Gary James' Interview With Bruce Arnold Of
They were a band that enjoyed considerable success in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Between 1967 and 1971 they recorded four albums and five singles for MGM Records and Bell Records. Their big hit, "Can't Find The Time" was written by the group's leader, Bruce Arnold. Original members Bruce Arnold, Howie Hersh, Elliot Sherman and Bernard "Pretty" Purdie reunited last year and have been performing with a full orchestra conducted by Jazz great Tiger Okoshi. Their shows have included numerous special guests, including Cliff Goodwin (Joe Cocker), David Freiberg (Jefferson Airplane) and Bill Shanz (Rosenshonz). Bruce Arnold spoke with us about the history of his band, Orpheus, and what he's doing these days.
Q - Bruce, I understand you're recording some new material?
A - That's right.
Q - When you get through recording, you release it how? iTunes?
A - All of Orpheus' music is on iTunes right now and that would be a likely one to put it up, but believe it or not YouTube is a great publisher of inadvertently publishing everybody's stuff. In a sense, YouTube is almost like AM radio of old. One thing about AM radio was you pretty much could hear the same thing, the same songs all over the country, so you'd know what the popularity was. This is similar to that. The better thing is we get to know our fans whereas when we were just playing on the radio we didn't know who liked us and who didn't like us.
Q - These days it's pretty much up to you to get the word out about Orpheus, isn't it? There's no record label behind you, is there?
A - Well, that's right. There's no traditional record label. I have my own record label called Bam and I've released my newest CD on that. That's called "Orpheus Again" and that's the same band I'm with today. This album, "Orpheus Again" was a record that I was invited by George Lucas to come out to Skywalker Ranch to record. So the result of that was "Orpheus Again", which you can get on CD Baby or Amazon.com is probably the place where you can find it the easiest.
Q - Usually when a group shops their demo for a record deal, it's a hard sell. For you guys, in your beginning days, you had not one, but nine record companies interested in you. That's unheard of.
A - That's right.
Q - How did that happen?
A - It started just by us through the grapevine hearing of auditions that were going to happen here and there, finding out there were local people working at big record companies like Wes Farrell and Brian Interland. They were Massachusetts fans of Orpheus. Suddenly, around that time they were also very high up in the different record companies and able to make decisions. So we would find out through word of mouth where there was going to be an audition and we would call and say we wanted to come and they would make an appointment for us. This would be a drive from Boston down to New York every time we wanted to do that. That's where all the music business was. So at that point in time you had to go to New York and spend the day there and do two or three auditions. You'd set up and then you'd visit some record company and try to get them to let you do an audition and generally they would. So, over a period of maybe three attempts of going into New York City we came out virtually with everybody we auditioned for wanting to hire us. Then, interestingly enough, after all of our work in New York, Alan Lorber, who was an independent producer for MGM, decided he was going to hold auditions in Boston. So this was news, but we found out about it right away. So we went to a place, I think it was a place on Massachusetts Avenue, where we set up our equipment and played for Alan Lorber and our future manager Eddie Abramson. He flipped out and he brought out the contracts right there. He said, "I'll sign you right now." That was the first deal and also it was the best deal because MGM had just decided to put $250,000 behind their new project which was originally supposed to be Orpheus by itself, but they felt they could, if they did a Boston sound promotion, they could get fans in the dragnet. So they combined a lot of the promotion with the other Boston bands and that's how it all started. We lasted. We had several hit records and pretty much were on a trajectory to more albums. I just decided around that time that I'm not so sure I want to go touring all over the country. The business, as you said, was hard. And don't forget, back in those days people were getting arrested for payola. We had a sense that a lot of that was being actually carried out about our record. We heard about how they had friends in radio. I think all those things come together and they get you air play. Back then air play was everything until we got air play in New York City or Chicago. We were number one in Bakersfield (California). We were number one in New York City. We were number one in Boston for ages, but they didn't happen, those number ones, at the same time and so there wasn't any international success of it at the same time, so we only charted to about number 80 on the Top 100. But in reality we were getting number one hits all over the place. When we got to Detroit we went into a radio station there to do an interview and the DJ got us aside and said, "Listen fellas, I'm gonna interview you today, but normally I don't interview bands that don't have records in the stores." I said, "What do you mean we don't have records in the stores?" He said, "'Cant Find The Time' is nowhere to be found in the record stores. We're going to go ahead with the interview. I just wanted to let you know that." So I called back to New York City after the interview. They confessed that in fact MGM was going out of business and they did not have the money to pay the record pressing plant, and so therefore the record pressing plants did not deliver any records. We found that out through a guy like you who knew more about it than we did.
Q - Did you have to bring all your equipment with you for those New York auditions?
A - Yeah. We had our drum kit. These were all modified to be able to fit in the back of a station wagon of course. We didn't have a full drum kit, but we had a snare and kick and tom and some cymbals. Then we had our own little amplifiers. Generally, if it was an audition, they had a P.A. set up, so we would just have to show up and bring in our amps and sing through their P.A. So that worked out pretty well.
Q - When Alan Lorber moved from MGM to Bell Records, did that affect you guys in any way? Did it affect your royalties?
A - Well, yes and no. Bell Records was a company that sort of looked for similar situations to ours. We were negotiating our next album with MGM and right in the middle of it they said they weren't going to go through with the Orpheus recordings because they had drug references in them. That's why we left MGM, because Mike Curb, who at the time was running it and later was the Lt. Governor of California, wanted to make all bands sound like The Carpenters, which was his great adventure and great success. So he let go every band basically that had the slightest inference on it. Then we were cut loose and Alan tied us down for one more record to finish out the contract. We agreed to go to Bell Records and do one more album.
Q - How does anyone know what a drug reference is? Did you put some kind of a drug reference in one of your songs?
A - Did I knowingly write it as a drug song? No. But did I use a currently used phrase? Yes, I did. In "I've Never Seen Love Like This" I say Baby, do you remember when we turned on to a rainy day?. Well, that was the line that did it. I meant we were turning on to a rainy day, but they thought we were turning on and it was a rainy day.
Q - That lyric is certainly open to interpretation.
A - That's right.
Q - I don't see how a record executive could make that decision.
A - Yeah. Well, I think it got him a lot of Billboard articles and I think he was pretty much doing it for his own recognition.
Q - How did life change for you when "Can't Find The Time" became a hit?
A - Well, when we had the hit record it was just exactly like you might imagine. We would come to places not knowing how many people are going to be there and there would be crowds and maybe even more people outside waiting to get in or hoping to see another show. We began to realize there was a real ground swell and "Can't Find The Time" was definitely taking off. Then of course in that first album I gave MGM what I considered four hit records and that was "Can't Find The Time", "I've Never Seen Love Like This", "I'll Stay With You" and "Congress Alley". I intended for those songs to be released from that first album as singles, first four singles. Of course like I said, with MGM going out of business it wasn't as easy as all that.
Q - How long did it take you to write "Cant Find The Time"?
A - I was nineteen when I wrote that. I like to say it came in a whole cloth. I think I spent maybe twenty-five minutes cleaning up the lyrics and then the song was done.
Q - Was there a follow-up to "Can't Find The Time"?
A - No, not as released by a record company. Again, on the album I did for Bell Records, I did include what I thought were a couple of hit records. But if you end up on Bell Records it's because they cleaned up some of the messes that were happening in New York City and the record business. It was a place to get our record published and put out, but they didn't have any promotion. They didn't have any idea what our band was all about.
Q - What kind of a job did your manager do for you?
A - Well, when everybody is making money, a lot of things aren't questioned. For instance, after I came to California I thought I must have BMI royalties, air play royalties. So I called BMI and they said, "Yeah, you have your BMI royalties. You certainly do." I said, "Well, that's great. Can I get them?" They said, "No. Your manager has the Power of Attorney and he's been getting them for the last three years." So that self describes my manager.
Q - When you signed your MGM contract, did you have a lawyer look at it first?
A - Believe it or not, we did have a lawyer look at it first and what they said was this was a very typical recording contract. They get 90%. You get 10% if you ever get it because it's in perpetuity, so as long as they're releasing new material they don't have to pay you for your old material because they're taking your money and reinvesting it for you in the releases of your songs that you don't want released, but they do it anyway.
Q - Did your lawyer advise you to sign the contract?
A - He said you're not going to get anything better than that. The deal was, were they really going to put a quarter of a million dollars behind us? We checked into that and in fact it was very true and in fact a month after we signed, the first $10,000 ad went up in Billboard and then they just kept doing that all the time. They knew they had a hit with "Can't Find The Time". MGM re-released it three times in the first three years and they thought each time we're going to save it this time 'cause now we're going to do it right, but they were incompetent at that point in time. They were being bought and sold through the years. They just didn't know what to do with "Can't Find The Time". "Can't Find The Time" is actually much more popular today than it was back then and we have many more fans than we did back then. We have thousands of fans that we know and we used to have probably thousands fans that we never knew about back then.
Q - Did the record company give you tour support?
A - No, but you got half the money and the other half you sent back to New York to pay your managers and so on. But they took care of everything. I've go to admit, when we got down there they got us the top floor of the Park Sheraton Hotel. I think it was room 30, or floor 30. It was a penthouse right under Jackie Gleason's penthouse. We stayed there for six months. Of course all that money that we spent there we really didn't count on the fact that was our money we were spending. We thought it was MGM's money, but it turned out to be our money. I'm glad I did it that much anyway because at least I got something out of it back then. We had limousine service twenty-four hours a day. We could go down and sign "MGM" and get anything we wanted, clothing, the haberdashers, the restaurant. Just go in and sign "MGM."
Q - Did you happen to see Jackie Gleason?
A - We did. We saw Jackie Gleason and we saw Red Buttons and Jesse White. They all lived there.
Q - Did Jackie Gleason ask you what you were doing there?
A - No, he didn't. He walked by like he was the only person in the room when we saw him. All the oxygen was sucked out of the room when he came in 'cause he was so famous. But Jesse White and Red Buttons, they were much more friendly. We would usually have chats about the hotel detectives and the prostitutes hanging around outside.
Q - How were you traveling back then? There was no such thing as a tour bus.
A - No. That's right. We would rent a station wagon. We didn't tour out of the basic New England states very much. We were in Pennsylvania. We were in Washington, DC. Generally most of our gigs were within driving distance. I preferred that. I must've been a real stick-in-the-mud, but I did not like partying after the show. I wanted to get right out into my car and start driving home after the show. I had sort of moved out into the country in Massachusetts and left a lot of those things that were tempting behind. We were just living a more peaceful life. In fact, I preferred that over the craziness of the record business.
Q - I would think that would've worked in your favor. If all the craziness was behind you, you could concentrate on what's most important, the music.
A - That's right. My job was to write songs and that's what I did.
Q - You actually shared the stage with Janis Joplin?
A - Sure.
Q - How was it to work with her?
A - She had a little crush on Jack, our rhythm guitar player. The time I remember most was at Tanglewood together. We were opening for her. In Massachusetts we got the same billing as her. I'm not sure how she felt about that, but anyway, we were both backstage. She had her dressing rooms and we had our dressing rooms and we started to mingle with each other. What I remember is seeing Janis with a bottle of Southern Comfort and about six guys sitting around her like she was the Queen Of Sheba. She was laughing and having a great time. Don't forget, people ask me when we took the bus ride with The Who, the Magic Bus. We both were playing in Washington, D.C. at Constitution Hall. We both had gigs at Central Park in New York two days from then. And so, Roger Daltrey asked us if we would like to take the bus with them together up to New York City, which we did and we had an incredible time with Keith Moon and John Entwistle and later in New York we went over to their hotel for a party. We got to know them really well. We think there was a real exchange of ideas because after they heard us, suddenly Peter (Townshend) got a lot more melodic in his operas and we got a lot more Rock 'n' Roll after we heard them.
Q - What a different time that was! When bands all got along!
A - The important thing is, we were all just kids. Somebody asked me about Roger Daltrey. He didn't think he was anybody. He was just a kid. We were all just kids. Nobody was these icons that they are today. It was the first time people were listening to Cream, the very first time. This was all brand new. Not many of us were over 24 or 25 years old.
Q - That's important for people to remember. And you also shared the stage with Led Zeppelin.
A - Yes, we did indeed. That was also an incredible thing. I believe that was the gig they were late coming to. It might have been the Brandeis gig. One of the gigs they were late coming and the crowd actually stayed around 'til two o'clock in the morning until they came from the airport. It was better for us because we did our set and then they came back to us and said, "Can you do another set, the guys are stuck in England," or maybe somewhere in Florida I think it was. "Can you guys do another set?" So we were happy to do another set for 'em. That's what I remember most about that.
Q - What year was that? Do you remember?
A - '68. They have a recording of that concert too. My son John has an amazing ability to collect and archive things, so we have some of the rarest things you would ever imagine about Orpheus and performances we've done. We're getting those all together and make 'em available to everybody.
Q - What happens when you're through recording this latest CD of yours? Do you go out on the road in support of it?
A - Yes and no. We're going to be doing some more gigs. We're doing the Marin County Fair, which is just north of San Francisco on July 4th (2016). We do the Fair every year on July 4th. We get offers to play all over the place. When we played in Worcester, my home town, we played with the Massachusetts Symphony Orchestra and we were able to recreate the first album exactly, including all the instrumentation and that was so much fun I've decided I don't want to do it any other way. So anything we're considering now means they're going to have to take sixteen of us and if they want a big show like we're gonna give 'em, we're here for you. It's amazing how our music is perfectly set in some areas.
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