This Sunday at the Wisconsin State Fair…
This week’s oldie features Gary Puckett.
If you’re familiar with his big hits you know where the blog title above is coming from.
Puckett and his band formed in 1967 in the state of Washington and took their name from the nearby city of Union Gap. How they got into the business is rather interesting. Securing a big break wasn’t easy because as Puckett likes to remind his audiences, 300 to 400 separate 45-rpm records were sent to radio deejays weekly in the ’60s. Competition, naturally was fierce. One day the group was pitching themselves in southern California.
“I’m in the car with all the guys in the band, going down the street on Hollywood Boulevard,” Puckett said. “I’m tired, I’m frustrated. All the other record companies had told us that day that they love my voice, love our outfits but our music wasn’t their area of expertise and then they’d send us down the hallway to someone else and nothing came of it. We’re going down the street, about a quarter mile away from the freeway that will take us back home to San Diego, and I see CBS Records and say to the guys in the band, ‘pull over, keep the car running, I think I’m only going to be a few seconds.’ I go inside and there’s a lady at the phone center like in the old days. I walk up to her and say, ‘hi – you wouldn’t want to hear a new group would you?’
“She said to wait a minute, then directed me down to the hallway to the second door on the right. I walked down and there’s (record producer and former country star) Jerry Fuller, hanging Ricky Nelson’s gold record (“Travelin’ Man”) on his wall. And I’m a huge fan.”
Fuller went to see the band’s act the next weekend and signed them to a contract.
As part of their gimmick the group wore Civil War Union uniforms. And as their popularity grew they had to travel to the south, in those Northern outfits, in the 60’s.
“We were a little hesitant to go,” said Puckett. “We got this concert in Birmingham, Ala., when they used to do the big radio-station promotional things. We thought, ‘Gosh, what are we going to do? What if we walk out on stage in these outfits and the people go, ‘Boo’? So we got this Confederate flag that was probably 4-by-7, and we rolled it up and laid it over the keyboards. When they introduced us, we walked over and two of us grabbed a corner of the flag — and 6,000 people gave the rebel yell. And we were in.”
Fuller wrote their second big hit, “Young Girl” that reached #2 on the Billboard chart, even though it had…those lyrics.
Young girl, get out of my mind
My love for you is way out of line
Better run girl
You’re much too young girl
With all the charms of a woman
You’ve kept the secret of your youth
You led me to believe you’re old enough
To give me love
And now it hurts to know the truth
Beneath your perfume and your make-up
You’re just a baby in disguise
And though you know that it’s wrong to be
Alone with me
That come on look is in your eyes
And yes, people are aware and often ask about…those lyrics.
“Sure, I get that a lot. I mean, what is ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ all about? We’ve always been singing about girls and libidos,” said Puckett.
“Most people wanted to think it was about a guy who was a bit shady. But that’s not the case. It was written by a guy who was upstanding and like, ‘Hey, you told me you’re old enough to give me love and now I know the truth, so get out of my mind!’ That was the way I always thought about that song.”
As hot as the group was, with a lot of help from Fuller, they dumped him. They didn’t want to pursue the same soft rock style and wished to write their own material. At the time Puckett said you couldn’t do 60’s-like songs in the changing new decade of the 1970’s. And like most bands the members had their differences. So they dumped each other in 1971. Puckett went solo but he and the Union Gap never enjoyed the same skyrocketing fame. They’re now consistently booked on the revival tours.
“I wish I had not thought that I knew better than anybody else,” Puckett said. “I wanted to continue recording and to write, but I wanted more control over my musical life. The problem was that things were changing, and I wasn’t aware that things were changing. Life just takes its turns… The political scene and the musical scene were changing. By 1971, the 1960s were being booted out the door.
“Jerry Fuller was a smart and talented writer and producer and knew how to guide us through those hits. He knew the value of a success formula. Jerry would say the hardest thing to do is follow your last success. You have to follow a hit with something strong, and I think that was his forte. Those songs had success built into them.”
Before the group disbanded they hit the Top Ten with the third hit in a row and the last written for them by Fuller in the fall of 1968.
Left: “Young Girl” indeed — the October 1968 cover of Teen magazine. Right: The Union Gap’s classic lineup: Kerry Chater (bass), Gary “Mutha” Withem (keyboards), Paul Whitebread (drums), Puckett and Dwight Bement (sax).
Puckett is now 76.