In the beginning of the climactic scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” members of the Manson Family ascend the driveway to the protagonist’s house and break in. The buildup and payoff are what you would expect from a filmmaker of Tarantino’s caliber, and a big reason why the scene works so well is his choice of music.
When Vanilla Fudge’s take on the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” begins playing, you get the sense that something big is about to happen. The band’s own guitarist, Vinny Martell, shared in that excitement when he saw the film.
“That was a charge to hear that,” he says. “They put our song right at the heaviest part of the movie.”
Martell and Vanilla Fudge will play “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and more songs from the group's catalogue at a Sunday, Oct. 9 show at Music Room in West Yarmouth.
Martell took some time before heading out on the road to relive rock and roll memories with Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, the start of the Fudge, and to talk about what it’s like to still be touring after all these years.
What’s a Vanilla Fudge?
Vanilla Fudge is one of those bands that has come and gone over the decades, only to return again. The group is currently touring with three of its original members: Martell, singer and organist Mark Stein and drummer Carmine Appice. Bassist Tim Bogert died in January 2021 and Pete Bremy has taken on that role with the band.
Although the band’s initial run in the late ‘60s was short and ended when the group first broke up in 1970, its members are still credited as being a major influence on other iconic groups like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Vanilla Fudge’s slow and heavy sound, often punctuated by Stein’s organ, would supply a blueprint for the heavy-metal acts in the decades that followed.
“We influenced a lot of people,” says Martell, “and everyone influenced us, too. We had the opportunity to turn it over and express some of our creativity and ideas that we picked up from everyone else also.”
Originally based out of New York, Vanilla Fudge wasn’t known as Vanilla Fudge at first; the band was called The Pigeons. Of course, that name wouldn’t do, so the musicians needed something else when they scored a record deal with Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco on the strength of the group’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
So how did they come up with the name Vanilla Fudge?
“There was a girl in a group called the Unspoken Word and she had been listening to us banter around different names because we really didn’t want to stay with the name The Pigeons,” explains Martell. “Her nickname was Vanilla Fudge, that her grandfather had given her, so she just threw that out there and everyone liked the idea. We were thinking, ‘Wow, that’s like blue-eyed soul.’”
That name would soon become well known when the group released its self-titled album on June 2, 1967. Atco reissued Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in the summer of ’68 and the song would go on to reach the Top 10.
Vanilla Fudge eventually had three albums in the Top 100, two of which were in the Top 20. The group’s take on Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” was another standout.
Vanilla Fudge is well known for taking other artists’ songs and turning them upside down and into something new, but Martell says that the band usually takes a “moderate” approach to reconfiguring material.
“We try to put a lot of hooks in everything that we do but don’t overly do it because you don’t want to overdo anything, you don’t want to overbake the cake or put too much seasoning in the sauce,” he says. “We try to get the most emotional value that we can possibly extract from every part of the music, because to me, at least from my perspective, when you’re on stage it’s like theater — you want to get the most emotion and get the audience. You want to draw them in as much as you possible can.”
Jammin’ with Jimi and giving pointers to Robert Plant
Having been in the music scene in the late ‘60s, Martell has had quite a few run-ins with other notable musicians. Vanilla Fudge did 13 shows in a row with Jimi Hendrix, and Martell recalls an impromptu late-night jam session with the legendary guitarist at the Record Plant recording studio in New York around 1968-69.
“We get in the studio and Jimi Hendrix lets me open up with whatever I want to start with, so I got into a slow blues and then he got in and started playing,” says Martell. “I guess it was recorded but I don’t know who was smoking what or who was drinking what, (but) I never asked for a copy of it. It was one of those crazy things. If someone out there has it, let us know because I’d love to hear it. It was wild.”
Vanilla Fudge took Led Zeppelin under its wing for the latter’s first North American tour, in which Martell remembers singer Robert Plant showing up at the hotel with a briefcase full of early R&B records that he wanted to show off.
“So, Mark and I went up to his room at the hotel and we actually gave them the idea to move more on stage and get more into it,” says Martell.
So, Robert Plant got his moves from Vanilla Fudge?
“He did,” Martell reiterates. “He really did.”
It was around this same time that Martell and the rest of Vanilla Fudge were feeling the miles from the road and decided to take a break.
“I thought (the break) might last maybe a couple of years but instead it went on to like a 40-year break,” he says. “It was crazy. Life is crazy. You need to grab the opportunities. But in the meantime, all the business people ended up getting behind them (Led Zeppelin) and they became the biggest thing in the world. God bless them. That’s rock and roll.”
The members of Vanilla Fudge have reunited a few times over the intervening decades, and since 2018 have been performing shows on a more regular basis.
Martell and his bandmates are now older, but he says not much has changed when it comes to prepping for a tour and getting on stage.
“Basically it’s the same routine,” he says. “We go out and crank out the rock.”
How to see Vanilla Fudge
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9
Where: The Music Room Gallery & Wine Bar, 541 Main St., West Yarmouth
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Vanilla Fudge plays '60s rock, shares memories at Cape Cod Music Room