This month’s Zero to 180 music history piece is guest-written by a music industry insider who revealed on Popsike/Ebay how NRBQ — as their overbearing and musically-challenged alter ego, The Dickens — came close to having a 45 issued on Scepter Records, home of Dionne Warwick(e) and Chuck Jackson:
The Rarest NRBQ Record:
Dickens One-of-a-Kind Acetate
In 1970 I was working as an advertising copywriter for Columbia Records in New York and doing some free-lance production of radio commercials for various other record labels, Scepter among them.
NRBQ [i.e., the New Rhythm & Blues Quartet] had recorded two albums for Columbia with no great success. Most weekends they didn’t even have gigs, so to keep in practice, they would perform free concerts in a big field in upstate New York, in or around Saugerties where most of them lived. The Dickens were the opening act.
NRBQ’s first A-side:
Rediscovering the two-minute single
Promo 45 (Apr. 1969)
Both sides written by Steve Ferguson
The Dickens were NRBQ’s alter ego. Born out of fun and frustration, the Dickens were the group that NRBQ could never be…loud, dumb, lousy musicians…exactly the type of group that was becoming successful at the time (Grand Funk Railroad was a particular inspiration). In order to play in the Dickens, you had to play an instrument that you weren’t very good at playing. That meant Terry [Adams] could not be a member…he could play anything! But all the other guys, the Whole Wheat Horns (Donn Adams and Keith Spring) and various NRBQ roadies would all take turns as the Dickens, playing music as loud as they could, as long as they could, until they were literally booed off the stage.
Earl Carter, the Columbia Records copywriter who worked on NRBQ became a big fan of the group and used to travel upstate on weekends to see the NRBQ perform, and he would come back to the office with Dickens stories that would keep me in stitches. Earl became the pseudo manager of the pseudo group, and he had big plans, including selling Dickens franchises (since you didn’t have to know how to play an instrument to be in the Dickens, anyone could be a member, and every town could have their very own, officially licensed Dickens.) Earl’s ideas went way beyond conventional licensed merchandise. Sure, there were Beatles wigs and pencil cases and such. But the Dickens would aim much higher. Dickens soap! Dickens perfume! Dickens gas stations! (“Pump up at Dickens.”)
One weekend Earl dragged me upstate to see a Dickens/NRBQ concert and it was amazing! With half the audience screaming, cheering and laughing, and the other half booing, the Dickens performed the loudest, funniest set I’d ever seen, ending with the group fighting one another on stage, with the instrument-clash becoming part of the music!
A few weeks later I was doing a radio commercial in the Scepter studio when the engineer, Michael Wright, mentioned that if I ever had anybody I wanted to record, I was welcome to do so at Scepter. They had a lot of unbooked time and as long as Scepter got first refusal rights to the record, I could record anyone I wanted. I looked at this as an opportunity to record a group I’d recorded in the past for A&M (The Children of God), and, of course, the Dickens. I really believed in The Children of God and I was disappointed when their A&M single went nowhere. And I thought the Dickens record would be a lot of fun to do.
The day of the Dickens session, the four guys who showed up were Joey Spampinato (who still called himself Jody St. Nicholas for the Dickens), Keith [who co-ran Red Rooster Records with Terry Adams] and Donn of the Whole Wheat Horns, and NRBQ roadie, Don Placco. Placco, who before joining the Dickens had never done anything more with a guitar than carry one, was the Dickens’ lead guitarist. Joey, a superb bass player, played keyboards for the Dickens. Trombonist Donn Adams – who’d always wanted to play drums and sing at the same time (like Ringo Starr and Donn’s #1 idol at the time, Karen Carpenter) – played drums and sang. Sax player Keith Spring generally played bass (though on “Sho’ Need Love,” which he and Joey composed on the spot, he overdubbed most of the instruments.)
We had three hours in the studio and most of the time was taken up by the engineer, Michael, setting up the microphones and trying to get the tape recorders to run. (It was a pretty run down studio.) The Dickens came prepared with two virtually identical songs from their concerts: “Don’t Talk About My Music” and “Pollution Revolution.” As I recall, both were performed live, with minimal overdubs. Despite Donn’s clunky drumming and Placco’s stunningly bad guitar playing, the group chose to move on rather than redo anything, so there was time for a third song. The studio has a weird sounding rinky-tink piano, and Keith and Joey composed a song for it in about five minutes. They had a lot of fun putting tons of echo on the piano and manipulating the tape speed to get bizarre effects. The whole song was done in layers with everything, including Placco’s hauntingly inept guitar break and Joey’s multitracked vocals, thought of on the spot. Coming up with a title took longer than composing the song, but they wound up taking the key word from each verse, (“Show” “Need” “Love”), and calling it “Sho’ Need Love.”
Scepter was owned and run by a woman named Florence Greenberg, the lady who signed the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Dionne Warwick, and gave Bacharach/David their first real shot at making records. She ruled with an iron hand, making her overweight, blind son, Stanley (Stan Green) their figurehead director of A&R. Since Scepter had first refusal rights on anything Michael recorded for himself or his friends in the Scepter studio, our three Dickens songs and two (really excellent) Children of God songs were played for Stan Green who passed on everything until the last song … the Dickens, “Sho’ Need Love”! Stan was convinced that this was a hit sound and he had us sign contracts and proceeded to release the record (backed with “Don’t Talk About My Music”).
1971 — so says Discogs
After the DJ copies were pressed, the record was played at Scepter’s weekly singles meeting for Florence and the rest of the staff. Up against new B.J. Thomas and Dionne Warwick releases, Florence hit the ceiling when she heard the Dickens single, refusing to let it come out on her label and ordering all copies destroyed! Thanks to Michael, I managed to get the two boxes of the record that had made their way to the building. I gave copies to Earl Carter and the group, and kept the rest.
As time went by, NRBQ became more and more “Dickens,” naming wrestling manager, Captain Lou Albano, as their honorary manager, and even incorporating “Don’t Talk About My Music” into their repertoire.
Every copy of the Dickens 45 you’ve ever seen or will ever see on eBay came from the original two boxes (50 records total) of promo 45s that were snatched from the trash and given to me 35 years ago. Commercial copies were never pressed and don’t exist. Until now the Dickens DJ 45 was probably the rarest NRBQ collectible record. Until now!
But here’s the new #1: the original test acetate of “Don’t Talk About My Music”/”Sho’ Need Love.” It was cut directly from the master tape onto a 10″ blank at Bell Sound. Made for the producer’s approval (that was me), only one was cut! I recently found it in a drawer in my basement. Though I doubt if I played it more than a couple of times before storing it away it was pretty grimy looking (mice had infiltrated the drawer at some point). BUT I cleaned it up and it looks very good and it probably sounds pretty good (but no guarantees…it’s being sold strictly as a historic relic).
If you Sho’ Need the rarest NRBQ record in existence, go for it! $3.50 U.S. shipping.
“Sho’ Need Love”
“The Dickens, You Say” by Phil Milstein
Hi — this is a query for Chris Richardson. I’ve just seen a letter written by the widow of the poet T. S. Eliot, in which she says that he used to sing a song “I’ll walk the track — ‘Til I get back — To Cincinnati, Ohio”. The song is likely to date from 1890-1910, but I can’t find any mention of it on Google, and wonder whether you’ve come across it? I’d be very interested to hear, if you can.
Many thanks — Jim