Bend Me, Shape Me

The four core members of late-'60s band The American Breed came together from various parts of Chicago, each with different levels of experience. Guitarist and lead singer Gary Loizzo had fronted the band under an earlier name for four years prior to its big break. Guitarist Al Ciner and drummer Lee Graziano (who also played trumpet) were with Loizzo in 1963, practicing in the basement of his parents' house, all teenagers except fourth member Chuck Colbert, a black singer and bassist in his mid-twenties. Chuck previously sang doo wop harmonies with his cousin, Charles Davis; the two joined The Trinidads in 1958. The group had a single release in 1960 on Windy City entrepreneur Don Talty's Formal label, a ballad with a dated big band sound titled "When We're Together." From 1961 to '65, Colbert was with a more contemporary-sounding R&B quintet, The Daylighters; the group had a handful of singles on Tip Top, a label owned by Chuck's father, Charles Colbert, Sr., including "Cool Breeze," a local hit credited to Gerald Sims and the Daylighters that spent several weeks on the WLS "Silver Dollar Survey" in the fall of 1962. A year later, the same recording was re-released by Okeh Records as a solo single by Sims.

Loizzo, Ciner, Colbert and drummer Jim Michalak comprised the first lineup of Gary and the Knight Lites, with the more dependable Graziano replacing Michalak in the early going; Colbert's time with the Daylighters overlapped his stint with the Knight Lites for several months. The band's first single, pop ballad "If I'm Lonely Tomorrow" on the Kedlen label, appeared in the spring of '63. "I'm Glad She's Mine," on Nike Records, was a late-year release (Gary moonlighted as a saxophonist with The Valiants, appearing on two singles issued in 1964: a remake of Ritchie Valens' "Come on Let's Go" on Cortland and "Be on Your Way" under the name Phil DeMarco and the Valiants on Debby Records). No two Gary and the Knight Lites discs were on the same label; "I Can't Love You Anymore," a summer '64 offering, was on the Las Vegas-based Prima label (its owner was famed singer Louis Prima). In '66 there were two Charles Colbert-produced discs, the midtempo "I Don't Need Your Help" on U.S.A. and a Vietnam war-related ballad, "So Far Away From Home" on Bell. They hooked up with Chicago music "surpervisor" Bill Traut, who produced the funkier, mostly-instrumental "One, Two, Boogaloo" on Dunwich, the group's only release as The Light Nites.

Traut pitched them to Dot Records and the timing was good; in early 1967 they signed with Acta, a new imprint specializing in up-and-coming rock groups. Label bosses wanted them to take on a more modern, "relevant" name; "New Breed" was suggested and the American Breed was the name that stuck. Gerry Goffin and Carole King composed the first single, standard romantic number "I Don't Think You Know Me," though there wasn't much interest in it. The second release, Al Gorgoni and Chip Taylor's "Step Out of Your Mind" combined psych-era lyrics like 'jump, jump, out of your head' with a brass-infused "jazz-rock" sound by arranger Eddie Higgins. Hitting the WLS top ten in June '67, it broke big in several other large eastern U.S. markets, reaching the national top 30 in July. Concert promoters got them club gigs and some opening spots for major acts of the day; over the next year the quartet performed more than 200 shows...without the benefit of accompanying horn players.

Third single "Don't Forget About Me," another Goffin-King tune, fell through the cracks (Barbara Lewis had already released a version and Dusty Springfield's Memphis recording became a minor hit about 18 months later). But the next disc, coming just as their concert calendar maxed out, was well-timed. "Bend Me, Shape Me" (''ve got the power to turn on the light'), penned by "High on a Hill" singer Scott English and Larry Weiss (who'd built a track record supplying hits for Baby Washington, The Animals, The Outsiders, Al Martino, Jerry Butler and others), started climbing the national charts in late '67. The leading Chicago stations (WLS and WCFL) ranked it at number one in January '68 and the RIAA honored the single with a million-in-sales certification during its concurrent run in Billboard's top ten.

Gary Loizzo, Lee Graziano, Al Ciner, Chuck Colbert

Other opportunities emerged; they recorded "A Quiet Place," a heavily-orchestrated ballad for No Way to Treat a Lady, a crime/serial killer drama starring Rod Steiger, Lee Remick and George Segal, released to theaters in March '68. Listeners were confused about the group's image...were they a pop band? Psychedelic? The brass sound distinguished them from other groups of the era. Concert promoters booked them for some very large shows, sometimes second on the bill to acts like The 5th Dimension or Four Tops; in one case they opened for British blues-rockers Cream. Neither extreme was a particularly good fit. A dual-headliner with New York's Soul Survivors seemed to make more sense. "Green Light," written by Electric Prunes songstresses Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz, retained some momentum and made the top 40 in March. Two more singles, "Ready, Willing and Able" and Chip Taylor's "Anyway That You Want Me" (a top ten U.K. hit for The Troggs almost two years earlier) had brief chart appearances later in the year.

Their vocals, with Loizzo usually taking lead, was a sound ad execs liked; they recorded several TV commercial spots for Coca-Cola ('Let's go get a Coke!'), American Airlines and Bell Telephone. After a year with no hits, R&B singer Paulette McWilliams, from their South Chicago stomping grounds, was added; her assertive lead on "Hunky Funky" altered the band's sound considerably, but the best the record managed was a low chart placement. With the next single, "Room at the Top," a distinct evolution became obvious; the addition of organist Kevin Murphy and socially-conscious lyrics made it clear the band was aiming for a spot among emerging "psychedelic soul" acts (Sly and the Family Stone, The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and the funky-new-phase Temptations). Everyone but Loizzo decided to leave and start another group that, after trying out a few names, became Rufus, an integrated rhythm-and-rock band that signed, same as Sly Stone had done, with Epic Records. By late '69 they debuted with an Al Kooper song, "Brand New Day."

Gary moved forward on his own, recruiting new members for the separate-entity American Breed. They recorded the theme for The Brain, a bizarre French crime heist comedy starring Jean-Paul Belmondo; while the song may have worked in the context of the film ('they like to try to brainwash the brain...'), it made no sense out of context. Acta closed up shop at the end of the decade and the American Breed single "Can't Make it Without You," issued on Paramount Records in the summer of 1970, spelled the end...on vinyl. As a postscript of sorts, Gary recorded one final American Breed film song: "Solitary Sanctuary" from the 1971 Vietnam vet drama Jud.

Former bandmates Ciner, Graziano and Murphy gradually left Rufus, as McWilliams eventually did; she was replaced by a new lead singer, Chaka Khan, and in 1974, the Stevie Wonder-penned "Tell Me Something Good" became a breakthrough smash for the band, followed by many years of hits and top-tier stardom for Khan. Gary Loizzo, meanwhile, continued doing what he enjoyed most. His studio career extended to working with a number of rock acts; with Rob Kingsland, he received a Grammy nomination in the category Best Engineered Recording for his work on the 1979 Styx album Cornerstone.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Bend Me, Shape Me