Forest Park/Finneytown (Cincinnati), 1966-69
Len Gartner, front man and creativer force for Cincinnati's Us Too, caught the music bug back in the 1950's, first as an Elvis fan, and then as a drummer in 8th grade. Len was attending a Chicago area Catholic Seminary school when he started beating the skins, and got a drum set the next year. He transferred to Cincy's St. Xavier HS in '62 and joined the school band. When the British Invasion hit Len formed the Dantes with Tom Schere (guitar), Don Amrein (guitar), and Jerry Lamb (bass). The Dantes played the typical school dance scene of '64. After the Dantes Len played in a band called the Radicals. The Radicals played around the Cincy area including a gig backing up Billy Joe Royal. Len heard about a band called the Us Too Group who was looking for a singer. Len often sang while playing drums, but after someone told him his drumming tended to rise and fall in volume as he sang, he felt like trying to be a standup singer. The time was early 1966.
The original Us Too Group was composed of students of Finneytown High School in Cincy's Forest Park section. The group included Joe (Jose) Madrigal on lead guitar, Glen Davis on drums, Bob Dickens on bass, and Tom Whisner on organ. When Len joined them, he had already started to learn piano and developed an interest in writing songs. He had "a sound in his head" and pushed the group to do his songs. Now the group had to record them, which they did in the fall of '66. The group recorded two on Len's originals, "I'll Leave You Crying" and "The Only Thing To Do" at King studios. The group had 100 copies pressed at Rite and named the 'label' Jinx after Bob Dickens' black lab dog. Copies of this record are extremely hard to find now and command a premium price for collectors of the Ohio garage sound, as it should. "I'll Leave You Crying" is an outstanding slice of teen garage from the opening organ riff through the fast fingered George Harrison-ish lead break. The flip, the actual A side "The Only Thing To Do", is equally great and possibly the best representation of Len Gartner's objective of writing radio-friendly hit songs.
Somehow the record got the attention of Counterpart Records Shad O'Shea (aka Howard Lovdal) who took an interest in "The Only Thing To Do". Shad decided to release an edited version of the song, backed with a different flip side called "The Way it Must Be", an excellent slow number which was recorded at the same time as the two sides of the Jinx 45. Although it's not clear why Shad made the change, the guess would be that he wanted a fast and slow side to make clear which one to push.
The effectively edited "Only Thing To Do" was released in February of '67 and hit immediately on Cincy's #1 station WSAI. The record went to top 10 on WSAI and WUBE, the #2 station in town. The record even earned a spin on Stan Matlock's WKRC 'easy listening' drive time program, which happened to catch the ear of Len's thrilled father - apparently Matlock had no idea he was spinnin' a platter by a local teen rock band. By the time this record was released, there were some personnel changes in the group. Joe Madrigal was first to leave, replaced by Jack Gerow, a very talented guitar player albeit occasionally late to gigs. Jack occasionally played a double neck guitar. Willy Vockel came in on drums, and John Faris joined on keyboards. This lineup really stressed showmanship, with Len and Willy alternating drums and lead vocal shifts. John was a skilled musician who helped with arrangements.
The Us Too Group rode their hit through the summer of '67, earning an appearance at the Ohio State Fair and WCOL's Dance Party show. They also appeared on Cincy TV a couple times and once on a Dayton show. Locally they played school dances and teen clubs along with college shows. One of their show 'highlights' was a 'dirty' version of "Louie Louie".
In the late summer of '67 Shad (who was still working as a State Farm Insurance agent, employing Len Gartner briefly) took the group to Ray Allen's studio in Louisville (Shad's studio of choice until he built his own) to record their next record. Len wanted to add some orchestration to the record, so they hired a flute player and recut "I'll Leave You Crying", speeding up the tempo and fattening the organ. They also recorded a new song, "The Girl With the Golden Hair" using a similar production. Len played the organ on "Girl..". Shad held off from releasing the 45 for some reason (probably he was trying to shop it to a major label) so the group had a very few copies pressed up on their own label, stating "promotional copy". Shortly after WSAI DJ Tom Dooley (with whom the group had done a couple on-air appearances) called up Hi label owner Joe Coughi and played "I'll Leave You Crying" over the phone. Joe bought the rights over the phone, and put the record out as is. The record did well locally, making top 20 on WSAI and WUBE,and also got some action in scattered cities across the country. Hi pushed "Crying", although Len was behind "Girl" to get the pick side.
As part of the deal the group travelled down to Memphis to record several more songs at Hi. Us Too played a gig in Kentucky and travelled straight down afterwards. The next day they were set to record 8 songs, but things didn't work out as planned. Coughi, in his 'down home' style, kept pushing the guitar player to 'make it funky' to the point that he walked out. Only four songs were completed and the group picked up and went home the next day. Len wrote a letter to Hi to break the contract, which didn't seem to bother them too much. Shad ended up with the tapes, with which he issued a 45 credited to Maelstrom, a name which Len Gartner had suggested as a band name back before Us Too. "We Can't Go" featured a rare lead vocal by Willy Vockel. "Organ Player" was the song that Len thought was the best of the Memphis recordings.
By mid '68 the original Us Too Group had run its course. The group split and Len recruited a completely new lineup. He hooked up with some students at Green Hills High School which included Bruce Stull (drums), Ray Hodgson (bass), Jerry Parker (guitar), and Steve Brady (keys). With this lineup Us Too recorded their last 45 in Louisville. "Pleasure Seeker" was an anti-drug song that in the original form featured a wah-wah guitar part, which was completely mixed down in the released version. Towards the end of the song the vocals are sung through a Leslie speaker. "Tell Me Where She Is" was the flip side. This record didn't get much action. The final version of the Us Too had Steve Brady gone and Len Gartner on keyboards and lead vocals.
In the summer of '69 Len Gartner graduated from college and the Us Too was no more. He was 'disgusted' with psychedelia and decided that he was not interested in trying to write that kind of music. Not long after he sat in with the New Lime and recorded a version of "Girl With the Golden Hair" at Jewel Recording. This was never commercially released. Earlier, while still in the Us Too, Len had also filled in a date for (Bo Donaldson and the) Heywoods. The Heywoods were always a big rival of the Us Too, with occasional 'raids' by Heywoods fans at Us Too gigs where they distributed flyers to promote the Heywoods.
Len Gartner has continued to play music off and on. John Faris ended up in Colorado as a member of Zephyr (with Tommy Bolin) before returning to Cincinnati. The Us Too 45s are still quite popular among fans of the 60s garage pop sound, as they should be.