The purpose of this page is to try and document all the different people who have ever tried out on vocals for The Soft White Underbelly.
It's a confusing picture, especially when you try and put them into some sort of chronological order and then try and slot that order into the known time-frame available... the task isn't helped by the fact that there often seemed to be some overlap between singers also...
In the very early days, The Underbelly didn't seem too interested in having a main vocalist - as Richard Meltzer said:
This was not a singer's band, just a bunch of musicians who took long jams and they didn't want any of this singer shit but they finally had to settle cause none of them wanted to do it.
The singer they eventually "settled" on was Les Braunstein, but there were a number of people who tried out before that stage.
If Les is correct about being asked by Sandy Pearlman to be the vocalist after the 2nd Feb 1968 Anderson gig, then that gives us a "pre-Les window" lasting from late Summer 1967 to February 1968 in which to fit all the people below...
BTW: on three different occasions the SWU backed three other musicians: Steve Noonan, Jackson Browne and Chuck Berry. They played (or were scheduled to play) only that artist's material and none of their own songs, so you might be asking yourself, why have I listed only the first two here, and not the third, Chuck Berry?
The honest answer is ignorance on my part. Chuck Berry was never going to be the SWU singer - they never rehearsed with him and after the Generation shows, he was off to his next gig. It was purely the way he worked. The promoter supplied the amps and musicians (in this case, the Soft White Underbelly) and Chuck just turned up with his guitar and played.
But I'm less sure what the deal was with Steve Noonan and Jackson Browne - were there ever any plans to do more with these guys other than the specific concerts that were of immediate interest...? Anyway - that's why they're listed...
As usual, if anyone can help with any info whatsoever, please let me know...
The SWU story started in the first Bennetts Road band house which Andy Winters shared with David Roter and John Wiesenthal, amongst others:
It was Joe Dick and me backing up David Roter on his songs in Setauket. Don came along and we had a jam session Pearlman heard - that was SWU.
David Roter graduated from Stony Brook in the Summer of 1967 and left for the West Coast not long after, so that meant for a few weeks around July/August 1967, he was the first singer during the band's first formation. Allen fleshed out this early line-up, together with John Wiesenthal, and, later, Jeff Richards, with Joe Dick being subsequently replaced by Albert.
More info on the Bennetts Road house here:
This is probably going to be the hardest entry to sort out in the time-line.
In a nutshell, at some stage in their very early days, a Stony Brook student named Jeff Kagel "auditioned" for the Underbelly as a singer. When exactly this was, who was in the band at the time, and to what extent this was a serious, actual "audition" is open to interpretation and is shrouded in much confusion on all sides.
So much so, in fact, that that I've given him his own page, as it's all quite complex:
For now, I'm putting this entry first in this time-line as Albert says said it was before he joined.
However, the matter is further complicated by the fact that Jeff apparently reappears later in the time-line, around about the time of the departure of Les. See the above link for more details.
In his book, "Lucky Monkey", Les Braunstein paints a picture of what the situation was like regarding band vocals when he first turned up at their house as an interested onlooker:
"So who sings?" I ask. They sang a little to each other as they were building songs but so far nobody had turned on a mic.
"We all sing a little," says Donald.
Albert says, "I sing. Let's do Bright Lights Big City. Don and I used to play this in our band at school." He pulls over a mic hanging in front of his kit, leans back and puts a cord into an amp behind him..
"One two. One two three four.'" into the mic. He adjusts the dials. They kick into the Jimmy Reid tune. Albert sings in a white boy sings blue style. He's good. The song is fun and it's cool.
Although Buck says "We all sing a little", it's Albert who declares "I sing", so that's a clear indication that Albert was actually handling the main vocals at the time.
Les also identifies one of the early SWU songs that they were developing at the time as "Donovan's Monkey" and mentions that Albert was singing that also.
When asked was it the case that, when the Underbelly first started, the singing was mostly handled by Albert and Donald, Albert agreed:
Yeah, that's correct... We did a lot of the blues songs that we'd been doing, some Blues Project... we did some Bo Diddley, Spoonful, some Jimmie Reid, "Bright Lights Big City", but we also played original music, we did this song "Rain is Falling" which was a song that Allen and I wrote together, "Can't Judge a Book by its Cover", that was another one... that was a big popular number...
I haven't seen any mention anywhere that Buck sang anything more than background vocals, so that's why his name is currently absent from this list of main vocalists...
Somehow - and I've never heard how this came about, but presumably it had something to do with John Wiesenthal - but within a month after forming the SWU, they were roped in to back Steve Noonan at his 20 October 1967 gig at Stony Brook.
That Fall they were going to have Jackson Browne and Steve Noonan for a concert at Stony Brook - this guy Steve Noonan was a friend of Jackson Browne and who had a record out and with some Jackson Browne songs on it and who had a mild hit - and I can't remember the song - you probably wouldn't remember it anyway but Steve Noonan had this small hit and so he played a concert at Stony Brook and he asked the SWU to back him up, which we did - we practiced 2 or 3 times...
On the face of it, it was an odd pairing - at that stage, the SWU were a jam-centred blues band, and Steve Noonan was a folk guy...
Yes but this isn't that odd because we played with Steve Noonan who was a folkie... and he played acoustic guitar, Donald played very light electric - we were a folk group...
I think we had about 2 days (to practice his songs) - but we had the band house so we could practice for as long as we wanted - we could practice all day, and we played a whole set...
(The songs we played were) purely Steve Noonan - we didn't do any of ours... so it wasn't really our first gig but it was with Andy Winters, Allen Lanier and John Wiesenthal.. the full band...
What I don't know is was this ever planned to be more than just a one-off, so far as Steve Noonan singing was concerned...?
This is going to be a hard gig to date. A week after the Stony Brook Ravi Shankar gig, I know the Soft White Underbelly played at the Cafe A Go Go Blues Bag, which was held during the Thanksgiving Holiday week between 21-26 November 1967.
Here's Meltzer's take on this gig (writing about himself in the 3rd person):
That Thanksgiving the boys got to do their first non-college type gig, the annual Blues Bag at the Cafe au Go-Go, and Wiesenthal was present on unamplified keyboard (so you wouldn't hafta hear him). The nite before he'd taken off on the wings of mesc-o-leen and was particularly off-the-wall so he got R. Meltzer - an old college buddy of his and Pearlman's - to be the 'singer' for the show. Meltzer was allowed to do anything he wanted and all he did was rip off his shirt (an Indian shirt), stick his head inside the bass drum, and yell "Piss!" in each of the three mikes set up in front of the stage. Then he pulled out the plug on Don's guitar (club schmucko Howard Solomon was screaming for them to stop by then cause they were starting to infringe upon his half-hour limit) and their first gig was over (they got paid a hearty handshake for it).
Backstage Wiesenthal befriended Richie Havens and the talk was kosmic, all about shiny lovebeads and the month of July, whole lotta horsepoop.
At this time Dutch was in the army cause he failed to physical himself out of it.
So they needed some extra meat to make their music. Jeff Latham, a college chum of Albert and Donald from somewhere upstate where they had all dropped out of (droppin' out was a big deal at the time), was employed and he brought along his skinny broad. Jeff became rhythm ax man. Meanwhile the other Jeff, Richards, was called upon to both sing and play sax (tenor).
Meltzer seems to suggest Allen Lanier didn't play this gig as he'd already been drafted by this stage: so, did his fill-in replacement, Jeff Latham, play this gig?
And was Jeff Richards brought in for this gig - or after...?
And on which of the six days did SWU play?
I couldn't tell you the exact day. Only that it was a one night stand. It is possible that Howlin' Wolf was also on that bill. Jim Morrison came in and I talked with him about Rock musicians bringing the Vietnam War to an end. He agreed to help. Unfortunately our conversation never went any farther than that.
I also had a wonderful conversation with Havens. Great man, gentle soul.
By the way - I played I played Hammond organ at this show. On all other performances with the band, I played guitar...
During this time we were doing free-form improvisation inspired by Jackson Pollock's painting and Cecil Taylor's piano. AVANT GARDISM. I'm no keyboard player and my experiments on the organ were just that: blind (but not deaf) explorations of the spontaneously created harmonic and rhythmic environment we joyfully spawned.
In keeping with this, at the Cafe au Go-Go, Richard Meltzer shouted "Piss, Piss" into the microphone and stuck his head in the bass drum.
It's well-known that Sandy Pearlman, as well as his lyrical contributions to the band, also occasionally took the stage armed with a harmonica, but what I didn't know was that he also tried out as a potential singer:
Meltzer and Pearlman both tried out in those days and then once again when Les left they tried out, they tried to sing the songs that Les had been singing, of course it was... [Laughs] it was not a viable option...
So that would seem to indicate that both Pearlman and Meltzer tried out on two separate occasions - both before and after Les.
The thing is - I don't see how that would fit in after Les was gone because at the time when they were working towards "disengaging" Les, they already had a replacement lined up.
After the Wells College gig (March 1969) (where Allen had heard the tapes of Eric Bloom singing with The Lost & Found), the writing was on the wall from that point onwards, so far as Les was concerned, so I don't see why they'd be auditioning Peaarlman and Meltzer again. They'd only do that if Eric would have turned them down, surely...?
I first heard about Neil Louison trying out for the vocalist role from John Wiesenthal:
Also - there was another singer wanna-be. Neil Louison, a friend of Pearlman's. Nice guy, competent singer but wrong for the band...
I asked Albert if he knew anything about this, and was this the same Neil Louison who wrote for Crawdaddy...?
Yes. Neil was Sandy's friend. He was also the road manager on our first tour with Mahavishnu and the Byrds and dressed us all in sweaters.
So - that's all I have - I don't when and where this happened, or whereabouts in the list of vocalists he comes...
If you know anything that might help, please let me know...
Bout this time was when they decided they needed a singer. They played a Beethoven's birthday party at Stony Brook and all sorts of guys tried out singin' with 'em, including Larry Silvestri (a shorty) and Les Braunstein (an asshole from summer stock who once wrote a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary or maybe it was just on an album or something, "I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog"). Les had a van too and that's what they needed so he became their singer. This was not a singer's band, just a bunch of musicians who took long jams and they didn't want any of this singer shit but they finally had to settle cause none of them wanted to do it.
Larry Silvestri... y'know, that's right... I do recall that Larry Silvestri was a musician and friend of Meltzer and Pearlman...
I don't recall him trying out on vocals, but he could well have done that... Meltzer and Pearlman both tried out in those days and then once again when Les left they tried out, they tried to sing the songs that Les had been singing, of course it was... [Laughs] it was not a viable option...
I can't say I know much about Lawrence Silvestri - I do know he graduated with a BA in Anthropology from Stony Brook in 1968 (the same year as Jeffrey Richards did - as well as George Geranios!) and that he'd been in the Judo club.
And that's about it...
How, when and where he came to try out as singer isn't known - Meltzer sort of implies it was at the Beethoven's party, but that doesn't sound right...
If anyone can shed any light on this, please let me know...
At the moment, where Jeff Richards slots in exactly is a bit of a mystery - that's because I don't know exactly at what point he joined and exactly at what point he left.
Jeff himself is a little uncertain which gigs he actually played on, and which ones he just attended. When asked, he says he thinks he only played about three actual gigs - one of these was the 2nd Feb 1968 gig at the Anderson, so that sort of gives a guide as to his timeframe as a member - and singer - of the band.
Jeff Richards was a fellow art student and was singing with the band at the very beginning.
We were just a bunch of freaks running around and after Steve Noonan split we were really at a loss 'cause nobody was into singing that much.
So Jeff was singing. He's a house painter now.
I finished building a 1940 Ford Coupe hot rod at some point, but could borrow my parents' station wagon to haul equipment for the gigs the band was starting to get.
I think it was that, and the fact that I was there, that got me a short-lived role as lead singer (Oy!) and saxophone player on a couple of songs (Veh!), both enterprises I knew almost nothing about.
I was scared the whole time, and the thought that I attempted it embarrasses me still. I'm sure that if I hadn't been let go there would be no BOC today.
Here's an account from someone in the audience at the time that serves to give an indication of how the band came over at the 2 Feb 1968 Anderson gig:
Soft White Underbelly: February 2, 1968. Yiddish Anderson Theater.
"In spite of their marvelous name, this is a rather undistinguished group that appeared not to know what to do with themselves most of the concert.
A tall pretty fellow, in an antique costume, placed himself on the the stage where the lead singer belongs, but he hardly sang - in one piece playing saxophone instead.
The group's leader appeared to be a pint-sized guy, dressed in a cossack shirt, who is enormously adept on guitar. Either they were missing something that evening, or I was."
from "The Fillmore East - Recollections of Rock Theater" by Richard Kostelanetz, and Raeanne Rubenstein (Photographer)
My question would be - if Jeff "hardly sang - in one piece playing saxophone instead", what did he do for the rest of the time? Maybe dance like Bez from the Happy Mondays...? The usual fallback is a tambourine, of course...
I had also thought it might have been the deal that they had Albert as the main singer initially but then they drafted in Jeff to handle the vocals - but check out this part of the review from the Anderson gig:
The Underbelly is unquestionably one of the strongest instrumental groups to play in New York since the Cream whom they have surpassed in technical virtuosity. Their major flaw was a weak vocal showing, which improved in the second show. "You" was superb. Jeff and Albert did amazingly well with their voices.
This would seem to indicate that both Jeff and Albert did vocals for this gig...
It also gives a bit of insight into how the band presented themselves on stage at that time - Buck wore a "cossack shirt" and Jeff "an antique costume", whatever that means - Suit of armour? Doublet and hose? It'd be interesting to see a photo, if one existed...
But it looks like even back then, when they were arguably at their shoe-gazing zenith - or should that be nadir - they still made an effort to "look" like a band, at least...
As best as I could tell initially, even though Pearlman had already drafted in Les Braunstein to be the frontman at the start of February 1968 (after the Anderson gig), Les was side-lined more or less straightaway for a couple of weeks (at least) whilst the band arranged to back Jackson Browne.
However, in his book, "Lucky Monkey", Les recounts how he initially used to turn up at the band's St James bandhouse purely as an interested spectator at first, and on one occasion he says Sandy Pearlman turned up at a rehearsal and told the band: "So this Jackson Browne thing looks like its gonna happen."
Les then adds: "A couple weeks later I go over to the band house and they are inside practicing with Jackson Browne." This is clearly before Les has joined, and because we know there was maybe around a maximum of two weeks of rehearsals for the Jackson Browne gig planned for mid-February, this all has to have happened before the inaugural Crawdaddy Anderson gig (2nd Feb 1968) because very soon after that, Les would have been a member of SWU.
Therefore, it would appear that Les was invited to join after the Jackson Browne rehearsals but before the proposed - but subsequently cancelled - Anderson concert. That's why it's difficult to place one event before the other - they were sort of hand in hand...
"Jackson Browne: The Story of a Hold Out:" by Rich Wiseman
Given Meltzer's observations, Jackson's first involvement with a band seemed a matter of when rather than if. The when happened in early 1968 during Jackson's second trip to New York City... right in front of Meltzer's eyes and ears.
Meltzer's friend Sandy Pearlman, now a budding rock impresario, had taken to staging rock shows at the Anderson Theater in Greenwich Village. For one of them he had booked Jackson to appear with Noonan and Buckley.
After Jackson arrived, Sunny Hills High friend John Wiesenthal, a member of Soft White Underbelly, a local group to which Meltzer and Pearlman also had ties, suggested that the group back Jackson at the Anderson. Jackson was willing.
Browne wound up spending close to two weeks rehearsing with Soft White Underbelly at the group's Long Island house. But the jams went for naught. Faced by lagging ticket sales and competition from Bill Graham's new Fillmore East, the show and the Anderson Theater series were cancelled.
Jackson was evidently relieved. Recalling the experience he would say: "We had a lot of fun jamming around, but when it came down to arranging songs... it didn't work out... We had very little in common musically." Browne was probably not overstating the situation. Like the Hour Glass, Soft White Underbelly would be come better known by another name, a name fated to symbolize heavy-metal rock... Blue Oyster Cult.
Still Meltzer, a resident of the house at the time, contends that Browne took to a bandleader role like a fish to water: "He had been just a solo act, a guy having fun, a guy making brilliant music. The minute he started having people play behind him he was the daddy. He enjoyed it."
Meltzer adds that he would fall asleep to the sound of Jackson's and John Wiesenthal's conversation: "They'd both talk about the universe, this guy's head, that guy's head---'Albert the drummer is really a nice cat, a beautiful cat.'
With Jackson his consideration of the people he worked with had to be as important as the music they made. Like he was already the shepherd of a flock." (Jackson played the role to the hilt re: the taking of mind altering substances, according to Meltzer, who alleges that he "kind of regarded himself as Mr. Know-It-All about drugs...
He may have been the first guy I heard use the term 'drop acid'--- with this band it seemed like he really liked to use the jargon. [And] he would describe his acid trips in infinite detail....He'd literally sit down with people who'd taken acid once or never and tell them about the seven different relationships that were resolved by a little bit of LSD.")
Before he left New York Browne did manage one performance, in fact, his most prestigious gig to date: opening, sans Soft White Underbelly, for Judy Collins at Stony Brook.
It's a matter of record that the Jackson Browne/Judy Collins Stony Brook gig referred to was on Saturday 24 February 1968, so it's possible to work backwards to place the Jackson Browne affair approximately two/three weeks or so prior to this date.
His reason regarding the cancellation of the February Anderson gig as having something to do with competition from the New Fillmore East doesn't hold much water because the Fillmore East opened on the site of The Village Theatre (just down the road from The Anderson) on 8 March 1968, so couldn't really have had much influence on a gig in February.
Here's part of an interview from Zigzag 68 (Jan 1977):
ZigZag: Would you like to refute or confirm a tall story? The guitar you used on "Chelsea Girl" belonged to John Wiesenthal of the Soft White Underbelly (later Blue Oyster Cult), which he gave you in return for you giving him surfing lessons... any truth in that?
Jackson Browne: Not a lot! he did teach me to play some guitar, and we did surf together once or twice... but that was about that.
ZigZag: Is it right that the Soft White Underbelly were going to be your backing band at one time?
Jackson Browne: Well, the next year (March '68), Richard Meltzer and Sandy Pearlman, who were, and still are, connected with that group, were going to open a Theatre in Greenwich Village called the Anderson Theatre for rock concerts. There was also some connection with Crawdaddy Magazine, for whom they both wrote.
Anyway, John had the idea that the Underbelly could do their set and then back me up as my band... but we had very little in common musically, so nothing came of that... in fact, the show never happened. I think they promoted the first of a projected series, and then Bill Graham opened the Fillmore East right across the street - after which the Anderson project was abandoned.
I lived in their house for a while in New York, and we had a lot of fun just jamming around, but when it came down to arranging songs... well, it was a good idea, but it didn't work out. It was worth it for the experience and to find out what would happen, because I'd never played with a band before.
As mentioned earlier, the Fillmore East opened on 8 March 1968, so that can't have been too much of a factor, although Jackson Browne is correct that the series of Crawdaddy concerts at the Anderson was abandoned, but not actual concerts per se.
Richard Meltzer has another explanation for the cancellation:
Couple weeks after the Anderson they were supposed to back up Jackson Browne at the same place but it never happened because Tim Buckley's manager (he was on the bill too with Steve Noonan opening first) cancelled out cause he figured it for a real turkey. To this day Jackson will not talk to Pearlman on account of this fxxk-up.
My idea was to have the band play Jackson's songs, but Albert didn't like them and wanted to rewrite the music. That didn't sit too well with Jackson so my plan fell flat.
In an interview in Cosmik Debris (Issue #12: May 1996) Albert has a slightly different perspective:
We were a blues band back then... We did only his (Jackson Browne's) material but I did some wild arrangements of some of his early tunes. His singing back then was not so great but he always wrote great songs.
But, as I mentioned earlier, I do find the position of Les Braunstein to be a bit confusing during this moment in time - had Les already been "tapped up" by Pearlman to be the band's singer at this point - or not?
Jackson Browne's departure from the picture caused a few disruptions in the Underbelly continuum, however:
Well, Allen was in the army... and John Wiesenthal brought Jackson Browne along... Jeff Latham was in the band and Jackson really liked Jeff Latham - he wanted to bring him back to California, so maybe one of the reasons why Latham left when Jeff Richards left and Allen came back is because he'd said well y'know, I might like to go and pursue this gig with Jackson Browne...
As I recall, Jeff Richards left after we backed up Jackson Browne - when we were backing up Jackson Browne, it was really not the whole band, it was me and Latham, Don, Allen and Andy - Wiesenthal wasn't doing it...
Interesting to see that both Allen and Jeff Latham were involved in this - Latham had been brought in to sub for Allen whilst he was in the army, so maybe it was a bit awkward when Allen managed to get out unexpectedly early and turned up.
And Albert says Jeff Richards left after they did the Jackson Browne thing, but doesn't mention him as having any role in it...
When you think SWU vocalist, you automatically think Les Braunstein, but if you've just read the Jackson Browne entry above, you'll realise that I'm still struggling to work out just when exactly Les got on board.
By his own account, it was directly after the 2 Feb 1968 Anderson gig. This was apparently the gig that convinced Sandy Pearlman that the band need a singer and frontman.
The audience needed someone to look at - a focal point, if you like...
This is a bit of a confusing one. You often read that Patti Smith was once in the running to be the lead singer for BOC. Her own wiki page says this:
Smith was briefly considered for the lead singer position in Blue Oyster Cult.
Other sources lay it on a bit stronger - for example, this "10 Musicians Who Almost Joined Other Bands" page has this:
"At one point she was even invited by Blue Oyster Cult to be the band's singer. But, thankfully, Patti declined the offer."
So according to them, Pearlman actually made the offer, but it was rebuffed.
The truth of it all, however, would appear to lie somewhere in between the two.
All the evidence and information sources are presented and weighed-up on the Patti Smith page, so I won't re-hash it all here, but here's a quick precis of my conclusions.
After Les was out of the picture, it looks as if Sandy Pearlman, intrigued by reading some of Patti Smith's poetry, entertained the possibility of trying out Patti as SWU singer.
Sandy enlisted - and received - the support of Albert in this regard, but the rest of the band voted the prospect down. And that would appear to have been that. She never attended an audition to try out, or anything like that.
In fact, none of them had even met her in this time-frame. It wasn't until the Summer of 1970 that Meltzer first met her, and later introduced her to Pearlman, who then subsequently introduced her to the rest of the band, and specifically Allen.
Some of the reports you can read suggest that the Patti as vocalist thing happened two years later, around Spring 1971 - just prior to the Columbia audition - but there's no evidence for this. Besides, they already had Eric. It makes no sense...
Obviously, Eric Bloom was the final Soft White Underbelly singer - see the main section for an exhaustive examination of the whys and wherefores of the transition from Les to Eric.
It should be noted that Albert thinks that Meltzer and Pearlman both tried out again as potential vocalists in between Braunstein and Bloom, but in the light of the fact that the band had - seemingly - already been lining Eric up whilst Les was still with them, this didn't seem realistic to me.
However... Jeff Kagel has also said that he was again tapped up by Pearlman around the time of Les's departure to try out as vocalist, but turned him down, so maybe it wasn't all so set in stone after all.
Maybe Pearlman didn't consider Eric to be the only option they had, and it was only after they'd exhausted all other avenues that they finally went with him...?
Well, I dunno for sure, but I don't think you'll find too many Blue Oyster Cult fans who'll find fault with his ultimate selection!!
Incidentally - it's worth noting that Eric Bloom in interviews always says he joined the band in April 1969. However, since we know that Les played 2 sets with the SWU (actually billed that night as "The Underbelly") on 3 May 1969 gig supporting "The Band" in the Stony Brook gym, plus at least one more gig after that - outdoors at at Wells College - then the earliest that Eric could have realistically joined is mid May 1969...