Up for the title of “most underappreciated band” since its first break-up in 1970, New York’s Vanilla Fudge stands as a major contributor to the development of heavy rock and the album-oriented approach. Distinguished by likely the loudest, unruliest rhythm section at the time in drummer Carmine Appice and bassist Tim Bogert (who, along with West Coast counterpart Jack Casady, legitimized the bass solo in rock and proved the instrument could work as a lead), the group exuded technical virtuosity and regard for dynamics to a greater extent than any other American band of the 1960s. Keyboardist/primary vocalist Mark Stein vindicated the Hammond organ’s place in rock with every note, while the ever-undervalued Vince Martell more than acquitted himself as a lead guitarist and supplied memorable, eastern-tinged lines to the fray. Building upon the harder and broader advances of The Animals and The Yardbirds, Vanilla Fudge led the shift from straight blues-based compositions to more volatile works infused with diverse influences.
Though the group’s most successful material came as drastically rearranged, tumultuous renditions of popular hits, the members proved capable songwriters and progressed stylistically with each record despite never eclipsing commercially their superb 1967 debut. One of the more interesting facets of the group’s sound was its commitment to Top 40-worthy, soulful harmonies that compensated for the lack of a definitive lead singer and tended to smooth over the rampages. By late 1968, Vanilla Fudge’s output had seen glimpses of hard rock and metal, troubled but nonetheless influential sound “collages” (The Beat Goes On), jazz, classical, and blues influences, remarkably dense, trance-like mood pieces (“Season of the Witch”), rhythmic complexity, and, throughout it all, considerable vision and musicianship.
A compelling live act (as documented on Near the Beginning‘s absurd “Break Song” jam), the group toured extensively and constantly threatened to blow headliners (including the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream) off the stage. Already convincing enough in the studio, the band saw its concerts as an opportunity to expand upon its recorded work and develop ideas further. Just as impressively, the group’s sense of atmosphere, drama, and harmony remained intact, showing an added element of musical discipline and dedication that could not always be found among the rock groups of the decade. Proudly improvisation-based and heavy, Vanilla Fudge exerted an immeasurable influence* upon rock music in the late 1960s and set the bar for both volume and power. Without the band’s willingness to present heavy rock as a diverse, well-structured, emotionally engaging, and ultimately unconstrained musical form, the commercial successes of the 1970s and ’80s would not have been quite so outrageous.
*Ritchie Blackmore cites his and Jon Lord’s original conception for Deep Purple as having been “Vanilla Fudge with Edgar Winter”. Additionally, the group’s influence can be felt (despite the lack of keys) in Black Sabbath‘s earliest work, while later “progressive” acts like, most notably, Yes took great inspiration from the Vanilla Fudge sound.
Vanilla Fudge (1967)
“Season of the Witch”, “The Sky Cried/When I Was a Boy” (1968, from Renaissance)
“Come By Day, Come By Night” (Non-album B-side to “You Keep Me Hangin’ On“, 1968)
“Good Good Lovin'” (Non-album B-side to “Shotgun”, 1968)
Near the Beginning (1969)
“Need Love“, “Street Walking Woman”, “Lord in the Country”, and “The Windmills of Your Mind” (1969, from Rock & Roll)
Rhino’s 4-disc Box of Fudge compiles the group’s strongest studio cuts, B-sides, unreleased tracks, and the first officially-released concert recordings from the original 1967-1970 run since “Break Song”. The full set from December 31, 1968 at the Fillmore West is included unedited and features a typically rapturous Vanilla Fudge performance.
Vanilla Fudge’s 1969 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show provides a glimpse at the group’s ability with an abridged cover of Junior Walker and the All Star’s classic “Shotgun”: