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It’s simply not in the nature of a pure musician to dwell on the past, nor to rest on the laurels of previous accomplishments. The true nature is of an artist is to spread their wings, to push the envelope, to challenge themselves to keep the music moving in a forward direction. This is exactly what Gary Puckett pursued during the decade of the ‘70s, but he was doing it without record deal, without an audience . . . without any fanfare at all.


At height of his success Gary Puckett had racked up six consecutive gold records with his distinctive, signature voice at the helm of hit singles like “Young Girl”, Lady Willpower”, “Woman Woman”, “Over You” and “This Girl is a Woman Now”. In 1968, his band had sold more records than any other recording act . . . including the Beatles. He appeared in over 30 television shows and primetime specials including three Ed Sullivan Show appearances. He also played a command performance at the White House for President and Mrs. Nixon and their guests, Prince Charles and Princess Anne.


When the hits stopped coming for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, he was forced to sit on the sidelines while a burgeoning rock music scene took over the reins of popular music. Gary Puckett did the only thing that a musician can do—he picked up his guitar and began to write . . . pouring out his emotions on songs that no one would hear, looking to expand himself musically.


It’s most ironic that in his attempt to move forward musically, it would be his past that would serve as the catalyst for bringing Gary Puckett back the people. The proliferation of oldies-oriented radio stations around the country in the early ‘80s, gave classic ‘60s acts an opportunity to bring back their music to faithful fans while garnering a whole new audience in the process. At the forefront of that movement was Gary Puckett, who 20 years later continues to bring his music to his loyal fans in venues across the country. His two current releases, In Europe and his first ever Christmas disc, At Christmas, is available exclusively at GaryPuckettMusic.com.



PopMatters:

Your last charting American single came in 1971. Can you walk us through what you’ve been up to since that time.



Gary Puckett:

In 1972, the Union Gap ended its life together. At that point, I thought I knew more than everybody else, so I decided that I would take some time off, and write songs, and a year later I would go back to the record company and say “here I am” and they would welcome me with open arms. But that wasn’t the case. It turned out that nobody was interested in the ‘60s anymore and they really just flat closed their doors. The ‘70s became what people called the “me generation”. Our predilections changed whether it was a change of drug habits, or food habits or whatever, it was all brand new stuff and everyone was kind of moving on. Some of the real good singer/songwriter people like Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon were able to survive that, but many of us were just pushed aside. I did make an album in ‘74 and ‘75 that consisted of songs that my brother and I had written and it was a very good album, but once again when my management took the tapes around to people, they all said “nobody wants to hear this”, they wanted what was on the charts at the time.


I found myself pretty much living off the royalties throughout the ‘70s, it was kind of a meager time for me. I studied dance for a couple of years and I found myself taking up transcendental meditation . . . I just found myself a little lost in the shuffle. I did alot of writing through the ‘70s and had stacks and stacks of songs that never saw the light of day of course. I also made a movie in the Philippines with a director named Larry Brown. One of the other people who was auditioning was Sal Mineo, of course we know what happened to Sal. But I got the part and went to the Philippine Islands for about six months of my life which was an amazing experience, but I don’t think the movie ever saw the light of day either. Ultimately, I found myself back in the paying dues part of my life again, quietly playing nightclubs in San Diego, kind of getting my feet wet again.


When oldies radio started to take off in the early ‘80s, I found that I was starting to get a few phone calls from around the country. I ended up going out on the road again and doing a concert at the Nassau Coliseum” . . . “Jay Black was on the show, the Association and a number of others. I started working with the the Association’s promoter, David Fischoff and in late ‘83, and I suggested to him that since he was working with the Association, the Turtles and myself, that he ought to put us out as a tour. Between the three acts, we all had many fans. They thought it was a good idea, so they added Spanky of Spanky and Our Gang, called it The Happy Together Tour, and in 1984, it became the very first oldies tour to go out on the road, and it was highly successful. At that point, MTV is starting to play all of the Monkee reruns and the Monkees were suddenly huge again. So David gets in touch with the Monkees and gets a 20 year Monkees reunion tour together and he asks me to be a part of the tour…it turned out to be the biggest tour of the year. That’s what really got me back into performing, not only working with the Happy Together type tours, but on our own. Lots of places would hire us to come and do a show by ourselves, so we’ve been doing that for years.


I’m just an oldies guy right now, but I’m more than that inasmuch as that’s not the way I ever really think of myself. I’m a singer and I think I’m smart enough to realize what it is that people want from me, and I try to give that to them. But at the same time, I think they see me step beyond that. For instance, we just wrote a song that I call “Song for America”, and I’m going to add it to the show. It’s the kind of song the America needs, especially now after September 11th. I know that there are alot of people out there writing songs and making an effort in that area . . . this is just our effort. By the way, I might also mention that I was contacted by Michael Jackson’s people to be included in his 30th Anniversary show at Madison Square Garden, and I really wish I could have done it, but I had a concert commitment. It would’ve been an honor to have been standing there with everybody from Michael to Britney Spears and all of the other artists who were there.



PM:

There was an interview with Paul McCartney back in the ‘60s where he mentioned that he held little hope for a career in music past the age of 40. Did you ever envision that your career in music would last as long as it has?



GP:

At one point, I found myself looking at the stage and I’m 23 years old thinking, “I don’t think I want to be on that stage when I’m 30”, not realizing that at 30 or even 40, you’re still a young person. You cannot understand that until you go past those landmarks in your life. At my age now, I really don’t feel any different. I thought I’d be doing something else to, but here I am.



PM:

Who were some of your early influences that may have played a part in your decision to become a musician?



GP:

When I was a kid, everybody from Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Elvis, of course. Elvis was certainly number one in my mind and heart. But I also liked the Everly Brothers, the Platters, and the Coasters. I liked rock and roll . . . Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent” . . . “those were a few of the people I was really drawn to. Growing up through the ‘60s, it was the Stax Groups from Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett to the Beatles and the Stones, the whole English movement. All of that stuff was a real big deal to me. If you asked me who I thought was the best singer out there is, I’d have to say Tom Jones. He is just amazing” . . . “unbelievable. I rank him up there with guys like Pavorotti. That’s kind of silly comparison because they’re two different genres, but those voices are amazing.



PM:

How did you come together with the musicians that would eventually comprise the Union Gap? How did you come up with the group’s name?



GP:

The name comes from a town in Washington. I grew up in a city called Yakima and Union Gap is in the southeast corner of the Yakima Valley which is surrounded by all these hills. I knew that, when I put the group together, that with everyone doing the tie-dyes and the paisleys, that if we all looked the same, how was anyone going to look at us and pick us out. So I decided, since I had an interest in the Civil War, that I would dress the guys in Union soldier outfits and call the band, the Union Gap. The band thought it was pretty stupid . . . they hated it. They didn’t want to wear the outfits, and they didn’t want to wear hats because they didn’t want to mess up their hair.


Anyway, when the my former band, The Outcasts, split up, I went looking around town and I found guys working that I thought were talented. We all seemed to have the same attitude toward music, we wanted to have success. It was while we were working in Seattle that I got the idea to put the band into the union soldier outfits. We had a little ghost town out in San Diego that was kind of like Knot’s Berry Farm, and we took a snap camera, took some pictures of us with the saloon gals, the sheriff, and us jumping over the tombstones. We arranged a bunch of these photos in the portfolio, put a demo in there that I had made with the Outcasts and went around to all of the record companies in Los Angeles. Columbia was the last record company on my list as we headed out of town, so we stopped the car, I jumped out and went inside. I was sent to Jerry Fuller’s office and I played him the demo which he thought was pretty cool, but he wanted to come and hear us play. I mentioned that we were playing a club called the Quad Room in a San Diego bowling alley. So he said he would be there on Saturday and he catches us off guard and shows up on Friday. He heard us and said let’s go make a record.



PM:

So you were unaware of Jerry Fuller’s track record at the time?



GP:

Yeah. He was hanging up his record awards in his office when I walked in, but I didn’t pay to much attention to them. I later found out he had written “Travelin’ Man” for Ricky Nelson, he had worked with the Knickerbockers and later on he wrote and produced Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell”, and it was Record Of The Year that year. He’s a very talented guy, a great singer and an excellent writer.



PM:

He turned out to be a very integral part of the band’s sound?



GP:

Absolutely. He was very talented, and he was in control. He was a “It’s my way or the highway” type of guy. Jerry made some great records and I was very fortunate to have gotten involved with him.



PM:

Jerry wrote some of your most identifiable songs like “Young Girl”, “Lady Willpower” and “Over You”, was this the musical direction that the band was exploring before you were signed?



GP:

Not at all. But our guys were pretty versatile. We had two horn players and we could switch around and play different instruments. So we had piano, organ, saxes and actually because of one of the arrangements we started using two clarinets. We were playing the R&B stuff, the rock and roll stuff, but when Jerry got involved, he heard my voice, he didn’t really hear the band, and he decided that I was the singer he wanted to work with. So he guided our recording career into a ballad place . . . the orchestrative thing.



PM:

Was that a problem for the band?



GP:

Yeah. They really didn’t like it much. But I thought the records were great. I was really pleased, I thought “Woman Woman” was such a great record. The band really wanted to be more rock and roll, but Jerry saw this as a singer with a band behind him. In the beginning, he tried to get me to step out from the band, but I wanted them to be a part of it. Jerry seeing me as a singer with the orchestration really set the tone for these years to come.



PM:

Was there ever animosity with you being singled out in that way?



GP:

They knew that I was the leader of the group, they knew that I was the lead singer. The only animosity started being created by the fact that the management said,“You’re five guys, but really without you they’re not, so we believe you ought to make a little more money than they do.”. So they started restructuring our business, and that’s when the guys took a little exception to it. Eventually two of the members, Gary Witham and Kerry Chater elected to quit the band. They had actually gotten a deal with Irving-Almo which was the publishing firm at A&M Records and they were going to write songs, and have another career. Kerry Chater has gone on to write some really big, fabulous songs for Lee Greenwood, Alabama, and Lorrie Morgan. Gary Witham has gone on to become the director of the music department of a school in San Diego area, and he’s a very talented guy.



PM:

At peak of your career, you had racked up six consecutive gold records and over 30 television appearances including three Ed Sullivan appearances. You also were asked to do a command performance at the White House. Can you elaborate on that experience?



GP:

Prince Charles and Princess Anne were being hosted by President and Mrs. Nixon, so they decided to put on a concert for the Prince and the Princess. They asked each one of them with artists they would like to see, and Prince Charles chose the Guess Who, and the Princess said she would like to see Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. They built this huge stage on the south portico of the White House lawn. On one side they built the stage to accommodate the Guess Who and on the other side to the stage to accommodate us. Plus we were allowed to use the Marine band horns and what an amazing experience that was. The day itself, progressed in a really memorable fashion for me. I remember earlier in the day I had my camera and was just walking around the White House grounds and every once in a while someone would walk out of the trees and tell me to get back on the path. I was allowed to walk through the main floor of the White House by myself with my camera in my hand. At one point, several Secret Service guys walk out with President Nixon and he walks up to me and he shakes my hand. I was very strange because I know at that point he was ensconced in the Watergate thing, but I hadn’t broken yet. He was as white as a ghost, he did not look like a man long for the world. But he shook my hand and said “Hello, we’re glad to have you”. I found myself in La-La land for a moment, going “I just shook the President’s hand”. That night we had the concert and it was fabulous. They had a giant fireworks show that must have lasted 40 minutes. I was a wonderful experience.



PM:

Do you keep up with the current music scene?



GP:

Not really. The airwaves these days have been factionalized far more than they were in those days. If you can remember back to when FM radio was born, there was only AM/FM radio . . . there wasn’t alternative radio and all of the other stuff. The record companies were run by creative people, and I’m not saying that the people that run record companies today aren’t creative, but it’s more driven by money people than it is the creative people. That end of it has changed much more, plus the fact that they’re are so many different charts now, so many different areas of music with rap, hip-hop, etc. You have to be able to really define yourself well, in order to get into these markets. But I really don’t pay alot of attention to it. I hear it because we have teenage girls around who like to listen to that stuff. Often times I’ll hear a song and say, “Now that one is musical, but alot of this stuff is stupid. Why do you like that?”. I guess I’ve become my dad.



PM:

Did you ever get an opportunity to meet artists that were influential to you, or peers that had made an impact?



GP:

Many times. In the beginning, not so much, but I did get to work with alot of people because at one point we were way up on the charts, so we were able to work with everybody from the Beach Boys to Chicago to Stevie Wonder to the big R&B shows with Junior Walker, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. I met alot of people in those days, but it was over the last however many years, that I met people that were the heroes to me…people like Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis. I met Elvis once. He was working at the International Hotel which became the Las Vegas Hilton. We were working on our stage with Redd Foxx and Ike and Tina Turner, and Elvis was in the big room. As I was walking down the hallway one day, he came walking down and of course, he surrounded by all of these folks, but I knew these were the guys who were constantly with Elvis, and they knew who I was to. But there he was, as big as life, so I introduced myself and he went, “Yeah man, I know who you are”. He actually came to see one of my shows. I had gotten a message during the show saying, “E is here”. I was nervous and I wanted to announce it to the audience, but I instinctively knew that if I did, there would be pandemonium and the show would be over. I got another message after he’d left, that said, “Elvis told me to tell you, the boy sure can sing.” In Priscilla’s book, Elvis and Me, she mentioned that I was one of the singers in his collection. I always felt pretty honored by that.



PM:

Why do you think that your music and the music of other great artists of that particular era of the ‘60s continues to endure today?



GP:

They’re the kind songs that you can just sing along with. For us, someone might say it’s the voice and fortunately I have been given a signature voice. Jerry Fuller always said it’s the voice and the song. That if the song stands on its own and you have a great voice to sing it, you can make a great record out of it. When I listen to “Woman, Woman”, to me, it stands up in the market today. Nothing is lost in its translation. It sounds vibrant.



PM:

It seems a shame that more kids don’t investigate the vast reservoir of classic ‘60s music.



GP:

I think you’d be surprised at how many do. My audiences seem to range from the very young to the very old. I get people shaking my hand that are my parents age, as well as young people venue that will stop you and say how much they love your voice.



PM:

You’ve recently released two records.



GP:

We have two new records available and can be purchased at www.GaryPuckettMusic.com. One is called In Europe and the other is called At Christmas.



PM:

What does the future hold for Gary Puckett?



GP:

We’re promoting the new At Christmas disc like crazy. We have over 120 commitments to put it into Christmas rotation. I’m also going to do a combination of, tribute to our American veterans and patriotic album that will include all of the great songs of America like “America the Beautiful” etc. I think it’s time for a singer to do it. I’m going to include the “Song for America” which I feel real good about. It’s kind of nice to be able to do something like this and express a little something from inside, as opposed to just rehashing the past all of the time.

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