By Richie Unterberger

The psychedelic era produced so many diverse, unusual sounds and groups that it would be hard to find any worthwhile psychedelic band that wasn't idiosyncratic in some ways. Even among late-'60s psychedelic groups, however, Fever Tree boasted attributes that set them aside from many of their peers on several counts. There was their unusual heavy concentration of classical and jazz influences within a rock framework, as well as their use of numerous instruments other than the standard guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards. There was also the use of a husband-wife team that wasn't part of the group, Scott and Vivian Holtzman, who supplied much of the material as well as handling management and production duties. The Houston group did some recording both before and after their first two albums, but those two records, Fever Tree and Another Time, Another Place—combined here onto one CD—are considered their most essential and popular work.

     Originally known as the Bostwick Vines, the group changed their name to Fever Tree after hooking up with the Holtzmans, who had already written some material on records by the New Christy Minstrels and Tex Ritter. It wasn't the kind of resume one would expect to lead to involvement with an emerging psychedelic rock combo, but Fever Tree proved adept at interpreting and recording the Holtzmans' material for rock arrangements, also getting involved in the writing as well. With the lineup of singer Dennis Keller, guitarist Michael Knust, drummer John Tuttle, bassist  E.E. "Bud" Wolfe III, and rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Don Lampton, they had some success in Houston with singles on the Mainstream label. By the time they were ready to record their first album, they'd signed to a new label, Uni, and replaced Lampton with multi-instrumentalist Rob Landes, who handled harp, flute, harpsichord, bass recorder, clavinette, and cello in addition to piano and organ.

    "I actually had  played on the 45s that were released before the first album," clarifies Landes today. "The original keyboard player, Don Lampton, was pretty limited in his playing, and Scott Holtzman and I had been friends for many years prior to Fever Tree. [He] called me and asked me to play on 'Girl Don't Push Me' and one or two of the other early singles. I think my classical background affected the group's sound significantly. I would sneak in some Bach or Ravel into some of the songs, and was always surprised when someone would come up to us at concerts and mention specific things about the classical tid-bits that I inserted."

    As for the group dynamic, he adds, "I've always maintained that the two strongest elements of Fever Tree were Dennis's voice, and Mike's guitar. The rest of us added to those two dynamic musical forces. I guess without tooting my own horn, the keyboards and flute, etc. that I played would have been the next strongest influence. Bud was a strong bass player, but usually laid back most of the time. John was, by his own admission, never a really strong drummer, and we used a studio drummer from time to time to 'sweeten' the drum tracks."

    It was unusual for a group to work so closely with outside figures such as the Holtzmans in the songwriting, but Landes says the process worked well. "Scott and Vivian were involved in every single aspect of Fever Tree, so it was easy to play and record their material. We rehearsed at their house. There was a room that was set up for us at all times. Scott was our manager as well as our producer, so he, especially, was very involved in every song that we ever recorded. He had great ideas and we loved his input. I think we stretched out our musical ideas during the recording of the first album, simply because we were in the studio for a long period of time, and we just had more time to try more things." Though Fever Tree would largely be recorded in Houston, some of it was done in Los Angeles as well, and orchestral arrangements were added by Gene Page and David Angel. Page was best known for his work on many soul hits, including the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," while Angel will always be most famous for his contributions to Love's Forever Changes, now regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

    Certainly the track that caught the most attention on Fever Tree was "San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)," with its searing sustain guitar and highly topical late-'60s subject. As it got a good amount of airplay throughout the US, it comes as a surprise to learn that it only made #91 in the national charts—the only national chart single the group ever landed. The instrumental tag that brings the track to a close, Landes reveals, "came about as an accident. During the recording of it, we had finished several takes, and at the end of one, the song began again, with the timpani from a previous take. So we just left it as it played, and faded it."

    Another cut on the LP, "The Sun Also Rises," seemed to have some pop potential as well, with its arching upbeat melody, sweeping strings, and jazzy piano passages. "I always loved 'The Sun Also Rises' and had always wanted it released as a single," enthuses Rob. "I don't know why it never was." One of his own favorites on the record is "Come With Me (Rainsong)," "a song that Scott, Vivian and I had written. The night we recorded that song a tremendous Houston rainstorm came up, and somebody (probably Scott) had the idea to put a mike outside and record the storm over the final take. You can hear the cars driving down the street (incidentally, it is a street named Broadway), and the thunder at the very end of the song actually happened just as you hear it. We got word a year or so after the album was released that Elvis loved that song, and wanted to record it. It never, as far as we ever knew, happened. Pity."

    Although most of the material on the album was generated by Fever Tree and the Holtzmans, there was also a medley of the Beatles' "Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out," which had actually comprised two sides of the same Beatles single in late 1965. There was also a version of Buffalo Springfield's "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" that must count as one of the earliest covers of a Neil Young composition. "'Clancy' had been a favorite song of mine before we recorded it," notes Landes. "If you listen closely to the track, you can hear a 'backward piano' on it. I wrote down the piano line, and then played it on another track, playing it backward, as they played the lead track. When they played track forward, you can hear the piano playing backward. I always wished the mix had brought that track out a little bit stronger."

    Much of the material on Fever Tree boasted multi-sectioned structures and classical influences that not only reflected psychedelic experimentation, but looked forward in some ways to progressive rock. They continued to explore those directions on their second album, Another Time, Another Place, which in the style of the day offered some quite lengthy tracks. A seven-minute reworking of "Man Who Paints the Pictures" opened the album, while a similarly extended number, "Jokes Are for Sad People," led off side two. "We were very aware of the variety of sounds that we produced in the group," observes Landes. "We were all instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing various things to the table musically. I was already into jazz and, of course, classical. I had learned to play the flute a few years before in order to play some jazz on it. I think songs such as 'Jokes Are for Sad People' showed a strong jazz influence. We were a little worried at one point, I think, that the second album was too diverse. But I think in the end, it spoke for itself, and ended up being a lot of people's favorite of the albums." It out-performed the debut LP on the charts, too, reaching #83 where Fever Tree had peaked at #156.

    There's a pronounced soul-influenced heavy rock feel to some of the material on Another Time, Another Place, especially in Dennis Keller's vocals. Landes has proclaimed Vanilla Fudge—not thought of one of the biggest names of '60s rock today, but a very popular group at the time—a particularly strong influence on his organ style. "After the first year of playing, I decided that the 'Beatle Organ' that I was playing was too thin a sound for the intensity of the group's overall sound, and I wanted to switch to a Hammond B-3," he remembers. "I had become a huge fan of Vanilla Fudge, and loved the way they employed the Hammond B-3 sound into their albums. So, I bought a B-3, with two Leslie speakers, and we began using it on the road. It never quite sounded right."

    Rob continues, "So, I had heard that Vanilla Fudge was playing at a club somewhere. I called the club manager, told him who I was, and fortunately, he knew who I was, and I asked him where the group was staying. He gave me their number, and I called the keyboard player—I think it was Mark Stein—and asked him how they miked the organ, and he told me how to do it. Passed the info along to our set-up guys, and viola! It worked. The problem with miking Leslie speakers is that they produce a lot of wind noise when they spin. So he told us how to do it. I guess the B-3 was the biggest Vanilla Fudge influence in the group."

    Although, as Landes acknowledges, "Another Time was filled with a lot more variety than the first album," it's not his favorite Fever Tree record. "Frankly, except for a couple of songs, I was never that fond of the second album. I don't think it compares to the first album. I guess my two favorites are 'Jokes' and 'Peace of Mind.'" While most of the material again originated with Fever Tree and the Holtzmans, "Grand Candy Young Sweet" came from Frank Davis, while "Peace of Mind" was sourced from, unexpectedly, Nick Woods, who had been in the New Christy Minstrels. As for the other cover tune, Rob admits, "I always hated, and still hate, the song 'Fever.' Even when Peggy Lee sang it, I never liked it. I fought doing it on the album. I think Scott wanted to do it simply because it referred to 'fever.'"

    Considering how many instruments and how much orchestration was involved in Fever Tree recordings, it seems like it must have been quite a challenge to present the material in concert. According to Landes, however, "We did a pretty good job on re-creating our songs onstage. Of course, in those days, we didn't play with any pre-recorded tracks, so it was impossible to duplicate everything. But there was so much going on during our concerts. We performed with a light show, and of course, the audiences were so stoned that they probably thought they were hearing everything that was on the album! The light shows that we had during our performances were actually really good, and added a huge dimension to our concerts."

    There were a couple more Fever Tree albums in the early 1970s before the group broke up. Although there was a live reunion with everyone except John Tuttle a few years later and "Dennis and Mike talked about reforming the group and doing it all again, I was not the least bit interested in doing that again," concludes Rob. "I felt like it would be trying to re-create something that just would never be the same. Mike tried several reincarnations of Fever Tree, but none of them ever worked." Knust, sadly, died in 2003. Landes, however, remains very much an active musician, putting his classical training to use as the organist/artist-in-residence at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston since 1996. In addition to his duties as organist, he writes music for the choirs, and performs organ and piano concerts both at St. Luke’s and around the country. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 unless otherwise specified.