The Fleetwoods Biography
Although the Fleetwoods' sound was smooth, without many of the rougher edges of doo wop groups, they were one of the few white vocal groups of the late '50s and early '60s to enjoy success not only on the Pop charts, but also the R&B charts. The Fleetwoods' forte was ballads — beginning with their 1959 debut single, "Come Softly To Me," the group racked up a number of hits over the next four years, and nearly all of them were ballads. The group retired from recording in 1965, but their songs — particularly "Come Softly to Me" — became pop-rock classics of the pre-British Invasion era.
Gretchen Christopher had formed the Fleetwoods with Barbara Ellis and Gary Troxel while attending high school in Olympia, WA. Originally, the group consisted only of Christopher and Ellis, but the duo soon asked Troxel to accompany them on trumpet. Troxel abandoned the trumpet and concentrated on singing, once the other two heard him hum a catchy "Dom Dom" scat line. Previously, Christopher had composed "Come Softly," and she now arranged her lyrics and melody in counterpoint to Troxel's scat background, and Ellis added harmony. They performed the song only twice, at Olympia High School and the teen dance at the Olympia Community Center. Students in the audience begged lead singer Christopher to record the song so they could buy it. She recorded the trio at home, a cappella, and took the tape to Record Promoter Bob Reisdorff, who would launch the Seattle-based label, Dolphin Records, with this unknown song and trio. In the studio, Reisdorff asked Troxel to add lyrics to his background part; the song morphed into an alternating male/female lead, and all three shared writing credits for the finished product, "Come Softly to Me," and its flip side, "I Care So Much," on which Christopher also sang lead.
Dolphin released "Come Softly to Me" early in 1959 and the song became an instant hit, climbing to Number One on the Pop charts and Number Five on the R&B charts; it also reached Top Five in the U.K. The Fleetwoods weren't able to immediately produce a follow-up single as successful as their debut, but Ellis and Christopher's self-penned "Graduation's Here" hit Top 40 in the spring, and the third single, "Mr. Blue," was Number One Pop and Top Five R&B in the U.S. in late 1959. By the time of its release, Dolphin had changed its name to Dolton, and The Fleetwoods soon became the first group in the history of Rock 'n' Roll to have multiple Number One hits top The Billboard Hot 100 in a single year.
For the next four years, the Fleetwoods had a string of Top 30 and Top 40 pop hits. The group wasn't able to consistently place singles in the upper regions of the charts partially because Troxel was drafted into the navy at the height of the group's popularity at the end of 1959. For touring only, Troxel was replaced by Vic Dana, whom Barbara and Getchen chose as a Fleetwoods Replacement, to be awarded a solo recording contract with which he would later have a string of his own hit singles in the early '60s.
The Fleetwoods last Top Ten single arrived in the spring of 1961 when "Tragedy" climbed the U.S. charts, with Troxel singing lead. The group disbanded five years later, after releasing their 11th Billboard hit and final Top 40 single in 1963, a cover of Jesse Belvin's "Goodnight My Love" with Ellis singing lead.
Over the next three decades, the Fleetwoods reunited occasionally to perform concerts and oldies revues. In 1973, Troxel and Ellis recorded an album with producer Jerry Dennon and, without Christopher, the resulting recordings were unsuccessful. In the 1980s, the Fleetwoods — featuring Christopher, Troxel and, instead of Ellis, a singer called Cheryl Huggins — toured on the American oldies circuit. EMI/Liberty released the Fleetwoods' 13th LP album, Buried Treasure, a collection of previously unreleased masters by the original trio. At the end of 1983, the busiest year since The Fleetwoods first hit, Troxel gave his written resignation, and Christopher remained as Manager having "the sole authority to bind the Original and Replacement Fleetwoods by contract for any performance commitment as manager deems appropriate to carry out the business of The Fleetwoods."
A year later, Troxel asked to perform with her again, and Christopher booked The Fleetwoods, along with her solo concert for the World's Fair, Expo '86, but Troxel walked out one week before the World's Fair performance. Christopher saved the booking by singing both the male and female leads, accompanied by the harmony of her cute cousin Karen Cone from Connecticut, who continued as Barbara's favorite Replacement doing selected Fleetwoods appearances through the decades.
In 1990, Rhino released the compact disc, The Best of the Fleetwoods. In California, Christopher jump-started promotion of the CD with her solo concert by the same name. Then, by invitation, she performed her own autobiographical songs for the Bob Hope Show in Las Vegas, accompanied by male and female backup. Having trained Fleetwoods Replacements on both coasts, Christopher alternated Fleetwoods and solo bookings with teaching dance. (Her jazz dance classes were part of the nucleus around which The Evergreen State College had formed it's Leisure Education Program in the Seventies, for which Christopher taught through three decades and into the new Millennium.)
With the other two original Fleetwoods retired and resigned, The Fleetwoods' Founder, female lead vocalist, arranger, choreographer, and BMI Million Airs Songwriter, Christopher continues writing, has recorded a collection of her autobiographical songs (including new renditions of her original leads on "Come Softly To Me", "Graduation's Here", and "Blues Go Away") and has scheduled release by 2006 of her first solo CD, Gretchen's SWEET SIXTEEN! (For further information, visit the Fleetwoods Official Site).