By Richie Unterberger

Roxy might be best known as the group from which a more widely known Elektra band emerged, as principal singer-songwriter Bob Segarini and Randy Bishop went on to found the Wackers, who issued three LPs for the label in the early 1970s. While the Wackers' albums (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music) often went in a Beatlesque pop direction, the earlier Roxy put a greater accent on rootsy if diverse rock of both the R&B- and country-influenced variety. Seeds of the Wackers, however, could be heard in Roxy's general back-to-basics approach at a time when much rock music was getting heavier, though Roxy never did get wide recognition before breaking up.

    Segarini was already a young veteran of the California rock scene by the time Roxy came out in 1969. Growing up about 100 miles east of San Francisco in Stockton, by the mid-'60s he was in Us, who got as far as recording demos for the Beau Brummels' label, Autumn Records. Nothing came out on Autumn, however, and Bob moved on to the Ratz, who also included Gary Grubb; as Gary Duncan, he'd later play guitar in Quicksilver Messenger Service. Before Quicksilver got off the ground, however, Grubb/Duncan made an intermediate step with the Merced group the Brogues, with bassist Bill Whittington. Whittington and Segarini subsequently formed the Family Tree, whose early lineup included Mike Olsen -- the future Lee Michaels -- on keyboards.

    "The Family Tree's first record was for Mira, the people that did 'Hey Joe' by the Leaves," remembers Segarini today. "Mira put out a single, 'Prince of Dreams,' in '66, and we had a lot of gigs and stuff. We went into Gold Star [Studios] with [engineer] Doc Siegel and recorded for a week towards an album for Mira. We cut eight tracks; they were sort of produced by Sonny Bono, who was working in Studio B with Phil Spector on something. And Brian Wilson was doing the Smile album when we were in there. In fact, members of the Family Tree played things [on the Smile sessions] like the saw, hammer, and nail, and I believe I played the electric drill. We were there when they had the fire in the bucket, and they all had the little firemen's hats on. Meanwhile, somebody heard the Mira record and took those demos to RCA. RCA wanted us to sign with them, so we did. The woman responsible for that, Patty Faralla, was friends with a guy she introduced me to named Harry Nilsson, and Harry and I became best friends for years. [He] co-wrote a song on the [Family Tree's] Miss Butters album." That song was "Butter's Lament"; Nilsson's own 1967 version, unreleased at the time, would finally find release in 1994 on Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology.

    The Family Tree, resumes Bob, "did one single, 'Do You Have the Time?'/'Keepin' a Secret,' for RCA, and they liked it, and wanted an album. By this time, we had added [keyboardist-guitarist] Jim De Cocq to the thing, and I went into seclusion for a year and wrote the Miss Butters album." Produced by Rick Jarrard -- whose other clients in the late 1960s included Jefferson Airplane, Nilsson, and Jose Feliciano -- the album didn't reach a wide audience, although Elton John would later name it as one of his Top Hundred all-time LPs in Creem magazine. The Family Tree did lead to the birth of Roxy, however, as "we used to play a lot in Oregon and Washington State. While the Family Tree was up there playing a place called the Crystal Ballroom, I met a kid in a band called the Thundering Heard named Randy Bishop, who really liked the band and stayed in touch with us over the years. Randy started out as a folk singer; the Thundering Heard was sort of a folk group, in Portland, even though he's from Boise, Idaho. Then he went to college at Oberlin, and studied theater arts. I actually have the letter that he sent me from Oberlin. He took a song off the Family Tree album called 'Simple Life,' and submitted it as a piece of music he wrote in his music class. Got a B+ on it. I was impressed. [He] wrote a letter and thanked me, saying we should get together and form a band."

    After the Family Tree album came out, Bob continues, "I wanted to do something heavier. A couple of guys weren't interested. I figured, what the hell, I'm going to put together a better band, and did. The band slowly got new members, people left and people came, and then Randy came back from Oberlin and we formed the nucleus of what became Roxy." The five-man lineup that recorded Roxy would also include fellow ex-Family Treer Jim De Cocq, as well as keyboardist James Morris and drummer John McDonald. The multi-talented Bishop contributed bass, guitar, keyboards, and vocals.

    Taking their name from the book From Vaude to Video, which had a big section on the Roxy theaters in the vaudeville circuit, they cut a demo, "Change My Mind"/"Bird." "Patty Faralla had gone over to work for [Elektra founder and president] Jac Holzman," explains Segarini, "so she told Jac about us. We went to L.A. and recorded these two songs at Elektra Studios with John Haeny, the engineer and producer, who also worked with the Doors [and] Jackson Browne. Jac heard it, called it some amazingly wonderful things, and signed us on the spot the day he heard the demos. That was late '68, early '69."

    To prepare for the album, Haeny would come over to the band's house on Horseshoe Canyon Boulevard in Laurel Canyon, where they lived with their manager, John Frankenheimer. "We rehearsed in the living room almost every night doing pre-production," says Segarini. "We would go up to Haeny's house in Coldwater Canyon, and John had a two-track Ampex up there, and a really nice microphone from the studio. We would get loaded, and Randy and I would just sit there on the floor and sing every song we wrote. Out of that bunch of songs, John picked what he wanted to record. We just sort of took direction from John. I do these things that can only be described as chicken squawking at the end of some of the songs on the album, and that's at Haeny's insistence, because he loved the way I could sing more than one note at a time. He got a big kick out of that."

    Of the ten songs on the LP, all but one were written by Segarini, the exception being Bishop's "I Got My Friends." "We were all over the road in those days," observes Bob. "Randy's guitar playing is mostly folk picking, and that's mixed in with the R&B organ. The organist was from Seattle and came from the Don & the Goodtimes 'Louie Louie' background. So [the album] was pretty much R&B/kinda country-influenced, more than it was rock and roll or pop music. It's got some pop on it, some R&B; there's a country tune that was covered by Jose Feliciano, 'You Got a Lot of Style.' Randy's background was folk music; my background was R&B, and country and western. The Beatles changed all that, but I came to pop music late."

    There is just one song on Roxy, in fact, that truly anticipates the Beatlesque pop directions that Segarini and Bishop would embrace shortly afterward in the Wackers. That's "Yesterdays Song" [sic], which Bob acknowledges as "one of the first pop songs that I'd written. The funny thing about it was that in the studio during the process of recording it, I saw the band get really enthusiastic. We really got into it. The harmonium part was played not by the keyboard player, but by the guitar player, 'cause he heard it in his head. The song was, emotionally, the most satisfying thing we recorded in the studio. Usually guys were out back smoking joints or going out to dinner or stuff, but when we did that song, everybody hung out to see what was gonna happen."

    For this track, adds Segarini, "There was an actual mellotron in the back room, and we hauled it out, dusted it off, and fired it up. [It had] pre-recorded loops and instruments on it. The thing that sounds like strings is all the mellotron. Jac had brought one back from England after Sgt. Pepper." It was in keeping with the band's do-it-yourself attitude toward recording, as "we didn't use any outside players on that album. Even the horn break in 'Rock and Roll Circus' was played by the drummer and the guitar player."

    In concert, feels Bob, "We were a lot harder than the record would indicate. We did all these little tours with people like Sugarloaf, and we'd always blow everybody off the stage, 'cause it was a really good band. We were great players." They managed to attract concert reviews in The Washington Post, which in April 1970 found Roxy's "sound not unlike that of the early Grateful Dead," and Billboard, who reviewed a show at New York's Bitter End the following month. While their debut gig at the Bitter End was soured by the theft of their truck and custom-made equipment, here they also showed they could play both hard and soft, with Segarini and Bishop opening the set as a duo with several numbers on acoustic guitars (including "Yesterdays Song") before being joined by the rest of the band.

    The Roxy album, however, was not a big seller, despite a Rolling Stone review by the young Lester Bangs that hailed the band as "a ripsnortingly tight outfit from Los Angeles. Live they are enormously exciting, running through Fifties standards and their own originals with unflagging energy and with a sound that for all its fast rippling instrumental tradeoffs is always absolutely clear." Bangs saved special praise for the opening track, "a classic blast called 'Love Love Love,' a brilliant thundering anthem in the great L.A. tradition of the Byrds, Love, and Clear Light's 'Black Roses.' It's all over too soon at 1:59 and leaves us begging for more." "Love Love Love" was chosen as the first single off the album, and Segarini fondly recalls how it "was all over the radio in L.A. for at least eight weeks or so. That was exciting, driving down Sunset Boulevard hearing one of our tunes back to back with somebody really big." Another song from the LP, "Rock and Roll Circus," found some action in Las Vegas.

    It wasn't enough action, however, to stall Roxy's breakup later in 1970. (The much more famous Roxy Music, incidentally, had to ask for permission -- which was granted -- to use their name due to its similarity to Roxy.) Despite constant live work and some encouraging critical reception, Segarini and Bishop wanted to go in a new direction and explore more pop-oriented sounds. That's what they did as part of their next band, the Wackers, whose story is explored on the CD reissues of their three early-'70s Elektra albums on Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

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