|Ten Wheel Drive - Bio|
|Written by Bruce Pilato|
|Sunday, 19 October 2008 13:22|
Ten Wheel Drive made their international debut at the first Atlanta Pop Festival in the incredible summer of 1969. Spearheaded by the powerhouse vocals of singer Genya Ravan the band and its wall of sound fusion of Rock, jazz and R&B took the stage and blow the audience away. By the time they finished an hour later, the band had created a genuine buzz, and Ravan was positioned to be the next big female rock star
"The Atlanta festival was the absolute best", says Ravan, in retrospect. "It was the real thing at a time when all of us were creating all this incredible music."
Though Ten Wheel Drive and Ravan attained substantial critical and commercial success, neither reached a celebrity status as high as their respective musical status. Ten Wheel Drive made three albums with Ravan, and, today, the band's music still holds up remarkably well.
"I had come from all R&B type pop and then did a brief stint in a jazz quintet," says Ravan. "When I heard the first Blood Sweat &Tears album with A Kooper I knew I wanted a band like that. I was intrigued by the fusion of jazz, R&B, and rock. That album, more than any other, was my inspiration for Ten Wheel Drive."
Ten Wheel Drive came together as fluidly as it did because Ravan, keyboardist Michael Zager and guitarist Aram Schefrin immediately recognized what they had was magical the first time they plugged in and started wailing.
Though the public and critics knew them always as a ten piece band it was real only those three who were the core of TWD. The rhythm section and five p piece horn section changed with each album and often with each tour. But this never really mattered. During Ten Wheel Drive's entire life span, alI eyes remained on Genya Ravan.
The band went through a five-month writinq and rehearsal period and emerged in the spring of 1969 with producer Walter Raim who recorded their first album in a week.
Even today, Construction #1 jumps out and grabs the listener with its funky brand of horn driven rock and Ravan's unmistakable vocals. From the opening bass riff of the Ravan original, Tightrope, through seven other tracks (mostly all written by Zager and Schefrin), the album is a tour-de force for Genya Ravan.
The record contains many songs that became TWD staples during their four year history. (They were also part of Ravan's solo repertoire). Eye Of The Needle, Candy Man Blues (Ravan's vocal tribute to Billie Holiday) and Ain't Gonna Happen represent just how innovative the band could be.
"I was the drive Zager was the ten and Schefrin was the wheel," says Ravan. "We had a remarkable partnership, and very much a democracy, even though I was the one in the spotlight, I never lost sight of the fact that Michael and Aram wrote most of the music and kept the rest of the musicians together musically."
Schefrin wrote Iyrics; Zager wrote the music and both did the intricate horn charts, and together with Ravan, they placed the final spin on the songs. TWD looked to take straight ahead rock songs and stretch them to their absolute musical limits. Nearly every element in these songs were built into complex, but remarkably natural sounding arrangements. The vocal harmonies wove in and out of the multi-layered horn lines and the band was somehow able to jump back and forth between powerhouse electric guitar solos and smooth, jazz flavored piano highlights.
Construction #1 became a critical and FM radio smash, and the band's appearance in Atlanta sent them well on their way. It was the beginning of a long love/hate relationship between Ravan and the music press, who called her a true musical visionary, but made endless comparisons to Janis Joplin.
The band returned to the studio to record 1970's Brief Replies with producer Guy Draper. Featuring the band's only charting single, Morning Much Better, the highlight of the album was unquestionably the Jerry Yagovoy power ballad, Stay with Me, with Ravan's red hot vocal and saucy blues harmonica. Covered at the same time by Janis Joplin, it was TWD's version of Stay With Me that received the most radio airplay. The coincidence, unfortunately, only intensified the comparisons to Joplin.
By the third album, Peculiar Friends, everyone had become frustrated.. The initial blast experienced after the first album and at the Atlanta Festival failed to ignite into bonafide superstardom and the band found it increasingly hard to support itself on the rood. Fatigue soon set in.
In the spring of 1971, in one last shining moment, Ten Wheel Drive performed a concert at Carnegie Hall with the New York Symphony. Staged for the benefit of the American Indian Zager and Schefrin premiered a 45-minute concept piece that many consider the pinnacle of their songwriting partnership. It was the only time the band performed it.
"It was a wonderful concept piece about the American Indian," says Ravan. "And no one had the insight to think about recording it. It was the time of wounded Knee and Marlon Brando's involvement with Indians and we did this incredible piece of music, by far the best thing we had ever done. After that our frustrations became insurmountable."
In the summer of 1971, Genya Ravan left Ten Wheel Drive.
She came to this country at the age of seven with her Polish parents after the second World War as Genya Zelkowitz. Settling into a small home in the tenements of New York's Lower East Side, she soon became acclimated to the code of life in Urban America.
"I couldn't speak a word of English when I came," Genya remembers "Ornette Coleman told me later that's why I ended up having such a good ear for music. I was constantly turning to songs to help myself better learn the language."
Ravan joined a street gang called The Furies, and in 1961, on a dare, jumped feet first into the world of rock'n'roll when she became the lead singer of The Escorts, a Manhattan-based band headed by future superstar producer/arranger Richard Perry.
Ravan soon migrated from the stage of Brooklyn's Lollipop Lounge. In 1965, she formed an all girl group called Goldie &The Gingerbreads. Eric Burdon heard them one night in a club on 45th street, and "freaked," says Ravan. By the time Ravan's head stopped spinning, her group was crashing the British charts and touring relentlessly with The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Hollies and The Rollinq Stones.
Though the real scope of her vocal ability was never apparent during her time with The Gingerbreads, Ravan had developed the skill and passion to be a powerful R&B singer.
When Genya returned to the United States, music had changed. The British pop movement had been overtaken by American hippies and The Summer of Love. It was time for another change.
By now it was 1968, and Ravan was being managed by rock impresario Sid Bernstein (the first U.S. promoter to book The Beatles), who, with partner Billy Fields, was eager to place Ravan with the right musicians who could bring out the passion in her voice.
Another manager had been trying to place Zager and Schefrin with the right vocalist. The three managers introduced the three musicians, and, well, that was all it took. Ten Wheel Drive was born as quickly as it took them to start working on the first song together.
After a handful of showcases at New York's Bitter End club the band landed a deal with Polydor Records. One month later, they were slaying audiences at Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore East.
Columbia Records prexy Clive Davis gave Ravan the opportunity to make the jump where he agreed to buy her out of her contract with Polydor and launch her as a solo artist.
"I wanted to get back into the music that I really missed, like R&B. I wanted to do it all. I wanted to get more involved in writing, and in general, I just wanted more control of my own destiny."
Between 1971 and 1980 Ravan recorded Five solo albums - one each for Columbia, ABC Dunhill and Chess/Janus, and two for 20th Century. By 1980, Genya Ravan had decided to stop recording and performing. She started her own indie label and became one of the very first established female producers, waxing discs for the likes of Ronnie Spector, The Dead Boys and a large group of acts emerging from New York's CBGB'S punk scene.
Michael Zager went on to make a handful of successful disco records and is currently running Michael Zager Productions and writing movie scores. Aram a Harvard Law graduate, left the music industry and is now a successful attorney in Providence Rhode Island.
Today, Genya is living back in New York City running Genya Ravan Productions.
Says Ravan, "When I was helping PolyGram put together the songs for this anthology I had to go back and listen to stuff I hadn't heard in almost two decades. It suddenly dawned on me just how good we were as a band. We were doing stuff that was light years ahead of what others were doing at the time."
-- Bruce Pilato