- Karen Cummings
1978 Ear of the Year - The Blend
Instant success is a mythological beast in the world of professional entertainers. Sure, there are the tales about the groups that hit it big overnight, but mostly it's a lot of miles, nights on the road, it's hustling and hard work, and to a certain extent, luck.
1978, for the Blend, was a culmination of all those elements. It was a period in which more than four years of road shows, nightclubs, college tours and concerts began to pay dividends. In June, the band signed a five-year contract with MCA Records, and in September, their first album entitled simply "The Blend" was released.
Any one of the five member group would laugh at the idea of overnight fame and fortune, since the Blend's success story has been quite different; one of steadily building momentum. The group originally was drawn together from two local groups, B. Schwartz and the Terrible Weeman Brothers. Initially, the band, then known as the White Mountain National Blend, started out playing nightclubs and bars in the Valley and around Portland and Kennebunkport, Maine.
From the beginning, however, the Blend was a step apart, and they immediately began to cultivate a local following. Their material was largely their own, and they soon had a growing reputation for their singular brand of country rock and rhythm and blues. In recent years, that style had evolved into more straightforward rock and roll, but the tight rhythms and harmonies still dominate, and the irrepressible excitement of watching the Blend perform is more intense than ever.
The group, like its music, is tight, and very much a product of New England. Steven Dore grew up in Fryeburg, Maine, and attended the state university at Orono where he met Skip Smith and the Blend's manager, Michael O'Leary. Jim Drown and Donny Pomber went to Kennebunkport High School, and Jim drew the only non-New Englander, Ken Holt, north from Jacksonville, Florida, after college.
Rather than letting down a little after landing their recording contract, the Blend has actually picked up the pace. They've recently finished a tour of the Northeast with the Outlaws, and on December 14th they played to a standing room only crowd that rocked the Orpheum in Boston. The band has also just completed a series of appearances in conjunction with New England radio stations, like PRO in Providence, who are promoting the album and giving substantial air time to the Blend's single, "I'm Going To Make You Love Me." The concerts are staged for the price of the station's call letters, a solid promotional gimmick for both the station and the band.
The intent is, as Michael O"Leary explained, to broaden the Blend's market, since it's no secret that AM radio is where the real financial returns lie. "It's not a matter of changing our audience," O'Leary said, "we just have to expand on it." The gigs themselves are by no means money makers, and actually the band's cash flow may have been better in the days prior to the recording. The promotional stage is a transitional one, though, and has been viewed as an investment in future returns.
The initial results have been gratifying. The group's single is currently being aired on AM and FM rock stations from Lewiston, Maine, to Eugene, Oregon, and in many cities in the Midwest. As of late October, the Blend has sold 26,000 records and tapes, and just before Thanksgiving, "I'm Going To Make You Love Me" hit Billboard Magazine's Top 100 chart, settling in at 91. "Making Billboard was the best thing that's happened to the band since they got the money to do the album," O'Leary emphasized.
The next step, according to the band's members, is to sign up with a major promotional agency, and that's one reason that making the Top 100 was important. "There are so many bands out there, many of whom have records out, that a top agency won't touch you until you've charted," O'Leary pointed out. An agency is essential to the success of a group because it has the connections to book a band like the Blend in top name places with top name groups, and to tour them nationally. "I'll admit it was something of a shock to find that making the album didn't break things open," O'Leary continued. "It's still a slow build, playing a lot of gigs and promoting the band. But hard work and talent made the Blend, and they continue to carry it."
The five musicians, O'Leary and road manager Andy Govatsos agree that another important phase in the group's development is to reach a more widespread audience with the group's live performances, and in early January the Blend will be heading South. They'll open at the Agora Ballroom in Atlanta on the 11th and 12th, will do a live broadcast from the Exit Inn in Nashville on the 13th, hit Birmingham on the 19th, and will play to Ken Holt's hometown crowd in Jacksonville on the 20th.
Afterwards, the boys head back north for the winter, and immediately their thoughts turn to the next album, and to writing and working on new material for it."Basically, we've been performing the same songs for months," drummer Skip Smith said. "Of course, there are always spontaneous improvisations, but we need to stop traveling in order to produce new stuff."
Steve Dore expressed his interest in experimenting with sounds other than rock and roll, of moving into jazz/rock and more sensitive country music. "In order to pull it off, though, you need time and money," he noted. Projections for the next six months include sandwiching three months of writing/practice time between road tours, with plans to produce an album in the late summer and fall.
The Blend's audience and popularity is expanding, and they seem destined to spend more time away from home in the next few years. Still, their return to the Valley, where most of them have chosen to make their homes, is always marked with the same enthusiasm and support that sent them off down the road to success in the beginning. Their families and friends are here, too, and many of the ties from which the strength and vitality of their music emanate. Plus, many locals would readily admit that they've enjoyed watching the band climb to the big time, and in some small way feel a part of it. For these and countless other reasons, the fickle ear of fate turns to the Blend for the 1978 Ear of the Year Award.