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"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company's Frank Jeckell

By Spotlight Central

originally published: 07/29/2020

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

The 1910 Fruitgum Company was founded in 1965 in Linden, NJ by guitarist Frank Jeckell. By 1967, the group had signed with Buddah Records, a label which released five of their LPs and a variety of singles which became Top 40 hits including “1, 2, 3 Red Light,” “Goody Goody Gumdrops,” and “Simon Says.”

Spotlight Central recently caught up with Jeckell and asked him about his formative years, the origins of the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the group’s rise to fame, his early days touring on the road, and what he and the band have planned for the near future.

Spotlight Central: Did you grow up in a musical family?

Frank Jeckell: Yes — not a professional musical family, but an amateur musical family. My grandfather played accordion for fun and my father played a little bit of accordion for fun. In fact, I was coerced into taking accordion lessons when I was eight years old, which I did not want to do, because many of my aunts and uncles — my father’s brothers and sisters — played guitar and sang country and western music in the ’50s when I was a youngster. So I grew up with that type of music around me and I wanted to do what they did, but my father said, “No, I played accordion and your grandfather played accordion — you need to play accordion.” So I took accordion lessons for about a year when I was about eight years old until I convinced my parents that I wasn’t interested and they let me quit. And I never got around to taking up the guitar until a lot of years later when one of my guitar-playing uncles came back from the service in Germany in 1960 and brought back a guitar which I ended up procuring. My father paid him $25 for it, and I began playing it when I was 14.

 



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Spotlight Central: A few years later — in 1965 — you founded the group, Jeckell and the Hydes, a high school garage band. What kind of music did you perform and where did you play?

Frank Jeckell: We were just a cover band; none of us in the band at the time were writing anything. We played pop songs of the day — a lot of British Invasion stuff and Beach Boys and various hit songs — and our gigs were pretty much everywhere. Sometimes we’d play at swim clubs, and sometimes we would play dances at high school gyms or in church basements, but certainly there weren’t any bars as we weren’t old enough to do that!

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

Spotlight Central: Is this the same group that went on to cut a four-song demo at Dick Charles Recording in NYC?

Frank Jeckell: Some of it. We were Jeckell and the Hydes, and in September of 1967, the drummer in Jeckell and the Hydes left, and that left three of us — myself on guitar, Mark Gutkowski on electronic accordion, and Steve Mortkowitz on bass. The three of us teamed up with Floyd Marcus on drums and Pat Karwan on lead guitar and formed the group that went on to record that acetate demo at Dick Charles and ultimately became the 1910 Fruitgum Company.

 

Spotlight Central: How did that acetate demo lead to a recording contract?

Frank Jeckell: Pat Karwan had a very good friend, Butch, who worked at a local luncheonette called Father & Son. Butch was a counter person who would ham it up with the customers — when he would take orders, he would often chat with the people. Butch and this elderly gentleman got into frequent discussions and eventually the gentleman said, “You know, my son is a record producer who just had a couple of hits,” and Butch said, “Well, guess what? My friend’s got this band and they just recorded this four-song demo and they’re fabulous.”

The elderly gentleman — who was the father of Jeff Katz — said, “Well, let’s get them all together,” and, soon, the acetate got into the hands of Jeff Katz of of Kasenetz and Katz. He listened to the demo, liked what he heard, and called us up and asked, “Can I come hear you play live?” This was in the summer of ’67 and at the time we were playing at a swim club. So Jeff came out to the Shakamaxon Swim Club in Scotch Plains, NJ to hear us play, and he realized we were the same group that had recorded the acetate and that we could play and that we could play well. That led to talks and in October of 1967 we signed some contracts and became the 1910 Fruitgum Company.

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

Spotlight Central: You and the rest of the band wanted to record original material but Jeff Katz said he already had a song, “Simon Says,” which he wanted you to record. Evidently, he had already tried recording it with a different band out of Philadelphia but it didn’t work out, so how did you and your colleagues come to agree to record the song?

Frank Jeckell: It was a difficult time for us because we felt we had been snookered. Basically, we were signed based on all of the original material we had, and it was good. We thought we would be recording our original material and suddenly Jeff came out of left field with “Simon Says” and asked, “Can you do this song?” Our initial reaction was, “We’re not interested in playing something like that” — and, in fact, there were a lot of expletives among the band members regarding that discussion! We were going to refuse to do it, but even before Jeff had an opportunity to threaten us with, “You can take your contract and throw it away because we’re not gonna record you if you don’t do the song,” we decided, “Let’s just play with it.”

We had a rehearsal in early December of ’67 and the general attitude of the band was, “This is trash — why do we want to do this?” Being the oldest, I was the senior voice of the band — I was 21 at the time and everybody else was 19, except Mark who was still 17 — and I said, “Listen guys. Let’s just do this and get it over with. It’s not going anywhere — if anything, it’ll be a novelty kids’ song for nursery school. It’ll never be a hit so let’s just give Jeff back a version of it that’s decent and then we’ll be done with it and can move on to record our own stuff.”

Spotlight Central: But you guys changed the song. Didn’t the version Jeff Katz give you have a very different sort of feel to it?

Frank Jeckell: Oh, yeah, you wouldn’t have recognized it — it wasn’t anything like the rock beat it ended up with. In fact, we were playing it and it didn’t sound any different than the demo Jeff had given us, so we said, “Let’s improve it.” I said, “Let’s model it after Sam the Sham and the Pharoah’s ‘Wooly Bully.’ Let’s take the bass in ‘Wooly Bully’ which goes, [sings] ‘Boom-boom boom-boom, boom-boom boom-boom,’ and let’s take the organ in ‘Wooly Bully’ which goes, [sings] ‘Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat,’ and let’s apply that and see if that helps. And it helped quite a bit. So we took it to Jeff and he said, “That’s it! Let’s go to the studio!” A couple of days later in mid-December we were in the studio recording “Simon Says” and it was released before the end of December of ’67.

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

Spotlight Central: “Simon Says” went on to be an enormous hit — it made the Top Ten in the US, UK, and Japan; charted in Germany and Italy; and sold over three and a half million copies. But you and two of your colleagues wrote the B-side of that single…

Frank Jeckell: That was actually a concession. In order to entice us to record “Simon Says” — because we did resist Jeff quite a bit about doing it — Jeff said, “If ‘Simon Says’ is good and we release it, I’ll let you put your own song on the flip side,” and that was “Reflections From the Looking Glass.”

Spotlight Central: “Reflections From the Looking Glass” was this cool, psychedelic ’60s song, obviously very different from “Simon Says.” What was the inspiration for it?

Frank Jeckell: It was basically a product of the times. If you listen to the song, it kind of asks the question, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could take yourself out of the nonsense that goes on in the world today?” — and to this very day, we still have the same thing going on with the George Floyd situation, and all the demonstrations, and all of that stuff. In fact, there was a revised line in the lyric on the recording — if you listen to the live version on YouTube done probably ten years ago, you can hear the original lyric, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white.” So it really did have a hint of that philosophy, “There’s something wrong with racist attitudes and wouldn’t it be nice if we could get rid of them?”

 

Spotlight Central: The 1910 Fruitgum Company name became synonymous with a genre of happy, good-time music known as “bubblegum” music. Some say the term came from a song called “Bubblegum World” which appeared on your first album. Do you agree?

Frank Jeckell: I do — I absolutely do. That song was written by Floyd Marcus, our drummer, and if you’re looking for the term “bubblegum” in a song, that’s the first occurrence that I know of.

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

Spotlight Central: When you and the band started touring in the 1960s, all five band members traveled together in a single Chevy van along with all of the equipment. At one point, the group headlined a show with Sly and the Family Stone who had just released “Dance to the Music.” Is it true that even though you were the headliners, you offered Sly Stone a chance to close the show?

Frank Jeckell: We did three shows with them at three different stops. After the first two stops, I saw the reaction that Sly and the Family Stone’s performance was getting from the crowd. They were a class act — way above anything we could do — and when we closed the show, it was a kind of a let down from the act that Sly had done. So I thought to myself, “Why not just let them close the show?” and so I said to Sly, “Would you mind closing the show this last time?” and he said, “No problem.”

 

Spotlight Central: While on tour, the 1910 Fruitgum Company — a group that really liked to play the Vanilla Fudge version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” — was asked to replace Vanilla Fudge at one of their gigs. Were you concerned about filling in for that group, and how did it turn out for you?

Frank Jeckell: Vanilla Fudge was scheduled to play a show which they couldn’t do. Since it was too late for the promoters to cancel the performance, and we just happened to be touring in the area and were available, we ended up getting booked to replace them. A local DJ — one who was extremely popular in the area and well-respected by everyone — was the emcee of the show, and he came out and said, “Hey, kids. Welcome to the show. Unfortunately, I have some not-so-good news for you,” and all the kids looked up with their eyes gaping. “Vanilla Fudge had a personal issue. They can’t be here tonight and had to cancel out,” and everybody went, “BOO! BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” And then he said, “But the good news is we got another class act to replace them. It’s the 1910 Fruitgum Company.” And the crowd went, “BOO! BOOOOOOOOOOO!”

The crowd started getting raucous and, basically, a riot was about to form, but this DJ had their respect and he said, “Wait! I know you’re not happy that you don’t have Vanilla Fudge here, but that’s not the fault of the 1910 Fruitgum Company! Luckily, they happened to be touring in the area and they’re here to give you a show, so the least you could do is give them a chance. The fact is the 1910 Fruitgum Company is very much like Vanilla Fudge, but they got shoehorned into playing bubblegum music. I’m sure you’ll see that and you’ll enjoy the show.” And since we did “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in the style of Vanilla Fudge, and since we were a group which was leaning toward hard rock anyway — we played Hendrix and we played Cream — plus we played a lot of Motown and a lot of Top 40, we ended up playing a good show. We weren’t a bad band at all, and we actually ended up winning over the audience.

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

Spotlight Central: At one point, you and the band also toured with The Beach Boys. What’s your favorite memory of working with them?

Frank Jeckell: We were doing a tour with The Beach Boys in October of ’68 where we stopped at seven different venues over the course of ten days. It was wonderful opening for The Beach Boys; it was just a really really great time. But, like with most tours, getting back and forth between one venue and the next involved a bus ride, and sometimes those bus rides were four or five hours long in between shows — you did a show, you slept in, you got up, you got on the bus, you rode four or five hours, and then you had to do another show — so the bus rides were cumbersome, to say the least. And one time, we were riding down the road and everybody was nodding off and trying to get a little rest when, just for the hell of it, I started to sing a Beach Boys’ song and, lo and behold, they all joined in behind me, so there I was singing lead on a Beach Boys song with The Beach Boys harmonizing behind me!

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

Spotlight Central: What could be better, right?

Frank Jeckell: Exactly, it was wonderful!

 

Spotlight Central: And didn’t you appear on American Bandstand with Dick Clark, as well?

Frank Jeckell: Yes. In fact, the first time I ever got to fly was in March of ’68 when we were called to go out to California to tape American Bandstand. We got there and showed up at the lot and the kids were waiting to come in — but the first thing I noticed was a little bit of a green haze over the kids because the pot smoke was that thick.

So we went inside to tape the show. At that time, the way Dick Clark did the show was he would tape a couple of weeks of shows at the same time because he didn’t want to have to come in every single week; in other words, he would stretch things out as far as he could without it being out of sync with the material — because pop songs changed fast — and he would do two or three shows at once. Now Dick Clark was the show’s producer, so he ran the taping of the show in addition to being its host. On camera, he would be talking, “We’ve got this new song that came out by this group, bla bla bla,” and the kids would dance to it. And then he would say, “And here’s a word from our sponsor” — and at this point they would need to leave time in the tape for the commercials — but as soon as he’d finished saying anything on camera, you’d hear him scream, “Buddy, get that f*cking piece of sh*t, G*d damn it! I told you to get that motherf*cking thing over here! What’s wrong with you?” So right in front of the kids, he was screaming at the top of his lungs at his staff with every epithet and every curse word you could ever think of, but then after the commercial break was over, he’d be back on camera saying, “Hi kids! Now let’s go over our Top 10 for the week.”

So he was a nice guy — a very nice guy — but he was a tough taskmaster, too. He had his job to do — he was the producer — and that’s how he cracked the whip.

Spotlight Central: That was in 1968, but by 1970, the group had disbanded. 30 years later, in 2000, the band reunited with a new lineup. How have you enjoyed being a part of the 1910 Fruitgum Company since it regrouped?

Frank Jeckell: I love playing music. It’s quite a thrill to be an elderly gentleman and still go out on stage and perform and have people enjoy what I’m doing. A lot of people come up to me after our shows and tell me how much they enjoyed their younger years listening to my music and how important it was to them. So I have to say it’s a thrill and I hope it never ends. Of course, we’re on hold this year with the virus, but so is everybody.

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

Spotlight Central: With concerts currently being cancelled or postponed, what have you and the band been up to?

Frank Jeckell: Not much. But one experience I had with the new band that happened a few years back involved a show we did in Cincinnati, and on the show was Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. It was a fun thing for me because I was able to talk with Peter about the first time I’d met him back in 1968. We had done a show together back in ’68, and he remembered meeting me because of an incident that occurred at the Holiday Inn after that original show. We were all down in the bar at the Holiday Inn after the show socializing a little bit and Peter was talking to somebody at the bar. The next thing we know, a scuffle breaks out. Apparently, some guy said something extremely rude about the Queen, and being British, Peter didn’t like what this guy said — in fact, he was ready to punch the guy’s lights out — and we had to get in between them and stop the ruckus before it turned into something very serious.

Then we got in the elevator — this was me, Peter, and Bruce, who was our lead singer at the time. Bruce was very short and he talked with a little bit of a lisp, and he said, “Hey Peter! I really like them boots!” And Peter said, “You do?” and proceeded to take off his boots and handed them to Bruce saying, “Here. They’re yours!”

So I reminded Peter of that incident — and I didn’t know whether he would remember it or not because it had been 30 or 40 years since it had happened — but he absolutely did remember it and it was nice to renew the acquaintance we had.

 

Spotlight Central: Is there anything else you’d like to add — or anything you’d like to say to fans of live music who are looking forward to seeing your concerts again?

Frank Jeckell: Yes, we’re already booking shows for the future. One of them is going to be out in Deadwood, South Dakota at a festival they call KOOL Deadwood Nites, which is a reference to the local radio station, KOOL. For the festival, they close the town down for a weekend and put up a huge stage in the main intersection of town. We played there once before, about three or four years ago, and there were 16,000 people there — it was the largest crowd we’d ever performed for. We were the only act on a Saturday night, and although I’d love to say that all 16,000 people came out because we were there, that would be stretching the truth a bit. Nonetheless, we were glad to see such a large crowd, and we’re looking forward to getting back there again.

Also, another show we have planned for the summer of 2021 is even closer to home. It’s going to be on July 4th in Springfield, NJ. We’ve played there every year — except this year — for the past ten years. So we’re looking forward to being back out performing again, and we hope that all of our fans can come out and see us because we love to see them, we love visiting with them, and we love to play for them.

"Simon Says!" Spotlight on The 1910 Fruitgum Company

To learn more about The 1910 Fruitgum Company, please go to 1910fruitgumcompany.com.

Photos by Love Imagery

Spotlight Central. Your source for Jersey entertainment news and reviews

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