march 2011

Rob Grill: ‘You'll be my lovin' woman, I'll be your lovin' man/We'll take the most from living/have pleasure while we can…’

‘Rob Loved His Fans and The Grass Roots’

Rob Grill

November 30, 1943-July 11, 2011

On the morning of July 11 the former Nancy Pilski sat in a bed in an Orlando hospital and held her dying husband of 25 years in her arms as he took his last breaths. In precarious health in recent years, he had managed to soldier on and make appearances with his band, but this latest calamity was something else altogether. A month earlier he had suffered a pair of strokes after falling, then was stricken with pneumonia and lapsed into a coma. The strokes affected different areas of his brain, and he had been put on a ventilator. A CT scan showed, said Nancy, "a rupture in the layers of the brain." The ventilator was eventually removed, but his condition continued to deteriorate. Even as she held him tight in his final moments on earth, she heard his voice--they were listening to his emotional, earnest singing on "Let's Live for Today," the first hit he had experienced as a lead singer/bassist with his band, The Grass Roots, and her husband's favorite of all the big hits he had recorded. Its sentiment to leave the hustle of daily life behind and instead settle in and love each other good and true was idealistic but oh so alluring, especially to a generation coming of age in the '60s and questioning the status quo of everything. Another lyric, "You'll be my lovin' woman, I'll be your lovin' man/We'll take the most from living/have pleasure while we can," could not have rung more true as this man's life ebbed. ("Let's Live For Today" was an English language version of "Piangi con me," a 1966 hit for The Rokes, an Italian quartet.)

That July Monday, in the arms of his beloved Nancy, Rob Grill died at age 67. Only hours later the current Grass Roots lineup, with which Grill often performed when physically able (he lived for years in chronic pain as a result of a degenerative bone disorder known as avascular necrosis and the multiple hip-replacement operations it entailed. In 2007, he was arrested on charges of having obtained the prescription painkiller oxycodone from multiple doctors, in violation of Florida law. He underwent an intervention program to avoid jail time.), took the stage at Musikfest Café at the Arts Center at Steelstack in Bethlehem, PA. Current Grass Roots bassist Mark Dawson announced Grill's death from the stage. "We may have lost one great friend, but Heaven gained an exceptional singer," Dawson said. "We say God bless you, and Rob says the show must go on."

Rob Grill Memorial Video posted at YouTube by rwells47

Grill had been part of the band's recent jaunts on the Happy Together Tour, which features the Grass Roots along with The Turtles, Paul Revere & the Raiders' towering lead singer Mark Lindsay, The Association and The Buckinghams. Like all the bands on this impressive bill, the Grass Roots' music had a sunny, good-time feel, but smart lyrics that probed the meaning of relationships; abhorred--or made fun of--materialistic impulses; sought higher spiritual enlightenment; and/or counseled living not only for today but full measure. These groups are not hip enough for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters, but their music is going to outlast that of some of the more dubious Hall inductees of recent years. The sold-out crowds thronging to the Happy Together Tour prove the point.

In memory of their fallen lead singer, the Grass Roots performed "Let's Live for Today" in his honor at the Bethlehem show. As reported by John J. Moser in Lehigh Valley Music, "the group's performance...was particularly empathetic, with guitarist Dusty Harvey playing an authentic psychedelic guitar solo that the crowd cheered heartily." Moser also looked back on Grill's most recent appearance in the Lehigh Valley area, this past December, at the Camelot for Children Christmas Spectacular concert at Allentown Symphony Hall: "At that show, Grill's recent health difficulties were evident. He walked on stage with a cane and a pronounced limp, and had some singing limitations, often letting Dawson sing lead. But when Grill did sing, his vocal shortcomings actually added to the songs' emotions. 'Let's Live for Today' sounded wonderfully pleading and desperate."

The Grass Roots, ‘Where Were You When I Needed You,’ 1966. The audio track features the Rob Grill-led Grass Roots on the third, and biggest, recording of the P.F. Sloan song; video footage is of the original Grass Roots bands, aka The Bedouins, who objected to lead singer Bill Fulton being ordered to record with studio musicians and returned to San Francisco where they changed their name to Unquenchable Thirst. Posted at YouTube by bze2nlz4.

The Grass Roots' glory years were 1966 through 1971 (the first Grass Roots recordings were released in 1965, and in 1982 another Grass Roots incarnation released two singles). In that time, the band notched two gold albums, a gold single, 21 charted singles (three Top 10s, three Top 20s, eight Top 40s), and sold more than 20 million records worldwide.

Starting with "Let's Live For Today" (#8), the group’s hits, featuring Grill’s on his bluesy, subtly quavering lead vocals, included "Midnight Confessions" (#5-1968), "Sooner Or Later" (#9-1971), "I'd Wait A Million Years" (#15-1969), "Temptation Eyes" (#15-1971) and "Two Divided By Love" (#16-1971). By 1975 the hits had dried up and the band was history. Grill started a solo career four years later, though he retained the rights to the Grass Roots name and reformed the group in 1982.

No matter the contents of the Grass Roots' songs (Grill himself wrote some 16 tunes for the band, many in collaboration with fellow band member Warren Entner), Grill told John J. Moser that he and his fellow musicians were keenly aware of maintaining their momentum and coming up with a new tune when another started its chart fade. It was systematic writing with the specific aim of keeping the juggernaut rolling.

The Grass Roots, Rob Grill (lead vocal), ‘Let’s Live For Today,’ on Hollywood Palace, introduced by Jimmy Durante.

"We watched the charts, and when [one song] started to come down, we'd release another song," Grill told Moser. "There was no secret. We recorded songs that were hits. That was the whole focus. You found the best songs and put them out." Writing your own material and creating albums, Grill said, wasn't as important."

Yet, out of that deliberate process came enduring hits, much as the songwriting factory that was the Brill Building shaped a youth culture while simply trying to feed its physical and emotional appetites.

The Grass Roots, P.F. Sloan’s ‘Melody For You,’ 1969

The funny story about the Grass Roots is how they actually came to be. The first Grass Roots single, the acidic 1965 kissoff "Where Were You When I Needed You," though billed as being by the Grass Roots, was actually recorded by one of the song's writers, P.F. Sloan, who with his writing/producer partner Steve Barri, was contracted to Trousdale Music, the publishing arm of Dunhill Records, which wanted to cash in on the folk-rock boom of 1965. Dunhill asked Sloan and Barri to come up with this material, and a group alias under which they would release it. When the single, released on the Dunhill label, started to create some buzz, Sloan and Barri needed a band to become the Grass Roots. A San Francisco group, The Bedouins, was recruited for that purpose and recorded the first Grass Roots album, titled after the initial single. Bedouins lead singer Bill Fulton recorded a new vocal for "Where Were You When I Needed You" over the backing tracks cut for the Sloan version.

The Grass Roots, P.F. Sloan’s ‘Things I Should Have Said,’ #23 single, 1967

When the Bedouins/Grass Roots insisted on recording their own blues-rock songs, and objected when Bill Fulton was told he would record the debut Bedouins single, Bob Dylan's "Ballad Of a Thin Man," with studio musicians. Released in October 1965, that single generated only modest interest, and the Bedouins returned to San Francisco to re-form as the Unquenchable Thirst. Sloan and Barri bid them farewell (the Bedouins/Grass Roots single of "Where Were You When I Need You" was released in mid-1966 and cracked the Top 30 at #28 but the ensuing album was shelved) and promptly recruited as the new Grass Roots a Los Angeles band, 13th Floor, on the basis of a demo tape the band sent to Dunhill. Its members included guitarist Creed Bratton; drummer Rick Coonce; rhythm guitarist Warren Entner; and bassist Kenny Fukomoto. Before officially becoming the Grass Roots, the 13th Floor lost Fukumoto to the draft.

The Grass Roots, ‘Heaven Knows,’ #24, 1969

Enter Rob Grill (born November 30, 1943, in Hollywood), who, upon graduating from Hollywood High, had taken a job at American Recording Studios with his musician buddies Cory Wells and John Kay (the former went on to become one of the lead singers of Three Dog Night, the latter formed Steppenwolf). He was still intending to go to law school when he was recruited to replace Fukumoto in the Grass Roots. With Grill singing lead, these Grass Roots cut the third version of "Where Were You When I Needed You," the first of its 29 charting singles. Throughout its history, the Grass Roots lineup was in flux (Creed Bratton left in 1969, became an actor and eventually played a fictionalized version of himself on the American production of The Office), but Grill was there for the entire four decades-plus ride. In their heyday the Grass Roots played the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival (which preceded the Monterey Pop Festival) on June 11, 1967, when "Let's Live For Today" was starting to make a move up the charts; among the band's numerous festival appearances was one at Newport Pop in 1969, which coincided with the single "Wait a Million Years" breaking out.  In 1979 Grill launched a short-lived solo career with the album Uprooted, with members of Fleetwood Mac joining him on the sessions. Even after reforming the Grass Roots in 1982 Grill continued to appear solo on occasion but did not issue any more solo recordings. In 2008 the Grass Roots (now billed as The Grass Roots Starring Rob Grill) released Live Gold, an in-concert album comprised of the group's 14 Top 40 hits.

Only nine bands in rock 'n' roll history have charted more hits on Billboard's Hot 100 than have the Grass Roots. The band has appeared on more than 50 national television shows (including a record 16 times on Dick Clark's American Bandstand). During the six-year period from 1967 to 1972 the Grass Roots set a record for being on the Billboard charts for 307 straight weeks.

The Grass Roots, ‘Bella Linda,’ #28, 1969

Upon her husband's death, Nancy Grill issued the following statement:

"My dear husband, Robert Frank Grill (67) passed away peacefully in my arms at 11:37 a.m. (EST) (07/11/2011) while listening to 'Let's Live for Today.' Thanks for all the prayers and support during this time. Rob loved his fans and The Grass Roots."

"Today I am reminded again that we all face the reality that we are getting older,” the Turtles’ Mark Volman wrote in Facebook, “as my friend since 1966, Rob Grill, becomes another reminder of my own mortality.” As for the staying power of Grill’s music, Volman’s Turtles partner Howard Kaylan, on a Happy Together Tour stop, put it simply from the stage at the Westbury Music Fair: "That speaks for itself."


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