Saturday, May 23, 2009

You Were On My Mind, We Five (1965)

Well, this is disconcerting. I don't believe I knew that We Five had a girl lead singer until now. I think I'm the only one who didn't.

But there's so much about the great wound-licking song You Were On My Mind that I didn't know, like who wrote it and where the We Five were from (were they part of the British Invasion? No.) The songwriter was Sylvia Fricker Tyson, half of the Canadian folk duet Ian and Sylvia. We Five, fronted by Beverly Bivens, hailed from San Francisco - before the city became a hotbed of psychedelia.

And while I was oblivious to the fact that this wasn't an all-boy harmony combo, half the male teen universe lusted after the the ebullient Ms. Bivens (she is darling, isn't she, and check out Fred Astaire, of all people, introducing them!), or so says the YouTube commentosphere.

I often talk about constructing the definitive list of best song intros, but there's also a need for a compilation of best song outros, and this would definitely be one of them. Contralto Bivens' range was from low tenor to high soprano. Yes, that could explain it. So why did I think it was a guy? I cannot hear those last six crescendo-ing seconds without getting chills - and I love that I can match my voice to hers pretty darn well. What a feeling.

We Five was formed by Michael Stewart, brother of the Kingston Trio's John Stewart, while he and Bivens were college students. Herb Alpert, who founded A&M Records, heard the quintet performing and signed them. Bivens was thought to be a groundbreaker; her powerhouse voice anticipates the other West Coast female lead singers that followed her - Grace Slick, Cass Elliot, Spanky McFarlane. I found a Billboard cover online that pronounced their discovery as "the most important advance of vocal and instrumental talent in the last 20 years," and described them as the innovators of a sound called "thought and soul." What in the hell was that?

Whatever it was, it didn't last, and Bev Bivens left the group after only two albums, the second of which wasn't even released until she had already departed. Her much-lamented exodus seems to have coincided with her marriage to Fred Marshall, one of the Vince Guaraldi Trio that created those addictive soundtracks for the Peanuts specials.

For a period of time, Bivens and Marshall were part of an avant-garde musical collective called Light Sound Dimension that may have been the first purveyor of psychedelic light shows. The late music critic and Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason on LSD (yeah, that's right, LSD): "... the images are remarkable in their diversification ... accompanied by the improvised music which at times reaches the intensity of a cosmic upheaval ..." There have been persistent rumors that Bivens had died, but they appear to have no basis.

There is a vocal contingent that considers the original version of You Were On My Mind to be a classic; it appeared with nothing more than an autoharp and a Martin D-28 on Ian and Sylvia's Northern Journey LP. This much later performance of it after they had long since stopped performing together apparently was not a good representation of the original, and in any case is quite different from We Five's interpretation. But wait, there's more! Ian and Sylvia were part of a country-rock group called Great Speckled Bird which rocked out to yet another version of the song. A documentary called Festival Express features them with the Bird - and the Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin and a slew of other musicians - on a whistlestop tour across Canada. Ah, those were the days.


KarmaSartre said...

I had assumed it was a male lead for thirty or forty years, but read about Beverly somewhere else lately. It is one of two favorite sing-along songs (w/ Cat Stevens' "Here Comes My Baby"). Good point re. the Outro. I never tire of this great song.

Wendy, I'll be waiting for your best Intro list....

cornbread hell said...

such angsty lyrics and such a feel good song.

oh. i guess that's not so weird.

is it a formula?

Wade said...

I don't think I've ever heard this song before. Ian Tyson is the closest I get to having any kind of knowledge connection to this group. I'm now crazy about Sylvia Tyson's voice, though. She has one of those simply beautiful voices like Linda Thompson's.

Snooty Primadona said...

I loved the song when it was popular and love it still today. I knew it was a female because they had been on some show like Hullaballoo or something, back in the day. She and I have the same voice range, so I always liked her.

I can't believe I've stumbled across this blog and now, I'm not leaving. I love music so much and am surrounded by those who care nothing for it. *sigh* This place is Mecca for me. Discussions about music! OMG! I've been so deprived for so long. Sorry. I tend to get excited after wandering through the desert for 40 years or whatever...

I used to sing in a band back when I was young & gorgeous with no makeup. I also dated musicians forever... until I got smart & gave them up for Lent.

I found you through cornbread, who is the one to blame.


wendy said...

SP - cornbread has probably been accused of worse. Please come back anytime! And speaking of misery-laden lyrics with feel-good melodies, Rick, I wrote about that same phenom for Gene Pitney's It's Hurts To Be In Love. Dunno if it's a formula. I've found that sometimes the endorphins that get dumped obscure the meaning of the lyrics, though.