RIP: Bill Bartolin of Blue Ash

Blue Ash were one of the 70s great powerpop bands, though they enjoyed even less commercial success than Big Star. Several years ago I corresponded at great length with Blue Ash’s guitarist Bill Bartolin. I just learned that Bartolin passed away recently. Here’s a piece I did awhile back, based largely on handwritten notes he sent me. My condolences to his friends and family.

Blue Ash – No More, No Less
Blue Ash - No More, No Less(Collectors’ Choice)

And now for something a bit different…

By the mid 1990s I had — in some circles — developed something of a reputation among collectors of unreleased material. This was in the very early days of CDR trading, so for most collectors — myself included at that time — copies of rare and unreleased material circulated on good old Maxell XL-II 90 minute cassette tapes.

To my delight, during that era I would occasionally receive out-of-the-blue emails from some of the artists I liked. With rare exception they voiced no objection to what I and my fellow collectors worldwide were doing; as the argument went (and goes), we’re the sort of people who bought all the legit stuff already anyway, so we’re not taking money off the artists’ tables. In every case where I was contacted by a recording artist, I shared what I had of their material (Bill Spooner and the late Vince Welnick, both of The Tubes, Mike de Albuquerque of Electric Light Orchestra, Tom Stevens of The Long Ryders, just to name a few of many).

Bill Bartolin was lead guitarist for Blue Ash, an unjustly-forgotten 1970s powerpop quartet based in Youngstown OH. These days, Blue Ash is getting their belated due, what with a 2CD set of unreleased material on Not Lame (now itself deleted and rare; more on that forthwith), and the Collectors’ Choice reissue of their first LP, 1973’s No More, No Less. Blue Ash is now spoken of in the same paragraph as The Raspberries, Badfinger and Big Star, but in the 90s their music was extremely hard to locate; even today, a vinyl copy of No More, No Less changes hands for upwards of $45. (Back in the 80s I laid hands on a promotional copy of the follow-up, Playboy Records’ Front Page News; it’s equally rare but — like many a sophomore album — a slight notch below in song quality.)

Bartolin located me online and we began a regular series of correspondence that continued for several weeks or more. Sadly, those emails are lost to history, but something perhaps more interesting does remain. Bill Bartolin shared several artifacts from his personal collection with me. First, he sent a cassette tape of Blue Ash live at the Packard Music Hall in Warren OH, dated January 31, 1974. The four-piece was in fine form, running through many of the songs from their recent debut LP (plus some fun if slightly predictable covers: “The Hippy Hippy Shake”, “The One After 909”, “Twist and Shout” and “My Generation”. Clearly Blue Ash were Anglophiles).

But as I often do, I digress…

Bartolin also trusted me with the loaning of a prized possession: his own personal vinyl copy of No More, No Less, in pristine condition. He lent it to me with the understanding that I would copy it onto CD and make copies for him and some of his friends, family and former bandmates. Bartolin remained in regular contact with bassist Frank Secich and vocalist Jim Kendzor, but at the time had no idea of the whereabouts of original Blue Ash drummer Dave Evans. (Evans was gone before the group recorded Front Page News.) He carefully boxed up the record and its sleeve, and sent it from his work address, at the parts counter of an auto dealership in Ohio. Along with the record, he included a note giving brief reminiscences for each of the LP’s dozen tracks.

Note that the version I compiled included the rare non-LP b-side to their single “Abracadabra (Have you Seen Her?),” a song called “She’s So Nice.” That track ended up on the legitimate 2004 release Around…Again, a 2CD clutch of 1970s Blue Ash studio sides. The recent reissue contains no bonus tracks (that’s the way Collectors’ Choice does things; and who are we to complain?). The 2008 reissue of No More, No Less is highly recommended to fans of powerpop and of 70s mainstream rock in general. The liner notes for the reissue were penned by Frank Secich, so to provide a subtly different take on the album, I present Bill Bartolin’s notes on the album, plus my occasional comments following each remark.

  1. Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?) – “Two bottles of Strawberry Hill wine, and Frank and I produced this one night about 2am.” This song was covered by The Records in the 80s, and unlike many artists in similar situations, the writers in Blue Ash actually got a bit of royalities (I think!).
  2. Dusty Old Fairgrounds – “Paul Nelson of Mercury Records wanted us to do this unreleased Bob Dylan song. He gave me the most god-awful ‘basement tape’ I had ever heard. Dylan singing in a monotone, over two or three chords. The middle change [of our arrangement] is all mine. I mean, the song had to go somewhere!” An unusually rocking interpretation of a Dylan tune, but interesting all the same.
  3. Plain to See – “Frank copped this idea from The Searchers, and we took it from there.”
  4. Just Another Game – “I wrote this when I was about 17, and brought it to Blue Ash with me. My mom — who can be a very stern person — heard it and said, ‘ Is this supposed to be about people like us and our lives?’ I said, ‘No, ma. It’s just words.'” This one’s almost a proto-power ballad.
  5. I Remember a Time – “One of Frank’s greatest ideas. I helped him a lot with this. I love this tune and the idea behind it.”
  6. Smash My Guitar – “Again Frank with the original idea. I wrote the middle sections from an idea I was working on. Frank smashed a cheap guitar over a cement block in the studio.”
  7. Anytime at All – “Paul’s idea again. One of many Beatles songs we covered that he liked.” A rousing cover, and judging from the renditions of other covers on the bootleg concert recording, Nelson’s instincts were right; this was the best of the lot.
  8. Here We Go Again – “I don’t know anything about this, but it’s on the album. Memories fail, I guess.” My favorite track on the LP. Go figure.
  9. What Can I Do For You? – “Jim Kendzor had a couple of chords and a little bit of a melody. Frank and I took it the rest of the way.” Still the weakest cut on the disc.
  10. All I Want – “I think we did this together during one of our many late-night sessions.”
  11. Wasting My Time – “I wrote this specifically thinking of two-part harmony in my head. I got stuck on a middle breaks, and naturally Frank found one.”
  12. Let There Be Rock – “Yeah, I know it’s a bit of ‘Jailhouse Rock”, but Jim’s performance says it all.” Indeed the song is little more than a 50s retread, but it’s a rousing album closer. Onstage, too, it was placed near the end of their set, right before “Abracadabra”. Not counting encores, of course.