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1. Come Softly To Me
(Dolphin single #1, 2/59)
2. Graduation’s Here
(Dolton single #3, 4/59)
3. Outside My Window
(Dolton single #15, 1/60)
4. (He’s) The Great Imposter
(Dolton single #45, 8/61)
(Dolton single #22, 5/60)
(Dolton single #30, 12/60)
(Dolton single #41, 3/61)
8. Mr. Blue
(Dolton single #5, 8/59)
9. The Last One To Know
(Dolton single #27, 9/60)
10. Truly Do
(B-side of “Runaround,” 5/60)
11. Lovers By Night, Strangers By Night
(Dolton single #62, 9/62)
12. Goodnight My Love
(Dolton single #75, 5/63)
(From the Liberty LP Buried Treasure #10199, 1983)
14. Bye Bye Blackbird
(From the Dolton LP The Fleetwoods #8002, 1960)
15. Serenade Of The Bells
(From the Dolton LP Mr. Blue #8001, 11/59)
16. A Lover’s Concerto
(From the Dolton LP Folk Rock #8039, 1965)
17. Before and After (Losing You)
(Dolton single #302, 1964)
18. Climb Ev’ry Mountain
(From the Liberty LP Buried Treasure #10199, 1983)
Tracks 14-17 are CD BONUS TRACKS
The Fleetwoods appear courtesy of Capitol Records, Inc. under license from CEMA Special Markets, a Division of Capitol Records, Inc.
(P) 1990 Capitol Records, Inc. Manufactured by CEMA Special Markets, a Division of Capitol Records
© 1990 Rhino Records Inc., 2225 Colorade Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404
Gretchen Christopher signed in frustration. The girls she and Barbara Ellis were auditioning for their high school group kept singing “In The Still Of The Night” louder and louder, until it sounded like the latest Elvis Presley rocker. “In The Still Of The Night” she reminded them, urging with a whisper, “softly, softly.”
Later, the audition over and unsuccessful, Gretchen fingered the try-out song’s classic rock ‘n’ roll chord progression on the piano, crooning the word, “softly.” With Barbara’s help, she fleshed the word out into a line, then a song. “Softly” became not only a hook for their forthcoming hit record, but for the very group the two Olympia High School seniors would shortly form. For the Fleetwoods are still characterized today by their graceful, smooth sound: Whatever they sang, they sang softly.
It all started with “Come Softly,” the song Gretchen and Barbara, two girls from Olympia, Washington who had first sung together as cheerleaders in junior high, created at that 1958 session. Some time later, having harmonized together on an arrangement of “Stormy Weather,” they decided to augment their voices with a jazz trumpet. A local combo, the Blue Comets, recommended another Olympia High student, Gary Troxel.
“We tried it, but just the trumpet with the girls’ singing voices sounded like … I don’t know what, pretty bad,” recalls Gary. Gretchen was more impressed with Gary’s humming, as they stood at a bus stop, waiting to go downtown. He was just goofing with a quick little jazz riff – inspired, he says, by the intro to “Come Go With Me” – when Gretchen said, “Slow that down.” She recognized in Gary’s nonsense syllables the perfect counterpoint to “Come Softly.”
Gretchen, Barbara and Gary sang the completed song at the senior class student assembly, a capella. Schoolmates began pestering them to record the song, so they assembled at Gretchen’s house and crooned “Come Softly” into her dad’s tape recorder. Gretchen then passed the tape along to Norm Bobrow, who owned the Colony, a local club that featured recording artist and forthcoming Broadway star Pat Suzuki. Gretchen, chaperoned by her mother, had danced at the club while legally underage (the state demanded club floorshow performers be 21 – Gretchen was just 18).
“Norm Bobrow came to me with this tape and said, ‘Can you do anything with this?’” remembers Bob Reisdorff, who was a Northwest record promoter in 1958. “It was a capella and way too long, but it fascinated me. I said, ‘That’s a hit if ever I heard one.’” In fact, it was just what Reisdorff was looking for: A song and a group to launch his new Dolphin label, soon renamed Dolton.
He and Dot recording artist Bonnie Guitar, a Dolton partner, recorded the trio singing “Come Softly To Me” (renamed by Reisdorff to avoid double entendre) at the basement studio of Joe Boles. “We must have recorded it 90-100 times, because Joe Boles didn’t have the equipment to overdub,” says Gary. Along the way, Reisdorff had Gary write lyrics to his part, giving the song even more of a rare shared lead. (Reisdorff also named the group based on Olympia’s phone exchange, Fleetwood; the trio had come p with Two Girls and a Guy.)
Reisdorff and Guitar took the vocal track to Hollywood, where they added acoustic guitar, bass and a subtle percussion click to the mix. “When we finished the song at 4 a.m., we took the master to KFWB, which was L.A.’s dominant hits station,” says Reisdorff. “The DJ, who knew me, put it on. The phones didn’t ring or anything - nothing happened. The next day, the station regretfully declined the single. They said, “It just lies there.’”
Reisdorff, certain there was gold in those harmonies, took the record to Northwest DJs, who made it a regional hit. Weeks later it vaulted to a national #1, which it held for four weeks in spring 1959; it quickly became the first gold record produced in the Northwest.
‘It was totally opposite of what the music business was doing at the time,” explains Bonnie Guitar. “Everything was what we called the hot sound, the Dot sound, really beefed up to sound exciting. The Fleetwoods had such a subtle, warm sound.
Their next hit also sprang from their Olympia High School days. Barbara and Gretchen had written “Graduation’s Here” for their senior graduation party. The group scored their second – and last - #1 with their third single, the evocative “Mr. Blue.” Written by Dewayne Blackwell of the San Francisco sibling trio the Blackwells, it set the Fleetwoods’ disarming harmonies into a more sophisticated song, with an old-fashioned “verse” intro offset by Roy Lanham’s light-fingered guitar work. Adding to the songs luster is the trombone work of Jazz artist Cy Zentner.
Although “Mr. Blue,” along with “Come Softly To Me,” defined the Fleetwoods’ sound, Gary Troxel admits he didn’t immediately take to it. “I didn’t think it was a hit,” he laughs. “That was probably the o nly song we recorded that I didn’t want to sing.”
Three hits called for an album, which the Fleetwoods recorded a capella in Seattle, with Reisdorff and Guitar adding minimal backing in Hollywood. Generally considered the group’s finest hour, the 1960 Mr. Blue album blended pop ballads with the kind of gentle, thoughtful arrangements associated with much more mature male and female vocalists.
Over the next three or four years, the Fleetwoods recorded fairly steadily, mainly with Reisdorff at the helm. Their sessions, usually recorded at the Western studio of United Studios on Sunset Blvd., featured the best musicians Reisdorff could assemble, including guitarist Glen Campbell, pianist Leon Russell and bassist Red Calendar, a veteran of many Billie Holiday recordings. The Fleetwoods recorded “live,” with the musicians playing simultaneously. Gary says the typical album took only about a week and a half to record.
The bulk of the Fleetwoods’ songs, which included several that the group wrote, came from two sources. First, the group covered standards and well-loved numbers, including Thomas Wayne’s 1959 hit “Tragedy,” the ‘50s favorite “Goodnight My Love,” the Bud and Travis song “Truly Do,” and “Bye Bye Blackbird,” whose arrangement Gretchen credits in part to Johnny Mathis’ version.
Second, they solicited new material, taking it from the top when they could. Hal David penned the lyrics of “Outside My Wndow,” the group’s fourth sing. Sharon Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon wrote “(He’s) The Great Imposter” for the group. Dewayne Blackell contributed the follow-up to “Mr. Blue,” – “Last One To Know” – released as the B-side of “Dormilona,” Reisdorff’s hit pick, “Last One To Know” cracked the Top 100 when the Fleetwoods, on the stump for the single, convinced DJs to flip the disk over. Even a young Randy Newman offered a couple of songs, allegedly his first recorded work.
But it was tough to find Fleetwood material, says Guitar, who left Dolton shortly after Liberty bought it in 1960. “They kids were limited – they just had this soft, controlled style,” she says. “You couldn’t put them on something where they really had to wail.” They often had to reject wonderful ballads written for solo artists, adds Gary, songs that couldn’t be reconstructed for the groups three-voice arrangement.
Besides the dearth of tunes, other factors gradually dimmed the Fleetwoods’ career as well. The quiet innocence that made the Fleetwoods’ music so charming also hobbled their performances, says Reisdorff; they bumped Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” from the #1 spot with “Come Softly To Me,” but couldn’t compete with him or other charismatic acts on tour, despite backing groups such as the Champs (“Tequila”). “They were not performers, anything but,” says Reisdorff. Gretchen had performance and PR savvy, but Gary remembers just nodding during radio interviews.
As time went on, the arrangements started giving more weight to the instruments, which sometimes out-muscled the fragile voices. Gary began getting nearly all the leads, since Reisdorff thought he had the most commercial pop voice (though he winced when Gary would sing “through his nose”). When allowed to shine, however, the girls matched Gary’s efforts, as shown on this album.
Gretchen’s clear, elegant tones give “Imagination” a moving grace. Barbara’s intimate, girl-next-door charm made “Goodnight My Love” The Fleetwoods’ last Top 40 hit.
After Reisdorff left Liberty in 1963 (he continued to work with the Ventures, another Dolton discovery), the Fleetwoods lost direction. Prodded by Liberty, the group made half-hearted stabs at surf and even ska; they juiced up their sound for “Before And After” (in vain – Chad and Jeremy snagged the hit with it); and in 1966 recorded their swan song album, Folk Rock, composed of early ‘60s hits. Peter, Paul & Mary they weren’t, though they fared well with a few songs, such as the Toys’ “A Lovers Concerto.” The next year, Liberty did not renew the groups contract and their career ended.
It’s telling that the Fleetwoods died when forced to be “relevant”: They had the kind of class their generation shunned. Their music was tranquil, their personalities low-key. Their recordings bridged the generation gap forming in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with influences as diverse as the Del Vikings and Frank Sinatra. And while part of the first rock ‘n’ roll generation, they sounded less at home with a Dylan or McCartney tune than “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” this album’s closer, which their contemporaries would have scorned.
As “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” shows, the Fleetwoods’ voices sound marvelous individually; united, they’re magic. As Gretchen says, “That’s one thing a solo voice can’t have – the beauty of those three voices, singing in harmony.”
- Darcy Sullivan
Produced for CD by Bill Inglot
Compilation: Darby Sullivan
Art Direction: Geoff Gans
Design: Brigid Pearson
Photos: Michael Ochs Archives
Digital Prep and Transfers: Bill Inglot and Ken Perryman, Mastering
Special thanks to: Gary Troxel, Grethen Christopher, Don Rogers