Gary Puckett in 1981 - can he re-capture the success of 1968?
Anthony’s Harborside is one of more than a dozen lounges along the San Diego waterfront from the Embarcadero north to La Jolla. Located on Harbor Drive at the western edge of downtown, Anthony’s commands an impressive view of San Diego Bay, with the Star of India to the left and part of the local tuna fishing fleet to the right; in the center, blocking the view of Anthony’s other seafood restaurant across the street, is a tiny stage with a curtained backdrop.
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, 1967
The interior decor does not quite match the picturesque vista through the glass walls: clusters of round tables sit on carpeting that blankets the entire floor, including the stage, until it meets a hardwood dance floor in the southeast portion of the building; wood parapets separate the seating area from the long U-shaped bar in the back. The atmosphere is equal parts smoke and perfume.
Albums from 1967, Spring, 1968, Fall, 1968, 1970
In the early evening, middle-aged men stop in after work for seafood hors d’oeuvres and drinks. The ones who stay as evening becomes night are joined by slightly younger couples who listen to the music that begins nightly at nine, usually while they wait for their dinner tables in the upstairs restaurant.
Ted Bishop, Brian Puckett, Gary Puckett, Bill Thompson, Jeff Morgan
When their names are called over the loudspeaker between songs, they depart, and while a few come back for an after-dinner cocktail, most leave for good after they’ve eaten. As a result, the lounge is nearly empty by midnight, although the band plays for another hour and a half.
Gary Puckett was the featured attraction at Anthony’s Harborside the first two weeks in October, as he’s been for several weeks this summer and the last. His repertoire of songs consists of all his hits from the Sixties — “Woman, Woman,” “Young Girl,” “Lady Willpower,” “Over You,” and “This Girl Is a Woman Now” — along with other old songs and a smattering of new ones written by him and his two younger brothers, David and Brian, over the last few years. Accompanying him is a local lounge band called SRO, which began playing with Puckett a year ago, before the start of his big “comeback” effort earlier this year, and are currently backing him again now that it’s over.
As he’s done for the last three years, Puckett insists he’s very close to realizing what he sees as his major goal in life: to duplicate his previous success and once again become a major international recording figure. But there is little to indicate he’s made any progress at all since he first came out of his seven-year “retirement” in 1978. At one point in his career he had sold more than ten million records in a single year; he had earned close to a million dollars in royalties, had been a guest on nearly every major television talk and variety program, and he and his band at the time, the Union Gap, had regularly played to more than 10,000 screaming fans in huge arenas all over the country, earning up to $15,000 a night.
Now he’s playing tiny lounges that generally seat no more than a hundred people, and he usually makes less than $2000 a week, which he has to share with his five band members and sound engineer. His latest recording project took place last January, when a Memphis mail-order firm paid him $6000 to record an album’s worth of Sixties hits, including several of his own. (He had to re-record his own songs because Columbia Records, his former label, owns the rights to the original recordings and refused to sell them to Puckett.) Prior to that, his last album was released in 1971. In the last three years, he’s undertaken two comeback projects that entailed the hiring of new bands, the solicitation of additional material from established songwriters, and the formulation of ambitious touring and recording plans — only to shelve the projects several months after their inception. Shortly after the dissolution of Puckett’s latest “comeback band” last April, his younger brother Brian summed up what he perceives as his older sibling's major problem: “Gary has been away from the music scene so long he doesn’t know how to get back in it. He wants to start at the top. where he left off, but the music business doesn’t work that way. Nobody really cares who he is anymore. He’s got to prove himself again, not just rely on his name. Until he realizes that, he’ll never make it."
After dropping out of San Diego City College, Puckett spent five frustrating years playing with a succession of local bands that never made it beyond the San Diego nightclub circuit. Now, at the age of twenty-four, he was finally leading a band of his own he felt confident could be a national success. The previous winter, he and four other San Diegans had grouped together as Gary and the Remarkables. By January, 1967, Puckett had renamed the group Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, after a small town in central Washington not far from where he had lived before moving to Clairemont with his family in 1960. Outfitting rock bands in uniforms of some sort was then still in vogue, and Puckett dressed the group in Union soldier outfits because of his long-standing fascination with the Civil War. Within a few months, the Union Gap had become established as the house band at the Quad Room (now the Alamo) on Clairemont Drive, which at the time was one of San Diego’s most popular clubs. But despite sending countless demonstration tapes of original recordings to all the major record companies in Los Angeles, not one had expressed interest in signing the young band to a recording contract.
In June Puckett spent a few days in Los Angeles, delivering newly recorded demo tapes to record companies. But initially, he met with no more success than he had before. The Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had successfully ushered in the “San Francisco sound," and record companies, artist managers, and booking agents along the West Coast were busy signing just about every psychedelic acid-rock band they could find, hoping to make the most of the new trend. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s romantic love ballads were deemed too lush, too orchestrated, for current tastes. On the way back to San Diego, Puckett stopped at Columbia Records, the last record company on his schedule. By now he was so discouraged he simply intended to leave a tape with the receptionist before continuing home to rethink his career. At the receptionist’s desk he met Jerry Fuller, who had just joined Columbia as a staff producer and was thus eager to audition new talent. In previous years. Fuller had been an independent producer and even a recording artist, although he was most noted for composing such hits as “Travelin’ Man” for Fifties artists like Ricky Nelson and Andy Williams. Within minutes, Puckett was inside Fuller’s office, playing his tape; at the conclusion of their meeting. Fuller told him he liked what he had heard and wanted to see the band live — which he did, two weeks later, at the Quad Room in San Diego.
In August Fuller signed the Union Gap to Columbia Records with himself as producer and took them into the studio to record a country ballad called “Woman, Woman,” written by two veteran songwriters. The song was released as a single on September 17, 1967; after a slow start, it hit the top of the national charts by Christmas. An album, named after the single, was released around that time and fared equally well. But it was the following spring that Puckett and his band reached the pinnacle. “Young Girl,” written by Jerry Fuller, was released in February of 1968 and remained at the top of the charts for more than five months, becoming one of the three best-selling songs of that year (along with the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Bobby Goldsboro’s melodramatic “Honey”). That year turned out to be Puckett’s most successful one ever; due to his four other chart-topping records — the singles “Lady Willpower” and “Over You” (both written by Fuller) and the albums Young Girl and Incredible — Puckett and his band sold more than ten million records in that year alone, more than any other recording act in the world, including the Beatles, and were awarded five gold records by the Recording Industry Association of America, signifying sales in excess of one million dollars per disc.
Keeping pace with Puckett’s success, however, was his own image of that success. Recalls Jerry Fuller, “Everything happened so fast for Gary it was unbelievable. Usually a rock band has to spend years paying its dues, working day and night for little or no money, before even getting the chance to hit it big by landing a recording contract. But with Gary, six months after he formed the band, it was signed, and six months after that he was a superstar. He didn’t know how to react to everything that was happening; one day he’s playing clubs in San Diego and the next he’s known all over the country. By the time we stopped working together in 1969, I felt that Gary had the attitude that if he saw Jesus, Jesus would fall flat out of respect. ”
At the same time, however, Puckett was becoming increasingly frustrated. The Union Gap had started out as Puckett’s pet project: he had hand-picked its members, decided on their repertoire and costumes, and personally engineered the steps that led to their signing with Columbia. But as time progressed, he began losing that control. Of his five hit songs, not one was written by him. His producer picked the songs he was to record. His record company picked which songs to release. His agents decided where he should play. His manager decided how much money he made and how he would spend it. “I’ve gotten a lot of criticism from people who say that both ‘Lady Willpower’ and ‘Over You’ sound a lot like ‘Young Girl,’ but that’s because they [producer Fuller and the others responsible for directing Puckett’s career] intended it that way,” Puckett said recently. “After the success of ‘Young Girl,’ they felt they had found a formula for making hits, and for a while it worked. At least it appeared to. But I saw the sales figures for those three records, and each one sold considerably less than the one preceding it. Still, it was with Jerry’s song [‘Young Girl’] that I had my biggest record, and I trusted them. Toward the end of 1968, Jerry picked a song for me to record as my next single which I absolutely detested. I told him so, but he convinced me he knew best. As it turns out, he didn’t — ‘Don’t Give in to Him’ was my first single that failed to make it into the Top Ten. I was worried, everybody was worried, and Jerry personally screened more than 2000 songs before picking the next song he wanted me to record. When he played it for me, I hated it as much as I hated 'Don’t Give in to Him,’ so I asked him if I could hear some alternative choices, but he refused. So the day we were scheduled to record came around, and everything was all set up — the musicians, the engineers, the instruments, everything, I went down to the studio, told him there was no way I would record that song, and left. The next day I told him. ‘Jerry , it’s just not working out. I don’t want to work with you anymore,’ and that was it for us.”
In early 1969, Puckett returned to the studio with a new producer, Dick Glasser, and recorded his fourth and final album with the Union Gap, The New Gary Puckett and the Union Gap Album. For a while his career appeared to be on the upswing: a single off the album. “This Girl Is a Woman Now,” became another chart-topping hit; he appeared on such top-rated television programs as the Ed Sullivan Show, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and talk and variety programs hosted by Steve Allen, Dick Clark, Jonathan Winters, Red Skelton, and Merv Griffin; and he continued to tour the country with such other top recording acts of the time as the Association and the Beach Boys. Early the following year, a “greatest hits” album was issued by Columbia Records and immediately earned Puckett a sixth gold record award, and he also appeared in a command performance at the White House for Prince Charles and Princess Anne of Great Britain.
But it was not long at all before Puckett’s career began spiraling downward as quickly as it had risen two years earlier: none of the singles he released after “This Girl Is a Woman Now” even made it into the Top Forty. In June, 1971, Puckett officially disbanded the Union Gap, just a few months after two members of the band had resigned and another bassist and a three-man horn section had been hired to replace them. Later that year he returned to the studio with three different producers — among them Richard Perry, who now heads his own record company, the highly successful Planet Records — to record his debut solo album. Unlike his work with the Union Gap, The Gary Puckett Album contained eleven ballads dominated by excessive orchestration and syrupy production and. as Puckett recalls, “was the result of me trying to fit the image the record company selected for me. When it became obvious the hits weren’t happening like they once were, Columbia clamped down even tighter on me. They were telling me. ‘Look, you had your way and it didn’t work, nownyou have to do what we tell you to do.’ They wanted me to turn into a Tom Jones figure — you know, with a tuxedo and a thirty-piece orchestra. I didn’t want that; I wanted to play my own music, ballads as well as rockers. But they had me under contract and legally I had to do it their way. So I did, and the album flopped even worse than any of the others. After that we had a meeting to discuss future recording plans and I told them I wanted out of the contract. I refused to make any more records for them; I was sick and tired of doing everything their way. It was my career and I wanted to start doing things my way.”
On October 17, 1972 — one year after the start of his voluntary “retirement” — Gary Puckett turned thirty. The following year, his wife. Shannon, a San Diego girl he had married near the start of his meteoric rise to the top of the rock world, sued him for divorce. “I didn’t want to deal with the problems we were having, so I just said, ‘Fine, do whatever you want, take whatever you want,’ ” Puckett reflected. “And she did.” Later that year he purchased time at Studio West in Kearny Mesa and recorded an album of Thirties and Forties songs with the Grossmont High School chorus. He produced and financed the project himself, thus assuring himself that everything had been done “his” way. To his dismay, however, he failed to find a record company to release the album, and the master tapes to it are still stored away in his living room. He subsequently moved to Los Angeles, where he started taking acting and dancing lessons and began dating A&M Records secretary Jacqueline Balogh, whom he had met five years earlier when she was in a Las Vegas dance troupe.
The following year Puckett flew to the Philippines, where he had been offered a starring role in the movie Dynamite. While he was there, “Young Girl” was reissued in Great Britain and hit the number-five position on the British Broadcasting Company’s record popularity chart. Against the advice of many of his remaining contacts in the music industry, he decided not to tour England to launch a “comeback,” choosing, instead, to continue working on the movie. The film was never released and Puckett now admits that had he gone to England at that time he “could have made a great deal of money and things would have been a lot easier for me in the future.” The decision to stay in the Philippines was only one of many Puckett would later regret.
Ten years after his most successful year in the music business, Gary Puckett was broke. The half million dollars he had saved by the late Sixties had dwindled to almost nothing due to a series of bad investments and his divorce from Shannon, and for the past six years he had supported himself solely on steadily diminishing semiannual royalty checks that by 1978 amounted to less than $2000 each. He moved back to San Diego, rented a small two-bedroom townhouse in the Cardiff Coves tract in North County for $400 a month (he still lives there), and within months started assembling a new band, his first in seven years.
His first recruit was guitarist Paul Martin, whom he had met in Los Angeles during the early days of his retirement. Martin had played with Chuck Berry and the Checkmates in the Sixties, and after brief stints in a number of lesser-known bands in Los Angeles, had moved to San Diego in the late Seventies. After several weeks of rehearsals, Puckett and Martin began playing the tiny lounge of the Anchorage Fish Company on La Jolla Boulevard as a duo in December 1978, concentrating on current Top-Forty hits such as Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” as well as Puckett’s past hits. By the following spring the duo had been expanded to a five-piece band, including bassist Lynn Kitchens, a recent immigrant from the South whom Puckett had impulsively hired within days of first hearing him play, and Puckett’s two brothers, David and Brian, on keyboards and drums. Neither David nor Brian Puckett was particularly well-suited for the job; David was a marginal pianist who, as even Gary admitted later, “doesn’t really belong on stage,” and Brian, who had only been playing drums for a year, was by no means ready for involvement in a professional outfit, even if he did later prove to be a quick learner. But Puckett, his past career dominated by those around him plotting nearly every move he made, wanted to be in charge, and apparently he figured his two younger brothers, who had always looked up to him during his days with the Union Gap, would be less likely to challenge his authority than would a pair of professional musicians. The fledgling group’s repertoire, too, had grown to include several new tunes written by the three Puckett brothers.
That same spring, while roaming through Tower Records, I happened to pick up a copy of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s Greatest Hits. “Young Girl * ’ had always been a radio favorite of mine, but I never associated that song with Gary Puckett; as I was listening to the album, however, I instantly took a liking to Puckett’s romantic — albeit somewhat corny — love ballads, although my tastes normally run toward less commercial music.
In March I approached the editor of the San Diego County edition of the Los Angeles Times with a free-lance story proposal: Gary Puckett, the biggest pop star ever to come out of San Diego, had returned to town after seven years of retirement to launch his comeback. The proposal was accepted and in April I called the Anchorage Fish Company in La Jolla, was put in touch with Puckett, who at the time had no manager or press agent, and scheduled an interview at the lounge.
The day of our talk a tall, lanky man whose face looked a lot like the one on Puckett’s greatest-hits album, only much thinner and with longer hair, walked into the room. After inquiring at the bar, he came over and introduced himself as Gary Puckett. He appeared to be a sincere, sympathetic man, the kind of person one is inclined to trust immediately. We moved into the adjacent restaurant and, over dinner, began talking about his career. He explained his reasons for surreptitiously dropping out of the music business: he felt he had lost control of his career’s direction; everyone around him was trying to mold him into an image with which he didn’t feel comfortable. He’d spent the last seven years in semiretirement, studying acting and dancing and writing songs with his two younger brothers while waiting for the proper time to start his comeback, which he felt had now arrived. Only this time, he was going to do everything his way — there was not going to be a producer or a manager to tell him what songs he could or could not sing. Throughout our talk, Puckett kept emphasizing that his current band was the best he’d ever had and would be the one to help bring about stardom once again. He had scheduled a nationwide tour that would commence a few weeks after he left the Anchorage Fish Company at the end of May, and after that the band would go into the studio to record. although no recording contract had yet been signed. He seemed very sure of himself; he would look me straight in the eyes as he spoke, and he seemed so calm, so self-assured that I, too, became convinced of his impending success.
At the conclusion of our interview Puckett and the members of his band, who had arrived during our talk, changed into their onstage attire — T-shirts, suspenders, and straight-leg jeans — and began their show. In retrospect, the performance was highly disappointing: except for Martin, the band played poorly and lacked stage presence; the arrangements were outdated, with several songs calling for dual guitar leads that haven't been practiced since the Sixties; the new songs were bland; and the choice of currently popular songs was almost laughable — seeing a man in his late thirties strut around a tiny stage in his suspenders, screaming, “Do ya think I’m sexy?” was, at the least, an embarrassment. Still, at the time I was so stunned to hear this former star sing all his old hits that I overlooked the faults.
In the middle of June, the Gary Puckett band left on the first leg of their three-part tour, which was scheduled to end in October, just in time for Puckett’s thirty-seventh birthday. I spoke with him several times during the two week-long breaks in the tour, but whenever the matter of the tour was broached, he would simply answer, “Fine,” and change the subject. It later became apparent, through talks with both him and his brothers, that the tour was a near disaster; Puckett, whose last experience with touring was playing huge auditoriums, was now appearing in “secondary markets” — tiny, out-of-the-way clubs in such places as Webster, South Dakota, with often less than fifty people in the audience. His resultant depression — heightened by a series of bad reviews that criticized both the new material and Puckett’s singing (he often had trouble hitting the very high notes he once did and consequently had to change the key in which all his old hits were sung) and misguided dealings with agents and club owners who often would not pay him the entire sum they had agreed on — caused him to keep to himself throughout most of the tour, rarely leaving his hotel room or spending time with the other band members other than when they were all together on stage. Musical conflicts arose between Puckett, who insisted everything be played his way, and the rest of the band, especially bassist Kitchens, who was promptly fired upon completion of the last
turned to town after seven years of retirement to launch his comeback. The proposal was accepted and in April I called the Anchorage Fish Company in La Jolla, was. put in touch with Puckett, who at the time had no manager or press agent, and scheduled an interview at the lounge.
The day of oqr talk a tall, lanky man whose face looked a lot like the one on Puckett’s greatest-hits album, only much thinner and with longer hair, walked into the room. After inquiring at the bar, he came over and introduced himself as Gary Puckett. He appeared to be a sincere, sympathetic man, the kind of person one is inclined to trust immediately. We moved into the adjacent restaurant and, over dinner, began talking about his career. He explained his reasons for surreptitiously dropping out of the music business: he felt he had lost control of his career’s direction; everyone around him was trying to mold him into an image with which he didn’t feel comfortable. He’d spent the last seven years in semiretirement, studying acting and dancing and writing songs with his two younger brothers while waiting for the proper time to start his comeback, which he felt had now arrived. Only this time, he was going to do everything his way — there was not going to be a producer or a manager to tell him what songs he could or could not sing. Throughout our talk, Puckett kept emphasizing that his current band was the best he’d ever had and would be the one to help bring about stardom once again. He had scheduled a nationwide tour that would commence a few weeks after he left the Anchorage Fish Company at the end of May, and after that the band would go into the studio to record. although no recording contract had yet been signed. He seemed very sure of himself; he would look me straight in the eyes as he spoke, and he seemed so calm, so self-assured that I, too, became convinced of his impending success.
At the conclusion of our interview Puckett and the members of his band, who had arrived during our talk, changed into their onstage attire — T-shirts, suspenders, and straight-leg jeans — and began
their show. In retrospect, the performance was highly disappointing: except for Martin, the band played poorly and lacked stage presence; the arrangements were outdated, with several songs calling for dual guitar leads that haven't been practiced since the Sixties; the new songs were bland; and the choice of currently popular songs was almost laughable — seeing a man in his late thirties strut around a tiny stage in his suspenders, screaming, “Do ya think I’m sexy?” was, at the least, an embarrassment. Still, at the time I was so stunned to hear this former star sing all his old hits that I overlooked the faults.
In the middle of June, the Gary Puckett band left on the first leg of their three-part tour, which was scheduled to end in October, just in time for Puckett’s thirty-seventh birthday. I spoke with him several times during the two week-long breaks in the tour, but whenever the matter of the tour was broached, he would simply answer, “Fine,” and change the subject. It later became apparent, through talks with both him and his brothers, that the tour was a near disaster; Puckett, whose last experience with touring was playing huge auditoriums, was now appearing in “secondary markets” — tiny, out-of-the-way clubs in such places as Webster, South Dakota, with often less than fifty people in the audience. His resultant depression — heightened by a series of bad reviews that criticized both the new material and Puckett’s singing (he often had trouble hitting the very high notes he once did and consequently had to change the key in which all his old hits were sung) and misguided dealings with agents and club owners who often would not pay him the entire sum they had agreed on — caused him to keep to himself throughout most of the tour, rarely leaving his hotel room or spending time with the other band members other than when they were all together on stage. Musical conflicts also arose between Puckett, who insisted everything be played his way, and the rest of the band, especially bassist Kitchens, who was promptly fired upon completion of the last leg of the tour in October.
For Gary Puckett, the fall of 1979 was even worse than the previous one had been. Poor financial management during the tour — the band wasted a lot of money flying to their dates rather than driving — had left him more than $10,000 in debt; his former wife. Shannon, was suing him for more money; and the remaining band members, not finding work because of Puckett’s lackadaisical attitude toward locating a new bass player, were becoming increasingly restless. At this point, my image of Puckett’s inner security and confidence of direction began to crumble. “People can really be fucked," he blurted out one day. “This collection agency called me up and told me I’d better pay them the money I owe them or they’ll sue me. I told them who I was and asked them to be patient, but they said they didn’t care who I was; as far as they were concerned, I could collect bottle caps, as long as I came up with the money." By November Puckett had still not hired a bassist, and his brothers, after various heated exchanges, told him they couldn’t wait any longer and were quitting the band.
The following month Puckett called one day and announced he had once again teamed up in a duo with Paul Martin — the only band member who would still work with him — and had started playing the Anchorage Fish Company in Carlsbad, with the intention of assembling a new band within a month. In January, 1980, he and Martin moved to Boom Trenchard’s Flare Path near Lindbergh Field, where they played through March; after a brief hiatus, they moved to the Chicago Mining Company in Encinitas. By May Puckett had still not hired any new band members, and Martin announced that he, too, was leaving to start a band called Poison Ivy with his girlfriend, Elaine Summers, her brother, Steve, and Brian Puckett, Gary’s brother. A few weeks before. Puckett had received a call from a band called SRO, who had lost their lead singer and wanted to work with him. Despite serious misgivings about working with a “lounge” band (that is, one without aspirations beyond playing nightclubs), Puckett had little choice other than to acquiesce, saying at the time, “They’ll need a lot of work before they acquire the crisp concert sound I want, but what’s more important to me right now is that they want to work with me. They’ll do things my way.’’
In July Gary Puckett and SRO began a two-month-long engagement at Boom’s. The repertoire had been changed to include more old songs, such as Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and the Grassroots’ “Temptation Eyes,” and fewer contemporary ones, but the band could not shake its “lounge sound," much to Puckett’s chagrin. He became increasingly despondent.
Puckett called me one day in November and said he had some very important news and wanted to see me in person as soon as possible. Later that day we met at his home in Cardiff. He said he’d been thinking about some critical comments I had made earlier in a conversation over dinner at the Denny’s in Pt. Loma. He said he’d taken them to heart, that he should stop feeling sorry for himself and instead direct his energies toward a successful comeback. Then he asked me to be his new manager. I was so startled I told him I would have to think it over; at the time, I was still very busy with a publishing venture I’d begun, and besides, I had never managed any musicians before, much less one who had once been a superstar. But he was sincere in his request and expressed confidence in my ability, so at last I said yes. Over the next week we worked out the details of our agreement: I would have a large amount of control over his career, helping him assemble a band, choosing material, handling all publicity and promotion, coordinating tours with booking agents, and eventually overseeing the recording and production of demonstration tapes and the negotiation of a recording contract with a record label. In return, I was to earn ten percent of whatever the Puckett project grossed. On the last day of our negotiations, we finalized the agreement and shook hands. As I walked out the door of his townhouse to my car, he called out after me, “See you later, manager.”
After their engagement at Boom’s ended in September, Gary Puckett and SRO were scheduled to play Anthony’s Harborside through December 31. Then Puckett would be free to begin working on his new project. In the meantime, I was assigned the task of visiting nightclubs around town and identifying candidates for the new band. Based on my recommendations, Puckett would then audition musicians in the hope of having a band assembled by the time rehearsals were scheduled to start January 12. A bassist, Jeff Morgan, had already been lined up several months earlier, and that left us looking for a drummer, a keyboardist, and a lead guitarist. Puckett insisted we recruit his brother Brian as drummer, but admitted that after the last “comeback” effort failed, he wasn’t sure whether Brian would want to work with him again. His doubts proved well-founded: when Brian was offered the job, he initially said no, although he at last relented and agreed to meet with me to listen to our plans. And although Gary Puckett agreed that his other brother, David, was not qualified to be the band’s keyboardist, he did want him to be involved with the project in some way, since he had written most of the new songs the band was to play. We decided to offer him the role of music director, which simply entailed arranging the songs once a band had been picked. But like Brian, he turned us down, although he, too, agreed to meet with me.
Over lunch several days later at the Schnitzelbank in La Jolla, Brian and David Puckett ran down a long list of grievances they had against their older brother. He had to do everything his way, they complained, and refused to listen to anyone else regarding song structure and arrangements; he was often moody and arrogant, never letting the people he worked with forget that he had, at one time, been a star. In turn, I informed them of the plans we had made for the comeback: the band would be assembled by the start of January, rehearse for six weeks, and then play a series of concert dates along the West Coast for about a month before entering the studio to record demonstration tapes. After that, the band would resume touring while I presented the tapes to the various record companies in Los Angeles and attempted to secure a deal. At the conclusion of our two-hour parley, both Brian and David expressed their confidence in the plan and said that as long as I, not Gary, was in charge, the project seemed headed for success. In a few days, they said, they would give me their answer.
Three days after our talk, Brian called and said both he and David were ready to work with us. He had given Poison Ivy his notice, and David had told his gardening clients that he would be unavailable for future work. When Puckett heard the news, he was ecstatic. We still had had no luck in locating a keyboardist or a lead guitarist, but at least the core of the band — the rhythm section — was established and, since Puckett plays guitar, rehearsals could start January 12 as planned. On January 6, Puckett flew to Memphis to honor his previous commitment to the mail-order record company there. He was embarrassed about such a mercenary act, but there was no other option. He was broke and we needed the $6000 to finance the early stages of the project. Getting a loan was impossible; the year before, Puckett had been forced to seek relief in the courts from his debts. And he had exhausted all personal sources, as well, including his parents. Upon his return four days later, we implemented a type of honor system to keep expenses down, with each band member setting his own weekly salary based upon his minimum needs. Brian Puckett requested $200 a week, while David Puckett and Jeff Morgan each settied for a hundred dollars. Rehearsals were scheduled from one to five every weekday afternoon in the living room of Puckett’s townhouse. The search for a keyboardist proved short-lived; the day after rehearsals started, a friend made a recommendation, and by the end of the week we had auditioned and hired Ted Bishop of Fullerton at a weekly salary of $150.
Locating a guitarist was considerably more difficult. For a month and a half we auditioned more than a dozen players before settling on Bill Thompson, one of the most respected guitarists in San Diego. But even before Thompson signed on, the problems David and Brian Puckett had recalled began to surface again, and a large amount of my time each day was spent trying to patch up differences between Puckett and the other band members, differences that threatened to destroy the project before the band had even played its first concert.
The problems began in late January, just a few weeks after the start of rehearsals. As the band members were packing up their instruments one afternoon, bassist Morgan beckoned me outside and told me rehearsals had started to become somewhat of a joke; Puckett would ignore any suggestions made by the other band members regarding song arrangements, and on the rare occasion that he did ask for comments, he would grow silent whenever anyone criticized a song and appear to take it as a personal affront. As a result, band morale had started to slip. I told Morgan not to worry and promised him I’d speak with Puckett the next day. Puckett’s response was to say it was his project and his songs, and the other band members were hired as sidemen and should do as he says.
Almost immediately, further problems arose. Puckett’s girlfriend from Los Angeles, Jacqueline Balogh, moved in with him and began attending rehearsals, offering opinions and even critiquing songs, although everyone in the band had agreed that rehearsals would be closed to all but band members, David Puckett, and me. (Later, Jeff Morgan would question her presence and be told by Puckett that she was a part of his life and thus would stay; when Morgan asked whether that meant he and the other band members could bring their girlfriends to rehearsals, Puckett said no.) Soon after band practice was moved to Sound West’s rehearsal stage in Kearny Mesa the first week in February, Puckett announced that Balogh would be working with the band as its “fashion director.” Back in December, during discussions of the audience we hoped to reach, Puckett said he wanted to capture the young, “hip” crowd that listened to Nick Lowe and other practitioners of catchy, upbeat, new-wave-flavored
rock and roll. To make sure the band members would look the part, we had instructed them to shave off their beards and mustaches and trim their hair, which they did willingly when we explained our reasons. But as soon as Balogh became involved with the band and attempted to dress them in uniforms — an outdated concept Puckett nevertheless insisted on — they balked. When she explained why — that Puckett, being the “star,” should stand out among the rest, and consequently they should all wear similar drab outfits while he wore considerably flashier clothes — matters worsened. In subsequent weeks, Balogh would often arrive at rehearsal with a fresh batch of thrift-store suit jackets and shirts and try them on the band in an attempt to settle on a “look” that satisfied both her and Puckett. Each fitting session would be accompanied by long faces and complaints from the band members. Late at night Puckett would call me and tell me to do something about the band’s “lack of respect” for him. The next morning Morgan and Bishop would tell me they were grown men and could dress themselves; knowing the basic clothing scheme — suit jackets, straight-leg jeans, and either a T-shirt or a dress shirt with a skinny tie — they could come up with their own outfits without having to resort to a uniformed look.
But by that time the mood at the actual rehearsals, too, had progressively worsened. David Puckett, who had originally been hired to arrange the songs he had written, proved under-qualified to do so; to compensate, he began meddling with arrangements on a whim. Even Bill Thompson, after he had been with the band only a short time, observed, "David changed songs day to day. He would change arrangements the way most people change underwear. I remember the first few days after I joined, I would see him milling about our amplifiers, sticking his ear down by our speakers as if to think of a way to arbitrarily change something. After having played with several bands who practice original material, I'm pretty used to putting songs together, and that's not the way to do it.
Thompson’s arrival, in fact, heralded yet another problem. Although he had been hired as lead guitarist, the majority of the lead parts were being played by Puckett, even though Thompson was — by Puckett’s own admission — a far better player. When Thompson and the other band members, including the two younger Puckett brothers, brought this fact to my attention. I mentioned it to Puckett. He looked at me and said, “But Tom, I’ve always wanted to be a rocker and play my guitar on stage. Everyone always wanted me to be a balladeer, and I could never get out there and just rock.” I told him 1 felt everyone in the band should concentrate on doing what he did best, and that in Puckett’s case it was singing while in Thompson’s case it was playing guitar. "Okay, fine,” he replied abruptly. “I’ll just throw my guitar out and not play any leads.” I finally soothed him and he agreed to change. For a while, he did, but within a month the situation had reversed itself again.
In addition to the failure to maintain good relations within the band, by late February we were faced with an even greater problem. In January I had arranged for the band to play the Silverbird Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for a two-week period starting February 20, but by the first week in February we had to cancel the arrangement because we realized the band would not be ready by then. (When rehearsals began January 12, the band had twenty-six songs to learn — Puckett’s five former hits plus twenty-one new tunes — and although everyone made a valiant effort, a number of rough spots still existed, not the least of. which was that Puckett consistently forgot many of the lyrics.
Furthermore,, the band still lacked a lead guitarist.) That left us with no dates until a mid-March show at a country-western club in Pomona, and the $6000 we had started with had just about run out. In desperation, I obtained a loan for Puckett from my parents. They lent him a total of $4900, of which $1700 was in personal funds and given to him interest-free. The next couple of days were spent on the phone, trying to book more dates. But we received very few offers — Puckett refused to play one-nighters for less than $1200 and private hotel rooms for each of the band members, and the clubs that were Interested rarely paid more than $750; Mike Davis, a booking agent with the Bobby Arlin Organization in Tustin, had been retained by us to secure engagements in the Southern California area. He recalls. “Gary’s biggest problem was that, believe it or not, no one knew who he was. The nightclub crowd now seemed to be too young to remember him, and he wasn't big enough long enough, like the Dave Clark Five or Herman's Hermits, to be a household word. One year he was there and the next he wasn’t. The people remembered his tunes, but they didn’t associate them with Gary Puckett. Fans are only so loyal; you’re only as good as your last record, and if you haven’t put out a record in ten years, you’re as good as forgotten.’’ Finally the Las Vegas contract was renegotiated for the last week in March and the first two weeks in April, and while we couldn't pay hack my parents ' loan as soon as I would have liked, we could at least keep the project funded through April.
By early March we had convinced Puckett that the only way the band would be ready in time for the debut March 18 show at the Fandango in Pomona would be if he eliminated the nine or ten weaker songs from the repertoire and concentrated on putting together two hour-long sets, each with the five hits and seven or eight new songs. An immense improvement became apparent almost immediately, and we began planning a live dress rehearsal so we could try out the new material on an audience before playing any professional concert dates. Initially. Puckett wanted to appear unannounced at the Spirit nightclub to see how well the band would go over with its new-wave “target’’ audience, but after much discussion we decided we would rather have our first performance be a private affair attended only by friends and relatives of the band and held at Sound West.
The day of the party, March 13, the clothing matter had not yet been resolved. Puckett still wanted everyone to wear uniforms, but he had received so much opposition from the band that when we all met to discuss plans for the party, he did not dwell on it. The evening of the show everyone showed up in what amounted to a compromise — black suit jackets and straight-leg jeans, but with varying styles and colors of shirts — even, to everyone’s surprise, Puckett himself. Jeff Morgan was the last to arrive; the look on Puckett’s face when Morgan walked into the rehearsal room wearing pink pants and a peacock green coat precluded any of us from saying anything. Morgan, realizing he had dressed out of sync with the others, apologized to Puckett, and the actual performance went very well: the new songs were well received by the hundred or so people in the room, and the band received numerous congratulations when they had finished playing. But at the reception that followed, Puckett stayed away from the other band members; he was obviously very upset by what had happened. Ted Bishop remembers, “Gary felt he had been upstaged, and he pouted about it. At the time I didn’t realize the eventual consequences, but that turned out to be the beginning of the end of the entire project. Gary felt his authority had been challenged in front of his family and friends, and he couldn’t handle that.”
The following Sunday Puckett called me and said he wanted Balogh to co-manage the band with me. At that point I nearly burst; I told Puckett I believed she was ruining his chances for a comeback by influencing him to make bad decisions, and was in large part responsible for the disharmony in the band. He would have to decide between Balogh and me, because I would no longer work with her in any capacity. At a photo session that afternoon he arrived alone and told me Balogh had returned to Los Angeles that very day. I could see, however, that the decision had not been an easy one, and realized that Puckett was beginning to see the entire project as divided into two camps; him and his brothers against me and the band.
On March 18 we drove to the Fandango Club in Pomona to play our first professional concert. The show was an unqualified success, and turned out to be the uplift we all needed to keep the project afloat, at least until Las Vegas. The room was full of enthusiastic fans who screamed whenever they recognized one of Puckett’s hits; the dance floor was packed for all the originals; and, after the show, the stage was besieged by dozens of fans seeking Puckett’s autograph or hoping just to shake his hand. For the first time in years Puckett was a star, and his eyes shone with delight. The other band members, too, were given a much-needed boost in morale.
Five days of rest preceded our drive to Las Vegas. Years ago the Silverbird Hotel and Casino, then known as the Thunderbird, was one of the prime resort complexes on the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard). But with the construction of the more glamorous hotels further down the Strip, the playboys and jetsetters who had nearly set up residence in its spacious casino were gradually replaced by more reserved family types, and the hotel’s reputation, in a town where sparkle and glitter count for everything, began to slide. It was now operating out of bankruptcy. Still, we had negotiated a good deal: we were to play the lounge six nights a week at nine, eleven, and one for a weekly fee of $5000. We could thus afford to pay the four band members (and David Puckett, whom Gary Puckett insisted we bring along “so we can write songs together, and besides, I want him to feel he belongs”) $400 a week and still have enough money left over to finance the band through April. In addition, the Silverbird management provided all of us with free room and board.
With the exception of a barely adequate sound system and union rules that prevented our nonunion sound man from mixing the band’s sound while they played, the first week went very well: several of the performances were sold out and the band sounded better every night. However, Puckett was noticeably quiet and tended to stay away from everyone except for his brothers. One day I went to his room and asked him what was troubling him. He looked at his feet and muttered, “Well, you won’t let me play the songs I want to play.” I told him I thought we had resolved that matter several weeks before while the band was still rehearsing, and in exasperation, I told him to do what he wanted to, and left the room.
That Friday I flew back to San Diego for unrelated reasons, and when I returned the following Friday, April 3, I was met at the airport by an angry Bill Thompson and Ted Bishop. In my absence, Thompson told me, Puckett had called the band together and announced that he was reintroducing several of the songs we had eliminated and wanted to start holding regular rehearsals so the band could relearn them.
We returned to San Diego April 12 with only three jobs lined up: that Thursday, we were to play a one-nighter at the California Sun Club in Huntington Beach; a week later was our San Diego showcase “debut” at the Bacchanal; and the last two weeks in May we were going to play a lounge in Phoenix. We had originally hoped to be booked solid through April and May, but club owners were not responsive. Bill Thompson gave us his one-month notice. The California Sun job turned out to be a disaster. I had driven with Puckett from our hotel to the club and he had gotten lost on the way there; we arrived ten minutes after the show was scheduled to start and when we walked in through the front, there were no more than thirty people in the audience. The look on Puckett’s face as he saw that empty room made me wince.
The day of our Bacchanal concert, I spent the morning and afternoon helping our sound man load equipment into the room; having underestimated our expenses, we couldn’t afford to hire an assistant. That evening, 154 persons paid five dollars each to sec Gary Puckett in his-much-heralded return to San Diego. The next day, a lukewarm review appeared in the San Diego Union that said the band played well but too loud for Puckett’s voice, and that Puckett should stick with singing ballads. That evening, Gary Puckett fired the band and announced the project was over.
The last time I saw Gary Puckett was a few Mondays ago at the Halcyon nightclub. Paul Martin’s Poison Ivy was the featured band, and Puckett and I had both wanted to see how far the band had progressed since we’d last seen them. As the group was about to begin its final set of the night, Puckett grabbed a spare guitar and joined them on stage.. The lead singer, Elaine Summers, picked up the microphone and excitedly (though facetiously) announced, “We’re going to audition a new member for our band tonight — Gary Puckett!" Nobody applauded.