Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Undertakers - Unearthed

The Undertakers had a lot going for them. They were one of the stronger groups in the Liverpool area (Wallasey being directly across the Mersey), they counted the Beatles among their fans, they were signed to a major label in England and even got to release a single in the U.S.A., and to perform in America, albeit not under the best of circumstances. And they counted Jackie Lomax, one of England's best white soul singers, as a member. But the group played out its existence in adversity, charting in England only once, and was consigned to oblivion in 1966.

The Undertakers, or the 'Takers, as they were sometimes referred to, had their start in 1961, when two of the top local groups in Wallasey disbanded and formed two new bands -- one was the Undertakers, and the other was Dee & the Dynamites. The Undertakers' original line-up was Bob Evans at the drums, Chris Huston on lead guitar, Geoff Nugent playing rhythm guitar, Brian Jones (not the Rolling Stone) on saxophone, Dave "Mushy" Cooper on bass, and Jimmy McManus singing. Evans left the band in late 1961, to be replaced by Bugs Pemberton (of Dee & The Dynamites), and in January of 1962 Cooper departed to join Faron's Flamingos, and was replaced by Jackie Lomax -- who had never played bass before, and had one thrust into his hands upon joining. Within a few months, McManus -- who was known for picking fights with audience members -- was eased out and Lomax took over the singing.

The Undertakers developed a serious following in Wallasey and Liverpool, partly due to Lomax's unusually good singing and the fact that, in addition to the standard mix of obscure American rock & roll and genre standards, they also attempted more big-band style R&B, helped by rian Jones' sax -- few Mersey-side groups had a saxophone in their lineup.

Ironically, the band rejected the management offers of Brian Epstein, choosing instead to be represented by Ralph Webster, who had connections to numerous local performing venues, thus assuring them of constant work. The band's summer 1962 residency at the Star Club in Hamburg allowed the Undertakers to learn first-hand from American legends such as Ray Charles and Little Richard, which greatly improved their act. By the spring of 1963, they had a contract with Pye Records, and were recording the most commercial parts of their stage act.

Their first single, "(Do The) Mashed Potatoes" b/w "Everybody Loves a Lover," didn't sell, nor did "What About Us" b/w "Money" -- although the latter was one of the more convincing covers of the British beat boom, rivaling the Beatles' version for raw power -- but their third single, "Just A Little Bit" b/w "Stupidity," became a top 20 hit in England during the summer of 1964. With the saxophone, and the thumping beat favored during this period, they sounded very slightly like the Dave Clark Five, but Jones was a more articulate player than that, and the lead guitar always made the group's sound pretty complex, and Lomax was an incredibly charismatic soul singer, the Mersey-side rival to Eric Burdon and maybe better than that.

Despite the success of their third release, relations between the band and the label were never good. Pye had offered the Undertakers a good contract in monetary terms, but the group was given Tony Hatch -- who otherwise produced Petula Clark and the Searchers -- as producer. They never got along with him or agreed with his ideas, and the only thing that prevented a disaster was that their contract gave the band the right to select its repertory for recording, which meant that they worked around Hatch. By late 1964, however, the situation had deteriorated, and they left Pye -- the Undertakers were without a contract until the following year, when they began the strangest chapter in their history.

While playing the continent, the group saw an advertisement promising work in America for a British band -- the Undertakers, reduced to a quartet by the absence of rhythm guitarist Geoff Nugent, took off for New York. They signed with New York-based entrepreneur Bob Harvey -- who also put ex-Beatle drummer Pete Best under contract at the very same time. It turned out that Harvey was more willing to push Best, who was easy to market as an ex-Beatle, into the best gigs. Meanwhile, the Undertakers, skirting the limits of their visas and playing shows for short-end money in America and Canada, were so hard up that they ended up sleeping in the midtown Manhattan studio where they were working with producer-arranger Bob Gallo.

The Undertakers got one single, "I Fell In Love," written by Bob Bateman, into release. When they weren't scrounging around for money, the group played gigs, and also contributed to the session on a Gallo-produced effort, credited to the "You-Know-Who-Group," that's become a piece of British invasion ersatz. While hanging around the studio with members of the Pete Best Combo (who were treated no better than they were -- only Best saw any real respect), the Undertakers did manage to record an entire album of their own, which went unreleased for 30 years, until 1995.

They gave up on their American manager when the money ran out. Brian Jones headed back to England, Chris Huston reportedly hooked up with the Young Rascals, and Bugs Pemberton became the resident Englishman in a New York-based outfit called the Mersey Lads, and hooked up with Lomax in a group called the Lost Souls. Based in New York, they were spotted by Brian Epstein, who helped them get an album cut at Columbia Records, which was never released. Epstein's death in the summer of 1967 called a halt to that group, but a year later, longtime admirer George Harrison brought Jackie Lomax aboard as an Apple recording artist.

The band never got an album out in its own time, and only charted a couple of records, but the Undertakers remain fondly remembered in England, especially in and around Liverpool. In 1995, Big Beat Records issued a CD of the Undertakers' recordings, including their never-issued American album.

Twenty-one sides left behind by the Undertakers, and there's not a bad song in the bunch. The first eight sides comprise their Pye Records singles, and these are pretty sharp -- this band was one of the few in England of that era that found a balance between the sax and the guitars, and melded American R&B with a thumping Merseybeat sound without coming across as either artificial or hopelessly primitive. "If You Don't Come Back" is one of the best recordings in the whole Pye catalog, even if it did herald the band's departure. Then there's the American recorded stuff, which is in a class by itself -- the Undertakers were leaner with just one guitar, and their sound is tighter, giving Lomax more room to stretch out vocally. The result is a dozen killer tracks on what ought to have been one of the great mid-1960s R&B albums by any British group; this stuff rivals The Beatles' Second Album or the My Generation album by the Who. The pity is that the band never got to follow it up -- they still had slight vestiges of that thumping Merseybeat sound, muted by the absence of a heavy rhythm guitar, and where they would have gone from here makes for fascinating speculation (one longs to hear the Lost Souls album). It's also easy to understand, after hearing this material, why George Harrison was so eager to bring Lomax to Apple.

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