By Richie Unterberger

Before Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe & the Fish, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and other bands made the San Francisco Sound a household term, Autumn Records laid the foundation for the 1960s San Francisco rock scene. In its brief time as a working label in the mid-1960s, Autumn had the first national hits by a San Francisco group in the wake of the first wave of the British Invasion; released the first recordings to feature the vocals of one of the biggest superstars of San Francisco psychedelia; and recorded early folk-rock with bittersweet melodies and male-female vocal harmonies that became trademarks of '60s Bay Area rock. All of those achievements are represented on San Francisco Roots, which was the first compilation LP to assemble a cross-section of tracks by Autumn's most notable artists.

    The LP editions of San Francisco Roots have an odd and confusing history, as two separate but similar albums bearing the title were released. The first of the records was a 13-song disc issued around 1968 by Vault Records, whose Jack Lewerke had acquired the Autumn catalog after Autumn went out of business in 1966. In 1976, Lewerke's JAS label issued San Francisco Roots again with a different cover, as well as additional liner notes by Lewerke and Rachel Donahue (widow of Autumn co-founder Tom Donahue), though the original liner notes by pioneering San Francisco music critic Ralph J. Gleason were also included. Most important, the 1976 version added three extra tracks, even though the two cuts by the Vejtables (which appeared on both editions of the LP) were mislabeled as Beau Brummels recordings, using the wrong title for one of the songs for good measure. This CD reissue uses the track listing from the 1976 edition, and also properly labels the two songs that were previously mistakenly ascribed to the Beau Brummels under different names.

    Autumn was co-founded by Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue, a well-known figure in San Francisco as a DJ on KYA, and Bob Mitchell just in time to catch the first burst of San Francisco rock after the Beatles and other British groups had totally changed the way Americans made pop music. Though Autumn was a small independent label, it managed to score big national hits with the Beau Brummels and Bobby Freeman, as well as more modest ones by the Mojo Men and the Vejtables. Being one of the only games in town for aspiring recording artists, they also cut some early material by musicians who would become heavyweights in San Francisco psychedelic rock, like the Grateful Dead, Sly Stone, the Charlatans, Dino Valenti, and Grace Slick (as part of the Great Society), though much of it was not released at the time. Yet Autumn quickly ran into financial difficulties, the label winding down its operations not long after its first flush of success, their artist roster getting acquired by Warner Brothers. Donahue went on to become a major figure in the rise of underground FM rock radio on the San Francisco stations KMPX and KSAN, dying in 1975; Mitchell had passed away long before, in 1969.

    It's no surprise that the Beau Brummels are the Autumn act most heavily represented on San Francisco Roots, as they were by far the label's most successful rock band. "Laugh Laugh," the track that leads off this CD, was not just a Top Twenty hit in early 1965—it was arguably the very first American hit to convincingly emulate the sound of the British Invasion. "Laugh Laugh" wasn't a mere Beatles imitation, however, its forlorn harmonica, melancholy melody, and blend of acoustic and electric guitars also pointing the way toward folk-rock.

    Two of the other Beau Brummels tracks on San Francisco Roots, "Stick Like Glue" and "If You Want Me To," come from the group's first Autumn LP, and ably display their knack for exuberant British Invasion knockoffs. Yet the two other selections by the band, "Don't Talk to Strangers" and "Sad Little Girl," show them moving into more straightforward folk-rock. The ringing guitars and hazy harmonies of "Don't Talk to Strangers," which just missed the Top Fifty in 1965, couldn't fail to bring to mind the Byrds; "Sad Little Girl," used as a B-side later that year, was one of the band's most underrated tracks, building to a dramatic climax paced by Sal Valentino's reliably rich and stirring vocals. The Beau Brummels had much more music in them than the two LPs and handful of singles they issued on Autumn, but their remaining 1960s releases would find their way to the world through Warner Brothers, their contributions to igniting folk-rock and the San Francisco Sound remaining underappreciated to this day.

    When the first version of San Francisco Roots appeared in 1968, the Great Society's "Somebody to Love" and "Free Advice" were the two most coveted cuts by a long stretch. These had been the first recordings on which Grace Slick's vocals could be heard when they were first issued as a 45 on Autumn's subsidiary Northbeach in early 1966, with "Somebody to Love" still bearing its original title "Someone to Love." The problem was, very few people actually heard it at the time, the single not gaining any distribution beyond DJ copies and a few that were available at the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street. Getting satisfactory recordings of the tracks with young producer Sly Stone had been quite an ordeal, with the B-side, the raga-influenced "Free Advice," needing 53 takes.

    A good number of additional Autumn recordings by the band that remained unreleased at the time, and more particularly some explosive early psychedelic live tapes (eventually issued on Columbia) later in 1966, showed the Great Society to be a band of enormous potential, Slick's vocals and songwriting already attaining brilliant heights. The Great Society disbanded, however, when Slick replaced Signe Anderson in Jefferson Airplane in late 1966, taking Great Society guitarist Darby Slick's "Somebody to Love" into her new band's repertoire. Jefferson Airplane's version made the Top Five in 1967, but the Great Society performance you hear on the CD was the first one to get onto record, if barely into distribution.

    Autumn's biggest hit was actually not by a rock band, but by veteran early rock'n'roll singer Bobby Freeman. Six years after hitting #5 with the 1958 classic "Do You Wanna Dance," he rose to the exact same position with the early soul dance smash "C'mon and Swim." Both parts of the two-part single were among the tracks added to the 1976 version of San Francisco Roots, where they were not wholly accurately titled "Swim Part 1" and "Swim Part 2." Freeman did try to follow up his hit with a different 1964 single titled "S-W-I-M," but neither that nor any other release could return him to the Top Forty.

    Autumn also had a bit of national success with a couple groups on their roster whose paths would eventually intersect. The Mojo Men's rough'n'ready frat-garage-rock hybrid "Dance with Me" made #61 in late 1965; both that cut and its follow-up single, "She's My Baby" (both produced by Sly Stone), were on San Francisco Roots. Featuring drummer/vocalist Jan Errico, the Vejtables made #84 with the winsome folk-rocker "I Still Love You." Both it and its highly Beau Brummels-like B-side "Anything" also made it onto San Francisco Roots, though the 1976 edition mistakenly credited "Anything" to the Beau Brummels and listed "I Still Love You" as the Beau Brummels' "Still in Love with You Baby"!  Errico would soon join the Mojo Men, who after a move to Reprise hit the Top Forty with a cover of the Buffalo Springfield's "Sit Down, I Think I Love You."

    Rounding out San Francisco Roots were relics by two of Autumn's most obscure acts. The Tikis, represented by their 1965 single "If I've Been Dreaming"/"Pay Attention to Me," evolved into the sunshine pop group Harper's Bizarre, with ex-Beau Brummel John Petersen on drums; another member, Ted Templeman, went on to produce popular albums by the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, and Van Halen. The Knight Riders never even got as far as releasing anything on Autumn, with their elementary garage rocker "I" making its first appearance on San Francisco Roots.

    Autumn Records has never really gotten its due for its huge role in launching the 1960s San Francisco rock scene. It would take hit records on major labels like RCA, Warner Brothers, and Columbia—some of them including musicians who had once recorded for Autumn—to make the music (and the city's counterculture) a national phenomenon. The music on San Francisco Roots is where it all started. – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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