On the evening of September 25, 1970, country music superstar Johnny Cash appeared on ABC-TV in one of the unlikeliest moments on television. Filmed in the studio of his own hit tv show, the man in black was there to introduce the world to a new group that would become one of the greatest pop groups in music history. In his distinct dark voice, Cash uttered words which would go down in TV history – “Ladies and Gentlemen, America’s latest success story, The Partridge Family.” The camera cut away to the stage featuring a family of five wearing matching purple velvet outfits. Strangers to the public that night, the audience would fall quickly in love with the Partridge clan, who would be a staple on television for decades to come. But on that first pilot episode, when lead singer Keith Partridge began to sing, it wasn’t actor David Cassidy’s voice coming out of his mouth! The Partridges were lip syncing….and badly! Why wasn’t David Cassidy singing his own songs, and if he wasn’t singing them, then who was?
No matter what you remember about the Partridge Family, be it their television show, the photos of them in the teen magazines or their classic hit song “I Think I Love You,” their albums are amongst some of the most overlooked and undervalued pop albums ever produced in the 1970’s. With strong production, great song writing and a capable and charismatic lead singer in David Cassidy, the albums seem to have been dismissed as kids’ stuff or bubblegum fluff. But when listened to with a critical ear, especially if listened to out of the context of the television series, these albums that can often be found in thrift shops and flea markets everywhere are full of musical gems, and possibly some of the best pop music ever recorded.
However, when I first discovered The Partridge Family in my early teens, having not yet seen the television show, there was one song on their debut album, “The Partridge Family Album,” that confused me. On the track “To Be Lovers,” another male voice can be heard singing lead for the majority of the track, and then David Cassidy comes in and sings the short bridge, only to step back and let the mysterious nameless singer take over the lead again. As a kid I was wondering who the hell was supposed to be singing the lead? It obviously wasn’t Danny Bonaduce!
Years later, now a serious audiophile in my 40’s, the mystery continued when I recognized that same mysterious singer from “The Partridge Family Album” on a Hugo Montenegro album! Yup. That was “the Partridge Family,” minus David Cassidy, on “The Best of Hugo Montenegro” singing a cover of “Good Vibrations.” What was going on here? Who were these singers? I wanted to know who were the “real” Partridge Family? This led me down a rabbit hole which stretched further beyond the confines of the Partridge Family and taking me through dozens of favorite records from my collection, and more history than one Vinyl Story can cover in one go.
Well, with their lush vocal arrangements and pitch perfect melodies, the vocal group behind that distinct Partridge Family sound were The Ron Hicklin Singers. Although not a household name today, they were possibly the busiest vocal group in the LA music scene during the 1960’s and 1970’s and could be heard in every aspect of media including records, television, film and advertising. Primarily uncredited in everything they ever sang on, I can guarantee that everyone at one time or another has listened to The Ron Hicklin Singers without knowing it. Now while many voices came in and out of the Ron Hicklin Singers stable over the twenty years or so that they dominated the Los Angeles music industry, there were five voices in particular that made up the sound of the Partridge Family alongside David Cassidy – Ron Hicklin, Tom Bahler, John Bahler, Jackie Ward, Sally Stevens and Gene Morford.
Originally from Washington State, Ron Hicklin became interested in music at an early age, and in high school joined a vocal group called The Eligibles. Although initially going into medicine in university, Hicklin quickly realized that he didn’t want to be a doctor and, instead, wanted to be a singer and he and the Eligibles headed out to Los Angeles where they were signed to Capital Records. A light and breezy vocal group, The Eligibles cut a few singles and made several TV appearances where they startled the line between folk and country. While their records were not hits, they became forever engrained in pop culture history when they recorded a revised version of “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island” that was used for the second and third season of the much beloved TV show (they added the line “The Professor and Mary Anne,” replacing the phrase “And the rest” as sang by The Wellingtons).
However, according to Hicklin, he quickly realized that while he loved to sing, he didn’t enjoy performing nor did he have a desire to be a celebrity and he valued his own sense of anonymity. He wanted to get paid for singing, but he didn’t want the potential celebrity status that went along with it. By 1963 The Eligibles were falling apart, and Ron was able to quit the group and go into session work.
Ron’s first big success as a session singer was when he got a call from a friend who was working on a recording session at Liberty Records with a then known singer named Gary Lewis. Son of comedian Jerry Lewis, Gary, along with his band the Playboys, were in the studio recording their first single and despite a lot of money being put into the session, things weren’t going well. It seemed that Gary needed some help in the vocal department. Ron went down to the studio and suggested that he sing the chorus of the song along with Gary just under the surface, adding some harmony and fleshing the sound out slightly. Well, it worked perfectly. The song was “This Diamond Ring,” and it went to the top of the charts in 1965. Now, after hearing this story, I thought to myself that I’ve heard “This Diamond Ring” hundreds of times and I don’t recall any other vocals on the song other than Gary Lewis. Well, taking out the original album, I played it and, yup, there slightly behind Gary Lewis is the voice of Ron Hicklin. It’s slight and not overbearing, but it masterfully leads Gary through the chorus adding a rich melody to the song. It’d be a formula that would lead Gary Lewis and the Playboys, along with an uncredited Ron Hicklin, through ten Billboard hits.
As Gary Lewis and the Playboys started topping the charts, word of Ron’s work started to spread through the music scene and he started getting calls to work for artists in a similar manner, including Gary Pucket and the Union Gap and Paul Revere and the Raiders. In these cases, the groups didn’t need a lead vocalist, but they needed vocals outside of the band to help guide the performances. Ron became known as being professional and easy to work with as well as being a top-notch performer. But, as the scope of his work continued, especially when offers to provide vocals in advertising and film soundtracks began to come in, Ron began to put together a crackerjack vocal group alongside him to take on these projects. By the middle of the 1960’s The Ron Hicklin Singers became to studio singers which the Wrecking Crew became to studio musicians. They were the best in not only Los Angeles, but probably the world and, not surprisingly, they often worked together on the same projects.
Around 1966 Ron Hicklin brought brothers Tom and John Bahler into his group, which became an important part of the evolution of the Ron Hicklin sound. Starting their careers as part of television music groups when barely out of their teens, I covered the Bahler Brothers in depth in my Vinyl Story about their own group, The Love Generation. Singers, songwriters and arrangers in their own right, the music featured in the Bahler Brother’s Love Generation albums feature that signature Ron Hicklin sound within the original songs they were writing, and as their involvement with Ron Hicklin continued that sound became so prominent that it’s difficult to say if Hicklin was influencing the Bahler Brothers, or if the Bahlers were instrumental in creating the Ron Hicklin sound. However, Tom Bahler would become important to the overall sound of the group as the primary vocalist for many of the group’s projects that required a lead singer, especially within advertising and television theme songs.
In 1966 the Ron Hicklin Singers got a big boost in popularity behind the scenes when they got credited for creating the backing vocals for the Monkees debut album. A monster hit, not only on television but also on the Billboard charts and record sales, The Monkees was a cultural phenomenon unlike anything done before. It was the first time that music and television was brought together in a marketable way to create and promote hit music from a studio created band. Now, once again, within the recordings of that first album, I can’t recall ever hearing any vocals other than that of Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith and, primarily, Mickey Dolenz. But take a listen to “Last Train to Clarksville” and the Ron Hicklin Singers are thee ever so subtly making harmonies with Mickey’s “Oh no no no,” and that musical train whistle sounds with their voicers. It’s not as rich or over the top as some of their later recordings would be, but it fleshes out the recording.
Well, Hicklin’s work was so appreciated for those Monkee sessions that he signed a contract as the go to guy for Screen Gems, which led to the group recording some of the most popular television theme songs of the era including “Batman,” “Flipper,” “Love American Style,” “That Girl,” “Here Comes the Brides,” and “Nanny and the Professor.” So naturally when ABC-TV began to develop their next music-based project around 1968, the Ron Hicklin Singers were on their radar to becoming the sound of The Partridge Family.
Created by Bernard Slade and Bob Claver, the concept of The Partridge Family was inspired by the real-life group The Cowsills. In fact, the initial plan was to use the actual Cowsills in the show. However, a ton of factors prevented this from happening, primarily when Shirley Jones became attached to the show and while the producers were willing to maybe work with the Cowsill kids, they did not want to put the uncharismatic Barbara Cowsill on camera. When it became very clear that the actual Cowsills were out of the project, the fictional Partridge Family were created for the show.
But while the producers had a concept and a script, they knew that the importance on the success of the show, much like that of The Monkees, was going to depend on the strength of the music. Not desiring to go down the route of hiring actual musicians again, thus avoiding the “are they a real band or not” nonsense that continues to haunt the Monkees legacy to this day, the producers of the Partridge Family were after actors, and they didn’t care if they could sing or not. They decided that the sound of the Partridge Family would be created by a sure-fire sound machine like The Ron Hicklin Singers and that they’d just see where things fell into place. As a result The Ron Hicklin Singers were in place before any of the casting of the series was even done.
So, when the pilot was being prepared, a new song, “Together (Having a Ball)” was already slated to be the first Partridge Family number. However a second song was needed and the producers were told that Tom and John Bahler were song writers. The producers asked the brothers if they had a track they could buy for the pilot and the Bahlers gave them a song called “Let the Good Times In” which they had previously recorded under The Love Generation on their 1968 album “Montage.” Instead of using the existing track, the Hicklin Singers went in and rerecorded it for the pilot. The vocals that they recorded for “Let the Good Tomes In” would establish the dominate sound that would be recognized by Partridge Family fans as being the distinct Partridge sound, and Tom Bahler, on lead vocals, was to now be the voice of Keith Partridge.
However, when David Cassidy was cast in the role of Keith Partridge, the producers discovered that Cassidy actually had a decent singing voice and they decided to take a chance and see if he could handle the material for the show. With the show green lit, three additional songs were prepared – a love ballad called “I Really Want to Know You,” a top-notch pop banger called “I’m on the Road,” and the before mentioned “To Be Lovers.” In “To Be Lovers,” it was Tom Bahler who was singing lead vocals, and then David Cassidy comes in for the bridge. Obviously this song was the try out for Cassidy, and he sounded great! He had a warm and likeable voice, could hold a tune perfectly, meshed well with the Hicklin singers and gave a much needed authenticity to the project. So, David Cassidy was now in and would become the face and the voice of The Partridge Family. It was far more than the producers had ever hoped for.
But while Cassidy was in, that didn’t mean the Ron Hicklin Singers were out, The backing vocals of the Ron Hicklin Singers were crucial to the success of the Partridge Family, and while barely detectable in the sessions with Gary Lewis and the Monkees, for the Partridge Family they were overly prominent. I mean, this was supposed to be a family band, and the Hicklin Singers were making up that family. Take their first, and most famous, smash hit, “I Think I Love You.” Written by Tony Romeo, the song soared to the number one spot in November 1970 and was the biggest selling single of the year. Now while we can all hear David Cassidy’s voice in our memories, it was the Ron Hicklin Singers who provided the famous “Ba ba-ba-ba, ba-ba, ba-ba-ba” opening to the song, as well as the rousing exclamation of “I Think I Love You” with a sweet feminine “I think I love you” repeated right afterwards. The rich double vocal for the final verse is provided by Tom Bahler, who also provides the call backs of “I Think I Love You” in the songs final moments. Without the Ron Hicklin Singers on the track, “I Think I Love You” would have lost an important element and would have sounded empty.
When “The Partridge Family Album” was released in August 1970, a month before the debut of the TV series, all of the songs prepared for the first season were included including the three songs that dominantly featured the Ron Hicklin Singers despite them being mentioned nowhere on the album credits. But another name did get mentioned on the album – Shirley Jones. Was Shirley Jones singing on these albums? It’s been said that she did provide vocals on the TV soundtracks, but despite her being an accomplished vocalist I can’t find any traces of her on any Partridge Family album. Instead, the dominant female voice on the recordings were provided by Jackie Ward. Now, to not mention Jackie would be a shame as she is the only member of the Partridge Family team who had actually had a hit song on the Billboard charts. Prior to becoming a session singer and joining with the Ron Hicklin Singers, Jackie, recording under the name Robin Ward, cut a fantastic number called “Wonderful Summer” which rose to #14 on the Billboard charts in December 1963 and sold over a million copies. Later she’d be heard singing the famous jingle for Rice-a-Roni (“Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco Treat) which would be reused on television for decades.
The other vocalists on the Partridge Family sessions, Sally Stevens and Gene Morford, also had long illustrious careers as session singers. Sally Stevens still works in the industry today, most recently providing music for “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” Meanwhile Gene Morford, who died in 2015, provided the baritone for the group and made his major pop culture contribution for providing the deep bass vocals in the theme song for “Happy Days” where he can be prominently heard singing “These Happy Days.”
The Ron Hicklin Singers were essentially The Partridge Family for nine studio albums recorded between 1970 and 1973 with three singles, “I Think I Love You,” “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” and “I’ll Meet You Halfway” hitting the Billboard Top 10. But the sound that they helped create for the Partridge Family would not only be the signature sound for that project but would become synonymous for the sound for American pop albums for the era. Bell Records, which distributed the Partridge Family albums, became the most successful label for pop albums and, with the Hicklin Singers in their stable, they had them back all of their pop acts including Bobby Sherman, Davy Jones, The Brady Bunch, The DeFranco Family and The Williams Twins. Meanwhile, the Hicklin Singers continued backing a wide range of artists including Ray Conniff, Neil Diamond, Cher, Andy Williams, Mark Lindsay and Dean Martin. Furthermore, they continued working in advertising campaigns, such as McDonalds, Sears, Wheaties and tons of car commercials. More memorable television theme songs followed including “Wonder Woman,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” and, one of my personal favorites, “Angie.” Finally, they provided vocals for some iconic film scores, including the moody vocal version of “Suicide is Painless” from “MASH,” the epic “South American Getaway” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and the creepy lullaby from “Rosemary’s Baby.”
But despite all of their incredible work, the Ron Hicklin Singers basically went uncredited in everything they did. Their names are only known by audiophiles and record freaks who do the deep dives. But, through their tight arrangements and pitch perfect harmonies, they created the sound that dominated American pop culture for two decades. While most notably known as the sound behind the Partridge Family, their collective sound made up the soundtrack of an entire generation.