Classics IV - Spooky (1968)
Anyone who doesn't have a clear image of the Classics IV can be forgiven -- they went through so many shifts in personnel and sound (not to mention a name change after they'd started recording), they were little more than a name attached to some excellent (and very good-selling) records of the second half of the 1960s, without a personality or identity to grab onto easily.
Although they're considered a late-'60s phenomenon, owing to the chronology of their hits, the group can trace its roots back to R&B harmony (i.e., doo wop) music of the late '50s. Detroit-born, Florida-raised Dennis Yost, who joined on drums and moved into the singer's spot, came from a Jacksonville-area band called the Echoes; he was just old enough to remember '50s R&B when it was current and, among many other groups, loved the Five Satins; and in addition to playing the skins, he sometimes liked to sing when the calls came for a '50s number like "In the Still of the Night." After his own group broke up in the mid-'60s, Yost joined a band called Leroy & the Moments, which included Wally Eaton (bass, vocals), James Cobb (guitar), and Joe Wilson (keyboards). His arrival, along with the changing times, also signaled a change in the group's name -- as there was no "Leroy" anyway, that could go, and the Moments was already taken, so, taking their lead from Yost's Classic-model drum kit, they became the Classics.
Their sound was extremely diverse by all accounts -- they could cover most of the Top 40 note-perfect, which was ideal for audiences in Jacksonville but didn't necessarily give them much to work with as a recording act. Part of their act included a tribute to the Four Seasons, who were still burning up the charts in those days -- and, though they had a history that went back much further, were a lot like the Classics in that they could sing anything and were also a virtually self-contained unit instrumentally -- and when the group was signed to Capitol Records in 1966, they made their debut that fall with a Joe South song called "Pollyanna"; the single was virtually a faux-Four Seasons record in style and sound, and it was just different and fresh enough that it might have done well, except that the management of the actual Four Seasons reportedly took offense, and did their best to keep "Pollyanna"'s presence to a minimum on the New York airwaves; and to top it off, the group was threatened with legal action by a Brooklyn-based vocal outfit called the Classics, who'd already charted a single.
Thus, Florida's Classics became the Classics IV, and for all of that trouble, their debut record fizzled at number 103 on the charts. "Pollyanna" might have made a good debut in 1966, but releasing a remake of the Diamonds' 1950s hit "Little Darlin'" -- produced by Joe South -- in January of 1967 was plain bad timing for a good record that had no place to go (ironically, two years or so later, with the nostalgia craze starting to kick in, that might have been another story). The record was actually more important for its B-side, which had a faux-Righteous Brothers song called "Nothing to Lose," co-authored by guitarist James Cobb and Buddy Buie, who would soon take on a much bigger role; it was also sung by Cobb and Yost, subbing for Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield. By that time, the group had also relocated to Atlanta, and were unbowed in their quest for success, despite the end of the first recording deal.
Their Capitol contract was behind them by the spring of 1967, and the following summer the group moved on to Imperial Records. Once a home to New Orleans-based R&B stars like Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, Imperial had been absorbed into Liberty Records and was now a much more pop/rock-oriented operation, the imprint even being used for the early U.S. releases of records by the Hollies. It was at this point that things started going the group's way, when Buie and Cobb heard an instrumental entitled "Spooky," and came up with words for it, and a new arrangement by Cobb. The record, released in September of 1967, broke out in Louisville, KY, and began getting picked up by stations around the country, building slowly to a number three national hit that winter of 1967-1968. Suddenly there was a serious future in the offing for the Classics IV -- but not for Cobb as a member, nor for Yost as a drummer. The sudden infusion of royalty money on the shared copyright of "Spooky" eliminated the need for Cobb to remain as the group's guitarist; and suddenly Yost's position behind the kit on what was now a very heavy national touring schedule became untenable. Cobb kept writing and also sometimes doing the group's arrangements with Buie (who became the producer of the Classics IV), alternating with official arranger Emory Gordy; but he gave up playing on-stage with the band, preferring the less draining life of a session guitarist, and was replaced in the lineup by Auburn Burrell; and Yost stepped up to the microphone full-time while Kim Venable took over on the drums. They were no longer, strictly speaking, the "Classics IV" but that hardly mattered, as the band's lineup situation quickly got a lot more complicated.
As they were now a national-level act with an audience across a continent, it was decided by Buie and Imperial that there was no reason to limit themselves to the talents -- fine as they might've been -- of the actual members when it came to the sounds on their records. In place of the members, apart from group alumnus Cobb, the Classics IV's records soon began featuring some of Atlanta's top session musicians, among them drummer Robert Nix, while the touring membership included Dean Daughtry and Bill Gilmore on keyboards and bass, respectively, all late of Roy Orbison's band the Candymen. All of these personnel shifts, coupled with a bumper crop of Cobb/Buie songs, made for a strong debut album, entitled Spooky. The only problem, in retrospect, was that the sounds were too diverse -- it was hard to pin down an identity for the Classics IV, listening to the album, and given the diversity of personnel it's not surprising. Among top American groups, the Beach Boys also relied on session musicians after 1964, but they always made sure Carl Wilson's guitar was there, and their voices were easily recognizable. Apart from Yost's singing, there wasn't a lot of unity in the Classics IV's sound.
Their next couple of singles, "Soul Train" and "Mamas and Papas," didn't do more than a fraction of the business done by "Spooky," though the group was permitted to record a second LP, which failed to sell in any serious numbers, at least initially. One song off of the album, entitled "Stormy," was given a single release and suddenly the group was back in the Top Five in the fall of 1968, and for the first time also made the easy listening charts as well. They made a return visit, this time all the way to the number two spot, in the winter of 1969 with "Traces," another Cobb/Buie collaboration, this time with help from arranger Emory Gordy. The group's longevity seemed assured, but an interesting shift had taken place in their output across the preceding two years -- they'd gone from being a solid rock & roll cover band to delivering a much softer, more laid-back pop/rock sound with a Southern flavor but not a lot of wattage, and closer in spirit to, say, the work of Roy Orbison circa 1967-1968 than to what was considered rock music in 1969-1970. And their singles, although they still made the pop (i.e., rock) charts, were starting to place higher numbers on the easy listening (i.e., pop) charts, on records such as "Everyday With You Girl," which reached number 19 as a rock single and number 12 on the easy listening charts in 1969.
Amid this flurry of activity, the group's name was changed in the new decade, so that they were known officially as Dennis Yost & the Classics IV. Their chart action declined throughout 1971, however, amid the changing tastes of the public, and the reorganization of their record label -- which had merged with United Artists -- made the environment at Liberty inhospitable. Dennis Yost and the Classics IV shifted to MGM Records in 1972 and lasted through one album and a last pop hit, with "What Am I Crying For," along with a string of attempts through 1975. By that time, Cobb, Daughtry, and Buie had split off to form the Atlanta Rhythm Section. At that point Dennis Yost went solo, or tried to -- meanwhile, their ex-studio band emerged as the Atlanta Rhythm Section and, amid all of their other successes, enjoyed a new hit with "Spooky" in 1979, while Santana returned "Stormy" to the charts. Meanwhile, Yost became a fixture on the oldies circuit alongside his one-time Imperial labelmate Gary Lewis and other denizens of the mid-'60s singles charts, and also wrote songs and became a producer. He also secured the exclusive rights to the group name, and continued to perform into the early 21st century.
Clocking in at less than 26 minutes, Buddy Buie produced and arranged this set of 11 songs, four co-written by the producer and lead guitarist J.R. Cobb, the team that would eventually become mayor components of the Atlanta Rhythm Section. ARS would have a Top 20 hit with "Spooky" in 1979, but it was this version which launched Classics IV, a Top Three January hit, to start off 1968. Their name sounding like some kind of automobile, lead singer Dennis Yost would get his name added front and center on the marquee by the end of the year when the group hit again with the Top Five "Stormy," not on this album. What is here are covers of John Stewart's answer to Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer" -- a unique look at the Monkees' number one "Daydream Believer," renditions of "You Are My Sunshine," Wayne Carson Thompson's "The Letter" which Al Stoffel's stiff liner notes call "hard rock" (it isn't), a laid-back Zombies-esque take on the Hollies/Herman's Hermits' classic "Bus Stop" without Colin Blunstone's genius, and the original tunes which show some songwriting skill, but are hardly memorable. The Strawberry Alarm Clock-inspired "Book a Trip" emerges as the best of the original bunch, but pales next to "Spooky." Only four members of the quintet are shown in the back cover photo, and like Bobby Hebb's Sunny album, there's a woman on the front cover, not the artist. "...A raving James Brown and a mellow Johnny Mathis" is how Al Stoffel describes "a group sound that concentrates on the vocals more than instruments and centers on a lead singer who sounds like a different guy on every song." That's because unless Dennis Yost, who is not even credited on the album jacket or in the liners, is a true chameleon, it is a variety of singers. "You Are My Sunshine" and "The Letter" go for a Mitch Ryder sound, predicting the style future Atlanta Rhythm Section singer Ronnie Hammond would force upon us. Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb should've sued for this lame rendition of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," in fact, the vocal is so insincere the girl the singer is leaving would no doubt send a Thank You note by the time he did get to Phoenix. Dreadful. It does sound like Dennis Yost on Little Anthony's "Goin' Out of My Head," as the eerie, atmospheric backing vocals from "Spooky" find their way here and onto "Just Between You and Me" as well. "Mary, Mary Row Your Boat" is not the Monkees' "Mary, Mary"-meets-Every Mother's Son, but it does sport more decent backup vocals. Classics IV had the opportunity to be as hip as the Box Tops, but unfortunately, this album feels like a pastiche, and like the group, misses the mark. Classics IV would eventually be defined by their hit singles and Dennis Yost's middle of the road voice, four of their five chart songs happening in less than a year-and-a-half after "Spooky"'s debut.