Band members Related acts
- Bert Sommer (RIP 1990) -- vocals, guitar, keyboards
- Mike Brown -- keyboards
- Jimmy Calvert -- lead guitar
- Ron Frangipane -- keyboards
- Joe Mack -- bass
- Hugh McCracken -- lead guitar
- Specs Powell - percussion
- Al Rodgers -- drums
- Bert and Bill
- Kapt. Kool and the Kongs
- The Left Banke
Rating: 3 stars ***
Title: Inside Bert Sommer
Country/State: Albany, New York
Grade (cover/record): VG+ / VG+
Comments: gatefold sleeve
Catalog ID: 6257
So for a guy who was a member of one of the mid-1960s best bands (The Left Banke) and played at Woodstock (he was one of a handful of acts that didn't make it onto one of the resulting concert sets), the late Bert Sommer remains largely unknown to most music fans.
Born in Albany, New York but raised in Long Island, Sommer was apparently one of those rare creatures - a born musician. As a child he taught himself guitar and keyboards and by the time he was a teenager, was hanging out with the likes of The Left Banke's Michael Brown and The Vagrant's Leslie West. His Left Banke credentials included briefly replacing original singer Steve Martin on the non-LP single 'And Suddenly' b/w 'Ivy, Ivy' (Smash catalog number S-2089'). He also wrote several songs for The Vagrants catalog. The resulting recognition led to a recording contract with Vanguard. Credited to Bert and Bill, the contract resulted in the release of one single:
- 1967's 'You're What Makes My Lonely Life Worthwhile' b/w 'A Different Time' (Vanguard catalog number VRS-35044)
Adding acting to his repertoire, Sommer replaced Steve Curry in the Broadway version of Hair. That brought Capitol Records calling which led to the release of his debut LP - 1968's "The Road To Travel". The album vanished in a heartbeat, though it resulted in Sommer gaining a mentor in the form of Capitol A&R man/producer Artie Kornfeld. As a co-sponsor of the upcoming Woodstock Festival, Kornfeld arranged for Sommer's appearance at the festival, though his performance wasn't included in the film, or either of the two resulting concert albums (though he finally made it on the six CD 2009 retrospective "Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm"). And that brings you to 1970's "Inside Bert Sommer".
In the wake of Woodstock Sommer was signed by Kornfeld to his newly established, Buddah Records distributed Eleuthera label. There's no doubt Sommer was a talented guy, but unfortunately many of those talents were lost/wasted on his sophomore release. Musically the Kornfeld produced "Inside Bert Sommer" couldn't seem to decide how to frame Sommer. Was he a sensitive singer/songwriter ('The Grand Pianist'' and 'I've Got To Try') ? Was he an activist with a message for the people ('America') ? Was he a pop star ('Smile') ? Or was he a closet rocker ('Uncle Charlie') ? Featuring a largely original set of material (the one cover being Paul Simon's 'America'), the collection included stabs at all of those genres. Unfortunately the set never really gained much traction. As soon as you thought 'ah there's a good track', the album would bounce to a different, less appealing genre. Add to that Sommer's voice was best described as an acquired taste. If wasn't bad, but he had a penchant for sounding fussy, occasionally almost feminine. That characteristic was only underscored by some of the Left Banke-styled classical arrangements. That was unfortunate since he had a far tougher and enjoyable facet to his voice that occasionally reminded me a bit of The Guess Who's Burton Cummings (check out 'The Other Side').
- For anyone who though Sommer was a hippy-trippy poet, 'Smile' was a surprisingly catchy slice of pop. Backed with a full rock band arrangement, the lyrics may have been a bit dated, but the song rocked with considerable energy. Easy to see why it was tapped as a single. rating: *** stars
- 'It's A Beautiful Day' started out in the sensitive singer/songwriter neck of the woods, but then morphed into a bouncy pop song; only to go back and forth over the next couple of minutes. The abrupt transitions were jarring, but overall the song was quite commercial and the track demonstrated the tougher side of Sommer's voice. rating: *** stars
- Most Sommer and acoustic guitar, 'Eleuthera' was a pretty, breezy ballad. Unfortunately the song was a bit too fey for its own good, The Left Banke's Mike Brown provided keyboards. rating: ** stars
- Damn, life is apparently tough as a musician ... how many times have you heard that theme in a song ? Well that's the plotline on 'The Grand Pianist'. Musically the song had a pseudo-classical feel that actually reminded me a bit of something out of The Left Banke catalog (Mike Brown played on this one as well). rating: ** stars
- The album's closest brush with an outright rock song, 'Uncle Charlie' had some very dated 'drug' lyrics, but it also had a great rocking melody. rating: *** stars
- Give Sommer credit for portraying the down side of addiction in 'I've Got To Try'. The 'Zip Zap;' segment of the medley only last a moment, but was actually side one's most catchy moment. Not sure why, but his vocal reminded me a bit of The Guess Who's Burton Cummings. rating: ** stars
- 'America' was apparently one of the tracks Sommer play at Woodstock. His cover didn't really mess with the original arrangement, but at least to my ears it sounded like Donovan doing the song with a bad sinus infection. Slowing the track way down had the effect of putting the emphasis on Simon's pity party lyrics and Sommer's strained vocals. It may have been a big hit at Woodstock, but I'd rather hear the Simon and Garfunkel original any day of the week. rating: ** stars
- For a period in the early-1970s everyone seemed to want to record county-tinged boogie numbers. 'Mama, If You're Able' was Sommer's contribution to the genre. Forgettable. rating: ** stars
- 'Showcasing some melodic High McCracken lead guitar, 'Friends' was pretty enough, but if you weren't paying attention this was one that you could have mistaken for a female lead singer. rating: *** stars
- Another up-tempo rocker with great Al Rodgers drums, 'The Other Side' would get my nod as standout performance. Shame he didn't try the tougher rock road more often, rating: **** stars
- 'Here in the Timeless Life' Another one that morphed from sappy ballad to surprisingly engaging rock number.
- The uplifting ''We're All Playin' in the Same Band' was apparently inspired by his Woodstock experience. Nice thoughts and once the track got going it was actually quite good - good enough for you to overlook the utopian lyrics, though the flute solo wasn't really necessary. The somewhat abrupt faded out left the impression there was a much longer studio jam version. rating: **** stars
The album was tapped for a pair of obscure singles:
1970's 'We're All Playing in the Same Band' b/w 'It's a Beautiful Day' (Eleuthera
catalog number EL 470)
Bert Sommer" track listing:
(Bert Sommer) - 3:02
Apparently recorded at the same sessions that saw the release of the album, there was one non-LP single:
Like everyone, Sommer had to pay his bills which saw him turn his attention to television are part of the kiddie show Kroft Supershow and as a member of the spin off band Kapt. Kool and the Kongs (I'm not making this up).
Sadly Sommer died in 1990 from a respitory disease.
For anyone interested, longtime Sommer friend Victor Kahn has a nice tribute website at:
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