The Left Banke

by David Galassie
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The Left Banke has its origins in a classically trained violinist named Harry Lookofsky who ran a small recording studio in New York City. His son, Michael, a production assistant at the studio and a trained musician in his own right, sat in with some of the session players. Michael, who soon changed his name to Brown, made friends with bassist Tom Finn, drummer George Cameron, and singer Steve Martin Caro in 1965 and under his father's management, became The Left Banke.

Michael Brown was only 16 when he wrote the group's signature tune, "Walk Away, Renee," a song penned to Tom Finn's then-girlfriend Renee Fladen. Reportedly, Brown was so smitten with Renee that he would physically become ill and couldn't play if she was in the room. "Pretty Ballerina" and "She May Call You Up Tonight" were also written about her. "Walk Away Renee" made it up to number 2 on the Top 40 charts by October 1966 (bested only by The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville") and "Pretty Ballerina" reached as high as number 15 in early 1967. The group toured extensively to support the resultant album but soon after, Michael Brown did a very Brian Wilson-ish thing, deciding to stop touring and become a full-time studio musician. A replacement keyboard player (Emmett Lake) was hired and he hit the road with the band.

But Brown's decision caused ill-will within the band and the rift soon became full-blown turmoil. And for a short time, in essence, there were actually two Left Banke groups, as Michael Brown had put together other musicians to record his songs even as his original band mates were on the road. The single "Ivy Ivy" was produced with the replacement group. As tensions escalated, the original band members appealed to their fan base, even revealing to their fan club members in their April 1967 newsletter what Michael Brown had done.

Needless to say, their record company, previously unaware of what was going on, dropped their support of the single and the resultant confusion by fans and radio stations alike ensured failure of their latest effort. Somehow before 1967 concluded, the two sides reconciled but things were never the same. Michael Brown left the group for good in 1968 and guitarist Rich Brand left soon after. The remaining members found a new guitarist and did record a second album, The Left Banke, Too, which contained some of Brown's leftovers and some by Tom Finn, who'd, by now, become the group's primary creative force. But that was pretty much it. The group more or less folded after that.

In 1978, Finn, Cameron, and Caro reformed the band and though there was some interest in a single they recorded, "Queen of Paradise," the resultant album went nowhere. As for Michael Brown, he became an unofficial member of the band, Montage, and helped form the band, Stories (later famous for the 1973 single, "Brother Louie," though Brown left before that point.)

The Left Banke had charted their two big hits in late 1966/early 1967, and then they virtually disappeared from sight. Like The Cyrkle, their contemporaries, which also had two big songs, The Left Banke's story sadly carries that VH1 Behind the Music cachet of the dominant persona who disagrees with his band mates, the resulting fragmentation of the band, and a quick path to oblivion.

Of course, the band usually carries on for some time afterwards but to much less fanfare that at the start and their remaining releases are decidedly second-rate to their meteoric beginning. Still, The Left Banke distinguished itself as purveyors of a unique style known as "Baroque and Roll," or "Harpsichord Rock," rife with expansive strings, lush orchestrations, and rich harmonies.

Unfortunately, The Left Banke made their debut in the talent-rich 1960s and, in such a competitive environment, they were quickly forgotten when their follow-up recordings didn't chart. Tastes changed so quickly. In spite of their failure to catch on with the buying public over the long term, The Left Banke left behind those two signature recordings and a wealth of other material which melded rock and classical elements together.

Today, they have what can be termed a cult following with many web sites documenting their history and lyrics. There's even a group on Yahoo Groups devoted to the band where their fans can interact and share recordings, news, and catch up on the whereabouts and activities of band members today. And as for Renee? She really DID walk away. Shortly after the song was released, she moved to Boston with her family and none of the band ever saw her again. But today, the girl who's "hair was so brilliant that it hurt my eyes," is reportedly a well-respected artist and operatic voice teacher in the San Francisco Bay area.

About the author: David Galassie is a human resources specialist in Columbia, SC. When not writing in his free time, he pursues genealogy, Wisconsin history, and comic book collecting. A frequent contributor to Rewind the Fifties, he has been published online in The Comic Book Electronic Magazine, Long Story Short, and in print in Good Old Days Specials magazine.

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