By Richie Unterberger

Although the term somehow didn't stick as part of standard rock criticism vocabulary, for a while in the late 1960s, there was a vogue of sorts for music that was described in the press as "folk-baroque." Artists such as Judy Collins, Donovan, Tim Hardin, and Tom Rush were all arranging folk-oriented material with classical-influenced orchestration. While there weren't many others who dipped as heavily into the folk-baroque bag, the mating of rock with classical could be heard at times in the work of many significant groups and singer-songwriters, including Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, the Bee Gees, the Beatles, and even the Rolling Stones. Others unveiled a knack for a style without, unfortunately, reaching nearly as wide an audience.

    One of the most talented such acts was Appaloosa, whose self-titled 1969 LP matched singer/acoustic guitarist John Parker Compton's thoughtful, melodic compositions to sympathetic arrangements featuring fellow band members Robin Batteau on violin, Eugene Rosov on cello, and David Reiser on electric bass. In both its combination of instruments and the absence of a drummer, it was a most unusual instrumental lineup for a rock band, even at a time when boundaries and restrictions were routinely bent. The core quartet were bolstered by top session players (including members of Blood, Sweat & Tears) and, above all, producer Al Kooper, who also added a lot of his own keyboards and guitar to the album.

    Only nineteen at the time of the album's release, Compton began performing in folk clubs in the Boston area as a solo act. "But one night, I invited my classmate David Batteau, both of us seventeen at the time, to join me with his cello," he says. "I remember how the audience began laughing when we walked on stage -- but they weren't laughing after David began to play. I performed songs that I had written in English class at boarding school. The Beatles and the Stones were on the radio every three minutes, and they introduced the world to the idea of using classical instruments with folk music. We and many others were inspired by their folk-baroque productions."

    Compton and David Batteau would only do a couple of gigs together, but John would form a duo with David's violinist brother Robin Batteau, who was perhaps the most distinctive element in Appaloosa's instrumental mix. "Robin and I began performing as a duo during the summer of '68 at coffeehouses in Cambridge and Boston, and performing every Sunday afternoon at the Cambridge Common Music Concerts," Compton recalls. "It was an outdoor event one block from Harvard Square that Bob Gordon organized. As you might imagine, the place was packed and it was an instant party. Robin blew everyone's mind every time with his unique soaring violin solos. Gordon took a liking to us and always gave us a place on the roster. We also opened for Tim Hardin during Tim's week-long engagement at Paul's Mall in Boston. Additionally, we opened for the Rascals at Harvard Stadium."

    The lineup that played on the Appaloosa album was finalized, he continues, when "Eugene Rosov and David Reiser joined the band. Eugene was living at the Batteaus' house while he was attending Harvard, so I would walk over and there it was -- an instant band. Around September of '68, Robin and I began practicing songs with Eugene (cello) and David (Fender bass) in the Batteaus' garage. We performed one night at a house party of a young attorney in Brookline, Massachusetts who offered to fly us all to New York and audition for record companies."

    As for what the new additions brought to the group, "[Robin] Batteau and Rosov mapped unknown musical territories, working as a team. They created a musical grace that one only sees in Olympic figure skaters. Listen to the intro to 'Yesterday's Roads,' and you will hear what I am talking about. The intro is only ten seconds -- yet it contains so many intense levels and moods. It's noteworthy to mention that both Robin and Eugene at the time were 'A' students at Harvard University. I can't imagine their combined IQ. And speaking of high IQs, David Reiser used his high IQ to create the backbone of the Appaloosa sound. Al Kooper picked up on this fact immediately, and mentions it in the liner notes. I was aware that David, who was seventeen, was sitting in with jazz groups twice his age at some of Boston's premier jazz clubs, and thought of him at the time as simply a very accomplished jazz bassist. But I soon came to understand that David possessed an awesome musical and mathematical ability. In a nutshell, David is the [Motown bass session great] James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins of folk-rock. David brought a muscular grace to the band. Songs like 'Pascal's Paradox' or 'Rosalie' wouldn't be the same without his brilliant playing." Reiser also came up with the name for the band, and as Compton smiles, "I always stop when I see an Appaloosa horse and walk up and say 'hello.'"

    Appaloosa got their deal -- with one of the biggest record companies in the world -- in the spontaneous, quick fashion that would likely be all but impossible in the far more corporate music business of the twenty-first century. "We auditioned for about five or six record companies in New York City," remembers John. "We were on the waiting list of three or four companies, and decided to approach another company, which turned out to be Columbia. Meeting Al Kooper was just a fluke. We were playing for some secretaries at Columbia while waiting for an appointment. Al Kooper walked by and instantly asked us if we would like to make a demo tape that night."

    Kooper was one of the hippest producers a young band could have hoped for, having already made his mark as a member of the Blues Project and the first lineup of Blood, Sweat & Tears, as well as playing on numerous important folk-rock sessions (most notably on some of Bob Dylan's early electric recordings). In 1968 he was hired as a staff producer for Columbia Records, continuing to record as a solo artist, collaborator with Mike Bloomfield, and session musician. "Kooper was very professional, and also very relaxed and wonderful to be around," praises Compton. "A week after meeting Kooper we also met Van Morrison's brilliant producer Lew Merenstein, who orchestrated Van's classic Astral Weeks LP. Lew really wanted to work with us. So for a few weeks there was a tug-of-war between the two producers, but we finally went with Kooper. I often think about how our record would have turned out more organic if we had used Merenstein as our producer, but I am glad that we chose Kooper."

    John had written most of the songs on Appaloosa over a period of two years, while "attending a progressive boarding school. The school was in a perfect setting for a young writer. It was in a remote location in the middle of farm country in upstate New York. No television. Radios and record players were the only form of entertainment allowed. The 'mood' and 'feels' that I was surrounded with daily were poet-singer-songwriters that were piped in on AM radio: Donovan, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, etc. Storytelling set to classical music. Songs like the Beatles' 'Eleanor Rigby' reverberated on the radio with a graceful power that the world had never experienced before. People were being introduced to the concept of advanced soul-bearing and soul-searching poetry in pop music. It helped establish a certain mood and feel throughout the world." As for his own songwriting contributions along these lines, "I was trying to tell my girlfriend Jane and my beautiful English teacher how I felt."

    To round out the sound, Kooper pulled in two ex-Blood, Sweat & Tears bandmates, drummer Bobby Colomby and alto saxophonist Fred Lipsius; Charlie Calello, who had produced the great singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, for conducting the orchestra on "Now That I Want You" and "Bi-Weekly"; and drummer Artie Schreck, who played on Nyro sessions. (Furthering the Nyro connection, one of Appaloosa's first gigs was opening for Nyro and Sam & Dave at Tufts University.) Kooper himself played electric harpsichord, electric guitar, organ, vibraphone, piano, and electric piano, as well as doing string arrangements for "Rosalie" and temple blocks on "Rivers Run to the Sea."

    "I would not be talking to you if it were not for Al Kooper," Compton enthuses. "We were aware at the time, of course, that Kooper worked with Dylan, and we were in awe of him. But from the start, Al immediately set a wonderful relaxed tone, and went out of his way to make us all feel at home -- inviting us to his home for dinner, going out to get hot dogs at a deli, etc. Kooper had a vision, but didn't talk about it much. Al is a musician's musician, and would simply say, 'I'll see you at the studio tomorrow at 3:30 PM.' We would walk in, and there would be Bobby Colomby, one of the world's greatest drummers, who in turn went out of his way to make us feel at home with joke after joke. Bobby really brought a lot to the table. His timing is perfect, and he plays with a light jazz touch. I have fond memories of recording 'Rivers Run to the Sea,' and sitting there and marveling as Bobby Colomby leaned closer to his drum set and artfully made the tempo change, giving the song a Laura Nyro tempo change feel. And Fred Lipsius and Artie Schreck are consummate pros.

    "As an instrumentalist, Al is the best. I totally love his piano and electric guitar parts on 'Rosalie,' and his glockenspiel part on 'Rivers Run to the Sea.' The feeling of brotherhood between all the musicians and engineers is what I will always remember and carry with me. Being around and working with Kooper was like being around a wise and experienced uncle. Al went out of his way to give everyone in the band a psychological pat on the back -- and what can be better than that?"

    For all the production effort that went into the record, points out Compton, "actually, two-thirds of the songs are produced with a very acoustic sound. For example, songs like 'Pascal's Paradox' and 'Tulu Rogers' are just guitar, violin, cello, and bass. However, as the recording sessions progressed, Al brought in more and more of Blood, Sweat & Tears to play on the songs, and then brought in his friend Charlie Calello to arrange 'Bi-Weekly' and 'Now That I Want You.' Another song that Al 'Kooperized' was 'Rosalie,' which Robin and I had originally performed for years as a folk song. Kooper folk-rocked it up with piano and electric guitar. I couldn't relate to his production of the song for a year or two. Then one day I understood Kooper's production genius -- he kindly gave the song the Blonde on Blonde treatment. To this day I am honored that he went the extra mile on this song, because he set the stage for Robin Batteau and Eugene Rosov to really shine."

    Some of the album's standouts included "Thoughts of Polly," with its touches of both classical and jazz; "Bi-Weekly," with its soaring orchestration and distinctive Kooper organ; and "Georgia Street," with its unusual shifting rhythms. "It was great having Fred Lipsius add his distinctive sax to 'Thoughts of Polly,'" observes Compton. "He recorded the part right in the control room, and then Kooper said, 'Let's try playing the tape backwards,' giving Fred's part that Jimi Hendrix here-there-and-everywhere floating sound. We recorded 'Bi-Weekly' live with a big band in Columbia's larger studio, with its control room way up in the clouds." As for his own favorites, he adds, "Personally, I like 'Rosalie' because of Kooper's arrangement and production, and 'Bi-Weekly' because of Charlie Calello's brilliant arrangement. In hindsight, 'Bi-Weekly' should have been 'the single,' with its radio-friendly Glen Campbell-sounding lead guitar part combined with the strings."

    Compton's clearly done a lot of thinking about the "folk-baroque" sound from which Appaloosa took much of its inspiration. "The true musical pioneers established the sound a year or two earlier: Donovan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Rush, Nick Drake, Bobbie Gentry, and Tim Hardin. They and  their producers were real musical visionaries who created new musical formulas that helped to change the world. Like when the Beatles performed 'All You Need Is Love' on their global broadcast -- the classical instruments really helped to spread their message. Sure, prior to the '60s, record producers had used strings to 'sweeten' a song by adding a string section to the mix and placing it way in the background. But the musical pioneers that I just mentioned took the string section and turned it into a string quartet, and mixed it right up front, interweaving it with the lead vocal. Who can forget hearing the Beatles' 'Michelle' for the first time? There is something so primal about combining vocal, violin, and cello when it is done correctly. The sound massages the soul.

    "Donovan's classic song 'Jennifer Juniper,' or the Stones' megahit 'Ruby Tuesday,' or James Taylor's historic 'Fire and Rain,' or Gordon Lightfoot's transcendentally beautiful 'If You Could Read My Mind' -- they all use the same musical formula of combining classical instrumentation in a folk-pop production. One of my school friend's sister was dating James Taylor at the time, so we all watched his every move with anticipation, admiration, and awe. I'll never forget seeing James on the subway in Boston with his guitar on his way to London to audition for the Beatles. A few months later he was on every FM station in the land. His influence and genius was everywhere. Another musical pioneer around that time was Bobbie Gentry, whose unbelievably beautifully produced 'Ode to Billie Joe' knocked the Beatles' 'All You Need Is Love' from the #1 spot on the charts in 1967. And let's not forget Sonny Bono, who blew everyone's mind by writing, arranging, and brilliantly producing Sonny & Cher's 'I Got You Babe.' The oboe part in that song is fantabulous. Each one of these songs uses the same magical musical formula: romantic poetry combined with classical instruments. My appreciation only grows greater and greater the more I listen to these perfect musical gems.

    "But the important thing that was happening was that a 'mood' or a 'feel' was being broadcast everywhere. For the first time, the world was being drenched in folk-baroque music. Sure, on one level this new sound was entertainment, but on another level, it was a three-minute example of mathematical perfection. Every time a song [like] James Taylor's 'Fire and Rain' or the Bee Gees' 'To Love Somebody' came on the radio, it was like an acoustical laser beam was being broadcast across the land, with a gentle power to tear down the old world things."

    Unfortunately, despite all the care that Appaloosa, Kooper, and friends lavished upon the album, Appaloosa was not often broadcast across the United States. "Interestingly, it appears that Columbia released the album mainly overseas," reveals Compton. "To this day, I get an email every week from someone in Germany or Japan asking where they can buy the record." It would be Appaloosa's only album, the band splitting up when Compton, Batteau, and some friends drove out to California. John and Robin worked as a duo on Columbia for the Compton & Batteau in California album, with John doing his first solo album shortly afterward. Still active in music, in mid-2005 Compton is "pleased to report that Appaloosa is getting back together. We're working in the studio right now on our first single." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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