by A.J. Wachtel
While everyone may know that Orpheus is the ancient Greek god of poetry and music, the majority of you may NOT know that Orpheus, the great soft rock/folk rock band, is from Worcester, the “Heart of the Commonweath.” Their debut 12-inch peaked at #119 on Billboard’s album chart in 1968 and their big hit “Can’t Find The Time” reached #80 on that publication’s “Hot 100” in 1969. How many of you out there know that this great group is still around and making music today? The very talented Bruce Arnold took the time to catch me up on what these local legends are up to. Check out what he has to say:
Noise: Your first band, a folk duo called The Villagers, was named after a Cape Cod coffee house. You also played The Carousel, in Hyannis, in 1965. What other clubs in the area did you like to gig at and why? What about The Surf in Nantasket? Care to share a cool short story about playing out in Mass., in the 1960s?
Bruce Arnold: First of all, I want to thank you so much for your interest in Orpheus! We played the Boston folk circuit as well: The Loft, Unicorn, etc. I loved playing at The Hatch Memorial Shell to 20,000 people. The time was a sea change for Massachusetts, a brave new world where men wore long hair and no one could tell the girls what to do. Of course, we didn’t know any of that was important at the time. We all just went natural.
Noise: After your first album with your first hit “Can’t Find The Time” was released in 1967, you made your official debut at The Bitter End in NYC’s Greenwich Village. How has your folk rock/soft rock audience changed in the past 50 years?
Bruce: Today’s music has come around to where we are. Having any orchestration in the ‘60s was too commercial. Now everything must be fully produced. We are right at home. Our fans love all kinds of music. There are several hundred fans that turn up at every concert.
Noise: You opened for Cream at a concert at Brandeis College in Waltham. What was that gig like and what was it like sharing a bill with Cream when they were at the height of their career?
Bruce: Cream was really not the iconic band that it is today. It was still new to everyone’s ears. Cream didn’t even show up ‘till after midnight, but they did play a full two hour show to the waiting crowd. We have a great tape of our performance from that night.
Noise: You also played shows with Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, and The Who. What were these people like offstage?
Bruce: We were all very friendly. The Who took us with them on their Magic Bus from Washington to NYC. We were all just kids. We each influenced each other. The Who got more melodic, while we developed a sharper edge. Ginger Baker and Keith Moon were sights to behold, and virtuosos all the while!
Noise: You also provided the title song, “Little Sister,” for the 1969 James Garner film Marlowe. Did you ever have any contact with Garner and are you still getting royalties for that?
Bruce: No residuals. We got a flat fee. We never met James Garner. I wasn’t crazy about the song, so Jack (McKennes) sang the lead on it.
Noise: Speaking of royalties: in late 1970, Alan Lorber’s publishing firm, Interval Music, Inc., allegedly withheld thousands of dollars in royalties from you. For your next Orpheus album you were determined to keep your compositions off the recording: resulting in most of the tracks just your arrangements of band member Steve Martin’s songs, except for three co-written cuts. What lessons did you learn?
Bruce: Contracts like the ones we signed are in perpetuity, except for two times. One is at 37 years where the writer can get back the publishing if he acts in that year. I didn’t know about that one. The other is at 57 years and that’s coming up soon. But it IS typical to have the hit song pay off to the publisher for years. Their expenses never end. I do get all my airplay royalties. But it’s not all bad; it is about promoting me, after all.
Noise: There are at least seven covers of “Can’t Find The Time” including one by Rose Colored Glass and another by Hootie & The Blowfish (2000). Which is the best version you’ve ever heard and why?
Bruce: I love Hootie’s version. When they used to come west they’d invite me to sing it with them. We’ve done The Fillmore and The House of Blues in L.A. Darius sings the first verse and I sing the second. They are a tight band!
Noise: Your song, “Congress Alley,” has also been covered by many major acts. The tune is about a small dead-end street where Worcester’s original hippie community lived. Which one is the one you like best?
Bruce: Clean Living does the best version of “Congress Alley” hands down. That’s my piano player Elliot Sherman’s arrangement. He is currently playing with Orpheus.
Noise: “Can’t Find The Time” went to #1 in many different local markets but didn’t chart higher nationally ‘cause these instances didn’t occur at the same time. Your label, MGM, was in a fiscal panic back then and couldn’t deliver product to all the record stores at the same time. As a result, DJ’s wouldn’t promote records that weren’t being sold locally. Realizing their blunder, MGM re-released the song three times over the first three years. How did this happen and what did it mean to you as a band?
Bruce: All labels end like that; they lose their mojo. For us, it meant not charting accurately. They kept trying to make money. We all know the Hunter Thompson quote about the business side of art: “It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the industry; a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason. There is also a downside.”
Noise: Today, Orpheus includes you on guitar and vocals, Bernard Purdie on drums and vocals, Howie Hersh on bass and keys, Elliot Sherman on piano and keys, John Arnold, your son, on guitar and vocals, and Berklee grad Tiger Okoshi on trumpet and orchestral ensemble conducting. Are there any artists you regret never having worked with and what artists would you love to hang around with in the future?
Bruce: I love Laura Nyro. Today’s Orpheus is as good as it gets. Bernard Purdie invented a new Orpheus drum style, Howie Hersh is a musical powerhouse, and Elliot is like my “service animal”; when he is there, everything is fine. Add son John, Tiger Okoshi, and now Cliff Goodwin, and you have the makings for a muse visitation. I get to play with Quicksilver star David Freiberg frequently; which is always great fun. I am having more fun now than ever!
Noise: You moved to California in 1972 and then back to Massachusetts in 1988 to record the first new Orpheus album in 17 years. You enlisted BOSTON vocalist and longtime devoted fan Brad Delp to sing backing vocals. (Check out Orpheus Again released in 2010) Care to share a cool Brad Delp story?
Bruce: Brad played the 1988 Boston Music Awards with Purdie, Elliot, Howie, and me. He and Jimmy Mesdea arranged for us to play that night. It was a perfect performance, as I remember, of “Love Bite” and “Can’t Find The Time.” Brad told me that night that it was his dream to sing with Orpheus and that it had now happened. Brad was always an angel.
Noise: Your current reunion has your son John in the band. What’s the best thing and the worst thing about having your son in your band? You originally got back together for a one gig appearance that quickly turned into another at Mechanic’s Hall in Worcester. You had 12 members of the Mass. Symphony Orchestra, with Tiger conducting. More recently, you’ve performed at The Berklee Performance Center with some of their students added to the mix. Does it change anything when you play with a horn ensemble or does everything remain the same?
Bruce: John is so resourceful and clever that we could not do what we do without him. He can sing and play everything that I play. Now I finally have a dream come true for me – to just sing with the orchestra like Dionne Warwick or Frank Sinatra. Playing with the orchestra is a breeze! The scores are eminently performable and fun to play. We love doing it.
Noise: What’s in the future for Orpheus?
Bruce: We want to play NYC and Long Island, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; all places that “Can’t Find The Time” hit number one on the charts. We have something very unique to offer. The world is ready for us this time.