1960s Billboard hitmakers got their start in Linden

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LINDEN, NJ — During 1967, 1910 Fruitgum Company’s first hit single, “Simon Says,” reached No. 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. Other singles followed, including “1, 2, 3, Red Light,” “Goody, Goody Gumdrops” and “Indian Giver” — which was later covered by both Joan Jett and The Ramones. And Talking Heads covered “1, 2, 3, Red Light” on the bootleg “Gimme Heads.”

It all began in Linden.

Original member Frank Jeckell, who grew up in Linden and lived there until his 30s, had a big musical influence in his family. His dad had seven brothers and sisters who all played guitar and sang. “I spent summers at my grandmother’s house in Pennsylvania,” he said. “They’d be sitting around singing and playing.”

When he was 8 years old, Jeckell expressed interest in playing guitar. But his father — and grandfather — played accordion. He was sent off to take accordion lessons.

It didn’t go well. The teacher told Jeckell’s mom that he was wasting his money, that Jeckell wasn’t interested, wasn’t applying himself and wasn’t improving. “She cut it off and that was that,” he said.

When Jeckell turned 14, an uncle returned from the Army and brought back an acoustic guitar he didn’t want. Jeckell convinced his dad to buy it for him. “I took to it like a dove takes to water,” he said.

Jeckell was self-taught and progressed quickly. “Lucky for me, I had a voice,” he said.

Then he convinced his parents to get him an electric guitar. The Ventures were one of his early guitar influences. He started a band with other students in high school called The Notations. When that fell apart, Jeckell started Jeckell and The Hydes. All original members were from Linden.

After a year or so, the drummer abruptly quit, but Jeckell knew another guy who played drums and wrote songs. That guy had a gig with another guitar player, and Jeckell took them both into his band, which became 1910 Fruitgum Company. Originally, they were calling themselves Oddyssey, focusing on the key word “odd.” It was their producer, Jeff Katz, who changed their name.

“We thought we were going to play more psychedelic, harder sound, maybe soft rock. Definitely not bubble gum,” Jeckell said.

But Jeff Katz had a song.

The song was “Simon Says” and it was recorded by another band. When Jeckell’s group heard the song, they didn’t want to do it. It just wasn’t their style. The guys in the band were 18 and 19. Jeckell, being the older, reasonable one at 21, convinced them. “We got the recording contract. This song is trash. It’s not going anywhere. Let’s change it up a bit. Let’s take the organ sound from 96 Tears and how about the bass part of Wooly Bully.”

The song did sound better and Katz got them into the recording studio. It was 1967 and, in October of that year, they were signed to Buddha Records, where they released five LPs and a variety of singles.

Their songs immediately climbed the charts and the band started touring, opening for major acts such as The Beach Boys. But, according to Jeckell, their fast success was a double-edged sword. “Look at us, we’re rock stars. Gold record — how could you beat that?” Jeckell said. The downside was, other acts looked down on 1910 Fruitgum Company because Simon Says was a pop novelty tune not considered real rock and roll, plus most of what Katz produced was by studio musicians.

“That was not the case for us,” said Jeckell. “Simon Says is us — period. Not a studio person near it.”

With the bad information, other musicians were saying that 1910 Fruitgum Company wasn’t “real.” The material was considered “fluff” by real rock ‘n’ rollers. This soured the attitudes of the band, but Jeckell was more mature about it. “Let’s just ride it out until we do our own stuff,” he suggested to them.

They were also supposed to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, in June of 1968. However, when they were set to go on, it was when Robert F. Kennedy got assassinated. The network decided to drop that particular episode and they were never rescheduled.

The band officially broke up in 1970, but Jeckell left before then. He said he got a “real” job and brought home real money, had a family and bought a house. But he never stopped playing music. He scored a lot of club dates playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and he played in a duo with Glenn Lewis in restaurants and bars.

Then, in 1999, singer Mick Mansueto sought out Jeckell, thinking perhaps the original guys would be interested in bringing back the band. At the time, original drummer Floyd Marcus was interested. They started playing gigs again in 2000.

In addition to Jeckell and Mansueto, the current 1910 Fruitgum Company lineup is Glenn Lewis, Keith Crane, Eric Lipper and John Roginski. Along with playing the 1910 Fruitgum Company hits, they play songs by other bands from that era.

“We pride ourselves on being able to sing and play very well,” said Jeckell. “Good, high quality rock music. Since we’re a ’60s group, you might call us the best of the ’60s. Very popular songs.”
In addition to playing in 1910 Fruitgum Company, Jeckell also sings with The Elegants, which had a hit with “Little Star.”

In his spare time, Jeckell likes to spend time with his grandchildren. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said.

And he’s still a fan of The Beatles. “I still think they are the best thing that happened to pop rock,” he said. “They were just fabulous.”

To learn more about the 1910 Fruitgum Company, visit: http://www.1910fruitgumcompany.

Photos Courtesy of Frank Jeckell