The band's big break came when it took first place in a "contest for rock bands" sponsored by the National Ballroom Operators Association in Des Moines, Iowa on September 29th, 1968. The prize - a recording session with Columbia Records. Three judges presided over N.B.O.A. contest that night, one was Timothy Kehr, former booking agent of the Rave-Ons. It came down to South 40 and the Fabulous Flippers, split even, until Kehr cast the deciding vote. On January 31st, 1969, Crow entered the Columbia Recording Studio in Chicago for the first time, to begin what would be a bittersweet roller coaster ride that would last the next two-and-a-half years. Several changes had occurred in the four-month interim since winning the N.B.O.A. deal. Most notably was the name change. The guys, as one, decided to make it on a national level, South 40 just wasn't going to cut it. But why Crow? "Well, a crow is a kind of funky bird," recalled Kink Middlemist. "It's a scavenger, a nasty hard-hitting kind of bird and our music is kind of that way. Also, it's a short name, one that's easy to remember." Enough said.
Along with the name change came a personnel one too. Harry Nehls had received a good offer to join the local Minneapolis group T.C. Atlantic, so he left. After searching through the Minneapolis Musician's Union entourage, Mike Malasgar was settled on. Denny Craswell (of the Castaways) had been the group's first choice, but he had to finish up a few prior commitments with Blackwood Apology, of which he was a member. He would join the other four in about a month. Mike Malasgar was on the five-song session in Chicago, however. The five songs recorded during that cold January day were: "Time To Make A Turn," "Busy Day," "Gonna Leave A Mark," "White Eyes" and "Evil Woman." Columbia Records passed on Crow after hearing the demos. "Columbia had specked us the free time," said Larry, "but they never promised records would come of the deal. I'm sure they had visions of Dave being another Gary Puckett, who was big for them at the time. We were a little bit too funky for them though. I'm sure that's why they passed."
Unbeknownst to Crow, Bob Monaco had been at the sessions that day listening and observing. Bob was the A & R man for Dunwich Productions. He liked what he heard in the group and called up Bruce Brantseg and expressed interest. Monaco notified his partners Bill Traut and Jim Golden, who were financial "brains" at Dunwich. The two began shopping Crow around to numerous major labels: Liberty, Elektra, Atlantic and Amaret.
'Atlantic almost signed us," said Dave. "They had Atlantic on the line and Amaret on the other. Amaret was decided upon because Traut and Golden felt we'd get buried with the larger Atlantic, who had so many other things going on. Of course we wanted to go with the bigger company of the two but nobody listened to us. In a matter of months, it turned out to be the biggest mistake we ever made. Amaret just couldn't cover us. There was no way they could possibly follow us up with product in all the towns we traveled to. If the kids couldn't find the product in their local record stores to buy, they'd forget about us real fast. That's the bottom line."
"Amaret got a hold of our songs and decided (on their own) to add horns to get more of a 'Chicago' sound like the Buckinghams," said Dick. They had their own thoughts as to how to make our music sound better. I remember us arguing amongst ourselves about whether we wanted horns in our music or not. The bottom line was; if we didn't have the horns in it, they weren't going to put it out. That plucked our strings. The more we listened to the deal, the fatter it sounded. So we thought, 'Well as long as these guys are pulling the strings as far as money goes - let's get the record out.' We figured we could regain control later on. At the time, I don't think we thought the record would get as big as it did."
With Denny Craswell finally in their ranks, Crow was brought into the Great Lakes Recording studio in Sparta, Michigan to begin work on what was to be their first album, Crow Music (Amaret ST 5002). "Time To Make A Turn" / "Busy Day" was chosen to begin the vinyl voyage for Crow. "I was dead set against Amaret releasing 'Time…' as our debut single from day one," Dave said. "I knew it wasn't a hit single. They went ahead and put it out, and it didn't do much of anything."
"Finally, they listened to us and released 'Evil Woman.' The record broke out in a major market (Seattle) in October and by year's end, sold upwards of 600,000 copies. Billboard always quotes the song as making it to number 19, but Cashbox had it at number 7. Either way those kinds of sales were a commercial success in anyone's book!"
With an album and a hit single both selling well, the band changed its base of operations temporarily, moving part and parcel to Chicago in the summer of 1969. There the guys accepted every job they could find. Monaco and Brantseg soon obliged the five by sending them on a major concert circuit to plug their released material. The band headlined the fourth annual Denver Teenage Fair ("Pop Expo '69"), a major outdoor festival in Olympia, Washington called Sky River, and hit a certain peak for itself by appearing in concert with Janis Joplin in November. Spirits ran high and national fame seemed assured.
Crow continued to soar throughout 1970, a year in which the band grossed in excess of $200,000- a far cry from the $3000 a man it made in its days as South 40. By May 1970, their second album Crow by Crow (Amaret ST 5006) had been released and included superb songs, particularly "Cottage Cheese," which included some of the old interplay between bass and drums the group had found so successful in the past. "Slow Down," and "Gone Gone Gone" were also included which were a couple of old tunes penned by Larry Williams and the Everly Brothers, respectively. We were told the second album basically paid for itself, but not much more than that," said Larry, "Traut and Golden put up all the money for the records, putting themselves on the hook. Once they got that back, they were supposed to give us what was left over. Funny-there never seemed to be anything left over. I don't know how much money was ever made or lost, to this day. Maybe they didn't recoup their money. I highly doubt it though, with sales in excess of a million-and-a-half records on both 45s and albums."
Following the success of "Evil Woman," two singles were released in 1970: "Cottage Cheese" and "Don't Try To Lay No Boogie Woogie On The King OF Rock And Roll," both of which managed to get no higher than the 50s on Billboard's magic monitor of single hits (#56 and #52 respectively). By the dawn of 1971, things had changed for Crow. The singles were still coming out, but they weren't making the charts, despite the release of their third album Mosaic (Amaret ST 5009) which included some interesting material. It contained the group's recent single, "King Of Rock And Roll," another old rock & roll number as well as "Easy Street," a jazz flavored song, and "I Need Love" which featured Middlemist and L. Wiegand's weird vocal harmonies, in a call and response format.
Between late 1969 and early 1971, the list of performers that Crow either opened for, or actually headlined with, read like a who's who list of rock stars of the day. Crow shared the bill with Blood, Sweat & Tears, Jefferson Airplane, Three Dog Night, Steve Miller Band, Bo Diddley, Steppenwolf, Eric Burdon & War, Janis Joplin (three separate times) and Iron Butterfly to name a few. They also played at some of the most prestigious clubs and concert halls around, including the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, both Fillmore's East and West, Ungano's, et al. The group was working more than ever, but seemed to be enjoying it less.
We were becoming more and more disillusioned with Amaret by the day," said Dave. "We fought with them (particularly Kenny Myers who ran Amaret) over our artistic direction. We had some really good material for what was to be our fourth album all ready. But Kenny turned it all down saying it wasn't commercial enough, or it wasn't this or that. I honestly felt it was really good material - probably some of our best, but it never saw the light of day."
"Dave Aderly of Elektra Records became very interested in our group. In fact they wanted to sign us, but Amaret wouldn't let us go - They wouldn't release us from our contract. They fought back and forth for quite some time. Dave wanted to produce us badly, which could've been a really big turning point for us. Finally, Amaret said that they'd let us out of our contract, but we couldn't use the name Crow. Well a lot of sense that would've made for us. Crow was what we were known by! Elektra felt the same way. They didn't want us without the name either."
Dick- "We were so tangled up in financial bullshit, that I think we lost focus as to why we were really there - for the music. Once again, we gave up control. Instead of being ourselves, and what got us there in the first place, we started listening to the Myers and the Goldens in the business end. They weren't players, just people trying to figure out what would sell."
The first signs that crow was floundering for an alternate identity revealed itself in the summer of 1971 at the First Open Air Celebration in Midway Stadium in St. Paul. Crow sported three female singers backing Wagner. Despite the new found vocal versatility and its consequent impact on the group's show, the Midway Stadium performance was Crow's last major appearance in the Twin Cities area.
In the closing months of 1971, Dave Wagner, feeling there was absolutely no way out of financial and managerial mess Crow was in, said "To hell with it," and left the group for good. Larry, Dick, Denny and Kink picked up Mick Stanhope (former drummer and vocalist for White Lightning), female singers; Gwen Matthews and Debbie Oldenwald, and conga player Chico Perez (from the Buttons and several other bands) and tried desperately to make a go of what was fading rapidly.
In February, 1972, we made a small 20-day tour of the Midwest," Larry said. "We hit colleges throughout Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri and Illinois. The band sounded the same, but the singing was entirely different. Mick's voice was very good, but a lot higher than Dave's was. To be honest, I think most of the people that came to see us had come to hear the hits (and Dave's vocals) and were let down after listening to us. Our final performance, at the Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota campus, was a benefit for Rapid City, South Dakota flood victims on June 26th."
Financially we were in trouble with the government and our management (to the rough tune of about $25,000)," said Dick, "so rather than trying to plow our way through this without Dave, we just decided to put on the brakes and call it a day. We'd gone years trying to get where we were and this is what happened. It left a pretty bad taste (at least for me) for a while. I fully attribute the collapse of Crow to a bunch of kids, not knowing anything about business, putting our names on the bottom line and having it all catch up with us."
"It was a real education for me," said Larry, "being in Crow, or even the whole series of groups leading up to Crow, having the success and losing it. If we just would've been ourselves more… stuck with what made us start in the beginning. The band musically was never in trouble. The material and business decisions were our downfall. It was a real learning experience. It reached a point where it was almost painful to see everything go into the toilet after working so hard. I honestly learned more in those two years about the 'big leagues' than I could've ever learned anywhere else. I had a great time, flying around, playing with the biggies. How many other 20 year-olds can say that?"
In 1972, Amaret released a Best Of Crow (Amaret AST 5012) sort of as an epitaph to a band that flashed ever so briefly. Eight or nine months after Dave Wagner had left Crow, Kenny Myers called him up to inform him that Amaret had been sold to MGM records. Myers worked out a deal with MGM whereas Dave could release a solo album. Dave-"He asked me if I'd be interested. I thought well, I hadn't done much of anything musically for the last couple of months, why not? They'd totally pay for everything, all my expense for the two weeks I'd be out in California."
"He sent me a list of material to choose from, about 20 songs. One of the songs he insisted I re-record was a Micky Newbury tune we had done as Crow called 'Mobile Blues.' I worked with some top-notch musicians while out there, but I think the song sounded like shit compared to the way we used to do it. But Myers was happy the way I did it the second time because it's been done his way. He'd been with Mercury Records for years and was sure he knew how to pick the hits. Basically, MGM was fulfilling its obligatory contract to get the album (Dave Wagner d/b/a) out. They had no interest in really backing the project."
From 1983 to the present, Crow now plays predominantly all original crow hits and some new crow originals.