Thursday, November 11, 2021

50 Years Ago, RJFox and the 500 Doors – an Interview with John Garlak

Sometimes it’s dumb luck; others, you may simply look like you belong. Such was the case on both counts with RJFox and John Garlak. You’ve never heard of them, but you should have, and, as always, better late than never.

RJFox was a phenomenally talented harmony group from the Motor City, inspired by bands like CSNY and New Riders of the Purple Sage. The trio included singer/songwriters Richard Hovey (the "R"), Joel Siegel (the "J"), and Sherry Fox (the "Fox") whose harmonies and evocative lyrics would go on to spark the interest of Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun. Like the best of CSNY, the songwriting was a labyrinth of intertwining melodies and harmonies and Americana that, unlike the supergroup, would go unnoticed by all but a select group of insiders. But why? While dumb luck often allows you in the door, it equally lets the door hit you in the ass.

Recently, I caught up with guitarist John Garlak who joined the band in 1971 before they left Detroit for the Left Coast. It was at Wally Heider’s Studio in San Francisco that “looking the part” got the newly formed quintet in the door.

John Garlak: “RJFox was an acoustic/electric guitar, three-part harmony, five-piece combo with a female sharing the lead vocals. I played acoustic and electric lead alongside our bass player, Marty Lewis. Most of us ended up living in a band house in Ferndale, Michigan. We were real good and knew that we had something cool, something special. One night we read on the Déjà Vu liner notes that CSNYs "spiritual guidance" was from David Geffen. Impetuously, we made an appointment with Geffen in L.A., flew out, set up, and played for him at his house in the hills. Yeah, try that today. He loved the girl, but didn't get our ‘band concept.’

"Bummed out and pretty sad, I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone at the hotel and took it back to the room. It was there in the "Random Notes" that we read that David Crosby was at Wally Heider's recording his solo masterpiece If I Could Only Remember My Name.” Young and fearless, the band members looked at one another. “We said ‘shit, let’s go and somehow try to get in there and play for him!

"So, Joel (J) and I flew up to San Fran, got to the front door, and told the receptionist (a long-haired stoned cat) that we were here to see DC. He got up and went into the studio. We were freaking a bit, to say the least, and then, what seemed to be 10-15 minutes, you know, forever, the door opens and there walks out David Crosby.” John says it with a grin on his face like it was yesterday. “We told him, with certainty and confidence, that we were from Detroit and had a band that was gonna blow him away!”


Anyone who knows David knows that he’s an asshole. At least he pretends to be. (When I was six and my mother’s boyfriend played a gig with the Byrds at The Trip on the Sunset Strip, Crosby played Ouija with me in the back room. That’s another story, but I saw right through his gruff stance, even at six years old – not to mention that I loved it that he looked like a walrus.) John continued, “DC looked at us and said, ‘Okay, come back tomorrow and play. Show me.’ Then he invited us into the inner sanction of Wally Heider’s studio. Joel and I hung out for a long while. We just didn’t want to leave.

"The next day, David’s engineer, Stephen Barncard, arrived at the studio to find the band playing with Crosby grinning from ear to ear, enthralled by the luscious harmonies." Here’s where the dumb luck comes in. Barncard thought they were friends of Crosby’s and Crosby thought they were a band Barncard was producing. Doesn’t matter how much talent you have – dumb luck rules! Out of that encounter, RJFox signed with the management team of Elliot Roberts and – wait for it – David Geffen. Better than that, the band tooled around the studio during the If Only sessions over the next few days.

Garlak: “When we played for him, he completely flipped out over us. 100% truth, I kid you not. He was rolling around the floor, laughing, and DC said to us, and I quote, he said, ‘There are 500 doors in the music business... and I'm going to open 499 of them for you’ It was some heavy fucking shit.”

With a grin still on his face, like it was his first time in a topless bar, John continued, “So, at the beginning of our recording sessions, we’d share studio time between RJ Fox and Crosby. We were in his sessions and he was in ours. Well, because he was OUR PRODUCER! He and Stephen Barncard, some heavy shit, again.

“That's how we got into the If I Could Only Remember My Name sessions. It was, to say the least, a very heady and magical period in my, in our, lives.”

Only weeks later, Ahmet Ertegun signed the band to Atlantic where they recorded their debut LP with Grateful Dead drummer, Bill Kreutzmann and Jefferson Airplane-New Riders drummer Spenser Dryden; Barncard ironically in the producer’s seat.

And then the door hit the band in the ass, ultimately leaving RJFox and its music criminally neglected for more than 20 years. While the recording was finished in three weeks, trouble was already brewing about royalties and advances with Dryden and Kreutzmann.
With the album in the can, members of RJFox began hanging out with then-Grateful Dead manager John MacIntire. With good intentions, McIntire took on the task of representing the band. His negotiations too demanding, Atlantic dropped the band before the record was pressed and 499 doors closed all at once.

Nonetheless, youth and tenacity go hand in hand. Struggling against all odds, the band spent the next two years performing live and recording. A well-deserved high point came in 1972 when RJ Fox was included third on the bill at San Francisco’s Winterland, opening for the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Grateful Dead.

Stay tuned for more from John Garlak in the days to come. In the meantime, check out RJFox on YouTube or at http://rjfox.net/rjfox/

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