Val Stoecklein

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Best remembered for fronting the cult-favorite folk-rock combo the Blue Things, Val Stöecklein also cut a solo LP, Grey Life, now celebrated in the same pantheon of such masterpieces of melancholy and…
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Best remembered for fronting the cult-favorite folk-rock combo the Blue Things, Val Stöecklein also cut a solo LP, Grey Life, now celebrated in the same pantheon of such masterpieces of melancholy and madness as Alexander "Skip" Spence's Oar and Scott Walker's Scott 4. Born Valerian Richard Stecklein in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1941, he played as a high schooler in the rock & roll band the Dukes but gravitated towards folk music upon entering Ft. Hays State College, where he made his recorded debut performing original songs "Desert Wind" and "Nancy Whiskey" on a demo credited to the Hi-Plains Singers. Stecklein next joined a 14-piece collegiate folk troupe known as the Impromptwos and was the featured vocalist on a self-titled LP the group cut in late 1963. The following year, he joined roommate Mike Chapman and fellow Dukes alum Richard Scott in the Blue Boys, a popular local group that, in mid-1964, cut a series of acetates at Damon Studios in Kansas City and resulted in a recording contract with producer Ray Ruff's Amarillo, Texas-based Ruff label. Their debut single, "Mary Lou," followed in early 1965. To avoid confusion with the late Jim Reeves' backing unit, the Blue Boys were credited as the Blue Things.

After releasing a follow-up Ruff single, "Pretty Thing--Oh," the Blue Things signed to RCA and made their label debut with "La Do Da Da," a Merseybeat-inspired update of the old Dale Hawkins tune. The folk-rock ballad "Doll House" followed in the spring of 1966, complete with an advertising campaign illustrated by Stecklein's roommate S. Clay Wilson, who later became one of the most significant figures in the underground comic book community. The tale of a young prostitute, "Doll House" was deemed too controversial for airplay on most stations, but Stecklein and Chapman were undaunted and set to work on the Blue Things' classic "The Orange Rooftop of Your Mind," widely considered a landmark entry in the canon of U.S. psychedelia. In 1967 Stecklein suffered a nervous breakdown while on tour and was forced to quit the band. Variously attributed to the breakup of his first marriage, alcoholism and LSD, his collapse resulted in admission to Topeka's Menninger Clinic, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The Blue Things continued for about a year without Stecklein and they relocated to California before they split in late 1968.

By that time, Stecklein was in Los Angeles. He exited the Menninger Clinic, renewed a contact with Ruff, who had become the A&R director of Dot Records, and signed a solo deal with the label, changing the spelling of his surname to Stöecklein in the process. Stöecklein entered L.A.'s legendary Gold Star Studios with Ruff and big-band arranger Dick Hieronymous and recorded 1968's Grey Life, an introspective yet overwrought folk-rock epic that remains as one of the most critically-divisive efforts of its era. Dot nevertheless thought it a potential smash and lined up a national tour, but at the eleventh hour Stöecklein refused to promote the album and it tanked. After one final solo single, 1969's "All the Way Home," he dropped from sight, although Ruff kept him on retainer as a songwriter and he contributed to Ecology's 1971's LP Environment/Evolution and Ruff's Biblical rock opera Truth of Truths. Following the 1984 death of his father, Stöecklein returned to Kansas and, in the years to follow, cut dozens of demos that never saw the light of day. He also moved to Nashville in an attempt to restart his songwriting career, but returned home within weeks. In May of 1993, Stöecklein committed suicide; he was 52 years old.