One of Quentin Tarantino’s gifts as a filmmaker is to take a popular song of the ‘60s or ‘70s and use it really amplify a sequence. Think of the offbeat choice of Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” during the torture scene of Reservoir Dogs; John Travolta and Uma Thurman shimmying to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” in Pulp Fiction; or Robert Forster gazing longingly at Pam Grier while “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” by the Delfonics wafts in the background in Jackie Brown.
In his most recent work, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, the director chose an appropriate song as followers of Charles Manson descend upon a home on LA’s Cielo Drive to begin their murderous rampage (spoiler alert: it is not a true-to-life documentary). To kick off the chaotic climax, the audience hears Vanilla Fudge’s heavy, psychedelic, spooky, and foreboding cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The 1967 track reached No. 6 on the Billboard chart and was the band’s biggest hit.
“That was pretty cool! And it definitely helped with our streaming numbers. A lot of young people found out about the song that way,” vocalist/keyboardist Mark Stein says. “And Tarantino did his own edit on it. He’s a real music guy.” Stein says that Fudge’s version even got the stamp of approval from Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, who penned the song with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland.
More than 50 years after their 1966 formation, Vanilla Fudge are still productive with three-fourths of their original lineup: Mark Stein (vocals/keyboards), Vince Martell (guitar), Carmine Appice (drums), and newer bassist Pete Bremy. Original bassist Tim Bogert retired in 2009.
But it is the full original lineup featured on the upcoming record Vanilla Zeppelin (Golden Robot Records), a reissue/remastered version of the band’s 2007 all-Led Zeppelin cover record Out Through the In Door. Leadoff single “Immigrant Song” will be available for purchase and streaming on September 22. A video will also be released, though the pandemic has delayed the full record's release date.
“Led Zeppelin actually opened for us for a bunch of shows in the late ‘60s when Jimmy Page after the Yardbirds broke up. He came to America with Plant and Bonzo and John Paul Jones. And quickly, they became the biggest band in the universe,” Stein says. “So we thought it would be cool to do a whole record of their songs. And ‘Immigrant Song’ is a great rocker. We didn’t pull it apart too much, though.”
Vanilla Fudge is best known for their “Fudged Up” covers. In addition to “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” there was “Shotgun” (Jr. Walker and the All-Stars), “Ticket to Ride” & “Eleanor Rigby” (Beatles), “Season of the Witch” (Donovan), “She’s Not There” (the Zombies), and “The Look of Love” (Dusty Springfield).
On recent tours, they’ve also tackled Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (which Appice co-wrote while a member of his band) and even NSYNC’s “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” One of the band’s hallmark sounds is Stein’s swirling, bombastic, and sweeping organ and keyboard work.
Stein says the root of Vanilla Fudge can be traced back to when they were one of scores of bands working clubs in the New York and New Jersey, where they were expected to play mostly covers of the day’s popular songs.
To make their take a bit different, bands would play the tunes with a heavier or more soulful sheen, and stretch them out far beyond the original three-minute single. It was the “Long Island Sound” that also produced acts like the Rascals and early incarnations of Mountain, Blue Öyster Cult, and Billy Joel and his band.
Vanilla Fudge’s very name represents that combination of black and white music. Though it was actually the childhood nickname of a woman they met at a club. They liked it and used it, especially since their new label, Atco Records, requested a change from the group’s original moniker – The Pigeons.
But their discography is also dotted with original material that gets overlooked. Songs like “Where Is My Mind,” “Come by Day, Come By Night,” “Lord in the Country,” and “Street Walking Woman.” “Wow, you’re quite the historian!” Stein laughs when the titles are read out. “’Come By Day, Come By Night’ was actually the flip side of ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On.’ But we’re known for taking songs and remaking them on our own. That’s what people like.”
Over the ensuing decades, Vanilla Fudge have gone through periods of activity and inactivity, with various lineups featuring multiple combinations and numbers of original members. Stein also kept busy with a solo career, and playing onstage and in the studio with Alice Cooper (on the “Welcome to My Nightmare” tour) and the Tommy Bolin Band.
But perhaps the oddest day of his career came while recording with classic rocker and ex-Traffic member Dave Mason for his 1980 album Old Crest on a New Wave (on which Stein wrote or co-wrote half of the songs). And here’s how Stein and Mason got a young man by the name of Michael Jackson to sing the chorus on “Save Me.”
“We were in the studio and taking a break and I walked into the foyer and the Jacksons were down the hall in a different studio. It was before Thriller, but Off the Wall was already multi-platinum,” Stein says. “Michael was just hanging out by the soda machine, and I went up to him, introduced myself, and said he should come check it out since ‘Save Me’ has some of the same grooves as in ‘Off the Wall.’”
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Jackson came into the studio – to the shocked face of Mason – and started snapping his fingers when he heard the track. “He put the headphones on and sang his part in one take. It was awesome!” Stein continues. “He and Dave went back and forth and I was doing backing vocals. Those were the days when a lot of artists just sat in on each other’s sessions.”
The current lineup of Vanilla Fudge plus Bogert were planning their next record project, a nod to their biggest hit with the all-Motown covers Supreme Vanilla Fudge. But then had to stop everything when the Age of Coronavirus hit.
“Hopefully, we’ll get to that in 2021. The sooner we get the vaccine, the sooner we’ll get in the studio,” the now 73-year-old Stein says. “It’s madness. It’s a very tough time for the entertainment industry and the service industry. Cruises, venues, tours, all shut down. It’s a strange trip and a never-ending Twilight Zone. We’ll get through it and be back out there, though. You just gotta keep the faith.”