Jerry Burgan, guitarist for the ‘60 group, We Five has written a memoir about his life in the folk rock revolution
By Ric Menck
Best known for their cover of Ian & Sylvia’s “You Were On My Mind,” We Five were one of the first American groups to bridge the gap between acoustic folk music and pre-psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll. In his new book, Wounds To Bind: A Memoir Of The Folk-Rock Revolution, We Five guitarist Jerry Burgan speaks passionately about the heady period between 1950 and 1975, when popular music experienced a cataclysmic metamorphosis from black and white to Technicolor. Part autobiography and part history lesson, Wounds To Bind also tackles the intense personal relationships Burgan experienced with the other members of We Five, in particular the group’s resident genius, Mike Stewart.
It is this portion of the book that will likely appeal to musicians, for it honestly details the gamut of emotions one experiences as the member of functioning musical unit: the initial rush of discovering musical allies; the struggle to establish a distinctive stylistic approach; and the complicated interpersonal dynamics a band must negotiate if it is to continue forging ahead. Burgan tackles it all with wit and candor and, while the story isn’t always pretty, it’s always fascinating.
To give you some background, Jerry Burgan met Mike Stewart in the sixth-grade boys choir. A few years later Stewart showed up at Burgan’s door with a hand-me-down banjo given to him by his brother John Stewart, who abandoned the instrument when he become a member of a hugely successful folk group called The Kingston Trio. The two friends then began to tentatively negotiate the dynamics of performing music together. In the beginning both played with equal ability, yet Stewart’s mind seemed to comprehend advanced musical concepts far beyond Burgan’s grasp. Stewart’s ambition was also enormous. Having seen his older brother catapult to stardom, he formulated a similar goal for himself. John may have had a head start in the biz, but Mike understood he was equally as talented, if not more so. It was just a matter of the pieces falling into place and over the course of the next few years they would.
Before committing to music as a career choice, Jerry Burgan spent time in the Sea Cadets hoping to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who had romanticized a life on the open ocean. It didn’t take long for Burgan to understand music held more allure than the sea. Reunited with Mike Stewart, the two friends began performing at woman’s clubs, music stores, talent contests and anyplace else that might have them. Eventually they expanded their line-up to include a beautiful female vocalist by the name of Sue Ellen Davies. For his part, big brother John convinced venerable producer Nik Venet to give his younger brother’s group a chance in the studio, and while the results were better than anyone expected, Venet abruptly parted ways with Capitol Records leaving the project stillborn.
Eventually Burgan and Stewart both began attending college at the University of San Francisco, and in their spare time continued to play music together. Stewart, in particular, found it difficult to balance schoolwork with his growing commitment to music, and there were other problems as well. There had been some subtle competition between Stewart and Burgan for the affections of Sue Ellen Davies and when she seemingly chose Burgan, it nearly sent Stewart off the deep end. Physically awkward and emotionally sensitive, Stewart possessed a fragile psyche similar to that of Brian Wilson. An abusive father is something else Stewart and Wilson had in common. Ultimately, Stewart buckled under the pressure and had a nervous breakdown.
After a short stint in a mental hospital he and Burgan immediately picked up where they left off with music. By now Sue Ellen Davies was pregnant and made the decision to leave the group. In one final hurrah she stood at the microphone for a high profile session at Warner Brothers Studio directed by John Stewart. Scott McKenzie and John Phillips were hired to augment the group on guitar. The resulting music transcended the idiom of folk music and pointed to the future, but the recordings were never released and for the time being the Stewart and Burgan would have to continue waiting for their shot at the brass ring.
It would ultimately arrive with the addition a new vocalist by the name of Beverly Bivens. Upon encountering her for the first time, Stewart and Burgan were blown away by Bivens’ physical magnetism and her ability to sing in a soft, sultry soprano. This was the sound Stewart had been searching for all along. With the addition of Bob Jones on lead guitar and Pete Fullerton on bass, the fundamental ingredients for a successful group were finally in place. Now all they needed was the right song, some proper management, and a name. The song arrived via an album called Northern Journey by Ian & Sylvia, and the group chose Frank Weber to be their manager. Weber was instrumental in grooming the Kingston Trio for the top, and he was in the process of setting up a San Francisco-based production company called Trident that was meant to rival a similar operation Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman operated on the east coast. Weber also dreamt up the group’s new name, We Five, which he considered much hipper than their former moniker, the Ridge Runners. With the addition of African American drummer John Chambers, the group hunkered down in Weber’s custom built studio to create what would become their masterpiece.
With subtle changes to the original arrangement, Stewart reworked Ian & Sylvia’s “You Were On My Mind” to include jangling guitars, celestial harmonies and a propulsive rock ‘n’ roll beat. This sound, the combination of earnest folk music and powerful rock ‘n’ roll, had been germinating for some time amongst a variety of musicians on both the east and west coast, yet We Five were amongst the first to capture it so convincingly on vinyl. As a result they watched “You Were On My Mind” climb rapidly to the top of the Cashbox and Billboard charts.
Like all successful groups of the era We Five followed their manager’s direction and began grooming themselves for a career in professional show business. This meant getting fitted for matching outfits, lessons with a choreographer and hours of rehearsals to tighten up their stage act. Weber was able to score the band a choice spot on Dick Clark’s highly successful “Caravan Of Stars Tour,” which in 1965 included the Byrds, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Bo Diddley and Herman’s Hermits. Life on the road proved to be an eye opening experience for the young musicians, especially when the tour headed into the southern states. With an African American drummer amongst their ranks the members of We Five were often forced to suffer the indignity of bigotry. Fortunately, they became friendly with Bo Diddley, who was helpful in warning them when trouble would likely arise.
Back in Los Angeles, Weber negotiated a recording contract with A&M Records, as well as a lucrative advertising deal with Coca-Cola, one of first major corporations to feature rock ‘n’ roll prominently in their advertisements. This meant that “You Were On My Mind” was not only being broadcast regularly on Top 40 radio, but the We Five were also receiving massive exposure as part of a major advertising campaign. These days that seems like normal procedure, but back in 1965 such exposure was unprecedented. To cap it all off, during the initial months of 1966, We Five were nominated for a Grammy for Best Performance By A Vocal Group. Ultimately, the honor was bestowed upon the Anita Kerr Singers.
At this point, one assumes We Five were properly situated for a hugely successful career, yet that is not the direction our story will take. Despite their initial burst of success, Bergan and Stewart were quick to realize We Five already seemed dated in comparison to bands with a hipper image and attitude. This became evident on the “Caravan Of Stars” tour when they got to witness the Byrds up close and personal. Both bands shared similar stylistic characteristics, yet the Byrds were constantly pushing the boundaries while We Five seemed content to follow Weber’s preordained road map for success. After all, it worked for the Kingston Trio, why shouldn’t it work for them? Unfortunately, trends were changing so quickly that matching suits and orchestrated stage patter already seemed obsolete in the face of a group who wore the latest mod threads, smoked copious amounts of marijuana, and barely acknowledged their audience. In this regard, the Byrds represented a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll attitude, one in which it was important to challenge the status quo.
In retrospect, Bergan acknowledges he subconsciously understood groups like the Byrds were in a different league, yet he and Stewart obviously weren’t about to give up the dream of becoming successful, working musician. We Five soldiered on, and despite never being able to recapture the success of “You Were On My Mind,” they made many captivating recordings. Unfortunately, the pressure to create music, tour and handle their newfound stardom eventually got to Mike Stewart. In the studio he was in his element, yet dealing with all the other practicalities of being in a successful group seemed more than he could handle. After one particularly bad concert experience it was evident the strain was becoming too much. After a final meeting with Frank Weber, We Five decided to call it quits; their lightening trajectory unusually brief.
At this point, I should remind you, Wounds to Bind is not just about We Five. The band is central to the story, but there are other aspects to Burgan’s life that are equally fascinating. For instance, he describes in detail his quest to find a soul mate, which ultimately leads to a relationship with his wife-to-be, Debbie Graf. There is also his aforementioned musical relationship with Mike Stewart, which is complicated by youthful competition and Stewart’s tortured genius. Burgan isn’t afraid to delve into the darkest corners of his psyche, and it often feels as if we’re privy to a private psychiatric session in which he wrestles with demons from the past. There is also Burgan’s relationship with the culture of the ‘60s, in which he came of age, and the culture of the ‘70s, when his innocence and idealism are shattered by the practicalities of adult life. You don’t have to be a musician to relate to this part of the story.
By books end, Burgan comes together with his former musical brethren one last time. His final meet-ing with Mike Stewart is full of warmth and seems to provide a sense of closure for both men. Burgan is also instrumental in bringing together reclusive We Five vocalist Beverly Bivens with guitarist Bob Jones, who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During their final meeting Jones attempts to coax a song from Bivens by playing the opening chords to “High Flying Bird,” yet she declines to sing. It’s a heartbreaking moment made more poignant by the fact that Bivens regrets her decision on the ride back to her house.
Burgan and his wife, Debbie, now regularly appear in Folk Songs and Stories, a show focused on music from the past and how it has evolved into the forms we recognize today. His first solo album, Reflections, Songs and Stories is based on material from his show.
Ric Menck has been involved in making music for over 35 years. His band Velvet Crush released the classic Teenage Symphonies To God on Creation Records, and he has played drums with Matthew Sweet, Liz Phair, Marianne Faithfull, Aimee Mann and many others. He lives in Studio City with his wife and works at Freakbeat Records.