Ambrosia’s Early Travels

The band Ambrosia was founded in southern California in the early 1970s. Today they would be best known for their most popular albums Life Beyond L.A., and One Eighty each including a mega-hit single, respectively “How Much I Feel” and “You’re The Only Woman (You & I).” These hits highlighted the group’s more melodic tendencies. However, their first two albums, and much of their unjustly overlooked fifth and final release Road Island would be best filed under the progressive rock heading. Ambrosia is back on tour this year, and we caught their exceptional show in Pleasanton, California on Saturday January 23rd. Check the listings for this year’s tour dates at http://www.ambrosialive.net

 

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Ambrosia Today

Founders Joe Puerta (bass) and David Pack (guitars, keys) were the principal writing partners for Ambrosia; they complemented each other’s compositions, alternating and combining lead vocals throughout the band’s five albums. Fantastic drummer Burleigh Drummond who also wrote and sang lead, and Christopher North, a master on the Hammond B3 organ, piano and Moog synthesizers joined them to create these layered works. The band was able to produce a lush, often complex sound that explored many styles – primarily progressive oriented rock, with some jazz, blues, and R&B mixed in to suit. Ambrosia released their auspicious self-titled debut in 1975 produced by famous engineer Alan Parsons. The album began with a signature song “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” and ended with ”Drink of Water,” featuring Puerta’s yearning, most demanding vocal performance backed by North pulling all the stops on a massive Skinner pipe organ in Royce Hall at UCLA.

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Ambrosia, mid 70s

Ambrosia followed this debut with their most accomplished album Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled recorded in the halcyon days of progressive rock in 1976. Alan Parsons was back at the helm, working with the band to incorporate all manner of instrumentation, including horns, mallet percussion, and orchestration arranged by Andrew Powell. The result was a spectacular mix of influences remaining today as one of the finest examples of the melodic progressive style. Tracks “Cowboy Star,” “The Brunt” and “Danse With Me George” impress with the audacity of their complex compositions, containing within ample shifts in key and meter, and passages during which solely orchestra, percussion, or keys are allowed to shine. Ruth Underwood, deft percussionist for Frank Zappa’s 70s albums added to the instrumentation on Danse. The keyboard passages are impossibly rapid fire. There is a light and positivity to the album from start to finish that’s not often found in progressive rock, and it’s infectious.

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This author was fortunate to see the band on the Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled tour way back in 1976 at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium in California. It was one of the best live concert experiences I’ve had over these many years. During the last year, I’ve talked in separate interviews with the original members of the band about this album, and the tour that followed.

DH: This album was really the height of progressive rock for Ambrosia – what was going on at that time?

David: Back at that time we had no MTV we had no YouTube – people were making vinyl albums and it was all about the “theater of the mind.” The challenge was on to capture the imaginations of rock fans. You had Pink Floyd with Dark Side of the Moon and The Beatles with Sgt. Peppers, there were expansive concepts going on out there.

I was reading a lot of E. E. Cummings’ work at the time and I found one of his poems, I have never travelled, gladly beyond and I thought, what a perfect title for this sort of “theater of the mind” – let us take you somewhere on a musical journey in your imagination. Once we had a title track it set a course that we followed. The great Alan Parsons, still one of my dearest friends, helped us stay focused on what songs and production really worked and what did not work. We were able to take long enough with the recording process to capture many great moments.

DH: -Tell me more about working with Alan Parsons and his impact on the music of Ambrosia? In the liner notes on Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled it’s mentioned that he was “like a fifth member”

ParsonsAlan_Poe_72dpiDavid: We played on Alan’s first Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe particularly on opener “The Raven.” We were honored to have done that, and to have Alan producing our first two records. He was patient and kind during the long recording sessions for Somewhere… as we took almost double the allotted time to record it!

Burleigh: We made our first album with Alan – so we already had a relationship – it wasn’t just a matter of handing the music to him and then him taking it away. He was very receptive. For instance on the first album we had the song “Holding On To Yesterday” and his first approach was a soft mellow sound, which is fine but we envisioned it more as a gutsy bluesy track and he was open to trying it. We tried some pretty unusual things with Alan.

DH – Ruth Underwood is listed in the credits as having played on “George”, but not “The Brunt” which includes some wild multi-layered percussion.

Burleigh: During the recording sessions for Somewhere, Ruth Underwood and myself set up in a garage that was 50 yards from the studio – they ran cable all the way there and we recorded inside for “Danse With Me George.”

On “The Brunt” we had drums, xylophone and other percussion but that was all me. I needed Ruth on “George” because that was such an involved piece and to be honestly there was a section that was just out of my reach, and I could not think of anyone better than Ruth to come in and nail it. Ruth and Ian were wonderful and I can’t say enough about them. It was a great time.

DH: Ruth played with Frank Zappa on many tracks including the great “Inca Roads” from One Size Fits All:

Burleigh: Yes, in fact I played with Frank Zappa for a month when I got out of college and I was the first one to ever play “Inca Roads”. When Ambrosia got our record deal, I went to Frank, who was almost like a father, and certainly a mentor. He said “well it’s your band right? You gotta go do that.” I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t about him it was about what is best for his musicians. He did a similar thing with Lowell George. Lowell played a song he wrote to Frank, who said, “That was fantastic, you’re fired – go start your own band!” Lowell went on to form Little Feat.

DH – Frank went on to play with some of the greatest drummers of our time including Chester Thompson, Terry Bozzio, and Chad Wakerman

Burleigh: Absolutely, two years ago we were on the Cruise To the Edge when UK was there and it was the first time I got to see UK, and it was with Terry Bozzio – and they were fabulous – we had done the Moody Blues cruise just the week before as well.

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Ambrosia in the 70s

DH – Andrew Powell did orchestral arrangements on “Danse With Me George”, “Cowboy Star”, and “We Need You Too” at Abbey Road Studios, London – what are your recollections of that effort?

David: I travelled to Abbey Road with Alan Parsons and Andrew Powell to do the orchestrations for the album. We were collaborating, talking about what each section means, and it was fantastic. When I played “Danse With Me George” for Leonard Bernstein he said it should be the basis of a whole musical!

DH: Joe, tell me about “Harvey” – it’s a quiet, unique song for that album.

Joe: Harvey was probably the only one take live vocal song we ever put out. I did it as a demo for the album, you can sort of tell that by me speaking to the engineer at the end of the song, I think I said “that’s all there is”. Then when the idea to put it on the record came up, everyone, including Alan, who hadn’t recorded it, thought it was perfect the way it was… it wasn’t even really remixed…Billy Taylor, I believe recorded and did the mix…

DH: There are a number of shining moments on grand piano and other keyboards on this record – it’s the most keys-driven, complex Ambrosia work.  Chris even plays some Chopin passages on the tune “Danse With Me George.” What led to keys being so prominent?

Burleigh: If you’re in Ambrosia you constantly have to step up and learn and master something that might not necessarily be in your arsenal – there was such a variety of writing and so many things that you have to do well, that it’s a full time job. Chris really rose to the occasion on those tracks. Since that time he’s been more focused on the organ, and is a great keyboard player, who I think was a great organ player first.

Chris: It was really a case of the tune dictating the orchestration. Chopin was a pianist so basically I had to rise to the occasion! The preparation basically involved lots of practice. At the time I had a heavily weighted grand piano sitting squarely in the middle of my small guesthouse so when I walked into “Mama Jo’s” recording studio I could just fly on the Yamaha C3 they had there.

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Christopher North in the 70s

DH: What can you tell me about the album itself – the packaging and production – hand drawn lyrics, and foldout pyramid cover?

Joe: The Pyramid idea actually was an offshoot of a joke sort of that I had made while reading a book called “Pyramid Power”. It had so many miraculous claims about the powers of pyramid, it could keep milk from spoiling if you kept it in a pyramid, it would heal you faster, etc. So I, jokingly said ” wouldn’t it be cool to have a pyramid album that if you kept it in that it would get rid of the scratches on your record?”

We had a friend of the band Dalton Priddy, a guy very interested in mystical powers of the universe who took that statement to heart and created a mock up of a pyramid album cover. We all thought it was cool and different, so we took it to the record company and they liked it. We made a change from 4 sided to 3 so the photo of the band would be visible.

DH: Chris, one of the highlights of the tour was Joe’s amazing vocal lead on “Drink of Water” accompanied by the guys, and you on the Hammond – how did you get that massive organ sound on the studio recording?

Ambrosia_DebutCover_72dpiChris: The pipe organ used on “Drink of Water” was a 5 manual Skinner organ. The recording took place at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. The session lasted all night. Just the microphone placement took hours and was supervised by the chief recording engineer at the time of London Decca classical, Gordon F. Parry. The organ itself had 32-foot tall bass pipes. For the final chorus I pushed the “tutti” stop. This stop opens every pipe on the organ and rattled the ceiling of Royce Hall. Quite a rush I might add.

DH: Any other thing that comes to mind from the time of this record and tour?

Burleigh: we were very proud of that exploratory album, from “The Brunt” to “Cowboy Star” and the title track. What can I say – I realized the impact on the first day of the tour, and we opened the show – I don’t think we could even get through the entire set in rehearsal without breaking down and figuring out what we were doing. But when we opened up on the first night, and did the first chords for “And…” with a light hitting a mirrored ball, this shiver ran down my spine and I thought “wow, this is good – it dawned on me that people liked it” – that’s one little memory I always cherish.

David: The key to this album’s concept was music that took you somewhere when you closed your eyes. We focused first on great songs, then great performances, with adventurous arrangements without becoming pretentions – we took our cues from The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Yes, and Leonard Bernstein, to name a few. When Alan Parsons came in to mix it, we knew it was really something magic.

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Catch this magic on the Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled album on vinyl or CD reissue and if you are inclined towards video, there was a fairly recent upload on YouTube of a black & white film taken December 1976 at the Capital Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. Ambrosia is back on tour this year, check the listings at http://www.ambrosialive.net. David Pack continues to write and record, most recently with a large number of collaborators including Ray Manzarek (The Doors) Todd Rundgren, Alan Parsons, and many other luminaries, to produce David Pack’s Napa Crossroads. He can be tracked here: http://www.napacrossroads.com

I caught the Ambrosia tour recently in Pleasanton, California and it was fantastic. Pack has not been with the band since the turn of the millennia, but added musicians Ken Stacey (acoustic guitar, vocals), Mary Harris (keyboards, vocals), and Doug Jackson (guitar, vocals) tour with original members Puerta, North and Drummond to perform these songs beautifully. Ken Stacey had the flu but still managed to show what an amazing voice he has brought to the band, covering most of Pack’s original parts. Doug Jackson brings an assertive electric guitar to the show, particularly shining on “Holdin’ On To Yesterday.” Mary Harris (Burleigh’s wife) brings added keys and vocals, leading or harmonizing wonderfully with the original trio. The friends I brought proclaimed that they could watch Christopher North play that electric Hammond all night! Joe Puerta nailed all of his vocal parts and was particularly strong on the upbeat R&B single “If Heaven Could Find Me.” They included the entire first side from their debut, interleaving a rocking version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” into “World Leave Me Alone.” They also performed “The Brunt” from Somewhere.., and during the “jungle” drum solo driven by Burleigh, all the other members of the band picked up percussive instruments, and joined in, creating the best live version of the song I’ve witnessed. Highly recommended.

Shots from the concert:

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Doug Jackson, Ken Stacey, Burleigh, Joe
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Mary Harris
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Christopher North

3 thoughts on “Ambrosia’s Early Travels”

  1. Fantastic article about one of my favorite underrated bands. I try to see them every time they’re within 75 miles.

    I must say, our musical tastes are quite similar!

    1. thanks for that Stan, I’ve been in contact with the band and David Pack to collect photos for my upcoming book on the great rock concerts of the 70s …they are nice and dedicated musicians…!

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