The timing couldn't have been any more perfect. By early 1969, with the Vietnam War at its peak, American armed forces deployment exceeding half a million men and a country deeply polarized over participation in the controversial conflict, releasing an antiwar song was a stroke of genius. Local band Sugar & Spice's gorgeous rendition of Cruel War, the tale of a young woman worried over her love going off to war, had everything going for it, topping the charts across Canada. Released in the U.S., influential American radio programmer Bill Gavin pegged the record to be a hit. All signs pointed to a U.S. smash hit, only to have the record abruptly yanked from the market, and with it, the band's chances for international success. What happened?
Formed in late 1967, when folksinging trio the Murphy sisters -- Kathleen, age 17, Maureen, age 16, and Aileen, age 14 -- teamed up with five Fort Rouge rock 'n' rollers formerly with the Griffins and Mongrels, Sugar & Spice were an instant sensation. But not without some initial trepidation. "Our mother was a bit worried when she saw guys carrying all these amplifiers down our basement stairs," laughs Maureen. Manager Michael Gillespie's master plan was for the band not to appear in public until they had a record in the charts. With an original song provided by the Guess Who's Randy Bachman and production by Teen Dance Party host Bob Burns, the eight-member band's debut single Not To Return was a local hit as the band made their debut before a capacity crowd at UMSU in early February 1968. "As far as we knew, that's the way it happened with all bands," says Aileen.
With their followup single Day By Day already climbing the charts, in late 1968, the group appeared on the CJAY TV show Young As You Are. During their set, they performed the folk song Cruel War. "Afterwards, the phone lines lit up at the station with callers wanting to know where they could buy that record," recalls bass player John MacInnes. "We almost crashed their phone system." Realizing they might just have something, the group, along with Bob Burns and CBC arranger Bob McMullin, booked a hasty trip to Kay Bank studios in Minneapolis to record the song for a single. The Murphy sisters had been performing the Peter, Paul & Mary folk song in their earlier repertoire, but Bob McMullin orchestrated a full-blown version for the band.
"The thing I remember most," states Maureen, "is when Bob McMullin put the strings on the track. We had been doing that song for years and then I heard all the strings and an incredible cello solo. That was a highlight." It's Maureen who sings the tender "Oh Johnny, oh Johnny" solo verse. "We had members of the Minneapolis symphony in the studio," notes MacInnes, "and we double-tracked them to sound like a full orchestra. There was no conductor present so I got to wave the baton and conduct them."
Rush-released, Cruel War became a hit right across Canada, selling some 8,000 copies, according to MacInnes. The song also appeared on a hit-records compilation album that sold tens of thousands of copies. The group even recorded a French-language version for the Quebec market. "We had a nun from the Convent of the Sacred Heart where the girls had gone to school translate it for us," notes John.
American record label White Whale, which was enjoying hits with the Turtles, licensed Cruel War from local Franklin Records and released it in the States. Expectations ran high for a breakout hit until Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary happened to see a copy of the single. Instead of his name credited as writer, the label credit read "Public Domain" which meant the song had no copyright protection and, thus, no songwriting royalties would be earned. The producer or arranger would receive the royalties. Yarrow threatened to sue. Rather than fight a court battle they couldn't win, White Whale simply pulled the record from the market. "Had it been a success in the U.S., it would have put us on a whole different level," reflects MacInnes.
"Kathleen, Aileen and I were not surprised when the song was pulled off the air in the States," confirms Maureen. "We knew it was written by Peter Yarrow (along with Noel 'Paul' Stookey) but unfortunately no one listened to us. It's regrettable that whole thing got derailed like that." MacInnes remains circumspect. "We were just teenagers, so we figured we would simply put out another record and have a hit." Unfortunately that never happened. "In hindsight, it was the Murphy sisters who got short shrift on that deal," he muses, "because they were the real talent in the band. Their harmonies were incredible on that record."
For MacInnes, there was a silver lining to this cloud. "I sat in lawyers' offices day after day as they tried to explain to me the legal issue surrounding the record. I figured that maybe I should get a law degree so I could understand what they were talking about." Today, he and Kathleen Murphy are both lawyers.
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