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Spooky Tooth

Walking a tightrope between progressive rock, hard rock, and blues, Spooky Tooth were a British band who earned a loyal following in the United States and Europe without achieving major stardom at home, despite the consistent quality of their work and several bandmembers who would go on to greater success after moving on from the group. Featuring two powerful lead singers and a unique two-keyboard approach, Spooky Tooth made their debut in 1967, and they broke through in North America with 1969's Spooky Two, where they let their blues influences run free. A band prone to breaking up and reuniting on a regular basis, Spooky Tooth called it quits after 1974's The Mirror (recorded after several key members had already left), though they took another lap for their fans with 1999's Cross Purpose. The Spooky Tooth story began with a beat-era R&B combo called the V.I.P.'s, formed in Carlisle, Cumberland, England in 1963. Featuring lead singer Mike Harrison, guitarists Jimmy Henshaw and Frank Kenyon, bassist Greg Ridley, and drummer Walter Johnstone, the group scored a European hit with their debut single, 1966's "I Wanna Be Free," and were soon a popular attraction in France and Germany, though they weren't making much noise at home. By 1967, Jimmy Henshaw had left the band, and guitarist Luther Grosvenor took his place, and Walter Johnstone was replaced by Mike Kellie, while they also added a keyboard player, Keith Emerson. Emerson didn't last long in the V.I.P.'s before moving on to the Nice (and later Emerson, Lake & Palmer), and when Harrison, Ridley, Grosvenor, and Kellie were approached by Island Records A&R man Guy Stevens, he suggested they change their name. Adopting the new moniker Art, they cut an album, 1967's Supernatural Fairy Tales, that made little impact in the marketplace despite strong reviews. (Art also served as the backing band for design collective Hapshash & the Coloured Coat on their 1967 LP Featuring the Human Host & the Heavy Metal Kids.) Art had not been as successful as they had hoped, and on the advice of producer Jimmy Miller, they added a new keyboard player, Gary Wright, an American with a strong voice and good skills as a songwriter. With Wright added to the lineup on organ and vocals and Mike Harrison doubling on vocals and electric harpsichord, they adopted the name Spooky Tooth, and with Miller producing, they cut their debut album, 1968's It's All About. The album once again sold well in Europe, and influential BBC disc jockey John Peel endorsed the band. Their second long-player, 1969's Spooky Two (with guest appearances from Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood), connected with listeners in the United States and Canada, where the disc broke into the Top 50 of the sales charts and they became a potent concert draw. (It also featured the song "Better by You, Better Than Me," later covered by Judas Priest.) In 1969, Greg Ridley left Spooky Tooth to join Humble Pie, and Andy Leigh took over on bass. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell persuaded Spooky Tooth to serve as the backing band for French experimental composer Pierre Henry, who wanted to make a religious concept album. Although the band was told that the album wouldn't be released under the name Spooky Tooth, Ceremony: An Electronic Mass appeared in 1969 and the front cover read, "Performed by Spooky Tooth/Pierre Henry." The latter's extensive electronic treatments of the music alienated more than a few listeners. After the release of Ceremony, Gary Wright and Andy Leigh left Spooky Tooth, and for the 1970's The Last Puff (credited to "Spooky Tooth featuring Mike Harrison"), they recruited three members of Joe Cocker's Grease Band to fill out the lineup -- Henry McCullough on guitar, Chris Stainton on keyboards, and Alan Spenner on bass. The album was well received, but it didn't match Spooky Two's North American sales and was largely overlooked in the United Kingdom. For their supporting tour, Harrison, Grosvenor, and Kellie were joined by bassist Steve Thompson and keyboardist John Hawken. The tour was only modestly successful, and before the year was out, Spooky Tooth had broken up. However, two years later, Mike Harrison and Gary Wright revived Spooky Tooth with the addition of guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Ian Herbert, and drummer Bryson Graham. (Luther Grosvenor declined, having joined Mott the Hoople under the new stage name Ariel Bender.) The new lineup cut 1973's memorably titled You Broke My Heart So … I Busted Your Jaw, and by year's end, they brought out another album, Witness, with Mike Kellie returning as drummer and Chris Stewart making his debut on bass. In 1974, Mike Harrison quit and the group brought in Mike Patto (formerly of Patto) to sing lead and play keyboards, while Val Burke replaced departing bassist Chris Stewart and Bryson Graham returned as drummer. (Mike Kellie would later join beloved proto-punks the Only Ones.) This edition of the group cut the 1974 album The Mirror (which would be reissued in 2000 with new artwork and a different sequence as Comic Violence). While Patto was a better fit for the band than many imagined, fans were disappointed by Harrison's absence, and by 1975, Spooky Tooth had once again disbanded. Guitarist Mick Jones would enjoy greater success a few years later in Foreigner. In 1998, Mike Harrison and Luther Grosvenor staged a Spooky Tooth comeback, joined by Greg Ridley and Mike Kellie, recording a new album (1999's Cross Purpose) and staging an international tour. They ended their run in 1999, but Harrison staged a short reunion tour in Germany, also including Gary Wright, Mike Kellie, guitarist Joey Albrecht, and bassist Michael Becker. Highlights from two of the shows appeared on the 2007 release Nomad Poets Live in Germany 2004. Harrison, Wright, and Kellie toured Europe again in 2008 as Spooky Tooth, with Steve Farris (ex-Mr. Mister) on guitar and Shem von Schroeck on bass. Island Records staged a special concert in 2009 to celebrate 50 years in business, and Spooky Tooth was one of the acts on the bill; Mike Kellie was unable to join them, and Tom Brechtlein took his place on drums. A short European tour followed, which proved to be their last. Mike Kellie died on January 18, 2017, at the age of 69, while Mike Harrison passed on March 25, 2018, at the age of 75, and Gary Wright died on September 4, 2023, at the age of 80, effectively bringing the Spooky Tooth story to an end.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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