Roger Nichols and a Small Circle of Friends — “The Drifter”: Brace for the Obscure (60s rock)! — May 16, 2023


828) Roger Nichols and a Small Circle of Friends — “The Drifter”

The Friends’ (see #631) final A-side (with “Trust” on the flip side (see #136, as covered by the Peppermint Trolley Co.)) “failed to make a commercial impact.” How it wasn’t a soft pop/sunshine pop megahit is beyond me. Lyricist Paul Williams says “I think it’s one of the prettiest records. And . . . that blend of voices and those harmonies were just wonderful.” Roger that.

The single came after the classic album Roger Nichols and a Small Circle of Friends, but they are two of a kind. I’d call the album one of the great lost albums of the 60’s, except that people could have bought it, they just didn’t! Yeah, you know who you are.

Matthew Greenwald tells us that:

[Roger Nichols and a Small Circle of Friends is a] true sleeper in the context of California pop. . . . The album is a lot of things at once. Soft pop, a smattering of rock, and a heavy dose of easy listening. The group itself has a great vocal blend. Nichols is joined by Murray MacLeod and his sister, Melinda. The three voices combined create a wonderful, soft sheen, equally effective on the ballads . . . and uptempo numbers . . . . The credits on the album are a virtual who’s who of California pop at the time. . . . [including] Lenny Waronker, Van Dyke Parks, Bruce Botnick, and Randy Newman. Superbly produced by Tommy LaPuma, the album unfortunately didn’t do very well at the time of its release, which is an incredible injustice. The music, though, holds up extremely well today, and is an authentic slice of California pop. Delicious.

Patrick Lundborg adds:

Mr Nichols and friends present a groovy smorgasbord of late 60’s pop music . . . . The album is full of candy-coated treats such as soft rock, psych pop and commercial pop. . . . Their sound is soft rock-based with a strong emphasis on imaginative male & female vocal arrangements that may include spicy touches of ethnic beats, lush strings and perky horn mixes. . . . There are many other bands from this period with a similar pop sound, but Nichols and friends had more talent and a healthy budget allowing to record with a top-notched production crew at a state of the art studio.

The Acid Archives, 2nd Ed.

Steve Stanley:

[T]he album overall had the hallmark late-sixties soft pop sound that was selling busloads of records for acts like the 5th Dimension and the Association at the time. . . . [But] when it came to the record-buying public, the . . . LP fell on deaf ears. [Producer] Tommy LiPuma adds his perspective: “I think at the time, radio stations didn’t know what the dell to do with it, it didn’t necessarily fit into a format, and there wasn’t anything that broke out as a hit.”

liner notes to the CD reissue of Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends

Ed Hogan tells us of Nichols:

[Roger Nichols’] household brimmed with music when he was growing up. His dad was . . . a professional photographer who played sax in local jazz bands. His mother was a music major and a classical pianist. When Nichols started grade school, he picked up the violin, continuing his violin and classical studies throughout grammar and high school. His attention turned to basketball and Nichols forsook violin for the hoops but played guitar on the side. Recruited to U.C.L.A. on a basketball scholarship . . . . [He was] confronted to make a choice between music or basketball by his coach . . . . Nichols chose music. . . . After he left college . . . . [o]n weekends, he worked in clubs with his group . . . . Around 1965, the group was signed to a recording contract by Liberty Records. . . . With the label for eight months without having a record released, Nichols called A&M Records expressing interest in playing some demos for label co-owner Herb Alpert. . . . [N]ichols wrote an instrumental for Alpert that he promptly recorded a week after hearing it.

Though Roger Nichols and a Small Circle of Friends wasn’t a big seller, Albert urged A&M publishing company head . . . to sign Nichols as a songwriter to their company. [The label] introduced [him] to lyricist Paul Williams. . . . The duo wrote together for four years, resulting in lots of album cuts, B-sides, even A-sides, but no hits. An advertising executive approached a friend of Nichols asking for help with an under-budget commercial project for Crocker Bank. . . . Hoping to capture the youth market . . . Nichols and Williams were given the slogan, “You’ve got a long way to and go and we’d like to help you get there.” They had just ten days to create a song, essentially a jingle. Waiting until the last day . . . Nichols . . . wrote the basic verse melody in a half hour. . . . Richard Carpenter of the Carpenters heard the jingle on a TV commercial . . . . [T]he Carpenters recorded the song [as] “We’ve Only Just Begun” . . . .

Here is the demo by Nichols and Williams:

Here is the Sandpipers’ lovely version (released as a B-side):

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