Green Tambourine

So there's this thing called psychedelic rock. And then there's a simpler, sillier sort of music called bubblegum. They're just arbitrary terms, really, but each conjures a certain sonic image. Several late-1960s acts walked a fine line between the two. Of these, The Lemon Pipers probably came closest to being in both categories. Not surprisingly, this band from Oxford, Ohio sounded edgier at first (I doubt many children have ever said "When I grow up I want to be a bubblegum singer!") but gradually developed a candy-coated style as time passed, mostly due to pressure from the label heads who controlled their fate.

Singer-guitarist Dale "Ivan" Browne had formed a band called Ivan and the Sabers a few years earlier. Middlesex, England transplant Bill Bartlett was playing lead guitar in Cincinnati's Tony and the Bandits. Both garage bands had made a name for themselves regionally, and when Tony Brazis left around 1966 to form The Chosen Lot, Ivan took his place as lead singer of the Bandits while the Sabers became Sixth Day Creation and cut a single, "Cherry Pie," for Laurie Records. The Bandits voted (not unanimously) to change the group's name to The Lemon Pipers and started picking up gigs in area clubs, making the back-and-forth trek between Oxford and Cincinnati, about 40 miles apart. "Quiet Please," a groovy psych tune (with a guitar riff lifted by Blue Cheer for "Summertime Blues" more than a year later), was released as a single on the Carol label and hit the Western Ohio airwaves in late '66.

In those days Cleveland had a Teen Fair that featured a "Battle of the Bands" competition, which the Pipers entered in '67, finishing strong but losing to up-and-comers The James Gang. The event's tie-in to WIXY, the city's hottest top 40 station at the the time, increased their visibility and resulted in a contract with the recently-formed Buddah Records. Under the watchful eye of Neil Bogart they were assigned rookie producer Paul Leka (on the verge of his own success) and in October the group's first 45 for the label, Bartlett's "Turn Around and Take a Look," barely scraped the bottom rung of the national charts. Leka and Shelley Pinz composed the next single, "Green Tambourine," which hit the charts in December. The guys were not partial to the song about a street musician begging for coins; the sitar was cool, but the swirling strings and that repetitious tambourine was not in keeping with their "sound!" Not up to that point, anyway. So, of course, what happened? The record hit number one nationally the first week of February 1968!

It made sense that the group would embrace the psychedelic trend taking place at the time; the liner notes of the first Lemon Pipers album indicated they were all trippin' on something. Browne was a self-professed tree climber who claimed "I'm really Tarzan." Bartlett had seven pet cats and a fixation on something called "The Incredible Monster Orange." Organist and green tambourine player R.G. Nave (whose resumé included a band called The Wombats) liked to indulge in sky diving and scuba diving...simultaneously. Drummer Bill Albaugh (still a teenager) made a point of his resemblance to actor Van Heflin (who was in his late fifties at the time). New Zealand-born bassist Steve Walmsley was uncomfortable around adults...but then who wasn't? That last guy, at least, didn't sound like he'd been lighting up dried banana peels.

The debut album had a mostly rock/psych feel, but the band's direction as dictated by Bogart and the label's "suits" was clear. Bubblegum music was a hot trend, with a big hit by studio assemblage The 1910 Fruitgum Company ("Simon Says") already developing, and the infamous "Yummy Yummy Yummy" by The Ohio Express (a once-rocking band completely reconfigured for bubblegum in 1968) right around the corner. Buddah was in the process of cornering the market on all the gumball goings-on. The Pipers pushed for the right to be positioned as a psychedelic rock band but ended up going with the flow for fear of being dropped from the label's roster. Not that it would matter much in six months' time.

Leka and Pinz implemented the power given them, writing the next two singles as well: "Rice is Nice" and "Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade)," each more bubblicious than the previous release. Both records landed mid-chart, just shy of the top 40. Then there were no more. The band had become disenchanted with the lack of control and made clear their wishes to leave the label that summer, beating Buddah to the pink slip punch. Ivan Browne and a couple of the other members continued briefly as Pride (appearing under that name as early as fall '68), then went their separate ways. Bill Bartlett rebounded several years later with Ram Jam, a harder rocking outfit whose amped-up reworking of the traditional folk song "Black Betty" (well-known due to Leadbelly's 1939 recording) was a hit in 1977. Past associations continued to hang over the proceedings: the record was produced by Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, who had somehow bypassed The Lemon Pipers while leading the charge of most of Buddah's other late-'60s bubblegum productions.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Green Tambourine