WEST OCEAN CITY — When Baillie and the Boys take the stage at the OC Jamboree next week, it will be the beginning of a new era for a group that has been ahead of its time since the 1970s.
In the 70s and 80s there was pop, there was rock and there was R&B and bands were jammed into one of those categories. If they could not be, getting a record deal was a difficult proposition. While there was the occasional crossover hit between genres, it was the exception rather than the norm. Each radio station pretty much stuck to the style of music they believed best represented their demographic.
New Jersey had been unexpectedly kind to the trio that eventually became Baillie and the Boys because the diversity of radio gave them particular access to the various genres that they might not have gotten elsewhere.
“I’m not saying the Beatles weren’t popular in the south,” Michael Bonagura, one of the Boys, said. “They just weren’t as popular as Johnny Cash. In the northeast, Johnny Cash and the Beatles were equally popular.”
Borrowing liberally across all genres and taking the name “Bittersweet”, the group started touring with what, at the time, was a unique sound. Acoustic guitar and harmony heavy but without the pronounced twang that connoted “Country” and without the electronics that connoted Pop.
The members of Bittersweet had only had marginal success following the release of their first single, “Please Don’t Tell Me Goodnight” in 1978. The group spent the mid-to late 70s backing up other bands and getting occasional studio work, most notably and improbably backing the Ramones in the studio before they decided to regroup. Taking the opportunity that a long term gig in Bermuda presented, Kathie Baillie, her husband Bonagura and their friend Alan LeBoeuf left New Jersey for points south.
They spent three years playing six-nights-a-week at the Robin Hood Pub, working on their musical and vocal chops and writing the album that would get them their first break once they returned home.
It had never really occurred to the group to try their hand in Nashville but by the early 80s the boomtown aspect couldn’t be resisted. Nashville is a notoriously difficult place to get a gig, but Baillie and the Boys snagged regular work at the Bluebird Cafe, which until this day has a reputation as the preeminent listening room for both other musicians and record executives.
After their first session the group was approached by Jeff Cook, a member of Alabama, a “Country” group who had more than a little crossover success as one of the leading bands in the emergent “Southern Rock” genre.
Cook returned the next evening with a tape recorder and asked Baillie and the Boys to run through their previous night’s set exactly, promising to bring it to RCA the next day.
“He said, ‘I’m going to tell them that if they don’t sign you, I’ll start my own record label and do it myself,” Bonagura said.
Two days later they had a contract and top light producers — Paul Davis and Kyle Lehning — and were ready to head into the studio. Davis was shot during a mugging days later and production was put off for two months.
Bonagura said the band wanted to wait until he recovered and used the time to write what would be their debut album. Their second album — “Turn the Tide” — contained the songs that had gotten them recognized in the first place. More importantly, during that period, Baillie and the Boys became the go-to vocal sessions group in Nashville.
Their biggest hit from their debut “Baillie and the Boys” album was called “Oh, Heart” and is available to listen to on My Space music. The most striking aspect is how far-ahead of the alt-country curve this group was in the late 80s. Forgiving the common late 80s production tropes — the white-noise of the snare drum and the smidgen of extra sustain on the backing vocals which where both de rigor at the time — and the song could easily chart on today’s “Contemporary Country” cetegory.
People who know about the recording industry understand that the best in the business are generally the session musicians who can step in during expensive recording time, nail their assignments and move through projects quickly.
During that brief period they were on too many records for too many of Country music’s finest to count.
Once they finally started releasing their own music their distinctive sound sent them directly onto the charts where they remained regulars through the late 80s. After “Turn the Tide” was released, LeBoeuf quit and though the band replaced him, and continued to tour with some success, they never quite returned to cranking out hit after hit.
But 25 years later, LeBoeuf has returned and the original lineup hopes to recapture the magical sound that was the result of their three voices working together.
They put together a brief tour that comes to town next week, more as a way of reintroducing themselves to their fans than in support of their new record.
In fact, Bonagura said they will lean hard on their hits for the OC Jamboree show, mixing in enough of the new, as yet unrecorded stuff, to whet the audience’s appetite.
The group will return to Nashville and spend five weeks finishing up the record just in time to begin a full fledged festival tour, which makes seeing the few sneak preview shows they will do all the more desirable.