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The Grass Roots: An Introduction

This post has been edited and updated as of May, 2021, and again in January 2023.

While browsing through the stacks at my local second hand record shop I came across an album by the Grass Roots, a band that I had heard of in passing, but whose music I hadn’t really heard before. It looked a bit scuffed up, but nothing too terrible and it was definitely priced to sell ($99nt, about $3 USD). Upon closer inspection I knew that it would clean up very nicely when I got it home, so I figured what the hell.

I did a google search for record reviews, which were generally favorable. I liked what I was reading, so I bought it on impulse. Which, if I am completely honest, is my favorite kind of vinyl purchase! There is something awesome and exciting about buying a record that looks interesting and cool without every having heard a note! When I was younger (pre-smartphone days) it was impossible to know what you were getting without asking a store clerk to play the album for you… and there was a kind of joy in discovering music randomly because the jacket appealed to you. So, in this instance, I avoided listening to anything from the Grass Roots on YouTube or Spotify (or whatever) because that would spoil the surprise. I decided to go with my gut and trust the reviews I read.

I am REALLY glad that I did! The album in question is their third album, “Feelings”. I have since gone on to purchase quite a few other albums from them! I have 7 albums by them now! (I know, I get obsessed and can’t help myself, hah!) Including 2 Greatest Hits albums (“Golden Grass” and “More Golden Grass”) that collect some non-album singles, I own their third through 7th albums. Their first two albums are still sitting on my wish list because they are a bit harder to find, and consequently more expensive.

Before I get into it, let me first state that I REALLY like these guys! I like their music and I love their musicianship. The production and mastering of these albums is top notch! All that said, though they may not have been the most organic of outfits, and I am OK with that. It is exquisite pop. The music speaks for itself and their music is a great body of work of music that deserves a place in your collection!

The Grass Roots are an odd outfit. They are not a typical band in that the members of the band were recruited to BE  the Grass Roots (kind of like The Monkees, but without a TV show). The name was created by song writers P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri who wanted to make some money from the then-current folk-rock scene. Dunhill Records owner, producer Lou Adler, got on board and they produced an album by hiring musicians to be “The Grass Roots”. That first album was met with limited success and artistic tension by the members of band, and so a lineup change ensued. It would prove to be the first of many that took place during the band’s lifetime. The lineup was finally solidified (albeit temporarily) when Dunhill Records asked a band from Los Angeles called The 13th Floor to change their name and effectively “become” the newest version of The Grass Roots. This is the band that recorded the second album, 1966’s “Let’s Live For Today”. Most of the core members of the 13th Floor continued on as the Grass Roots throughout the 60s and some even remained involved in the outfit right up to the present day (a version of the band still tours regularly!).

To be bluntly honest, the idea behind creating this “band” (at least in the beginning) was never really about making music as a form of artistic expression, but rather as a means to make some cash. The idea was to create a Band-as-a-Brand to help sell products. This, however, doesn’t lessen their musical accomplishments! Remember that these were the sixties, and it was still the norm for most recording artists to record the songs that were chosen for them by their producers and managers etc. It was still a bit of a rarity for artists to write any of their own music, never mind write all of it. In that regard, the Grass Roots outfit was a very clever idea for songwriters Sloan and Barri, because it could provide them with a way of creating music without being part of the band; and it was a way for the band itself to have a steady supply of songs without having to search too far for potentially more expensive songs from more established songwriting teams. It was a win-win situation. I will even go so far as adding a third win… it was a win-win-win situation because the music buying public also benefited. Many of the songs they recorded are absolutely brilliant!

Although Sloan and Barri were responsible for the creation of the group, and for most of the early songs, their writing was not the only source of material. Two of the Grass Roots earliest hits were English versions of songs by Italian bands. And, let’s be charitable by saying their songwriters also “channeled” a few contemporary stars like The Rolling Stones and the Supremes in some of their songs. Just check the Grass Roots’ song “Feelings” and you’ll likely play the next part of Brian Jones’ phenomenal marimba riff from “Under My Thumb” in your head. I constantly mix up the words in “Here’s Where You Belong” because I start singing “You’re the One” by Petula Clark; and then just listen to Grass Roots’ “Wait A Million Years”. You can literally substitute the backing vocals from the Supreme’s “You Keep Me Hanging On”. I guess the Supremes must have been playing in the background when they wrote that song, HAHA. So you can sort of see what I’m getting at here!

This doesn’t mean they’re bad. On the contrary, they’re wonderful! By encompassing the familiar and making it work within the confines of their own music, much like modern artists using samples, they make something new feel instantly familiar and exciting at the same time! I had a GREAT time checking out that first album I bought. Enough of a good time that I immediately went onto Discogs and ordered more albums. I really wasn’t disappointed with any of the albums except “Alotta Mileage” from the early 70s, which made a u-turn into soft rock that I could have lived without (though it still featured a couple of great tracks).

This ability to encompass so many then-contemporary sounds into their music manages to make each one of the Grass Roots albums a kind of “Time Capsule” of late-sixties radio. Each one of the albums is brilliant in it’s own way, and the tight playing by the musicians themselves just serves to make the listening experience that much more fun. Add to this the fact that their albums are recorded in true wide-open stereo, with meticulous care taken in the placing of each instrument, and you have some extremely well crafted albums with clean bass, punchy horns, crisp guitar, and soulful singing.

It is impossible to nail them down to a particular genre. If I were asked to describe their music, I would have to say that although it starts out as basic 60s folk-rock, it flows through a lot of changes. Each album features some really tight production that raises the finished recording’s production value a bit above the average folk-rock artists of the day, but that bit of extra polish also leaves it feeling a bit “too” slick to be real rock. There is a distinct lack of “grit” in their recordings.  The mastering and production is done with far more care than was usually given to rock bands in the sixties, and there is a Motownesque RnB sheen to a lot of it.

The arrangements and flourishes push some of it into the realm of sunshine pop, blue eyed soul, or bubblegum pop, but thankfully without being so saccharine that it hurts your teeth. This same high-level production makes some of the more polished tracks feel rather like 60s vocal pop (think Lulu or Tom Jones) but without descending into an adult contemporary sound, which is a blessing because a lot of 60s vocal-pop suffers from a very high cheese factor. Somehow The Grass Roots manage to avoid making you feel too lactose intolerant. In essence, you can tell that these guys believed in the music they were making and wanted to make it authentic. They had the same kind of commercial-success oriented producers and writers as some contemporary pop artists of the day, but it is a testament to the talent of the band members’ musicianship that they managed to make the recordings seem a lot less pre-fab than other 60s pop vocalists in whose hands these songs may well have sounded like glorified karaoke.

Here is a quick primer of the albums I bought and my impressions.

“Feelings” (1968)

1968’s “Feelings” (the third album released under the name the Grass Roots) is by far my favorite of the bunch. I really lucked out because this was the first album of theirs that I bought and I was blown away. It just takes you on an amazing sonic trip from start to finish, and has a great little loop of a reprise at the end that puts you in the mood to start the whole album over again. It is a really strong album that is just too easy to enjoy on repeat. I won’t talk too much about it here because I’ve written a track by track breakdown of the whole album which I’ve posted separately (You can check it out HERE). The album encompasses all the best things about Buffalo Springfield, The Box Tops, Duane Eddy, a touch of Donovan and maybe even the Byrds. 

“Lovin’ Things” (1969)

This is the last album that features any music from P F Sloan, and the band members themselves contributed two songs. Dunhill by this point had decided that a more strictly RnB flavored direction was the right move for the band. The opening track is the title track, “Lovin’ Things”, and it’s a stunner! The band has started getting a bit more brass and woodwind accompaniment and the vibe is really joyful! The next track, “The River is Wide” , effectively channels both the Shangri-las’ “Leader of the Pack” and the Beatles’ “It’s Only Love”. The next track, “(You Gotta) Live For Love” is a wonderful RnB flavored slice of blue-eyed soul that chuggs along like a steam train. These three songs open the album with a bang, letting you know exactly what you’re in for here! The album doesn’t pull any punches and it is a really solid effort with no less than 4 songs that I felt deserving of a 5-star rating. Wait until you hear the track “Pain”, a song that I could definitely imagine playing at a Northern Soul all nighter. Other exceptional tracks include “The Days of Pearly Spencer” and “I Get So Excited”. The only dud, in my opinion, is the album closer “Fly Me to Havana”. 

“Leaving it All Behind” (1969)

The next album I managed to get my hands on was their fifth outing called “Leaving it All Behind”. This album also rated very highly for me, with two 5-star tracks and four tracks that I rated 4.5. The album is easily as strong as “Feelings” and “Lovin’ Things”, and includes two of my all time favorite Grass Roots songs (“I’m Living For You Girl” and “Wait A Million Years”). EDIT MAY 2021: Maybe I should have, but I didn’t write much about this LP in this post, but it is great fun from start to finish! It isn’t their strongest album (That’s “Feelings” or maybe “Lovin’ Things”, but it’s a great album!) .

“Golden Grass” (1968 collection of hits)

“Golden Grass” is interesting because, although it skips all the tracks from the 1st album released under the Grass Roots moniker, it is a collection of songs from two very different Grass Roots’ albums: the very folk-rock focused 2nd album “Let’s Live For Today” and the more RnB flavored 3rd album. “Feelings”. In this regard it is a collection of songs that showcase a band finding their identity and direction. This is the first official “Best of” package from Dunhill. It features 4 songs each from “Let’s Live For Today” and “Feelings” as well as 3 non-album tracks. The first of these, “Bella Linda” is a cheesy bit of sing-along fluff. “Lady Pleasure” is a nice mid-60s style pop-folk song, but “Midnight Confessions” is a bit of a scorcher and worth checking out. The record is available used at very reasonable prices so as such it is definitely worth seeking out and adding to your collection! EDIT MAY 2021:  Though this LP is still unavailable on Spotify, “Midnight Confessions” and “Bella Linda” have been tacked on to the end of the Spotify version of the “Lovin’ Things”LP. Only “Lady Pleasure” is still unavailable on Spotify.

“More Golden Grass” (1970 collection of hits)

This second “Best Of” collection was released only two years later and contains the so-called best tracks from “Loving Things” and “Leaving it All Behind” (Though I disagree with a couple of the choices!). It is another nice addition to your collection, but despite having a massive SIX non-album tracks, it’s not really essential. The non-album tracks are  “I Can Turn Off The Rain”, “Heaven Knows”, “Get It Together”, “Come On And Say It”, “Temptation Eyes” and “Baby Hold On”.  EDIT MAY 2021:  Though this LP is still unavailable on Spotify, the latter three of these non-album tracks have been tacked on to the end of the Spotify version of the “Leaving It All Behind” LP. The other three tracks are still unavailable on Spotify.

“Move Along” (1972)

This is the first Grass Roots album of the 70s and it feels like it. The songs are mostly good, but that sixties shine starting to fade. They are starting to take themselves a bit more seriously as a band. It’s a good album, but it’s not one I would reach for first. Side A is a great listen but side B kind of coasts along without getting too exciting until the final track, “Glory Bound” which is the real standout track from the album, reminding me of a lot of the rock that was to come later in the 70s. As usual, it sounds very familiar, but I can’t put my finger on what song it reminds me of. Best tracks are “The Runaway”, “Runnin’ Just To Get Her Home Again”, “Anyway The Wind Blows”, “Glory Bound” and the hit “Two Divided By Love”. EDIT MAY 2021:  This album has really grown on me since this post was originally written, particularly the track “Two Divided by Love” which has gotten stuck in my head more times than I can count! Final note about this album: non-album track “Sooner or Later” is a fantastic track that appeared only as a single or on a couple of compilation LPs, starting with 1971’s “Their 16 Greatest Hits”. Luckily, it has been tacked on to the end of the Spotify version of this 1972 LP!

“Alotta Mileage” (1973)

This is where they really started sounding like adult contemporary soft rock. It’s not a terrible album, but it doesn’t offer anything exciting. It doesn’t sound particularly dated, but it just doesn’t sparkle. You could put it on during dinner with guests without offending anyone, or distracting anyone from the dinner conversation. The music on this album has all been done before and others have done it better. It’s not a focused album and maybe that’s what leads to it sounding so middle-of-the-road: nothing really stands out. There is a general bland sameness to the tracks, despite the styles ranging from pop to folk rock, then from RnB to honky tonk and back. They seem to be channeling Captain and Tennille, Bread, or Neil Diamond… or something. Maybe it’s mid-70s, mid-tempo “almost disco” Motown? Whatever it is the result is the same: a big bag of “no”. I was really bored by the end of the album.  So I think you can safely skip this one. EDIT MAY 2021:  The track “Love Is What You Make It” from this album was tacked  onto the end of the Spotify version of their previous album (“Move Along”) though this LP itself remains unavailable on Spotify.

So, there you have it… my very strange round up and introduction to the Grass Roots. I really enjoyed the time I spent listening to their albums as I wrote this. I highly recommend you check them out, especially if you like 60s flavored pop or blue eyed soul. Not everything has to be high art. Sometimes it just hits all the right buttons and produces a smile and a great feeling!

PS: As I mentioned in my review of the “Feelings” album, there were no original recordings from the Grass Roots available to stream on Spotify as of the original publication of this post, only re-recordings. That said, many of the original recordings have now become available.

EDIT MAY 2021: As I mentioned in my review of the “Feelings” album, there were no original recordings from the Grass Roots available to stream on Spotify as of the original publication date of this post, only re-recordings. Many of the original recordings have since become available, though. Spotify now has The Grass Roots’ first 5 albums available to stream, so I have created a playlist and included it at the bottom of this post. Be warned though! You’re gonna love it!

A word of caution: If you decide to check out the full albums on Spotify, be aware that the re-recordings tend to pop up at the top of the list, and the re-recordings are pretty dreadful in my opinion: many sound tinny and have lots of 80s sounding keyboards instead of real horns and strings, the vocalists aren’t always the same either. I would suggest you start with the tracks in my playlist and select “go to album” to find the original recordings.  🙂

EDIT JANUARY 2023: The first album released as The Grass Roots, “Where Were You When I Needed You” is now available on Spotify, but as previously mentioned, none of the musicians on this album recorded anything else as “The Grass Roots”.  This album embodies the folk style as originally envisioned by songwriters/producers at Dunhill Records. It’s very good, but you should consider it an album by a completely different band that happens to share the same name.

EDIT JANUARY 2023: Since this was originally posted, I have gotten my hands of the rest of the Grass Roots discography (including some singles because of the exclusive B-sides) and I can say without reservation that the first album recorded by the classic lineup, “Let’s Live For Today” is a cracker! Worth finding a nice copy of the album.  It is also now available to stream on Spotify!

Enjoy!

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