Pat Upton’s Brush With Fate

It always fascinates me to run across odd musical stories, and Pat Upton, the star of the pop group, Spiral Starecase (no, that name isn’t mispelled), has a good one.

Upton was Alabama-born, and first made his mark in music in the mid-sixties when he joined the Fydallions, a Sacramento-based band formed by a bunch of Air Force vets. It was a quintet at the time, and included the usual – guitars, drums, etc – with organ and sax added to the mix. Upton soon became lead singer and guitarist, and the main songwriter.

When the group later managed to land a recording contract they were required to change the band’s name, and became Spiral Starecase. The band worked steadily in the Southwest and had a couple of decently selling regional records. But their breakout occurred while they were appearing in Vegas at the Flamingo Sky Room, when they debuted a new Upton song. Their record of that song – “More Today Than Yesterday” – became the group’s first national best-seller, and spotlighted Upton too.

Spiral Starecase kept working for a while, but subsequent records didn’t do as well and the band broke up and went their separate ways. Pat Upton had the skills and talent to find plenty of work as a sessions musician, but stepped away from music for a few years. He eventually began working a little again, traveling to the Los Angeles area from his Alabama home. At one point he latched on to a semi-regular spot in his good friend Rick Nelson’s band.

By then Nelson was on the downslope of his career, making appearances in an assortment of small clubs and shows, flying from one to the next in a third-hand plane he’d bought. In December of 1985 the band was playing in several small venues in the deep South. They had just finished a show at PJ’s Alley, a club in Guntersville, Alabama, and were packing up to fly the next day and continue their tour, when Pat Upton’s fateful moment arrived.

Upton, an Alabama native who had ties to the club they’d just played in, could have stayed with the band – in fact by one account Nelson invited him – but decided to stay behind while the rest of the group took off. As you might remember, the plane crash-landed in flames, killing Nelson and several others, including his girlfriend. Later inquiries pointed to a faulty gas heater that led to the trouble, and there was no evidence of any problems related to drugs, as was originally rumored.

Upton spent the next couple of decades working in and out of music but keeping to a low profile, and in later years had some success on the oldies circuit. He was 75 when he died in 2016.

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