Tate Uhl Consort

 

What happens when your only claim to fame is being sued by the biggest rock band in the world?  Tate Uhl found out.

Guitarist Uhl began his search for like-minded spirits while studying library sciences at the University of Oregon in 1970.  Turned off by the psychedelic and heavy rock music that had become more prominent in the late ‘60s, he aspired to a sound that combined classical (particularly chamber music), some jazz (not the far out stuff), some folk (instrumental, not the yodely stuff) and ambient tones.  With an inflated enrollment due to thousands of young men eager to avoid the draft, the pool of students with an interest in music was deep in Eugene; however, Uhl soon learned that most who had similar musical tastes had not progressed much technically beyond strumming “Puff the Magic Dragon” and other such nonsense.

As fortune would have it, in the spring of 1971, he ran across Ross Calhoun, a lanky Texan studying Middle English poetry who owned a twelve-string acoustic (which accounted for Uhl lowering his standards and asking Calhoun to join up).  Calhoun was soon followed by Jill Tucker (an itinerant Canadian and Uhl’s sometime girlfriend) on viola and Anders Mertens on cello.  (Mertens, a Belgian national, was a graduate student in organic chemistry; by the end of the decade, he had abandoned his promising career in science to form an ill-fated and ultimately brief partnership with avant-garde pianist Daphne May.)  By the fall, the quartet was playing in local coffeehouses and at poetry readings; their inoffensive—some would say soporific—sound seemed the perfect accompaniment. 

The group—now calling itself the Tate Uhl Consort—stayed in Eugene over the winter break.  That’s when they ran into a “South American” pan flautist with the single name Armando.  (His real name was Tim Tetley, but the band never learned that.)  Armando was hitching from Sacramento to Portland; while momentarily stranded, he stumbled on the ensemble playing an afternoon gig at the Bean Machine.   Midway through their second set, Armando pulled out his pipes and, without even asking, joined in.  At first, Uhl was taken aback, as he had become increasingly controlling over the band’s material and performances (Uhl insisted on writing all of the music—which did not really bother the other members, as they were lazy—and routinely chastised Calhoun, often on stage, for a perpetually out-of-tune high B string).  But the tones Armando pulled from the bamboo were undeniable; they blended perfectly with the sound of the ensemble (although Armando was a little “busy”).  The impromptu audition lasted two hours, at which point Armando was invited to join.  (He crashed with Uhl for the next eighteen months before returning home to Winnipeg.)

In the spring of 1972, the now-quintet discussed booking studio time to record some songs.   A late-night student DJ at the university radio station ran a side hustle using the school’s equipment to record local acts, which was perfect for TUC’s limited budget.  Over the course of three nights in March 1972—between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., when DJ/engineer Farley Trench could repeat album sides of whatever nascent progressive rock promos happened to be in the studio in order to fill airtime—Tate Uhl Consort recorded the nine songs that would comprise its debut (and only) album, Equinox.

With a loan from Calhoun’s parents (never repaid), the ensemble pressed and self-released 1,500 copies of the album.  (Tucker, a barely-passing studio arts major, created the album cover.)  Lacking label promotion and distribution—and, arguably, due to the content—sales were minimal, and the band was reduced to giving away copies at gigs.  (These complimentary copies—in particular, the ones signed by all five TUC members, including ones featuring Armando’s exaggerated “A” sigil—oddly have become collectors’ items.)  TUC soldiered on through the summer of 1972 but ultimately called it quits after Tucker joined an ashram and following Mertens’ arrest (misdemeanor theft (cello strings)).

The story does not end there, however.  Trench was friends with Max Coates, also a university station late-night DJ at Portland State.  Mostly as a joke, Trench mailed Coates a copy of Equinox.   Coates, partly as an experiment to see if anyone was really listening, began playing Side Two of Equinox each morning at 2:37 a.m. (which had no specific significance, other than that Coates was compulsive).  Coates would receive the occasional call from a listener—usually starting with, “What is this s*&%?”—but over time the calls ceased, either because the overnight listeners became desensitized or because no one was listening.

But someone was listening at 2:55 a.m. on Sunday, June 18, 1972.   When the phone lit at WPSU, Coates picked up.  The caller—who, strangely, had an English accent—commenced with the customary “What is this s*&%?”  But his inquiry was not just rhetorical; he really wanted to know who the band was and how to get in touch with them.  Coates related what information he could find on the album cover; the caller responded, “All right.  And if you speak to those cats, tell them they’ll be hearing from Jimmy.”

“Jimmy” turned out to be Jimmy Page, guitarist and producer for the already legendary band Led Zeppelin, which had just finished a four-hour show at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum.  On tour, Page had a habit of listening to college free-form radio as a means to come down from gigs and to see what the locals were into.  He was indifferent to tracks one and two on Side Two of Equinox, but when he heard the third track, “Winter Vortex,” he nearly fell off Cindy.  “I know that song,” he thought out loud.  “I wrote that song!” he exclaimed.  He turned to personal assistant Mick Tangent, who was sitting in the corner, and asked him to get the station on the phone, which Tangent did.

Within three weeks, the lawsuit Page vs. Uhl was filed in United States District Court, alleging that Uhl had infringed Page’s (and co-writer Robert Plant’s) copyright to the Led Zeppelin IV classic “Stairway to Heaven.”   Although encouraged by his father’s real estate lawyer (who, not coincidentally, had heard the album) to capitulate and burn every extant copy of Equinox, Uhl decided to stand up for his rights and established a legal defense fund, to which numerous soft rock and easy listening artists contributed.  (The Carpenters were major donors, along with Seals and Crofts.)  The case progressed through pretrial discovery, during which Uhl gave an oral deposition.  On cross-examination, Uhl conceded that, in a crunch to come up with material for Equinox, he had copied verbatim the chord progressions in the various segments of “Stairway.”  But, he testified, he did a twist on it, in part as a commentary on what he saw as the bombast of the song:  he played all of the chord progressions backwards, in his mind creating an entirely new song.  At a subsequent pretrial hearing on Uhl’s motion for summary judgment, after listening to the song 17 times (the bailiff actually regurgitated), the judge determined that “Vortex” was not substantially similar to “Stairway,” both because of the reversed chord progression (“The Court notes—hah!—that there are only so many chords in Western music.”) and because there was zero similarity in the melody (“I don’t know what that Armando was playing, but it certainly wasn’t ‘Stairway.’”).  The court dismissed the case, and Page/Plant lost the subsequent appeal.

Postscript.  The four-year legal odyssey prompted Uhl—who by then had graduated from UO and was working as a high school librarian—to head to law school; he graduated from Gonzaga University in 1979.  Over the course of the next 25 years, Uhl built a solid practice focused on maritime personal injury law in Seattle.  He usually kept a guitar sitting around, and in 2001, on a lark, he joined a hobby band of middle-aged professionals named The Catdaddies who played the kind of ‘60s and ‘70s classic rock music he previously had eschewed; perhaps time had mellowed Uhl’s pretensions (plus, the guys had zero interest in playing his instrumental originals like “Pine Whisper” and “Volcano’s Voice”).  The group is still together in 2021, although they had to change their name in 2009 after receiving a cease-and-desist letter alleging trademark violation from a Texas band with the same name.  (Curiously, Ross Calhoun, a Dallas hedge fund manager, was the drummer.)