Robbie Douglas, Don Grady and a Brief Nod to Sunshine Pop

by M.C. Antil on July 1, 2012

To millions of Baby Boomers he was Robbie Douglas, the cleft chin-handsome but entirely harmless middle brother during the early, black-and-white days of the mind-numbingly bland 1960’s sitcom, My Three Sons, who then, somehow and in barely explained fashion, became the oldest brother during its later color years. 

But to Sixties-era pop aficionados he was Don Grady, the drummer and backup singer for the one-hit wonder band, the Yellow Balloon, a California quintet whose repertoire (and apparently pool of ideas) was so remarkably thin that the group’s name and the title of its only hit were one and the same, and whose B-side to that single was Noollab Wolley — which if you hadn’t already figured it out is Yellow Balloon spelled backwards, and was merely a recording of the A-side in reverse.

In many ways, I suppose, one might argue the thinness of the Yellow Balloon’s creative palette serves as the perfect metaphor for the entire genre of music, a handful of Top 40 hits in the late Sixties that got lumped together into a succession of singles that music historians would eventually label, “sunshine pop,” a name that the haughtiest of critics applied with more than a casual dose of cynicism.

Sunshine pop was hard to define except to say (and to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart) you knew it when you heard it. It was light. It was melodic. And it relied on catchy musical hooks and infectious harmonies. And much of it was either from California or conjured up California – or at least the California a generation of American kids envisioned it to be. 

But perhaps above all, sunshine pop relied on lilting visual imagery; mental pictures of sunny days, furry kittens, blue skies, popsicles, fields full of daisies and clover, lollipops, billowy clouds and colorful flying things like kites, balloons, butterflies and songbirds; lighter-than-air, wind-swept objects that somehow seemed to imply freedom, occasions for optimism, and a liberating, even empowering lack of direction, long-term commitment and overall purpose. 

In sunshine pop, even when it rained the rain was soft, gentle and warm.

Sunshine pop was more than about being young.  It was about being.  It was about living in the moment, about celebrating the here and now.  And it was about loving whoever or whatever the fates happened to send your way. 

Oh yeah, and a lot of flutes and strings too.

It was all Hallmark Card-silly, of course, and naïve as all get-go.  And it was no more based in reality than the family, house and situations presented each week in My Three Sons.  But in an odd way it mattered because sunshine pop was a brand of music by, for and about the era in which it was made.

What’s more, it’s possible – just possible – the entire category was a reaction by a generation of young artists to the death and destruction which had become so much a part of their everyday lives.  Maybe it was my generation’s way of retreating into a world created as an antidote to the seemingly endless succession of assassinations, war casualties and riots we had all become far too familiar with; a world safer, less violent and far more forgiving than the one we saw right outside our doors or at least presented to us each night by Walter Cronkite.

Look, I won’t for a moment claim that sunshine pop was high art or even vaguely important in the history, development or genesis of today’s pop music.  But I will go to my grave convinced that in its day it had an odd and somewhat unexpected power to move anyone who happened to hear it and to transport especially the dreamers among them to a place in their minds that could be, if only for a moment, just a little bit gentler and a little more hopeful than wherever it was they happened to be at the time.

And in honor of Robbie Douglas’ passing this week at the age of 68, and the former Don Agrati finally succumbing to what apparently was a lengthy and noble battle with cancer, I offer up this brief primer of a baker’s dozen’s worth of ethereal sunshine pop chestnuts, most of which have long since fallen through the cracks of time. 

Yellow Balloon by the Yellow Balloon
Originally written for Jan and Dean, the song was quickly re-recorded by the composer after he disliked the plodding, heavy handed version laid down by the surf music superstars.  He then enlisted Grady and a group of musicians that the sometime actor knew to tour and to promote the record as the eponymous Yellow Balloon.

And Suddenly by the Cherry People
A Washington DC-based band that went through both a psychedelic and hard rock period in its day, neither of which allowed the group to crack the Top 40.  The closest they would come would be this little golden nugget which they debuted on American Bandstand in ’67 and which later inched its way up to #45.

Like to Get to Know You by Spanky and Our Gang
OK, any one of a half dozen Spanky and Our Gang songs might qualify here.  However this one’s not only a personal favorite, but in its bridge the tune achieves true sunshine pop/lack-of-commitment immortality when, even as the singer’s telling the guy she’d like to get to know him, she begins laying the foundation for her escape.

Everything that Touches You by the Association
As a band, the Association clearly transcends sunshine pop. But then again, given their harmonies, their melodies and the unmistakable Californianess of their subject matter, in many ways they’re also the genre’s poster child.  Again, a number of songs might have worked here, but I included this one because I’m not sure the Association ever wrote and recorded a more perfect pop tune.

Kites are Fun by the Free Design
Another one for the sunshine pop Hall of Fame. This one, a one-hit wonder from a brother and sister trio from just outside Buffalo, NY, has it all; from the soaring symbol of freedom and lack of responsibility in the title to the ever-platonic running, laughing and holding hands in the lyrics – with a couple of descriptive colors, some gentle rain and even the desire to be miles away from the grownups throw in just for luck.

Turn Down Day by the Cyrkle
In sunshine pop even bad days are a cause for singing and celebration.  The Cyrkle, four kids from tiny Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, opened for the Beatles, toured with Simon and Garfunkel, and had one of its members go on to pen the iconic Alka Seltzer jingle, Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz.  But this song makes the list because it not only contains the word groovy, it contains its companion phrase, dig it.

Happy by the Sunshine Company
It’s important to keep in mind that sunshine pop, for all its lasting, iconic Sixties imagery and its insidiously catchy hooks and melodies, was never anything more than a niche market in its day.  This song might have been adored by sunshine pop-heads, but the fact is it not only didn’t crack the Top 40, it reached no higher than #50 on the charts.

Groovin’ by the Young Rascals
By far the most talented and influential band on this list, not to mention members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rascals, an otherwise blue-eyed soul band, belong here because with this one timeless classic and this one fabulous summer song – built on a variation of the word groovy – they not only validated sunshine pop as a sub-genre, they gave all other artists something to shoot for.

Up, Up and Away by the Fifth Dimension
Another group that could have been represented by any one of three or four of their early hits, the Fifth Dimension bought sunshine pop into the mainstream when it turned this song, written by a 20-year old whiz kid from Oklahoma named Jimmy Webb, into a multimillion dollar seller, superstardom and a Grammy sweep in ‘68, including awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

Will You Be Staying After Sunday by the Peppermint Rainbow
For some reason, Sunday was always a big day in sunshine pop circles, and this song – written by Al Kasha, who also discovered a smalltime Catskill comedian named Rodney Dangerfield and helped him develop his “no respect” routine – was probably the Godfather of the genre’s “Sunday” songs.

Hitchin’ a Ride by Vanity Fair
In sunshine pop, the only thing that was as desirable as going whichever way the wind blew, was having no earthly possessions and traveling to wherever your thumb took you. This one’s a British tune written by a team that penned some of the earliest hits of the British Invasion, but it caught on in the states in a way it never did there, in part because of our collective love affair with the open road.

Sunshine Girl by the Parade
An interesting but largely inconsequential pop trio whose greatest claim to fame, other than the fact that one of its members had been a staff producer for Phil Spector’s Phillies label and, of course, this one song – which is really terrific in a pop-cool sort of way – was the fact that Sunshine Girl probably gave birth to the name critics eventually attached to the entire genre.

Morning Girl by the Neon Philharmonic
There is not nearly enough space here to being to explain just what a fascinating character that Tupper Saussy, the renaissance artist who headed up the Nashville-based Neon Philharmonic, truly was.  And it’s probably not fair to label his Morning Girl simply sunshine pop.  But the song was not only released just as sunshine pop was evolving into psychedelic rock, it contains so many essential elements of both.




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