By Richie Unterberger
As the chief songwriter and guitarist of the Beau Brummels, Ron Elliott was the prime creative force behind one of the most underrated rock groups of the 1960s. He was not the chief voice of the group, however, which usually backed the outstanding lead vocals of Sal Valentino. That may have been one of the reasons that Elliott's sole solo album, The Candlestickmaker, sank without a trace when it was released as the 1960s turned into the 1970s. The rare LP was the culmination of Elliott's journey from pop-rock hitmaker to subdued country-folk-rock singer-songwriter, using many top-level L.A. session players on a record that put his own singing front and center for the first time.
It was the Beau Brummels' lot to start at the top, with a hit debut single, "Laugh Laugh," that was the first real commercially and artistically successful emulation of the British Invasion sound by an American band. An even bigger hit ("Just a Little") followed in 1965, but there were no more smashes, leading some ill-informed historians to write them off as one-hit or two-hit wonders. In fact the Beau Brummels continued to produce quality folk-rock and country-rock throughout the rest of the 1960s, with Elliott's songwriting evolving from the standard teen-oriented romantic themes of the group's earliest work to subtle, sophisticated, and introspective compositions.
In some ways Elliott's music was moving steadily away from pop and more toward country and folk the further the 1960s progressed. Hints of a country bent were evident even as early as the Beau Brummels' debut album, which included a cover of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me," as well as some outtakes (since released) of Ron Elliott originals from their mid-1960s stint on Autumn Records, such as "Dream On." When the Beau Brummels went to Warner Brothers in 1966, they were briefly derailed into recording an entire album of covers of mid-'60s rock hits on the disastrous Beau Brummels '66. Soon, however, they were granted artistic freedom under the direction of producer Lenny Waronker, resulting in a return to form and a more serious, rootsy sound on 1967's Triangle.
On 1968's Bradley's Barn, the group went even further into country-influenced rock, traveling to Nashville to record at producer Owen Bradley's famed studio and using some of the city's top session musicians. By the time Bradley's Barn was finished, however, the Beau Brummels had been reduced from the quintet that cut "Laugh Laugh" to the duo of Elliott and Sal Valentino, with second guitarist Dec Mulligan leaving the band early on; drummer John Petersen joining Harpers Bizarre; and bassist Ron Meagher getting drafted into the army. Valentino would join Stoneground, and Elliott was on his own for the first time, as a Warner Brothers recording artist.
For The Candlestickmaker, a pretty astonishing team of Southern Californian musicians was assembled to support Elliott's guitar and vocals, though the lineup varied from track to track. Among the crew were bassist Chris Ethridge, an original member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, who also played on notable late-'60s folk-rock albums by Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie. Handling most of the drums was Dennis Dragon, who would play in the Beach Boys' touring band in the 1970s alongside his keyboardist brother Daryl Dragon, later half of Captain and Tennille. Guitarist Mark McClure and bassist Dan Levitt (who also sang some vocal harmonies) had done an obscure album of their own for Warner Brothers in 1969 as Levitt & McClure, Living in the Country, on which Elliott produced and wrote a few songs.
Elsewhere on The Candlestickmaker, jazzman Bud Shank added flute to "Lazy Day," while Leon Russell did the brass arrangement for "To the City, To the Sea." The string arrangements for "To the City, To the Sea" and the first part of "The Candlestickmaker Suite" were provided by Bob Thompson, who did similar work on albums of the period by Harpers Bizarre, Steve Young, Van Dyke Parks, and Phil Ochs. Ex-cohort Sal Valentino even participated, but not on vocals, instead bashing tambourine on a few songs. Perhaps the most distinctive sideman contribution was Ry Cooder's instantly identifiable bluesy guitar on "Deep River Runs Blue."
Elliott's songwriting had always had a serious and somber tone, but probably never more so than on The Candlestickmaker. Nor had anything the Beau Brummels recorded been as laidback and mellow, and the album was in keeping with the mood of Warners Los Angeles studio rock as the 1970s loomed. The five songs on side one were very much in this reflective groove, three of them co-written by Elliott with Gary Downey, who co-produced the LP with Ron. Elliott was by no means a stranger to such collaborations, having written many of his Beau Brummels songs with collaborators, particularly his high school friend Bob Durand and (on much of Triangle and Bradley's Barn) Sal Valentino.
Far less conventional, however, was the 15-minute "The Candlestickmaker Suite," which took up all of side two, divided into "Dark Into Dawn" and "Questions" segments. "It's a story about the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and I," Elliott told me in a 1999 interview. "All of these forces around this guy going through this madness. It has a healing quality to it.
"Years later, I had some guy walk up to me after a gig. He said he was in Vietnam, and he played that album every day, and it saved his life. And that's the kind of album it is. I always thought it should have been in a documentary of Vietnam or something for vets. It was fun doing. But hardly popular."
Judging from how
hard it is
to turn up an original copy of the LP, one wonders whether copies ever
got out of the warehouse, let alone how one managed to get over to
It would be Elliott's only solo outing, though he subsequently did
work for Randy Newman, Van Morrison, and Little Feat, and participated
in 1970s albums by Pan (as producer and songwriter), Giants, and a
Beau Brummels. With the Beau Brummels receiving belated recognition as
folk-rock, country-rock, and San Francisco rock innovators, this CD
of The Candlestick Maker rounds out our view of Ron Elliott's
body of work as one of the most underappreciated singer-songwriters of
-- Richie Unterberger
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