Rock and Reprise.net
LOST IN SPACE
The Epic Saga of Fort Worth's Space Opera
“We played three songs for (Clive Davis). He listened carefully and said our music was 'interesting', then gave us the now classic line, 'I don't hear a single.' We chatted for awhile, told him how we had always revered the Columbia label, home of Dylan and The Byrds--- how much we were influenced by The Byrds' albums, especially The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Davis said, 'That was the only Byrds album that didn't sell. I told McGuinn he'd better never do another one like that.'”
DAVID BULLOCK, Space Opera
Playing gigs with the odd musician was not the way to proceed, the trio decided, so the next move was to get organized. They finally had a business man, a manager, Michael Mann. Bullock and White both credit Mann with much of the band's success.
“He was the one who actually got us all our jobs and negotiated contracts,” Bullock emphasized, “and found sources of money that we needed to gear up and survive. Michael's hard work and creativity was the reason we went from 'new band' to Columbia Records' artists in less than three years.”
“I hired Michael while in college,” said White. “My father, rest his soul, had told me that if I would finish high school and prove to him that I got into college, he would buy me the car of my choice. So I went and took this GED test, which had questions like which animals bark--- frogs, bulls, puppies. If you could pass that test, you got the equivalent of a high school diploma, which would mean that I was eligible to get into Tarrant County Junior College. To make it short, I took all of this to my father about two days after our conversation. He figured I was maybe two years away. I said, Dad, I'm in college, I want an MG. So he bought me one.
“About the third week of college, I ran into Michael Mann. He and I had lunch together and talked things over and I asked if he was interested in being our manager and he said sure. So we went out to his car--- he had an MG, too. At that point, it had something to do with what is fine and grown in Mexico and the next thing you know, I hired him to be our manager. I figured I could finesse him in. I could say, look, he's willing to do this and he's willing to do that.” (NOTE: The official date for Michael's hire, according to Bullock's journal, was November of '68, shortly after the release of the Whistler, Chaucer album)
“Michael joined us before we found Brett and started Space Opera, when we were still trying to fit the pieces together,” said Bullock. “He helped us do that by managing our business and getting us work. With Michael on the business end, we were free to make music. He provided the forums we needed--- club dates, concerts, recording dates. He helped attract financial supporters and kept expanding our business network and strategy. He was an equal partner with us and we were an insular, tight family living and breathing (eventually) Space Opera.”
“I had no experience,” Mann related, “and started off by finding places for the band to play, hauling equipment and doing sound. Shortly after that, Phil and I both just walked away from school and rented a two story house in the same neighborhood David lived in.
“Phil was outgoing, athletic and liked trying different things. For instance, he was very interested in exploring different philosophies and the like. He was the one always willing to try new things, and we went along because he was a fun guy, but as time went by my relationship with him became mostly business. We were all very close, almost like brothers, but we were very focused on becoming a success and doing our respective jobs.”
Mann spent a short time working with the various lineups gleaned from three legs of the Whistler, Chaucer days. The first show he set up outside of the clubs and occasional party gigs was the Scott Theater concert where they were billed as The Unwritten Works (see Chapter Two). He would soon prove himself to be worthy of equal partnership.
Now that Mann was in, the next link was musical--- a drummer. Continuing with fill-ins would never work. While in Austin during late Spring of '69, they happened to ask around. Drummer? Sure, someone said. In fact there was a good one, and he happened to be from Fort Worth. Space Opera tracked down and met with the final link in the musical equation: Brett Owen Wilson. Wilson was not unknown to the guys. He had gone to school with them at Paschal, had been in fact a popular cheerleader there, and had played drums around Fort Worth in various jazz combos, most notably with compadre Ridgway Scott. Arrangements were made for a tryout.
Wilson told his then girlfriend and future wife, Claudia Wormley, about it. There was something about the guys--- a positive energy. After the first session, it was a lock.
“I remember Brett feeling like this was something he had to do,” she recalled. “He wasn't really going to school to any great purpose. He had just become eligible to become a day student when I met him, in March.”
Wilson packed up his drums and headed for Fort Worth.
The newly formed unit decided to take the name Space Opera because they were interested in science fiction and the advent of manned space exploration, virtually a comic strip being brought to life.
“We saw the 60s as the beginning of a new high-tech age,” said Bullock, “not so much the leftist utopianism of the hippies, but as a time when art and technology would bring new enlightenment and new opportunities. The element of ethereal, spacey sound was an important part of our music. So to us, Space Opera was a play on words, meaning ethereal songs. We didn't philosophize on the subject. We just chose the name and moved on. I don't think the name kept people from listening to our music. Then again, it does sound a bit too much of the period, in my opinion.”
When Claudia graduated a few months later, she also left Austin for Fort Worth. “I moved in with Brett when he was in the band house, but he wasn't happy with that,” she said, “so I moved into a duplex with Brenda, Phil's then-girlfriend. Mike (Mann) was at the house. Scott still lived at home, as I recall, but he was at the house all of the time. When Brenda ended up going somewhere else, Brett and I decided we'd move in together. We rented a house and two years later ended up buying it.”
The early days were a learning experience, but it quickly became obvious that the band had something beyond the norm.
“They were tight,” said Claudia. “They were all such good musicians and Brett brought a whole new aspect to the other three guys because of his jazz experience. By the time Brett tied up with them, he had been playing jazz for about nine years. I thought they were fabulous. This was a unique thing I was experiencing and to have the man I love up there performing--- it was like if I was smitten beforehand, while watching them I was completely smitten.”
Other pieces began to fall into place as well. Cass Edwards III, who had bankrolled and produced the Mods' sessions, signed on as sound man. He had left Fort Worth after The Mods to attend Cornell University. Upon his return, Space Opera filled his time and, for all practical purposes, he became a vital part of the band's operations.
“In fact,” Bullock emphasized, “Cass was audio engineer for the Whistler Chaucer concert earlier that year. From The Mods all the way to Space Opera and beyond, Cass has been part of our thing, longer than anyone.”
The band played their first gig as Space Opera at the End of Cole club in Dallas in June of '69 and played Fort Worth continually July of that year, having become the house band at the HOP, a popular tavern/pizza house known as the House of Pizza before the band's friend Craig Liddell bought it. Liddell also teamed with Mann to open Zeke's, one of Fort Worth's early forays into fish and chips. Mann hired two girls to help run Zeke's, Julie Smith and Mary Rhoads. Both were to become important parts of the Space Opera saga. “Julie was the one who opened The Unwritten Works concert at Scott Theater,” Mann pointed out.
“We played three nights a week, four sets per night at the House of Pizza,” according to Bullock. “The HOP was a college hangout and from playing there we got quite a few private party gigs, mostly frat parties. We also played some at The Greek Letter, four sets a night and six on the weekends. It was operated by an Italian guy named Lou DeMarco, who always treated us well. The gig ended when the place burned to the ground.”
Through Angus G. Wynne III, they were booked to play the Texas International Pop Festival over the Labor Day weekend. Headliners included B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Ten Years After and Chicago Transit Authority, with less notables Shiva's Headband, Nazz, Rotary Connection, Incredible String Band and Freddy King, among others. It was the band's first major concert and a big learning experience.
“We had developed a relationship with Showco,” said Mann, “the promotion company which produced the festival. It was owned by Angus Wynne and Jack Calmes. They were both very savvy and ethical businessmen and well connected socially.”
“Wynne wasn't a Space Opera backer,” explained Bullock, “but he did befriend us in the early days. His family is old Dallas money, but Angus is a soul man. He was always involved with the music scene. He booked us to play private parties as well as the Texas International Pop Festival, which was his creation.”
For the Pop Festival, Space Opera was originally scheduled only for the Free Stage.
“The Free Stage was set up in an area outside the Main Stage,” Bullock pointed out. “It was admission-free, so those who didn't have tickets for the main stage could hear some music. Wavy Gravy and Ken Babbs of The Merry Pranksters, whose bus 'Further' was parked immediately behind the stage, shared emcee duties and ran the Free Stage.
“Some great musicians also came and played the Free Stage. One night, there was a great jam that included B.B. King and Johnny Winter, two great blues guitarists in their prime. It was magic and it was so cool that musicians like that came over and played for free.”
According to Richard Hayner, whose website is devoted solely to the festival and related activities, Grand Funk, scheduled to open all three days, pulled out of Monday and left the festival in a jam, so to speak. Space Opera was asked to fill in on the main stage, which they gladly did. It was another feather in a fast-growing cap.
Even with success, it was fast becoming obvious that the band needed something other than promises and word of mouth to further their future in music They decided to record a demo. They entered Delta Studio in Fort Worth and laid down a Fraser tune called “Old Sal”. The session was gratis.
“Our usual deal, from that point on,” said Bullock, “was to record on spec, or the studio would just give us a free ride based on their interest in our music.”
While at Delta, they reacquainted themselves with a friend from the Sound City days, David Anderson. Through him, another recording opportunity materialized.
“He had been a partner with T-Bone at Sound City and was hanging out at Delta,” said Mann. “He was then attempting to be a songwriter and introduced us to a guy who introduced us to Bubba Fowler, a Nashville producer.”
“Anderson was an ordained Baptist minister, but not a practicing man of the cloth,” added Bullock. “He was a very genial and positive person who had always been good to us in the Sound City days. On a side note, he played drums with The Legendary Stardust Cowboy on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In television show. He was in on that session at Delta (again, a freebie for us) and suggested Fowler as a contact for recording in Nashville.
“Fowler was a songwriter as well, and an aspiring producer,” added Bullock. “It was an opportunity, so we flew out and stayed with Fowler in his house. Brett, Scott and I slept in his unfinished attic, being very careful not to fall through the ceiling. We recorded two songs at the Columbia Studio in Nashville under Fowler's auspices (5/4, a Bullock song, and Lovin' Stream by Bullock and White). Both songs, including vocals, were cut in one session. The band had not really thought about what they might do with the recordings, though, and nothing ever came of it.
Then, in late '69, they got a break. “We were introduced to Jim Meeker,” said Bullock. “Jim was an oilman and art collector, about 15 years our elder. He was Ivy League-educated, single and lived in a large modern house adjacent to a country club golf course. Artists and musicians, both established and ascendant, along with ne'er-do-wells of all stripes, stayed or visited Jim's salon.”
“Gary Scott, a friend of the band, was dating a very pretty socialite named Janie Beggs, who knew Meeker,” Mann added. “I think Meeker and Beggs were somehow related. Beggs later married Glen Frey of The Eagles. Meeker, in my opinion, was the single most influential person in Space Opera's career. He was our money man. He hired Julie Smith to handle some matters for him and she did a great job. He was in the business of buying and selling art and Julie was in the middle of all that and became our inside contact. She kept our books and helped us keep up with the bills.”
Smith handled whatever affairs Meeker handed her, including those of the band. “Michael had 50% of a fish restaurant, Zeke's,” she said, “which I helped run along with Mary. (Ed. Note: Craig Liddell and Mann purchased it from Otto and Harriet Zurcher) I quit Zeke's and began working for Meeker, and I also kept the books for Space Opera. Looking back on it, I was liaison between Mike and Zeke's, Mike and Meeker, while looking after the band's interests. I went from handling receipts that they'd bring in--- hamburger receipts along with a french fry or two in a paper bag sent to me through the mail--- to handling real money. Later, Michael would sometimes request a payout, or Meeker would sometimes just tell me what to send after having talked with Mike. I did that with a number of artists. I was the go-between. They came to me instead of dealing with Meeker, occasionally. That was my job.”
“At Meeker's place,” Bullock continued, “we met Eric Andersen (who played a role in introducing the band to Columbia Records). Others who passed through included Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Bob Neuwirth, and a beautiful girl who called herself Tonto (Phyllis Major, who also visited us in Williamsville two years later and ultimately married Jackson Browne). Jim also introduced us to his fine arts friends such as Peggy Bernier. Jim became our patron and friend and we hung out at his house at night, enjoying his hospitality and playing music for fun.
“Jim often mentioned this old friend of his who was a songwriter in Nashville. One night, he invited us to have dinner and play some songs for this friend. After that dinner, we played a few of our tunes on acoustic instruments. We sounded pretty good by that time, our harmonies tight and pure, and we were full of confidence. Ascendant.
“This old guy, very drunk, pulled out his beat-up Martin with autographs carved into it and began to play. I remember thinking, this poor guy, he doesn't sound so good and he's already 33(!), over the hill! Maybe we can help him when we get famous. Ironically, every song he played that night was a huge hit within the next year and we never even cracked the charts. His name was Kris Kristofferson.”
A month later, in October, they opened for Johnny Winter at Panther Hall in Fort Worth. The young kid who had been just short of playing in a band with Winter in Houston was thrilled. And when Meeker, through connections, got them an audience with Adrian Barber and Warner Brothers Records, they flew to New York to audition in a rehearsal room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. The band thought this was it! The audition, though, was a reality check.
“I believe that the audition with Barber came about through one of Meeker's contacts,” Mann related, “ maybe through Kristofferson or his manager. It was our first time in New York and we were not well prepared. I don't mean so much the band, but in general. We were a bit overwhelmed, while being excited just to be in New York. We had to rent some shitty equipment that did not do the band justice, the room was small, and I remember feeling that we were not in control of the situation the way were accustomed to be. Barber and his associate asked us if we were going to see the Allman Brothers that night. I don't think that any of us had even heard of them at that point.
“The audition was okay, but it was more a few guys sitting around on uncomfortable chairs listening to Space Opera play on that shitty, rented equipment. The Allman Brothers dominated their conversation. They seemed surprised that we were not interested, but the guys were not social that way like a lot of musicians seem to be. I don't recall them ever letting anyone sit in or them sitting in with anyone else. They were very focused on their music, and it served them well. In the end, I don't think we made too big of an impression on Barber and Co. because it was not really a performance as much as an attempt by the band to show their obvious musicianship and songwriting ability. They may have been expecting something more polished.”
Directly afterward, back in Texas, Space Opera headed back into the studio. “We recorded four songs at IRI,” said Bullock, “including the first versions of Country Max and Singers and Sailors. Singers and Sailors was one of our most popular songs in the early Space Opera days. It was one of the few songs that Scott and I collaborated on, so it is special to me for that reason alone. We often showed each other new songs in his den, him at his mother's Steinway and myself with my old Gibson J50. One day he played me this beautiful slow song in Dorian mode. Brett had played us an album by Denny Zeitlin earlier and I think that was the inspiration for this song. Scott had the piano parts and the refrain lyrics, 'We're singers, and we're sailors, and we've been here for twenty years.' He asked me to write the verses. I scribbled them on a yellow legal pad (I still have them) and we played it through. I suggested we also try it at a fast tempo, a rock version. It sounded good both ways. We later recorded both versions at Exit 4 Studio and also played both onstage.”
Country Max was to follow the band through a series of sessions, and for good reason. According to White, “Dave may have just been on point when he wrote that song. There was no conscious effort to do a quote/unquote commercial song. That was a period when Dave was hot and he probably, just through osmosis, absorbed the dynamics of what makes a hit single. And I'll tell you this, wherever we played it, people reacted to it as though it was a hit.”
The IRI sessions also included two other originals, Long Before the Fight Began, written by Bullock, and Fraser's The Major.
“That batch from IRI was the first cohesive set Space Opera ever recorded,” Bullock noted. “The later Exit 4 versions were much more polished, but those earlier versions were the ones which established us on local radio.”
They turned the tapes over to KFAD-FM. KFAD immediately added it to their playlist and gave the band a good deal of exposure over the next year or so. Bullock pointed to Joe Nick Patoski, Phil Cook and Don Swancy for the help given by the station.
“I'm flattered to hear that,” commented Joe Nick when contacted,” but to be honest, Phil Cook and Don Swancy had way more to do with their popularity than I did. Their album (the IRI tapes) was already being played and promoted on KFAD by the time I got there. Phil Cook was instrumental in breaking the band via the radio station as were Dave Thomas, Tim Spencer, I believe, and John Dillon.
“All that said, Space Opera was the first progressive rock band to break out of Fort Worth during that period. Bloodrock, who emerged out of the same 1960s teen scene as did Space Opera, had greater success but trafficked in arena pop rock in the footsteps of Grand Funk Railroad, earning special notoriety by having one of the last teen tragedy pop hits with D.O.A. (Dead On Arrival). If Fort Worth was New York two years later, Bloodrock was Blondie at C.B.G.B.'s and Space Opera was the Talking Heads, a collaborative effort that was all art, using rock as the foundation to explore more exotic, classical and experimental sounds as few bands were.
“If it had been another time or another place, more people would be having this conversation about Space Opera. As it is, they were a cult band with all the right ingredients.”
That cult status grew until Space Opera was backing the biggest names in the business, including The Guess Who, Jethro Tull, Quicksilver and Jefferson Airplane.
“We were booked to open for Jefferson Airplane on November 1, 1970 at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum in Fort Worth,” Bullock recounted. “For this concert we devised a set of music that would be totally seamless and continuous. Transitional elements, mostly instrumental, would tie the songs together and allow us time to reconfigure. It was to be a kaleidoscope of instrumental color and dynamics, from guitars/bass/drums to flute/grand piano/contrabass/vibes and everything in between.
“We previewed the concert on KFAD by playing a live recording of the set, done in our rehearsal room. Phil Cook, the Program Director at KFAD, was the emcee at the concert. People knew our music from the radio and from other shows but had never heard them played in this unusual format. The concert was a great success.”
An earlier concert in September at the Dallas Fair Park Music Hall with Quicksilver followed a similar format and caused Cook to say “... right now, Space Opera is better than 80% of the new albums I review every week. Even after Quicksilver's set, I still walked out singing 'We are singers, we are sailors, and we've been here for 20 years...'”
During that period, Claudia Wilson's favorite show was Space Opera's set opening for The Byrds at Panther Hall. “At first, I'm backstage because I'm with the band,” she said, “and then we're out in the audience. I would give good money to know if The Byrds played the same encores everywhere they played or whether they were chosen specifically for that night. There were two tunes: Mr. Spaceman and So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star. To me, Space Opera and The Byrds were equals on the stage and Space Opera was so good that surely The Byrds realized that this was a group that had it. I thought they were impressed and kind of taken aback, but I was so full of ego for the man I loved and the band that I loved that I thought they were invincible.”
Rick Benedict, musician and music enthusiast, was there that night as well. “That was the first time I saw Space Opera,” he wrote. “Roger McGuinn wore a cool cape jacket that night and when Space Opera played their last set, Scott Fraser was wearing it.”
That may have been the first time Benedict saw the band play, but the band was gaining popularity fast enough to also be included in the rumor mill. Benedict's favorite: “It was rumored that when The Byrds' Notorious Byrds Brothers album came out that the Mods or whoever they were at that time played the whole album the Wednesday night of the following week.” If true, an accomplishment Benedict thought impressive, as would others..
Shortly after the Jefferson Airplane gig, an opportunity to record at Exit 4 Studios in Dallas presented itself. A solid year playing before audiences of all sizes and their experiences in three studios gave them confidence. It was time.
They entered Exit 4 November of '70 and by March had a completed album in hand.
“It was a really good representation of the band at that time,” Bullock continued, “and we would have been happy to release it but weren't able to find an outlet. But it did attract interest at Columbia and helped us move to a different level.”
“We did that album before the Epic album, in Dallas,” confirmed White in a recent interview, “but decided it wasn't up to our specifications, excellence-wise, so we shelved it. I heard it a couple of years ago (I happened to come across an old diesel-powered tape machine or something) and played it, and it is spectacular. It's fabulous. But at that time, it just shows that the bar was set very high--- by ourselves and for ourselves.”
“Exit 4 Studio was on Fitzhugh Avenue, at that time exit 4 off Central Expressway,” recalled Bullock. “The studio had two Scully 8-track recorders. It was a nice, comfortable studio, warm sounding. We recorded the up-tempo and slow versions of Singers and Sailors. We made the slow version in one take, all together in the studio. Scott played piano, Phil played upright bass, Brett played vibraphone, and I played flute. The song had three-part vocals, too. The Exit 4 album as a whole was looser than the Columbia album, and had less 12 string density, some great bluesy solos by Scott, loads of harmony – a nice balance of earthiness and spacey-ness.”
They began shopping for a label.
“I don't remember who we sent the demo to,” said Mann, “but I do remember the studio engineer, Dean Acheson (who had engineered the IRI sessions), and the producer, Roger Bland. They were both nice guys and somewhat in awe of the band's talent and recording savvy. Dean was much the typical recording engineer, even to the point of wearing a pocket protector in his shirt pocket. Roger Bland's claim to fame was that he was somehow connected to the Four Seasons and had something to do with record distribution. That was why I was interested in him and anything he could help me with.”
Claudia Wilson remembered the Exit 4 phase as a turning point. “They did Exit 4,” she said, “but when they finally landed the deal in Toronto, that was the major interest they were looking for. I've heard a lot of tape over the years and Exit 4 was good. There was material on that, talk about timeless, which made it onto the Epic album, if I recall.”
FROM DEEP SOUTH TO THE FAR NORTH
Though things were going well enough in Texas, getting label people to take the band seriously was a hard task. A happenstance meeting with a booking agent planted the seed which took them to, of all places, Canada.
“A Canadian agent, Jerry Hebsher, heard us play in Fort Worth and convinced us that our music would be well received in Canada, and we were ready to move on,” said Bullock. “Hebsher introduced us to John Brower, a promoter in Toronto.”
“The move to Williamsville, New York was mostly serendipity,” Mann claims, “because we wanted to get the hell out of Fort Worth. I had met a guy from Rochester, New York who went to school at TCU. Now, all I knew about Rochester was that it was in New York. When I visited, I saw an ad in the paper for a place in Williamsville, just outside of Buffalo.” When Mann checked it out, it seemed perfect.
“The location was chosen for its proximity to Toronto, where we planned to work,” commented Bullock. “We wanted to live in New York State but be free to cross into Canada when we needed to without going through immigration hassles. During extended stays in Canada, we had to get work visas.
“The house itself was tudor style, two stories, built in the early 20th century. In the living room was a large, elaborately carved wooden fireplace and wood paneling covered the walls. There were enough bedrooms to accommodate eight of us---band and crew---as well as frequent visitors. The basement was big enough to set up a space for rehearsal with a separate recording area, plus a workshop where speaker cabinets were built.”
“Cass again put himself at our disposal,” according to White, “and at great sacrifice because we lived in squalor. Cass added dimension as a sommelier (a wine taster) and a gourmet cook. He also built a basement studio for the band, used for rehearsals and basic demo tracks, and continued working as Space Opera's engineer.”
“The house sat on almost three acres of what once had been cherry and apple orchards,” continued Bullock, “so there were still plenty of fruit-bearing trees. There were several varieties of evergreens, big ones, all over the grounds. A perimeter of trees hid the house from the neighbors. There was a large clearing in back of the house, perfect for a croquet court, where we spent a lot of time during the summer. Rabbits and pheasants roamed about and there was a man-made pond under an arbor. When winter came, we found out why Buffalo is called the Snow Belt. Being from hot Texas, we loved that snow.”
The house also afforded Cass Edwards room to build. “Our rather complete 4-track studio in this house Hans P. Nonne built,” he elaborated, “served as practice area as well as pre-production facility. Usually, going all the way back to '68, the composer of a new work and I would go into the practice room/studio to make a preliminary recording for presentation to the band. It was always exciting to see the other band members and occasionally immediate extended family reeling in the wake of a new song, invariably debuted in Brett's bedroom where the best playback was heard.”
Edwards was also in charge of building equipment, a task he turned over to others. “All the speaker cabinets were handmade at Williamsville by Gary Mann and Greg Boren,” he said, “the band's all-around best hands.”
“The move to Williamsville started great things happening for us,” said Mann. “I met a guy named Philip Simon who fell in love with the band's music. His idol was Bill Graham, and he was sure that by helping us he could follow in Graham's footsteps. I also found a booking agent named Lucille Cudney, a middle-aged lady who booked frat gigs and the like. She thought David was the next Jim Morrison.”
“We played quite a lot in upstate New York,” according to Bullock, “often at the university in Oswego, and other SUNY campuses. We also played gigs in Ohio, Connecticut and Virginia while based in Williamsville.”
Jim Meeker during this period introduced Space Opera to Rex Farr, “a Manhattan and Southampton blue-blood”, according to Bullock. Farr was a photographer and came to Williamsville to take pictures of the band. He soon became a crucial cog in the band's fast growing machine but is remembered at that time for the camera, always at hand.
The band was constantly attempting to break through the walls erected by the record companies. “At various times, we discussed production deals with a lot of people,” said Bullock, “Paul Rothschild and Bobby Colomby were some I remember. Aligning ourselves with a successful producer would have given us an inside track to a label deal, but nothing clicked.”
“Those were fabulous days because we were being courted by all of the top record companies,” White recalled. “They came to us and we entertained at our house. We were always in suit and tie and our clothes were made by Morty Sills in New York City--- the famous tailor to princes and kings and movie stars.
“All (of the record people) were amazed by the service that they got. They were casually greeted at the door by one of our 'staff' members, dressed in NASA-looking Space Opera jumpsuits. The people who served the 'guests' must have been girlfriends, but not reduced to servile wenches or anything. They really liked doing it. It was their nature to be accommodating, to serve. The 'guests' would be waited on and we would sit down and give them our pitch. And in all but one case, we said thank you very much, we'll get back to you. (More than once), we decided not to go with a label because they were telling us we were not going to get a better deal in this business. You're hooked up with a producer, boys. That's the way the system works. We were among the first to change that.
“We learned early on from the music and the music, in a sense, became our children. The idea of us changing so much as a brush stroke of our music at the behest of some record company guy was just not going to happen. If you look on our album, there's a statement that says everything you see, hear and hold in your hand was written, produced, arranged and compiled entirely by Space Opera, right down to the artwork. That was not done at that time. You could not get a record deal that allowed you that much autonomy. You absolutely couldn't. Well, we finally did, in spite of what Bobby Colomby and Paul Rothschild and the others told us.”
“(Our attitude) came partially from our association with T-Bone Burnett. Well, not so much attitude as position, I guess. Everything we had was self-designed to fit Space Opera, including our stance of what we would and would not do concerning record companies. At the time, you either took the deal they handed you or forgot about it. There was no Internet you could use. You couldn't press anything on vinyl unless you went to Nashville or California. The record companies had a system of extortion where you either did it the way they wanted or you forgot about it. You're a garage band or a big star, one or the other.
Even those on the fringe noticed the stance. According to Claudia, “They were focused on 'let's get the deal'. I mean, they wanted to get a contract and do an album, but the one compromise they wouldn't make was artistic control. It was unheard of in those days for a bunch of kids to demand that. Self-production, to record people, was out of the question.”
“I mean, if you'd go to Picasso and say 'there's too much green here, you should change it'”, agreed White, “he probably would have been a lot less delicate in his response than we were. The idea, like I said, of us changing so much as a brush stroke of any of our music was just not going to happen. That was the trouble we ran into with these record guys. When we talked about the bar being set, they thought we meant drinks. Musicians on the whole weren't really concerned with their own excellence. (They were only) concerned with the buying and posturing to get the record deal. To get them out of Spokane or Bismarck or Cleveland or wherever they were practicing in the garage.
“I mean, the record deal was the big fantasy. The record deal. And back then, when you dealt with record people, they would get you under their thumbs and let you know, well, we might be interested, we think what you have done here has a little potential, but... And it's fair enough to say that they thought that way because at the time Columbia, Capitol, Epic, Polydor--- all those labels--- had huge staffs. A&R guys, producers, recording studios--- and that's how it was done. They had to justify their payroll by using the guys they had in those positions, so to have some upstart band come along and say they didn't need any of those services, well...”
CBS RECORDS--- DEAL OR NO DEAL
“We had developed good contacts at Columbia in 1971,” Bullock maintained. “Our friend Kris Kristofferson had suddenly become a huge success and was signed to Monument Records, which was owned by Columbia. Another ally was Bob Devere, a Columbia A&R exec and a great man who understood and enjoyed our music. Bob later worked with Weather Report.”
“Bob Devere,” sighed White. “What a sweetheart. Ruined his life. At the time, he was managing an up-and-coming band called Weather Report, who turned out to be not so shabby. That gives you an idea of his taste and powers of perception. He became interested in us, and more than interested, which was what we were looking for. We weren't looking for willing, we were looking for eager. He became absolutely convinced that we were not only the next Beatles, but were in fact the next Space Opera. He had that kind of emotional feeling for us.
“Of course, he was our A&R guy. Back then, those guys had a higher turnover than cocktail waitresses. You know. You make a good decision, you're in. Make a bad one, bye-bye, and your house in Newark, everything, gone.”
The connections with Columbia were, as mentioned, courtesy of Kristofferson and Andersen. They eventually led to an audition with Columbia Records, a label which had shown interest.
“During a break in the Autumn of '71,” said Bullock, “we were back in Texas for a short time and Eric Andersen, a folk singer who had signed with Columbia, heard us play a few of our songs on acoustic guitars at a party one night. The next day, he sent a multi-page telegram to Clive Davis suggesting that he hear us play. Two weeks before Christmas, we played an audition showcase for Clive in New York at Columbia's 30th Street Studio, known as The Church. The 30th Street Studio was the place where countless important jazz and classical recordings had been made. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stravinsky, Copland and scores of others had created monumental works of art there.
“A stage and lighting grid were set up at one end of the studio with chairs facing the stage. An invited audience of about 50 industry insiders , Texas friends and New York swells attended. Kris and Eric sat on either side of Clive. At the end of our show, Clive was unconvinced, but interested enough to invite us to a private audition the following week.
“Dressed in our best Morty Sills suits and armed with acoustic guitars, we arrived at Davis' CBS offices on East 52nd Street. It was just us and Clive. We played three songs for him. He listened carefully and said our music was 'interesting' and then gave us the now classic line, 'I don't hear a single.' We chatted for awhile and told him how we had always revered the Columbia label, home of Dylan and The Byrds, how much we were influenced by The Byrds' albums, especially 'Notorious Byrd Brothers.' Davis said, “That was the only Byrds album that didn't sell. I told McGuinn he'd better never do another one like that.'
“He continued to talk and we were crestfallen, realizing that there probably wouldn't be a place for Space Opera on the famous red label. We parted company cordially. There was no agreement on terms for a contract. Probably the most truthful thing that can be said is that we could not reach an agreement with Columbia/US. With or without the signing, it was one of the highlights of our 'career'. I still think we dropped off Clive's radar the moment we left his office and that Bob Devere probably negotiated this cheapie deal, the best he could get for us. So while the 'turning down Clive Davis' story has been blown out of proportion, it is true that we were offered a deal by the New York office and turned it down.
“A few months later, based on an instrumental titled Guitar Suite that we cut at Manta Studios in Toronto, Columbia Records of Canada offered us the deal we'd always wanted: complete artistic control, self-production and full publishing rights. We never would have gotten that from Clive.
“We played constantly in that area, mainly Toronto, (which is) where we met Gary Muth, a rep for Columbia Records in Canada. He was the one who arranged for us to 'try out' a new studio in Toronto called Manta Sound.
“Manta had a Neve board and Studer 16-track recorders and was a beautiful facility. We recorded a live-in-the-studio version of a new instrumental we called 'Guitar Suite', which was composed of favorite snippets from a dozen songs of ours. (We recorded it live) because we had limited time in the studio, not enough to work on vocals and mixdown. That was all we were offered. And anyway, we just wanted to feel the place out and see how it sounded.
“Gary played the tape for his boss, John Williams, who also became interested in us. We sealed the deal when they came to visit us at the Williamsville house. We played several songs acoustically in our living room and then we all went down to the studio in the basement for an electric set.
“After hearing that demo and hearing that audition, they signed us. In fact, Columbia Records of Canada was the only company to offer us artistic control. Michael Mann and Maury Reichmann negotiated for us, with Gary Muth and John Williams from the record company. Muth and Williams conceded other points as well which sweetened the deal.
“While the contracts were being finalized, we moved from the Williamsville house to Rex Farr's house in Southampton. We spent a couple of months there rehearsing and writing some new songs for the album. There was a Steinway grand piano in a big room which faced onto Southampton Bay, and we used that for our music room. Phil wrote Outlines on that piano and I remember him playing it for me as I worked out the flute parts. Across the road on the other side of the house was the beach. It was nice to take a walk by the ocean even though it was the dead of winter. Sometimes you had to get out of that house. We were in the lap of luxury but there were too many intense personalities under one roof, and too many stimulants. While Southampton was a nice change from Williamsville, it was a relief when the time came to sign contracts and move to Toronto.
“The five of us and Rex Farr drove into NYC from the house in Southampton,” Bullock remembered, “and checked into our usual digs, the Gramercy Park Hotel. The next day our attorney, Maury Reichmann, brought the contract. We had our own little signing ceremony and then took a flight to Toronto.
“Columbia Records of Canada was obviously an arm of CBS Records in New York, but they were autonomous when it came to signing and producing artists. I believe we were the only American band they signed. Most of their acts were from Toronto and Montreal. It also seemed that Columbia Records of Canada's product was distributed on the Epic label in the US. Why that was the case, I don't know, but Epic was a subsidiary of Columbia in the US.”
Famous red label or not, the band had certainly pulled off a coup, but it came with a price. After they settled themselves at the Waldorf Astoria in Toronto, they rolled up their sleeves. They had refused to shut up. Now it was time to put up.
FOUR: The Gospel According to Bullock, Fraser, White &