Wednesday, October 17, 2007

One-Hit Wonder Week: "You Were on My Mind," by We Five

After scoring with hits like "Tom Dooley," "Tijuana Jail," and "A Worried Man," the Kingston Trio's Dave Guard -- the only one of the three who could read music -- became disgusted with his partners and left the group in 1961, to be replaced by a son of a horse trainer named John Stewart. John's little brother Mike, in the eighth grade, was spurred to start a folk duo of his own with a friend named Jerry Burgan, to whom John Stewart had given a banjo. Moving on to the University of San Francisco, the two of them met guitarist Bob Jones and singer Beverly Bivens; eventually they added bass player Pete Fullerton. The band was called the Michael Stewart Quintet at that point, but on the night they played their first show at San Francisco's legendary Hungry i, they changed their name to We Five, or so the story goes.

The Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia had a song, written by Sylvia, called "You Were on My Mind," that We Five picked up somewhere along the way. W5 reworked some of the lyrics, apparently the part that goes "So I went to the corner/Just to ease my pain," which is supposedly a reference to going down to the street in San Francisco to buy a bag of pot. My source on this is "I heard a guy say it on the radio, who said he got it from one of the band members," so take it for what it's worth.

I suppose Sylvia is to credit for the song's structure, which blurs the distinction between chorus and verse, and probably for the wonderful conjunctional use on the song's opening lines: "When I woke up this morning/You were on my mind/And you were on my mind." That kills me. But the band is certainly responsible for all those jangly guitars -- there's even a Rickenbacker in there -- contemporaneous with the first Byrds hits and presaging the entire career of Guadalcanal Diary, if not R.E.M. The little lick at the end is like the primordial soup from which the Bangles' "Manic Monday" would later arise.

"You Were on My Mind" entered the Top Forty in August of 1965, and climbed all the way up Number Three, staying at Number One on the Adult Contemporary charts for five weeks. We Five actually did have a follow-up hit, "Let's Get Together," written by Chet Powers back in 1963, which went to Number 31 in the early days of 1966, but that was made into a much bigger hit by the Youngbloods, who took the retitled "Get Together" to Number Five in 1969 (it was supposedly energized by being used as the theme song for the National Conference of Christians and Jews), so no one remembers the W5 version. The Kingston Trio, with Mike Stewart's brother, actually cut a version of it before We Five did.

We Five suffered from the lack of a strong songwriter -- their albums were peppered with covers like "My Favorite Things" and Broadway show tunes and Jefferson Airplane songs. By 1969, they were reduced to releasing an album called The Return of We Five. Mike Stewart went on to produce Billy Joel's Piano Man and Streetlife Serenade before dying of pneumonia in 2002, but We Five is still gigging, with a retooled lineup featuring Jerry Burgan's son and more than five members. They seem to be a somewhat Christian act at this point, so they're probably not buying a lot of pot on the streets of San Francisco any more.

Here's the classic We Five lineup on Hollywood Palace, doing a live -- not lip-synced -- version of "You Were on My Mind." And yes, that's Fred Astaire introducing them:

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