By Lee Zimmerman
Cover bands never get much credit, and rightfully so. Interpreting the work of others and fashioning the band as little more than an efficient jukebox doesn’t say much about one’s artistic integrity or the ability to push parameters. So credit Vanilla Fudge with changing that perception some 50 years ago when their landmark remake of The Supremes song “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” provided a jumping off point for both psychedelia and heavy metal. It also left its imprint on any number of bands that would follow with the same formula — Yes, Deep Purple, Styx and Led Zeppelin among them.
“We were probably the first instrumental band that was dubbed psychedelic, symphonic rock by the critics,” co-founder, vocalist and keyboard player Mark Stein says today. “We were the first experimental band to have big commercial success. We were there at the birth of FM radio, and they would play all our efforts to the extreme, so we didn’t have to rely on commercial AM radio. That’s when the real creativity exploded.”
For the most part, that creativity was funneled into their first eponymous album. It boasted the aforementioned hit and a pair of Beatles covers, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Ticket to Ride.” Then as now, it was a bold move to offer any interpretation of the Fab Four, but given the band’s ambitions and intents, it wasn’t all that surprising either.
Stein credits his early influences with helping to shape the band’s direction. “Back in 1966, it was all about the Long Island sound, specifically bands like The Vagrants, the group that spawned Leslie West. They were the first band that I ever saw do what were then called ‘production numbers.’ They would take things like ‘Exodus (Song)’ and ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ and do these elaborate arrangements. That was the first time I saw a band do that, and that really changed my life. Before that, the first band that really influenced me was The Rascals — Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish. I went to see them when I was a kid, about 18. I had heard about this great white soul band who were playing in New York, and I went to see them. It was the first time I ever saw anybody playing an organ like that, a B3, and this soulful singer was singing his ass off. It was just an amazing sound. I was so mesmerized by their approach to everything and that really got me completely. The combination of their sound and the arrangements of The Vagrants led to Vanilla Fudge. We were really those two bands on steroids.”
Known originally as The Pigeons — a name suggested by manager-songwriter Jeff Barry — the original foursome (Stein, bassist Tim Bogert, guitarist Vince Martell and drummer Joey Brennan) followed the usual route at that time, playing the New York City club scene and honing their chops along the way. The addition of a young drummer named Carmine Appice, formerly of a cover band called Thursday’s Children, elevated the band’s efforts and soon led to a recording contract with Atlantic Records — courtesy of label chief Ahmet Ertegun — and a connection with producer Shadow Morton, whose credits eventually included the Shangri-Las, Janis Ian and the New York Dolls. At Atlantic’s insistence, the band changed their name and found Morton sitting behind the boards where he stayed for their first three albums.
Stein says that he had a vision for the band from the very beginning. “I just knew that I wanted to take great songs and rearrange them,” he recalls. “We had a really cool vocal quartet sound, because we would sing all these songs by the Del Vikings, Shep and the Limelites, the Impressions. For a bunch of white boys, we had a pretty cool sound. So we combined all those harmonies and our musical capabilities, and I sketched out the arrangements. From there, it all started happening. We came up with these songs that we could rearrange. We did The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ on that first album, and in retrospect, when I listen to that arrangement now, I think it’s pretty outrageous what we did with that. I used to listen to a lot of soundtracks. I loved the ‘Ben Hur’ soundtrack. I loved ‘Goldfinger.’ The James Bond soundtracks were outrageous. If you listen to some of that early stuff, you could see how we were influenced by a lot of the arrangements and melodies, and that led to a lot of the opening arrangements for the Vanilla Fudge songs. We took the Sonny Bono song ‘Bang Bang’ and it starts out just like ‘The King and I.’ It was really nice and very experimental. It was cool. We came up with that first album and we just shocked the world because nobody had ever heard anything like that.”
Things took off from there, and suddenly, these four young men who were just barely out of their teens were international stars.
“Oh man, it was mind boggling,” Appice recalls. “To hear our songs on New York radio, driving in the car and hearing the songs was so exciting. I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing. And then when that first album came out, it charted at 200 and the next week it was 33. We were in California on tour and it was unbelievable. But we didn’t know what we were doing or that we had created something new. Supposedly I had created this new power rock kind of drum style, which I did out of necessity. There were no real amplifiers back then, no PA systems. I had to bang the hell out of my drums and I even bought a 26-inch base drum because it would be louder. I had two amps with a mixer that would stand up at the front of the stage and it was amazing because there were no monitors back then. I remember (Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer) Mitch Mitchell saying, ‘Carmine, would you mind if I use your drum amps?’ Because back in those days, everybody shared everything. There were no egos like there is today. We’d have the same PA and lights that everybody else had and we all toured together, and we had parties and we just had a great time.”
“It was a glorious time,” Stein insists. “We had the same management that represented a lot of the British Invasion bands. Steve Weiss was our business manager. He had Jeff Beck, he had the Yardbirds, Hendrix, so that’s how we got to open for Jimi Hendrix in 1968. It was a Jimi Hendrix/Vanilla Fudge tour and we did 17 shows around America and it was incredible because we were at a live show peak. If you read my book ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On,’ it’s documented in there. It was really an incredible time.”
According to Stein, the success seemed almost instantaneous. “We were around 19, 20, 21 years old and overnight that first album exploded,” he reflects. “It was being played on WNEW in New York and in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and we were becoming the underground darlings. We were playing constantly, and overnight we were the psychedelic sensation. It happened so fast, but we were too young to know what was going on. It was crazy. In retrospect, 50 years later, it was an incredible opportunity to do something like that. We just had to shake our head and say ‘Wow!’ Not only that, we were hanging out with all these incredible people. We were hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and Mama Cass. I was in awe! We were on our way up. When we opened for The Mamas & the Papas in 1967 on our first tour, they had a lot of hits, and there we were playing for 20,000 people, a sell out crowd. We were scared shitless. So overnight we became more popular than some of the groups we were opening up for. And then we became the status quo.”
“We were just living it day by day,” Appice insists. “We used to wear our stage clothes out in the street. We became rock stars when the whole business was booming and starting to explode like never before. We were going out, treating women terribly and destroying hotel rooms. You read about the stuff that Harvey Weinstein was doing. We used to do that, too. In my book “Stick It!” I detail a lot of this stuff. We used to invite women, girls, fans — most of them were teenagers, over 18 hopefully — to our room and then we’d all go into the bathroom and walk out naked, and we knew that the ones that stuck around wanted to have some sex. (laughs) We’re 20-year-old guys out on the road, getting all this attention, doing all the major TV shows in the country and around the world and playing gigs with The Who, gigs with Hendrix — Hendrix was a friend of ours — and hanging out with The Yardbirds, hanging out with all these English bands like Pink Floyd. We were playing with everybody and just taking it day to day.”
Despite their hijinks, they were helping to shape a new genre, one that took hold in the late ‘60s and would soon be known as psychedelia. “What was psychedelia? We didn’t even know what it was at that time,” Stein maintains. “Maybe it was about using psychedelic drugs, blowing your mind, but out of it came all this outrageous music. In the beginning we were afraid, because we didn’t know how it would be accepted. Everyone wanted to dance, so when we started playing all these long symphonic arrangements with all these dynamics, it was like watching a play or a symphony. We were thrown out of a club in Greenwich Village when we first started out because they couldn’t dance to us. You couldn’t dance to those arrangements. It was better to get stoned and sit back and watch the band. And naturally that’s what starting happening. People would sit at the edge of the stage and they were mesmerized by the sound that we were coming out with.”
Their reputation quickly spread among the burgeoning underground, particularly those bands that were then emerging from the U.K. “The Zeppelin guys, the Deep Purple guys… they called themselves the English Vanilla Fudge when they first came out,” says Stein. “They saw us on our first tour in England and they came down and were totally freaked out. Even bands like Styx and Chicago. I read something recently where the guys from Chicago were saying they listened to Vanilla Fudge. We were definitely a bridge between pop and heavy metal and progressive music. Steve Perry was a huge Vanilla Fudge fan if that says anything.”
Stein reflects on those times with no small degree of nostalgia. “At my age, of course you think about the great times like that,” Stein suggests. “I look back in amazement at all these people that I once knew. I knew Hendrix and we were the label mates for Led Zeppelin when they first came out of The Yardbirds. They looked up to us. And on the first two tours we did with them, we broke them in. I remember they were just a bunch of kids on stage. It was amazing. That was a big part of our history, the people we saw come through us.”
“I realize when I see things like Spinal Tap, where the drummer has the gongs and the cymbals up high and all the things I pioneered with Ludwig, that I just took for granted, but what I did become a staple,” adds Appice. “I didn’t look at it as a template until people started writing about it, like in the drum magazines. I remember when Zeppelin opened up for us, John Bonham told me that I was his idol. I didn’t say that, but when it came from me after John Bonham became such an icon, it looked like I was ego-ing out about it. I’d tell people that Bonham used to listen to me. So I stopped doing that in interviews, and then they released that book ‘A Thunder Of Drums,’ and it told about the time Zeppelin first came to America and how excited he was to be touring with Vanilla Fudge and being friends with me and how I helped him and blah, blah, blah… so then I became the guy who influenced John Bonham and the guy who invented heavy drumming. I’m really blessed that I came up in that time and I was able to do the stuff I did. I created a whole new drum style, and I wrote a book, and the book was very, very successful. I was involved in a lot of firsts back in those days because the business was really virginal.”
Sadly though, the band failed to accelerate that success. Four other albums followed in rapid succession over the next two years: “The Beat Goes On” (1968), “Renaissance” (1968), “Near the Beginning” (1969) and “Rock & Roll” (1969), but none had the impact of that remarkable debut. Appice says that part of the reason the band didn’t go on to greater glories lies in the fact that they couldn’t come up with a worthy follow up. He cites the second album as a prime reason for the failure.
“It was a horrible album,” he says of that second record. “There were all those weird conceptual things on there. All we had to do was the same thing we did on the first album, which we didn’t. It was a stupid move. We didn’t know. We were green. We were working with Shadow Morton and Ahmet Ertegun. It was their idea. I was watching on the internet yesterday and some people were talking about it and saying it was terrible, disgusting, why would a band release an album like that… and I agree with them. I agreed with them back then when I first heard it. I said, ‘What is this album?’ We didn’t know what we were doing. Shadow Morton put it all together. I think it ruined the band and it created a situation where we had to run in and do a third album quickly. We got such bad press and such a bad reaction from radio on that album that it killed our career.”
Following the band’s breakup in 1970, Appice and Bogert ventured off to form Cactus and later Beck, Bogert & Appice. His greatest success came while playing behind Rod Stewart, but other efforts included King Kobra and Blue Murder as well as stints with Ted Nugent and Ozzy Osbourne. His latest endeavor, an album entitled “Sinister” with his brother Vinnie Appice, is a continuation of the live Drum War performances they’ve done in recent years.
Stein did time with Alice Cooper, Dave Mason and more recently, Carl Palmer. His latest venture, the Mark Stein Band, is slated to play BB Kings in New York City in January and perform at various other venues in the weeks and months after. Bogart has effectively retired from the road while Martell intermittently released occasionally solo projects. There have also been various attempts at Vanilla Fudge reunions over the past few decades, spawning occasional concerts, special appearances and every now and then, an isolated album, among them, “Mystery” in 1984, “The Return” in 2002, “Out Through the In Door” in 2007, and most recently, “Spirit of ’67” two years ago. Stein says a live CD and DVD is on tap for early in the new year.
Still, despite a legacy that dates back to that earliest incarnation, Vanilla Fudge rarely seem to get the recognition they deserve. “I still have no idea why we’re not played on classic rock radio,” Appice admits. “They play all the bands we played with — Hendrix, Queen, the Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Doors — everyone that we were on the charts with, that we gigged with, everyone we were in the Top 10 with, the Top 5, and yet they don’t play us. I don’t know why, but that’s why I don’t think Vanilla Fudge gets the respect. The audience is gone. All these other bands played arenas. We were in tour with The Doors of the 21st Century and we were special guests for that, but we could never do the larger venues ourselves. Our audience is gone. It seems to have disappeared. I mean, come on. We’re playing three to five hundred seat places. It’s hard to get gigs. They’re still there for The Who, they’re still there for The Doors, they’re still there for Led Zeppelin… they’re still for a lot of acts, but not for us.”
“There’s a lot of people that don’t think we ultimately got our due, because ultimately Vanilla Fudge is really a cult group,” Stein suggests. “There are a lot of people that think we should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of our influence. But it’s about how much money you made or how many hits you had. It should be about the influence you had. It’s so political. So many of the people that run that thing are so young, they can’t relate to the history and that’s what it should be about.”
“We broke up,” Appice argues. “I thought that when we got back together it would be better because we weren’t milking the music. But that’s not the case. It’s like out of sight, out of mind.”