Nearly 50 years ago, six young rock ‘n’ rollers made a record at the legendary Cleveland Recording Co.
This was the seventh iteration of the Choir, a rabble of Northeast Ohio musicians who’d hopped from one lively garage group to the next. An earlier lineup had scored a regional hit with 1966’s Beatles-esque “It’s Cold Outside.”
But in February 1969, the group laid down a jam-heavy collection of psychedelic rock, complete with wild riffs, a Hammond organ bought from Higbee’s, and the guidance of respected Outsiders producer Ken Hamann. With Warner Bros. and Mercury Records expressing interest, this album, they were sure, would break big.
But 50 years ago, no one ever heard it. After no labels bit, the record was shelved and largely forgotten. Today, things have changed.
Unearthed and restored for the first time since 1969, that LP is finally being released on Omnivore Recordings as Artifact: The Unreleased Album.
Hindsight has been kind to the Choir. In the years since the scrapped sessions, the group is now recognized as a pivotal intersection of some of the region’s best musicians, including the Raspberries’ Jim Bonfanti and James Gang founding member Phil Giallombardo.
On Nov. 3 and 4, all five members of the 1969 lineup, now scattered throughout the nation, play the 10-track record in two sold-out shows at the Beachland Ballroom.
“People can hear with fresh ears that this is truly what the ‘60s were all about,” says Giallombardo, the group’s organist and co-vocalist. “There were no special effects, no tricks. You just went in the studio and played. … [Artifact] is just fresh and who we were.”
Artifact almost didn’t happen. For years, the group thought it only existed as their personal acetate copies and digital versions ripped from those scratched disks. But after bassist Denny Carleton uploaded a track to Facebook, the band began to wonder: Did masters exist?
The answer, incredibly, was yes. Somewhere in the Cleveland Recording Co. archives housed at Suma Recordings, Hamann’s son Paul found not only the 1969 masters but also the original multitrack recording, still in great shape.
Omnivore, which had just released the Raspberries’ Pop Art Live, agreed to release the songs publicly for the first time. The record went through an extensive restoration process helmed by Pop Art Live producers Tommy Allen and Ducky Carlisle.
“[Allen] said, ‘It’s like we just found something in Davy Jones’ locker!’ ” says Bonfanti, laughing. “It still has the feel of the 1969 band recording, but it’s sonically way beyond what the acetate was that we started with.”
While “It’s Cold Outside” has been featured on Lenny Kaye’s compilation Nuggets and counts Tom Petty and Stephen King as fans, until now, little was known about the Choir’s later, more experimental output.
“Typically the bands of the day, even then, were dominated by guitar, and you have a keyboard to add texture and color,” says Giallombardo. “But our band was totally dominated by Kenny [Margolis] on piano and me on organ. Guitar was like an afterthought.”
This Choir lineup was one of Bonfanti’s favorites. The only consistent member of the group, the Mentor resident was 16 when he started drumming in the Choir, then known as the Mods. After plenty of near-misses at major fame, Bonfanti remembers the weeklong 1969 recording sessions as a heady blur that came together after WIXY DJ Dick Kemp encouraged them to record their originals for airplay and possible label attention.
“Even listening to it now, I wonder, how the hell did we not get signed?” says Bonfanti. “But it happened. We’re probably not the only band that has asked that question over the years.”
After the record was shelved, the 21-year-old Bonfanti was so distraught he tried to sell his drum kit, deciding to “hang up my rock ‘n’ roll shoes for good.” But a few months later, Bonfanti reconnected with a singer named Eric Carmen who’d auditioned unsuccessfully for the Choir, and they decided to start a band. And the Raspberries, finally, did go all the way.
But Bonfanti never forgot that lineup, that record, that brief, thrilling spark in the studio. Now, with two sold-out shows ahead of them and the music finally out, a time capsule from rock’s most transformative decade appears to have gotten its due.
“It’s taken its place in Cleveland’s history of music,” says Bonfanti. “I’m very proud.”