The Rose Garden – The Rose Garden (1968)

The Blokes? The Giant Sunflower? The fake Byrds? Nope. It’s Los Angeles based folk-rock group The Rose Garden who hit the Billboard Top 20 with their single “Next Plane to London.”

One of my favorite narratives in music is the plight of the musician that doesn’t make it and goes back home from where they started.  The theme of Lee Hazelwood’s “So Long Babe,” which was the first single that put Nancy Sinatra on the charts, the narrative was solidified in 1973 when Gladys Knight and the Pips released their mega-hit “Midnight Train to Georgia.”  But one of my favorite takes on this theme was a forgotten hit by a forgotten band – 1967’s “Next Plane to London” by Los Angeles based folk-rock band The Rose Garden.  Sung by lead vocalist Diana De Rosa, the story tells of a struggling singer who couldn’t make it in Hollywood and, instead, was heading back to England to the sweetheart she left behind.  With a memorable featured hook of an airport employee announcing departure times, “Next Plane to London” was a great sunshine pop song that got some traction on the US Billboard charts but has seemed to have been lost in the shuffle of pop standards, while the group itself has nearly evaporated into obscurity.  But the story of The Rose Garden is an epic of its own about a hard working band who struggled with their own identity, and rose to the top far too fast only to everything fall apart as quickly as it began.

Formed in 1964 as The Blokes by John Noreen, Jim Groshong, Bruce Bowdin and Bill Fleming, female vocalist Diana De Rose joined the band in late 1966.

When I was honing my musical education as a younger man by listening to oldies radio via KRUZ-FM out of Peterborough, Ontario, “Next Plane to London” was played on constant rotation.  The DJs at that time, Mike Melnik in the morning, and Gordon Gibb in the afternoons, had a real love and knowledge of music, and they peppered in these kind of great under the radar hits into their broadest day.  But, over the decades since then, I don’t think I’ve ever heard “Next Plane to London” outside of my own home.  It seemed to have fallen out of the popular soundscape.  Perhaps its inclusion on Canadian radio, but exclusion from American media, is the fact that the song was a far bigger hit up North, reaching #1 on the CHUM charts, while it only got as far as #17 in the US.  Although a release from an American band, “Next Plane to London” seems to be one of those rare singles that just had a far bigger fanbase in Canada then anywhere else.

The Rose Garden’s story begins in 1964 when four high school students from Los Angeles – John Noreen, Jim Groshong, Bruce Bowdin and Bill Fleming – put together their own garage band.  Calling themselves The Blokes, in an attempt to give them a British Invasion sounding name, the group started playing popular standards of the day at dances and parties and such.  But quickly the guys got seduced by the folk-rock sound that was coming out of Laurel Canyon, primarily via the music of The Byrds.  The Blokes became so excited about The Byrds that they immediately started learning their entire catalogue and eventually became a virtual Byrds cover band.  Basically, if you couldn’t afford to hire The Byrds, you could get The Blokes a lot cheaper.  In fact, according to John Noreen, during a jam session with Byrds founding member Gene Clark, who the group became good friends with, Clark laughed “You guys do The Byrds better than The Byrds do The Byrds.”  Pretty high praise from a guy who knew.

But being a cover band wasn’t going to get The Blokes anywhere, and the guys knew they needed some sort of direction of their own. 

Although she claimed to be from Blackpool, England, the husky voiced Diana De Rose was actually from Parkersburg, West Virginia and had no hint of an European accent.

This is when Diana De Rosa enters the picture, which would prove to be a mixed bag of good fortune and their eventual undoing.  Meeting Jim Groshong at a club in Hollywood in late 1966, Diana sounds like she was a real character.   Claiming to be from Blackpool, England, the dark haired girl with the husky voice was fronting her own group called The Suns of Thunder and wanted Jim to join her band.  But Diana’s claims of her European roots were all a farce.  In reality she had come from the industrial town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where she left home soon after graduating high school with the goal of being a pop star before she turned twenty.  Well, Jim must have felt something was off about Diana, and told her that he didn’t want to join her group.  But he must have liked her enough to suggest she join The Blokes as a new female singer.  With groups like The Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company having female vocalists creating a unique exciting sound, maybe adding Diana as a part time vocalist alongside Groshorg and Noreen could be the answer.  It was a hook, and Diane agreed to sit in with the band.

Producer/management team Cherlie Greene and Brian Stone, who brought acts such as Sonny and Cher, Buffalo Springfield and Iron Butterfly to prominence signed The Blokes and quickly changed their name to The Rose Garden.

Now as a five piece band, The Blokes started recording demos of both Byrds covers and original songs, which a pal of Diana’s named David Hanson got the tapes into the hands of record producers/managers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone.  New in the business, the pair had hit big by signing Sonny and Cher and Buffalo Springfield and saw something in the group, but they weren’t interested in the folk-rock sound they were selling.  Having decided that the folk-rock scene was a passing fad that was on its way out, Greene and Stone were looking to sign a group in the mold of the now red hot Mamas and the Papas and with the male harmonies and the girl singer, Greene and Stone thought The Blokes could be crafted into something that they could get behind.

For a number of weeks The Blokes stepped in as The Giant Sunflower for concert and appearances to promote the studios groups regional hit “February Sunshine.” Their own version of the song would be featured on The Rose Garden’s debut LP.

But, to further the bands’ identity crisis, Greene and Stones’ first assignment for The Blokes was to pose as another band on the concert circuit.  A studio group calling themselves The Giant Sunflower had cut a single called “February Sunshine” which had become a minor regional hit in the LA area.  With concert and personal appearance requests coming in, Stone and Greene needed a group where there wasn’t one, so they got The Blokes to learn the song and sent them out for personal appearances as The Giant Sunflower.  However, in a few weeks the single began to slip, and the band was able to drop the charade and go back to being The Blokes.

With The Giant Sunflower gig now behind them, The Blokes finally started preparing for a debut album, but Greene and Stone had another problem with the group.  They hated their name.  Honestly, the name was pretty awful, and with Diana De Rose in the group, it didn’t make sense either.  Inspired by Diana’s last name, Brian Stone dictated that the group’s name was now going to be The Rose Garden and that was that.  A far better name, but it began to subtly push Diana, who was still considered an outsider within the band, to the center spot.

The newly named Rose Garden set to work on an upcoming release, but all of the originals that the band brought to the table were discarded by Greene and Stone, who dictated what material they would record.  Their own cover of “February Sunshine” became part of the package, along with a number of other songs written by its songwriter Pat Vegas.  However, pal Gene Clark, now split from The Byrds, did contributed a pair of new songs for the group; “Till Today” and “Long Time.”  The band also went into the studio and recorded a Bob Dylan track, “She Belongs to Me,” believing that The Byrds had had success always including a Dylan track on their albums, and that they might as well.

As The Rose Garden’s good fortunes flourished, a division began to form within the band between the original four male members and Diana De Rosa whom Greene and Stone was pushing into the forefront as the front woman.

But tensions began to form in the studio when a quiet battle for vocal dominance began to arise between Diana De Rose and Noreen and Groshong.  It was never determined that Diana would be the primary lead singer of the group, and Noreen and Groshong were still committed to their original vision of the band.  But the production team seemed to have a different idea for the direction of the group, and they sought to make Diana the front woman.

But when listening to the material they were recording, the tracks with Diana on lead vocals are, by far, the most interesting.  She had a deep but likeable voice which was unlike any other woman recording at the moment making her tracks to be distinctive and were the stand outs.  Meanwhile, the tracks she recorded with Noreen and Groshong as a trio were also fairly good and had a sort of Grace Slick/Marty Balin vibe to them.  But the tracks featuring Noreen and Groshong as leads shamelessly sounded like Byrds throw aways and although not bad, were not as dynamic as the rest of the material.  It was clear to the production team that Diana De Rose had the star power of the group, but at the expense of the guys who were the hearts and soul of The Rose Garden.

“Next Plane to London” was an early hit for songwriter Kenny O’Dell who went on to write “Behind Closed Doors” for Charlie Rich and “Mama He’s Crazy” for The Judds.

Although the material recorded for the album was fairly solid, as the recording session continued The Rose Garden was still looking for that big hit that would catapult them into the Billboard charts, and they found it when a colleague of Greene and Stone put them in touch with his cousin, future country music hitmaker Kenny O’Dell, who had written a number called “Next Plane to London.”  Stone and Greene immediately recognized it as being a perfect vehicle for Diana and rushed The Rose Garden into the studio to cut the track.  However, with no time to work on the song, the band didn’t have an opening riff, guitar solo or anything to punch the number up.  That was when Greene and Stone got the great idea to give “Next Plane to London” its memorable hook.

“The next plane to London will be boarding in five minutes.” The memorable hook of the airport boarding announcements was voiced by KBLA program director Don Elliot.

Being a song about a flight out of LA, the idea of boarding calls for the next plane leaving LAX was conceived and added to the song.  The production team contacted nearby radio station KBLA and had their program director Don Elliot record the voice of the boarding announcer.  With Diana creating her unique vocal styling on lead, and Noreen and Groshong providing tight harmonies alongside her, “Next Plane to London” was a pretty solid single.  But having KBLA’s program director on the track became the brilliant lynch pin that got the track played.  Bringing it straight to Don Elliot upon its release in October 1967, “Next Plane to London” went right on the air and stated to get attention.  Quickly the song began to rise on the charts, and The Rose Garden was on their way.  The single started selling and by December 1967, The Rose Garden was in the Billboard Top 20.

Released in October 1967, “Next Plane to London” peaked at #17 on the US Billboard chart in December, and went all the way to #1 on the CHUM chart in Canada.

The Rose Garden’s debut self titled album was released in early 1968 and shortly thereafter the band was on the road touring with Neil Diamond, Canned Heat and the Stone Ponies, and making TV appearances.  But the tensions in the band could already be felt in a disastrous appearance on “American Bandstand.”  After a performance of “Next Plane to London,” Dick Clark stepped up to meet the band and, upon talking to Diana, called her out on national television by stating “You lost your accent.”  Listening to Diana’s husky voice, as she introduced the band, everybody could tell she wasn’t from England as she claimed.  Caught off guard, Diana just smiled and stiffly said “Yes.”  Then, after shaking hands with all the men in the band, Clark asks the guys “So does she run the group?  Let’s face it.  Is she the boss?  Don’t women run the world” As Diana laughs, you can cut the tension like a knife while the guys refuse to answer the question and just grimace in icy silence.  Stunned, Clark asks “Do you outnumber her” in which Groshong bluntly replied “That’s right.”  Dick quickly closed down the conversation by saying they were “One big happy family” with a hint of cynicism in his voice and let them go into a performance of “Flower Town.”

The Rose Garden’s follow up single, “If My World Falls Through” was supposed to have Jim Groshong on lead vocals, but went to press with Diana De Rosa’s voice on it without the rest of the band’s knowledge. The deception marked the end of The Rose Garden.

With the success of “Next Plane to London” behind them, it was agreed that a new single would be recorded for their follow up which would be another Kenny O’Dell penned song called “If My World Falls Through” and would feature Jim Groshong on lead vocals.  Unhappy with the decision, Diana stopped showing up for rehearsals and recording sessions which she felt she was not needed while the rest of the group worked to get the track ready for release.  However, when the record was pressed, a version of “If My World Falls Through” with Diana singing somehow miraculously replaced Jim Groshong’s vocal track..  It became clear to the guys in the group that Greene and Sone had made the executive decision that Diana De Rose was to be the feature singer whether the band liked it or not.  Well, the guys were pissed, and the deception was the beginning of the end for The Rose Garden.  Although they were in the middle of a touring schedule, Jim Groshong packed up his guitar and split, and soon after the rest of the group finished their tour obligations they called it quits too.  With only one album to their name, The Rose Garden was through.  In a garden full of deception, all that was left was one hit record and a lot of bitter weeds.

In the months to come Jim Groshong and Bruce Bowdin were drafted into the service and off to Viet Nam.  Diana De Rose resurfaced again briefly as a replacement vocalist for Gayle McCormick when she quit Smith, but it doesn’t seem that any recordings of her fronting the group exist.  The four original members of The Rose Garden would remain lifelong friends and decades later reformed as a foursome on the oldies concert circuit, while Diana, not invited to tour with them, would leave the music industry behind and settle in Texas and a career in real estate.

The Rose Garden never seemed to achieve their goals of music stardom, and ambition and ego seemed to have gotten in the way of their interesting sound.  But in the wake of their short time on the charts they left behind a fairly solid entry in the folk-rock genre, and a great one hit wonder waiting for rediscovery.

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