Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lee Michaels Massive CD Box Set Coming!

Lee Michaels' Fifth
Lee Michaels is one of the great lost artists of the rock ‘n’ roll ‘70s. A soulful singer with an incredible range, and capable of expressing great emotion, Michaels was also a talented songwriter and keyboard player, his performances based around his trusty Hammond organ years before folks like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep pushed keyboards to the front of their songs. Michaels often eschewed using a full band in favor of accompaniment by a lone drummer – “Frosty” (real name Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost) for two of his first four albums, and former Grassroots timekeeper Joel Larson on his best-selling title, Fifth.

Nobody sounded like Michaels during his critical and commercial peak, circa 1968-72, and nobody else has come close since. Sadly, much of Michaels’ back catalog has remained difficult, if not impossible to track down on CD except for Fifth, which had yielded a pair of hits, including the timeless “Do You Know What I Mean” (#6 on the Billboard singles chart) and Michaels’ cover of the Marvin Gaye hit “Can I Get A Witness” (peaking at #39). In the absence of readily-available CDs, fans and collectors like the Reverend have been digging through used LP bins to find vintage Michaels’ albums on vinyl.

Start saving your pennies, Lee Michaels fans, ‘cause we’ll be getting an early Christmas present on November 20th, 2015 when Manifesto Records releases The Complete A&M Album Collection, a seven-disc box set of the singer’s complete run for the label. For those yet to be sold on Michaels’ charms, Manifesto will also be releasing Heighty Hi – The Best of Lee Michaels, a 20-song CD featuring just Michaels’ hits, including “Do You Know What I Mean,” “Keep The Circle Turning,” and “Heighty Hi.”

Lee Michaels' Barrel
Michaels’ recorded seven albums for A&M Records, beginning with 1968’s Carnival of Life. Michaels had been kicking around L.A. for a few years prior to his debut, playing in various bands with future members of the Turtles, Canned Heat, and Moby Grape, so he used SoCal session guys like guitarist Hamilton Wesley Watt and drummer “Fast” Eddie Hoh on the album. His sophomore effort, Recital, was released later that year and also featured a full studio band, including bassist Larry Knechtel and his buddy John Barbata on drums.

With the release of Michaels’ self-titled 1969 album, though, he’d hit upon the formula that would bring him a modicum of commercial success. Accompanied only by drummer Frosty, Michaels delivered a sizzling set of R&B infused rock ‘n’ roll with inventive keyboard work and percussion. The following year’s Barrel followed a similar musical blueprint as its predecessor, although guitarist Drake Levin contributed to several songs. Both albums displayed meager commercial prospects, charting in the middle of the Billboard Hot 100.

Michaels was making great music, but fighting constantly with his label, the allegedly “artist friendly” A&M wanting more return on their investment. Given one more chance, Michaels responded to the label’s demand for a hit single with an album of R&B covers and original songs that sounded like 1960s-era R&B hits. The result was 1971’s Fifth, which included the biggest hit of Michaels’ career in “Do You Know What I Mean” alongside songs like B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and the Johnny Otis classic “Willie & the Hand Jive.” Provided a bit of momentum courtesy of his Top 20 charting album, Michaels went in a completely opposite direction with 1972’s Space & First Takes, a four-song collection of psychedelic hard rock that featured two lengthy 15-minute jams with Michaels’ downplaying the keyboards to play guitar alongside Levin.

Lee Michaels' Live
Ending his dysfunctional relationship with the label, Michaels provided A&M Records with the double-album Live to finish up his contract. Recorded on the support tour for Space & First Takes, Michaels’ Live falls back on the keyboards/drums dynamic, Michaels’ backed by percussionist Keith Knudsen. Live features extended versions of songs from all of his studio albums except for Carnival of Life. The album was recorded at Carnegie Hall, which was uncredited at the time as the venue would have gotten a share of the LP’s profits.

Leaving A&M, Michaels was signed by Clive Davis and Columbia Records, which would release two subsequent albums – 1973’s Nice Day For Something and 1974’s Tailface – both of which would sink like a stone without promotion when Davis’s departure from Columbia cost Michaels the support of his biggest supporter at the label. Michaels would record just one more album, the independently-produced Absolute Lee, in 1982. Michaels largely retired from music at the time, later finding success as an entrepreneur with his popular Killer Shrimp restaurants.

There’s no listing for Michael’s The Complete A&M Album Collection on as of yet, and I couldn’t find album cover art for the box, but for long-suffering Lee Michaels fans, this is going to be the box set of the year!


Anonymous said...

Lee Michaels was a superb musician from the late '60s/early '70s who left the scene way too soon. I have long been a big fan and wonder what directions he may have taken had he kept at it. Nevertheless, his discography holds up quite well and continues to make for enjoyable listening. Being a big fan, I was thrilled to hear of a box set, but then bummed out to see that it's just the A&M albums... again! These have all been issued on CD and not all that long ago. Remastered or not, who is the "brains" behind a box set without any demos, live tracks, rarities, etc.?!?!? Most box sets offer that sort of thing. I would gladly have paid a higher price for something new. Sorry, but this "box set" is a serious disappointment.

Rev. Keith A. Gordon said...

I'm afraid that I'll have to agree to disagree...although a smattering of rarities and other live tracks would have been nice in the box set, I'm not sure how much of that stuff exists in the archive. Most of Michaels' albums have only been made available recently as "on demand" CD-R discs, which I won't waste my money on (in my experience, they don't hold up well in the long run). I'm personally thrilled to have these classic albums collected in a single box set so that I don't have to keep wearing out my vinyl copies...

Anonymous said...

Rev. Gordon, we can agree to disagree, but just to continue the discussion, let's not overlook the fact that One Way records released all of these A&M albums about 15 years ago. While those are now out of print (and I'm in agreement with you about CD-R, no way!), it's not as if the A&M albums have been buried in a vault for the past 40 years. Not to mention that for those of us who can remember, many were also at one time available as reel-to-reel, 8 track, and cassette.

Your comment, "I'm not sure how much of that stuff [demos, live, etc.] exists in the archive" is the one worth exploring. We know at the very least that two albums were produced for Columbia that have not been issued on CD and that Lee Michaels himself put out an album on his own label that has also not been out on CD. So, we can start there as far as "rare" material is concerned.

As far as what kind of archive does exist, well, the answer rests with Lee Michaels. All I know is that he toured heavily from 1968-1975; were none of those shows recorded? I also know he had his own studio (beautifully presented on the Barrel album); did he never run the tapes while he was working out a song? I know that he appeared on a number of TV shows (Midnight Special, ABC In Concert, Faberge Album); no one can track down that audio? And, let's also not forget that he played numerous "rock festivals" most of which were professionally recorded. Why not track down some of those?

Point being at the end of the day, we had the Rhino collection which offered a nice booklet and put out "Goodbye, Goodbye," a track that was only released as a 45 or on some A&M sampler. So, that set was added value, and like much that Rhino does, was really well-curated and well-presented. Then One Way came along and released all the A&M records on CD and also put out a best of collection. Those were bare bones, but they accomplished getting the material on CD. Another label, can't recall which one, put out a best of collection called Hello, which was just more of the same. So, as far as I see it, aside from a 40-page-book (which might be interesting in its own right, and admittedly the only reason I'll shell out the money for it), what new ground is being covered by Manifesto Records? None, as far as I can tell. While I hope it sells well, it frankly seems like a very hastily put together release, and at the very least, one that isn't really thinking the real fans.

Mr. Tailface said...

I am very pleased to see that this material is being made available.
However, I must agree with anonymous that it is just crazy not to use this package to add at least one disc of rare, or unreleased material. I wouldn't have minded if Lee had chosen to add a disc of new material that he has written over the last 33 years but never released....
Either way as a Lee fan for 44 years now I am glad that this material is gathered for folks who never bought them when they were last officially released.
A Bonus DVD of the T.V. appearances would have been nice as well.
I guess that if I could say anything to Lee right now regarding this it would be that his fans would like to hear the Live stuff from 1968-1975 that is so legendary. The Bootleg Tapes reveal how good those Concerts were, but the recordings don't do them justice.
Please consider these thoughts on any future releases...

MC said...

Anonymous, those One Way CDs are long deleted and finding copies is pricey as hell. Why not have them available again for old vinyl owners who want them on CD or for new fans to discover Lee. Instead you complain about something you haven't even seen or heard yet. As a fan, you should be happy about this. Everyone loves to bitch on the internet. No one is forcing you to buy it. You seem like a reasonable person. Just try hating less.


Anonymous said...

Such a bummer that the Columbia releases and Absolute Lee will not be included.

Anonymous said...

@ MC... I'm not sure how you take my comments as ones that "complain about something [I] haven't even seen or heard yet" or me loving to "bitch on the internet" or me "hating." Thank you, I am a reasonable person and a somewhat knowledgeable one.

Let's be clear: I'm not complaining about anything, nor am I bitching about anything, nor do I feel that anyone is forcing me to buy something, nor do I want to keep this music from people who don't have it. Seriously. Read my post again. All I'm doing is offering a reasonable and thoughtful critique: this set is not giving us anything new. I have quite a few box sets and all of them, every last one of them, offers something rare, even if it's just a studio outtake. I don't know how critiquing a product is tantamount to complaining, bitching, and hating. Or should we just say, great job all the time?

As a fan, I'm thankful for this post and the opportunity to voice my opinion about this box set -- maybe someone at Manifesto might read what I (and it appears one other person here) have written and consider exploring the Lee Michaels archive (if it exists) it for a future release.

My critique aside, yes, as a fan I am ultimately happy about this and hope that people go crazy for it. I hope thousands of people experience this music for the first time or have the opportunity to update their vinyl. I hope it sells out and opens the door for more.

Rev. Keith A. Gordon said...

Just posted my review of the 20-track Michaels' compilation Heighty Hi, with an eye towards purchasing The Complete A&M Records Album Collection box when it becomes available this Friday. I think that we can all agree on Michaels' merits, and whether you have all his albums on vinyl or CD, this new interest in the artist is well-deserved and long overdue.

As for those long-lost Columbia label LPs...Heighty Hi says that the material is licensed to Manifesto by Michaels, leading me to believe that he has regained the rights to his A&M albums. Perhaps when Lee gets the rights back to those Columbia albums they'll finally get reissued on CD!