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Union Gap Just a Memory : Paul Wheatbread Works 2 Jobs to Get By : San Diego County

Second in a Series

March 17, 1989|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SANTEE — By all accounts, Paul Wheatbread should be a millionaire. In the late 1960s, he was the drummer for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, the most successful rock band ever to come out of San Diego.

The group scored five Top 10 singles, including "Woman, Woman," "Young Girl" and "Lady Willpower." In 1968, the Union Gap sold more records and made more money than almost any other pop act in the world.

So, why is Wheatbread, now 43, living in a tract home in Santee instead of a mansion in La Jolla? And why is he slaving away at two full-time jobs--as a booking agent and as a nightclub musician--just to make ends meet?

"We made some good money, but we squandered a lot of it away on things like flying first class, riding around in limousines, staying in better places, and buying 20 pairs of

shoes at one time," Wheatbread said. "When you all of a sudden come into easy money, there's no telling what you will do with it. Some people save it and some people don't--and I was one of the ones who didn't."

Wheatbread, a native San Diegan, began playing drums while attending Clairemont High School. When he was 17, he joined a local rhythm-and-blues band called the Ravens, fronted by Puckett, that routinely played Navy bases and Friday-night school dances.

A year later, Wheatbread moved to Los Angeles, where he hooked up with Hard Times, one of the studio bands on Dick Clark's "Where the Action Is" television series. When the show went off the air in 1966, Wheatbread returned to San Diego.

"I looked up Gary, who was then playing at the Quad Room in Clairemont, and joined his new group, the Union Gap," Wheatbread recalled. "I was only in the bar for two months, and during those two months Jerry Fuller, a staff producer from Columbia Records, came down from Los Angeles, signed us up, and took us into the recording studio to cut our first song, 'Woman, Woman.'

"The record took off real quickly, so we went on a promotional tour around the country. I remember throwing all our stuff in an old van and driving to Cleveland, where the tour opened.

"After that, the record kept climbing, and we ended up playing a lot more dates, in bigger and bigger places, than we had originally expected."

With subsequent hits like "Young Girl" and "Lady Willpower," Gary Puckett and the Union Gap's flirtation with success evolved into a real romance.

The group toured constantly for the next two years, regularly headlining huge arenas and outdoor stadiums. They were on the cover of virtually every teen magazine in the country; they appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and countless other television variety series.

The trappings of superstardom, Wheatbread recalled, even followed the Union Gap back home on their periodic retreats to San Diego.

"We were constantly being recognized, so we couldn't go out and relax like we did before," he said. "On top of that, people were always driving by our houses, yelling stuff and knocking on our doors, asking for autographs.

"And, naturally, we could no longer have our phone numbers listed."

The Union Gap's hit streak ended in 1969 with "This Girl Is a Woman Now," and, a year later, Puckett disbanded the group and set out on an unsuccessful solo career. Wheatbread promptly returned to San Diego and spent the next six years playing nightclubs with local rock bands.

"It was definitely an adjustment, but it didn't really bother me," he said. "I realized I didn't have an ego; of course the money wasn't anywhere near what I was used to making, but the money wasn't the main thing--I just needed to play."

In 1976, Wheatbread, along with ex-Union Gap saxophonist Dwight Bement, moved to Colorado to join Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, an oldies band featured on the "American Graffiti" and "Apocalypse Now" movie sound-track albums.

Two years later, he moved back to San Diego and returned to the local nightclub scene. On and off since 1982, he's been gigging with Steer Crazy, a country band, at the Wrangler's Roost in Santee; he recently formed his own booking agency, Music For All, whose talent roster includes everything from oldies groups to mariachi bands.

Does he ever long for the good old days with the Union Gap?

"Sure, I miss all that money, but I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing today," Wheatbread said. "There was so much traveling involved, and I really like just being home and raising my kids."

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