Plains isn’t the only town in Georgia to produce a winner lately. Shady Springs, Ga. is the place that marked a turning point for a seven-man band called Starbuck. To that rural village, the group brought four-track tape recorders; then it rented a farm where its members could write their own material. Isolated from distractions, Starbuck was able to concentrate on creating its own musical identity. And the first outcome was “Moonlight Feels Right.”
Having ridden the singles charts for months now with the nearly million-selling “Moonlight Feels Right” and leaping to the album charts with a Private Stock debut LP named after the single, the band is on its way to achieving its rock dream. But like fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter, the outfit appeared until recently to have a slim chance of getting where it wanted to go.
“We recorded ‘Moonlight’ on our own almost two years ago,” recalls chief Starbuckian Bruce Blackman, who wrote the song and plays keyboards and sings lead with the group. “For a long time, we couldn’t get anybody to release it. After we finally did, it took another half year to get it on the air.
“But,” adds Blackman, “we believed in what we were doing and we didn’t give up. You know, we took our name from the Burt Lancaster character in the film Rainmaker, because he was so persistent. He failed again and again, but he kept trying to buck the stars.”
When the group’s four core musicians first came together in early 1974, they had each already spent years trying to “buck the stars.” Blackman, who scored a minor national hit in the late 60s with Eternity’s Children, had also worked with Charlie Rich, Billy Joe Royal, and Robert Goulet. Marimba, vibes, and percussion player Bo Wagner, a former Mouseketeer*, had backed artists ranging from Liberace and Roger Williams to the Fifth Dimension and the Lewis and Clarke Expedition; he had also acted in TV commercials and dramas and spent four years tap dancing on the Lawrence Welk Show. Starbuck bassist/vocalist Jimmy Cobb had done stints with such Atlanta bands as Radar and Target, while Sloan Hayes, who sings and plays keyboards, had amassed extensive club and concert credits and performed in a Southeastern production of Tommy.
“Those experiences,” Blackman believes, “only made us more determined to succeed as Starbuck. We’d tried everything else, and we knew that this was what we wanted. So we did anything we could think of to attract attention, anything to keep on playing and eating.
“At one show, for example, we came out as four separate bands. We slicked back our hair and called ourselves Louie and the Losers. Then Bo did a belly dance and we were Little Egypt. Next, we put on glitter suits and were Spanky Dick. Finally, we came out as Starbuck. Other nights, we even tried setting ourselves on fire.”
While building a respectable following in the Atlanta area, the group mulled over its recording prospects. At that time, Starbuck holed up in Shady Springs, where Blackman wrote material and the band taped performances. Then, in November of 1974, the outfit booked time in a nearby studio and crafted a four-song demo that included the lilting “Moonlight Feels Right.”
Quickly rejected by more than a dozen record companies, the tape finally drew a limited contract offer from the Private Stock label. Last September, the firm issued the demo version of “Moonlight,” which had been cut in 30 minutes on used tape at a cost of just $300; only if it garnered a strong reception, said Private Stock’s brass, would the company follow up with an album.
Though the song initially flopped, Starbuck’s members remained undaunted. Traveling more than 8,000 miles at their own expense, Blackman and Wagner personally delivered the record to radio stations coast-to-coast.
At first, this ploy met with little success. But after the pair took their 45 to Michael St. John, a Birmingham, Alabama radio personality, the tide began to turn. The disc jockey reacted enthusiastically to the number and aired it on both AM and FM shows. “The next day,” recalls Blackman, “all the record stores in town were calling him to ask where the hell they could get it. And he phoned Private Stock to tell them they had a hit.”
When the song broke out of the South to become a national smash, Starbuck’s four core members put together a debut LP. (Though listed on the album jacket, reports Blackman, three other players actually departed before the disc was made; they have since been replaced by drummer Ken Crysler, guitarist Daryl Kutz, and keyboardist Dave Shaver.) Rush released, the LP has been vaulting the charts. Meanwhile, a strong new 45 (“I Got to Know”) was readied for the air, and a national tour is in the works for later this fall.
“Everything seems to be going our way,” remarks Blackman, “but I’m cynical by nature. And after all we’ve been through, it’s a little hard to believe that it’s really starting to happen for us.”
What would it take to make him believe?
“Ten more hits.”
“Well,” he says, with a chuckle, “eight might be sufficient.”
[*NOTE: This article, originally published in Circus magazine, refers to Bo Wagner as a former Mouseketeer. This information, which I believe I gleaned from his record company bio and which was widely reported at the time, has since been shown to be incorrect.]