The White Ship: The Psychedelic Voyage of H.P. Lovecraft
Jerry McGeorge, George Edwards, Michael Tegza, Tony Cavallari, Dave Michaels
Their exotic name seemed rather fitting for the times. Taken from the deceased, cult gothic fantasy/horror writer of the early 20th century, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Chicago’s finest exponents of folk-rock are best remembered for their haunting musical tribute to the author’s novella, the White Ship, the centrepiece on their brilliant debut album, released in late 1967. Like Lovecraft’s writings, the group’s music had a dream-like quality, encapsulating perfectly the peace-love vibe of the West Coast hippie scene.
Helmed by aspiring folk singer/songwriter, George Edwards, and classically trained keyboard player/singer, Dave Michaels, H.P. Lovecraft were a motley crew of talented musicians, formed in the spring of 1967. Yet, it was this diversity of musical backgrounds that also shaped the band’s unique sound and set it apart from its contemporaries. In just a little under a year, H.P. Lovecraft produced two remarkable albums of musical ingenuity that stand as some of the finest pieces of music to emerge during the late 1960s acid-rock era. Sadly, H.P. Lovecraft never fulfilled their undoubted promise; the band’s career derailed prematurely through a combination of poor management, internal frictions, exhaustion and substance abuse.
H.P. Lovecraft’s founding member George Edwards (b. Charles Ethan Kenning, August 19, 1943, Chicago, Illinois, US) was a former acoustic musician who’d been active on the local and national folk scenes since 1962.
Initially working as a solo performer in the folk and blues clubs in his native Chicago and the Midwest, Edwards later took off for California and Coconut Grove, Florida, where he rubbed shoulders with his mentor, Fred Neil.
Neil’s influence on the Chicago musician was considerable; Edwards would later hand pick Neil’s ‘That’s the Bag I’m In’ for inclusion on H.P. Lovecraft’s debut album, together with two further Neil compositions – ‘Bleecker & MacDougal’ and ‘Country Boy’, melded together under the title, ‘Country Boy and Bleecker Street’.
It was also during this pre-electric folk-rock period that Edwards befriended fellow Chicago folk musician, Terry Callier with whom he would strike up a lasting friendship. “We came up on the Chicago folk scene at around the same time,” recalls Edwards. “We became good friends and were playing all the same clubs around the Midwest.”
When Edwards met him, Callier was performing a mixture of folk covers and original compositions, most of which would appear on his excellent debut album, The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier, issued on the Prestige label in 1964. Edwards was particularly taken by two of Callier’s compositions – ‘Spin, Spin, Spin’ and ‘It’s About Time’ and years later, he introduced both songs (after adding additional lyrics) into H.P. Lovecraft’s repertoire.
It was also during this period that Edwards ran into future Byrds guitarist/vocalist David Crosby, who had recently moved to Chicago to play the local folk circuit. It was through Crosby that Edwards (and Callier) learnt Travis Edmunson’s ‘the Drifter’, another song destined for H.P. Lovecraft’s stage set.
As well as working as a solo performer, Edwards also acted as an accompanist for a number of artists during this period, playing upright bass, banjo and guitar. Travelling to New York in early 1963, he joined the Village Singers with whom he remained for two years, touring the national folk circuit and recording an obscure album for Elektra Records.
When work with the Village Singers dried up, Edwards joined little known folk duo, Len and Judy. Playing 12-string guitar and acoustic bass, Edwards accompanied the pair on another rare album, this time released on Prestige. While copies of the record are almost impossible to find now, a couple of tracks are still available on a Prestige/Folklore compilation CD entitled All Kinds of Folks.
Sometime around the summer of 1965, Edwards returned home to Chicago and resumed his solo career on the folk and blues circuit. Soon afterwards, he chanced upon a meeting with future H.P. Lovecraft manager and producer, George Badonsky, an Atlantic Records’ promo man, who’d just relocated from the East Coast to the Midwest. Badonsky took Edwards under his wing and encouraged him to start writing original material.
A fervent reader of H.P. Lovecraft’s literary works, Badonsky had befriended another Lovecraft fan, local musician, music business attorney and producer, Bill Traut and together they had formed the production company, Dunwich (named after H.P. Lovecraft’s short story the Dunwich Horror). Traut had an office near Universal Recording Studios on Rush Street, and this arrangement enabled him to book studio time for the partners’ growing roster of local signings, bands like garage punk legends, the Shadows of Knight and (later) folk-rockers, Saturday’s Children.
Edwards was added to the Dunwich stable and within a matter of months had penned a slew of folk-rock flavoured compositions, including the marvellously titled, ‘Never Mind, I’m Freezing’. A number of studio sessions were booked around November to lay down around eight tracks.
“There were a whole series of recordings that were done during that time, all as demos,” says Edwards of his brief solo career. “We were looking around for a sound for me, something that reflected the folk-rock that I was doing but had a unique twist to it. We did a whole bunch of recordings with this in mind.”
For these sessions, Badonsky brought in several members of another Dunwich employee, the Rovin’ Kind to back Edwards on a few tracks. On others he was supported by a stellar cast of studio musicians, people like drummer Maurice McKinley, bass player Richard Evans and jazz pianist (and co-founder of Dunwich) Eddie Higgins.
One of the tracks recorded with this line up was a stunning version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Quit Your Low Down Ways’, which was inexplicably shelved at the time, only to be picked up years later for the obscure Happy Tiger Records compilation album, Early Chicago, released in 1972. (Listeners might be interested to know that the exceptional slide work is by a young Steve Miller.)
Higgins was also on hand to add some wonderful harpsichord passages to Edwards’ tasteful version of ‘Norwegian Wood’, recorded at a later session in early 1966. The Beatles cover was subsequently issued as the a-side of Edwards’ debut single, released on the Dunwich label in March 1966 and backed by ‘Never Mind, I’m Freezing’. Gaining regional TV exposure in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, the single became a modest hit in the Midwest but never made any real headway nationally.
Aside from his own recordings, Edwards also guested on label mates, the Shadows of Knight’s second a-side, ‘Oh Yeah’, which was cut in the studio session immediately after the recording of ‘Norwegian Wood’. Shadows’ rhythm guitarist Jerry McGeorge remembers Badonsky bringing Edwards in to the session to “beef up” the track’s backing vocal.
Badonsky was also responsible for hiring Edwards’ services for a another session, held that summer, this time for the Saturday’s Children’s debut recordings. Operating out of the Arlington Heights club, the Cellar, where they were the house band, Saturday’s Children had a huge teen following and would go on to cut a string of prime Beatlesque folk-rock songs during 1966-1967. Edwards was already relatively familiar with the group, having known its bass player and lead singer, Jeff Boyan (aka Geoff Bryan), since the early 1960s.
“I had met Jeff during the folk music era,” says Edwards. “Jeff was with a group called Ron, Geoff and I… and we began running into each other on the folk circuit in the Midwest. I always admired Jeff. I thought he was a great singer and a really good writer.”