Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bill Burkette And A Short History of The Vogues Trademarks, Licensing and a Triumphant Return

You may remember The Vogues during their early hit making days creating jangly garage rock anthems such as You’re the One, Magic Town and Five O’ Clock World on a local Pennsylvania label Co & CE. By 1968 they joined the Reprise label and enjoyed monster hits with easy listening standards such as Turn Around, Look At Me and My Special Angel. By 1975, after 14 Billboard endorsed hits, the Vogues fortunes declined. They recoded on the Bell label to little fanfare. The combination of success and decline set the stage for various groupings of singers to assume the name of The Vogues and cash-in on music they never created or recorded.

One of the more insidious devices used in the music industry is the purchasing of trademark band names and publishing rights. There are several bands touring today that have no original members. There are songwriters that never receive royalties. The Drifters, Coasters, Temptations, the Ink Spots…the list goes on and on. In the late sixties/seventies there were bogus Fleetwood Mac and Zombies bands touring the states. It comes with the territory when young men and women barely out of their teens sign complicated 30 page contracts they haven’t read. You know, like when you buy an automobile and the salesman arranges all the financing. BEWARE.

The history of the Vogues is another chapter in this tale of deceit and corruption. At the turn of the century, backroom business deals allowed the new owner of the trademark name to assign it to a group of all-new artists. This band toured for several years without any original members. In the meantime, Chuck Blasko, an original Vogue lobbied Congress to make changes in the trademark law to prevent others from misrepresenting themselves as the original artists. The courts ultimately allowed Blasko to tour 14 Western Pennsylvania counties as Chuck Blasko & The Vogues. Though the ruling was quite restrictive it seemed to be a step in the right direction. In the meantime Stan Elich managed the "trademark" Vogues with his son Troy. It is this trademark band that tours extensively outside the confines of those fourteen counties in Pennsylvania. It was nothing short of a coup-de-etat when Elich persuaded original Vogue Hugh Geyer to join the “trademark” Vogues. The coup was complete when the original lead singer Bill Burkette re-joined the band in 2008. I had a recent phone conversation with Burkette as he prepared for an upcoming television performance and tour. He was funny and gracious and he provided an historical perspective on the Vogues. He reached deep into his past wounds and quietly discussed his tangled feelings about losing the band he had founded and nurtured over 50 years ago.

Bill, you and the Vogues have enjoyed a marvelous and durable career most bands would die for, from the original jangly garage rock on the Co & Ce label to the edgy orchestral group harmony on Reprise. What was your favorite time period in the Vogues?

I really enjoyed the beginning of our career. We were just starting out. We went from light rock – like You’re the One to pop music such as My Special Angel and Till. But we did have a cold period in late 66 and 67 – publishers and writers like Greenway and Cook would send us pop songs like Lovers of the World Unite. It’s interesting that Dick Glasser, who was our rhythm guitarist on our first sessions in Ohio, would lead us to greater success. He called us one day after our initial hits. He said that he remembered the way we harmonized and came up with the song Turn Around Look at Me. It became a massive hit and led to even greater sales and popularity. We did something few ever do.

You are one of the great lead vocalists in rock & roll history right alongside singers like Sal Valentino (Beau Brummels), Howard Kaylen (the Turtles) and Terry Kirkman (The Association). You have a nuanced style and that ability to sing with a smile in your voice. How are you able to create that feel? Did you study voice and harmonics? Were you inspired by anyone in particular?

I studied voice as a kid. It was sometimes frustrating. I’d be playing football and baseball outside with my friends and my mom would open up the window and yell out “TIME TO DO YOUR VOICE LESSON”…the kids would laugh. I cannot remember my voice teacher’s name but she taught me to sing from my heart. She lived in a little country town 20 miles east of Pittsburg. I was inspired by the Four Freshmen, Johnny Mathis , the Four Lads and many others, including the Do-wop groups. That’s how the Vogues started out, singing do-wop on the street corners, just for fun.

My favorite Vogues period is the ’65-67 and all those phenomenal singles released by CE & Co. Who produced and arranged those sides. Did you have any input on the production? Song selection?

The producer was Nick Cenci…he produced a lot of Lou Christie’s early hits too. He had a wonderful imagination and knowledge for music. If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be here today. Herb Cohen (the Co in Co &Ce) was a huge factor in our success. We did have input on the songs and I did a lot of the vocal arrangements. From 1965-70 we had our own plane. It made touring easier but we never really saw the cities we visited. We would do a series of one-nighters – do the gig and leave for the next show.
We changed gears in 1968 and went to Warner Brothers and recorded on Reprise – Frank Sinatra’s label. This opened the doors for us and we toured the largest Night Clubs in the world. I liked it because we could stay at the resort like the Fontainebleau in Miami for a week or two and I could bring my wife and family with me. My wife still comes to gigs to this day.

Who did the jangly lead guitar work, great riffs? Who did those wonderfully sloppy garage beats?

We used a 12-string on Five O’ Clock World. We recorded over a demo track that was produced in Nashville. Never knew the guitarist’s name…a session guy. Not everyone who played with us could play that riff. But I recall that Duane and some of the Allman Brothers did some backup on a few of our album tracks that were produced in Nashville. You’re the One was an all-Pittsburg production. A backup band The Fenways with Sonny Denuncio recorded the backing track before we ever heard of the song. We just sang over the track. It was our first big hit. Magic Town was one of those deals where a writer or publisher will send you songs after you’ve had a few hits. They come out of the woodwork. Mann & Weill who wrote You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling sent Magic Town to us. It moved slow but it became a regional hit. Hal Blaine did all our later drum work. He was fantastic!

One of my favorite songs of the early era is The Land of Milk & Honey. It has an incredible sonic landscape, your emotive and ironic vocal and a message that cut against the grain of the burgeoning counter culture movement. How did you find that song? What are your feelings about it?

It was written by a Nashville guy by the name of Hurley. It was sent to us by then publisher. To be honest we were on a cold streak and we were looking for another direction. I liked it ok but some people asked me “why did you do it?” They thought it was about dope…it could be. Still the song meant a lot to me. I remember times when I was standing on the street corner with nothing much to do. We still do it though we added a little comedy bit with it. Maybe we’ll put it in the Bay City show!

How much of your early success do you attribute to your manager Elmer Willet?

Elmer was more than a manager. He was a very dear friend. You couldn’t ask for a better manager. He had the club the Vogue Terrace, a well known teen dance club as well as owning a small label, Willet Records. He also managed Tony Bennett and the Four Aces. He came up with the name the Vogues based on his teen club. He became part of my family. When he died I was one of his pallbearers. It was an honor.

In 1968 the Vogues shifted their musical gears dramatically with a great song Turn Around Look at Me, a shift that may have begun in 1966 with Magic Town. But for me the biggest difference was that your trademark leads were buried in a mix of unison/harmony vocals and orchestral charts. How did you feel about that?

By then it was mostly harmony with very few leads, except for some of the album cuts. Special Angel was all harmony…at first I was a little discouraged. But you learn to go with the flow. I admit it was disappointing. I still did do all the leads on our LP’s and I felt that some of those songs could have been big hits. For instance I sang lead on “Then”, a great song that had hit written all over it. But it was passed over. Most of my favorite songs were never released as singles. They were kept buried in the albums.

Your later success was incredible with such easy listening chestnuts as Woman Helping Man, No Not Much and My Special Angel. Who picked the songs? Did the Glasser/Freeman team control the show?

The Vogues have sold millions of great records and enjoyed 14 Billboard Hot 100 Hits. What was it like for you to be finally acknowledged by the Vocal group hall of Fame in 2001?

It was great! The only thing that bugs me is I want to be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (laughs). But this was impressive. It was a thrill to meet the ladies that sang Mr. Sandman and all those people that inspired me when I was just starting out in high school, folks like Shep & the Limelighters, The Moonglows, The Penguins – we did a version of their song Earth Angel – and the Lettermen

Five O’ Clock World is one of my all time favorite songs – it is PERFECT. Did Drew Carey’s use of it as his theme song in the nineties prompt renewed interest in the Vogues?
Did it stir something up in you?

I don’t know…I don’t believe it renewed much interest in us. But I was impressed – impressed by that great choreography more than anything. I never met Carey but I’d like to. I heard he was so impressed with the song that he put it in his theme.

What’s your take on all the legal problems regarding ownership of the Vogues name?

Hmm…I don’t really like to talk about it. Years ago…I lost interest in it. At the time we had quite a cold spell and I got away from it. The name – that’s just a business thing. When I was young I didn’t know much about licensing and ownership and all that. So I didn’t protect the name. It was taken…I had a lot of bad feelings …bitterness. The bitterness finally left me. It ended. And when I was invited back to sing it was like a validation. It’s fun again and I still bring my wife with me. What comes around goes around!

I read that one of your first gigs was in Detroit. Do you have an memories of that gig?

Yes. It was Cobo Hall…is it still there? We worked with Marvin Gaye and other Motown acts. We were told to lip-sync. We would move our lips and the kids went wild. It got out of control. The kids were pushing and shoving to get a look at us. They were pushed up and pinned against those huge plate glass windows in the front of the building. It was scary. I’ll never forget it.

Welcome back to Michigan!

Bo White

1 comment:

  1. Just found this post. I was always a fan of the vogues and then found a great, newer, live version of Turn Around on YouTube. It was great to hear the audience applaud the first time they heard the harmony work. Just an amazing sound from these gentlemen. A real class act.