Black Sheep with Lou Gramm

Before he attained major stardom as the lead singer of Foreigner, Lou Gramm -- who was then known as Lou Grammatico -- fronted a Rochester, NY band called Black Sheep. This quintet (not to be confused with a '90's hip-hop outfit with the same name) recorded two albums for Capitol Records, both released in 1975. The band was plagued by bad luck at that time, just when they seemed to be on the brink of success. After former Spooky Tooth guitarist Mick Jones heard Black Sheep's self-titled album, he invited Gramm to join his new band Trigger, which soon became Foreigner. Gramm did eventually collaborate again with two of his ex-bandmates. Black Sheep bassist Bruce Turgon and guitarist Don Mancuso both participated in Gramm's late-'80's solo albums. Turgon also played in Gramm's short-lived band Shadow King in 1991, and then joined Foreigner in 1992; Mancuso took part in Gramm's later solo touring.

Before the release of their first album, Black Sheep released a single on the Chrysalis label in 1974, containing two likable though derivative mid-'70's hard rock tracks. The A-side, "Stick Around", is the one that sounds more proto-Foreigner -- although, in truth, it is really quite reminiscent of Free's "All Right Now", but without a memorable bass line to match. Gramm's vocals are recognizable, though he sounds like he was trying to emulate Paul Rodgers. The B-side "Cruisin' (For Your Love)" is more on the order of Deep Purple, complete with Jon Lord-like keyboard fills and a "heavier" type of hard-rock sound. Gramm is less recognizable on this track, as he seemed to be trying to sound more like a British metal vocalist -- and was doing a fairly good job of it. (Note: White-label promo copies of the single have a mono version of "Stick Around" on the flip side instead of "Cruisin'").

Gramm's vocals were the best thing that the self-titled Black Sheep album had going for it. He was still in Paul Rodgers mode, but he displayed remarkable range, and did a respectable job of carrying the material. Unfortunately, said material is mostly Bad Company Lite, and many of the songs go on for too long, considering how slight most of them are. For example, the closing track is a pointlessly overlong eight-minute cover of Free's "Woman", which (not surprisingly, considering the album's time period) comes across more like a Bad Company cover. The other songs (except for the short Piano Prelude to "Let Me Stay") were all co-written by Gramm and other band members. The band was able to stretch out comfortably on the seven-minute ballad "Far Side Of The Sun", but they were more effective on relatively short mid-tempo songs such as "Power To Heal" and "Freight Train". Does Black Sheep bear any resemblance to Foreigner? Just a bit, mainly due to Gramm's distinctive vocals. Otherwise, Black Sheep's sound was more blues-based, and not as well produced.

Encouraging Words, the second and final Black Sheep album, is the better one. Gramm and company sounded a shade less similar to Bad Company this time, and a bit more like the era's progressive rock bands. This album had fuller-sounding instrumentation than the previous album, which was a mixed blessing for Gramm; although this album relied less on him to carry it, he was sometimes drowned out in the mix. Still, the more prog-oriented instrumentation usually complements Gramm quite well here. "No Worry, No Pain" and "Chain On Me" revisit the Deep Purple-like territory of the first single's B-side; "To Whom It May Concern" bears a noticeable resemblance to Kansas. Gramm's vocals are the only element here that predicts the Foreigner sound; even ballads such as "Shauna" and "When It All Makes Sense" do not bear much resemblance to the hits of his later band. Still, of the two Black Sheep albums, Encouraging Words is the one more likely to interest Foreigner fans and non-fans alike.

The Black Sheep albums have long been out of print, and have never been available on CD except in Italy, where a label called Amphonotones reissued both in 2016. The first album was given one LP reissue in the U.K. in 1985.

Black Sheep "Stick Around" b/w "Cruisin' (For Your Love)" (Chrysalis single CHS 2038) 1974

Track Listing:

a. Stick Around -- (Grammatico/Turgon)
b. Cruisin' (For Your Love) -- (Grammatico/Turgon)

Black Sheep - Black Sheep

Black Sheep "Black Sheep" (Capitol ST-11369) 1975

Track Listing:

1. Payin' Yer Dues -- (Rocco/Mancuso/Crozier/Grammatico)
2. Broken Promises -- (Crozier/Turgon/Grammatico)
3. Woman Back Home -- (Turgon/Grammatico)
4. Piano Prelude -- (Crozier)
5. Let Me Stay -- (Turgon/Grammatico)
6. Power To Heal -- (Turgon/Grammatico)
7. Far Side Of The Sun -- (Rocco/Mancuso/Grammatico)
8. A Little Or A Lot -- (Mancuso/Turgon/Grammatico)
9. Freight Train -- (Mancuso/Rocco/Grammatico)
10. Woman -- (Fraser/Rodgers)

Black Sheep - Encouraging Words

Black Sheep "Encouraging Words" (Capitol ST-11447) 1975

Track Listing:

1. Halfway Home -- (Turgon/Grammatico)
2. Encouraging Words -- (Mancuso/Turgon/Grammatico)
3. To Whom It May Concern -- (Crozier/Grammatico)
4. No Worry, No Pain -- (Turgon/Grammatico)
5. When It All Makes Sense -- (Crozier/Grammatico)
6. The Change -- (Turgon)
7. All I Am -- (Turgon)
8. Shauna -- (Mancuso/Grammatico)
9. Chain On Me -- (Mancuso/Grammatico)