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From left: Bob Evans, Rich Cliburn, Gayle McCormick, Larry Moss, and Jerry Carter take the field during Paul Slaughter's Topanga Canyon photo sessions for ABC/Dunhill's A Group Called Smith LP (May 1969).

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The man on my Zoom screen listens patiently, struggling to digest reams of information I’m throwing his way. But I want to know everything, and he wants to oblige. A quiet, unassuming sort, he seldom gives interviews but has lived an extraordinary life, one few of his brethren at Meadowlark Senior Living in Lebanon, Oregon, can rival. 

As a music freak/historian, I pursue specifics. Dates. Locations. Long, involved, complicated details. I seek easy answers, threads to fuse into neat, convenient narratives. After so many years, unfortunately, that may no longer be possible. I collide with irretrievable memories, lingering defenses. Some information’s gone forever; some purposely locked away. “That’s personal,” he tells me when I wander too close, leaning in to lock eyes over a laptop screen. I remember, he seems to say, but you can’t have it

The man is 78-year-old James Richard Cliburn. Though born with that name, he seldom answered to it. Sometimes it’s appeared in print, mostly in passing, like now, to shoo it out of the way and call him what he prefers. I invoke “James Richard Cliburn” in correspondence with interview subjects. None use it in return. No James, no Jim, not even a J.R. He's always been, simply, Rich. 

That’s Rich, in a fringed leather jacket, fresh and young and cool as hell — Midnight Cowboy chic as worn by the real deal — with his bandmates on the cover of 1969’s A Group Called Smith, an LP featuring the highest-charting version of “Baby It’s You” ever recorded. That’s Rich on living-color TV, miming his early-funk guitar runs (an Alabama boy, that sound was in his blood) as Ed Sullivan, Leslie Uggams, or whoever watches from off-camera. And that’s Rich before me now, a full beard long turned white over a spartan tee, reclined in a La-Z-Boy, slightly amused by a disembodied voice trapped in an electronic box. 

Rich stands among the last of the five people pictured on A Group Called Smith, all then twentysomething, early-thirtysomething, full-haired, unlined, decades yet to travel. Time, unfortunately, has silenced most.

What follows, then, is a tattered story of rock ’n’ roll, when the form was still evolving, when California dreams came true, and when this fabled group called Smith reveled in momentary spoils before crashing back to earth. 

“That was a happening time for us,” Cliburn says, “because we were all pretty new to the game." 

Let the game begin. 

I’ll Trip Right on Over in Your Direction 

James Richard Cliburn was born March 1, 1943, in Enterprise, Alabama, a town he barely remembers because he didn’t stick around. Not that there’s much to summon, anyway, beyond the Boll Weevil Monument, erected in 1919 to commemorate the destructive pest that forced the community to look past cotton as a money crop. It turned to peanuts instead, becoming the state’s peanut-industry epicenter. Less than 5,000 people lived in Enterprise during his time there; nearly eight decades later, it's yet to crest 30K.  

His parents, Jim and Millie Cliburn, soon moved the family to Los Angeles, California, where Jim would become a police officer in the metropolitan city. Rich was but a yearling, thrilled by the road unfolding west. Arizona was especially picturesque. “That’s my first memory of the trip,” he says. “I was really amazed at the distinction between this place and that.” Thoughts of 1950s L.A. are shrouded in the smog that devoured its skyline. 

Then, in his early teens, Rich was uprooted again, sent back south to live with his grandparents in tiny Mount Olive, Mississippi. With fewer than 1,000 residents, the town was far from L.A.’s sprawl. But there he picked up the guitar, a gift from his grandfather, Andrew. Grandma Bertie had one, too, so the instrument was never far from his hands, ready to untangle favorite R&B and country-and-Western mysteries. His intent: “I wanted to become famous.” 

After graduating from Mount Olive High School, Rich enlisted in the Navy and finished his service in 1964 San Diego, a landscape brimming with venues to visit and music to consume — and Lord, did he ever do both.

Later that year he relocated for better opportunities. Back in L.A., at long last! Here, as he outlined for meticulous music historian/artist Jason Odd in 1999, his trajectory went nuclear in a flurry of long-gone clubs, beginning with house gigs in a Downey bowling alley, where he sat with bandleader/bassist/vocalist Norm Forrest and guitarist Don “Snake” Lawrence. This association, and others, would prove beneficial as his trail gathered steam.  

Cliburn began appearing regularly onstage in a group with bassist Ray Crumb — known to audiences as Ray Robbins — at a Ridgecrest club called the Porthole. Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson six-stringer James Burton showed up sometimes. Merle Haggard stopped in. In fact, Haggard even recruited Cliburn for a show when Lewis Talley was unavailable. Haggard obligingly switched to bass and let his guest lead on guitar. 

Crumb and Cliburn moved to the Hideout Club, with the latter often appearing with rockabilly shouter Dorsey Burnette at the Red Velvet on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. Then he rejoined Forrest, this time at the Cobblestone, where he met West Virginia-bred good old boy and harmonica player/bassist named Jerry Carter, a familiar figure on Downey bills. The strangers got on, becoming fast friends and partners, debuting in a band at a club called Losers that featured strippers between acts. 

Also between 1965 and 1966, with psychedelia on the rise in this whirlwind of activity, Cliburn performed on Arnold Sukonick’s The Inner Sounds of the Id (RCA, 1967) as recorded by an infamously anonymous collective, The Id — anonymous in large part to avoid paying royalties to participants. 

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COURTESY OF THE CLIBURN FAMILY

 

TRIPPIN' IN YOUR DIRECTION: The travelin' Trippers promote a Florida showcase in a June 1967 edition of The Key West Citizen.

Cliburn didn’t seem to care. He was onto other projects by then, ones with actual credits if less intriguing subterfuge. In 1966, he and Carter launched a rock trio called The Trippers. His first composition was a rolling confection for songwriter John Marascalco’s short-lived Ruby-Doo label called “Dance with Me,” which rumbles with other, ulterior moves on its mind.

(“Yes, I believe I’ll trip right on over in your direction,” Cliburn jives in a supercool, super-slick Big Daddy pentameter.) His R&B and country leanings are already on display, even in a garage-rock context. On the flip: a liquid romp through Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin',” a recording they’d also issued that year with Burnette as “The Brothers,” an allusion to The Burnette Brothers

The Trippers exited the following year on another worthy slab, going sunny-side on a straightforward “Charlena” (as their author, Marascalco controlled both this and “Knockin’”) and lacing an original, “Taking Care of Business,” with protofuzz grandeur. 

From these ruins spawned The Smiths: Cliburn and Carter, plus studio musicians under producer Ron Budnick, who layered their tapestries with brass and strings. Carter reportedly birthed the handle after observing a family in a daguerreotype and remarking, “They look like a bunch of Smiths.” Yesteryear’s garage fuel was replaced by more psychedelic West Coast textures on the songs they pinned for Columbia, “Now I Taste the Tears” and “I Can’t Stop.” It was 1968, after all. Times had changed. Cliburn and Carter changed with them.

The duo took “Tears” on tour, filling their ranks with players in the cities they visited. (Cliburn and Carter networked years before it became everyday vernacular.) That summer — likely between July 14 and Aug. 4, judging by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch archives — they stopped for a date in St. Louis, Missouri. Seeking support, they were directed to Gayle McCormick & The Klassmen and, as it turned out, their immediate and inevitable forever. 

An unnatural natural talent had pushed young McCormick to the forefront. She’d been an institution for what in teen years amounted to a lifetime, singing high soprano with the Suburb Choir and joining The Chevels as a Pattonville High School sophomore. Despite her abilities, she’d apparently undergone little to no formal training. “I never really took my music all that seriously,” she revealed to the Detroit Free Press in 1971. “What I guess I mean is that it’s something that’s always been with me. … But growing up … I never really gave any serious thought to becoming a singer.” 

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GAYLE McCORMICK-BOB MEDLEY_KLASSMEN

COURTESY OF THE JONNIE KING COLLECTION

The Klassmen at the Bat Cave, St. Louis, Missouri, 1966. Gayle McCormick is seated at front left, beside co-vocalist Bob Medley. The gentleman at far left is saxophonist Jim Koerber, who later played with Ike and Tina Turner. Drummer Steve Cummings stands at far right. 

"She could outdo Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. She was just so good at what she did."

Jonnie King

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Fate, of course, made other plans. The Chevels became Steve Cummings & The Klassmen, its namesake bandleader on drums, father Ernie serving as manager. But its draw became clear: the lineup’s sole woman, a massive-voiced blonde, a purposeful splash of color in a monochrome sea of matching suits and sweaters. Hence, The Klassmen became McCormick's band, billed and recorded with her name either prominently featured or in the lead position.

Jonnie King met McCormick as both began their journeys. In 1965, he says, she was a mild-mannered 17. On a stage, however, look out. The kid was a starburst, fiery, tempestuous, her magnetism sans zip-code equal. “She could outdo Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner,” King attests, enthralled by the memory. “She was just so good at what she did.” 

King was older, an actual adult between careers. The St. Louis native had already been an actor, studying at the Pasadena Playhouse and living at the Highland Tower Apartments in Los Angeles before returning in the fall of 1964. When he came back, he became a figure in the fabled Gaslight Square district, working at the Crystal Palace, a venue once described by — dig! — Lenny Bruce as a “church gone bad.” There King cofounded his own congregation, the Actors Workshop. 

Radio, though, was his ultimate love. “Theater of the mind,” as he told me. St. Louis’ top station was KXOK-AM, broadcasting from the grounds of a 19th-century mansion along Kingshighway, call letters visible to passersby in proud, vivid green. Its most beloved on-air personality: Don Pietromonaco, better known to listeners under the equally colorful nom de thrum Johnny Rabbitt. King admired the older man’s style; it seemed  awfully familiar. 

COURTESY OF THE JONNIE KING COLLECTION

Oct. 12, 1965: Legendary St. Louis DJ Johnny Rabbitt (Don Pietromonaco) raps with a guest in the KXOK-AM studio.

Jonnie King In The KxOK On-Air  Studio (

“I knew what he was doing,” he says. “He was taking all the acting things in the universe and putting them on the radio to work with his audience. I thought that was just so cool.” 

One night in 1965, King made his way to KXOK with an Actors Workshop advertising script. He gave his card to the young man who answered the door. Rabbitt was otherwise occupied with his 7 p.m. to midnight shift, spinning hits from the isolated safety of his booth. However, as King prepared to leave, he was granted entrée to the big man himself. 

Johnny Rabbitt knew all about the Actors Workshop. In fact, he'd been an L.A. actor, too, appearing as a youth in The Boy with Green Hair (1948) and training — where

COURTESY OF THE JONNIE KING COLLECTION

That guest? None other than Jonnie King, making his on-air debut.

else? — at the Pasadena Playhouse. With plenty of background in common, they explored their shared interests in an on-air exchange that night. It was the beginning of a long, beautiful friendship. 

King became a regular station presence, later benefitting from the inside dope on a new music-scene venture. Rabbitt held “hops” at various locations, primarily the Chain of Rocks Park, the Jewish Community Center, and the lively Club Imperial, where Sundays weren’t meant for rest.

Wondrous Times 

Opened in 1952 by George Edick, the Imperial boasted an expansive basement that had once housed a tavern and bowling alley before becoming an ordinary storeroom. Rabbitt changed that stasis in the spring of 1966 by launching Bruno’s Bat Cave in the space. Although partially monikered after Rabbitt’s on-air persona Bruno J. Grunion, an inveterate ne’er-do-well, the Bat Cave was meant to capitalize on the ultra-popular Batman television series. Patrons accessed the club through a Bat Tunnel, where they were greeted by colorful pop murals, a full staff, and a stage occupied most often by The Klassmen.

When she wasn’t advancing the party on her own, or when co-vocalist Bob Medley took a solo number, Gayle McCormick mingled with Jonnie King, laughing, teasing, fostering a union that lasted into the next century. 

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COURTESY OF THE JONNIE KING COLLECTION

Gayle McCormick lights up the Bat Cave's Bat Tunnel, Aug. 8, 1966. "She was the light of my life," Jonnie King says.

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COURTESY OF THE JONNIE KING COLLECTION

Gayle McCormick visits Jonnie King at KLID-AM in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, on Dec, 16, 1967. King: "Gayle said, 'I've got to do this. I've got to show this KLID thing while I'm hugging you.' I said, 'That's cool; we'll do that.' It was remarkable."

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NEWSPAPERS.COM

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch advertisement for what was likely Gayle McCormick's final Klassmen appearance, July 14, 1968.

Interestingly, little of McCormick’s extant Klassmen output predicts the power she’d wield with A Group Called Smith. Most songs framed her beautifully clean range in standard pop, with scant evidence of her bark and edge. Only “Wonderous Time,” a 1968 A-side, pours anything resembling raw-bucket soul, McCormick shouting her best Grace Slick over an organ/horn underbelly. (She earned inevitable comparisons to Janis Joplin, though her cords seemed more pristine.) Cliburn and Carter may have heard it — or, more likely, supped on that ungodly belt — and began plotting to steal her. As Cliburn gapes in recollection: “Oh, wow.” 

To their delight, she was willing to go. 

“I was trying to make a career decision,” she told writer Todd Everett in the 1990s. “Should I continue with music, or should I pursue my original goal, which was to teach physical education — I had been accepted as a P.E. major by Arkansas State College. Rich and Jerry invited me to go to Florida with them; they drove in their van and I met them in Miami. Before long, the three of us had relocated to Los Angeles.” 

According to Cliburn family lore, that’s not quite what happened. In that version, McCormick saw The Smiths in concert and approached them about joining. At the time, she was allegedly underage. (Most records indicate that she was born in November 1948, making her 19 at this juncture.) “Meet us when you turn 18,” they said. That landmark moment coincided with The Smiths’ Key West date, so she did catch up with them in Florida. 

The men found it easy to write and arrange for their welcome addition. “Once you had Gayle’s voice in your mind, that was it,” Cliburn says. “There was no need to work on it at all.” 

King remembers learning of his young friend’s exit. He'd found his way into radio by then, barely a year into his stint at KLID-AM in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, a 2-and-a-half-hour drive south of St. Louis. Rabbitt called with the update. “You’re not going to believe this,” he began, “but Gayle’s left town. She hooked up with this group and went to Florida.” It kind-of made sense. A voice that singular couldn’t be secret for long. 

Los Angeles, of course, was everyone’s destination. And it doesn’t do secrets. 

Everybody Get Together 

L.A. ain’t St. Louis, but McCormick tackled the city with verve, becoming a fixture at The Rag Doll, a former jazz club in North Hollywood. Its bills were hot with up-and-comers. Cory Wells, later of Three Dog Night, played with his band, The Enemys. Garage reprobates The Ringers regularly stomped the stage. Stark Naked & The Car Thieves swapped house gigs with Ike & Tina Turner. A Group Called Smith, shedding their plural, fit right in, ready to explode at any moment. Theirs was a simple name, yet strangely memorable — in no way indicative of the wallop they packed.  

They earned an immediate reputation. You gotta see this act. There’s this chick; she’s unreal, like Janis unreal. David Murphy, who lived near the club, kept bugging his kid sister, Phyllis, about them. Like most guys, he went wild for McCormick: her voice, her looks, her eyes, her moves. So one night in early 1969 the 19-year-old accompanied her brother to the Rag Doll, fake ID in hand, to observe the buzz for herself. 

“It was quite the party scene back then,” Phyllis Hurst recalls today, “a really fun club. Rock ’n’ roll every night. The ambience was great. It was crowded. A great place to go at the time.” 

“Smoky,” Cliburn says of the atmosphere. “It was a large club, so we could stretch out a bit.” 

Phyllis and David grabbed a table in front of the stage and prepared for the onslaught. Afterward, she had to agree: They sounded amazing. What she didn’t know, however, was that as she watched them, one of them was watching her. During the band’s break, someone approached their table and announced, “The guitar player would like to meet you.” That night, she entered the story. She and Rich Cliburn (then married with two young sons) became a clandestine item. Therefore, she saw A Group Called Smith every chance she got. They weren’t the Rag Doll house band, but they played the place a lot

Suitors soon came to court. First up: Del Shannon and Brian Hyland. Both were more famous than anyone they came to watch. They’d met in 1961 as Shannon’s star ascended on the haunting “Runaway.” Hyland was a kid on his way up, too; he’d scored his first major hit a year earlier at 16 with “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” and kept them coming through the decade’s first half: “Sealed with a Kiss,” “Ginny Come Lately,” “Warmed Over Kisses (Left Over Love),” and “The Joker Went Wild,” among them. 

By 1968 he’d hit his second stride, pulling country into his expanding orbit and working with producers and songwriters like Snuff Garrett, Leon Russell, and J.J. Cale. Shannon reached out to Hyland through his own Garrett/Russell affiliation (they supervised his Liberty label dates), and the two began collaborating. Their partnership would do much to improve Hyland’s cultural fortunes as the ’60s became the ’70s. He'd achieved plenty, but his best work was yet to come, beginning with “Gypsy Woman” (hell, the entire Brian Hyland album) at the decade’s turn. 

That night, however, they were colleagues on the town, so simpatico they were often described by contemporaries as the same person. Shannon had an eye for talent, always on the hunt for fresh faces. He found the motherlode in A Group Called Smith, their funky gut-punch too intense to ignore, McCormick’s pipes pure dynamite. Everything about them was huge.  

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PHOTOGRAPHY & COVER  DESIGN CONCEPT
BY JOE G. FISCHER

Hyland recalls the moment more than a half-century later. “Smith sounded very soulful,” he says of that deluge. “Soulful, with a very raw intensity. Gayle’s vocals were out of this world.” 

There were five of them now. According to McCormick in Wayne Jancik’s One-Hit Wonders: The Book, Smith found drummer Robert Evans and organist Larry Moss through a musicians’ union paper. Hyland, however, says Del Shannon was responsible, as he knew one of the men already. (Moss came later, Evans says, after hearing the band was looking for an organist and catching them at the Rag Doll. Once in the lineup, he cowrote and sent churchy chills through Shannon's “Comin’ Back to Me,” released pre-A Group Called Smith in June 1969.) 

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY BERNARD YESZIN & WILLIAM EASTABROOK

Evans and Shannon had met earlier, in their shared home state of Michigan. The Chicago-born Evans grew up in Jackson, where at 19 he began learning his instrument, pounding to his Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Lionel Hampton LPs in a room whose wood floor returned an effusive echo.

 

It didn’t take long for his labor to attract notice. While studying at Jackson Junior College (now Jackson College) in the mid-'60s, he was approached by Ann Arbor heavyweights and Shannon benefactors Doug Brown & The Omens (its roster featured Brown’s neighbor, a young guitarist named Bob Seger), whose hearts were set on the Great American West. Their drummer wouldn’t be making the trip, so Evans was invited to audition. Over the next two weeks he learned their oeuvre and found himself in Northern California, then Portland and Seattle. He returned briefly to Michigan, got married, and went back to the Golden State, where he pulsed four tracks (“River Cool,” “Colour Flashing Hair,” “Conquer,” and “New Orleans (Mardi Gras)”) on Del Shannon’s violently under-regarded The Further Adventures of Charles Westover (1968). 

Evans seemed natural for this new band, too. “A Group Called Smith didn’t have a drummer,” Evans says, “so Del had us all get together at his house.” 

Some 30 years later, McCormick described rehearsing nightly at Shannon’s place, priming their assault to attract hungry labels. According to Everett, Atlantic RecordsAhmet Ertegun bit, but he wanted to boost their sound with more female background singers. It worked for Aretha, sure, but it wasn’t their style. Pass. 

Then three men arrived from ABC/Dunhill Records: label head Jay Lasker, A&R director Steve Barri, and Joel Sill in publishing, then following an industry path blazed by his father, Lester. Barri planned to push him more into production. 

Barri’d been with Dunhill since 1964, when his former Screen Gems staff-mate Lou Adler brought him and his friend P.F. Sloan into his new company. Initially, the two were just songwriters. Then they began studying Adler in the studio. 

“Lou, like me, didn’t have a lot of musical ability,” Barri says. “I could play a little guitar, but that was about it. I couldn’t write music, and neither could Lou. He said, ‘You don’t have to; you go with your instincts.’ So, I got into producing, and it really fascinated me.” 

In 1967, Adler sold his Dunhill shares to its distributor, ABC Records. Ever the iconoclast, he bristled at working under someone else, so he left to launch another label, Ode. Barri assumed he’d make the jump too, but, no. “You’re still here for another year,” Adler told him. “One of the reasons they bought the company was for you and Sloan as producers. You’ll take over my job.” Sure enough, Barri transitioned to A&R and within a year had signed Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night, proving the firm’s prescience in keeping him on staff. He ended up staying. During his decade-and-a-half tenure, Dunhill even surpassed its parent company’s sales. 

A Group Called Smith packed its set with soul-burned covers and a handful of originals, its principal McCormick/Cliburn/Carter triumvirate trading leads on the mic. Del Shannon introduced “Baby It’s You” into their repertoire with a strutting arrangement that reduced The Shirelles and The Beatles’ stone-classic versions to candy-caked coos. It became sweaty and desperate, McCormick more volcanic with want than lovey-dovey hand-in-hand. (According to Jonnie King, she adored the song long before turning pro, performing it a cappella a la Shirelle over her kitchen sink at home.)

“Del worked with them as kind-of a mentor,” Hyland explains, “especially with ‘Baby It’s You.’ The groove was everything.” 

Live, it clobbered, a clear showstopper. Smith slammed hard, tomcatting in a slink that may have been illegal past the club at Lankershim and Victory, and their vocalist shouted through every vessel in her heart. Barri fell for it fast, declaring aloud to his partners, “I know this has been a hit twice already, but this is a hit all over again.”

 

“Basically, it was Gayle,” he says. “She was beautiful-looking with a soulful voice. I said to Joel, ‘She’s got a Janis Joplin quality about her.’ That’s what sold us on the group. Sold me, anyway. We signed them and went from there.” 

Right Between the Sound Machine 

“There” was the American Recording Company, where Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night built their reputations. Barri describes the space, opened by Richie Podolor in 1959 — first at the Hollywood Palladium, then at a former Chinese restaurant in Studio City (the address now belongs to a blasé shopping plaza) — as optimum for recording rock ’n’ roll, particularly drums and bass. It was a high-demand oasis in a music-crazy town. A full band could occupy its main room as if playing a live show, bleeding sweetly into each other’s feeds. Its atmosphere was so potent that Steppenwolf famously recorded and completed its titular 1968 debut there in three days. 

“I always wanted presence,” Podolor says. “I could never get the sound I was after at all these studios, the best of them. I literally had to build my own studio to get that sound. That’s what we went for: a real dead room full of acoustic tile, no echo or anything. If you wanted an echo, you added it, and I had a good chamber for that. You create your own environment. You have to start from Square One with no environment sound. I like right-in-your-face. You can always add depth, but you can’t take it away. That was my philosophy at the time, and it really worked.” 

The studio’s engineers didn’t want for duties; they’d often be called away to other assignments, allowing others to finish their sessions. Three would shepherd A Group Called Smith’s debut: Bill Cooper, Bill Schnee, and Phil Kaye, Dunhill’s man who oversaw label product before release. 

Cooper enjoyed the longest union with Podolor; the latter was his neighbor on Bel Air’s Roscomare Road. Then a mere guitar-mad youth, Cooper had heard about this young cat recording hits (that’s Podolor on Bonnie Guitar’s star-swaying “Dark Moon” in 1957) and running his own studio. He also roared up and down Cooper’s street on a motorcycle. Eventually they met and Cooper became something of an adopted Podolor. The two even started a band, playing UCLA fraternity parties booked by Richie’s brother, Don. 

Cooper recalls working at the studio at age 13, taking the bus into Hollywood. By 16 he was sitting in sessions between such pillars as Tommy Tedesco and Glen Campbell, trying to hold his own on guitar and maintain his cool in their presence. 

This time among giants prepared him for his first engineering credit when Podolor lost patience during a session and sent his original man packing. Then he turned to his young charge and asked, “You want to engineer, Bill? Go ahead.” Suddenly the apprentice found himself overseeing The Wrecking Crew. Hal Blaine on drums. Carol Kaye on bass. Bill Cooper of UCLA. Just get a microphone close to any of them, he told himself. Don’t do anything. You’ll come off great. Sure, it was daunting. But these guys were pros. No need to be intimidated. “They bring the sound and everything with them,” Cooper says, “so I got lucky that day.” 

Cooper was an old hand by 1969, having steered skronks on The Electric Prunes’ Underground, Iron Butterfly’s In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida, and the first two Steppenwolf LPs. After hits like “Born to Be Wild,“The Pusher,” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” their signature layered slam so integral to their success, Steppenwolf swore by American Recording. Want deep and heavy? Podolor and his crew were your guys. 

A Group Called Smith’s five members were no strangers to studios, either, getting right to work, replicating the bulk of their Rag Doll set for posterity. They knew most of the material by heart, wasting little time setting it to tape. (“Mojaleskey [sic] Ridge” was a rare new track: a Joel Sill cowrite they nonetheless throttled to shuddering perfection. It’s an excellent vehicle for the band’s instrumental drive, opening on Carter’s prominent bassline and crashing to denouement on Cliburn’s funky wash and Moss’ seething swirl.) Barri and Sill captained the sessions, with the latter coordinating more with the group as the former dealt with a growing office workload.

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COURTESY OF BILL COOPER

An American Recording Company statement for A Group Called Smith, Aug. 7, 1969.

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY  PAUL SLAUGHTER
DESIGN BY APPLE GRAPHICS

A Group Called Smith poses outside a Topanga Canyon outhouse occupied by a thankfully-clad Larry Moss.

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Barri reports that the process went quickly; a studio statement lists 12 dates in June 1969. The band required little to no augmentation. Outside ringers weren’t needed, and only Jimmie Haskell’s horn arrangements intrude. Barri remains proud that what you hear on A Group Called Smith is A Group Called Smith, almost exactly as you would have dug 'em in a club: a tight quintet, unadorned.

Bill Schnee wrapped the sessions after Cooper joined Podolor to navigate Three Dog Night’s Suitable for Framing. At 21, Schnee was still relatively fresh; Smith was one of his first assignments.

He’d first entered the space as organist/songwriter for The L.A. Teens, who were, in fact, honest-to-God L.A. teenagers, albeit ones with a record deal in the mid-'60s. The group had spent time at Capitol and Western studios, but American — this was the place to be. And what burst from those speakers were the sounds of a life’s calling. 

“What I heard at Richie’s had an emotional component that the recordings from the other studios didn’t,” Schnee says.

 

He asked Podolor to teach him to run the bewitching equipment.

 

“No,” the older man replied. “Get back out there and do another take.”

But Schnee was hooked. He learned engineering (“All of my aptitude in school was in math and science,” he says, “so where the left scientific and right musical brains met, engineering came quickly.”), then returned to American Recording looking for work. This time, Podolor acquiesced. 

 

“That’s where I met Steve Barri and Joel Sill,” Schnee says. “I recorded the last few tracks, overdubs, and did some mixes for the album.” 

Wags weren’t kind when it landed that summer. Robert Hilburn groused in the Los Angeles Times, “If Smith’s music were as good as its cover (lead singer Gayle McCormick is quite appealing), the album would be a cinch. … Smith is typical of many competent groups that may have one or two hits, even more, but their music is temporary and imitative. … [T]here are better ways to spend $4.98.” 

Yet a half-century later, A Group Called Smith remains both a pivotal portrait of its time, that moment where blue-eyed soul bumped uglies with psychedelicized molasses, and an energizing reinterpretation of then-popular songbooks. Smith hammered extant familiars into wild new arrangements.

The album opens on a slow dawn that yields Jesse Colin Young’s somber “Let’s Get Together” as a street-party jam. They jolt The Zombies’ “Tell Her No” into the electric “Tell Him No,” which bears no resemblance to its source material; McCormick soars and gambols where Colin Blunstone stutters in lounge-casual finery. Jerry Carter claws past a

swampy “Who Do You Love.” Cliburn purrs into then growls down a seismic take on the Stones’ “The Last Time.” Moss mashes bedrooms through “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” McCormick topping her come-hither at the apex with an improvised “I just want to get it AWNN with you.”

She about-faces into beatification on Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni’s “I’ll Hold Out My Hand,” invoking a brighter tomorrow with a holiness The Clique failed to impart in their version. Sorry, fellas. It’s hers now, forever. 

Cooper recently spun the disc after a long absence, nodding in recognition at its twists and turns: Yep, that’s American. Appraising his work, he says, “What I did was take those four guys (and a girl) and make it a movie, where everybody is on the same page and telling the same story. Subtle to most people but all the difference in the world.” 

Good God, It’s
an Earthquake 

The big single, of course, was just as Barri prophesied. “Baby It’s You” hauled A Group Called Smith into the Billboard Top 20 and jetted its own fine self to No. 5, making it the biggest version of the song to date — no small feat, since The Shirelles carried it to No. 8 nearly a decade earlier and The Beatles had taken a legendary crack at it themselves. But A Group Called Smith’s version had a whole lot of something, a perfect storm: McCormick caught fire, her abettors were white-hot, and the mix captured the whole conflagration. 

“‘Baby It's You’ played an important role in my career,” Schnee says. “When the single version was done, I asked Richie what to do with it. He said to take it to 6033 Hollywood Boulevard [The Mastering Lab] and give it to Doug Sax — he would do the rest. At that time, Doug's mastering studio was less than 2 years old, but he would go on to become one of the very best mastering engineers the world has ever known. He loved the sound of the Smith single, and that began a very close friendship that lasted until his passing six years ago. That was the first record of mine I'd ever heard on the radio. I was thrilled with the way it sounded — I believe primarily from the great way it was recorded by [Bill] Cooper.”

Years later Barri encountered co-composer Burt Bacharach at a restaurant. The conversation turned to “Baby It’s You.” Barri marveled that the song had reaped benefits for its authors three times in a single decade. “Yeah,” Bacharach replied, “but your guys had the biggest record.” 

Of course, they had help from an old friend in radio. Jonnie King had left Poplar Bluff to become music director at the 50,000-watt KAAY-AM (“the mighty 1090”) in Little Rock, Arkansas, whose signal boomed north and south and could be heard as far away as Canada and Cuba. Phone calls to the station originated from anywhere in the world. One soon came from the ABC/Dunhill offices in L.A. bearing news of a coming LP propelled by a greatness-destined single. King knew the label’s powers-that-be, and they were just as familiar with him. They understood he and Gayle McCormick were friends and kept in touch, so he was well-aware of A Group Called Smith. 

King could play "Baby It's You" any time, all the time — and he did. In fact, he was the first in his region to add it. He also knew just where to promote the album in total: Beaker Street with Clyde Clifford, a popular KAAY program devoted to album-oriented rock and “underground” music. It seemed tailor-made for the format. So the single went into rotation and immediately became a hit. Its aftershocks reverberated through the country and Smith were suddenly everywhere. ABC/Dunhill awarded King a gold record for his efforts.

“Can you believe it?” McCormick would gush by phone with King. “Two years ago, we were working in the Bat Cave wanting to make records and you wanted to be on the radio. Now you’re on the radio playing my record.”

Bigger spotlights awaited. The usual promotional grind followed. Tour dates. TV appearances. Smith captivated audiences from the Ed Sullivan round in October. A month later, they sandwiched performances of “Tell Him No” and “Baby It’s You” between Walter Brennan and Freddie the Freeloader on Red Skelton. Dick Clark invited Smith to American Bandstand. They took the Leslie Uggams stage. Then the road beckoned them east. 

“I know Rich was flying high,” Hurst says. “He was so excited when I did see him, when he rolled into town. Mainly, the only time I saw him was when he came into town. I could see him all the time on TV. Back then, no one had a cellphone, of course. He didn’t contact me from the road. I would only see him when he’d be back in town.” 

On their way home to L.A. in January 1970, Cliburn and Carter stopped in Mount Olive to visit the former’s grandparents and delight radio audiences on-air. Local paper The Magee Courier breathlessly tracked them, culminating with “So get with it, folks! Rock and roll is the thing!” The new year appeared to be a continuation of said thing, with better things ahead. 

Unfortunately, trouble was already brewing. Some would argue that it began shortly after the band signed to ABC/Dunhill and excised Del Shannon from its circle, unceremoniously replacing him as manager with the enigmatic Leonard Stogel, who also juggled Tommy James & The Shondells and The Cowsills. The maneuver left Evans aghast. "They kind-of screwed [Shannon] around," he says. "That took him out of the whole thing. It wasn’t very loyal to him." 

The streak continued with Easy Rider, to which ABC/Dunhill scored the rights in an industry first: a cross-licensed various-artists film soundtrack, which proved incredibly lucrative. The label already had Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” and “Born to Be Wild” in its own coffers, then secured The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” Roger McGuinn’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “If 6 Was 9” from competitors. 

However, rights for The Band’s “The Weight” were too elusive. So the label asked Smith to record it. They did, but not with Gayle McCormick. Instead, it’s Rich Cliburn singing “I pulled into Nazareth / I was feelin’ ’bout half-past dead,” leading the narrative while McCormick peeks in on harmonies. (In a rare turn, Larry Moss goes MIA, his ivory duties

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assumed by Wrecking Crew multi-instrumentalist Larry Knechtel. "I believe we had to do it quickly, and Steve Barri suggested Larry {Knechtel] because he was so good," producer Joel Sill says. "The piano was a key part of the song, and Larry knew the piece." Bill Schnee was the date's engineer.) A natural response, as it weaves its tale from a male perspective, and Cliburn’s Southern-bred weariness fits its tone like a glove. “I don’t know,” he cracks when asked why he did it. “Maybe it’s because I knew all the words.” 

The airwaves weren’t quite as amused. 

“I loved Rich’s voice; I thought he was really good,” Barri says. “But radio kept telling us they wanted Gayle. So that became a problem.” 

In 1970, A Group Called Smith’s resident center became subject to shots of gossip, like the unfounded, unsourced rumor that she was leaving the band to sign with Paramount Pictures. Although she was blessed with movie-star appeal, this never happened. (Only one newspaper seems to have reported that scurrilous claim, anyway.) 

As it turned out, they needed no help falling apart. According to Hurst, Jerry Carter somehow ran afoul of ABC/Dunhill, which demanded his dismissal. When Cliburn allegedly refused to fire his friend, both got the boot. With that, the very men responsible for the band were gone in an instant, barely two years into its existence — and just one year after becoming a quintet, A Group Called Smith still in stores.  

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Barri recalled that label head Jay Lasker fumed after an unknown bandmate gave McCormick drugs, resulting in an overdose and hospitalization. This may have precipitated the eventual fracture and exeunt. “I think they were their own worst enemies,” he says. 

Evans identifies Carter as that “unknown bandmate,” at the time enduring a tumultuous romantic tryst with the vocalist and perhaps contemplating hallucinogens — LSD, to be precise — to revive it. He ran this desperate suggestion past his drummer, who quickly advised, “Don’t do that. You’re going to blow her mind. You’re going to be worse off.”

 

“But he didn’t listen,” Evans says. “Next thing we know is she’s mentally in trouble because of that.

 

“For some people, LSD is like a trip. You have to ride it out and realize what it’s doing. She ended up having to go back to St. Louis to live with her mom. Because of that, Jerry was gone and Cliburn went with him.”

Minus-Plus :
Minus Two, Then Five 

Nevertheless, the survivors convened that spring, this time at United Western Recorders in Hollywood (American Recording was too busy), for a second album, with bassist Judson Huss and guitarist Alan Parker, late of The New Society and Summerhill. Evans had hoped to hire his old cohort Doug Brown, but McCormick and Moss vetoed him. So begat Minus-Plus.

Despite Barri and Sill’s return as producers — Schnee flew solo as engineer — it was neither an easy nor happy endeavor. Smith (they'd dropped “A Group Called”) were acclimating to new members, both of whom were songwriters, and an altered sound. That required adjustments. Moreover, McCormick reportedly wrestled with personal issues, seldom in any mood to record. A breakdown, perhaps, or something worse. No matter — she wasn’t happy. 

“She was going through a difficult time,” Barri recalls. “We didn’t want to push her too much because we didn’t want her to get sick again. It became a very difficult situation.” 

“I didn’t want to be affiliated with a group anymore,” McCormick later explained to writer Todd Everett. “As time had gone by with Smith, there were too many personalities involved, and all of the initial thrust was lost.” 

“It didn’t have the same sound,” Evans says. “Jerry Carter and I had a certain feeling in a song when we played together. With Jud Huss, it was just different.”

Barri also cites the infamous Second Album Syndrome as a factor. He’d encountered it many times, most notably with The Mamas & The Papas. Their 1966 debut, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, came together like a dream. They’d crafted and fine-tuned their material over time before ever entering a studio. Sophomore releases (often bequeathed with the dreaded “jinx”) typically have smaller gaps, fewer ready songs, and more potential for frustration. 

“It went quickly, that first [Mamas] album,” he says. “In fact, Phil [P.F.] Sloan and I got a song or two on there, I think, because they didn’t have enough songs. That one went quickly. And the second album [Deliver] seemed to take a lifetime. Because when you do the second album, things are changing. It’s new stuff. They’re not that used to it. You have to learn songs, or you’re looking for songs. You always want to have follow-up hits.” 

Sadly, Minus-Plus featured only one real hit, and it belonged to the old regime. “Take a Look Around” was appended to the track list, which means that Cliburn and Carter "guest” on the record despite playing not a single note for it (nor, Hurst adds, earning a single penny). 

Its cover depicts this second lineup as time-jumpers entertaining the 17th-century revelers found in Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Peasant Wedding Dance. Then in his 20s, sleeve designer and longtime rock photographer Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal dug into his fine-art-major background for inspiration. “For Minus-Plus, I was thinking, well, the plus is now, and the minus is another time,” he says. “I took that painting and used a high-contrast photo of the band. It was hippy-dippy days. It was fun and colorful and whimsical, so why not? 

“They didn’t have a lot of visual charisma at the time. The sound was different, and they were great, but when you looked at an album cover, you saw people with long hair. I worked with Steppenwolf and they had these Draconian outfits. Then Crosby, Stills & Nash wanted to get back to the

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PHOTOGRAPHY & DESIGN BY TOM GUNDELFINGER O'NEAL

Civil War era on Déjà Vu [that’s his band shot adorning the 1970 Atlantic LP]. Here come these guys and they’re kind-of nondescript except for one person: Gayle McCormick.”

 

O’Neal took up photography through rock ’n’ roll. Schooled in design with a preference for the pop art of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, he experienced an epiphany one afternoon in the spring of 1967 at a Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, record store. He was captivated by the cover of The Mamas & The Papas’ Deliver, which featured the quartet in a swimming pool lapping water fountain-style from an upturned punctured hat. As shot by Guy Webster, the photo was rife with animation and energy, practically a painting on its own. O’Neal never cared for the juxtaposition of static images over the moving fluidity of music. Both should express a shared sense of motion. This is where it’s going, O’Neal resolved. I want to do that

So he did, descending upon the Monterey International Pop Festival that June. Camera in hand, he captured The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, the multi-aforementioned Mamas & The Papas, and Janis Joplin in peak primal frenzy. This led to bountiful work in L.A. and jobs with labels — ABC/Dunhill in particular, which loosed him on Steppenwolf, The Grass Roots, Bangor Flying Circus, and 3’s a Crowd. He rented a small house in Santa Monica, transforming his living room into a studio, where he handled four to five assignments at a time. 

For the group shot on the back sleeve, Smith had but two stipulations: no woods, no buildings. So O’Neal trooped everyone into the San Fernando Valley — he couldn’t recall if he’d posed them in Woodland Hills or Tarzana, relaxed on a hilltop overlooking hazy L.A. — and framed the shot with text placement in mind, allowing for an expanded blue heaven, enough to accommodate track titles. “I didn’t want anything in the background,” he says. “I wanted credits in the sky.” 

For all its attendant turmoil, Minus-Plus is a decent LP. McCormick’s in fine voice — she positively scalds on "You Don't Love Me" — although her earlier grit is gone and she’s fronting a more subdued unit based in boogie, not mud-stomped soul. Unlike its predecessor, it bears more original tunes than covers; only Carole King and Toni Stern’s “What Am I Gonna Do” makes the cut, and it’s the track’s first recording, so it’s not really a cover, per se. Overall, Minus-Plus stands as a respectable follow-up, with sojourns into balladry (“Jason,” “Since You’ve Been Gone”), a rocker or two (“Circle Man”), and a title track reminiscent of bygone friends. 

“I was really happy with it, for what was going on,” Barri says. “We were still somehow able to pull it off and get it done. I thought it sounded pretty good. But obviously, it didn’t do as well as the first one.” 

 

“With the second album, the band’s music became a little more melodic,” McCormick said to Everett. “The first band had been gutsier in many ways. There was more guitar on the second album, and the producers found a softer side of me.” 

However, it can’t help but capture a troubled quintet in freefall. When asked about it today, Hurst replies, “You mean Minus-Plus? That’s not A Group Called Smith.” 

Yet the band bearing that name attempted to continue. They played a few shows, notably the July 3, 1970, Festival Express in Calgary. But the end was drawing near. For Evans it came during the tour's Southern run, as he found himself spending less time with his bandmates and more time with his Bible.

The matter eventually came to a head one night. Each member visited his hotel room to confront him individually. “If you do that,” Larry Moss warned, “you can't do music.” 

“'Exactly right,' I said, Evans recalls. “So when I came back to L.A., I called the manager and told him I quit. They found some drummer. I had a full set of drums that I bought with my own royalties. The road guys brought them back, and the new drummer stole them. They seemed to think, 'We have his drums, so we’ll have the same sound.' But they didn’t last too much longer.”

And so Smith quickly and quietly dissolved. “What Am I Gonna Do” emerged as a last single, stalling in the Billboard nether regions at No. 73. And just like that, sans fanfare or flames, it was over.

I Think I’ll Go Home 

Survivors made haste in opposite directions. McCormick enjoyed the most immediate and lasting success, initially remaining with ABC/Dunhill as a solo artist. Barri put her in the hands of producers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who gave her a No. 43 hit in 1971’s “It’s a Cryin’ Shame” and a well-received eponymous full-length debut. (Again commissioned as photographer, O’Neal produced some of the Internet’s most pirated McCormick images, in cutoff jeans and a blouse tied above her navel. He discusses his time with her below.) She then embarked on a tour with Three Dog Night.

“I feel a lot more positive about what is going on now,” she told the L.A. Times that year, Robert Hilburn having apparently forgotten his earlier dismissal of her work. “I can make my own decisions about material, arrangements, and such. It’s a much better feeling.”

 

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GAYLE McCORMICK PHOTOGRAPHY & DESIGN BY TOM GUNDELFINGER O'NEAL

FLESH & BLOOD DESIGNED BY DAVID LARKHAM

ONE MORE HOUR PHOTOGRAPHER/DESIGNER UNKNOWN 

After leaving Dunhill, she recorded Flesh & Blood (1972) for Decca, followed by One More Hour (1974) at Fantasy. She capped her career with a 1975 single for Shadybrook Records, a Beverly Hills-based label established a year earlier by industry stalwarts Brad Miller and publicist/manager Joe Sutton. “Coming in Out of the Rain” and “Simon Said” are typical of their era, nudging the dawning disco phenomenon with a saccharine sap-pap overreach. McCormick delivered the goods, but the material muted her strength, suffocating it in goop. 

There was a brief marriage and ultimately, a return to St. Louis in the late 1970s. Jonnie King eventually headed home, too, for KSLQ- and Y98-FM gigs after a pit stop at Detroit’s WDRQ. He turned 35 in St. Louis; McCormick attended his party, where they bantered as they always did. He played “Baby It’s You” on the air, this time because it fit the station’s oldies format. It also still sounded ridiculously fine, though its singer no longer performed. Instead, she saved her voice for musicologists exploring her past — and there were plenty. 

King and McCormick lost touch afterward, though he always thought of her. He even visited a trailer park where she’d lived, hoping to find her, only to learn she’d moved and left no forwarding address. Sometime in the New Millennium, he built a series of web pages for his businesses and pastimes. He ran a nostalgic radio program called The Breakfast Serial, mixing his love of music, cars, and nostalgia into an interview format that connected 30-minute exchanges with guests like George Barris over multiple programs. Cliffhanger wraps promoted the next “chapter.” 

But his most popular page was his most personal: a tribute to Gayle McCormick that told the story of their long association, complete with rare photos (some featured in this story) and fondly scribed memories. He received emails from all over the world. Everyone wanted to know more about this extraordinary woman or relay messages about what she’d meant to them.

 

One of her cousins found the site and informed its Internet-averse subject of its existence. Suddenly, the distance between old friends closed. Phone calls were made. Visits commenced. 

Gayle McCormick contended with poor health by then, living with chemotherapy treatments after a cancer had grown from a tumor in her lungs to spread throughout her body. Rheumatoid arthritis weakened her joints. Yet King couldn’t help but see the luminescent kid she’d been, brightening rooms with her easy laugh. Late in life, they both laughed a lot, reminiscing, relishing moments like a gift. 

 

“All the girls used to love you in the Bat Cave,” she’d tease. “We'd be together all the time, but you never hit on me at all.” 

“You never hit on me, either,” King would reply. 

This would elicit a long, shared laugh.

 

“I love you,” she’d say finally, and they’d squeeze hands. 

King saw to it that her caretakers knew her worth. He’d call up YouTube videos of Smith in their prime and point to the blonde at the center, conquering every scale she faced. “That’s Gayle,” he’d tell them. “This is the woman you’re treating right now. Make sure you take care of her.” And they did, to the very end. 

Gayle McCormick passed away at the Delmar Gardens West assisted living facility on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. She was 67 years old, multiple lives behind her. At her funeral, she was radiant in a tiara, her favorite dress, and a pair of boots. She always had a thing for boots. King delivered her eulogy. “She was the light of my life, one of the most precious, sweetest, wonderful women I’ve ever known,” he says. “Beautiful to the last.”

Today, she’s never far from his mind. In fact, she isn’t very far at all. She rests at the Mount Lebanon Cemetery in St. Ann, which he passes almost daily on trips to the store. 

“I always say a prayer for her and tell her how much I love her,” he says, adding, “You’re never forgotten, Gayle.” 

“She had a hell of a voice,” Barri says, “She was really terrific. She was one artist and Smith was one band that should have been a lot more successful. But you never know. You never know.” 

Larry Moss returned to his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he pooled some of his earnings into a venue called the Magician’s Theatre in 1975. Don’t let the name fool you; it attracted Eric Clapton, George Harrison, J.J. Cale, Leon Russell, and Little Feat. "I had a boot full of money,” he recalled to This Land Press’ Lindsey Neal Kuykendall in 2013. Despite its marquee, the theater shuttered in the early ’80s. He later launched a successful construction firm, but music was never in his rearview. “In my heart, I’m still a musician and motorcycle racer,” he wrote on his Facebook profile. “Some things never change.” The 72-year-old died Aug. 8, 2017. 

Judson Huss eventually abandoned music and the United States, emigrating to Paris, France, where he became a respected painter and sculptor. (Monty Python artist and filmmaker Terry Gilliam ranked among his advocates.) “It is impossible to explain how the simplest thing can release the avalanche of ideas that finally come to rest in a painting,” Huss once said of his work. He died July 25, 2008, at the age of 66.

Bob Evans is the only Smith member who stayed put in Southern California. I catch him by phone as he drives to Malibu. But he gave up music as well. “I missed it,” he admits, “but not to the point where I wanted to go back to it.” Instead, he started and raised a family as a tireless working man. He threw his energy into business, opening a Northridge janitorial service in the 1970s that later evolved into tile and stone restoration. He still runs the operation today, almost 50 years later.  

Little is known of Alan Parker’s eventual fate. After a pair of solo albums in the early ’70s (upon which McCormick and Huss also appear), he reportedly turned to business administration in St. Louis and later moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Leads were followed, messages left, all to no avail. 

As for Jerry Carter and Rich Cliburn, well, that story goes on for a while.

If It’s Love That’s
Making You Sad,

Then It’s Not the
Love You Need
 

After leaving Smith, the two continued working in Southern California, gigging where they could and not making a lot of money. “It was quite the downside from what they were used to,” Phyllis Hurst says. (Cliburn did enjoy a flash of mid-decade notoriety when he recruited friends Stan House and Atlee Yeager — he of 1973’s Plant Me Now and Dig Me Later — for a goof turn on The Gong Show as a band called The Sharks. The joke, alas, was on them: their number, “The Geek Song,” won them $500 and a small trophy.) 

She and Cliburn were married by then and family came quickly, with son Jason arriving in 1971. Six years later, another baby was on the way. Hurst worked at her Century City job for as long as she could. But California life became expensive.

 

In the meantime, Cliburn returned to Mount Olive for his grandfather’s funeral. His family became aware of his life out west and lured him home with promises of road construction work. He seized the opportunity and moved his family south, where his daughter Chrissy was born. Unfortunately, winter came and ended his job a few months later. Cliburn was forced into factory shifts, hell for a man whose existence was expressed in music, not manual labor. 

Then Jerry Carter called with an offer. He’d moved to Oregon, where he’d met and married a woman named Teri, starting a band with her on drums. They could make music again, pull in enough cash to support their families. Unfortunately, it was not to be just yet. No jobs waited in Oregon. Then in his mid-30s, Cliburn stayed on the Carters’ couch. But the die was cast. He returned to Mount Olive by bus, sold everything, and made his way to the Pacific Northwest, wife and young children in tow, in July 1978. 

Everyone lived in the Eugene area at first. Hurst took a job at a Springfield restaurant while the band whisked Cliburn on out-of-town and out-of-state gigs as a trio called Ruckus. Then, in the early ’80s, they landed a regular spot at the Candlelight lounge 30 miles north, in Albany, a graying, subdued hamlet worlds apart from L.A. They drove five nights a week into the mid-Willamette Valley for the privilege of entertaining bleary-eyed cocktail napkins on Pacific Boulevard. Eventually, the commute grew tiresome, and the Carters moved into the city. The Cliburns followed in 1982. 

According to Hurst, although the friends were grateful for their reunion, tensions eventually mounted. A rift began to form. Roughly three years into Ruckus’ early-'80s stint, a new guitarist entered the lineup, one with differing sensibilities and styles. Cliburn reportedly took a sizable pay cut to accommodate the recruit, and soon, he was out. 

“The new guitarist was a really nice guy,” Hurst says, “but it was demoralizing to Rich. They bring this guy in without asking. There’s no discussion. This did not sit well with him at all.” 

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COURTESY OF THE CLIBURN FAMILY

Rich Cliburn and friends rock out in an open jam at the Peacock Bar & Grill in Corvallis, Oregon, ca. 1995.

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COURTESY OF THE CLIBURN FAMILY

Promotional still of Old Hat, featuring Rich Cliburn (with beard), 2005.

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After nearly two decades, Rich Cliburn finally went solo. He became a respected local musician, game to make noise anytime, anywhere. Players respected his history, honored to share his stage: This dude had a Top 5 hit! Everyone knew of his achievements. That such a force lived in Albany was unbelievable. 

The local Democrat-Herald profiled him in March 1996, giving him most of a page to recount the story of Smith. He seemed touched by the attention but unassuming, as usual. All he cared about was playing, so he kept doing that until he couldn’t anymore. He even made peace with Jerry Carter, not long before his oldest friend passed away in Arizona in 2009, ending a 40-plus year association that may have been bumpy but enviably satisfying. Gold records, a hit single, and a legacy few could touch. 

That legacy earned a considerable boost in 2007, when writer/director Quentin Tarantino revived interest in “Baby It’s You” by including it in Death Proof, where it thrilled a new audience. Time hadn’t dulled its power at all. Gayle McCormick could still destroy, and Smith could still saunter on its own heat as easily as it had at the Rag Doll some 40 years earlier, when it first cast its spell on unsuspecting record men. 

“I was happy for Rich,” Hurst says of the twilight exposure. “Any sort of recognition. It was another notch on his belt, so to speak, that somebody recognized his gift.” 

I’ll Try and I’ll Try
and Try It Again 

(To Get You to
Open Your Eyes)
 

Smith may retrospectively be regarded as a one-hit wonder, but there’s something charming, even irresistible, about their discography when heard in total, separated from its surrounding sociocultural noise. They spoke with a talent that translates easily in modern contexts beyond the song that made them indelible. However, this story also stands as a cautionary tragedy of unfulfilled potential, and everyone involved feels it a half-century later. The simple journey two friends began in the ’60s resonates today as both momentary triumph and lasting lesson. 

“They were a band that should have been much more important,” Barri says. “We did as well as we could have with what we had to work with. Anytime you have a situation like that and then there are problems with different members, it always becomes difficult. It’s very rare that those things work out well. They were talented enough. They were great musicians and singers, and they had a great star in Gayle. Looking back, it was one of the disappointments, because that one should have done better.” 

“Tremendous potential,” Brian Hyland says. “They had a heavy groove, and Gayle had it all.” He cites Haley Reinhart as her postmillennial heir, an American Idol combatant (she took third in 2011) and actress who revived Smith’s arrangement of “Baby It’s You” in 2017 with a clobber all her own. (Its engineer? Bill Schnee,)

“Why is a movie a hit? Why is a song a hit?” Bill Cooper asks. “You can analyze stuff all you want. Gayle had the one thing. Yes, people wanted to hear a Janis thing. They wanted to hear a girl with that plea. ‘Baby It’s You’ is a great song and what she had caught the imagination. But the guys, with the right song, were perfectly capable of something too. There is no accounting for why one thing is a hit record and something else isn’t. Maybe the timing was right for ‘Baby It’s You.’” 

“It’s all timing,” Richie Podolor adds. “It’s a cruel business. Whole careers hinge on that.”

COURTESY OF THE CLIBURN FAMILY

Rich Cliburn's RIAA gold certification for Smith's "Baby It's You."

Evans approaches the term from a more sobering distance, speaking of Smith as separate from himself. “They were good in their time for what they did," he says. “They just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

For Hurst, the story of Smith comes down to one man.

“I’ve heard the ‘one-hit wonder’ thing before, and I guess technically you could say that’s true,” she says. “But I really believe that if they were to have been given a fair shot at the time, they would have been a big hit. Rich is a great writer. He’s got hundreds and hundreds — maybe thousands — of songs that nobody has heard, really, except for the people close to him. He’s never been able to get anything going. It’s a tragedy of his life that he was never recognized by the industry for how talented he was. 

"It breaks my heart. It has forever, that this is what happened. Because he is a talented man. All he wanted to do was play." 

Special thanks to the Albany Antique Mall, Travis Bakke, Steve Barri, Chrissy Cliburn, Jason Cliburn, Rich Cliburn, Bill Cooper, Doug DiCarolis and Dave Trenkel at Happy Trails Records (Corvallis), Robert Evans, Phyllis Hurst, Brian Hyland, Jason Odd, Jonnie King, Newspapers.com, Mollie O’Neal, Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal, Richie Podolor, Andrew Sandoval, Bill Schnee, Joel Sill, Jeff Simpson, and Richie Unterberger. 

SUGGESTED MEDIA: 

American Recording Company

Steve Barri

Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal, Gundelfinger: Memoirs of a Rock & Roll Photographer 

Jonnie King 

Bill Schnee, Chairman at the Board 

Smith, A Group Called Smith & Minus-Plus

PHOTOGRAPHY BY BERNARD YESZIN & WILLIAM EASTABROOK

gaylemccormick.jpg
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PHOTOGRAPHY & DESIGN BY
TOM GUNDELFINGER O'NEAL

Tom Gundelfinger O'Neal

on Gayle McCormick (1971)

When I worked with Gayle for her solo album, I remember distinctly getting her to move and toss her hair for the cover. Again, I’ve always been attracted to movement in photos. The music moves you, but the photo just sits there. So when there’s this indication of movement and energy, it brings it more to life. 

Later, I got her walking along the beach with a sunset. She had this long dress on. I was following her, the fabric behind her, lifting in the wind. I was still so new at all this. I had to get something, and I had to get it then. I was shooting film, so I didn’t know what I was getting, exactly. The best shot that was chosen was one where her dress billowed out. I thought it looked pretty. But with the way the dress billowed out, when I showed it to her, she said, “Oh, my God. I look pregnant." She hated it. But it was printed [in the inner gatefold]. What could I do?

 

The back photo was taken on the back porch of a little house that no longer exists, a one-story clapboard house on Fourth Street in Santa Monica. Actually, I was the last guy to live there; they tore it down and put up apartments. That whole street turns into a mall now. In the shot, you’ll notice there’s a bit of white area. That's on purpose. I knew I could put the titles there and then I could put the credits in that dark area on the back porch going up to the door. So I knew I’d reverse the colors out there in yellow. That could have been the front cover. She was so pretty. 

Gayle had a lot of presence. With me, she would get a little wild at times, because I let her go. I pushed her. I’d say, “Come on! You can do it!” And then she’d say, “HAH!” I found some releases with her. I wanted to show her energy; it was just so vibrant.