Saturday, January 31, 2009

Interview: Les Fradkin

While most probably consider the mid- to late-'60s to be the apex of bubblegum r'n'r, I'd argue that one of the genre's defining moments arrived just as its sun began to set.  The Yummies' "Hippie Lady"/"Patty Cake" single, released by MGM-distributed Sunflower Records in 1970, was the sticky-sweet brainchild of one Les Fradkin, a New York-based songwriter and producer who later went on to work the Left Banke, the Godz and many other noteworthy artists.  Les was kind enough to humor ATB and address a few of those nagging q's we had dancin' 'round our dunderheads.  Thanks a ton, Les!

Eric/Attacking the Beat: How did you get involved in production techniques, playing guitar, etc.?

Les Fradkin: I began my musical education at the age of 10 being taught the basics of classical piano from my mother, a former concert pianist.  I later studied classical music at Kenyon College and the Manhattan School of Music Conservatory.  I was inspired to get involved with popular music by seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and hearing "Walk Don't Run '64" by the Ventures on the radio.  At the age of 13, I began to teach myself guitar.  Other music that inspired me ranged from the British Invasion sounds of the day to American rock acts such as the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan.  But what most held my interest and fascination was the art of record production.  I was particularly interested in how producers such as Les Paul, Joe Meek and Phil Spector got their sounds and, in 1966, I began tape experiments with Sound on Sound with a Panasonic tape recorder that I received as a birthday gift.  By 1968, I could edit, splice and overdub complex recordings at home.  By 1969, I had written a large portfolio of original pop and rock songs and was proficient on guitar, bass guitar, Hammond organ and piano.  I turned professional that year and signed a staff songwriting contract with April-Blackwood Music, a division of CBS.

ATB: How did you make the progression from your Fearless Fradkin project to the Yummies?

LF: I wanted to be given an opportunity to prove I could produce.  Mack David & Danny Kessler, owners of Sunflower Records, decided to give me a shot after hearing "Patty Cake" as a demo that I recorded with Steve Katz at Sound Exchange Studios in New York City in late 1970.

ATB: A lot of post-adolescents of the era had pegged bubblegum as childish drivel, as anti-r'n'r and so on.  How did you feel moving from an adult-oriented rock kind of sound to a more childish, playful project?  Did any of your contemporaries criticize you for this?

LF: In those days, without the Internet in existence, there was no way to really know who was on which record.  At the time, the only "contemporaries" who knew I did the Yummies were engineer Steve Katz, the label, the publisher and Bob Morgan, the studio owner.  This record was a "Sound Exchange" studio production, so I didn't see it as being "at odds," so to speak, with my other music.  Just another facet, if you will, of creativity for me.

ATB: How did you make that odd "backwards cymbal" noise on "Patty Cake"?

LF: Steve Katz turned the tape around to play in reverse and I overdubbed the cymbal in the appropriate spots.  A bit tricky at first, but by the third take, it was done.  I had learned of this technique from the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" recording and had already worked with backwards sounds at my home studio.

ATB: Care to give a quick run-down of the session that produced "Patty Cake"/"Hippe Lady"?

LF: Steve & I went to Colony Records store on Broadway & 49th Street in NYC and bought every bubblegum record (mostly the ones on Buddah) to see if any production formula was apparent from hit to hit.  We decided to borrow a Farfisa organ, that sound being pretty prominent on the 1910 Fruitgum Co. and Ohio Express records of those days.  I wrote the "Patty Cake" song with Eddie Deane's help and we solicited Steve Katz to do a demo on my studio downtime.  We showed it to Sunflower and they loved it and asked for a B-Side.  We told them we could run the A-Side backwards but they wanted a real song.  So we came up with "Hippie Lady" and they liked that one even better.  I played all the instruments on the recordings (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) and Eddie and I did the handclaps and background vocals.  I sang the lead vocals on both sides.  

ATB: How was the initial reception of the single?  What are some of the comments that stick with you today?

LF: Initial reception was good in several regions, most notably, the Baltimore area.  The song became a regional hit there and in some other areas as well.  Andy Bergey's review of the record on his website is quite nice:

ATB: You've mentioned elsewhere that the Yummies played a few live shows.  How did this come about?  Who comprised this line-up of the band?

LF: The shows asked for "the band."  As there was no band, one was assembled.  Some friends of mine helped out from high school, session work and elsewhere.  Names will remain confidential at their request.

ATB: What happened to the solo LP you recorded for MGM after the Yummies single?

LF: It remains unreleased as of today.  I moved on to other labels and other production ventures.  Some of the songs were recorded later in new versions for other projects.  Almost all the songs from that album have been rerecorded and are available as part of my current catalog.

ATB: Tell me about your work with the Left Banke in the early '70s.

LF: Well, I knew the boys for awhile and asked them if they might like to do a project backing a singer I discovered named Diane Ellis.  This was back in 1972 or '73 as I recall.  That later evolved into a Left Banke project without Diane involved.  They asked if I'd produce and I said yes.  I approached Bell Records for a deal and was granted some development time to get some recordings done.  None of it saw release at the time.  Some of the material we did ended up as heard on the Strangers On A Train LP.  Some was written by me for them, such as "I Could Make It Last Forever," which I co-wrote with Diane Ellis.  That recording is currently in release on my Goin' Back CD (RRO-1009), which came out in 2006 and is on Apple iTunes, and CD Baby.

ATB: Can you tell me about your work with the Godz?  I've heard that you definitely sat in on their last album, Godzundheit, and might have appeared here and there on previous releases as well.

LF: The involvement with the Godz dovetailed out of the general sessions I was doing at that time in 1973 at A-1 Sound with the Left Banke.  Paul Thornton approached me and asked me to produce some sides for him.  At that time we cut "Give a Damn" (later on Godzundheit) and "M'Lady," which was used on Pass On This Side, which was released in 1974 [and recently reissued by Get Back Records - ed.] with "God Bless California" and "Christopher's Sorrow" on board, two songs I wrote and had previously cut for MGM/Sunflower.  Pass On This Side was recorded and released in 1974 under the name Thornton, Fradkin & Unger and the Big Band.  Larry Kessler heard "Give A Damn" and liked it.  He asked me to participate on "Take the Time" (issued on Godzundheit), which I played bass and sang background vocals on.  Jim McCarthy was also impressed and asked me to play bass on his Alien solo LP.  I enjoyed those sessions.  Lots of fun and pretty creative.  The guys were in good spirits and searching for a more organized musical direction along the lines of the singer-songwriter approach.  I encouraged them in that regard.  I do not appear on Contact High, 2 or Third Testament, despite any rumors.

ATB: Working with a more adult-friendly band like the Left Banke, then working with a somewhat reckless group like the Godz -- both of these after recording the cherubic "Patty Cake" single.  How was it traversing from one seemingly different scene to the next?  The juxtaposition had to be a little weird.

LF: Your perception might be valid if you view this point from strictly an "Artist's narrow perspective."  But I saw myself, at that point, as a record producer.  In that respect, I indulged a variety of ideas in those days with no apparent "conflict," as did any good producer.  The juxtaposition wasn't weird for me at all.  I liked all these kinds of music and the different challenges each presented.  :-)

ATB: Your contributions as a leading member of the original "Beatlemania" show are well documented.  Care to comment on your experiences with this?

LF: Well, there were four of us in the band on Broadway and I would say that all made important contributions to the eventual success of that show.  I did have the most industry experience of any of the band.  I hope I was able to impart the positives of that to the process.

ATB: Who's the one artist you wish you could've worked with in the '70s, but didn't?

LF: I would have liked to have produced Jeff Beck.  That would have been interesting for both of us.

ATB: What are you up to these days?

LF: To this day, I'm still a full-time artist, composer and record producer.  I co-own and run, with my wife Loretta, our indie label, RRO Entertainment.  We have an extensive catalog of successful releases, including 17 solo albums from myself.  I still produce, and, as an artist, I've taken up a new hi-tech instrument called the Ztar, which is the focus of my current musical work.  the CD One Link Between Them showcases my composing and playing with the Ztar.  Videos are available to see it at:

ATB: Anything else you'd like to add?

LF: Thanks for the opportunity to converse with you via this interview!

For more Fradkinmania, you can gander at his iTunes catalog:

...Or head over to his website: