Folk Founding Fathers
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No one would deny that the Beatles are at the top of producer George Martin’s legacy. But there was another band which has lasted almost 50 years which also rode Martin’s production savvy to radio superstardom.
America was founded in 1970 by Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek, who were living in London at the time because their fathers were in the U.S. Air Force. Like the Beatles before them, the trio had barely finished school when they started to find success, signing with Warner Brothers and releasing their first album eponymously in 1971.
That debut yielded two big hits – “A Horse with No Name” and “I Need You” – while their second album, Homecoming, featured “Ventura Highway,” perhaps the first Billboard Top 40 hit to speak wistfully about “purple rain” more than a decade before the term became closely associated with another musical icon.
When it came time to record their fourth album, 1974’s Holiday, Martin was brought in to produce. Bunnell recalled the experience for Billboard shortly after Martin’s death.
“Holiday was our first time working with George,” Bunnell said. “We’d only met him a few months before. We’d made the decision to approach George to produce us and then had a meeting and he was receptive. But he made it clear that he wanted us to come to London and work at AIR Studios, his studio there, and that he could only block out a month or something. We had spent almost three months on the album before (1973’s Hat Trick) and he didn’t want to do that.”
With that in mind, the trio set to work preparing for the sessions, rehearsing the material so they’d be able to meet Martin’s demands. They managed to record the album in 16 days. The album featured the hit “Tin Man” and helped the band rebound from the disappointment of Hat Trick.
Despite Martin’s impressive resume, the men of America, thanks in no small part to their youth, weren’t overwhelmed by the pressure of working with a legend.
“Y’know, things in those days were happening so quickly and stuff was falling at our feet so amazingly, and we took everything in our stride because we were just young,” Bunnell said. “I didn’t let the awe part of working with him hit me so much, but it was great. We got along so well. We had the British humor down, too. We started in England and we had lived in England, and Gerry and I had British mothers, so we sort of connected real easily with him.
“He didn’t rule with an iron hand, really. He did expect us to keep a schedule, ’cause we’d been loosey goosey on Hat Trick, which we produced ourselves, and we had late sessions into the wee hours. He put some structure into the thing, but it was fun. He’d say, ‘Let’s go into the storage room and find an instrument for this,’ and I distinctly remember, ‘We’ll use this bell here. We used this bell on “Yellow Submarine.”’ So almost as awesome as George Martin was producing us was, ‘Wow, we’re using the bell from ‘Yellow Submarine’! It was kind of funny.”
That association continued for a few years more, with America’s album Hearts featuring the number one hit “Sister Golden Hair” along with another Beckley hit, “Daisy Jane.” The albums kept on coming including Hideaway, History (a greatest hits package), Harbor, and – wait for it – Silent Letter, the first since the eponymous debut to have a non-H title. Sort of.
The biggest change to America along the way was the departure of Dan Peek in 1977. After some problems with drugs, Peek turned to Christianity and chose to pursue a different musical path, leading to an amicable parting of the ways for the childhood friends. Peek’s death in 2011 closed the door to any possible reunion, though his former mates have had kind words about him over the years, releasing statements following his death.
“I am so sorry to learn of Dan’s passing,” said Bunnell. “Dan, along with Gerry and myself, formed the band America as teenagers after being great friends in high school during the late ’60s. It was a joyous time for the three of us, full of excitement and laughter. We created lasting music together and experienced a life that we could never have imagined. Dan was an equal and integral part of that early history, and I have never forgotten the good times we spent making that music and learning about life together. Although we eventually went our separate ways, his contributions to the music of America have always been present and will last forever. This news brings great sadness. My sincere condolences go out to his wife, Catherine, and the entire Peek family. May Dan rest in peace, and his memory be cherished forever.”
“I am deeply saddened to hear the news of Dan’s passing,” said Buckley. He was a dear friend for many years. Dan & his music will live on in the great songs he shared with us all. My sincere condolences go out to Catherine and the entire Peek family. May he rest in peace….”
Having continued for more than 40 years as a duo, Bunnell and Beckley continue to play the hits that fans have loved for decades. Having also contributed music to the popular children’s film The Last Unicorn (1982), new generations have learned to love the pure, joyful voices of Bunnell and Beckley, two men who have kept America great for almost 50 years.