Gary Puckett sans Union Gap, looking for a new groove in the early 1970s
When one PopularSong.org contributor suggested that we consider Gary Puckett for a featured artist article, the initial reactions ranged from mild amusement to what we’ll call “politely perplexed.” As in, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap? Our acquaintance waited patiently, and when the dust of disinterest settled, said something to the effect that we should first check the facts, listen to some of his hits and covers, and then we’d change our…tune.
Armed with preconceptions about bubblegum music and oldies acts, we did a little digging and spun a few discs. We were surprised by our verdict: Gary Puckett ranks among the best, brightest, but unfortunately very brief voices in the history of American Popular Song.
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap came on the national scene like a comet on steroids in late 1967. For the next 20 months their music ruled the airwaves. During this time period they had six hit singles packaged in three hit albums. The Union Gap topped the Cashbox charts twice in 1968, and were continuously on both the Billboard singles and LP charts, usually in the top ten.
When you consider 1968 in terms of pop music, names like The Beatles, The Monkees, The Supremes, and Simon & Garfunkel come to mind. But in terms of record sales, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap outsold all of them in ’68. Expand it to straight rock and roll — which brings in Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Jumping Jack Flash — and Gary Puckett still sold the most records in 1968. Sales were so strong that Columbia Records simply gave the group’s third album a short but appropriate title: Incredible.
For those of us old enough to remember when songs like “Lady Willpower” and “This Girl Is A Woman Now” were current radio hits, it’s surprising to learn that the Union Gap’s popularity was so short lived. The fact is that most of their six hits played well into the early 1970s while a couple of Puckett’s solo efforts made a little noise (emphasis on little) of their own. So their “sound” outlasted their career. Considering how special that sound was, it’s not surprising.
The secret to the Union Gap’s success was, without question, the vocal power of Gary Puckett. But “power” isn’t exactly the right adjective; it’s more a case of “rich” and “textured.” At times he sounds classically trained, and at other times he just sounds like he’s blasting it out…and in both cases Puckett’s vocal quality is extremely strong.
Beyond Puckett, the Union Gap was a very impressive collection of talent. Kerry Chater, Dwight Bement, Gary Withem and Paul Wheatbread were all skilled musicians. After the group disbanded, Chater and Bement remained in the music biz while Withem became a music teacher, Wheatbread a concert promoter.
To a man, the Union Gap erroneously perceived themselves to be an up-and-coming rock and roll band in 1967. Jerry Fuller, a skilled producer at Columbia Records, heard Puckett sing and knew he had the makings of a power pop superstar. Fuller recorded “Woman, Woman” with the full ensemble, then added more instrumentation. It quickly became a case of the rock and roll “Union Gap” having no sound of its own — the reality was that Columbia was releasing Gary Puckett albums with these other guys who happened to be part of the deal.
“Woman, Woman” was an immediate monster, even serving up what was by then increasingly rare in the business: The B-side hit, “Don’t Make Promises,” which enjoyed its own run on the charts. This double-header was followed immediately by the even bigger “Young Girl.” The Union Gap was all over the radio, and soon invited to The White House to play for visiting heads of state. Their success was phenomenal, and it was definitely on the strength of Puckett’s vocal skills and Fuller’s arrangements. As stated earlier, their records outsold every other recording artist in 1968. When you consider other acts that dominated a given year before and after…The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel…it was safe to assume that Gary Puckett would have a long, stellar career.
Well, Puckett has enjoyed the longevity, but it hasn’t been nearly as stellar as it could’ve been.
If ever a talented artist was less than ideally suited to being a “star,” it was Puckett. First, he turned his passion for Civil War history into an image for the group. Wearing re-enactor uniforms on their first three album covers, it was hard not to confuse the Union Gap with another Columbia act, Paul Revere and the Raiders. (The Raiders sported Revolutionary War costumes, but the overall effect was just as ridiculous.) This also caused a disconnect for listeners…what they saw on TV did not match the mental image conjured by songs like “Don’t Give In to Him” or “Lady Willpower.” It was confusing — here’s a guy singing like Eddie Fisher, but he’s wearing some sort of costume.
Columbia probably figured that, other than their sound, the Union Gap wasn’t all that much different from the Raiders. The Raiders were a teen act based around two key personalities, Paul Revere and Mark Lindsay. The rest of the group was by 1968 a revolving door of talented musicians paid by the hour. Wheatbread, in fact, was briefly one of those Raiders. Between the label and Puckett’s management, the Union Gap was put on salary — although Puckett himself said it was just differing percentages. Either way, it wasn’t a happy time. A couple of the guys left, the others stayed on for another year or so. But in the end, it wouldn’t matter all that much. Gary Puckett’s rocket to stardom seemed to fall almost as quickly as it ascended.
In mid-1969 Fuller was more or less ready to dispense with the Union Gap entirely; legend has it that Puckett and company showed at a recording session to find a full orchestra ready to handle all the instrumentation. The boys — still thinking they were a rock band — refused to go along, and most significantly, Puckett refused to sing. They gave Columbia an ultimatum, and the label supposedly sided with Puckett (who was of course selling zillions of records). Fuller moved on, and took his formula with him. The group managed one more huge hit in late 1969, “This Girl Is A Woman Now,” mainly because they had so much momentum. A follow-up, “Let’s Give Adam and Eve Another Chance” was certainly good, but by now didn’t sound all that much different from all the other Union Gap records everybody owned, and it stalled on the charts. By 1970 Puckett was ready to cut a solo album.
The first single Puckett released was rather telling: “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” a title that probably was an accurate description of Puckett’s state of mind in 1970. A Greatest Hits collection was released, and the remnants of the Union Gap left the act in 1971. Puckett really didn’t know what to do with himself; he still wanted to sing pop/rock. He has supposedly said that Columbia just wanted to help him make power ballad hits, but that he was too stubborn to go along. So he took some time off, cashed royalty checks, and generally dropped out of sight.
But his sound never really left the radio dial. Embraced by oldies stations as early as the mid-1970s, songs like “Young Girl” were part of the baby boomers’ musical canon. Puckett eventually joined the oldies circuit, where he remains beloved by audiences around the world. The Union Gap’s catalog has been repackaged so many times and sold so well that even some of their more obscure songs have gained recognition. Among these are “Home,” a Vietnam-war ballad, and “Good Morning, Reverend Posey,” a cynical statement on the trappings of overly organized religion. Some of the group’s covers of pop standards from the era, including “Lady Madonna” and “You’d Better Sit Down Kids” are believed by many to be the best performances of those songs.
Power Pop Legacy
There is no question of the man’s “incredible” success. Although he had more hits in 20 months than most artists do in a lifetime, it begs another question: What could Gary Puckett have accomplished if his sound had evolved like a Bobby Darin or a Tony Bennett? Even so, his vocal styling and success makes him one of the most important influences on pop music from the late 1960s. Paving the way for artists like Barry Manilow and later artists like Celine Dion, Gary Puckett was a pioneer for modern pop power ballad singers.