Up From The Underground: New York’s Summer Of Love

The music of the Summer of Love in New York reflected the numerous communities already making noise in the city.

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Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Every year sees a lot of musical action in New York City, though worldwide changes during the Summer Of Love hit an interesting funnel in what had been a traditional center for diverse combinations of artists collected in the local jazz, rhythm’n’blues, and early rock’n’roll communities.

Jazz got groovy

For jazz, it was the home stretch for Blue Note Records, the label’s first period coming to an end with the retirement of label founder Alfred Lion that year. Jazz as a whole had entered a new period with the second of two great Miles Davis Quintets, this one with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wayne Shorter on tenor sax. Before fusion came in, Blue Note had issued groovy recordings by Stanley Turrentine, Lou Donaldson, and McCoy Tyner in 1967, artists who felt the boogaloo rhythms coming time, and provided a looser feel that would be more widely heard in Blaxploitation movie soundtracks by the early 70s.

Alligator Bogaloo

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A new era of soul

Atlantic Records had been the staple of R&B in New York City since the 40s, with a big hand in pioneering soul music prior to Motown, with singles by Ray Charles, The Drifters, and many others. Atlantic signed Aretha Franklin after her contract with Columbia expired at the end of ’66. Her all-time classic cover (and re-defining) of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was recorded in Atlantic’s New York studios but, almost immediately, Atlantic sent Aretha to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Aretha was Detroit-based, working through New York and recording in the South.

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In some sense, Atlantic was hijacking Stax Studios in Memphis, which had been key in orchestrating a new feel for this new era of soul. “The small, independent labels are the driving force in the changing of the sound,” said soul singles collector and researcher Greg Tormo, a DJ in New York. “In 1966, it was still four-beats-to-the-bar Motown soundalikes. By 1967, the sound becomes more syncopated… funkier.”

Fania and the birth of Latin soul

The 125th Street Candy Store cut one of the best soul records out of New York in 1967 on the Latin label Fania; “Silent Hearts,” sounded akin to what The Chi-Lites would recording a few years later. The tiny Queen City label released “Job Opening (For An Experienced Heart Mender)” by The Del-Larks in 1967, another cut vying for best NYC soul disc that year.

The local environment was rich with Latin soul; its generally hidden psychedelic lilt was best heard in the mid-summer boogaloo soirees that were reaching fever pitch in 1967 at Yankee Stadium. These multi-artist bills, featuring Joe Bataan, Willie Colon, Ray Baretto, Eddie Palmieri, and Tito Puente, later become a huge influence on the Santana Blues Band on Haight Street in San Francisco. Joe Cuba’s “Psychedelic Baby” single and The Lebron Brothers Orchestra’s Psychedelic Goes Latin LP epitomize a general move in music that also had an effect on jazz during the decade.

Fania All Stars Live at Cheetah Vol 1 - Descarga Fania

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Big city soul

Soul was the music of the streets in New York; it was the air that you breathed. Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1963 hit for Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By,” was just one example of the big-city-produced soul sound. During 1967, Warwick had some of her best (and biggest) hits with “I’ll Say A Little Prayer,” “Alfie” and the socially conscious, “The Windows of the World.” Bacharach & David’s answer song to their own “What The World Needs Now (Is Love)” was then a hit for Jackie DeShannon in ’65.

What the World Needs Now (Is Love)

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The truth of the matter, however, was that the Brill Building songwriting factories of New York seemed to be diminishing in the 60s. The brightest new talent, Neil Diamond, was getting songs released with The Monkees in California, but he was also able to strike out on his own as a solo artist, as the singer-songwriter started to emerge in his and her own right.

The downtown folk scene

Perhaps New York’s greatest rock’n’roll-era songwriting talent, Carole King, was making her way out of a suburban marriage situation. Moving away from her previous years of writing for The Shirelles, The Cookies, and Little Eva with husband Gerry Goffin, she headed out to California for a fresh, folk-rock start in 1967. She seemed to follow the lead of Cass Elliot and other members of The Mamas & The Papas, who’d began their recording careers in Greenwich Village in The Big 3, The Mugwumps, and The Journeymen. Band members of Buffalo Springfield (Neil Young, Richie Furay, and Stephen Stills) had also done some time during the fading moments of the big early 60s Greenwich Village folk music scene, Neil making solo demos, and Stephen and Richie recording with The Au Go Go Singers, all of which was two New Yorks ago by 1967.

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Self-contained rock’n’roll bands had been emerging in New York’s fresh new discotheque scene since just before The Beatles made American headway in 1964. The Young Rascals came out of such a situation at The Peppermint Lounge on 45th Street near Broadway, where they had been in Joey Dee’s Starliters. It was a good year for them with “Groovin’,” “Love Is A Beautiful Thing,” “You Better Run” and “How Can I Be Sure,” included on their two 1967 LPs.

The Lovin’ Spoonful, on the other hand, were the primary beneficiaries of Greenwich Village’s change, in 1965, from folk to folk-rock at The Night Owl. They released John Sebastian’s brilliant Everything Playing in September. Vanilla Fudge also had their first LP and rocked out Supremes cover “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” on the radio. Jimi Hendrix had been signed out of the Café Wha in Greenwich Village in 1966, an early clue to the new musical direction, as The Cheetah would also open in ’66 near what is now The Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. The club was so cool, that, in 1967, it hosted Syd Barrett’s version of Pink Floyd.

The Youngbloods - Get Together (Audio)

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The Blues Magoos (“We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet”) broke out of a very tiny Village nightspot called The Café A Go Go. In 1967, they released their second LP, Psychedelic Lollipop, and appeared on The Smothers Brothers Show. The Silver Apples, meanwhile, were pushing forward with a psychedelic synthesizer band, playing locally in 1967, then releasing their debut album on Kapp Records in ’68. All of these combos were at the peak of their powers, as were locals The Left Banke (“Walk Away, Renee”) and The Youngbloods, with the anthemic “Let’s Get Together.”

The rise of psychedelic bands

Meanwhile, A peer group who’d cut a live album at Cafe au Go Go, The Blues Project, had morphed from their ’65 breakthrough into one of the finest psychedelic bands of the era. They played the keynote Summer Of Love event, The Monterey Pop Festival, in June, but broke up before the year was out. Their keyboardist, Al Kooper, took off in another direction to form the first version of Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Remnants of Ye Olde Greenwich Village folk scene included Tim Hardin, who released his debut LP, which featured “Reason To Believe” in 1966. The 1967 follow-up, Tim Hardin 2, featured his song “If I Were A Carpenter,” which Bobby Darin had already made a hit, and which would be covered in 1967 by Joan Baez, in ’68 by Four Tops and in ’70 by Johnny Cash and June Carter. Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” also came out in ’67, while Richie Havens, Holy Modal Rounders, Jim Kweskin Jug Band and New Lost City Ramblers were releasing music and still playing the Village.

If I Were A Carpenter

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Also growing out of the folk-rock scene (and appearing at Monterey Pop), Simon & Garfunkel were hitting their stride, and started their association with perhaps the first of the new Hollywood movie soundtracks, The Graduate. In contrast, Bob Dylan and The Band were upstate recording what came to be known as The Basement Tapes: when the hippie thing was at its peak, the person they picked to be their spokesman totally disappeared and refused to get involved.

The theatre of pop

The East Village had a whole different approach when it came to music that developed from the neighborhood. Off Broadway. Joseph Papp’s Public Theater debuted Hair, the first “Tribal Love Rock Musical,” in the old Astor Place library on October 17, 1967. The first LP from this original cast was also released in 1967, and then the original Broadway cast recording was released the following year, becoming a bigger national hit. The musical delivered “Easy To Be Hard,” “Aquarius”/“Let The Sunshine In,” “Good Morning Starshine” and the title number in contemporary pop re-recordings by LA’s Three Dog Night and The Fifth Dimension. From the theatre of pop, Hair began a flow of beyond-the-censors awareness that perfectly captured the zeitgeist.

The 5th Dimension - Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures) (Audio)

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There was even less self-censorship for bands. The Fugs seemed to define the atmosphere of the time: a low-life rejection of commercial attitudes, they were considered beatniks when they started out as poets. Founding member Ed Sanders opened The Peace Eye Bookstore in February 1965, and from the crowd of regular beats who were always on hand, Tuli Kupferberg and Ken Weaver would provide the foundation of a band.

The sound of protest

The Fugs worked up an entire stage show, first running at the Astor Place Playhouse in ’65, before moving to The Players Theater in 1966. By 1967, they released their third album, the more acoustical Virgin Fugs, and Ed Sanders had made the cover of Life magazine. On a trip to the West Coast, the group played San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Their years of singing songs protesting the Vietnam War put them in the perfect position to be among the instigators of the “Exorcising The Pentagon” demonstration in October 1967.

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“When we had finished the exorcism, we walked onto the lawn in front of the Pentagon where lines of armed soldiers with rifles thrust forward stood guarding the entranceway,” Ed Sanders recalled. Describing one of the most published images of the 60s peace movement, he continued, “We were carrying dozens of yellow daisies. We paused in front of the young and obviously nervous soldiers and gently shoved some stems into some rifle barrels.” The Fugs were also an influence on the Florida band Pearls Before Swine, who sent their tape to the small label The Fugs were on (ESP-Disk’) for a fine 1967 release, One Nation Underground.

The Velvet Underground

The biggest noise in town emerged during 1966, when The Velvet Underground became the music behind Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable stage show, featuring go-go dancers, projections of Warhol films, a light show, and some whips and other accouterments to go with the sounds. First being staged at Café Bizarre, and then a rented space they called The Dom, Warhol brought the show out to California for performances in LA (at The Trip) and San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium.

Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable 1967 part2

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MGM/Verve signed The Velvet Underground, along with a German singer, Nico, whom Warhol had introduced to them. In March 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico Produced by Andy Warhol (as it was presented upon release) hit the stores. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker had been a band prior to the association with Warhol, so when Exploding Plastic Inevitable fell apart that year, the group continued through to the end of the decade.

Their debut album was met with interest from the more cerebral types – New York had both The Village Voice and The East Village Other covering underground events – though it didn’t catch on much elsewhere. The VU’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable gig in San Francisco was panned by the Chronicle’s music critic Ralph Gleason – which shouldn’t have been a surprise, because he also disdained The Fugs and The Mothers Of Invention.

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It’s been said that every person who did buy a copy of the VU’s debut, started their own band, and, without question, the group has become the best example of a rock band overlooked in their own time. As with The Fugs, there was appeal to a band of East Coast guys rejecting the whole hippie free-love thing. Realizing there were often more cynical, darker issues to be written about, these groups dealt with real-life situations that were very immediate.

The Mothers of Invention move in

It was New York City’s good fortune that, in late 1966, LA’s Sunset Strip riots had closed many of that town’s most progressive venues in November. It is for this reason that Frank Zappa moved his Mothers Of Invention from their California home base for an extended residency at The Garrick Theater for the balance of 1967, above the Café Au Go Go on Bleecker Street in the Greenwich Village.

Who Needs The Peace Corps?

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The Mothers had recorded their fantastic mid-’67 album Absolutely Free back in Los Angeles during late 1966, and were performing it in New York prior to release. Some of the shows were filmed, and featured in the Mothers Of Invention movie Uncle Meat. Zappa then prepared the best-put-down-of-the-psychedelic-scene-album-concept-ever-done, to be released in 1968 as We’re Only In It For The Money.

The Mothers had been signed to MGM-Verve, as were The Velvet Underground, and were part of the jazz label adopting a similar attitude as New York folk label, Elektra, who had signed Love and The Doors off Hollywood’s Sunset Strip around the same time. Even NY bubblegum label Buddah signed Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band out of the LA scene.

The Brill Building Legacy

In the end, perhaps the most direct lineage to rock’n’roll’s true future came out of the dismissal of New York’s Tin Pan Alley song-factory heritage. It’s without question that The Velvet Underground and even The Fugs began to lay the blueprint that would become punk and new wave music at CBGB circa 1975. In turn, the motivating factor (physically speaking, in notation and rhythm) was more a direct connection to the bubblegum music factory founded in 1967 at Buddah Records, and its producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz.

Producers/songwriters Artie Resnick and Joey Levine penned songs for The Ohio Express, The Lemon Pipers, and The 1910 Fruitgum Company (mostly front groups for records made by studio musicians in New York, and sung by Joey Levine), a wealth of hits including “Chewy Chewy” and “Indian Giver” gave an updated beat and pace to the 50s rock’n’roll that had come to be considered “too basic” as the psychedelic era came around. Cue 1968’s “back to basics” movements in new LPs by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Band, and The Beach Boys, and somewhat exemplified by The Mothers Of Invention’s Cruisin’ With Ruben & the Jets.

And so New York pointed the way to the following decade’s stripped-back rock’n’roll of New York Dolls, Ramones, and Blondie – a raw rock explosion that continues to influence youth culture to this day.

Follow our Summer Of Love playlist, featuring all the songs that defined an era.

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