A new box set collecting the ‘70s singer-songwriter’s oeuvre retrospectively casts a shining light on his keen pop instincts.
BY BILL KOPP
Even a music consumer who vastly prefers vinyl over compact disc must allow that there have been some very important creative/aesthetic triumphs that have happened only because of compact disc technology. From its beginnings in the 1980s, the lower manufacturing cost of CDs meant that it became practical to reissue out-of-print music. In plainest terms, the labels could often justify the costs involved in reissuing albums of note, even if those albums might not have sold in vast quantities on original release. Moreover, they didn’t have to shift gajillions of units in reissue form, either. So it was that relatively obscure records became available once again in the digital-based physical format. But the CD era began some thirty years ago, so one would think that the archival vaults have by now been pretty well swept clean, right? Well, no.
Keyboardist/vocalist Lee Michaels created an impressive body of work on Herb Alpert‘s A&M label, and even hit the Top 40 once or twice with some singles. There was a 1992 best-of CD that is itself long out of print, and some small labels had done reissues of his albums, but those aren’t easily found, either. Between 1968 and 1973, the keyboardist/vocalist released no less than six studio LPs and a live set, but unless you dug around used record bins, you be hard-pressed to lay hands on more than two or three of them. And that was a shame, as Michaels’ music is, at its best, an exemplar of certain musical styles of the era.
So it’s a quite welcome circumstance that a small, Los Angeles-based independent label called Manifesto Records has secured the rights to reissue Lee Michaels’ seven A&M albums on CD as The Complete A&M Album Collection. Housed in an admittedly flimsy box, each of the seven discs is presented in mini-gatefold LP sleeve, with the original art and graphics (downsized, of course). And the package features a booklet full of photos plus a very informative historical essay from Brett Milano, author of the new Game Theory bio Don’t All Thank Me At Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller. (There’s also a separately available tidy twenty-track best-of CD for those who aren’t ready or willing to take the box set plunge; Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels also features “Goodbye Goodbye,” a non-LP cut unavailable elsewhere.)
Those looking for bonus tracks and rarities will be disappointed; this new set has none of those. But the relative unavailability of Michaels’ music makes the reissue welcome, and it’s a fine excuse to revisit the man’s catalog of work.
Carnival of Life
Released in 1968, Carnival of Life marked Michaels’ album debut. A varied disc, it displays his strong, soulful vocals out front of a full band; there’s lots of heavy guitar riffage, and the dramatic “Hello” may remind some listeners of Vanilla Fudge. Michaels’ keyboard work (organ, piano, harpsichord) is prominent but – unlike his later work – not a central focus of the record. Carnival of Life is a “band” record in every sense of the term. The famed “Hendrix chord” is a centerpiece of the hard rocking “Love,” which was released as a single but didn’t chart. The title track departs a bit from the heaviness to focus on harpsichord. The baroque-flavored “Sounding the Sleeping” is ambitious in its structure and arrangement, a sort of proto-progressive rock. Tack piano moves “My Friends” along. The list of musicians backing Lee on this disc include organist Rev. Gary Davis and in-demand session drummer Eddie Hoh. Overall, Michaels’ debut is an r&b flavored rock disc that – while it’s typical of the sounds of 1968 – has worn rather well. Carnival of Life didn’t make a mark on the Billboard charts of the era.
It seems odd in today’s world, but before the year was out, Michaels had recorded and released another album. 1968’s Recital again featured all original songs, and it sidestepped the dreaded “sophomore slump.” In many ways a stronger album than its predecessor, Recital benefited from a more pared-down musician lineup: Johny Barbata (The Turtles) was behind the drum kit for most of the tracks, while session bassist Larry Knechtel played bass, and Michaels stopped – for good his earlier practice of ceding some keyboard duties to others. Meanwhile his friend Drake Levin – co-leader of Brotherhood and former lead guitarist with Paul Revere and the Raiders – played all of the guitar parts. The arrangements are tighter, sometimes making use of brass and other instrumentation. The rocking parts rock harder, the subtle bits are even more refined, and the songwriting is top-notch. While the other players are solid, Recital clearly marks the arrival of Michaels the singer/keyboardist, the focus of the album. “Time is Over” sounds like an upscale Grassroots. “Fell in Love Today” seems to quote The Beatles‘ “I Am the Walrus.” Michaels’ rhythm and blues orientation is channeled into highly melodic tunes with memorable riffs. And his vocals are somehow even more assured than on the debut. “Blind” is a rare contemplative turn on an otherwise upbeat disc. The brief “What Can He Do” could be a prototype for Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Sweet Home Alabama.” “Basic Knowledge” features some tasty Michaels solos on harpsichord and organ. The lengthy instrumental “Spare Change” is a keyboard tour-de-force, and perhaps the best single-song sampler of Lee Michaels’ talents to that date. “The War” was perhaps the least commercially viable track on Recital; inexplicably and somewhat perversely, it was selected as the (non-charting) single. It stiffed. Its b-side, “Goodbye Goodbye” was never released on an album, but is now part of the 2015 Heighty Hi best-of collection. Recital didn’t chart.
By summer 1969 Michaels had made fundamental changes in his musical approach. Paring back the instrumentation to its most basic, the self-titled third album was essentially cut live in the studio (with minimal bass overdubs by Michaels) and featured only the keyboardist/vocalist plus drummer Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost, better known as Frosty. With nothing to hide behind (so to speak), the arrangements on Lee Michaels rely completely upon the energy generated by Michaels and Frosty. The approach works surprisingly well, as can be both heard and seen on a January 1970 clip of “Who Could Want More” from the variety TV show The Music Scene. (The TV version is live, and quite different from the version on the album; that’s the video in the introduction to this article, above.) The entirety of the original LP’s Side One is a multi-song suite that includes a drum solo titled “Frosty’s” (this was the late 60s, after all). A breathtaking and dramatic reading of the blues classic “Stormy Monday” is different than – but in many ways equal to – the version The Allman Brothers Band would release a little over a year later. The rethink of his musical approach paid off, and for the first time ever, Michaels hit the charts: the album reached #53 on the Billboard charts, and the jubilant, singalong Southern soul of “Heighty Hi” was released as a single (though it failed to chart; it became an FM radio staple).
Months later, Lee Michaels returned with 1970’s Barrel. Seemingly determined never to take the same musical approach twice in a row, for Barrel Michaels brought back Drake Levin; the guitarist’s playing is all over the album, meshing tightly with Michaels’ and Frosty’s playing. Levin’s deft use of Leslie (spinning speaker cabinet) amplification on his guitar somehow makes the stringed instrument fit even better within the confines of a keyboard-driven album. “What Now America” picks up thematically where the previous album’s “The War” left off. A rare Michaels love song, “Ummmmm My Lady” was selected as the (you guessed it: non-charting) single. Either a throwaway or an important statement, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” (yes, that one) gives nearly half of its run time to Frosty’s marching snare. A cover of Moby Grape‘s “Murder in My Heart (For the Judge)” is even more soulful – and less histrionic – than the original. “Day of Change” has worn exceptionally well; it sounds more like the kind of album track one might hear in, say, 1973. “Didn’t Know What We Had” features Michaels on electric piano, an instrument of which he made surprisingly little use elsewhere. The brief “As Long As I Can” closes the album on a downtempo note. Barrel reached #51 on the album charts; it was Michaels’ best chart performance to date, and a taste of things to come.
If there’s only one Lee Michaels LP in your collection, it’s probably this one. “5th” was the album that launched Michaels into brief stardom. As ever, Michaels altered his approach for the 1971 album: Levin was absent, but so was Frosty. Drummer Joel Larson (Grassroots) took over percussion duties; his approach was a bit subtler and finessed, and suited the material. Merry Clayton, the stirring voice heard on The Rolling Stones‘ “Gimme Shelter” lend her impressive (overdubbed) pipes to the album opener, “Keep the Circle Turning.” The gospel flavor of that song is carried through on most of the album; Michaels’ approach of simple chord structures gave him plenty of room to add filigree and nuance within relatively straightforward arrangements. Some yakety saxophone (courtesy of Jackie Kelso) shows up on several numbers. Longtime Michaels followers may have sensed that his songwriting muse was wearing out; half of “5th” is given over to cover songs (“Willie & the Hand Jive,” “Can I Get A Witness,” “Ya Ya”). The album’s breakout track – and by far Lee Michaels’ most well-known song – is “Do You Know What I Mean,” a simple, soulful number that sounds as fresh today as it must have in 1971. Even though it was initially released as the b-side to “Keep the Circle Turning,” “Do You Know What I Mean” top-tenned – #6, actually – and no doubt helped “5th” reach #16 on the album charts.
Space & First Takes
Frustratingly, Michaels’ follow-up to the smash “5th” seems – at least in retrospect – designed to sabotage any chance of commercial success. Space & First Takes (1972) is a fine album; it simply isn’t the kind of thing people who bought “5th” would have been expecting. Gone are the short, concise pop-soul of that album (and previous records). Instead Space & First Takes is pretty much what its title suggests: a jam album made up of a mere five long pieces. As ever, the lineup doesn’t repeat its predecessor; here it’s a returning Drake Levin on guitar, drummer Keith Knudsen (later of The Doobie Brothers), and bassist Joel Christie (the latter was the composer of “Keep the Circle Turning” from the previous record). If all that weren’t enough, Michaels drastically scaled back his keyboard playing and picked up an electric guitar. The guitar work – whether it’s Levin or Michaels – is impressive and well worth hearing, but that and the long song structures weren’t what people wanted at the time from Lee Michaels. There’s also a slightly distressing sameness to the first three numbers (the title track goes in a different direction, but would have felt more at home on the jammy Record Three of George Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass). Around the five-minute mark of “Space & First Takes,” some ill-advised vocal meandering threatens to render the track unlistenable. A paucity of lyrics didn’t help the one-chord jam, either. Needless to say, there weren’t any hit singles from Space & First Takes (“Hold On to Freedom” was a non-charting single). The album only reached #78, the beginning of a rapid downward spiral in Michaels’ commercial fortunes.
The tour supporting Space & First Takes yielded the recording that made up this 1973 live album. Recorded at Carnegie Hall, Live‘s sleeve made no mention of the venue; the box set’s liner notes explain why. Knudsen stayed on for the tour, bringing Michaels back to the two-piece approach of Lee Michaels. The song selection on Live is curious: only one tune from the album supposedly being promoted (Space & First Takes), and no “Do You Know What I Mean.” It does, however, provide a nice overview of Michaels’ catalog, with at least one song from every album except 1968’s Carnival of Life. An incendiary “Stormy Monday” is a highlight. The seven minute “Drum Solo” is a bit much even for 1973, but the slow burn of “Forty Reasons” is superb. After some downtempo numbers, Michaels implores the audience, “You gonna help us sing?” and launches into a rousing, nine-minute version of “Heighty Hi.” The audience eats it up, and stays excited for the bluesy closer, “Rock Me Baby.” Live reached #135 on the Billboard album charts. Despite that poor chart showing, it’s a fine document of Lee Michaels’ onstage performance, and it’s well recorded for its time.
After fulfilling his contractual obligations with that live disc, Michaels left A&M and recorded a couple of albums for Columbia, followed by some extremely rare indie releases. But after 1982’s Absolute Lee, he retired permanently from the music business. And he doesn’t give interviews, as I learned while trying to track him down a few years back for his perspective on guitarist Drake Levin’s group Brotherhood (he gave the group an unreleased track of his, a cover of Joe South‘s “Rose Garden,” – probably cut during the Recital sessions – to which they added new vocals and released as their own; that, too, is another story).
The Lee Michaels box set The Complete A&M Album Collection will be released November 20 on Manifesto Records; the single-disc collection Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels will be released on the same date.