By Richie Unterberger
When it was released in 1964, Changes -- the Modern Folk Quartet's second and final Warner Brothers LP -- didn't seem like that big of a change from their debut album, 1963's The Modern Folk Quartet (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music). It offered another mixture of traditional folk songs and covers of compositions by contemporary folk-based singer-songwriters, distinguished by the group's multi-part vocal arrangements; as the MFQ's Cyrus Faryar proudly notes, "four-part stuff was sort of our signature. We were doubly blessed, because we had two singers [Jerry Yester and Chip Douglas] that arranged, and with distinct flavors." The back covers of both albums even bore an idiosyncratic stamp reading "Vitaphonic High Fidelity," though as Faryar reveals, "That was probably an ad writer's output. I don't think it was related to anything specifically technical. I think it was a literary innovation more than a technical one."
In Jerry Yester's view, however, the differences between the sound on the first and second MFQ albums were more than merely cosmetic. The group were working with a different producer, Curly Walters (although there was no producer credit given on the original release), who would later sign the Dillards to a brief stint on Capitol Records. They were also recording in a different facility, Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. Admits Yester of their first LP, "I'm not real crazy about the sound. It didn't have a lot of depth, I thought it was a little on the thin side. I thought the sound of the second album was a lot better. By the time we did the second one, we [had] done 100 concerts and were really oiled in what we were doing, and experimented a little bit more. I think the only vocals that competed with us back then was Curt Boettcher's group [the folk band the Goldebriars]. That was the most stunning thing I'd heard at the time, when I heard that. Curt's image of [the vocals] was a stereo image, and it was beautiful, it was wonderful." (Interestingly, just a couple of years later, Yester would replace Boettcher as the Association's producer.)
"There are really sort of two sides to the folk scene," elaborates Faryar in discussing the approach that he, Yester, Douglas, and Henry Diltz took to selecting and recording their material. "There were those who were striving to faithfully reproduce what they assumed was the music of a time gone by -- ancient instruments playing songs, Gregorian chants, wanting very much to hew to the line of history. And inevitably, there was that urge, impulse, to create. Someone had the stunning realization that we're folks, and if I write a song today, it's a folk song. 'Cause I'm a folk! It's today's folk music. There were so many things that you could hang some idea onto, if you wanted to become the voice of your time, as many did choose to do. So you have those that preserve the history, and those that create the future history; [those] would be the two broad camps of folk music.
"We loved folk music because we listened to it a lot, and it inspired us. But we loved performing. We liked singing the songs, and we were very indiscriminate about the songs. Old song, new song, it doesn't matter. If it's a great song, we'd love to sing it. We had no requirements. It didn't have to cross some threshold to be approved of, for us to find a song that we loved to sing. To have this vast resource to draw from of old songs, which people were predisposed to admire and love, and a whole raft of brilliant new songs -- you couldn't ask for a better deal. There's just no shortage of material. You could never run out of songs to sing."
Recorded in late 1963 and issued early the following year, Changes had a few arrangements of traditional items, but was largely given over to interpretations of songs by contemporary composers working in the folk idiom. Some of had been recorded by artists that the group had also covered on The Modern Folk Quartet, like the Kingston Trio (who did "Sing Out") and Bob Gibson, whose "St. Clair's Defeat" was Yester's personal favorite on the album: "An amazing song, and I think it's an absolutely stunning arrangement." (It is session musician David Jackson, by the way, who plays bass on that particular arrangement.)
There was also another tune by their old friend Dino Valenti, whose "Pennies" had been on the first MFQ album. Though credited to "Klonaris-Berger" for reasons that have become obscured by time, "The Little House" is indeed a song by Valenti, who'd become most famous as the author of the oft-covered "Get Together," which became a #5 hit for the Youngbloods in 1969. According to Yester, he and session guitarist Dick Rosmini are doing the fingerpicking on "The Little House," which like a few other Modern Folk Quartet tracks has some light drums, though folk-rock was still a ways off in the horizon. Both Yester and Faryar have hailed the relatively unheralded Rosmini as an important influence on the band, Faryar praising him as "one of the greatest blues singers that I ever heard. Here's this guy that looks like a white banker, and he had something in his voice so special and unique. He could just draw something out of a song." "The Little House," incidentally, was also recorded by Valenti himself on an obscure 1964 Elektra single produced by former MFQ producer Jim Dickson, under the title "Birdses." In turn, the song would inspire Gene Clark to suggest that his new band -- co-managed by Dickson -- call themselves the Byrds. The Modern Folk Quartet had also been interested in doing "Get Together" -- which Valenti wrote long before the Youngbloods took it into the Top Ten -- but never got around to it.
Although numerous stories have circulated about the late Valenti's volatile character, his friend Faryar reflects, "Dino was such a powerhouse of a guy. His performance was so energized, and when his ego was at play, he was a dynamic force. But when he sang 'Birdses,' it was so lighthearted and charming. And there's a side of Dino that very few people got to appreciate -- the quiet poet, which I was privileged to enjoy with Dino. I was acquainted with how charming, a gentle dude he was, on another level. A man of letters and learning, not this abrasive in-your-face kind of guy. That was the side of him that was my friend. When he sang 'Birdses,' it's a sweet little song, and I think that caught our attention."
The Modern Folk Quartet were also among the first artists to cover another important 1960s singer-songwriter, with Changes including their take on Phil Ochs's adaptation of the classic Edgar Allan Poe poem "The Bells." "We knew Ochs really well in New York," explains Yester. "He would come by rehearsals and play songs for us, and he said that he'd just finished this song, adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. And we said, 'Aw, that's great.' So Chip said,' I'd like to give this one a shot.' And after about, I don't know, a couple of weeks, Chip said, 'Listen, I've kind of run out of ideas on this one. Why don't you finish it?' He had like half of it done; he'd taken a couple of the sections, and I just did the sections that weren't done. That was a neat kind of collaboration; I wished we'd done more actual collaboration, but I think that worked out really nicely. And it's an amazing piece." (Incidentally, the version that surfaced on the 1992 CD compilation Troubadours of the Folk Era Vol. 3: The Groups is an outtake, and not the one used on the Changes LP.)
The band also covered "Farewell," which its composer, Bob Dylan, would never release on his own records; Faryar thinks it was inspired by the version Judy Collins had put on her third album. Also appearing on the third Collins album, and surfacing on Changes as well, was "In the Hills of Shiloh," co-written by Shel Silverstein (more famous as a cartoonist and children's author, and for writing novelty hits like Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" and Dr. Hook's "The Cover of Rolling Stone") and Yester's good friend Jim Friedman. While Jerry got the arrangement credit for "Hold the Fort," he's eager to point out that it wasn't a traditional song, but written by Mike Thomas, from whom Yester learned it when the MFQ played in Oklahoma City.
By the time Changes was released in early 1964, the folk circuit -- and indeed the entire American music scene -- had been shaken to the core by the invasion of the Beatles, followed by a torrent of other British rock groups. Many young folkies would go electric in the next year or two, and the Modern Folk Quartet (with the addition of drummer Eddie Hoh) were among them, but unfortunately this phase of their career is ill-documented on record. Moving from Los Angeles to New York (where, amusingly, they shared office space with the Modern Jazz Quartet) from the spring of 1964 through the summer of 1965, they shared bills with the Lovin' Spoonful at the Nite Owl in Greenwich Village. Upon returning to Los Angeles, they played the Trip club on Sunset Strip, opening for new star Donovan. They even recorded for Phil Spector.
But they never did release another album for Warner Brothers before breaking up in 1966, and though a few non-LP MFQ rock singles (one produced by Jack Nitzsche) did come out, these evidently did not capture the best material they did in their folk-rock phase. As for the association with Spector, that went sour when the legendary producer failed to release any of the material he'd recorded with the band, although they did supply the theme song for the early rock concert film The Big TNT Show, "This Could Be the Night." "I never forgave him for the thing with the TNT Show [of which Spector was the musical director and associate producer]," says Yester. "We were supposed to be in it, because we were on his label, for god's sake. But we ended up being the entertainment for everybody while they were setting up for the next band." As for "This Could the Night," even that didn't come out until it was included on a 1991 Phil Spector box set, although it was a big favorite of Brian Wilson and Los Angeles disc jockey/Sunset Strip scenester Rodney Bingenheimer.
"We were on the road so much that when we were off, we didn't really want to work," is how Yester explains the absence of a third Warner Brothers MFQ album. "We basically performed with those two albums worth of material. I don't think we had enough for another album until we changed into folk-rock, and I wished we would have recorded that, but we never did. The group didn't embrace original material as readily as I thought it should have. If we would have stuck with Chip's and my songs, we would have gotten further in the folk-rock days. But Henry's a great devotee of writers, especially California writers, so it's really hard to get past that, as far as the MFQ goes."
Adds Faryar, "We just vacated the scene, right about the time when we could have pulled together a contemporary rock'n'roll thing, with some Tim Hardin material and John Sebastian material and some of our own material. The urgency to do things and go other places came upon us, and we didn't stay in the same room long enough to bring those songs...like the songs that Henry was writing with Erik [Jacobsen, the Lovin' Spoonful's producer]. There's a hole in space where we could have plugged in that third album, and I would love to have known what we would have chosen, because we were surrounded by a lot of great songwriting." He wasn't too satisfied with their attempts at cutting rock in the studio: "We did stuff with Charlie Calello [most noted for working as an arranger on some of Laura Nyro's best early recordings], rock attempts at the hands of other people, which never sat very well with us. I think [MFQ manager] Herbie [Cohen] steered us into some situations, like with Charlie Calello, where they wanted us to think this kind of song, they wanted us to think that kind of song, and we did not thrive in the hands of that kind of direction. We were most successful inventing our own stuff."
They had more
freedom to do
exactly that with their various post-MFQ activities. Chip Douglas would
later join the Turtles on bass, and produce both the Turtles and the
Jerry Yester would replace Zal Yanovsky in the Lovin' Spoonful; produce
the Association, Tim Buckley, and Tom Waits; and make his own albums
his then-wife Judy Henske, as a duo and part of the band Rosebud. Cyrus
Faryar, who had once turned down in an offer from Roger McGuinn to be
a group (which would turn out to be the Byrds), would record albums for
Elektra Records as a solo artist. And Henry Diltz would become one of
most renowned rock photographers, counting the covers of the Doors' Morrison
Hotel and the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album among his many
credits. The Modern Folk Quartet did not die off, however, the members
reuniting for periodic touring and recording to the present day. "All
us have always felt that that's our home group, so to speak," declares
Yester. "It's like family."
-- Richie Unterberger
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