The Left Banke





Bassist Tom Finn and drummer George Cameron became friends in 1964 when Finn's vocal group, The Castels, played on a bill with Cameron's rock & roll group, The Morticians. Finn went on to join The Magic Plants, who were associated with a production company owned by a former professional violinist, Harry Lookofsky, father of young pianist/composer Michael Brown who was also a production assistant at his father's recording studio. Cameron knew Steve Martin, a singer from Puerto Rico, who had just moved to New York. In late 1965, the four young men, all still teenagers, met casually in the studio and got along, worked out some original tunes, and decided to record. Lookofsky liked the tapes and offered to act as the group's manager and producer.

As "The Left Banke", one of their first recordings, "Walk Away Renee", was written by Michael Brown when he was only sixteen years old. The song is about Renee Fladen, who was Tom Finn's girlfriend, with whom Brown was infatuated. Fladen was present when Brown tried to record his harpsichord part. "My hands were shaking when I tried to play, because she was right there in the control room," he says. "There was no way I could do it with her around, so I came back and did it later."

The song, which took about eight weeks to write and record, was rejected by ten major labels before Charlie Fach of Smash Records took it on. Soon after its release in Feb. 1966, "Walk Away Renee" shot up the U.S. charts and peaked at #5.

The follow up song, "Pretty Ballerina" as well as "She May Call You Up Tonight" were also fruits of this infatuation. The band added guitarist Jeff Winfield and began touring. Brown's songs often included progressive key changes and chamber string arrangements, which critics dubbed "baroque pop." "Pretty Ballerina" rose in the charts early in 1967 (reaching #15) as did some early dissension among the group, causing Jeff Winfield to be replaced by Rick Brand on guitar.

After the band recorded its first album in January 1967, Brown, tired of touring and wanting to be more of a studio musician, let the rest of the band continue on the road with Emmett Lake filling in on keyboards. Soon this split became a chasm and Brown and his father faced off against the other three original members, claiming rights to the name The Left Banke, and began recording without them.

The single "Ivy Ivy" was made with other musicians Brown had put together. The other three original members were incensed by this and called for a boycott of the single. Apparently they were in control of the fan club, and the April 1967 newsletter revealed their bitterness as they called upon the membership for support, declaring that there were two Left Bankes, but that Brown's version of the group was made up of "strangers none of us have ever heard of." The record company dropped support for the single, and radio stations were confused, ensuring the record's poor performance as the two sides got ready to go to court over the name dispute.

The two factions somehow managed to reconcile later in the year and some quality recording was done, but none of the resulting single releases matched their early successes. There was no mending the mess they'd made with the public. Brown finally quit the band early in 1968 and Rick Brand left soon after. The other three continued on with new guitarist Tom Feher, recording a second album entitled "The Left Banke Too", which also included some leftover Brown compositions and several by Finn, who took over as the main creative force.

Neither the album nor subsequent single releases were chart successes despite their high quality - the atmosphere and momentum having been disrupted and confusing to radio, and the group disbanded. The final single, "Holly" was released in February 1969. Martin and Brown collaborated again, recording "Myrah," a single that was released in November 1969. There was one more joint venture between the two, circa 1972, on the songs "Two By Two" and "Love Songs In the Night" from the soundtrack to the motion picture "Hot Parts."

Michael Brown then went on to form "Stories", and recorded two albums with them for Kama Sutra in 1972 and 1973. Eventually becoming dissatisfied again, Brown left this group too, after which the remaining members made another album, and had a big hit with a song called "Brother Louie."

Finn, Martin, and Cameron reformed The Left Banke in 1978 and recorded an album called "Strangers on a Train". A single was released, but it went nowhere and the album was shelved. This record was eventually re-discovered and released again in 1986 on the independent Camerica label of New York, and on Bam-Caruso in the U.K., but never made it into wide circulation.

The Left Banke left behind a beautiful body of work, serious and unique in a period when the rising trends of the day in "serious rock" were electric blues, noise, and rockstar attitudes. The problems that befell them are sadly common in the world of arts where sensitive egos collide all too easily. Their legacy continues to influence and win the respect of pop musicians to this day.

When asked about how it feels to have written one of the all time classic rock and roll songs, Michael Brown, says he thinks he knows why the song has made such a lasting impression. "There's a certain purity to "Walk Away Renee," he says, "and its purity comes from the idea that a dream lives, even if it's just as a fantasy." In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed "Walk Away Renée" at #220 in its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Former guitarist Jeff Winfield died of complications from pneumonia on June 13th, 2009, at age 60.

The two founding members, Tom Finn and George Cameron, reformed The Left Banke in March, 2011. They appeared 'live' at Joe's Pub in New York City, on March 5th and 6th to a sold out audience. In April, 2011, Tom Finn announced that the band had two more shows planned for July in New York City.