Rob Zombie at the Roxy

•April 15, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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Words & Photos By PAUL ZOLLO

 

Seeing Rob Zombie and his band at the intimate Roxy on the Sunset Strip is akin to seeing a jet engine rev up and take off in a Starbucks. To behold that much sheer power in such a small space was staggering. Yet it was exhilarating and great, and Rob and the gang seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience. “It is weird playing here,” said Zombie. “Our rehearsal hall is bigger than this place.”

They usually tear into giant concert arenas, and are preparing for a concert tour with Korn this summer (July 24 Irvine Meadows here in Los Angeles), the ostensible reason for this, a voluminous valentine to those lucky fans who got in. It’s the first time he’s played in a club like this, he said, since the baby days of his first band White Zombie. Though the Zombie ensemble has about a fifth of the musicians as Springsteen’s band, it has as much if not more passion and pure, electric rock and roll energy. And it was thrilling to behold.

For his is a remarkable band, a quartet that plays together with the precision of an atomic clock, and with the propensity to explode at any moment. The fundamental rock equation of guitar, bass and drums, is locked together with a wild, untamed ferocity. Much of which stems from the fact that John 5 is an extraordinary guitarist, a musician of real multitudes, capable of providing visceral rhythm guitar on every song while simultaneously ripping off savage solos and pyrotechnic fills. With two hands and one guitar he often sounds like two guitarists, if not more.

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Even before Ginger Fish would kick in with monster beats on the drums, a roar like a jet plane revving would fill the venue and start to swirl; it all came from the arsenal of John 5, who would lift the old club right off of Sunset simply with his left hand voicing partial chords, before his pick hand would slice into the strings and paint with colors so bold and brash it was blinding.

And he’d do this in motion, prowling the stage like a madman swinging his axe, his face often covered by a creepy translucent mask. A young fan in the crowd testified to the effect: “He is the greatest guitarist alive – and also the scariest! He terrifies me!”

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Piggy D. laid down rapid-fire, machine-gun blasts of pounding bass with a look of manic glee, stomping around the stage, barely missing clocking front-rowers with the neck of his bass. At one point he came on with a bass fashioned like a crucifix out of weathered wood  from a wrecked raft, and lit it on fire (musically). He and Ginger worked bass and drums together like the supercharged engine of a mad machine, wildly raucous and yet fluidly refined. 2 John 5

Mr. Zombie was on fire all night, spinning like a dervish, resembling a biblical prophet wearing warpaint. He delivered the crowd-pleasing Zombie anthems with deep passion, none so resonant as “Living Dead Girl,” to which the entire audience bounces vertically in beat, singing the refrain. “Dragula” bursts out of that gate propelled by a deep, killer groove, as Ginger and Piggy laid down a rhythmic bed so solid that both Rob and John could rocket off of it, and yet return where they started. It’s a rock and roll lesson in abandon and restraint, as Rob and the electric guitar seem ready to careen off into orbit, while the drums and bass, like gravity, kept them tethered to the earth.

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He kicked the night into an elevated gear immediately with the White Zombie classic, “More Human Than Human,” before breaking out in every direction – doing their anthemic cover of “American Band,” as well as new songs from the upcoming album The Electric Warlock Acid With Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser,including the exultant tribute to extraterrestrial carnal knowledge, “Everybody’s F—ing In a UFO.” Also performed like they had been doing it for decades, another new classic and crowd-delighter, “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Gore Whore.”

7 zombieOn came special guest Glenn Danzig like he was shot to the stage by a cannon, and with whom Zombie sparred in duet on the Misfit’s “Vampira,” two and a half minutes of pure intensity squared.

At one point Rob asked the crowd for some semblance of sanity, suggesting they all put down their cellphones for a moment to remember what the world was like before we drove over the digital edge. “Just give me five minutes to remember what it was like to be in a club 20 years ago. Learn how to have some fun.”

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Though we were in a little club, the crowd didn’t hold back, and occasional moshing led to a few fans being propelled to the stage, where they would do a spastic dance before diving headlong back into the mob, while Rob and the band deftly danced around them.

Rob and crew encored with “Scum of the Earth,” Meet The Creeper, and a song for his wife Sheri Moon Zombie, who was in attendance, “Ging Gang Gong,” which became a final frantic sing-along.

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Afterwards the fans, those still standing anyway, seemed stunned. One woman who had eyes wide open as if she had just seen a miracle, testified: “Man! Zombie. Roxy. Man! OH MY GOD!” Yes. That said it all.

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Maurice White: The Bluerailroad Interview

•February 7, 2016 • 1 Comment

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Shining Star 

By PAUL ZOLLO

He was the shining star, the drummer turned songwriter turned singer and producer extraordinaire, the heart in the heart of the soul, the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Earth, Wind & Fire. The elemental poem, connecting the natural elements at play forever on his astrological map to form his universe of song.  Earth is the rhythmic bedrock, the groove, the foundation for the tower of soul. Wind is pure melody, notes in succession, the expression of the human soul,the voice, the tune forever flowing, and with  harmony entwined, perpetually in motion,  flowing forever forward. Fire is elemental passion, the heat in the blood that pumps the heart, the sparks that catch when words of love and spirit fuse with  groove and the melody and everything ignites. All these disparate elements he wired together, and connected like miracle clockwork. Everything to accentuate everything. Pure precision yet infused with authentic soul. He was the guy who did it. The unifier.

First came Gospel. He sang in church and he sang at home. Then came the drums, and the passion for pure rhythm which propelled  him on a forever path towards  one of the most essentially soulful, exultant musical experiences ever preserved on record: Earth, Wind & Fire. As the guiding light of this expansive group,  the unifier of all elements,  the heart in the heart of the soul, Maurice White wrote or co-wrote all of their signature songs, including “The Way of the World,” “September,” “Fantasy,” and “Shining Star.” He won seven Grammy awards, and a total of 21 nominations.

He was also an artist highly respected by his peers, and universally beloved by all those whose lives he touched.

But like other shining stars that burn so bright, his light is already gone. Just weeks past turning in the draft for this book, February 4, 2016, Maurice White died at the age of 74 in Los Angeles from Parkinson’s Disease.

But that shining star spirit shines forever bright  in his  chain of inspirational songs, and in those  deeply dimensional musical tracks he concocted, always anchored with solid grooves, and colored beautifully with horns, strings , synths and rich vocals. The sound Maurice made.

He was born into a musical family in the musical mecca of Memphis, 1941. His father was a doctor who also played saxophone, and his grandmother was a Gospel singer. Gospel was the only music he knew for years, and it was enough. Raised by his grandmother at first in the Foote Homes Projects in South Memphis, music infused his soul.

He started singing at six. At 12 he started playing drums. He took to them like he’d played them his whole life. His great rhythmic prowess on the snare itself inspired him to join the school marching band, becoming its shining star.

In time he moved to Chicago with his grandmother to be closer to his mother and step-father.  It’s there he fell in with Chess Records, or “Chess University,” as he called it, since it’s where he gained experience and wisdom about how great records are made, and how the business works.

At Chess, he became an in-demand house drummer, playing on records by their legion of legendary artists, including Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Betty Everett, Buddy Guy and Sugar Pie DeSanto. In 1966, he went off to become the drummer in Ramsey Lewis’ trio.

His own band began to coalesce when he first teamed up as a songwriting trio in Chicago – to write jingles for commercials – with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead. This lead to a record deal with Capitol as the Salty Peppers. Their first single was “La La Time.” When the second single failed to fly, they moved to Los Angeles to regroup.

Maurice renamed the band after the elements that united like harmony parts in his astrological chart, Earth, Wind & Fire. He was the main songwriter, lead and harmony vocalist, and producer. Always yearning for new equations of sounds to distinguish his tracks,  he began to weave in the acoustic kalimba – a thumb piano – with early Moog synths, rich horn sections and lush strings. It all came together like magic, and it was a magic that emanated from his singular soul.

Having momentously stepped out front from behind the drums, he was always impeccably and chromatically attired-  this shining star shone in shiny suits – and he danced his exultant way up the soul and pop charts, shaping the sound of the late 70s. In time his band would sell more than 90 million records.

Eventually the Parkinson’s caused him to cease touring with the band, but like Brian Wilson with his Beach Boys, Maurice stayed at home and wrote songs and produced records. The music never stopped flowing. He also wrote songs for and produced a host of great artists, including Minnie Riperton, Weather Report (he did the vocals on “Mr. Gone”), Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow. All turned to Maurice as the magic man, wanting an infusion of his chromatic soul in their music.

I always remember, personally, being in my freshman dorm room at Boston University, 1977. These were the days long before computers. We didn’t even have a TV in our room. We didn’t want one. We had a stereo. And my roommate – who was a terrific dancer – had Earth, Wind & Fire records. It’s when I discovered what true soul – the heart of R&B – with harmonies and synth textures transcendent – sounded like. It sounded like Maurice White and his band.

We spoke on a resplendently sunny day in Los Angeles, where he graciously and generously expounded on his remarkable life in music.

 

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Maurice White: When I moved to Chicago, I was seventeen. In order to go to college.  I went to a junior college first, and then to Chicago Musical Conservatory. I wanted to be a schoolteacher.  I wanted to be a music teacher.

What happened?

What happened is that after about a year or so, I started to work at Chess Records.  Chess Records was like Chess University. [Laughs]

It gave me an opportunity to really spread my wings.  I got an opportunity to play with all of the artists I had dreamed about when I was a kid. I would pick up their records and follow their careers.  I had an opportunity to play with just about everybody.

Were you already writing songs before this time?

Well, what happened, as a result of being in the business, going to Chess every day I kind of got the knack of understanding the simple songwriting you know.  That was what it was really all about.

I kind of experimented a bit with some of my friends as far as songwriting but we just did like a local stuff. We did commercial jingles and things like that. So it wasn’t anything on a large level at that time.

And at Chess you got to work with Willie Dixon

Yes, I played with Willie. I got to play drums on a lot of his records, and he played stand-up bass.  I learned a lot from him.

Etta James? 

Yes, Etta James.  She was extraordinary. I worked with everybody on the roster.

And when you were playing drums, were you also beginning to produce and arrange?

Not at first. Mostly drumming at that time.  I was just getting my feet wet learning the structure of song, and learning how to apply it in the proper way.  It was like a university, man, it really was. All the production was done in one room and I just got a chance to pick it up.

How long were you at Chess?

For five years.

Longer than a college term-

Yes. And it was like college and graduate school all in one.

How did you hook up with Ramsey Lewis?

Ramsey Lewis was an artist on the label.  And he used to come down to Chess all the time and just watch the band.  Because we had a band that worked for Chess primarily.  And so he would down and just watch us. And we all knew each other.

When his own band broke up, he needed a drummer and a bass player.  So he called on me and a friend of mine, Cleveland Eaton, who played bass. And we’d go out on the road.  It started just an experimental trip to see how I would work out.  And we all gelled, so we decided to stay together, and I joined his band.  I worked with Ramsey for about four years.

Before Earth, Wind and Fire you started your own band?

Yes. What happened, during the time I was with Ramsey, I had a group on the side called the Salty Peppers. And we made a little record deal with Capitol Records.  We had a regional hit in the mid-western area with a song I wrote called “La La Time.” I wrote it with Don Whitehead and Wade Flemons.

What happened was when we wrapped up doing what was the formation of that band, and I didn’t know it at the time, but the members of that band the Salty Peppers became the original members of Earth, Wind & Fire.

How did that transition from Salty Peppers to Earth, Wind and Fire happen?

We all came out to Los Angeles after I quit Ramsey’s band as the Salty Peppers. So we changed our name to Earth Wind & Fire.

Your name?

Yes.  That’s my name.  I was looking for a name for the band because I wanted to change it from the Salty Peppers.  This all happened in Chicago before I had my astrological chart done. It was laid out on the table and I saw the elements that were in my chart, which were earth, air and fire.  I turned air to wind. The rest is history.

We all came out to Los Angeles to try to make it. There were six of us. In fact, we had a female in the band too.  Her name was Sherry Scott.

Then I augmented the band with some members I picked up out here.  But it was six of us from Chicago.  We stayed together for about 18 months.  Then my brother Verdine eventually joined that particular band as bass player. We began to augment and expand the band, and Verdine was a part of that.

In the band, you started by playing drums?

Yes, I was playing drums at first.  And I singing a little bit but I had to have some main singers because they was away from it.

By that time were you writing a lot of songs yourself?

By that time, because of circumstances,  and because I didn’t have any writers to depend on, there were two other writers for in the band, Don Whitehead and Wade Flemons; they had a lot more experience in commercial writing than I had.  But I picked up on it because of my experience of my playing, you know.

So we wrote all the songs together. And then Sherry Scott, she was a pretty good writer too.  She contributed heavily to the writing.

So the writing would be done in a collaboration of all of you working together?

Mostly the three of us, Whitehead, Flemons and myself.

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Is it true your songs always start with music?

Yes.  The way I’ve always written is that we write the music first and then the music suggests the lyrics.  I’ve always written like that.

Do you write on keyboard now?  What do you generally usually use to write?

I usually write on keyboard now.  I usually collaborate with other people.  I like writing with other people.

There are only two songs that I wrote primarily from the piano by myself, “Head To The Sky” and “Devotion.”

But the band changed, and after 18 months we decided to go separate ways.  So I had to reform the band, and got Ralph Johnson as drummer, and I got Philip [Bailey] as a conga player and singer and Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk and that was expanded from that point on.

How did you hear of Philip Bailey?

A real good friend, Perry Jones, was a friend of Philip’s and he turned me on to Philip.

What a perfect player for your music. And his voice and your voice are perfect together.

My intention in the beginning, when I got Philip in the band, was to put him out front.  I was not going to sing.  I was only just going to play drums in the back. But that didn’t work out because Philip’s range was a high range.   So I needed to balance that range.

Did you enjoy stepping out front from behind the drums?

It was always hard to get out front.  I didn’t like it too much.  But after the girls started screaming and that stuff

Then you got used to it.

I got used to it. [Laughter]  It was pretty easy to get used to.

Also you got a fine drummer in Ralph Johnson. Early on you started using kalimba in your music.

I started playing kalimba while being with Ramsey. Because Ramsey gave me a great forum for exploring my talent.  Ramsey, every night during the concert, he would feature me as a drummer.  I had a twenty minute feature.  During that period, of course, I played the drums.  But then I started to introduce the kalimba as well.  That’s how the kalimba was discovered.

That’s such a great sound. You also began to write songs with Charles Stepney.

Charles Stepney was a great friend of mine.  He contributed heavily to my development.  During my years in Chicago playing jazz music, Charles and I used to have a trio.  We played jazz music.  Also, Charles was great as an orchestrator.  While working at Chess, Charles was an orchestrator there, and he knew about arranging and stuff. Once I got my band together, Charles contributed quite a bit to the sound of ours, as far as strings and horns.

So that’s why he has writing credit on “That’s the Way of the World”?

No. He has credit on that because he helped to write the melody. But he had started to work with me much earlier.  I think the first album was Open Our Eyes.   And he contributed very heavily to the orchestration because he was really good with that.  He was my first real co-producer.

On your records, not only is the songwriting great but the horn parts, harmonies and vocal arrangements are so beautifully conceived, as perfect as the songs themselves.

Yeah. Well, everything enhances, everything enhances the other. That’s our objective of it, to make sure everything fits hand to glove.
When you write a song, are you thinking in terms of the parts of the production or does that come afterward when you go to the studio?

First of all, I think in terms of the melody.  Melody and rhythm, that’s my first thing, the first thing that approaches me.  And then from that point on, I’ll start to think in terms of story.  But first, melody comes first for me.  Melody is always to me influenced by lyrics.

So you generally finish an entire melody before you even consider lyrics?

Yes I do.  And it’s worked for me all these years.

Yeah. It sure has.

Yeah, Pretty much.  The melody complements the words, and the words complement the music. And you also have a string melody that complements the horn melody. It all fits together.

Some songwriters keep the tape rolling while their writing.

Yeah, I like to do that too.  I do.

Do you generate melodies from chords, or do you work on the melody itself?

No.  From chords.  What I try to do is I try to push chords. I’m concerned sometimes when certain melodies will not fit up with certain chords.  And I’ll push real hard and try to make something fit.

There’s no really formula that I use, either than to start off first with melody or rhythm. I always start from that point, you know.

 

 

Speaking of melody, “That’s The Way Of The World” has such a sweet and enduring melody. It’s inspirational.

That melody was written by Charles Stepney, and from that melody and those chords, I wrote the words. The music influenced the lyrics.  It sounded in a way that suggested those words.

He wrote the melody and the chords some time before we really approached the song. And I knew it was great. It reaches a climax and just stays there. It was a great song from the beginning.  Some songs are just more inspirational than others. And that’s one of the few.

It sure is.

Yeah. When it comes on, I think what happened too is that all the pieces fit together perfectly. The melody, the strings, the horn melodies, everything works hand in hand.

It’s a song – and track – that never loses its greatness.

It just gets better and better and better. It really reaches the climax and it just stays there. And one point that made that record good was the contribution of Charles Stepney. Especially with the string lines and the horn lines. By that time he had really developed as a great string writer.

He also wrote “Reasons” with you?

Right.  He wrote “Reasons” with Philip [Bailey] and I. That came out of the same batch of songs.  There was “Reasons” and “That’s the Way of the World.” Those two melodies were two melodies that he played for me.

It was very interesting because during our time, that was a rather early time for the synthesizer.  And all melodies he had put on tape with the Moog synthesizer. Which was brand new and unknown still at that time.

So he didn’t sing them at all?

No.  They were all done with synthesizer.  And that was from the mid-seventies, ’75 or something like that.  That sound, the sound of the synthesizer, was very new.

On “That’s the Way of the World,” did that lyric come quickly or did you have to work on it for a while?

We had to work on it for a while.  The overall lyric came easy but the verses were something we had to labor for a while.  It wasn’t hard, but it took time.

“Shining Star”was written with Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn?

Yes. “Shining Star” was very easy to write because we came out, and we had just recorded a melody in the studio, like a funk melody and I was just walking. We actually did it in Nederland, Colorado at Caribou Ranch, where Chicago used to record.

I love Nederland.

So you know. It’s a beautiful place. We were just walking outside and the stars were so plentiful it was almost like you could reach in the sky and pluck one out.  And actually, it was having that experience of the stars in the sky being able to see them so clearly influenced me to the title “Shining Star.”

Had no idea! It’s a Colorado song!

Yeah.  The environment helped. Had we not been there, I don’t think that song would have happened. The stars don’t shine as brightly in L.A.

Not the ones in the sky anyway. [Laughter] Do you recall how “September” was born?

Yep.  That was written by Al McKay and myself and Allee Willis.

You came up with that melody?

Al McKay and myself.  That was written actually in Washington D.C. in the middle of a riot. We were checking into this hotel in Washington D.C. and I remember there was a riot going on outside. We were just trying to find something to do so in the middle of it, we just started to write a tune. [Laughter] We wrote it while looking outside the window at the riot.  And “September” was the song.

Yet that lyric wasn’t about the riot at all?

Oh no.

Why did you choose that title?

September had always been a favorite month.  For some reason.  I don’t know why.

That’s another great melody. 

That was another great one, yes. A ballad with big groove.

I understand that the last time the band went on tour that you stayed at home to work on the record?

Yeah, while they were on the road.  I am basically have retired from the road. And after 25 years on the road, that’s long enough for me. I’m getting more into production. I am basically a producer now.  It was the first time, and we wanted to see if they could do a performance without me.

You think it works okay without you in the band when they are out there?

It works pretty well.  I make an appearance every once in a while. [Laugher]  I stay at home and work on a live album.  We have a live album that’s coming out pretty soon. We recorded in Japan.  So at first I stayed home to work on that.

Many great artists, such as The Beatles, or Brian Wilson, did some of their greatest work when they stopped touring.  

Yeah.  You can really concentrate on the work.  Touring takes a lot out of you. It takes all your concentration.

Also, at the same time I’m dealing with a company now.  I’m actually building a studio right now.

Is there a favorite Earth Wind and Fire song of yours?

Probably “That’s the Way of the World”.

Yeah.

Probably is my favorite.  There’s another tune that I like pretty much.  It’s called “Lover’s Holiday.” I like that too.

It’s a great song.

Yeah.  We’ve recorded quite a number of tunes [laughter] throughout our career you know.

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•December 30, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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Marjorie Guthrie: The Bluerailroad Interview

•December 5, 2015 • Leave a Comment

On Life and Love with Woody Guthrie

 

 

 

 

Marjorie and Woody Guthrie, with the Martha Graham Troupe, 1947.

Marjorie and Woody Guthrie, together with the Martha Graham Troupe, 1940.

 

By PAUL ZOLLO

It’s New York City, 1981, and we’re more than twenty floors up above 57th Street and the everyday mayhem of Manhattan. But here there is calm. And joy. And music. It’s the office she shares with Harold Leventhal, famed manager of legendary folk stars like Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie (her son), Judy Collins, Peter, Paul & Mary, and others.

“You want to see something wonderful?” she asked, with an impish glint in her eyes. “Look at this one.” In her hands was a timeworn cherry-red spiral notebook. Inside were epic poems, song lyrics, romantic entreaties, expansive erotica, musings, jokes, sketches, drawings, all inscribed there by her late husband, Woody. Woody Guthrie.

For years they lived on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, where they raised their three kids, Nora, Arlo and Joady, and would take the train between there and Manhattan, where they worked. During those commutes, Woody would get busy, and devote all his exultant energy to filling entire notebooks thusly, dedicated to his beloved.

Now here I was, Woody’s notebooks and songs at my fingertips. I had somehow crossed the mystic river, and I was on the side where Woody was. Anything was possible. I could go to the source.

Woody’s old pal Pete Seeger said, “All songwriters are links in a chain.” And who did Pete learn to write songs from? Woody. Who so inspired and enervated a young Bob Dylan that he had to leave his Midwest home, change his name, and head east to start his life? Woody.

 

Marjorie Guthrie, 1977.

Marjorie Guthrie, 1966.

One of my very first jobs out of college was to work for Marjorie at CCHD – The Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease – in New York City, 1981. She’d invented this organization to fight this disease which robbed not only Woody’s life, but the last decade of his life. They needed someone to do publicity and other chores. I signed on, not so much out of any great desire to battle this disease, but, admittedly, to be with Marjorie, and her treasure trove of Woody’s world – his abundant archives, overflowing not only with the thousands of songs he wrote, but with those beautiful notebooks of poetry and prose and erotica and cartoons. Also the tools of his genius were preserved so lovingly, his pens, pencils, crayons and notebooks. This proximity to the stuff of legend – to the cornucopia of expansive song wisdom and wonder that all poured out of this one miraculous little man –and the very crayons of this famous kid at heart – was all I needed to sustain me.

She was born Marjorie Greenblatt on October 6, 1917 in Atlantic City, and lived till March of 1983. She danced with the Martha Graham troupe starting in 1935 under the name Marjorie Mazia. She first met Woody in 1940, as described in the following, and was with him on and off till the end of his life on October 3, 1967. She was a brilliant and beautiful woman, who put up with Woody while he was alive though it was never easy. He wasn’t a man who stayed still for long. But long before he was gone, they both knew the legacy – the body of work – mattered. And though I was there before legions of great songwriters wrote new melodies to his unfinished songs, the lyrics which lived in the exalted archives, the recognition of his lasting legacy underscored all other endeavors. Like Dylan who came to be with Woody before he was gone forever, I wanted to get near this source too, and Marjorie was used to all sorts of folk-inspired pilgrims being drawn to all things Woody. So she kindly allowed me to interview about Woody on more than one occasion, a dialogue which I am happy to include here.

After all, Pete Seeger was our hero growing up.  He was in our world. But he always spoke and sang of Woody. And perhaps he cleaned up the dark aspects of Woody’s outlook more than necessary – Woody was no saint, after all- but what was undeniable was Pete’s respect for Woody as a songwriter. As the songwriter.

“Woody is just Woody,” John Steinbeck wrote. “He is a voice with a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people… there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

Woody’s work was remarkable some 2000 amazing songs  songs of love, outrage, beauty, faith, humor, death, sex and pretty much every other human experience under the sun. Some became famous, such as “This Land Is Your Land,”  “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” “Roll On Columbia,” “Deportees,” “Union Maid” and “Do Re Mi,” but most of his songs have hardly been heard once, if ever. And there was also so much else that he created:  volumes of poetry, love letters, journals of erotica, books, drawings, doodles, paintings, and stories.

When he was married to Marjorie , he was so thoroughly in love with her that he’d write her entire inspired daily notebooks of love poetry and cosmic musings while on the subway, hurtling through the subterranean tunnels and overland tracks towards their Coney Island home. Marjorie kept all of these, and every letter he ever wrote, and every song he composed, along with every crayon, pencil and pen he used to conjure his magic, in her New York archives, where she’d share it with his admirers, a legion of artists, musicians and vagabonds that increased every year, and continues to expand.

Born in the heart of the Dust Bowl – Okemah, Oklahoma – in 1912, his childhood was spent in the oil-boom town of Pampa, Texas. In the depression-ravaged Thirties he hitched and rode the rails along with thousands to reach the world of their dreams, the promised land – California.

Of all those wanderers, thousands more than there were jobs, Woody was one of the fortunate few, able to make money by singing, playing guitar, and painting signs. He managed to get a 15-minute daily radio show which paid him a dollar per show. And when he wasn’t broadcasting he could be found singing at saloons, parking lots, rallies, and union meetings — anywhere people would listen. Their struggles were the impetus for his talent – he always knew that his mission was to translate their hearts and minds into song. Using what his pal Pete Seeger called the “folk process” – writing new words to old songs – he gave these people a voice.

Radio gave many people their first taste of Woody’s songs. One listener, Ed Robbin, commentator for the Communist newspaper People’s World, was surprised to discover that the man he had pegged as a hillbilly was actually quite politically savvy. He invited Woody to perform at rallies, first warning him that they were left wing. “Left wing or chicken wing, it’s all the same to me,” Woody said. And with that he connected with a new audience, one that was charmed and inspired by his unique fusion of country simplicity, Okie humor and political sophistication. His popularity spread quickly across the country and even preceded him to New York City, where he eventually fell in with new friends such as Josh White, Leadbelly and the actor Will Geer.

Opportunity kept knocking. In an attempt to cash in on the popularity of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, Victor Records hired Woody to write a song about it. Though he didn’t read the book, Woody saw and loved the film, and understood its subject matter better than most. With his guitar and a jug of wine, he got behind a typewriter in Pete Seeger’s apartment and proceeded to work into the night. The next morning Pete found him slumped over the typewriter with 26 verses of “The Ballad of Tom Joad” still in the typewriter.

“I learned a lot about songwriting from Woody,” Pete said. “I learned something that was awful important. And that was: don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you want to change it a little, there’s no crime in that.”

By today’s standards, Woody’s records sound rough. Mostly guitar and a ragged, often off-tune voice, recording on the spot by Moses Asch for his Folkways label. But each of these recordings contains the essence of pure and brilliant songwriting, the dynamic and delicate marriage of music with words.

Woody well-understood the inherent power of this combination – words to express the timely and timeless needs of the people, and music to underscore that expression while engaging the soul and lifting the spirit. He knew few forces were as effective in uniting people as a good song, and as he constantly traversed America by walking, hitching or riding the rails, he would constantly connect with new people and translate their lives and dreams into songs.

Woody wrote his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Woody felt Berlin got it wrong – that America was already blessed by God, and wrote  “God Blessed America For Me.” He kept fiddling with it for a full decade, and eventually realized that if he substituted the line “This land was made for you and me” for his title line, that he had a song not just about himself, but about all of America. Not only was he a great thinker, he was a crafty songwriter.

He died in 1967 at the age of 55. But his songs have lived on, performed and championed by a big range of singers, including Arlo, Dylan and Seeger, but also by Ani DiFranco, Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder, and even U2, who cut Woody’s song “Jesus Christ.” Though Woody’s been gone now for so many decades, his songs, and the spirit of human hope instilled in them, have been resounding with more force than they have for years. “The worst thing that can happen is to cut yourself loose from the people,” he wrote. “And the best thing is to vaccinate yourself right into the big streams and blood of the people.”

I conducted this interview on a sunny autumn day in Manhattan. She sat at her big desk, always calm and joyful many floors above the tumult of a New York City business day, with the archives of Woody’s songs and writings always within easy reach.

It’s been suggested that, for both Martha Graham and Woody Guthrie, you were the organizer behind the genius.

Marjorie Guthrie: This is true. Some people felt that Martha Graham was difficult to work with, but when you know you are in the company of a great artist, you minimize their negative aspects and are grateful for the opportunity to see how a true artist works. Let me say that she was a very good rehearsal for Woody Guthrie.

When did you first meet Woody?

On one of the Martha Graham tours, in St. Louis. My sister called me from Columbia, Missouri and wanted me to visit her. So I got Martha graham to let me leave the company for a day and I took the bus over to Columbia, and when I got there my sister said, “Oh Marge, I have to play something for you.”

And it is so vivid to this day: I sat on the arm of a chair and she played Woody’s “Ballad of Tom Joad” – first time I had heard his voice. And I was so moved, when it got to the end, I started to cry. I am an emotional person, and I love being emotional, and when he got to the end, I was just in tears.

I said to my sister, “How does anyone put into words what I’m thinking about myself?” Funny, I related it to myself: growing up, going through the Depression, seeing what happened to our family, coming to New York. Then Sophie Maslow, who was with Martha Graham, had choreographed two of Woody’s songs from that same album,  I Ain’t Got No Home and Dusty Old Dust, and she said to me, “Guess what – instead of using the record, I’m going to use Woody Guthrie, if he’ll do it, because he is in town. And I’m going to ask him to appear on stage with us and sing those two. “ And I practically fainted and said, “Woody Guthrie is in town? Sophie, I’m coming with you!”

I went with her and we came to what was then the Almanac Singer’s Center on 6th Avenue, a big loft with great big wide posts. First of all, they didn’t want to let us in. Finally, they did and I saw Woody from the back first.

He was looking out the window at 6th Avenue and he was nothing anything in stature like the way I pictured him. When I had heard his voice I thought of this tall, Lincolnesque figure with a cowboy hat. But then he turned around and he had this wonderful face. I loved his face immediately.

I don’t remember anything he said. I just kept looking at that face. And then remembering that voice and the quality of those songs. I fell in love with him right then and then. And he said to me late that when Sophie and I came up he was talking to her but looking at me. And I was looking at him.

In a few days he started to rehearse with us.. He was to be both a narrator and a singer in a production called “Folksay.” And here I loved this guy and everyone was picking on him. Why? Because he sings the song differently each time. Here we have twelve people on the stage and he puts in an extra verse, he takes out a verse. What do you do? Everyone was angry with him. I was just dying for him.

What I did was to take cardboard sheets and type up all the words of the songs and put them in measures and say, “Woody, why can’t you sing it just like the record?” He would say, “The day we made that record, Lee Hays has asthma, someone had just given us $300, and we were on our way to California. I don’t have asthma, I don’t have $300 and I’m not going to California, so I can’t play it the same way.” But I worked with him, using these little cards and before you knew it, we were living together.

Woody and Marjorie with the Martha Graham troupe.

Woody and Marjorie with the Martha Graham troupe.

 

“He was looking out the window at 6th Avenue and he was nothing anything in stature like the way I pictured him. When I had heard his voice I thought of this tall, Lincolnesque figure with a cowboy hat. But then he turned around and he had this wonderful face. I loved his face immediately.”

 

What was he writing during this period?

That was the year he was writing Bound for Glory. He would be writing – by hand – and I would come home in the evening and he would read me what he had written. Then we would take turns, reading and typing. It was then that I first learned about his mother and all of her problems, and that she had Huntington’s Disease.

Was he a disciplined writer?

Oh yes. Take a look at any of his notebooks. He loved to write. He had great respect for his work. He signed every piece of paper and dated almost everything and wrote a little background about each song, like why he had written it. He did have a highly organized mind.

So he had an understanding of his own historical significance?

Absolutely. We used to tease about it. He would say, “We can be poor now, but maybe someday this stuff will be worth something.” But you see, even knowing that didn’t stop him from doing things the way he wanted to. And that was something else that I loved about him. You see, in the Thirties and the Forties dancers were the poorest people on the cultural ladder, and I didn’t have much. But that didn’t matter to me because the dancing was so important.

Woody had that same feeling. It wasn’t important whether everyone loved him or every songs made money. It was important that he was doing what he wanted to do, and what he was compelled to do. He couldn’t have done anything else anyway.

Did he have moments of self-doubt?

Very few, I have to tell you. He had confidence in what he was doing, that there were important songs, not whether they were commercial successes or not. That he didn’t know about. But what he knew was that in his songs were the voices of people he had known, and he felt better suited to represent these people than anyone.

Could he take criticism of his work?

He would argue with me. Very rarely would he change something. In the song “Jesus Christ,” I felt that one verse was wrong, that it misinterpreted Christ. He argued with me about it and won the argument. But he let me argue.

Did you have a sense of how famous he would become?

I never thought of him being famous commercially. I always had the feeling that when you speak for the down-trodden, you might be famous among the down-trodden but nobody else hears about you. And again, I don’t care. I wanted him to do what he was doing, and I felt that what he was saying was important. But the first hint of his real importance didn’t come from me or him. It came from Alan Lomax. It was Alan who said to me one day, “Don’t throw anything away. Save everything.” And  looked at him as if to say, “Why?” And he said, “Woody is going to be very important.”

I knew that what Woody wrote was good because it moved me. But it would move other people too, and maybe cause them to want to be “wherever little children are hungry and cry.”[From “Tom Joad.”] When Alan said that to me, it was the beginning of my appreciation that other people loved what Woody was saying.

He already had a little recognition when he came to New York. I was not yet involved with him; he was here with (his first wife) Mary. He had a radio show, the “Back Where I Come From” show, and he was commercially successful.  But he left this show and he let me know why. “They wouldn’t let me say what I wanted to say, or sing what I wanted to sing, so who needs them?”

He gradually started receiving recognition, especially after the publication of Bound for Glory. Did that change him at all?

It didn’t change him, but he was very pleased. He wrote “My first copy” in the first edition of it. He was very proud of himself, especially when people began reading it and enjoying it.

Besides writing songs, he was always writing letters and poems and doing drawings. Which was most important to him?

The songs were most important. They came first. He had a wonderfully organized system, something most people don’t realize. Every morning he read the paper first thing. Then he would tear out of the paper things that he wanted to write songs about, and then make a list of songs that he was going to write. Then he would write a few songs, read some of the books that he had gotten from the library, usually two or three at a time. He would read standing up because he got tired of sitting. Then he might sit down again and do some writing.

Yes, there were times when he did so some drinking and when he did, it had a very bad effect because of the Huntington’s  Disease. HD puts you off-balance and drinking puts you more off-balance, so Woody was sometimes  very off-balance.

Old pals Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Old pals Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.


His writing has a dizzying, almost drunken power to it. Do you think the HD affected his style?

No. I don’t agree at all with the suggestion that Woody wrote the way he did because he had HD. It does sound logical, but even with Martha Graham I saw the same kind of intensity and determination and creativity that Woody had. And look at Whitman and Jack London. They didn’t have HD and yet they had similar writing styles.

Also, he was encouraged by Joy Home, who edited Bound for Glory. She said to him, “Woody, don’t worry about what I’m going to cut out. Whatever comes to your mind, just do it.”  And he enjoyed that freedom to just let it go.

I read that she’d suggest a few changes and he’d return with a hundred new pages.

That’s right. And she would say, “Woody, why didn’t you bring them in yesterday?” And he would say, “Well, because I hadn’t written them yet.”

Did he talk the same way that he wrote?

Nothing like that. Nothing like his writing. We were opposites; I am as verbal as anyone can be, and he was just the opposite.

If he were sitting with us right now and you were interviewing him, he would probably answer in a very slow, halting voice, kind of like [very slowly], “Yeah… welllll…. Way back…” Nothing like the flowing quality of his writing. He simply loved to write. He loved pencils, paper, typewriters. You know, I have to show you something. [Brings a box of pens and colored pencils.] This is all Woody’s. He loved this stuff.

Did he have dry spells ever, times he wasn’t inspired to write?

Very few. He was always churning them out, as you can see by the archives, which hold about two thousand of his songs. And he was just as creative a father as he was a musician. He could spend a whole day of the beach, starting with just our three kids around. By the end of the day he would have these tremendous sand castles, and about thirty kids who helped him build them. And they were beautiful, really beautiful.

Was it because he was so much of a kid at heart, himself, that made him so great with kids?

Yes, for sure. He had a great sense of playfulness, of fun. And both of us have great respect for young people because you are tomorrow, you are it. Anything we had is going to die and go away before you know it, but you have years ahead of you.

It is true that Woody and your mother wrote a song together?

My mother, who was a Yiddish poetess, wrote the words to a song and he corrected her. They didn’t write it together. It was called “I Gave My Sons To The Country,” and he was opposed to it. “Why do you want to give your songs to the country?” he asked. “Shouldn’t that be the question?” But my mother was really a much better writer in Yiddish and Woody never really knew this.

I was astounded when you showed me all the letters he wrote you, and the full notebooks of love letters and poetry and erotica he would fill up for you.

Every night when I would come home (commuting from Manhattan to Coney Island), I would look forward to two or three letters from Woody, especially when he was in the Army. I was a woman alone and it was wonderful to have these. But you know, I am a prude and I used to die from embarrassment all by myself. Nobody would be in the room but I would be reading those sexy letters and I would be dying.

And then he would say to me, “Why don’t you write back in turn?” And I would say, “I can’t write those kind of letters!”

I know Woody was a great fan of Chaplin. He always seemed Chaplinesque himself—

You’re right, he was very Chaplinesque. You know, he used to play the harmonica and dance at school when he was a kid. And don’t you think Arlo did the same thing when he was a kid? Certain people have that elfin quality. Arlo had it as a child; Woody had it all his life. Kind of half-singing, half-dancing, I’m the little guy on the block, but I’m no dumb-bell.

 

Woody with the kids on the beach at Coney Island, circa 1954.

Woody with the kids on the beach at Coney Island, circa 1954, Nora, Arlo & Joady. 

 

In 1969, Arthur Penn made a movie out of Arlo’s great song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” starring Arlo.

Yes. I loved that film, because there was a lot of truth in it.

There’s a scene in the film where Pete Seeger and Arlo come to Woody’s hospital room and sing, “Car Car.” I’ve read that Woody loved hearing the song “Hobo’s Lullaby” the most.

They sang all those songs and more. They sang a lot of songs. The only thing that wasn’t accurate was showing Woody in a private room. How I wish he had a private room and his own nurse!

I know that in addition to Pete and Arlo, a lot of other musicians came to Woody’s bedside during that last decade when he was at Greystone in New Jersey. Most famously, Bob Dylan made the trek to meet his hero. What were your impressions of Dylan from then?

He impressed me with his quality and intensity. I knew that he was determined. I didn’t like his diction when he sang, and I couldn’t understand the words. But I loved many of his songs and I felt that he was a creative artist who was going through, even now, the ups and downs that an artist must go through. Everything that you do isn’t always top-notch.

At first did he seem like just another Woody imitator?

Well, I had already spent a couple of good years with [Rambling] Jack Elliot, who Woody said was more like Woody than he was! But I had no resentment whatsoever of people imitating Woody, because if you are around a great artist, their influence is bound to get to you. It’s like osmosis. Later in your life maybe you can find your own style. After all, I learned to love dance from someone who learned to love dance from someone who learned to love dance and so on. You must carry on the tradition of whatever you are doing and do so with integrity. I think Bob did that.

Marjorie and Woody Guthrie, 1967.

              Marjorie and Woody Guthrie with Arlo in the middle, at                            Greystone, 1967.

Woody’s life ended too early, and during his last years he wasn’t able to work. Had he more years, what do you think he would have done with them?

I can’t answer that easily. Woody would have changed with the times like everybody else to a certain extent. And Woody loved all kinds of music, something that not everybody knows. Moses Asch, who was a kind of mentor to Woody, gave him many free classical albums, and often I would come home and find him listening to Prokofiev. He knew Romeo and Juliet backwards and forwards.

He liked all different kinds of music, depending on what time of day it was or what he was doing right then. Nothing can better express the essence of the moment. Music is the soul of man. Woody used to borrow music from everywhere and change it around a little for his own songs. But it was the honesty and the quality of the songs that mattered.

Marjorie dancing with the Martha Graham troupe, 1946.

Marjorie Guthrie, forever dancing with the Martha Graham troupe, 1946.

Kiefer Sutherland Band at the Watermark

•November 5, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Words & Photos by KK RYDER

IF THE ROOFTOP was A ROCKIN’ it was THE KIEFER SUTHERLAND BAND at the WATERMARK in Ventura.

Kiefer. You know him as an actor. But have you heard his music? It was standing room only for the music of Kiefer Sutherland at the historic Watermark in Ventura, California on October 23rd, 2015.

The Watermark is a charming brick historic building that dates back to the 1920’s. The staff are all as classy and friendly as the building looks and feels. A night of good old Americana with a hint of country going straight to the rock and roll heart. Kiefer was accommodating to his fans that he wanted to be positioned in the bar so he could see and be seen by all of the concert-goers. Strapping on his acoustic guitar he thanks everyone for coming, and we were in for a treat. This band has some great original songs,each one different than the next with varying tempos. With an appealing way of letting you get wrapped up in his lyrics, his voice is a baritone, smokey and bluesy sound. The band members complement his laid back stage style and are smoking hot on their instruments. On the song “I’ll do Anything” I got a kick out of watching some of the ladies in the crowd scream when Kiefer would repeat the chorus lyrics. Another crowd-pleaser was the catchy “Can’t Stay Away.”

Before the show ended, I decided to go outside and take in the total ambiance of this rooftop room concert. I crossed the street and looked up towards the glow of the windows of the Watermark in its inviting charm, listening to Kiefer and his band playing  “Calling Out Your Name,” with a  romantic slow groove, A young couple was holding each other and swaying back and forth to the music above them.

This five-piece band is not only fun to watch, but the songs are great. There were a few bad ass songs original songs that sound as if they belong in a Joel Schumacher film and they also played a few cover tunes while the crowd sang along with Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Edmund Fitzgerald,” Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heavens Door” and  “Put Your Lights On,” originally recorded by Santana featuring Everlast.

I know what you are thinking: where can I get all of this great music? The answer is that they have been busy recording and will be releasing a CD on their own independent label early next year. Kiefer and his long time music pal singer-songwriter producer Jude Cole started a label called Ironworks Music because they wanted to give independent artists that they believe strongly in an outlet, such as Rocco Delucca and the Burden. The evening’s opening act was the very great band Gone Wayside.

After the show, Kiefer laughed and signed autographs for his fans. Joel Schumacher, who has worked with Sutherland on several films, called him a “born character actor. He can become anyone he wants to. He can be good guy, bad guy, crazy guy. He’ll always work.”

Kiefer Sutherland was a presenter last night at the 2015 CMA Awards. But live he created a night we will never forget, as timeless as his movies.

Legends of Songwriting: eden ahbez

•August 19, 2015 • Leave a Comment

eden ahbez

ahbez-sinatra-modrn-screen-

 

The Nature Boy who wrote the legendary song
“Nature Boy.”

 

By PAUL ZOLLO

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
is just to love and be loved in return.” 

From the classic song “Nature Boy” by eden ahbez, it’s one of the most famous and beautiful couplets in all of popular music, linked in content and concision to McCartney’s classic Abbey Road summation, “And in the end the love you take/is equal to the love you make.”

Had the mystic and mythic ahbez written only “Nature Boy,” it’s such an enchanting, strange and beautiful song, he would deserve inclusion in the annals of popular music. But there is more to eden than this one song.

Nat `King’ Cole is the singer of the first and most famous record of the song, which was an instant standard when it emerged in that spring of 1948, staying at the very top of the charts for eight solid weeks. It both charmed and stunned radio audiences. In under three minutes, a miracle song unfolds, a melody of Richard Rodgers-like yearning embracing a lyric of poetic perfection expressing a universal zen acceptance of life and love. Decades before The Beatles would celebrate this notion that love is all we need, a hippie decades before his time did it first.

It didn’t hurt that he got Nat, one of this planet’s most soulful and beloved singers, to record it. His crystalline soul sets the song soaring. It’s the ideal match of songwriter with artist, and remains an immaculate performance of great purity and passion, hauntingly orchestrated with sumptuous strings and flutes arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol down in Capitol Records’ legendary basement studio. It’s magic.

But where did it come from? To this day, ahbez remains mysterious.  “Nature Boy,” the song, has had a remarkable life, the life of a beloved, true standard. It’s been recorded by a vast array of vocalists and instrumentalists – from Nat  on through David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Grace Slick, John Coltrane, Celine Dion, Nick Cave, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Cher, Leonard Nimoy, James Brown, Jose Feliciano, Miles Davis, Caetano Veloso, Art Pepper, Aaron Neville and many more.

It’s true that he lived under the first “L” in the Hollywood sign for quite some time, personifying a hippie lifestyle decades before such an existence became mainstream. He looked and lived like Christ  – in long beard, white robes and sandals – and condemned materialism to live on three dollars a day.

Although “Nature Boy” became and remains a standard, ahbez – known as ‘ahbe’ to friends – wrote many other songs, including “Land of Love,” which was recorded by Nat Cole (as well as Doris Day and the Ink Spots), “Hey Jacque,” covered by Eartha Kitt, “The Jalopy Song,” recorded by Frankie Laine, and “Lonely Island,” a hit for Sam Cooke.

He was born George Aberle in Brooklyn in 1908, and, not unlike Christ, much about his early years is unknown.  He was adopted by the McGrew family of Kansas, and grew up as George McGrew. Migrating to Los Angeles in 1941, he landed a gig playing piano at Eutropheon, a health food store run by a German couple who brought the Wandervogel movement with them to America, which subscribed to rejecting the artificial strictures of society to live a natural, vegan lifestyle. In America, the followers of this movement were known as Nature Boys. He wrote songs and performed them, but never with any professional aspirations. His goals were always primarily spiritual. But when radio DJ Cowboy Jack Patton heard him sing “Nature Boy,” he recognized that ahbez had written a great song, and suggested he get it to Nat “King” Cole – So ahbe bicycled over to L.A.’s Orpheum Theater, where Cole was performing. He wasn’t allowed entry, so asked that the song be given to Cole – his manager intercepted it, and passed it on. ahbe, unlike every pro songwriter before and since who has tried to pitch a song to an artist, didn’t even bother to list himself as author of the song. He simply wanted to share the song, and its message. Cole was entranced with it, and began performing it soon thereafter. His crowds loved it, and people began talking about this new song which already seemed timeless – an instant standard. But who wrote it?

So when Cole wanted to record it, he enlisted some cohorts to play detective and track down its mysterious songwriter. They discovered the song and its message were genuine – ahbez wasn’t cranking out songs in a Hollywood Boulevard office. He was camping out underneath the Hollywood sign with his wife, Anna. But, evidently, he did want the world to hear his song, and so he agreed to allow Cole to record it. Within months it became a major hit – shooting up to Number One on the Hit Parade, where it remained for two solid months during the summer of 1948. From complete obscurity, “Nature Boy” and the actual nature boy who created it became world famous. ahbez and his lifestyle were such compelling copy that in the same month Time, Newsweek and Life magazines all did stories on him.

The song spread like wildfire. Soon there were recordings of it by all the great recording artists of the time – vocalists like Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan were first, followed by jazz versions by Coltrane and Miles Davis.  He wrote other songs for Cole and others to sing, and became close friends with Herb Jeffries, a singing star of many Westerns who was known as the “The Black Singing Cowboy.” They hung out together at Lake Shrine, an ashram near L.A., and in 1954 that collaborated on an album called The Singing Prophet. By 1956, ahbez felt his spiritual message could be better conveyed instrumentally, and injected himself into the world of what is now known as exotica a full year before Martin Denny coined the term by releasing an album of that name.  ahbez’s exotica combined jazz flute, percussion and Middle Eastern harmonies. But he also continued writing songs, many of which were considered novelty records, such as “Ahbe Casabe,” recorded by Marti Barris. In 1960 he recorded his first and final solo album, Eden’s Island, an ambitious song cycle that paved the way for other song cycles to come, including those by Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson and the Beatles.

ahbez-sinatra-modrn-screen-1948eden ahbez & Sinatra

His last record was a self-released single, “Divine Melody,” in 1971, after which he mostly disappeared. For years prior to his death from a car accident in 1995, he had been working on a book and album to be entitled The Scriptures of the Golden Age, most of which has never been published. His collaborator and friend Joe Romersa has over 100 songs they wrote together, but the ahbez estate has not granted him permission to release them. They did release on posthumous CD, however, called Echoes from Nature Boy. When or if the rest of his work will ever be released remains, as does much about this nature boy some six decades since he first emerged, a mystery.

What does remain is that haunting refrain, that precise intersection of timeless melody with poetic words of love and wisdom.  Delivered in with simplicity of passion and grace, the essence of the power of song, is a couplet for ages. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/is just to love and be loved in return.”

Story Behind The Song: “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard

•May 31, 2015 • 2 Comments

Story Behind A Song

Merle Haggard.  Photo by Myriam Santos.

 

“Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard

As told to PAUL ZOLLO

I remember writing the first line – “First thing I remember knowing” —   and then it all came fast. Almost wrote itself.  It was so well describing my life that I felt maybe I was too close to it to realize it was good. It sounded too easy.  I wrote it on the bottom bunk of a bus.

My mother was left alone when my father died, and she had a good education but had never been able to use it, never been out in the world. She didn’t know how to drive. She rode a city bus for 27 years and was a bookkeeper at a meat company. And put up with me. I got in trouble a lot. Had too much energy. I wanted to know things. I loved those Jimmie Rodgers songs about riding freight trains, and I wanted to do it. So I did it. You were supposed to go to school – they had a truancy law. That’s where my problems started. When I was 13 years old I thought I was grown.  So I got in trouble, and they put me in juvenile hall, and I didn’t like juvenile hall so I broke out, stole cars to get away, and one thing led to another. By the time I was 20 years old, I was in San Quentin.  And “Mama Tried” is probably a child of all that. The songs says I’m the “one and old rebel child.” I did have two older siblings, but they were excellent citizens, never went to jail.  I was the one and only rebel.

Mama was an excellent mother. She was a devout Christian, went to church twice a week. Walked to church. I was raised in that atmosphere, and  Mama had her hands full with me.  My daddy died when I was 9. I don’t suppose I’ve ever gotten over it. He was a good father. There aren’t a lot of good daddies around. He was a good one.

First time I ran away from home I was 11. Wasn’t  running away from a bad home, I was running towards an adventure.

It was an all different world then. In every way. Gas was 15 cents a gallon. Cigarettes were 17 cents a pack. There weren’t any highways, just two-lane roads. And the roads ended at the edge of town, so if you didn’t ride the railroad, or have something shipped in, you didn’t get it. It was a spawning ground for a country song.

It is true, as in the song, that  I was in prison when I was 21. I didn’t get life without parole, though, that’s the only line that isn’t factual.  I didn’t write any songs in prison that were worth recording. I wrote “Mama Tried” after I got out.  It wasn’t Mama’s fault that I went to prison. She did everything right. She was a wonderful mother. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke. You could depend on her. If you’d been gone three weeks and you showed up, she’d fix you the greatest breakfast you ever had.

She was a shy person. When I played her the song, she said the ladies at church would razz her about it. I told her I wanted to buy her a Lincoln with my first royalty payment. She said, “The ladies in church will make fun of me if you get me a Lincoln. I want a Dodge Dart.”

We recorded it in 1968 at Capitol in Hollywood. Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen produced. We did a good job; that record still sounds unique.  It starts with James Burton on a dobro, finger-picking. I was trying to land somewhere inbetween Peter, Paul & Mary and Johnny Cash.  So we started with folky guitar, and a lot of vocal harmony sung by Bonnie Owens and Glen Campbell.  Glen played rhythm guitar and sang a tenor harmony.

Everything was done in one take, singing live in the studio with the band. I loved being there. I think I can say, without a doubt, Capitol Records was the premiere recording studio in the world. It has a physical echo chamber that sounds great. All the great voices you can think of, from Nat Cole to Linda Ronstadt, recorded there, using that echo.

It was a morning session. They were very prompt and regimental about that studio. You went in at 10, you had to be out of there by 1, cause someone else was coming in. We’d all meet up in a coffee shop down the street there and prepare our recording. Then drive over our amps and guitars, run in there and set up, and record three number one records  in three hours.

It’s my arrangement. I told James [Burton] to try the fingerpicking to bring us into the tempo. We’d get the best musicians there were. James Burton was the best guitarist, so we go Burton. Glen Campbell was part of the group, and Jimmy Gordon on drums.  Jerry Ward on electric bass. Norman Hamlet on steel guitar.

The song is short – 2:16. In those days we had to make records under three minutes for radio. And it had a little Batman lick on it.

That song – and that record – seems to me to have always been there.

 
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