(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Mid-'60s New York wasn't known for developing new bands. A lack of places to play and a music business that didn't tolerate amateurs was just two of the handicaps bands faced. With connections, though, you could make it. And that's how one of the most mysterious and legendary New York bands, The Left Banke, came to be. The band was best known for the hit "Walk Away Renee." Rock historian Ed Ward has their story today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SHE MAY CALL YOU UP TONIGHT")
THE LEFT BANKE: (Singing) I've been telling lines I never knew all to keep that girl away from you. But she may call you up tonight. Then what could I say that would sound right? Thoughts that raised my mind just pushed aside. All the chances there that we once had. But she may call you up tonight. Then what could I say that would sound right?
ED WARD, BYLINE: If you were a New York teenager who played an instrument and wanted to be in a band, and all of the sudden British groups were coming to town and attracting rioting mobs of teenage girls, you might feel a certain urgency to get something together.
Tom Finn had already had a band, The Magic Plants, when he ran into a guy named Steve Martin-Caro, a Spanish high-school student who recently arrived in the city, as they attempted to navigate the scene outside the hotel where The Rolling Stones were staying in 1965.
The two became friends and decided to form another band. So with Tom's friend George Cameron and his old drummer, Warren David-Schierhorst, they went to World United Studios, where The Magic Plants had recorded, and ran into another 16-year-old named Michael Brown.
Brown had a number of things going for him: classical keyboard training and immense talent, and, not least, he was the son of the guy who owned the studio, Harry Lookofsky, and he had a set of keys. Late at night, after the days' sessions were over, the kids would get together and work on songs. Martin, Finn and Cameron turned out to be natural harmonizers, and Brown's keyboard skills helped them find melodies that showed that off.
They actually got good enough that Brown's dad, who not only owned the studio but was also a session violinist who did jazz gigs under the name Hash Brown, took an interest and signed them to a management deal. They called themselves The Left Banke — Bank with an E at the end — and they started recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I'VE GOT SOMETHING ON MY MIND")
THE LEFT BANKE: (Singing) I've got something on my mind. It's no lie. I'm telling you why. I've got something on my mind. It's no lie. I'm telling you why. Up to now I've been afraid to say that you're the cause of all my pain. If you keep this up, my friend, I think I'll go insane. I've got something on my mind...
WARD: Except for the drums and harpsichord, everything on "I've Got Something on My Mind" was played by session musicians. Tom and George hadn't really learned to play their instruments yet, but their vocal blend with Steve, the lead singer, was what this recording was all about. Then, one of the two competent musicians got fired.
Apparently, Lookofsky got word that his son and Warren were running off to California together and had them stopped at the airport, and kicked the drummer out. More trauma lay ahead: Tom Finn had a girlfriend named Renee Fladen who came to the studio with him, and Michael was mesmerized by her, although he didn't dare do anything. Well, that's not quite right: What he did was write a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WALK AWAY, RENEE")
THE LEFT BANKE: (Singing) And when I see the sign that points one way, the lot we used to walk by every day, just walk away, Renee. You won't see me follow you back home. The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same. You're not to blame.
WARD: As badly recorded as it was, Lookofsky had no problem selling the master of this to Smash, a division of Mercury Records. And, after the song hit the radio, it had no problem becoming a Top 10 hit in the summer of 1966. Nor was Renee's muse through with Michael: She also inspired the follow-up, "Pretty Ballerina."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "PRETTY BALLERINA")
THE LEFT BANKE: (Singing) I had a date with a pretty ballerina, her hair so brilliant that it hurt my eyes. I asked her for this dance and then she obliged me. Was I surprised? Yeah. Was I surprised? No, no, no.
WARD: This, too, was a hit, albeit a smaller one, and Smash followed it up with an album in early 1967. The Left Banke were set. Well, except for one detail: they still couldn't play their instruments. They were booked on rock package tours and were really only capable of playing three of their own songs — two of which were the hits. By the end of this experience, they all hated each other.
Lookofsky didn't help: He fired the two men who'd done the best they could with his awful studio sound, Steve and Bill Jerome, and then he started firing the band, too, trying to build something around his son and Steve Martin, the lead singer. It was a mess, and it got to be an even bigger mess when Smash started asking where the next single and its album were.
Delicate negotiations resulted in Michael, Steve, Tom and George going into the studio, where Michael produced a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DESIREE")
THE LEFT BANKE: (Singing) Everything returns again, both the laughter and the rain. She is living somewhere for a while yet I ask her in my lonely way to stay. Desiree. Desiree.
WARD: Released toward the end of 1967, "Desiree" scraped the bottom of the Hot 100 for two weeks before vanishing, along with Michael Brown. In came the lawyers, and when the dust cleared, Tom Finn, Steve Martin, George Cameron and Rick Brand, who had been with the band briefly, were The Left Banke.
In the summer of 1968, The Four Tops were riding high with their own single of "Walk Away Renee," and Smash released the album "Left Banke Too" — spelled "T-O-O," of course, and it sank immediately. The Left Banke was over.
Michael Brown showed up in a few more projects, but American taste was turning away from pop. A few reunions without Brown happened in the '70s, and they made some later recordings that were never released, but the magic was all on that first album. Sometimes you have to just leave well enough alone.
GROSS: Ed Ward is FRESH AIR's rock historian. He has two Kindle publications: "The Bar at the End of the Regime" and "Two Blues Stories."