"If you decide
to call on me...
ask for Mr. Blue."
~ The Fleetwoods ~
It was 1959. Think about that. There were no Beatles or Stones. No Facebook. No Isis. And certainly no Pokemon Go. It was a different time. Hell, it was a different world! But love was love. And a love song was a love song. Always has been.
Now granted, the music might have been a bit more gentle, in nature, back then. A little more polite. But there certainly was no less...yearn in the burn. Or ache in the break. It was all there. The desire and the angst of being in love. And The Fleetwoods were mapping out musical roads that weren't nearly as defined as they are today. With a gorgeous melancholy sound, The Fleetwoods were the only artists to score two #1 hits in 1959. Sure, the times are much different now...no doubt about it. But love is love and not fade away.
GARY TROXEL INTERVIEW - JULY 2016
Gretchen Christopher, Gary Troxel, Barbara Ellis
Casey Chambers: In 1959, The Fleetwoods released their first #1 hit...the classic "Come Softly To Me." And you guys wrote that song yourselves, is that right?
Gary Troxel: Yes, that is correct. And it was by total accident, I think. The girls (Barbara Ellis and Gretchen Christopher) had written their part of that song already. I don't know that they even had a title for it yet. But after they'd been singing it one day...Gretchen and I went walking down Capital Way in Olympia (Washington) on our way down to the record store and I just started singing...
'Mm dooby do dahm dahm, dahm do dahm, ooby do dahm dahm, dahm do dahm'.
And Gretchen says, 'Hey, slow that down a little bit and see if it goes with what Barbara and I were singing.' And it did. And that's how it happened. A complete...I don't know if it was really an accident or not...but it's really odd stuff.
Casey Chambers: A whole lot of magic.
Gary Troxel: It sure was. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: So when you guys took the idea back to your singing mate, Barbara...she was on board right away?
Gary Troxel: Oh yeah, she was for it.
Casey Chambers: Where did you guys rehearse in those days?
Gary Troxel: Usually in someone's car. We recorded out of Gretchen's house because her dad had a tape recorder. A portable tape recorder. And that was the tape that actually went to Bob Reisdorff in Seattle. And if we were singing, we were usually singing together in a car driving down the road.
Casey Chambers: What was the crowd reaction when you first began performing that song?
Gary Troxel: The first time we sang it for the public was at a talent assembly at Olympia High School...and they went nuts. Everybody was telling us we oughtta record it. And I'm going, 'Right, are you kidding?' (laughs) Gretchen's the one who took the ball. She got us together. She got that recording. She took the song up to Seattle and she made it happen.
Casey Chambers: And the song just took off from there?
"Come Softly To Me" -- The Fleetwoods / "Mr. Blue" (1959)
Gary Troxel: Well, we just couldn't believe it. It was amazing. And as time went on...every day we'd hear the song more and more. That's the way they used to do it. They only played so many songs on the radio and then they'd start them all over again. And ours was one of them. You couldn't turn the radio on without hearing that thing. And it was pretty catchy.
Casey Chambers: Teenage cuddle music, no doubt. I watched the footage of The Fleetwoods performing "Come Softly To Me" on Dick Clark's show. What was that experience like?
Gary Troxel: It was scary. I was petrified. I'm just amazed. I mean, I was sweating bullets. Oh my goodness! But we were also on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and that was even worse, as far as nerves...because Bob Reisdorff did not go with us that time. So we were on our own. And they went and shortened up "Come Softly To Me" which we should not have let them do. They put us in cowboy-cowgirl outfits. Then they only had one microphone for me and the two girls. And then, they had a choir behind us singing my part!
Casey Chambers: What a douche move Ed pulled. Why would the show do that?
Gary Troxel: I don't know. It was just something that they thought they needed to do. And so they take away everything that we are, ya know? Even our looks. I thought it was horrible. And it was a bad experience for us, as far as we were concerned.
Casey Chambers: Now Dick Clark's show was in New York, as well. Did you guys drive across the country or did they fly you out?
Gary Troxel: No, we flew. And what happened is that Friday we were on his daytime program in Philadelphia. Then we flew again that evening and did his Saturday night show in New York.
Casey Chambers: So when you got there, what happened? Did you have the opportunity to interact with some of the other artists performing on the bill?
Gary Troxel: Oh sure. If you were on the daytime show you were usually the only star or the only entertainer. But on the Saturday night shows, there were usually three or more acts. And it was at an old time theater. It was called the Little Theatre on 44th street. And it was a real theater. And they had real dressing rooms and so forth. So we did meet everybody. And kind of an interesting aside is that once you went in the building in the morning, they wouldn't let you out. Because of what could happen to you. You were kinda trapped inside all day long. So you'd eat in there and just spend your whole day in there.
Little Theatre in New York City
Casey Chambers: So they provided all your necessities...but nixed the souvenir shopping across the street.
Gary Troxel: Yeah. They don't do that stuff anymore, but they did back then. For that show, anyway.
Casey Chambers: Who were you rubbing shoulders with backstage?
Gary Troxel: Dick Clark was just great. He was just as nice as what you see on television. One of the people we met there was Frankie Avalon. He's the first one we met when we went to the theater the first time. He jumped out of...as we walked into the theater, it was really dark...and he jumped out and said, 'Congratulations! You just knocked my "Venus" off the number one spot.' (laughs)
And ya know, we also met Paul Anka. He liked to play a lot of jokes. He had a big rubber spider that he would drop down onto the other side of the door. He'd throw it through one of those windows above the doors in the old dressing rooms. I heard the girls screaming bloody murder, so I knew to be expecting something. And sure enough, here came that spider down my window. (laughs) He did that kind of stuff. Probably still does.
Casey Chambers: The first song I ever heard by the Fleetwoods, and probably my favorite, was "Mr. Blue." Very good stuff. How did that song get in your hands?
Gary Troxel: The guy who wrote "Mr. Blue" lived in the San Francisco area. He knew we were going down there to sing at different high schools and had gotten ahold of our producer, Bob Reisdorff. And Bob arranged for him to meet with us at the motel.
Casey Chambers: This would be Dewayne Blackwell, right?
Gary Troxel: Right. And while we were down there, he played a tape for us. I think he had three songs. And one of them was "Mr. Blue." Everybody liked it, but me. (laughs) Oh boy! And now it's my favorite Fleetwoods song, so I don't know what to say.
"Mr. Blue" -- The Fleetwoods / "Mr. Blue" (1959)
Casey Chambers: First impression and you just weren't feeling it.
Gary Troxel: Nope, I sure wasn't. I thought...how could I be so far off? 'Cause everybody was...oh, they weren't jumping up and down...but they liked that one the most of the three he played for us. I didn't think too much of it until after we took the tape back with us and sang it a few times. Until we recorded it.
Casey Chambers: And that melancholy gem went on to become your second #1 record. And radio still loves that song. But the first time I ever heard it was in "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983)...of all places. I remember waiting until the end credits just to find out who performed that song.
Gary Troxel: With Chevy Chase! Yeah, I thought that was great. I think technically they're supposed to ask the artist before placing it in a movie, but they never do. They never ask us. But so far, I think the movies have done a good job with our songs.
"National Lampoon's Vacation" (w/"Mr. Blue")
Casey Chambers: How do you ever find out when one of your songs has been incorporated into a film?
Gary Troxel: Well, we never find out ahead of time. One of the biggest surprises for us was when they made "American Graffiti" (1973). Barbara was living in Orange County, I think, and it was after we were done recording...but anyway, she found out just by accident that they put our song "The Great Imposter" in this movie. And the movie was already out! We didn't know a thing about it.
Casey Chambers: Gomer says shazam!
Gary Troxel: Yeah! Well, pay us right now...and thank you! (laughs) It was great. Because they also sold soundtrack recordings of that movie. It was like another payday for us.
Casey Chambers: Good times. Plus new generations get introduced to your music that way, too.
Gary Troxel: Yeah, they sure do. And it is a cult film, so I assume that it will be played over and over so it can be drilled into their heads as time goes by. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: The Fleetwoods had three Top 40 hits in '59 which brings me to..."Graduation's Here"...and it was another one you guys wrote. The song offers up a much simpler time to my ears. And I know everything wasn't all jello and pudding back then...but I'm totally on board with the innocence of the memory.
"Graduation's Here" -- The Fleetwoods / "Mr Blue" (1959)
Gary Troxel: Yeah, that song was special because it was about our last year of high school. And we really did have a senior skip. And the funny part about that song is...I didn't skip that day. Of all things! I was kind of in the dark on that one.
Casey Chambers: The "skip" tradition still continues today, so let me offer you and all the teenagers from the past a big thank you! When you were growing up in Washington, what did your record collection look like?
Gary Troxel: I didn't have one. (laughs) I didn't have any money. I did not have a job. I had no records. But I sure listened to the radio.
Casey Chambers: Who were some of your early influences?
Gary Troxel: Myself, I liked Glenn Miller and Tex Beneke and the groups that he sang with. Which I think was kind of our style with progressive jazz chords and so forth. Not over the edge, but just real good stuff. And we all liked that. Well, I never heard Barb say she grew up listening to Tex Beneke. I'm not even sure she knew who he was. But I did. (laughs)
"Chattanooga Choo Choo" -- Tex Beneke
Casey Chambers: Harmony seemed to be cool to the rule and The Fleetwoods sure had a nice sound. You must have known right away that you blended well together.
Gary Troxel: Yeah, I guess we did. We didn't have to struggle and all. The only real struggling we ever did was when we'd have to do an album and everybody wanted to do a certain song. And sometimes we just couldn't do it, because no matter who sang the lead...it was too high or too low for the other harmonies. So it just wasn't something easy to do. We had to pick and choose.
Casey Chambers: Do you still get the bug to go out on stage and perform?
Gary Troxel: We still get a show here and there. We quit going to the east coast because we're tired of the long flights. They always break it up, so we have to change planes. After complaining for years, we just decided we're not going to do it. I think our next show is going to be in Denver in October. It's going to be an oldies show. 'Cause we're getting older, ya know? (laughs) And then we're going to be doing a show in January in Los Angeles. And that's about it. So, we've almost retired.
The Fleetwoods bringing down the house
Casey Chambers: Well, those shows are going to be a lot of fun and bring back a lot of memories for your fans.
Gary Troxel: Yeah, I guess as long as they can sell the tickets. (laughs) So far so good.
Casey Chambers: Well thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I certainly enjoyed talking with you.
Gary Troxel: Oh, you're welcome. And thanks for looking into it. Thank you.
The Fleetwoods Official Website
Follow me on FACEBOOK.