Mercy – Love (Can Make You Happy) (1969)

Based out of Tampa, Florida, pop band Mercy was a band that was barely a band. The 1969 version of the band, featured on the Warner LP “”Love (Can make You Happy) included Brenda McNish, Debbie Lewis, Ronnie Caudill, James Marvell, Buddy Good and Rodger Fuentes. Missing is Mercy’s songwriter and leader Jack Sigler Jr.

One of the prettiest love songs of the late 1960’s, “Love (Can Make You Happy)” by Mercy is a song that has lived in my personal soundscape since I was a young teenager.  However, when I recently acquired a copy of Mercy’s 1968 album, it occurred to me that beyond hearing it on a cassette tape of 1960’s “hits” which I bought at K-Mart when I was about twelve years old, I have never once heard “Love (Can Make You Happy)” on the radio, in a public place nor on television or a movie.  Furthermore, I don’t think I’d ever even seen a mention of Mercy in anything I’ve ever read, and except for one weird video, I’ve never seen a performance by them on any of the music shows hit groups were appearing on at the time.   I knew the song, but as for the band, Mercy was a complete enigma..  Was “Love (Can Make You Happy)” really a hit, or was I made to believe it was?  Was Mercy a real band, or were they one of those studio created pop bands that were cobbled together for the sake of a hit song?  Well, when running down the rabbit hole I was surprised to discover a the story of a young man who wrote a pretty song, and a devious con man who stole it as his own, in a twisty story filled with bad timing, deception and underhanded shenanigans which would have confused the music industry and derailed Mercy from being more of a success than just a one hit wonder. 

Despite speculating they might be a studio group, it seems that Mercy was, indeed, a real band!  Formed in Tampa, Florida in 1968, at the heart of Mercy was high school student Jack Sigler Jr., who put together the original version of Mercy while in his senior year consisting of some pals, his girlfriend and a few of her friends.  An unusual six-piece group featuring a trio of girl singers, Mercy started playing the usual teen clubs and school dances which most garage bands of the time were playing.  But what made Mercy different is that they had an unusual sound.  All their songs seemed to be sung at a higher octave than most contemporary bands, giving them a soft and sweet tone.  It was during this period that Jack wrote “Love (Can Make You Happy)” which was a surprisingly introspective song for being written by a teenager.  But with the perfect harmonies and its soft and sweet sunshine pop feel, “Love (Can Make You Happy)” was a winner which was about to land upon the public in an unusual way.

Americana Productions 1868 film “Fireball Jungle,” featuring Lon Chaney Jr., would also feature the unlikely world debut of Mercy and “Love (Can Make You Happy).”

Not long after Sigler and friends formed Mercy, excitement hit the neighborhood when a crew from a newly formed film company called Americana Productions came to town to shoot an auto racing movie, and they were bringing with them a big star – horror legend Lon Chaney Jr!  At this time a sub-genre of racing car films had popped up on the scene, but the friendly and fair play days of Elvis in “Viva Las Vegas” had long passed.  These auto racing films, such as AiP’s pot boilers “Fireball 500” and “Thunder Alley,” were full of bleak themes and violence.  Directed by Joseph G. Mawra and produced by George Roberts, “Fireball Jungle” was to be the next explosive film in this genre, and told the story about the brother of a murdered race car driver who goes up against his brother’s killer on the track in an effort to stop a criminal organization from gaining control of Florida’s racing tracks.  Sounds exciting, right?  Well….it wasn’t.  A dull and forgettable cast of unknowns were assembled, and Chaney, as the star power, was only appeared in a small supporting role as a junkyard owner who gets burnt to death.  At that point in his career Chaney was very down on his luck and, suffering from alcoholism, he’d make dozens of embarrassingly terrible films to get him just enough money to keep him soaked in booze.  It was not a good time for Chaney, and “Fireball Jungle” was not a good film.  Violent, garish, and poorly produced, even by basic cult film standards this film is below standard.  You can watch it for yourself on YouTube if you want.  But one unlikely thing came out of this film.  It contained the only filmed footage of the original lineup of Mercy singing “Love (Will Make You Happy).”

A screen grab of Mercy’s appearance in “Fireball Jungle.” Jack Sigler Jr. is the man on the right with the guitar. This is the only image I can find of Jack Sigler Jr. with Mercy.

Apparently, Jack Sigler’s father knew producer George Roberts and he told him that he knew a dynamite band that should appear in the movie.  Roberts visited the kids and liked their sound and invited them to appear in the film, but they would need an original song.  Well, Mercy was pretty much a cover band, but they did have “Love (Will Make You Happy)” and, although it didn’t match the tone of the film, Roberts said that they’d use it and Roberts extended an early scene in the film to include a performance by Mercy.  Stuffed awkwardly in the corner of a wood paneled dive bar, Mercy appeared singing to an audience of uninterested rough necks.  Nobody seems to even notice that Mercy is there, with the exception of star Steve Kirby who bobs his head out of time to the music.  I don’t know if the song he is hearing in his head is “Love (Will Make You Happy)”, but he seems to be digging the group.  At least someone is paying attention to them.  It’s a strange sequence that goes a little too long, and the song is a strange juxtaposition for the violent tone of the film.  But honestly, despite this, Mercy’s performance is probably the only thing notable to ever come out of the film “Fireball Jungle.”  So far it is the only footage that exists of Mercy performing which I know of.

Well, “Fireball Jungle” was not a hit, and barely anyone saw it.  But a man named Gil Cabot did see it, and he noticed the little song in the biker bar scene.  Gil had started in the entertainment industry when he was 15 years old working as a DJ at Tampa’s WALT radio, and now was running a record shop and a label called Sundi Records.   Cabot saw the potential in “Love (Can Make You Happy)” and tracked down Jack Sigler and talked him into recording the song at his label.  But he wasn’t going to do it for free.  He got Jack to talk his father into putting up money for the record to be produced (Jack Sr. seems to have been a very supportive father to his son’s musical endeavors).   But things had changed for Mercy in the time between the making of the film and its release.  The kids in the band had all graduated high school and had gone their own way, and Mercy was no longer together. Furthermore, Jack had been drafted into the Navy and he was about to leave for basic training.  But, the chance to make a record was too enticing, and Jack cobbled together a new version of Mercy and laid the track down with Cabot.  Before the single was even released, Jack found himself cut off from society at a naval base.

Soon after he cut the album and got it in his shop, Cabot was excited to see that “Love (Can Make You Happy)” was selling, and it began to get regional airplay between Tampa and Miami.  With no input from Sigler, who had no idea what was going on, Cabot struck a deal with a Philadelphia company to get Mercy’s single nationwide distribution, and within weeks the record was available coast to coast and running up the charts.  By April 1969 “Love (Can Make You Happy)” was at the #2 spot on the Billboard charts (the number one song was “Get Back” by the Beatles). But this explains why such little footage of Mercy exists during their rise on the charts.  While most bands would be promoting the song by appearing on Sullivan or American Bandstand, Jack Sigler was at a naval base, Mercy was long broken up and Gil Cabot didn’t have a band.

The Mercy – Love (Can Make You Happy( (1969). This album had the original hit version as claimed, but the three girls on the cover were not actually on the album.

But that wasn’t going to stop Cabot.  You see, Cabot was kind of a devious huckster, and as far as he was concerned, he owned the song since it was recorded on his label, and Jack Sigler had never signed a contract with him.  So, Sigler put together a trio consisting of his wife, his secretary and another random studio singer with a local group called Mighty Manfred and the Wonder Dogs and had them record an album of cover songs under the name The Mercy.  Cabot figured that by adding “The” to the band’s name it’d be different enough for any sort of litigation, but close enough that record buyers wouldn’t know the difference.  Then, Cabot included Mercy’s recording of “Love (Can Make You Happy)” on the album with no references to Sigler or the original group at all.  Calling the album “Love (Can Make You Happy)”, to turn insult into injury a hype label was stamped on the album cover declaring “Featuring the original hit.”  Next Cabot put together a touring group that began to travel around the Southern US.    But how did Cabot think he was going to get away with this?  If “Love (Can Make You Happy)” was a hit, surely Jack Sigler would find out – right?  Well, when boys go away to the navy, they eventually come home as men and Jack Sigler arrived home on leave and was pissed to find that his song was being played on the radio, but another band was claiming it was their hit! 

With the help of his father, Sigler filed a lawsuit against Cabot.  While Cabot may have owned the recording, he did not own the name Mercy.  But while the lawsuit sat in litigation, Sigler sought to reclaim his small piece of musical legacy.  Meeting with producer Henry Stone and Warner Records, Sigler explained the situation and was signed to do his own album as Mercy and rerecord and release what they would call ‘the official version’ of “Love (Can Make You Happy)” But this meant that Sigler had to assemble yet another version of Mercy.  This time he got back two of the original girl singers, Brenda McNish and Debbie Lewis, and assembled a backing band with original Mercy member Ronnie Caudill and new additions James Marvell, Buddy Good and Rodger Fuentes.  A quickie album with primarily covers were recorded and rushed out to compete with Cabot’s release.  But with two albums with two versions claiming to be “the original,” if anybody was even caring enough to notice, they might have been confused.
As soon as the album was completed, Sigler was back offshore to resume his life in the navy.  In fact, Sigler left for the navy so fast he wasn’t even available for the band photo that appeared on Mercy’s back cover!  Despite being the leader of Mercy, in the very few photos of the band that exists I can’t find one with Jack Sigler in it.  To put that in perspective, that’d be like a KISS photo without Gene Simmons.  Very weird and unfortunate..

Mercy’s leader Jack Sigler Jr. would not be included in the only official photo shoot of Mercy, shot for their album’s back cover, because he was already off of leave and serving in the navy.

 What happened next in the Mercy story is a mixed bag.  With Sigler back in the navy, Mercy was once again on hiatus.  Although two versions of “Love (Can Make You Happy)” were competing for record sales, it’s probably impossible to predict which sold more copies of the single.  I’ve read different sources claiming Cabot’s release sold more, but others saying it was Sigler’s rerecord that did.  But what seems to be known is that the Sundi release eventually slipped off the charts while the Warner release by Sigler stayed on the record sales charts longer. It probably had a stronger distribution via Warner.  Meanwhile, a second track from the album, “Forever,” was released as a follow up single and moved its way to #79 on the Billboard charts. But, without a band available for concerts, live television performances or even interviews, Mercy was nearly impossible to promote and by the time Sigler was out of the navy, Warner had lost interest in the group and had dropped them from the label.  It seemed that every time Mercy released something, the timing just wasn’t right for them.  Eventually Sigler won his lawsuit against Cabot and the albums credited by “The Mercy” were forced to be discontinued.   In the end, Jack Sigler regained his musical legacy, but Mercy faded from memory as if it had never even existed.

In 2009 Jack Sigler Jr. (far left) was back on the road with a new touring group called Jack Sigler and Mercy.

But I gotta hand it to Jack Sigler Jr. to keep on in the music industry.  In the 1990’s he recorded an album titled “Influences,” and in 2005 he went on tour with an all-new band under the name “Jack Sigler and Mercy.”   You couldn’t keep Jack Sigler down, and he was going to keep “Love (Can Make You Happy)” going as long as possible.

Side note.  In one source I discovered that Jack’s 2005 version of Mercy were managed by Wolfman Jack Productions.  Meanwhile, “Love (Can Make You Happy” was introduced in a movie featuring Lon Chaney Jr whose most famous role was The Wolfman.  It all comes full circle, doesn’t it?

Love can make you greedy. Gil Cabot’s mug shot for his 1989 arrest for attempted extorsion.

But what happened to Gil Cabot?  It seems that “Love” didn’t make Gil Cabot happy.  It just made him greedy.  Relocating to Los Angeles, Cabot was caught in a number of minor schemes, including one where he conned $800 worth of suits out of a fine clothing store in Hollywood, which put him in prison on grand theft charges in 1982.  After serving his time, in 1989 he put together a larger scale scheme where he contacted WTLA-TV anchorwoman Jan Carl and claiming to have explicit photographs of her, said he would release them to the public unless she paid him thirty thousand dollars.  Knowing that no photos of the sorts even existed, Carl worked with the authorities to entrap Cabot in his scheme, and he was sent back to prison for another five years. 

So, for a one hit wonder that I’ve never heard beyond a long-lost cassette tape from my formative years, “Love (Can Make You Happy)” had quite the journey.  Was it a hit?  I guess it must have been, but I am confused to why I’ve never heard it unless searching for it on my own.  But it’s a pretty little well-crafted love song and one that deserves a bigger place in the collective musical soundscape.

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