Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Rare Peek Inside Sunshine Pop

A week ago, I was deeply involved in the task of eradicating parking meters in St. Cloud, Minnesota’s Downtown. The dust has settled a bit in that area, and now that we have all of the merchants on the petition and an endorsement from the newspaper, all I have to do is wait until the petition hits the City Council agenda in a couple of weeks. For now, I get to write a post I have anticipated for a long time.

A bit over a year ago, I wrote a post about a favorite song from my childhood, “Washington Square.” Shortly thereafter, I was able to converse with the song’s composer, Bobb Goldsteinn. We have become friends, and frankly, hanging out with such an artist in his hometown, in an area (South Street in Philadelphia) that certainly contributed to his composition, makes listening to the song a whole new experience.

Beyond “Washington Square,” though, my source for most of my early Bobb Goldsteinn data was a website devoted to the GoldeBriars, a fountain of pre-Mamas & Papas sonic delight that is now known as Sunshine Pop. The website tells a bit of the story: how Curt Boettcher, Dotti Holmberg, Sheri Holmberg, and Ron Neilson left Minneapolis for New York, signed with Epic Records, released a couple of LPs, and went about their business, leaving as their legacy the prototype for the Mamas & the Papas.

The website also mentions that Dotti was a thorough diarist and archivist of the band’s triumphs and travails—and that she had collected everything into a multimedia ebook.

Some aspects of the GoldeBriars’ story linked into my personal music experience: Bobb Goldsteinn, of course, who produced some of their recordings, and Curt Boettcher, who, you may know, has been acclaimed as the most innovative and talented vocal arranger ever. Ask whiteray what he thinks of a Boettcher-arranged vocal classic, “Cherish” by the Association.

With that incentive, I ordered the ebook, The GoldeBriars’ Story: Whatever Happened to Jezebel?. I promised Dotti that I would review it on this blog. The time has arrived for me to make good on that promise.

Thanks (or no thanks) to several editorial jobs and my participation in publishing ventures, I have been exposed to a lot of raw book manuscripts, as well as published works not vetted by major New York publishing houses. In many cases, the result is a less-than-spectacular offering that is hard on the eyes and ears of someone with an editor’s mindset. Such is not the case with Dotti’s book.

The organization of her thoughts is compelling, with an essentially chronological chapter structure that is interspersed with observations about the milieu in which the GoldeBriars performed and recorded. Dotti’s creative control takes the book far out of the realm of canned music biographies and makes for a refreshing change in music-history literature.

Dotti begins by telling how she left Hugo, Minnesota and met Curt Boettcher, who was singing in a Minneapolis coffee house. Dotti, Sheri, and their brother, Gary, had their own group, but when they joined in on an audience sing-along, the coffee-house manager made them take the stage with Curt, and thus began the GoldeBriars.

After their first management screw, the GoldeBriars learned to live on rice, and from then until they reached New York with a Minneapolis-based manager who cared about them, that’s pretty much what they ate. One day, they acquired a mascot, a carved idol named Jezebel, who give the book its title. Jezebel went everywhere with the GoldeBriars after her arrival.

The story is told primarily in Dotti’s voice, but there are excerpts from Curt Boettcher’s diary, as well as scans of newspaper articles, artwork that includes Curt’s cartoons, and numerous photographs. One rarity is a sketch of Curt and Dotti singing that was drawn by Rolf Harris, the Australian singer who scored a #3 hit here with “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” on Epic shortly before the GoldeBriars signed a contract with that label.

The GoldeBriars began their recording sessions on November 21, 1963. On this day, Bobb Goldsteinn’s composition was #2 in the nation, thanks to the Village Stompers. Bobb and the GoldeBriars had not yet met, but as label-mates of the Village Stompers, Curt and crew would soon do so.

The next day, prior to their evening recording session, the quartet walked around New York and noted the grief on everyone’s face. That was how they learned that the president had been shot. Dotti evokes the day in her memoir with grace and candor; she goes on to say that the band showed up for their recording session that night, as they felt they had to go on with their lives.

Epic Records rolled out a solid promo campaign for their first LP in early 1964, only to find that new folk-pop acts were shut out of the public consciousness with a bang when the first Beatles recordings hit the airwaves. Their LP sold reasonably well, but it wasn’t the monster hit it could have been a couple of months earlier.

The act did make it onto ABC’s Hootenanny, and the video of their appearance is on the ebook CD. From there, they were introduced to Bobb Goldsteinn. As Dotti puts it, they were dropped in Bobb’s lap “and he didn’t stand up fast enough.” He polished their stage act, gave them songs to add to their repertoire, and took them to Miami to perform. Not a bad deal.

Their schedule led them to a huge stay in Charleston, followed by Milwaukee. Eventually, they disbanded. (There’s a lot left out there.)

Part of Curt Boettcher’s musical expertise stemmed from his background in Japanese kabuki, which he studied when he lived with his family in Japan. As a result, the GoldeBriars developed a love for, and were loved by, the Japanese people. Dotti’s book shows great respect for the group’s entire fan base, as the PDF file of the text appears in both English and Japanese.

This chronicle of life on the road, of being almost a national phenomenon, as told through the words of a naïve Minnesota girl, is a fascinating collection of thoughts that goes far more deeply into the world of underpaid and physically neglected musicians than any sanitized biography you will find on the shelves of bookstores.

Between the scans of photos, clippings, and memorabilia, adding in the video of their TV performance of “Saro Jane,” which shows just how creative Curt was at arranging vocals (and how talented Dotti and Sheri were at producing the sounds he wanted), this ebook is a true gem, and I recommend it to everyone who loves this era in folk and pop music.

You can see the overview of the GoldeBriars story on Dotti’s website. There you will find Bobb Goldsteinn’s foreword to Dotti’s ebook. The link to a tribute to her brother, Gary Holmberg, including four of his recordings, is here. You can acquire the folk-music film in which the GoldeBriars appeared, as well as a CD compilation of Dotti’s solo recordings, here. And, finally, do yourself a favor and obtain the ebook at the same page. No work I have ever read gives a better street-level view of life in the music world of 1963-65.

Some video to whet your appetite:

Here you can see how relentless Curt was in making the most of vocals on even simple melodies. Truly amazing.

Dotti, from her compilation, singing a song produced by Curt.

Dotti again. Here I detect a touch of pre-Paula Abdul vocal inflection (which is a good thing).

And "Tell It to the Wind," a song from their second album. Bobb Goldsteinn wrote it with Jeff Barry, and Bobb produced it.

For Saturday, it’s Week Nineteen of the Great 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

GoldeBriars, Tell It to the Wind

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