Lead Singer w/ The Union Gap Never Tires Of Singing The Bands Biggest Hits
By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer
One of his very first singles ‘Young Girl’ cracked the Top Five on the pop music charts in the summer of 1968, and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap would continue riding the charts through 1970. His debut single ‘Woman, Woman‘ reached number four just a few months earlier (late 1967). All total, the group would score six singles on the Top 40 charts, with five of them finding their way inside the Top 10. Although they had strong airplay and record sales, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap couldn’t reach the top spot. ‘Young Girl’ and ‘Lady Willpower’ both peaked at number two.
According to Puckett it was all about timing. “Young Girl’ stayed at number two for three weeks. When it hit, it was an instant success. It climbed the charts rather quickly. But there was this tear jerker of a song called ‘Honey’ by Bobby Goldsboro that radio stations and listeners couldn’t get enough of. There is never any rhyme or reason how songs come in and out of the charts.”
‘Young Girl’ remains the band’s most successful. “It topped the charts in England and in Cash Box Magazine (based on sales), so I’d say it did very well for us.” During ‘Young Girl’s first week in the second spot ‘Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay’ spent a solo week at number one. “Apparently, we were in good company. Two great songs to be sandwiched between.”
Puckett’s own musical journey began back in the late 1940’s. “I come from a very musical family. My mom played piano, and my dad was a sax player. They were my earliest influences. They sat me down when I was about six to take piano lessons. They never really pushed me, but it was strongly encouraged.”
He admits it all began to change in the mid 1950’s. Although Elvis Presley had an impact on him, Puckett’s interests varied. “Certainly Elvis had a lot to do with it, but I really embraced them all. I was into Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Eddie Cochran. I think that little bit of rebellion, which is mild by today’s standards struck a chord in my heart. It was then that I sensed I’d love to play music for a living.” Puckett says he found and old guitar and just began to practice.
Little did he realize he’d become a lead singer as well. “Both of my parents were really good musicians, but even more so they were great singers. I was very fortunate to inherit my beautiful singing voice from my parents. I started my first band back in high school. We played sock hops and local dances. We did covers of all the popular songs of the day. That’s when the wheels really began to turn for me.”
His parents might have pursued careers in music, but family duties beckoned. “My dad’s day job moved us a few times, and they both realized life as a travelling musician wasn’t that glamorous back then. Tour buses weren’t as decked out as they are today. They chose a more traditional life. My dad knew he wanted to support my mom, and my brothers and sisters.”
By the early 1960’s the Puckett family relocated to San Diego where Gary would eventually enroll in college. “Mom and dad wanted me to get a degree in higher education. I made a decent attempt but music was always tugging at me.” After two years of college Puckett yearned for more. “I was playing in clubs at night.”
Los Angeles and San Francisco may have music epicenters for California in the 1960’s but Puckett admits San Diego was blossoming. “It was a small city back then, but very cultural with a big club scene.” His night life proved financially rewarding at the time. “If you were in a good band you made some money. I was making about $300 a week. That’s a lot for 55 years ago.”
Even though his night gig was promising Puckett held a 9 to 5 job. “Back in ’62 and ’63 I worked at this place called Foreign Auto Supply. I started out as a driver for them, and before long I was managing the place. It was a decent job but still something was calling me. Eventually I told them I have to chase this music thing. What I thought was cool, they said if it doesn’t work out, there will be a place for you should you decide to come back.”
One of Puckett’s first bands would tour extensively on the west coast and upper Pacific west throughout the mid 60’s. “We were called the Remarkables. That was beginning of what would become The Union Gap.” Still Puckett wanted the band to set themselves apart. “I like history and that military look from the Civil War era. One day the band is up in Seattle and I come across this shop with all sorts of union army type of clothing. I thought we looked like every other band out there, and maybe if we adopted a certain look it would help us stand out.”
He admits his fellow band members weren’t as enthused as he was. “I had opposition.” Oddly enough their uniformed look came from south of the border. “Initially we rented the suits because what we needed was too expensive. But I found a guy in Tijuana, Mexico who helped create the look, and that’s how the whole concept of The Union Gap came about.”
Their new look and their soft rock sound lead to a record deal with CBS. Within in a year they had their first across the board hit. “It all happened so fast. I was only 25 years old.” By the time the decade was over The Union Gap would add ‘Over You’, ‘Don’t Give In To Him’, and ‘This Girl Is A Woman Now’ to their run of Top 40 hits. “Looking back it was pretty amazing. In 1968 alone we did 268 concerts and sold over 16 million records. I’ve heard we were the top selling artists in 1968, selling more than The Beatles. I’m not sure if that’s factual, but I know we were huge and everybody wanted us.”
Rock n’ roll still had its challenges in the 1960’s with many opponents wanting to diminish its appeal. Bands were often asked to change their lyrics when appearing on TV. Gary Puckett & the Union Gap felt some of the backlash. “I remember there was this radio station, WLS in Chicago who didn’t want to play ‘Young Girl’ because of the lyrics ‘Cause I’m afraid we’ll go too far’. Censorship was a real issue back in the 1960’s. What we said and what listeners imagined is tame by today’s standards.”
Carrying a northern Civil War union persona presented its share of confrontation as well. “Playing in the south was a bit rough. I remember one time we did a gig in Alabama. To be safe we carried a big Confederate Flag with us. We draped it across the piano and when the show opened up we held it up. We got a big rebel yell and went right into the music without missing a beat.”
As fast as they rose to stardom there light began to fade. “The 1970’s were hard for 60’s artists. The 70’s introduced a whole new generation of rock n’ roll to the mainstream. It was the era of singer songwriters and glam rock. When artists like David Bowie and Elton John hit, pop music changed dramatically.” Gary Puckett & the Union Gap slowly disbanded with Puckett’s solo career not finding any ground as well.
Without a record deal or a band, Puckett spent most of the 1970’s pursuing acting and dancing, but those opportunities were few and far between. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Puckett saw a rebirth in his career. “I found myself in Vegas singing our hits and often adding in other popular songs of the day.” Even better opportunities were on the horizon. “I became a regular on the national oldies circuit. I did my first tour in 1984 with The Association and The Turtles. We went out again the next year with Herman’s Hermits.”
What put the nostalgia tour over the top was 1986. “That was the year of the first Monkees reunion tour and I was a part of that. Rob Grill and The Grass Roots joined us as well. The Monkees experienced new found fame through the MTV generation, and all of a sudden mothers who adored The Monkees back in the 60’s were there with their daughters. It introduced many of the artists to a whole new generation. It was a fun tour. We were selling out everywhere and playing stadiums.”
Fast forward to 2019 and Gary Puckett continues to stay busy. He will tour this summer with the Happy Together Tour which features The Turtles, The Buckinghams, The Classics IV, The Cowsills, and Chuck Negron formerly with Three Dog Night. “I’m friends with many of the artists on this tour. I know it will be a lot of fun. I know from experience, audiences like to revisit the songs of their youth, and the artists on this tour know exactly what the crowd want.”
When he’s paired with an oldies tour Puckett can do over 100 shows a year. “When I’m not a part of one of these types of shows, I’ll do maybe 50 or 60 performances a year. I do like staying busy and I still enjoy performing.” He’s even taken his show to the high seas. “I’ve done the oldies cruises. The last one was the Flower Power cruise. We had Tommy James, and The Lovin’ Spoonful. The tour buys the whole cruise ship package and the people who come out know what to expect. It’s music all day and all night. I love doing them.”
Incredibly fit for 76 Puckett enjoys his down time with his wife Lorrie outside Tampa in a community near Clearwater Beach. “I have truly been blessed over my life. I am in good health, have a great family, great friends, and I’ve enjoyed a great career. God has truly blessed me. I spend my days running or walking on the beach. I work out in the gym. I’m in pretty good shape. You have to consider I carried a guitar around for the past 50 years.”
Puckett does have a few milestones over his storied career. “It’s as though we became an overnight success. I remember we spent six weeks opening for The Beach Boys. I got to hang out with the band and we even flew on their plane. That was cool.” He recalls a few times when other bands opened for them. “Believe or not but CCR (Credence Clearwater Revival) and Chicago opened for us back then. Of course both bands would go on to have much bigger success.”
Gary Puckett along with some of the groups that shaped the 1960’s & 70’s will bring the Happy Together Tour to the historic Charleston Music Hall on Friday May 31st. “I hope I find time to get to see Charleston. It’s a beautiful city. I love history and I know Charleston has so much to offer.” As far as the show. “We kick off the tour that same week, so we should have it down. The good thing about it is the same band backs up all the artists. So it’s not long between sets, maybe a minute or two. Anyone coming out to see this show will be thoroughly entertained.”
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