“We pushed the pause button a while ago…..now we have pushed the play button. The big difference is that we have 220 years of combined professional experience between us this time out.”
By Noah Schaffer
A glance at today’s indie music scene finds plenty of artists creating layered, orchestrated soundscapes full of rich harmonies and introspective lyrics, which makes this the perfect time for the reintroduction of Orpheus, who at one time were one of the biggest national acts to come out of Massachusetts.
After being formed by several musicians with Worcester roots and kicking around the Cape, a folk group called the Villagers morphed into Orpheus in 1967 and landed a record deal with MGM. The resulting single and album, “Can’t Find the Time,” is a much-loved slice of psychedelia’s sunshine pop side, even if record label blunders hindered the band from advancing further. And the song “Congress Alley” provided an anthem for Worcester’s hippie commune of the same name.
Despite the decidedly mixed blessing of being tagged as stars of the so-called Bosstown Sound along with other heavily orchestrated, Alan Lorber-produced bands like the Ultimate Spinach and Beacon Street Union, Orpheus still managed to become a popular live attraction and toured with the likes of Cream, the Who and Janis Joplin.
After three more albums and some personnel upheavals, the band dissolved in the early ’70s. Now Bruce Arnold, who wrote and sang lead on many of the Orpheus classics including “Can’t Find the Time,” is debuting a new version of the band at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley, MA on Saturday. Arnold, who has spent most of the intervening time in California, recently chatted with ArtsFuse via e-mail.
Arts Fuse: Why, after so many decades, is a full-fledged return to Orpheus happening?
Bruce Arnold: My strategy was to do a few hit records and then wait 40 years…..but seriously. No reason. We all just felt like doing it. We have always been in touch with each other and have always been recording and producing new music. My 2010 CD Orpheus Again is a product of those collaborations. Adding my son John to the mix on that CD, and now live, was a very natural progression. We have gotten a great reception. We will be playing Mechanics Hall in Worcester on May 9th and the Berklee College in June and The Marin County Fair in California on the 4th of July weekend, the Beacon Theater in NYC and I want to play Tanglewood and the Hatch Memorial Shell again, just like we did before. We pushed the pause button a while ago…..now we have pushed the play button. The big difference is that we have 220 years of combined professional experience between us this time out.
AF: Saturday’s show includes legendary jazz and funk drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, who is best-known for his playing on classic Aretha Franklin and James Brown, and who you’ve said played on many of the original Orpheus recordings. What does he bring to the Orpheus sound?
Arnold: Purdie and I became best friends in 1967. There is no way to describe his contribution to my music other than to say it is sublime. The Maestro always teaches when we are together, though he has a way of letting you school yourself. When I forgot to send a limo for him at the Boston Music Awards, he quickly jumped into a cab and came himself. As the show began and they were announcing us, I looked around and couldn’t see Purdie anywhere. Host Barry Nolan was saying “and now here is Orpheus” and suddenly Purdie emerges from stage left with a smile. He knew from the panicked look on my face that I just experienced a taste of what would have happened had my thoughtlessness ruled the day. Oh, yes….and he’s the best drummer in the world.
AF: Orpheus used heavy orchestration on many of its recordings. What’s the challenge in reproducing that sound live?
Arnold: For Bull Run we will play the songs people love like we always did live – with the core band. For Mechanics Hall we are now preparing to perform with an eight-piece ensemble made up of members of the Massachusetts Symphony Orchestra. Bassist Howie Hersh, a classically trained musician, will score the parts they will play based on the first album. So there are two ways you might hear us this year…with orchestration or without.
AF: For a city with a conservative image, Worcester has long had a strong radical community. Part of that was reflected in the tune “Congress Alley.” What role did the Congress Alley commune play in the band and its music?
Arnold: None really. I moved out to Barre in 1968, so that all happened without me. Steve Martin [who wrote “Congress Alley” and joined an early ’70s incarnation of the band], however, could see the kids playing, and the sun shining, and the snow falling out the kitchen window of his Congress Street pad which overlooked the Alley. I did mention the Alley in one of my lyrics extolling country life. It says, “I’m changing my name, ’cause things aren’t the same out on the Alley. Now that Idea that seemed so clear has reached it’s finale.”
AF: Was the “Bosstown Sound” a real sound, or was it a marketing gimmick?
Arnold: Pure marketing gimmick. We advised against it. I knew of no Boston rock music scene.
AF: I was shocked to read that a song as famous as “Can’t Find the Time” only made it to #80 on the Billboard charts. How did it spread so far without achieving more in the way of sales?
Arnold: “Can’t Find the Time” went to number one in every market in which it was introduced, but not all at once. The Billboard charts can’t track a song’s progress properly a little at a time. MGM, because of financial problems, couldn’t afford to have records pressed when they needed them so they were released piecemeal. “Can’t Find the Time” was repeatedly released over two years, but nothing could rescue us from their [MGM’s] original national blunder. But we were pleased to watch as our song became number one from Honolulu to Bakersfield, from Chicago to South Carolina and from Miami to Maine. Just not all at the same time.
AF: In the past few years some of the other Orpheus members had a project which reinterpreted Orpheus material. What did you think of it? They’ve posted a statement with some unflattering words about the upcoming shows, and apparently you asked that your name and image be removed from their website’s history of Orpheus. Are you still in touch with them, and is an Orpheus reconciliation likely?
Arnold: I am not familiar with the project you mention. In retrospect, the MGM period was only about two years of a busy life and it was a long time ago. I brought in new members Bernard Purdie, Elliot Sherman and Howie Hersh in 1971, Tiger Okoshi in 1990 and my son John in 2009. This is the band that has played with me for many years, but all Orpheus members know they are welcome every time we play.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.