By Richie Unterberger

Although We Five were most famous for recording one of the first and biggest folk-rock hits, "You Were on My Mind," the styles they investigated on their albums had always encompassed much more than folk-rock. Even back on their first LP, they'd covered show tunes, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," and the Elvis Presley hit "Can't Help Falling in Love." By the time of their fourth album, 1970's Catch the Wind, they were recording not only folk-rock, but also country music, upbeat pop-rock, blues, and the Beatles. As happy as they were with the record, however, it did not get the exposure they wished, with label and distribution problems conspiring to make it largely unavailable shortly after its initial release.

     To understand how they ended up recording Catch the Wind for the Vault label, it's necessary to backtrack a bit to the end of the group's stay at A&M, the company that had taken "You Were on My Mind" all the way to #3 back in 1965. After the "You Were on My Mind" lineup of We Five broke up in April 1967, remembers guitarist Jerry Burgan, producer Frank Werber "said if Debbie will join the band, then he would continue recording us." Debbie Burgan, Jerry's wife, was a natural replacement for departing singer Bev Bivens, having already filled in when Bivens was ill. Bassist Pete Fullerton was also willing to continue with the group, though a couple of other original members, guitarists Mike Stewart and Bob Jones, bowed out of the act. "But Frank and A&M couldn't get together on what should be done with us," resumes Jerry. "So we just got fed up. Peter and Debbie and I went in the studio as the Tricycle, and started recording some stuff. One of the cuts wound up on our Return [of We Five] album" -- their third LP, recorded for A&M as We Five after the Burgans and Fullerton bought the name from the rest of the members.
    "We were going into the studio with Tommy LiPuma, a pretty well-known producer," elaborates Burgan. "Had he produced our third album, we'd probably be having a different conversation right now. But he was in an accident, and his eye got messed up; I think a dog bit him or some such thing. And so they turned us over to a producer named Jerry Riopelle. He didn't really like us. He couldn't relate to the music, he couldn't relate to what we were all about. And so our third album was kind of a sampler -- here's a song, here's a song, here's a song. But it's not produced. It's almost self-produced, and we really didn't know how to produce a record at that time. It had some good material on it; 'All of the Time' probably should have been a hit. But for whatever reason, A&M chose to put out 'It Really Doesn't Matter' and an unfinished version of 'Walk on By.' The vocals are there, the rhythm track's there, but we never finished putting the horns and stuff on it. The album, it went out, sold a few, but it was not a hit album.

    "After that, we were signed with [a manager who] felt that we needed to get off of A&M, so his first order of business was to get us off of A&M. His next order of business was going to be to have Bones Howe [then hot as producer of the Turtles, the 5th Dimension, and the Association] produce it, and Bones was too busy to do it. So we floundered for another year trying to get the band re-signed. Mike Stewart, during this time, had been playing with various groups, and had gone to Nashville with West [a band who put out a late-'60s LP on Epic]. He met a guy named Jackie Mills, [who] produced Bobby Sherman and people like that. He really liked Michael, and Michael's abilities. He said, 'Michael, you should be a producer. Who do you want to produce?' And Michael said, 'We Five.' That's how that album came into existence." With the group now off A&M, the LP would be issued by the relatively small Vault label.

    While Michael Stewart was back in the fold, though as a producer rather than band member, the record would not be cut like previous We Five LPs had. "Jackie Mills told Michael he could produce anybody he wanted," explains Burgan. "But the rule was that he had to do it live in the studio. The reason is 'cause Michael could conceive of a finished album and then execute it, rather than figuring out what it was as he went along. And if we wanted to get really good vocals, the only way we were going to accomplish that was to just sing and have somebody else play. So that album was pretty much recorded live at the studio, with some of the best studio players in L.A., like [bassist] Joe Osborne, [guitarist] James Burton, [keyboardist] Glen D. Hardin. 'Milkcow Blues,' Earl Palmer played the drums on that. In fact, 'Milkcow''s the only song Peter and I played on, 'cause it's Debbie's solo, and we didn't have to sing.

    "The energy that you get from being in the presence of people who play really well and give themselves the luxury, the freedom, to play -- and the way it feeds off of one another -- it's something we had always wanted to do. 'Cause we never got to play with a big band or anything like that live, and it's the closest we were ever gonna get to doing it. I've never experienced anything like it in my life. It's right there up with when you got 15,000 people screaming because they love you, only instead of the feedback from the audience, it just comes from this internal vibe that is indescribable. And a lot of fun."

    Although Stewart did play a bit of guitar on the album, clarifies Jerry, "Basically, Michael was in the booth, we were in the vocal booth, and we had killer musicians in the room. And Michael, Peter, Debbie, and I conceived of the songs. We would work out arrangements, and then we'd get together with Michael and give him rough arrangements of the songs, the vocals. Then he figured out who he wanted to have play on it. The ones that had horns, we brought in [orchestrator] Al Capps to add horns. So it's very much a collaborative process. We'd always worked that way." Also handling orchestration, on the tracks "One Last Time" and "Oh Lonesome Me," was Frank Denson, who "was a guy we met through Frank Werber in San Francisco when we were working as the Tricycle; he was with us on the Return album."

    While Burgan did contribute a couple of originals in "Belong Beside You" and "One Last Time," most of the album was devoted to cover material from a wide assortment of sources. "Here Comes the Sun" had just been a highlight of the Beatles' Abbey Road album; "Early Mornin' Rain" and "For Lovin' Me" were two of Gordon Lightfoot's most popular early songs; "Catch the Wind" was Donovan's first hit; and "Oh Lonesome Me" had been a Top Ten country-pop crossover smash for Don Gibson back in 1958. Two of the other songs originated closer to home, "Never Goin' Back" (with banjo by Doug Dillard)  having been penned by Mike Stewart's brother John Stewart, who recorded it on his second album, California Bloodlines. In addition, one of the four writers of "Come and Sit Down Beside Me" was original We Five guitarist Bob Jones. It found its way to the new lineup, recalls Burgan, after "Michael had run into Bob, and Bob played him the song. Michael said, 'You know, We Five can do this song. Is that all right?' Bob said, 'Sure.' That's the only song on the album that Michael brought to us."

    One of the more unusual selections on the LP was Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," which Dylan had written and performed live back in his early years, but never issued on any of his official 1960s recordings. Prior to We Five cover, the song had been done by a number of other artists, including Ian & Sylvia (who'd put out the original version of "You Were on My Mind"), Judy Collins, and, more surprisingly, Elvis Presley. As it turns out, however, We Five learned in not from Ian & Sylvia or Elvis, but from a more obscure source. "I was always a Travis Edmonson freak," declares Burgan. "And Travis Edmonson [a folk singer who recorded both on his own and as part of the duo Bud & Travis] put it on an album that he did live at the [Los Angeles Club] the Troubadour. Pretty bad record, but cool song. I used to sing it just 'cause I liked the song, and then Peter and Debbie said, 'You know, we could do an R&B version of this, and it would be a killer.' I had never heard the song by anybody until I heard it [by] Travis. One of the things We Five has always really been into, is [to] say, 'Okay, a good song is a good song, and it can probably be done more than one way'. And that was one of those: 'What can we do with this that hasn't been done? There's more here than a folk song.' One of the reasons Dylan is who Dylan is, is because he writes these things that sound like simple folk songs that have musical complexity, if you want to look a little, that's sometimes amazing. He's done two or three things that are like that. Peter, the part he sang on 'Tomorrow Is a Long Time,' I get goose bumps still when I listen to it."

    Similarly, "Milkcow Blues" had been done by a number of famous artists, including Elvis Presley (who'd put it on one of his first singles in the mid-'50s) and the Kinks (who'd covered it in the mid-'60s), as well as bluesman Kokomo Arnold, who'd cut it in the 1930s. We Five didn't learn it from any of those versions, however, or even from a record. "We learned it from Debbie's dad, who passed away last year," reveals Burgan. "He's very much a Jimmie Rodgers yodeling brakeman and Bob Wills -- kind of a cross between the two. He was born in a log cabin in Arkansas, learned to play guitar when he was a kid, and would sit in with bands when they would come through town. His whole life, he'd been a musician. Just a remarkable man, a wonderful character in his voice. He could easily have been a star on the Grand Ole Opry had he not been working on a farm in Arkansas. Anyway, we learned the song from him because he loved that tune and would play it any time he got the chance. Put a microphone in front of him, he would play 'Milkcow Blues.' So we told Michael about it, and he liked it, and said, 'Okay, cool, let's put it on. Who wrote it?' And I said, 'I don't know, we learned it from Debbie's dad. It's probably public domain. Let's stick his name on it.' When the label went to do the research on it, of course [it] found out that Kokomo Arnold had the copyright."

    The fiddle part on "Milkcow Blues," incidentally, came about through Doug Dillard, who'd brought Byron Berline along when he did the banjo part on "Never Goin' Back." As Jerry tells it, "We were mixing down 'Milkcow Blues,' and Doug said, 'You really need Byron to play fiddle on this tune.' To which we said, 'Well, we've only got one track open.' And he says, 'Well, that's alright.' So Byron Berline went out into the studio and while they were running it down, he was just kind of noodling around. When the solo came, Michael said, 'Push "record."' That was the first and only take of Byron's learning the song. He'd never heard us do it. He hadn't heard anything else. He just heard the whole, jumped in, started to play, and at the end he stopped. It's miraculous. It just blew us all away. And he says, 'Okay, I'm ready.' And Michael said, 'No, you're done.'" This was around the same time, as a side note, that Berline made a particularly famous session appearance on the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, playing fiddle on "Country Honk."

    On the whole, the material on the album was so diverse that it made We Five hard to classify in any subgenre or another. "Yes, but that's who we are, unfortunately," notes Burgan. "Conceptually, We Five really was always about that. We always looked around and tried to find songs that we liked, and then say, 'Alright, this is a cool song. How would We Five do this?' In this particular album, we looked for songs that we liked, and it didn't matter who wrote them. I wrote some of them, but it didn't really matter, that wasn't the point. It was to find things that we liked, and then to execute them in a fashion that we were comfortable with. And at that particular time, we were in the process of becoming a country-rock band. I'd say there's two or three songs on this album that still hold up that you can probably put out in country today, and be hits. 'Cause structurally they're sound, the musicianship is good, and country hasn't gone away."

    The Catch the Wind album itself, however, would go away quickly, owing to circumstances beyond We Five's control. "It got really good reviews," says Jerry. "What I recall them saying is that it had energy, the vocals were great, great selection of material, it was going someplace We Five had never gone before, and definitely worth a listen. We did Bandstand just as soon as it came out; Dick Clark had always been a fan of ours, 'cause we worked for him a lot. And it started selling, it was moving. Then the guy who owned Vault died, and he also owned a big independent distribution company. People were nervous about what was gonna happen, and probably 60-70% of the Vault material got returned so that people weren't stuck with material in case the company went belly-up. I'd say in a matter of three weeks, that went from being a really well-reviewed album to -- you couldn't buy it. And it never came back. They melted them all down during the gas shortage [in the early 70s]."

    Putting the blow in further context, adds Burgan, "It was devastating when it happened, 'cause we really thought that this was an album that was finally gonna let us break free. This album represented a way for what we knew was the good stuff to get out, and it was frustrating when the plug got pulled. The Return album got mixed reviews. Basically, people said, 'There's some interesting stuff, but there's no cohesiveness.' But Catch the Wind was very cohesive. It had a mood, it had a character, and everything was really well executed. And had we continued doing that, we'd probably be big country stars, or big old, retired country stars," he laughs.

    The lineup that recorded Catch the Wind wouldn't last much longer, as Pete Fullerton left the group shortly after the album (today he heads the San Francisco Bay Area charity Truck of Love). We Five (with Terry Rangno replacing Fullerton) did record some more sessions with Michael Stewart as producer, but those were ill-fated since, as Jerry notes, "It was one of those deals where an independent studio owner tried a power play and wouldn't release the master tapes to our manager. After hearing the recordings and realizing they were really good, he tried to change the arrangement from reimbursement for studio time to half ownership in the project. A couple of the songs were later re-recorded for the Take Each Day As It Comes album, recorded in the early 1970s and released through AVI/ MGM." The band stopped traveling on a full-time basis as We Five in the mid- 1970s, though they continue to do some shows to the present day.

    With this CD reissue, Catch the Wind will be available for We Five fans to hear for the first time since it ran into distribution problems shortly after its release, which has made it difficult to find ever since 1970. Jerry and Debbie Burgan, both of whom perform in the current We Five lineup, are each happy to see the record finally restored to print. "My answer to what's so cool about this was the experience of getting to do it live in the studio," summarizes Jerry. "She would tell you that something very worthwhile is finally going to get to the market, and she'll be able to point to it and say, 'You know what, this is good. It was well done.'" -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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