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Neal Ford & The Fanatics

Based in Houston, Neal Ford & the Fanatics never had much of an impact outside of Texas but they were one of the stronger of the legions of regionally popular psychedelic/garage outfits. Never as wild as Austin's the 13th Floor Elevators, Ford had a bigger, brighter sound, one that certainly showed a deep appreciation for the British Invasion but also found space for swirling, insistent organ and a facility with an R&B groove that wasn't quite common among other garage bands. Ironically enough, Ford & the Fanatics wound up hampered by the very thing that made them distinctive: they were poppier and lighter than their peers, particularly their Texas peers, and that made labels eager to package them in an even lighter setting, a commercially minded move that never paid off. Nevertheless, the group amassed a nice, tidy legacy that can be heard on Ace's excellent 2013 compilation, Good Men.

A native of San Antonio, Neal Ford spent some childhood time in Michigan's Upper Peninsula before he went back to Texas to attend high school in Houston. He wound up leading a band called the Ramadas, who largely played R&B covers, and they came to the attention of Texas record man Major Bill Smith. The Ramadas released a couple singles on Philips in 1963, then moved to New World where they were now known as the VIPs. Around this time, Ford and his band fell under the spell of British Invasion and that influence would hold until late 1964, when he returned to active rock duty after a year's sojourn in the military. By early 1965, the lineup of the Fanatics fell into place, featuring Ford on vocals, Steve Ames on guitar and vocal, W.T. Johnson on bass, Lanier Greig on keyboards, John Cravey on drums, and Johnny Stringfellow on guitar. They knocked out "I Will Not Be Lonely" for Gina Records and it got some attention in Houston and, over the next few months, they built their audience through consistent appearances around town, which continued even when Ford was called back to boot camp. The group kept performing and Ford returned at the end of the year, after which they cut some sides in January 1966. These were the first songs released to Neal Ford & the Fanatics and soon afterward, Ames was replaced by Jon Pereles, who was the lead guitarist and Ford's vocal sparring partner. The group's third single, "I Will If You Want To," was, upon its September 1966 release, the group's most popular to date and they started getting attention outside of Houston, which led to more commercial-oriented sessions that fall.

Early in 1967, "Gonna Be My Girl" wound up catching fire in the Houston region and the group seemed poised for a breakthrough but its sequel, "Wait for Me," didn't do quite as well. Nevertheless, 1967 saw Neal Ford & the Fanatics playing the gulf region to big audiences and they started to record material for an album -- more than enough, actually, with some of the leftovers surfacing decades later on Ace's Good Men comp. Hickory released the group's debut album in November 1967, after Stringfellow was drafted. The eponymous album didn't do well, nor did the singles that followed in 1968, each moving the band closer to the mainstream. Nevertheless, none of these commercially oriented records resulted in an actual hit. One more single followed in 1969 for ABC but the group disbanded not long afterward. Ford continued to play with band into the '70s -- including with the Neal Ford Foundation, which released an album in 1972 -- but for the most part they were remembered for their earliest, edgiest singles and garage aficionados remembered them for their versatility. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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