Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Groovy, Incredible, Mysterious and Much Misunderstood Eternity's Children! (2 CD)

Compilation (single artist)

I've been meaning to do something with Eternity's Children for awhile now, so I guess with all the other long term projects I've got in the queue it would be a good time to talk about these guys.


Where to begin? Well it's not like there's a lack of product out there on the group, that's for sure. Their two Tower LP releases, Eternity's Children and Timeless, though difficult to locate on vinyl, have been re-issued on CD at least twice in the last decade, both times with additional bonus tracks. In addition, the fabulous GEAR FAB label unleashed The Lost Sessions in 2003; a great release that filled in many gaps in the Eternity's Children saga. It revealed a band that was far more than just another faceless studio assemblage; one that dated back to Mississippi ca. 1965 and specialized in raw, garage-styled rock 'n' blues before moving to Los Angeles and getting into the sunshine pop bag. Furthermore, it showcased the group's top notch later recordings of songs by many master writers including Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro and Sly Stone.

The only problem with the Gear Fab release (apart from the pearls-before-swine factor in that nobody really actually bought a copy) was that the liner notes were sparse and didn't really reveal too much about who played on what, or when any of this stuff was actually recorded. It certainly stumped me at least, to the point where I devoted a good chunk of my free time trying to track down info on the band. You see, despite a few clunkers in their catalog, Eternity's Children were a far cry from such faceless Curt Boettcher studio amalgamations as the Bootiques or the Candy Company, names they were sometimes lumped in with. No, this was a real group with a story to be told, both in words and music.

And so we begin the saga of the groovy, incredible, mysterious and much misunderstood Eternity's Children. According to drummer Roy Whittaker, the band was originally formed at Delta State College in Cleveland, Mississippi. They came of age circa 1965 and were originally known as the Phantoms. Other members included vocalist/keyboardist Bruce Blackman, lead guitarist Johnny Walker (both later of the band Starbuck, best known for their Seventies' smash "Moonlight Feels Right"), bassist Charlie Ross and rhythm guitarist Johnny Bounds. Whittaker, Blackman and Walker were all previously classmates at Greenville High, while Blackman was recently described by one fan who knew him around this time as "the best keyboard player I have ever known". The Phantoms released at least one single during this period: "Workin' Tired" b/w "Gonna Be Nice Tonight" on the Senatobia, Mississippi based Flash label (52965).


As the Phantoms gained status locally, the group gravitated towards Biloxi where they played such venues as the Biloxi Hotel and the Vapors, eventually changing their name to the much hipper "Eternity's Children" after hooking up with a dynamic folk singer by the name of Linda Lawley. They made a name for themselves backing such national touring artists as Charlie Rich and B.J. Thomas and were eventually signed to Crocked Foxx Productions and Music; a company run by Baton Rouge health club magnate Ray Roy and his partner Guy Belello. Near about this time, a second single was released on Apollo Records, comprised of two Bruce Blackman originals: "Can't Put a Thing Over Me" b/w "Time and Place". The record was so obscure that not even an original catalog number could be located by this author. (Another Blackman original, the sinister "Cigarette", likely hails from these same sessions.) Poster "tbrown" over at musicaltaste.com remembers: "I too am a long time Eternity's Children fan. Grew up in Biloxi, played in a local band in high school. Used to go hear the Children at the Biloxi Hotel and at the Vapors in about 1967. Along with Little David and the Giants, they were the hottest groups around at the time....great memories."

As 1966 turned to 1967, a locally produced demo on the Ace label (contents unknown, but may have included their covers of both the Hollies' "Hard Hard Year" and the standard "A Taste of Honey") found its way all the way to Hollywood, where it was absorbed by A&M staff producer Alan Stanton, recently coming off a tenure over at Columbia where he'd produced the Byrds transitional Fifth Dimension LP. Stanton presumably liked what he heard, as the Children were soon signed to A&M and whisked away to Hollywood where they would cut their next single; "Rumors" b/w "Wait and See" (A&M 866). The A-side was again penned by Blackman with assistance from their new engineer/arranger Keith Olsen (late of the Music Machine), while the flip came from the pen of the great David Gates, still a struggling songwriter at the time. With a record under their belts, Eternity's Children soon hit the road alongside the Seeds, the Blues Magooes and headliners the Strawberry Alarm Clock. (Groovy bill, no?) Despite the tour, the record tanked and A&M passed on a follow-up.


With the A&M deal down the drain and the group now firmly ensconced in Hollywood, the Crocked Foxx boys went label shopping and finally struck a deal with the Capitol subsidiary Tower around the beginning of 1968. Arrangements were immediately made for Keith Olsen and his new partner Curt Boettcher to come in and produce an LP that would help break the band to a national audience.


The resulting sessions were presumably fraught with tension, though apparently this had more to do with the management of Crocked Foxx than anything having to do with the relationship between the producers and the recording artists. Bruce Blackman and Johnny Bounds were the first to leave the group. States Blackman today; "We did not survive because of incredibly bad management... After I left the group, they tried to cheat me (unsuccessfully) out of any credit." Ex-Nurotic Sheep keyboardist Mike "Kid" McClain was brought in to help finish up the sessions, and the album's cover features a line-up of McClain, Ross, Whittaker and Lawley.


Unfortunately, given the turbulent circumstances surrounding the group at the time of recording, and combined with producer Boettcher's penchant for using his own group of session vocalists and musicians on any given recording he was put in charge of, it's simply impossible to say who played what on Eternity's Children. What can be ascertained however is both the beauty of the album as well as its inconsistency. At its best, on such songs as "Again Again", "Your World", "Little Boy" and the lead single "Mrs. Bluebird", the group achieve an almost uncanny level of brilliance on a sound that's equal parts A&M Records and Our Productions (Boettcher's production company). Elsewhere, there's some great hybrid bossa-nova in the form of "My Happiness Day", sunshiney pop in more of a Spanky vein with "Lifetime Day" and a catchy, rocking closer in "Sunshine Among Us". These are the songs Eternity's Children actually played on, which is to say others-- whether by choice or necessity-- did not feature the band on backing instruments, or sometimes at all. "Rupert White", as has long been known, utilized the same basic backing track as the Gary Paxton produced Chocolate Tunnel's version of the same song. Similarly, "You Know I've Found a Way" is an under-dubbed version of a track found on Boettcher's concurrent album with Gary Usher-- Sagittarius' Present Tense.

The clear highlight of Eternity's Children was it's first single. "Mrs. Bluebird"-- a sublime achievement for both the group and their producers, combining the very best of many disparate elements found within the musical ether of 1968: smooth, full harmonies; perfectly performed backing arrangements; a melancholy chord progression; bird calls and even a fuzz guitar solo that starts off fooling the listener by perfectly emulating a tenor sax. It was state of the art record making for its time, and the band hit the circuit hard to promote it, including a performance in front of Dick Clark on American Bandstand. (The video of this appearance has yet to surface, but is a legitimate holy grail.) Sadly, "Mrs. Bluebird" was not able to chart higher than #69 in July, and its follow-up "Sunshine Among Us" performed even worse, hitting a paltry #117 that September.


At the dawn of 1969, the Eternity's Children reconvened at the studios of producer Gary S. Paxton to record a follow-up single for Tower; "Till I Hear It from You" b/w "I Wanna Be with You". Percussionist/ vibesman Bo Wagner had now replaced Whittaker within the group, and his bell overdubs combined McClain's multiple virtuosic keyboard parts to hold down the upper-middle register generally reserved for guitars. Sadly, the departure of both the group's best songwriter and their whiz kid producer did the band few favors, as they moved away from the moody pop of their previous album to a more Vegas-y approach. The single was released at the same time the band's second album, the somewhat ironically titled Timeless, was nearing completion. When the single sank without a trace, Tower decided to withdraw the LP prior to release in the United States and release it only in Canada where "Mrs. Bluebird" had been a moderate hit. Despite an increased songwriting presence from McClain, Ross and Lawley, and contributions from Clarence White, Gene Parsons and Ben Benay, the album was not as strong as its predecessor and it too sank.


Assessed from today's standards, however, Timeless is clearly not without its merits. The singing and musicianship are absolutely first-rate, and despite the additional Cheez-Whiz factor in some tunes, the moodier numbers like "Christina in My Dreams", "Gypsy Minstrel Man" and "The Thinking Animal" still make the grade. Even better, Linda Lawley was beginning to emerge as a true talent with a voice that was simultaneously clear and powerful. Indeed, Lawley attained such a singular sound for her time that I find it impossible to believe that Richard or Karen Carpenter didn't catch the band either in concert or on record during some formative stage of their existence as a performing entity, for the simple fact that Eternity's Children Mark II was virtually a template for the Carpenters' entire career path. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, and that too includes Eternity's Children.

But not so fast, my soft pop loving compatriots!.. Even though the Eternity's Children had missed their initial shot at big time, they still had a record contract and a fighting chance, right? Disheartened, the group decided to leave L.A. and return back to Mississippi, where former band-mates Blackman and Walker had since started a new band called the Omen that was making a huge splash on the Southern soul circuit. Eternity's Children headed straight to Memphis to record a new album with Chips Moman and session bassist Tommy Cogbill. Though the record never materialized, several new Eternity's Children-related singles were released on Tower throughout 1969. In short order the group and Tower served up the quintessential Memphis/Moman sound of "Sidewalks of the Ghetto" (Tower 476); "Railroad Trestle in California" (Tower 477) credited to Charles Ross III and featuring gospel backing from some unnamed female vocalists; some nice orchestrated soulful pop from the pens of Mark James and Spooner Oldham with "Blue Horizon" (Tower 498); another Ross solo with the admittedly awful "Laughing Girl"; and finally a Linda Lawley solo single in "When the World Turns" b/w "Living Is Easy" (Tower 500) that continued to anticipate the sound of the Carpenters.


When Tower folded at the end of the year, the group were scooped up by Liberty Records, who were still smarting after losing the 5th Dimension to the Bell label and were looking for another vocal group to market. Re-energized, the band set course for Tyler, Texas where they would record their final single under producer Robin Hood Bryant. The result was a spectacular bit of almost baroque pop music titled "Alone Again". (Interestingly, the flip side was another Curt Boettcher/ Sagittarius demo; this one being "From You Unto Us".)

When that record soon failed, Eternity's Children parted ways with Liberty and returned once again to Mississippi. Back on home turf they would continue to gig at any place lucky enough to have them, leaving enthusiastic fans in their wake wherever they played. Eventually Bruce Blackman, Johnny Walker and Bo Wagner would re-surface in Starbuck, who as previously mentioned at the beginning of this article would score a #3 hit in 1975 with the classic "Moonlight Feels Right". Likewise, Mike "Kid" McClain and Roy Whittaker would continue to gig throughout the South as well, often times crossing paths with their old E.C. bandmates. As for Linda Lawley, she too would continue on with her singing career. She released a self-titled solo album in 1989 and backed Carole King at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Carole introduced her as a "local girl" and she was even allowed to sing lead on one number. Sadly, both Lawley and Walker passed away in 2007.


In 2003, a wonderful gift was bestowed upon all Eternity's Children fans, as Gear Fab released the highly anticipated Lost Sessions, which collected not only the single sides not found on the 2fer, but also nine previously unreleased E.C. tunes. Though information contained for each song was next to none, a casual listen could help date the tracks to an extent. "Cigarette" sounds like it was recorded around the time of the first single, before the band hit L.A. "A Taste of Honey" and "Hard Hard Year" seem to date from around the time of the A&M single, and as previously stated could have appeared on the demo that led to the group getting signed. Takes of Jimmy Webb's "The Girls' Song" and "Didn't We" and Randy Newman's "Just One Smile" have a definite L.A. sheen to them, while their versions of Sly Stone's "Somebody's Watching You", Ike Clanton's "Down the Aisle" and Laura Nyro's "Woman's Blues" have more of a down and dirty Southern vibe and were probably recorded once the band left Los Angeles. The one unifying factor of these later-day performances are that they are uniformly excellent cover choices, and feature the band in a very positive light. Linda Lawley in particular should be commended for owning the Nyro track, as she grounds it in a way the song's creator wasn't quite able to do.


The entire Eternity's Children oeuvre can be found here and here for you to explore. I specifically encoded both discs at 160k so as to facilitate some more sales for our pals over at Rev-ola and Gear Fab. If you like what you hear (and I know you will) you can support Eternity's Children and these fine labels by buying lossless versions of the following: Eternity's Children/Timeless (Rev-ola); From Us Unto You: The Complete Singles (Rev-ola); and The Lost Sessions (Gear Fab).

**This essay would not have been possible without the hard work and dedicated research done by Dawn Eden for her liners to the original E.C. 2-fer, and for the personal recollections of the band and their fans over at musicaltaste.com. Thanks for keeping the E.C. spirit alive!