Gary James' Interview With Jerry Burgan Of
We Five

They were the first of the Top 40, San Francisco groups to be nominated as Best New Artist of 1965. They had the first hit recording of "Let's Get Together", which was later recorded by Jefferson Airplane and The Youngbloods, the first hit version of "Cast Your Fate To The Wind", the first single release of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", a Grammy nomination, TV and tour appearances with everyone from Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Soupy Sales to Billy Preston and The Young Rascals. Their million selling version of "You Were On My Mind" marked the beginning of a musical transition by adding drums and electric 12-string guitar to a traditional acoustic folk song.

The group we're speaking about is of course We Five. Jerry Burgan, We Five's guitarist, banjo player, singer and arranger talked with us about We Five's history. Known as "The Keeper Of The Flame", he is the only member of the band to have been on every album from 1965 to the present.

Q - Had Michael Stewart not been in We Five, how successful do you think We Five would have been?

A - Well, it's an interesting question, if you didn't have Beverly Bivens...but the truth of the matter is I think you've asked exactly the right question. The group was really Michael's brainchild from the start. I'd known him in 5th grade. His brother John gave him a banjo when we were in 8th grade. I was the only guy he knew that had a guitar. He wanted to have a Folk group that required a guitar. I got elected and so Michael and I started singing together in the Summer of 1959. As long as I've known him, he's a brilliant guy. He's a funny guy. Very quickly it was clear that he had a sense of arranging that was very unique. He could visualize things that others couldn't necessarily hear. So, that was the case. Number one, having a group that was more than just "Kingston Trio me too" was very much part of Michael. Michael recognized very early on the advantages of having a girl in the group for both visual reasons and the audio opportunities that existed. We were a Folk trio with a girl long before Peter, Paul and Mary even appeared. That was in large part I would say attributable to Mike and the girl and I that became very good friends, which didn't hurt at all. (laughs) In any event, when John was asked to join The Kingston Trio, John Stewart being Mike's older brother, that relationship then gave us a visibility with Frank Werber, who was the manager of the number one touring act in the world at the time. You'd have to say that on all of those fronts, having Michael in the group was pivotal in our being discovered and in our success.

Q - What were you doing before your first record came out? Were you playing nightclubs? Colleges?

A - We really hadn't gotten all the way to nightclubs because we were all in school. I was a sophomore in college. The age of the group when that record hit was 19 to 20, so nightclubs were kind of off-limits to us. We were playing coffeehouses for the most part. We would play hoot night at The Troubadour when we were still in high school, but we were playing enough coffeehouses and making enough money that I quit my job when I was a Senior and didn't do anything but music. But they were basically local coffeehouses.

Q - You did the Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars tour?

A - The one we did was a one month bus tour. Us, Paul Revere And The Raiders, The Byrds, Bo Diddley and some opening acts.

Q - And you headlined?

A - We headlined.

Q - Who opened the shows?

A - There was a band from Ohio, two girls. Basically, they got the sound system running and working and Bo Diddley and Duchess came out and they did a set. And The Byrds did a set. Then we struck the stage and re-set it. We were technically the headliners. The Raiders were very visual, very involved, very active. Almost like watching the Marx Brothers do Rock 'n' Roll and not an easy act to follow. So, we would open the second half of the show and they would close.

Q - Now, how did you get a record deal?

A - Well, it came in stages. When we were still in high school, John started recording with The Trio at Capitol, (he) met Nick Venet and Nick Venet gave us an audition. I can't remember if we were sophomores or juniors, I guess. We recorded two sides and he flipped out. One of the songs there was a copyright challenge on it and it got delayed. He wound up leaving Capitol and wound up not signing at that particular time. In the Summer of '64, John had been asked to do a movie soundtrack for a film about the astronauts, and the Ridge Runners, which our group was called at the time, Michael did the arranging and we all sang on it. In addition to us, other singers on this were John Phillips and Scott Mackenzie. After high school, the original girl left the group and we tried a few different people, but Beverly joined us at the end of 1963 and started performing with us in coffeehouses and schools in the Spring of '64. By the Summer of '64 we started to be courted by different producers who were looking around for the next big thing. Because of the relationship we had with The Kingston Trio, Frank Werber had seen us and knew of us. In fact, he even used our original girl singer, Sue Davies. She sang background on The Kingston Trio hit "Reverend Mr. Black". So, he knew who we were. He knew we were good. He knew that John was probably gonna end up getting us a record deal. But The Kingston Trio decided they didn't want to record in L.A. anymore, so they built a studio in San Francisco where they lived. Then, in addition to them, they knew they were going to have to have other artists in that studio to pay for the rent and they started looking for other people who could record. He booked us into The Hungry I in San Francisco just to see how it played to the man on the street, re-named the group We Five and began recording us in the Spring of 1965 and the record came out in June.

Q - That song was released on A&M Records, wasn't it?

A - Yes. The masters were leased by Trident Productions to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, who in turn released them on the label.

Q - Leased? A smart move.

A - Yeah. In fact, it was a precedent setting deal because it wasn't a percentage deal. It was, you sold a record, you get a penny. That kind of thing. (laughs)

Q - Did Herb Alpert personally sign you to the label?

A - It was actually Frank Werber and Jerry Moss that would have worked through that, but we actually did meet Herb when he was still writing horn charts in their original offices, which were over on Sunset Blvd.

Q - Sure, the old Charlie Chaplin Studios.

A - No, no. Before that. The old Charlie Chaplin place was a magnificent studio. We did our 3rd album there.

Q - Who wrote "You Were On My Mind"?

A - Are you familiar with Ian And Sylvia?

Q - I am.

A - Alright. Sylvia Fricker, who then married Ian Tyson and became Sylvia Tyson, was the author of "You Were On My Mind".

Q - Did she tell you anything about the song, like how long it took to write it?

A - I'm trying to get in touch with her to find out more about it because I do not know. I know that it's a much simpler song than the way we did i. It's basically a 3 chord song the way she wrote it. It's got some minors and things in it. It's also more like a Country tune the way she wrote it.

Q - When that song became a hit, how did your life change?

A - Well, money stopped being a concern, but getting enough sleep started getting to be a problem. We began doing TV shows immediately. We did all of the stuff you would imagine, the Hullabaloos, and the American Bandstand and Shindig and Shiveree and all of the local dance shows all around the country. We also did shows like Hollywood Palace, that was a very upscale 'live' broadcast done from the West Coast. They didn't use a whole lot of Rock acts initially on that because you had to perform 'live' and you also had to fit within the musical context. We were a little bit of a stretch for them, but that worked fine. We started playing college concerts almost immediately. We did about 150 concerts in 20 months.

Q - The Rolling Stones went on Hollywood Palace and were introduced by Dean Martin.

A - We were introduced by Fred Astaire. There weren't' a whole lot of acts that could do The Hollywood Palace and pull it off. Probably the biggest concert we ever did was when our Caravan Of Stars tour came together with The Stones tour in Pittsburgh in November of 1965. It must've been 6 hours of music.

Q - Did you do any overseas concerts?

A - We never really left the country to perform. We actually went to Canada one time because it was the quickest way to get to Washington. (laughs)

Q - You mentioned you did 150 concerts in 20 months. That would be what, 2 or 3 concerts a week?

A - Probably average 2 a week. Sometimes there were more than that. But we had to sandwich in recording, rehearsing, doing TV shows. It settled into a pattern where we would leave town on a Wednesday or a Thursday and do concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday and then go back home to San Francisco. But that meant 5 days a week we were out someplace.

Q - You opened for The Young Rascals? That must've been a hard gig.

A - We didn't open for them that I'm aware of. They were also guests on Hullabaloo. Soupy Sales was the host. We were the featured spot. In addition to doing "You Were On My Mind", I think we did "You Let A Lot Of Love Burn Out", "What A Day For A Daydream" and The Dance did "The Soupy Shuffle" with Soupy. He sang it with us. And The Rascals were on that show. Soupy Sales' son had a band and they were on that show. (laughs)

Q - What was your follow-up to "You Were On My Mind"?

A - We released a couple of things off the album that were what you would call "airplay hits." They charted on Adult Contemporary. The next big hit we had was Dino Valenti's tune "Get Together". He brought it to our management company. They published it. We heard it and we recorded it. It charts at 31, just before Christmas of 1965.

Q - What was the University Of San Francisco music scene like in 1963?

A - Interesting question. I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with a guy who was a bass player and now a doctor, who played bass with us throughout our freshman year there, named Andy Moyce. There were half a dozen guys on campus who had guitars and probably three of them who could actually play them. Michael and I played constantly. That's also where we met Bob Jones, who became We Five's lead guitarist. Bob was from Hawaii.

Q - Any famous musical acts perform at the University then?

A - There's one big concert every year. The big concert the year I was there was Joan Baez. The biggest guest speaker was Pierre Salinger.

Q - Why do you think there is still interest in the We Five? You still tour.

A - Well, we don't tour a lot. In fact, we don't tour in the classic sense at all. We do perform. We play at performing art centers. We play for corporate concerts. Occasionally we'll play for an "oldies" show. There are selected situations that come along. But, the economics of touring are pretty radical compared to what they used to be. It's impossible to fly with equipment anymore. That means you pretty much have to string a bunch of things together and drive to get there or fly and then have somebody rent everything you need and that can be problematic. We do play. I think the biggest reason there's an interest in the group is because the song itself is indelibly burned in the minds of people who kind of write themselves into the story. It just came along at a magic time that touched people in a special way. It was a very unique arrangement. And so far, a lot of people have tried but no one has ever had another hit record with "You Were On My Mind" after us because the version we did is fairly distinctive. In fact, I'm actually writing a book on the experience and the song right now with a very talented author named Alan Rifkin who I met only to discover that "You Were On My Mind" was one of the cornerstone songs in his life. We got to talking and I said "I always wanted to write a memoir about this." This guy's a novelist. He teaches at a couple of universities. He said "Let's do the book." So, we're working on it.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.