Steve Bartek

Steve: ‘I was asked to join the band. My mom said no.’

Guitarist Steve Bartek onstageI grew up next to George Bunnell, the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s bass player. Began flute lessons at 8 and then took up guitar at the ripe old age of 11 — because of schoolyard humiliation and the inspiration of the Beatles, Yardbirds, Gerry and the Pacemakers and so on.

Also, I could sneak into my brother Jim’s room when he was gone and play his guitar. George and I would write songs in our bedrooms, taking titles from books and using whatever chord progressions we happened to have under our fingers.

When George’s onetime bandmate Randy needed songs for a band that he’d auditioned for — the Strawberry Alarm Clock — we had the opportunity to have our songs played by the group. We got to sit around for a whole day at Original Sound studios and watch them record. I was given a take or two for my little flute parts.

It was inspirational to see the band work and be part of a recording. That was the late ’60s, as you probably know.

I was then graciously asked to join the band because of our songs and the flattering thought that a 14-year-old flutist/guitarist could be of use to a rock band.

But my mom refused to let me join.

At the time it was devastating, but undoubtedly I was way too young to handle it well. So with the success of the Alarm Clock, my parents loosened the reins enough to condone my studies changing from pre-med to music. I do thank the Alarm Clock income for that!

bartek brothers playing guitars mid 60s(Photo: Jim Bartek, left, and Steve)

I went to UCLA studying composition and became involved with the Ethnomusicology department there. I studied the Chinese pipa and di, some African percussion and played in a Bulgarian ensemble. Mostly, though, I spent long evenings in a Javanese Gamelan ensemble, intoxicated with the trancelike melodies and the clove cigarette smell.

College also introduced me to Messiaen, Harry Partch and his microtonal ensembles, Stravinsky and a year or two of classical guitar music. It was also the time that Django Reinhardt became an obsession.

After college I played in a big band, performing at a Holiday inn, proms, bar mitzvhas and the like, as many musicians do, until was asked by the brother (Josh) of a dear high school friend (Peter Gordon) to audition for a theater ensemble in which he was playing. I saw a video and immediately wanted in!!!

The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo had just lost their guitarist, who specialized in Django, so part of my audition involved showing I knew the style. Danny Elfman, the leader of the band, had been in a Balinese ensemble at Cal Arts for a bit so we also connected on Indonesian music styles.

Danny was trying to whip what was an interesting street-theater group into a musically tight theatrical ensemble much like the Grand Magic Circus that he had played with in France. I was damn happy to get involved, not very rock and roll but I liked it. We did Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington in addition to homemade Balinese Gamelan and African balafon ensembles.

ad for carvin guitars with steve bartekThe group came to a crisis point in the early ’80s as its street-theatrical nature started to be at odds with the venues offered. Danny, meanwhile, had taken a turn in starting to write more songs. After a few forays into pop hybrids his writing became more rock oriented and so did the Oingo Boingo personnel. We somehow made the transition from theater act to rock band, eschewing most of the theatrics, for a while.

(Photo: Steve in a Carvin guitar ad.)

In the mid-’80s, Danny sought an opportunity to write music for a film, both of us having enjoyed a taste of it when he wrote music for his brother Richard’s film “The Forbidden Zone.” The opportunity came in a much bigger way than expected, with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” Danny dragged me along as an “arranger.” Since the movie became a hit, the opportunity to learn as we earned became apparent — and I have been his orchestrator ever since.

During that time Oingo Boingo slowly became ignored by radio stations and it became harder to play live except for California and a few other places. Danny decided to end it in 1995 with a farewell concert and video. Good fun to say goodbye.

I am leaving out lots of things all along the way here that can be found elsewhere on the Internet if anyone is so interested.

Since then I have been mostly orchestrating for Danny, Jon Brion and Stephen Trask. I’ve written the occasional film score — “Carolina,” “Cabin Boy, ” “Novocaine,” “The Art of Travel.”

I’ve been playing guitar thanks to the support of Bear McCreary. I worked as his guitarist on “Battlestar Galactica” and shared guitar duties with Ira Ingber, Brendan McCreary and Ed Trybek on many of Bear’s projects. I thank him for resurrecting my playing career. I had the opportunity to produce his wife’s album a couple years ago and played on both Brendan’s and Ira’s new albums (2011).

A few years ago, George enticed me into playing with the Strawberry Alarm Clock again because of a concert that sounded fun but fell through. Since we had rehearsed we kept going and started recording stuff in my home studio — just for documentation at first, but then we also did some of the guys’ original material.

Unfortunately my responsibilities with Danny and other work overtook my time for staying active with the band this past year or so. But I try to be of assistance whenever I can and was very glad they just decided to put out the recordings we had made.

Lee Freeman

Lee: ‘a gentle soul and free spirit’

Lee Freeman, our bandmate and brother, passed away in early 2010.

The L.A. Times asked SAC bassist George Bunnell about Freeman, whom he called “a gentle soul and free spirit — you can hear it in his songs.”

Bunnell told this story about guitarist Freeman:

“We were asked by Dick Clark to take part in his movie ‘Psych-Out.’ He asked us not only to appear in it as ourselves, but to provide several songs as the landscape.

“More importantly he asked us to write the theme song. He had been using Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds of Silence’ as the temporary theme. He wanted something along those lines as the central character played by the late Susan Strasberg was deaf and blind.

“Lee immediately had an idea for the lyrics and along with our guitarist Ed King they wrote and sang one of the most gorgeous pieces of psych pop ever recorded, ‘Pretty Song From Psych-Out.’ Not the title they had intended the song to have … but, oh well.”

Like most of the longterm band members, Freeman was in and out of the band a few times over its history. He was an original member of Thee Sixpence in 1966 and remained as the band gained new members and morphed into the Strawberry Alarm Clock.

The garage band rocker “Lose to Live,” which he wrote with keyboardist Mark Weitz, was a highlight of the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s first album.

In the B-movie “Psych-Out,” Freeman was seen playing drums because drummer Randy Seol was up front, playing bongos and singing.

He was key in reuniting the band in 1982. The story goes that he saw an ad for the Strawberry Alarm Clock playing a club. Suspecting yet another group was living off his famous band’s name, Freeman attended and found out the ad was a ploy by the club owner to reunite the original Strawberry Alarm Clock. He succeeded.

Freeman continued to play with the band in the reunions of recent decades and participated in some of the group’s recordings in the new century.

His “Love Story” rocker of 1995 was the band’s contribution to the sprawling various-artists compilation “World Jam,” which raised funds to fight hunger. (Video below. Also, hear “Love Story” on MP3. It was produced by Steve Bartek. Aside from its residency as a Freeman memorial on YouTube, “Love Story” remains an SAC rareity.

Freeman’s participation with the band faded over the next several years, as he became increasingly frail and sidelined by illness.

Freeman was born Nov. 8, 1949, in Burbank, and died of cancer Feb. 14, 2010, at his home in the Bay Area.

Ed King

Ed: Touring in ’68 & ’69 was a highlight of my life

Ed King ex-Strawberry Alarm Clock“I am the luckiest guitar player on Earth,” Ed King declares.

King caught lightning in a bottle twice: First as a co-founder of the hitmaking Strawberry Alarm Clock and then as a member of the Southern rock giants Lynyrd Skynyrd.

As a teenager, King was a founding member of Thee Sixpence, the high school group that transformed itself into the Strawberry Alarm Clock. (Read King’s fan forum thread about the psychedelic group.)

He and keyboardist Mark Weitz wrote the music for the smash hit “Incense and Peppermints,” starting with a memorable riff dreamed up by Weitz. King contributed the bridge to the then-instrumental.

Weitz tells the story: “I couldn’t figure out a bridge for the song. Ed King lived pretty close. I called him and told him I need a bridge for this new song idea I’m working on. He drove over, and about 45 minutes later we had it.”

The single’s songwriting credits notoriously failed to note their role in creating the song, but “Incense and Peppermints” hit No. 1 in 1967 and remains a rock-pop radio staple to this day.

Credit for “Incense and Peppermints” went to a songwriting team that worked with the publisher. “We were told that was the price we had to pay to get started in the business,” King recalled in an interview with Classic Rock Revival a few years back.

He and Weitz collaborated again on “Tomorrow,” which charted at No. 23 in early 1968. Once again, King came to the rescue with a bridge.

Strawberry Alarm Clock in 1969King continued to write songs with Weitz as well as guitarist Lee Freeman. SAC songs that King co-wrote include “Sit With the Guru,” “The Black Butter Trilogy,” “Pretty Song From Psych-Out” and “Soft Skies, No Lies.”

King says, “The (SAC) tours with the Beach Boys in ’67 and ’68 outshine any other period in my life. Carl Wilson coming over to my room to show me the chords to ‘God Only Knows’ far outweighs any Skynyrd experience.”

(Photo: Ed King, center, with the band in 1969.)

King stayed with the band until 1972, when he took a flyer and joined a Southern rock band that had opened for the Strawberry Alarm Clock on a regional tour. That band was Lynyrd Skynyrd, which was heading into the studio to record its first album with producer Al Kooper.

King started out playing bass and then switched to guitar.

He formed a songwriting partnership with singer Ronnie Van Zant, which produced “Poison Whisky” on that album and then later “Sweet Home Alabama,” one of the band’s two signature songs.

Other Skynyrd songs co-written by King include “Saturday Night Special,” “Swamp Music,” “I Need You,” “Workin’ for MCA” and “Railroad Song.”

King left Skynyrd after three albums. That was two years before the fatal plane crash that claimed the life of Ronnie Van Zant and other two other members of the band.

In 1987, King joined the Lynyrd Skynyrd survivors reunion tour and played with the band until health problems forced him out in 1996.

In 2006, King entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

He has retired from the music business, but wishes he played on the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s new album, the band’s first in more than 40 years:

“The album is a labor of love,” King said in May 2012. “I wish I lived closer so I could take part. The guys play better than ever and the addition of Steve Bartek makes it now the way it should’ve been. I think his parents wouldn’t let him join the band! ‘Mr. Farmer’ is my favorite track. Mark Weitz NAILED it.”

* Top left photo by Janine Goulet (2005)

Marty Katon

ex-strawberry alarm clock drummer marty katonI was hired by the Strawberry Alarm Clock in 1968-69 to cover drums on band tours to Chicago and Lubbock, Texas.

I was from the backwoods of Michigan, having been a drummer in blues bars and honkytonks.

Regardless of my naivety, they treated me very well and paid me well. Jim Pitman from the Nightcrawlers was on guitar. They were all well mannered and very modest.

Standing in the William Morris Agency with them and being treated as an equal, gave me confidence and experience that I continued to use in my ventures into the art world.

I went on to be in American Artist Magazine and work for famous galleries.

Jimmy Pitman

Strawberry Alarm Clock veteran Jimmy PitmanJimmy Pitman joined the Strawberry Alarm Clock for the recording of “Good Morning Starshine,” a star-crossed album in several respects.

“I engulfed myself in a bit of rock ‘n’ roll fame,” Pitman said today, using a most appropriate verb. He joined a famous band that was beset by legal and personnel problems — one that had just about run its course.

Pitman was best known as a member of the Nightcrawlers, a Florida band that had recorded the 1965 garage band classic “My Little Black Egg.” He joined the classic version of the Daytona Beach band just before it broke up.

Jimmy Pitman came to L.A. with the help of Murray Wilson, father of three of the Beach Boys. He brought to town a Southern twang and a love of the blues.

Hanging out on the Sunset Strip in its glory days, Pitman says, “I met and became friends with the likes of Clapton, Morrison, Hendrix, Buddy Miles, the boys from Iron Butterfly and many more.”

In Hollywood, he hooked up with his Florida pals Gregg and Duane Allman, jamming with their short-lived group the Hour Glass.

He joined the Strawberry Alarm Clock in 1969, after it had lost several key members.

Remaining SAC guitarist-bassist Ed King and keyboardist Mark Weitz both appreciated Pitman’s talents, if not the direction the band took as a result of his hiring.

“I considered Pitman to be a very strong songwriter, though his songs didn’t exactly fit our band’s reputation and style,” King has said.

Weitz recalls of Pitman: “He was a good guitarist and lead vocalist. I wrote with Jimmy and we worked well together as writers.

“We put a lot of faith in him (since) he was our lead vocalist. But his style steered us away from our psychedelic roots. We were losing our fan base. When (record label) Uni heard the new material we recorded, they turned cold on us.”

“Good Morning Starshine” and its singles failed to light up the charts. It proved to be the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s final album.

Pitman left in mid-1969, replaced by Paul Marshall (currently of I See Hawks in L.A.).

After his exit from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Pitman continued with his bluesy musical sound as the frontman in Jumbo, a band signed to Lou Adler’s label. He also produced and promoted other rock acts.

Pitman has lived in Jacksonville, Fla., since the mid-90s, mostly keeping a low profile. He never stopped writing songs, though, and in 2007 he started Big Bad Wolf, which plays “originals and classics” for the Baby Boomer crowd. (Listen to three BBW tracks.)

Paul Marshall

Paul Marshall joined the Strawberry Alarm Clock in 1969 and remained with the group as a singer and guitarist for several years.

Today, he’s a member of the alt-country band I See Hawks in L.A. and has enjoyed a long career as a record producer, songwriter and session player.

(Photo: Paul Marshall, right, with the 1969 version of Strawberry Alarm Clock. From left are Gene Gunnels, Lee Freeman, Ed King.)

Marshall hooked up with the Strawberry Alarm Clock in time to make an appearance in the Russ Meyer cult classic film “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” For the soundtrack, the guitarist contributed the songs “I’m Comin’ Home” and “Girl From the City.”

Marshall toured and recorded with the band until the 1971 breakup. He later found success as a bass player for acts such as Hank Thompson, Johnny Tillotson and George Highfill.

Before joining SAC, Marshall’s bands Beauchemins and the Tree Toppers had record deals with producer Bob Keane (Richie Valens, Bobby Fuller Four, Sam Cooke) and his Mustang label.

Contemporary acts who’ve recorded Paul Marshall songs include Patty Loveless, Juice Newton, Highway 101, Jill Sobule and Boy Howdy.

Marshall’s solo CD “Weed and Water” was co-produced by Steve Pouliot (“Saturday Night Fever,” Ann-Margret). I See Hawks in L.A. has recorded several albums and performs regularly.