by Ben McLane, Esq.
Cyrcle: an easily recognizable shape; and, in 1966, an easily recognizable sound. I spoke with Tom Dawes, an original member of the ‘60s pop group The Cyrcle, and all quotes are from him.
The band initially formed at Layfayette College in Pennsylvania. "I was a freshman there and wanted to start a band. Word got around and I met Earl Pickens who could play ‘What I Say’ on a Wurlitzer Electric Piano just like Ray Charles. We decided to form a band. About six months later Don Dannemann joined the band. Dannemann played lead guitar, I played bass, Earl played keys. At first we performed as the Rhondells. Our original drummer came up with the name but it did not have any special meaning. A year later Marty Fried joined on drums. At times Pickens would play bass and I would play guitar so we could have the configuration of two guitars, bass and drums like the Beatles. We switched off on leads vocals, but Dannemann did more singing than anyone. Although we were a top 40 band at first, I started analyzing Four Seasons, Beach Boys, and Beatles’ parts and we became a four part harmony group, which was pretty unique for a college band at that time."
The band's first shot at stardom came about via a connection with famed '60s producer Jerry Ross (producer of artists such as Keith, Bobby Hebb and Spanky and Our Gang) who was based in Philadelphia. “A local DJ named Gene Kaye heard us at a sock hop and we signed up with him for a recording contract. He had an allegiance with Jerry Ross. We cut two sides with Ross as the Rhondells, but nothing happened. I am not sure if this was ever commercially released. Ross and Kaye sort of disappeared on us after that.” [For hardcore Cyrcle fans, these cuts were just released on the Yo! Philadelphia – Look What I Found CD put out by Jerry Ross himself.]
Disillusioned but determined after the Ross nonevent, the band moved on to what turned out to be their big break. "We took our top 40 bit to Atlantic City and got a job there in the summer. This experience really tightened the band up because we played 90 days straight, every night." It was during this period that the band met artist manager/music attorney Nat Weiss who was Brian Epstein's American liaison. "By the time Nat Weiss happened to see us at a bar we were at our peak performance. He was impressed and brought us to New York to play in the Village.” Weiss and Brian Epstein became the band's managers (as Nemperor Artists). “Brian then brokered a record deal with Columbia. Everyone was bowled over by the Beatles at that time and Columbia was hungry to please Epstein." During this period there was a moniker switch from the Rhondells to The Cyrcle. "Supposedly, Brian asked John Lennon to come up with a name and Lennon came up with it. That is what Epstein told us. Lennon could do no wrong then."
Happiness was just around the bend, but the band had a bit of a delay in conquering the music world. However, this delay was quite fortuitous. “At around this time, Dannemann had to go into the Coast Guard for several months to honor his military commitment; I was stuck in New York with Marty waiting for Don to come back so we could resume our career. Barry Kornfeld - who was putting together a band for Simon and Garfunkel when they were just starting out with ‘Sounds of Silence’ - heard us play. He liked my bass playing and hired me for the gig. I went on the road with Simon and Garfunkel for the first four gigs they did. That is where I first heard ‘Red Rubber Ball’ [written by Simon]. Simon had been working with Bruce Woodley of the Seekers and writing a lot of songs. When Dannemann came back to town we played it for Weiss and everybody liked it so we recorded it. John Simon became our producer at Columbia. The chemistry was great with John Simon. He got the idea to play the Hammond organ on the song. John Simon also did most of the arrangement for [the second single] ‘Turn Down Day’; the piano at beginning. We sang harmony parts on the songs.” Pickens left the band prior to recording and was replaced by Michael Losecamp.
The first album was titled Red Rubber Ball. “Columbia really got behind the record and the rest is history. [‘Red Rubber Ball’ hit #2 BB ’66; the follow up ‘Turn Down Day’ reached #16 BB, ’66.] We went out of our minds when we heard our music on WABC.” The radio support led to an opening slot on the Beatles’ last US tour. “’Red Rubber Ball’ was successful enough to warrant putting us on the tour. It was like the Tom Hank’s movie ‘That Thing You Do’. We went from playing fraternity parties to going on right before the Beatles in front of 75,000 people; we were looking at each going ‘can you believe this?’”
The follow-up Cyrcle LP was called Neon. “That one was done with John Simon, too.” This album included the minor hits “Please Don’t Ever Leave Me” (#59 BB ’67) and “I Wish You Could Be Here” (Paul Simon again, #70 BB, ’67). Group composition “Don’t Cry, No Fears, No Tears Comin’ Your Way” was also released as a single but did not chart. “I am not sure why we did not hit the top 40 again. We just sort of went downhill after ‘Turn Down Day’. When Epstein passed away [in ‘67] this did not affect the band much because Weiss was really running the show. We were on the road for a few years and getting a salary from Nemperor because when Kaye and Ross heard ‘Red Rubber Ball’ they sued us for the contracts we had signed with them. This tied up all the money we made from all of our records. It was all in escrow and we could not touch it. When the smoke cleared and the lawsuit done, no one made money; the lawyers’ bills took it all. This was my first screw job in rock and roll. A good lesson to learn.” The Neon album also contained in this writer ’s opinion at least two other laudable non-singles worth investigating, “The Visit (She Was Here)” and “Two Rooms”.
The final Cyrcle recordings involved a change in the band’s sound. “We went from John Simon to Charlie Calello as producer when we weren’t getting hits. Calello had many hits with the Four Seasons. He was supposed to turn us around. Somehow it got off into this whole different thing. You see Weiss worked with Robert Stigwood [manager of the Bee Gees]. Stigwood played Nat the Bee Gees. Calello heard the Bee Gees and decided to rip off Bee Gees’ tunes and sort of make the Cyrcle sound like the Bee Gees. This did not work for me.” (An example of this would be the flip of ‘”Don’t Cry…”, “Turn of the Century”, written by the Gibb brothers.) It was during this era when the band last charted with “We Had A Good Thing Goin’” (written by Neil Sedaka, #72 BB, ’67) and “Penny Arcade” (#95 BB, ’67). “At this point I got discouraged because we were not making any money and left the band. Danneman and Fried carried on for a few years.” Dawes apparently did not participate in the last Cyrcle single; the fantastic overlooked 1968 pop gem “Reading Her Paper”.
After Cyrcle, the band members went their separate ways. Toward the end of Dawes’ tenure in the group, “someone called do a demo for a 7-Up commercial. Nat handed it to me. I wrote and arranged the commercial and got Marty and Don in the studio and we sang it. They liked it and we won the campaign. The first 7-Up ‘Uncola’ campaign was us. I got a check for $10,000. It made me decide to stay at home and get paid for what I do so I went into the jingle business. While doing jingles, I also produced two Foghat albums [Rock & Roll (’73), Energized (’74)]. Their manager and I had been friends from the time of the Beatles’ tour because he worked for Nat Weiss at the time. He called up and asked if I would like to produce Foghat. I said sure and we got along very well.
About 1990, I left commercials and started producing records again. The guy who used to manage Foghat turned me on to a guy named Bill Sims, who is a blues singer in New York. They just did a big PBS special on him. I produced his LP. Also, recently I did a blues project for Rod Price, a lead guitar player in Foghat.”
After Cyrcle, Dannemann started his own jingle company and is still doing it today in New York. Marty got out of music and lives in the Midwest. Michael continued in music but I lost track of him. Pickens is a successful surgeon in Gainesville, Florida.” Manager Nat Weiss went on to work with James Taylor, brokering his 1976 mega-bucks deal with CBS and he later formed the Nemperor label, distributed by CBS, which released at least one hit group, the garage pop troupers the Romantics.Copyright 1998, Ben McLane
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