Bassist Tom Finn and drummer George Cameron became friends in 1964 when Finn's vocal group, The Castels, played on a bill with Cameron's rock & roll group, The Morticians. Finn went on to join The Magic Plants, who were associated with a production company owned by a former professional violinist, Harry Lookofsky, father of young pianist/composer Michael Brown who was also a production assistant at his father's recording studio. Cameron knew Steve Martin, a singer from Puerto Rico, who had just moved to New York. In late 1965, the four young men, all still teenagers, met casually in the studio and got along, worked out some original tunes, and decided to record. Lookofsky liked the tapes, and acting as the group's manager and producer, got them a deal with Mercury/Smash Records.
The first single, "Walk Away Renee," made it onto the charts in 1966 and peaked at #5. The song was written by Brown about Renee Fladen, then Finn's girlfriend, to whom Brown was attracted. "Pretty Ballerina" and "She May Call You Up Tonight" were also fruits of this infatuation. The band added guitarist Jeff Winfield and began touring. Brown's songs often included progressive key changes and chamber string arrangements, which critics dubbed "baroque pop." "Pretty Ballerina" rose in the charts early in 1967 (reaching #15) as did some early dissension among the group, causing Winfield to be replaced by Rick Brand on guitar.
After the band recorded its superb first album in January 1967, Brown, tired of touring and wanting to be more of a studio auteur, let the rest of the band continue on the road with Emmett Lake filling in on keyboards. Soon this split became a chasm and Brown and his father faced off against the other three original members, claimed rights to the name The Left Banke, and began recording without them. The single "Ivy Ivy" b/w "And Suddenly" was made with other musicians Brown had put together. The other three original members were incensed by this and called for a boycott of the single. Apparently they were in control of the fan club, and the April 1967 newsletter revealed their bitterness as they called upon the membership for support, declaring that there were two Left Bankes, but that Brown's version of the group was made up of "strangers none of us have ever heard of." The record company dropped support for the single, and radio stations were confused, ensuring the record's poor performance as the two sides got ready to go to court over the name dispute.
The two factions somehow managed to reconcile later in the year and some quality recording got done, but none of the resulting single releases matched their early successes. There was no mending the mess they'd made with the public. Brown finally quit the band early in 1968 and Rick Brand left soon after. The other three continued on with new guitarist Tom Feher (who had co-written some of the earlier songs with Brown), recording a second album entitled The Left Banke Too, which also included some leftover Brown compositions and several by Finn, who took over as the main creative force.
Neither the album nor subsequent single releases were chart successes despite their high quality - the atmosphere and momentum having been disrupted and confusing to radio, and the group disbanded. The final single, "Holly" was released in February 1969. Martin and Brown collaborated one more time, recording "Myrah," a single that was released in November 1969. There was one more collaboration between the two, circa 1972, on the songs "Two By Two" and "Love Songs In the Night" from the soundtrack to the motion picture "Hot Parts."
The Left Banke left behind a beautiful body of work, serious and unique in a period when the rising trends of the day in "serious rock" were electric blues, noise, and rockstar attitudes. The problems that befell them are sadly common in the world of arts where sensitive egos collide all too easily. Their legacy continues to influence and win the respect of pop musicians to this day.
Brown joined another band called Montage soon after leaving The Left Banke. Although he co-wrote most of the songs on the sole Montage album and played keyboards on all of them, he's not actually listed as a band member in the personnel list. There is one inset photo on the LP jacket of him playing a keyboard, but not necessarily with the group. The other performance photos of the band don't show him as a member, either. Montage's album was critcally acclaimed but had no commercial success, and the group soon disbanded.
Brown then went on to form Stories, and recorded two albums (Stories and About Us) with them for Kama Sutra in 1972 and 1973. Eventually becoming dissatisfied again, Brown left this group, too, after which the remaining members made another album (Travelling Underground, credited to Ian Lloyd and Stories) and had a big hit with "Brother Louie," which wasn't one of the group's own tunes, but was originally done by the British group Hot Chocolate. "Brother Louie" has wrongly been attributed to Brown due to the fact that there were three different pressings made of the About Us LP. The original is without "Brother Louie"; the second pressing doesn't list the track on the sleeve but does include it on the vinyl; and the final pressing, which both includes and lists the track. Brown was then involved with yet another short-lived group, The Beckies, in the mid-70s. He has remained mostly out of sight, living a quiet life, but appeared again in early 90s as composer and musician on the sole album by singer Yvonne Vitale. It's on the indie label Endangered Records, and although it's out of print, might still be found.
Finn, Martin, and Cameron reformed The Left Banke in 1978 and recorded an album called Strangers on a Train. A single was released, but it went nowhere, and the album was shelved. This record was eventually rediscovered and released in 1986 on the independent Camerica label of New York, and on Bam-Caruso in the U.K., but never made it into wide circulation.
Michelle Wagner wrote me to say that she heard or read somewhere that Steve Martin had passed on. Happily, some readers of this page were able to get in touch with those who know Steve and confirmed that he is indeed alive and well. Hopefully he got a kick out of the exagerrated rumors of his death!
Back to The Left Banke Fan Page.