History of The Left Banke

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Introduction

Primarily best-known for the hit 1966 single “Walk Away Renee,” The Left Banke is an American pop band whose music is classified as “baroque” pop (baroque & roll) due to its lush arrangements. Formed in New York City in 1965, its core members included keyboardist/ songwriter Michael Brown and Steve Martin Caro as lead vocalist. They borrowed their music from their contemporaries such as the Beatles and the Zombies. From their early inception as a group, The Left Banke very soon scored a couple of hits with “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina.” Unfortunately, tensions arose between Brown (whose father, violinist Harry Lookofsky, produced their records) and the band members. And considering their musical style required it to be played by numerous studio musicians, it was impossible to recreate such music on the road. Brown left the group in 1967. The Left Banke’s next three singles flopped on the charts as a result of the controversy surrounding them. Brown later formed a band called Montage, which played that baroque pop similar to that of his former band.

Formation and their first big hit

The Left Banke was formed in New York City, New York in 1965. Its original members were keyboardist/songwriter/visionary Michael Brown, lead singer Steve Martin (Caro), guitarist George Cameron, bassist Tom Finn and drummer Warren David-Schierhorst. They were influenced by such British Invasion bands such as the Beatles and the Zombies. Brown was a musical prodigy and was still in his teens when the Left Banke was formed. His father was Harry Lookofsky, a former session violinist who was called in to manage his son’s band and produce their records (Brown was born Michael David Lookofsky).

Michael Brown’s Visionary Talent 

The song Walk Away Renee, written by Michael Brown, stood the test of time in The Left Banke’s stardom timeline. In his younger years, Brown worked part-time as a recording engineer at his father, Harry Lookofsky’s recording studio in New York. Tom Feher, a part-time lyricist of the studio, claimed that Brown had unlimited access to the studio’s instruments and that Michael would pound piano and recreate famous Beatles and the Hollies songs. The story had it that one day Tom Finn, the Left Banke’s bassist brought his girlfriend Renee to the studio, and Brown took his infatuation of Renee to instant songs Pretty Ballerina and Walk Away Renee.

With his father’s orchestral arrangements, Brown’s talent, and extreme melancholy strangeness clustered with chords, its sound was quickly dubbed “baroque pop” by the press. Brown had a special talent, an instantly recognizable style that came to life in early 1967 with Left Bank’s first album, titled Walk Away Renee /Pretty Ballerina, written and arranged by the father of Lookofsky and Michael, and this song left the listeners’ hearts pounding.

The successful story took its turn as Michael realized that Walk Away Renee could be played from different styles and suggested that there were plenty of songs from which Walk Away Renee came. He took Wilson, the band’s lead, and decided to stay home and write future songs for the band while the rest of the members were away for road tours. At the peak of their fame, the group was split into two, but right after releasing simultaneous singles, the label Smash put the group back together. However, after one of their greatest singles, Desiree, Brown quit the band again. 

It was a momentum lost, while Desiree was a masterpiece, with radio stations playing the song due to popular demand. Brown took another roll of dice with the new band Montage. He was not a member of Montage, but he wrote and produced Montage’s only album, 1969, and also played keyboards. Eventually, The Left Blanke seemed to have a second chance. In 2011, a version of the group reunited around Finn and original member George Cameron. Finn announced a new Left Bank album featuring Brown’s compositions the following year. However, there were no indications of that. Brown occasionally reunited with Left Bank members to produce singles (Myrah 1969, Two By Two – as Steve Martin’s solo single – 1971), but inevitably they dropped out again. Brown continued writing songs, mostly unreleased, but his fame for him kept on flickering back at him. Brown’s talent was considered too fragile to sustain a music industry career.

David-Schierhorst was dismissed by the elder Lookofsky, leading Cameron to sit behind the drum kit. Jeff Winfield came in as their new guitarist. They recorded their first single “Walk Away Renee” which was co-written by Brown, Tony Sansone and Bob Calilli.

The single was almost an instant hit, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The release of “Walk Away Renee” predated the release of the band’s debut LP Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina in February 1967. Halfway through the recording of the album, Winfield was fired by producer/manager Lookofsky and was replaced by new guitarist Rick Brand.

Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina showed a very strong musicianship, with lots of lush instrumentation backing the songs. The album reached #67 on the Billboard 200 and #59 on the Cash Box chart — a modest performance. It fell into relative obscurity at that time but is now widely regarded as a classic example of “baroque pop” or sometimes “baroque and roll.”

Breakup and subsequent reunion

The Left Banke, with its hit single and assured musicality even when they were just new on the scene, were held with so much promise. Unfortunately, from the outset The Left Banke wasn’t as harmonious as their music suggested. Obviously, the band members weren’t happy with the way Brown’s father handled the band, so they wished him out.

Another burden on the band was their music. In their recordings, The Left Banke employed many session musicians to create the lush instrumentation — with strings and things. It was difficult for them to recreate the sound on the road, and that added Brown’s frustrations to become somebody in the vein of Brian Wilson.

The tension escalated between Brown and his band mates. Brown recorded a few singles as The Left Banke, but using session musicians instead of his band mates. The friction between Brown and his bandmates reached into a legal issue, with his band mates campaigning to their fan club to boycott Brown’s recordings.

The Left Banke was torn asunder but reunited in 1967. They recorded a single “Desiree,” which was only a minor hit. After the single’s release, Brown quit the band for good and immediately formed a new group called Montage, which carried the same baroque pop flair.

The Left Banke continued to record without him. This led to the band’s second albumThe Left Banke Too which came out in late 1968. Although it carried the same lush baroque pop as their debut album did, Brown’s absence on the record was otherwise obviously felt.

After that second album, The Left Banke disbanded. Following the breakup, there were a few unofficial reunions among the band members. In 1971, Brown, Cameron, Finn and Martin got together to work on a couple of songs for the film Hot Parts; these recordings were released on Buddah label. In 1978 the original group (sans Brown) reunited again to record an album’s worth of tracks. Unfortunately, the project was shelved and did not get it released.

In 2011, The Left Banke reunited with original members Finn and Cameron and some newer musicians. In 2012, Brown and Brand joined them for a one-off gig at a club in New York City. In their tours, they are mostly accompanied by a two or three-piece string section, to maintain the distinctive Left Banke sound.

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