Wizards From Kansas, Indeed!

Originally posted April 8, 2008

I can’t resist a little bragging this morning: A little more than three weeks ago, I dove into the Yahoo! fantasy sports contest for predicting the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I’d not followed college basketball’s regular season very much; in the past I’ve watched the University of Minnesota Gophers at times, but this season, the Big Ten conference set up its own cable network, and it wasn’t carried by our cable provider.

So when I looked at the sixty-four teams in the bracket, I had nothing more to go on than the seeding of the teams and their reputations and past performances.

I worked through all of the sixty-three games, and I wound up choosing Kansas to win it all. And the Jayhawks did just that! Oh, there were some anxious moments during last evening’s championship game. In fact, with Memphis leading by nine points with just more than two minutes remaining, I thought the game was decided. From there, the comeback was remarkable, and the Jayhawks eventually won in overtime.

At Yahoo!, I looked at the impact my correct prediction had on my rankings. The competition is based on a point system, with correct predictions in later rounds of the tournament earning more points than do those in earlier rounds, and a correct choice in the title game earning, as would be expected, the most points. Going into the championship game, my performance to that time had me ranked in the eighty-ninth percentile; in other words, I was doing better than eighty-nine percent of the people who’d entered the contest.

Only fourteen percent or so of the entrants in the contest had picked Kansas to win the tournament, and getting the outcome of the title game correct moved me up to the ninety-sixth percentile. I’m pretty surprised at my success. But the truly mind-boggling thing is the number of entrants: By choosing the final game correctly, I moved up 152,422 places for a final ranking of 86,389th in the contest. And I did better than ninety-six percent of the people in the contest. From there, some simple math tells me that there were about 2.16 million people entered in the Yahoo! contest.

Having done that, and knowing I would brag just a little bit here today, I began to wonder how in the world I was going to tie that stuff into music, especially into a cover song, as it is Tuesday. A search for the word “victory” among the mp3s brought up one of the versions of the Soviet National Anthem, an album by the late 1960s/early 1970s group People’s Victory Orchestra & Chorus, a song by the Byrds, “Paths of Victory,” and a track from Hamilton Camp’s 1964 album, also entitled Paths of Victory.

So I searched, without much hope, for “Kansas.” The search returned a lot of versions of the song “Kansas City,” some 1930s work by Kansas Joe McCoy, fight songs for the universities of Kansas, Kansas State and Arkansas, and a 1968 (I think) single by the International Kansas City Playboys.

It also brought up the self-titled 1970 album by the group the Wizards From Kansas, which developed in the late 1960s in the areas of Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas and its Jayhawks. According to All-Music Guide, the group was first called Pig Newton, and then Pig Newton and the Wizards From Kansas. Toward the end of 1969, the band signed with Mercury Records and the label asked the group to drop the Pig Newton portion of the name.

So in the summer of 1970, AMG says, the Wizards From Kansas recorded their only album in San Francisco. The band broke up soon after that, however, leaving Mercury with an album but no band. Understandably, the label did little in the way of promotion, and the record went nowhere. In 1993, the Afterglow label released the album on CD.

I looked at the track list for that one album by the Wizards From Kansas. And the opening song was a cover of the 1960s folk song “High Flying Bird” (sometimes listed as “High Flyin’ Bird”). Written by Billy Edd Wheeler, the song was first recorded – I think – in 1964, by singer Judy Henske for her album of the same name and by a group called the Au Go-Go Singers for their only album, They Call Us Au Go-Go Singers. (The Au Go-Go Singers would hardly merit a footnote, I’d guess, were it not for the fact that two of its members were Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, soon to be members of the Buffalo Springfield and go on from there.)

(If I am incorrect in thinking that those versions were the first recorded of “High Flying Bird,” please let me know.)

Others who’ve recorded Wheeler’s song over the years include Richie Havens, 1960s folk singer Carolyn Hester, the Jefferson Airplane in its pre-Grace Slick days, the psychedelic groups H.P. Lovecraft and the Ill Wind, the New Christy Minstrels, Gram Parsons, the We Five, a 1970s group called the Villagers, and, on its third album, a group called Zephyr, remembered chiefly because guitarist Tommy Bolin was a member for the group’s first two albums.

I’ve heard about half of those. Havens, as always, does a fine job, as does Henske (though a lot of folks like Henske’s work far more than I do; I find her melodramatic at times). The Jefferson Airplane version is all right, and the Lovecraft is suitably acid-washed. The best of the bunch might be the 1972 version by Zephyr, with a great jazzy vocal by Candy Givens.

But, in honor of the Kansas Jayhawks, here’s the version by the Wizards From Kansas, the opening track to the group’s only album.

Wizards From Kansas – “High Flying Bird” [1970]

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