Into The Valley Of The Horn Bands, Part 1

Originally posted August 6, 2007

I remember when I heard Chicago for the first time: It was early in the spring of 1970, and I had a cassette tape of new stuff to listen to. There was a fairly new – or at least newly prominent – radio station in the Twin Cities, and I’d learned that it wouldn’t come in at our house, at least not without rigging a lead from the television antenna. A friend of mine in the high school orchestra had mentioned listening to the station – KQRS – through his stereo at home, so I gave him a blank tape and asked him to run it some evening so I could get an idea what the station was like.

A few days later, he handed me the tape as orchestra practice began. And that evening, after finishing my homework, I popped it into my recorder and pressed “Play.”

This was an era when radio stations – especially those on the FM band – were often pretty free form. Never having worked in professional radio, I’m not entirely sure, but I’ve had the sense from college classmates who went into radio that at many FM stations of the time, DJs were given far more control than today over what they played, as long as it rocked. I’d frequently listened late at night to an AM station in Little Rock, Arkansas – KAAY – and its Beaker Street program, which presented a wide mix of stuff, almost all of it very good and sometimes very edgy. So I knew – from what I’d heard about KQRS and from my forays into the ether, hearing new sounds over distant signals – that I was likely to hear stuff that would be challenging and would be almost certainly absent from the Top 40 that I heard on other stations.

I don’t recall all of the tracks on that tape. I do remember “Peace Frog” and “Blue Sunday” from the Doors’ Morrison Hotel, as well as Country Joe & the Fish’s “Fish Cheer” followed by the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.”

But the tracks that had the greatest impact on me were “Wake Up, Sunshine” and the first two-thirds of the “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon,” from Chicago’s second album. I liked “Wake Up, Sunshine,” but when Chicago’s horns ripped into the descending riff that opens “Make Me Smile,” the first portion of the multi-track “ballet,” I was hooked. The syncopation, the swirling horns, and the sense that the singer was singing about his life instead of just lyrics – it all grabbed me hard. And not long after that, I went out and bought Chicago, the first rock LP I’d bought with my own money, I think.

I’d heard horns in a rock band before, of course. I had Blood, Sweat & Tears’ self-titled second album on tape. But BST’s stuff – as nice as the album was, and it remains a favorite – didn’t feel like Chicago’s. I don’t know that I could have put it into words then, as I was only beginning to think critically about the sounds I listened to, but the difference was that Blood, Sweat & Tears sounded like a jazz group that added a rock rhythm section, which Chicago was a rock group that added horns.

(The lead singers may have had something to do with it. While BST’s David Clayton-Thomas had not yet become the scenery-chewer he would be with later BST albums and on his own, his vocal idiosyncrasies and a sense of desperation in his performances made him at times verge nearly into parody. That was certainly not the case with Chicago’s singers. Had I heard the original Blood, Sweat & Tears, with Al Kooper on lead vocals [and a few other personnel differences, too], I might have had a different response. As I was, it took a few years before I caught up to the first version of BST and its Child Is Father To The Man album, which remains worth hearing.)*

Given the success of BST and Chicago, horn bands began to proliferate. Bill Chase took his stratospheric trumpet into the Top 40 with “Get It On” in the summer of 1971. It’s a good track, but it’s a bit frenetic, even for the time; I prefer the group’s version of “Handbags & Gladrags” from their self-titled debut. The group’s time was brief; Chase and a few others were killed in a 1974 plane crash, heading for a gig in Minnesota.

A few other bands come to mind as well, though they were not received as well by critics, nor did they have long careers. Ides of March had one of the great singles of the time with “Vehicle” off its similarly titled album; it reached No. 2 in the spring of 1970. The group had several more albums in the early 1970s but never hit the charts again (although they get a nod for tossing a sly quote of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” into “Superman,” their second single). The Canadian group Lighthouse reached No. 24 in the autumn of 1971 with “One Fine Morning,” which is still a nifty piece of ear candy.

And one of the more odd horn rock happenings, as I understand it, was the rise of Crow’s “Evil Woman,” which reached No. 19 in late 1969 and early 1970. That chart date means that the single was released before Chicago’s second album but after BST’s second. One wonders about the influences that led to the tough horn-driven single. One wonders even more after reading – in more than one place – that the single’s producers grafted the horn parts on top of Crow’s recording and that the band members were angry, as the single didn’t come close to approximating their sound.

And then there was Ambergris with its self-titled 1970 release. Who? Good question.

I recall seeing the record in the stores, with its odd cover of a close-up of a rooster’s head. I don’t know that I ever heard any of it, nor do I recall any of my friends ever talking about it, and music was one of our two major topics of conversation. (As we were all sixteen, seventeen or eighteen at the time, you can figure out the other major topic all too easily.)

Ambergris, as it turned out, was a one-shot album from a band formed by Jerry Weiss, who’d played keyboards with the first version of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Leaving before the group recorded the second album, he formed Ambergris and got Steve Cropper of MG’s fame to produce it. It’s not groundbreaking in the way that the first BST album was or in the way that Chicago’s first two albums were. There are hints of Latin influences in some of the tracks, while some of them sound as if they could easily have been lifted from sessions by BST or Chicago. Highlights, from my listening, are “Play On Player” and “Walking on the Water.”

The personnel, according to rateyourmusic.com, is: Jerry Weiss (bass, keyboards), Larry Harlow (keyboards), Charlie Camillari (trumpet), Harry Max (trumpet, bass), Jimmy Maelen (vocals), Billy Shay (guitar, harmonica), Lewis Kahn (trombone), Glenn Jon Miller (trombone) and Gil Fields (drums).

It’s not spectacular, but it’s a pleasant listen. I think you’ll enjoy it. (Thanks to wonderboy at GF for the rip!)

Track listing:
Something Happened To Me
Play On Player
Gotta Find Her
Chocolate Pudding
Forget It, I Got It
Walking On The Water
Sunday Lady
Home Grown
Soul Food
Endless Night

Ambergris – Ambergris [1970]

*In the credits for Child Is Father To The Man,  Steve Katz and Bobby Colomby are listed as contributing vocals along with Kooper. [Note added May 4, 2011.]

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One Response to “Into The Valley Of The Horn Bands, Part 1”

  1. Otis, Neil & Gypsy « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Ambergris by Ambergris [1970] Original post here. […]

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