One of the lesser-known practitioners of West Coast sunshine pop is Yellow Balloon, a group formed after-the-fact as a performing and touring vehicle for songwriter/producer, Gary Zekley, who released his own version (#25) of debut single, “Yellow Balloon,” in direct competition with Jan & Dean [celebrated here in 2013], whose version (#111) he felt to be lacking.
Dominic Priore informs us in the liner notes for Sundazed’s 1998 CD reissue of the Yellow Balloon debut album that Gary Zekley (“one of those names that assures a 45 will be worth your buck”) was the most obscure “of the original architects of the [West Coast] style, a direct link to the Wilson / Usher / Berry / Torrence / Christian / Melcher / Johnston / Connors / Sloan / Barri school of hitmakers.”
Priore’s liner notes dramatically recount how Zekley, an unsigned artist, found himself at the 9000 Building on Sunset Boulevard “just knocking on doors” until “somebody” (i.e., Canterbury Records president, Ken Handler) would see him. Zekley promptly banged out the song on a piano for Handler, who agreed the song had commercial potential and, furthermore, was willing to “stop the presses” and rush release Zekley’s own production of “Yellow Balloon” in order to push Jan & Dean version’s out of the marketplace.
March 4, 1967
Drummer Don Grady, in the middle of his 12-year run playing Robbie Douglas on TV’s My Three Sons, wrote the final track – “Junk Maker Shoppe” – on Yellow Balloon’s self-titled album, which was recorded at Western and Sound Recorders in Los Angeles and featured such top session musicians as Carol Kaye, Jerry Cole, Jim Gordon, Mike Post, Bob West, and Don Randi. “Junk Maker Shoppe,” interestingly, is the only song on the album where the band members play all the instruments themselves:
“Junk Maker Shoppe“
Yellow Balloon (1967)
Grady, says Gary Zekley in Dominic Priore’s liner notes, was “a very, very talented guy. He could play piano, guitar, bass, trumpet, drums, he was a good dancer, a good comic actor, good lookin’, all the girls were crazy about him.” As Grady recalled to Priore, “[“Junk Maker Shoppe”] came together real fast, and since nobody knew the tune, I just started to lay it down.” Bassist Don Braucht remembers, “We did ‘Junk Maker Shoppe’ with a Phil Spector sound. We were goofin’ around in the studio, and we start doing this real echoey stuff.”
Grady tells Priore that the sound engineer’s unintended audio effects and distortions of pitch during the recording of “Junk Maker Shoppe” helped inspire a burst of creativity that produced another song, “Impressions With Syvonne,” the A-side of Grady’s second solo 45 on Canterbury.
In all, Yellow Balloon would release one album and three singles for Canterbury – a record label financed by Handler’s father, one of the co-founders of Mattel Toys. But the label, tragically, was a music enterprise on borrowed time. As bandmember Alex Valdez explains —
“Ken’s parents, Ruth and Elliott Handler, were the sole owners of Mattel Toys for years. In 1968, Mattel decided to sell their stocks and get ready to sell the corporation, and that’s more or less when they shut down Canterbury.”
December 10, 1966
What’s In A Name?
Gary Zekley’s surname has such a distinctive spelling, that it’s a pretty good bet that searching 45Cat’s database using the term “Zekley” will produce a low noise ration (fingers crossed). Here are the results — lo and behold, what a surprise to find R.E.M. among the artists who have covered Gary Zekley via “(I Am) Superman,” a song originally recorded by The Clique in 1969. Zekeley’s confections have also been recorded by The Grass Roots; The Fun And Games; Clydie King; Sweathog; The Ragamuffins; Dick And Dee Dee; David Clayton Thomas; Chi Coltrane; Jackie Lee; The Visions; Solar Heat; Denny Doherty; Silver, Platinum And Gold; Big Pig; The Lidos; Dobie Gray; and Chuck Jackson.
B-Side as Anti A-Side:
45s Whose B-Side Consists of the A-Side Played Backwards:
“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!” b/w “Aaah-Ah ,Yawa Em Ekat Ot Gnimoc Er’yeht”
Napoleon XIV (1966)
“Yellow Balloon” b/w “Noollab Wolley“
Yellow Balloon (1967)
“Honey Love” b/w “Evol Yenoh“
Bert Walters (1968)