The band that eventually became Orpheus started in 1963 as a Worcester-based folk duo called The Villagers. Comprised of singers/guitarists Bruce Arnold and Jack McKennes, they had established themselves as one of New England’s premier folk acts and were voted “Best Folk Duo” twice in Broadside magazine readers’ polls.
By 1967, however, the folk craze was waning, and it seemed Bob Dylan having “gone electric” two years earlier had been a harbinger. Deciding to follow Dylan’s lead, the first step Arnold and McKennes took in moving away from folk was bringing in bassist Eric “The Snake” Gulliksen, also from Worcester. They rehearsed as a trio for several weeks, playing Arnold’s arrangement of the Elvis Presley hit “Don’t Be Cruel” and a new song he’d just written – “Can’t Find the Time.”
Orpheus was formed in 1967 when drummer Harry Sandler joined the group. Arnold and Guilliksen wrote most of the material.
The band decided to sign with MGM and producer Alan Lorber, who championed the marketing concept of the “Bosstown Sound” (a play on “Motown”) used to promote Boston-based acts like Ultimate Spinach and Beacon Street Union and popularized in a Newsweek feature in January 1968. Lorber said MGM was willing to invest “several hundred thousand marketing dollars” in their debut album and the band spent November 1967 through January 1968 in the studio.
Orpheus’ debut with the single “Can’t Find The Time” was released in early 1968, produced with the type of orchestration for which Lorber was known. “Can’t Find the Time” reached #80 in the Billboard Hot 100. To support the album, the group recorded one of first “scripted” music videos.
Never having played a paying gig before, Orpheus hit the road to prepare for its official debut – opening for Kenny Rankin in Greenwich Village a couple weeks later – doing shows in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago before returning to New York. While there, the band made videotapes of them lip-synching to “Can’t Find The Time” and “I’ve Never Seen Love Like This” for a TV show, Live from the Bitter End, which were released in 1996 as part of Live From Greenwich Village, Volume Six, then reissued on the DVD collection Folk in New York City, Vol. 5 – 7.
In April 1968, just three months after finishing their debut album, the band recorded its sophomore effort, Ascending, which landed at #10 on Playboy’s “Best Vocal LP” list for 1968, right between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Are You Experienced? In 1969, they released their third record, Joyful, featuring the single “Brown Arms in Houston,” which charted well. One review praised the album as “equal to their outstanding debut.”
Orpheus opened for several major acts including Cream (when they made their American debut at Brandeis University in Waltham), three shows for The Who, Led Zeppelin, Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Young Rascals, Ten Years After, The Brooklyn Bridge and at classical-music mecca Tanglewood, for Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company.
Following Joyful’s release, Orpheus’ original incarnation broke up. Arnold reformed the group in 1971 and released a fourth record, titled Orpheus, like the band’s debut, with a revamped lineup which included writer, vocalist, guitarist and harmonica player Stephen Martin who wrote a number of songs on the original albums.
“Can’t Find The Time,” Orpheus’ signature song, was recorded by folk-rock band Rose Colored Glass in 1971 and by Hootie & the Blowfish in 2000 for the Farrelly brothers’ movie Me, Myself and Irene. In 2022, producer/director Peter Farrelly included the original Orpheus version in his film The Great American Beer Run, and the song continues to be played on radio stations across New England.
In October 2022, Bruce Arnold passed away at age 76 in California. “He was a tremendously talented and original guitarist who, with his bandmates, created a meaningful body of work,” said original Orpheus drummer Harry Sandler, who currently lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. Other original band members Jack McKennes and Eric “The Snake” Gulliksen now live in Worcester and Bellingham, Massachusetts, respectively.
(by D.S. Monahan – November 2022)