Bread virtually invented soft rock in the early Seventies, and the group’s biggest hits — “Make It With You,” “If,” “Baby I’m-a Want You” and “Everything I Own” — remain staples on lite-rock radio. For all the mellowness of Bread’s music, however, the band dissolved acrimoniously, and the bad feelings last to this day.
Tensions date back to the group’s first hit. In 1968, veteran singer-songwriter James Griffin hired David Gates as an arranger on the recommendation of a mutual friend, Robb Royer. Along with Royer, they formed a band, signed with Elektra and named themselves Bread after getting stuck in traffic behind a Wonder Bread truck.
When their first album bombed, Gates and Griffin added bassist Larry Knechtel and drummer Mike Botts. (Royer dropped out, though he continued to write songs for them.) The group recorded “Make It With You,” a gentle, dreamy pop song that went to Number One in 1970. At the time, Gates and Griffin — the group’s principal songwriters — had informally agreed to alternate singles. Because Gates’s songs consistently charted high, the agreement fell through, and Griffin began playing Salieri to Gates’s pop Mozart.
The band broke up in 1973, briefly re-forming three years later to record Lost Without Your Love. A protracted legal battle between Gates and Griffin, co-owners of the Bread name, was waged over its use on a Griffin-less tour. “We all got slapped with suits claiming we were conspiring to stifle [Griffin’s] career,” says Mike Botts. A judge ordered that the group could not record, perform or collect royalties until the case was resolved. The litigation stretched out until 1984.
After Bread broke up, Gates wrote the title song for the film version of Neil Simon’s Goodbye Girl, which became a Top Twenty hit in 1978. Soon after, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of running a ranch, disappearing with his wife and four kids to an 800-acre spread in northern California. “I’m taking care of cows, riding horses and running farm equipment,” says Gates, 48, who still writes songs and is completing a twenty-four-track studio. A satellite dish allows him to keep up with music via MTV and VH-1. His hobby is predicting what will hit the Top Five. “Man, I nail it every time,” he says. “Play me a record, and I’ll tell you how far it’s going to go.”
For fourteen years, Larry Knechtel worked on his own cattle ranch, but he recently quit the farm and moved to a suburb of Nashville to pursue music again. He’s just released Mountain Moods, a New Age record, and is in Elvis Costello’s current road band. A longtime sessionman with an impressive rock & roll resume prior to Bread, Knechtel admits he was somewhat uncomfortable playing Bread’s mellow music. “Whenever somebody in the back of the hall would yell, ‘Boogie,’ I’d feel damn miserable,” he says, “because I knew there was no way that this band was gonna get up and boogie.”
Botts, 42, writes jingles and music for children’s albums and does background vocals and session work. Encouraged by such friends as Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther, he’s taken up songwriting and is shopping around demos in hopes of landing a record deal.
Recently, Griffin moved to Nashville from Memphis, where he’d been living since Bread’s breakup. He has a new group called Dreamer and is cutting an album that will include some Bread remakes. Griffin unsuccessfully tried to coax Gates into a reunion tour last year. “He’s comfortable up there playing cowboy,” says Griffin. “He doesn’t want to go out and be, as he puts it, a museum piece.” Griffin would be willing to work with the other members but says, “I don’t think the feeling is mutual.” He’s right — Knechtel won’t even speak to him, and Botts says, “We couldn’t forgive and forget that easily.”
Even if relations were friendlier, a Bread reunion would be unlikely. Says Gates, “Sometimes it’s better to be grateful and stay the heck out of the limelight when your best work is behind you.”