Great Moments In Canadian Music: How Ocean Grabbed A Worldwide Hit Away From Anne Murray

July 23, 2019

Anne Murray and Gene MacLellan. Courtesy of The MacLellan Family.

By: Bob Mersereau

She knew it was a hit. Anne Murray loved songwriter Gene MacLellan’s “Put Your Hand In The Hand” just like she loved his song “Snowbird,” the one that had rocketed her to fame in 1970. She had it all planned out, to follow up that hit with “Put Your Hand in The Hand.” But thanks to some meddling U.S. record company execs, and an opportunistic grab by an unknown Toronto band, Anne saw it slip through her fingers. “Put Your Hand In The Hand” would become a worldwide, multi-million selling hit for Ocean instead, a five-piece Toronto club act that had never recorded before. And Anne’s still mad about letting that hit get away.

There was never any doubt the song was Murray’s. It was part of the treasure-trove of tunes written by her pal and fellow Maritimer Gene MacLellan, also a cast member of CBC-TV’s Singalong Jubilee. MacLellan and Murray had met at CBC in Halifax in 1969, when Gene played her “Snowbird,” and told her she could have all his songs to record. “Snowbird” made its way to the Top 10 on pop, country and easy listening charts in both Canada and the U.S., making Murray Canada’s biggest star.

For her follow-up album, Murray didn’t have to look far for more material. “We actually sang (“Put Your Hand”) on Singalong. After that, Brian (Ahern, her producer) said ‘Wow, that would be a great one to record.'” That was in the fall of 1970, while Murray was still riding high on “Snowbird.” U.S. television shows were clamouring for her to appear, and Murray had become a semi-regular on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. She sang her new song on Campbell’s program, and on the Christmas special for The Johnny Cash Show, the Man In Black chose “Put Your Hand In The Hand” for a big segment, and Murray joined Cash, June Carter, Merle Haggard, Carl Perkins and the Carter Family for a monumental version.

It was tremendous exposure for the song, which arrived as a cut on her album Honey, Wheat & Laughter. All that was needed was a 45 for radio to play. But that’s when the plan went south, literally. Since Murray was now a huge international priority for Capitol Records, her records were being controlled out of the company’s Capitol Tower office in Los Angeles, instead of home in Canada. While Murray wanted the song to be her next single, the U.S. execs said no. “Ya, they said it wasn’t representative of me, it didn’t sound enough like “Snowbird,” or too much like “Snowbird,” I don’t know, it was stupid, whatever they said was dumb, in my opinion,” said Murray in 2015. “It didn’t sound like an Anne Murray song. Well, what the hell was an Anne Murray song? I’d just barely got started.”

Instead, Capitol decided to go with a track by another Canadian songwriter, Brent Titcomb’s “Sing High – Sing Low.” The fine song became a hit in Canada, but did little in the U.S., and the company quickly followed it up with another Titcomb number, “Sycamore Slick,” which also floundered. Murray wouldn’t get back on track in the U.S. until 1973, when she returned to the Top 10 with “Danny’s Song.”

Capitol U.S.’s decision to pass on “Put Your Hand In The Hand” was considered a huge mistake back in Canada. The song was already well-known, thanks to both Murray and MacLellan playing it in concert and on their many TV and radio appearances. When Capitol dropped the ball, it allowed Arc/Yorkville record label owner Bill Gilliland to earn some major payback. Gilliland had released Murray’s first album back in 1968, but had lost her to the deeper pockets of Capitol after that. He had a new act to record, Toronto’s Ocean.

“I signed Ocean because I loved their vocal sound, their look and the fact that they showed some promise in writing original songs,” says Gilliland. “After signing, they worked on their songwriting for about three months but nothing outstanding materialized. The group was getting a little frustrated, so for a change of pace and in order to take the pressure off, I asked them to take a shot at “Put Your Hand In The Hand.”

Lead singer Janice Morgan (now Jan Penfield) found it an odd choice, in a couple of ways. “We were, believe it or not, into the bluesy-rock thing, we weren’t really a pop band then,” says Penfield. They also weren’t Gospel, and the song most certainly was. But the timing was perfect, as God Rock was the new craze. It had started in 1969 with Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky,” along with the big-selling hits Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. The Byrds said it with “Jesus Is Just Alright,” and Gospel group The Edwin Hawkins Singers landed a smash with “Oh Happy Day.” Churches were trying to attract young people by welcoming acoustic guitars and blue jeans into the sanctuary, and “Put Your Hand In The Hand” was perfect for drop-in centers, youth groups and summer camp singalongs.

The song quickly broke through in Canada and the U.S. “It was in the Top 10 everywhere,” says Penfield. “For about six weeks, we were right underneath “Joy To The World” by Three Dog Night, in the number two position. We were big news in the U.S. We had a huge following of people. We opened at the L.A. Forum for John Mayall and Steppenwolf. We were the first opening act that ever got a standing ovation at the Forum. We did Japan, all through Europe, there was a huge fan base in Japan, Germany, Italy, England, it was nuts.”

Dubious accounting practices of the time make it hard to pin down how many copies were sold of the hit, but it was at least 1.5 million, and possibly double that. It became a bit of a millstone for Ocean, who never found a follow-up, while turning down promoters who wanted to stick them in robes holding Bibles. It helped solidify Gene MacLellan’s reputation as one of the country’s finest songwriters. And belatedly, Capitol U.S. admitted its error, finally releasing Murray’s version of the song later in 1971, but it failed to chart so soon after Ocean’s hit.

It may not have hurt Anne’s career in the end. But that doesn’t mean she’s forgiven Capitol U.S. “It seemed to me at the time to be so stupid,” she says. “And it does today, too.”

About the Author

Bob Mersereau

Bob Mersereau is a music writer and broadcaster from Fredericton, NB. He's the author of several books on Canadian music, including the national best-seller The Top 100 Canadian Albums (Goose Lane, 2007). His music reviews and articles can be found at www.bobmersereau.com.

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