In an era when thousands of unavailable or out of print albums have enjoyed re-releases, singer/keyboardist Lee Michaels has remained dormant. After retiring from the business in the early 80s, unlike most beloved musical iconoclasts, he turned his back on interviews and performance opportunities for decades, preferring to focus on his ultra-popular Los Angeles based restaurant Killer Shrimp and playing at home, but on November 20th, Manifesto Records will release a single CD retrospective of Michaels’ biggest hits during his 7 album run at A&M Records from 1968-1973, as well as a 7 disc box set of his complete A&M recordings from that same time period.
Heighty Hi – The Best Of Lee Michaels, is a 20 song, single CD compilation of his biggest hits, including his Top 10 hit single Do You Know What I Mean, as well as FM Radio anthem Heighty Hi. Also included are other singles and FM Radio staples such as The War and Keep The Circle Turning, as well as Goodbye, Goodbye, a non-LP B-side. This is the first Lee Michaels compilation in print in over 5 years.
Here is a great clip of Lee performing on The Music Scene, an ABC show hosted by comedian David Steinberg!
Lee Michaels: The Complete A&M Album Collection brings together the seven albums that the singer/keyboardist released on A&M Records between 1968-73. Though his singles have been compiled a few times, the full albums were only on CD once before and are now long unavailable. Famous for one irresistibly catchy single, (Do You Know What I Mean, a Top Ten hit single in 1971), Michaels covered more ground on his albums—from heavy organ rock and R&B, to politically slanted pop, to hippie-friendly sing-alongs and proto-grunge guitar jams. Taken together, this catalogue is one of the buried treasures of its era.
Michaels and his drummer Frosty were the first Organ/power drums duo to hit the stage. They were followed by synth/drum bands like Silver Apples and Suicide, but no significant rock n’ rollers until the Flat Duo Jets in the late 80s and the White Stripes and Black Keys in the 90s (both of whom utilized guitar instead of keyboard).
Lee Michaels’ debut album, Carnival of Life, was released in 1968. By that time he’d spent a few years playing around Los Angeles—first in a surf band called the Sentinals (including future Turtles/Airplane drummer John Barbata), then in the Strangers, with future bandleader and Canned Heat member Joel Scott Hill—and then moved to San Francisco where he was discovered and signed. Before going solo he lost his keyboard to the repo man, making him a “stand-up singer” for a short time. What you hear on the album is pretty much what you heard if you caught his band live in the formative days. In some ways the album smacks of the Summer of Love: The side-openers Hello and the title track both exude good vibes, and the equally upbeat Sounding the Sleeping defines what might be called “sunshine pop” nowadays.
Michaels had a moment of truth between albums, when Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley III, the legendary acid chemist and Grateful Dead soundman, came to see him at the Avalon. ”He gave me a hit of acid: he said it was the perfect dose. And it blew my socks off. I had this giant acid flash in front of the whole audience—I was watching myself standing there with the band playing, thinking, ‘Whoa! What are you doing? You’re not a stand-up singer, you’re an organ player’ I think I started crying, and somebody had to lead me off. A couple of hours later I was more in control, so I came on with just the drummer and started playing organ. From that moment on, I was never a stand-up singer anymore—thank you, Owsley.” From here on the albums would focus on keyboards, and the touring band would be just him and a drummer.
The new approach came out on Recital—however acid-inspired, an album of short and melodic, richly-arranged songs. For the first time he layered the keyboards, building a wall of sound with Hammond and church organ, electric and acoustic piano, and harpsichord—just about everything that was available before synthesizers and Mellotrons hit the world. The songwriting was impressive indeed. If I Lose You was written and produced to be a hit single, but the decidedly noncommercial The War made more of an impression; he still names it as one of his best track.
The relationship with A&M was already souring after Recital, when they claimed he’d spent too much time and money on an album that didn’t sell. So he spent neither on the follow-up, recording Lee Michaels with one other musician (drummer Barry “Frosty” Smith) in the space of one night. Not for the last time, the tossed-off album would be the hit: His first album to hit the Top 100, Lee Michaels was all over FM radio and college dorms after its 1969 release. It was the first to unleash his secret weapon, the killer organ sound of his live shows. Closing the album was Heighty Hi, one of the catchiest drug songs ever written. The sentiments and the sing-along chorus made it a fixture on progressive FM radio for years to come.
Michaels was back in control for Barrel, probably his best overall album. Recorded in his own home studio with Frosty and Drake Levin, it’s also his most topical album, with half the songs taking a social or political slant. Mad Dog sets some anti-police sentiments to a deceptively jaunty tune. Thumbs returns to the Vietnam War and suggests hitchhiking as a better alternative; it’s followed on the album by a satirical take on When Johnny Comes Marching Home.
Once again Michaels got bruised feelings from A&M, putting his heart into Barrel and having the label gripe about it. Conflicts with the label were directly responsible for 5th —a halfhearted album that became the hit of his career. “AM radio hits were what they were after in those days, and they didn’t like Barrel because they thought it was self-indulgent and there were no hits on it.” Do You Know What I Mean wasn’t a calculated hit by any means—In fact it was first released as a B-side, with Keep the Circle Turning (the gospel-influenced album opener, written by bassist Joel Christie) on the top. To sum up the amount of effort put into Do You Know What I Mean, the lyrics were written exactly two hours before they were recorded. “It was a totally calculated boy-girl song, to me it was a complete sellout.” It was his only Top Ten hit single, peaking at #6 in the fall of 1971.
The unlikely follow-up to 5th was Space & First Takes, one of the ultimate record-label kiss-off albums. The songs were fine, but there were only four of them, two of them stretched to wandering 15-minute jams. There weren’t even many keyboards on it: Drake Levin was back, but Michaels was suddenly playing guitar himself. It seemed an attempt to shake the hit-singles image once and for all. “That was part of it, but it was probably the drugs.” The two shorter tracks, Own Special Way (As Long As) and Hold On To Freedom, were accessible enough to be picked as singles.
Michaels gave A&M a double live album to wrap up his contract and then moved on to a promising new deal with Columbia Records. Live, recorded on the tour to support Space & First Takes, returns to the two-piece, wailing-organ sound and the story can now be told that the album was recorded at Carnegie Hall, but not billed as such because the venue would’ve demanded a cut of the profits. “If I’d known it was going to be 15 percent of nothing, I would’ve said it.” The set-list covered every studio album except the first and for collectors, there’s 40 Reasons, which was never on a studio album.
After fulfilling his contract with A&M, the label problems continued when he got to Columbia, as Clive Davis, who’d signed him to the label, got himself ousted soon afterward; leading to his two Columbia albums, Nice Day for Something, and Tailface slipping out with zero promotion. That ended his recording career until 1982, when he founded his own Squish label and released his final album, Absolute Lee.
Since then he’s been happily out of the music business, though he still plays music at home. Beginning in the early ‘90s he had another success as the creator of Killer Shrimp, a variation on New Orleans barbeque shrimp based on his own recipe. For years a popular eatery in Marina del Rey, California and has since expanded and opened other locations. And if you take a walk around the beach nearby, you might hear one of Lee’s songs blasting from a radio. “You know how music floats around in the air, and sometimes when I’m on Venice Beach I’ll hear Do You Know What I Mean. And I’ll think, ‘well, this isn’t bad. It kinda zips along’.”
Article courtesy of Western Publicity.