The Sparrow

Complete CBS Recordings 1966-67

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Steppenwolf were early heroes of heavy rock and created the most enduring of all biker anthems with their 1968 hit "Born to Be Wild," but the core of the band -- lead singer and guitarist John Kay, drummer Jerry Edmonton, and Goldy McJohn on keyboards -- had already been recording for two years as the Sparrow before a change of name, locale, and creative direction helped put them on the charts. (Another Sparrow member, Dennis Edmonton, would go off on his own after leaving the group and change his name to Mars Bonfire, but not before writing "Born to Be Wild" for his former bandmates.) Formed in Toronto in 1965 when Kay took over as lead singer of Jack London and the Sparrows, the Sparrow were an admirably tough blues rock band who could cut Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed covers that captured a bit of the swagger of the originals, and played originals that ranged from lean-and-mean 12-bar workouts to eccentric psychedelic pop. The Sparrow were signed to Columbia Records in 1966 and recorded 20 tunes for the label without scoring a hit, though after Steppenwolf made it big much of the material surfaced on a 1968 LP credited to John Kay and the Sparrow. The Complete CBS Recordings 1966-67 finally collects all the material from the Sparrow's Columbia sessions on one disc, and it's fine stuff. Kay's rough but full-bodied voice was an excellent match for the Sparrow's blues-based material, and while he had a lot of nerve changing the words to "Messin' with the Kid" and passing it off as an original tune called "Tighten Up Your Wig," the song cooks regardless of the lyric. The band's side trips into psychedelia run hot and cool; "Chasin' Shadows" reveals a surprising pastoral grace, and "Green Bottle Lover" is a great slice of fuzztone sneer, but "Isn't It Strange" is more silly than anything else. But most of The Complete CBS Recordings is fine and fiery blues rock that lacks some of Steppenwolf's punch but shows these guys were already a tight and powerful band that could deliver the goods. The disc also includes an early version of "The Pusher," which Steppenwolf would later record for the Easy Rider soundtrack, as well as fine liner notes by Matthew Smith.

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