I wrote about the Rites of Spring a few months ago, but now I can bring you the whole story of this Birmingham, Alabama group. As the Hard Times they recorded one 45 on the Ultimate label, “Losing You” backed with the excellent “You Couldn’t Love Me”.
By winning a WVOK battle-of-the-bands, the band attracted the attention of Cameo-Parkway Records, which had just hired Michigan singer Terry Knight as a staff producer after his 45 “I (Who Have Nothing)” on Lucky Eleven (distributed nationally by Cameo-Parkway) had become a sizeable hit. The Hard Times would be his first project for the label, but first they had to change their name to the Rites of Spring to avoid conflict with the San Diego/LA group of the same name who had records out on World Pacific.
The folky “Why (?)” was released in October, 1966, with the much harder edged “Comin’ On Back To Me” on the flip. Both songs were written by Michael Gunnels and Ronald Parr. The band promoted the record on the national TV show, Where the Action Is.
I recently spoke to Mike Pair, guitarist with the Hard Times and the Rites of Spring, and he gave me the full story about the band.
Q. How did the Hard Times form? Were you friends in school or in other bands?
Mike Pair: I played with Mike Gunnels in another band which lasted about 3 months. He then met the rest of the group who were trying to form a band, and when they needed another guitar, he suggested me. They all went to Woodlawn High School together – except me.
The Hard Times’ “Losing You” was produced and recorded here in Birmingham at Boutwell Studies. Ed Boutwell shot all the civil rights footage from Birmingham with the fire hoses and dogs that you still see on the TV. Steve Norris, a local DJ, produced it. “You Couldn’t Love Me” was a one take song just to fill the other side of the record. “Losing You” got to #1 on the top local charts in Birmingham. We also did a lot of work for the WSGN DJs. WSGN was a great radio station.
We were busy every weekend throughout the south. We booked from Lowery Talent in Atlanta. They also had Tommy Roe, Joe South, Bobby Goldsboro, and the Tams. They picked us up because we won a 300 band “Battle of the Bands” There were so many bands, it lasted 2 days and we won.
Mike: The Cameo Parkway record and Where the Action Is came through Lowery Talent. We were still the Hard Times, [but the California group] the Hard Times band was a regular on that show, so that was the reason for the name change to the Rites of Spring. If we had turned down the Action deal, we could have kept the name.
Q. Tell me about recording the Rites of Spring record.
Mike: We recorded both sides in Philly. Chubby Checker was there too.
Q. One website says that Terry Knight took your demo and re-recorded the vocals and some tracks, and improved it. Is that how you see it?
Mike: No, that part is not correct. The cut for the record company was the first one and we had not recorded that song before. Terry was a little weird even in those days. After we would do a cut, he would just sit there and stare into space not saying anything for long periods of time. We would just stand in the studio and wait until he came out of his “zone”. When Chubby Checker came in and sat in on some of the session, things were a little better and he acted more normal.
Q. Did you ever see any money from Cameo for the Rites of Spring 45?
Mike: Not a dime!!! They never pushed the record, and the only reason we can figure out was “96 Tears” came out about the same time and it was more of an instant hit that our record was, so it got all the promo money. We had one more record in our contract, but if I remember correctly, Cameo Parkway went south and out of existence not too long after we recorded, and the second record never got made.
We were on ‘Where the Action Is’ about two weeks before the show ended: #444, March 16th, 1967, and the show ended with #455, March 31, 1967. We were the first Alabama band on national TV.
We went to LA to film and went to a disco (can’t remember the name). It was during the riots on Sunset strip that year. The hotel would not give us a room because with our long hair (long for those days, you wouldn’t look twice now): they thought we were there for the riots. Dick Clark Productions had to call the hotel to tell them who we were and that it was ok to give us a room. Filmed with Neil Diamond, and the Royal Guardsman from Florida who did all those Snoopy and the Red Baron songs.
Q. That’s interesting you filmed with the Royal Guardsmen and Neil Diamond, because the episode you’re on features Keith Allison and Paul Revere and the Raiders – did they use footage from different times for the show?
Mike: Yes, they filmed all over the country and then picked which date they would show what. There might be 5 bands on a show filmed in 5 different places. We actually filmed the show several months before it aired. Keith Allison introduced us as a band from one of his favorite towns, Birmingham, Alabama. The Action crew had actually filmed some in Birmingham, and our keyboard player had a date with one of the Action dancers. That was pretty cool at that time.
[If anyone has a copy of the Rites of Spring on Where the Action Is, please get in touch, as Mike would like to see the performance after all these years.]
Mike: The band broke up about 9 months after the Action appearance as Uncle Sam was calling most of us. It was great fun for a few years and we did shows with the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Tommy James, the Byrds and Tommy Roe. Lots of great memories and good times. Mike Melton found some tapes we made at Fame studios with Rick Hall producing (Muscle Shoals, Alabama). I have listened to the tapes and there is some good stuff on them. Its funny that all the songs on there we wrote and they are all “death songs”, which is far from our stage act. All stuff on stage was up beat!!Mike Melton, the bass player, and Ronnie Melton, the keyboard player are still here in Birmingham and I see them often. Ron Parr who co-wrote most of our songs was killed in ‘Nam. Mike Gunnels, our lead singer made a small hit in Nashville on his own, but then fell out of sight. Daily Vandergriff our drummer is in West Virginia and is in the National Guard.
p.s. The shirts were in the early days. We got pretty grungy at the last!!
Mike Pair sent me a tape of the demo sessions at Fame. Some of the songs are downers, but they’re not all death songs! Many are very accomplished and some have contemporary country influences. The demos include later versions of “Losing You” and “You Couldn’t Love Me”, plus the following songs: “Don’t Love You Anymore”, “Memories of You”, “Rain Song”, “She’s Gone”, “If You Want Me to Go”, “Time for Me to Go”, “Suzie Q”, “Caretaker”, “Lotta Livin’ to Do”. George Wiggin provides harmony on some tracks.
Thank you to Mike Pair for sharing his photo of the Hard Times and for all his help in getting their story told. The WGSN card is from a great site on Birmingham Mike told me about, Birmingham Rewound.
Thanks also to Jeff Lemlich for the scans of the Frankford Wayne acetate.
Update, September 2011
The demo record pictured here was from Frankford Wayne Recording Labs, the leading mastering studio in Philadelphia, but not the recording studio for these songs. The band is still known as “The Hardtimes” (sic), though this would be released under the Rites of Spring name.