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Billy Franze during a performance last December at the Artists’ Quarter.

Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

HEAR

samples of the Olivers' music at startribune .com/a1887

A guitar hero's 1960s flashback

  • Article by: TOM SUROWICZ
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • November 21, 2012 - 1:42 PM

If you've logged any significant time in Twin Cities music bars over the past 30 years, you've probably encountered guitarist and singer Billy Franze. He's spent decades with Mambo's Combo, was a fixture of the Tuesday Night Organ Band at the Artists' Quarter, and is regularly seen in the backing groups of Patty Peterson and J.D. Steele.

But do you know about his psychedelic garage-rock past?

Franze played bass, sang lead vocals and wrote cool songs for a Fort Wayne, Ind., band called the Olivers, whose RCA-distributed double-sided hit 45 release of "I Saw What You Did" backed with "Beeker Street" has long been a record collectors' favorite. Now 43 years later, the Olivers are a buzz band again. Their long lost, never-released full album has finally surfaced, thanks to Break-A-Way Records, a savvy German reissue label.

Nobody's more amused than Franze.

"If I'd have known that people were going to be so interested in that album, I would have finished it," he said, laughing. "We recorded the sessions here in Minnesota at Dove Studios, for about 18 hours over a period of three days. We did it live.

"Those are my young, wild, crazy days songs. I was 19, 20 or 21 -- just about legal," said Franze, who recently turned 64.

The band had a modest hit single, and a strong Indiana following. It also had some dubious businesspeople in its corner, so a big record deal never materialized. The unfinished album disappeared. And that was that, until...

"Some guy in California discovered an acetate of the album -- how it wound up there, I have no idea." Franze laughed again. "Then another collector guy found photos of the band, in really great shape, in Italy, of all places."

Now 1960s rock fans can choose between "The Olivers: The Lost Dove Sessions" on LP, or "The Olivers: Beeker Street, Complete Recordings, 1964-1971" on CD. All of Franze's old band members, including lead guitarist Mike Mankey -- also a Minnesotan now -- are alive and well, and able to enjoy their rediscovery. And hear how good the Olivers' songs still sound.

On "Mushroom," a trippy blues-rocker about the atom bomb, Franze's voice already sounds a bit weather-beaten and whiskey-soaked, in a very good way. "Ball of Fire" could be a lost Steppenwolf cut. A solo acoustic track by Franze, "Someday Somewhere," offers tender folk-rock balladry at its most affecting. And his countrified plaint "Jessica Ryder" foretells the Americana boom.

The Olivers finally can be appreciated for more than just the wild guitar assault of their classic "Beeker Street." While the production values are debatable, "The Lost Dove Sessions" is a darn good album that might well have established the band as FM radio contenders.

Franze himself seems a bit more skeptical. His verdict? "We're just surprised it ever got made."

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