Much of the Zombies' music, even early on, was original material mostly written by Rod Argent and Chris White. It's something that Colin Blunstone still marvels at today.
"Our first album was going to be all covers," he recalls. "But it was our producer, Ken James, who said we could actually write something for that first session. So Rod went away and came back a few days later with 'She's Not There.' We all knew it was special and a hit. We were flabbergasted!"
Another fond memory Blunstone has of those first years was a trip to the U.S. when the Zombies appeared as one of many acts on the 1965 Dick Clark Caravan of Stars Tour. That's where Blunstone and Argent went through a kind of musical trial by fire on the bus that served as transportation for the talent.
"There was great bonding going on," he says. "We'd have 15 or 16 acts on one bus, so we got to know each other well. And a lot of them, especially the black acts who we really loved, would sing into the night.
"But on the first night we got on, and they said, 'Well, what are you going to sing for us?' We were petrified! So Rod and I got up and did a Beatles song. I think it was 'If I Fell' and he insists it was 'Help.' But we stood up and sang a cappella to some of the most beautiful voices in the world!"
Blunstone also points out that, as a keyboard- and not guitar-based band, the Zombies were always a little off the beaten path. And that their use of three-part harmony actually predated their first hearing the Beatles do the same.
Vocally, Blunstone's pipes have an airy, breathy and high-ranged style. He calls it "challenging" to hit the same notes as a 67-year-old man, but says he's fortunate to have kept his vocal range through the decades and also credits a vocal coach that he and Argent worked with, when they began playing together again in 2000, for teaching them a technique to make their voices stronger.
When the Zombies last played Houston in 2004 (and we interviewed Argent), it was at the tiny Engine Room, which attracted a small but enthusiastic crowd. Blunstone and Argent happily mingled with fans after the show, including a couple who had driven eight hours to get to the gig, clutching their import-only Zombie Heaven box set.
"I remember playing Houston and it was a positive and enthusiastic crowd, but beyond that, it's hazy!" Blunstone laughs. "A lot of time when we tour America, we cover long distances. So we'll literally get up, eat breakfast, drive all day, get the gear in, play, go to bed, and get up and start all over. But we love to play, so it makes it all worthwhile."
The group's Texas jaunt will be a little more packed this time, especially with their SXSW activities. On March 15, Blunstone and Argent will take part in a panel discussion about their career, followed by a showcase gig a few hours later.
The next day, there will be a signing and in-store performance at Waterloo Records, culminating that night in a headline SXSW gig. Then it's on to Houston, where the set list will consist of mostly Zombies tunes, a few Blunstone solo songs, stuff from Argent ("Hold Your Head Up"), the Alan Parsons Project and some new tunes.
And while Blunstone admits he "doesn't know much" about SXSW, he thinks it will be "fairly full-on."
"They'll be keeping us busy! But I'm looking forward to it," he says. "It's funny. We were originally only going to play six concerts in 2000, but it felt so natural, so worth exploring, to keep the band together. And here we are, 13 years later! Life is very strange, you know."
The Zombies and Elephant Stone play Sunday, March 17, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, fitzlivemusic.com.
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