The rise of the San Francisco rock scene in the mid-1960s is a well-known story, but one which might have taken an entirely different direction if one man's fortunes had played out differently.
Frank Werber was in a great place in 1964. A Holocaust survivor who'd worked his way up the show business ladder, he'd gotten a million dollars when the Kingston Trio, the act he'd groomed and developed since they were frat boys at Menlo College south of San Francisco, signed to Decca Records. He invested in real estate, including a turn-of-the-century skyscraper called the Columbus Towers, and installed San Francisco's best recording studio in its basement.
Next he needed talent. John Stewart of the Kingston Trio told him about a group in Los Angeles that his brother Michael was playing in called the Ridgerunners. Stewart took them into a studio as the Michael Stewart Quintet, and sent Werber the tapes. Werber moved the band north, rehearsed them at his house, and took them into Columbus Recorders.
With the astounding voice of Bev Bivens up front, the band, re-christened We Five, was soon signed to A&M Records in Los Angeles, which so far had mostly put out stuff by its co-founder Herb Alpert. It's title track off the album You Were On My Mind shot into the top ten in the summer of 1965, and the album vied with the Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man for the title of the first folk-rock record.
Werber was probably happy to know that he still had ears for a hit, and soon he was signing and recording more bands. In 1966, Werber signed a deal with Verve, which up to then had mostly been a jazz label, and several interesting records resulted. Perhaps the most famous is the lost masterpiece by Blackburn & Snow, "Stranger in a Strange Land."
If this record had come out in early 1966, when it was recorded, and when interest in Robert Heinlein's book was peaking among proto-hippies, it might well have been a hit. But, as sort of a symptom of the problem which would soon destroy Trident, Werber sat on the record for a full year, killing its chances and Blackburn & Snow's career.
The other band which might well have made it out of the Trident fold was the Justice League. They recorded numerous times, but nothing was ever released. The band changed its name to West, put out two albums which went nowhere, and disbanded.
But two Trident acts — Sons of Champlin and the Mystery Trend — eventually did make waves on the greater San Francisco scene.
By the time Verve was ready to make something of its deal with Trident in 1967, Werber was losing interest. He'd already passed on the Mamas and Papas, as well as the Jefferson Airplane and the Charlatans, two of the leading groups in town, because he couldn't deal with their lack of showmanship as he understood it. That same instinct saw him pushing more Broadway material on We Five, whose second album, for reasons that are still not clear, was delayed by a year, sapping the band of momentum. They broke up that May.
In 1967, when he could have been one of the most important players in American popular music, Werber folded Trident Productions to concentrate on his real estate, his boat and his restaurant in Sausalito, also known as the Trident. In 1968, Werber was busted for 268 pounds of pot, and went to prison for six months. Much of his real estate wound up in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, whose empire was administered out of the Columbus Towers.
Werber died in 2007.