Mike WilhelmLead vocals, guitar
Richard OlsenVocals, bass
Darrell DeVoreVocals, keyboards
The Charlatans were arguably history's first psychedelic band and inarguably the first to represent the San Francisco Sound of the 1960s. The band was influential not only musically but also in terms of fashion. They wore 19th century Victorian and Wild West clothing, largely inspiring the clothing style that became popular for a time in the hippie counterculture.
The band was formed in 1964 by George Hunter and Richard Olsen. Hunter was vocalist and autoharp player, while Olsen played bass and contributed vocals. Mike Wilhelm was guitarist and vocalist. Mike Ferguson was on piano, keyboard, and vocals. Sam Lind played drums for a brief time before Dan Hicks took over. Hicks later formed the country rock band Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.
In 1965, the Charlatans played a six-week residency at the Red Dog Saloon
in Virginia City, Nevada. Their shows were part of a communal LSD trip, with band and audience all joining in. These experiences laid the groundwork for the psychedelic shows of the Haight Ashbury later that year.
The poster promoting this residency is today called "The Seed" and recognized as the first psychedelic music poster ever created.
After the Red Dog Saloon residency was over, members of the social circle formed the Family Dog and took their psychedelic shows to San Francisco, this time to be held at venues like the Avalon Ballroom and the Longshoreman's Hall. This ecosystem launched bands such as the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin (with Big Brother and the Holding Company), and Jefferson Airplane. The Charlatans were initially equal parts of this mix, but they never broke out as some other bands did.
By March 9, 1968, Michael Lydon in Rolling Stone was starting off his piece "The Charlatans: Pioneer San Francisco Rock Group" with the epitaph, "While record companies and poster dealers are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into San Francisco to capture some of that real old authentic hip to sell, The Charlatans, the band which many people say started it all, are just where they began: poor, but still cool."
This same feature quoted Grateful Dead's manager as saying, "There are so many new kids around. I bet a lot of them don't know who the Charlatans are."
The band first signed with MGM before passing through several others, trying to find a home. They eventually ended up with Eric Jacobsen, the Lovin' Spoonful's producer, and the Kama Sutra label. This relationship proved disastrous and the band was released.
The Charlatans finally released their eponymous debut album in 1969 with Philips Records. By this time, the band was well its heyday and their sound kept up with the popular evolution. The scene, essentially, had already moved past them. The album flopped, and the band broke up later that year.
A documentary featuring the surviving Charlatans and the story of the subculture they helped create was released in 1996 titled The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon.