Groups celebrating 50 years of existence aren't too common, which is why the media generally makes a big deal out of it. But one such group had their 50th anniversary in 2014 without many people in the U.S. hearing about it. The Hollies, though, are often overlooked in this country because they weren't virtuosos or showmen, and because the American disdain for pop meant that they didn't have the kind of big hits they had in England. Fresh Air music historian Ed Ward has their story today.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock groups celebrating 50 years of existence aren't too common, which is why the media generally makes a big deal out of it. But one such group had their 50th anniversary in 2014 without many people here noticing. The Hollies, though, are often overlooked in this country because they weren't virtuosos or showmen and because the American disdain for pop meant that they didn't have the kind of big hits they had in England. Rock historian Ed Ward has their story today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE I GO AGAIN")
THE HOLLIES: (Singing) Here I go again. Oh, watch me now 'cause here I go again. I've been hurt so much before. I told myself - yes, I did - no more, no more, won't get hurt anymore.
ED WARD, BYLINE: The Hollies were discovered in 1962 in, of all places, The Cavern Club in Liverpool by a producer from EMI Records who was checking out the beat scene. I say of all places because they were from around Manchester, Liverpool's archrival in the world of pop music. They had begun as a duo of Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, friends from school days who'd performed as the Two Teens, but gradually added other guys to the band. The producer, Ron Richards, invited The Hollies to London to audition. And in 1963, after they had added guitarist Tony Hicks, EMI signed them. Their first singles were covers of black American pop records by The Coasters, Maurice Williams and Doris Troy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST ONE LOOK")
THE HOLLIES: (Singing) Just one look. That's all it took. Yeah, just one look. That's all it took. Yeah, just one look and I felt so I, I, I'm in love with you. Oh, Oh, I found out how good it feels to have your love. Oh, oh, say you will...
WARD: Doris Troy's "Just One Look" was their first substantial hit, going to number two in England but only scraping the bottom of the American charts. With their next couple of records, though, the group wrote the songs themselves with the Allan Clarke, Graham Nash, Tony Hicks team coming up with "Here I Go Again," which contained a lot of the elements that would eventually form their sound, particularly the vocals. Like any self-respecting British beat group, they started touring the U.S. on package tours near the bottom of the bill because they hadn't had any U.S. hits. That was gradually changing, though. Towards the end of 1965, their latest British smash got some traction over here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK THROUGH ANY WINDOW")
THE HOLLIES: (Singing) Look through any window, yeah. What do you see? Smilin' faces all around rushing through the busy town. Where do they go? Movin' on their way, walkin' down the highways and the byways. Where do they go? Movin' on their way. People with their shy ways and their sly ways. Oh, you can see the little children all around. Oh, you can see the little ladies...
WARD: It only landed at 32 on the charts, but it was a solid slam of Hollie's harmonies and put them on the U.S. map. After a couple of more tries, they came through with a smash.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUS STOP")
THE HOLLIES: (Singing) Bus stop, wet day, she's there, I say, please share my umbrella. Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows under my umbrella. All that summer we enjoyed it - the wind and rain and shine. That umbrella, we employed it. By August, she was mine. Every morning I would see her waiting at the stop. Sometimes she'd shop and she would show me what she bought. All the people stared as if we were both quite insane. Someday my name and hers are going to be the same. That's the way...
WARD: They'd just added a bassist, Bernie Calvert, on the day they recorded that - some way to break in a new guy, huh? The Hollie's new visibility had a downside. As they got more popular during 1967, Graham Nash was secretly courted to join a supergroup with David Crosby of The Byrds and Stephen Stills of the Buffalo Springfield. At the end of 1968, he left The Hollies. The group's focus was now on Allan Clarke and new member Terry Sylvester, recruited from The Swinging Blue Jeans. They sat down with their producer, Ron Richards, the same guy who discovered them years ago and produced all their hits, and came up with a new sound - softer, without the jangling guitars. It made its debut at the end of 1969, and it was a smash.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY BROTHER")
THE HOLLIES: (Singing) The road is long with many a winding turn that leads us to who knows where, who knows where. But I'm strong, strong enough to carry him. He ain't heavy. He's my brother. So on we go.
WARD: Becoming a soft rock act ensured The Hollie's longevity, although their ability to find material didn't hurt. Over the next few years, they recorded versions of Bruce Springsteen's "Sandy" and Emmylou Harris's "Boulder To Birmingham." Their last and biggest U.S. hit, though, was "Long, Cool Woman In A Black Dress," which sounded like Creedence Clearwater. They still record and tour, particularly in Europe, with a bewildering number of personnel changes, with only Tony Hicks remaining from the original band. And in 2010, they're inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward lives in Austin. The music he played is from the three-disc, 50-track set called "The Hollies: 50 at Fifty."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Fenton Johnson, who's lived alone for more than 20 years and writes about solitude in the cover story of the new Harper's. He takes inspiration from the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, which was near his family's home in the Kentucky hills. He told me...
FENTON JOHNSON: I hardly remember a childhood supper where we didn't have a monk or two sitting at the dinner table.
GROSS: And we'll talk with Lee Jackson, an expert on Victorian England, about the part of Victorian England you don't hear much about: the choking, sooty fog, the streets muddy with excrement and the river running with sewage. To sum up - ugh. Join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.