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THE OHIO EXPRESS by Kim Cooper
The Ohio Express are the quintessential non-animated American bubblegum band but if their story weren’t so well documented, you’d swear it was a tall tale dreamed up by a drunken record collector.
It’s hard to talk about “The Ohio Express” without confusion, because the name refers both to a touring band based in Ohio, and a studio concoction out of New York City. While both Ohio Expresses contributed to the group’s albums, the East Coast version had most of the hits and were responsible for their signature sound. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The story begins with a perfectly good mid-American high school garage band, popular at teen dances and occasionally pegged to open for national acts like the Turtles. That was Sir Timothy & the Royals, the pride of Mansfield, Ohio. The leader was Tim Corwin (drums), and the Royals were Dale Powers (lead guitar), Doug Grassel (rhythm guitar), Jim Pfahler (organ) and Dean Kastran (bass).
Sir Tim and the boys might have ended up with a song or two on a Pebbles comp had producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz not shown up one day circa 1967, inspired by the Music Explosion’s success with “Little Bit Of Soul” to check out another promising Ohio combo. The underage band was quickly signed to a production contract, and rechristened the Ohio Express, because the producers felt their name sounded too English.
Kasenetz and Katz were fast moving pros whose specialty was making hit records and licensing them to labels. They picked up the Royals because they heard something lucrative in their sound-but who knew how long it might take these kids to write a hit of their own? K&K happened to already have a great song, not so loosely based on “Louie Louie,” that had been a minor hit when released by the Rare Breed on the Attack label. That group reportedly didn’t want to be musical puppets, and declined to work further with K&K. So “Beg, Borrow & Steal” was re-pressed with the Ohio Express name on the label, and it hit the top 40. This opened the door for more Ohio Express releases, but didn’t bode well for any hopes of creative autonomy the band may have had.
With the group headquartered 500 miles from New York, even with frequent visits Tim’s boys never got a chance to be fully in the loop. Their producers searched out songs for the Ohio Express; if it wasn’t convenient for the group to record them, studio musicians would instead. It was around this time that K&K decided to rework the banned Standells single “Try It” as an Ohio Express song. This fairly innocent anthem to sexual experimentation was penned by “Under the Boardwalk” writer Artie Resnick and 17-year-old Joey Levine, who played together with Resnick’s wife Kris in a group called the Third Rail. The Ohio Express liked the song, but the rush to release it meant the single only had Dale Powers singing lead over a session track.
When “Try It” charted in February 1968, Levine and Resnick were asked if they had a follow up in mind. Levine offered “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” which Jay & the Techniques had rejected because it sounded too juvenile. Not a problem for a Super K band! A demo was recorded with Jimmy Calvert’s group, K &K’s house band. Levine sang a dummy lead, only intended to sell the song. Neil Bogart loved his nasal whine, and decreed that he should be the permanent voice of the Ohio Express’ singles. To Levine’s surprised dismay, it was this demo version that showed up on the radio soon after, and climbed to #4 on the charts.
Joey Levine’s promotion to sometime lead vocalist created a conundrum for the touring band. Obviously the successful young songwriter wasn’t about to relocate to Mansfield to join the group. So the five band members took turns trying to sing in Levine’s distinctively bilious style, and Dean Kastran’s pipes provided the nearest approximation. Henceforth the Ohio Express found themselves in the unenviable position of having to learn their own hit records from the recordings.
The first Ohio Express album, Beg Borrow & Steal, was released on the Cameo/ Parkway label, where Neil Bogart worked as A&R man. Soon Bogart entered into a partnership with K&K, bringing them and the Ohio Express over to the new Buddah label, which would soon be known universally as bubblegum central. The first album blended folky garage, soul and frat-rock songs, some from the pens of band members Jim Pfahler and Tim Corwin. The more poppy material came from established writers. A full accounting is hard to come by, but the underproduced originals were probably recorded by the touring band, and the rest by the session team. The cover had a photo of the band surrounded by views of their psychedelic tour van, emblazoned with self-conscious countercultural slogans like “You Have Just been Passed By A Happening.”
The Ohio Express, album #1 for Buddah, opened with the organ- and bass-heavy kiddie pop sound of “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” but it also featured some strong band originals, ranging in style from punky garage to psychedelic pop. But by the Chewy Chewy album the Ohio band was nowhere to be seen. On this and Mercy (both released in 1969), lead vocals and between-song patter were almost exclusively handled by Joey Levine, with material written by Levine and other Super K staffers.
“Mercy” proved to be the last Ohio Express hit. Not only was the bubblegum fad’s popularity waning, but the pressure was taking a toll on both Joey Levine and the touring band. Organ player-and one-time main songwriter-Jim Pfahler had been missing shows. A band argument in the van on the way to a Cincinnati gig with the Lemon Pipers deteriorated until Pfahler hopped out with the keys. Tim Corwin hot-wired the engine and they ditched Pfahler. But there were more problems in store for the group. Turning on the radio, they heard for the first time “their” new single, “Chewy Chewy.” Humiliated by fans calling for the song they couldn’t play, Dean Kastran and Dale Powers quit soon after.
Meanwhile, Joey Levine was exhausted from his frenetic schedule as the Ohio Express’ writer, arranger, lead singer and engineer, and irked that he wasn’t making more money. He and Artie Resnick accepted an offer from MGM’s Mike Curb, and relocated to L.A.
In the absense of all the interested parties K&K tried to keep the Ohio Express name alive, releasing several more singles with a revolving crew of musicians. Replacement keyboard player Buddy Bengert sang lead on “Pinch Me,” while the countryish “Sausalito” was recorded in England by the group that would become 10cc, led by songwriter Graham Gouldman. In 1970, the name was quietly retired.
Today Joey Levine is a successful writer of advertising jingles. His work includes the very bubblegummy Almond Joy theme “Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut,” “Just For the Fun Of It [Diet Coke],” “Sitting on a Ritz [Cracker]” and dozens more. Out on the road, drummer Tim Corwin continues to tour with a version of the Ohio Express that occasionally includes rhythm guitarist Doug Grassel. And on oldies radio, the Ohio Express still chugs along, sending kids of all ages into paroxysms of glee at their obscenely catchy riffs, snotty vocals and hilarious double entendres.
Thanks to Carl Cafarelli, Becky Ebenkamp, Bill Pitzonka and James Porter