Originally posted February 8, 2007
“Warr-ning! Warr-ning!” And the drums tumble in, followed by riffing guitars, and then the vocals resume: “Reason escapes me . . . “
So came the sound from the speakers in a Musicland record store in St. Cloud one evening in 1970, haunting and powerful and unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was the sound of Gypsy and “Gypsy Queen, Pt. 1,” the first single of the band’s self-titled debut album. I recall my best buddy and I looking across the store from the record bins where we were, seeing the distinctive cover with its hippie-ish gypsy queen.
We liked the music, and we loved the cover. But it was a double album, and we didn’t like the price. Besides, I had only recently made my way to rock and current pop, and I had a lot of catch-up buying to do. If I bought anything at all that evening, it was almost certainly something by the Beatles, as I was trying to absorb as quickly as I could the years of pop and rock history that my peers had experienced over the past six or so years.
So as the music on Side One of the record rolled, through both parts of “Gypsy Queen,” through “Man of Reason,” “Dream If You Can,” and “Late December,” Rick and I nodded in time to the music, which was as stirring and as inviting as almost any music I’ve ever heard.
And what made it all the more appealing was that the band, Gypsy, was from our own area, the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
Gypsy’s story began with a Twin Cities band called the Underbeats, who had a large following in the area and, between 1964 and 1968, had as well as couple of regional singles, released on labels like Garrett and the legendary SOMA, according to a history of the group at http://www.midwesttribute.com . Come 1968, the Underbeats decided to move to California and take a shot at the main stage. They played some club dates, and one night at Gazzarri’s on the Sunset Strip, they got lucky, which is always as important as being good, which the Underbeats were.
Midwesttribute.com notes that at the time, “Chicago Transit Authority was the house band at the Whiskey A Go-Go. They had just released their first Columbia record. Looking for a replacement, Whiskey owner Elmer Valentine walked down the street to catch The Underbeats performing at Gazzarri’s. Valentine liked what he saw and offered them the prestigious house band slot at the Whiskey.”
The group performed at the Whiskey for about eight months, playing every night to an audience packed with musicians and decision-makers in the music industry. Advised during that time that the band’s name was dated, the Underbeats conferred and became, at one member’s suggestion, Gypsy. At the same time, recording offers began to take shape, and the band eventually narrowed the field to Atlantic and Metromedia. The band members chose Metromedia, thinking, according to the website account, that they might get lost among other groups at a label as large as Atlantic and that the band would get more attention from a smaller label like Metromedia.
The album was recorded at Devonshire Studios, with all cuts done live, according to Midwesttribute.com notes, with the only outside musicians on the album being string arrangements by Jimmie Haskell on six cuts and some percussion work by Preston Epps, whose single, “Bongo Rock,” had reached the charts in 1959. Although originally planned as a single disc, the band’s work in the studio was prolific enough and good enough that the band and its manager were able to persuade Metromedia to fund a double album, with the budget reaching $45,000, which was pretty good money in 1970.
With the album out, the band toured that summer of 1970, playing both Fillmores, East and West, as well as Winterland in San Francisco and the Atlanta Pop Festival, where Gypsy joined Jimi Hendrix, Mountain and the Allman Brothers Band, among others, to entertain a crowd of about 400,000 people.
But with the record out, the band learned that, despite their hope, the Metromedia label, in band member James Walsh’s words, “didn’t really have the clout to bring the record home when it started to happen.”
There was some airplay of the one single released from the album, “Gypsy Queen, Pt. 1,” b/w “Dead & Gone.” I recall hearing the single numerous times on Twin Cities stations, especially on KQRS, one of the stations with less-rigid programming than those that played Top 40.
The band recorded a second record for Metromedia in 1971, “In The Garden,” and it made the Billboard charts despite, according to Midwesttribute.com, its lack of a hit single. The band moved to RCA for a pair of albums in 1972 and 1973, and in 1978, Walsh put together the James Walsh Gypsy Band for an RCA release. Walsh has also brought some of the original members of the group together with some new musicians for at least two performances in recent years at the Taste of Minnesota festival in St. Paul.
Gypsy, as fondly remembered as it is, and as prized as the group’s records have become to collectors, never quite became the next big thing. That’s no doubt painful and frustrating to those who were there, but it’s also a familiar story in the music business, I would guess. As in any endeavor where fame is one of sought-after outcomes, there are far more that don’t reach the pinnacle than there are those who do. To have fallen short while making the wonderful and sometimes haunting music that Gypsy made was no disgrace.
As for me, I eventually learned all I could absorb about the Beatles and collected all of their albums by the summer of 1972. I also bought stuff by the Rolling Stones, CSNY, the Moody Blues, Mountain, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers Band and many more artists and groups over the next few years. But for some reason, I forgot about Gypsy and that double album with the striking artwork on it. Finally, in May of 1993, I found it in a used record store in Minneapolis and took it home.
And as the record spun, I closed my eyes and listened once more to that striking first cut: “Warr-ning! Warr-ning!” And just like they had some twenty-three years earlier, the drums tumbled in, and then the guitars, and then, “Reason escapes me . . .”
“Gypsy Queen, Pt. 1” by Gypsy 
“Gypsy Queen, Pt. 2” by Gypsy 
Gypsy – Self-titled 
Gypsy – In the Garden