Communication can be a two-edged sword. Boon or bane. It is certainly necessary for individuals and society to exist and prosper. Yet, it is also true that some things are better left unsaid. What nexus could this possibly have to pop music one may ask? Answer: the Five Americans. A group that rose to national prominence in 1967 mainly on the strength of communique themes, only to be dismissed soon thereafter for musically striving to reach beyond the pale. Original member John Durrill discusses the history of this oft overlooked act.
According to Durrill, "The group met at Southeastern State University in Durant, Oklahoma in the early 1960s. The original members were Mike Rabon [guitar/lead vocals], myself [keyboards/vocals], Norman Ezell [guitar/vocals], James Grant [bass], and James Wright [drums]. Initially, we called ourselves the Mutineers, with a pirate logo. Like other bands of that era, we played frat parties, bars, etc."
Durrill recalls that in the beginning "I had already graduated from college and actually taught high school English for one year in a local town; I would drive to Durant on the weekends to play with the group." Once the Beatles hit, things got serious. States Durrill, "In 1964, we really got after it. That year we all moved to Dallas, Texas. Actually, we were on our way to Houston to record, but we stopped in Dallas for party. While there, we were asked to stay and play a club. We never left."
"In the early days, we bought our outfits at Sears. In order to change with the times - and to stay ahead of the numerous other rival bands in the Dallas area - we moved on to tight peg pants and high heeled 'Beatle' boots and flowered shirts," mentions Durrill.
1965 proved to be a watershed year for the band. Around that time they recorded a few self- penned songs in a small local studio. These recordings included "I See the Light" and "The Train". Offers Durrill, "We went to Ken Dowe, a DJ at KLIF Radio in Dallas and played him 'The Train' and a few others. He did not hear anything special and we were disappointed. Then, we played him 'I See the Light'. I sang on that one, with a screaming, gritty vocal. It was a strange song and recording, but, happily, he loved it. Once Dowe began to play 'I See the Light' on the radio, it became the number one requested song in Dallas before we had any records in the stores. Dowe broke the group."
In order to capitalize on the breakthrough regional radio success of "I See The Light", a company called Abnak Music Enterprises in Dallas entered the picture. Says Durrill, "Jon Abnor, Sr., owned the record label, Abnak. Prior to music, Abnor had sold shoes, life insurance, and he was involved in banking. He knew how to make money. We were the first act signed to Abnak in 1965." In traditional old school fashion, the band signed an onerous deal with Abnor. "He signed us up for record production, publishing, management, booking, and even radio performance (BMI) money. He had us lock, stock & barrel. In fact, I get no Abnak-related royalties to this day," Durrill reflects. Upon signing with Abnak, the group's name officially became the Five Americans, at the suggestion of Abnak's A&R man, Roger Guegenheimer. Jon Abnor, Jr. was in charge of the day to day activities at Abnak. Jon, Jr. later tasted success himself on Abnak with the duo Jon & Robin, charting in the Billboard Top 100 ("BB") three times, the biggest hit being the memorable "Do It Again A Little Bit Slower" (BB #18, 1967). (In a bizarre notable, Jon, Jr. was convicted of murder in the 1970s.)
States Durrill, "'I See the Light' was originally released on Abnak. After it became a regional hit, the master was leased to Hanna-Barbera Records ("HBR") in Hollywood, California. HBR took over national distribution and the song became a national hit (BB #26, 1966). We came to Los Angeles and did an album for HBR. While in Los Angeles, we played the Whiskey with the Doors. We stayed at the Hotel Continental on Sunset Boulevard. Gene Autry owned that hotel and we would have breakfast with him. Back then, the Sunset Strip was a sea of people every night. The group came to Los Angeles in sharkskin suits and switched to beads a week later. While there, the musical representative for HBR took us around went to a park in Malibu. The Electric Flag was playing and girls were walking around half nude. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. While doing a show for ABC, we played on the same bill as the Mamas & Papas. Compared to them, I thought we were more bubblegum." HBR charted with one last Five American's song, "Evol-Not Love" (BB #52, 1966), before, according to Durrill, "Abnor had an argument with HBR. He could not stay with anyone too long. It was either his way or no way.
Recalls Durrill, "After the HBR arrangement ended, Abnor did a quick deal with ABC. We flew to Nashville to record the single 'Love, Love, Love' b/w 'Show Me'. ABC did not promote the record." The ABC release failed to chart.
In 1966 legendary producer Snuff Garrett wanted to produce the Five Americans. "At that time, Garrett was having big hits with Bobby Vee and Gary Lewis. We were the perfect group for him. Garrett could not get along with Abnor so unfortunately that never happened," Durrill informs.
The group did find the right chemistry with producer Dale Hawkins in 1967. Hawkins had written and recorded the classic "Susie-Q" (BB #27, 1957) before moving into production in the 1960s. Prior to hooking up with the Five Americans, he had produced pop/rock hits for the Uniques and Mouse & the Traps. Explains Durrill, "Someone knew him. He was based in Louisiana. We went to Tyler, Texas to record the 'Western Union' album. Robin Hood Brians owned a 16 track state of the art studio there and it was the only one of its kind in the area. This was the studio at which other popular local artists such as the Uniques, Mouse & the Traps, John Fred and Southwest FOB (later to become England Dan & John Ford Coley) recorded." The period with Hawkins spawned the Five American's biggest hits: "Western Union" (BB #5, 1967), "Sound of Love" (BB #36, 1967), "Zip Code" (BB #36, 1967), and led to national notoriety. "We were 'the' group for awhile in the Southwest, even had our own plane," says Durrill. Abnak's standard orange-colored vinyl singles added some extra juice to the releases which set them apart from other artists of that era. At their peak, the band shared the stage with the Beach Boys, the Dave Clark 5 and the Rolling Stones.
However, the blatant communication themes of these discs placed the band into a box, as it were, and eventually backfired. It firmly pigeonholed the group, in a novelty sort of way. Trying to assert themselves and go for a more progressive, psychedelic sound, the band recorded and released "Stop Light". Although a classic pop song for collectors, it only bubbled under, and the band's fame started to slip. The band also lost Hawkins as a producer because of disagreements with Abnor. The last charter for the group was the more experimental "7:30 Guided Tour" (BB #96, 1968).
Recites Durrill, "I Left the group in late 68/69 and came to Los Angeles with Norman. Before I left Texas we recorded demos with Robin Hood of some of Norman and my songs. No one in Los Angeles was interested in those songs. I was living in a one bedroom apartment in Hollywood that Norman and I shared and was selling dental equipment. I was desperate. As luck would have it, I had met singer Vic Dana (of "Red Roses For A Blue Lady" fame) and told him of my plight. He told me to call Bobby Vee. By coincidence, I had already met Vee while I was on tour with the Five Americans. I asked Vee if he knew of any bands that needed a keyboard player. Vee thought the Ventures did and got me an audition with them. I was hired to play with the Ventures in 1969 for $150 a week, right after they had a worldwide hit with the "Hawaii Five-O" theme. I immediately went to Japan for a Venture's tour. I recorded at least seven or eight albums with the Ventures and toured the world."
In 1971 Durrill started working with another name from his past: Snuff Garrett, who was then producing Cher. "I spent a week in his office playing him songs, one of which Cher recorded. Later, when I was on tour in Japan with the Ventures, I was writing an interesting song. I telegraphed the unfinished lyrics to Garrett. He said to 'make sure the bitch kills him.' Hence, in the song both the lover and fortune teller were killed. That song became 'Dark Lady' which Cher cut; it went to number one in 1974. Garrett provided me access to artists such as Cher and Sinatra and other opportunities such as soundtracks." Durrill also wrote some songs on a late 1980s Everly Brother's album on Polygram, and is a close friend of Phil Everly to this day. "In my career, I have now been involved in projects that have sold close to 60 million records," Durrill proudly declares.
After Durrill and Ezell left the Five Americans, their places were taken by Robert Rambo [guitar] and Leonard Goldsmith [keyboards]. The group then became known as Mike Rabon & the Five Americans. They recorded one more album for Abnak, "Now & Then" in 1969, which included a fantastic should have been a hit pop song penned by Paul Williams/Roger Nichols titled "She's Too Good To Me". By 1970, the group broke up. Rabon and Wright formed a country rock group called Choctaw that recorded an unsuccessful album for UNI in about 1970. Rabon moved to Los Angeles for awhile and in the mid 1970s recorded some demos with Durrill that went nowhere. Rabon is now a school principal in Oklahoma. Ezell is a preacher in California. Grant is a commercial artist in Texas. Wright married Robin of Jon & Robin fame (they are since divorced), and is still drumming and involved in photography in Texas.
Durrill's sage advice to other artists: "Stay in action, if you are good enough, you will get there."
[Special thanks to John Durrill and Bob Irwin/Sundazed]Copyright 1998, Ben McLane
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