Monday, December 14, 2015

Interview: -- Carl Giammarese (The Buckinghams)

"...It made us
feel so groovy."
~ The Buckinghams ~

The Buckinghams worked AM radio like butter.  They created great pop songs and captured great pop sounds.  Fans were spinning 45s, drinking colas, and finding paradise by the AM radio dial.

But in the late 60's, radio was starting to change and so were The Buckinghams.  At least they wanted to.  The band was adding more churn to their burn, keeping their garage vibe door open and slipping some light-psych in for good measure.  They definitely had something going on...and their albums were all the better for it.  A little more FM tasty, if you like.

Unfortunately, the band found themselves pigeonholed inside an "AM Only" fence that wouldn't let them escape.  Not radio stations. Not record companies. Not even many of their fans.  This is no pity party, though; the boys were hugely successful.  Still, too bad what we might have missed.  And I mean really...too bad.  There was always room for The Buckinghams on both frequencies.  Seek out their albums and enjoy.

Carl Giammarese Interview - December 2015

(lead guitar, vocals)

Casey Chambers:  I'd like to jump right in and ask about a favorite deep-track of mine, "The Time Of My Life" from The Buckinghams album..."In One Ear And Gone Tomorrow." (1968)  It has a great garagey, light psych vibe and you had a hand in writing that one, right?

"In One Ear And Gone Tomorrow" (1968)

Carl Giammarese:  Oh yeah. Boy, it's been so long.  I haven't really thought about that song for a long time.  Or that album for that matter.  Y'know..."In One Ear And Gone Tomorrow" was the last studio album we did at Columbia Studios in New York.  It was the first recording we did without our producer Jim Guercio.  I think that was 1968, if I remember correctly.

"The Time Of My Life" - The Buckinghams / "In One Ear And Gone Tomorrow" (1968)

I was lead guitar and Marty (Grebb) played guitar also.  He was kind of a multi-talented musician. His first instrument was really sax.  Tenor sax.  And he also was a very prolific keyboard player.  His third instrument was guitar.  We worked up the guitar parts and used various effects.  To be honest, I can't remember what I used then.  I think I was going through an old Amtec amplifier and I can't even remember what the brand of fuzz tone was. (laughs)  We didn't have the array of sounds you can get today, but yeah, it was the days when we'd get together and rehearse as a band and cut basic tracks different ways in the studio. Drums, bass, piano. Or guitar, bass, and piano. There were no rules, but we'd usually start with the nucleus of drums and bass and so forth.

Casey Chambers:  The first song that everybody tasted from The Buckinghams..."Kind Of A Drag" (1967)...went on to become a #1 smash and, among others, is in constant radio rotaish to this day.  At what point did you guys realize that song was going to change your lives?

"Kind Of A Drag" (1967)

Carl Giammarese:  Well, I think it crept up on us.  We had been a cover band playing venues all over Chicago. Everything from The Beatles..."I Call Your Name" to James Brown's..."I'll Go Crazy."

Our manager, Carl Bonafede, was bringing us into Chess Studios doing cover songs to begin with, but we had been looking for an original song to record. This was the old blues studio where some of the legends recorded like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, and even the Stones recorded there.

Anyway, our manager connected us with a songwriter, Jim Holvay, who had a song that just didn't work for his band.  Carl went over with a tape player and microphone and recorded Jim strumming his unplugged electric guitar and singing "Kind Of A Drag."  He brought it back and we thought it was cool.

At the time, we had been using our parent's basements to rehearse in.  We were in "my" parents' basement when we worked up an arrangement for this song.  Our producer, Dan Belloc, thought it would sound great with some horns.  Now we weren't a horn band, really.  We didn't play live with horns.  But we said, 'Okay. That's cool.'  So he brought in this player who came up with the horn arrangement and we thought it really sounded great.

"Kind Of A Drag" - The Buckinghams / "Kind Of A Drag" (1967)

A couple of months after we recorded the song...USA Records, the label we were with in Chicago...finally released it.  And it just took off overnight.  By the beginning of February of 1967, it was the number one record in the country.

We were just blown away, y'know?  We had seen previous records we recorded...cover tunes...make it on the charts bubbling under the Top 100 in Billboard and Cashbox.  But nothing really hit the charts that much.  And then all of a sudden this song comes out and it kept jumping up the charts 20 points every week and pretty soon it was number one.  We were absolutely blown away.

Anyhow, that launched our career because all of a sudden we were a national group.  Radio did everything back then.  AM radio. And it just took off like wildfire.  Pretty exciting.

Casey Chambers:  So a Chicago station broke the song...

Carl Giammarese:  Back in the day, Chicago stations were very supportive of local bands.  If they liked the record, they would put it in their radio rotation.  Which was big 'cause you'd get so many plays a day.  And with a station like WLS which was the main station here in Chicago, people could hear the song from all over the country.  So that was really big.

I remember one time Paul Shaffer telling me when he used to live in Canada on Thunder Bay...he could pick up WLS at night.  He would listen to it all the way up in Canada.  And that was how he got to know our music.

Casey Chambers:  That's very cool.  What about the little gem B side of "Kind Of A Drag."  Again, it has that wonderful garagey thing happening.  It was a cover of a Zombies tune, right?

Carl Giammarese:  Yeah. "You Make Me Feel So Good."    We were all big fans of The Zombies and Colin Blunstone was one of our favorite singers.  They were making great records and that was a song we were doing in our live show.

And that's me singing on that.  I have to say it was a pretty crude...not a great recording of that song.  I re-recorded it later and made it sound a lot better to my ear, but it is a great tune.  I always joke that that song was as big as "Kind Of A Drag" and it sold as many records.  But only because it was on the other side.  The 'B' side. (laughs)

"You Make Me Feel So Good" - The Buckinghams/"Kind Of A Drag" (1967)

Casey Chambers:  No, no. I like it.  On your underrated third album, "Portraits", The Buckinghams push the needle a little more.  A little heavier. A little psychy.  A really good album.  And the lead-off track..."C'mon Home" is a bit of a lost gem.

Carl Giammarese:  Yeah well, let me tell you, for our "Portraits" album, we decided we were going to do something that was sort of a leap to writing our own songs.   Especially for Marty Grebb.  He was pretty instrumental in writing most of the material on that album.

We all wanted to be more involved in the writing and publishing end of the music and decided to head out to L.A.  We rented a house up in the Hollywood Hills for about three months just writing and rehearsing. When we went into the studio, we were given some leeway as far as playing, creating, and doing certain things.  So, it was a pretty big leap for us to do that.

"Portraits" (1968)

I think the album "Portraits" was a masterpiece of...of a concept album.  And if you listen to some of the horn arrangements, and on that song in particular, it almost sounds like it could of been from the first Chicago album.

The Buckinghams were known for creating that pop-rock horn sound which had a heavy trombone influence to it.  And we introduced our producer Jim Guercio to those guys and he went on to later sign the band Chicago at our insistence.  He took that sound to another level with the horns but you can hear the connection.

And the guitar sounds I got were from a lot of experimenting with different amps, different effects pedals and so forth.  I was using Epiphone guitars.  I was using a Gibson 345 Stereo.  I was using some Fender Strats.  And I still have a few of those guitars around.  But yeah, it was an experiment for us.  It was our "Sgt. Pepper" so to speak.  We were disappointed to tell you the truth, because we thought that maybe the album would lift us out from the lower pop, lighter music to something a little stronger and heavier.

But our audience was not really...they still wanted to hear "Kind Of A Drag" and "Don't You Care."  So it was a hard transition to try to take it to that level.  And the music scene was starting to change by the late '60s.  It seemed like overnight we went from AM to FM within a few month period.  Some of the heavier groups were coming out like Cream...Hendrix...Joplin...Santana...and the music scene was changing pretty quickly.

But yeah, "C'mon Home" was a great song and we still do it live occasionally.

"C'mon Home" - The Buckinghams / "Portraits" (1968)

Casey Chambers:  Not being allowed to grow and rock-off into FM had to be a major drag for you guys.  Screw the pun.  But no denying The Buckinghams were having their "run in the sun" on the AM waves.  And you had the opportunity to do the biggest show on television..."The Ed Sullivan Show."

Carl Giammarese:  Well, of course, Ed Sullivan was the epitome of success.  If you got to perform on Ed Sullivan that was about it, y'know?  There was a certain vibe and feeling knowing that The Beatles had stood on that stage and performed.  I was amazed when we got to be on the same stage.  And I thought the Ed Sullivan Theater was going to be bigger. (laughs) It wasn't near as big as I imagined.  It was something you realized was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  We were all excited and a little bit nervous, but what a great experience to play in front of a live audience on Ed's show.

Casey Chambers:  Which songs did you guys get to play?

Carl Giammarese:  We did "Susan"...and they did that weird video break during the psychedelic part.  So while we're performing on stage, the video broke out of us during the psychedelic break and then came back to us again.  We were one of the first bands to ever do a video.
(Sorry folks, no Ed Sullivan YouTube)

"Susan" - The Buckinghams / "Portraits" (1968)

The second song we performed was "What Is Love."  It was thought of possibly doing it as a single but we wound up having disagreements and fired our manager, Guercio, who had produced it.  We decided to go with another song..."Back In Love Again" which was okay, but it didn't have nearly the success we had previously with the other songs like..."Kind Of A Drag," "Don't You Care," "Hey Baby (They're Playing Our Song)," "Susan," and "Mercy Mercy Mercy."

But performing on Sullivan certainly helped our career a lot because we knew we were getting tremendous national exposure.

Casey Chambers:  The Buckinghams also added another notch to their RnR belt performing on the "out-there" variety show..."The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."  What was the yin-yang of doing that show?

Carl Giammarese:  Well, on The Smothers Brothers, we were on a sound stage and weren't really playing in front of a studio audience.  It didn't give you that kind of feel.  But at the time, The Smothers Brothers had the hottest show on TV.   Everybody wanted to be on their show and it was exciting for us to be asked to perform on it.

The funny thing about it...the producers of the show thought we were a British group. (laughs)  When we came on the sound stage to do a run through, we looked around and the floor of the stage was decorated with the Union Jack and they had British Flags hanging in the background.  And they just thought we were a British group.  They really didn't know we were from Chicago. (laughs)  I guess it's understandable, because we did have the British Carnaby Street look.  The haircuts. The clothing. The name.  So that's what they were thinking.

"Mercy Mercy Mercy" - The Buckinghams / "Time & Charges" (1967)

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, I've seen the video and wondered about that.

Carl Giammarese:  Yeah, that was actually a mistake that we just left in.  Just did the show like that anyway.  They had already created the set, so we did it.  They didn't realize that we were a just a bunch of Italian kids from Chicago.  They were also serving us fish and chips and all we wanted was some good Italian food. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Did you guys get that a lot back assuming you were British?

Carl Giammarese:  Occasionally, people would think that.  You didn't have social media.  You didn't have websites. Or all the various outlets for exposure, like you do today.  The biggest form of exposure was getting airplay on AM radio and playing live concerts.  That was about it.  And the occasional TV or variety show.  So people would take it for granted or just assume.  We made all the teen magazines, but they didn't talk about our background as much as they should have.  Who knows?  But for whatever reason, yeah, there were a lot of people who thought that way.

"Don't You Care" - The Buckinghams / "Time & Charges" (1967)

Casey Chambers:  What was it like touring back then when you guys were all over the radio?

Carl Giammarese:  Well, it was pretty intense.  In '67, we were voted "The Most Listened To Band In The Country" (Billboard) and back in those days, the girls were screaming like crazy.  We'd get out on stage and these girls would go absolutely berserk and you could hardly hear a note you were playing.  We didn't have the sound systems you have today.  I mean we didn't even have monitors so you could hear yourself back then.

"Time & Charges" (1967)

I remember seeing The Beatles at Comiskey Park in Chicago the summer of '65 and their sound system was just horrible.  It was...oh, I used to know the name of the system they used...but it was by no means capable of getting above the screams.  I never heard one song that whole concert.

It was that way with us, too.  And the girls could be pretty aggressive.  I remember one time looking over to my left and Nick Fortuna was being dragged off the stage by like...three girls and they tore the sleeve off of his coat.

Casey Chambers:  That's rock-n-roll for ya.

Carl Giammarese:  Yeah, it was like "A Hard Day's Night" for quite awhile.  I remember once being scared to death.  We were in New York City doing a promotion at a record store in Manhattan and these girls went absolutely nuts. We went tearing down the street and had to cut into a store and talk the owner into locking the door while they were pounding on it.  Like I said, it was like "A Hard Day's Night."  It was crazy.

The Buckinghams

Casey Chambers:  It sounds like some crazy great times.  And The Buckinghams are still working stages hard.  And you're gonna be out this way pretty soon, right?

Carl Giammarese:  Yeah, we're going to be in Kansas on New Years Eve at the Kansas Star Casino.  Come on out and join us.  I think it's a fairly early show.  We've got a date there and then we've gotta be in Vegas for a show on New Years Day.

Casey Chambers:  That's gonna be a blast.  Carl, I'd like to thank you again for all the great music and sharing all these wonderful memories.

Carl Giammarese:  You're welcome.  Thank you, Casey and take care.

"Hey Baby..." - The Buckinghams / "Portraits" (1968)

The Buckinghams Official Website

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers
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