By Richie Unterberger
The Robbs released over a dozen singles, usually on some of the biggest labels in America; were a house band on Dick Clark's national television show, Where the Action Is, for much of 1966; worked with several of the top producers in the business; and had a leader who wrote much of their material, in a wide range of the trendiest mid-'60s pop-rock styles. Yet if they're known at all by '60s rock aficionados, it's for holding the record of having more singles that reached the "bubbling under" section of the Billboard chart than any other act never to actually reach the magazine's Hot Hundred. When they'd ultimately make it big in the music business, it would be as behind-the-scenes studio operators, not as recording artists.
The Robbs were formed by the brothers David Donaldson (aka Dee Robb), Robert Donaldson (aka Bruce Robb), and George Donaldson (aka Joe Robb) in Wisconsin, and had a performing and recording history predating the British Invasion. They backed Del Shannon for a time in the early 1960s, and released obscure 45s on Argo, Todd, and Score credited to Dee Robb, Robby & the Robins, and Dee Robb & the Robins. The band ran through a series of drummers, settling on a quartet lineup by the mid-1960s with drummer Craig Krampf, who'd be known as Craig Robb while in the Robbs (and was no relation to the Robb brothers, though audiences understandably sometimes thought he was a cousin or brother of the other guys).
A deal with RCA didn't actually result in any records that came out on the label, but the Robbs made up for that setback by getting Dick Clark's attention when playing a show at a Dick Clark teen world's fair in Chicago. That helped get them a slot on a Chicago-taped installment of Where the Action Is, as well as a deal with Chicago-based Mercury Records. In May 1966 the Robbs moved to Los Angeles to work as a regular house band on Clark's show, and in mid-1966 they issued their first Mercury single, "Race with the Wind"/"In a Funny Sort of Way."
As Craig Krampf remembers, both sides had been cut in Chicago around the time of the teen world's fair, with Lou Reizner (later to produce Rod Stewart's first two albums) producing, and were instrumental to landing the Mercury contract. "Our configuration was, at the beginning, sax, guitar, drums, and Hammond organ," he elaborates. "Bruce played foot pedals, just like the Rascals, so that was our bass for live gigs. We never had a bass player. But much like the Doors did on later things, and the Rascals did also, [we] would bring in a bass player to play on the records. A little sidelight for 'Race with the Wind' was that Pete Cetera [later of the group Chicago] was the bass player; Lou Reizner knew Pete. And it didn't work out well at all. I mean, he did not play well, and basically we brought my brother Carl from Milwaukee, who's a psychologist but also was a musician, and Carl played on 'Race with the Wind.' We erased Peter Cetera, which was kind of cool." After their move to California, the Robbs would use other outside session musicians as bassists, including Hollywood A-team veterans Larry Knechtel and Joe Osborn.
"Race with the Wind," a wistful Dee Robb-penned number combining the pop-folk-rock sound of 1966 with Phil Spector-influenced percussion, probably remains the group's most well-known single. It had some success in the Midwest -- as well as getting airplay on major Chicago stations, Krampf thinks it made the Top Five in Milwaukee. Yet "Race with the Wind" became the first of their five singles to peak just outside of the Top Hundred, reaching #103. A second single, "I Don't Feel Alone"/"Next Time You See Me," missed the charts entirely, despite benefiting from the production expertise of L.A. hitmakers Snuff Garrett and Leon Russell. Russell was responsible for one particularly innovative feature of "Next Time You See Me," as Krampf explains: "Leon [had] just got back from England, and he had heard a preview copy of Revolver, [by] the Beatles. He heard that backwards guitar on 'I'm Only Sleeping' and said, 'I know what we're gonna do on this record. I'm gonna flip the tape over.' 'You're gonna do what?' You know, we're kids, this whole recording thing is fairly new to us. And sure enough, Leon actually flipped the tape over and did the backwards guitar on 'Next Time You See Me.'"
For their third Mercury 45, the services of the hot production-songwriting team of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri were enlisted. The enigmatic Sloan had already written, both alone and in collaboration with Barri, a number of memorable mid-'60s folk-rock and pop-rock smashes, including Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," Herman's Hermits' "A Must to Avoid," Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man," the Grass Roots' "Where Were You When I Needed You," the Searchers' "Take Me for What I'm Worth," and the Turtles' "Let Me Be" and "You Baby." Though "Bittersweet" was a strong Sloan-Barri number with accomplished harmonies (particularly on the high parts during the chorus) and a folk-pop-rock melody that was indeed bittersweet, it too failed to crack the charts.
"In some ways, 'Bittersweet' kind of sums up a lot of what happened with our recording career, where we would have regional breakouts," feels Krampf. "At the time, in the fall of '66, we did a Dick Clark-Paul Revere & the Raiders tour where we did about 80 one-nighters in a row -- it was the Raiders, ourselves, the Standells, Ian Whitcomb. 'Bittersweet' was released during this tour. We'd be #3 in Atlanta, and two months later, #5 in Columbus, Ohio. I think that record was around for seven, eight months or so.
"For some reason, Mercury just could not coordinate that effort. We always felt that Mercury kind of figured, 'Wait a minute, these guys are on television just about every day after school on Where the Action Is. I don't think we have to do promotion.' We had a big publicity firm as soon as we got to Los Angeles, and here we are in all the teen magazines, 16, Flip, Tiger Beat and all that. We were getting a lot of press. But it just never crossed into the efforts with the records." Craig remains sorry that they didn't get to work with Steve Barri again at Mercury, as "he always wanted the band. He loved the Robbs. You know, basically Steve and P.F. Sloan sang [the Grass Roots' 1966 hit 'Where Were You When I Needed You'], and lo and behold, they've got a hit record and no band. For the longest time, Steve wished he could have gotten us to take over with those songs and do that kind of stuff." Barri did indeed work with the band again a few years later, when the Robbs were on ABC-Dunhill.
The Robbs did manage to put out two final singles on Mercury in 1967. The first of these, "Rapid Transit," was sophisticated sunshine pop that showed the influence of the Five Americans' stuttering brand of high vocal harmonies during the bridge. Produced by famed session saxophonist Steve Douglas (who had played on many of Phil Spector's hits), it did chart, but only at #123, representing the band's final Billboard entry on Mercury. Dee Robb was given the opportunity to write the A-side of their last Mercury 45, "Girls, Girls," a light, innocuous, breezy midtempo pop-rocker that was nonetheless out of step with the progressive trends of late 1967. It was outshone by the B-side, a cover of Eric Andersen's "Violets of Dawn" that drew out their strengths as folk-rock interpreters.
Although there would be no more singles on Mercury, the label did issue the Robbs' sole album in 1967. Originally the intention was for Douglas to produce the LP, and he did start work on it, the group augmented by session players like percussionist Jim Gordon and guitarist Mike Deasy. But as it ended up, according to Krampf, "We wound up producing and finishing the album ourselves in Chicago." In keeping with their hard-luck chart history, it did actually make the Billboard album charts, but occupying the very lowest position (#200) for a single week in January 1968. Eight of the ten songs on The Robbs came from their 1966-67 Mercury singles, joining a couple of tracks exclusive to the LP, "See Jane Run" and "Jolly Miller." The Dee Robb-authored "See Jane Run" verged on bubblegum, but by contrast "Jolly Miller" was probably their most ambitious Mercury recording. Like some of the Byrds' material from the era, it was a heavily rocked-up arrangement of a traditional folk song, the guitar work indeed heavily indebted to the sound of Roger McGuinn circa '66-67. The track was dressed up with whistling wind and storm effects and, toward the end, sinister witch laughs and teenage audience screams a la the Byrds' then-recent hit "So You Want to Be a Rock'n'Roll Star."
The Robbs moved on to Atlantic, Dunhill, and ABC, releasing a half-dozen subsequent singles between 1968 and 1971; three of those again hit the "bubbling under" section of Billboard, as did a final ABC single in 1971 issued under the name Cherokee. "I always kiddingly say that we were the kings of 'bubbling under,'" jokes Krampf. I thought we had some pretty darned good records there, and for whatever reason, the hand of fate, it just didn't seem like it was meant to be for us to make it onto the Billboard Hot 100."
It was far from
the end of
the Robbs' careers in the music world, however, as the three Robb
opened Cherokee Studios in Hollywood in the mid-1970s. Still in
today, Cherokee's clients have included the Go-Go's, Jane's Addiction,
Aerosmith, Devo, Public Enemy, Dave Matthews, Lenny Kravitz, Cypress
Al Green, Warren Zevon, and Henry Rollins. Craig Krampf did alright for
himself too, becoming a top session drummer, Kim Carnes's #1 hit "Bette
Davis Eyes" being perhaps the most famous disc on which he played. For
all their accomplishments in the recording industry, however, this
of The Robbs marks the first CD album release of recordings of
band from which they emerged.
There is more information about the Robbs at www.myspace.com/TheRobbs.
contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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