Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sapphire Thinkers - The Official Story

The Sapphire Thinkers - From Within (1969)

The Sapphire Thinkers are a perfect example of a band with all the right ingredients for success that still failed to make it. Their songs were well-written, tastefully arranged, and catchy as hell. So where did it all go wrong?

Bill Richmond and his brother Stephen certainly had an early advantage - both grew up in a musical home with father Bill Richmond Sr. who was a touring jazz drummer with Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and many others in the 40 and 50s.  By the early 60s their father had turned his attention to screenwriting, penning his first script The Ladies Man in 1961 with Mel Brooks.  Bill Jr. wanted to be like his Dad and was learning jazz drumming for several years until heard the Beatles and everything changed. By 1965, he ditched jazz and formed a garage pop band called Billy and the Kid.

With Dad's connections, the brothers landed a publishing deal at Decca records and released one single, "Shutdown / Trouble in Mind," with Bill and Stephen playing all the instruments. (Listen to a sample here.) The single came out a year later, but went nowhere.  By that time, Bill had moved on anyway.

By 1966, Bill was now attending Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA, where he took classes in music theory and arranging. He also was getting closer to his high school girlfriend Peggy, who attended Pierce with him. When Peggy unexpectedly got pregnant, they soon married and Bill brought her into the fold for his new musical project, the Sapphire Thinkers. The band again featured Bill's brother Stephen, as well as neighborhood friends Tim Lee and Chuck Spihak on bass and guitar respectively.

The band gigged around Los Angeles, playing at parties and a memorable gig at the Cheetah in Santa Monica. They didn't have a manager, but knew they wanted to record an album so they booked time without a record deal. Richard Kaye, a friend of the band and the son of a prominent music producer, agreed to produce the band. Kaye found the band a record deal with Hobbit records, an upstart label distributed by GRT, a conglomerate company that also owned Janus and Chess records, among many others. 

The album From Within is a very appealing example of '60s sunshine pop, similar in sound to other LA co-ed groups like the Mamas and Papas and the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, but with a more underground sensibility. That the band was able to accomplish sophisticated arrangements and complex harmonies without a big budget and name producer makes the album all the more impressive.

However, by the time the album was released in 1969, the softer psych pop sound of the Sapphire Thinkers was now out of vogue, no matter how well-written it may have been. Also adding to the band's woes, Kaye insisted they release "Melancholy Baby" as the first single, which was the only song not written by the band. Worse yet, it was an old songbook standard that did nothing to help the group's teen appeal. Kaye's reasoning was not entirely unsound, as the band had appeared on a TV show called "The Singers" doing "Melancholy Baby" sometime in August 1969.

The "Melancholy Baby" single never garnered much airplay, but the perilous financial state of GRT (which stood for General Recorded Tape) prevented the label from doing any further promotion to help the band after that initial misfire. Judging from the number of cut-out copies on the second hand market today, it is quite likely that GRT cut their losses after the single's failure and dumped all the remaining LP's in the cutout bin. (After a long struggle, GRT finally declared bankruptcy in 1979.)

Bill and his wife Peggy continued to play in cover bands throughout the '70s but never released anything else as the Sapphire Thinkers. Bill Richmond still writes and records to this day and self-released a CD called Wild and Woolly in 2007.

Bill confirmed that the master tapes for From Within are lost, and that the recent vinyl and CD reissues are not legit.

(Thanks to Bill, Peggy, and Deborah for their help gathering the info here!)