The 60s Official Site

 

A Portrait of the Buckinghams

by David Soulsby, author of the novel, "Somewhere in the Distance"

 

In 1965 I was listening to a version of Sweets For My Sweet, one of my all-time top songs, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out who was singing it. I’d not heard it before. It was certainly not The Drifters, nor The Searchers, although there were hints aplenty of the 1961 original and the Merseyside group’s rousing offering.

I was intrigued to know who was performing it and my eager wait was rewarded when the radio presenter put me out of my misery as the closing bars faded away. They turned out to be a British-sounding group calling themselves The Buckinghams. I hadn't heard of them and was surprised to learn that they were in fact American, home-grown talents from Chicago. It was a certainly a long haul from Illinois’ Windy City to Britain but the link was clear to hear.

Like scores of groups they had responded to the British music invasion of America, imitating the look and style of The Beatles, the Dave Clark Five and The Kinks. A bit of research and I discovered that The Buckinghams had also made a decent go at I’m A Man, the Bo Diddley classic, and Summertime, the George Gershwin evergreen from the musical Porgy and Bess.

That however was the extent of my interest and knowledge around that time. I put their name to the back of my memory bank and didn’t think about them until 1967 when they made a big impact that saw them topping the US charts, selling out concerts and guesting on numerous US television and radio shows. They also caught my attention when The Who shared a bill with them during the Brits first tour of the States. The year 1967 was highly competitive musically: not least, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and their Magical Mystery Tour were both introduced to the world, and Jimi Hendrix released the legendary debut first album, Are You Experienced? There was also The Monkees to contend with as well, who were selling records by the truck load. The Buckinghams rose to the challenge and did it with real panache.

Rock music with a blast of brass proved highly popular at the back end of the Sixties. Chicago and Blood Sweat And Tears had big-selling worldwide hits, but it was The Buckinghams who first had success with the style via producer James William Guercio. The collaboration produced a rich rock/brass sound that caught the imagination.  

I PICKED up on The Buckinghams’ million-selling hit Kind Of A Drag via the radio. There was a regular weekly show in Britain that included a look at the American top-selling singles and albums and provided listeners with information about the artists. Also, the respected British weekly newspaper, the New Musical Express, mentioned them in February 1967 when they were top of the charts in US. It wasn't a large item but it did enough to further whet my appetite. The newspaper I worked for at the time printed the NME, so I was always eagerly grabbing a copy hot off the press! It was a great way to keep up with all the latest music news and spot interesting new releases. I recall Columbia records took out an advertisement for Kind Of A Drag, showing the band in all their finery. The five faces were those, if my memory serves me well, of Carl Giammarese, Nick Fortuna, Dennis Tufano, John Poulos and Marty Grebb.

While they never made a massive impact in Britain they did have a small following of fans, myself included. I bought two of their albums and still have them. They're on the original US Columbia label, purchased in a record store in London's West End that specialised in imported discs. You paid a bit more them but it was worth it. They were in stereo too, which at the time was cool as stereo equipment was just beginning to be the in-thing. I know some purists prefer mono but I was hooked on stereo and The Buckinghams' albums sounded fabulous.

The Buckinghams LPsPortraits and In One Ear And Gone Tomorrow were the two albums I bought at the time. They’re a bit worn after all these years. I was always lending them out to friends and work colleagues and alas they didn’t always treat them with the respect they deserved, but they still play surprisingly well. I came cross them recently while rummaging in the attic and got so occupied recalling them that I forgot what I went up for in the first place! It was one of those nostalgia trips. I played both albums through just to remind me what I’d been missing, as I hadn’t heard them for some years. I wasn’t disappointed.

My favorite Portraits tracks are:

Inside Looking Out: Very John Lennon sounding, and it boasts a striking string arrangement.

Hey Baby (They're Playing Our Song): Lively, poppy song. It’s frothy, but easy to like. It’s one of those feel good songs.

Susan: Again, pure pop that sticks in the mind. Not surprised it was a huge hit for the band.

Big Business Advisor: Strong Beatles feel, even has the yeah, yeah tucked in there. Fab!

Have I Noticed You're Alive: Great bass from Nick Fortuna. Melodic strings, too. Flute at end always reminds me of a bird soaring across the sky!

C'mon Home: Has a Crosby Stills Nash feel to it, although it was recorded way ahead of them. Just adore the drum finish.

I Love All Of The Girls: Strong brass section makes it a distinctive track. 

Carl Giammerese says that he had several influences while growing up in Chicago. ‘When I started playing guitar in 1960 at age 13,’ he recalls. ‘I was listening to whatever was on the radio at the time, but mostly it was The Ventures whose guitar licks I tried to copy.’

I was interested to hear that, as I too liked The Ventures. I listened to them a lot in the early Sixties and still treasure one of their albums, The Ventures In Space, among my collection. I can see why Carl liked them.

Carl adds: ‘I also loved The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison and Rick Nelson. When the Beatles hit our shores in 1964 that was it for me. Like so many, I wanted to be the 5th Beatle. By 1965 when the Buckinghams were trying to become established we were a cover band first, and our influences were all over the board, everything from R&B to pop, James Brown and Wilson Pickett, of course everything the Beatles did along with the Hollies, Kinks, Zombies and The Yardbirds.

‘In September of 1965 we were on a TV Show for WGN and we performed a few songs that were at the top of the charts each week for 13 weeks.’

Some of the cover versions Carl talks about included Unchained Melody and The Beatles’ I Call Your Name, which was on an EP in Britain called Long Tall Sally. It featured on an album in the US. The Buckinghams’ vocal sounded a lot like John Lennon, which is a compliment to the guys’ interpretation of a fine song. 

When I first saw the Portraits cover I was fascinated. I felt it was different. The use of North and South uniforms from the American Civil War was evocative of the old photographs you see from the period and also for me invoked memories of those classic movies Gone With The Wind and The Red Badge Of Courage. I never did find out at the time how the cover came about, so it was intriguing to recently discover its history from Carl.

‘The cover was the idea of our manager-producer James William Guercio, explains Carl. ‘We collectively came up with the title. So it was photographed like a sepia tone portrait.

‘Portraits was our Sergeant Pepper, a concept album that we were hoping would help The Buckinghams reach a new audience that would recognize our ability to write our own music. The Union and Confederate uniforms were borrowed from MGM studios period costume department. They were the real deal.’

Nick Fortuna, however, says he doesn’t have any idea why the Union and Confederate uniforms were used for the album.  “It still doesn't make sense to me,’ he says. ‘Especially when Garry Puckett made the Union uniform his signature look.’

Whatever, its still a classic cover and an album of which to be proud. Nick’s bass comes across strong on most of the tracks, which is a testament to his love of James Jamerson, the bass maestro who added his distinctive sound to scores of Motown hits. Indeed, Nick says he’s a Motown junkie. He was also a big fan of James Brown and a wide range of R&B, which he says was a huge influence on him. And, of course, he loved The Beatles. ‘Paul’s bass playing was always cool,’ he enthuses.

 THE ALBUM In One Ear and Gone Tomorrow was as different to Portraits as you could get. It had a new producer and a softer, more melodic tone to it. I don’t think it’s anyway near as good as Portraits but it still has three tunes worthy of mention: Song of the Breeze is, I think, quite experimental and the vocals seem to me to hark back to groups such as The Lettermen and The Four Preps; Back In Love Again is an out-and-out pop song that grows on you the more you hear it, and Are You There (With Another Girl) has its moments.

RECENTLY in Britain, BBC Radio 2 on Sounds Of The Sixties played Kind of a Drag and featured on Paul Gambaccini’s America’s Greatest Hits program. It’s nice to see that The Buckinghams are still arousing interest, and still entertaining audiences nearly half a century after they hit the big time. 

David SoulsbyDavid Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex, England, and is now Somewhere in the Distanceretired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.