Up Close with Mike Rabon
Vocalist and Lead Guitarist for The Five Americans
Beverly Paterson notes: The seeds of The Five Americans were planted in Durant, Oklahoma. It was the early sixties, they were then billed as The Mutineers and eventually migrated to Dallas, Texas, in search of a wider audience.
Comprised of Mike Rabon on vocals and lead guitar, Norman Ezell on vocals and rhythm guitar, Jim Grant on vocals and bass, John Durrill on vocals and keyboards and Jimmy Wright on drums, The Five Americans garnered much local success before minting a genuine hit single in 1966 with "I See the Light." Marked by a primal delivery (imagine The Animals having a super session with The Strangeloves) designed of a stomping beat, jagged guitar breaks and husky grunts and growls, the song is an ultimate garage rock classic.
The Five Americans had definitely arrived, but the best was yet to come. In 1967, they were a constant presence on the charts, invading the airwaves with tantalizing tunes such as "Western Union," "Sound of Love," "Zip Code" and "Stop Light." Ditching their scruffy punk demeanor in favor of a slicker pop mentality, the band not only proved to be taut musicians but disciplined songwriters. Punchy harmonies, matched by infectious hooks, shrewd arrangements and bleeping keyboards firmly characterized their style.
Aside from their excellent hit singles, The Five Americans cut a flurry of other tunes that are just as appealing. Scattered about their four albums, which include "I See the Light," "Western Union"/"Sound of Love," "Progressions" and "Now and Then," are a bounty of sparkling jewels. From the moody and melancholic tenor of "The Losing Game" to the bright and bubbly bearings of "See Saw Man" to the psychedelic seasonings of "Reality," The Five Americans certainly had a solid grip on what they were doing. Slinky soul grooves fuel "The Train," "Con Man" dips and curves with dizzy tempos and the Beach Boys flavored "Big Cities" mixes majestic choruses with spinning melodies. A funky hard rocking riff, similar to that of Joe South's "Hush," which Deep Purple of course later scored points with, drives the point home on "Black is White - Day is Night," while "7:30 Guided Tour" flourishes with shimmering sonics and classy production work. The Sundazed label has reissued practically everything The Five Americans have recorded, so the majority of their catalog is readily available. Bonus tracks bolster the studio albums, and two greatest hits packages have also been released.
The Five Americans have often been compared to the likes of The Zombies, The Hollies and The Monkees. But as attested by their clever songs, they were original and creative enough to forge their own path. Having said that, there's little doubt The Five Americans were one of the finest pop rock bands of the sixties.]
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[Beverly Paterson] Prior to breaking through nationally with "I See the Light," The Five Americans recorded a couple of singles ("It's You Girl" and "I'm Feeling OK") for the Jetstar label. How much airplay did these records receive? Do you remember the first time hearing your music on the radio and what was your reaction?
Mike Rabon Yeah, those songs were us reaching to find our way in the recording world and in our band. Like, who should be the singer and all that? When we first heard ourselves on the radio, we were sitting at our apartment pool and we just about came unhinged. We felt like we were up there with all the rock stars.
[Beverly Paterson] Most bands at the time didn't write songs. They relied on outside composers for material or they played cover versions. But The Five Americans were different, as you were a band of songwriters. Was it a conscious decision to push your own material and how did you go about sharing songwriting duties?
Mike Rabon Well, I had always wanted to write a hit song. We simply found that if we (John, Norman and myself) all joined forces we came up with more eclectic efforts. Our mission was to be different than the British bands and that took some thought.
[Beverly Paterson] Your songs have been recorded by a number of artists over the years. Do you have a favorite version and what is the strangest cover of a Five Americans song you have ever heard?
Mike Rabon Probably the instrumental version of "Western Union" by The Ventures; it sounds very Japanese.
[Beverly Paterson] Aside from "I See the Light," the first Five Americans album (also titled I See the Light) is full of great songs. Were some of these tracks like "The Train," "It's A Crying Shame" and "Don't Blame Me" songs you performed in concert before making the album or were they specifically written and recorded for the project?
Mike Rabon Most of those songs were tried out in public before we recorded the album. Local club goers in Dallas developed a dance called "The Train," where all they all linked arms and danced around the floor. However, that song was just garage rock at its best.
[Beverly Paterson] In the beginning, The Five Americans did have a pretty raw garage rock sound. The songs you recorded after that were quite a bit poppier and more accessible. Was that intentional or were you pressured by those in charge to streamline your style?
Mike Rabon Actually, we were just becoming better musicians and singers. The band was getting tighter and tighter.
[Beverly Paterson] Once "I See the Light" became a big hit single, how did you adapt to fame? Did you enjoy getting mobbed and reading about yourselves in magazines?
Mike Rabon Well, who wouldn't like the adoration?! We were very surprised when we played gigs and all of a sudden kids were screaming for us to play "I See the Light."
[Beverly Paterson] What television programs did The Five Americans appear on and can you recall any interesting incidents while filming these shows?
Mike Rabon We did Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and his other show, "Where The Action Is!" about six or seven times. We also performed on "Shindig!," "The Steve Allen Show" and about a million local teen shows. The funniest remark I can remember is Steve Allen asking us how many members were in the band, even though he had just introduced us as The Five Americans!
[Beverly Paterson] Have you ever struggled with stage fright? What thoughts go through your head when performing live?
Mike Rabon Stage fright was not a factor. When you morph into the big time, you have already played a million times in front of big crowds, small crowds, excited crowds and bored crowds. Not to mention drunk crowds! When playing live, we were just doing what we did best and it was very relaxing. So relaxing that we were mostly looking for girls in the audience rather than focusing on our performance!
[Beverly Paterson] How far and wide did The Five Americans tour? Did you ever play overseas?
Mike Rabon We played the entire United States and a lot of Canada. We never went overseas; our songs were just not that big over in Europe. However, we were huge in Australia and Japan. But we probably would have wound up breaking even on an overseas tour so we just stayed at home in our own backyard.
[Beverly Paterson] Was touring something you looked forward to and how would you describe life on the road?
Mike Rabon Well, touring was a job. And it was our job so we did it. Most musicians have good tour dates and bad tour dates, and we were no different. But we did have a lot of fun on some of those tours.
[Beverly Paterson] By any chance, was "Big Cities" (one of the many great cuts on the second Five Americans album, "Western Union"/"Sound of Love") influenced by all the touring the band did?
Mike Rabon "Big Cities" was a shameless bid for airplay. We mentioned as many cities as we could in the song in hopes the stations in those cities would play the record.
[Beverly Paterson] Other than the hit singles, what songs did The Five Americans play in concert? Did you ever perform select album tracks? The Five Americans did record some cover songs - "Gimme Some Lovin'," "Come On Up" and "Twist and Shout" for example - did you ever play these cuts as well?
Mike Rabon Yes, we recorded and played cover songs that we personally enjoyed. And we performed most of our album tracks if they didn't need strings or extra instruments.
[Beverly Paterson] Do any tapes exist of your live shows?
Mike Rabon I am not in possession of any of our tapes, but I'm sure there are tapes somewhere of our live shows. Dick Clark has all the "American Bandstand" performances and wants about five hundred dollars a minute for them. I have viewed some of the performances on Youtube.
[Beverly Paterson] Getting back to the "Western Union"/"Sound of Love" album - the record was produced by the legendary Dale Hawkins. What are your memories working with him?
Mike Rabon Dale Hawkins and I were good friends, but the songs sort of produced themselves because they were recorded as written.
[Beverly Paterson] The "Western Union"/"Sound of Love" album came out at the height of the flower power period, and it seemed as if every band was embracing or at least flirting with psychedelic music. There's one cut, "Reality," on the album that's rather trippy. Great song, by the way! But I was wondering, you being a guitar player, what did you think of acid rock? Were you at all inspired by the radical guitar antics that were coming in vogue at the time?
Mike Rabon "Reality" was just a good example of good old garage rock. It was also an example of the strength of our voices, which showed that we were better singers than guitar players.
[Beverly Paterson] The band's next album, "Progressions," is another great collection of songs. It appears as though a lot of detail went into making the record. Was the band, at this point, attempting to break away from being a singles act and aiming to reach an underground audience?
Mike Rabon During the recording of "Progressions," the band was becoming more polished and was beginning to expand and become more prolific in the studio.
[Beverly Paterson] Unfortunately, John Durrill and Norman Ezell departed The Five Americans after "Progressions" was released. What led to their exit and how did their replacements, Bobby Rambo and Lenny Goldsmith, enter into the picture?
Mike Rabon John and Norman parted the band on good terms. We had matured into professional musicians, and by then each of the three writers in the band, Norman, John and myself, wanted to expand into different musical genres. We felt we had been pigeonholed into a "communication band." Bobby and Lenny were invited to join us to finish up bookings and one last album that we were under contract to do. Lenny was from San Francisco and Bobby was from Dallas. They were both accomplished musicians.
[Beverly Paterson] The band's final album, "Now and Then," was certainly an ambitious undertaking, with it being a two record set that covered a lot of different musical ground. What was your vision when making the album and how do you view it after all these years?
Mike Rabon It was a commercial ploy to bring in more royalties and finish up our obligations to Abnak Music. If I had to do it over, I would have done only a single album. But our manager insisted we record a double album.
[Beverly Paterson] Why exactly did The Five Americans split up and do you remember where your last live performance took place? The band would reunite some years later but that's another story altogether...
Mike Rabon We split up because everyone wanted to explore different music and it was time for us to move on. The last performance was in Ponchatrain Beach, New Orleans.
[Beverly Paterson] What activities did you pursue after The Five Americans disbanded?
Mike Rabon After the split, I formed a group called Michael Rabon and Choctaw and had much success in touring for the next two years. I also signed with Universal for one album, which was titled "Michael Rabon and Choctaw."
[Beverly Paterson] How did Sundazed Records approach the band about reissuing your music?
Mike Rabon Sundazed purchased the masters from our manager without our knowledge. Our manager later died and all the royalties have reverted back to the band.
[Beverly Paterson] Are there any songs The Five Americans recorded that you felt should have been hit singles but weren't?
Mike Rabon Yes, "7:30 Guided Tour," which was written by Robin H. Brians, our studio engineer. That song was a precursor to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
[Beverly Paterson] In hindsight, is there anything you would do over again if given the chance?
Mike Rabon I would have left our manager sooner.
[Beverly Paterson] What prompted The Five Americans to get back together? Was the magic still there the first time you rehearsed after all those years?
Mike Rabon Fox Network asked us to get back together not too long ago. Then we got back together for our college about three years ago and raised thirty thousand dollars for their fine arts department with one show. Yes, the magic was still there, only it was less ego and more fun. It was also the last gig we played with Jim Grant, our bass player. [Editor’s note: Jim Grant sadly passed away a few years ago.]
[Beverly Paterson] How frequently do you perform now and where are your gigs usually held?
Mike Rabon I perform about three or four times a year when I am asked. Usually legends of rock shows, charity events and just plain rock and roll shows.
[Beverly Paterson] Are there any plans to record a new album?
Mike Rabon No plans for a new album.
[Beverly Paterson] What would you say are the band's primary strengths?
Mike Rabon The main strength of the band would have to be our vocals, as evidenced by our records.
[Beverly Paterson] What is the most memorable comment that has ever been said or written about The Five
Mike Rabon After recording our version of "Slipping and Sliding," we realized that my amp speaker was broken. It produced a fuzz sound. It is credited in many magazines as the first fuzztone guitar ever recorded. Also, the organ break in "I See the Light" was considered by many to be the first psychedelic music recorded.
[Beverly Paterson] Have you ever considered writing a book about your experiences?
Mike Rabon Yes, I have written a book and will seek a publisher once I am fully retired from the education system.
[Lance Monthly: The following is an excerpt taken from the July 1967 issue of The Lance in reference to a Lance Music Enterprises sponsored concert with The Five Americans, Question Mark and the Mysterians and Lance Records’ Doc Rand and the Purple Blues and the Fe-Fi-Four Plus 2; the event was held at the Albuquerque Civic Auditorium on the night of 08/17/67: “It’s interesting to note that Norm Ezell, who plays rhythm guitar for The Five Americans, is from Albuquerque and graduated from Valley High School where he was a member of the All-State football team and honor society.” TLM editor, Dick Stewart, is also a Valley High graduate.]
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