The Best (and Worst) of Supergroups

jeff beck

The idea of gathering the best and the brightest musicians to form “supergroups” didn’t start in the 1960s. Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway perfected this hiring method — and their art — by employing the best in the biz. And “creative differences” didn’t start with Cream’s Jack Bruce vs. Eric Clapton or Ginger Baker vs. everyone: Dizzy Gillespie once knifed his boss Cab Calloway in a leg because Cab accused Dizzy of throwing spitballs.

Then again, maybe some supergroups would have made memorable music if they only had such pointed arguments. Unfortunately, some artists and their record companies shared the same misguided belief of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner: assemble a team of All-Stars, pay them well and watch them gel. Sometimes it works (i.e., Traveling Wilburys, Derek and the Dominos) but sometimes what looks good on paper doesn’t sound good on a record.

Related: “The Creme de la Cream of Cream’s Jack Bruce”

For example:

The years 1972 and 1973 were not great ones for supergroups that sounded like law firms as in (Leslie) West, (Jack) Bruce and (Corky) Laing, or (Jeff) Beck, (Tim) Bogert and (Carmen) Appice. West, Bruce and Laing were well-acquainted with each other; as Cream’s Bruce knew the two ex-Mountain bandmates through the third Mountaineer, bassist Felix Pappalardi. Felix, who had earlier produced West’s first band, the Vagrants, also produced Cream’s Disraeli Gears album and co-wrote “Tales of Brave Ulysses” with his wife, Gail Collins (who six years later, shot and killed her husband). Jack Bruce, who wrote (and later recorded himself) Mountain’s hit, “Theme for an Imaginary Western,” was one-third of the reason Leslie West decided to go all-in and be a rock star. West recalled his epiphany at a 1967 Cream concert at the Fillmore East:

“My brother and I took some LSD and the curtain opened and Eric was wearing all his buckskin. They looked great, man. They opened with Sunshine of Your Love and I looked at my brother and said, ‘My God, we really need to practice.’”

Five years later, West later played with Jack Bruce in their short-lived, power trio. West, Bruce, and Laing started out well with their debut, Why Don’tcha, reaching #26 in 1972. But the band succumbed to the usual clichés (too many drugs, not enough sales) and WB&L dissolved after their second album.

Beck, Bogert & Appice was another supergroup that couldn’t even do two (albums) before they were through. Like WB&L, their initial effort performed well. It reached #12 and included a guitar-growling version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” a song that Beck half-created with Stevie. As the guitar god recalled: “One day I was sitting at the drum kit, which I love to play when nobody’s around, doing this beat. Stevie came kinda boogieing into the studio: ‘Don’t stop.’ ‘Ah, c’mon, Stevie. I can’t play the drums.’ Then the lick came out: ‘Superstition.’”

Stevie initially offered the song to Beck, but Wonder’s record label owner, Berry Gordy wisely insisted that Stevie record it himself.

But as was the case in most bands that the mercurial Beck started, they prematurely ended due to musical and personality conflicts among his chosen bandmates. Even BB&A’s producer, Don Nix, joked after he accepted the band’s job proposal: “I don’t know how I got the job, but I’d sure like to get out of it.”

A few supergroups formed after their members left their own supergroups—only to become even more … “super.” The most obvious and arguably the most successful was Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Then there were those supergroups that were hoping to have a super-long run, only to have some of their songs sound like its creators were running on fumes—such as “The Firm” which featured Jimmy Page (Zeppelin), Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company), Chris Slade (drummer for Uriah Heep and later for AC/DC) and bassist Tony Marshall. One of their cuts, “Midnight Moonlight,” was an unfinished Led Zeppelin song entitled “Swansong” left over from the Physical Graffiti sessions. But while The Firm’s two albums charted very respectably (#17 and #22), Jimmy experiencing middling success must have been like drinking Mad Dog 20/20 after twenty years of Dom Perignon: it left him with a sour taste. Not satisfied with being less than the top dog in rock, Jimmy admitted of his Firm days: “The intention was to make two albums and then assess it from there. If it had been hugely successful, then we may have continued to make further albums.”

But it’s rare that a supergroup can stay intact and on the charts for years.

A serial supergroup creator, Frank Zappa was known to only hire (and tersely fire) the preeminent players of his day. Frank even named an album that reads like the major reason that supergroups form:

“We’re Only In It For the Money.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Jeff Beck (Wikimedia Commons)

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5 comments on “The Best (and Worst) of Supergroups

  1. Neil Mincey

    This isn’t the first time I’ve read in an article about the Firm where Chris Slade is cited as having played in Uriah Heep. Though this is true, I don’t understand why his short tenure in the band (only appearing on one album, released long after their peak period) is referenced, while his time in Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, of which he was a founding member, spanned 8 albums, including when they were at their commercial peak with the hit Blinded by the Light. Probably just an oversight, but it’s one you might want to correct. Thanks for reading.

  2. Gary Theroux

    The idea of “supergroups” — the temporary assembly of an array of major stars for a recording project — goes back to the earliest days of recording in the 1890s. In 1937, for example, “A Jam Session at Victor” resulted in singer-pianist Fats Waller, trombonist Tommy Dorsey, trumpeter Bunny Berigen and guitarist Dick McDonough collectively cutting a major hit version of “Honeysuckle Rose” (Victor 25559).

  3. Vinnie DeMasi

    Great post! One minor thing tho—I believe the bassist of The Firm was Tony Franklin not Tony Marshall.

  4. No mention of Asia, Bad Company, Blind Faith, Derek & The Dominos, ELP (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), The Hollywood Vampires, The Traveling Wilburys, or U.K.?

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