Editor’s note: Gary Puckett will be featured Saturday night at Moondance Jam III, held this weekend at Moondance Ranch, seven miles east of Walker. The following story is from a recent telephone interview with Puckett from his home in San Diego.
WALKER - The year was 1954. Rock ’n’ roll was born. Bill
Haley and the Comets were on the verge of success. "Blackboard Jungle," a
movie about tough guy teenagers, high school life and the urban scene
was popular with young people.
Gary Puckett was 12 years old then. The music at that time had an edge to it, an excitement, he recalls. "I was turned on by rock ’n’ roll." Puckett said in a recent telephone interview. "I started listening to the radio - Elvis, Jerry Lee, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly." By the time Puckett had turned 15, he was playing in his first band, called The Red Coats.
As the appeal of rock ’n’ roll swept across the nation capturing the hearts of America’s youth, Puckett got hooked on the excitement of this new style of music.
During his earlier years, he sang and played guitar with a number of bands, from a folk music group called the Continentals to an 11-piece rhythm and blues band called the Ravens. It was during this time that Puckett went to college in San Diego, at the urging of his parents who were both accomplished musicians and wanted a career with more stability for their son.
Puckett saw regional success with a San Diego-based group called The Outcasts, which became a house band at a popular nightspot called the Quad Room. "In 1964, we were making $1,200 a week as a three piece band," he said, "I had a four-bedroom house and a Thunderbird. We had a lot of fun. The ’60s were coming on and the Beatles were happening." In 1966, the group broke up. Puckett was out of work for five months until he organized the Union Gap. "It started out as Gary and the Remarkables," he said. "We rehearsed for six weeks and found an agent in LA, and asked him to come down and hear the band at a club." Puckett said he remembers the agent telling the band that they weren’t too good but he’d try to get them a job. "He booked us at a dive in L.A.," Puckett recalled. "They fired us after a week."
Then the agent sent the group to Washington in the dead of winter. "I remember thinking, we’ve got to do something to get out of this club scene," Puckett said. "I’ve always been a Civil War buff, and it occurred to me one day that if we dressed [the band] in Civil War uniforms it would be pretty hip. The band fell on the floor and laughed at me for two days."
However, when the band was playing a gig near the California/Mexican border, Puckett rented a Union soldier uniform and took it to Tijuana to have outfits made for the rest of the band. "We bought pants at a department store and sewed yellow strips on the side," he said. "Then we had hats made, put stripes and medals on [the uniforms] and went back to the Quad Room."
After a short time at the Quad Room, Puckett said he knew the group had talent, so he took the band to a small tourist attraction outside San Diego and had promotional pictures taken. He then took the photos and a tape he’d made with the Outcasts and brought it around to record companies in Southern California. Over the course of five days, he faced a lot of rejection. He stopped by CBS and told the band to keep the car running while he ran inside with the tape and a photo. There he met Jerry Fuller, who later would become the group’s producer. Fuller said he’d come out to hear the band on Saturday at the Quad Room. "He showed up on Friday, it took me off guard," said Puckett. Fuller told Puckett. ’It sounds good, let’s go make records.’ " A couple of months later, Fuller returned to the club and signed the group.
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap went on to record six consecutive gold records in the 60s, with "Woman, Woman" being the first. (The song, written by Jim Glaser and Jimmy Payne, was originally recorded by the Glaser Brothers as a country tune.
As is so often true in the music business, trends and musical tastes of young audiences change. After several band personnel changes over the years, by 1971 Puckett said he found himself "Gapless," without a band. "The ’60s became the ’70s," he said. The ’70s were disco and glitter rock." Puckett didn’t work publicly throughout the ’70s, until 1979 when he moved back to San Diego and worked with Paul Martin as a duo.
In the early ’80s, oldies music began making resurgence across the nation. In 1984, Puckett became part of the Happy Together Tour. One of the first popular oldies tours. That tour, which lasted seven months, was followed by two other successful oldies tours in 1985 and ’86.
Puckett’s line-up today consists of Michael Fiore on bass, David Page on drums, and Howard Laravea on keyboards. Puckett will be releasing a 20-song compact disc package, possibly by August, which will he marketed nationwide through television. The CD consists of 10 songs recorded live on New Year’s Eve in Palm Springs, and 10 of some of the biggest hits of the 1980s. That CD includes popular songs originally recorded by Journey, Michael Bolton, Richard Marx, Brian Adams, Whitesnake, Heart and others.
What motivates Gary Puckett in the 1990s? The 51-year-old musician said it’s the typical things everyone faces like "mortgages and other stuff." But he added that he is more motivated by a talent he believes is from God. "I happen to be a firm believer in Christ as [my) Lord and Savior," Puckett said. "I’m not an evangelist, and I’m not trying to be pompous about this, but I believe that my talents are God's talents. He's just given them to me to use. But my talents are no better than anyone else’s." While Puckett has contemplated recording a contemporary Christian album, he adds, "If I’m singing pop or rock and roll, that’s uplifting - it’s music." Jim Dotson, Puckett’s longtime friend and manager, said, "Gary’s very much into [Christianity], but he doesn’t talk about it much. His faith is what keeps him alive fresh and excited about life," Dotson said he noticed a big change in Puckett four years ago when he became a Christian.
At Moondance, Puckett will perform some of his hits, as well as some of the popular music he grew up listening to. "We do all the hits, of course, because they’ve been good to me over the years," he said. "I grew up with rock and roll, and rhythm and blues, so we do some of that." Puckett described his show as very eclectic, full of fun and rock and roll we will also per form a song he wrote about the Vietnam conflict, called "Home." Puckett said he never gets tired of performing some of the hits for which he’s been known. "I do it because people listen and love it," Puckett said, "As long as I know people enjoy it, I’ll never turn my back on it. When they don’t enjoy it, then I’ll think of something else to do."
Puckett is scheduled to perform at Moondance on Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. Other artists in the line-up for the weekend include Mel McDaniel, Johnny PayCheck, Pirates of Mississippi, Evangeline, Killer Hayseeds, Hoopsnakes, Dakotah, Sparky and the Time Pirates, Dead Stiks and Midnight Shift. Gates open each day at noon.