While the radio airwaves of the late ‘60s were rife with soft-rockin’ tunes about love and the relations between the sexes, for some reason, the many hits for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap somehow seemed a little more…adult. Maybe it was Puckett’s distinctive, deep, manly man-sounding voice. Or maybe it was the blatantly stated triumvirate of themes — i.e., "I want to sleep with you," "Don’t sleep with him" or "I can’t sleep with you for some reason."
But could any other of Puckett’s contemporaries make songs like “Woman, Woman,” “Young Girl,” “Lady Willpower,” “This Girl Is a Woman Now,” “Over You" or “Don’t Give In To Him” sound so…forceful? Not likely.
“Sure, I get that a lot. I mean, what is ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ all about? We’ve always been singing about girls and libidos!” Puckett laughs today. He also wants to make clear he doesn’t feel one of his biggest hits – “Young Girl” – is as, uh, creepy as the reputation it has acquired.
“Most people wanted to think it was about it as a guy who was a bit shady. But that’s not the case,” he offers. “It was written by a guy who was upstanding and like, ‘Hey, you told me you’re old enough to give me love and now I know the truth, so get out of my mind!’ That was the way I always thought about that song.”
As for the narrator, who thinks he’s about to be cheated on in the nearly 16-million-copy-selling “Woman, Woman,” Puckett says it’s a universal feeling that has given the song such resonance.
“It’s a great lyric about relationships. It’s all about how each one of us have to go through that moment when we’re madly in love with somebody else and they aren’t with us and they are looking further,” he says. “And there is not a person on the planet who is exempt from that!”
Formed in 1967, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap came out of the state of Washington and took their name from the nearby city of Union Gap. In addition to Puckett on vocals and guitar, the group also included Kerry Chater (bass), Dwight Bement (sax), Paul Wheatbread (drums) and Gary “Mutha” Withem (keyboards). Taking a nod from the revolutionary war-costumed Paul Revere and the Raiders, the group dressed in stage costumes reminiscent of Civil War-era Union soldiers.
Puckett brought a demo to songwriter/record producer Jerry Fuller. The pair met just as Fuller was hanging the gold record on his office wall awarded to him for writing Ricky Nelson’s massive hit “Travelin’ Man.” Fuller was impressed enough with the material and Puckett’s drive to catch one of their gigs at a bowling alley. Soon, the band was under contract to Columbia Records, with Fuller both producing and co-writing much of their material.
Several albums and hit singles followed, but Puckett — wanting more control of and say in the material — eventually split with Fuller. The breaking point apparently came when Fuller recruited a 40-piece orchestra for a session that the group left in a huff. Chart hits began to dry up, Puckett launched a solo career in 1970 and he officially disbanded the group the next year.
Reflecting today, Puckett says that perhaps he pulled the trigger too soon.
“Jerry Fuller was a smart and talented writer and producer and knew how to guide us through those hits," he says. "He knew the value of a success formula. Jerry would say the hardest thing to do is follow your last success. You have to follow a hit with something strong, and I think that was his forte. Those songs had success built into them.”
Puckett says he took exception to Fuller’s my-way-or-the-highway kind of approach, but later realized that the producer was put in that place by a record company looking for commercial success with the band.
“I wish that I had better foresight in that regard, but I didn't," he sighs. "I was a kid and a neophyte and I wanted to have a little more control over [the music]. But I’m in a good place now, and we’re friendly once again.”
As for the rest of the Union Gap, Puckett hears from some members occasionally, but tours with a completely different lineup today consisting of Jamie Hilboldt (keyboards), Woody Lingle (bass) and Mike Candito (drums). Their current set list includes all the hits, choice covers and some deeper album cuts. The band’s upcoming appearance at Dosey Doe Sunday is a headlining gig. Many of Puckett’s shows over the past 30 years, though, have been either as part of the long-running “Happy Together” multi-act oldies tours (the last two in town at the Stafford Centre) or the old “Lovin’ Feelings” shows at the Summit.
Puckett recalls one Houston memory of the latter, boldly introducing himself to headliner and personal hero Jerry Lee Lewis, and then asking to share the Summit stage with him. Amazingly, the Killer acquiesced to the request.
Then there was the "Happy Together" tour in 1986, which doubled as the reunion tour of the Monkees (sans Michael Nesmith). The prefab four had become shockingly hot again after their ’60s TV series was rerun constantly on MTV. Puckett – along with the then-current versions of the Grass Roots and Herman’s Hermits – was the support act. The tour made a stop on June 27 at AstroWorld’s Southern Star Ampitheater, a show this writer attended.
“I was told that was the biggest-grossing tour that year," Puckett recalls. "I wasn’t so surprised. For a good year to two years, MTV had been playing the Monkees reruns like all day long. I know they were once again huge stars because the mothers who loved the Monkees as teenagers now loved them with their own teenagers. I was glad to be part of it.”
Today, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap are booked solid through the end of the year, with both headlining and package shows in the U.S., England and Australia, including a cruise. That includes another Happy Together tour this summer (dates have not been announced yet) featuring the Turtles, Chuck Negron (ex-Three Dog Night), Mark Lindsay (ex-Paul Revere and the Raiders), the Cowsills and Spencer Davis. And yes, the Civil War uniforms are back.
“I even bring my old one from 1967 out with me to show onstage,” Puckett says. And while many of those Young Girls are now well past the age of consent, Gary Puckett is still one soldier they would follow into the (at least musical) battlefield of love. And on Valentine's Day in Houston, no less!
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap perform with special guest Bob Malone at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 14 at Dosey Doe, 25911 I-45 North, The Woodlands. Dinner will be served between 5 and 6:30 p.m.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.