Off the Charts

A Taste of Bread

Although Bread was a Los Angeles band, its roots stretched over the state line into Oklahoma. In the vibrant Tulsa music scene of the 1950s, singer and guitarist David Gates (b. 1940) had plenty of opportunities to dip his toe into the music business. And there was forward-thinking talent to burn: His high school band, The Accents, cut a single in 1957 on Atlantic.

When Gates’ family moved to LA, he discovered another creative culture fomenting. The most important connection he made there was with bass guitarist Robb Royer, whose band The Pleasure Fair used Gates as producer and arranger. The Pleasure Fair’s songwriter was Jimmy Griffin, who filled out the essential trio that became Bread. In 1968 they signed with Elektra.

Although their debut album, Bread (1969), didn’t crack the top 100, its single “It Don’t Matter to Me” hit the No. 2 spot during its second release in 1970. Using multi-tracking, the three men provided a wide range of instruments, including violin, viola, Hammond organ, recorder, flute, and RMI electric piano. They contributed a variety of percussion sounds, but none of them felt comfortable enough with a kit to be the main drummer. To fill that role, they hired session musicians Jim Gordon and Ron Edgar.

Bread immediately set up a kind of songwriting dichotomy: Some tracks are by Gates, and some are co-written by Royer and Griffin. “Dismal Day,” which opens side A, a Gates song, was the album’s first single. While it did not exactly catch fire with the public, it’s a good introduction to the band’s typcially sharp, tight rhythm and the wide pitch range of its vocals. The song is also characteristic of Gates’ compositional and lyric-writing style, which tends toward the pop side of things.

 

From side B comes “Family Doctor,” credited to Griffin and Royer, who had a taste for quirkier, more introspective songs. There’s a lot to admire in the instrumental arrangement of the accompaniment, taking advantage of the timbres of the different types of keyboards and using the flute in limited but effective ways.

 

The band had much greater commercial success with their second album, On the Waters (1970). They also got themselves a full-time drummer, Mike Botts. On the Waters yielded Bread’s first and only No. 1 hit single, “Make It with You,” by Gates. (It was at this point that Elektra had the savvy idea to re-release “It Don’t Matter to Me” from the older album.)

In fact, most of the cuts chosen as singles on all their albums were Gates numbers, since he had that frothy, mainstream touch. Griffin and Royer’s work, leaning toward the darker and less conventional, is therefore less well known. I don’t doubt that the band’s legacy would be different – and stronger – today if the Griffin/Royer contributions had been given wider exposure.

“Call on Me” demonstrates Griffin/Royer’s bluesy, minor-key sound. Botts’ drumming is notable for using the pitch areas on the drum set (i.e., the lowest sounds on the bass drum to highest on the hi-hat cymbal) to mimic the repeating guitar hook.

 

This is not to say that Gates never wrote any worthwhile songs. On the 1971 album Manna, he offered up not only his usual pop hits (the singles “If” and “Let Your Love Go”), but also the touching “Come Again.”

This song’s serpentine melody, combined with the free rhythm of the lyrics and the metrical change mid-verse, gives it a greater level of interest than much of Gates’ output. The instrumental bridge section, starting with chromatic motions in the piano and strings and becoming heavy enough to count as prog rock, is also outside his usual style.

 

Royer had left the band in 1971 and was replaced by keyboard/bass player Larry Knechtel.Bread released two albums in 1972, despite growing unrest among the bandmembers. The first of these was Baby I’m-a Want You. Its title track was the biggest single from this album, reaching No. 3.

It is very much a sign of his times to find Gates stretching to political satire with his song “This Isn’t What the Governmeant.” What’s less expected for this era of unrest is the fact that the lyrics focus not on the Vietnam war (although that is mentioned halfway through), but on how annoying it is to pay taxes. This song is more of a playful swipe than deep-cutting sarcasm. The humorous griping is delivered as a Texas line-dancin’ toe-tapper.

 

The second album of 1972 was Guitar Man. Again, the title song was the biggest single, although this time the top position was only No. 11.

The departure of Royer seems to have opened up an opportunity for drummer Botts, who gets his first writing credit for the song “Fancy Dancer.” The appealing funk influence (nicely led by Knechtel’s bass licks) makes this sound like it could be a whole different band.

 

After squeezing two albums into the year 1972, Bread ended up taking a five-year hiatus from the studio. One of the primary factors for the temporary split was Griffin’s (understandable) frustration that Gates’ songs always got on the A-sides of their singles. It didn’t help that the band also had most of their concert equipment stolen in 1973.

They finally came out with their next – and final – album in 1977, called Lost Without Your Love. The lineup was the same as it had been for the previous two records. For the third time in a row, it was the title track that performed best on the charts.

But I think the best song is the last one on the album, “Our Lady of Sorrow,” credited to Griffin/Royer (Royer had left a backlog of unrecorded songs, apparently). It’s a haunting and beautiful melody with a slight Latin flavor and emboldened by a surprising major-key twist at the end of each chorus.

 

Sorry to break it to the fans, but Bread has no chance at a late-life reunion tour. David Gates got out of the music business decades ago to become a cattle rancher. Jimmy Griffin started the band The Remingtons, which had moderate success in the 1990s. He died in 2005, not long after collaborating with Rick Yancey and Ronnie Guilbeau on a recording/touring project called GYG. Mike Botts also died in 2005, with Knechtel following in 2009.

Robb Royer, who is still living but apparently retired, had the longest music career, capping it in 2010 by completing a project he and Griffin had started, a rock opera called The Plastic Sibling. The work, which had a libretto by playwright David Kaufman, was about an electronics nerd named Cosmo who builds a female robot that eventually becomes more and more human. Do I hear Broadway calling?