Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Singles reveal Princeton story

This photo of French Church was published in Kip Brown's 12 O'clock July fanzine in 1989. From left: Princeton Records owner Fred L. Crook, manager Joe Wellington, John Spratto (guitar), Warren MacDonald (drums), Mike Cleary (vocals), Gordon MacDonald (bass).


Marquette's Princeton Records issued a series of seven-inch singles in the late 1960s, some highly sought by collectors today.

Owned by Fred L. Crook, the Princeton imprint was used on at least seven 45 rpm records, a newly-compiled discography shows.

At the time Crook launched Princeton, independent labels were popping up around the country to service the myriad rock bands spawned by the Beatles and other British Invasion acts.

Crook had been in several bands as a young person and probably saw potential in the burgeoning music scene when he was stationed at K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base in the central Upper Peninsula.

Pooling his money with another entrepreneur, Crook set up shop in a tiny Marquette County community near Gwinn called Princeton. He named his enterprise Princeton as well, apparently unaware a record label in St. Joseph, Michigan, was already using the name.

Like other independent labels, Princeton would sell studio time and other services, providing clients with a number of 45s for a fee.

Princeton's first client was a local rock band called the French Church, comprised of John Spratto (guitar), Mike Cleary (lead vocals), Gordon MacDonald (bass) and Warren MacDonald (drums).

In the winter of 1966, French Church recorded a few tracks at Crook's facility, then based at the Princeton Post Office building, Gordon MacDonald recalled.

Soon, however, Crook moved his studio, called Superior Recording Co., into the basement of a storefront in bustling downtown Marquette, the city which also serves as home to Northern Michigan University.

With the new location, French Church tried recording again, with two new songs. The quartet taped the original compositions, "Without Crying" and "Slapneck 1943," in Crook's subterranean studio during January, 1968.

The tracks were recorded on mono RCA equipment Crook said he obtained from the fabled RCA studio in Nashville, Tennessee, where Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers and Chet Atkins recorded.

Unfamiliar with how established labels sold their product, Crook assigned different catalog numbers to each side of the French Church disc. Although 45s carried one song on each side, record companies assigned each disc a single catalog number. Crook, however, printed 101 on the label for "Without Crying" and 102 on the "Slapneck 1943" side. Such numbering meant retailers might order both songs, not realizing they were on the same record.

Crook arranged for some of Princeton's work to be completed in Tennessee. Masters were made by Nashville Matrix, while the records were manufactured at a pressing plant called Sound of Nashville, Inc., located at 102 2nd Ave. S. in the state's capital city. The company pressed 500 copies of the French Church single.

Princeton's subsequent release, 45-rpm single 103/104, is a mysteriously unknown entry in the label's discography.

The next single in the series is by Tommy James. This is not the Niles, Michigan native responsible for "Hanky Panky," but instead "Country" Tommy James, the One Man Band.

James recorded the Mel Tillis- Webb Pierce song "A Thousand Miles Ago" and "Auctioneer," by Leroy Van Dyke and Buddy Black. Both songs were arranged by James and produced by Crook. In the label's sequential numbering system, the 45 was given the catalog numbers 105/106.
Sault Ste. Marie's Renaissance Fair rock
band recorded two 45 rpm singles on the Princeton
label during the late 1960s. Group member John
Ordiway, right, pictured with keyboardist Gordie
Moon, wrote and sang "In Wyrd."

Sault Ste. Marie's Renaissance Fair traveled to Marquette to record Princeton's next single. The group was comprised of John Ordiway (guitar, trumpet), Gordie Moon (guitar, keyboards), Greg Myner (drums, sax, guitar, bass), Rob Benjamin (bass, drums), Larry Verrett (guitar, bass), Jim Rogers (bass, guitar), and Larry McGahey (guitar). Everyone contributed vocals.

Now four decades later, McGahey said he doesn't recall just how he heard about Crook's label.

Armed with McGahey's compositions, "Every Moment" and "It's Still Her," Renaissance Fair recorded what became 45 rpm single 107/108. The songs were produced by Crook and published by his Frook Publishing.

A Northern Michigan University student from Dearborn was Crook's next patron. Mike Koda was known as "Cub" or "Cubby" by his friends and fellow students. Koda had some experience in the music business, having recorded in high school with his band, the Del-Tinos.

Koda brought two original songs into Crook's studio, "More Than Me" and the bizarre "Let's Hear a Word (For the Folks in the Cemetery)."

"Did you ever try to eat a gasoline and mustard sandwich?" Koda sang in "Let's Hear a Word." Another lyric surmised, "This song doesn't make a damn bit of sense." In addition, the tune included a wild guitar solo to go with the unusual lyrics.

Koda's first solo record was issued in the spring of 1968 as 109/110, complete with the graphic of a five-pointed crown on the label. Both tracks were produced and published by Crook.

While many residents remember Koda's musical exploits in the Marquette area, the musician decided to drop out of Northern and resume his musical career downstate. He emerged in Ann Arbor as the leader of Brownsville Station and hit the big-time with "Smokin' in the Boys Room."

Apparently happy with their first effort, the eastern U. P. combo Renaissance Fair returned to Marquette for further recording. Larry McGahey had composed another song, "Simple Love," while John Ordiway penned "In Wyrd."

"We rehearsed and recorded all day at Superior Recording Co. with Crook," McGahey recalled. At first satisfied with their work, the band recorded a new version of "The Wyrd," the following day. The second take, deemed superior, was used for the 45, but the band was never able to duplicate the recording's unique sound in concert, McGahey said.

As was usual at Princeton by this time, Crook published and produced both songs. However, he did finally conform to industry standards and assigned this release a single catalog number, 111.

Another group from Sault Ste. Marie, the Executives, taped two cover songs for what was evidently the final single in the Princeton Records discography. The popular combo recorded "Cara Mia," a number four hit for Jay and the Americans in 1965, and "My Special Angel," a number seven smash for the Vogues in 1968.

The resulting single was released as Princeton 112.

Around this time, Crook moved to Wausau, Wisconsin and Princeton Records entered into garage band history.

Although Crook's label was short-lived, the Princeton discography includes some noteworthy songs. "Slapneck 1943" by French Church and "In Wyrd" by Renaissance Fair are sought-after by collectors and have appeared on compilations of 1960s era garage band music. Despite the fact that Cub Koda went on to considerable success as a recording artist, his Princeton sides have never been re-released.


Kim French said...

There were two different drummers for the "Mike Koda " single ...Don Kuhli played on "More Than Me"...Les Ross played on "Let's Here A Word"...I played bass, on both sides...

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