By Bill Kopp
In 1975, a Memphis-based band called Zuider Zee recorded an album for Columbia Records. The melodic, power pop-leaning collection of songs was released, and it didn’t sell. Zuider Zee never made another album. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In fact, it was really only the second chapter in the group’s history. The first has gone largely unexamined, unreported, unknown... until now. In June, Light in the Attic released Zeenith, a previously-unheard collection of songs from Zuider Zee, recordings that are closer in sound and spirit to the band’s original intention than the major-label album that withered on the vine back in ‘75.
First of all, Zuider Zee wasn’t really a Memphis band. Hearing that Columbia album today (assuming you can find it; it’s long out of print, used copies are scarce, and to date there’s been no CD reissue) modern-day listeners might detect a faint stylistic similarity to Jigsaw or the Hudson Brothers. Lead singer (and songwriter and guitarist) Richard Orange’s voice sounds a bit like Van Duren. But Zuider Zee was actually from Lafayette, Louisiana; the band relocated to Memphis only at the behest of its manager. And in their time in the Bluff City, the members of Zuider Zee never heard – much less had any interaction with – Big Star or the other bands now thought of as part of that scene.
Quite a While
The band’s story reaches back to the Summer of Love, when its members were still in high school. “I used to record vacuums,” says Richard Orange with a warm chuckle. “Blowing bubbles in the water and things like that. I wasn’t even of legal age then.” In addition to making experimental recordings, Orange was also writing original material, and he soon put a band together.
“We had a group called Thomas Edisun’s Lightbulb Band,” says drummer Gary Simon Bertrand. “Richard and myself were the founders of that group.” The band released a single, “No One’s Been Here for Weeks.” Once Orange and Bertrand finished high school, manager Leland Russell offered the band a regular weekend spot at a club he owned.
Eventually, Russell started Alpha, a professional light and sound company, and moved to Memphis in hope of drumming up business there. By that point, the band Richard Orange led (still with Bertrand as drummer, plus bassist John Bonar and keyboardist Kim Foreman) was called Zuider Zee. As Russell began booking the band throughout the southeast, he decided it would make more sense to have the group use Memphis as its base of operations. His ultimate goal, Bertrand says, was for Zuider Zee to score a record deal and then “use Alpha as our main sound system and lighting company as we progressed with our success.”
Zuider Zee’s live set at the time featured a mix of Orange originals and like-minded covers. Bertrand recalls that some of the latter included tunes by Wings and Badfinger. A rough bootleg cassette recording of the band playing at a club called Jail West also features Orange’s original songs “After the Shine’s Gone,” “Might Be I’m Losing My Mind” and “Night Light.” Curiously, none of those songs would be recorded for the band’s sole release on Columbia.
Those three songs – along with at least nine others – were in fact professionally recorded by Zuider Zeesome months before the group signed with CBS/Columbia. Working at TMI Studio in Memphis with engineer Jerry Williams, Zuider Zee dropped into the studio whenever schedules allowed, putting down an album’s worth of material between 1972 and January 1974. Orange and Russell co-produced the sessions.
Recorded not as an album but instead for demonstration purposes, the Zeenith tapes nonetheless sound finished. They present Zuider Zee in a less slick style than found on the later Columbia LP. The band rehearsed relentlessly before entering the studio to cut the demo tracks, and that unity of purpose shines through on the recordings; it’s as honest a document of the group’s live sound as could be hoped for. “That’s the simplicity you hear on Zeenith,” Bertrand says with pride.
“Richard was such a prolific writer,” Bertrand says, “that we had all these new songs. So instead of going back to finish (the Zeenith tapes), the group went on to playing the newer songs. And those were what was recorded with CBS.” The version of “Haunter of the Darkness” that appears on the major-label LP is a remix of a recording from those earlier sessions, made at a time when Bertrand was still in the group.
Just before getting the CBS deal, Zuider Zee had again been working out of Lafayette; Russell had instructed them to stay put rather than return to Memphis. “I was just adamant about not doing that,” Betrand recalls. “And that’s when I just blurted the words out: ‘I quit.’” Before he could reconsider, the band had replaced him. He went on to play drums with G.G. Shinn and the T.S.C. Trucking Company. Bertrand would later sit in with Zuider Zee on a temporary basis, but never again as a full member.
After the Shine’s Gone
Looking back some 40-plus years, Orange isn’t sure what plans– if any – CBS/Columbia had for his group. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, we’re with the largest record company in the business, so that’s got to mean something,’” he says. He does recall playing a gig at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom in Atlanta, opening for Canterbury, England progressive group Caravan. After the show, he met label executive Terry Powell. Powell presented him with a pre-release copy of Wish You Were Here, by one of the label’s biggest acts: Pink Floyd. “Now I realize what it meant: ‘Welcome to the Machine.’ The irony was lost on me at first, but it wasn’t lost on me later on.”
Orange and Bertrand’s protestations aside, the Zuider Zee album on Columbia is a strong set of songs. And while the production sheen gives Orange’s songs a softer vibe than they might have otherwise had – think of Wings at the Speed of Sound or Pilot’s 1974 LP From the Album of the Same Name – the album isn’t completely done in by that approach. “The album got over-compressed; that’s why you have to turn it up louder,” Orange says. “I’ll leave the name alone whose fault it was.”
Orange and his band ended up disappointed with their experience with Columbia. “We expected so much and then we got so little,” he says, noting that after sending the band back to the studio to remix “Listen to the Words” for a single release, the label decided against releasing that – or any other single – from the Zuider Zee LP.
And the fallout from that decision reverberated in some troubling directions. “Certain criteria had to be met as far as getting airplay,” Orange says. “If you had a new release, you had to have a single, too.” He recalls the band doing radio interviews, only to be told afterward, “We won’t be playing this interview until we get the single.” Moreover, when the band visited record shops for in-store appearances, they found themselves in a situation right out of This is Spinal Tap. “We’d be assigned to go to the store to sign records,” he says, still incredulous at the memory, “and they wouldn’t have any!”
Orange reveals that despite the unhappy experience with the ill-fated Zuider Zee LP, plans soon got underway for a second album. He recalls the label execs asking him to compile a list of producers with whom he’d like to work; he suggested Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker and American pop wunderkind Todd Rundgren, and waited for a response from CBS.
The next news Orange received was that the label wanted to meet with the band again. So once again he sat down with Terry Powell, who told him, “We’re not going to do another album.”
“And then the strangest thing happened,” Orange recalls. Powell took him aside and asked if they could meet again the following morning – without the rest of the band. At that breakfast meeting, Orange says Powell told him, “The label really wants to go forward with you, but... not so much with the rest of the band.” Feeling a loyalty to his band mates, Orange turned down the offer.
Orange delivers a post-script to the tale: “Six months down the line, the band left me,” he says, “which is funny now. But not so funny then.”
Royal Command Performance
Another story – humorous then and now – concerns a gig that late-period Zuider Zee played not long before the group fell apart. In contrast to its opening slot for Caravan, on this night in January 1978, the band was scheduled to open for a band from England called the Sex Pistols.
“We were walking around before the soundcheck,” Orange recalls. “There was this guy with no shirt or shoes on; he had some cuts on him. And he had this low hanging pair of trousers that weren’t so tight on him because he didn’t have any body weight at all.” Making matters worse, this fellow was picking at a huge scab on his arm. Orange thought the guy was “a street urchin. I saw him and I thought, ‘Oh, God. That poor bastard. He’s in terrible shape.’” He recalls thinking, “I hope they don’t call the cops on this guy, because they’ll beat him to the death. They’ll never find his body!”
When Zuider Zee finished the opening set, they cleared their gear off stage. “When it came time for the Sex Pistols to go on, I realized that the ‘street urchin’ was Sid Vicious!” As far as the Pistols’ performance, Orange – now an enthusiastic fan of punk acts including Fear, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and The Clash – describes it as “anticlimactic. The sound was terrible.”
Better Than All the Others
For many years thereafter – until Gary Simon Bertrand found the tapes that would become Zeenith, the story of Zuider Zee was forgotten by most. And the path from discovery of those recordings to their 2018 release was a lengthy one. Bertrand had reconnected with the band’s former manager Russell, who revealed that he had tapes packed away in various storage facilities across the southeastern U.S. After some hunting, Bertrand found himself in possession of a number of two-track master reels. In 2013 he shared his discovery with archivist/journalist/musician Alec Palao, who would produce the 2018 release and write its enlightening liner note essay.
Because the unearthed Zeenith masters are two-track, there wasn’t any way to do any sort of revisionist remixing to make the tapes sound “current.” Arguably, that’s to the band’s advantage: the songs on Zeenith have a timeless quality just as they are. “As far as the writing and how the songs are constructed,” says Bertrand, “I don’t see that we would have done anything different, had we had the (multi-track) masters.”
Alec Palao remarks upon Zuider Zee’s place in pop history. “One should be careful not to compare them too much to Big Star,” he says, “because they were definitely coming from a different kind of place.” But he does recall his thoughts when he first heard Bertrand’s cassette dub: “Wow. This really pushes all my buttons. The Beatlesque thing. Sort of glam stuff. I love the idea of a band doing that kind of stuff in 1975 when everything is Marshall Tucker Band boogie.” While he finds the Zuider Zee back story fascinating, he’s unequivocal on one point. “The music is the thing that counts,” he says.
Today Bertrand still lives in Louisiana. While he’s not currently in a band, he still plays his drums at home. And he’s remained good friends with Orange. “I feel like we’re still neighbors,” he says. “Even though it’s long distance, Richard will often play me his new songs over the telephone. And it’s just as exciting to hear his new material today as it was 50 years ago when we first got together.”
After Zuider Zee, Richard Orange moved back and forth between the U.S. and Great Britain, and went on to form a band called Zee (not the duo of the same name featuring Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright). He was eventually signed to a publishing deal by Beatles’ publisher Dick James. Later, Orange spent time working as a house songwriter for a division of Motown. His “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China)” was a worldwide hit in 1988 for Cyndi Lauper. Today he lives in Oklahoma. Bringing things back to his Memphis connection, Orange’s most recent solo album, 2005’s Big Orange Sun was recorded at Sun Studio.
Richard Orange remains justly quite proud of his 1970s work with Zuider Zee, yet he’s more than a little surprised at the current interest in his music from those days. “I’ve had to (think) back more than 40 years, for which I’m very grateful,” he says. “Better late than never, they say.”