This is the unlikely story of the song Just A Star that I co-wrote with Larry Smith in 1971 and how a song took three decades to finally find an audience. That song eventually brought me here today.
El Cajon, California 1971 – These were turbulent times in America; Richard Nixon was President of a country that was in the midst of changing social ideas. Americans were speaking up for change in a number of areas especially about their displeasure with Nixon's policies on an unpopular war in Southeast Asia.
With the ratification of the 26th Amendment that gave 18- year olds the right to vote, the Woodstock Generation had come of age and was making their collective voice heard regarding women’s rights, civil rights, the environment and their opposition to the Viet Nam War. Greenpeace was founded, the Supreme Court declared sex discrimination a violation of the 14th Amendment, school integration was making progress in cities across the country and thousands of people in the anti- war movement were participating in massive protests in Washington DC. It was also a time when the gay (long before the abbreviation LGBTQ) community was beginning to make progress for their rights in America as well. The old guard was being challenged and pushed left by these young idealists which made for anxious times.
Culturally, while most AM radio at the time played lighthearted pop. Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" was the #1 song that year, there were still many songs on the FM airwaves that reflected the changing mood and views of the day. Marvin Gaye's critically acclaimed LP; "What's Going On" and Melanie's anti-war anthem "Lay Down" are just two good examples.
It was within this backdrop that two young musicians still ineligible to vote for two and three years respectively collaborated in writing a song that reflected their angst and unanswered questions about what was happening in the world around them.
The Band - Rich Norkunas and Larry Smith played together in the rock band Smiles, playing dances and parties around the East County area of San Diego. Smiles was a popular band that focused on playing covers of the more obscure tunes from bands like The Allman Brothers, Traffic, Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown, Neil Young and others. At the same time, they were also individually beginning to stretch out creatively by crafting their own songs as well.
Like most bands there were personnel changes over the group's lifespan, but the nucleus of Smiles was always Tom Jackson on bass, Jeff Mattazaro on drums, Rich Norkunas on vocals and Larry Smith on guitar. Carol Tucker performed with the group for a time and it's her vocals that are heard on the band's only professionally produced recording. The next incarnation of Smiles added Pete Craig on Hammond B3 and Pete's buddy Jon Ohlson on guitar. When Pete and Jon left for other projects, Steve Hallmark brought his talents to the band on keyboards. Smiles played in the area for several years and eventually disbanded as the members left for college and careers.
The Record - Decades before GoFundMe or Kickstarter, the band's recording project was financed by Larry and Rich promising to deliver the not yet recorded disc to friends, schoolmates, family and anyone else they could think of in exchange for an upfront payment of $10.00. It was tough selling and the questions from skeptical buyers were many; who was this band, how many records have you sold already, what are the songs, will I get my money back if you don't meet your goal? Not everyone that was asked decided to participate.
Eventually boyish charm and youthful persistence paid off for the two songwriting entrepreneurs and they managed to finance the funding they needed for their project. Each financial donor was presented with a paper receipt and a personal promise that their purchased copy of the 45rpm record would be delivered to them as soon as they were available.
The Recording - The experience inside the studio was well worth the price of admission for the band. It was beautifully lit and the coolness inside was a welcoming contrast to the hot Southern California heat outside its thick doors. The control room with its 2" tape machines, monitors, meters and console looked otherworldly to the wide-eyed teens - it was a big jump from the rehearsal space at Jeff's house. The main recording room was an inviting environment where each player donning headphones occupied their own cubical and were linked together through the latest technology of the day. Once the initial nerves were curbed the experience was a fun ride indeed.
Kudos to Ron Compton, the engineer who sat behind the board at Fanfare Recording Studios in El Cajon that day. He could have taken one look at this young group and simply gone through the motions and moved on to his next session. But instead he used his talent to turn out a recording that holds up decades later and totally captures the musical essence of the time. He went out of his way to welcome them as musicians, young and inexperienced as they were into this new environment and made sure the they all received top shelf treatment while they were there.
After the tracks had been recorded and mixed Ron took the time to play the songs back to the band through a two-inch speaker in the control room so everyone "can hear what the record will sound like on the radio." It was a gracious and generous touch by Ron and I'm sure that he wouldn't have believed at the time that one of those songs would actually hit the airwaves, but it would be 5,000 miles away on BBC1 and would take 32 years to happen.
Jeff Allan - It's still unclear as to how much help this whole project received from Jeff's dad, Louis, but it was certainly substantial.
In his youth Louis Mattazaro, aka; Jeff Allen was a singer on the Verve label in Los Angeles. His version of "That'll be the Day" (backed by Jazz great Barney Kessel and his Orchestra) predated Buddy Holly's recording of the same tune by a month. But that is another story. It was during Louis' time at Verve that he became good friends with Stan Ross and Dave Gold of the legendary Gold Star Recording Studio. That friendship was instrumental in getting the Smiles record pressed and completed. Without the sweetheart deal from Stan and Dave and without Louis' quiet financial assistance the record probably would never had been made.
The Record Label - Smiles was a long, long way off from ever having an actual record contract but they needed a label name to put on their new disc. They decided to do a takeoff of the Verve label that Louis recorded on back in the day and came up with "Bird Records." So Bird Records was born and Smile's created its first and only release.
Louis owned a company called Speedy Fountain Service at the time. And because it was his guidance that helped the band traverse its way through the record making process, Speedy Music Corp was the logical name to fill in as the non- existent corporate machine behind the band.
The catalog number was Jeff Allen's initials and the recording date JA-82371-B (Jeff Allen – the data – the B side). The A side of the record was Larry's tune, Dedicated to Mama.