Mike Appel was born in the Flushing section of Queens, New York, October 27, 1942. Three-quarters Irish, one-quarter Jewish on his father’s side, he was raised Roman Catholic, although today he boasts of having divested himself of “those ecclesiastic burdens.” Appel’s father was a successful real estate broker during the fifties boom years of Long Island’s housing expansion. Mike discovered the guitar at the age of fourteen.
APPEL: I had an acoustic guitar at the time, went to my teacher, and all he would teach was songs like “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight, ” and of course, the songs I was listening to were by Chuck Berry, and I wanted to learn how to play his songs. My mother bought me my first rock and roll records—Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Speedo” by The Cadillacs, and “Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry. Those were the first three records I remember getting As soon as I heard them, I knew that was what I wanted to do—to play music. I dropped the lessons and picked up a black-and-white Sears Silvertone electric guitar with a little amplifier and started teaching myself how to play. Pretty soon I started playing with the guy who lived next door.
At the age of sixteen, Mike formed his first group and went to Bell Sound Studios in New York City to record twelve original songs—eleven instrumentals and one vocal. A year later, the boys had a professional record deal.
APPEL: We went under the name of The Humbugs. We were all going to North Shore High School when we recorded a version of “How Dry I Am” done rock-and-roll style called “Thirsty, ” released on the Studio label, a subdivision of 20th Century-Fox Records. After that we made another instrumental, “Brand X,” on Fields Records, a Tin Pan Alley label owned by a fellow named Jerry Fields, who had an office at 1650 Broadway.
After that we came up a few steps. Al Silver was a guy who lived in Queens and ran a very successful independent record label called Herald-Ember Records. Herald-Ember had had a hit with “In the Still of the Night” by the 5 Satins, the original version of Maurice Williams’s “Stay, ” some real quality stuff. We were then called The Camelots and made a record called “The Chase, ” which was something of a local hit. We played all the local high schools, backed up The Marvelettes one time in a theater in Newark, New Jersey, and became a sort of house band there. We were the only white faces in this entirely black theater. All the patrons and other acts were black except for us. I was friendly with a black DJ on WNJR; he liked me and was looking for a group of solid musicians who could play everybody else’s records. That was us.
We also played other venues and at various times backed up Freddie “Boom Boom ” Cannon, the original Jay and the Americans, Brian Hyland, and Little Peggy March. We also played with Link Wray and the Wraymen.
We played a million of these shows while still in high school. I wasn’t really making a living at it but didn’t have to. I liked golf, I used to caddy a lot, and made just as much money, if not more, doing that at the local blue-blood Long Island golf clubs. We then recorded a second instrumental called “The Scratch, Part One and Part Two, ” the only vocal part being a black guy with a really deep voice at the break singing, “Do the scratch . . ., ” something like the old Cozy Cole “Topsy. ” One time when the E Street Band was playing The Roxy, Garry Tallent arranged to open the show by playing a tape of some of my old records, without saying anything to me, as a practical joke. It was like they’d made me Bruce ‘s opening act. I thought I was going to die! I could have killed them.
Anyway, the second record didn’t do anything, and that was more or less it until about a year or so later, in 1964, when The Beatles hit. I remember I was living with my parents in a three acre colonial estate in Old Brookville, Long Island, near Westbury. I remember the first time I heard The Beatles I was driving my mother’s car, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” came on the radio. It was a revelation because for the longest time, it seemed to me, my original rock and roll heroes—guys like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and early Elvis Presley—had been replaced by a different kind of rock, a softer music, like what Bobby Vinton did on “Blue on Blue, ” or Frankie Avalon on “Venus. ” One softie pie after another. America had gone Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. There was nothing really out there in rock I could get into until The Beatles. When I first heard that record in the car, I remember saying out loud, “Hey, this is like old Eddie Cochran stuff! Who are these guys?”
The next time I heard of the group I was in my doctor’s office, and I saw their picture in Life magazine. I still didn’t really know who they were or enough about their music; and then, of course, the invasion. My second wake-up call. Elvis was the first. I was thunderstruck by the British invasion. The British acts were able to reach back to the seminal American rockers and serve up their riffs as something new, and I loved it. My band started learning their music right away. We changed the name of our group to The Unforgiven and cut some tunes for Dot Records, another power independent. “Two of a Kind ” by The Unforgiven was one of our better efforts for them. We even recorded a record with the Les and Larry Elgart Orchestra.
Meanwhile, I was writing songs for various publishers— L. F. Music, Dutchess Music, E. B. Marks Music, H & L Music—and then worked for Liberty Records for a period of time and played at night with a group called Tex and the Chex. Then I produced Michael St. Shaw, my first stab at producing someone other than myself. In those days producing wasn’t thought of as anything really exotic. The producer’s role was really little more than to record voices and instruments. We really couldn’t afford to have anyone else do it, so we did it ourselves. Actually, I’d been the group’s producer all along, by default.
I’d heard Michael sing at The Metropole, at The Phone Booth, and The Peppermint Lounge, the happening clubs of those days. He was a rough, tough, ballsy singer and struck me as a Mitch Ryder type. I took him in the studio where we recorded a song that was a combination of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. ” I played on and wrote the song on the flip side, “Joint Meeting ” Atco Records bought the record.
This was a transitional time, really the very beginning of the end of the singles thing The British groups, leading up to The Who and The Stones and the long LP cuts by groups like The Vanilla Fudge, were changing the business to a more freeform and, in many cases, self-indulgent format. Michael’s record never went anywhere, but that didn’t hurt you in those days, primarily because it wasn’t that heavy an investment by the label. That was part of what made the scene so exciting, so experimental. You wanted to make a record, you made it. You sold it to a small label, they put it out, and you were in the music business.
The next step I took was joining the group The Balloon Farm, named after the old Andy Warhol club. I played lead guitar, sang lead vocals, wrote the song, and produced the record, although someone else got the production credit. We were signed to Laurie Records, Dion’s label at the time. We put out two records, “Farmer Brown’s Ole Mill Pond, ” which was a Lovin’ Spoonful kind of thing, and a rock record, “A Question of Temperature. ” “Question” actually went Top 40* and was recently chosen as one of the Top 40 songs of all time by the Village Voice, of all publications. We got to tour with The Box Tops, John Fred and His Playboy Band, and Sly and the Family Stone. By this time I was really hooked on the music business.
Meanwhile, I’d been going to college and graduated with a BBA, Bachelor of Business Arts, in 1965 from St. John ‘s University, and sure enough, weeks later received my notice from the army to come down for my physical. It was a cattle call. The war was getting hot, and the draft was increasing its numbers every day. I passed in a second and got a notice soon that said, Greetings, you’re inducted. I said, oh, boy, let me see if I can get into one of those reserve centers. I checked every one, and they all had lists three miles long I didn’t have any particular clout with the military, I didn ‘t know anybody, so I couldn ‘t jump the list, and it looked like I was going
Then my sister happened to mention to me that her boyfriend had joined a Marine reserve unit. “Don ‘t be silly, ” I told her, “the Marines don ‘t have reserves. ” At least that’s what I thought in those days. I called the Huntington Reserve Unit, and sure enough, they had some openings. I went down to talk to them, told them I’d already passed my army physical and was scheduled to show up in two weeks. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” the recruiter told me, and took a little red stamp and stamped my folder. “This is it, ” he said. “We’ll send this to the army. You’ll never hear from them again. ” And I never did. I guess the army figured if I was dumb enough to join the Marine reserves, so be it. Straight to Parris Island for seven and a half weeks, about half the normal time because of the war and the speed with which they had to train new recruits. I got lucky in the Marines—one day I turned over my duffel bag and my college ID fell out. When my senior drill instructor asked if I’d graduated, I said, “Yes sir, ” and he said, “You’re my scribe, ” meaning I became the secretary to the platoon and got out of a lot of bullshit the other guys suffered through. I only had to do six months, then go to weekend meetings for what seemed like the rest of my life.
* It reached number thirty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. When I came home, I got back into producing I signed with a production/publishing company, H & L Music. Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore were the guys who produced Sam Cooke. They produced every one of his hits, including “Cupid, ” “Chain Gang, ” and “Another Saturday Night. ” They were the first producers who ever got their name and logo on their records. They did The Tokens’ “Lion Sleeps Tonight” on RCA, one of the biggest singles of the sixties, number one for three weeks. I was signed personally by Hugo and Luigi as a writer/ producer and recording artist for Laurie Records, with an advance of about a thousand dollars. I wrote a song for them called “Soul Searchin ‘ ” for Bobby Lewis, who ‘d had a hit with “Tossin ‘ and Turnin ‘ ” for Mercury Records.
By 1967, Mike had cut his professional teeth turning out rock and roll records that captured the mood and flavor of sixties Top 40 music. It was around this time that he met Jimmy Cretecos through a mutual friend, Robin McNamara. McNamara was a New York actor/singer who’d been in the Broadway musical Hair, after which he’d recorded a song called “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me,” a Top 10 hit that Cretecos had co-written with Jeff Barry, one of Tin Pan Alley’s legendary pop/rock songwriters. Mike and Jimmy hit it off and began to write songs together.
During this time, Cretecos was hanging out at a New York organization called New Beat Management, which handled McNamara. New Beat, headed by Mark Allen and the Slater brothers, managed the best club bands and placed them in the hottest New York discos of the day, including Harlow’s, Sybil’s, and The Phone Booth. One day McNamara introduced Mike to Mark Allen, who in turn brought him to see Wes Farrell. Farrell had a successful production/publishing operation at the time.
APPEL: I went over and sang my songs for Wes, who liked me as an artist as well as a writer. I told him that I wanted to write with my friend Jimmy Cretecos, and he said fine, which is how Jimmy became my full-time writing partner.
Farrell offered Mike $250 a week, with an escalation clause to $300, as a writer/artist for the Wes Farrell Organization, and a chance to produce.
APPEL: Although prior to my work with Farrell I’d written a couple of songs that had actually charted, I never saw any real money. No one did. You usually sold the rights when you sold a song in those days. So I decided to go for the steady salary and went to work for the Farrell Organization. A steady income was important to me because I’d just gotten married. Wes was a songwriter who’d had a couple of real big hits, like “Hang On Sloopy,” “Let’s Lock the Door and Throw Away the Key, ” and “Come a Little Bit Closer. ” He ran what amounted to a writing/producing/publishing house.
I was twenty-four years old in 1966 when I met my wife, Jo Anne. She was working at the time in the copyright department of Southern Peer International, a great country-oriented music publishing company. I was up there making a demo, met her, and a year later in ’67 we were married. Meanwhile, with the Farrell Organization I wrote a song for Paul Anka called “Midnight Angel, ” one for Aretha Franklin ‘s sister, Carolyn, “Chain Reaction,” and another one called “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted, ” for David Cassidy and the Partridge Family, which actually went to number six. I then wrote a lot of David Cassidy songs and commercials for several top products.
There was a guy working for Wes, Steve Bedell, whom Wes had hired away from Grey Advertising to do commercials. His job was to expand the operation in that direction. Under Bedell, the Farrell Organization produced dozens of commercials for Pepsi, Coke, and other popular products. All these small independents like Farrell were always looking for cash flow to stay afloat. Farrell figured jingles were as good a way to make it as any, so through Steve’s efforts we did a lot of successful commercials.
Appel was assigned the job of writing material for additional acts handled by Farrell’s organization, which at that time consisted of, among others, the Osmond Brothers (circa Andy Williams), Wayne Newton, and The Brooklyn Bridge with Johnny Maestro. The Wes Farrell Organization was strictly Tin Pan Alley, three-minute-hit, one-minute-commercial mentality. Appel and Cretecos were more or less perceived by the others as house hippies, not so much for the way they dressed, which was as straight as anyone else, but for their taste in rock, which ran toward what was then coming to be known as “progressive.”
In 1969, while with the Farrell Organization, Appel discovered and produced the Sir Lord Baltimore group, which Mercury signed to an album deal. Baltimore’s album, Kingdom Come, for which Appel and Cretecos wrote all the lyrics and produced, became something of an underground pre-heavy metal hit. The publishing and profits remained with Farrell and a manager named Dee Anthony.
APPEL: Sir Lord Baltimore was a power trio, not unlike Cream. The guys were from Brooklyn and played a type of rock that today you’d call heavy metal. It was obvious they were going to need a manager to get them a powerful agent to book tours for them. I decided to call up Dee Anthony. I’d never met him before. I did know who he was, though. It was the studio owner in Jersey who brought Dee to the studio to listen to Sir Lord Baltimore’s tapes. At the time Dee handled such acts as Joe Cocker, Traffic, Cat Stevens, all heavyweights. I remember watching him as I played Baltimore ‘s tapes for him. He closed his eyes and had this expression on his face meant to show he was “really into the music, ” and I felt right then and there the guy was a complete fraud. “Yeah, ” he finally said, “I like the guys, I think I can do something with them. ” And I’ll never forget, he said, “My handshake is my bond. “
That, of course, was the kiss of death. According to Dee, we were “family” now. He kept saying that to me. “We’re family, so don’t worry…. ” The next thing I knew, Dee Anthony took the tapes to Mercury Records and signed the group to the label without me. He took the entire advance monies from Mercury himself. Even though I was the producer and I’d co-written the goddamn songs, I got album credit and that ‘s all. Not a penny. So I had to eat it, as the expression goes. Which was the main reason I decided if I ever got another act, I’d have to be the manager. I never wanted another Dee Anthony in my life.
Shortly after that, the group Montana Flintlock, or Tumbleweed, as they were also known, came into our lives. They were a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-type act, and I took them down to Nashville to make an album for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They liked the record, but for reasons I believe had nothing to do with the band it was shelved.
At the time, Montana Flintlock had a guy doing their sound, a fellow everyone called Tinker. He doubled informally as their manager and handled a lot of their local bookings. Since I never wanted to be involved in small-time local band activities, I figured fine, let him do it. At the time, I was also working with an artist by the name of Tony Azito, a Cat Stevens soundalike. Jimmy and I wrote some songs for Azito, produced him, and signed him to Epic Records.
By now, Appel had nearly ten years’ professional music experience, including a Top 40 hit with his own group, several major tours with some of the biggest acts of the day, and a legitimate position with two of the hottest songwriting/production/artist houses in the business.
LOPEZ: I’d heard from some other musician friends of mine that there were a couple of producers in New York City looking for singer-songwriters. I mentioned this to Tinker and suggested there might be something in it for Bruce. I knew Bruce was having a hard time and thought this might get him some work. I went to Tinker, who said he knew the guys I was talking about, Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos, and called Appel up.
APPEL: Then one day I got a call from Tinker, who wanted to send a youngster up by the name of Bruce Springsteen to my office to see if I’d be interested in working with him. I’d previously mentioned to Tinker that I was looking for acts who wrote their own music. So I said sure, send him up. Why not? I liked Tinker, I respected his taste in music, so I figured, what have I got to lose?