During the mid 1960s, the concept of record labels putting together ‘supergroups’ was nothing new. It worked for Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, Moby Grape, and Blue Cheer, so Elektra Records executives Barry Friedman (going by the name Frazier Mohawk) and Paul Rothchild were tasked with looking to create the next big thing, with the promise of a huge push from the label.
By the fall of ’67 they began short-listing the candidates, eventually settling on ex-Jon & Lee & The Checkmates members Jon Finlay on vocals and Michael Fonfara on piano & organ respectively, former Iron Butterfly alumni guitarist Danny Weis and bassist Jerry Penrod, David Hastings (formerly of Daily Flash and briefly Neil Young‘s replacement in Buffalo Springfield) on guitars, and Alan Gerber on keyboards.
While still looking for a drummer, without Finley or Gerber, they were recruited in early ’68 to do studio work for the label’s latest signee, David Ackles. Although John Keliehor, who Hastings had played with in Daily Flash, was brought in for the sessions. Although he later auditioned for the vacant drummer’s position in Rhinoceros, he instead saw Billy Mundi, formerly of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, get the job.
Gerber and Finley meanwhile did the bulk of the songwriting for their new group. They remained in California after all the auditions and rehearsals, and made their live debut at West Hollywood’s Whiskey A Go Go about a month after their self titled debut’s release in Canada in May, ’68. With Rothchild producing, the album was a mix of psychadelic acid rock and funk/soul, with a pair of singles, “I Don’t Want To Discuss It (You’re My Girl)” and “I Will Serenade You” both showing respectable success on the charts over the next six months. “I Don’t Want To Discuss It” even cracked the top 40 on the British charts. Coincidentally, the two songs were actually each other’s b-side, depending on where it was released.
By the end of the year when the album was finally released Stateside, they’d held the opening slot on some of Taj Mahal’s shows, as well as headlining their own bar dates throughout the US, including a show in front of 12,000 people at a free concert in the Central Park Mall. Also on that bill were Steve Winwood and Traffic, Spooky Tooth, and half a dozen other groups. A hit in New York City, they stayed there for a month, opening for The Moody Blues and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers at The Fillmore East, and even headlined their own club date with Muddy Waters opening.
Although the album stalled before entering Billboard’s Top 100, and didn’t make the top 40 in Canada, the instrumental “Apricot Brandy” became the second British single and made it to #46 in the UK, and for a time was used as the theme song for the British radio program, “What’s New?” Gene Szafran’s artwork on the album jacket was also nominated for a Grammy Award in ’69, but didn’t win.
But Penrod was unwilling to call Canada ‘home,’ and as the tour bus was set to make stops north of the border, his unexpected departure in the spring of ’69 caused a series of shows to be cancelled. Weis’ brother Steve, who was the band’s equipment manager at the time, filled in until a permanent replacement could be found. Peter Hodgson, another Jon & Lee & The Checkmates alumnus (and Finley’s cousin) filled the void. Hodgson had actually lost out to Penrod in the initial auditions, then had joined David Clayton-Thomas‘s pre BS&T project called The David Clayton-Thomas Combine, then later returned to LA to work with Jackson Browne before finally joining Rhinoceros. “I Need Love” became the fourth single, which also didn’t do as well as the label’s hype machine had hoped.
David Anderle (Mothers of Invention, Judy Collins, Diane Hildebrand) was called in for production as the band set to work on a follow-up record. Recorded in LA again, SATIN CHICKENS was released in the summer of ’69 and followed the same formula as its predecessor, a collaborative writing effort with Finley and Gerber taking on the bulk of the work. Smooth grooves and funky rhythms in the only single, “Back Door” and its b-side “In A Little Room,” as well as “Monkee Man” and its lead-in cover of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” fuelled another set of North American dates.
Although an offer to play at Woodstock was politely declined by manager Bill Fields, the tours ranged from doing the High School prom in Cranford, New Jersey, to opening for Chicago throughout the American mid-west, sharing the stage at the Baltimore Civic Center with Mother Earth, Nazz, and Spirit, and headlining some shows on their own with Sha Na Na (who gladly filled Rhinoceros’ vacancy at Woodstock). But after hearing of Fields’ Woodstock decline, Gerber, who’d had fist fights with Fields, left the group. To try to appease the band, Fields then booked them at the Freak Out Festival (often referred to as Canada’s Woodstock) later that year outside Orangeville, Ontario in front of 50,000 people. Before the end of the year, Mundi left as well, replaced by new drummer Duke Edwards.
By the time producer Guy Draper was brought in for BETTER TIMES ARE COMING, Larry Leishman, another former Checkmate (as well as Bobby Kris & The Imperials, Freedom Fair, and The Power Project) had replaced Hodgkins on guitar. Recorded in New York, the album was in the stores in July, 1970. With the departure of Gerber, a key piece of the writing team was gone, and the new chemistry of Draper with Edwards and Leishman changed the music, and according to most critics, not necessarily for the better.
As “Better Times” and “Old Age” both failed to make a dent in the charts, Edwards’ time behind the drumkit was short, with Richard Crooks (ex of Dr John) coming in, who in turn was replaced shortly thereafter by Malcolm Tomlinson. As the tours continued, the American eastern seaboard was still one of their hotbeds, and they returned to the Fillmore East with Seals & Crofts and Procol Harum. But continued fighting with management and execs at Elektra spelled the end of the band by the spring of 1971.
Less than a year later though Finley, Fonfara, Weis, Leishman, and Hodgson all got back together under the new name, Blackstone. They released one album for GRT Records later that year that reunited them with producer Paul Rothchild, but called it quits again in early ’73. Later that year, “I Will Serenade You” from the debut album was given new life, when Three Dog Night re-titled it as “Let Me Serenade You,” taking it to #17 on Billboard.
Fonfara and Weis both moved to California for awhile to do some session work, including working with The Everly Brothers. Bill Mundi meanwhile had moved back to California and went on to do session work with Bob Dylan and Maria Muldaur, among others. Gerber had moved to Memphis and recorded one album, then moved to Montreal, where he recorded the relatively successful single, “Tied On,” then stuck to studio work.
Collector’s Choice Music remastered and re-released the first Rhinoceros albums in 2002, then packaged the second and third albums together as a double CD a year later. No bonus material was included either time. The bulk of the original lineup, with guitarist Bernie LaBarge and drummer Mike Sloski, reunited for a one-off gig in August 2009 at the Kitchener Blues Fest.