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Blurred lines: When a legendary band has just 1 or 2 original members, is it legit or a tribute act?

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: July 18, 2022, 6:05am
4 Photos
Carlos Santana has been leading Santana since the 1960s and is its only original member still in the band.
Carlos Santana has been leading Santana since the 1960s and is its only original member still in the band. (Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA Press Wire/TNS) Photo Gallery

SAN DIEGO — When is a band not a band?

No, that’s not a Zen Buddhist koan designed to perplex music fans and philosophers alike.

But it is a question that perhaps can best be answered — at least in part — by posing two other questions.

What is the difference between a legendary band and a tribute band that is devoted to reverently performing the music of that legendary band?

And what do The Beach Boys and Motown music mainstays The Four Tops and The Temptations have in common with Steely Dan and pioneering German electronic group Kraftwerk?

Each of them has sold millions of records, has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and has performed in San Diego recently or soon will. (The Four Tops and Temptations will be at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay on July 17, while The Beach Boys perform Aug. 6 at The Shell with the San Diego Symphony.)

Each of these bands was launched 50 or more years ago (Kraftwerk, Steely Dan), or 60 or more years ago (The Beach Boys, Temptations and Four Tops).

And each has just one original member on board, be it Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (who is 74), Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter (75), The Temptations’ Otis Williams (80), The Beach Boys’ Mike Love (81) or the Four Tops’ Duke Fakir (88).

Depending on your perspective, this could be a cause for applause.

Each of these pioneering bands is led by a tireless original member. Each is devoted to honoring rich musical legacies that have endured for half a century or more.

They are the keepers of the flame. This holds especially true for The Four Tops’ Fakir and The Temptations’ Williams, who have outlived all the other original members of their respective bands.

Crucially, all of them — like many other bands of a similar vintage — continue to draw sizable audiences, year after year, decade after decade, long after their commercial heydays as recording artists who scored hit singles and albums.

Many of their listeners are graying fans eager to experience, live in concert, the music that has been such an integral part of their lives for so long. Why wouldn’t these artists be happy to provide that experience, or as close an approximation to it as they can? And why wouldn’t their audiences — which often include some of the adult children or grandchildren of the band’s first generation of fans — welcome the opportunity?

Standing the test of time

That so many bands have endured longer — in one form or another — than many of their now-deceased founding members is undeniable.

Songs that have stood the test of time still resonate for a significant number of fans, no matter who is singing or playing them. Often, the name alone of a veteran band is what draws ticket-buyers, not how many original members are on stage.

For some listeners, however, this may be a cause for dismay.

Because, ultimately, each of these bands is just one member away from becoming a certified tribute act. And they are hardly alone.

The list of other bands that rose to fame in the 1960s or ‘70s — and now only have one original member left — is formidable indeed.

It includes at least seven additional Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees — AC/DC, Deep Purple, Eagles, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Journey, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Santana, whose current tour has had six concerts postponed after its namesake guitarist, Carlos Santana, 74, collapsed on stage from dehydration and heat exhaustion during a July 5 concert near Detroit.

The list also includes such veteran acts as Boston, Foreigner, Little Feat (who perform at Humphreys on Aug. 14), The 5th Dimension, King Crimson, War, Marshall Tucker Band, Wishbone Ash, The Yardbirds, REO Speedwagon, Thin Lizzy, The Hollies, the recently reactivated Jethro Tull, and dozens more.

Especially notable is the blues-rocking band Savoy Brown, which has had 48 different lineups since its inception in England in 1965. Guitarist-singer Kim Simmonds, a longtime American resident, is the only member to play in each iteration.

“I kept going,” Simmonds said in a 2015 Union-Tribune interview promoting his band’s 50th anniversary tour that year.

“I don’t think I ever thought: ‘I have a brand that’s pretty important.’ It just fell to me (because) I started the band. And if you start something, you end up with it, I guess. Subconsciously, I realized this was the right thing to do, and I’m glad I did. That’s the hardest thing to do — to continue, with a marriage or a band.”

Not to be outdone, Foghat — the band launched in 1972 by three former Savoy Brown members — has gone through 10 lineups. Two of its four co-founders are dead and drummer Roger Earl has been the sole original member since 2005. The latest edition of Foghat performs in San Diego Sept. 4 at Sycuan Casino Resort.

‘Most concertgoers are pretty aware’

How much does it matter if a band just has one original member performing at its concerts? That depends who you ask.

“When I was younger, I might have taken umbrage,” said San Diego-bred guitar wiz and band leader Mike Keneally, 60. His many collaborators have included Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani and XTC mastermind Andy Partridge.

“At this point,” Keneally continued, “I think most concertgoers are pretty aware the veteran bands they are seeing aren’t the bands they grew up with — even though the name is the same — and they don’t care. It comes down to: ‘How well is the music being played?’ If the audience doesn’t feel ripped off and feels they got their money’s worth, everyone should go home happy.”

Keneally’s sentiments are shared by Skid Row guitarist Dave “The Snake” Sabo, 57.

He and bassist Rachel Bolan are the two remaining original members in the five-man band, which formed in 1985, imploded in 1996, and regrouped in 1999. Skid Row, which performs July 24 at Pechanga Resort Casino, has thus far had six different lead singers and a similar number of drummers.

“The only reason we’re able to keep doing it after 37 years,” Sabo said, “is because people still come and want to see us play. Why? Because we have touched them emotionally on some level.

“Skid Row is legitimate because Rachel and I started the band, we wrote most of the songs and we own the name. If there are a couple of guys in the band that weren’t in the original lineup, that’s the way life goes. Divorces occur, but the family still moves on. I applaud anybody who can go out and continue to make a living making their music.”

Veteran San Diego singer-songwriters Happy Ron Hill, 57, and Cliff Keller, 67, see it differently.

“I only enjoy seeing one (original) band member in a band,” Hill said, “if their name is Paul or Ringo.”

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“Unless the original singer and/or songwriter is there,” Keller said, “it seems like a cover band.”

For lifelong San Diego music fan Dick Botte, the number of original members in a band is paramount.

“It matters to me,” said Botte, an account executive at One Ring Networks.

“It does depend on the band, of course. The Stones can get away with just Mick and Keith as original members. But otherwise, just Mick coming out? Nope. That would be like Paul McCartney coming out as The Beatles. On a lesser level, Foreigner only has (guitarist) Mick Jones as the original member. Without (original lead singer) Lou Gramm, they’re not Foreigner.”

So, where should the line be drawn in determining a band’s legitimacy?

“If they aren’t at least, say, 70% original, I’d think of them as a tribute band,” said San Diego music fan Jean Walcher, a communications specialist. “I would still probably go to a concert and enjoy it but would expect a smaller venue and much smaller (ticket) price.”

Either way, one co-founder on stage is better than none, as evidenced by the array of veteran bands whose lineups do not include a single original member.

Their ranks include such Rock & Roll Hall of Famers as The Coasters, The Drifters and The Platters, virtually all of whose original members are deceased. The list of varied acts whose lineups no loner include any original members ranges from Blood, Sweat & Tears, Yes and Canned Heat to Jefferson Starship, Humble Pie and the San Diego-bred Iron Butterfly.

But the absence of any original members in Blood, Sweat & Tears does not concern Bobby Colomby, the jazz-rock group’s excellent first drummer and now its manager.

In the concert programs given to audience members at Blood, Sweat & Tears’ August 2021 concert at Sycuan Casino & Resort, Colomby wrote that the band’s current edition is superior to the original lineup, “man for man, pound for pound.”

He also likened Blood, Sweat & Tears to a storied Major League Baseball team, writing: “When you’re at a Yankee game you do not expect to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. They’re not going to be there. But what you will see is a top-notch brand, the pinstripes, and the best possible combination of players on the field to represent the Yankee legend.”

Perhaps, depending on the year and the team’s roster.

But even Colomby would be hard pressed to name the approximately 170 musicians — including former San Diego guitarist Jeff Richman — who have been in and out of Blood, Sweat & Tears since the band’s original lineup fractured in 1968.

That was only a year after Blood, Sweat & Tears was launched by its creative mastermind, Al Kooper, who was booted out after just one album. The band’s lead singer from 2013 to 2018 was “American Idol” runner-up Bo Bice, who was born in 1975. One of the songs he performed on “Idol” was Blood, Sweat & Tears’ 1968 hit, “Spinning Wheel.” It didn’t win “Idol” for him, but it may have helped him land the gig with the band.

Then there’s Little River Band, which was formed in Australia in 1975. Its most veteran members now are former San Diego bassist-singer Wayne Nelson, who joined in 1980 and keyboardist-singer Chris Marion, who joined in 2002.

Little River Band’s newest member, guitarist-singer Bruce Wallace, came on board this year. None of the current members are Australian and Nelson owns the rights to the band’s name.

There’s a slightly different scenario for War, the Long Beach band that has been nominated three times for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and scored such enduring hits as “Cisco Kid” and “Low Rider.”

The band’s name is owned by record producer Jerry Goldstein. Its co-founder, San Diego native Lonnie Johnson, has toured with a group of hired hands since 1996. Three other original members of War are legally prohibited from using the band’s name. For the past 26 years, they have appeared as The Lowrider Band.

The Johnson-led War will perform in San Diego Aug. 27 at The Shell. The concert is a triple-bill with George Benson and R&B favorites The Commodores, a 54-year-old band whose sole original member is multi-instrumentalist William King.

In and out

The reality of bands performing and touring with few or no original members is not a new phenomenon and it is not unique to rock or R&B music.

It started during the big-band era in jazz and dates back to at least 1946. That was when “the Glenn Miller Orchestra, under the direction of Tex Benecke,” debuted — two years after Miller perished during World War II while flying from England to France.

Other big bands have continued for years or decades after the death of their leaders, including what is now billed “The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra.” The 18-piece ensemble features two members, trombonist Clarence Banks and singer Carmen Bradford, whose tenure in the group predated Basie’s 1994 death.

There are, of course, multiple reasons why veteran bands in any genre do not include all their original members.

Some quit. Some get fired. Some leave to start their own bands, sometimes fueled by intense personal or creative differences, or financial issues.

On a more sobering note, death has claimed a sizable number of baby-boomer musicians — and their fans. That leaves the surviving members, or member, the options of calling it a day or continuing with replacement members.

Witness The Temptations’ Otis Williams. He has been that fabled Motown vocal group’s only original member since 1994, when Melvin Franklin left. Franklin died a year later.

In a 2007 Union-Tribune interview, Williams said: “I had no indication I would still be here now, 46 years later, carrying on the legacy of The Temptations.”

Today, an additional 15 years later, Williams is still carrying on that legacy with an iteration of The Temptations whose latest additions, Tony Grant and Jawan M. Jackson, joined last year and this year, respectively. Jackson, 34, came on board after portraying Franklin in the Broadway jukebox musical, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.”

Pride keeps some veteran musicians going long after many of their concert-going fans have retired. So does ego and audience demand.

“It seems quite plausible to be a musician in your 70s or 80s now,” Jethro Tull co-founder Ian Anderson said in a 2019 Union-Tribune interview.

This year saw the release of the first new Jethro Tull album in 19 years, “The Zealot Gene.” Anderson has been the band’s sole original member since the 1970s.

“We can continue to be productive and die with our boots on,” Anderson continued, “which is a lot better than being spoon-fed in an old-folks home.”

Rock and roll, once a music of reckless abandon made for and by young people, counts senior citizens as perhaps its biggest demographic — on stage and off. The two biggest stadium tours of 2022 so far have been by Paul McCartney, 80, and the Rolling Stones, a band now celebrating its 60th anniversary.

The Stones have two original members, co-founders Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The death last August of the band’s 80-year-old drummer, Charlie Watts, did not prevent the Stones from launching their U.S. stadium tour a month later with New York native Steve Jordan, 65, holding down the drum seat.

Jordan is also drumming with the fabled band on its ongoing European tour, which is scheduled to conclude in August. Several dates last month were postponed after Jagger, who turns 80 on July 27, contracted COVID-19. Bassist Darryl Jones, 60, has toured with the Stones since 1993, but has never been made an official member.

Keeping track of current and former members of bands is even more challenging when the best-known lineups of those bands are not actually the original ones.

The band Yes went through three lineup changes and made three albums before becoming a commercial success. Since 1968, there have been at least 18 different lineups of Yes.

Keyboardist Rick Wakeman, the band’s second keyboardist, joined in 1971. He quit in 1973, then re-joined and quit five more times. He was in one of the two bands billed as Yes — each featuring at least one original member — that toured in 2018 to mark the band’s 50th anniversary.

Those rival tours both took place three years after the death of band co-founder Chris Squire. He had been the only original member to tour and record with every edition of Yes.

Both editions of Yes performed in the San Diego area two months apart in 2018. By doing so, they were carrying on a tradition, of a sort.

“I remember in the 1960s, in England, there were always two to three versions of The Drifters performing at the same time. So, this has happened before,” recalled original Yes singer Jon Anderson in a 2018 Union-Tribune interview.

“Somebody asked (me): ‘What do you think about (the other Yes)? And I said: ‘Well, it’s not my cup of tea!’ But they are all nice people and everybody has to do what they have to do.”

Did you know?

The growing phenomenon of bands with just one original member extends far beyond classic-rock acts formed in the 1960s and ‘70s. Some of the numerous more recent examples include Sublime, with Rome, The Shins, Opeth, Napalm Death, GWAR. Cattle Decapitation and the blink-182.