Although it’s not unusual for a local musician to hit the charts these days, for the first 40 years of the rock ‘n’ roll era – roughly the 1950s through the 1980s – very few local artists made any sort of impact outside the county line.
One of the most successful was Gary Puckett, who with his band, the Union Gap, hit the charts performing songs about the uncertainties of love. Puckett’s most famous recordings – “Woman Woman,” “Young Girl,” and “Lady Willpower” – remain instantly recognizable to anyone who either had his or her ears glued to AM radio during the late sixties or had been anywhere near an oldies station in the decades since.
But there were two things that made Union Gap records stand above the competition. First off, we’re talking of course about the incredible production, which though considered a tad schmaltzy in its day, now stands as pop perfection. Take a listen to the way the strings surround the vocals while the horn section, provides backing – it’s understated but beautifully composed. Second and even more important were Puckett’s superb vocals. Puckett’s singing on the Union Gap singles and albums can be compared to the melodramatic recordings of Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison, two other sixties-era vocalists, who knew how to get the most out of a song.
Gary Puckett would go on to be one of the biggest pop stars of the sixties, but before that plateau was reached, he served time in a number of other local outfits. Puckett was born in October of 1942 in Hibbing, Minnesota, a town that he boasts is also the birthplace of Bob Dylan and baseball great Roger Maris. Puckett was five years old when his family moved to the state of Washington and lived in Yakima, a community situated in an area best known for its famous apples. Not coincidentally, Yakima is a short distance from Union Gap, Washington.
Puckett’s father was deeply involved in barbershop quartets and his mother played music in church so it seemed only natural that Puckett started to take music lessons at an early age. “I started taking piano lessons at six,” Puckett remembers, “and it really wasn’t something I wanted to do. When you’re a kid, you would rather be out chasing garter snakes or playing baseball.” Puckett’s attitude toward music took a 180-degree turn when he turned 12. He, like millions of other youths of the day, saw the film Blackboard Jungle, which featured the song “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets, and like those other youths, he instantly knew what he wanted to do.
“I’ll never forget my reaction to that movie,” Puckett says. “All these punks were on screen, dancing and throwing each other around, while “Rock Around the Clock” was playing in the background. I thought to myself, ‘Wow! What fun!’ That was when I really began to perk up my musical ears.”
Puckett moved with his family to Clairemont in 1960 and remained an area resident until the early ’90s. It wasn’t long after his arrival that he began to get involved with the area high school and college frat bands, performing with a slew of groups starting with the Ravens. The Ravens were totally infatuated with the great R&B records of the early 1960s and were the first of his groups to catch on with local music fans. “We were an 11-piece group, and I thought we were really hot at the time,” he recalled. “Besides the usual guitar-bass-drums set up, we had a horn section and backup singers.” The Ravens participated in battle of the bands competitions, which were held at the War Memorial Building in Balboa Park. With such a large group Puckett recalls not making much money, but everybody did have fun.
“Our band became top dog at one point, and we all had a good time doing it,” Puckett says, “but with 11 people in the band, it became an impossible situation for the promoters, so we cut ourselves down to a four-piece group. [It was] Bob Salisbury on saxophone, Bobby Brown on bass, Roger Knepple on drums, and myself on guitar.”
In 1964, Puckett and Brown were approached by Yale Kahn, owner of the then-popular Quad Room, in Clairemont, which featured fine local talent, including Joel Scott Hill.
Kahn wanted Puckett and Brown to form a new group and be the house band there. With Tommy Kendall on drums, the trio was known as the Outcasts and for a two-year period, they packed the Quad room with happy customers. This line up released two incredibly rare singles, “I Can’t Get Through to You” in 1965, and the following year “Runaway,” both of which garnered substantial local airplay, but, more important, set the stage for impending success. Change was a constant in the early Puckett bands, so not long after the 45s release the Outcasts became a five-piece band with the addition of Salisbury and Willie Kellogg.
Notably, while both of the Outcasts’ singles are officially unavailable, they have been bootlegged over the years, so collectors are directed to such illicit albums as Lets Dig In Vol. 1, and Follow That Munster, to hear these classic cuts. A number of unreleased acetates from this era also exist, so who knows what the future holds?
What eventually broke up the Outcasts was the widening musical differences among band members. In other words, they were ready to tear each other apart over both musical direction and management issues. Puckett, who by this time had realized that music was his calling in life, proceeded to form another group consisting of himself, Dwight Bement on saxophone, Kerry Chater on bass, Gary Withem on piano, and Pete Cario on drums. Bement had previously played with Frank Zappa in the Blackouts.
There would be only two more changes before the group, which would place Puckett in the spotlight, was stabilized. Now dubbed Gary and the Remarkables, Cario would be replaced by Paul Wheatbread, and the band’s name would be changed to Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.
AN OUTCAST NO MORE
It was in January of 1967 that Puckett told his band members about an idea that had been floating in his head for some time. “The idea came to me when we were playing in Seattle,” Puckett recollects. “It was real cold and rainy and weird, and all of us were staying in this two-room house, kicking around ideas about the group’s future. I had always been fascinated by the Civil War and decided one way to give the group an image would be to dress up on stage in Union soldier outfits, sort of a visual complement to our music.”
It’s interesting to note that these were acquired in Tijuana, in the just post-Gary and the Remarkables era of the group, but it’s probably no coincidence that this idea took place in the Pacific Northwest, the home turf of another top group of the day: Paul Revere and the Raiders. Puckett was correct, of course. To this day, the most memorable thing about the group, besides the hits, is those costumes. They truly made the group stand out on national television programs.
The band’s name was chosen not only to tie in to the Civil War theme, Puckett says, but also because “the town of Union Gap is not far from Seattle.” After many rehearsals and many gigs, Puckett and company began an active campaign to get a recording contract. After knocking on just about every record label’s door in Hollywood, the group received some optimistic news from Columbia records – a staff producer, Jerry Fuller, was interested in seeing the band perform in its favorite nightclub, and at the time that was still the Quad Room.
Fuller was not only a staff producer but also a first-rate songwriter. Besides writing Puckett’s second, third, and fourth singles, all hits by the way, he also penned numerous other hits, including garage classic “Lies” for the Knickerbockers (#20 1965) as well as “Young World” (#5 1962) and “Traveling Man” (#1 1961) for Ricky Nelson.
He was impressed with the Union Gap’s appearance at the Quad Room and immediately signed the band to Columbia. Fuller had a song he wanted the Union Gap to record, called “Woman Woman,” which came to him by way of a strong recommendation from Glen Campbell. Taped on August 17, 1967, it would be an auspicious start for the fledgling group.
Released a month later, in September of 1967, “Woman, Woman” didn’t make a serious dent in the national charts until that Christmas but was a certified smash soon afterward, reaching Billboard #4 US. Released after the fact in the UK, it reached #48. Trainspotters might be interested to know that the song was originally titled “Girl, Girl” and was a minor country hit for the Glaser Brothers.
From this point on Gary and the band became favorites on all the TV shows of the day, going on to make more than 30 appearances on the likes of American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show (three times), The Tonight Show, The Red Skelton Show, and dozens of others. The tour stops now included such exotic gigs as Disneyland.
The bands next single, the omnipresent “Young Girl,” proved to be an even bigger success, reaching #2 in early 1968 (and #1 in the UK). It is the epitome of what could be termed the Gary Puckett sound. With its opening vocal and violin intro, its horn and string accents, and especially those choral backing harmonies, it’s a lush masterpiece of production wrapped around a catchy (if a bit overblown) melody. Next time it’s playing take a close listen to the arrangements, the instrumentation, and that voice. They just don’t make them like that anymore.
1968 also saw the release of “Lady Willpower” (#2 US, #5 UK), making it three huge hits in a row. The band also released three albums that year, all placing well at a time when the single was the dominant sales force; Woman, Woman (#22), Young Girl (#21), Incredible (#20), as well as a U.K. album, Union Gap (#24). Additionally, the band’s “Kentucky Woman” was included on a special promotional 7” EP, limited to 500 copies – The Tipalet Experience. Made for Consolidated Cigar and their Tipalet Murial cigars. The disc also included Aretha Franklin Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Moby Grape.
1969 would prove to be almost as strong, at least on the singles chart. The year started off strong in chart terms with “Over You” (#7), followed by “Don’t Give It to Him” (#15) and “This Girl Is a Woman Now” (#9), but this was to be the end of the road as chart toppers. Puckett and the band continued to be TV favorites, taking part in such programs as Jack Benny television special, Jack Benny’s New Look, performing the song “Spinning Wheel” as a duet with Nancy Sinatra. However, there was over a year between the release of Incredible and 1969’s The New Gary Puckett Album, and The Union Gap Album (#50).
The band scored their last top 40 hit in 1970, “Let’s Give Adam and Eve Another Chance” (#38), but continued to be a popular live act. On July 17, 1970, the group played perhaps their most unusual gig, performing on the White House lawn, alongside the Guess Who. The event was a dance hosted by President Nixon’s daughter, Tricia Nixon and Julie Eisenhower for a visit from then 19-year-old Princess Anne and 21-year-old Prince Charles. That same month saw the release of the band’s Greatest Hits album. It didn’t chart.
It should be noted that perhaps the writing was on the wall for the Union Gap, which was officially disbanded in 1971, as Puckett had signed a solo deal, two years before the expiration of his group contract.
SOLO, THE MONKEES, AND TODAY
Despite major label backing Gary Puckett’s solo career never ignited. Two singles did make the Top 100: a cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” (1970, #61) and “Keep the Customer Satisfied” (1971, #71). He released two further singles in 1971, “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs” and “Hello Morning,” as well and one more album for Columbia, The Gary Puckett Album (#196), before closing out the major label phase of his career with the 1972 single “Bless the Child.”
He also began acting. In 1972, he played the part of a saloon cowboy on the TV western, Alias Smith and Jones. He also starred in a low budget indie film shot in the Philippines during 1973. He wouldn’t release another album until 1981’s Melodie, but he remained a concert draw, particularly in Europe, and periodically saw his material re-enter the charts, such as the 1974 #6 chart placing in the UK for “Young Girl”. He’s even redone his hits for various labels over the years.
1986 saw another career upswing, after Gary was invited to tour with the Monkees, on their first MTV-inspired nationwide reunion tour. This retro tour was a huge hit, playing here at Jack Murphy Stadium on August 23, and led directly to Puckett playing himself in the 1989 movie My Boyfriends Back. The nineties saw Puckett return to regular recording with albums to date, including As It Stands (1995) and Europa (1998).
As for the other Union Gap members? Just scratching the surface shows us that Gary Chater also wrote music for the likes of Bobby Darin and Mama Cass, while Paul Wheatbread played drums on TV’s Where the Action Is teen dance show. Meanwhile, Willie Kellogg went on to play with locals the Five # Grin and Pale Fire before ending up alongside Bob Mosley in Moby Grape. Giving back to the next generation of musicians, Gary Withem became band director at Chula Vista’s East Lake High School. Such notables as Jarrod Lucas of the Dragons passed through his classes.
In 1973 Dwight Bement joined fifties revivalists Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, just as the band signed to the Private Stock label (but missed out on appearing in the 1973 American Graffiti film by a month!). The band was managed by former Union Gap manager Peter Rachtman. They hit the charts with “Dancing on a Saturday Night” (#93, 1974), “Good Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1975 #41) and “Did You Boogie With Your Baby” (#29, 1976). Notably, in addition to three appearances on American Bandstand, a spot on NBC-TV’s Midnight Special, a guest spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and touring with the likes of Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath the band played the role Johnny Fish and the Fins on an episode of TV sitcom Happy Days. In 1976 Union Gap drummer Paul Wheatbread joined the group as well for a two year stint that included the band’s brief appearance in the film classic, Apocalypse Now (1979).
These days Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s music remains as popular as ever – in fact, both his Greatest Hits and Looking Glass remain among Sony Legacy’s biggest sellers. At last count there were 16 additional Best of-styled compilation albums also on the market.
The past decade has seen Puckett take part as a featured performer on a PBS-TV Special Let’s Do It Again, while 2002 saw him guest on syndicated game show, Hollywood Squares. He continues to issue new albums: Christmas (2001), Live (2001), and The Lost Tapes (2008). Meanwhile, he’s due to be part of a new comedy short, Woody’s World, due out this year. But more impressively he is still touring, hitting Australia as recently as 2010. With more than 20,000,000 in sales, and those timeless hits, it’s safe to say that Gary Puckett, and yes, the Union Gap, will be on the radio forever, a much-appreciated reminder of sunnier days and more innocent times.