making the rhythm section the instrumental equals of the front line. Cream was certainly the first, and many American rock groups were working in that direction at the time, but they were not yet popular (the Grateful Dead or Blues Image being good examples). Vanilla Fudge were huge, and their influence was correspondingly large, even if their music sounds heavy-handed and dated now. Kirby reported that both shows were well-attended, even if another writer (Richard Kostelanetz) noted that the crowd was "full of drunks."

The James Cotton Blues Band had already played Fillmore East two months earlier, but Kirby enthusiastically reviews his performance. Cotton was supporting his Pure Cotton album on Verve/Forecast. Guitarist Luther Tucker and pianist Albert Gianquinto get the nod for fine playing (Gianquinto was later a sort of adjunct member of Santana).

The Loading Zone were from Oakland, and were on the first (and as it turned out, only) National tour, behind their RCA debut album. Kirby was enthusiastic indeed
Perhaps the surprise of the evening was the debut of the Loading Zone, a West Coast group. Increased in size by the addition of a trumpeter, the RCA unit consisted of eight instrumentalists plus Linda Tillery.
Although the musicians played well, especially the three-man brass section, it was Miss Tillery who raised the performance to an exceptional level. She can belt in a superb soul style, and the young artist particularly established a rapport with the audience which had greeted the group mildly. The crowd was calling for more by the time the set ended....
Organist Paul Fauerso, who also aided in the vocals, stood out among the instrumentalists as he was clearly the most animated member of the unit. More experience should loosen up the rest. 
The Loading Zone had been together since early 1966, one of the first groups to try and merge psychedelia and R&B. Tillery had joined in early 1968, and the band immediately recorded an album of their current set. As a result, despite Tillery's fine voice, the record has the stiff feel of a band still working on figuring themselves out. By mid-Summer, the group was getting rave reviews in concert, no doubt because they had all found their groove and integrated a horn section in with the vocals.

Unfortunately, the star power of Linda Tillery, apparently self-evident in concert, caused CBS to sign her for a solo career that never took off. She recorded an Al Kooper produced a 1969 solo album called Sweet Linda Devine, and Loading Zone continued on without her in a much jazzier direction. In 1970 she rejoined the Zone, but although they remained a popular Bay Area attraction, they never broke out of the regional status they had achieved. Tillery ultimately went on to a successful non-rock career as a performer, and The Loading Zone occasionally reformed for a show or two in the 21st century, albeit without Tillery.

June 22, 1968 Georgie Fame/James Cotton Blues Band/Loading Zone
Headlining the Fillmore East was a profitable gig, but it was also a prestige show. Since Billboard magazine regularly reviewed the shows, an opening act that received a good review (like the Loading Zone or James Cotton) got noticed by promoters and talent agents all over the country. However, for what I assume were deadline reasons, almost all rock critics went to the early Friday night show. Georgie Fame headlined both Saturday night shows, but he didn't get written up in Billboard. That's not to say if he had headlined Friday instead of the Fudge he would have made it big, but the lack of recognition for the talented Fame cannot have helped.

In the early years of the British Invasion era, Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames had been one of the biggest acts in England.  Fame (real name Clive Powell) was a very funky organist and vocalist, and he ruled the roost at England’s best R&B club, the Flamingo. The Flamingo, in London, was where other musicians went after finishing their own gigs on Saturday night, mostly to hear Fame and The Blue Flames.  Fame mixed American Soul sounds with a taste of West Indian Ska sounds to create a sound known as ”Blue Beat.”  Fame’s biggest hit was “Yeh Yeh,” which reached #1 in the UK in 1964.  The song reached #21 on the US singles charts (in July 65), but Fame and The Blue Flames never toured America to capitalize on his talent.  Reputedly, the fact that the Blue Flames were an interracial band was considered too risqué for 1965 American popular music.

By 1967, Fame had broken up the Blue Flames and had gone solo.  Although still a soulful vocalist, he now performed more mainstream popular music.  At this time he had a big hit with the song “The Ballad Of Bonnie & Clyde,” which reached #7.  His current album was The Third Face of Fame (Columbia 1968). I do not know of many other American performances by Fame other than this Fillmore East gig, and it may have been a sort of one-off.

Georgie Fame was a popular English musician who should have made it very big in American music. In recent decades he has often been a bandleader and foil for Van Morrison, and I can vouch for the fact that the guy is a tremendously talented singer and organist.

After this show, there was a month long break in Fillmore East performances, and the next show was not until July 19, 1968. I do not know why there was an extended break during what could have been a lucrative Summer season. I assume that Bill Graham's move on the West Coast from the old Fillmore (on 1805 Geary) to the Fillmore West (the former Carousel Ballroom at 1545 Market) must have had something to do with it. Still, I suspect there was some other reason to keep the Fillmore East dark this month, such as a critical remodeling of the building.

next: July 19-20, 1968: Jefferson Airplane/HP Lovecraft

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