Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera

Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera was an English psych-rock band that released multiple singles and a 1968 self-titled album on Direction. After Gantry’s departure, singer/guitarist Paul Brett led them on the 1969 release Ride a Hustler’s Dream. The rhythm section joined the Strawbs and later recorded as Hudson–Ford. Gantry surfaced in funk-rockers Stretch.

Members: Colin Forster (guitar, 1967-68, 1970), Dave Terry [aka Elmer Gantry] (vocals, guitar, 1967-68), Richard Hudson (drums, 1967-70), John Ford (bass, 1967-70), Paul Brett (vocals, guitar, 1968-69), Johnny Joyce (guitar, 1968-69), Colin Bass (bass, 1970), Dave MacTavish (vocals, 1970), Mike Fincher (drums, 1970)


Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera had its roots in The Five Proud Walkers, an R&B/beat group formed in the mid-1960s by singer/guitarist Dave Terry, guitarist Colin Forster, bassist John Ford, drummer Richard Hudson, and organist Jimmy Horrocks. Ford appeared earlier in beatsters Jaymes Fenda and the Vulcans, co-writing their 1964 Parlophone side “Mistletoe Love,” a UK hit.

Before the Proud Walkers hit the studio, they opened for Pink Floyd, whose experimental approach prompted a stylistic rethink. The Walkers, minus Horrocks, morphed into The Velvet Opera, a psych/freakbeat combo akin to Skip Bifferty and the Blossom Toes.

Terry donned a stage cape in ode to the titular character in the 1960 Burt Lancaster vehicle Elmer Gantry (based on the namesake 1926 satirical novel by American playwright Sinclair Lewis). Audience members started referring to Terry as “Elmer Gantry” and the name stuck. The band signed to Direction, a division of CBS.

1968: Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera

Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera debuted in November 1967 with “Flames” (b/w “Salisbury Plain”), a Terry original backed with a group-composed number from the Horrocks days.

Their album, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, appeared in 1968. It features “Flames” and two additional Terry compositions (“Intro,” “Long Nights of Summer”), plus two Ford contributions (“Mother Writes,” “Mary Jane”), three Gantry/Ford co-writes (“What’s the Point of Leaving,” “Reactions of a Young Man,” “Now She’s Gone”), three Forster co-writes (“Walter Sly Meets Bill Bailey,” “Air,” “Lookin’ for a Happy Life”), a Hudson/Ford number (“Dream Starts”), and a cover of Oscar Brown Jr.’s “But I Was Cool.”

The two-chord “Intro” heralds the album, master-of-ceremonies style. One minute in, they plunge into “Mother Writes,” a windy freakbeat rocker with rapidfire bass, floodgate drumrolls, and searing fuzztone. On the instrumental “Walter Sly Meets Bill Bailey,” a thick, trebly bassline interlocks with a syncopated kickdrum pattern, which cut to a brisk, descending snareroll sequence. “Lookin’ for a Happy Life” bounces along in jolly, 2/4 fashion: a sunny-day snapshot of Swinging London.

Calling on Gantry’s soul-rock roots, “Flames” runs at high-velocity Motown precision, exploding midway (ala Yarbirds). “Long Nights of Summer” swells with flute-tone mellotron, anchored by the tight Hudson/Ford rhythm section. “Dream Starts” pairs treated vocals (bubbly, underwater effects) to an echoey bass/piano arrangement. “Reaction of a Young Man” sets trippy, ghostly harmonies to a circular acoustic pattern, interspersed with a frosty, percussive mellotron passage. Gantry belts “Now She’s Gone” over a backdrop that alternates supple piano with foggy mellotron.

Overall, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera combines the harmonies and underlying structure of soul-rooted English beat with the studio effects and whimsy of London’s psychedelic scene. Its most like-minded contemporaries include albums by The Pretty Things (S.F. Sorrow), the Small Faces (Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake), the Yardbirds (Little Games), the Blossom Toes (We Are Ever So Clean), and The Who (The Who Sell Out).

Original vinyl releases feature a laminated front cover with period bubble-letter typography and an antique oval-framed photo of the band in Regency garb. It was designed by John Hays, who later did visuals for Argent (Ring of Hands), Soft Machine (Third), Skin Alley, Heaven (Brass Rock 1), Al Stewart, and Lesley Duncan (Sing Children Sing). On the back cover, captions to each song title link the overall album theme. “Mary Jane” became their second single, backed with “Dreamy.” In North America, the album was issued on CBS with a modified cover (stenciled waves, background).

CD pressings of Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera feature assorted bonus tracks, including “Salisbury Plain,” “Talk of the Devil” (the theme to a British short film), and two late-1968 cuts, the explosive “Volcano” and the thundering, Cream-tinged “A Quick ‘B’,” the latter two paired on a 1969 non-album single.

1969: Ride a Hustler’s Dream

In late 1968, Forster cleared way for singer/guitarist Paul Brett. His ideas for the band clashed with Terry, who departed in early 1969. Minus Gantry, the band reverted to Velvet Opera, adding singer/guitarist Johnny Joyce.

The lineup of Hudson, Ford, Brett, and Joyce recorded Ride a Hustler’s Dream, released on CBS in 1969. It features 11 tracks with two songs apiece from Brett (“Ride a Hustler’s Dream,” “Warm Day In July”) and Ford (“Black Jack Davy,” “Depression”), plus two group compositions (“Money By,” “Don’t You Realize”), the Brett/Ford co-write “Anna Dance Square,” Hudson’s “Raga,” and two covers (the trad “Statesboro Blues,” the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby”). The back cover features liner notes by Chris Welch, a music writer for Melody Maker. Spark Records founder Barry Kingston handled production.

The album’s folksy, titular intro marks the change of sound, acoustic-blues style. “Money By” employs phasing over tight harmonies, bobbing bass, and staccato guitar figures. The knee-slapping “Black Jack Davy” is a bluegrass ditty with dueling acoustics and rootsy harmonica. A stately flute melody anchors the buzzing sitar layers of “Raga,” which gradually swells in rhythmic intensity. Another knee-slapper, “Anna Dance Square,” sets crude wah-guitar and gruff bass against restless fiddle (right channel). “Depression” makes light of its topic with a jolly Scrumpy and Western arrangement. The frantic “Don’t You Realize,” with its brisk bass runs and scything guitar breaks, is most evocative of Velvet Opera’s freakbeat past.

“Warm Day July” counterpoints pizzicato acoustics and light, airy flute through a multi-movement structure, anticipating the upcoming folk-psych of Synanthesia and Jan Dukes de Grey (even the lighter side of early King Crimson). Brett would further explore this style on subsequent endeavors. They render “Eleonore Rigby” sans vocals in brisk shredder mode with unstoppable drum fills, thundering bass and tight, searing guitar licks; apropos to Love Sculpture‘s proto-speed-metal take on “Sabre Dance.”

Ride a Hustler’s Dream spawned two singles: “Black Jack Davy” (b/w “Statesboro Blues”) and “Anna Dance Square” (b/w “Don’t You Realize”).

Subsequent Activity

In early 1970, Ford jumped ship to the Strawbs, where he was followed by Hudson. After four albums with Strawbs, they cut four albums as Hudson–Ford. Brett joined Fire (with future Strawb Dave Lambert) for the 1970 album The Magic Shoemaker, then fronted Paul Brett’s Sage for two albums before launching a solo career.

A returning Forster, along with (later Camel) bassist Colin Bass, resurrected Velvet Opera for one final go-round. They hired ex-Tintern Abbey singer Dave MacTavish, who wrote both sides of their 1970 Spark single “She Keeps Giving Me These Feelings” (b/w “There’s a Hole In My Pocket”). The b-side, with its Marriott-like vocals, swirly organ, and herky-jerk riffage, indicate they were heading in a soul-rock direction similar to the Faces and Humble Pie. However, the band dissolved shortly afterwards.

Terry retained the Elmer Gantry stagename for his remaining career. After a stint fronting unsigned jazz-rockers Armada, he formed Legs with Curved Air guitarist Gregory Kirby. After an ill-advised US tour as “Fleetwood Mac” (a ruse devised by Mac’s management), Legs morphed into funk-rockers Stretch and cut three albums on Anchor between 1975 and 1977.



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