The Grass Roots, circa 1969
The Grass Roots originated in 1965 as the brainchild of the Los Angeles-based songwriter and produc er duo of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. Sloan and Barri had written several songs in an attempt by their record company, Dunhill Records, to cash in on the budding folk rock movement. One of these songs was “Where Were You When I Needed You”, which was recorded by Sloan and Barri and a now-forgotten lineup of studio musicians. Sloan provided the lead vocals and played guitar. The song was released under “The Grass Roots” name and sent, as a demo, to several radio stations in the San Francisco Bay area. Interest in the band grew; the problem was that there were no Grass Roots. The next step was to recruit a band to record under the Grass Roots name. They found one in a San Francisco group name “The Bedouins” and cut a new version with that band: Willie Fulton on lead vocals and lead guitar, Denny Ellis on rhythm guitar, David Stensen on bass guitar and Joel Larson on drums. In 1965, the Grass Roots got their first official airplay on Southern California radio with a version of the Bob Dylan song, “Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man)” with “You’re a Lonely Girl” on the B-side. This is today’s featured single.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” is a dark, menacing song originally released on Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album. The song seems to be about a conventional man (Mr. Jones) who walks into a room of bizarre counterculture types and does not “know what’s happening”. The opening line of the song, “You walk into the room, with a pencil in your hand,” appears to lend credibility to the idea that Mr. Jones is a journalist or music critic. Some say that Mr. Jones is Max Jones, a former Melody Maker critic. Others say that he is Jeffrey Owen Jones (1944-2007), who was a film professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology (and who interviewed Dylan as an intern for Time magazine just before the 1965 Newport Folk Festival). Other possible theories is that Mr. Jones is Brian Jones (1943-1969), then the rhythm guitarist for the Rolling Stones, or that Mr. Jones refers generically to the materialistic American family (“keeping up with the Joneses”). Even more debatable is the exact meaning of the song. It’s possible that the song is about a man coming to terms with his own homosexuality, which would explain several lines that appear to refer to phallic symbols (“a pencil in your hand”, “sword swallower”, “one-eyed midget”, etc.). The Grass Roots version is considerably shorter than the original version. The first verse is skipped, and Fulton sings the second, third, half of the fourth verse and the seventh verse. The piano which drives the Dylan version is replaced by an organ, and the percussion punctuates the sound much more clearly than on the original. The echo effects used on the track enhance the overall gloomy atmosphere created by the song. Overall the feel is of a good, though not top-of-the-line, folk rock song.
The B-side of this single, “You’re a Lonely Girl” turns out to be a hidden gem. It’s a minor-key rocker written by Sloan and Barri that has a melody not unlike the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”. And it rocks just as hard, which shows the versatility of the Sloan-Barri songwriting team. It’s a grungy, garage rock tune with a surf-guitar riff in which the singer gloats about how his ex-girlfriend is a “lonely girl” since they broke up and by partying is just keeping up appearances. Although at the time the Grass Roots were little more than an amalgam of studio musicians, this song represents a creditable addition to their body of work.
The single (catalog #: 4013) was released in 1965 on Dunhill Records, a label that had been formed that same year. No picture sleeve was issued with the single. Although the single failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100 (peak position: #121), Dunhill Records was apparently interested in recording more Grass Roots songs, but the partnership between Sloan and Barri and The Bedouins ended when they wanted to record more blues-rock material than Sloan and Barri would allow. Fulton, Ellis and Stensen went back to San Francisco, with only Larson remaining behind to join a later Grass Roots lineup. In the meantime, a re-recording of “Where Were You When I Needed You” by the Willie Fulton incarnation of the Grass Roots became a Top 40 hit in mid-1966, but the album of the same name sank quickly, in part because there was no longer a band to promote it. Nevertheless, Sloan and Barri recruited a band called 13th Floor (Creed Bratton – lead guitar, lead vocals, Rick Coonce – drums, Warren Entner – lead vocals, rhythm guitar, Kenny Fukomoto – lead guitar, lead vocals) to be the third incarnation of the Grass Roots. Rob Grill replaced Fukomoto when the latter was drafted into the army. The band would have a string of Top 40 hits during the period 1967-72. They never had a number one hit (“Midnight Confessions” was their biggest hit, reaching #5 and an RIAA-certified gold record), but they have the distinction of having been on the Billboard charts for 307 consecutive weeks, still a record. They are also one of only nine artists to have charted twenty-nine or more Top 100 singles. Bratton left in 1969, to be replaced by not one member but three: Dennis Provisor (lead vocals, keyboards), Terry Furlong (lead guitar) and Brian Naughton (lead guitar). In 1971, Provisor, Furlong and Naughton all left and were replaced by Reed Kailing (lead guitar) and Virgil Weber (keyboards). In 1972, the band had it’s last two Top 40 hits: “Glory Bound” and “The Runway”. With subsequent offerings selling disappointingly (and some failing to chart altogether), it was clear that their time had passed. The Grass Roots broke up in the fall of 1975, and their last single, “Out in the Open”, was released in 1976. In the early 1980s, however, with interest in 1960s bands rising, Rob Grill reformed the Grass Roots (know thereafter as “The Grass Roots Starring Rob Grill”), and the band has played a steady schedule of live shows ever since.