They’re Playing Our Song

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(Pictured: AM radio royalty: L to R, Tony Burrows, Ron Dante, Dennis Tufano of the Buckinghams, Bo Donaldson, and bubblegum-adjacent singer and songwriter Kyle Vincent, at a gig in 2015.)

In 1965, a Chicago band called the Pulsations was good enough to win a battle of the bands for a gig on a local TV station. Then the station asked them to change their name. According to original lead singer Dennis Tufano, they were presented with a list of 10 names and chose “Buckinghams,” first of all because it sounded British—an excellent career move in the middle of the 1960s—and second, because of the Chicago landmark Buckingham Fountain.

The band eventually met Jim Holvay, who was part of another Chicago group, the Mob. Holway had a song called “Kind of a Drag” that wasn’t right for his band, but the Buckinghams liked it, and after they were signed to the Chicago label USA, it was one of a dozen songs they recorded. Tufano says it was one of the first things they cut.

USA released a number of Buckinghams records in 1965 and 1966. Their version of the Beatles’ “I Call Your Name” was a modest hit in the Midwest, but the others mostly bombed. The band’s contract was going to be up at the end of 1966, and USA had no interest in resigning them. So the label put out “Kind of a Drag” and said sayonara. Tufano says, “They dropped us before they knew how big the record would be.”

How big? It went to #1 on the Hot 100 in February 1967.

With a #1 hit but no label and no manager, the Buckinghams used a friend-of-a-friend connection to meet James William Guercio, who took their record to Columbia and said to legendary label honcho Clive Davis, “I have a band with a #1 record. Do you want them?”

Well, duh.

The Buckinghams followed “Kind of a Drag” with four more big singles in 1967: “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)” and “Susan,” which made the Hot 100 at #6, #5, #12, and #11 respectively. (All were written by Jim Holvay.) It was this success that inspired Billboard to say that in 1967, the Buckinghams were “the most listened-to band in America.” Quite a distinction in the year the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper.

But thanks to Sgt. Pepper, something about “Susan” was different than the songs that had come before. Tufano says, “Guercio had this crazy idea to insert this backwards tape thing in it, this Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ element. We didn’t hear it until we were out on the road, and we really didn’t like it.” He says that radio stations frequently edited out the interlude; he and his mates had no problem with that decision.

The band split with Guercio after that, and he did not produce their next single, “Back in Love Again.” It’s fine, although it’s also a cut below the stuff the band had been releasing in 1967, and it peaked at #57 in 1968. It was on an album titled—prophetically, as it turned out—In One Ear and Gone Tomorrow. Columbia released several singles after “Back in Love Again,” but only “Where Did You Come From” and “It’s a Beautiful Day (For Lovin’)” got much traction. The Buckinghams never returned to the Hot 100.

At the end of their most incredible year, the Buckinghams discovered, as so many bands of the time did, that despite their massive success, all the hits and all the touring, that they didn’t have nearly as much money as they thought. A lot of their profits had gone to other people, and they’d paid for stuff that they didn’t know they were paying for. Tufano says that when the band decided to break up in 1970, he had banked just $13,000, and that was “only because I had saved a little money.”

“Kind of a Drag” is not one of the songs that somehow wormed its way into my head the spring I turned seven. It certainly would have been on WLS and WCFL as an oldie during the 70s, but I didn’t recognize it as special, or know it well, until years later. But now I dig its mix of faux-British elegance and Chicago soul, deceptively joyful for a song about being dumped, announcing its presence with exuberant horns and decorated with a glittery organ line that is both impossibly dated (here in 2022) and incredibly cool. I don’t think there had ever been anything like it before 1967, and there hasn’t been anything quite like it since.

9 thoughts on “They’re Playing Our Song

  1. Tim M

    I remember my shock at hearing the UN-edited version of “Susan” for the first time at some college house party – the station(s) I listened to at that time had all edited out the 20 seconds of horrible noise that Guercio stuck in the middle of the song.

  2. I’d be interested in reading more about Jim Holvay, who more or less stumbled into five Top 20 singles in one year’s time. That’s a pretty good 12 months’ work for a songwriter. What happened to him from there?

  3. porky

    The Bucks’ first album is great, a homemade-looking, low-budget affair with hints of garage rock and British Invasion covers.

    I saw them a couple of years ago at the top of a bill of Chicago bands from the 60’s. Before the Bucks’ appearance The Ides of March blew the roof off the place with a one-two punch of “Vehicle” and “Tobacco Road.” It was incredible. There was an intermission and the Bucks came out with their smooth lounge-y stuff, coming nowhere near the energy level Jim Peterik and crew created.

  4. Alvaro Leos

    This is the best place to ask the question “Who the heck wrote the lyrics to ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy'”?The original instrumental by Cannonball Adderly is creditet to Joe Zawinul (of Weather Report fame), and the Buckingham’s 45 still list him as the sole writer. On the internet claims run from Johnny Guitar Watson to “Mannix” star Gail Fisher.

    1. porky

      Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Larry Williams did an album together “Two For The Price Of One” that features Mercy3 and credits them with lyrics so I’d go with that theory. Both of them however came up through the rough and ready years of early rock and roll (Williams was a famous pimp and drug dealer and Watson was the gangster of love before Steve Miller!) so there may have been some under the table elements as well.

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