Saturday, June 16, 2007

Vintage U.P. rock 45s described

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The Kinetics


Ever hear of the Kinetics or the Excels? How about Lexington Project or the Ravelles?

If you didn't know, they're all Upper Peninsula based groups which released rock 'n' roll records in the mid to late 1960s.

My collection of U. P. related records started when, as a teenager, I picked up 45s from Escanaba's own Riot Squad and Prophets of Doom.

After I wrote a column on those two singles, issued on the Peninsula Records label, Riot Squad vocalist and long-time Escanaba musician Greg Curran showed up at my store with a stack of 45s he thought I'd like.

Among them were records by Lexington Project of Kingsford and the Ravelles of Iron Mountain. These little pieces of plastic tell stories beyond what's in the grooves.

The Lexington Project was led by John Heric, Jr. who resided at 228 Beech St. in Kingsford. Amongst the group was Jim "Smiley" Lewis, a renowned musician who was a member of various pioneering rock bands in the Escanaba area, including Beat Inc., the Trolls and Johnny Evil and the Spirits. Together the two song writers penned "It Looks a Lot Like Rain."

Clocking in at 2 minutes, 51 seconds, the song appeared as the A side on the Sonic label, an imprint of Audio Unlimited Records in Rhinelander, WI. A mid-tempo rocker, the track starts with a blast of horns. The B side, "She Looks Much Older," was written by Heric and W. R. Morrison. Both songs were published by Au Music Co.

The Ravelles, meanwhile, prided themselves as a show band and featured a six person line-up, including a female lead singer. Vocalist Carmella Altobelli and two members of the band are credited with writing "Psychedelic Movement," issued by Mobie Records in 1968. The song isn't far removed from the sounds of Jefferson Airplane which also featured a woman vocalist in Grace Slick. In fact, the Ravelles performed several Airplane tracks in their live sets.

Another original, "She's Forever On My Mind," sung by lead guitar player John Richtig, appeared as the single's B side.

The Ravelles' resume included touring with the Buckinghams, who hailed from Chicago, also home base for the Mobie Record Co.

The two other U. P. bands mentioned earlier were already represented in my 45 record collection.

A combo from Marquette, the Excels recorded for Carla Records, headquartered in Ann Arbor. The group included songwriters Terry Quirk and Clark Sullivan, drummer Steve Contardi and the mysteriously named Ylinen. They released five 45s from 1966 until 1970; I have three of them.

The Carla label was owned by Ollie McLaughlin, who named the imprint after one of his daughters. McLaughlin, a black producer, was responsible for many fine "northern soul" records but was also credited with discovering Del Shannon.

The singles were produced by McLaughlin, while one-- "Little Innocent Girl"-- was arranged by famed Motown session man Dennis Coffey. The track reached number 26 at WKNR in Detroit on July 11, 1968 and number 20 at CKRC in Winnipeg on Aug. 30, 1968.

Although the Excels as a rock band may have been misplaced on a soul label, the Carla product had the advantage of being distributed by Atlantic Records, a major player at the time.

A Houghton area band, the Kinetics were signed by Amy Records, which had considerable success with Del Shannon singles, including "Keep Searchin' (We'll Follow the Sun)" which went Top Ten in 1965.

In 1969, the band released a version of "Susie Q," a song Creedence Clearwater Revival took to number 11 the previous year. Lead singer/ manager Frankie Gallis handled vocals for the track which lasted just 2:10 compared to the lengthy CCR rendition. The single's flipside, "Margaret Ann" was sung by drummer Chuck Roberts.
Possibly because there were other groups calling themselves the Kinetics, the band's name on the single was changed to Kinetic Energy.

These recordings and others like them, often pressed in quantities of 1,000 or less by small independent record labels, are quite obscure today.

But, in the era before digital technology, having a record out was quite unusual and distinguished such acts from mere garage bands.

While many major recording stars were born in small towns, most of them had to move to larger cities to achieve success.

Although many U. P. groups tried for the big time from their rural locations, geography conspired against them.

"I can find no record of any recording artist making the Billboard charts that was born or raised in the Upper Peninsula." That's the finding related to me by Joel Whitburn, recognized as the leading expert on the pop charts.

Still, lack of commercial popularity doesn't lessen my fondness for the dozens of musicians from northern Michigan who released 45s or LPs over the years.

Call me provincial, but I like U. P. records.


Anonymous said...

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wheatgerm said...

Man I would love to get my hand on one of those