Before there was Clover...
Before there was Clover...
before there was Huey Lewis and the News, the Doobie Brothers, Southern Pacific, Elvis Costello singing “Alison,” or Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”...
there were three teenagers who met around the wild blooming of the Hippie era on Haight Street and Muir Beach, the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium.
Alex Call and Mitch Howie were childhood friends who grew up in the Homestead Valley area of Mill Valley, California, across the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco. Homestead Valley was a special place that seems almost like a California Zen Mayberry in retrospect, where white-collar, blue-collar, and nascent hipness were comfortably at home with each other. In 1966 Alex was just out of high school. He and Mitch, who was in his junior year, had been playing around on guitar and drums for the last few years, and they had a few other players coming and going, but as lifelong pals they were the core.
John McFee was a fifteen year old escapee of a difficult background in Orange County. His father was a too tough Bakersfield oilfield guy; John had been raised on Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, and Buck Owens. John’s brother Bob had introduced Alex and Mitch to John, and a bond had been forged among the three. They called their band “The Tiny Hearing Aid Company”, from a newspaper ad that said, “fits entirely in the ear.”
Their home gig was the old Tavern at Muir Beach, a prohibition era speakeasy that featured a dance hall room with a deck that led to the wind-swept beach. It became a hippie haven, away from the civilizing and restricting influences of weed-busting cops and straight people in general. The gigs on the deck attracted lithe hippie chicks from Tam High in Mill Valley and elsewhere: a good place for young musicians to be free, love-wise and otherwise.
Playing various shows around the Bay Area, The Tiny Hearing Aid Company began getting some attention, including that of one Johnny Ciambotti, a bass player from a San Francisco band called the Outfit. Ciambotti was a handsome, talented, debonair guy with both college sophistication and Los Angeles street smarts. He was older by a few years and had played in bluegrass bands in LA before ending up in San Francisco along with so many others of that day. He saw the potential of THAC and left the Outfit - and he picked the new name: Clover.
Why Clover? Because the music that the four gravitated towards had a strong country, bluegrass, even western swing influence, yet was still R&B based rock and roll. They wore cowboy shirts, overalls, and shit-kicker boots along with Salvation Army suits. Clover was a “country” band in that forays into the City, while common, were more like raids, whereas their favored habitat was the wide-open green hills of west Marin County.
Eventually, Clover signed a recording contract with Fantasy Records - to some extent through the influence of the Fantasy recording group Creedence Clearwater Revival, by way of recommendation of CCR members - and made two albums for the label. Subjectively, the Clover members were unfortunately not very satisfied with their recordings, primarily because they considered the finished product to fall short of the band’s potential.
Teamed up by Fantasy with a talented classical musician, Ed Bogas, as producer, the process of “record making” presented some real challenges. The band felt that in spite of Ed’s brilliance, and despite feeling that they as a group had some good material and some good musical ideas, their collective lack of studio savvy and recording experience led to the final results falling short of their hopes and expectations (Mitch, Alex, and John were still teenagers and Ed, his many talents notwithstanding, had never produced a record before).
Their disappointment was sadly validated by the spectacular lack of success for the two albums, and when the contract with Fantasy had run its course, the band moved on, and in fact not long after the end of the “Fantasy years,” Clover added two new members to the lineup.
Hugh Cregg, now better known as Huey Lewis, joined the group on harmonica and lead vocals. Alex had been the band’s main lead singer - Ciambotti would occasionally sing one of his compositions, but Alex really was pretty much “the” lead singer - and the addition of Huey added another element of focus for the band’s vocal sound. And he is truly a fantastic harmonica player…
Also enhancing and expanding the band’s musical capabilities was the addition of Sean Hopper on keyboards. In addition to his great keyboard skills, Sean also added another voice - he is an excellent singer - to contribute to the band’s vocal harmonies.
Although they joined after the Fantasy contract had ended, Huey and Sean are solidly connected to the band’s music from the Fantasy albums. As is well documented, eventually the band re-located to England and made two albums for Phonogram Records, produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, and Mitch Howie had left the group. Nevertheless, Huey and Sean performed much of the material from the Fantasy albums live with Clover many times both before and after Mitch’s departure, and of course they contributed greatly to the ongoing music of Clover’s catalog moving forward.