Bobby Charles, Todd Rundgren, and More
Following the untimely death of Janis Joplin in 1970, famed artist manager Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan, The Band, Joplin) pivoted from management to a new endeavor—his own record label. With the opening of his Bearsville Studios a year prior, Grossman partnered with American electronics company Ampex to form a label under the same name. Situated a handful of miles from Woodstock, New York, in the Catskill Mountains, Grossman became the self-appointed baron of Bearsville, opening multiple restaurants and managing construction projects in the area while growing the label roster.
By the end of the year, Bearsville Records was rigged and ready, with Todd Rundgren acting as lead producer for forthcoming LPs from the likes of Foghat, Paul Butterfield, NRBQ, and Gil Evans, as well as Rundgren’s solo efforts and with his group, Utopia.
Grossman, who first came to Bearsville on a real estate tip from a music industry connection, played a major role in positioning a sleepy upstate New York town into a focal point of contemporary folk and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1970s. Remembered often as a ruthless businessman, Grossman is also noted for helping artists secure contracts leaning far more heavily in their favor than industry standard. Bearsville Records ceased operations in 1984, two years before Grossman’s passing, just short of his 60th birthday. Below we’ve rounded up five central releases to the Bearsville catalogue—all worth grabbing on wax, how these records were truly made to be heard.
Swamp-rock pioneer and Abbeville, Louisiana native Bobby Charles arrived in Woodstock in the early 1970s with police hot on his trail. Using an alias, Charles managed to avoid charges for minor drug possession as he set up residence in Bearsville. By chance, Grossman would soon discover this was the same songwriter responsible for major ‘50s and ‘60s hits like “Walking to New Orleans” and “See You Later, Alligator,” a tune brought to mainstream attention by Bill Haley and His Comets.
Charles had struggled to make a living from songwriting up until this point, and Grossman sought to change this narrative. Recognizing serious potential in Charles, he quickly signed him to record his debut.
Tracked at Bearsville Studios and co-produced by Rick Danko, the album is a collection of laid-back Americana with enough of Charles’ cajun influence to keep things interesting. Sometimes referenced as a “lost” record of The Band, Garth, Levon, and Richard all made contributions, although much ado has been made over who played what, with liner notes simply reading “All Musical Arrangements Handmade.”
Such a description is fitting for a record that sounds more like a group of tight-knit friends doing what they love rather than an attempt at commercial success. Sung in his signature drawl, Charles has an uncanny way of making the simplest joys in life the most interesting on songs like “Let Yourself Go,” “Grow Too Old,” and “Tennessee Blues.” A reissue is now available via Light in the Attic Records.
With advances in multi-track recording technology, the 1970s would see a handful of musicians (including Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend) releasing full band albums performed entirely by themselves. On his third solo LP Something/Anything?, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Todd Rundgren followed suit.
Already working closely with Grossman as his go-to producer, Rundgren had signed on to Bearsville in ‘69 and would stay with the label for 11 studio LPs (available in a Rhino Box Set).
Released in ‘72, this double LP plays to all of Rundgren’s strengths—carefully layered production, pop songwriting sensibilities, and his penchant for alternating between instruments (bass, drums, keyboards, etc) with a confidence that outweighed players who only handled one. It is rare to come across a double LP that doesn’t have at least a partial throw-away section, yet Rundgren manages to keep the listener engaged for 40 minutes of power-pop, soul, rock and a handful of oddball numbers.
Included in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” Something/Anything?’s standout tracks include opener “I Saw the Light,” ballad “It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference,” and the guitar-heavy “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.” On the finale of That 70s Show, the cast is back in the cruiser, singing along to “Hello It’s Me.”
Born in Elyria, Ohio, Norma Jean Wright stepped away from disco mainstay act Chic in 1978 to begin her solo career as Norma Jean.
Wright, whose powerhouse vocals can be found on recordings from Madonna to Aretha Franklin only released one album for Bearsville, a self-titled LP produced by former Chic band members Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.
With a nearly identical backing band, this could have easily been another Chic record, but it was clear Jean was primed to take the limelight. Singles “Saturday” and “I Like Love” are crisp, danceable disco-funk party anthems bound to get even the most reticent of dancers ready to boogie.
Need proof? Check out her Soul Train performance. Wright had another hit the following year with her single “High Society,” also released on Bearsville and produced by Rodgers and Edwards. But her self-titled debut was her last solo full-length. Reissued on CD in 2000 by Sequel Records, this LP is a must-have for any disco aficionado.
With a co-sign from Todd Rundgren, Albert Grossman welcomed Halfnelson to the Bearsville Records family in 1971. One of his first orders of business: a name change.
Because the group was comprised of two sets of brothers (Ron and Russell Mael, Earle and Jim Mankey) and Harley Feinstein, Grossman originally pushed for “Sparks Brothers,” but the group eventually landed on just Sparks. But the name change wasn’t final before their debut release. Halfnelson’s Halfnelson was issued in 1971, then re-released in 1972 as Sparks’ Sparks. With Rundgren behind the boards and taking a more hands-off approach than usual, Sparks were given free range to experiment on the album. This was ideal for the group, as they preferred the studio setting to a live one.
Off-kilter rhythms created by banging on cardboard boxes with reverb, the use of tape loops, and the deconstruction of song structures were all part of the process. The prototypical new wave album begins with the minimalistic “Wonder Girl,” featuring Russell's charming falsetto singing about a love gone awry. “High C” touches more on glam-rock, while “Slowboat” is a seriously moving ballad centered on alienation. While typical Rundgren production called for a certain level of gloss, sounds remain a bit more rough around the edges here, proving to be the ideal model for Sparks’ outsider-pop. Sparks’ sound wasn’t always for the casual music listener, but they pushed their audience to listen in a different way and continued to do so for years to come.
Released in September 1975, Fool for the City became the London-formed Foghat’s first platinum album, with “Slow Ride” helping carry the group’s down home boogie-blues to the masses.
Formed as a Savoy Brown offshoot in ‘71, Foghat found themselves down a bass player following the release of their fourth LP. Their producer, Nick Jameson, filled in and was responsible for the flippant album cover: drummer Roger Earl seated next to an NYC manhole, fishing line dropped in. “Slow Ride” was even written during Jameson’s first rehearsal with the group.
Carrying a newfound momentum, the band rented out Suntreader Studios in Sharon, Vermont to track the LP, a spot Earl and Jameson were aware of during their time living in upstate New York. On album opener “Fool for the City,” guitarist Rod Price is all-riffs, all-the-time, while lead vocalist and guitarist Dave Peverett declares, “I’m ready for the city, air pollution here I come!” The band are in full force on covers of The Righteous Brothers’ “My Babe” and Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” proving that when done well, straight-forward blues-rock is damn near supernatural. Their fifth album in five years, Fool for the City was a hard-earned success.