The roots of The Blues Magoos were laid when Ralph Scala and Ronnie Gilbert met as members of the golf team at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx area of New York.
Recruiting drummer John Finnegan they called themselves The Trenchcoats before hooking up with a young guitarist and class-dodger called Peppy Castro. After adding Dennis Lepore as lead guitarist, they played the Night Owl Cafe, the Greenwich Village club at which The Lovin’ Spoonful were regular performers.
It was there that the band met Marvin Lagunoff, manager of Simon and Garfunkel.
Lagunoff got them signed to Verve for a one-off 45 and persuaded them to record two folk songs penned by a songwriter on his books, Rick Shorter. The new name – spelt as Bloos Magoos on their first single – was also given to them by Lagunoff.
Early in 1966, So I’m Wrong And You Are Right b/w The People Had No Faces demonstrated the group’s deft handling of the burgeoning folk-rock style. But it wasn’t the direction the band were heading in.
The band returned to the Night Owl, cranking out their favourite raunchy blues with new lead guitarist, Mike Esposito, who impressed with his impromptu jamming, and attracted the attention of hipper rock fans including club regular Mark Sebastian, brother of the Spoonful‘s John Sebastian.
After impressing producers Bob Wyld and Art Polhemus The Blues Magoos were signed to the more pop-oriented label, Mercury, who took the unusual step of letting them record album tracks before a single.
For the album sessions, Esposito’s friend Geoff Daking was hired as their drummer.
The new members gave them a more powerful sound, amply evidenced on their debut LP, Psychedelic Lollipop. Esposito played with feedback and dissonance, creating unique effects by using a broken Echoplex pedal to create looped guitar lines.
It was just one of many interesting textures to be found on the group’s first Mercury single, a near-five-minute raucous take on John D Loudermilk’s Tobacco Road (a US hit for The Nashville Teens in 1964), sung by Castro.
While the single flopped, it received airplay on the nascent FM radio scene and alerted the public to the band.
Their biggest hit, (We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet (1967), reached #5, securing the band a slot as the opening act on The Who‘s first US tour in 1967. The organ riff is a plausible source for Deep Purple‘s Black Night (released in 1972).
The hit single helped Psychedelic Lollipop reach US #23 in February 1967. The follow-up single, Pipe Dream, was banned from radio play because of the drug reference, even though it was clearly a song about not getting hung up on drugs.
Second album, Electric Comic Book, which barely ran for half an hour, contained breakneck songs like Life Is Just A Cher O’Bowlies, Rush Hour, Albert Common Is Dead and Pipe Dream.
Their third album, Basic, was a genuinely psychedelic effort that is considered by critics (and band members) to be their best. The LP showcased the pop sensibilities of the band on one side and mostly experimental numbers on the other, including the oddly dissonant Scarecrow’s Love Affair and self-explanatory Subliminal Sonic Laxative.
Around this time, the band issued a haunting cover version of The Move‘s I Can Hear The Grass Grow, but it, too, failed to chart.
Their lack of commercial success saw morale sag in the group and Scala and Gilbert moved to Los Angeles. Castro was fired at Mike Esposito’s behest but, in an ironic twist, Esposito remained in New York when the remaining Magoos moved to California.
Scala, Gilbert and Daking hooked up on the West Coast with singer/songwriter Ted Munda and released Let Your Love Ride, backed by a funky, keyboard-driven cover of Bo Diddley‘s Who Do You Love?
Back in New York, Castro put together a Latin rock group after auditioning new musicians through the Village Voice, and when Blues Magoos’ old producers approached him with a record deal for ABC on the condition that he call his outfit Blues Magoos, he reluctantly agreed.
Castro’s new Magoos released the LPs Never Goin’ Back To Georgia (1970) and Gulf Coast Bound (1971). Both are respectable efforts but sound nothing like the original band. The title track of the first album was the final Magoos chart entry, bubbling under at #113.
Scala and Gilbert realised they couldn’t use the Blues Magoos name and became The Dependables, releasing a highly sought-after album of roots rock on UA.
Eventually, all of the Magoos found a degree of success. Daking founded Daking Audio, a professional recording gear company, Scala became an executive for Pfizer Inc, Gilbert became a chemist, and Esposito penned a comic strip and ran a bicycle repair shop. Castro stayed in the music business to write commercial jingles. He also scored a Top 30 US hit in 1981, Breaking Away, with Balance.
The Blues Magoos reunited in 2012 when Castro and Scala retired and were able to devote their time to the band again. In 2014 they unveiled their first new album in over four decades, Psychedelic Resurrection.
Peppy Castro (Emil Thielhelm)