Thursday, February 5, 2009

Starbuck Takes Flight On A Moonlight That Feels Right

Yes I admit I’m a popular music retro-tragic - writing this blog, how could I credibly deny it? But as I recall confessing before, I’m also a bit of a sci-fi geek - not obsessive mind - but with more than a casual interest and liking for the genre. So, when I hear the name Starbuck, I tend to send myself mixed messages. The sci-fi geek part of my brain recalls the character Lieutenant Starbuck (he of the Dirk Benedict variety), from the original 70s TV series ‘Battlestar Galactica’, or even Dana Scully’s nickname (from the ‘X-Files’). The pop music retro-tragic component of my brain, answers back with that American soft-rock group from the 70s, who had a hit with ‘Moonlight Feels Right’. Given my ongoing battles with caffeine addiction, it’s surprising to me that the ‘coffee empire’ conation of the word doesn’t get more of a look in. Since this is a blog focussed on highlighting some of the best popular music of bygone eras, I best maintain a consistency of theme by expanding upon the story behind Starbuck - the band.

Mississippi born singer/keyboardist Bruce Blackman had been a founding member of the sunshine pop cult outfit Eternity’s Children (very cult sounding name), who came together in Cleveland during 1965, originally under the name The Phantoms. They developed their sound around complex vocal arrangements (a bit like the Mamas and the Papas, and Fifth Dimension). They signed with A&M in 1967, but their lone single for the label, ‘Wait And See’, did more waiting than seeing. A shift to the Tower of label didn’t elevate Eternity’s Children to any great heights. Blackman departed from the band, shortly after the completion of their self-titled debut album, which yielded the minor chart hit ‘Mrs. Bluebird’ (US#69). Amidst a slew of personnel changes, drummer Bo Wagner joined Eternity’s Children later in 1968, but after a handful of singles went nowhere, Eternity’s Children faded into obscurity. Bruce Blackman was joined by former Eternity’s Children members Johnny Walker and Bo Wagner in a short lived offspring called Children in the early 70s, prior to Blackman and Wagner recording tracks for an album, under the moniker of Mississippi. The album never saw the light of day, and soon after Blackman turned his focus fulltime to song writing, whilst Wagner’s career led him to a position as touring music director for Liberace.

By 1974 Bo Wagner had returned to Atlanta and formed the band Extravaganza, alongside vocalist Elgin Wells, keyboardist Sloan Hayes, bassist Jimmy Cobb, and drummer David Snavely (Wagner handled percussion). Extravaganza proved to be a short lived musical spectacular, with Wells departing to pursue solo interests. Soon after old Eternity’s Children bandmate Bruce Blackman came on board as vocalist (and chief songwriter) for Wagner’s new band, with guitarists Tommy Strain and Ron Norris rounding out the new line-up, who took on the new moniker of Starbuck. Over the first half of 1975, the soft rock ensemble built up a solid live following, and by mid year had signed a recording deal with the Private Stock label.

Starbuck’s debut single was the seductive easy listening soft-pop offering ‘Moonlight Feels Right’, during late ‘75. Initially the single failed to rise above the chart horizon, but in early ‘76 Birmingham based DJ Mike St. John had begun a grass roots push to bring the song to national attention. Eventually the songs charms could no longer be resisted by AM format radio networks, and its popularity grew exponentially across the U.S. By April ‘Moonlight Feels Right’ was orbiting the outer reaches of the charts, and within a couple of months had gravitated to a peak position in the U.S. chart sky of #3. During mid ‘76 ‘Moonlight Feels Right’ could be observed at #25 on the Australian charts. Starbuck released their eponymous debut album (US#78) shortly after, which featured an agreeable blend of soft rock, spiked with traces of jazz, and even funk. The album spawned two more minor singles later in ‘76, but neither ‘I Got To Know’ (US#43), or ‘Lucky Man’ (US#73) could ascend to the celestial heights of ‘Moonlight Feels Right’. Starbuck soon found themselves opening for the likes of Electric Light Orchestra and Boston, and appearing on various and sundry high profile music and variety shows (including ‘The Midnight Special’ - see video following post).

Whilst ‘Moonlight Feels Right’ was still riding high on the charts, Starbuck underwent a bit of a shake up back at mission control. Guitarists Tommy Strain and Ron Norris, along with drummer David Snavely, all departed the crew; replaced by David Shaver (keyboards), Ken Crysler (drums), and Darryl Kutz (guitar). The revamped Starbuck released the appallingly titled ‘Rock And Roll Rocket’ (US#182) in 1977, but aside from the top 40 single ‘Everybody Be A Dancin’ (US#38), the album really only attracted the attention of bargain bin scavengers. With former Eternity’s Children guitarist Johnny Walker on board, Starbuck had one more chart flight scheduled via their 1978 album ‘Searching For A Thrill’, though its title track only managed a low altitude holding pattern in the lower reaches of the charts (US#58). Soon after Starbuck’s label Private Stock went belly up, and by 1980, with little prospect of a new recording deal, Starbuck went their separate ways.

In 1980 Bruce Blackman released the singles ‘Let Me Be’ (US#43/OZ#80) and ‘Mystery School’ (OZ#97) under the pseudonym Korona, with vocalist Bob Gauthier brought in on several tracks for the accompanying album released on United Artists. Blackman and Wagner then revived the Starbuck brand in 1982, and released a couple of singles on the AVI label. ‘The Full Cleveland’ (1982) and ‘Another Beat Of My Heart’ both failed to get off the launch pad, and soon after Starbuck once more faded into the ether of pop music history. Bruce Blackman released one more single in 1984 titled ‘Diamonds’, but shortly after shifted career trajectory to pursue business interests. Blackman now serves as C.E.O. of his own music publishing and production company, and has continued to write and produce for other artists. Most of the other former Starbuck members have continued to perform with local acts, in and around Atlanta.

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