Teen Angst and Soft Rock ‘n Roll
By Howard A. DeWitt
No one captured teen angst better than Gary Troxel. The Fleetwoods’ lead singer had a voice which emitted the frustration of teenagers during the 1950s. With two beautiful young blondes standing beside him, Troxel’s soft vocals and the young women’s lush harmonies created a soft rock ‘n roll revolution. From 1959 to 1963 the Fleetwoods charted twelve songs on the Billboard Hot 100 with two number one hits, “Come Softly To Me” and “Mr. Blue.” The fourteen albums released on Dolton and Liberty and the two EPs contain some of the finest crossover rock before AOR became a major category. The Fleetwoods story is one shrouded in myth and the group was plagued from the beginning by internal dissension.
The earliest myths about the Fleetwoods were perpetuated by Gretchen Christopher who, in interviews, acts like Gary Troxel was a late addition to the group. For years Christopher pictured herself as the lead inspiration and guiding light behind the Fleetwoods. “As founder and manager, maintaining the original sound, quality and image of the Fleetwoods has been an ongoing concern for me,” Christopher remarked. What this statement ignores is that Gary Troxel has been fronting his own version of the Fleetwoods for more than 25 years while Gretchen has moved in a variety of musical directions. Gary is not only the lead singer but the only Fleetwood to remain true to the original sound and concept. When asked about Gretchen, he smiles and replies: “I wish her the best.”
Gretchen Christopher is bitter over the history of the Fleetwoods. She is an enormous talent and has a fine blues voice but it is simply not in the cards for her to be a hit artist. She should have remained true to the Fleetwoods’ sound. Instead, she has helped to obscure and confuse the history of the Fleetwoods and create a myth that she brought Troxel in only to play the trumpet. This is simply not true.
Another myth is that the Fleetwoods didn’t tour or perform regularly. Since Troxel was in the U. S. Navy, many critics have written that this killed their career. “That is simply not true,” Troxel remarked sitting in his palatial Washington home. “I got a pass every weekend and we did shows all the time. We could also record anytime that we felt like it.” The other female voice in the group, Barbara Ellis, didn’t care for touring and she went on the road grudgingly.
Perhaps the strangest myth is that the Fleetwoods were a two hit act. In addition the two number one hits, they charted “Graduation’s Here” and “You Mean Everything To Me” in 1959, “Outside My Window” and “Runaround” in 1960, “(He’s) The Great Imposter” and “Tragedy” in 1961, “Lovers By Night, Strangers By Day” in 1962 and, finally, “Goodnight My Love” in 1963 to end the string of hits. In England “Come Softly To Me” and “Confidential” hit the charts.
One of the most persistent points of misinformation is that Gary Troxel was in a band, the Blue Comets, and left that group to join the Fleetwoods. “That’s simply not true,” Troxel recalled, “I hung around the band, that’s all.” By chance one day Gary met Barbara and Gretchen in downtown Olympia and began filling in the bridge to a song that they had composed and soon they were crooning “Come Softly To Me.” “I bought records at the Music Box in Olympia and simply loved the music,” Troxel recalled.
An equally strange myth is that the Fleetwoods didn’t receive their full royalties. “We were always treated well by Liberty and I have gotten mail from the first day I was in this business,” Troxel recalled. The contracts were good ones for the Fleetwoods and Bob Reisdorff, the owner of Dolton Records, their first label, treated them with dignity and respect. He also saw to it that the contracts paid fairly.
The Fleetwoods story began in Olympia, Washington. Gretchen Christopher was consumed with show business from an early age. She attended Olympia’s South Bay grade school and in Washington Junior High School she first talked about show business with her friend Barbara Ellis. They were typical junior high girls who shared a love for music and became popular cheerleaders. Olympia is the capital of the state and there Gretchen, Barbara and Gary all attended Olympia High School.
Gretchen was the first of the Fleetwoods to begin to sing for fun. She was a member of the high school choir and talked to her friends about forming a musical group. She listened to Julie London as well as some blues, rhythm and blues and pop songs. Then with her grade school pal, Barbara Ellis, they worked up a cover version of the Five Satins’ “In The Still of the Night” as well as a blues version of “Stormy Weather.” Then they began to write a whispering vocal known simply as “Softly, Softly.” But the song was incomplete. It was a nice hook but little more than that. Then one day, Gretchen and Barbara met Gary Troxel and she began singing “Softly, Softly,” Troxel surprised her by filling in the lyrics and they began singing “Come Softly To Me.” No one realized it as the time, but the Fleetwoods first number one hit had been born.
Over the years Christopher has taken too much credit for the song. When Bob Reisdorff, the owner of Dolton Records, insisted that they split the songwriting three ways, this action suggested the song was truly a group collaboration. But first and foremost, it was Troxel’s plaintive lead vocals and jazz inflected scat sound made the group unique and the song a masterpiece.
When Troxel joined the Fleetwoods, he could play jazz-oriented trumpet. This instrument didn’t fit into their music but his jazz-inflected vocals suggest its influence. While at Olympia High the Fleetwoods performed for assemblies with acappella songs. At Gretchen’s house, they sang “Come Softly To me” into an inexpensive tape recorder.
Shortly after graduation, Gretchen became a dancer in Seattle at Norm Bobrow’s Colony Club. It was the home of jazz singing sensation, Pat Suzuki, and Seattle’s only legitimate nightclub. Suzuki eventually went on to star in “The Flower Drum Song” on Broadway. Gretchen lied about her age and danced for a brief time in the chorus. She was there to sell her music. It is unclear how long Christopher danced at the Colony but it doesn’t appear to be too long. She says that she filled in two shows for Pat Suzuki when the star became ill. Before she left the Colony, Christopher gave Bobrow, a former disc jockey, the tape that she had cut with her two friends.
Bobrow had lunch with Bob Reisdorff of C and C Record Distributor who was on the verge of forming Dolphin Records. Reisdorff had a sharp eye for commercial music. They liked “Come Softly To Me” and reasoned the Fleetwoods’ song was a sure radio hit. (There was already a Dolphin Records so they soon changed the name to Dolton.)
The musical brains behind Dolton was singer country star Bonnie Guitar, who quickly recognized the Fleetwoods’ commercial possibilities. She brought the trio into the basement studio of Joe Boles in Seattle and recorded almost one hundred takes of “Come Softly To Me.” “No one knew about overdubbing,” Troxel recalled, “and they weren’t sure about how to record us. However, it all worked out fine.” Troxel had written the lyrics to his part and Gretchen and Barbara sang another part of the song. There was trouble when the girls didn’t want to include Gary in the writing credits. Reisdorff’s insistence that they share in the tune was the beginning of the early discord.
The Fleetwoods’ sound owes a great deal to Reisdorff. He recorded the group acappella. Then he took the tapes to Los Angeles where they were mixed with the instrumental music. But there were problems with this approach. Si Zentner’s trombone on “Mr. Blue” was on key but the Fleetwoods weren’t. Reisdorff easily adjusted the sound. Reisdorff acknowledged Bonnie Guitar’s studio presence. She had the experience and the ear to produce hit records.
The group was known at this time as Two Girls and A Guy. Reisdorff hated the name, so began thumbing through a telephone book and pulled out a prefix Fleetwood. This became their professional moniker. (Other stories attribute the name to a popular Cadillac model.) But there was still something missing in “Come Softly To Me.” Bonnie Guitar suggested that they take the tune to Hollywood to add acoustic guitar, bass and percussion. After a long night’s work, a demo was dropped off at Los Angeles radio station KFWB just before six o’clock in the morning. After the song aired only once, the phones blew off the hook.
“Come Softly To Me” was released on February 16, 1959, and Reisdorff believed that the Los Angeles test was an indication that the song would be a hit. “We played Dick Parker’s Ballroom in the north end of Seattle,” Troxel recalled, “and it was the first place that we got paid. Bobby Darin was in town and he was recording some songs in West Seattle, It was a heady time.”
Pat O’Day broke the song on KJR in Seattle and it took off and became a Pacific Northwest hit. By the spring of 1959 the Fleetwoods were the hottest act on American radio. Not only was “Come Softly To Me” the first gold record produced in the Pacific Northwest but it gave an impetus to the Frantics, the Wailers, Ron Holden and the Playboys, Little Bill and the Bluenotes and a host of other area bands. Dance concerts at the Spanish Castle, halfway between Tacoma and Seattle, Dick Parker’s Ballroom in Seattle’s Northend, and the Eagle’s Auditorium in downtown Seattle all led to the birth of a strong lock rock and roll subculture.
Unfortunately, the Fleetwoods were seldom featured at these venues as bands favoring “Louie, Louie” and the sounds of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino took over the local rock scene. One of the ironies of the Fleetwoods early career is that they were the biggest rock and roll act in the Pacific Northwest but seldom performed in their home state. One of the reasons was the perceived jazz sound that the Fleetwoods evoked which prompted local promoters to book other bands.
This is one of the strangest aspects of the Fleetwoods success. Reisdorff and the Dolton label had little to do with the mainstream part of Pacific Northwest rock and roll. The Ventures, the Fleetwoods, Vic Dana and other Dolton acts didn’t play the local ballrooms. The reason was a simple one. Reisdorff cut a sweet distribution deal with Liberty Records and his early material sold well nationally. He didn’t need the Pacific Northwest to survive. Also, the jazz inflected tunes gave the Fleetwoods a broad adult appeal. Eventually, Liberty bought out Dolton and Reisdorff retired a rich man.
Rock and roll was not in his blood. He was a jazz lover and he convinced the Frantics, an instrumentally hot Seattle group, to record along cocktail jazz lines and Pacific Northwest rock and roll lost one of its most original acts to the lounges. These influences had a direct bearing upon Gary Troxel’s songwriting as his tunes not only had a jazz inflection but were highly commercial tunes.
One of the best early examples of Troxel’s jazz side was the ‘B’ side of “Come Softly To Me.” This tune, “I Care So Much,” had Gary opening with a scat singing style that put the Fleetwoods into a decided jazz vein. Troxel and the girls were writing songs together but there was friction. They continued to turn out the hits but the infighting that resulted from writing, performing and being together was taking its toll. Few people close to the group noticed because the hits just kept on coming.
To follow up their first hit, Dolton released “Graduation’s Here” which rose to number 39 in the spring of 1959. It was a plaintive, teen wail with a somber message about leaving high school and the Fleetwoods shared writing credit on it. Then, the third Dolton single, “Mr. Blue,” established the Fleetwoods as a major national rock and roll act. Their soft sound and pleasing stage presence increased their bookings dramatically.
While touring behind their early hits the Fleetwoods came to San Francisco and met Dewayne Blackwell, the composer of “Mr. Blue.” “It was fun to watch he and his family perform our hit,” Troxel remarked. The Fleetwoods sound on “Mr. Blue” was augmented by the jazz guitar of Ray Lanham and Si Zentner’s trombone. But it was the ‘B’ side of “Mr. Blue” that caught the attention of the musicians. “You Mean Everything To Me” not only had a soft vocal presence but smooth guitar chording made it the only Fleetwood’s flip side to chart.
As a result of heavy sales and the chart action of “Mr. Blue,” the Fleetwoods were booked on the Dick Clark “American Bandstand” afternoon show and the premier Sunday night Ed Sullivan television show. “American Bandstand” was a resounding success because Clark placed Troxel at center stage with Barbara and Gretchen standing on a high step in beautiful dresses and high heels and looking like the gorgeous young ladies that they were. The Fleetwoods lip synched the song and it remains one of their best television appearances. One of Dick Clark’s “Best of American Bandstand” videos features this performance. “The Ed Sullivan Show,” on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster. They had to perform “Mr. Blue” live and there was only one microphone. The band was too loud and the Fleetwoods vocals were lost in the mix — or lack of it. The Sullivan producer also hired back up singers to fill in the Fleetwoods sound and this led to an embarrassing moment.
In the midst of their problems Gone Records released Ronnie Height’s version of “Come Softly To Me.” Reisdorff and Dolton Records worried that the Philadelphia based label with its connections to Dick Clark, would destroy the Fleetwoods hit. There was no need to worry. Height was a minimally talented performer who couldn’t cover the Fleetwoods’ record. Yet, “Come Softly To Me” was such a strong song that Height’s version did chart in at 45 on the Billboard chart.
The Fleetwoods first album Mr. Blue was released in October 1959 and it told more about Dolton Records than it did about the group. The cover featured Barbara and Gretchen in low cut prom dresses wearing little tiaras on their heads. They looked lovingly at Gary Troxel who wore a tuxedo complete with a top hat and white gloves. His cane and spats gave Troxel the look of a regal gentleman. The twelve songs on “Mr. Blue” included the hits “Come Softly To Me” and “Mr. Blue,” but it was the other tunes, notably “Oh Lord Let It Be,” “The Three Caballeros” and “Serenade of the Bells,” which puzzled the critics. The album was a mix of nostalgic tunes but it also included covers of Robert and Johnny’s “We Belong Together” and the Del Vikings “Come Go With Me.” In 1997 Van Meter Productions re-released the complete Mr. Blue album on a CD with three stereo bonus cuts of “Confidential,” “Come Softly To Me” and “Come Go With Me.” As Gary Troxel observed: “Now you can hear what we really sounded like in our early sessions.” Since Van Meter Productions has gone out of business this CD has become an instant collectible.
The Fleetwoods hit record magic continued. On January 11, 1960, Dolton released the fourth Fleetwood single “Outside My Window” backed with “Magic Star” and this Hal David-composed tune rose to number 15. Three months later “Runaround” backed with “Truly Do” continued the group’s chart hits and “Confidential” b/w “I Love You So” released on November 1, 1960, made it three hits in a row for the Fleetwoods in one year. “Runaround” had been a top twenty hit for The Three Chuckles in 1954 and it was a song picked out by Reisdorff as a sure commercial hit.
As Dolton was selling as many records as they could press, the company finally put together an album which reflected the groups’ vocal diversity. The Fleetwoods-Gretchen, Gary and Barbara was released on September 1, 1960, with some great non hit tracks including covers of Bud and Travis’ “Truly Do” and the Tune Weavers’ “Happy Happy Birthday Baby.” This album also featured such classics as “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Turtle Dove.” Their recent hit “Outside My Window,” anchored the LP that also included “Skylark” and Gretchen’s magnificent swing version of “One For My Baby.” For Fleetwood fans this was the LP that exposed a wider range of their considerable talent.
From their earliest recording sessions, the Fleetwoods had some of the finest session musicians back them. Bob Reisdorff was a jazz aficionado who hired Glen Campbell on guitar, Leon Russell on piano and jazz bassist Red Callendar to back the group. The results were astounding and soon there was a great deal of material to release. There was always more material in the can than Dolton could release.
The peak of the Fleetwoods record sales took place in 1961 when two albums Softly and Deep In A Dream were released in April and July respectively to steady sales. The highlight of Deep In A Dream was Gretchen’s version of “Blues Go Away” and Gary’s leads on “One Little Star” and a cover of Sammy Turner’s “Lavender Blue.” Troxel co-wrote “Poor Little Girl,” with Vic Dana, which was one of the strongest songs on the album. The big hit from the Softly album, “Tragedy,” was recorded in Los Angeles with a bevy of important studio musicians. The reason for the furtive release of Fleetwood material was that Gary Troxel went into the U. S. Navy. The album cover to Deep In A Dream shows Gary in his navy uniform and the LP featured the Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley tune “(He’s) The Great Imposter.” There were also covers of Dion’s “A Teenager In Love” Shep and the Limelights “Daddy’s Home”, Billy and Lillie’s “Lah-Dee-Dah” and Vic Dana’s “One Little Star.” After four albums the Fleetwoods were finally recording material that fit their voices. The standards, the show tunes and the jazz numbers that Reisdorff favored were giving way to rhythm and blues and rock and roll songs and this made the Fleetwoods sound more contemporary.
The Dolton label’s phenomenal success prompted Liberty Records to purchase the small, Seattle based label. But Liberty shrewdly kept the three little fishes which made the Dolton logo a prominent part of its marketing. Reisdorff remained the producer and he opened a Fleetwoods International Fan Club from his office at 622 Union Street in downtown Seattle. The marketing and distribution that Liberty offered led to the release of thirteen Fleetwood albums. Early in this process it was difficult to find new material, so Liberty had the group record classic rock and roll tunes. This was fine with the Fleetwoods.
In November, 1961 The Fleetwoods Sing The Best Goodies of the Oldies brought twelve classic tunes including Johnny and Joe’s “Over The Mountain, Across The Sea,” Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” Little Anthony’s “Tears On My Pillow,” the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” and Ritchie Valens’ “Donna” among others. Then on August 2, 1961 The Fleetwoods’ Greatest Hits appeared and charted in both the U. S. and the U. K.
The navy did little to slow down the Fleetwoods. “I got leave whenever I wanted it and we performed and recorded when we felt like it,” Troxel remarked. There were a few Fleetwood appearances with Vic Dana as a stand in but since Gary was in the navy for only six months, Dana’s tenure was a brief and generally insignificant one. In 1962 “Lovers By Night, Strangers By Day” hit the charts and the ‘B’ side featured a song by Randy Newman, “They Tell Me It’s Summer.”
Troxel was married and tired of touring. Barbara Ellis was pursuing other interests while Gretchen Christopher was thinking about a solo career. The group didn’t end in 1963 when the hits stopped. But the differences between the original members was driving a wedge into the group.
There was a temporary peace when they renegotiated a long term contract with Liberty. “I always had good feelings about our Liberty deal,” Gary Troxel remarked. “I moved to Anacortes (Washington) and went to work there. I was happy with the money, Liberty was fair with us.”
But Troxel never wavered from keeping the original concept of the Fleetwoods alive. He was a quiet, reflective family man who had the good sense to take care of business. He also recognized that the Fleetwoods were still a significant act. So his considerable energy went into the performances and songwriting which kept the group in the limelight.
During the early 1960s the Fleetwoods remained a popular act and recorded and released some of their best music. In January 1963 the album The Fleetwoods Sing For Lovers By Night was released with covers of “Pledging My Love,” “Goodnight My Love” and “Loving You.” Among the future starmakers on this LP was songwriter David Gates, who wrote “My Special Lover” and later emerged as the lead singer for Bread. The Fleetwoods also took a more active role in the production of this album. Barbara Ellis sang the lead on “Goodnight My Love” and it was released as a single in April 1963 rising to number 12 on the new easy listening charts. This was the Fleetwoods last single to chart. Liberty was now taking a more active role in song selection, and the songs that Liberty picked for release were often poor choices for the teen market. A good example of this was “What’ll I Do,” an Irving Berlin number not designed to appeal to the burgeoning teen culture. This song, as well as “Ten Times Blues,” did not appear on an album and became coveted “B” sides. While the albums continued sell well, the group was no longer a big seller to teens in the singles market.
By July 1963 the album, Goodnight My Love was released to cash in on recent chart success. The cover to this album was corny and sentimental, showed a young girl in a nightgown looking at the picture of a young man. It was completely lacking in appeal for teens. Sad, because there were some great tunes on this album including “Every Little Beat,” a strong Barry-Greenwich tune, “Hurt Him” written by Barbara Ellis, Gary Troxel and a co-songwriter, and “Magic Star,” composed by Bonnie Guitar and Troxel. In 1963 the Fleetwoods also cut a version of Ferlin Huskey’s “Gone,” but it remained unreleased until the 1993 EMI CD Come Softly To Me: The Very Best of the Fleetwoods. With chart success the Fleetwoods spent more time on the road.
From 1959 to 1963 the Fleetwoods were an important touring act. With Gary Troxel’s smoky good looks and Gretchen and Barbara’s blonde-haired beauty, the Fleetwoods were poised to be teen idols. It never happened. It wasn’t because Gary was shy as Gretchen maintains, it was because Troxel was happily maried with a family. He preferred to perform and not become part of the teen idol circuit.
The British Invasion of 1964 temporarily derailed the Fleetwoods career and Liberty didn’t release any albums for a year. There were regular singles releases in 1964 but none charted. These included “Ruby Red Baby Blue” backed with a cover of Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town,” the innovative “Ska Light, Ska Bright” b/w “Ten Times Blues,” a cover of “Mr. Sandman” b/w “This Is My Prayer” and an early Van McCoy tune “Before And After (Losing You)” b/w “Lonely Is As Lonely Does.” On “Before And After” Gretchen Christopher demonstrated her incredible vocal range as she blended in beautifully with the strings arrangement.
But albums remained the foremost vehicle for Gary Troxel’s soft rock voice. He was not only the genius behind the Fleetwoods’ sound but the voice that attracted other performers. When “Before And After (Losing You)” became a minor hit for the English duo Chad and Jeremy, they acknowledged Troxel’s unique soft vocal influences.
Liberty Records floundered in an attempt to rekindle the Fleetwoods’ magic. In January, 1965 the release of the LP Before And After featured Gretchen Christopher’s excellent cover of Joni James’ “Little Things Mean A Lot.” The rest of Before and After was filled with strong material including a cover of the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman,” as well as such pop favorites as “Softly, As I Leave You,” “Go Away Little Girl” and “This is My Prayer.” When this album failed to sell well, Liberty finally began looking for more contemporary material for the Fleetwoods.
As they began searching out folk and rock tunes for the Fleetwoods, Liberty had the group rerecord a new version of “Come Softly To Me” backed with ““I’m Not Jimmy” and released it to general disinterest. It was the time of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Animals and folk music meant the emerging sounds of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. This placed the Fleetwoods’s sweet harmonies in the background.
The final regular issue album for the original Fleetwoods was Folk Rock. It was a strong effort which included such diverse songs as Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” the Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” a vocal version of the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” and the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Folk Rock wasn’t folk and it wasn’t rock and the album didn’t work.
Internally, the group was fighting over its musical direction. Gretchen thought of herself as a blues singer, Gary wanted to keep the Fleetwoods intact and Barbara wanted to retire. These differences broke up the group. Gretchen Christopher believed that she was the leader, so she began touring with a replacement lead vocalist. Gary Troxel soon hired Cheryl Huggins and Bonnie Hannukaine and this group was the best in retaining the Fleetwoods’ original sound. Barbara Ellis retired, married and divorced and remarried a number of times.
The release of the Folk Rock album did not completely end the Fleetwoods’ recording career. There were four albums that kept the groups sound alive. In September, 1966, on the budget oriented Sunset label, Liberty released In A Mellow Mood which reissued ten of the best, if less known, Fleetwood tunes. The Best of the Rock and Roll Revival, Volume 2 on Deja Vu Records contained a live version of “Mr. Blue” cut in early June 1971 at the New York Academy. In 1974’s The Very Best of the Fleetwoods, Liberty once again repackaged ten songs featuring all of the trio’s hits. With the vault nearly empty of Fleetwoods material, a Liberty album entitled Buried Treasures packaged some of the group’s lesser known songs. Among these were “Who’s Gonna Teach You About Love,” “Get Behind Me Devil” and “Man In A Raincoat,” along with an excellent lead by Gretchen Christopher on “Imagination.” It was a weak end to a great career. The Buried Treasures album was soon buried in the cut-out bin of the local Woolworth’s store.
During the 1970s some of the Fleetwoods’ material was rerecorded for the K-Tel and Jerden record labels. These songs were weak recreations of the original and did little for the Fleetwoods. The string of hits had been over for more than a decade and the Fleetwoods quietly slipped into the oldies but goodies circuit.
The Fleetwoods remain one of the premier soft rock groups who bridged the popular culture gap in the period between Elvis Presley and the Beatles. The beautiful, melodious harmonies that they created remain a significant part of the early history of rock ‘n roll. They were the forerunners of a style that the Carpenters and Simon and Garfunkel, among others, took to the bank.
Today, Gretchen continues to perform as Gretchen Christopher of the Fleetwoods while Gary Troxel leads his highly successful Fleetwoods group with Cheryl and Bonnie.
The Fleetwoods sound remains available on CD with twenty-eight cuts on Come Softly To Me: The Very Best of the Fleetwoods released as part of EMI’s Legend of Rock ‘N’ Roll Series in 1993 and the eighteen-cut Rhino CD The Best of the Fleetwoods.” These two albums contain the essence of the soft sounds and pop ministering of one of the tightest and most professional vocal groups to ever dominate the charts.
Reprinted by permission of Rock & Blues News, High Sierra Books, P. O. Box 60095, Sacramento, CA 95860.