A guitar, a chance encounter and a serendipitous rise to fleeting fame
You might not recognize Greg Munford on the street, but if you like ’60s psychedelic pop, you know his voice. That one-hit wonder about incense and peppermints, the color of time? The one that made a brief comeback in the 1997 movie soundtrack for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery? Munford, who has called Clarendon home for the last 25 years, sang the lead vocals.
“I was 16 and living in Southern California,” he says. “I had my 15 minutes.”
Born in 1949 when rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy, Munford started taking guitar lessons at age 7. By high school, he was spending his evenings jamming with friends or listening to bands at Whiskey a Go Go on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. He admits to owning a pair of paisley bell-bottoms and a shirt with ruffles down the front.
“Ruffles,” he sighs, shaking his head. “We had no shame back then.”
Munford wasn’t actually a member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the group he would go on to record the hit song “Incense and Peppermints” with in the mid-’60s. His band was called the Shapes. But both bands shared the same manager in Bill Holmes and happened to be in the studio at the same time one day. “[Holmes] was a supermarket manager before hitting ‘the big time,’ ” Munford says.
Enter music producer Frank Slay, who had heard the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s catchy tune as an instrumental. Sensing its potential, he brought in his own people to flesh out some lyrics. There was just one problem in Slay’s mind: He felt the Alarm Clock’s lead singer had the wrong sound. “[Holmes] said, ‘Well I’ve got this kid from another band. He sounds all right,’ ” Munford recounts with an easy laugh.
The next thing he knew, he was laying down the tracks. The single was released as a B side, then rereleased as an A side. Munford recalls driving into the California hills after school to drop it off at small radio stations. “That was the way it worked back then,” he says. “You started a record in places like Bakersfield and Fresno. Their signal carried to Santa Barbara. If you could get your album to play in Santa Barbara, the signal would carry to L.A.”
After making its big debut on “Dave Diamond: The Diamond Mine,” a late-night radio show in Los Angeles, “Incense and Peppermints” crept up the Billboard charts, hitting No. 1 on November 25, 1967. (A week later it was trumped by the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.”) Munford remembers his parents dropping dimes in the jukebox at a local coffee shop and proudly telling the waitress, “That’s our son.”
Setting his sights on rock stardom, he toured for a short time with the Strawberry Alarm Clock, opening for bands like Herman’s Hermits and The Who. But ultimately the dream didn’t pan out.
In 1970, Munford was asked to do a stint in Vegas as guitarist for an upbeat singing group called the Doodletown Pipers. “They wore dickeys,” he grimaces, referring to those detachable shirt collars that poke out of V-neck sweaters. That’s when he had an epiphany that a career change might be in order. “I’ve still got a Doodletown Piper album,” he says. “I look at it every now and then and say, ‘Whew. Close call.’ ”
Returning to college, he majored in music composition and theory at the University of Southern California, then earned a graduate degree in musicology at the University of Chicago. It was there that he met his wife and decided to pursue a career in advertising. Soon, he was working as a copywriter for agencies Marsteller Advertising and Maxwell Sroge, penning catchy lines about everything from freight train slack adjusters to jewelry and Maytag appliances.
Eventually he got into direct advertising and moved with his wife to D.C., where he worked with Stephen Winchell & Associates and then Richard Viguerie, a conservative spokesman and pioneer in the use of direct-mail fundraising for conservative causes.
In 1982, the couple moved to Arlington, where their son, now 27, was born and raised. Seven years later, Munford founded BMD, a direct-marketing agency focusing mainly on advocacy for conservative issues, though he says his biggest client was the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare.
In March, he sold BMD to the Lukens Company, a bicoastal integrated marketing firm whose clients include the L.A. Philharmonic, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Munford has stayed on as a consultant and says he’s glad for the variety. Though his conservative-libertarian background kept him infatuated with politics through the 1980s, as the years wore on, the shine wore off. “I can’t stand it anymore,” he says.
Today he plays guitar with the local band Out of the Blues, which performs occasionally at the Mason Inn in Glover Park. “We play out just enough to have a reason to rehearse,” he jokes. “And get this: I just applied for Medicare.”
Every now and then, he’s asked to sign an old album, or explain the lyrics of “Incense and Peppermints,” which he describes as “a bunch of psychedelic non sequiturs.” Once in a while, he’s pressed to perform the song, though he has come to prefer Chicago blues, and has traded his frilly shirts for a leather jacket.
“The one thing you don’t want to do is look like you’re still trying to relive the glory days,” he says. “But I love talking about old times. I had a ball.”
Madelyn Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Arlington. Her newest book, Dream Boy, written with her friend Mary Crockett, comes out in July.