Forty Years Later

(If you stare at this long enough, it becomes 1973 again.)

Around the turn of the 1970s, a band from Mt. Vernon, New York, called Gun Hill Road played the Bitter End in New York City. The club’s owner, Paul Colby, was sufficiently impressed by them to become their manager. They got a record deal at Mercury and made an album called First Stop in 1971. It got a bit of radio airplay in a few places (and the song “42nd Street” was apparently big in New York City), but the album was nothing like a hit. It had done well enough, however, for Buddah Records to take them on for another one, to be released on the Kama Sutra label. It would be produced by Kenny Rogers, recently of the First Edition. The album, Gunhill Road (reflecting a slight change in the band’s name), came out early in 1973.

Buddah impresario Neil Bogart heard something in Gunhill Road’s brand of folkish pop music, particularly in the song “Back When My Hair Was Short.” But he knew that in the radio environment of 1973, “Back When My Hair Was Short” would never fly as it originally appeared, with its references to reading Screw magazine, using LSD, and dealing pot. So Bogart brought in producers Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, who would later produce the first two albums by KISS, to rework some of the songs, including “Back When My Hair Was Short.”(You can compare the lyrics of the two versions here.)

Once their revised song hit the radio, Gunhill Road (a trio: Glenn Leopold, Steve Goldrich, and Gil Roman) played American Bandstand and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and shared bills with acts including Jim Croce, Poco, Harry Chapin, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Charlie Daniels. They also opened for an impressive list of comics, including Robert Klein, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Martin Mull, and Andy Kaufman. Sometime during this period, Roman, who had sung lead on “Back When My Hair Was Short,”was replaced by Paul Reisch.

“Back When My Hair Was Short” peaked at #40 on the Hot 100 for the week of June 2, 1973, although it ranked higher in both Cash Box and Record World. Billboard noted that it was “top 10 in more different markets at more different times than any other record that year,” so its diffuse chart action kept it from rising higher on the national chart. ARSA only shows a few top 10s, however: at KUDL in Kansas City in March (where it looks to have stayed for two solid months) and at WIXY in Cleveland in May before it reached its Hot 100 peak, and at KOMA in Oklahoma City toward the end of July.

But when no second hit materialized and the touring opportunities dried up, the young men of Gunhill Road got on with separate lives. Glenn Leopold wrote scripts and music for dozens of kids’ TV shows. Goldrich and Reisch went into business and left professional music careers behind. And Gunhill Road was remembered, if they were remembered at all, as a one-hit wonder. Their song appeared on one of the volumes of Rhino’s Have a Nice Day series of 70s hits, and it got some play on oldies stations, including the Sirius/XM 70s channels.

In 2011, their eponymous second album got a CD release, and about the same time, they were invited to play at a benefit for Paul Colby. The older men of Gunhill Road enjoyed the experience so much that they started talking about making a third album. In the fall of 2013, Leopold, Goldrich, and Reisch went back into the studio and recorded 19 songs, some of which had been in the can since the early 70s. Those songs are now out on an album called Every Forty Years.

It’s one of the more unlikely comebacks ever. It has some nice moments, especially “Everything Passes,” “Selling Apples” (being pushed as a single), and “Bridgeport Monochrome.” Nineteen songs might be more Gunhill Road than we need at this point, but their enjoyment at playing together again is easy to hear. You can listen to the band members talk about their history, their band’s rebirth, and their new album here. Listen to some of the new tracks at the band’s website, which is  here.

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