Nashville's first long-hair band releases new CDs
By Jonathan Marx
AUGUST 24, 1998: No doubt about it, Nashville recording studios saw their share of action in the 1960s. It was during these years that Nashville's A-team rose to ascendancy, backing every country singer imaginable--not to mention everyone from Bob Dylan to Bob Mitchum. Elvis Presley, meanwhile, had been making frequent trips since the mid-'50s to RCA's Studio B. And even locals like Robert Knight and Bucky Wilkin got in on the action, cranking out oldies-radio staples like "Everlasting Love" and "G.T.O."
But for all the stars and all the hotshots who had already passed through Nashville by 1966, Music City had never seen the likes of We the People before. And yet this Orlando, Fla., quintet remains little more than a footnote in the rock 'n' roll history books--celebrated largely by fanatical record collectors as one of the foremost exponents of raw, righteous garage punk.
In a studio town that hadn't fully hipped to rock 'n' roll, We the People were the very embodiment of what their producer, Tony Moon, calls "the hard, rebellious white British sound." But as Sundazed Records' exhaustive new two-CD retrospective, Mirror of Our Minds, suggests, the group showed just how many musical possibilities existed in the exciting, fleeting moment between the British Invasion and the burgeoning psychedelic era.
For as much as We the People might be considered the ultimate in '60s garage rock, the group's music was far more complex and inspired than that of the Shadows of Knight, the Music Machine, or the Standells. Sure, they tapped into the primal aggression of the Who and the Stones--with unparalleled results--but their music also had the melodic and even emotional depth of the Zombies and the Kinks. The three dozen songs on Mirror of Our Minds show that We the People had uncommon breadth for a rock 'n' roll band: Not only did they refuse to be limited to any one style of music, they were great at everything they did.
Even at the time, though, it would have been stretching it to say that the group turned Nashville on its ear. Only a few locals still remember them today, but for the kids who heard 'em on WKDA, or who caught one of their live appearances, they were something different, all right.
"They were the first longhaired group ever to come into the city," Moon remembers. "Nashville, being as conservative, and as country, as it was, the rockers here all looked pre-Beatles--they all looked like they came out of '59 back in '65."
Moon should know. Only a half a decade before, he'd moved here from L.A. to play guitar in The Casuals, Brenda Lee's backing band. Even by the mid-'60s, "all the Nashville bands still wore their hair in the continental-pompadour, hair-spray kind of look. Then We the People came in here--and they didn't have Beatle-length hair, they had Rolling Stones-length hair."
The group's Nashville career embarked in typical fashion--with several band members making door-to-door rounds on Music Row. They'd already cut one single, a taut punker called "My Brother, the Man," for the indie Hotline label, when manager Ron Dillman decided it was time to search out a production and publishing deal. And Nashville, being the closest music-business center to Florida, made perfect sense.
"Nashville was definite big-time, the closest we could get to it," remembers guitarist Wayne Proctor. "We went down Music Row, down one side of the street and then up the other, from one record company to the next--Decca, Capitol, Mercury, RCA. Some of the guys were very blunt. [They'd] say, 'I like the band, but the music stinks.' Then other people would say, 'I like the music, but the band stinks.' "
Just as the band was beginning to wonder why they'd come to Nashville in the first place, they wandered into the offices of Barmour Music, the publishing division of Pickwick International, and met Tony Moon. Already a veteran producer, Moon had been riding high with another group, The Vogues, who scored a No. 4 hit earlier that year with "Five O'Clock World." He'd been trying his hand with other pop and rock acts, but We the People turned his head right away.
"Other bands were good," he remembers, "but they didn't have the writing capabilities of We the People. The group had two really strong writers who wrote different types of stuff--it had this kaleidoscope of texture."
Moon set up the group's first recording date not in Nashville, but in a cramped Tampa studio. The results were emblematic of the group's split personality: Guitarist Tommy Talton's "Mirror of Your Mind" was an explosive, leering come-on fueled by sizzling guitars and Moon's harmonica riffs. Proctor penned the other song, "(You Are) the Color of Love," an aching, sumptuous ballad that hinted tastefully at the dreamy psychedelia that was coming into vogue.
With the help of an independent promotion man, Bob Holiday, Moon secured a record deal with Challenge Records, a West Coast label that had just hit with The Knickerbockers' "Lies." Even so, We the People didn't generate a whole lot of action with their first Challenge single.
Over the next two years, the group traveled to Nashville for more recording sessions. The trips were often brief and largely confined to the studio, but they were certainly memorable. Proctor and keyboardist Randy Boyte had visited Miami's Criteria Studios with a previous band, but Nashville represented something else entirely. "I was scared as hell," Proctor recalls. "It was so big and professional, compared to what we'd been in."
If the studios were intimidating, Nashville's session musicians were perhaps even more so. Although the group handled most of the instrumental chores on their recordings, Moon called on some of the city's skilled pros to fill in a few holes at recording sessions. Upon encountering the likes of multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, Proctor was awestruck: "I remember listening to them play music, thinking there has to be some kind of mechanical device for them to play so good. I couldn't imagine anyone being that good."
We the People might have been daunted by Nashville's studios, but they were fearless onstage. On their few nights off, the group played dances, or combos, as they were called back then: "They just mesmerized these kids," Moon remembers. "Teenagers in Nashville just never saw anything like this. They'd heard about it, they'd seen The Beatles on Ed Sullivan," but it wasn't till We the People came to town that local kids saw this new breed of rock 'n' roll in the flesh.
At one gig in a shopping-center parking lot, Proctor remembers, hordes of people turned out. "It was the first time that we had girls in front of us, trying to reach out and touch us. We were totally shocked. To them, we could have been from England."
Other gigs, however, weren't quite so successful. At one Nashville teen-club date, the group somehow ended up backing Ray Stevens. By this time, Proctor recalls, "Ahab the Arab" had long fallen off the charts, and "his type of music was going by the wayside." But Stevens nonetheless expected the musicians to know his material, and he wasn't too happy when they couldn't deliver. "He was in a bad mood, and I didn't like him," Proctor says.
Such was the lot of a band who'd arrived in a town that was a few years behind the rest of the country. Mostly, the boys hung out around the pool at their Murfreesboro Road hotel, watching the traffic go by and waiting for the sun to come up.
They may well have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They did all right, scoring regional hits in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida. But national success wasn't forthcoming. Maybe, as Moon says, the band was just too versatile.
Challenge did what it could, but the label's regional strategy didn't seem to go anywhere. After several singles, and Proctor's departure, the group signed on with RCA. It wasn't the best choice, given that the label's Nashville division could have cared less about promoting rock 'n' roll acts.
After turning out a string of killer singles for RCA--including "Follow Me Back to Louisville," which deserved to be an instant bubblegum hit--the group finally called it quits. Talton went on to a successful career in music, turning up in the '70s on Capricorn Records as a member of the group Cowboy. These days, he lives in Luxembourg, while Proctor lives in South Carolina, working for the planning division of Anderson County.
Even if We the People never quite made it, Proctor looks back fondly, if a little blithely, on his time in the group. "We were teenagers, somebody was paying for it, we didn't care." In the end, their story is like that of any other group: They came, they rocked, they broke up. But while they were rocking, hanging out at RCA studios and the Alamo Plaza Hotel, they showed Nashville just how exciting rock 'n' roll could be.
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