By Richie Unterberger

Over the course of their first three albums in the late 1960s, the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble made their mark as one of the few bands of any era to comfortably integrate classical music and instrumentation into a rock format. Their 1968 self-titled debut had been co-produced by Shadow Morton (famous for his work with the Shangri-Las, Janis Ian, the Vanilla Fudge, and later the New York Dolls), and also showcased a quintet that could skillfully blend instrumental, compositional, and vocal input from five distinct and diverse musicians. The group's 1969 follow-up, Faithful Friends, solidified and expanded their assets while allowing themselves to take a stronger voice in the production.

    "Faithful Friends reflected our first more concentrated efforts at 'producing a record,' zeroing in on our songwriting and musical strengths and trying to more effectively use the positive experiences we were at that time collecting on the road," says bassist/cellist Dorian Rudnytsky today. "We tried to improve specifically on our classical-rock arrangements while, at the same time, strengthen on rock songs writing.  Also, Adrian Barber and Bruce Tergesen moved into the roles of producers with us for this album, and the effects of working together are there as well." Tergesen (who'd engineered numerous jazz albums for Atlantic in the '60s) and Barber (who'd played alongside the Beatles in Liverpool in the early '60s as part of the Big Three, and would go on to work as an engineer or producer with the Allman Brothers, the Velvet Underground, the Bee Gees, and Aerosmith) were also managers of the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. In fact, Tergesen had engineered the first demo session that got the band their Atlantic contract.

    Most of the songs on Faithful Friends were original compositions, and owed more to rock than classical music, with all five members contributing as songwriters.  The band also inserted brief classical pieces by Bach ("Trio Sonata No. 2 in G Major") and Thomas Morley ("Aria"), as well as a lengthier adaptation of Bach's "Brandenburg." On top of all this was a cover of one of Jimi Hendrix's less celebrated songs, "Wait Until Tomorrow." With the frequent incorporation of oboe and cello into the arrangements, and the group's oft-noted performances in tuxedos and tails, they didn't quite sound or look like any other act on the late-'60s rock scene—quite a feat, at a time when so many artists were trying to outdo each other in eclecticism or outrageousness.

    "On the one hand, we were an ordinary rock and roll band," notes Rudnytsky. "But included were also two classically trained oboe players, and a classically trained cellist. Since the keyboard player was one of the oboe players, the drummer the other, and the bass player the cellist, the intriguing possibilities were there right from the start. We were able to quickly include some straightahead classical pieces into our sets, and from this came the first efforts to include these instruments within our non-classical pieces. Since we were naturally inclined to experiment, and since we somehow from the very beginning understood and felt the power of rock music, it was very natural and quite easy for us to include the classical instruments within that framework without ever feeling we were somehow discrediting either the rock music, or the classical. The cello very naturally fits into the lower registers anyhow and was never a problem with ballads, while the special nasal characteristic sound of the oboes rides very clearly and beautifully on top of the all-out 100 Watt Marshall stacks."

    Dorian also sees the division of most of the lead vocals between keyboardist/oboist Michael Kamen and rhythm guitarist Brian Corrigan as an asset. "Michael had the more 'cultured' voice, with some early stage experience in musicals prior to the NYR&RE (also in early bands)," he notes. "He wanted badly to be the American John Lennon. Brian had [a] more bluesy voice, and could be more easily compared with Jagger. The combination was great for us and helped to set off the songs, and also helped us to remain slightly enigmatic and not so easy to cubbyhole (are they classical? Rock? Or what?)—which was both an advantage and disadvantage." Adds lead guitarist Clif Nivison (who also takes a lead vocal on "Lazy Man"), "No band I've been in since had people who could all sing lead and harmony. Michael and [drummer/oboist] Marty [Fulterman] could both hear oboe parts in almost all songs, and the cello is such a beautiful sound; it always adds color."

    Of the original songs on Faithful Friends, perhaps the most familiar-sounding to the general rock audience is "Sing Lady Sing," due to its similarity to a different record that ended up getting much more exposure. "Buddy Miles took pretty much all the guitar lines that Michael and I wrote and used them in 'Them Changes,'" says Nivison. "It is the same song with a different vocal." As for the group's cover of "Wait Until Tomorrow," written by a musician with whom Miles was soon to (briefly) play, Clif explains, "Michael and I were great Hendrix fans. He heard us play his song at [the New York club] The Scene in 1969. He told us he really liked it."

    The Bach and Morley pieces found a natural home on the album since, as Rudnytsky notes, "We were performing the trios live as part of our act. It was logical to us and totally fine to include these into our records. Everywhere we played, audiences loved it when we played these short classical pieces. 'Brandenburg' was a special piece. Leonard Bernstein invited us to play a Young People's Concert with him, and we created this arrangement for that concert.  We did it with the NY Philharmonic with a band-made arrangement, following a NY Philharmonic performance of the original, and afterwards included it in our sets as well for some period of time as a closer for either the first half of our show, or the end of the night. The final chord often fell into total cacophony, depending on our moods. [It was] a fun arrangement, an experiment that worked at that time. If Bach had heard it, he would not have quit composing."

    It was original material, however, that was at the core of Faithful Friends, often blending rock and classical flavors into the same track without either element clashing with or overwhelming the other. "'Asking Too Much' remains one of my favorites from this album," observes Dorian. "The instrumental break in it is not the greatest...but kind of fun and typical of lots that we did live.  Perhaps this reliance on spontaneity was a drawback for us in a way.  Later on, I often thought we should have really thought a bit more about certain instrumental breaks, and even lyrics or parts of songs, and the results might have been even better than they were. I'm convinced today that this is one of the main reasons we never had a hit record. It was there, in our songs. We just didn't really dig it out properly and with enough thought, sensitivity and care."

    Continues Rudnytsky, "'Thinking of Mary' is another personal favorite. There is no other song ever that has an opening lyric like Brian's 'Eating a sandwich...' I love it! The instrumental break worked out very well, and also worked well in live performance (not always the case with the mixed instrument pieces we did in the studio). 'Faithful Friends' was the first real Marty composition for the band, and came to us as a big surprise. Excellent song, fun to play, great lyrics. We learned it quickly in Fire Island during a gig there and it was a staple of our live performances for years."

    Although the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble were happy with how their music was progressing, Faithful Friends, like their debut, was not a big seller, possibly because it was so hard to categorize. "I think the media was still having problems with us, our image, and our 'place' in the rock developments of that time," feels Dorian. "The West Coast was coming on strong—hippies, war resisters, the whole '60s thing was exploding all around and we were exploding with it. However, we still had our tuxedos and tails we wore playing live, and we were still often connected to the New York 'Beautiful People' scene—a difficult image that was becoming more and more of a burden. In fact, during the time of this record's release, we were breaking away from that, and so I guess we were getting mixed signals—very positive from our fan base, and more restrained from the new audience we were beginning to reach out to." The band's association with Atlantic Records was already on the verge of ending, but not before a third album of a very different sort, Reflections, emerged—a story told on Collectors' Choice Music's CD reissue of that unusual recording. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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