This has been a tough year for our rock-star heroes. We wrote back in August about the death of Dan Peek, one of the founding members of the '70s super group America. As 2011 draws to a close, we can't help but think about The Grass Roots, one of my favorite bands of the late '60s and early '70s.
Two members of The Grass Roots' classic lineup died this year, leaving behind a string of infectious hits in a genre that has come to be known as "sunshine pop." Drummer Rick Coonce, who had settled near Vancouver, British Columbia, died on February 25 of heart failure. Lead singer Rob Grill died on July 11 near Orlando, Florida, from complications of a head injury he had sustained in a fall.
Grill had lived with pain for years from a degenerative bone disorder called avascular necrosis. That's the same condition that ended the career of Alabama's football/baseball superstar, Bo Jackson. Grill soldiered on, serving as The Grass Roots' front man through a multitude of personnel changes for more than 40 years.
It's never been cool to admit you like The Grass Roots. When I was in high school, the "deep" kids were into bands like Jethro Tull; Led Zeppelin; Deep Purple; The Moody Blues; Yes; and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Those bands were OK, but something about The Grass Roots connected with me. (Maybe I just wasn't deep enough for that other stuff.) Their 16 Greatest Hits album remains one of my cherished possessions, and I still break it out regularly to listen to "Sooner or Later," "Where Were You When I Needed You," "Baby Hold On," and much more--and those songs still sound great, even with all the crackling from a vinyl record that has made thousands of trips around the turntable.
How could they cram so many songs onto one vinyl record? Well, the Grass Roots rarely recorded a song that went more than three minutes. No drum solos or guitar excursions with these guys. They were a true singles band. From 1967 to 1972, The Grass Roots were on the Billboard charts for 307 consecutive weeks, a record even The Beatles could not match.
Grill later admitted in interviews that the band cared little about producing great albums; they just wanted to churn out hits. The minute one single started going down the charts, here came another to take its place.
Ask a music aficionado about rock bands with horns, and the answer is likely to include Chicago or Blood, Sweat, and Tears. But The Grass Roots actually were the first major American band to incorporate a brass section into their sound.
What was the appeal of The Grass Roots? The New York Times summed it up nicely in its obit of Grill:
The band’s style married elements of folk-rock, soul, blues and R&B. Its songs, whose close-knit harmonies evoked the British pop groups of the period, were bouncy, accessible and eminently danceable, often backed by an upbeat brass section.
“The Grass Roots weren’t the hippest band on the block,” The Boston Globe wrote in 1989. “But they were—and remain—a sure-fire guilty pleasure, a blissful package of pure pop.”
The Grass Roots grew from unusual roots. Originally called The 13th Floor, they were hired as a studio concoction to record songs for the production/songwriting team of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. Perhaps that is why the band has always had a faceless quality.
I had an experience with that when Mrs. Schnauzer and I went to the 2006 City Stages festival in Birmingham. Taylor Hicks had just won American Idol, and he was one top attraction. But the real draw, for me, was The Grass Roots.
The Hicks show started late and ran long, and Mrs. Schnauzer was determined to see all of that. But I had to leave to catch The Grass Roots on another stage. After all, I had been wanting to see them live for 34 years. As I settled into a prime spot near the front of the stage, a short, older guy with long hair came bopping down a sidewalk, about an arm's length from me. He was talking to himself and seemed genuinely content in his own little world.
"Who's the space cadet?" I wondered to myself. When the band took the stage and broke into their opening song, "Wait A Million Years," my mouth fell open. The "space cadet" was Rob Grill. I had not even recognized one of my all-time favorite singers. I still regret that I missed out on a chance to tap Grill on the shoulder and briefly thank him for all the years of great music.
Grill was the only member of The Grass Roots' classic lineup on stage that day. Has the band experienced a few personnel changes over the years? According to their Wikipedia page, The Grass Roots have had 33 members from 1966 until now--and I'm pretty sure that's leaving out a few.
One founding member, guitarist Creed Bratton, is best known now for playing himself on TV's The Office. Bratton left The Grass Roots in 1969, but he played on their four earliest albums and on about eight charting singles. Here he is on "Let's Live for Today," the band's first major hit. That's Bratton next to drummer Rick Coonce (at 1:30), with Grill and Warren Entner out front:
Bratton came from a folk background, and he left when the band started moving in a pop/R&B direction. He was replaced by keyboardist Dennis Provisor, who became an integral part of The Grass Roots sound. Here is the band with "Heaven Knows," featuring Provisor on keys, with some outlandish '70s "threads":
What's the quintessential Grass Roots song? "Midnight Confessions" was their highest charter, at No. 5. But my vote would go to "Temptation Eyes." The song has a slight edge--at least by Grass Roots standards--and is right in Grill's vocal wheel house. It even has a guitar solo, a rarity in a Grass Roots song:
I have to include one song from 1972's Move Along, which most Grass Roots fans consider to be the band's best studio album. "The Runway" from that album proved to be the band's last single to hit the Top 40. I can recall buying a 45 of the "The Runway" and wearing out the grooves on it. Here is a stereo version of a song that rocks in classic Grass Roots style. Dig those horns:
For all of the hits they produced, The Grass Roots missed on several. Some of the band members, especially Provisor, were solid songwriters. But most of the band's hits were penned by outside writers. That's probably why the band has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is a gross injustice IMHO.
As The Grass Roots developed a reputation for turning unknown tunes into hits, they got innundated with material. But sometimes, their ears and judgment betrayed them. They passed on "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes," which reached No. 5 for the British group Edison Lighthouse in 1970. They passed on "Drift Away," which reached No. 5 for Dobie Gray in 1973--and was reincarnated by Uncle Kracker in 2003. It's hard to imagine anyone singing that song better than Dobie Gray, but I still wish The Grass Root had recorded it.
Another that got away was "Don't Pull Your Love," which went to No. 4 for Hamilton, Joe Frank, and Reynolds in 1971. This song sounds so much like The Grass Roots that I thought it was them for years. It was written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, the songwriting team that wrote or produced numerous Grass Roots hits--along with "Rhinestone Cowboy," by Glenn Campbell; "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got)," by The Four Tops; "One Tin Soldier," by Coven (from the movie Billy Jack), "Nightshift," by The Commodores; "Baby Come Back," by Player; and "We Built This City," by Starship.
The Grass Roots have been good sports about the songs that got away, and often play them in concert. Grill said in interviews that he wanted fans to know what a Grass Roots version of those songs would sound like. I know, from having seen the band in 2006, that their versions sound pretty darned good.
Here is the current lineup of The Grass Roots, with Mark Dawson replacing Grill on bass guitar and lead vocals. This is from a July 2011 show in Iowa, roughly one week before Grill's death. No original members are in the band these days, but the music lives on and Dawson does a nice job of filling in for one of the great singers in rock-and-roll history.
If The Grass Roots pass this way again, I plan to be there. Here's The Grass Roots version of "Don't Pull Your Love." Enjoy: