Gary James' Interview With Rod Novak Of
It was back in 1972 that King Harvest had a big hit with "Dancing In The Moonlight". Rod Novak, saxophonist for King Harvest talked with us about the history of the group and how that song came to be.
Q - Rod, you're a guy with an Ivy League connection (Cornell University). Did you spend some time there or did you in fact graduate from Cornell?
A - Actually, we (King Harvest) all graduated.
Q - What's your degree in?
A - Anthropology and archaeology.
Q - What do you do with a degree like that?
A - (laughs) Play Rock 'n' Roll.
Q - I should have known.
A - I don't know. Ronny, our keyboard player, Ron Altbach started out in Pre-Med and ended up studying classical piano in Paris. Eddie, our guitar player graduated with a degree in Art History. Real money making degrees. Archaeology. History of Art. Piano. Actually, the band didn't start at Cornell. We were all good friends at Cornell. We all played in different bands together at different times. In Ithaca (New York) at that time in the late 1960s, it was just amazing the people that were there who went on to do something later. You had Larry and Wells and Sherman from Orleans, Buffalongo. And then Hewy Lewis was there. He was a friend of ours. Eric Blackstead was a good friend. He recorded and produced the Woodstock album. We just had a whole group of guys up there who loved to play. We had fifty-two fraternities and twenty-something sororities that had parties all the time, plus all the bars in town. So, everybody got a good chance to work their chops up there.
Q - I always thought Huey Lewis was from San Francisco. What was he doing at Cornell?
A - He was a West Coast guy, but he ended up in Ithaca.
Q - I don't know how that happened.
A - (laughs) I can't remember why Huey decided to come to Ithaca. I'm not really sure. He started playing in Ithaca. A few years after we graduated he put The News together and they did really, really well. (laughs)
Q - I'll say.
A - He's a great guy. He's a really, really nice guy. Genuinely nice guy. He's had a good time. It's interesting that you can find a little place like Ithaca, New York. Some other guys that played with us wetn on. They didn't make big names for themselves, but they went on to play with all kinds of people. They were in the business. Seriously in the business.
Q - Maybe you remember a Syracuse, New York group name of Jam Factory?
A - Oh, yeah. Sure. I remember those guys. There were all kinds of great groups up there. Otis And The All Night Workers. They were up in Syracuse. Wilmer Alexander And The Dukes. Fantastic Upstate New York bands.
Q - You know your history of Syracuse music! That was the era when a band could go out and work as much as they wanted.
A - There was tons of work. I had my first band when I was 13 and we played school dances. We played weddings, played all kinds of things. When I was about 15 we started working at Three Rivers Inn with Dan Leonard of WNDR.
Q - Oh, yeah.
A - We picked a guy, and this is a funny story, who was a migrant worker. He was a bean picker at the property next to where I grew up. My father got talking to him and he was a saxophone player, a Black guy, Sparky. He started playing with us. We were one of the only bands up there at that time that was an integrated band with two saxophone players. And so, we started working Three Rivers Inn quite a bit. We backed up a few groups up there. We were like 15, 16 years old. Then we recorded for Dan Leonard on Lawn Records. They used to play our record on WNDR. Then we started playing Summer resort areas. We played Sandy Pond, New York up on Lake Ontario for two summers. We used to play a couple of pretty good sized clubs in the Winter. These were high school kids. I mean, there was a ton of work around then.
Q - Do you remember the names of other groups that might've been around then?
A - I remember Sam And The Twisters, The Capitols, The Continentals, Little Bernie And The Cavaliers. A lot of great Central New York groups. A guy named Ron Wray up in Syracuse has done a whole history of Syracuse Rock 'n' Roll.
Q - Where did you grow up?
A - I grew up in Fulton (New York).
Q - The former home of Nestle's
A - Sure. Heck, yeah. I used to play all over Fulton, the Bowlerama, the Pinarama in Oswego. Played jobs at Oswego State at the fraternities.
Q - Go back to Three Rivers Inn. The biggest acts of the day performed there. Who did you interact with? Who do you remember seeing there?
A - Chubby Checker.
Brenda Lee, she played. We were playing that day. I remember I had just got a new Ampeg B12x amplifier. I was pretty protective of it and I came around backstage and there was some girl sitting on it. We hadn't set up yet and I said, "Excuse me. Could you not sit on that?" She turned around and it was Brenda lee. (laughs) I said, "That's okay. Sit on it." A lot of those days are fuzzy now. It's far enough back that I don't remember a lot of the details.
Q - Did Cornell ever give you an honorary degree in music?
A - No. In fact, they never said anything. They don't write. They don't call.
Q - We have to change that with this interview.
A - I don't think they were impressed for some reason.
Q - When you were playing these frats and sororities at Cornell, were you booked every weekend?
A - I wouldn't say every weekend, but a lot of weekends, big weekends like Homecoming Weekend. If you were good and you got lucky you could book four gigs that weekend. You could book a Friday night, a Saturday afternoon, a Saturday night and a Sunday.
Q - How much money would the band get and how much money would you realize?
A - In '69 we had a three piece band, kind of a Cream styled, loud guitar, bass and drums. We'd make about $500 for a show. If we put four of 'em together on a weekend, that was $2,000 and we paid our roadie 10%. He'd get a couple hundred bucks. So, that's like $1,800 divided three ways. That's $600 for a weekend.
Q - You were probably making more money than a guy working 40 hours a week.
A - Oh, yeah. Our band was called Crossroads. We weren't the hardest working band. The band that Eddie was in at the time, Odds 'n' Ends, they were playing constantly. We made more money in college than we ever made afterwards. (laughs)
Q - If you're doing that well in Crossroads, who in the band said, "We should go to Paris"?
A - Ron Altbach, our keyboard player left in '68 to go to Paris and study classical piano with Nadia Boulanger. In the world of classical piano Nadia Boulanger was just about it. She was old and she taught everyone. She taught Gershwin. She had a love affair with Arthur Rubenstein for years. She was it. So, Ronnie was studying with her in Paris. He got a little lonesome for the old Cornell days and enticed me and Eddie Tuleja to come over and start a little band over there.
Q - What year would that have been?
A - That was the Fall of 1969.
Q - You were in Paris during the time Jim Morrison was there. I believe he moved there in March of 1971. Did you ever run into him?
A - Never ran into him. We actually had moved by that time about twenty-five miles outside Paris. We had a big house out in the country that we had all set up for Rock 'n' Roll and motorcycles. So, we only popped into town once in a while to do a gig or a little recording. We weren't too much in the Paris social scene then.
Q - You actually did perform at the Cannes Whiskey A Go Go where there were a lot of famous musicians.
A - It was actually right outside of Cannes. That was the big venue where everybody went at night during the Cannes Film Festival. It was packed full of would-be starlets and movie stars and all kinds of people. We had done the music for a film in Paris for a French producer/director. The film ended up being the film that inaugurated the Cannes Film Festival that year, 1971. So, our booking agent decided, "Hey, this is great!" and booked us into the Whiskey for ten days. So, we were the featured band at the Whiskey A Go Go during the Cannes Film Festival. We met all kinds of people. It was a great show. One of my favorite stories is when we got an invitation to come over after we finished playing to a table. They wanted to talk to us. We said, "We're a little tired when we get done." The waiter said, "I think you'll want to talk to these guys." So, we went over and it was Ringo Starr and Maurice Gibb. We sat there 'til the wee hours of the morning. I think they kept the club open 'cause there wasn't anybody else in there by the time we finished about 5:30 AM, drinking scotch and talking to those guys all night. It was a great time.
Q - Were you in awe of these guys? What did you think when you went over to their table?
A - It was great. We hadn't had any real success at that time. We'd been doing a lot of playing. We were doing well in the club scene, but we hadn't recorded "Dancing In The Moonlight" yet.
Q - You weren't tongue-tied, were you?
A - Well, I don't know. We weren't really tongue-tied because those guys were just really, really nice guys. Ringo was a really down to earth guy. Maurice Gibb was a really nice guy. They were talking about Cannes, talking about music. Ringo was saying he used to get up in the morning after The Beatles became famous and look in the mirror and there was this kid downstairs, a floor below, who was a would-be drummer. He'd be down there playing and he could hear him. He'd look in the mirror and say, "You know, Ringo, you're the most famous drummer in the world and that eleven year old kid downstairs is just about as good as you are." (laughs)
Q - Was Well Kelly of Orleans in King Harvest at one point in Paris?
A - Well, when we put the band together in Paris, we had a drummer for a little while and he left and we had another drummer for a little bit. Then Wells finally came over. We got Wells to cover over. Wells stayed for seven or eight months, something like that. We did a couple of recordings over there. We did a couple of albums. We did a tour of Germany for a month with a friend of ours who was singer named Nancy Holloway. We did a month up in the Alps at a ski resort. Wells decided he was coming back to the States. When he got back, that was when they put Orleans together. He'd been playing with Paul Harris and a couple of other guys in a band called Manassas I believe before that. So yeah, Wells was there for quite a while. Wells was a classic. We called him "The Kid." he was always getting in some kind of trouble. Not heavy trouble but some kind of trouble. We had a motorcycle for him. It was a surprise for him. It was a Norton 500. Old bike, but a beautiful old bike. We all had motorcycles. We wanted him to feel like home, so we got this bike for him. We told him, "You can't ride it yet 'cause we gotta go in tomorrow or the day after tomorrow and get the license set on it. But Wells couldn't resist, so when we weren't looking he took it out for a ride and came back with a French trooper, DRS guy. (laughs) Everything turned out well. Wells charmed him. The guy became a friend of ours. He was a motorcycle cop. He used to stop in all the time to say hello.
Q - What was Wells doing that the police noticed?
A - He was driving around with no licence plates on.
Q - That would do it.
A - That was a small detail to Wells. (laughs) Wells was a great guy. Very funny. Just one of the best musicians I ever met in my life. He could play anything that he put his mind to. He was one of the best drummers ever. The guy had a sense of timing that was impeccable.
Q - "Dancing In The Moonlight" was originally released in Europe on the Perception label. I never heard of that label.
A - We had been playing with it (the song) for awhile. We had another recording of it that we never really released 'cause we didn't like it and then this guy, Jack Robinson, who had a company called Criterion Music in Los Angeles, London and Paris, was a friend of ours. He heard the song and said, "You know, I think we can do something with that." So he booked the studio and we went in. He re-arranged it and liked the idea of that piano intro. So, Ronnie put that piano intro together and we did a couple of other changes and we recorded it. When we got done we felt like we had a hit song. And Jack did too. So, we released it in France on American Records I think it was, and got nowhere. Nothing. And then Jack shopped the record back in the States and he found this little company out of New York called Perception. Perception leased the master and released it and Jack, with their promo woman, I can't remember her name at the moment, Jack basically broke the record in the Seattle area. From there on out it was history.
Q - Sherman Kelly wrote that song.
A - Sherman wrote it, right. Wells brought it over when he came over to Europe, Wells brought a copy of that record that he recorded with his band Boffalongo. We listened to it and thought it was a great song. We started playing with it then, 1970. But we didn't really get it to the point of the final arrangement and recording until late '71, early '72.
Q - Did Sherman ever tell you how long it took him to write the song?
A - No, but I think it happened fairly fast. But Sherman was down in the Virgin Islands. We had friends who had a bar in the Virgin Islands. Guys used to go down there from Ithaca and play in the bar. Sherman was down there and he got beat up really, really badly and almost killed by some locals there. He had to have all kinds of facial re-construction. It really changed his life. He was kind of in quite a negative place for quite awhile. He wrote that song as kind of a therapy to just get himself out of that head. "Dancing In The Moonlight" is a real uplifting, positive tune.
Q - When was that record released?
A - We released it in 1972 and it hit the charts in '73. Buffalongo did it before that. I think they did it in early 1970.
Q - That line, Everybody's hair is out of sight, is a line I would've expected to hear in a song from the Summer Of Love, 1967.
A - The only problem is, the lyric is Everybody here is out of sight.
Q - I couldn't understand what your singer was saying.
A - Everybody here is out of sight. They don't bark and they don't bite.
Q - See, I'm thinking the singer is describing the reaction to a guy with long hair.
A - (laughs) I love it! That's great.
Q - So now, you have to change the lyric!
A - (laughs)
Q - I suppose no one has ever told you that.
A - No. I've never heard that before. Although, I have read a couple of things I can't remember. People who had heard the lyric differently. I thought that's pretty interesting that people heard different things in that lyric.
Q - I like my line better than the official song.
A - I like your version better too, Gary. (laughs) Everybody's hair is out of sight. Especially if you look at the cover of the album, right?
Q - Right! You guys had hair!
A - That's right. and Hair was playing in Paris while we were there. In fact, we had a big show at the Hair Theatre one night when they weren't performing. We got all the guys from the Hair cast and put on a big show for free. I think we had six hundred people there. It was great.
Q - Therefore, if you ever do a show like that again, "here" has to be changed to "hair."
A - That's right.
Q - When that record became a hit, did you tour behind it?
A - Well, Sherman and I were in a Transcendental Meditation course in Spain for two months and while we were there we got the word that this thing was really gonna do it. It was starting to really move. So, we came back from Spain. Eddie and Doc were still in France at the time. They came over and we moved into a little town that Ronnie came from originally, Olcott Beach, New York. It's up near Lockport, New York. Right up there on the lake. Two hundred and fifty people, eleven bars. (laughs) Anyway, we moved in there and we put this band together again and started touring. We did college tours basically. Jay Leno was our opening act.
Q - Who was booking the act? William Morris?
A - No, we had our management out of New York, a guy named Gerry Purcell. Gerry Purcell was Eddy Arnold's manager. He was Maya Angelou's manager. He had a couple of other groups he managed. When we came back we talked to a bunch of people in new York and we liked him. So, we took him on. His guys booked the tours and booked us on Midnight Special, Rock Concert and all those things.
Q - I didn't realize Helen Reddy was not always onstage at the same time as the acts she introduced were. They'd film the groups and they'd film her introducing them.
A - Really? Interesting. I remember we went in and recorded our session at about eleven in the morning. Wolfman (Jack) wasn't there. Then they had five other groups on. There was Barbara Fairchild, Canned Heat,
The Spinners. They all had their time slot. If you wanted to, you could go back in a watch somebody else record. If you didn't want to, you just showed up at your time, did your thing and left.
Q - Did you perform before an audience?
A - I don't think there was an audience.
Q - That means then that the applause was canned.
A - I guess so. I hadn't really thought about that. Maybe there was an audience. Maybe they had a few people come in and sit around. I don't remember. It wasn't a big audience. I'm sure of that.
Q - How many dates did you do with Jay Leno?
A - I think probably two weeks set of jobs. We went up and down the east coast. We played some colleges. We played a couple of colleges. Played a club in Margate, New Jersey, on the Jersey shore. State Fairs. We played a fair in Kansas City. We played a fair somewhere else. They had us all over the place.
Q - I've heard Jay Leno talk about his days performing in strip clubs, but I never heard him mention his time on tour with King Harvest.
A - Yeah. It's funny. I don't know. I had a friend of mine who said he was going out to NBC and he was going to get tickets for the Jay Leno show when Jay was on it. I said if you get tickets and you get to talk to him, say I said hello. He looked at me like, "Yeah, right." And so he came back and said, "I got to meet Jay Leno. We got tickets. I said, 'Rod Novak of King Harvest said to say hello.' Jays said, 'Really? Those guys, they're still alive? I can't believe it. We had a lot of fun.'" (laughs) Jay is another nice guy. There's some nice guys in the business and he's one of them.
Q - After "Dancing In The Moonlight" became a hit, why wasn't there a follow-up? Or was there a follow-up?
A - Well, that's a long story too. Perception put out "Dancing In The Moonlight". I never got the exact story, but from what I can put together they owed just about everybody in New York money. Everybody was happy about the pennies they got from him every month, but when they had a hit, and this was the first hit they had with "Dancing In The Moonlight", everybody kind of sued 'em at the same time for the money they were owed. What they did was file bankruptcy and they had absolutely no money for promotion. We released a follow-up record called "A Little Bit Like Magic", but it was too late and it never got the promotion it should have had and they were going through all this turmoil at the company. "Dancing In The Moonlight" was put out by these guys, but we didn't have a contract with them. All they had was the lease on the master. So, when we came back to the States we pulled into New York and we signed up with Gerry Purcell as manager and we've got every major record company in the country offering us a lot of money to sign on the dotted line. Here's a band that already has a hit. They're spending a ton of money on bands that don't even have hits, hoping they can get a hit. Here's a band with no contract that's already got a hit. So, they were offering us a lot of money. We thought about it. Had meetings. We decided that Perception had made the hit and we didn't want to screw 'em over. They were the little guy. They were the underdog. Why should we screw 'em over and go with one of the majors when they made this song a hit? So, we stayed with Perception. Then one day Kip Cohen from A&M called up and said, "Why don't you come to L.A. and record with us? We have a lot of lawyers and we think this receiver thing is a bunch of b.s." So, we did that. In '74 we took off and went to L.A.
Q - I guess it's safe to say they didn't do much for you.
A - Our momentum had already passed. You gotta follow up on these things fairly quickly. A&M at that time was just becoming a really big company. They had a lot of good acts and they had a lot of big albums coming out about that time. They had a very small national promo department. I think they produced more than they could promote. So, they had to make some choices and I think they made choices to go with. They put our stuff out and other groups too, but they put their promotion efforts out on a few groups they knew they could push Platinum. Really go for the big sales like The Carpenters or Peter Frampton.
Q - What is your connection with Mike Love and/or The Beach Boys?
A - Ronnie (Altbach) had met Mike at a T.M. course. We all did a lot of T.M. They got to be friends. So, Ronnie, when we were out in California with A&M, would see him from time to time and actually did some recording with them. We were doing shows in L.A. at the time too. We did one in Santa Monica College and we had Mike come over. He was trying to put this group together, Celebration, and so we'd do our stuff and Mike would come out and we'd do some of his things. It was a nice show. People really liked it. When we finally decided to break up 1976, one of the reasons we did was because nothing great was happening, but also The Beach Boys were expanding their band from nine to seventeen pieces. So, we went to work with them. I played sax. Ronnie was on keyboards. Eddie was taking care of guitars. Doc wasn't out with The Beach Boys, but he was up in Santa Barbara at Mike Love's place, helping to put together Celebration. So, we just did that whole Beach Boys/Celebration thing for over two years. We traveled around with them. We went to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, all over the United States.
Q - For a guy from Fulton, New York you sure got around!
A - (laughs) Yeah, we did a lot of traveling, but that was great. That was really an eye-opener. That was big time Rock 'n' Roll. We played Central Park. They still don't know how many people were in Central Park. I see estimates everywhere from 500,000 to a million. That was a real experience, looking out there. Just people forever. You couldn't see the end of the crowd in Central Park. We were doing shows in Pontiac Stadium, 60,000, Day On The Green in Oakland. We had a five piece horn section, synthesizer, grand piano, electric piano. Charles Lloyd, who's a great Jazz saxophonist, was a featured solo saxophonist for the shows. We had a forty foot sailboat we carried around onstage. It was a real sailboat. They chopped it up with chain saws and put clamps on it. So, they'd take it apart after the shows and put it in cases, put in in the trucks and send it to the next place, clamp it all together and you had a forty foot sailboat. You had probably eight guys in the boat. Then there was a big dock that they constructed. It was in front of the boat. The Beach Boys, the five guys, were all on that. A couple of big palm trees on the other side. (laughs)
Q - There really is no King Harvest anymore, is there?
A - Kind of. We did a show up in Olcott in 2012. That was a 40th Anniversary Show up there 'cause that's where we used to live. We had close to 3,000 people. It was great. It was outdoors, right next to the lake in this park. They had a big sound company out of Buffalo put it together. It was great. We had a good time. We did a little recording last Summer (2016). So, we still do a little bit here and there, but we don't do any touring. We don't have a full-time band. We do a lot of promotion. We're always doing licensing. We've got licensing coming up for a new Samuel Jackson movie, a Showtime thing, I'm Dying Up Here. Plus we license all those regular shows on broadcast TV, The Blacklist, Better Call Saul. There's been seven or eight of 'em. So, we're still pretty active licensing.
Q - Would you have any fan stories you'd like to pass along?
A - We were in New York in '73. We always stayed at this hotel called The Wentworth. The doorman there, Mike, a classic New Yorker, got to be pretty good friends with us. One day we came in and Mike said, Hey, there's two girls here and they said they've driven all the way from Ohio to meet you guys." "Really?" He said, "Yeah. They're sitting over there in the corner and I told them you'd be back in awhile." So, we went over to talk to these two girls and they were witches! They belonged to a coven in Ohio and they knew for sure that were sending messages out to all the witches with "Dancing In The Moonlight" because they knew it was a description of a witches coven under a full moon. I got thinking about the lyrics and I thought, yeah, boy, if you're really into that you could believe we were a bunch of witches.
Q - Warlocks.
A - Warlocks singing "Dancing In The Moonlight". (laughs)
Q - Never tell anyone what a song really means. It spoils all the fun.