Monday, April 14, 2014

The Uniques - Happening Now! (1967)

Years before Joe Stampley began his ascent to country stardom, he fronted a Louisiana rock band, the Uniques, who were quite popular in the South, although national attention eluded them. The group were ironically named in light of their failure to establish a truly distinctive style. They were adept at blue-eyed soul, covering William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water" and Art Neville's "All These Things," landing a huge regional hit with the latter tune. They were also capable of waxing good, original, Southern-flavored pop-rock, especially on "Not Too Long Ago," another big Southern hit. And, oddly enough, they also did an all-out, raunchy, R&B-hued garage-band stomp, "You Ain't Tuff," which gives the band a somewhat misleading image among garage band collectors.

The Uniques, when it came down to it, were a band content to deliver whatever the audiences wanted. That was an asset as far as finding live work, and most likely a hindrance in carving a significant creative niche for themselves. While they couldn't be considered a significant group, they were capable of crafting some enjoyable, if diffuse, singles. Joe Stampley's vocals were also admirably versatile and expressive, if not as soulful as one of his main regional rivals, John Fred. Most rock listeners will agree that the best Uniques records outshine Stampley's solo work by the length of a football field.

In comparison to their 1966 debut LP Uniquely Yours, the Uniques' second album, Happening Now, was a little bit of a disappointment, though not without its assets. The main flaw is that, in common with numerous albums issued by good but not great bands in the mid-'60s, there are too many covers of familiar hit songs. In this disc's case, those include "96 Tears," "Oh Pretty Woman," the Animals' "Don't Bring Me Down" (which does have a remarkably accurate Eric Burdon-like vocal), the Outsiders' "Time Won't Let Me," the Swinging Medallions' "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)," and even Gerry & the Pacemakers' "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," which wasn't standard garage/frat band fare. This isn't as dull as it seems; the Uniques were a good group with a very fine singer/organist, Joe Stampley, and certainly sound like they would have been a hell of a band to have at your party or club if you couldn't afford bigger names. It's not all that original, however, even if it's a pretty good snapshot of mid-'60s Southern rock that adeptly blended more standard garage rock with soul and swamp pop. It does have a surprisingly nice cover of "And I Love Her" (even if it seems to be faded out prematurely), and a couple decent tracks outside of the hit cover category in the tough single "Run and Hide" and the more melodic "Look to Me," which has a really peculiar clavioline-like keyboard solo.
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