None of the retrospectives and tributes I’ve read since Kenny Rogers passed away has mentioned one of my favorite credits of his, so it’s up to me.
During the long fadeout of the First Edition, toward the end of their syndicated TV show in 1973 and while Rogers was trying to build his own record label and keep the band afloat, he took on some freelance production work. One assignment was to work with a band from New York State called Gunhill Road. They had sold a few copies of their debut album, and their new label, Kama Sutra, felt that a big-name producer might make a difference with the second one. So Rogers came on board. But in early 1973, the label brought in a different production team, Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, to rerecord some of the songs. The original album was yanked and replaced, and one of the revised Kerner/Wise songs was released as a single: “Back When My Hair Was Short.”
The original, Rogers-produced “Back When My Hair Was Short” was pitched to the underground FM-radio crowd, heavy with drug references and scattershot criticism of the hypocrisy of American life. The revised “Back When My Hair Was Short” was transformed from early-70s topical to early-60s nostalgic. Instead of reading Screw magazine and dealing dope, the protagonist steals hubcaps and has an abiding faith in love. The revised “Back When My Hair Was Short” has a more tightly focused lyric and a sense of humor missing from the original, as well as an AM-radio gloss that the original does not have. (You can compare the two versions of the lyric here.)
The record’s chart action was diffuse; it became a big hit in some places as early as March and as late as July 1973, leading to a peak of #40 on the Hot 100 (#25 in Cash Box) at the end of June. After that, Gunhill Road never got a sniff of the charts again and split up, although they reformed in 2014 for a new album. Kerner and Wise would produce the band Stories as members of the Kama Sutra production staff. After they moved with label honcho Neil Bogart to Casablanca, they produced the first two KISS albums. Rogers launched his legendary solo career in 1976. And “Back When My Hair Was Short” endures as the sort of obscure record that’s beloved by nerds such as we.
For the second part of this post, click below.