America – Music Biography
The Three Faces of America
Multiple choice test! Which of the following three songs is more your style?
- Horse With No Name
- I Need You
- Don’t Cross the River
How about these three?
- Ventura Highway
- Sister Golden Hair
- Lonely People
And how about one more set?
- Tin Man
- Daisy Jane
- Woman Tonight
If you picked #1 all three times, then you’re a fan of America’s Dewey Bunnell. Of the three founders of the folk-rock band America (all of whom were Americans living in England while their fathers served at the United States Air Force base just outside London at South Ruislip) , Bunnell was the only one born in Britain. He would meet his future band mates Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley at the London Central Elementary High School in Hertfordshire.
As part of a military family, Bunnell moved from place to place. He was attracted to nature and the outdoors in general. During his family’s stays in the American Southwest he fell in love with the vast deserts.
In late 1969 Bunnell, Peek, and Beckley caught up with each other again and formed a new band, focusing on acoustic guitars and tight three-part harmonies, much in the manner of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (not to mention the Beatles and the Beach Boys). They called their group “America” so that the local British audience would know that they actually were Americans and not simply trying to sound like Americans. They eventually landed a recording contract and their debut album did moderately well (especially in the Netherlands, for some reason) but it wasn’t until, when they recorded and added a new Bunnell composition (“Desert Song,” which was renamed “Horse With No Name“) that the album truly took off, hitting the Number One spot on the Billboard Charts for five weeks.
The group followed up that album with Homecoming (the first of many albums beginning with the letter “H”), led off by Bunnell’s “Ventura Highway.” When their third album, Hat Trick, fared more modestly, the trio brought in the legendary Sir George Martin to produce their fourth, Holiday, featuring Bunnell’s Top Ten single, “Tin Man.” America continued to work with Martin throughout the 1970s, expanding the band considerably in order to better reproduce Martin’s arrangements on stage.
If you picked every #2 song at the start of this column, then you’re more of a Gerry Beckley fan. Beckley himself started playing music (piano and guitar) at an early age and by the time he was ten he was playing guitar with the Vanguards, a surf music band in Virginia.
Two Beckley compositions, “Sister Golden Hair” and “Daisy Jane,” drove sales of Hearts, their second album with Martin (also their second with Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles’ recording engineer from 1966 until 1970). History, a greatest hits package, was released shortly after, in December 1975.
Two years and two albums (Hideaway and Harbor) later, Dan Peek left the group to pursue other artistic paths, leaving Bunnell and Beckley to carry on with America. They changed labels (moving from Warner Brothers to Capitol) and, while George Martin produced their first album without Peek (Silent Letter – a sly reference to the letter H without it being in the title), the duo eventually sought out more and more musicians and support. Their albums throughout the early 1980s feature such musical stalwarts as Leland Sklar (who played a huge part of Jackson Browne’s band and sound as well as that of Warren Zevon), Christopher Cross, the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson, Tim Schmit of the Eagles, Toto’s Jeff Porcaro and Russ Ballard of Argent (he played guitar and was the lead singer on their hit “Hold Your Head Up”).
It was Ballard’s song “You Can Do Magic,” from America’s 1982 album View from the Ground, that brought the group back into the mainstream consciousness. Interestingly, View from the Ground also featured song collaborations with Bill Mumy (the actor from Lost in Space and Babylon 5).
Beckley would turn up on other artists’ albums as well. You can hear him giving help to Dan Fogelberg, Chicago’s Robert Lamm, both Dennis and Brian Wilson (on separate solo albums), Dave Mason, Al Jardine, and songwriting legend Jimmy Webb.
If you had #3 across the board with the multiple choice song selection, then you’re a fan of Dan Peek, whose departure from America in 1977 was certainly amicable. Seven years of fame and touring, complete with the seemingly requisite amount of drug and alcohol abuse, led Peek to make two major life choices: first, he reaffirmed his Christian heritage. Second, he decided to follow his musical and artistic ambitions by signing with Pat Boone’s Lamb and Lion Records and became one of the first successful artists in what was then a very young Christian music industry. Bunnell and Beckley contributed backing vocals for “Love Was Just Another Word,” a song for Peek’s debut solo album, All Things Are Possible, which reached Number One on new Christian Charts as well as the Top Ten in the Adult Comtemporary Album Charts. Beckley also provided numerous backup vocals for Doer of the Word, Peek’s second album.
Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of 2000, America reunion rumors ran high and wild, but never occurred. Peek would write and publish a very candid memoir, An American Band, in 2004. In July 2011, he died in his sleep of fibrinous pericarditis.
It’s worth noting that, according to a 2012 interview, Gerry Beckley listed his favorite non-Top 40 America song as “It’s Life,” written by none other than Dan Peek.