TERRY GROSS, host:
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. Before the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead rose to stardom, Frank Werber of Trident Productions was trying to get his own stable of artists together. Ed Ward looks at what might have been.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) What's going on? What makes me think that I see where I've been wrong? How I come I feel that I've been down too long? Oh, someone tell me please, what's going on. Why am I seeing things inside my head?
ED WARD: 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, eight stories was skyscraping when it was built, called the Columbus Towers and installed San Francisco's best recording studio in its basement.
Next he needed talent. And John Stewart of the Kingston Trio told him about a group called the Ridgerunners in Los Angeles that his brother Michael was playing in. Stewart took them into his studio as the Michael Stewart Quintet, and sent Werber the tapes. Here the next logical step passed the Kingston Trio. Folk harmonies with a light electric overlay. Werber moved the band north, rehearsed them at his house, and took them into Columbus Recorders as fast as he could because he heard hit.
(Soundbite of song, "You Were On My Mind")
WE FIVE (Band): (Singing) When I woke up this morning, you were on my mind. And you were on my mind. I got troubles, oh. I got worries, oh. I got wounds to bind. So I went to the corner just to ease my pains. Just to ease my pains. I got troubles, oh.
WARD: 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 shot into the top ten in the summer of 1965 and vied with the Byrd's "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 had 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."
(Soundbite of song, "Stranger In A Strange Land")
BLACKBURN & SNOW (Band): (Singing) I am a stranger in a strange land. Traveling through (unintelligible) what love I can. The love I find becomes part of the lie. Well, my love, I (unintelligible).
WARD: 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.
(Soundbite of song, "Love Me Not Tomorrow")
JUSTICE LEAGUE (Band): (Singing) There's a (unintelligible) I couldn't cry when I was young. I was sheltered by my dreams (unintelligible) in the sun. But I'm asking you, please don't go away and say it with me like you never say, and love me not tomorrow. Love me as a child of sorrow. Love me not tomorrow, but today. Oh…
WARD: The lyrics aren't so hot. With better production, "Love Me Not Tomorrow," would have fit in with what was happening on the radio in 1966. The band changed its name to West, put out two albums which went nowhere and disbanded. But two Trident acts were eventually to make waves on the greater San Francisco scene. The Sons of Champlin were famous for their energetic shows and Bill Champlin's great voice.
(Soundbite of song, "Sing Me A Rainbow")
Mr. BILL CHAMPLIN (Singer): (Singing) Never get tired. I want so much to have a good time. Doo-doo-roo-doo. Just try to forget that that girl will never be mine. Never be mine. Sing me a breeze. Sing me a sky. Sing me a rainbow but don't play (unintelligible).
WARD: And then there was the Mystery Trend, whose name came from leader Ron Nagle's mishearing a Dylan lyric. They were older. Why, Nagle was going bald. And their songs were too literate for Top 40 Radio.
(Soundbite of song, "Johnny Was A Good Boy")
MYSTERY TREND (Band): (Singing) (Unintelligible) All his neighbors say Johnny was a good boy, did what he should, boy. He just wouldn't act that way.
WARD: But 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, and both 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, Frank 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. And the Trident restaurant was a fixture for many years on Sausalito's waterfront and had the distinction of being possibly the only restaurant ever robbed by Frogman. Frank Werber died in 2007.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. There is a two-CD anthology of Trident productions called, "Sing Me A Rainbow" on the Big Beat label. You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
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