The story of how The Grass Roots came to be a band is a little complicated.
The Grass Roots story begins in the minds of two talented songwriters of the Los Angeles music scene. P.F. Sloan & Steve Barri were very prolific in writing songs in many genres of rock music. They worked for Dunhill Records, a new label headed by Lou Adler. Dunhill gave them the task of putting together a collection of songs so the record label could have some impact on the budding folk rock trend going on in the year 1965. The duo penned the song “Where Were You When I Needed You” and recorded it for release as a demo to several radio stations. Both Sloan & Barri took part in the recording along with some seasoned studio musicians at Dunhill. The duo became new producers for the label. When the record company received some good feedback about the recording, they started a search to find a band to become The Grass Roots. An audition was held at the Whisky-A-Go-Go in San Francisco. A group was selected to be The Grass Roots.
The San Francisco group selected was comprised of Denny Ellis on rhythm guitar, Willie Fulton on vocals and lead guitar, Joel Larson on drums, and David Stensen on bass. They had all grown up in the San Francisco music scene and had won a recent Battle Of The Bands there. They were all under the age of 18 so their mothers had to sign their recording contracts. The record company had them come to Los Angeles to do some live performances and take part in the recording process. Their first efforts resulted in Dunhill securing for themselves the legal group name of The Grass Roots.
Dunhill continued to develop the group with many live performances and more recording. All the group members moved to LA and lived together in an apartment in Hollywood so they were close to the exploding music scene and studio. They took part in recording sessions that yielded a new version of “Where Were You When I Needed You”, some other Sloan & Barri songs and some covers of recent songs by The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, and other songwriters. Dunhill started compiling an album of this material in 1966. It had a simple photo cover that represented the record company’s take on folk rock music. There were no pictures of any group members on the release. The Grass Roots were busy playing many live performances and networking in the LA scene. The group felt that they wanted to go a different direction with their music. They asked to have more input in the recording process and song selection but this was not the formula that Dunhill wanted. The group, minus Larson, decided to return to San Francisco and continued to play live performances until the record company opted to recruit other members in their place.
This left Dunhill scrambling to find another group to be The Grass Roots in early 1967. A solution came in the form of a Los Angeles group called The 13th Floor (not to be confused with the 13th Floor Elevators). They had been a part of the local LA music scene since 1966 and wrote their own compositions as well as playing cover tunes. Creed Bratton played lead guitar, Rick Coonce played drums, Warren Entner sang and played rhythm guitar and Kenny Fukomoto sang and played bass. They sent a demo to Dunhill which received a favorable review. Unknown to the record company, Fukomoto had been drafted into the army. When The 13th Floor received news of a potential contract, they scrambled to find a replacement for their bass player. They went to the local musicians union and saw a posting by Rob Grill as a bass player and vocalist. Grill auditioned for the group and was immediately recruited.
Dunhill offered the group an opportunity to take over The Grass Roots name and they went right into the recording studio and put together two songs for their first single release. They recorded a song that they had been playing called “Let’s Live For Today” and fuzzy garage rocker that Entner self-composed titled “Depressed Feeling” as the flip side. The group learned the recording process and toured all over the country. The group composed material reflected the band growing as force in the LA music scene over the prior years. All four members collaborated to create some interesting music that reflected the times very well. As it turned out, the groups output shifted away from folk rock and into a pop soul orientation based upon the horn arrangements in “Midnight Confessions” as the primary reason for the songs popularity. To some listeners the psychedelic organ sequence that is predominant throughout the song could have lead the group to a harder rock sound. That path was not taken by the decision makers. Sloan left Dunhill to pursue a solo career. Barri shifted to an emphasis on production.
The lineup of members has changed several times over the years, a version of The Grass Roots are still making appearances. The most recognisable member of the group that recorded this song, Rob Grill – lead vocals, bass, songwriter – died in 2011.
The original recording of “Midnight Confessions” was a demo by the Evergreen Blues Band, whose manager – Lou Josie – wrote the song. Josie is a songwriter and guitarist from Ohio whose credits include “Hey Harmonica Man” by Stevie Wonder, “Soul Finger” by the Bar-Kays and “We Can Make Music” by Tommy Roe.
The lyrics describe a man who is infatuated with a married woman, knows he can never have her, and is relegated to confessing his love for her audibly, but alone. The song appears to be a musical dramatization of the midnight confession of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale’s love for Hester Prynne in the classic 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne novel “The Scarlet Letter”.
The demo contained a horn section and caught the attention of Record producer/engineer Steve Barri, who was looking to produce a song for The Grass Roots that was a “West Coast” version of a Motown-style production, with the horn sections arrangement by Jimmie Haskell. The song was recorded by the group of LA studio-musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, as were all Grass Roots songs; the band only added vocals later but performed their songs in concert. Musicians on the recording included John Audino, Bud Childers, and Anthony Terran on trumpet, Richard Hyde, Harold Diner, and Edward Kusby on trombone, Plas Johnson on sax, Don Randi on piano, Larry Knechtel on organ, Hal Blaine on drums, Emil Richards on percussion, Mike Deasy and Lyle Ritz on guitar.
This was the biggest hit for The Grass Roots. They also hit the US Top 10 with “Let’s Live For Today” and “Sooner Or Later”.
This is a re-worked version of an Italian pop song that became a hit stateside when it was recorded with English lyrics. Even more confusing, the original Italian song was written and recorded by a British band.
The Rokes released their English version in the UK, which was quickly followed by a cover by “The Living Daylights”. The Rokes version got the attention of the American label Dunhill Records, which had their act The Grass Roots record it. This became the American hit version of the song.
The Rokes were from England, but caught on in Italy, where they moved their operations. They began writing songs with Italian lyrics, including one called “Piangi Con Me,” which translates to “Weep With Me.” The song was translated into English and given the new title of “Passing Thru Grey”.
However, the song’s publisher in Britain, Dick James Music, was unhappy with the lyrics of “Passing Thru Grey” and decided that they should be changed. Michael Julien, a member of the publisher’s writing staff, was assigned the task of composing new words for the song and it was his input that transformed it into “Let’s Live for Today”.
As well as being popular with domestic American audiences, “Let’s Live for Today” also found favor with young American men serving overseas in the Vietnam War, as music critic Bruce Eder of the Allmusic website has noted:
Where the single really struck a resonant chord was among men serving in Vietnam; the song’s serious emotional content seemed to overlay perfectly with the sense of uncertainty afflicting most of those in combat; parts of the lyric could have echoed sentiments in any number of letters home, words said on last dates, and thoughts directed to deeply missed wives and girlfriends.
Over their multi-member career, The Grass Roots achieved two gold albums, one gold single and charted singles on the Billboard Hot 100 a total of 21 times. Among their charting singles, they achieved Top 10 three times, Top 20 three times and Top 40 eight times. They have sold over 20 million records worldwide. In December 2015 they were inducted into the American Pop Music Hall of Fame.