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Group Members: Vince Gill
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Despite significant personnel changes, Pure Prairie League maintained itself as a successful country-rock band during the 1970s and early '80s, releasing ten albums and enjoying hits -- including "Amie" and "Let Me Love You Tonight" -- with different configurations of the group.
Pure Prairie League was formed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969 by singer/songwriter/guitarist Craig Fuller (born July 18, 1949, in Portsmouth, Ohio), singer/guitarist George Powell, bass player Jim Lanham, and drummer Tom McGrail, who gave the band its name, which was the name of a women's temperance group in the 1939 Errol Flynn movie Dodge City. Pure Prairie League built up a following in Ohio, playing around Cincinnati for a year before earning a record contract with RCA Victor. By that time, McGrail had left and been replaced by Jim Caughlin, though Billy Hinds had also drummed with the band for a time. Adding steel guitar player John David Call, the group went into the studio and recorded its self-titled debut album, which was released in March 1972 with a cover depicting a Western character named Luke, an illustration drawn by famed naturalist painter Norman Rockwell that had first appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1927. Luke would turn up on all the band's subsequent album covers, giving them a distinctive visual conception.
Pure Prairie League did not sell well enough to reach the charts, and the group fragmented. Lanham, Caughlin, and Call left, and remaining members Fuller and Powell brought back Hinds, who in turn recruited a friend, keyboard player Michael Connor, to play on the second album, Bustin' Out, and subsequently become a full-fledged bandmember. Among the other session musicians on the album was David Bowie associate Mick Ronson, who played guitar and arranged the strings. Though later considered a landmark in country-rock, Bustin' Out initially suffered disappointing sales upon release in September 1972, and RCA dropped the group. But they added a second friend of Hinds', bassist Michael Reilly, and continued to play around the Midwest. During this period, Fuller encountered legal difficulties over his claim of conscientious objector status to avoid the draft, eventually serving two years in a hospital instead. (He was later pardoned by President Ford.) This forced him to leave the group, and he was replaced by Larry Goshorn. Call also rejoined.
In late 1974, Pure Prairie League's touring began to pay off as radio stations started playing "Amie," a song from Bustin' Out, leading RCA to issue the song as a single, reissue the album, and re-sign the band. Bustin' Out entered the charts in February 1975, nearly two and a half years after its release, and rose into the Top 40, eventually going gold. "Amie" charted in March 1975 and became a Top 40 hit. Of course, the song had been written and sung by Fuller, who was no longer in the band. (He would resurface in 1976 in the band American Flyer.) Instead, the sextet of Call, Connor, Goshorn, Hinds, Powell, and Reilly made Pure Prairie League's third album, Two Lane Highway, joined by the country stars Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Gimble. It was released in the spring of 1975. The title track became a minor chart entry, and the album reached the Top 40.
Pure Prairie League's fourth album, If the Shoe Fits, was released in early 1976 and was another Top 40 hit, spawning a minor country chart entry in a cover of the Buddy Holly hit "That'll Be the Day." The band's fifth album, Dance, followed in the fall of 1976. It was a disappointing seller, only getting into the Top 100 of the pop charts, though it became Pure Prairie League's first album to reach the country charts. A similar level of success greeted the two-LP concert recording Live!! Takin' the Stage, released in the summer of 1977. After that album was released, Call left the band and was replaced by Goshorn's brother, Tim. Pure Prairie League's seventh album, Just Fly, was released in the spring of 1978 and was another modest seller.
At this point, the band fragmented again. The Goshorn brothers decamped to form their own band, and Powell retired to spend more time with his family, depriving the group of its last original member. The remaining trio of friends Hinds, Connor, and Reilly were left in possession of the band's name but in need of a new frontman. They held extensive auditions that resulted in the hiring of Vince Gill (born April 12, 1957, in Norman, Oklahoma) as lead singer and guitarist, followed by reeds player Patrick Bolin. This quintet released Pure Prairie League's eighth album, Can't Hold Back, in the spring of 1979. Its sales were disappointing, and the group left RCA and signed to Casablanca Records, a label better known for disco than country-rock. In early 1980, Bolin was replaced by Jeff Wilson, a singer and guitarist, and Pure Prairie League recorded its Casablanca debut, Firin' Up. The album was preceded by the single "Let Me Love You Tonight," which became a Top Ten hit, pulling Firin' Up into the Top 40 in the LP charts. A second single, "I'm Almost Ready," made the Top 40, and a third single, "I Can't Stop the Feelin'," also made the charts.
Pure Prairie League returned with its tenth album, Something in the Night, in the spring of 1981, prefaced by the single "Still Right Here in My Heart," which made the Top 40, followed by the chart entry "You're Mine Tonight." The album didn't do as well as its predecessor, but it did chart in the Top 100. Unfortunately, this marked the end of Pure Prairie League's national prominence, as Casablanca went bankrupt and Gill left the band, eventually becoming a successful country solo artist. Songwriter Gary Burr became the lead singer in 1982, remaining until 1985, when Fuller rejoined, remaining until 1987 and then moving on to the re-formed Little Feat, where he replaced the late Lowell George. At that point, Pure Prairie League dissolved.
In 1998, however, Reilly and Fuller launched a new edition of the band. The lineup also included Connor, Rick Schell, Fats Kaplan, and Curtis Wright. This version of the group began work on a new album in 2002, but abandoned the sessions. Connor passed in the fall of 2004 after a long struggle with cancer. With a lineup of Fuller, Reilly, Schell, Wright and Kaplan, Pure Prairie League released a new album, All in Good Time, in the fall of 2005 on the tiny Drifter's Church imprint. The band continued to do shows in various configurations, settling on a lineup, as of 2012, of John David Call, Mike Reilly, Scott Thompson, and Donnie Lee Clark.
Pure Prairie League, sometimes abbreviated PPL, is an American country-rock band whose roots began between 1965 and 1969 in Waverly, Ohio, with Craig Fuller, Tommy McGrail, Jim Caughlan, John Call and Mike Reilly. In 1970 McGrail named the band after a fictional 19th century temperance union featured in the 1939 Errol Flynn cowboy movie Dodge City. The band has had a long run, active from the 1970s through the late 1980s and was revived in the late 1990s for a time, then again in 2004. As of 2014, they are still doing at least 100 shows a year.McArdle, Terence (2011-07-26). "Dan Peek, a founder of soft-rock band America, dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-08-21.
Although the band has its roots in Waverly, Ohio, it was actually formed in Columbus and had its first success in Cincinnati. Fuller, McGrail, Caughlan and Call had played together in various bands since high school, notably the Omars and the Swiss Navy.
The first Pure Prairie League recording was a George Ed Powell-penned composition, "(Break Me) Down to Pieces" with Powell (acoustic guitar and vocals), Fuller (lead guitar and vocals), McGrail (drums), Kenny May (bass) and David Workman (pedal steel guitar). In 1970 the first solid PPL lineup was Fuller, McGrail, Powell, Phil Stokes on bass, and Robin Suskind on guitar and mandola, with steel guitar player John Call joining the band later that year. Call's steel guitar improved the country songs and sparked guitar duels with Fuller that contributed to the country-rock signature sound of the band. In 1971, McGrail and Stokes set out to start a band with Bill Bartlett (of Beechwood Farm, Ram Jam and The Lemon Pipers fame). Jim Caughlan, who'd played guitar and drums with Fuller, Call and McGrail in earlier bands, took over on drums, and Jim Lanham from California replaced Stokes.
Early on, the PPL was looking for national artist representation and they made contact with a well-known Cleveland based rock and roll promoter, Roger Abramson. At the behest of Jim Westermeyer, PPL's roadie, Abramson saw the band at New Dilly's, a nightclub in Mt. Adams, Cincinnati, and later signed them to a management contract. Abramson was able to obtain a recording deal with RCA. He then placed Pure Prairie League as an opening act with many of the concerts he was producing. Their eponymous first album used a Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover featuring a trail-worn cowboy who would appear on the cover of every PPL recording thereafter. After releasing their debut album in March 1972 (recorded in New York City) and embarking on a nationwide tour, Call, Caughlan and Lanham left the band.
At that point the band owed RCA another album. Fuller, Powell, and producer Bob Ringe album decided to record the album RCA's Toronto (Canada) studio. In the summer of 1972 to begin work on album number two. The second album, Bustin' Out, was produced, as was their debut, by Ringe and featured the songs of Fuller and Powell. Billy Hinds from Cincinnati (drums, percussion)and Hinds' friend, Michael Connor, contributed piano to the sessions and would become a regular in the Pure Prairie League line-up for years to come. Mick Ronson, of David Bowie and Mott the Hoople fame, contributed string arrangements on several tracks, most notably "Boulder Skies" and "Call Me Tell Me". Michael Reilly, who would become the longtime bass player and front man for the band, joined them in early September 1972, after the record's completion. Bustin' Out was released in October 1972.
Shortly afterwards, the group returned to Ohio and Fuller had to face trial for charges of draft evasion in Kentucky. Before conscientious objector (C.O.) status could be arranged, he was sentenced to six months in jail and forced to leave PPL in February 1973. At this point, RCA dropped the band and their future looked bleak.
By August 1973, the band members were in Cincinnati and managed to persuade Call to return. Fuller, though out of prison by now, was working the late shift in a community hospital to satisfy his C.O. requirements and was not inclined to rejoin at that juncture. He was eventually given a full pardon by President Gerald Ford. Reilly took over as the band's leader and brought in his friend Larry Goshorn (vocals, guitars) to replace Fuller in November 1973. Goshorn played in a popular Ohio band called Sacred Mushroom.
PPL hit the road and began playing gigs constantly, mostly in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast. As a result of their heavy schedule, particularly at colleges, their songs became well known; "Amie" (Craig Fuller’s ode to an on-again/off-again relationship), from the second album, became a particular favorite.
A hit at last
As "Amie" grew in popularity, radio stations began receiving requests for it. As a result, RCA re-released Bustin' Out and issued "Amie" as a single in late 1974. It peaked at No. 27 on April 26, 1975, just as a minor bluegrass revival was underway on midwestern college campuses.
RCA re-signed PPL and their third album, Two Lane Highway, was released in April 1975. It featured guest appearances by Chet Atkins, fiddler Johnny Gimble, Don Felder from The Eagles and Emmylou Harris, who dueted with the band on the song "Just Can't Believe It", which received much airplay on country stations. Highway was the band's highest 'charter' at No. 24 and Bustin' Out reached Gold status. Their subsequent records If the Shoe Fits (January 1976), Dance (July 1976), Live, Takin' the Stage (September 1977) and Just Fly (March 1978) sold in lesser quantities.
In 1977 Call left because of increasing back troubles. Larry Goshorn's brother, Tim, joined in time to record Just Fly. In 1978, there was a mass exodus as the Goshorns left to form their own group, The Goshorn Brothers, and Powell, the last remaining original member, retired from the road to run his pig farm in Ohio.
The group soldiered on as Reilly quickly brought in temporary members, California country rocker Chris Peterson (vocals, guitar) and the group's soundman, Jeff Redefer (guitar), to play a few shows until new, permanent players could be located.
In September 1978 auditions found Vince Gill (vocals, guitars, mandolin, banjo, fiddle), who had played with the bluegrass outfit Mountain Smoke, as well as Boone Creek (with Ricky Skaggs) and Byron Berline and his band Sundance. Further auditions brought in L.A. musician Steve Patrick Bolin (vocals, guitars, flute, saxophone) in January 1979. This revamped lineup recorded Can't Hold Back (June 1979), which turned out to be their last for RCA. Sax player Jeff Kirk accompanied the band on some of their dates during the 1979 tour.
Casablanca Records, who at this time was trying to play down its reputation as a primarily disco label, signed PPL and other non-dance acts to its roster in 1980. In January, guitarist Jeff Wilson came in to replace Bolin and the band's 1980 release, Firin' Up (February 1980) spawned the hits "Let Me Love You Tonight" and "I'm Almost Ready" both sung by Gill, with saxophone accompaniment by David Sanborn. A second Casablanca release, Something in the Night (February 1981), kept PPL in the charts with "Still Right Here in My Heart". However, as fate would have it, Casablanca went bankrupt and was completely sold to Polygram Records. Polygram dropped most of Casablanca's roster, including PPL. Gill left in early 1982 and pursued a hugely successful solo career.
The later years
Despite the lack of a recording contract, the group still found itself in demand as a live act and played in clubs and at outdoor festivals.
Tim Goshorn returned in 1982 and Mike Hamilton (vocals, guitars, from Kenny Loggins' band) also joined the same year and was there for 6 months. Al Garth (vocals, woodwinds, fiddle, keyboards), another Loggins alumnus (Loggins & Messina, also Poco and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), joined from 1982-1985.
Longtime drummer Billy Hinds retired from the road in 1984. He was first succeeded by Merle Bregante (also ex-Loggins & Messina and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and then by Joel Rosenblatt (1985-1986) and Steve Speelman (ex-Steele) (1987-1988). Sax player Dan Clawson took over for Garth in 1985 and Gary Burr (vocals, guitars) was there from 1984 to 1985.
1985 also saw the return of PPL co-founder Craig Fuller (who had fronted the groups American Flyer and Fuller/Kaz in the mid-to-late 70s after he'd returned to music). Mementos 1971-1987, which contained re-recordings of their best known material plus four new songs, was released on the small Rushmore label in late 1987 and had been recorded back in Ohio, where the band had returned their base. It featured guest appearances from many of the band's alumni, including Gill, Powell, the Goshorns, Call, Burr and Mike Hamilton. In 1988 the band decided to call it a day. Fuller, who had already joined a reformed Little Feat in 1987, played with PPL for their final shows in the spring of 1988.
A decade later, PPL was back with a lineup of Fuller, Connor, Reilly, Burr, Fats Kaplin (pedal steel guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, accordion, washboard) and Rick Schell (vocals, drums, percussion). After two years, Burr was succeeded by Curtis Wright (vocals, guitars) in June 2000. The group began work on a new album in 2002, yet abandoned the sessions and separated again after Schell became busy with other projects. After a long battle with cancer, Connor died on September 9, 2004.
Following Connor's death, the group resumed touring once again with Fuller, Reilly, Schell, Wright and Kaplin (when available) and released All in Good Time in November 2005. Their first album in 18 years, this release appeared on the small Drifter's Church label.
Since this time, PPL has continued to tour, playing a handful of shows every year. Donnie Lee Clark replaced Curtis Wright in 2006 after Wright joined Reba McEntire's band. Mike Reilly was sidelined in 2006 after he was forced to undergo a liver transplant. Jack Sundrud (from Poco) came in to sub for Reilly. Rick Plant also did a brief stint with them on bass before relocating to Australia in late 2006. Jeff "Stick" Davis (from Amazing Rhythm Aces) sat in on bass for Mike in 2007. In May 2007, Reilly appeared at a few shows and played guitar yet was unable to come back full-time until 2008. John David Call played some concerts in 2006 & 2007, standing in for Kaplin, and returned to the band full-time in June 2010.
As of May 2011, it was announced, via the PPL website, that Fuller would not be appearing at all of the band's shows that year since he decided to take a break from touring.
On February 10, 2012, at The Syndicate in Newport, Kentucky, Fuller, his son Patrick, Tommy McGrail, and George Ed Powell (a frequent guest at their Ohio shows in recent years) took to the stage to join the current PPL lineup of John David Call, Mike Reilly, Rick Schell and Donnie Lee Clark.
In May 2012 Scott Thompson (vocals, drums, percussion) replaced Rick Schell, who departed to pursue a career in real estate.
The band endorses a number of charitable efforts, Pittsburgh's ongoing BurghSTOCK Concert Series among them.