Pit & Balcony Theatre has been the stage for many ambitious Tribute shows in recent years, from Matt Besey tackling the catalog of Jimi Hendrix to Sprout’s collective song-by-song run through of The Beatles White Album; but certainly one of the most stunning and evocative musical alliances to tackle the tricky and often elusive textures involved with paying proper homage to an artist, consists of the alliance between musical ‘family’ members Tim, Tamara, and Andrew Grefe, Matt & Dennis Gottlieb, Stephen Gaus, and Carter Roberts.
For the past two years they have joined forces to spearhead an annual fundraiser for The Saginaw Choral Society with tribute performances to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Eagles that achieved impressive levels of artistic, critical, and financial success; and this year they are busily pulling together their third annual fundraiser with perhaps their most challenging hurdle to date: covering two hours of music dedicated solely to One Hit Wonders, which will make its singular premier Thursday, Friday & Saturday, March 24-25-26 at Pit & Balcony Theatre in Saginaw.
In the U.S., a ‘pure’ one-hit wonder is an artist that manages to log only one song on the Billboard Hot 100 regardless of the song’s peak position. But most American music industry insiders consider a song in the Top 40 positions of the Billboard charts to be a hit. Thus, any performer who recorded only one song that reached the Top 40 is technically a ‘one-hit-wonder’, regardless of whether another song peaks in the ‘bottom 60’.
For those that caught The Eagles or CSNY Tributes, the notion that Grefe, Gaus, Gottlieb, et.al would open the door to learning 2 dozen-plus songs created by different artists is a daunting challenge in itself, given the care and precision they dedicate to polishing each and every phrase of the artists they cover to faithfully emulate the original.
“We definitely could have taken an easier route,” laughs Tim, “because all I know is that every song we take on gets a lot harder the more we work through it. We talked about tackling Steely Dan or The Allman Brothers, because with CSNY and even The Eagles you have one band that carefully cultivated a certain sound, but what’s tough about this year is that you’ve got a different sound going on each with song.”
And what makes this prospect of an evening of One Hit Wonders even more alluring is the fact that the group isn’t saying what songs they’ll actually be performing. “We want the show to be fun and cover a time span from the 1960s to the 1990s,” explains Steven, “and in order to yank people left and right we want the entire show to be a surprise. Although I will say that we will perform at least one song by a Michigan a band.”
“What I enjoy about this is the fact that we are a multi-generational band,” elaborates Tammy, “so that while we might recognize a hit from the 1960s or 1970s, the ‘kids’ in the band started with music in the 1990s, allowing the sets to flow in an organized way.”
Indeed, the process of song selection on Top-40 songs spanning four decades has proved to be equally educational & challenging. “What I’ve come to realize is there are too many One Hit Wonders that don’t fall into the category of One Eyed Purple People Eater,” states Tim. “There’s a lot of great music out there that we are covering and I think people should be prepared to say, ‘I didn’t know that was a One Hit Wonder!’ There’s a lot of moments like that, while with other songs, they click into the memory bank and make sense.”
“You have to shift gears for every song,” continues Tim, “and remember the sound associated with the song. We’re still trying to be as faithful to the original as possible and are not attempting to do any five chord generic versions of the number. We’re going right after it. At first blush these songs look easy to learn, but when you get into them and start breaking them down, all of them are more difficult and complex than you realize. If anything is consistent about One Hit Wonders, it would be that one thing.”
To arrive at their selections, the first thing the crew did was sit down to write a list of 10 songs each that were One Hit Wonders. “If you’ve ever sat around with your buddies doing this type of thing you’ll understand how our first band practice was spent arguing a lot,” smiles Tim.
“One of the big problems is that the Top 40 is exclusive but not inclusive,” continues Steven. “In one instance we found a song that we started learning that was a number #39 on the charts, only to discover that band also had a number #37 in another decade, so we had to knock the initial song out, which was disappointing to me because I loved it.”
At this juncture Steven decides to play a little game with me, naming songs and asking if I can identify them as One Hit Wonders: 96 Tears by Saginaw’s own Question Mark & the Mysterians? Not a One Hit Wonder (the band also had a hit with Can’t Get Enough of You Baby). Macarthur Park? Definitely a One Hit Wonder. Wipe Out? Affirmative.
“This is they type of fun that we had,” continues Steven. “I printed a list of 100 One Hit Wonders and we started going through it. Frankly, you could make a great show out of all the songs that we won’t be performing”
The group has been in solid rehearsals for this upcoming series of performances since December. “We fooled ourselves into believing we could do this through personal rehearsals and then come together as a group, but now we’re down to two rehearsals a week,” notes Tim.
“Another challenge is the fact that all of these songs are written in different keys and we’ve got to go with what we can sing. Every band is distinct and because we like to faithfully follow the recorded version, we also had to follow what was in our vocal range. Some of these songs are sung really high.”
“They’re all sung really high,” interjects Steven. “A lot of them are like working out harmonies for The Eagles – they’re out of the sky.” Indeed, because of the musical challenges involved with wide stylistic variation of the set lists and learning so many different types of artistic renditions, Michael Brush has been enlisted this year to assist on keyboards, along with Honesty on vocals.”
“We needed an extra keyboard and female singer because a lot of this material has too much going on,” explains Tammy. “You’ll bump into a song that is heavily layered and think that two guitars are playing together when you realize it’s actually produced with four or six. Plus we’ll be adding a sax player. It’s great, really, because when is the last time you’ve seen a 10-piece local band perform live?”
“It is a blast adding three additional vocalists into the mix,” interjects Steven, “which makes the rehearsals a lot of fun, trying to decipher whether you’re listening to 3-part or 4-part vocal harmony.”
“It has been a lot of fun choosing material that plays well live,” continues Tim. “We enjoy the aspect of the challenge of just trying to do the song right and break the codes and find that little weird sound that you hear in the back of the track.”
“Tammy is classically trained and reads music better than I read a newspaper, as is Mike Brush. Then on the other spectrum you have me trying to figure out whether the chords are F-A-C or E,” he laughs. “And Carter is in between – he’s got good theoretical ability and talent, so we’re definitely a weird combo.”
Given the formidable amount of work involved, has this gifted & talented musical collective that manages to convene once a year for these Choral Society Fundraisers thought of taking any of their shows on the road, especially given all the admirable work involved in terms of preparation?
“Actually,” smiles Tim, “by the time we get it all down and perfected we don’t want to see each other for another year! Seriously though, the fact that we’ve sold out the last couple of years is gratifying enough. We’re batting 1000.”
Saginaw Choral Society presents ‘One Hit Wonders’ with Grefe, Gaus, Grefe, Gottlieb & Roberts will take place at Pit & Balcony Theatre on Thursday, Friday & Saturday March 24-25-26 at 8 PM. Tickets are $24.00 and available by calling 989-753-1812.