During rock and roll’s glory days in the mid-Sixties, hundreds of singles would be sent to radio stations around the country each month by young artists, with up to 500 songs vying for the attention of deejays who could propel the creators of those tunes to stardom. As a young singer trying to get noticed in that fierce competition, Gary Puckett came up with a gimmick that helped him and his band The Union Gap produce multiple hits.
Realizing that most singles were distributed with picture-less sleeves, Puckett decided to play off his avid love of Civil War history and convinced his bandmates to dress up in Union Army uniforms for a photo that would adorn their own single for “Woman Woman.” All it took was for one disc spinner to notice, and when that happened Puckett had his first hit in a 53-year performing career that brings him to The Rose in Pasadena for a show on Saturday night.
“Everyone on the street was wearing tie dyes and fringes, leathers and suedes, because everyone was doing that grungy thing,” says Puckett. “We were a brand new group, so we needed a picture on that first record in order to have someone think that record was cool, and wonder what that sounds like. I always loved history of the Civil War period, so I decided that we would wear the outfit of the Union Army in order that we could be arresting to the eye.
“We could be the same and yet different, have ranks from a general to a private, with different kinds of hats, things like that,” he adds. “The band thought it was stupid, but I said this is what we’re going to do to make them stop and play that record. The record company put our picture on the sleeve, it went out to all the stations, and a guy in Ohio who was a Civil War buff took notice and gave us a chance. The Columbia office in Cleveland called LA and said you have a hit record in Columbus. They put us in a club here and made it a hit.”
Of course, Puckett’s impressive tenor vocals were the key to success from there, as his rich tones made the band stand out in an era of Motown soul and British Invasion rockers. Puckett’s ability to imbue his singing with expressive emotions led to a string of Top 10 hits, including “Young Girl,” “Lady Willpower,” “and “This Girl Is a Woman Now,” yet there were serious conflicts roiling behind their successful image.
“The band themselves didn’t like ‘Woman Woman’ much, because they wanted to rock and roll like Moby Grape, and be known for jamming,” says Puckett, 76. “They would rather have done something much more rock and roll. But Jerry Fuller, our producer, really believed it was a hit song, so he said make the record and we’re off. I loved the song once we were recording it and the band came to like it more when they saw it was a hit.
“But we had a bigger dispute over a song called ‘Heaven Down Below’ that I didn’t think it would do well, and Fuller disagreed,” adds Puckett. “The record company was on the producer’s side, I was young and I thought I’m going to exercise my right to move on. It was the wrong move for me to make in retrospect. Had I stayed we might have made many more hits, but you can’t really know that either.”
Even as the radio hits faded, however, Puckett still had his voice and an emotional approach that resonated with fans to help create an unusually loyal bond between artist and audience. Puckett notes that he never attempted to emulate any other singers, instead performing with the confidence instilled in him by his parents, both professional singers who performed with many big bands during his upbringing in Yakima, Washington.
“First of all, the records we made were quality — they were well-done, performed, produced and marketed with that whole idea of wearing Civil War outfits,” explains Puckett. “Some say we sold more records than the Beatles in 1968, when we sold between 15 and 20 million records. Our fans are widespread. I think those songs and records stand the test of time and I still have the largest audience of my generation, that’s now retiring, retired or ready for retiring and still love the music of their youth. I’m part of the fabric of the music of our generation. And millennials are finding it on YouTube now and loving it too.”
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap perform at 9 p.m. Saturday at The Rose, 245 E. Green St., Pasadena. Tickets are $38 to $68. Call (888)645-5006 or visit wmmts.com.