Mark: ‘We had no idea what we were in for’
I was about 7 years old, watching Liberace on one of those 10-inch 1950s TVs. I told my mom I wanted to do what he was doing.
My folks bought a used piano and I started taking lessons at age 8. Years later, I wrote “Incense and Peppermints,” “Tomorrow,” “Sit With the Guru” and “Barefoot in Baltimore” on that old piano. It’s in my living room to this day.
I learned by playing classical music, but later got into songs by Jerry Lee Lewis such as “Great Balls of Fire.” I liked that walking-bass, boogie-woogie piano stuff. I was influenced by the doo wop sound, too.
About age 16, I stopped playing and got into cars, hung out at drag strips and took a break from the piano.
When I went back to music two years later, I was in college. I started a little band to perform at fraternity and sorority parties. For some reason I played drums (always wanted to, I guess). Soon figured out that was not my instrument. I bought a Hohner electric piano and played it in two or three local rock bands.
One day I was in Adler’s Music Store and saw an ad for an organ player. Set up an audition, drove out to Glendale and met with the guys in Thee Sixpence — Ed King, Lee Freeman, Gene Gunnels, Steve Rabe and Gary Lovetro.
Mike Luciano, their lead singer, was leaving the group. I auditioned by playing my Farfisa combo compact organ and singing the Stones’ version of “Route 66” along with the band. I was hired on the spot, to my surprise.
Wrote my first original song around then, “Heart Full of Rain.” The band manager, Bill Holmes, took the credit and put his name on the 45 rpm record. Welcome to the music business.
We played a lot in Santa Barbara, mainly because our manager was friends with a DJ up there, Johnny Fairchild at radio station KIST. He was responsible for local SB airplay on some of our early records. We played Dino’s Pizza, private school parties and teen clubs. Then we started performing farther up the coast.
The band came to the realization that the way to make it was to not do cover songs. I had “Heart Full of Rain” and the beginnings of “Incense and Peppermints.” It didn’t have a title, but the manager dubbed it “The Happy Whistler” for some ungodly reason!
I worked up the music for “Incense and Peppermints” with guitarist Ed King. We were on the same page when it came to writing music. I was in a quandary on how to create a “bridge” for the tune, called him up and 45 minutes later we had the music completed. He contributed the bridge, the guitar parts and helped with the arrangement. Same routine pretty much went for “Tomorrow,” “Sit With the Guru” and “Barefoot in Baltimore.”
Ed was really great at taking direction on ideas that I wanted him to play on guitar, and I didn’t even play guitar.
Thee Sixpence went into the studio with producer Frank Slay Jr. (He co-wrote with Bob Crew, produced Freddy Cannon, Billie & Lillie and the Four Seasons). Slay made a tape recording and sent it off to Tim Gilbert of the band Rainy Daze in Colorado Springs. A co-writer of Tim’s, John Carter, wrote the lyrics and sent it back to Slay.
Back in the studio, we went around the room and everybody tried to sing the lead to “Incense and Peppermints.” No one sounded right for the part. There was a 15-year-old kid friend of our manager sitting on the floor watching the session, Greg Munford. He got in front of the mic and started singing in a nasally sort-of-English voice. He sounded the best, and ironically he wasn’t in the band. And that was lead vocal we used on the record. Came back to haunt us later.
When I hear “Incense and Peppermints” playing on the radio today, it’s a bittersweet reaction, even after all this time. Ed and I didn’t make any money; not a cent since our names were left off as the songwriters! Why? As I heard it: An argument between Holmes and Slay.
Holmes wanted nine names on the record. Slay said that’s silly, pick four. They couldn’t come to terms, and ultimately Slay chose to send the label to printing with only the lyricists Gilbert and Carter as the songwriters. They shared 100% of the royalties! A lawsuit was in the making against Holmes, our manager, but was dropped shortly afterward.
I was told a melody line was crucial in proving a case like this. The melody line was lifted from what I played in the chord progression, and I’m told, you can’t copyright chords. That’s why I never pursued it. They said the case would never hold up, and if I did pursue the lawsuit, it would be the demise of the band. And we just signed a contract with William Morris Agency for a $180,000 tour!
We knew “Incense and Peppermints” was a hit when we heard it on L.A. radio. A DJ named Dave Diamond started playing it on an underground AM radio station, KBLA. We had all our friends call up and ask for the record. And it went from there all the way to No. 1 with a lot of hard work. It took six months to climb the charts to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100. Our first and last gold record!
* * * * *
We were really rolling. Started on our manager’s All American label, but we were now signed to Uni Records, where Russ Regan took the chance on us and almost got fired for doing so. The band was under contract to the William Morris Agency.
We had no idea what we were in for.
We just showed up and tried to meet the obligations. We were given about 10 days to make the first album, with everyone writing and trying to get their songs onto the LP.
It was pretty whirlwind. We did a bunch of TV shows — the Smothers Brothers, Joey Bishop, Jonathan Winters, “Laugh-In,” “Hullabaloo,” “American Bandstand” and Lloyd Thaxton.
I lived out of a suitcase for more than two years.
The first time we played the East Coast, our manager said a girl was waiting to meet me. A fan who thought I was cute. She grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. Wanted to go back to my room. I said to myself, “Oh my god, we’re rock stars.”
There was definitely some sex appeal in the band. Girls would go screaming and crying over Randy and George with their blond hair. It was the Beatlemania thing. If you had a No. 1 record that’s just what the girls would do.
One day Mike Love of the Beach Boys asked us to go on two tours with them and the Buffalo Springfield band. One tour for a couple of weeks and another for six weeks. Everyone traveled on the Beach Boys’ private plane. It was an amazing time.
We played colleges, giant county fairs, all over the South. Often we did two shows the same day. I remember driving around in a car in New Orleans with Stephen Stills next to me in the back seat and Neil Young up front.
The Beach Boys were into transcendental meditation. It seemed the cool thing to do. We were indoctrinated into TM (after each of us paid a $500 donation!) and received our mantras from a Mother Olson, who flew in from California. So before each concert we always meditated for 10 minutes sitting Indian-style doing our mantras.
I felt respect from some of these great musicians we traveled with because they knew the Strawberry Alarm Clock had something special going — something different than most bands back then. We had a “sound” unlike any other band of that period.
Still, everyone around us seemed bigger than us — Hendrix, Cream, the Jefferson Airplane, Love, the Doors (not to mention the Beatles and the Stones). Guess I was a bit of a pessimist, because I felt one No. 1 hit couldn’t keep us on top for long. All I know is that things always seemed to move too fast back then.
* * * * *
Our manager issued us payroll checks of $500 checks weekly at our peak … and we shut up and ran to the bank. There were a lot of hands in the pie — our attorneys, business managers, etc., all wanting a piece of the action.
Everybody bought new cars. I blew 3 grand on a sweet ’66 Camaro and bought a house with some of the royalty money.
A lot of the times we had fun musically. Like when we recorded our second album, “Wake Up, It’s Tomorrow,” at the state-of-the-art high fidelity TTG studios in Hollywood, and with artistic control! Some great songs on that album. We were in our prime.
By the third LP, however, we were pretty much told what to do. The label, Uni Records, tried to commercialize everything. It just got ugly. They brought in outside writers like Carol King! And complex string and horn arrangements by George Tipton.
Randy and George split after that record. We fired manager Bill Holmes for incompetence and over-booking us and other issues. We were on our own along with the help of Peter Schrader as road manager.
We added a new singer, Jimmy Pittman, who brought in a Southern bluesy sound. He was a good guitarist and lead vocalist. I wrote with Jimmy and we worked well together as writers. His style, however, steered us away from our psychedelic roots. We were losing our fan base. When Uni heard the new material we recorded, they turned cold on us.
After that fourth and final album release (“Good Morning Starshine”) in mid-1969, I saw the handwriting on the wall. It was clear that the band had peaked and tanked and it was time to get out while I still had the shirt on my back. You see, there were these lawsuits coming at me like crazy. From our attorneys, ex-band member Gary Lovetro, travel agencies and more. The band couldn’t pay these people and they wanted their money! Bankruptcy ensued as no other option was left.
I wanted to produce records after helping engineer the last album, but couldn’t get a break. I couldn’t use “Incense and Peppermints” as my calling card because my name wasn’t on the record.
I was tired of traveling, had married and started a family. I took a job in the tropical fish business (a hobby of mine when I was young).
* * * * *
Fifteen years later, in 1985, Lee Freeman reunited the band. I came on as a sideman, wanting nothing to do with the business side of things. We worked up 25 new songs and played a couple of sold-out gigs in L.A. They wanted to go on the road; I wanted to record. I opted out.
The group disbanded and I went back to my business
Through the ’90s, there were various resurrections of the SAC by George Bunnell and Lee Freeman that brought in several new members. I did not participate. My reason? If Ed King was in, I was in. And Ed had no interest in moving back to L.A. ever again. In fact, Ed king does not fly in airplanes anymore.
In early 2007, George told me that Steve Bartek was joining another reunited Strawberry Alarm Clock. I immediately signed on. Didn’t hesitate for a heartbeat. Steve had played with us as teens and on the first album. He was (in my mind), a musical genius and a very respected musician. Plus, he was a member of the band Oingo Boingo, which was wildly popular with a big fan base.
Right about that time, we were offered a 40th-year reunion gig by Roger Ebert to play at his annual Ebertfest (in Champaign, Ill.), which was a five-day film festival. The last day honored “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” a movie that featured the Strawberry Alarm Clock and was co-written by Roger. A reunion of old and new SAC members on stage for one night!
Then we were asked to participate in Adams Entertainment’s retro “Love-In: A Musical Celebration” festival video shoot in San Diego with Peter and Gordon, Jesse Colin Young, Buddy Miles, Eric Johnson, Vince Martel and many more, hosted by Ben Vereen.
Today, Steve is no longer in the band due to pressure from his real job as orchestrator and arranger for Danny Elfman, but he produced a CD’s worth of recordings for us over the past few years and we owe him a lot of credit for doing so.
The band is now composed of Howie Anderson on guitar, Randy Seol on drums, Gene Gunnels on percussion, George Bunnell on bass and myself on keys. We are thinking of adding an additional guitar player.
When we play together live these days, we feel like we’re doing what we were doing when we were young. The chemistry magically returns. But now, I think, the maturity comes through in our music, the seasoning that makes it even better.
So now we’re ready to test the waters with a CD we put together. We revisited some of our old songs, primarily as a test to see if we could work together as a band again. We were pleased with the results.
The band has an awesome following, so let’s give them something to listen to. They deserve it for hanging in there all these years … waiting.
You never know. Album 2 may be just around the corner. New songs, new Alarm Clock. Dig it!