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“Terry Knight’s Brown Bag Years” – Book Excerpt by Barry Stoller

We are pleased and honored to provide our readers with an excerpt of Barry Stoller’s fascinating e-book bio of record producer, impresario, musician, raconteur Terry Knight, who was tragically murdered at the age of 61 last November. (Knight scored the film linked above, The Incident).

I (Who Have Nothing): The Terry Knight Story by Barry Stoller features original interviews with Don Brewer, Bobby Caldwell, Tom Baker, Craig Braun, Roger Force, Carl Storie, Ed Grundy and Dave Knapp;, is illustrated with rare vintage newsclippings and photos; and includes bonus mp3s of rare Knight recordings: “Colour of Our Love,” Come On (Children),” “Find Me,” “One Little Acre,” “Theme to The Incident,” “Lullaby.”

“Terry Knight’s Brown Bag Years”

Everyone who remembers early ‘70s rock music is familiar with the name Terry Knight – bombastic, confrontational producer-manager for proletarian noisemakers Grand Funk Railroad. Indelibly associated with the birth of arena rock, heavy metal and the first string of platinum albums ever made, Knight was indifferent to hard rock, favoring instead the soul-flavored pop that recalled his formative years as a minor-league crooner on the terminal Cameo-Parkway label.

The final, and little-known, phase of Knight’s meteoric career as impresario was the creation of his own label Brown Bag Records (distributed by United Artists) in April 1972 – a mere 30 days after the last Knight-supervised GFR album was released.

The “gimmick” with Brown Bag Records is, essentially, the grocery bag sleeves (for LPs and 45s): using heavy brown stock with the characteristic ridged top, the label logo was printed in the quintessential red ink found on Kroger’s bags. Craig Braun (designer of such iconographic album covers as Sticky Fingers, School’s Out and E Pluribus Funk) was Knight’s Brown Bag graphic man.

He recalled: “We were becoming ecology-minded, so the biodegradable aspect was a part of the overall concept but, primarily, it was the grocery motif – brown bagging it.”

The negative posturing over the Knight-GFR break and ensuing lawsuits sponged up most of Knight’s marquee value, however, and notices in the press for his new label were scant. Undaunted, Knight figured a furor over an “obscene” album cover would be the perfect calling card.

Mom’s Apple Pie was Brown Bag Records’ debut. Released the same month as GFR’s first post-Knight album, the cover of Mom’s Apple Pie featured a parody of all-American family values. A young mom standing proudly in her colonial kitchen offers up a freshly-baked apple pie, one piece already removed. In the slice’s space – a dripping vagina.

Roger Force, saxophonist for Mom’s Apple Pie, told me about the cover:

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That album cover! I remember thinking, “what the heck did I get myself into?”

I remember Knight at one of our recording sessions, showing us the cover. He said it was one of his publicity stunts, like the billboard for Grand Funk in Times Square. He had it all planned, the record would get recalled and it would be a big deal. It was 30,000 albums covers that were recalled.

I was 19 at the time. My older brother was a two-term Vietnam veteran; I was the one with the long hair. I took that album home to show my parents and – I’m embarrassed. My father looks at it and he says, “well – it’s not that bad.”

It’s ridiculous; I remember Saturday Night Live and the host was Geraldo Rivera – and he flashes the album cover over the air, live.

I also remember Knight saying “I can take a piece of shit and turn it into gold.” Meanwhile, I’m famous – for an album cover.

I asked Knight if Mom’s Apple Pie was his best record design. Chuckling, he said:

Well, that was some slice of pie, eh? We sent out piping hot apple pies in brown paper bags to all the DJs throughout New York to promote that record. That was a good campaign.

It didn’t take long before “the establishment” banned it (or, at least, censored the offending section in trade advertisements). Knight was prepared with his equally snide follow-up. In the “second” version, the young mom holds the pie – only now the slice space is filled with a prison wall, barbed wire and, center front, the American flag. Peering into the kitchen window are a couple of flatfoots.

Contrary to popular misconception, Mom’s Apple Pie was not named by Knight; he simply took their existing name and warped its meaning.

The official Mom’s Apple Pie press biography:

Mom’s Apple Pie can be predated to its initial formation during August of 1970 as a group whose membership fluctuated in number, from six to eleven, presently ten musicians averaging nineteen years of age. All born and reared in Warren, Ohio, their individual backgrounds portray a perfect example of what constitutes an “all American boy” – thus originated the group’s name, Mom’s Apple Pie.

After several months of coordinating, arranging and forming a solid unit, Larry Patterson (the group’s manager) booked a “demo” recording session in Cleveland with Kenneth Hamann, the recording engineer who (unknown then to Larry) had worked in the studio with Terry Knight on all of the now historic Grand Funk Railroad albums.

That demo would very likely have gone unnoticed as the group itself, had it not been for fate which brought Knight back into the Cleveland studios several months earlier. In fact it was Terry Knight’s wife, Pia, who actually “discovered” Mom’s Apple Pie.

Knight remembers:

I was mixing one of the albums with Ken when Pia came running into the control room yelling about this fantastic group she heard on a tape in one of the back studios. I later learned that one of the other studio engineers had been playing the tape for himself when Pia overheard it by accident. I couldn’t get her to leave me alone until I’d listened to it. I think Pia’s Swedish social background where her weekends were often spent in discotheques developed an incredible ability to pick out sensational dance music. The raw potential was right there on that demo – it’s just that she was the only one who had been able to hear it.

Without ever hearing another note of their music, Knight signed the group to recording and songwriting contracts with his new record company, Brown Bag Records. Ken Hamann was assigned the task of producing their debut LP, Mom’s Apple Pie.

Roger Force continues the narrative:

Next thing we know, there’s Howard Beldock, Terry Knight’s attorney, talking things over with Larry. We were back and forth in cars and soon enough we’re sitting in Cleveland, the whole band, with our mouths dropped down to the ground as Larry tells us: “Terry is starting a record label, it’s called Brown Bag – and he wants to sign you to a contract.”

There’s two or three meetings and next thing we’re in New York, sitting in Terry Knight’s office. Here comes Knight, he’s walking up to us, with his salt & pepper hair and his big glasses and – I remember the exact words he said: “Here looks like a future bunch of rock stars if I ever saw ‘em.”

There I was with my David Cassidy haircut, I was 19 but I must have looked all of 14 – real innocent, no drugs, no booze. The guitar player, he was 16 at the time – he had to get permission from his parents to leave school. We were stoked! We signed the recording contract that day. I just said: “I can’t believe it!”

Mom’s Apple Pie is a curious, often entertaining, mix of horn-powered funk with the occasional prog-inflected, philosophic rumination. There are dance floor workouts, such as “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” (the Willie Dixon rave up immortalized a few years later by Foghat) featuring libertine sax blowing and “Lay Your Money Down,” boasting a wicked bass & drum breakdown. The band also proffers spiritual guidance, as found in “The Secret Of Life” (which, according to the band, “lies in the Lord and His ways”).

The snappiest track was chosen for the 45. “Dawn Of A New Day” mixes ballroom and bubblegum to good effect; it’s an infectious upper with unrelenting riffs. Unfortunately, the single only charted in the imagination of Pia Knight.

As the album collapsed in the free market, Rolling Stone, who bitterly denounced Knight throughout GFR’s spectacular sales success, moved in for the kill:

This is Terry Knight’s new group, and it’s another grand flunk… A discerning glance [of the cover] reveals that inside the pie is a distended vagina. Now you gotta admit that Knight’s got balls – on a grossosity scale of one to ten this one rates an 11. But like a gopher in a snake pit, Knight picked the wrong hole. The flip side would have been more appropriate, seeing how everything on this album has a definite anal smell about it. Terry’s normally pretty sharp; why didn’t he see this? It couldn’t have because he was afraid of looking like he
was telling the record-buying public to eat shit – didn’t he do it before with three lads from Flint?

Even in the free-wheeling Seventies, such raw malevolence in print was exceptional. The only other person who earned that level of hostility in the pages of Rolling Stone was Richard Nixon.

Seemingly unconcerned by the commercial doom facing Mom’s Apple Pie, Knight entered 1973 full of his characteristic bluster and bravado. As he told Playboy magazine:

I exist as an entertainment complex today – including a limousine company, two publishing companies, a movie company in partnership with Twiggy and a new record company, Brown Bag… What I say to record executives is, “Fuck truth and honesty and being cool and sitting on your ass behind a desk, figuring out what kids are gonna listen to in Omaha!” When I want to know, I go to Omaha. I get out among the people. I have to be on the street.

Interestingly, though, the article ends with an uncharacteristic admission from the famously confrontational Knight:

It would please me to convince the people with muscle in the industry that I am not a bullshit hype. If they would pay attention the way I have, it would make the word promoter taste a hell of a lot better to me and everyone else.

His second act to release an album on Brown Bag addressed Knight’s desire for music industry legitimacy.

John Hambrick’s debut album, Windmill In A Jet Filled Sky, is a literate interpretation of country music that realizes the earlier promises of Dylan’s collaboration with Johnny Cash. The album, although energetic, is 100% Nashville; a crack team of ultra-pros, highlighting harmonica genius Charlie McCoy, provides flawless sounds as Hambrick muses on ecology, racial tension and the usual C&W concerns with a beautiful baritone twang.

Hambrick never had a chance. Although the album was actually produced by country legend Wayne Moss, the public was asked to consider buying a country record from the dude who brought Grand Funk Railroad into the world. John Hambrick soon returned to broadcasting, never to record another note of music.

Simultaneously, Brown Bag issued a 45 by another Cleveland, Ohio act, Wild Cherry. (Named after the cough drop flavor, Wild Cherry was another group that kept its own name when arriving at Brown Bag.) Written by singer/guitarist Robert Parissi, “Show Me Your Badge” is a consummate recreation of Exile-era Stones and Smokin’-era Humble Pie, complete with insolent lyrics and stoned guitar solo; in short, it’s intoxicating sludge. Braun’s ad design, featuring Pia Knight as a cheeky piece of jail bait, lends an appropriate visual. Unfortunately, this, too, flopped in the market. (Wild Cherry would reform a few years later,
without Knight’s guiding hand, and land a Number One with “Play That Funky Music White Boy.”)

Knight ignored the commercial indifference facing Mom’s Apple Pie and green-lighted work on a follow-up. Roger Force shared with me his recollections of this endeavor:

I’m sure Knight was disappointed the first record didn’t take off. There was a lot more energy and expectation all around for the first record. The second was more like fulfilling a contract, an obligation.

Mom’s Apple Pie #2, packaged to resemble a Scotch reel-to-reel tape box, contains music as workmanlike as its cover. There are catchy riffs and compelling phrases all over the two sides, but the overall vibe of the record is hesitant and inconclusive. Despite massive advertising, the record failed to make the charts. The once-mighty abracadabra “Terry Knight” was waning.

Opting not to replicate the GFR formula, Knight forewent signing any “heavy metal” bands to Brown Bag; thus his Midas production renown operated against public expectation – to the detriment of his financial and professional fate.

The acts on Brown Bag Records represented various musical portions of Terry Knight’s career – and psychology. Mom’s Apple Pie, with its three-piece horn section and crooning pop material resembled the bachelor-pad sounds of the Terry Knight’s 1967 cabaret act. Wild Cherry, with its conspicuous Stones and R&B influence, harkened back to Terry Knight & The Pack days. Finally, John Hambrick, drawing upon his broadcasting background, often employed booming monologues within his music (as Knight did). Interestingly, Knight hedged on Wild Cherry, failing to supply them with a shot at a full album, suggesting he really walked away from his Pack roots. The acts on Brown Bag showed Knight finding most of his muse in Ohio instead of Michigan.

As summer 1973 began, Knight launched his boldest promotional stratagem, the band Faith. Drummer Dave Barnes told me the story:

We were called Limousine when we found out from our manager Bill Craig Jr. that we were going to meet Terry Knight. We just knew we were on our way to stardom. Terry Knight flew us in to New York from our hometown Muncie, Indiana for our meeting. We met with his photographer that took the famous portrait of our backside, so no one would see our faces.

The gimmick with Faith owed to their anonymity and Knight’s strategically-planted rumors the band was comprised of heavyweight members from various, legendary 1960s groups from London. Supposedly the musicians – Noel Redding and Keith Relf were among the names whispered – came together to forge an illustrious new career without cashing in on prior glories or running afoul of contractual complications. Sold as a “mystery supergroup,” Faith is a bizarre twist of art imitating art: Knight took the cue from none other than his collective nemesis, Rolling Stone magazine.

In 1969, Greil Marcus penned for Rolling Stone a spoof record review of an album by “The Masked Marauders.” Tantalizingly, the group supposedly included Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger (performing such obviously satire titles as “I Can’t Get No Nookie”). The presumably stoned public rushed to stores to snap the record up. When no such record could be located, Marcus decided to pursue the gag and, calling in some favors (and some not-so-heavy session musicians), a “Masked Marauders” record was rushed out to an underwhelmed audience. Soon enough, Rolling Stone exposed the very hoax they created.

Without examining the consequences of jiving Rolling Stone with their own jive, Knight decided to take up the idea for his own.

Lead singer Carl Storie recounts the experience:

The album had been released before the Brown Bag deal. We were called Limousine – the record was on GSR. He bought the rights to it and took it to his studio and remixed the masters. He made a lot of changes; the album really sounded different, better – he had a real talent for that.

We met with Terry only once – in his New York office. I never questioned the mystique, the gimmick. He believed in the music, he believed in us as musicians; he felt the skill of the band would overcome any negative stuff resulting from the ad campaign.

We had this huge billboard on the Sunset Strip, so everybody who was anybody would see it and be talking about Terry Knight’s new mystery group – it was the cover of the album, specially designed so the heads of the band came out over the top of the billboard. He had the Faith logo put on matches, patches for clothes, postcards – anything it could be printed on. He did it all, he put our names on everything; it was incredible.

He paid us to rehearse; we worked on our show up here [in Indiana] all summer long. He would call us everyday from New York or wherever, asking us “Are you getting the act down tight?” “Yes, Terry, that’s all we’re doing, working on our show.” We played in this cabin; no one was to know what we were doing or whom we were. It was a wonderful time in our lives. We had our debut show planned for Madison Square Garden; Styx was going to open.

Then Rolling Stone exposed us; they busted the plan. They called us hicks – we were devastated, the joke of the town, they came down on “the hype.” The show didn’t happen; Terry folded the label shortly after the album came out.

Rolling Stone didn’t bother to review Faith. Robert Christgau’s Creem review was an exercise in humiliation, stating only “I was curious enough to play the first side of this record the day I got it. It took me two months to get to side two.”

Like Windmill In A Jet Filled Sky, Faith is a classy album, displaying some excellent writing and playing. The opening track, “Sometimes, Sometimes” is an alluring blend of funky backbeats, uptown riffing and heavy-duty soul shouting. The gospel-inflicted piano ballad, “Answer To The Master,” features the sort of honky-tonk epiphany that made the young Rod Stewart such a white-hot comet. The melancholy acoustic serenade, “We’re All Heading In The Way / The Last Song” is both philosophical and emotional.

It didn’t matter – summer ’73 belonged to Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of
The Holy
and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.

In with the summer champions stood Grand Funk who, after falling face down with their first post-Knight album Phoenix, reinvented themselves (under producer Todd Rungdren’s guiding hand) as a fun-lovin’ boogie outfit. Don Brewer, in his first (and only) sole songwriting credit, knocked one out of the park for GFR with “We’re An American Band,” a miraculous Number One hit single (and eternal “classic” rocker). The subsequent album of the same name, pressed on yellow vinyl (to boast their assurance the LP would go “gold”), found Knight’s former protégés back in the game, stronger than ever. Even Rolling Stone gave it a thumbs up.

Coincidentally or otherwise, when We’re An American Band resided manfully #2 on the album charts, their highest-ever showing, Knight threw in the towel.

As Roger Force related to me:

There was a third Mom’s Apple Pie album we started in June 1973. It was all finished, sitting in the can but it never got out. That album had some really good songs on it. I guess it’s been sitting in some United Artists vault for thirty years or so.

Knight was in the music news in early 1974 when an out-of-court settlement with GFR was reached, giving the bulk of the band’s royalty and publishing fortunes to Knight.

He also acknowledged that Brown Bag was “very quietly closed out.” He told me:

Unfortunately, I had the wrong horses in the stable there. United Artists, who distributed Brown Bag, wasn’t really behind it; they didn’t have the muscle of Capitol. I had to fund a lot of the promotion.

Craig Braun provides these closing comments:

Those were the days when the producers had the juice – guys like James William Guerico, Jimmy Miller and Lou Adler. People at Columbia were listening to Mitch Miller, Johnny Mathis and Ray Coniff – and here comes the new power people, with long hair, smoking dope and they had the ears, down to what single to choose. They were signing acts – big money acts; labels bowed to these “freaks.”

Terry Knight took that concept to the fullest extent.

Then one day, when everyone was listening to Billy Joel, or Bad Company, or Tubular Bells, or even Grand Funk (doing “The Locomotion”), Terry Knight (former architect of the “New Culture setting forth on its final voyage through a dying world” as he stated on a 1970 GFR record cover) took his approximately ten million dollars, the fruit of three year’s labor, and disappeared from the volcanic hullabaloo of show biz.

With Kiss, Queen and the Sex Pistols on the way, the rock & roll world owed Knight a great debt. Almost single-handedly, he knocked down the earthy-crunchy crooners Rolling Stone pushed on America and helped rock regain its exuberant spirit. Hype, kitsch, pretension and passion are its essential ideological amplifiers. Any broker can sell music; selling heroes – now, there’s a job for philosophers.

Excerpted from I (Who Have Nothing): The Terry Knight Story by Barry Stoller

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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