Now here’s a record with a story; well, two stories. Bert Sommer should’ve been a star. As a teenager he ran with a crowd that included members of the Left Banke of “Walk Away Renee” fame; in fact, for a short time he was in the Left Banke along with actor-comedian Michael McKean. After that he spent a little time with Mountain’s Leslie West, and then it was off to musical theater where he starred as Woof in Hair.
But Sommer’s big break came courtesy of friend and producer Artie Kornfeld, who also co-produced the Woodstock festival. Kornfeld put his buddy on the first day’s bill, where he followed the band Sweetwater as the festival’s third act. The 20 year-old was unknown to the Woodstock crowd, playing with a band he recruited through an ad in the Village Voice, yet according to many eyewitness reports his short set received a standing ovation.
Sommer spent the rest of the festival kicking around both backstage and among the crowd. A cheapy paperback rushed out after the festival features a photo of Bert and his big Afro seated on one of the lighting towers, watching the show.
But Woodstock didn’t catapult the young performer to the next level of stardom, though he did manage to capitalize on his moment in the sun at least a little bit. As Melanie wrote “Candles in the Rain” about her Woodstock experience, Sommer wrote “We’re All Playing in the Same Band” about his. It was the closest he ever came to having a hit record, cracking the top 50 and allegedly selling 400,000 copies.
So that’s one story about this particular record from my stacks, but it’s not the best one.
Every Saturday I make the rounds of my local record stores. I flip through the bins and I usually end up buying something, but mostly I go to see my friends. That’s my interpretation of our relationship. It’s quite likely that if you ask the guys who work at those stores about me they probably wouldn’t know who I was without some some hints and maybe a police sketch, at which point they’d describe our relationship as, “Yeah, I think he comes in here sometimes.”
I’m okay with that. The reason that I enjoy hanging out for a little while is that I get to talk to people who share my interest in what really is trivial nonsense, and that’s close enough to friendship for me. How many different printings of Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless were released? Normal humans don’t care but I do, and so do record store guys, so I flip through the stacks and I make a little small talk and I feel like a normal person for a little while.
This Saturday I was standing at the counter talking to my buddy Jim about a Winos 45 that he had hanging on the wall. “That’s a really low Rhino catalog number, RNOR-002. Do you think that’s the second single they ever released?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” Jim said, never looking up from the handful of singles that he was sorting through. “Hey, here’s one for you,” he said, and he tossed a 45 on top of the CDs stacked on the counter.
“What the hell? Did this just come in?” I asked.
“Well, it’s going right back out.”
“Yeah, I figured it wouldn’t make it to the bins.”
“Wait, is this a white label promo?”
“Yeah, and it’s still in its original sleeve. ABC always put their promos in these picture sleeves so that they could promote their new album releases, too. I have a bunch of those,” Jim said.
“Okay, man. How much are you going to stick me for?” I asked.
“Nothing, it’s yours.”
“Take it. You’re a Bert Sommer fan, right? What are the chances of you walking in on the same day a Bert Sommer white label promo comes in the door? I’ve never had one come in before. That’s for you.”
The dollar value of this record isn’t that great, but that’s not the point. The song itself isn’t one of Sommer’s best, and that’s irrelevant, too. Why it matters is that a friend of mine knew that I would appreciate it, and although it was in his best interest to sell it to me he chose instead to give it to me. That makes it one of the most valuable records in my stacks.
Want your own white label promo copy of “We’re All Playing In the Same Band”? You can pick up one online for around five bucks, or you can get off your ass, stop with the music streaming crap, and go make a friend. Either way, happy hunting.