I have read the lengthy booklet that comes with Sundazed’s reissue of The Yellow Balloon’s self-titled album two times now, and I’m still not really sure I understand the band’s story. But here’s what I think it is:
Gary Zekley, – a songwriter, producer and sometimes band member on the West Coast pop circuit of the 1960s – wrote a song, called “The Yellow Balloon,” and handed it off to Jan and Dean. Knowing the song was going to be a hit, Zekley threw together a band and recorded a version of his own, hoping to beat Jan and Dean to the studio finish line. One member of the band Zekley assembled was Don Grady, who played Robbie Douglas on the hit TV show “My Three Sons,” and who had already been moonlighting as a rock ‘n’ rooler, most recently in a folk-rock band called The Palace Guard. Zekley’s motley band wound up naming itself after the song they were assembled to record, scored a minor hit with their version of “Balloon,” and went on to make a full-length album.
I may or may not have all of that right, and I may have missed some important points of the band’s brief story. But here’s the real gist of what I want to say in this space: the album, The Yellow Balloon, is a minor treasure of sun-soaked California psychedelic pop. Part Byrds, part Beach Boys, part Turtles, part Left Banke . . . but the 60s band the Balloon most sounds like is the good-timey Lovin’ Spoonful. The songs are happy and bouncy, they boast excellent melodies and just enough acid flavor to let you know what era they were recorded in. That studio pros like Jim Gordon and Carole Kaye played many of the instruments on the record is something we’ll overlook for the moment – the band The Yellow Balloon (with Grady wearing a wig and shades so as not to be recognized) did tour to support the record, and played some of the instruments on the album, and their lead singer, Alex Valdez, sang most of the songs (Grady sings others).
The bonus tracks Sundazed added to the set include some songs Grady recorded as a solo artist and as leader of an outfit called The Windupwatchband. There is also an interview with Zekley, who died in the late 90s. Some of Grady’s solo stuff is as good as, maybe better than, the material on the main album.
The Yellow Balloon were not a great band. But they managed to make one record which nicely captures the time and place of California in the mid-to-late 1960s. The Gary Zekley mystique and the Don “Robbie Douglas” connection only add to their allure.