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Frank Lee Sprague: Merseybeat

Gary Glauber

In an extremely impressive feat of inspiration and musicianship, Frank Lee Sprague produces a set of songs that are both original and true to the spirit of an era.

Frank Lee Sprague


Label: Wichita Falls
US Release Date: 2004-08-30
UK Release Date: 2004-11-09
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It is 4593 miles from Wichita Falls, Texas, to Liverpool, England, where you can find the Mersey River. Yet that distance seemed far less back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Texan Buddy Holly toured England and influenced several bands that would be later bring their Merseybeat sounds back to America. Other Texan musicians to have made their mark in England include Bruce Channel, the Bobby Fuller Four, and the Sir Douglas Quintet. Perhaps the Texas-Liverpool connection hasn't been all that active for several decades, but one man is out to change all that.

Guitarist-singer-songwriter Frank Lee Sprague hails from West Texas and is, in fact, a distant relation to Buddy Holly. In tribute to and celebration of the old connection with Liverpool, Sprague has forged a collection of mostly new compositions in the exact style of those Mersey originals.

The album opens with the infectious "You're Different", featuring a wonderful guitar riff, great harmonies, the requisite handclaps, a nifty lead, and an arrangement that captures perfectly the tone and timbre of yesteryear's songs. It's a sweet ode to the one girl who stands out and says things that drive him stark raving mad: "No one talks like you do, no one walks like you do / 'Cause you're different, oh so different / And I think I'll tell you right now about the way I feel / There's just no one else in the world that seems quite as real".

Many of these songs are strongly reminiscent of the early Beatles. "Alone with Her Memory", a melancholic ballad, allows Sprague to explore all aspects of the sound, from the simple drum fills to the vocal nuances. Harmonica and woodblock percussion accents cement the musical similitude. "I've Been Waiting All My Life", which closes the album proper (though there are bonus songs), features an attractive lead and the declaration "Give me love or let my poor heart be".

"My Luck Is Bound To Change" captures the feel of an early Lennon vocal performance. Sprague adds some reversed guitar loops to keep it real, but otherwise manages an amazing aural simulation (and keeps it to a trim two and a half minutes). Lyrically, it's also true to the period: a song about a girl who leaves him blue, changing his luck. Hearing this, you'll be instantly transported back to that time.

Other songs remind more of the McCartney side of the early Beatles sound, including the Little Richard cover "She's Got It", which is reworked into a McCartney-style rocker. "So Far From My Heart" is a short but sweet guitar ballad with the simple lead common at the time. "White Gold" is a soft dulcet ballad complete with Spanish guitar accents.

There's also a hidden track, a treat that opens with some radio static before being transformed into a fully-fledged arrangement of a love song; the effect is like discovering a lost early Beatles treasure.

There are other clear influences: "Can't Stay" is a gem of a song that masterfully reflects the sweet harmonies of early Buddy Holly and the Crickets or even the Everly Brothers (or even Chad and Jeremy, and Peter and Gordon). It features background vocals from Doug Fieger of The Knack. "I Ain't Gonna Cry No More" is more paean to Gerry and the Pacemakers, with a musical tip of the hat to their "How Do You Do It".

"Our Love Is Real", the first bonus song, pays homage to the Isley Brothers' classic "Shout", featuring rhythm 'n' blues legend Big Jay McNeely on tenor saxophone. A cover of the Al Kooper/Bob Brass/Irwin Levine song "This Diamond Ring" (made popular by Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1965) is here given a stripped-down reworking as "Her Diamond Ring".

Some might feel it's heresy, but Frank Lee Sprague's answer to "I Saw Her Standing There" is his "Nineteen". Here we hear about a heartless and cold young woman, "old enough to know better and too young to care". Apparently, she's already gone all the way and back -- ah, the shame of it all. The song features a cute chorus that counts up to her current age. It's very tongue-in-cheek, and, ultimately, a truly fun send-up. Once again, Sprague captures the tone exactly.

On other songs -- "Without You, I Do", "I'm To Blame" -- the references are less specific, although the former somehow suggests Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas or The Searchers. For the latter, you can take your Merseybeat pick: The Hollies, Herman's Hermits, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders. "Like The Break Of Day" trades off a basic skiffle beat, using mournful harmonica and a jangly guitar lead to back a strong vocal track. Sprague again does a fine job of conveying the musical sensibilities, the very essence of what the Merseybeat sound was all about.

The multi-talented Sprague is said to have over a thousand songs already written and is currently working on recording his next release. He claims to be "influenced by none, and inspired by many." He has done a fine job with this project: the quality of the songs, the excellent musicianship and the arrangements make this a cut above many other tribute band projects. This album presents a host of catchy original songs that remain true to their source inspiration. Merseybeat is a genuine labor of love from a very talented musician who has managed the difficult feat of capturing the spirit behind the great songs of that era. You'll be tempted to pull out the old collection and spin some of those older gems you haven't heard in while -- and that's high praise indeed. Say, whatever happened to my Herman's Hermits albums?


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