“Stretch - a band regarded by some contemporary critics as
the greatest blues rock outfit of all time.”
Not the female DJ in the horror movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
Not former US President George W Bush’s nickname for NBC’s chief White House correspondent David Gregory.
Not even the deceased New York rapper, producer and former friend of The Notorious B.I.G.
If you possess any musical knowledge at all, then you will know that there is only one ‘Stretch’ - a stunning band regarded by some critics as the greatest blues rock outfit of all time and an absolute jewel in the crown of British Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Without question Stretch was one of rock music’s hardest working and finest groups and they remain vastly under-rated in spite of an outstanding hit single ‘Why Did You Do It?’, originally released in 1975 and later revitalized in the award-winning movie Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and by Beyonce on youtube.
In an era when Bad Company and Rainbow were storming the charts and the stages, Stretch was right up there giving them a run for their money. For a period in the mid 70s it seemed that they would be amongst the biggest names of them all with their thrilling spill of hooks and hard rock. Yet despite instant chart success the group had disappeared by the end of the decade. It remains one of the greatest universal mysteries why Stretch was not massive because their high quality tasteful music should have ensured far greater commercial success.
30 years after their last gig as Stretch, the band returned to the stage with great success in 2007 playing sold-out shows supporting The Jeff Healey Band. These appearances coincided with the release of Why Did You Do It? (The Best of Stretch) on Repertoire Records and much of the live material was drawn from that amazing compilation CD. There was considerable fresh interest in the group in Classic Rock magazine and The Best of Stretch was featured as their “Blues Album of the Month”.
Stretch showcases the brilliant vocal talents of Elmer Gantry and blistering guitar work of Kirby Gregory. In unison the versatile duo were, and remain, a dynamite combination of craft, intelligence and imagination.
Elmer started his singing career as David Terry. He was given the nom-de-plume Elmer Gantry by his Velvet Opera band-matesin 1967 and it stuck. Lifted from the movie and scathing satirical book of the same name, Sinclair Lewis’s novel tells the story of a young roughneck who abandons his early ambition to become a lawyer. The fictional character embarks on a career as a hell-raising preacher in the ministry, crusading against all his previous vices including alcohol and prostitution.
Rock and Roll’s Elmer Gantry gave up his job as an apprentice printer in London to embark on a determined musical crusade. At 17 years of age he feverishly pursued his youthful ambition to sing the blues, playing with The Southbeats, The Impacts, The Union and The Five Proud Walkers. Gantry has also sat in with Long John Baldry, The Downliners Sect, Freddie Mac and John Renbourn and during a flirtation with the folk-blues scene rubbed shoulders with Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, Al Stewart and blues legend Jesse Fuller.
A couple of years later, having returned to amplified music, Elmer recorded a ground-breaking psychedelic album as the leader and focal point of Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera. The group had a top 30 UK hit with Elmer’s composition ‘Flames’, a song that many acts took to and played, including the famous dance band led by Joe Loss. In 2003, during the London launch of the Led Zeppelin DVD Collection at The Empire cinema in Leicester Square, Zep vocalist Robert Plant told Elmer that in the early days of the band, ‘Flames’ was the only non-Zeppelin track that they used to play. Robert even sang a verse in the Empire’s foyer to surrounding family and friends!
Being in the middle of the seething 60s music scene where jamming was a regular relaxation, Elmer got the opportunity to play with individuals who became genuine rock icons including Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. Following his split from Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera at the end of the 60s, he formed The Elmer Gantry Band which included bassist Paul Martinez from The Downliners Sect. Elmer then sat out his CBS recording contract in the Glasgow and London stage productions of the highly controversial rock musical HAIR where, amongst others, he formed friendships with the wonderful Alex Harvey and outrageous Richard O Brien.
Guitarist Kirby Gregory meanwhile moved from Berkshire via the West Country to London and in 1970 joined jazz-rock outfit Armada, an off-shoot of late 60s band The Open Mind. Armada accommodated various renowned musicians including Terry Schindler, Gary Windo, world famous clarinet player Sammy Rimington and bass player Rik Kenton, later of Roxy Music. Kirby introduced future Stretch bassist Steve Emery to Armada and Elmer joined the group as replacement vocalist for Schindler in 1971. Although Armada was a very popular live act, sadly, they never released any recorded material and commercial success eluded them. Nonetheless, a crucial connection between Gantry and Gregory had been made.
Kirby left Armada to join progressive rockers Curved Air in 1972 and appeared with Sonja Kristina and Eddie Jobson on their excellent fourth album Air Cut in the following year. Through Kirby’s tenure in Curved Air, their manager Clifford Davis (who was also known as Cliff Adams) helped Elmer and Kirby cut a vastly under-rated Warner Brothers single as Legs. Clifford also managed blues legends Fleetwood Mac, so when one of their American tours was halted in crisis in 1973, Davis suggested to drummer Mick Fleetwood that Gantry and Kirby would be ideal talents to be part of a new formation of the group. Fleetwood visited the boys at their home in Tooting and discussed details for an upcoming tour, including the possible lineup and the material to be played. Mick asked that he be excused rehearsals, as he was going through heavy personal relationship issues, but that he would join the boys at the start of the tour. In the event, Mick never arrived in America to join them and the episode became one of the strangest and most controversial chapters in music history and the baffling debacle led to bitter disputes between Clifford Davis and the original members of Fleetwood Mac, both in and out of court.
Battered and bruised, Elmer and Kirby formed their own band - Stretch. They recruited ex-Curved Air drummer Jim Russell and former Elmer Gantry Band and Hackensack bassist Paul Martinez. Stretch joined fledgling British label Anchor Records and stalwartly delivered some of the best rock and blues ever produced. Their sensational 1975 single ‘Why Did You Do It?’ cleverly referenced the Fleetwood Mac saga and tore into the UK charts reaching #16. It soared even higher in some international charts including the Top 5 in Holland and Israel and #2 on London’s Capital Radio chart.
‘Why Did You Do It?’ was taken from Stretch’s debut LP Elastique, a wonderfully eclectic collection of songs that encompassed funk, blues, hard rock, country-folk and ballads. The album offered a truly unique and refreshing listening experience but seemingly confused audiences who expected Stretch to play in the funky style of their hit single all the time. Kirby reflects that Elastique sounded like three completely different bands. The musicians thought that this was an artistic asset until ‘Why Did You Do It?’ became such a great success and live audiences expected everything they played to mirror their hit single.
Engaging former Ross and Armada bassist Steve Emery and youthful drummer Jeff Rich as replacement members for Martinez and Russell, the band recorded their next album You Can’t Beat Your Brain for Entertainment, moving in a new musical direction that was more rock and boogie based. The record’s memorable title was provided by Elmer’s friend, Richard O’Brien - actor, theatre performer, TV presenter and writer of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Stretch’s second LP featured ‘That’s the Way the Wind Blows’, a sure-fire hit single that inexplicably missed the charts as well as exceptional versions of Bukka White’s ‘Fixin’ to Die’ and ‘Feelin’ Sad’, a classic ballad that had been covered by one of Elmer’s heroes, Ray Charles.
To promote their second album Elmer and Kirby secured a support slot with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow on their 1976 Rainbow Rising UK tour. Stretch surprised British crowds and attracted praise and plaudits on this sojourn, not least at London’s Hammersmith Odeon where critics were forced to acknowledge that Rainbow was blown aside by the support band’s powerful R&B. After multiple encores at both London gigs, it was unsurprising that Stretch was “not required” for Rainbow’s subsequent European tour dates where AC/DC became the replacement support act.
Stretch’s third album, Lifeblood, contained some of their finest songs including ‘Take You Down’, ‘Knives in their Backs’ and ‘Jonah and the Whale’. They continued to display their musical influences proudly with unique versions of Peter Green’s ‘Showbiz Blues’, Freddie King’s ‘Living on the Highway’ and Rick Derringer’s ‘Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo’. Stretch always interpreted other writers’ material with total panache, adding to and often surpassing the originals. Their treatment of Derringer’s classic was a case in point. Stretch’s red-hot version was lauded by legendary DJ John Peel, who risked upsetting Johnny Winter devotees by describing Stretch’s ‘Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo’ as the finest ever recorded when he introduced the track on his BBC radio programme. One album review remarked on Kirby's guitar assault being worth the price of admission by itself, as he played both Johnny Winter’s and Rick Derringer's original guitar parts with absolute aplomb.
Tragically, the lack of commercial recognition took its toll on Stretch. Elmer quit in frustration and later formed groups named The Backroom Boys and Gantry. Jeff Rich joined Judie Tzuke, Climax Blues Band and then Status Quo. Steve Emery played bass with Major Blues Band, The Graham Foster Band, Los Lunaticos and The Rockets in Spain where he became resident. Kirby produced a solo album and another Stretch LP - Forget the Past - with a new expanded line-up, but this formation did not last. Reflecting on this period Kirby is the first to acknowledge that, “Stretch is not really Stretch without Elmer!” The duo did re-unite briefly in 1982 and recorded with Sweet drummer Mick Tucker and bass player Nigel Ross-Scott but the session tapes were shelved.
Kirby believes that Stretch gave everything in terms of recording and touring but eventually the band felt as though they we were heading backwards. The success of ‘Why Did You Do It?’ and their live performances meant that early expectations were very high for the group. They remained determined in their efforts and were having fun but they could not maintain momentum and became frustrated at the lack of support. Elmer and Kirby admit in retrospect that they should have persevered and turned their anger outwards rather than inwards but, eventually their frustration became destructive and Stretch split.
The spirit of the band survived with successful 80s re-issues of ‘Why Did You Do It?’ across Europe and the inclusion of their biggest hit in the 1998 movie Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Elmer also appeared as guest vocalist on several albums post-Stretch including Turn of a Friendly Card and Eye in the Sky by The Alan Parsons Project, Cozy Powell’s Tilt and Before I Forget by John Lord. Gantry also sang with Munkfish and sat in with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Over the years Kirby has recorded with David Essex, Danny Kirwan, Noel Janus, Joan Armatrading, Cozy Powell, Graham Bonnett and post-punk rockers Gloria Mundi. The guitarist also formed Blue Murder, a very fine 80s trio with Sensational Alex Harvey Band drummer Ted McKenna.
Having left the music industry in the 80s and after conquering their own addictions, Elmer and Kirby re-connected years later by accident, only to discover that they were both working independently and successfully in the field of drug rehabilitation. Neither was aware of the others new chosen vocation. Elmer had survived the 60s before he met Kirby and had been under the impression that drink and drugs were a compulsory qualification in the music business. By the mid 80s he had amassed considerable knowledge from personal experience and observation and wanted to share and utilise this in the field of rehab.
Years later, when Stretch’s BBC session tapes were released on compact disc, Elmer listened to their material again. Thankfully, he finally appreciated how strong the band really was and ultimately this realisation helped with Stretch’s reformation.
In 2007, Stretch was re-established with a new determination and Kirby emphasises that nostalgia was not the motivation, rather a desire to pick-up where the band had ceased in 1977 and to re-establish and develop their distinctive brand of music. Much had been learned in the intervening years and as is traditional in the mythology of the blues, some hard times had been endured and overcome.
The band performed their first gigs in over thirty years, supporting Jeff Healey in London and Glasgow.
The outcome of the live dates with Healey was a decision to embark on a long term commitment to unleash Stretch once more as a powerhouse of taste, tone and talent. Over the past couple of years the band has been in the studio recording and in recent months has released two CDs, the first being, “Unfinished Business,” a new album of some of Elmer and Kirby’s favourite tracks from their years in the business, and the second being a Collection of Stretch and Legs tracks from all their albums. Since these releases, Stretch have been preparing for the road with a fresh live set. Stretch’s live repertoire includes much of their self-composed material, including the classic hit ‘Why Did You Do It?’ and a sprinkling of classics by great artists such as Muddy Waters, Peter Green and Johnny Winter.
The current line-up includes original members Elmer Gantry and Kirby plus Jumpin’ Jim Scadding (bass), Justin Hildreth (drums) and Brett Lamb-Shine who have performed and recorded with Nina Hagen, Thomas Dolby, Lene Lovich, Blue Bishops, Rocky Recovery and 88 Straight.
Stretch is committed to working as a long-term project and is realistic about the changes that have occurred in the music world. The group has the gravitas to play headlining gigs and the ability to deliver as a great support act; the Jeff Healeydates were a good example of this. Stretch is a powerful professional unit based on a confidence that creates an incredible live experience.
Stretch has barrel loads of integrity and a standard of craft that doesn’t bow down to any commerciality. On record and on stage they remain an astonishing fire storm with a classy repertoire. In the words of Johnny Winter, one of their heroes, Elmer Gantry and Kirby are “still alive and well”.