Is it possible to be a one-hit wonder without ever really having had a hit single? If so, Exhibit A would be It’s a Beautiful Day, who might now be as thoroughly forgotten as such Summer of Love contemporaries as Lamb or Aum, were it not for the song “White Bird.”
Led by David LaFlamme, an authentic classically trained violinist, Beautiful Day came together in 1967, performing frequently at the Fillmore even before their self-titled debut album was released a year later. The lead track from that LP became and remains the band’s calling card. It never cracked Billboard‘s Hot 100, but persistent FM airplay down through the decades has made “White Bird” a musical icon for the psychedelicized ’60s.
Ironically, the song was actually written in Seattle, during “one of the most difficult times in the band’s life,” LaFlamme recently recalled by phone from his L.A.-area home. “We were stuck up there in an old house across from Volunteer Park” he says, and the lyric “actually describes what my wife and I saw looking out the window of an attic room. Hence, ‘The leaves blow / Across the long black road / To the darkened sky / In the rain.’ That’s what we were seeing.”
And despite the difficult circumstances–broke and far from home–LaFlamme knew he had captured something significant. “The first time I played it in public, at a ballroom there in Seattle, the people just went crazy over it,” he recalls, “and I felt, ‘If I can get this song out to the public, any which way, I think it will be very good to us over the years.’ And I was right, it has.”
Often writing with his first wife, Linda, who also sang and played keyboards for the group, LaFlamme composed a handful of moody, melodic tunes (“Hot Summer Day,” “Time Is,” “Girl with No Eyes,” “Bombay Calling”) for that first album, which have been at the heart of his performing repertoire ever since. They also gave the record a distinctive character, which LaFlamme says was his attempt to “cross the vocal sound of the Mamas and the Papas with the melodic driving sound of the Jefferson Airplane.”
But the marriage fell apart during the recording of the second album, and Linda left the band in the first of a series of personnel changes that unraveled the band’s unusual sound. Guitarist Hal Wagenet, now a Mendocino County supervisor, was the next to depart, unhappy with LaFlamme’s domination of the group. By the fifth and final It’s a Beautiful Day album, even LaFlamme was gone.
When the band’s name was enjoined due to a long-running legal logjam with mercurial manager Matthew Katz–who also had strained business relationships with the Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape–LaFlamme began to record and tour under his own name. Eventually, he moved to L.A. to do session work. “I took about 15 years off,” he confesses.
The surviving original band members were coaxed into a reunion for a special Fillmore concert in 1997, and even toured together sporadically afterward. But playing with his former associates, LaFlamme says, was “like going out with an old girlfriend, and when you’re about halfway through dinner, you’re starting to remember why it was that you broke up in the first place.” Still, after being back onstage, he admits, “I was hooked on the drug again.”
With drummer Val Fuentes as the lone holdover from the very first Beautiful Day lineup and a second wife also named Linda supplying the female vocals, a new version of the band have been performing semiregularly for the past four or five years, drawing longtime “Dayheads” to such local venues as the Mystic or Rancho Nicasio, where they perform on June 3.
Now a reasonably well-preserved 65, LaFlamme is still playing his customized electrified instrument, a five-string solid-body that he confides is actually a hybrid between a violin and a deeper-voiced viola.
“The original one that we built is in the S.F. exhibit of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” along with some vintage clothing, photos and other memorabilia he donated, LaFlamme says.
“I wanted some representation there, even though we’re not inducted and we’re not going to be inducted,” he explains, a bit wistfully. “We just never reached that kind of height. But I still have a following, I’m still playing.”
It’s a Beautiful Day play the Rancho Nicasio on Saturday, June 3, at 8:30pm. On the Square, Nicasio. $15. 415.662.2219.