Quick: name some of the best bands of the 60s and 70s. Despite their numerous Top Ten hits, one band normally does not leap to mind: The Grass Roots. Often dismissed as a studio-created group, The Grass Roots still produced quality singles that mixed rock, pop, and soul into irresistible confections.
Unlike many other bands, the group had three incarnations that created their hits. According to All Music, founding members P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri toiled as songwriters for Trousdale Music, the publishing arm of record company Dunhill, in 1965. After the massive success of the folk-rock movement (with The Byrds leading the pack), the record label ordered Sloan and Barri to write songs in that vein. The duo wrote and recorded their first single, “Where Were You When I Needed You,” under the pseudonym The Grass Roots. After the song received airplay on radio, Sloan and Barri had to assemble an actual band for recording and touring. They located these members from a San Francisco Band formerly known as the Bedouins, led by lead singer Bill Fulton. Although Fulton rerecorded the lead vocal for “Where Were You When I Needed You,” after a dispute, the band ultimately left, forcing Sloan and Barri to resume recording on their own. The single was eventually released in 1966, enjoying modest success, but the accompanying album never reached the charts.
Next came The Grass Roots, Phase II. A Los Angeles band, the 13th Floor, submitted a demo tape to Dunhill Records. While they passed the audition, the record label gave them two choices: record under their own name, or assume “The Grass Roots,” produced by Sloan and Barri. Selecting the latter, the group (with lead singer Rob Grill) performed the 1967 single “Let's Live for Today,” which became a Top Ten hit. After recording two more albums with this Grass Roots formation, the songwriting team of Sloan and Barri broke up. However, the band rebounded (under Barri's direction) with the 1968 soul-infused “Midnight Confessions.” After reaching Number Five on the charts, the band was back in business.
After more personnel changes, the Phase III band continued to record a string of rock-soul hits, with “Temptation Eyes” (1971) echoing the irresistible horn-tinged sound of “Midnight Confessions.” Until 1975, The Grass Roots became a virtual revolving door, with group members joining and leaving the group (at one point the drummer from the Bedouins even rejoined the band). Their hit-making powers eventually ran out, leading to The Grass Roots' disbandment in 1975. Grill resurrected the group's name in 1982, becoming a fixture on the nostalgia tour circuit.
Why does a group with such a turbulent history deserve a second look? Quite simply, their particular brand of rock (perhaps where the band's name derives), with touches of country and Motown, set The Grass Roots apart from their pop contemporaries. “Sooner or Later,” an uptempo number reminiscent of The Beatles' “Got to Get You into My Life,” features Grill's enthusiastic vocals with background harmonies courtesy of other group members. While similar in sound, “Midnight Confessions” chronicles a tortured love affair, with the protagonist “staggering through the daytime,” trying to contain his feelings for his beloved. However, the narrator adds that “the little gold ring on your hand makes me understand/There's another before me, you'll never be mine/I'm wasting my time.” Of course, the man professes his love during his “midnight confessions,” but whether he is alone or with the woman is unclear.
“Wait A Million Years” echoes “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” in theme, but the horns, the bridge that features some funky drumming as well as bass and guitar riffs, along with The Grass Roots' impassioned vocals charm the listener. Fans of the group's funky bass lines will also enjoy “Temptation Eyes,” my favorite track other than “Sooner or Later.” The band shows their musical chops on the track, rescuing the usual “she's a temptress”-themed lyrics from becoming completely clichéd.
The Grass Roots' original role as a Byrds-type band is most evident in “Let's Live for Today” and “Where Were You When I Needed You,” the latter featuring a harpsichord solo. “Things I Should Have Said” bows to groups like the Buckinghams with its cheerful, energetic beats that command listeners to get up and frug, swim, or do the jerk. While The Grass Roots performed the dominant musical trends of the mid-60s admirably, it was in the late 60s and early 70s when the band found its unique sound. For a brief introduction to their best known material, view the below video in which the band performs a medley of their biggest hits.
Although some of The Grass Roots' music still receives airplay on oldies radio stations, their name rarely surfaces as one of the more significant bands in rock. While their songs may not be as groundbreaking as those of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or The Kinks, the group's work exemplifies purely pleasurable pop, music that simply makes the listener feel good. A college friend once told me that pop music wrongly receives little respect, that it takes talent to write a song that captures the ear. The Grass Roots deserve to be recognized for their talent in writing — and performing — quality, timeless pop songs. Next time you are in the mood for 60s music and reach out for those Beatles and Stones albums, do not overlook some of the more under-appreciated bands, The Grass Roots being among them.
To explore their music, you may want to find the “greatest hits” compilations available. However, be careful as some of these collections feature re-recordings of the hits, not the original singles. For more information, visit The Grass Roots' official site and All-Music's comprehensive history of the band.
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