Southern Sounds

Rob Grill did more than sing fervent songs of love. He seemed to live inside the songs. Grill, the longtime lead-singer of the Grass Roots, extolled the eternal passions with intense determination. He declared the one he loved had something that moved his soul. Even with sweat pouring down his chest, he’d wait a million years to be near his lover and at midnight, he’d confess it to the world. Oh Lord, Heaven knows he would.

Rob Grill (Photo by ShellyS)

From the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, Grill’s fiery declarations filled the airwaves. “Come On and Say It,” “I’d Wait A Million Years,” “Midnight Confessions,” and “Temptation Eyes” were among the Grass Roots’ hit singles that showcased Grill as a dynamic yet artful singer. His vocal deliveries were imbued with a soulful approach that worked equally in performances that were either strongly emphatic or softly persuasive.

Grill, who died last month at the age of 67, joined the Grass Roots in 1966, after the band had already scored their first hit with “Where Were You When I Needed You,” written by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. The song’s first recording featured Sloan as lead singer and guitarist. Joining Sloan on the track were Barri and assembled studio musicians. Actually, the Grass Roots were a band in name only, conceived by the record company, Dunhill, to capitalize on the emerging folk-rock genre. When the song began to receive airplay at a San Francisco station and with interest in the Grass Roots picking up, Sloan and Barri began searching for a band that could actually be the Grass Roots. They did so with a Bay area group called the Bedouins, featuring lead singer Willie Fulton. Moving quickly, the newly-minted Grass Roots added a few cover songs to what Sloan and Barri had already recorded for the Where Were You When I Needed You album, with Fulton providing lead vocals on the title track.

Sloan and Barri kept pushing the band formerly known as the Bedouins in the folk-rock direction, but they balked, favoring inclusion of their own blues-rock material as part of the Grass Roots’ repertoire. The impasse wasn’t broken, so out went the Bedouins and in came a Los Angeles group known as the 13th Floor to become the Grass Roots. But then, the 13th Floor’s lead singer, Kenny Fukumoto, was drafted. Seizing the opportunity of a lifetime was Rob Grill. He served as the Grass Roots’ lead singer on the Let’s Live for Today album, which included his own lead vocal on the group’s final recording of “Where Were You When I Needed You.” From then on, it was Rob Grill’s vocal stylings that most characterized the sound of the Grass Roots. The hits would keep coming.

P.F. Sloan (Photo by [email protected]/Creative Commons)

“Let’s Live for Today,” “Midnight Confessions,” “I’d Wait A Million Years” and “Temptation Eyes” were bigger hits for the Grass Roots, and surely more illustrative of what became recognized as the band’s sound, but it was on songs written by P.F. Sloan (often joined by co-writer Steve Barri) that the band did its best work. In fact, no other singer filled the songs of P.F. Sloan with such vibrance and spirit like Rob Grill.

Opening the Let’s Live for Today album was “Things I Should Have Said to Her,” perhaps the best rendition of any P.F. Sloan composition. It’s a lively song with subtle but engaging Latin rhythms. There’s a rocking chorus to complement the verses which thoughtfully scrutinize the end of a romance, with the break-up catching the protagonist unaware. After a nimble intro with piano in the foreground, Grill puts the listener at eavesdropping distance of the scene conjured by Sloan.

I didn’t cry

I just stood and watched her say goodbye

She closed the door

And said “I don’t want to see you anymore.”

The spurned lover ponders throughout the chorus over things he should have said that would have made her stay: things like an admission of love.

In the next verse, still bafffled at why she would leave, he wonders if he was to blame. But maybe she just didn’t understand a guy like him.  Perhaps he just couldn’t open up, so much so that he left too many things unexplained.

In the song’s rousing bridge, the protagonist comes around somewhat, wondering why he hadn’t done things differently before she walked out on him.

Oh, why didn’t I try telling her?

She was all I had

Why didn’t I try telling her?

Now she’s gone, and I feel, oh, so bad

After the bridge, the next verse has the protagonist lamenting how quickly things fell apart. His words register surprise at what happened to him, but the mood conveyed by Grill indicates the guy should have seen it coming. So with the chorus closing out the song, he’s left to stew, and stew some more, over what he should have said.

“Things I Should Have Said” has bounce, brio, and keen lyrics. The story line is the polar opposite of “Where Were You When I Needed You?” In that song, the protagonist, back on his feet and well off, chastises an old lover for not being around when he could have used some TLC, and even though she’s looking good, he’s calling it a day. Living without her is far better than having her around. Quite fitting for the comeuppance she has to endure, the pacing of the song’s melody is deliberate and somewhat grim.

On “Where Were You When I Needed You” and “Things I Should Have Said,” Sloan and Barri crafted brief stories in song dealing with heartache and its aftermath. Rob Grill put the stories and the sentiments across skillfully, just as he did in all of the P.F. Sloan compositions recorded by the Grass Roots. Among them are “Here’s Where You Belong,” “Melody for You,”  and “Wake Up, Wake Up,” which have all aged well. The Grass Roots’ performances on the songs were hardly cutting-edge rock and roll, but they were bright, catchy, and smart. In 1989, more than two decades after those songs were recorded, The Boston Globe wrote that “The Grass Roots weren’t the hippest band on the block, but they were — and remain — a sure-fire guilty pleasure, a blissful package of pure pop.”

P.F. Sloan wrote hit songs for other acts besides the Grass Roots. And, yes, many of the songs, such as “You Baby,” for the Turtles, “A Must to Avoid” by Herman’s Hermits  and “Secret Agent Man,” made famous by Johnny Rivers, qualified as guilty pleasures.

Can’t Twist The Truth . . .  Sloan’s stories in song, however, weren’t always blissful packages of pure pop. There was, after all, the song he wrote one evening at the age of 19 when brooding over the discord and danger prevalent in all corners of the globe. Conveying his fears with a heavy heart, Sloan wrote “Eve of Destruction,” which he described as “a prayer to God.”

Excited about his song, Sloan walked into his parents’ bedroom to show it to them. His mother asked that he not wake his father. Mrs. Sloan thus provided her son a harbinger of how the older generations in America would receive his song. They couldn’t be bothered with the observations of a young man concerned about nuclear buttons and bigotry. Even worse, they’d consider his message treasonous.

The eastern world, it is explodin’
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’

It was Barry McGuire, having just left The New Christy Minstrels, who gave voice to Sloan’s captivating but disturbing prayer. A large segment of America’s young generation, identifying with the fears and concerns expressed in the song, made it the number one single in the country, topping the Billboard Hot 100 on September 25, 1965. McGuire’s single made it to number one after the Beatles had occupied the top position the three previous weeks with “Help.” After a week at number one, “Eve of Destruction” gave way to the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy,” a rock and roll number that American parents found, even if  they thought it noisy prattle, innocuous when compared to a song warning their children about the world they’d inherit.

In his book, The Sixties, Todd Gitlin wrote of the furor “Eve of Destruction” caused.

This was a song which a vociferous group of campus barnstormers called the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade said was “obviously aimed at instilling fear in our teenagers as well as a sense of hopelessness,” helping “induce the American public to surrender to atheistic international Communism.

The song’s assertion that “when the button is pushed,  there’ll be no running away, there’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave” surely gave pause to teenagers, many already serving in the armed forces and quite mindful of  world tensions. Young people in uniform and their civilian contemporaries also had to recognize the validity of Sloan comparing the depth of hatred in Selma, Alabama to what we usually associated with totalitarian nations such as “Red China.” Then too was the dig at American piety: “Hate your next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.” Partly a news update and partly a jeremiad, “Eve of Destruction” captured the attention of the willing listener with its clear-cut images.

Sloan’s “prayer,” which years later he said he wrote “for my own pleasure,” also rankled average conservative Americans with scant interest in crusades. They saw it as unpatriotic and an act of defiance toward the government just as the nation’s war in Vietnam was causing great divisions throughout the country. Father against son. Teacher versus student. A civil war over a civil war, so to speak.

Looking back at the song and the controversy it caused, Sloan indicated he wanted to create a dialogue, a conversation between the people and the politicians. He wrote about the furor over “Eve of Destruction” in 1999.

The media frenzy over the song tore me up and seemed to tear the country apart. I was an enemy of the people to some and a hero to others…….I have felt it was a love song and written as a prayer because to cure an ill, you need to know what is sick. In my youthful zeal I hadn’t realized that this would be taken as an attack on The System.

A teacher of a 6th grade class in suburban Atlanta made it clear to her students how much she disapproved of the song. Her son was among the U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1965, the year that saw American military presence go from 23,000 combat-ready military advisors to 184,000 soldiers taking the fight to Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam was a dreary and faraway land difficult to spot on the map for most suburban Southerners, but the fight there was now America’s fight and the fight was embraced by a 6th grade teacher who wanted her son safe at home, although she was proud of his service on freedom’s behalf. That was her perspective and she stuck to it, despite her knowledge of world history. Alas, she thought of hubris when she thought of Napoleon, but not Lyndon Johnson or William Westmoreland. And even though being a rather smart person who could have given credence to the observations noted by Sloan in “Eve of Destruction,” such recognition was out of the question. She “hated” the song.

Our teacher was so thankful when her son returned home from Vietnam. We all were. He was a sweet-natured young man, who like millions, did his duty, never mind what he thought of it. One day he came by the school to visit his mom’s class. A party atmosphere took hold. Some of the kids brought 45’s to play on the classroom’s phonograph. Of course, no one dared to bring “Eve of Destruction.” It was mostly the harmless pop records, such as “Let’s Hang On” by the Four Seasons, “Sweet Pea” by Tommy Roe and, of course, the favorite of the gung-ho patriots, “The Ballad of The Green Berets” by Sgt. Barry Sadler. “Where Were You When I Needed You” by the Grass Roots was not yet on our play list. By the time it was released, school was out for the summer.

Rob Grill and the Flying Fish Grill . . .   Kenny Fukumato, whose draft notice provided Rob Grill with the opportunity of a lifetime, never got to put his vocals on “Where Were You When I Needed You” or any other songs written by P. F. Sloan. Instead of a guitar, it was a gun he was totin’. “I went and did my duty in Vietnam, served my two years, and came back out, finished up school and got a degree in fine arts,” Fukomoto told an interviewer in 2006. Well aware of life’s twists and turns, Fukomoto said, “You know how these college degrees go — a degree in the fine arts and you end up in the restaurant business. So…”

Thus, Fukumoto and his wife, Tina, are owners of The Flying Fish Grill, an acclaimed restaurant in Carmel, California. Instead of pondering  the what-ifs in his life, Fukumoto dealt with life’s breaks, as did Rob Grill.

In 1977, ten years after joining The Grass Roots, Grill and the band broke up. He embarked on what seemed a promising solo career, with his Uprooted album, released in ’79, which featured members of Fleetwood Mac. The first single from Uprooted, “Rock Sugar,” was a rugged and lively song, as it recalled the way Grill first captured our attention. He was back on the radio again, sounding more vigorous, and perhaps more interested, than he did on the last two big hits by the Grass Roots, “Sooner or Later” and “Two Divided By Love.” His talents were worthy of far more than such formulaic pap, just as they were worthy of more than stints on the oldies circuit, which he worked for nearly three decades, beginning in ’82. Rob Grill, after all, possessed the voice that gave such lift to great songs of P.F. Sloan. That made his voice quite special.

 

 

 

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Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.