Friday, 27 April 2018

Birmingham Sunday “A Message From Birmingham Sunday” 1968 US Psych Pop Rock


Birmingham Sunday “A Message From Birmingham Sunday” 1968 US ultra rare Psych Pop Rock
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Birmingham Sunday was a band from Nevada that consisted of Ward Johns, Debbie Parks, John Kvam, Jean Heim, Joe LaChew and Phil Gustafson. Although not much is known about the band and its members, A Message from Birmingham Sunday was originally released as a test pressing in 1968 on the All American Record label. The band play a variety of styles but the music on this album is mainly a folk based psychedelic pop sound with strong vocal harmonies. The singers alternate between male and female vocal leads with a wall of sound background that contains guitars, wind instruments, swirling organ and synthesizer. The entire album only clocks in at just more than 27 minutes but it is an enjoyable piece of late 60’s psychedelia. The CD itself is housed in an impressive digipack but the only drawback on packaging is the lack of detailed liner notes and information on the band. The overall sound quality is good but there seems to be some sound fading on a couple of songs perhaps due to the quality of the master tapes. Despite some minor drawbacks it is nice to see such a rare album finally receiving a legitimate release…..by Keith Pettipas….~


Birmingham Sunday was a late 60’s psychedelic/folk/pop band whose members hailed from northern Nevada – primarily Carson City. The album back cover lists band members as: Ward Johns, Debbie Parke, John Kvam, Jean Heim, Joe LaChew and Phil Gustafson. Four of the band members (WJ, JK, JLa & PG) attended Carson High School during the late 60’s and were the raison d'etre for this garage band’s formation. Although Monty Johns (Ward’s younger brother) does not appear on the back cover photo, he is listed as penning three of the album’s 10 songs which clock in at 33:10. Joe LaChew, a 1967 Carson High School graduate, is credited with writing wholly or in part, the remaining seven songs and also takes over most of the male vocal duties. 
The band played live in local venues throughout Northern Nevada and California (circa late 60’s) and was lucky enough to land a contract in 1968 with Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Producer, Bill Holmes, on his All American Records label. The vinyl album was originally released as a limited edition test pressing of just 100 copies. One of the dozen or so surviving copies recently sold on eBay for $1100, making it one of the rarest of all collectors’ albums. I have a memory of walking into Mirabelli’s Music City in the Park Lane Mall in Reno, NV shortly after the album’s release and seeing a stack of these vinyl beauties on display – now if I only had enough sense and/or money in 1968 to buy a few copies??? Fortunately, the CD version of this rare album was released in a digipak sleeve on the Akarma label (Italy) in 1998. 
Although the band played a variety of styles “in the day”, its emphasis on their only album was a folk based psychedelic pop sound with strong vocal harmonies, alternating between Joe LaChew’s baritone and Debbie Parke’s breathtaking high notes. The lyrics are set against a wall of sound utilizing guitars and wind instruments, intermixed with organ and synthesizer music. The overall sound quality is good, but could have been better, perhaps due in part to the irregular quality of the master tapes. The first track, “Egocentrik Solitude”, written by Monty Johns is a beautiful introspective ballad that reminds me of a Moody Blues harmony but with a female vocal on the order of a Linda Thompson or better. Tracks 2 (Wondering What to Feel) and 3 (Prevalent Visionaries) are melodic harmonies that also could have jumped out of any of the Moody Blues albums. Track 4 (You’re Out of Line) is a pure 60’s psychedelic track with LaChew soloing against a screeching lead guitar – alternately shouting and straining ala Jim Morrison. Track 5 will put you right back into those petulie oil laced black lit rooms, with period 60’s lyrics like, “but I think I’ll never come down”. Track 6 (Mr. Waters) kind of starts off like the Seeds, “Pushing too Hard” and then calms down into an organ dominated vocal. During the song lead in, the fading sound quality is apparent. Track 7 (Fate and the Musician) sounds a lot like track 6 and is pretty much forgettable. Debbie Parke takes over on track 8 (Peter Pan Revisited) and her singing is definitely the high point of this track, but not nearly as good as in Track 1. The lyrics of this song sound ridiculously dated (sorry Joe, but these lyrics don’t stand the test of time). “Time to Land” (Track 9) features Joe LaChew taking lead vocal responsibilities once again with background music containg twinges of Ray Manzarek-like organ rifts and Jorma Kaukonen-like guitar work - too bad the lyrics were not a bit more sophisticated, but this was the 60’s and the band members were teenagers. Track 10 (Don’t Turn Around) winds up the album with a very good cut - kind of soft and bluesy with the wonderful LaChew/Parke vocal interplay that was the strength of this 60’s groupApparently only ever released as a test pressing, a handful of original copies of A Message From Birmingham Sunday are in existence, making the odd volume fluctuation on the reissues a smaller deal than they might otherwise have been. I don’t know anything about the band at all; in fact, all I can tell you about this is that it’s fairly typical West Coast harmony pop with male/female vocals, operating at the lighter end of the Jefferson Airplane. Oh, and the Mellotron. Or, given the time, the Chamberlin, which seems far more likely in California in 1968…..~


Formed by some high-school friends from Carson City, Nevada, the band began playing clubs around the state in the late sixties, and soon landed a contract with Bill Holmes’ (Strawberry Alarm Clock’s producer) label, All American. This teenage band played mostly folk-influenced psych, with beautiful male/female vocal harmonies rising above the music (which featured Doors-influenced organ playing and some wind instruments as well). The album was originally released as a test pressing, and the impossibly-rare original copies have been known to sell for mind-boggling prices…..~


Birmingham Sunday was formed in September 1966, and they were named after the Sunday concerts that took place in Birmingham, England. The original lineup of Birmingham Sunday featured bassist John Kvam, drummer Monty Johns, guitarist (and Monty’s brother) Ward Johns, organ/sax player Phil Gustafson and guitarist Joe LaChew. 
Monty and Ward Johns had been in The Contrasts, who covered popular Beatles and Beach Boys tunes. John Kvam was a guitarist in the folk rock group The Scroachers, and learned bass after joining Birmingham Sunday. Phil Gustafson was the keyboardist and sax player for the rock band The Kensingtons. Gustafson was trained as a pianist and sang in the church choir, and he played sax in his high school band. Even though Phil’s voice could easily handle the demands of opera, he preferred to sing background harmony with Birmingham Sunday. Joe LaChew was the guitarist and vocalist for the group The Freedom Five, who covered the blues-based output of British bands like The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Animals. At the age of 15, LaChew earned his stripes as a songwriter when he wrote a campaign song for the Nevada governor at the time, Grant Sawyer. The Freedom Five recorded a single of Joe’s song and sold it at various campaign sites throughout the state. 

Birmingham Sunday started to play teen dances throughout northern Nevada. Their biggest crowds were at the Civic Auditorium in Carson City and at Genoa Town Hall. The group put on dances and rented halls in Carson City, Genoa, Minden and Reno to cover their increasing fan base. 

In 1967, Birmingham Sunday was poised for their breakthrough. Joe LaChew and Monty Johns were attending the University of Nevada in Reno, and their band had a much greater following – especially since the university dorms and fraternities now had their own party band! 

That summer season, Birmingham Sunday landed a house band gig at American Legion Hall in South Lake Tahoe, California. This involved playing five days a week at the hall, plus performing as the opening act for each weekend’s entertainment. The venue was filled every summer night with Californians from the Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area. Weekend shows were extravaganzas, as well-known San Franciscan acts like The Grateful Dead and Sly And The Family Stone were frequently brought in with local favorites The Family Tree and Jim Burgett. 

The American Legion Hall’s weekend festival on July 28-29, 1967 was headlined by The Grateful Dead and Jim Burgett, with Birmingham Sunday, The Justice Five and Velvet Chain on the bill. This festival is where Birmingham Sunday first heard Debbie Parke sing. Debbie was performing a guest spot with The Justice Five at the shows. 

A few months later, Debbie Parks joined Birmingham Sunday, adding her strong voice to the mix. She was only 15 and a sophomore in high school. Even though Debbie’s voice was overpowering, she did not try to dominate the band. Instead, her voice blended well with the rest of the singers in the band. Birmingham Sunday was now playing more originals as part of their sets. They began attracting interest from numerous managers and record company scouts. 

Phil Gustafson left for the summer to attend National Guard camp, and he was replaced by his younger brother Dave. Dave Gustafson was a child prodigy that could play any style from Beethoven and Bach to Jimmy Smith. In addition, Dave could read and copy nearly everything he heard. His great playing impressed crowds with a note-for-note rendition of The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” 

Birmingham Sunday’s success carried them into 1968. Everyone’s favorite hipster, Pat Boone (!), co-sponsored a “Teen Scene” local battle of the bands with promoter Bruce Blaylock. This two-day event was held at Reno’s Centennial Coliseum, where groups like The Kinks, Buffalo Springfield, The Zombies, The Beach Boys and many others had played. The judges were the members of The Sunshine Company, who had recently enjoyed some success. The Sunshine Company had a similar approach and appreciated Birmingham Sunday’s vocal tapestry. 

Birmingham Sunday was chosen with the top bands to travel to Las Vegas for the finals. The Las Vegas judges were Strawberry Alarm Clock and their manager/producer Bill Holmes. The Las Vegas band London Fogg won the battle, but Bill Holmes greatly preferred Birmingham Sunday’s original songs and he was very impressed by their vocals. 

Birmingham Sunday was invited by promoter Bruce Blaylock to do some recordings in Hollywood. Blaylock was shopping the band to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band manager Bill McEuen as well as a representative of that group’s label, Liberty Records. Birmingham Sunday did an audition and received a record deal from Liberty. The record label had a song that they wanted Birmingham Sunday to record – the “Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet,” also known as “A Time For Us.” It was later recorded by Henry Mancini, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. 

After hearing the demos, Bill Holmes took on Birmingham Sunday as their producer and manager. Holmes turned down the Liberty deal, which proved to be a big mistake when Henry Mancini’s recording became a big pop hit. Instead, Birmingham Sunday was signed to Bill Holmes’ All-American label. 

Meanwhile, the band had changed. Monty Wards left after the “Teen Scene” contest for a rigorous, pre-med schedule at the University of Nevada. Birmingham Sunday auditioned singing drummers, but no one materialized. With concert bookings to be fulfilled and not much time to prepare, Joe LaChew took over as the drummer. Monty had been teaching Joe all the drum parts for their original songs, so LaChew had no problem in this transition period. Since Joe gave up his guitar to play drums, the group had to find another guitarist who could sing well. They found Jean Heim, who played rhythm guitar and a little lead guitar. Heim could also sing lead with his pure, light tenor tone. 

The group perfected ten original songs and recorded them in December 1968 with Bill Holmes producing at Original Sound Recording Studios. The studio was located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and it was owned by multiple award winning DJ and promoter Art Laboe. The legendary Paul Buff, who previously ran Pal Recording Studio before selling it to his recording partner Frank Zappa, was Original Sound’s engineer. The album “A Message From Birmingham Sunday” was recorded in five days using Buff’s own ten-track studio equipment. Paul Buff also played a Chamberlin keyboard, the American precursor to the mellotron, on the entire album. Buff’s string arrangements on the Chamberlin were essential parts of each song. 

All-American selected “Prevalent Visionaries” and “Egocentric Solitude” as the respective A- and B-sides of a single released in early September 1969. The album was released the same month. Before the album was released, Bill Holmes sent a tape of the single to radio stations in Nevada. 

“Egocentric Solitude” was first tracked for the week ending August 16, 1969 by Reno, Nevada radio station KIST. It reached the Top 10 in Reno that September 10, and it was #5 on KCBN. Although the single did not receive wide distribution, it did well in Sacramento, Chicago, Seattle, and especially Santa Barbara, where it made #1! The lack of distribution made the album extremely rare, even at the time. About 10 to 20 copies of the original LP are known to exist today. 

Many of Bill Holmes’ All-American acts played concerts on July 18-19, 1969 at Kings Beach on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. On the first day, Birmingham Sunday was the opening act. However, the popularity of the band enabled Birmingham Sunday to close the second night’s show. Holmes had lost control of Strawberry Alarm Clock, so he had the replacement group Strawberry SAC play instead. Gary Solomon, the lyric writer of “Egocentric Solitude,” was in that band. Birmingham Sunday ruled the weekend event! 

Birmingham Sunday played concerts throughout 1969, but they split up in 1970 due to a number of forces pulling band members in different directions. Joe LaChew and Monty Johns stayed in college to continue their education. Both Joe and Monty formed the college rock band Brother Rock with Ward Johns. This nine-piece horn band opened for concerts at the college, including shows by Cold Blood, Tower Of Power, The Sons Of Champlin, and most notably, Derek And The Dominoes. 

Brother Rock did a recording for the Mercury label in San Francisco, but the tracks have been lost. While influenced by Chicago and The Sons Of Champlin, Brother Rock played original songs by Monty Johns and Joe LaChew. 

Debbie Parke, Jean Heim, John Kvam and the Gustafson brothers joined well-known Nevada casino lounge singer Frankie Fanelli. They recorded an album with Fanelli before splitting with him in August 1970. The band members went into different directions: 

Joe LaChew continued playing guitar with The Drifters, The Coasters, Billy Preston, The Righteous Brothers, Rose and Joe Maphis, Merle Travis, Dorsey Burnett, Jimmy Dickens, Zella Lehr (an RCA artist), Kathy O'Shea (for MCA) and comedian Rich Little. Joe is now a music teacher in Nevada and still plays shows in the Reno and Lake Tahoe areas. He still enjoys writing music and has done commercials, film music and solo albums. Joe still writes songs for the more recent Birmingham Sunday reunions. Two of those tracks, “Raw Rhythm” and “C'Est La Vie Blues,” are included here for the first time. The famous Birmingham Sunday parties continue to this day! 

Debbie Parke became an elementary school teacher and counselor in Lewiston, Idaho. She is now retired. Phil Gustafson retired from the Nevada National Guard. John Kvam was a bartender and journeyman cabinet maker before his retirement. Jean Heim became a country musician and has also retired. Monty Johns is a doctor in West Virginia. Ward Johns was the Vice President of Missile Records. He passed away from compilations due to a stroke in December 2009. Dave Gustafson became a successful musician and very wealthy real estate agent. He passed in January 2010. 
by Joe LaChew (Birmingham Sunday)….~


2010 release. “Formed by some high-school friends from Carson City, Nevada, the band began playing clubs around the state in the late sixties, and soon landed a contract with Bill Holmes’ (Strawberry Alarm Clock’s producer) label, All American. This teenage band played mostly folk-influenced psych, with beautiful male/female vocal harmonies rising above the music (which featured Doors-influenced organ playing and some wind instruments as well). The album was originally released as a test pressing, and the impossibly-rare original copies have been known to sell for mind-boggling prices.” 180 gram vinyl. …~


CD reissue from the original tapes by local NEVADA group from the USA 60’s. 
Originally released on ALL AMERICAN label and it was produced by Strawberry Alarm Clock guru Bill Holmer. 
A nice WEST COAST album with male & female vocals. 
Formed by some high-school friends from Carson City, Nevada, the band began playing clubs around the state in the late sixties, and soon landed a contract with Bill Holmes’ (Strawberry Alarm Clock’s producer) label, All American.
This teenage band played mostly folk-influenced psych, with beautiful male/female vocal harmonies rising above the music (which featured Doors-influenced organ playing and some wind instruments as well). 
The album was originally released as a test pressing, and the impossibly-rare original copies have been known to sell for mind-boggling prices…..~ 


Apparently only ever originally released as a test pressing, a mere handful of copies of A Message From Birmingham Sunday are in existence, making the odd volume fluctuation on the reissues a smaller deal than they might otherwise have been. Musically, it’s fairly typical West Coast harmony pop with male/female vocals, operating at the lighter end of the Jefferson Airplane-esque spectrum; pleasant, if uninspiring. 

This album is absolutely smothered in Paul Buff’s Chamberlin strings; almost every track features a strong presence. I’m sure it was only used as a cheap string section substitute, with the unintended result that, nearly 40 years on, it can be regarded as a bona fide Chamby classic, even if it’s a bit lightweight musically. So; a pleasant enough record (if a little bit wet), very much of its time, but shedloads of Chamby strings, often played quite innovatively, clearly in an attempt to emulate real strings rather than the usual ‘block chord’ organist’s approach. If that’s what you’re after, buy…..~ 


Definitely at the poppier end of the psychedelic spectrum, with great male/female vocals in a Mama’s & The Papa’s / Peanut Butter Conspiracy, lots of mellotron, and great production from Bill Holmes (also responsible for the Strawberry Alarm Clock). Lots of great period detail - fuzz guitars, flutes, organ, and most importantly, memorable songs with big, anthemic harmony pop choruses given the kitchen sink production treatment that I wish more of these sixties harmony pop bands had been rendered in. (NF)….~ 


This is a very rare (more than 1600 $) California album by a Nevada group. 
Only three or four copies of this record are known to exist despite being on a real label and produced by Strawberry Alarm Clock guru Bill Holmer. It’s a nice West Coast effort with male and female vocals well produced pop rock finally available thanx to the effort of the Akarma label. A real must have!…~ 


Personnel: 
Debbie Parke — female vocals 
Joe LaChew — guitar, drums, vocals 
Ward Johns — guitar 
John Kvam — bass 
Jean Heim — rhythm guitar, vocals 
Phil Gustafson — keyboards, saxophones 

Monty Johns — drums 
Bill Holmes – producer

Tracklist 
Egocentric Solitude 3:20 
Wondering What To Feel 2:36 
Prevalent Visionaries 2:52 
You’re Out Of Line 2:56 
Medieval Journey 2:37 
Mr. Waters 2:48 
Fate And The Magician 1:52 
Peter Pan Revisited 2:12 
Time To Land 2:59 
Don’t Turn Around 2:40 

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