Vanilla Fudge departed from the three-minute single in 1967 with their debut album Vanilla Fudge. The New York-area band – drummer Carmine Appice, bassist Tim Bogert, guitarist Vinny Martell and organist Mark Stein – released the groundbreaking LP with extended versions of “Ticket to Ride,” “She’s Not There,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” a Top 10 hit that featured Stein’s lead vocals.
Vanilla Fudge’s success was short-circuited by their 1968 follow-up, The Beat Goes On, a mix of spoken word passages, mantras and song excerpts produced by Shadow Martin. Though the pioneers of psychedelic rock bounced back with successful albums in the ’60s, The Beat Goes On is still a sore point with Stein 50 years later.
Stein toured with rock luminaries like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper. Today, Stein is back with a new band, the Mark Stein Project. Stein says his group of talented young players will perform the music of the Fudge and the greats he has accompanied on tour and in the studio.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about the Mark Stein Project.
Mark Stein: Over the last couple of years, there haven’t been a lot of Vanilla Fudge shows and I thought maybe it’s time to go out and put my own group together. I assembled a bunch of really cool players. I got a cat from the New York area called Charlie Zeleny, a great drummer and entertainer. A young cat named Jordan Steinberg, who’s really a cool bass player and a terrific singer. On guitar I have Mark Hitt, who used to play with John Entwistle when John had his own band and he’s got a really popular band from the New York area called Rat Race Choir.
So it’s a really cool blend of young and seasoned pros. I’m really excited about this, it’s got a lot of energy and we’re doing a lot of really cool arrangements. We’re doing songs from a lot of the artists that I was lucky enough to play with throughout my career along with some iconic Fudge songs. So I think it’s really going to be an exciting trip going forward.
Rock Cellar: How is the setlist divided between Vanilla Fudge songs and the other groups?
Mark Stein: My fans obviously are going to want to hear some Fudge songs, so we are doing at least three iconic Fudge songs, like “Season of the Witch” and “Take Me for a Little While” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” People are gonna want to hear that and this band plays the shit out of them, it’s great. And that’s only one third of the show. The rest of the show is a variety of hits from people I’ve worked with, like Dave Mason and Tommy Bolin and of course Alice Cooper. In 2017 I did a handful of shows with Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He invited me to do some shows commemorating Keith Emerson and Greg Lake. That was really a cool trip for me.
So we’re going to be doing some Emerson, Lake and Palmer things as well as a tribute to Keith Emerson and Greg Lake. I’m doing the big hits from the Dave Mason era like “We Just Disagree,” songs like “Knife Edge” from ELP. I toured with Alice Cooper on the “Welcome to My Nightmare” tour in the late ’70s, so we’re doing this really outrageous arrangement of “School’s Out,” which is a lot of fun, a great rocker.
And I’m doing an original song I wrote called “Let’s Pray for Peace,” which actually broke for the first time at the Sweden Rock Festival a couple of years ago playing with Vanilla Fudge. I dedicated that song to the people of Paris and Belgium who were attacked by terrorists. I think it’s a song that’s relevant pretty much all the time for the situation that’s going on in the world. The song’s been greatly received by audiences all over the world so I’m going to be doing that during the show.
Rock Cellar: Some of the songs lead to stories?
Mark Stein: Yeah. I’ve been in this business over a half a century so I’ve had great relationships coming up as a kid with Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and Three Dog Night, all these great people I’ve become friends with. So there’ll be interspersed stories in between songs. One story leads to a song and one song leads to a story, so I think it’s got some really cool spice for a really cool evening.
Rock Cellar: The mid-sixties was a great time for New York rock: the Fudge, the Rascals, the Vagrants, the Hassles, the Blues Project, Blues Magoos. What was unique about that New York Sound?
Mark Stein: The Rascals really broke through with that incredible blue-eyed soul with Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, Gene Cornish and Eddie Brigati was so cool as the lead singer. And then there were the bands like the Hassles, which was Billy Joel’s band back in the late ’60s on Long Island. And there was a band called the Pigeons, which ultimately became Vanilla Fudge.
The Long Island Sound was started by the Vagrants, which spawned Leslie West. It was called the Arrangement/Production Sound back then. The Vagrants were the first band that really changed my life. They were the first band I saw that took songs like “Exodus” and “If I Were a Carpenter” and they slowed these songs down and did these symphonic-kind of arrangements. It was really the combination of the blue-eyed soul of the Rascals combined with the approach of the Vagrants that inspired me to get to the arrangements that started Vanilla Fudge. I’ve been told that the Vanilla Fudge was really the combination of those two bands on steroids.
And then you had the Blues Project out of Greenwich Village with great musicians like Al Kooper, really cool organ player. New York had that heavy sound because the rhythm sections and the bands themselves played with a lot more intensity.
Vanilla Fudge would have never been able to break through like we did if our long symphonic arrangements were not played on underground radio, like WNEW in New York. In L.A. and San Francisco they had all these underground stations that were emerging. At that time, AM radio, you couldn’t go beyond three minutes for a pop song.
Rock Cellar: What did Atlantic Records say when you recorded these long cuts on an album with no real single?
Mark Stein: They really didn’t know what to make of it. When Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records, first heard the demos of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” he was really blown away. They said this is going to change things, this could change a lot of marketing approaches and strategies because he just fell in love with Vanilla Fudge.
Rock Cellar: The Fudge was one of the original psychedelic rock bands. When you were in the studio, did you ever include elements where you said, “The stoners are going to love this”?
Mark Stein: Let’s not forget that we were part of that stoner generation and to be honest, the Vanilla Fudge arrangements were not really inspired by drugs. We just had the natural ability, the creativity, we were blessed to approach things that way. In the wee hours of the morning when we were coming up with the arrangements for “Season of the Witch,” we were just so excited about it and we were discussing how people who were doing a lot of drugs were gonna be taking on this opera on this incredible dramatic trip.
The original was an upbeat song written by Donovan. I still love that original song but we took it into a realm that the lyrics had inspired and we developed this whole dramatic thing. We used to get stoned listening to it and thinking about, this is going to blow a lot of people’s minds and eventually it really did. Actually it still is one of my favorite Fudge arrangements of all time.
Rock Cellar: You followed the successful first album with The Beat Goes On. How did that album affect your career?
Mark Stein: Let me tell you about The Beat Goes On. Here’s a band called Vanilla Fudge, that broke this incredible new market for ourselves with this style of music. Produced by Shadow Morton — but frankly the first album was nothing more than the show that we were playing up and down the East Coast and all the clubs we were playing in. Now he was a cool producer for the record because he had some really cool spiritual, mystical kind of ideas that he threaded through it, which was great.
But Shadow had this vision of doing this thing called The Beat Goes On, which was a song by Sonny Bono. He wanted to do this chronological thing where 200 years of music would be reflected through all the songs that started, from 200 years ago to the present.
And he thought it would be a great idea to approach things like that. What happened – and I don’t care, I’m gonna be blunt – it was the biggest disaster of the 1960s. And to this day in retrospect I can’t believe that our heart was into it.
And all the people were into this thing. I just can’t believe that they allowed that to be released. Because all we had to do was just put out an album of the same approach.
Maybe we weren’t writing songs in that day, but there were so many great songwriters that were writing songs for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley. Not everybody was a songwriter. If we would have done an album with half those psychedelic arrangements and half songs that were written by the Gerry Goffins and Carole Kings and all those great songwriters, I think the band would have gone on to be so much bigger.
But when The Beat Goes On came out, it just blew everybody’s minds. All the fans that were expecting the same got hit with this insane thing, which was really outrageous. And it really pissed a lot of people off. And it really, really took all the momentum that Vanilla Fudge started with and completely destroyed it. Because there was nothing on there that could be played on the radio.
Me and Carmine to this day, I don’t think there’s a gig or a tour that goes by that we’re in the dressing room that we don’t reflect and say, “Hey, I still can’t believe that that thing was put out.” Because it really hurt us – financially and emotionally and just everything. We were just kids, you know, and we were led into this situation by somebody that we believed in, plus the fact that all the business people agreed with him.
So where were their heads at? Why didn’t they have that kind of vision to see that this was gonna really fuck us up? And it did. To this day.
I’m telling you, it still hurts right now. We tried to pick up the pieces and move forward and I started writing songs and we started writing songs. They said, “Hurry up, we’ve gotta come up with something.” There was an album called Renaissance that had a whole bunch of original material that we wrote and it also had “Season of the Witch,” but that was actually in the can from the first album recording. And you can hear that original creativity from that first album on that track.
So we bounced back with Renaissance, I think it made it to the Top 30 on Billboard but we could never quite recover from that thing, The Beat Goes On. We had Near the Beginning, which was also a successful album, but you talk about The Beat Goes On and it’s a real sore spot in my life.
Rock Cellar: What bands have told you that the Fudge influenced them?
Mark Stein: Deep Purple, for one. Deep Purple at one time were called the English Vanilla Fudge. When we played England, our first tour a half century ago in 1967, Jon Lord and Ian Paice and Ritchie Blackmore all came to see us. They were blown away. And they wanted to be Vanilla Fudge. So we had a very profound effect on Deep Purple.
We also had an effect on Led Zeppelin. When the Yardbirds broke up, Jimmy Page came to America with these three unknowns called John Paul Jones, John Bonham and Robert Plant. We were label mates with Led Zeppelin, so on their very first shows and tours they opened for Vanilla Fudge. I knew that these guys were gonna be great. They were a little rough around the edges in the beginning but they quickly got their shit together.
We influenced them in ways keyboard-wise, I think, and arrangement-wise, definitely had an effect on them. Certainly live performances, because at the time Vanilla Fudge was the band to watch. So I think Vanilla Fudge really was a link between pop music and what they called progressive rock music.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about some of the great guitarists you’ve worked with and how, as a keyboardist, you interact with them on stage and in the studio.
Mark Stein: You blend. You don’t step on each other. You find a way to support what they’re playing and vice versa. I remember back in the late ’70s when Tommy Bolin left Deep Purple and started his own band. I ended up being in that band. It was me with Tommy, Narada Michael Walden at the time fresh out of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, great drummer and Norma Jean Bell from Frank Zappa’s band on vocals and sax. She was awesome, what a trip. And Reggie McBride, the bass player from Stevie Wonder’s band. This was a totally eclectic group of players which was an awesome rock fusion band.
I had a great time playing with Tommy back in those days. In studio I supplemented his playing on an album called Private Eyes. I helped arrange a lot of the vocals on that record. It was really like an actual marriage between Tommy and myself, guitar-wise, keyboard-wise. That was a cool trip.
Rock Cellar: I’ve been told that musicians you’ve played with like Jimi Hendrix and Alice Cooper – wild men on stage – were very different offstage. Tell me about working with them.
Mark Stein: Alice is one of the greatest guys. He’s just a regular dude. He’s not Alice off the stage. He was a Fudge fan too. Alice Cooper, when he was first starting out, opened for Vanilla Fudge on some shows in Illinois. And I wouldn’t doubt if we had some influence on him because the Alice Cooper show became the biggest visual production in rock at that time.
Jimi Hendrix was a New York guy. We opened for Jimi in 1968. We must have done 20 dates throughout America, He was such a cool guy. And Jimi used to come down to the Record Plant and hang with us when we were recording. And I think somewhere there are tracks with Vinny Martell jamming with Jimi Hendrix hidden around somewhere.
I remember he used to hang on the stage just to the right of me when I was playin’ shows. It’s a long time ago, I was like 21 years old. He used to call me “The Fox” because I used to sit on this revolving stool and twirl around and come back to the keyboard right on the downbeat of a song. He said, “You remind me of a fox, man, the way your hair goes down, you look like a fox.”
It was great hangin’ with Hendrix. We used to eat pizza together. We used to go up to his room and have dinner sometimes in a hotel and just talk. I don’t know what anybody thinks about Jimi but he was really a mellow guy and obviously the most groundbreaking guitarist of all time.