"Guess There's Just No Getting Over You!" Spotlight on The Union Gap’s Gary Puckett
By Spotlight Central
originally published: 09/19/2020
Gary Puckett & The Union Gap was one of the most successful musical groups of the 1960s. Thanks to Puckett’s signature vocal style, the group garnered six consecutive gold records with such memorable hits as “Young Girl,” “Woman Woman,” “Lady Willpower,” “This Girl is a Woman Now,” and “Over You.”
Spotlight Central recently had a chance to chat with Gary Puckett about his musical childhood; his rise to fame with the Union Gap; his latest album, Gary Puckett Love Songs; and what he’s currently been up to.
Spotlight Central:You were born in Hibbing, Minnesota — the childhood hometown of Bob Dylan — and you grew up in Yakima, Washington. We understand your parents were musical. Can you tell us a bit about them?
Gary Puckett: My mom and dad were both musicians. From an early age, my mom studied piano, and she became a marvelous pianist. Although I wouldn’t call her a master, she had her own style, and there was always music in the house. Coming from the big band era, she had a stack of music books a mile high and she played that music every day. Music was definitely a part of her life and a part of our lives as well, because it kind of instilled in us — me, my brothers, and my sisters — that musical thing.
My dad was a sax player, and that’s how my parents met, actually — as musicians, right out of high school. They were both in a big band called The Dick Halverson Big Band. Being a professional musician wasn’t as easy in those days, however, with regards to travel. Tour buses had not become what they eventually became — moving homes — so my parents opted for a more traditional life. My dad went to work for a merchandising company called the Allied Corporation, and he was moved around from city to city at times while making his way up the corporate ladder.
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So my dad was a sax player and a singer and my mom was a pianist and a singer, and I was very fortunate to inherit the qualities of their voices.
Spotlight Central:What instruments did you play as a youngster?
Gary Puckett: As a kid, my mom became my piano teacher. Of course, I was like any boy — I’d rather be out chasing garden variety snakes and doing all the things boys do — so, eventually, I sort of strayed away from my teachings. I was a big fan of people like Jerry Lee Lewis, however, so I got into that, and then I found a guitar when I was about 15 — an old Spanish-style guitar in my grandparents’ attic — that started me on the guitar path. I always found the guitar to be more — I don’t know what the word is — I guess you just could say I was more attracted to it. It was easy to carry around, as opposed to a piano, and it seemed to have more of a romantic connotation to it, so I started playing the guitar at around age 15.
Spotlight Central:You mentioned listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, but what other artists did you listen to growing up?
Gary Puckett: I listened to them all. I grew up through the ’50s. I loved Elvis, and I loved all the people in that era from Little Richard to Fats Domino to The Platters to The Coasters. I even loved the people who were, sort of, what would you call them? The middle-aged people? Like Patti Page, who sang “(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window?” And I loved Pat Boone — it didn’t matter who it was; I just followed the music, you know — everything from Paul Anka to The Everly Brothers.
Spotlight Central:After high school, you want to college in San Diego, where you were interested in forensics and psychology, but decided to pursue music as a career. You talked one time about making a decision while crossing the so-called “suicide bridge” in Balboa Park. Can you tell us what happened there?
Gary Puckett: [Laughs] Well, my books committed suicide! You know, I spent two years studying and doing all the required college courses, but I really wanted to be on the stage — I wanted to sing; I wanted to play guitar. It just had this attraction to me that could have been fatal, but turned out to be pretty good, as a matter of fact.
So, yeah, I was walking across what we called the “suicide bridge” over Balboa Park and just kind of tossed my books over the side. That was not a good move — [laughs] I could have clunked somebody over the head!— and then I quit school.
Spotlight Central:In the early ’60s, you were playing in nightclubs in a trio called The Outcasts while working at an auto supply shop during the day. What kind of music did The Outcasts play, and did the group ever make any recordings?
Gary Puckett: We did, actually, but not too many. We recorded two songs that the group’s bass player and I had written. One was called “Run Away,” and the flip side of that record was called “Would You Care.” That was on the Prince label. And then we did another recording for something called the Karate label, of all things. I believe the producer of that record was Andy DiMartino, who had produced a big record by another San Diego-based group, The Cascades, which was called “Rhythm of the Rain.” So, yeah, we did a couple of things with The Outcasts.
Spotlight Central:Mostly, then, you were a cover band?
Gary Puckett: Oh, yeah, definitely a cover band. That’s what we did because that’s what we needed to do to make a living. We were working the nightclubs, and in the nightclubs people wanted to hear the music of the day, so we played everything from The Beatles to The Stones to the R&B songs of the day — all that kind of stuff.
Spotlight Central:After The Outcasts split up, in 1967, you started your own garage band, Gary and the Remarkables, but soon changed the name. Can you explain what was happening at the time?
Gary Puckett: Well, I kind of wanted to get out of the nightclubs and get out on the road, but I also wanted to make some records and get out into the world in a big way, as opposed to spending my life on smoky stages in smoky clubs. I had been with The Outcasts for a couple of years and we were a great trio. There’s no doubt I remember it as it really being a great band: a bass player, a drummer, and me on guitar plus Hammond B-3 organ.
We were good. We rocked. We played ballads. We were able to do it all. And the club we worked in was called the Quad Room, which was a very popular club in town. We did well there — very, very well — but the band was kind of volatile. The drummer and the bass player were always fighting about stuff like who was the leader and who was gonna call the songs. So there was some unrest there, and I was always in between the two, pushing them apart saying, “Come on guys! This is music! This is fun! We’re making a really great living, so come on!” but they just kept at it.
So, one day, I finally said, “I’m moving on,” and quit, and that’s when I started looking for the group that became Gary and the Remarkables. Really, the name was just a working title, but it was that group that eventually became known as The Union Gap, after I’d finally gotten the idea of what our dress would be, what the name would be, and all that kind of stuff.
Spotlight Central:Didn’t the new name come from Union Gap, Washington — a town near where you grew up — and from the idea of the band wearing Civil War uniforms?
Gary Puckett: Yeah, it was the Civil War uniforms that really started it. I liked blue and I was born in the North, so I would have considered myself in the Union Army, as opposed to the Southern Army. And I liked “Union Gap” and “Union soldier,” and when I thought about wearing Union soldier outfits, I just went, “Woah! ‘Union Gap,’ that works!” So we had a look, we had an image, and we had a name — and that’s how we got our start.
Spotlight Central:And then you created a portfolio for yourself and the band which included a demo of you singing The Platters’ “My Prayer” which interested Jerry Fuller, the Columbia Records music executive who had written Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man.” Can you tell us more about that?
Gary Puckett: I actually discovered Jerry Fuller at his office — although he’s been given credit for discovering me and the band at a lounge in San Diego. I had been looking all over Los Angeles for anybody from a record company who would be willing to see what we looked like and take a listen to what I sounded like. So I was taking my portfolio all over Los Angeles, and the last place I stopped on my way out of town was at the CBS building which housed Columbia Records. I went in and asked the woman working the phones if there was anybody there who might look at my portfolio, and she said, “Go down the hallway, turn right, then go to the second doorway and you’ll find a guy there by the name of Jerry Fuller.”
When I went into his office, he was hanging up the gold record for Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man,” which was very impressive to me because I’d never seen a gold record before! I thought, “Gee, whiz; this is really great,” and I said, “That’s fantastic! Please, will you take a look at my portfolio?” And fortunately he was looking for me — and I say that insofar as he already had a song in mind that he wanted to record. It was called “Woman, Woman (Have You Got Cheating On Your Mind?),” which was written by a couple of fellas from Nashville. Jerry loved the song, thought it was a hit, and was looking for someone who he thought would be the right singer for the song. And in this case, I happened to walk into his office at just the right time. Jerry heard me singing “My Prayer.” He liked what he heard — he liked my voice — and he said, “Where can I see this band?”
I told Jerry he could come to San Diego — actually Clairemont, which is a suburb of San Diego — where we were working at the Quad Room, which was part of the Clairemont Bowl. He said, “I’ll be there Saturday night,” but he actually showed up on Friday night, so as to catch me off guard! At midnight, he walked up to the stage and I looked at him and almost didn’t recognize him, but then it dawned on me who he was, and I asked, “What are you doing here now?” I said, “I’m cruising through the night waiting for you to come tomorrow night!” but he said, “No, I love it. Let’s go make a record.”
We took a seat in a booth at the bowling alley and just talked, and he said, “I’m gonna go and get all the recording contracts and the publishing and all the stuff together. In the meantime, I have this song which we will work on. It’s written by a couple of guys from Nashville and it’s been recorded for the country market, but we’re gonna make it into a pop record.”
I went home and waited patiently while Jerry went back to Los Angeles and got the papers together before returning to San Diego, and we actually ended up signing the contracts in the same booth in the bowling alley where we sat during his first visit.
Spotlight Central: “Woman Woman” became your first hit in 1967. It was recorded with an orchestrated arrangement which featured 30–40 performers including, we’re told, members of the famed West Coast group of studio musicians called The Wrecking Crew. What was it like for you recording that song?
Gary Puckett: It was a fabulous experience — a truly fabulous experience. It was in Studio A at Columbia Records, which was a very large studio built to accommodate large orchestras and things of that nature. Some of the Union Gap members actually recorded on that record. For instance, Kerry Chater, our bass player, sat next to Carol Kaye, and they both read the same bass chart; their bass sounds were mixed together in the control booth to give us a great bass sound. Hal Blaine was on the drums and he, of course, later became known as one of the major Wrecking Crew members, along with many others like Glen Campbell, who was also there playing acoustic guitar. Guitarist Mike Deasy was there, too, along with a number of other guys, because they were the “A” players. Anybody who was making records would call them first and, if they were available, they’d be there. So, yes, we had many of the Wrecking Crew members there that day.
Spotlight Central:After “Woman Woman” became a hit, you followed that up with “Young Girl,” which was written by Jerry Fuller. Then came our favorite Gary Puckett song, “Lady Willpower,” and, after that, “Over You” and “This Girl is a Woman Now,” among others. With so many hits under your belt, do you have a favorite Gary Puckett song to listen to or to perform?
Gary Puckett: I love them all, and I love them all for different reasons. “Woman Woman” is probably my most favorite because it was the first, and it was a big hit. Plus, to me, it’s a fantastic song. It’s well-written, and the lyric really relates to all of us — we all can experience what the song was talking about. So I love it for those reasons and, also, for the [clears throat before singing powerfully] “Woah-oh-oh. Wo-o-o-man” — that thing — I love that part!
Gary Puckett: [Laughs] Thanks — and “Young Girl” is one of my favorites, too, for the fact that it was the biggest record, and it’s as singable as it gets; people always sing along. I open my shows with “Lady Willpower,” which is one of my favorites, as well, and the audience always sings along on that, too. I go, “Lady…” and hold out the microphone and they all go [sings] “Willpower” and it’s just great — it’s absolutely excellent! Also “This Girl is a Woman Now” is a fantastic song, and “Over You,” I just love that tune as well. That was Jack Webb’s favorite song and favorite record.
Spotlight Central:Jack Webb from Dragnet?
Gary Puckett:Dragnet, that’s correct! So they’re all my favorites for different reasons, and I love them all, but probably “Woman Woman” is first.
Spotlight Central:Once you achieved such an elite level of success, you started performing on many different network television shows and specials, including The Ed Sullivan Show. Do you have any special memories of performing on TV in those days?
Gary Puckett: Oh, sure — lots and lots of them, actually. One show, in particular, that we did was The Jonathan Winters Show. Jonathan was — [laughs] I don’t even know what adjectives to use for him — I mean, he was incredibly funny, but I think he might have also been just a little bit touched! And I don’t use that term disparagingly at all, because Jonathan was Robin Williams’ mentor in that regard. He was just such a hilarious man.
It took five days to do that hour-long show, because you had to block the show, you had to do the dress rehearsal, and you had to have all sorts of things done before the time you actually did the show for real. And I’ll never forget when Mr. Winters came out and saw all the boys dressed in their Union soldier outfits and just started acting out the Indian Wars — it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. The whole crew just stopped and laughed and carried on watching him. So that was a fun memory of Jonathan Winters carrying on with the Union soldiers and the Indians.
Spotlight Central:After your music had been going strong for years, in 2010, didn’t you get a chance to do something you’d never done before — perform a live concert in Union Gap, Washington?
Gary Puckett: We did — I didn’t know you knew about that! It got onto the AP Wire, which is very cool. We had a really good time. All of Union Gap came out. It was a rainy day — it was really kind of a miserable, wet day — but we went back, and had a really really good time. And while I was there, the chief of police gave me his pickup truck so I could go and see the house that I kind of grew up in from age 11 or 12 to 16. So that was very cool.
Spotlight Central:Over the years, you’ve appeared as part of the Happy Together Tour with The Turtles and other groups, but is it true that during the 2016 tour, you wore one of your original Union Gap band uniforms?
Gary Puckett: I did, as a matter of fact. It was the jacket that was on the Young Girl album. It was fun wearing it, because it just sort of felt like I was connecting in truth to the songs and to the memories and all that. And, of course, I would tell the concertgoers that I was wearing the original jacket — it was a little tight under the arms, but I could actually wear it quite well!
Spotlight Central:Your latest album is called Gary Puckett Love Songs, where you interpret more recent hits such as Journey’s “Open Arms,” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” How much fun was it choosing those songs and recording them?
Gary Puckett: Oh, I had a great time! It was difficult to choose because there were so many songs to pick from, but I thought it would be really fun to do some of the rock group songs by Journey, by Foreigner, by Meat Loaf, by Heart, etc. So it was fun choosing them and it was fun singing them — and, actually, I played all the guitar parts on the album, as well, just to satisfy my rock roots.
Spotlight Central:Up until very recently, you were doing anywhere from 70 to 100 shows per year. Since most concerts have been postponed for now, what have you been up to?
Gary Puckett: [Jokes] Uh, nothing — just like everybody else. But we have three grandchildren who are the lights of our lives: Brandon is six, Bentley — whose nickname is Petunia — is three, and Brooklyn is just a little over one. Their mother is a doctor, so we’ve recently had the children here a lot. They’re beautiful children.
Spotlight Central:It’s pretty cool that your grandchildren have a rock star grandpa!
Gary Puckett: [Laughs] They think it’s pretty cool, too. When I get in the car, they request to listen to me, so they know all the songs, they sing them, and they love them. And, in fact, “Lady Willpower” is their favorite, too!
Plus, in addition to spending time with the grandchildren, I’ve been doing a bunch of songwriting — being creative; that kind of stuff — putting out the Love Songs CD and things of that nature, and hoping we get back to doing live shows because I miss the people, and I miss singing and playing the guitar and being with them.
Spotlight Central:That brings us to our last question: Is there anything you’d like to say to all of your fans who are looking forward to seeing you perform live again?
Gary Puckett: Just be patient! Stay safe and well, and keep yourselves prepared for getting back out into the world. It seems like this thing is going to go on a bit longer than we thought it would, but I’m looking forward to seeing all the fans because I love my fans — they are my friends on the road. So please, be safe, be well, take care — and God bless you one and all!