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America headlines Orioles' Family Day

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america

Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley of America. (Courtesy photo)

Aside from the occasional diehard America fan approaching him, Dewey Bunnell can pretty much go anywhere and not be recognized.

For the soft-rock trio in the 1970s, it was more about the songs than the personalities.

"We've been very fortunate that our catalog of songs in the 1970s has a lot of legs," Bunnell says from his second home in Wisconsin. "It was like that for several bands, like The Doobie Brothers, The Beach Boys, Chicago. People cared about the songs, not the faces."

The opposite easily could have happened for Bunnell, Gerry Beckley and Dan Peek – three American military brats who met while in school in England in the late 1960s. They exploded right out of the gate with their self-titled debut Warner Brothers album in 1972 ... well, sort of. Their first hit, "A Horse With No Name," raced to No. 1, where it stayed for three weeks; the album also went to the top of the charts (for five weeks) and sold more than 5 million copies. Then they won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, beating out Harry Chapin, Eagles, Loggins & Messina and John Prine.

"We were very lucky that it didn't all come crashing down on us. We were barely out of our teens at that point," Bunnell says. "Fame, especially instant fame like that, can do weird things to you, but we kept it together."

Even after Peek left the band in 1976 to pursue Christian pop music, Bunnell and Beckley kept America rolling along. The hits dried up for a few years, but then they rediscovered Top 10 success in the fledgling MTV era with "You Can Do Magic" (1982).

Now in their early 60s, Bunnell and Beckley play over 100 dates a year, and though they don't get to record as often, they enjoy touring and meeting fans. In fact, they'll be headlining the Baltimore Orioles' All-American Family Day & Concert on Sunday (April 6) at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. It's part of the Orioles' "Arts in the Ballpark" series and the Legacy of Valor campaign. The free event, which begins at noon, includes family-friendly activities, a ceremony to honor veterans and a celebrity softball game.

Bunnell touches on five songs that serve as milestones in their career.

"A Horse With No Name" (1972) – "Things were moving fast for us," Bunnell says. "We were just 18-19 years old and we had a handful of songs we were marching around to record companies in London. We got a deal with Warner in the U.K. and we thought 'I Need You' was going to be the first single. The album was done (in 1971) and it did well in places like the Netherlands, but they wanted us to record a few more songs for it.

"One of them was 'A Horse With No Name,' which I wrote. When it took off, they rereleased the album with the new song on it. It's a quirky song, and people likened it to Neil Young. He was definitely an influence on us, but his fans thought we were trying to sound too much like him. There was a big backlash, and it didn't help that we knocked Neil's 'Heart of Gold' out of the No. 1 spot."

"Ventura Highway" (1972) – "If someone was to hold my feet to the fire, it's probably my favorite song. 'A Horse With No Name' was more introspective, but 'Ventura Highway' was more personal. It reminds me of being a kid and going to California with my family. It has the most lasting power of the songs I've written."

"Tin Man" (1974) – "'The Wizard of Oz' was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. I love the obscure lyrics. And it was our first song with (Beatles producer) George Martin."

"Sister Golden Hair" (1975) – "Gerry wrote it, and we got to No. 1 again. That's what was unique about America. All three of us could sing, write and play."

"You Can Do Magic" (1982) – "We had moved on from Warner and got signed to Capitol Records. We hadn't had a hit in three or four years. There are always peaks and valleys in everyone's career, so it was nice to see us get back into the game. It was written and produced by Russ Ballard, and the album ('View From the Ground') did pretty well for us."

ALL-AMERICAN FAMILY DAY & CONCERT
Noon April 6. Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota. Featuring a free concert by America, at 4 p.m. Celebrity softball game at 1 p.m. $5 parking. 893-6300; orioles.com/Sarasota.
Last modified: April 10, 2014
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