After a musical upbringing, encouraged by their father, three Shulman brothers, Phil, Derek and Ray, gravitated towards the R&B scene that was starting to make an impact in the early 1960’s. Derek and Ray formed a band and encouraged their elder brother to join, calling themselves at various times The Howling Wolves and The Roadrunners. After a while, their sound developed and became more soul based. To reflect this transformation, they changed their name again. As lead singer, Derek became Simon Dupree and the backing band, including both his brothers, The Big Sound.
Now singed to EMI, a number of unsuccessful releases followed until, in 1967, the single “I See The Light” just scraped into the top 50. As with many bands around this time, the burgeoning psychedelia sound was seen to be an attractive way forward and although reluctant, Simon Dupree And The Big Sound were pushed by both label and management to follow this perceived profitable trend. Their next release, "Kites" became one of the hits of the “Summer Of Love” perfectly capturing the “vibe” of the time, this beautifully produced slab of psychedelic pop remains one of the most evocative and integral tracks of the era. An album “Without Reservations” was released shortly after to very minor success and the follow up single “For Whom The Bell Tolls” also failed to make the same impact as “Kites”.
Upset and frustrated by the musical corner they had been pushed into and considering themselves to be a soul band, they called the bluff of the record industry and released a single under the pseudonym “The Moles” which received considerable airplay. The joke backfired when rumours began to circulate that the band were in fact The Beatles when Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd eventually revelled the true identity, disappointment across the industry was rife and both The Moles and Simon Dupree disbanded.
After a break of six months and despite the desire to return to their R&B roots, the new band they were to form was to be a huge jump away from their somewhat simplistic roots. Now able to flex their musical muscles and put their instrumental education and skills to good effect, Gentle Giant was launched in 1970. First recruiting Gary Green and Kerry Minnear, both multi instrumentalists and, in the case of Minnear, a graduate from the Royal College Of Music, they then added Martin Smith from the Big Sound on drums.
Signing to the recently launched “Vertigo” label, which became home for many Progressive Rock bands, they released their fist album, "Gentle Giant", in 1970. This keyboard heavy debut with its complex time changes highlighted the bands many influences from classical, medieval, jazz and, rock . Containing fine harmonies and interplay from the vast array of instruments, it is perhaps too reliant on showcasing the new sounds of synthesiser and Mellotron as on the track “Alucard” The nine minute “Nothing At All”, with fine soulful vocals and heavy guitar is wrecked by a drum solo and discordant keyboards, but, when reigned in with self –discipline, as with the more traditional rock of “Why Not” the album is overall an impressive and brave first effort.
1971 saw the second release; “Acquiring The Taste” was a huge leap forward. Considerably more experimental and adventurous, you must first get over the pretentious sleeve notes proclaiming the desire to “expend the frontiers of popular music” before the first track and the first highlight. “Pantagruel’s Nativity” sets the tone for the album with its blend of instruments, this time complimenting and not conflicting with each other. The vocals are gentler and have an almost choral feel and the production is clear. Comparisons with the lighter side of King Crimson are inevitable. However, the songs of Gentle Giant are always structured and accessible.
Following the release of “Acquiring The Taste”, Martin Smith left and was replaced by Malcolm Mortimore who recorded with the band for the next album, 1973’s “Three Friends” Inevitably, a concept album, it is one of the bands simpler efforts but still contains all the usual qualities associated with the band. The final, title track is the standout with some superb guitar underpinning some fine organ and vocals.
Following a motorcycle accident, Mortimore was forced to leave the band and was replaced by John Weathers, who had previously played in the Grease Band and with Graham Bond’s Magic. In late 72, this line up released “Octopus” What had gone on before had only been a build up to this. This was the band at its peak and would be the album that established the sound of Gentle Giant. Drawing heavily on medieval and classical influences with tracks such as “Raconteur Troubadour” yet still hitting a harder edge with “A Cry For Everyone” and “Knots” which in extended form would become staples of their live show. With its Roger Dean cover the album is a Prog Rock Classic!
Eager to promote this well received release, the band had first to fulfil a US tour. Remarkably they were to support Black Sabbath! This totally inappropriate pairing understandably resulted in poorly received sets and would have dramatic repercussions as a frustrated and discouraged Phil Shulman had had enough and left the band. Deciding to continue as a five piece, they recorded “In A Glass House” in 1973 and “The Power And The Glory” the following year, both concept albums. Still showing an experimental desire, tracks like “An Inmates Lullaby” and “Proclamation” are unusual and beautifully played. “Freehand” came next and proved to be their most commercially successful release to date making the US Top 50 and rewarding the band for simplifying the sound reflected in the tracks “On Reflection” and “Time To Kill”.
By the time of the release of “Interview” and the live double “Playing The Fool” in 1976 a decline in the bands output had begun. Although only gradual, some of the inventiveness had disappeared. Following the release of “Missing Piece” and “Giant For A Day”, they relocated to the USA and the resulting “Civillian” was recorded in 1979 but these all fell short of the high standards previously reached.. These final three albums were a last shot at the sort of stardom enjoyed by the likes of Yes and Genesis and craved by some members of the band. When success did not materialise, the band split in the summer of 1980 and have so far resisted any temptation to reform as Gentle Giant although various members do come together from time to time as Three Friends and Rentle Giant.
Derek Shulman swapped sides and worked for Polygram and Mercury and became president of ATCO and Roadrunner records.
Ray Shulman went into production and records soundtracks for TV and adverts.
Phil Shulman retired from music but helps his son Damon with his music career.
Martin Smith died in 1997 aged 50
Kerry Minnear runs Alucard music, which handles Gentle Giants royalties.
Malcolm Mortimore has continued to work as a session musican.
John Weathers played with Man for many years.
Gary Green continues to play in the USA.
Never achieving great commercial success, their reputation ensures that they remain big players in the Prog Rock world. Gentle Giant had an original and instantly recognisable sound. By placing themselves on the esoteric side of rock, they sit comfortably along with the influential Canterbury rock scene along side the likes of Caravan, Egg, Gong and Hatfield And The North. Never compromising, their first five albums remain high points of the genre and should be in every prog fans collection.
The track here is the live “The Advent Of Panurge” taken from a rare American radio broadcast from 1975.
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