For Digital First Media
How did it happen? Of course, the band had a special chemistry — newcomer vocalists/songwriters Vanida Gail and Jackie Murphy backed by Philly area veterans Garry Lee, Allen James and Ronny Crawford. They were instantaneous crowd favorites. And when they released their eponymous debut CD (Longview Records, 1995), Philly’s influential non-commercial Triple A radio station WXPN quickly jumped on board as well.
Bruce Warren, WXPN’s associate general manager for programming, said in an e-mail interview, “We’re psyched that June Rich are getting together for this show. They’ve always held a special place in our hearts.”
Gail recalled that it all got started at a party. She heard Murphy singing “an Indigo Girls song and I knew it,” said Gail, in a phone interview from her home. “So I chimed in and started harmonizing with her and (we) clicked right away. Then, we went out to Colorado and lived (in) Crested Butte for about a year and a half.”
In a phone interview from her home, Murphy, who now has the married name Jackie Murphy Danielsson, continued the story: “We were out in Colorado and we were playing… (and) we got a really good response. When we came back… to Philly, we continued to play. That’s when we decided ‘Hey, let’s see if we can put a band together and see where this will go.’ When we pulled (bassist) Garry Lee on board that took everything to the next level.”
Lee went to his go-to guys — guitarist Allen James, his bandmate in the Rhythm Cats Revue and drummer Ronny Crawford, his bandmate in The Daves and the Rhythm Cats Revue.
“It … blew my mind how quickly things progressed for us, said Danielsson. For Vanida and (me), we were just kind of along for the ride. We really didn’t know much about the industry at all. Then bringing Garry and Allen and Ronny on took us to a whole other level — of course they had been doing it for such a long time at that point that they had a vision. They knew what they wanted and they wanted to get ‘found.’ They thought that our band was the band that could take them there.”
In an interview in Philadelphia, Lee added: “Pretty much from the first time that we rehearsed it seemed magical. What the musicians were laying down behind what (Vanida and Jackie) were playing and singing just seemed to all gel. The band sort of took off faster than I think anybody, including us, had anticipated in terms of popularity. That’s when we started (performing) at the Grape Street (Pub) every Wednesday and it just grew exponentially from there.”
Along the way they got to perform at coveted festivals like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. They got to perform on National Public Radio’s syndicated show Mountain Stage. They were the only local band to perform on the main stage at Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1996. They were voted Best Band in Philadelphia by “Philadelphia” magazine. Record executives were coming to their shows in Philadelphia. It was predicted that they would be signed soon.
So what happened? There has been much speculation — from the band members themselves to their fans and to other music business professionals. But the coveted record deal never came their way and the incessant touring burned them out. After four years and two independently released CDs, they parted ways.
The core band – Lee, James and Crawford (who had left the band a couple of years earlier to perform with Lisa Loeb) stayed in the music business; it was their lifeblood. Gail launched a short-lived solo career and released the album “Lift You Up” in 2006. Murphy initially contemplated a solo career, but shifted gears and made her priority raising a family and pursuing a more stable career in education.
So why reunite now?
“Jackie and I reached out to each other and we said we’re going to try to get this together. We knew that we had to at least meet up and talk and reconnect again in order for this to work,” said Gail.
It took a little while to coordinate with each other but an opportunity to perform presented itself last year. They tested the waters at a private party. Longtime Manayunk resident and June Rich fan Rose Berghaier was throwing a party to celebrate her husband Randy’s 60th birthday.
Berghaier recalls her husband asking her “‘If I have a party for my 60th birthday, can you get June Rich to play?’ and I said ‘No,’” she said with a laugh.
After thinking about it, she figured she might as well ask them. First she contacted Danielsson, then Gail and then Lee.
Band members Gail, Murphy, Lee and James still live in the Philadelphia area and they began to get together to rehearse to see how things would sound after so many years. They were joined by Tom Walling on drums because Crawford had relocated to California.
As for their performance?
“It couldn’t have been more perfect,” said Berghaier. “They never missed a beat. Jackie and Vanida looked as young as they ever did. (Randy) was blown away that he made this request and I made it happen and they actually did it. He was totally humbled and blown away.”
She added: “Garry Lee (gets) totally 110 percent of the credit. He’s the person who pulled it all together, made the arrangements, got the band their dates to rehearse. He did the bulk of the work. I made a couple of phone calls. Garry Lee did everything (else).”
“Yeah, (the party) was actually the catalyst of all of this,” said Danielsson. “I would say the past three years we (had) tried to do a reunion show and for whatever reason we got the ball rolling and then it just kind of fizzled out. When we were called to do this party, we all committed to it and because we committed to the party we couldn’t back out of it. That was good. I think getting us all into a room together and starting to go through the songs was a very good thing. I think we all realized that things fell back into place pretty quickly and the chemistry was still there. It was great.”
The party fueled the fire for a real reunion. And they all knew that the following year, 2015, would be the 20th anniversary since they released the debut CD that put them on the map. The time was right.
At first the plan was just to perform a few shows. And then they decided to release a special 20th anniversary edition of their CD — the original eight songs from “June Rich” as well as some bonus tracks. The CD will be available to purchase at their shows.
Lee spent hours listening to old tapes that had been recorded and preserved by Lee Schusterman. The band chose 2 live cuts — “A Little Country” and “Clothesline,” which had both been recorded at The Tin Angel in Philadelphia. They also decided to include a previous studio recording, “Who I Am,” that never made it onto CD. It was recorded at Indre Studios by Brian Bricklin and will finally be released as a single to radio stations.
“It’s always good to have something new,” said James in a phone interview from his home. He added: “The other thing is it’s cool that at least for a couple of gigs it will be the original lineup,” which is not the case for many band reunions.
Of course the band had to do a Philadelphia area show. They chose Ardmore Music Hall, in large part due to the support of Point Entertainment’s Jesse Lundy.
“It was exciting to have the chance to be involved in the reunion,” said Lundy. “I only got involved in music in Philly in 1995, but June Rich were huge at that point. I remember watching them play the opening night of the Electric Factory in 1996 and thinking, ‘What an honor to be the first (band) to play here… and how well deserved. I also remember when Ronny got the call to do (Saturday Night Live with Lisa Loeb) and how excited everyone was, even though it seemed to signify the end of an era.”
Once again WXPN is supporting June Rich by officially “welcoming” the show at Ardmore. Disc jockey Michaela Majoun, who recently announced her retirement from the station, was a big supporter. Majoun said, in a press release, that June Rich was “one of Philly’s great bands and a mainstay of WXPN’s sound in the ’90s.”
The band also wanted to return to New York City, in large part to accommodate band members’ friends and family there, as well as the fan base they had developed in the Big Apple. Because of the untimely passing of The Bitter End’s Kenny Gorka, a big supporter of June Rich in the ’90s, and due to scheduling conflicts, they found a new venue — The Living Room in Brooklyn.
“New York has always been very good to us as a band,” said Gail. “It always surprised me when the room would fill up because there are so many other things to do (there).”
Crawford will be joining the band for the shows at Ardmore Music Hall and The Living Room.
“I’m really excited,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Portola Valley, Calif. “I mean, I always thought the band sounded so good, especially that first record.”
Lastly, they arranged a return to Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. Anne Saunders, artistic and Publicity Director of Falcon Ridge, was probably the band’s biggest champion outside the Philadelphia area. June Rich played at the festival three years in a row — from 1996 through 1998 — and a live version of their song “No Answer” was included on the compilation CD “Main Stage Live: Falcon Ridge Folk Festival” (Signature Sounds, 1999).
“We loved them from the first time we ever saw them, which was right here in the area… in a town called Amenia, N.Y.,” said Saunders in a phone interview. “Back in those days we didn’t book anybody that we didn’t see live. We made sure that we had a place for them (at the festival) almost immediately.
“We took them with us… to a couple of conferences that we went to — the Folk Alliance International Conferences — and we gave them a showcase in our room. I went to see them at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, I saw them at Appel Farm… There was a lot of major label interest in them. When it kept on stalling for the fourth and fifth and sixth time that people came out and really dangled lots of carrots in front of them — for one reason or (another) it didn’t work out. I don’t know why. I just know that they came so, so, so close a number of times and when it didn’t work out that’s very hard on a five-piece band that you’re trying to keep on the road. It’s so expensive.”
As for including June Rich on the CD alongside renowned artists including Dar Williams, The Kennedys, Moxy Früvous and Patty Larkin, Saunders said: “I produced that CD so I reviewed every single thing that we had… we reviewed seven or eight years’ worth of performances. We could only pick 12 songs, and that’s one of the ones that got picked.”
She added: “(It) is still one of my favorite songs of all time (and) their live version of it that we captured is one of the best things we ever recorded.”
If you think this is just the beginning of a revitalized career for June Rich, think again. It has been 17 years since they disbanded, after all. Gail has a photography business. Danielsson is busy with her teaching career and raising a family. Lee and James perform with the Deb Callahan Band and Greg Sover. Crawford performs and teaches in Portola Valley, Calif. and will be appearing in the new TV series “Becoming Us,” which premieres on ABC Family on June 8.
Yes, they’ve all moved on. So don’t miss your opportunity for a little bit of nostalgia while you have one more chance.