Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Oxfords - Flying Up Through The Sky (1966-72)

 Of all the bands on the surprisingly fertile '60s rock scene of Louisville, KY, the Oxfords were one of the most musically talented, and the first to take on the British Invasion with both barrels, both in sound and image. Although it is not quite as evident from the band's sole 1970 LP alone, it was also an exploratory and adventurous combo, starting with early Kinks- and Beatles-derived singles before moving into sophisticated soft pop and finally a funky jazz-rock inclination that is startlingly prescient for its era. Its recorded legacy isn't nearly as long as it should have been, nor is it as well-known as it deserves to be, at least among devotees of the era's pop music.

The group genesis can be dated to a swap that took place between two high-school bands in 1964. Jay Petach, one year into the guitar, led the Spectres. It featured classmates Bill Tullis and Bill Turner on vocals and bass, respectively, and friends Danny Marshall and Glenn Howerton on rhythm guitar and drums. The Spectres' main competition on the scene was the Oxfords, who included drummer Jim Guest. In 1965, a difference of opinion between Guest and the remaining four Oxfords caused a rift within the band. Guest asked the Spectres to join him in a reconstituted version of the Oxfords, while Howerton joined the four exited members in a new combo called the Rugbys.

By 1966, bassist Ray Barrickman had replaced Turner and guitarist Ronnie Brooks took Marshall's place in the band. They entered the studio and recorded a version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me," which found its way to Nashville producer Buzz Cason. He liked it and went to Louisville to help the Oxfords finish it, as well as finding them a deal with Bell Records. That autumn, Barrickman left the band for college. Brooks moved to bass and Tullis took over guitar duties, and this amalgam recorded and released the 1967 single "Sun Flower Sun" on Bell, even making an appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand (where it scored a 65 on the "Rate the Record" segment, effectively killing it). Brooks left the band later in the year and was replaced by Gary Johnson, who also left after several months to join the post-Soul, Inc. power trio Elysian Field.

Flying Up Through the Sky
Petach regrouped, putting together an entirely new Oxfords lineup in 1968. Donnie Hale replaced Guest behind the trap kit, while Dill Asher was enlisted as bass player. Most significantly, though, Petach asked Jill DeMarco to join as guitarist and lead singer. DeMarco had been leader of the all-girl Louisville band the Hearby, and Petach had previously helped the band make their one and only record. This is the unit that recorded the bulk of the Oxfords' LP Flying up Through the Sky. Hale's friend Keith Spring, who later went on to work with NRBQ, joined for a brief spell, although the band moved in far too esoteric directions for their audience with him in the group. Still, he helped out with orchestrations and played on the recording sessions, which extended into 1969, when Larry Holt replaced Asher and Paul Hoerni took over for Hale. This lineup recorded the last few album cuts and the group's last single, "Come on Back to Beer," inspired by some crowd banter from Frank Zappa, whose Mothers of Invention the Oxfords had opened for earlier in the year. Although they had offers from two record labels, the band decided to release its finished album on its own Union Jac label at the beginning of 1970. It didn't sell well and frustration began to set in by 1971, but the band soldiered on, first by acting as the pit band for Petach's rock musical, coincidentally titled Grease like the now-famous musical that was being produced simultaneously in Chicago. Despite the unlucky circumstances, the musical ran for several weeks at the University of Louisville and was also performed in Atlanta and at the University of Kansas. Jerry Canter briefly joined on guitar, but left the following year along with Holt and Hoerni, leading to the final band lineup, with Quentin Sharpenstein (who had played tuba in an orchestra overdub session on Flying four years earlier) on bass, guitarist Tony Williamson, and jazz drummer Bobby Jones. DeMarco doubled on guitar and clavinet, and Petach took a more concerted interest in the production side, but also played organ, Rhodes piano, and flute. Petach also became the engineer at the local recording studio of a friend during this period, and volunteered the band's services in exchange for studio time. This combo recorded whenever possible, developing a scintillating jazz-rock bent, but the Oxfords were already running out of steam by this point and called it quits in the summer of 1972.

Flying Up Through the Sky, Vol. 2
Petach continued his work behind the boards, becoming a respected studio engineer while also recording occasionally over the subsequent years. DeMarco moved to Chicago, where she studied jazz, then Seattle, where she played solo gigs through the '80s before giving up music altogether. Barrickman went on to play in the band of Hank Williams, Jr., among others, while Brooks became the second frog in the classic Budweiser commercials. (His brother Randy also became a noteworthy footnote to pop history as the composer of the Christmas novelty "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.") Holt, Hoerni, and Sharpenstein could all still be found gigging around Louisville at the turn of the century. A compilation of key Oxfords tracks was released as Flying up Through the Sky by Gear Fab Records in 2001, followed by a second volume, Flying Up Through the Sky, Vol. 2, in 2007. 

When Gear Fab Records re-released the Oxfords' sole LP from 1970 called Flying Up Through the Sky, fleshing it out with various band ephemera in 2001, it was assumed that it was the last word on the Louisville group, amounting to a complete recorded works. Turns out it wasn't. When the Allen-Martin Recording Studio where the Oxfords tracked their LP (it was called Sambo Recording Studio when the Oxfords worked there) was demolished in 2006, local session musicians Marvin Maxwell and Walker Ed Amick rescued the studio's master tape library from a cruel and forgotten fate at the bottom of the corner dumpster and began the long task of transferring the multi-track masters into the digital domain. One of their discoveries was that the Oxfords had recorded a fair amount of material that hadn't appeared on Flying Up Through the Sky, leading to this second volume of Oxfords tracks from Gear Fab. Although generally remembered as a sunshine pop band with some psychedelic overtones, the Oxfords emerge on this second helping as a much more versatile band than that, touching down at times close to jazz and what could almost be deemed a kind of proto-country-rock. At other times they sound like a southern version of early Jefferson Airplane, thanks in no small part to the strong and often sultry vocals of lead singer Jill DeMarco. That diversity is impressive, and one can't help but wonder what might have developed had the band stayed together and not called it quits in 1972. Among the clear highlights on this addenda volume are a speeded up and rocked out version of Richard & Mimi Fariña's "Reno, Nevada," the wonderfully atmospheric "I Can't Remember Your Name," the hard driving "Year of Jubilo" (based on a Civil War-era song by Henry Clay Work), a Mamas & Papas-like cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway," and the very pretty and jazz-inflected backing track called "Underscore" that concludes this collection (and provides a possible clue to what direction the Oxfords may have taken if they had remained together). In all, it makes a nice coda to the first volume and helps paint a larger, clearer picture of what the band was all about. 


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