Gary Puckett was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1942, but he grew up in the state of Washington, not far from a place called Union Gap. When it came time to name the rock group that he started, Union Gap became the band's unusual title. The Union Gap's short but successful career hit its peak in 1968 and 1969. With Puckett as the lead singer, the band scored with "Woman, Woman," "Young Girl," which was one of the top three best-selling singles of 1968 in the United States, and "Lady Willpower." On the cover of their first album, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, the quintet sported blue and gold uniforms resembling those worn in the Civil War, showing a variety of ranks.
When the group formed, the members were a little older than most rock artists of the time. They also had considerably more musical experience and formal training than others of the genre. Puckett was attending San Diego State, where he majored in psychology and played with some local groups for recreation. He organized the group in January of 1967, taking the rank of general in their Civil War getup. Puckett already had considerable experience performing vocals as well as playing guitar, piano, and organ. San Diego natives Gary Withem (the private) and Dwight Bement (the sergeant) were also attending state college at the time, majoring in music. Withem, out of San Miguel High School, was proficient on the piano, organ, and woodwinds. Bement, who had taken clarinet lessons since grade school, also played the piano, organ, saxophone, bass, and drums. Kerry Chater (the corporal) was the fourth member to join the group. Born in Vancouver, Canada, he moved with his family to Southern California, where he attended Helix High School in La Mesa. He studied bass at Grossmont College and began composing songs. The last member to join was Paul Wheatbread (another private), also from San Diego. He had studied musical theory at Mesa College and played the drums. Wheatbread had more professional musical experience than the other members of the group. He was seen regularly on Dick Clark's television show Where the Action Is and had performed live with such well-known names as the Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. He was also the drummer for the rock group Hard Times before teaming up with Puckett and the Union Gap.
For most of 1967, the Union Gap toured the West Coast, especially Washington and Oregon, mostly playing small clubs and college dances. Puckett provided the vocals, Withem played the piano, Bement was on tenor sax, Chater played bass, and Wheat-bread was on the drums. Once they returned to San Diego, they played some rock concerts and clubs, but generally in small places and to small audiences. Although their fans were enthusiastic about the sound, the band did not seem to be gaining a wider audience. The break came for the Union Gap when Jerry Fuller, a former country music artist and a producer for Columbia Records in Los Angeles, heard them at a small bar where they were performing in a bowling alley complex. Fuller liked their highly polished sound and signed them to a contract. He worked with the group to modify their rock style into a soul-country blend. He also wrote the second and third of the band's big hits. "Woman, Woman" was an adaptation of the country hit by the Glaser Brothers called "Girl, Girl." The band also began wearing Civil War gear to call attention to themselves.
During 1968 and 1969, the Gap increasingly played to standing-room-only audiences who loved their melodic tunes and Puckett's soaring vocals. In 1968 the group sold more records than any other, including the Beatles. By special invitation of the President of the United States, they played at the White House for Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Their second big hit album was Young Girl, followed by Incredible, both of which won gold records in 1969. The Union Gap performed to a sellout crowd at the Yale Bowl that year and also played to a huge audience in New York City's Central Park. The group's music appealed to fans of many ages, from high schoolers to the over-30 set.
After 1969 however, the bubble began to burst. Some critics said that their tunes were too much alike, though their audiences did not seem to notice. Part of the trouble was said to be a difference of opinion between the quintet and Fuller over the musical direction the group should take. Some dissent arose from within the group as well, as the members started to disagree with each other. Also contributing to the fallout was the fact that Puckett, with his booming crooning quality, was starting to far outshine the other members. Whatever the true cause, by 1971 the Union Gap was disappearing from the charts and the formerly sold-out audiences were waning.
The Union Gap disbanded in 1971, and Puckett was on his own. Besides some acting work, he achieved modest hits in 1970 and 1971 with I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself and Keep the Customer Satisfied, both for Columbia.
Puckett, who lives with his wife and family in Clearwater, Florida, continues to tour nationally and internationally. He has performed on television network shows and specials. In 1986 he was invited by the Monkees to join their national reunion tour. He also recorded with his brother, David. In 2001 he released a CD called In Europe and also an album of traditional Christmas songs. In 2002 he released a collection of hits featuring songs dedicated to the men and women in the military. Puckett has achieved some success with recycling his and the group's past hits. For instance, As It Stands, featuring some re-recordings of "Young Girl" and "Lady Willpower" as well as new tunes such as "I Ain't Got Noth'n but the Blues" and "As It Stands," was released in the mid-1990s. Although the Union Gap has long since disbanded, its music lives on with releases of the original material, such as 1970's Gary Puckett and the Union Gap's Greatest Hits, which continues to be a best-selling Collector Series album.
Woman, Woman, Columbia, 1968.
Incredible, Columbia, 1968.
Lady Willpower, Columbia, 1968.
Young Girl, Columbia, 1968.
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap's Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1970.
This hits release features five Top Ten tunes from the late '60s, including the gold singles "Woman, Woman" and "Young Girl." Some of the lesser-known hits, such as "Home" and Tim Hardin's "Don't Make Promises," are every bit as good as the more successful songs. In fact, there is not a loser among the 11 tunes on this album. Gary Puckett is a passionate pop vocalist whose talents are well-represented here. ~ Tim Griggs, Rovi