A brief but pervasive tag team triumph
There’s that old axiom — two’s company, three’s a crowd. When Bay area rocker and organ ace Lee Michaels made his solo debut in 1968 with Carnival of Life, the first in a series of albums for the nascent A&M Records, he seemed determined to prove that point.
To say he stripped his sound down to the very basics was something of an understatement. Relying on nothing more than his own Hammond organ and the accompaniment of drummer Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost — otherwise known simply as Frosty — he became the latest ‘60s San Francisco sensation, winning coveted spots at the legendary Fillmore West, amassing respectable album sales and even scoring a mainstream hit with his song “Do You Know What I Mean, culled from his fifth album, aptly titled 5th.
Sadly, Michaels was unable to sustain that success, and despite a subsequent mid chart effort by way of a remake of Marvin Gaye’s earlier smash “Can I Get A Witness,” his time in the spotlight quickly ended by the time he segued to Columbia Records in 1973.
Realizing that he needed to shift his stance if he was to have any hope at all of sustaining his success, Michaels adjusted his template, maintaining his keyboard regimen but added guitar to his instrumental arsenal. His vocals remained as sturdy and soulful as ever, and after temporarily turning over the drumming duties to future Doobie Brother Keith Knudsen on Nice Day for Something, the ever faithful foil Frosty returned to pound out the percussion on Tailface. The latter effort also found bassist Frank Smith added to the line-up, but by then none of it seemed to have any affect. Several of the songs included on those two later albums echoed his signature style — “Same Old Song” and “Nothing Matters (But It Doesn’t Matter)” from Nice Day for Something and “Met a Toucan” off Tailface in particular — but by then it was apparent that Michaels’ glory days had passed him by. A final album for ABC Records, Saturn Rings, provided an inauspicious swan song, and by the time the mid ‘70s rolled around, Michaels had quietly bowed out of the music biz, capping his career forever.
Still, by then, Michaels had made an indelible impression. The two person line-up, which seemed so odd and unseemly early on, set a pop precedent of sorts, with two person combos the Carpenters, the White Stripes, the Black Keys and East Tennessee duo Bark successfully following the same formula. Granted, it’s still not the norm, but as these pairings proved later, minimalism need not impede critical or commercial success. Likewise, Michaels showed that it’s not always necessary to have a flashy guitarist at the fore. Keyboard outfits like Booker T and the MGs, the Nice and ELP provided further proof of the potency Michaels had established by putting prime emphasis on organ early on.
Anyone interested in hearing Michaels’ best efforts is encouraged to check out Manifesto’s reissue of his original A&M albums, or, for an abridged sampling, the label’s Heighty Hi compilation from 2015.
Gone but apparently not forgotten, Michaels’ legacy was underscored by those efforts. To paraphrase Marvin Gaye, “it takes two”; and in Michael’s case, only two in total.