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Charlie Bleak – Let Me In

The story of Charlie Bleak provides a glimpse into the relentless and often unpredictable world of the music business. Despite the '68 Upper Arlington grad's talent and a promising break with Pickwick's P.I.P. Records, external business decisions kept the tantalizingly close opportunity for wider recognition just out of Bleak's grasp. Charlie's music industry journey reflects the harsh reality that many artists face, where success is not only about talent but also about navigating through complex industry dynamics. Today, not enough people know the name Charlie Bleak even in his hometown. But we still have the outstanding Let Me In as a reminder of the talented singer/songwriter's near miss.


P.I.P. Records - PIP 6817

1976

Front cover of Charlie Bleak Let Me In

While a student at UA, Bleak cut his teeth as the drummer in the Cheerful Earful. Classmate Jeff D’Angelo played bass and the band had some success as far as teen bands go. They performed on regional television shows like Upbeat and recorded a jingle for Lazarus. They weren’t old enough to play clubs, but scored prime gigs at Eckels Lake and the Arts Fest and even opened for The Turtles at Vets Memorial just as “Happy Together” was completing its run at #1. Keyboard/tambourinist Robert Stevenson recalls the gig:


“After we finished playing, while The Robbs set up, Mark (Volman) came over to me and said he enjoyed our songs, and that we had a "pleasant" sound. Flattered, I was happy to loan him my tambourine when he asked. Some bands like The Marauders had two drummers, while the Cheerful Earful had two tambourine players on several songs, Rick Wilson and me.


As Robbs began to perform, I found my date and we went to our seats, on the right aisle, third row facing the stage. Sitting right beside us and behind us were the other Earful and dates, all for free. The auditorium wasn't even half full. Others in the band paid nothing.

Things picked up a little when the Turtles began playing their familiar songs. Mark had an interesting habit of throwing the tambourine up 10 or 12 feet in the air, then catching it, like a drum major's baton. As the show went on, he threw it up a little bit higher and higher. Near the end, he threw the tambourine way, way up, so high it went up above the curtain draped across center stage, out of sight. When the tambourine finally came down, Volman made no attempt to stop it, and it smashed into the ground, disintegrating into a cloud of toothpicks and metal jingle zills jangling all across the stage.”


Hoi Polloi picture

After graduating from UA, Bleak attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. While there, he contributed a couple of songs to a project that would become something of a legend in its own right. In March 1972, while students were on spring break, some Earlham musicians enlisted the help of school media department head John Schuerman to move all the school’s AV equipment into one of the lecture rooms. They needed a bass player, so Charlie called up his old Cheerful Earful buddy Jeff D’Angelo and had him come over to Richmond to record. Over the next week and a half, they recorded what came to be known as Hoi Polloi, finished when the returned students entered the lecture room and ruined a take.

Charlie Bleak photo from How Polloi recording session.

Although the band was a studio creation and only ever played one gig, the original limited vinyl pressing of Hoi Polloi eventually became collectible, selling for as much as $400.+. It was reissued, first in Sweden in 2002 and then in 2013 by Family Vineyard/Folk Evaluation, where it can still be purchased digitally. The reissue helped place Bleak’s song “Who’s Gonna Help Me?” in the 2015 film Digging For Fire, a film which also includes fellow Columbusite Bill Moss’ “Number One.” Here’s what Charlie told It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine about some of the tracks:


Photo of Jeff D'Angelo and Charlie Bleak

Wrote about a lost love. Definitely influenced by Paul McCartney… like Martha My Dear.

Me stumbling on guitar with Jeff D’Angelo on harpsichord at about 3 AM one day.

Again, a function of a very LONG night, smoking jazz cigarettes and a HUGE contribution by John Schuerman who did all kinds of crazy things with his recording rig the manufacturers would NEVER approve of.

Written about the same lost love (see Who’s Gonna Help Me?). My lost love actually plays cello on that song (Jan Rieman).

Written and arranged by Jeff D’Angelo (Sid Stoneman). One of my favorite cuts.

A masterful piece of writing by my friend Dan Mack! Tells a story which is like a 3-minute movie directed by John Ford starring John Wayne. I wish I’d written that.

Cover of the Never You Mind 45.

After returning to Columbus, Bleak continued performing as a solo musician. In 1973 he released the independent single “Never You Mind” backed with “Love Is On The Way.” “The record was an attempt to get some attention and get some national distribution,” Bleak told the Lantern in an April 18, 1974 article. “It’s a very finished product designed to get my career going.” His perseverance paid off with a publishing deal alongside Brill Building stalwart Ivan Mogull.


Wanting more than a single to shop to record labels, Bleak headed up to Columbus expat Gary Hedden’s Hedden West studio outside of Chicago to record some tracks. Bleak brought along cohorts from his prior bands, (Jeff D’Angelo (Cheerful Earful, Hoi Polloi), Denny Murry (Hoi Polloi)), Upper Arlington connections (D’Angelo and his sister Bev, Jack Wilce, Andy Smith, Frank Pierce), Columbus musicians (Vaughn Wiester, Dick Mackey, Jim Pearcy, Tony Martucci, Dave Getreu, Steve Burkey, Barney Rooker). Bleak had a top-shelf collection of songs. The musicians are world-class and the arrangements are diverse enough that the recordings could be shopped to both labels and artists looking for songs.


As Bleak’s publisher shopped the recordings, one rejection letter from Columbia Records had an interesting note. Although they weren’t interested in releasing the record, they wanted to place “The Breath Of Life” with Tony Bennett, Bleak revealed to Pat McLoughlin in a 2019 interview for Local Lix. Publisher: “I want your version to come out first and then we’ll give it to Tony.” Didn’t happen. Still, the strength of the songs did pique the interest of Pickwick subsidiary P.I.P. (Pickwick International Productions). Pickwick had found its niche in discount records - first through soundalike recordings (which are now common again in the AI age), then with reissues of albums that had been deleted from major label’s catalogs. But Pickwick had started P.I.P. to be its full-price label issuing original artists and material.


P.I.P. released Let Me In in June 1976 and it gained favorable reviews. “There’s a lot of potential in this artist,” Billboard noted. “His songs are extremely listenable and are naturals for airplay.” P.I.P. released the album opener and title track "Let Me In (I’m No Stranger)" to radio and it started gaining national radio play. The track has a gorgeous melody and harmony vocals that will stick in your head. Sonny Curtis (Buddy Holly’s Crickets) delivers some cosmic country with his tasty pedal steel. Jack Wilce provides the killer banjo break. “That was one of those songs that, you know, I just woke up in the morning and it basically came out with those lyrics and that chorus like (snap), first time through,” Bleak said in the Local Lix interview. “I don’t know where that comes from.”


The title track is followed by “Doesn’t Baby Know,” which has a distinctly different feel as a driving rocker with a prominent trombone part courtesy of the legendary Vaughn Wiester. Wiester puts on weekly big band shows to this day. Things take another left turn on the acoustic “Never You Mind.” Denny Murry handles bass guitar duty on this one and Andy Smith is on vibes. The backing vocal harmonies take center stage on this one. Now, most of you probably know Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen Griswold from the Vacation films, but she’s also a serious professional singer as this track showcases. Just a few years after this recording, she earned a Country Music Association award and a Golden Globe nomination for Coal Miner’s Daughter, contributing her vocals to her role as Patsy Cline. Undoubtedly one of the biggest stars to emerge from UA. Her brother Jeff is also quite a talent. Check out the wicked bass line in “Part Of The Scenery.” Jeff went on to a career primarily in jazz playing with artists like Doc Severinsen and Tom Scott in LA, where he continues to play in L.A. 6.

Let Me In is rounded out with “New York/Summer (Take Care Of Your Business).” This mellow mood piece includes a couple of fine flute solos from Barney (Byron) Rooker and more serene vibe work from Andy Smith. The album is a well-constructed and promising debut highlighting Bleak’s strengths as a singer and as a songwriter. P.I.P. put at least some marketing muscle behind it, featuring it in a July 1976 Cash Box ad. However, marketing new artists was not the parent company’s strong suit. Tensions between the board and shareholders led to a shakeup at the company. The company was doing well overall, but P.I.P. was not. Could anything on Pip squeak into the charts?


By the fall, just a few months after they released Let Me In, a major reorganization at Pickwick resulted in the announcement that P.I.P Records would be discontinued. By January 1977, P.I.P was no more. Years later when he’d play “Let Me In,” fans would come up to him, Bleak noted in the Local Lix interview, and tell him they loved the song when they heard it on the radio, but when they went to buy the album, they couldn’t find it anywhere.


Label of Let Me In 45.

He left an impression on the musicians he worked with. "I was always blown away by the music he wrote, and back then I consciously emulated his songwriting in some of the songs I wrote," Hoi Polloi bandmate Dan Mack enthused in a 2013 Lama Workshop interview. "I also learned many of his songs for my solo act. I always expected that he would become a star, with his songwriting talent, outstanding vocals and good looks. I still think he should be recognized as a major talent."


Bleak kept plugging away, joining Columbus supergroup Tyler and continuing to perform. He re-released the album as Charlie Bleak And Friends in 1980.


Charlie Bleak's story is a testament to the resilience of artists in the face of industry challenges. While the music business can be brutal, this unheralded singer-songwriter's dedication to his craft reflects the enduring spirit of those who persist in creating and sharing their music, even when the rewards seem elusive.


Cover of Charlie Bleak And Friends
Tracklist


Companies, etc.

Credits

Billboard's Top Album Picks, June 26, 1976
Billboard's Top Album Picks, June 26, 1976

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