What were the main contributions of the other guys in the band to the Rationals sound?

Steve and I were the original Rationals.  We had similar backgrounds.  We both grew up in Ann Arbor, and our parents knew each other.  His father had been a jazz trumpet player.  My parents both had musical backgrounds.  And so we hit it off pretty good, and for about a year or two there, we were the Rationals.  We just started jamming together and stuff.  From the beginning, it just seemed like I probably was the better singer, and he was the better guitar player.  So we kind of split the chores up like that.  I was the singer, and he was the guitar player, although I played guitar too.

Then we started writing songs together.  In the songwriting, the same pattern emerged where he would write music, and I would write the lyrics.  And he was very inventive.  He's left-handed and played upside down.  He would restring the guitar so that the big strings are still at the top, and the little strings at the bottom, and he'd still chord the same way.  He played the way -- I think Albert King's one of them, and a few different left-handed guitar players that just play with a right-handed guitar turned upside down, so that now the first string's at the top, and the big string's at the bottom.  You have to chord it totally differently.  So you couldn't tell, looking at his chords, what the heck he was playing.

He was very inventive, almost like jazz in his playing.  He could really jam.  He liked jazz kind of stuff.  So he really added a lot, a dimension more than just a straight rock, three-chord dimension to the band.  Excellent.  Steve and Terry did all the [vocal] backups.  And they were just fantastic.  They basically made "I Need You," because their harmonies are just beautiful.  It sounds like a gospel choir behind me or something.  It's just the two of them.

Bill had been a marching band drummer.  He was the first and only drummer that we ever played with in the Rationals.  We'd had guys that like we jammed with and stuff like that, some friends in junior high that just had maybe a snare drum or something like that.  But this was the first time we had a full-time drummer with a drum set.  And it just sort of clicked.  There was always some whirl of "we gotta get another drummer, he's just not good enough," or "we don't get along with him" or something like that.  It was always a problem.  Bill was a year older than the rest of us.  He was one grade ahead of us in school.  But it was never my opinion that that was the case.  I didn't think we really needed some kind of a hotshot drummer.  I didn't think that was really holding us back or anything like that.  He did his job.

Why did you record "Leavin' Here" twice?

Jeep was still convinced that "Leavin' Here" was a hit.  He'd never been convinced otherwise.  After they flipped "Respect" over and put "Leavin' Here" on the B-side.  We went in and recorded that again next, with a keyboard player from the SRC, Glenn Quackenbush.  The original version, the "Respect" flipside version, had Deon Jackson playing keyboard on that, and bongos or something.  So now we're up to the last Cameo-Parkway record, and that's "Leavin' Here," and Jeep's convinced that it's gonna be a hit, because it just is.  He couldn't get it out of his head that it wasn't a hit. But we did it again, and that's when Cameo-Parkway folded.  I'm not sure whether it just wasn't a hit, or whether the label went out of business [in] the middle of it.

Why did you guys split from Jeep?

The rest of the band wanted to get another manager, definitely.  [They were] convinced that the reason we hadn't become bigger was because of Jeep.  So there was a whole lot of things going on 1968.  "I Need You" came out.  It was a pretty big hit in Detroit.  But at that time, we were starting to head in a different direction musically.  We were all out of high school now, living on our own.  We didn't feel like we needed that babysitter kind of manager.  We wanted just to be creative musicians with a professional management behind us.  The other things that were going on in Detroit -- the MC5 and the Stooges were starting to play, [Bob Seger did] "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man."  He signed to Capitol Records, and he put out "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man."  FM radio was also starting to take over from AM radio -- a hipper, different kind of image than the AM radio image. We were surrounded by a sea of change at that point.  And one of the changes was that the band wanted a new manager, and so they went out and found some guy that they felt would be a good manager for 'em.  We left Jeep at that point.

It was sort of like a, "We kind of had to grow up and go off on our own" sort of a deal.  But at the same time, I thought Jeep had done a lot for us.  And still could have done a lot for us.  But I think that he was reluctant to let us grow up, let us go, in any way.  Even if he was still our manager or producer or whatever.  He may not have even understood what we were trying to do.  I kind of got the impression that he was out of touch with us.  He was very busy.  Like I said, he was doing everything, and was having a hard time keeping up with us, just time-wise.  But at the same time, we were like moving ahead fast, in our minds anyway.  Things were changing really fast, and it was time for some kind of a change.  It wouldn't have had to been a management change.  But it would have had to been some kind of a new attitude or something, you know.

I think it kind of like broke his heart.  I really felt bad about that.  Because I never really -- I'm the kind of guy who just will go with the flow, right?  And the other three guys in the band had decided that they didn't want Jeep as a manager.  And I wanted to keep the band together, so I kind of felt like I had no choice.  But I realized that it just really knocked the wind out of his sails when we left.  It had happened before, when SRC had left.  But this was worse, 'cause we were his first band.  So now he'd lost two of his main bands. I think he just had enough at that point.  He didn't really do too much after that.

If you had to speculate on why the Rationals never became a national act, despite your success with some regional singles, what do you think it was?

Aside from all the business aspects, like moving from one label to another and never getting on one major label and staying there, never graduating from the A2 school of running everything out of Jeep's apartment kind of a deal, I think we were too young.  We didn't have very much experience.  We were kind of learning as we went along, and we didn't really know how it was done.  How you get bigger, famous, or better.  We didn't know any of that stuff.  We were just kind of making it up as we went along.  We were like seventeen when "Respect" came out.  We were still in high school.  We couldn't tour.  In retrospect, it may be good that it didn't happen, because we could have been one of those child star prodigy things that like makes it too soon, and then later on it's sort of like, you end up like Frankie Lymon or something.  So in a sense, I think we just had to proceed at our own pace.  There was a lot of factors involved.  I think that's one of them.  We were too young.

What was behind the change of your musical direction to more hard rock and progressive sounds?

After we left Jeep, which would have been probably summer of '68, we just spent like the next year not doing much of anything.  We recorded "Guitar Army" on our own, and Capitol Records didn't want it, and the radio stations in Detroit didn't want it, because they didn't understand what we were doing.  So we figured we should look for a new record label.  We had a new manager at that point, Larry Feldman, who'd been a manager of the Grande Ballroom.  We started recording an album on our own, and we teamed up with Robin Seymour.  Larry and Robin put this little production company together, and found a deal with Bob Crewe for the album.  Put the album out, and at that point, it's starting to get a little too scattered. There seemed to be no focus.  There was no center anymore.  Nobody was in charge.  Eventually our manager just kind of walked out, and didn't even tell us he was leaving.  Robin Seymour was the de facto manager at that point.  He didn't know what to do with us.  Eventually the band just broke up.  I was offered a solo career, and I just said, I'm just going to cut it.

The live album that came out in the 1990s from late 1960s live tapes was much different than your earlier singles.

If you listen to the "Temptation 'Bout to Get Me" live at the Grande Ballroom 1968, you can tell on that that we're not playing the hits. We're not doing "Respect," we're not doing "I Need You," we're not even doing "Guitar Army."  We're just doing what we want to do, basically.  That was indicative of where we were at at that time, in the fall of '68.  We're just kind of experimenting.  We're doing some R&B stuff that we like, and we're just kind of jamming and stretching out, letting things happen and stuff.  You realize early on, when you have a hit like "Respect," that people expect you to play it over and over again, and you get tired of it really fast.  If you have to play it like every night, after a year of playing the song every night, you're tired of it.  You want to do something else.  But you're expected to keep doing it.  After a while, it's like you want to get rid of the uniforms, the band uniforms, and the structure and the chaperone.  You just kind of want to move on.  And we did the same thing in the music.

John Sinclair was saying that we were just trying to copy the MC5 in [some] liner notes. And I don't think that's true.  We highly respected the MC5.  We thought a lot of them.  We were friends.  But there were so many other bands playing at the same time that to say that we were copying the MC5 -- it's probably the obvious thing to say, because we both were working out of the same theater.  But it would be like saying, the MC5 were copying us, 'cause they moved to Ann Arbor, or something like that.  They were highly influential, but then the Stooges were too, you know.

The MC5 and us were both doing the same two songs.  We were doing "Ramblin' Rose" by Ted Taylor, and we were also doing "I Put a Spell On You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins.  And they were both doing the same two songs.  So we kind of, Wayne and I, said let's compromise, and you do one and we'll do one.  And, like, which one do you want to do?  And Wayne wanted to sing "Ramblin' Rose."  So we said okay, then, we'll stop doing that, we'll just do "I Put a Spell on You."  Each of us claimed that the other one was doing 'em first so...I think we both discovered 'em around the same time.  Because we were listening to the same sorts of things.  Screamin' Jay Hawkins, at that point, had just become really popular.  Creedence Clearwater covered it, Arthur Brown.  And Ted Taylor's "Ramblin' Rose" was pretty obscure. Nobody else besides us and the 5 were doing it, I don't think.  So it worked out better for them, I think.  We didn't ever record "I Put a Spell On You," except on that live record.

We liked a lot of different kinds of music.  We were starting to bring in, suck in a lot of influences.  Jazz, country and western, blues, soul, hard rock, psychedelic rock.  A lot of stuff was starting to creep in, and we were just kind of, it was becoming a melting pot kind of a situation.  We would like go as a band, we would go to the Arboretum, which is this big park at the University of Michigan here.  And go up in the woods and play, like take some acoustic guitars and conga drums and flutes and stuff, and play up in the woods, tripping out, having a good time.  Then we decided we would take that to the stage.  It became almost like a kind of a noodle band thing.

What was the story with you being offered the spot of singer in Blood, Sweat & Tears?

We had become friends with Al Kooper, when he was in the Blues Project.  So we knew the other guys in the Blues Project.  When they came to Detroit as Blood, Sweat & Tears, we went to see them, and I think we may have even played with them. Well, shortly after that Child Is Fatherto the Man album and that tour, the band fired Al.  The rest of the guys had remembered me, and so they had [their manager] call me and say, "Will you fly out for an audition in New York?"  I'm going, "No" (laughs).  No way! I got a band, we're putting out our first album, and if I joined your band...if you kicked out Al Kooper, where would I stand?"  I mean, he started the band.  I would be just like a sideman or something.  It just seemed all wrong.  I said no, I'd just be taking the money.  They're going, "come on, we'll just fly you out, we can just talk," I'm going like, "It's you wasting your money."  I'd do it just for a kick, but I don't want to be in the band.

I never really regretted that.  Having hit records and being in a band that I couldn't stand -- I don't think the payback would be enough (laughs).  It would never be enough.  They just figured, well, we have a band, we can use this guy.  I was never interested and I never looked back.  I never felt bad about it.  I never felt like I made a mistake.

How do you feel about the Rationals only album, which came out in 1970?

I don't think I've ever made a record that I couldn't say something about like, "This could have been different," or something.  But I was fairly pleased with the record.  The co-producer added those little segueways between the songs. Some people didn't like 'em.  Myself, I kind of thought it was kind of creative.  I didn't think it was too bad.  It kind of played havoc with the DJs, 'cause they had to cue it up differently, or something like that.  I think the production, sure, it could have always, it could have been better, the performances maybe just a little bit tighter.  It's always something.

That album was on the Crewe label, run by producer Bob Crewe. How did he end up getting involved with the band?

That may have been part of the problem.  He had Mitch Ryder when Mitch was with the Wheels, and then later on when he started his solo career, before Detroit though, when [he] went back to his roots.  He had like Oliver, he'd worked with the Four Seasons.  Those were cool bands, but didn't have anything to do with what we were doing.  What had happened was, we had recorded this record, and they couldn't find anybody to put it out.  So they were just sort of like, gonna take the first legitimate offer they got, and that was it.

What was the most memorable live show you did with the Rationals?

The biggest show we ever did was, we played Cobo Hall in 1966 when "Respect" was out.  We played with a bunch of other people that were real big at the time.  We went onstage and we'd never played a show this big before.  It was like 10,000 screaming girls and flashlights going off and girls running up to the stage and trying to jump on the stage and knocking over the barricades.  They took us offstage once after a couple of songs.  And they said, you have to tell the audience to go sit down, and if they don't, the show's over.  So we told that, and so the lights go off, and it all happens again.  We never even finished the set.  That was the most exciting show we ever did.

Then after that we went across the street to the hotel.  We were hanging with ? & the Mysterians and all the other people from the show at this hotel, and looking out the window, and throwing notes down to the girls.  And our manager says, well, we gotta go to our real gig, the one we're getting paid for.  We're going like, no, we can't go anywhere else now!  So we went to some basement dive place, like a little hall or something like that.  Set up in the corner on the floor, and played for these people that really didn't want to hear us anyway.  It was like the most bizarre thing you'd ever seen.  'Cause we'd gone from like total adulation to like total rejection in like in a matter of hours.

How was it that you sometimes just sang, and sometimes played guitar too?

When we first started out, I was playing guitar.  Up until "Respect," I was playing guitar onstage.  And they took my guitar away.  They said, you should just perform, and be the frontman.  So I did that for a couple of years, and it really did add to the show a lot.  Because now I wasn't stuck with both my hands on the guitar, my feet planted in front of the microphone. I could move around, I could gesture, I could do whatever I wanted to do.  That made a big difference in our show.  Later on when I started playing guitar again, it was because I felt that the music needed it.  But it can take away from the show, because playing a guitar, if you're playing it, it takes some concentration.  Unless you're just strumming away at a guitar that's not turned on or something, it kind of ties you down a little bit.  When I stopped playing onstage, I stopped playing on the records.

What was the story behind the "Guitar Army" single, which was your move into hard rock, and has sometimes been interpreted as having a radical political slant?

It came out like around the beginning of 1969.  Same one [version], that and "Sunset."  We put it out as a single on Genesis Records, and the record label went out of business. The radio stations didn't like it in Detroit.  For the concept, it was written as a response to like everything that was going on at the time.  We were in the middle of getting deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War, and the MC5 were starting the White Panthers, and there was a whole concept of, "we have to fight fire with fire."  My idea was that true revolutionaries used revolutionary means.  And I had this vision guitar players walking down the street, like in a squad, with these amps strapped to their backs and stuff.  So I wrote the lyrics that kind of like was an answer to everything to like what the White Panther Party ten-point program was, and just kind of my response to that.  I think it was kind of an answer song.  Not to any specific song, but just in general to what was going on around me at the time.  But it was too much of a departure.  Just a few months earlier, we had done "I Need You."  And it was such a left turn that people couldn't pick it up.  They're going, "What?"  But then John Sinclair picked up the concept again for his book title.  I think probably more people are just familiar with the name of the song itself [than with the actual record].

Do you think the Rationals had any influence on other artists?

The most famous one is the Aretha Franklin "Respect" story.  We put out "Respect" in '66, about a year after Otis Redding.  But because we didn't have a horn section, we had Steve and Terry sing the backup parts.  I mean the horn parts as like vocal parts. Aretha Franklin, her sisters Carolyn and Erma were her backup singers.  And Carolyn, I think she did a lot of the arranging of the backup vocals.  At the time, "Respect" was just a huge hit.  You couldn't live in Detroit and not hear that song on the radio.

And I think what happened was, I think eventually when Aretha writes her book this may come up, but she said it in an interview or two.  I think that Carolyn listened to our version, and she said, "We could do what they're doing, do the horn parts with our vocals.  But we could do it a lot better."  And they did.  And about six or eight months after version, their version came out, and it was just obviously much, much more professional, much better, much more soulful, much looser.  And the stuff they did with the backup vocals was just -- made the record, you know.  So that's one of the most obvious influences. They did, pretty much, a faithful cover, I think, of the Otis Redding version with guitars instead of horns.  Organ.  That would put it in the Stax vein.  That's quite possible.  Talk to Jerry Wexler about that.

Another person who was convinced that "Leavin' Here" was a hit was Iggy Pop, James Osterberg.  He worked in the same record store that Jeep worked in, Discount Records on U of M campus.  And he bought all the copies of "Leavin' Here" out of the record store, so that nobody else could hear the song.  He was gonna have the big hit with it.  That was very on in his career.  Probably, right around that time [the Iguana days].

What were your musical activities right after the Rationals broke up?

Between the Rationals and Sonic Rendezvous Band, there was like -- well, three years before I actually started playing with Fred [Smith].  And at that point, we formed a band called Guardian Angel, which didn't release anything.  And changed the name, and got another guitar player.  Our guitar player in Guardian Angel was Tex Gabriel, who went on to play with Elephants Memory. He ended up being John Lennon's guitar player, which was a great move for him, leaving our band (laughs).  We got some other guys in the band, and we changed the name to Lightnin'.  And we put out one single, "Hijacking Love," recorded.  Then I got tired of that band, and I quit, and started trying to think of somebody else I could work with in the area.  I hooked up with Fred Smith, and that was Sonic Rendezvous Band, although we didn't form the definitive lineup until '76, and we didn't really put out anything, except the single around '78.

We got the original band back together [in the 1990s].  We did one show, and they said, well, that went pretty good, let's do some more.  So we did, and then the band broke up again.  They started fighting, and they wanted to get rid of the drummer again, and the bass player and the guitar player didn't get along.  Oh, man.  We kept playing for a while.  We ended up playing around here, because I wasn't doing anything else at the time, for like close to two years.

We're actually going to do a Sonic Rendezvous Band reunion in September in Detroit.  This band called the Helicopters in Sweden, they're huge Detroit music fans, they love Sonic Rendezvous Band, MC5, and all that stuff.  I've been working with them quite a bit lately.  They were supposed to play in Detroit in September, and the promoter asked me to put together a band to do the show.

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