The real story behind H.P. Lovecraft …

December 19, 2015

The real story behind H.P. Lovecraft …

With the release of H.P. Lovecraft Live at the Fillmore coming out on audiophile vinyl this fall (Sundazed Records), I thought it would be a good time to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked over the years, and correct some misconceptions concerning the group. The following is the true story of H.P. Lovecraft.
The Beginning…H.P. Lovecraft (named after the author…more later) began in 1966. I had been on the road playing folk and blues venues for a number of years, had just gotten married, was newly settled in Chicago, and  pursuing a career as a singer and musician. Wanting to stay in town and looking for work, I auditioned for a locally known Chicago singer who was putting together a instrumental/vocal trio to play hotels and supper clubs. David Michaels (Miotke) and I met at the audition, were hired, and started rehearsing for what would become “The Will Mercier Trio”. We really enjoyed working together and became good friends. He was attending Northwestern University studying music composition and theory, had perfect pitch, a vast classical background, and a four octave vocal range! I loved singing with him. David wasn’t familiar with the music I was doing, or much in the way of Folk, Blues, R&B, Soul, Rock, or contemporary music at all. But that was part of why it was so cool. He was original, he was pure, a blank canvas with enormous talent! If he heard a tune once he could play it! In addition to all this, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of old standards, show tunes, light jazz, and baseball! As much as we enjoyed working together, there was considerable tension with Will. He was older, kind of rigid, had tons of rules, and was a lot more serious than David and I. We stuck it out for a couple of years because the money was good, but the handwriting was on the wall.  
Though I was playing with the trio,I hadn’t stopped recording as a solo artist. I had begun writing songs a few years before, and was working with a management/production team to develop material for a solo LP. I had signed with a Chicago label (Dunwich), and had just released my first single. The record was starting to get airplay, and I was asked to record more sides. Bill Traut, one of the producers, suggested doing some covers, so we chose a few. Among them was “Any way that you want me” by Chip Taylor. After listening to the completed track, it was clear that something was missing, and that David singing harmony was it… a no brainer. By this time David and I had gotten very tight vocally and were operating on a different level than either of us had previously experienced. It’s hard to describe, but I think we both recognized that something was happening. His vocal harmony part was the perfect thing, everybody loved it… the first H.P.Lovecraft record was in the can.
The Name…I’ve read a few tales concerning how the name was arrived at. Here’s what happened. George Badonsky (my manager, later the band’s as well) had a Yorkie terrier named Yuggoth. I thought it was a wild name and asked where it came from. George introduced me to the author H.P.Lovecraft and loaned me his copy of “At the mountains of madness”. Oh Boy! Then to top it off, Bill Traut (George’s partner) was a friend of August Derluth who happened to be the executor of the Lovecraft estate. Unbelievable! Talk about timing. That’s how we came up with, and got permission to use the name H.P. Lovecraft. Bill also had a complete set of Lovecraft’s books. I read everything!
The Band…Well, we had a name, we had a record, we were negotiating a multi record deal with Phillips Records, but we lacked one thing…A Band! 
I had never played an electric guitar. David had never played an electronic Keyboard, but we loved to sing, I was writing, and we were working on songs. I borrowed an electric guitar, and David dipped into savings and bought a dual keyboard Vox Continental organ and an amp for each of us. After losing our home to a fire the year before, my wife and I had moved to a small apartment in the Chicago suburbs. This became our home and music studio. David and I set up in the living room and began jamming. We worked on songs from my folk repertoire, songs from other writers, and began exploring musical ideas that later would become H.P.Lovecraft songs. The first of these was “At The Mountains Of Madness” I had just read the book, which inspired the lyric, and David and I created a very Lovecraftian musical theme…our first real Lovecraft tune! Meanwhile we were searching for musicians. This proved challenging because most of my musical friends were acoustic musicians, and David’s were from the classical world. With help from management we began auditioning players.
Tony Cavallari was one of the first people we encountered. He was young, a little edgy, played the blues, and had a free spirit. I liked him right away. The problem was, he lived in Indiana, 50 miles away, and didn’t have a car! Tony soon became a regular on our couch, staying at our place for days at a time. David and I were still working with the Mercier Trio, Jamming with Tony during the day, and gigging at night. We were coming together musically, but  my home life was suffering. Things had to change. I convinced our management to rent us a rehearsal space in Chicago. They found a place on an upper floor of an office building right downtown in the heart of the city. Because the building was in use during the day, we could only rehearse there at night from 10pm on. This was fine when it was just Tony, David, and myself, but as soon as we added bass, drums, and a Sound System for vocals, things got a little dicey. Police visits became regular events. The first one came as quite a surprise. On this particular evening we had just smoked… and though we had opened the windows (we were on the eighth floor), I’m sure the room reeked of cannabis. Suddenly the door opened and two uniformed police entered.The police were very courteous and professional. They told us there had been a noise complaint (it was 2am) and could we please close the windows. Then they left… Hallelujah!
Shortly after we moved into the city we met Michael Tegza. He was 16. A sharp dresser with an outgoing personality, and an off the wall drummer! He was solid right from the start. Our first bass player (there were 3) was Tom Skidmore. Tom was a nice, well rounded all american guy who really wanted to be in a band. He loaned Tony his Gibson ES-330 guitar which Tony immediately fell in love with. This got Tom a few extra weeks with the group. Tony used this guitar for the feedback effects on the recording of “The White Ship” and claimed that its pickups were responsible for the other worldly sound he achieved.
David and I left our trio gig and began focusing on Lovecraft exclusively. By this time we had a strong set of performance material and I had just written “The White Ship”. The song came to me in one sitting on a bench in the hall outside our rehearsal space. It was written on an acoustic 12 string guitar in about fifteen minutes. When we got back to the rehearsal and began playing it, everything just fell together, it came to life. Tony’s Guitar, Michael’s drumming and especially David’s Organ, harmony vocal, and Harpsichord solo created the unique ambience of the piece. H.P. Lovecraft had arrived… We had a sound! We were starting to play some local gigs, and needed a stronger bass player who could keep up with Michael and possibly sing with David and me. Jerry McGeorge was suggested. Jerry played rhythm guitar with “The Shadows of Knight”, a Chicago group with whom we shared management. He was leaving the group, and we invited him to join Lovecraft as our new bass player. Things jelled quickly with Jerry, and we went into the studio to record the first LP.
The First Album…The first record “H.P. Lovecraft” was recorded at Universal Recording in Chicago in a little over a week. The band was well rehearsed, and we were ready. Recording was very different in those days. Sessions were booked in three hour blocks of time, and you were expected to do a song from start to finish in that period. Unlike most of the bands in the midwest then, we weren’t imitating other artists, we were original, recording original material, with an original and experimental sound! Because of this, and our desire to actually use the studio as an instrument, we required a certain amount of experimentation time.This drove our producers, and to a lesser extent our engineer crazy! They’d never seen anything like it. We booked our sessions six hours at a time instead of the usual three, sometimes more! We were spending precious time (Money) exploring what we could do in this new environment, and loving it! Jerry and I were the only band members with studio experience but the other guys soon jumped right in. Everything was  going well until it came time to record “That’s How Much I Love You Baby (More or Less)”. This song evolved from a chord progression that I had been toying with for years. One day Tony uttered the phrase (speaking of a girlfriend) “That’s how much I love you baby more or less”, and I latched on to it like a dog on a bone. The rest of the lyric came pouring out, and we had a tune. It was new, jazzy, swingin’, and in 3/4 time. Whoops! Michael and Jerry (our rhythm section) were rockers, and try as they might, just couldn’t grab the jazzy swinging feel of the song. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to record it, we ( the producers and myself) decided to bring in some musicians who were more familiar with Jazz to play the bass and drums. This pivotal moment represents the first ripples of discontent and fractioning within the group. After that it was never the same. We went ahead  and recorded the piece with the studio musicians, and it was everything we’d hoped for, but because of the bad feelings created, decided to use a lesser take with Michael and Jerry playing drums and bass on the recording. I still really like the song. I’ve been asked about the ships bell on “The White Ship” and the cowbell on “Wayfaring Stranger” many times over the years. Here’s the story. The first album was a four track recording. This means that as you go along, things must be permanently combined to make room for new sounds. Once this is done there’s no going back, it’s forever! Both bells were added to our recording by Bill Traut using this process. His intentions were good, but in my opinion they’re both too loud. While on this subject, I’d also like to say that the horns on the album were a later addition as well… Also done by Bill Traut, and arranged by jazz pianist Eddie Higgins. They added these things without our knowledge. I was upset by this at the time, but have since come to realize how important and meaningful these additions were to the sound and success of the record. One more thing to know about the LP is that “At The Mountains Of Madness” was written for, recorded, and intended to be on the first record. (It was later released on H.P. Lovecraft II) It was omitted in favor of “The Time Machine”to my everlasting embarrassment. I wrote “The Time Machine” as a send up of a popular novelty tune of the day “Winchester Cathedral”. It was a joke, a total goof, complete with megaphone vocal and a big yteh-thir! It was never intended for the public, but there it is.
The Road…Almost as soon as our first LP was released, it was clear that we were a bit out of sync with what was happening musically in the mid west. Local radio just didn’t know what to do with us. Though we were gaining popularity and people were requesting our record, our best known tune “The White Ship” was six and a half minutes long! In those days if you wanted a song played on the radio it had to be three and a half minutes or less. We needed to branch out. As fate would have it, Bill Graham heard our record and arranged for us to come west, play the Fillmore Auditorium, and do a west coast tour. As soon as we arrived in San Francisco we knew we were in the right place. Our record (the whole LP) was in constant rotation on local radio, people stopped us on the street, and were lined up outside the venues we played. We had no idea! The shows were fantastic! Unlike the mid west, the people in California cared about the sound, they cared about the lights, they cared about the music!! We were in Heaven. Some of us were getting high…it seemed like almost everybody was getting high! It was the 60’s and we were feelin’ it! After that first California trip things really changed. We were on the road constantly, coast to coast and back again for eleven months! We traveled in two leased vans, driving around the clock, seven people plus our gear. Needless to say, this took a toll. We played some great gigs, and heard and jammed with  some amazing musicians, but the group was falling apart. The label was demanding a record, we’d been on the road constantly for eleven months, and I hadn’t been writing. The other elephant in the room was that I wanted to move to California! We still lived in Chicago, our management was there, plus George and Bill were dissolving their partnership, and we had to choose one or the other to manage us. Great timing! David and I were also drifting apart. On top of that, one band member was whispering in Davids ear to jump ship and start his own band, not realizing that what people were interested in was how we sang together. We were a team, that’s where the energy was, and why we were successful. David was a huge talent, and could have easily had a solo career, but he didn’t write songs, and outside the band, had no real relationship to, or interest in contemporary music. Never the less, it was a distraction. During this very chaotic time we also fired Tony Cavallari who seemed to have lost interest in the band and really wasn’t playing well. This was a mistake and I take responsibility for it. We replaced him temporally with Chicago blues guitarist Joe Kelly, but after the first gig it was clear that Tony was our guy, and that letting him go was a  bad decision. I apologized, and Tony returned to the fold. Somehow I managed to convince the band that our future was in California. A lot was up in the air, and it felt like a good time to relocate.
After the move, we settled in to begin work on the new record. The energy within the group wasn’t good. In hindsight, I think there was some resentment and repressed stuff with a couple of the guys, which was affecting the group vibe, and more importantly, the music. Enter Jeffrey Boyan (our third and last bass player). Except for early on, I never felt that Jerry was comfortable or happy with the band. When he joined, his playing really helped us come together, and he was great onstage. So what was the problem? At this point in the band’s history, we needed to up our game. To find another strong singer (which Jerry wasn’t), and a good bass player. Preferably someone that could also write. I had known Jeffrey since the folk days. We had jammed together many times.  He was a great singer with a good ear for harmony, wrote good tunes, had good stage presence, and played guitar and bass, just what was needed. On a personal level I should also say that I never felt supported or liked by Jerry, and when I heard that Jeffrey was interested in joining the group, I was very enthusiastic, as were the rest of the guys. We had a record to make, and Jeffrey was like a breath of fresh air.  
The Second Album…We were under the gun. The label was threatening. Our manager had booked studio time in L.A., we had a new bass player, and very little in the way of material. I had started work on a few song ideas before leaving home, and was excited to hear what Jeffrey was bringing in. I had high hopes. I wasn’t disappointed.  We were  recording at a studio in L.A. owned by the Beach Boys (ID Sound). The engineer (Chris Huston) proved to be exactly the right person to record the group. He saved the day! Chris was a total wild man, often with a beautiful woman on his lap while he recorded. He was also a genius. Chris had been experimenting with backward tape, multiple delays, and numerous other studio effects years before they were in common use. He was way ahead of the curve, and brought his knowledge to bear on Lovecraft II. “Electrollentando”, “Mobius Trip”, and “It’s About Time” are examples of what I’m talking about. Those tunes couldn’t have existed without Chris’s magic. Jeffrey brought in “Blue Jack of Diamonds”, and sang the Billy Ed Wheeler classic “High Flyin’ Bird”. He was a perfect fit. Since the first record we’d been looking without success for a song that featured David.  David was also starting to write songs, and wanted them to be considered for the record. This created some tension because Jeffrey had just joined the group and we’d already recorded one of his original tunes, and featured him on another. Plus, I’d brought in two songs from my friend Terry Callier “It’s About Time”, and “Spin,Spin,Spin”. David wasn’t happy. We finally found “Keeper of the Keys” by Shipley and Brewer, and recorded that as David’s solo piece. The label must have liked it, because they released it as the single! Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys liked the group. One night he came by the studio with a friend. We were in the midst of something, so nobody was paying much attention. Later when we were listening to what we’d recorded that evening, I noticed Dennis and his friend sitting in the back of the room. A few weeks later, I saw a photo of Dennis’ friend in the newspaper. It was Charles Manson! 
We were about to leave on a short tour, but the record wasn’t finished, and the natives at the label were getting restless. We decided to take the tapes with us and work on them in Chicago and New York. We played a couple of mid west concerts, then had a week off in Chicago before heading to New York. We were in Chicago working on the record when I ran into my old friend Ken Nordine in the studio lounge. Timing truly is everything! He agreed to come in and riff on tape, which he did brilliantly! Ken is a true genius, a legend with a golden voice. This was cutting edge stuff at the time. A Jazz poet with a rock band? Almost unheard of in 1967. New York was great. We had two fantastic nights at Fillmore East. It was the best the band ever sounded. Jeffrey’s vocal blend with David and me was strong, he and Michael were killing it on bass and drums, and David and I were on fire!  We were feeling good. We were mixing the record at The Record Plant, and were excited to be working in a state of the art studio with Chris Huston and Eddie Kramer doing the mix. As we neared the end of mixing though, I repeatedly felt that I was listening to a work in progress, not a finished recording. I still feel that way today. H.P. Lovecraft II has some incredible and innovative moments, but if the label hadn’t been pushing so hard for product, it would have been a very different, and more exciting record.  All I can say is, I wish we’d had more time.
The Last Gasp…We were living in California, more or less out of touch with our management in Chicago, and not getting along. Bill Graham was expressing interest in managing the group, but we were still under contract. I had been loyal to George Badonsky (our original manager), but was beginning to see that things weren’t working and couldn’t continue much longer with the current set up. We were gaining in popularity, playing larger venues, and our business was more and more centered on the west coast. With all the touring, and the addition of Jeffrey, we had become a very good live band, but off stage was another matter. The younger guys were partying hard most of the time, and David wasn’t in a good place. I think he felt unappreciated because we hadn’t recorded one of his devotional songs. This weighed on him, as well as the fact that everybody else in the group got high. David was living in the band house with the younger guys, and I’m sure was feeling a bit like a fish out of water. At this point I was spending more time with my friends than with the guys in the band. They had a large house with a pool that soon became party central. I was living quietly in Mill Valley with my wife, spending time with friends, writing, smoking weed, and tripping in the woods. I should have been paying more attention. We were in the middle of booking a summer tour that included a concert in Hawaii with Jimi Hendrix, and an appearance at The Woodstock Festival, when I got the call. It was Bill (Wlillem) Kenect our crew chief in a panic. Apparently David had been dosed with something (to this day, I don’t know with what), had experienced a complete meltdown, and demanded to be driven immediately to the airport where he boarded a plane and returned to Chicago. Once there, he moved in with his parents and refused all contact with anyone connected with the band for over a year! David eventually returned to Northwestern University where he obtained a masters degree in music. This is the first time the real story of H.P. Lovecraft has been told. There have been a number of accounts in print about the demise of the group, but this is the first time the actual unvarnished and unspun truth has been revealed. I’m now 72 years old and have read a fair amount over the years concerning our history. I’ve been amazed (that there’s still interest, thank you) and amused, and yes, sometimes hurt by things people have said. Some true, some not. In past interviews I’ve avoided certain subjects out of respect for peoples privacy, and not wanting to rock the boat by challenging some of their stories, but I’m now at a place in life where I want the full story without the spin to be known. This is it.
Aftermath…I was devastated! I knew there were problems, but had no idea things had gotten so bad. I knew it was over when David refused all our attempts to make contact with him. Replace him and move on? Ridiculous! Nobody could replace David! Eventually I took a job as a booking agent. I was burned out from the road and all that had happened, and needed a rest from being a band leader. 
We had been back in Chicago almost a year when I got a call from Bill Graham. He had a plan. He invited me to come to San Francisco for the weekend. As it turned out, Bill was starting a management company and wanted Lovercraft to be his first client! Woah! He advised me to get a lawyer and start looking for musicians, and that he’d advance any necessary monies to get things started! I told him the same thing I’d been saying all along…simply that H.P.Lovecraft was David and Me! Bill agreed with this assment, and not only that, he called David and David took the call! I wasn’t present for the conversation, but the next thing I knew, David was back and we were putting a band together! I approached Bill Traut (our former manager) who was also a music business attorney, to handle contracts and negotiations, and we went looking for a record deal. A short time later Bill and I flew to L.A. and I  signed a whopper of a deal with Warner Reprise. The contract allowed enough money to hire just about any musician available…it was to be a “super group” built around me and David! We had total label support, Bill Graham as a manager, and access to the best musicians money could buy! What  could be better? I was in charge of putting the band together while David continued working on his masters degree. We started with Michael Tegza (our original drummer), and built the band from there. It sounds perfect right? Not quite. Flash forward to departure day. We’re on our way to California and our new digs, (a beautiful spanish mansion with pool on 160 forested acres, complete with a large wood paneled room with a fireplace to rehearse the band). I’d come a couple of days ahead to insure that everything was in place. Time to go to work. Everyone arrived right on time. Everyone but David! I mentioned earlier that I’d signed the record deal. This is relevant because as band leader, I was contractually responsible to deliver the agreed upon personnel…David! We tried everything to change his mind, including a substantial cash bonus, but nothing could persuade him. Years later he released a CD of devotional music (In Dust I Sing) dedicated to his Guru Meher Babba. He never performed with a contemporary rock group again.
I attempted to salvage what was left of the group, but without David it wasn’t the same. Other people were brought in, there was a lot of money on the table, and the infighting began. Ego and power became the thing, People were buying new cars, packin’ their noses, and livin’ the life. Somewhere along the way the music got lost, and I left the group. They made a record for Reprise “Lovecraft in the Valley of the Moon” that bore no resemblance to the music of the original band, and that was that. The label lost interest, the record didn’t sell, and the band broke up. That’s the story.
Almost fifty years have passed since H.P.Lovecraft took the stage. The band only existed for three years, but what a time it was! 
Addendum…A few attempts were made to capitalize on the name and success of H.P. Lovecraft. The name was used, a couple of records were released, but other than that, nothing was similar…it was just business.
Ethan Kenning
Live 1968 album out on Sundazed.
You can also check our interview with Mr. Kenning.
Article made by Ethan Kenning/2015
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2015
One Comment
  1. Amy Godiva

    Great story! Sad that the third album could have been their breakthrough if they could have stuck together.

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