Lee Michaels: Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels

Lee Michaels

Videos by American Songwriter

Lee Michaels
Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Considering his relatively insignificant legacy as a ’70s pop rocker, it’s somewhat startling that in 2015, any record company feels Lee Michaels’ catalog remains valuable enough to remaster and re-issue the bulk of it (six studio and a live album, none with any extras and all on A&M) in a nearly $70 box set. Additionally, the Manifesto imprint has compiled this single disc compilation, (the fourth such time, all on different labels with slightly different track listings) for the budget-minded who want a taste of what made the now reclusive Michaels a star for about six years, starting in the late ’60s.

Even if 1968’s Carnival of Life debut ended up being unrepresentative of Michaels’ most characteristic work, it showed a singer-songwriter with strong R&B roots partially obscured by hippy-dippy psychedelia. But after a chance hit of acid given by the famed mind-chemical maven August Owsley Stanley lll, he was convinced he was an organ player, not a stand-up frontman vocalist, and Michael’s music took a unique turn towards the keyboard/drums only approach he favored for most of the rest of his career. While some will only recognize his fluke hit “Do You Know What I Mean,” Michaels’ sound ran far deeper into psychedelic pop, soul, gospel, rock and even blues.

This 20-track, 76-minute compilation unfortunately omits anything from the singer-songwriter’s terrific concert album that captured some of these songs in vibrant live versions. But otherwise, it’s a fine sampling of his best work, leading off with its impossibly catchy sing-along, “everybody’s stoned, so am I” title track played on piano. Some of his covers were remarkably well-realized including an R&B drenched version of Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and Moby Grape’s pulsating “Murder in My Heart for the Judge.” Michael’s forte was not blues but he pulls off a vibrant, emotional B3 and drums version of “Stormy Monday,” this album’s most organ-dominated performance.  Some strident late ’60s politicized and anti-Vietnam lyrics almost sink “The War” (with its dated harpsichord), “What Now America” and “Thumbs” but Michaels’ committed vocals make them palatable. And when he digs into the rocking piano of “Who Could Want More” and “Hold on to Freedom” it’s clear his abilities remain under-appreciated.  

The production of many of these songs not surprisingly seems dated, yet there is an undeniable charm that runs through everything. While these 20 songs don’t make a case for Michaels as a great lost artist waiting for rediscovery, there is plenty here to substantiate the claim that he was more significant and talented than his second tier, also-ran status suggests.

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