In 1966, Sonny Flaharty's bid for rock 'n'roll big time got derailed. The culprit, strangely enough, was a song about a train conductor. Now, 34 years later, Flaharty is taking another ride. Once a hardworking lead singer and harmonica player who brushed shoulders with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, Flaharty was a yeoman musician who slipped under the radar of fame and fortune. But like most old rockers, Flaharty won't let his glory days, however humble, go easily. This month, the 58-year-old commercial producer and director for WTVR-Channel 6 will witness the rerelease of some songs he recorded as the front man for his mid-'60s garage rock band, Sonny Flaharty and the Mark V. Never heard of them? Don't feel bad. Barely anyone did. But Flaharty's story of his almost-famous career calls up a time when the rules of stardom were a lot more malleable, and when rock 'n' roll was raucous and young. Now, with the help of Bacchus Records, a small Burbank, Calif., recording label that specializes in rereleasing rare and obscure rock recordings, Flaharty's youthful songwriting and vocal talents finally will be available on CD and vinyl. The release has an initial run of about 2,000 pressings. Granted, this isn't the Beatles' "Anthology." But to Flaharty, a Dayton, Ohio, native who moved to Richmond from Nashville 18 months ago, it might as well be. The 12-track release includes 11 Mark V songs that never saw the light of day beyond the studio after being recorded by the band throughout the mid-1960s. The music and lyrics come from an era that teemed with carbon-copy bands taking their cues from the emerging British bands and the surf rock of the West Coast. Perhaps the CD's biggest selling point for collectors is the 1965 track "Hey, Conductor," a Flaharty song that had a flurry of airplay and favorable reviews before being quashed by radio's gatekeepers. The not-entirely-substantiated legend of "Conductor's" aborted run up the charts, according to Flaharty, goes something like this: Amid the band's whirlwind contacts with producers and recording labels in 1964, the Mark V, with the help of a friend who took out a second mortgage on his house, managed to piece together enough money for a short recording session. The band recorded "Hey, Conductor," an up-tempo ode to the transcendent power of pot, as Flaharty saw it back then. In the lyrics, Flaharty asks the "conductor" to take him on a "trip" far away. "At that time in my life," Flaharty says, "I think I had smoked marijuana twice." The tune didn't make it to radio turntables for almost a year. But soon after it did, a few record labels were scooping up rights to play the record in the United States, Britain and Germany. Trade magazines gave the song good reviews, and advance orders on the single topped 140,000 in the first two weeks, Flaharty says. Big-time success seemed imminent. Then things went wrong. The song was used - unbeknownst to the band, Flaharty insists - as background music in a short underground film. The music played over a scene featuring pot smoking. Conservative radio stations started spreading the word: Flaharty's song condoned drug use! Under pressure from the moral powers that be, Flaharty says, trade magazines that had praised "Conductor" issued re-reviews. One of those second-opinion reviews labeled the tune "the most flagrant psychedelic lyric ever written," Flaharty recalls. This would come to be a compliment in later years. But not in 1966. The song's momentum collapsed. The song barely made a blip, and the Mark V crashed back to obscurity. In the wake of near-stardom, the Mark V saw its lineup change as the result of clashing egos. Flaharty left the group to tour with other bands for more than a decade, until he tried his hand at running his own record label and finally settled on a TV career in Nashville in 1982. "I never looked back," Flaharty says. Then events forced him to. Former Mark V drummer Doug Porter uncovered some unreleased band recordings in his collection. He and Flaharty decided to have the songs released for collectors. In the meantime, they hunted down "Hey, Conductor" and decided to include the track as a "rerelease." In the years since Mark V's zenith, the band's other members - organist Mike Losecamp, bassist James Wyatt and guitarist John Hollinger - have scattered to various careers, mostly out of the limelight. None of them, including Flaharty, is planning a reunion to coincide with their latest release. The market for such rereleases is limited mostly to collectors, says Lee Joseph, CEO of Dionysus Empire Records, which owns the Bacchus label. But he's hopeful about the Mark V's chances, since music collectors have a growing interest in obscure tunes. "There's a huge market for regional bands out of the '60s right now," Joseph says. Mark V CDs and albums, due out last week, he says, will go out to big and small record stores that cater to specialty collectors nationwide. Flaharty, meanwhile, said he'll likely mark the rerelease of his work in a much less bacchanalian manner than he would have when he recorded "Hey, Conductor." "I'll probably go home and have an O'Doul's" nonalcoholic beer, he says, "and call the guys on a conference
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