During the late '60s -- a period forever distinguished as rock's most radical, innovative, and far-reaching -- Gary Puckett and the Union Gap forged a series of massive chart ballads almost otherworldly in their sheer earnestness and melodrama. Likely the only pop band of the era to play two nightly shows in the Catskills -- the early gig for their younger fans, the later appearance for the fans' parents -- the group pioneered the hip-to-be-square concept two decades before spiritual descendants Huey Lewis and the News; clad in Civil War-era get-ups (complete with fictitious military ranks) and bizarrely pedophilic lyrics, Puckett and the Union Gap were in their own way as far-out and singular as any other act of the period.
Frontman Puckett was born October 17, 1942, in of all places Hibbing, MN, (where Bob Dylan went to high school). Raised primarily in Yakima, WA, he picked up the guitar as a teen, and while attending college in San Diego played in a number of local bands before quitting school to focus on music. Puckett eventually landed with the Outcasts, a hard rock group comprised of bassist Kerry Chater, keyboardist Gary "Mutha" Withem, tenor saxophonist Dwight Bement, and drummer Paul Wheatbread. Despite earning a strong local following, in 1966 Wheatbread relocated to Los Angeles to serve as the house drummer on the television series Where the Action Is; the remaining members of the Outcasts toured the Pacific Northwest, and on their return, Wheatbread also moved back to San Diego and rejoined the lineup. For reasons unknown, manager Dick Badger -- convinced his charges needed a strong visual hook -- then sent the group to Tijuana, where they were outfitted with Union Army-style Civil War uniforms.
A demo was soon cut in L.A., and Badger arranged a meeting with CBS producer Jerry Fuller. Though impressed by Puckett's soaring baritone, Fuller believed the band's gritty, R&B-influenced approach was all wrong, but agreed to check out their live show at the San Diego bowling alley the Quad Room. Believing Fuller was due to arrive on Saturday, the Outcasts opted to save their energy, delivering an atypically mellow set on Friday night. Fuller, who was in the crowd for both shows, signed the group contingent on their willingness to foster their latent soft rock leanings. Re-christened the Union Gap in honor of a suburb of Yakima, on August 16, 1967, the band recorded its first single, "Woman Woman." Suggesting a mellower Righteous Brothers sans producer Phil Spector's majestic firepower, the single reached the Top Ten late in 1967 and was a million-seller by February of 1968; concurrent CBS press releases gave each member his own imaginary military rank -- Puckett was the general, Bement the sergeant, Chater the corporal, and both Withem and Wheatbread were relegated to privates.
In the spring of 1968, the Union Gap scored their biggest hit, "Young Girl," written by Fuller in the style of "Woman, Woman," but exchanging the age-old theme of infidelity for the age-old theme of the temptation of underage romance: "My love for you is way out of line/you better run, girl, you're much too young, girl," an anguished Puckett wailed. The juggernaut rolled on, and the group continued rattling off hits -- "Lady Willpower," "Over You," and "Don't Give in to Him" among them -- and also headlined at the White House and Disneyland. But there was dissension in the ranks: the Union Gap wanted to write and produce their own material, and Puckett found himself increasingly confined within the CBS-mandated ballad formula. In 1969, stalemate: Fuller assembled a 40-piece studio orchestra for a new song he had written, but Puckett and the Union Gap refused to cut the tune. The session was ultimately canceled, and Fuller never again worked with the group. For the Union Gap, it was a pyrrhic victory.
The band immediately returned to the Top Ten that autumn with the Dick Glasser-produced "This Girl Is a Woman Now," but it was to be their last hit. The follow-up, "Let's Give Adam and Eve Another Chance," tanked, and after management dictated that Puckett's bandmates now receive a weekly salary instead of a percentage of the revenue, Chater and Withem left the band. Bement assumed bass duties, keyboardist Barry McCoy and horn player Richard Gabriel were added, and gospel vocalists the Eddie Kendrick Singers also signed on. The Civil War gear was soon jettisoned, but even so, prospects did not improve. In 1970, Puckett began recording as a solo act, but his efforts were not well-received; the Union Gap remained his live backing unit, until they were dismissed following an appearance at the 1971 Orange County Fair. Puckett's contract with CBS was terminated one year later.
Puckett continued making solo appearances in the months to come, but by 1973 he had essentially disappeared from music, opting instead to study acting and dance. He performed in theatrical productions in and around L.A., but his acting career never really took off, and in 1984 he signed on with the Happy Together oldies package tour. Two years later, Puckett was tapped to open for the Monkees on their 20th Anniversary tour, and he remained a staple of the revival circuit into the next century. Among his original bandmates, Bement later joined the oldies act Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, while Chater relocated to Nashville, where he plied his trade as a songwriter. Wheatbread, meanwhile, turned to concert promotion, and Withem returned to San Diego to teach high-school band. ~ Jason Ankeny