March 15th, 2009
|Left to right: Dave Price, Randy Fuller, Bob ‘B J’ Jones, Joey Newman and Don Poncher|
Ahmet Ertegun signed them personally to Atlantic Records in August 1969 boasting that they would sell thousands of records. But despite the Buffalo Springfield connections; a stash of superb songs; gorgeous five-part harmonies; and a trademark three-guitar assault to boot, Blue Mountain Eagle never climbed the commercial heights anticipated by the label.
Sales of the band’s lone album stalled, and forced to cut a version of the Stephen Stills demo, ‘Marianne’ virtually under duress, Atlantic unceremoniously dropped the group barely a year after its formation. It was an ignominious end to such a promising band, which as it turned out had started to gather a fresh batch of songs even more impressive than the material featured on its album.
Fair or not, Blue Mountain Eagle has rarely escaped Buffalo Springfield’s shadow. From the outset, Ertegun had encouraged the group’s two lead guitarists, Joey Newman and Bob “B J” Jones, to engage in guitar duels in the studio just as Stephen Stills and Neil Young had done on stage two years earlier. And it was surely no coincidence that Bill Halverson should engineer Blue Mountain Eagle’s album sessions right at the same time that he was overseeing the recording of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu.
Ertegun’s interest in Blue Mountain Eagle had first been piqued after catching the group backing former Buffalo Springfield drummer, the late Dewey Martin, who had employed all of the musicians, albeit at various times, for his ill-fated New Buffalo Springfield.
Drummer/vocalist Don Poncher (b. 29 July 1947, Chicago, Illinois) and rhythm guitarist/vocalist David Price (b. 23 September 1944, Ballinger, Texas) had been with the new version of the legendary group from the outset, signing up in September 1968 alongside future Love guitarist Gary Rowles, top session player (and future Joe Cocker and Rolling Stones sideman) Jim Price and bass player Bob Apperson.
Prior to joining Martin’s group, Don Poncher had drummed with power trio Brothers Keepers and years earlier, Tex Williams. David Price, meanwhile, was an old college friend of Mike Nesmith’s from San Antonio and had played with California group, Armadillo and Austin, Texas group, The Chelsea. Perhaps more impressive, he been closely involved with The Monkees’ studio work and acted as Davy Jones’s stand in. During his time with The Monkees, Price had also appeared as an extra in many of the episodes of the popular TV show, most notably as the chemist in The Prince and The Pauper.
Poncher and Price were both present when Martin’s bogus group played its most highly publicised gig, an appearance at the Holiday Rock Festival, held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on 26 December 1968. However, in the spring of 1969, Poncher lost patience with Martin and his attempt to trade on his former group’s name and bailed out, only to reunite with Price six months later.
“It was a dead horse,” sighs Poncher on his exit from New Buffalo Springfield. “You’d go to a job out of state in another town and you’d get to the hotel and somebody would call up your room and say, ‘Hi, is Steve Stills there?’ Erm no.”
Price had more faith and helped Martin piece together a second version of New Buffalo Springfield, adding lead guitarist Bob “B J” Jones (b. 9 November 1942, Woodbury, New Jersey), who’d previously worked with Little Richard and an obscure band called Danny & The Saints.
To complete the line up, they also recruited former Bobby Fuller Four bass player and singer Randy Fuller (b. 29 January 1944, Hobbs, New Mexico), who’d recorded some intriguing singles under his own name after his brother’s tragic and untimely death. These include a re-recording of The Bobby Fuller Four’s superb ‘It’s Love Come What May’ and Randy’s cosmic ‘1,000 Miles Into Space’.
Billed either as New Buffalo Springfield or Blue Buffalo, the members of the new group started to write original material to fit beside covers of the old band’s material. “I don’t know how it all transpired but Dewey somehow was able to get some studio time at a studio down in Hollywood,” says Price. “It was either Gold Star or Sunset Sound. We recorded one or two songs of mine and Dewey had some stuff of his that he threw in but it was all very chaotic. We were writing things on the spot. Dewey then sent those tapes to Atlantic.”
As Price recalls, the label was not impressed with the tapes’ quality but sent out producer Tom Dowd to check out Martin’s latest project. “Dewey had, for whatever reason, brought in Hal Blaine to play on the session,” explains Price. “Tom Dowd was very hard nosed about things and rightfully so. He did one session with us and obviously went back to New York and said, ‘This is bullshit’, so nothing came of it.”
Sometime in late May, the group’s manager, Mike Zalk, added a second lead guitarist Joey Newman (b. Vern Kjellberg, 29 August 1947, Seattle, Washington), who’d previously worked with Northwest acts Merrilee Rush & The Turnabouts, The Liberty Party and Don & The Good Times. He had also recently recorded with L.A-based outfit, Touch, notable for its highly ambitious and experimental rock music, as heard on the group’s superb lone album, issued in 1969.
As Price points out, Newman would play an integral role in the development of Blue Mountain Eagle’s music. “His song writing was very unusual and he kind of challenged the rest of us in a way to find a way to play this music he was coming up with. It really helped us psychologically to form what became Blue Mountain Eagle because doing his stuff; we did a lot more big vocals. He had much more elaborate songs and arrangements than B J and I were working on.”
The musicians set out on a six-week driving tour of the Northwest in June 1969, which would test the nerves of everyone involved. Apart from the escapades on the road, the tour was perhaps most notable for the discovery of the Blue Mountain Eagle name, swiped from the title of Oregon’s oldest newspaper, based in Grant County.
“We had been driving all night from maybe around Spokane, Washington,” recalls Newman. “We played, broke down the gear, and drove to the next concert [and] one of the small towns along Highway 395 had a newspaper called ‘The Blue Mountain Eagle’”.
Back in L.A. to lick their wounds, the band decided to dispense with Martin, who’d become a real liability and after auditioning various drummers, including future Captain Beefheart sideman Ty Grimes, Price suggested his former band mate, Don Poncher.
With Zalk lining up dates, the group quickly had to come up with a suitable name. “[When we were with Dewey], we had stopped at Fox [in Oregon] to eat and look around a bit, and I saw a newspaper on the wall behind the counter, and said, that would be a great name for a band,” remembers Fuller. “I suggested it several times while on the road, but no one really responded until we got to the point of deciding the name.”
During early August, Atlantic Records’ head honcho, Ahmet Ertegun, personally signed the band to the label, on the back of its connection with Dewey Martin and as a way to recoup the expenses incurred under Martin’s leadership.
According to Michel Ruppli’s impressive series of books cataloguing Atlantic Records’ session logs, Blue Mountain Eagle submitted nearly a dozen titles, mostly unfinished, to the label’s tape library on 24 August. The list includes intriguing songs like ‘Rock & Roll Please’, ‘Fourth Time Around’ and ‘Road’s End’. Interestingly, Price has no recollection of any such taping and only remembers the one session for the band’s lone eponymous album, which took place on 1 December 1969 at Wally Heider’s Hollywood studio.
“We cut the album with the three guitar players lined up down one wall, Don under this little shelf and Randall on the other side with his bass,” recalls Price. “We had no baffles, no separation. We just sat and played those tracks live and that’s how that thing was recorded. We did overdubs but the basic tracks were done live.”
For the said session, Blue Mountain Eagle was placed with producer Bill Halverson who had just started work with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “They were recording I guess in San Francisco a lot of the DÃ©jÃ vu album before and while we were recording our album, so we would come into the studio in Hollywood and Bill would be playing back these massive tracks with 20 gazillion vocals,” remembers Price. “I always thought it was a bit odd that he did that.”
As the guitarist is quick to point out, the band members were less than pleased with the final results. “I don’t think any of us were completely happy with the album,” says Price. “It wasn’t really reflective of what the band sounded like. It was really a much heavier band than the album. We hadn’t been together that long with doing our original material.”
Decked in a colourful sleeve, the front cover depicts the band in a rustic setting. Shot in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, the image was taken by a young photographer, and captures the musicians - sitting on some rocks in a little waterfall - in infrared film, with the negatives split.
For the back cover, Price enlisted the help of noted photographer Henry Diltz, whom he knew from his days working on The Monkees’ TV show. Diltz took the musicians across the street from their studio rehearsals in Hollywood and shot the group in an alley.
While the album was being readied for release, Blue Mountain Eagle hit the road, sharing the bill with a who’s who of rock - Love, The Byrds and Canned Heat to name a few - but were soon rocked by Randy Fuller’s abrupt departure to Dewey Martin and Medicine Ball.
“The problem with Blue Mountain Eagle was that they were all from different parts of the United States,” explains Fuller on the reasons why he left. “When The Bobby Fuller Four was together, we were all Texans. For me, I just felt that I had had so much fun with my brother and having that feel of what was a pleasant thing and that’s what I wanted back again. That’s one reason why I left Blue Mountain Eagle. I wasn’t getting that feeling in that band. Each person wants to be a star. You’ve got too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
Fuller also feels that stylistically the group members didn’t always gel. “I’m a country boy at heart. I’m not into this new thing where everyone gets stoned on acid and is jumping around the stage like a bunch of freaks. [But] they were excellent musicians, man. Those guys had their own unique style.”
In his place, the band turned to Dave Johnson (b. 21 October 1945, Burbank, California), who’d spent a year in Dr John’s backing group. A former member of the Shindig TV show band, which had played with the likes of The Beach Boys, Etta James, Leon Russell and Don Preston, Johnson had also briefly played with the intriguingly titled, Alice & The Wonderland Band alongside singer Joanne Vent and future Redbone guitarist Tony Bellamy.
“I think it was Don [who contacted me],” says Johnson. “I knew Don and we always hung out at the same nightclubs out in the San Fernando Valley. We went down to the studios for rehearsals and started playing. I always liked the way Don played. I looked over at “B J” and he was blowing me away! They gave me the album to take home and learn, and we were off to the races.”
In the aftermath of Fuller’s departure, Atlantic released Blue Mountain Eagle’s lone album. Despite everyone’s reservations about the final product, it’s still a strong collection and should appeal to anyone interested in Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and the like. Each member takes a lead vocal on at least one cut, with Joey Newman dominating the song writing.
“Joey had been in Touch and they wrote really grandiose kind of things,” adds Price. “They cut an album that took just months and months and months to record. Joey reacted against that when he joined us. He was very anti unneeded production.”
The most prolific writer, Newman’s songs span a wealth of styles, from the album’s lead-off track, ‘Love Is Here’, notable for its soaring vocals and Newman and Jones’s blistering country-rock licks to the slightly trippy, ‘Yellow’s Dream’.
|Left to right: Joey Newman, Bob ‘B J’ Jones, Don Poncher, Dave Johnson and Dave Price|
“[’Yellow’s Dream’] was about my very beautiful girlfriend Danny Dugous, who was an absolute knockout wearing any style and any colour but she loved yellow,” explains Newman. “Don Poncher sang the harmony part with me at the end of the tune Don in full regular voice and I’m singing in low falsetto the only time on the album.”
Most of the album’s songs had been written soon after the band’s formation, and in many cases while the band was preparing for the album sessions. “I wrote the words of both songs [’Loveless Lives’ and ‘No Regrets’] at the rehearsal studio,” remembers Poncher. “I had some words and an idea for a melody and the guys helped me out.”
Poncher also introduced one of the album’s standout tracks, the Richard Bowen and Terry Furlong collaboration, ‘Trivial Sum’, which was lifted as a single from the album, but failed to dent the charts.
Bob Jones also chipped in with a collaborative effort, co-penning ‘Troubles’ with Carol Meyer. “She was the wife of Augie Meyer [who] used to be the piano player with Doug Sahm,” says Jones. “I lived behind them at the time and I asked Carol to help me out on that song. It was one of those things where I wanted to make a mark.”
Many critics pick out Randy Fuller’s sole contribution, ‘Sweet Mama’ as one of the highlights. According to the bass player, the song was inspired by some bikers that hung around the musicians and used to refer to the pretty women they saw as “Sweet Mama”. “I had to get a song man,” recalls Fuller. “Everybody had a song but me. I got in the mood to write one, one night, and that’s what came about.”
The track remained a popular live number in the band’s set, long after Fuller’s departure, and is notable for Poncher’s handy drum work. “Poncher was one hell of a drummer,” continues Fuller. “He’d do a drum solo with his hands. He’d play them like bongos for show!”
Soon after Johnson’s arrival, the group approached the label to record some of its latest material, including Newman’s ‘A Song For Mum and Dad’ and ‘O’Rosey’ but was turned down flat.
“Bill Halverson said: ‘We are not even going to think about a second album until we put out a single because the first album didn’t sell very well,’” says Price, who estimates that only about 44,000 copies shipped (and that he only made about three dollars from the group’s recordings!).
Part of the problem was the label’s reaction to the record, which presented a rich tapestry of styles. “Truthfully that’s what Atlantic didn’t like,” continues Price. “Ahmet’s reaction to the album was, ‘I don’t understand it’. What he wanted was to have Joey and ‘B J’ duelling guitars.”
In response to the poor sales, Bill Halverson presented the group with a demo of Stephen Stills’s ‘Marianne’ and told the musicians to cut a version. “We heard it and said, ‘Man, this isn’t us at all,’” says Price. “It was so far different from what we had become on the road.”
Putting on a brave face, the band recorded a funky version of the song with Dr. John on piano at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. “I remember we had a session and I asked the rest of the guys, ‘Do you want me to see if I can get Mac Rebennack to come play?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that would be great,’” says Johnson on the inspired decision to hire his former employer.
Halverson, however, was not impressed and forced the band to re-cut an identical version to the demo, which failed to impress the record buying public.
The group ploughed on, sharing gigs with the likes of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd and Spirit, but its soul had been ripped out and around November 1970, the musicians went their separate ways. “There wasn’t any big argument or anything,” remembers Johnson. “I think we just kind of ran out of gigs. Suddenly, I got an offer to play with Frosty and Lee Michaels, so I jumped at the chance.”
“The last gig we played as Blue Mountain Eagle was a ballroom in downtown San Antonio, which was kind of interesting because that’s where I am from,” says Price. “We played four nights and were very well received. We came back to L.A. and broke up.”
In the band’s aftermath the various musicians pursued a bewildering array of diverse projects. Don Poncher landed on his feet working briefly with Love and then Arthur Lee. “I think Gary Rowles turned me on to Arthur,” says Poncher. “I stayed with him for a few years. I did Vindicator and I think we might have recorded a few other things at the Record Plant but they were never released.” (Ed: this album is about to be released on CD).
In the early 1970s, Poncher moved into session work, playing with everyone from Joe Cocker and his old friend Jim Price to Genya Raven and Chris Jagger. He’s currently playing in the San Fernando Valley with Balonius Bunk.
“Don Poncher is absolutely the best drummer I’ve ever worked with,” says Price. “Although Blue Mountain Eagle had great all round players in it, Don was the best musician in the band for me.”
Less than a year after the group folded, Price stopped playing music professionally. “I was tired and worn out and eventually got a real job,” he says. After gaining a degree from the University of Texas, Price moved to Los Angeles where he resides, working in business.
As for original bass player Randy Fuller, his second stint with Dewey Martin proved to be rather short-lived, and after working in Las Vegas with a number of former Medicine Ball members, he kept a relatively low profile for much of the 1980s and 1990s. However, in recent years, he’s started recording again with his latest project, The Bobby Fuller Drive. “We’ve got about 30 or 40 songs that we could release on CD right now,” he says.
Fuller’s replacement Dave Johnson briefly worked with Lee Michaels before reuniting with Jones in the heavy rock outfit, Sweathog in 1971. The group recorded two albums for CBS before splitting up. In 1975, Johnson put together a new band with radio legend Jimmy Rabbitt called Rabbitt and Renegade, which recorded an album for Capitol Records that was produced by Waylon Jennings. He currently lives in Aspen, Colorado. His former band mate, Bob Jones meanwhile later recorded with Demons and currently lives in Sioux Falls.
The group’s most prolific writer, Joey Newman, also remained active on the music scene. In 1975, he turned up as a member of Stepson, which recorded an album for ABC Dunhill. The following year, his group, Bandit recorded an album for the same label and then he worked with a multitude of diverse artists in the studio and on the road, including Michael Lloyd, Shaun Cassidy, The Osmonds and Bryan MacLean to name a few.
|Left to right: Bob ‘B J’ Jones, Dave Price, Don Poncher, Joey Newman and Dave Johnson|
Looking back, Newman has his own take on the whole saga. “With all the talented characters involved, you would think that Blue Mountain Eagle could have pushed its way to at least one more album,” he says.
“With 20/20 hindsight, I would make clear that rock bands depend on the brown-sound, harmonic driven tube amplified guts for their success, never, never, never accept free equipment regardless of the amount. As Blue Mountain Eagle would find out the hard way, a zillion watts RMS solid-state linked to 15″ speakers and horns could and would turn a charging rhinoceros into a piss-ant with the flip of a Wally Heider switch.”
Despite its limited impact, Poncher has fond memories of his time with the band. “It was a three-guitar heavy metal rock band. We were kind of doing pre-metal before metal was even coined. We played hard, we played loud and we had a really good time.”
Thanks to David Price, Randy Fuller, David Johnson, Joey Newman, Don Poncher and Bob “B J” Jones. A big thank you to Henry Diltz for the use of his photos.I’d like to thank the L.A Free Press www.lafp60smusic.com for the use of concert adverts.
Copyright © Nick Warburton, 2008. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any from or by any means, without prior permission from the author.