Based in Houston, Neal Ford & the Fanatics never had much of an impact outside of Texas but they were one of the stronger of the legions of regionally popular psychedelic/garage outfits. Never as wild as Austin's the 13th Floor Elevators, Ford had a bigger, brighter sound, one that certainly showed a deep appreciation for the British Invasion but also found space for swirling, insistent organ and a facility with an R&B groove that wasn't quite common among other garage bands. Ironically enough, Ford & the Fanatics wound up hampered by the very thing that made them distinctive: they were poppier and lighter than their peers, particularly their Texas peers, and that made labels eager to package them in an even lighter setting, a commercially minded move that never paid off. Nevertheless, the group amassed a nice, tidy legacy that can be heard on Ace's excellent 2013 compilation, Good Men.
A native of San Antonio, Neal Ford spent some childhood time in Michigan's Upper Peninsula before he went back to Texas to attend high school in Houston. He wound up leading a band called the Ramadas, who largely played R&B covers, and they came to the attention of Texas record man Major Bill Smith. The Ramadas released a couple singles on Philips in 1963, then moved to New World where they were now known as the VIPs. Around this time, Ford and his band fell under the spell of British Invasion and that influence would hold until late 1964, when he returned to active rock duty after a year's sojourn in the military. By early 1965, the lineup of the Fanatics fell into place, featuring Ford on vocals, Steve Ames on guitar and vocal, W.T. Johnson on bass, Lanier Greig on keyboards, John Cravey on drums, and Johnny Stringfellow on guitar. They knocked out "I Will Not Be Lonely" for Gina Records and it got some attention in Houston and, over the next few months, they built their audience through consistent appearances around town, which continued even when Ford was called back to boot camp. The group kept performing and Ford returned at the end of the year, after which they cut some sides in January 1966. These were the first songs released to Neal Ford & the Fanatics and soon afterward, Ames was replaced by Jon Pereles, who was the lead guitarist and Ford's vocal sparring partner. The group's third single, "I Will If You Want To," was, upon its September 1966 release, the group's most popular to date and they started getting attention outside of Houston, which led to more commercial-oriented sessions that fall.
Early in 1967, "Gonna Be My Girl" wound up catching fire in the Houston region and the group seemed poised for a breakthrough but its sequel, "Wait for Me," didn't do quite as well. Nevertheless, 1967 saw Neal Ford & the Fanatics playing the gulf region to big audiences and they started to record material for an album -- more than enough, actually, with some of the leftovers surfacing decades later on Ace's Good Men comp. Hickory released the group's debut album in November 1967, after Stringfellow was drafted. The eponymous album didn't do well, nor did the singles that followed in 1968, each moving the band closer to the mainstream. Nevertheless, none of these commercially oriented records resulted in an actual hit. One more single followed in 1969 for ABC but the group disbanded not long afterward. Ford continued to play with band into the '70s -- including with the Neal Ford Foundation, which released an album in 1972 -- but for the most part they were remembered for their earliest, edgiest singles and garage aficionados remembered them for their versatility.
NEAL FORD & THE FANATICS were a 1960's rock band from Houston, Texas. They released one LP on the Hickory label, along with a number of singles on Hickory and other labels. Their songs were strong and the band was tight, playing regularly at skating rinks, shopping malls and night clubs like The Catacombs and The Living Eye. I was fortunate to see the band play a set at Memorial City Mall in 1968.
It was the era of hip huggers, bell bottoms and miniskirts, and the crowd had a great time listening to the groovy sounds of NEAL FORD & THE FANATICS!
Neal Ford And The Fanatics - Good Men 1965-68
Texas was a bastion of garage rock and psychedelia in the '60s, known in particular for the ravings of Austin's 13th Floor Elevators, but over to the east lay Houston's Neal Ford & the Fanatics, a sextet that harnessed the softer sound of their chosen genre. At times, the Fanatics seem as if they were poised to run away with the ragged variation of the kind of sunshine pop that came beaming out of the West Coast, so comfortable were they with effervescent melodies and lighter textures. But they could still rock, as Ace's terrific 2013 anthology Good Men illustrates. Running a generous 26 tracks, this Alec Palao-produced compilation doesn't have everything from their 1967 LP, but rather sharply culls from that LP, adds several rare singles dating back to 1965, and dredges up unreleased material and other rarities, all in the effort to tell the entire story of Ford & the Fanatics. There are times where the group really does get hard and heavy -- usually, it's earlier, when they barrel through the title track and strike a sneering, defiant stance on "I Will Not Be Lonely," but they also pour it all out on an unheard medley of Little Richard's "Lucille" and the Beatles' "I'm Down" -- but the group is largely interesting because they're more varied than most of their garage rock peers, particularly those who called Texas their home. Ford & the Fanatics had a facility with melody, an eagerness to get trippy without ever losing sight of home base, and would occasionally thump with a clear knowledge of R&B; their facility with grooves is rarely heard in garage. As Palao's notes make clear, the group's ability to sound commercial wound up being a bit of an Achilles heel, as it brought them to the attention of labels that were willing to exploit the softer elements in hopes of a hit, but this compilation shows them at their best. If their originals weren't quite hooky enough to guarantee hearing outside of Houston -- they were sturdy songs that perhaps given the right break would've been hits -- the versatility means they're one of the more intriguing unheard bands of their time, finally given their proper respect on this wildly entertaining Ace collection.