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Fabulous Flip Sides looks back at Procol Harum with Denny Carleton of The Choir

Cleveland’s pre-Raspberries band The Choir held a live reunion concert last year which has been released by Omnivore Recordings as a double-CD filled with originals and covers including five Procol Harum songs.
Choir Last Call

I first heard The Choir in 1967 when their single “It’s Cold Outside” spent five weeks at the No. 1 spot, from mid-April through mid-May of that year, on our local WIXY 1260 AM radio station in Cleveland, Ohio. Bassist Denny Carleton was in another local band called The Lost Souls at that time and joined The Choir the following year. Denny is a long-time friend of the family, who I first met in the late 1980s when my wife Donna and I moved back home to Cleveland with our daughter Brianna. Denny was my songwriting teacher and I helped him with promotion for his independent Green Light record label. Last year, the 1969 Choir lineup reunited for a 50th anniversary hometown concert and that show has been released by Omnivore Recordings in Los Angeles, who have been very supportive of our classic Cleveland bands The Raspberries and The Choir with other releases in recent years.

Choir back cover

GOLDMINE: Where is The Music Box where the concert was held for The Choir’s new double album Last Call Live at the Music Box?

DENNY CARLETON: I know you know the Cleveland Flats section, downtown on the Cuyahoga River. When you lived here it was a certain way and has died and come back. The Music Box is there, one restaurant down from Shooters.

GM: In 1978 when I was working at Peaches Records & Tapes on Vine Street in Willowick, my co-worker Chris showed me a Choir five song EP on Bomp Records that had come in. We both bought copies with our employee discounts. That is where I first heard “Anyway I Can.” This song, like “It’s Cold Outside,” it is another long-time Choir favorite for me and Donna.

DC: Our keyboardist Phil Giallombardo wrote that one and sings lead while I sing background vocals and play bass on the new live version. It is an easy one to sing along with. The harmonies are basically driven by our other keyboardist Kenny Margolis and our drummer Jim Bonfanti, who you also know from The Raspberries.

GM: There are many cover songs on the new album. I was thrilled to hear your version of “That’s the Way God Planned It,” the Billy Preston song that I first learned on George Harrison’s The Concert for Bangla Desh live album.

DC: The Choir had different eras with Wally Bryson, Dave Smalley, Jim Bonfanti, Danny Klawon, etcetera, beginning with the “It’s Cold Outside” Choir years. After that Choir broke up, The Choir that I was in reformed, with the drummer Jim Bonfanti putting it together. He asked Randy Klawon, who was Danny’s younger brother to join. They asked me to play the bass. Kenny had kind of become a Choir member as he toured with them and played keyboards in their shows. They asked Phil too, another keyboardist. That was a new version of The Choir and then after I was out of the band, the group broke up. Randy and Kenny left to play with Eric Carmen. Then The Choir reformed again without me, and that lineup played “That’s the Way God Planned It” live. I used to love hearing them play that song.

GM: So many lineups! One song from the first lineup that I learned on the Sundazed Choir Practice CD in 1994 is Wally’s “I’d Rather You Leave Me” from 1967 and then another favorite that I learned on the 2018 Omnivore Recordings Artifact: The Unreleased Album of your late 1960s recordings is “Have No Love to Offer.” I was pleased to hear that on the new live album, including a discussion on Phil’s influences for the song. I certainly thought of The Bee Gees, but hadn’t thought about Procol Harum until he revealed that.

DC: That is some combination, isn’t it? When a lot of people think of The Bee Gees, they immediately think of the disco era, but The Bee Gees era we talk about is their 1960s output with “New York Mining Disaster,” “To Love Somebody,” “Words” and their great early hits which influenced Phil. Procol Harum is all over our music because we had a combination of keyboard instruments like them, with Kenny on a Marco Polo piano and Phil on a Hammond organ with two Leslie speakers. These instruments were very heavy for the roadies.

GM: One of your compositions that I learned from you in the 1980s, “Mummer Band,” which was on your nine song 1987 Green Light Choir cassette, has a fun treatment on the new live CD, reminding me of something Micky Dolenz would do with The Monkees.

DC: My father was watching the Mummer Band parade on television, and this was the time of The Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” so I made it light and fun. With “Mummer Band” in The Choir, it was one of my own songs that I actually sang lead on. It made it to the recent Artifact album too. Randy and I had discussed putting out an independent release of The Choir’s music from our era and then Jim said that Omnivore had just released the Raspberries double album Pop Art Live (in 2017) from their Cleveland reunion concert and maybe they would be interested in The Choir too. To our surprise, Omnivore wanted to do it, and to our double surprise Suma Recording Studios in Painesville had gone under, because the owner has passed away, and they were giving away master tapes. Randy went to Suma and found our tapes and Omnivore remixed the album that had never been mixed.

GM: Another one of your songs that made it to the new live collection is “If These Are Men,” originally from your Lost Souls days. I am happy that you kept the double ending too, although in the audience you do hear people applauding a little too soon, but that’s to be expected.

DC: That double ending was almost impossible to do but Jim pulled it off. So here is a little trade secret I’ll share with Goldmine readers. He sampled our original recording to get that effect and synced it up for perfect timing.

GM: Another song that you taught me in the 1980s is The Kinks’ “David Watts” which reminds me of The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” That Kinks song was brand new at the time when you guys originally recorded it.
DC: Oh, I love it. We don’t remember exactly why we decided to do that obscure cover. That song and “Mummer Band” don’t exactly fit in with the rest of the music. If you think back to that Beatles late 1960s era, there was such a wide variety of music. “Helter Skelter” was on the same album as “Mother Nature’s Son,” for example. We liked The Kinks and Cleveland bands always went for that British sound.

GM: There are five Procol Harum songs on the new live CD, including both sides of their live 1972 single “Conquistador” and “A Salty Dog” which they recorded with The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. I was in Edmonton in 2004, went to an orchestra concert, and imagined the oldest members on stage performing with Procol Harum 32 years prior. We talked about the ending of “If These Are Men.” With “A Salty Dog” there is another unique ending that I am happy that you captured, the sound of seagulls.

DC: On “A Salty Dog,” the bass lines are very specific. When I joined the band, I had to learn all those classic Procol Harum bass lines in just a few weeks. It was strict that I had to hit specific notes. There are key notes that are structured but there are spots where I had freedom and that was fun. Jim kept the same parts too on our live recording. What a drummer he is.

Choir Procol

Procol Harum

Flip side: A Salty Dog

A side: Conquistador

Top 100 debut: May 27,1972

Peak position: 16

A&M 1347

GM: In terms of tempos, the live version of “It’s Cold Outside” is delivered in a two part fashion, starting soft and reflective, before moving to a steady tempo. I had first seen you perform it this way in 2008 at The Fine Arts Association in Willoughby on Mentor Avenue for your 40th anniversary of joining The Choir. Donna loves this new version and said that she enjoys when oldies are given a different approach.

DC: Thank you. We wanted to do it appropriately for how we now sound. We started with a slower Procol Harum-like opening and then went into a 1960s pop sound. That gave me chills. It was great being there that night because The Choir goes back a long way in Cleveland, and actually in different sections of the world. It was emotional thinking that an era was closing out and that this would probably be our last call, the last time we would perform together.

Choir group photo

GM: Another newer CD of songs from the 1960s is the 2018 collection from The Lost Souls on Lion Productions, with your garage pop sound. It begins with your composition “Love I Won’t Admit,” which is another one of my favorites that I learned from you in the Green Light days.

DC: Those 1960s tapes were cleaned up a bit. The people at Lion Productions did a fantastic job. We started working on that project quite a few years ago. The music has such a unique sound. I was in The Lost Souls when I was a junior and a senior in high school at St. Joe’s on the Euclid-Cleveland border, plus one more year when I was at Tri-C, Cleveland Community College. Then I met Jim and Danny from The Choir. The Lost Souls were done when I joined The Choir. Guys were going to college or losing interest in the band. I didn’t lose interest in music, obviously. I was fortunate to be asked to be in The Choir.

GM: On The Lost Souls CD, there is one I didn’t know by you which I really enjoy, “I’m Falling.”

DC: That is something to write a lyric like that when you are sixteen about falling from high places in the world. What the heck? Where did that come from? That song does really rock and has a great saxophone solo by Rich Schoenaer.

GM: There were two more songs that I learned from you, that I also love, and hadn’t heard in years, “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “Could She Love Me.”

DC: When I was at Tri-C, Danny Klawon liked “Whatcha Gonna Do,” as it had a Small Faces sound, so The Choir played it live, before I joined. “Could She Love Me” is a bonus track, which was a local vinyl 45 release in Cleveland in 1975. It has a good pop feel, like a Buddy Holly song, if it was done a little faster.

Choir Lost Souls

GM: Your latest CD of new material is Shadowlands, a great sounding full production with many guest musicians. Growing up, my first concert, when I was 11, was The Cowsills at Euclid Senior High School. My second concert was Tiny Alice at the JCC, the Jewish Community Center on Mayfield Road in 1972, with Norm Tischler, who recently passed away, on saxophone. It is great hearing you and Norm together on your composition “Twilight Zone,” where you reflect on black and white television shows.

DC: I was cleaning out my uncle’s estate and I found these old videos of classic shows like I Love Lucy and The Three Stooges. I thought someone should do something to remember these which led me to writing the song. I am so happy that we got together with Norm. His sax solo turned out so perfectly. He passed about five months after that.

GM: “Get Back to the Garden” really rocks like a Neil Young-type song.

DC: Yes it does, doesn’t it? Van Morrison has a song called “In the Garden,” and he is an inspiration to me as he is able to cross over between secular and religious themes with blues and jazz and all styles. I like the turn of the words in the song and get a kick out of singing stuff like that. Randy Klawon and Jim Bonfanti are on it along with Al Globekar on guitar and Norm Isaac on bass. It really rocks.

GM: Finally, there is one you introduced me to in Willoughby in 2008, “Beautiful Spring.”

DC: There are many versions of that. I had written it when Ohio was commemorating its 200th anniversary and they asked me if I had any music that I could write on a play about the state. New Philadelphia, Ohio has an event called Trumpet in the Land which commemorates that Revolutionary War occurrence. I knew that from seeing the play many times. Al wanted to have a spoken word song on the album and I shared this with him and he fell in love with it. I like Dianne Leonardi’s flute on that and the arrangement. Both The Lost Souls CD and this Shadowlands CD are available on my website. I love the Shadowlands cover art that Larry Weber did, capturing elements of all the songs. I had a photo of me walking down a railroad track in Twinsburg, which he used as the template. It has been great catching up with you. My best to Donna and Brianna and thank you for your support of my music over the decades.

Choir Shadowlands