The 1910 Fruitgum Company
by Bill Holmes
The 1910 Fruitgum Company
by Bill Holmes
A thick pink strain of bubblegum music came oozing out of the world’s AM radios between 1967 and 1969, giving little kids something to pound their Mickey Mouse spoons about, and making critics groan. If you followed it back to the source you’d find New York City, and the studios rented by independent producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz. Under their supervision a revolving crew of bands, session players and writers knocked out giddy pop songs that mixed garage band riffs and nursery school rhyme schemes with deliciously catchy results.
By late 1967, Kasenetz and Katz were anxiously seeking hitmaking bands that could be paired up with writers in their Super K Productions stable. They’d already mined the teen clubs of central Ohio to come up with the Music Explosion, Ohio Express (originally Sir Timothy & the Royals) and Lemon Pipers (Ivan & the Sabres), but their next discovery would be found much closer to home.
Supposedly Jeff Katz’ dad met several members of Jeckell & the Hydes (previously known as the Lower Road, and the Odyssey) in a Linden, New Jersey diner, and passed their number along to his son; later, the producers heard them play at a house party. Kasenetz and Katz flipped over Mark Gutkowski’s boyish voice, and quickly signed the band to a production contract. With a little work, they’d become the third act in the mega-selling Buddah bubblegum triumvirate that included the Ohio Express and Lemon Pipers.
Of course that retro garage band name had to go, and “1910 Fruitgum Co.” fit right in with the other sugary Kasenetz and Katz confections. PR legend has it that rhythm guitarist Jeckell named the Fruitgums from an old gum wrapper found either in a suit pocket or an attic trunk (possibly both).
The 1910 Fruitgum Co. had their first hit with the immortal “Simon Says,” a song K&K had been trying to place for some time. The kindergarten game lyrics set to a chugging garage rock organ riff set the stage for much of their future activity. They quickly established themselves as the most childlike of the bubblegum bands, their singles filled with babyish games and infantile alliteration. Album tracks revealed more adult themes, sometimes disturbingly fused with references to a loved one’s yummy candy sweetness. With these guys, you never knew if they were about to kiss a girl or take a bite!
But even the singles were more suggestive than they appeared on first glance. The lyrics of “1-2-3 Red Light” are less a schoolyard game than the sound of a boy wearing down his sweetie’s resistance through constant begging, with the threat of a break up if she doesn’t put out.
Every time I try to prove my love
1-2-3 Red Light, you stop me…
If you stop me again
That’s when we might end
So please don’t refuse
And in the sorta-psychedelic “1910 Cotton Candy Castle,” the promise of candy seems to carry a distinctly phallic subtext when Mark croons: “Here comes the Lollipop Man in his goody ship Lollipop/ all aboard for lollipop land where the lovin’ never stops.”
For their first few (most bubblegummy) albums, the 1910 Fruitgum Co. was officially made up of the old Jeckell & the Hydes lineup. This was Mark Gutkowski (vocals/ organ), Frank Jeckell (vocals/ rhythm guitar), Floyd Marcus (vocals/ drums), Steve Mortkowitz (bass) and Pat Karwan (vocals/ lead guitar). But sidemen were always being called in to play on K&K productions, and there’s some controversy about who played on what. An intermediate lineup was Gutkowski with Chuck Travis (vocals/ lead guitar), Larry Ripley (vocals/ bass/ horn), Bruce Shay (vocals/ percussion), and Rusty Oppenheimer (vocals/ drums). Less than two years on, the hard rocking Hard Ride was the work of Jimmy Casazza (vocals/ drums/ percussion), Ralph Cohen (trumpet), Jerry Roth (vocals/ sax/ clarinet/ flute), Don Christopher (vocals/ guitar), Richie Gomez (vocals/ guitar) and Pat Soriano (vocals/ organ/ piano). Since K&K owned the band name, anyone they wanted could “be” the 1910 Fruitgum Co.
Mark Gutkowski’s singing was the constant on most things released under the 1910 Fruitgum Co. name, but their #5 hit “1, 2, 3 Red Light” was supposedly Gutkowski backed by Vinnie Poncia, Pete Anders and guys from the touring version of session group the Tradewinds (“New York’s a Lonely Town”)-while other sources claim that Gutkowski wasn’t present at all, and the vocals for this song and “Goody Goody Gumdrops” were by “Gumdrops” co-writer Billy Carl.
Personnel matters aside, whoever the 1910 Fruitgum Co. were, they made monster bubblegum records throughout their short career, and the kids loved them. A vintage press release offers the tantalizing claim that their fans threw so much bubblegum (chewed and otherwise) during performances, that a little man had to sweep it up after every show. We also learn a thing or two about the original band members. Frank Jeckell (21) is the oldest, and the one who makes sure the others behave. He digs country music and golf. Pat Karwan (19) surfs, hates diets and airplanes, and chews a lot of gum. He sometimes uses the pen name Scaramuche Quackenbush. Mark Gutkowski (18) likes girls, steak and onions and sheepskin rugs, and hates barbershops and oatmeal. Steve Martkowitz (19) studied art in Paris, and is the silent type. Floyd Marcus (19) is always late, wants to be a great songwriter, hates shredded coconut and likes girls and sports car racing. Such nice boys.
“Indian Giver,” recorded with the middle Fruitgum lineup, proved to be the final Top 10 bubblegum smash for Buddah, first charting in January 1969. The song gives no sign that the power of bubblegum music was diminishing, and that hypnotic tom-tom beat can still stir the blood of tykes and their elders to this day. Master gumsters Bobby Bloom, Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell wrote this politically insensitive gem, while Bloom and Gentry wrote the Fruitgum’s final charting hit, “Special Delivery,” and produced both with Cordell.
Like most fads, bubblegum faded out after two years, but the Fruitgum Co. wasn’t quite ready to call it quits. Kasenetz and Katz gleefully told Roctober magazine’s James Porter that the final version of the band nearly got a plum gig at the Fillmore East, a hall far too hip to stoop to booking has-been bubblegummers. But an unlabeled test pressing of the heavier Hard Ride album impressed a booker sufficiently that a show was briefly offered, then immediately retracted when the ruse was revealed.
With that, the 1910 Fruitgum Co. retired, never to be seen again.
Thanks to Carl Cafarelli, Bill Holmes and James Porter.
Tommy James & The Shondells
by Bill Holmes
Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich reportedly wrote the song in twenty minutes as a filler track that became the b-side of a failed single. The Spinners, then trolling the bus tour circuit, had it in their repertoire to help get a few people out on the dance floor. Tommy James, nee Jackson, grew up near the Michigan/ Indiana border and would often check out the Chicago and Detroit bands that came through the area. And when James needed another song to cut with his band the Shondells for a local DJ named Jack Douglas, he remembered the dumb riff that caught his ear. Having only heard the song once, James didn’t even know the words, so he made some up and mumbled the others. It was just a riff after all. Douglas released the song on his Snap Records label, and after the usual brief local buzz, the record faded away.
That was until Mad Mike Metro, a Pittsburgh DJ, found the record in a bargain bin and started playing it repeatedly on his show, until it eventually soared all the way to number one in the area. By the time he was able to track James down, some local entrepreneur had already bootlegged it and sold thousands of copies. To capitalize on the success of the single, James quickly tried to reassemble the original band, who had all graduated from school and started to go their separate ways. In one of the classic bad career moves of rock
by Bill Pitzonka
“There is no Crazy Elephant,” insists writer-producer Ritchie Cordell. “That was just Bob Spencer.” Robert Spencer was a member of the Cadillacs, who recorded the rock and roll classic “Speedo,” a #14 hit from 1955. In the years that followed, Spencer kept active in the industry, often penning songs and selling them off without just compensation, according to Cordell. In 1969, Spencer linked up with Kasenetz & Katz just as their Super K bubblegum machine was churning out the hits full-throttle.
Kasenetz & Katz hooked him up with Cordell and Joey Levine, who together had penned the soulful “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’.” The searing single, featuring Spencer’s scorching lead vocal and an obvious background vocal assist by Levine, was submitted to Buddah Records, the New York-based label with whom Kasenetz & Katz had been so continually successful. “We played it for [Buddah General Manager] Neil Bogart,” the Super K boys recall, “but he said, ‘No, I don’t hear it.'” Undeterred, they walked Crazy Elephant over to Larry Uttal at neighboring Bell Records, who snapped it up. By May 1969, “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'” hit #12 in Billboard. Its stateside success prompted a British release, where it also peaked at #12.
Kasenetz & Katz recruited a five-piece band of college-age youths to support the single on the road, pose for pictures, and fill out the inevitable album. According to the credits on that sole self-titled LP, the lucky winners of this strange sweepstakes were Larry Laufer (leader, keyboards and vocals), Ronnie Bretone (bass), Bob Avery (drums), Kenny Cohen (flute, sax, and vocals) and Hal King (vocals). The whole process was standard operating procedure for bubblegummeisters Kasenetz and Katz. More often than not, according to Cordell, they would “send five bands [with the same name] out on the road. They’d stick them in a room with the album and have them learn all the songs.”
“Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'” was the only Crazy Elephant record for Cordell and Levine. When the Spencer-soundalike follow-ups “Sunshine, Red Wine” and “Gimme Some More” failed to click, Kasenetz & Katz took Crazy Elephant in a new direction
Captain Groovy and His Bubblegum Army Are Coming to Take You Away
by Bill Pitzonka
Early in 1969, a corporate summit occurred between limited-cel animation kingpins Hanna-Barbera and bubblegum cottage industrialists Kasenetz-Katz. Though seemingly a marriage made in marketing heaven, negotiations ultimately broke down between the two notoriously control-conscious purveyors of prepubescent product, but not before one semi-official act of business could be completed. Ritchie Cordell, who had recently joined the stable of Kasenetz-Katz Associates after a string of huge hits with Tommy James & the Shondells, was commissioned to create the theme for Captain Groovy And His Bubblegum Army. Cordell co-wrote the song with “1, 2, 3, Red Light” tunesmith Sal Trimachi, based on Kasenetz & Katz’s original concept. Cordell recalls that the lead vocal on the single was “Bobby Bloom sped up [on tape],” eerily replicating the nasal vocal stylings of Joey Levine, who had recently parted company with Kasenetz & Katz to found his own Earth and L&R labels with Artie Resnick. In the way that all things come full circle, L&R scored their biggest hit in 1970 with Bobby Bloom’s “Montego Bay.”
Kasenetz & Katz, meanwhile, had been given their own Super K imprint through Buddah Records. As one of their very first releases, they issued the rather dark Captain Groovy theme song (“Captain Groovy and his Bubblegum Army are coming to take you away,” as the lyric so ominously intoned). Despite the fact that the cartoon series never made it past the drawing board, a poster of the actual characters exists somewhere in the Super K offices. Without the series, the sole offering under the Captain Groovy banner managed to bubble under the Billboard Hot 100 for a few weeks, peaking at #127.