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Pulled Up by the Roots

July 5, 2017

        One of my recent al fresco audio adventures involved the Grass Roots, specifically a 1994 compilation album titled “Temptation Eyes.”

        That is, of course, the name of a single by that 1960s and ’70s rock band, one of the songs for which people my age remember the group. The fact that the album doesn’t show up in the Roots’ Wikipedia discography says something about how musicians’ work is owned and distributed, but may also reflect the complicated history of this particular group of musicians.

        While not exactly Monkees-level machinations, the Grass Roots are an example of the kind of monkey business that goes on in popular music. The band had songs before it was a band, had a lineup that changed faster than Wisconsin weather, and disputations about who owned the name and the catalog.

        The Grass Roots were the brainchild of two successful LA songwriters, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, and music producer Lou Adler. Adler, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, developed and produced a number of artists, from Carole King to Cheech and Chong, and produced works as diverse as King’s classic “Tapestry” album and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

        Adler’s Dunhill Records was trying to catch the growing folk-rock wave in the mid-60s, and staff writers Barri and Sloan came up with the project that would become the Grass Roots (originally the Grassroots) to accomplish that. The first songs that the duo wrote for the band-to-be included “Where Were You when I Needed You,” the band’s first charting single, and a song that was recorded in several versions, by different musicians.

        (Barri and Sloan’s songwriting was already having major success, with Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” hitting No. 1 earlier in 1965; before that two of their tunes had charted for Jan and Dean. Their partnership — many of the songs seem credited to Sloan, but Barri produced some — would create Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” and “You Baby” for the Turtles. Sloan also worked as a session musician, and made some solo recordings.)

        Barri and Sloan, backed by LA session musicians, recorded “Where Were You” and shopped it around. When it was well received by San Francisco-area radio stations, they went shopping for a band, finding an ensemble that had won a “battle of the bands” at a California teen fair. (That lineup included Willie Fulton, who would later be a member of the East Bay Grease horn band Tower of Power.)

        That quartet re-recorded “Where Were You,” and it was that version that was a Top 40 hit in 1966. (The Roots had gotten their first airplay late the previous year — with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Jones [Ballad of a Thin Man].”) That lineup didn’t last long, though, Barri and Sloan bailing when the musicians demanded more creative freedom. Three of the musicians tried to continue as the Grass Roots, but the record company made them cease and desist.

        Barri and Sloan went band-shopping again, initially offering the name Grass Roots to the Robbs, a band from Oconomowoc consisting of the three Donaldson brothers and a friend. The Robbs turned them down; the Wisconsin group later became the house band on Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is” and cut a bunch of singles, but never had a Billboard Hot 100 hit — despite landing six songs on that magazine’s “Bubbling Under” chart.

        The third iteration of the Roots was the one that produced most of the hits. That group had started out as the 13th Floor, which had submitted a demonstration tape to Dunhill. One of that foursome soon departed, and was replaced by bassist/vocalist Rob Grill, who would keep the Roots going well into the 21st Century.

        The Roots released the Summer of Love classic “Let’s Live for Today” in mid-1967, scoring their first Top 10 hit. They topped that the following year with their highest-charting single, the No. 5 “Midnight Confessions,” and in between made appearances at major pop and rock festivals.

        But Dunhill still held the reigns pretty tightly, limiting the musicians’ songwriting opportunities and bringing in studio musicians to play on the recoding sessions. One band member, guitarist/vocalist Creed Bratton, in particular became frustrated with those arrangements, and was pink-slipped for complaining.

        That began — actually, continued — a revolving-door trend in the band’s lineup. The Roots had three Top 20 hits in ’70-71, “Temptation Eyes,” “Sooner or Later” and “Two Divided by Love,” but not much success after that, and by 1975 the roster had changed just about completely. The Wikipedia list of former members of the band runs to 50-plus names — none of them, really, of the household variety.

        Grill, who ended up owning the band’s name, was the only member to survive the changes between 1967 and ’75; as manager and booking agent, he kept the band touring into the 1980s. He returned to performing with a new lineup later in that decade.

        Grill kept the band on the ’60s nostalgia circuit — I call it the Geezer Tour — well into the new millennium, playing resorts and casinos, and multi-group tours like the “Happy Together” concert series. He died in 2011, but musicians he hand-picked continue to perform as the Grass Roots.

        That’s how it often for the ’60s musicians that are still above ground. But their music, and that of those that have left the planet, lives on — including that of the Grass Roots, whoever they were, and are. It’s pretty good stuff, and worth a listen.

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