Does anyone remember that old television sitcom called 'My Three Sons'? You know, the one that was centered around the Douglas clan; a widowed dad played by Fred MacMurray, his three sons, and their live-in housemother 'Uncle Charley? And how about Captain and Tennille? Remember those 1970's icons? You know, two platinum albums, five gold albums and a TV variety show? "Of course", you're probably thinking, "who doesn't remember those pop culture signposts?". Okay, how about this one: Remember The Yellow Balloon?
Check this out - Don Grady (middle son Robbie Douglas in My Three Sons) and Daryl Dragon ('The Captain' of Captain and Tennille) were also members of a terrific but little-known sunshine pop outfit named The Yellow Balloon. The story goes like this:
There was this guy in L.A. in the mid-1960's named Gary Zekley who was a hip and talented songwriter. Zekley ran in some circles that included the likes of Dean Torrence, of Jan & Dean fame, and had once penned a song that appeared on their "Ride The Wild Surf" album. Preparing for his upcoming album and in search of new material, Torrence again approached Zekley who naturally obliged. One of Zekley's songs titled 'Yellow Balloon" impressed Torrence enough that he took it into the studio and recorded it, slated for the upcoming Save For A Rainy Day album. Well, supposedly Zekley didn't like the way Torrence's recording turned out, so he walked out with the song and was determined to record it himself. After knocking on door after door that wouldn't open for him, Zekley eventually wound up in the office of a guy named Ken Handler, president of Canterbury Records. Canterbury Records, by the way was owned by Mattel Toys, and Mattel Toys was founded by Handler's parents, and Ken Handler was - get this - the real life model for the 'Ken Doll' - you know, Barbie's main-man. Ha! But I digress...
Anyhow, Handler loved the song, thought it had a lot of potential, and agreed to record it; the ultimate goal being to beat Dean Torrence to the airwaves with the song. So he brought in some musicians -hired guns like Carole Kaye, Don Randi, Al Casey, and Jim Gordon- went into the studio- studios like Sound Recorders and Western- and got to work. Zekley decided to handle the vocals, and the single titled 'Yellow Balloon' was recorded, laid down on vinyl and released. Handler even took the song, recorded it backwards, titled it "Noolab Wooley" and used it as the b-side because Canterbury didn't have anything else to put on there at the time. Hmmm... sounds like a page right out of Neil Bogart's Buddah Records handbook, doesn't it?
Sooo..., here it was, the Spring of 1967, the 'Summer Of Love' on the horizon, and Canterbury now had a hit on their hands, as 'Yellow Balloon' went to #25. Interestingly, the Jan & Dean version (really just Dean, as this was about a year after Jan Berry's awful car accident) hit the radio dial at about the same time but didn't even crack the Top 100. There was now pressure to do an album and perform live, but there was one major problem to be resolved - there really wasn't a band. Handler had to move quickly, and he contacted a kid named Don Grady who had recently recorded a song called "The Children Of St. Monica" with Canterbury and who had played previously with the Palace Guard, a folk-rock band that included future cult icon Emitt Rhodes, pre-Merry-Go-Round. Grady opened up his little black book (supposedly Grady kept a list of musicians who had impressed him when he saw them play) and contacted guitarist Paul Canella and lead singer Alex Valdez from Five of Us, a group he'd seen from Arizona. They were interested, so Grady then called a bassist (Don Braughtt) and a keyboardist (Frosty Green) from a band called Rising Sons in Oregon, and a band was formed.
Handler brought in Grady and the four other players to quickly grind out an album, with Zekley as the producer and co-writer of 8 out of 11 tracks. The eponymous band then toured for a while, even scoring appearances on Upbeat and American Bandstand with Grady as the band's "mystery drummer," hiding his identity by wearing a wig and dark sunglasses. Unfortunately, they failed to get any of their other songs to chart. Grady left the band and went solo, and for a while Daryl Dragon did time on the drum kit. With one album, one hit, a handful of live performances, and the end of the road in sight, The Yellow Balloon disbanded. Braught, Canella, Green, and Valdez soon re-surfaced as the Popcorn Explosion, but that too quickly faded away.
Gary Zekley, though, continued to write hits, and among them were "Sooner or Later" and "I'd Wait a Million Years" for the Grass Roots. Daryl Dragon (whose father, by the way, was the legendary Los Angeles Symphony conductor, Carmen Dragon) later performed for a few years as a keyboardist for The Beach Boys, and of course, became mega-famous mashed-up with Toni Tennille in the 1970's. And what about Don Grady? Well, music ended up being his gig- not acting. Since 'My Three Sons' (on which he also had appearances with his own band The Greefs) he has built up a nice list of credits in the music industry, such as composing original musical material for the Discovery channel, penning a song for the Jazz to End Hunger project, playing keyboards on saxophonist Sam Riney's jazz albums, and other projects where he has been billed as arranger or composer.
Though they only made this one contribution, The Yellow Balloon should be considered among 'the playas' when it comes to Sunshine Pop. The songs here are sunny and bright, infused with childlike sentiment. The arrangements are pretty sophisticated, offering up Beach Boys-influenced vocal harmonies, interesting keyboard flourishes, intermittent strings, jangly, Byrds-like guitars and mild psychedelia. Unfortunately, the original master tapes of the Yellow Balloon are long gone and the original vinyl pressings are quite rare, its original run being very limited. But never fear - Sundazed reissued the lone album on CD in 1998 along with several bonus tracks, and the vinyl re-mastering is very good. And hey! - there's even a recorded interview with Zekley where he talks about the sessions, which was conducted by the Beach Boys 'Smile' geek himself, Domenic Priore -
Said Mojo Magazine "...Drawing from the best of Brian Wilson and Jan Berry's arrangements, songs like 'Baby, Baby It's You' and 'Follow The Sunshine' made it a must-have."