We all get ear worms, but when I get an ear worm it can last an extraordinarily long time. I’m not talking about an hour or two, or even a day or two. I’m talking about an entire season, or even a year. Possibly the worst ear worm I ever had was in 2021 when “Sweet Gingerbread Man” by The Mike Curb Congregation was stuck in my head for most of the year. I’d sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and the happy, almost smug, sunshine lyrics would be already flowing through my brain – “All tasty and tan, Sweet Gingerbread Maaaahaaahaaahaaan! Fresh out of the pan, Sweet Gingerbread Man!” Shit. Just writing it down now gives me the fear that it might come back.
So just who were the Mike Curb Congregation? In all honesty I can’t tell you more than they were a chorus of good-looking young folks, in their late teens and early twenties, which were brought together by music mogul Mike Curb in 1970 to performer his songs, as well as songs by other notable performers, and appeared as regulars on “The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour.” Wholesomely attractive and squeaky clean, The Congregation had a few notable successes from their debut album, aptly titled “Sweet Gingerbread Man.” But I can’t find a single reference anywhere that tells you the names of the singers in the Congregation. It’s not even on the physical record. Man, I’d love to find a member of the Congregation and ask them what that was all about.
But there is a lot out there about Mike Curb though, and probably a few things he doesn’t want you to know.
Mike Curb is a pretty colorful man. Not only a record producer and founder of Curb Records, but he is also a former governor of California, champion motor sports driver, an outspoken Republican, and a member of the Christian Right. Now let me be transparent here. If I ever met Mike Curb, I doubt I’d like the man. He and I can’t be more unalike, and certain attitudes, political leanings and measures of morality don’t line up. So, I’ll make it clear that if my discourse is a bit biting, I’m not trying to judge him. I don’t know the man. He might be a great guy. I just don’t know.
But as one of the biggest businessmen in the world of pop and country music, Mike Curb has a plethora of both accolades and accusations on the internet. His achievements are many, but the internet is full of people who really hate the guy, and who call him a swindler, con man and thief. Many a career was made by Mike Curb, but many careers also seem to have been mismanaged. Honestly, we just don’t have enough space to write about everything Mike Curb has done, both good and bad, in a short write up but I encourage you to look for it if you’re interested. Instead, I want to write about some of the complete wackadoo shit that was going on during the era of The Mike Curb Congregation. While Mike Curb was climbing into his high tower, he was creating an eclectic collection of friends and rivals.
The Mike Curb story begins in 1963. While still just a teenager, Mike writes a jingle for Honda that goes on to become a major ad campaign and drops out of school to start his own record company called Sidewalk Records. A gifted musician, Curb starts making a name for himself as a composer for film soundtracks and begins to score the soundtracks for nearly every biker film this side of Easy Rider. I’m talking about The Wild Angles, The Born Losers, The Devil Angles, The Sidehackers, The Devil Racers, The Savage Seven amongst others. I mean he makes a real killing at this niche market, which is irony in light of things to come. In a short period of time, Curb was said to have written over four hundred songs.
But one thing that was clear that, despite dropping out of college, Mike Curb was a good businessman, and in 1969 Sidewalk Records merges with MGM Records and in a short amount of time Mike Curb makes his way to becoming the head of the company. This also meant he was in charge of Verve Records, and he quickly spun off his own division, Curb Records.
So, what is Mike Curb’s first order of business? You’d think that it’d be putting out some great records, discovering exciting new artists and producing world changing music – right? Not Mike Curb. A deeply religious man, Mike Curb does the most self-righteous thing possible. In a 1970 Billboard article it was announced that Mike Curb had terminated the contracts of nineteen acts on the label for immorally promoting the use of drugs in their music. Now I looked for a list of just who these acts were, and I can’t find a complete list, but most famously singled out in his cuts were Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and The Velvet Underground. However, it should be noted at this time both of these groups, who were much to Avant Garde for the mainstream, had not reached the legendary status they would reach in years to come. My prediction is that Curb cut nineteen acts he thought were expendable and made a moral stance out of it.
But the stance backfired. I mean this is 1970 and pretty much everyone in rock n’ roll is doing drugs. Mike Curb claimed he had support from the company, but none of the executives at MGM would stand by him. Meanwhile, the other artists of the label were more angry than scared at this idiotic display of moral bullying. The most outspoken was Eric Burdon, who had MGM’s biggest selling single of 1970 with his collaboration with War, “Spill the Wine.” I mean, that song just drips like an acid trip! Burdon publically dared Curb to even try to fire him, and he began distributing bumper stickers to fellow musicians and fans that read “Curb the Clap.” Mike Curb got the message and shut up and started producing music, and he became a major force in shaping the 1970’s, producing albums for Roy Orbison, The Osmonds, Gloria Gaynor, Richie Havens, The DeFranco Family, Solomon Burke and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
“Sweet Gingerbread Man” came out in 1970 on the backs of the newly formed Congregation’s appearances on Glen Campbell’s variety show (no surprise, Mike Curb was producing Campbell at the time). Their biggest success was “Burning Bridges” which was used as the opening theme for the Clint Eastwood film “Kelly’s Heroes.” It would climb to #34, while it became a number one hit in Australia, New Zealand and Spain. “Sweet Gingerbread Man” had a bit of success as well, but only making it on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts where it made it to #16 and stopping at #115 on the regular chart.
But the biggest collaboration the Mike Curb Congregation made to music history was thier team up with the legendary Sammy Davis Jr. on his 1972 album “Portrait of Sammy Davis Jr.” produced by, you guessed it, Mike Curb. The Congregation sang with Sammy on three tracks – “The People Tree,” his own version of “Sweet Gingerbread Man” and, most importantly “The Candy Man.” This version of “The Candy Man” would be legendary and exploded Sammy right to the number one spot on every chart imaginable and became his biggest hit ever, replacing “Hey There” as his signature song.
This is what, in my opinion, was problematic with the Sammy Davis Jr. collaboration. For better or for worse I’m a huge Sammy Davis Jr. fan, through all the good times and all the bad. Now you look at Sammy’s career at the end of the 1950’s and the early 1960’s (the Vegas Rat Pack years), he was seriously cool. But, underneath the straight ties and glass eye, Sammy was always a bit of a corn ball. As the 1960’s raged on, he tried desperately to stay relevant clowning it through bad clothes and embarrassing TV performances. But when he recorded “The Candy Man,” no matter how much you like that song or not, it was the defining moment Sammy Davis Jr. stopped being cool. Mike Curb turned him into nothing more than a children’s performer, and the way that most people remember him today. It’s embarrassing.
But I also feel there is a certain amount of hypocrisy to Curb’s collaboration with Sammy Davis in regard to his earlier stance about weeding out the drug offenders at MGM. It was no secret at that time, and has since been well reported and documented, that Sammy Davis Jr. was addicted to cocaine during this period of his life. Sure, I know the song is from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” but when Sammy talked about the Candy Man, he’s talking about a drug dealer, and this is nose candy. Sammy Davis was tripping out on that song far more than Frank Zappa ever would have. Yeesh. Of course, eventually Frank Sinatra got sick of Sammy’s drug addiction and forced him to go to rehab, but that’s another story for another time.
Honestly, if I could go back in time, beyond killing baby Hitler, stopping 9-11 and acquiring a copy of Action Comics #1, I’d warn Sammy Davis Jr. to stay away from Mike Curb, as well as drugs, and let him know his time would come again.
Mike Curb shut down the original Congregation not long after the Sammy Davis sessions but would regroup new choruses under the same name from time to time when needed. Meanwhile, he continued building the company, and his brand, through music, motor sports and politics becoming one of the most powerful moguls in music.
Devil or angel? You be the judge of what you think of Mike Curb. For now, I have “Sweet Gingerbread Man” stuck in my head again. Dammit
NOTE: If you know someone who was a member of The Mike Curb Congregation in 1970, or if you were a member of the Congregation yourself, drop us a note. We’d love to hear from you and your side of the story and, for once and for all, learn the names of the members of the original Congregation.