Thursday, April 03, 2008

Excels' Clark Sullivan kept recording

Clark Sullivan


Influential record producer Ollie McLaughlin saw promise in Upper Peninsula rock band the Excels and their lead singer, Clark Sullivan.

After producing five singles for the Excels from 1965-68, McLaughlin continued to record Sullivan as a solo artist.

A student at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Sullivan, who grew up in Republic, graduated with a teaching degree in the spring of 1968. Shortly after, the Excels also "graduated," moving from recording in Detroit, to New York City for their newest single, "California On My Mind" and "Arrival of Mary."

The songs were recorded at Atlantic Studios with some overdubbing at the Hit Factory, Sullivan told me. It was quite an experience for a group of young men from Michigan. "It would not be uncommon for any major star at the moment to walk in and listen to your session," Sullivan remembered.

The recording sessions, publicity photographs and advertising for their record were paid for by McLaughlin and Atlantic Records, a major label in the recording industry.

As the new single, on McLaughlin's Carla label, was being promoted, Sullivan took a job teaching American history and art at Beecher High School, near Flint. He still travelled to gigs booked by the Excels, but soon grew weary of the schedule. Consequently, he and the group parted ways at the end of 1968.

Sullivan, however, found time to continue writing and recording with McLaughlin. "This did not negate all the travel, however, as the recordings that I did with Ollie during this time were recorded in New York. I would leave school in the afternoon, travel to New York, record until 1 or 2 in the morning, fly back and start teaching at 8 a. m. I was thankful that this wasn't every week," Sullivan said.

In 1969 and 1970, Sullivan recorded songs for three 45 rpm singles, all produced by McLaughlin.

Appearing on the Romac label, "Let Me See Those Lights Again" and "I Can't Get Away With It" were put on tape in the spring of 1969. The songs were written by Sullivan and Jack Strongman, a friend of the singer from Ishpeming.

The pair also composed "Feel Like Trying" which was recorded in late 1969. The track was coupled with "Leave Me Alone," credited to Bobby Lane, when it was released as a single on the Enterprise label.

"I had the opportunity to go with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (famous 1960s songwriting team) when I was recording 'Feel Like Trying' in New York, but I would have never left Ollie under any circumstances. There was no better individual on this planet than Ollie.

"It was always a surprise to answer the phone with Ollie saying,'someone would like to talk to you,' and on would come Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals or Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, giving you a little pep talk. He was always doing things like that to light a fire in you."

"Feel Like Trying," along with tracks by British star Lulu and the Cufflinks, was listed as "hit bound" for the week of Jan. 9, 1970 by WTAC in Flint, a popular Top 40 radio station of the 1960s and 1970s.

Although the song, clocking in at 3:55, wasn't a hit, it did lead to Sullivan's next record.

"When I was recording 'Feel Like Trying,' Lou Christie came into the studio and offered one of his compositions to me," Sullivan said. Christie was well-known for his number one hit, "Lightnin' Strikes," but had also scored a Top Ten with "I'm Gonna Make You Mine," in 1969. "It was a nice tune, but sung in Christie's falsetto range, was far beyond my capabilities," Sullivan recalled.

"I did, however, get a tune to record when Larry Weiss, who I had met at a previous session, sent me one of his songs."

Weiss, who would later gain recognition as the writer of Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy," gave Sullivan a tune called "Reaching for a Rainbow." The song was issued commercially in Sept., 1970, with "Leave Me Alone" making another appearance as the flipside.

The tracks were issued on the Enterprise label which was distributed by fabled Stax Records, the Memphis company which had released records by Otis Redding and Sam and Dave.

As Sullivan was working to establish himself as a solo artist, he appeared at a number of "record hops" in Detroit with other artists who had records out at the time.

Early in the 1970s, Sullivan and some of his old bandmates from the Excels got together and discovered their musical spark was still intact. Before long Sullivan found himself in a band with guitarist Howard Ylinen, bassist Ed Rogers and drummer Garry Stockero, all U. P. natives and veterans of the Excels.

Liberty included drummer Garry Stockero and from left, Ed Rogers, Howard Ylinen and Clark Sullivan

The new group was named Liberty. Very popular, the band played together until 1982, performing mostly downstate but also doing two week gigs at the Four Seasons in Marquette each summer.

They travelled to the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Ala., used by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Staples Singers, to record a single, "Girl You Better Wake Up." The track, written by Sullivan, was released on the BASF label in 1973, with an instrumental version of the song appearing as the record's b side. The elaborate recording, featuring a horn section arranged by Ylinen, was produced by Sullivan's long-time associate, Ollie McLaughlin.

Ernie Harwell, left; and Clark Sullivan

During this time, Sullivan also "teamed-up" with Ernie Harwell, the beloved broadcaster known for doing the play by play for the Detroit Tigers for 42 seasons.

The two wrote songs, combining Harwell's lyrics with Sullivan's music. "We wrote off and on for close to 20 years. We never had anything that was recorded, except for some of the things I recorded which are still in the can, " Sullivan said. United Airlines and General Motors expressed interest in a couple of their compositions for use in commercials, Sullivan noted. "They got the dubs, but never used them."

During his tenure with McLaughlin, Sullivan had ten songs issued as a member of the Excels, five as a solo artist and another as vocalist for Liberty.

However, even more material remains unreleased. Sullivan counted ten Excels songs, six solo tracks, and eight tunes cut by Liberty, which are still "in the can." McLaughlin died in 1984, "so where the masters are is anyone's guess," Sullivan said.

Sullivan, who plays guitar just about every day and occasionally writes a song or two, still spends considerable time in the Upper Peninsula every year at the family's cabin on the Peshekee River.

Reflecting on his musical career, Sullivan, now retired from teaching and living in the lower Michigan community of Swartz Creek, said he wouldn't change anything.

"I don't put any blame for not getting a hit record on Atlantic, Ollie, Stax or any other company or individual we dealt with. We had a golden opportunity and we are thankful for that. It all boils down to material. If it doesn't sell, it just doesn't sell."

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