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.

Review: KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON

•March 23, 2015 • Leave a Comment

 

Review.

1111 clark terry 1

Clark Terry:

The Horn Names The World

Review:  KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON

 

Directed by Alan Hicks
Produced by Quincy Jones and Paula Dupre Pesmen
Edited by Davis Coombe

 

 

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By JASON WALDROP 

Twitchy, Chatty, Snags, No-Tail, Old Man Mose, Lips, Bubble Eyes, Ribs, The Warden.  Those are the names that a twenty-year-old Clark Terry gave to nine monkeys in the back of a circus truck as he and a couple of carnival mates hitchhiked from Hattiesburg to St. Louis.  Names. It seems he nicknamed every creature, both human and animal, that he encountered during his 94 years.  So it’s a wonder that anyone is still unfamiliar with his name:  Clark Terry.  With the name he made for himself.

 

Clark Terry (1920-2015) lived long enough to see Keep On Keepin’ On, using an iPad held up to the last narrow band of vision remaining in one eye.  Keep On Keepin’ On is a testament to Terry and to the name he made for himself.  But Keep On Keepin’ On also testifies to the love for Terry and to the devotion to the project of everyone involved in the making of the film—current and former students, cameraman, editor, producers, and director, Alan Hicks.

 

It is the spirit of Terry’s first horn, fashioned from found objects at the dump—a kerosene funnel, a length of hose, and a piece of lead pipe for a mouthpiece—that guides the film documentary, Keep On Keepin’ On. First time director Alan Hicks, an Aussie and a surfer, worked from scratch, beginning with a Documentaries for Dummies manual but learning so much along the way that he was able, in the end, to craft a fine collage of Terry’s life story, including very intimate, often heartbreaking, scenes from Clark’s last years.  Hicks started as a drummer with Clark Terry’s small group, so he knew Terry’s power as a leader.  In his biopic, Hicks films Clark Terry as the current mentor and friend of a young pianist, Justin Kauflin, blinded by a rare eye disorder at the age of ten.  Hicks introduced the blind Kauflin to Terry just as Terry’s eyesight began to fail due to diabetes.

 

Hicks and his cameraman, Adam Hart, made the film over a period of five years.  In order to complete the project, they worked an alternating schedule of three months of filming followed by a break for three months to do the “hard labor” necessary to generate more funds.  One time, needing airfare, they had to sell their lighting equipment and replace it with substitute Walmart lights. This alternating work-film schedule was well underway when Clark Terry’s first student, Quincy Jones, stepped in to help complete the project.

 

Keep On Keepin’ On skillfully cobbles footage from award ceremonies, Tonight Show clips, interviews with other jazz greats (including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Mulgrew Miller, Arturo Sandoval), and storyboarding.  All this flows together with a voice over done by Mr. Terry himself.  The film begins with a series of testimonials fleshing out the man, Clark Terry.  We see Terry dressing for his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, as his wife, Gwen, asks who was it that gave him his shoes, a pair of bluish suede dancing shoes.  Was it Count Basie or Duke Ellington?  Well.  It was Duke, who also gave Terry during his ten years at the University of Ellingtonia the roles of Puck (Such Sweet Thunder) and Buddy Bolden (A Drum Is A Woman).  The Lifetime Achievement presentation is followed by footage of another particularly telling reminiscence:  at a Knicks game where Clark was to perform the National Anthem, Dizzy Gillespie came up to C.T.’s wife in the green room and said, “I don’t believe you know who you are married to.”  “Why yes, I do, I’m married to Clark Terry.”  Dizzy goes on to explain, “Clark is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, trumpeters who has ever lived.  And I know because I’m Dizzy Gillespie. I know.”

 

1111 clark terry 3Clark Terry (L) with Dizzy Gillespie.

 

All the musicians knew Terry’s worth.  Oscar Peterson in his autobiography (2002) calls him an “Unsung Hero”, baffled that he is not better known.  Duke Ellington notes in Music Is My Mistress (1973) that no one credits Clark’s work on the flugelhorn as they do say Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpet.  “I hear none of the prime authorities on the subject say, ‘Clark Terry did this sixteen years ago.’  If this is not recognized soon, he could grow up to be the Barzillai Lew of the flugelhorn.”  (Lew was the black drummer and fifer who served in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars.) Miles Davis considered his mentor, C.T., a magician because of the way he could make his horn sound by “twisting and lightening the spring action of the pumps of a trumpet.”

 

C.T. resolved that after every injustice, whether done to or committed by him, he would come out as a better man.  As a sixteen year old, he waited outside a club to ask the trumpet player, when taking a cigarette break, how he could improve his tone in the lower register.  Annoyed, the trumpet player instructed Clark to go home and sit in a chair with both feet flat on the floor, stare into the mirror, grit his teeth and wiggle not his right but his left ear and practice long and hard.  (According to Mr. Annoyance, hanging his trumpet from the ceiling and kissing the mouthpiece would be too advanced for such a green novice as the young musician). When a trusted friend told Clark that that was jiveass shit, Terry decided that, in the future, he would share any of the secrets of his instrument with any young player who cared enough to ask.

 

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Later on, Duke Ellington recruited Terry away from Count Basie, suggesting that Terry pretend that he was sick and needed some time off instead of resigning outright.  Terry’s subsequent shame over this ruse (which Basie saw through) caused him, when he had bands of his own, to encourage his players to go when and where they wanted to go, most notably when Miles Davis called, asking if Herbie Hancock and Miroslav Vitous might want to leave Terry and join the Davis band.

 

But there was another wrong—a case of inaccurate naming—that he would not set right for sixty-five years.  As a recruit of the United States Navy (black musicians were given the Rating of Musician in 1942), he “zeroed in on my stats:  Height 5 feet, 8 and 1/4 inches; Weight 150 pounds; Eyes—Negro, Hair—Negro, Complexion—Negro.  I wanted to scream, “My eyes are brown!…” In his autobiography, he clearly corrects the military’s lumping of his features into a classification of mere “Negro” by naming the exact skin color of every person he encountered—brown, dark brown, coffee and cream, coffee with a dash of cream, caramel, mahogany, nutmeg, almond, raw peanuts.

 

The flip side of this precision, whether nicknaming or noting skin complexion, is not-naming, the nonsense singing of his alter ego, Mr. Mumbles, who was born one day on The Tonight Show during a stump-the-band episode.  This form of scatting (or speaking in tongues according to Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts at Terry’s funeral) evolved into the sexual innuendos mixed with open disclosures (in “The Fibble-Ow Blues” with Jon Faddis, “Frank Wess told me about that one”), the pantomime of the tight collar or checking his inside pocket for notes, as well as the lilt of fake Scandinavian languages.   Keep On Keepin’ On includes two Tonight Show clips (Terry was the first to break the color barrier on the Tonight Show Band), one of Mr. Mumbles and another of Clark Terry accompanying himself on trumpet and flugelhorn.  Dizzy Gillespie writes regarding Terry’s perfect chops:  “Playing like I play, you have to have perfect time because you have to let the air out at exactly the right time.  I don’t just pick up my horn and spit out notes.  Clark Terry can do that.  He can take two horns and spit out notes into each one on a different beat.  I can’t.  I’d never been able to do that…”

 

Arturo Sandoval, among many others, has said that Clark Terry’s sound is so distinctive that you can identify it within a couple of bars.  The same can be said about Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge, both of whom played on many dates with Clark Terry.  And that’s true except for one concert in the 80s with Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff.  Ruff had just finished one of his French horn rants on Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, loud and insistent, and there was Terry holding his horn to his lips but what was he saying?  He was playing the chorus to Mood Indigo but so quietly, particularly in the wake of Ruff’s French horn, that the wit proceeded the sound.  Everyone in the hall cracked up, including Willie Ruff.

 

Naming is made of precision, wit,  memory, and affection.  Clark Terry used his horn to name the world.  A world of dancers who smelled of roses and vanilla, trains of smoke and urine, a motherly woman whose show name was Big Fat Mama but whom Terry called Hut (her surname) because she was sensitive about her weight, an estranged father and son, violent bigotry, a buck dancer in Clark’s junkyard band named Shitty, dancing with Pet Milk cans stomped to fit his heels, the one childhood friend who disappeared from Clark’s life forever.  For Terry, Oscar Peterson’s Unsung Hero, naming was a type of singing. Just ask Walt Whitman.  Or Adam if you can find him. And sometimes the students just came to C.T.  Just as the names did.  Hicks catches the scene of Justin Kauflin introducing his seeing eye dog to his mentor, Clark Terry, who is now also losing his eyesight.  The dog’s name is Candy.  Terry immediately serenades the dog with the 1944 tune, “Candy” (Kramer, David, Whitney), backed by his own instrumental recording with Metropole Orchestra (1995).

 

Justin Kauflin is still at the beginning of his career.  Clark Terry believed in his talent and in Justin himself, urging Justin past any failure of nerve. And Justin was just one of the  innumerable students of Clark Terry, none of whom Terry ever charged.  Indeed, Hicks made this documentary as his thank-you note to Clark.  Terry’s singing was as infectious as the gratitude Terry’s students kept for their teacher.  Clark Terry sang all the time, and Justin, every bit as nice a guy, has an incredible ear for picking up those tunes.  According to Alan Hicks, in the Q&A included on the extras of the DVD, Clark sang twice as much when he was hospitalized.  Terry believed that everyone has a sound of his or her own.  “Most of them don’t even know what they can do until you get it out of them.”  And Hicks shows us, gives us, second hand, a valuable slice of that teaching.  Maybe you don’t yet believe in Clark Terry, but Clark Terry, who has now reached “the plateau of positivity”, believes in you.

 

Jason Waldrop is the author of the dystopian novel, The Last Cigarette.  His poems and stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry Northwest, Denver Quarterly, and Ploughshares.

RAVE: James Coberly Smith & LeAnne Town’s “Living Room Songs”

•March 9, 2015 • 1 Comment


James Coberly Smith with LeAnne Town

Living Room Songs

jamescoberlysmithwithlea

By PAUL ZOLLO

Joy. It’s the first thing I hear when I listen to these songs.  A whole lotta joy. It’s there in the writing of the songs, the beauty of the tunes, the play of the words, the sparkle of guitars, the heady blend of these harmonies. It’s the sound of people making music together for the sheer joy of making music.

Well, it’s the way he’s always done it. It’s the reason he’s been beloved for so long. For the purity of heart and soul he’s instilled in his music over decades, as part of famous duos and solo. He’s a man of much musical grace and charm, who has reminded the rest of us for years just how joyful this thing called music can be.

Now he’s back with a brand new collection of classic, joyful songs. Songs which reflect an ingenious spirit, entwining  lyrical textures of modern times with tunes evoking ghosts of blues, ragtime, R&B and folk, tinged with the lush tunefulness of jazz standards. Songs of mystery and romance, laughter and love, rendered in a living room.

He’s also got a new partner in song, the great LeAnne Town.  A gifted and versatile vocalist, she sings like an angel, and like James, seems at home with every style of music under the sun. They harmonize with an exultant nearness that sounds like siblings singing, like they’ve been singing together their whole lives. There’s something infectious in the sound of their voices merged, something undeniable. It’s brand new and yet warmly familiar.

First the walls go up, they sing in the first song. And then the walls come down. And it’s at that point that we begin :  where the walls we humans build come down, and we get a brand new look. A brand new look at each other, and at ourselves. It’s there that this journey of the soul starts.

It’s a journey through human time, which is forever limited, seasoning each song with fragility. “I’ve got a fragile sense of something coming,” he sings in “Rental Car,” reminding  us that we don’t own these vehicles, we just get to use them for as long as they last. At the timely intersection of folk and funk is “Hands Up,” an exploration of the incessant modern distractions that rob us of time and dignity, landing on the mantra which underscores all of these songs, both a celebration and recognition: “Life is a grand and fragile thing.”

This is an epic opus, but a friendly one, shaped to human scale. Living room music. No digital trickery here, nothing that can’t be done in the real world. Produced with delicate purity, it’s about music that can be made at home.  It’s close-up magic, when you stand only inches from the magician, and watch magic unfold  before your eyes. It’s the essential stuff only, beautiful haikus of sound, where every nuance shines, every harmony line, every aching guitar note.  “Maybe it won’t be enough for everyone,” he said, “but it’s enough for me.”

Okay, truth be told that when Mr. Smith left Los Angeles to relocate with his beloved wife Irene to Boise, wherever that is, many of here in the City of Angels mourned. He was, after all, one of the most beloved figures on the acoustic music scene here, both as a remarkable solo performer and as part of a beloved duo, for 20 years, with the legendary Severin Browne.  Their shows were legend here in this town of legends, forever ripe with fun and soul. But his Idaho has been evidently inspirational;  he’s written some of the best songs of his life, and found a new partner in song,  both of which have led to this new spirit sound  that’s as rapturously right as rain.

Asked about the roots of this project, he wrote back: “Give me a good song, an acoustic guitar, great harmony singing and a nice guitar chair in a comfortable Living Room.  That’s all I need.”  Of course, that equation rests squarely on “a good song.” Without which, none of this would matter.   But the man has a gift.  A gift for writing sturdy songs.  “A song shouldn’t fall apart like a cheap watch on the street,” said Van Dyke Parks, and it’s true. Songs need to be built to last, solid as gems, like little jewels.  Luminous, priceless prizes these are, crystalline and compact, reflecting facets of light in wondrous ways.  They’re the kind of songs people often moan nobody writes anymore. Well, he still does.

Countless delightful musical and lyrical moments abound. Sometimes he writes songs like “Daisy,” that seem sprung directly out of a romantic springtime circa 1926, all rosy ragtime rhythm and spry romantics, including naked cartwheels and a slide trombone.  “I Can’t Stop Loving You” resounds like a modern standard, a song Elvis would have sung the hell out of, poignantly punctuated with acoustic slide guitar. “Seven Songs” is all aching melodicism, haunted like an ancient sea shanty discovered in a shipwreck bottle, a chilling dream of distant, oceanic mystery.  “Argentina” is an exquisite anthem of yearning, set long ago in a dusty western town, connected by stagecoach and dreams.  Savoring the greatness of every day, every moment, is “Savor The Day,” while the hectic blur of modern times is sweetly projected  in “A Little Busy,” in which our hero lists all the reasons there’s no time to do much but make lists.

It brings to mind the old understanding that “limitations create possibilities.” Give a poet just a few lines, and timeless haiku can emerge. Give James two voices and a guitar, and a universe of possibilities emerge. Always a genius with vocal and guitar arrangement, he’s got a knack for devising the indispensable part, the part that holds the thing together. He’s a man content, not unlike Buddha, with the essentials.

“Life is a grand and fragile thing,” they sing with a great acoustic R&B groove on “Hands Up.” The same can be said of a song – grand in its ability to inspire and to defy time, yet so essentially delicate, composed of ethereal, intangible elements, language and melody.  That fragility is at the heart of this song cycle. This is music for humans. It’s all about the human heart, and its endless capacity for love and empathy.

These are times of much dissonance and disorder, chaos and confusion, with ceaseless stories of humans clashing every day. Sometimes the news gets so dire there seems no room for hope. But then we hear this – the sound of James and LeAnne joining their two voices in perfect harmony, locked in luminous song. And it doesn’t get any better. This whole world could fall apart but when you have something like this to hold onto, there remains room for hope. It’s all you need.

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Story Behind The Song: “Fire & Rain” by James Taylor

•February 11, 2015 • Leave a Comment


James Taylor

“Fire and Rain”

 

"Sweet Baby James," the famous cover by Henry Diltz.

“Sweet Baby James,” the famous cover by Henry Diltz.


As told to Paul Zollo

 

My friend Suzanne, from New York, had committed suicide a couple of months before my friends let me know. I was in the middle of recording my (debut album for Apple Records) in London, and they didn’t know how the news would hit me, and kept it from me for a couple of months until we were well into mixing that album. Then they told me about it, so that’s why the song starts with that first verse. I started it in London.

I had known Suzanne the year before I started writing the song. When I finished making the Apple album, I was institutionalized at Austen Riggs in Massachusetts. I wrote the second two verses there. They put me in a little room and I wrote a lot of songs there. It was very productive. I was getting my strength back, I was getting my nervous system back. Writing a lot of stuff.

“Fire and Rain” came very fast. You’d almost say it all happened all at the same time.

I played it for Joel O’Brien, who was my drummer at the time, in London. I had a small basement room. I lived in a succession of basement rooms. This one was fairly spacious. Silver foil on the wall. He said, “Oh, man, that’s going to be an important song for you.”

[The song] is very personal, confrontational. And candid. It really a kind of blues. Not a 12-bar blues, but it has the same intent, in that it’s getting out something hard. It details three different episodes of hard times. The first one learning of Suzanne’s death, the second one coming back to the United States sick and strung out, trying to get back on my feet, physically exhausted, undernourished and addicted. And then the third one is much more general, not as specific as the first few verses. It talks about remembering one’s life, thinking back to my band The Flying Machine. Like a postcard from the loony bin. The third verse, I think, is hopeful. It is looking at going back out into the world and reengaging.

[The ending] was not written. It was the ad lib that happened at the end of that take. It was so much of a piece, that I kept it.

On that song, I capo [the guitar] on the third fret. The song is in C, but I play it in A. [The intro] is identifiable and easy. And back in the day it seemed sufficient.

We recorded it at Sunset Sound [in Hollywood]. That album [Sweet Baby James] was recorded in two weeks. For a cost of about $8000. On two-inch 16-track tape. Bill Lazarus was the staff engineer who recorded us. I was living at Peter [Asher]’s house on Olympic, down in the flats. We’d just go to work every day, and push our way through the material. It was, at that point, just about getting the songs down.

Carole came over to Peter’s house and we went through a lot of these songs together, and I played it for her then. At Peter’s piano. I taught her the song.

Different producers have different tasks with different artists. Peter didn’t do much arranging as a producer for me, because at that point I was very selfish to keep that to myself as much as possible. Sometimes Danny Kortchmar or Carole would suggest things. But really the way these songs were recorded is that I have a community of musicians I work with. I give them the chords and play them my arrangement of it, then they find things that play that work with it. I never write out whole arrangements.

Russell Kunkel played drums, Carole King played piano, Bobby West played stand-up bass. I was in a booth, playing [guitar] and singing.

Russ Kunkel is a remarkably versatile and powerful drummer. I hadn’t heard anybody play like that. He really invented a lot of stuff. His tom fills, playing that song on brushes but as lively as he played it, and with as much passion. Bobby was just nailing down the bass, and he bowed the last verse, which built a lot of tension, that arco bass. Looking back on it, it was a very nice session.

Carole has this energy about how she plays. She plays very energetically. She’s a lively player. She and I share a common language. We were definitely on the same page musically. She is so good at getting the feel of what I was doing.

“Fire and Rain” was my first hit. That really changed everything for me in 1971, when that came out and I started working behind that album. I was at the right place and the right time.. It’s a wonderful experience to create something , particularly as personal and self-expressive, that takes off, and that resonates with people over a number of years. It is deeply gratifying. And validating and confirming what I say. And I love to play it. I love playing it for people. And almost always, when I play that song , I get back to the place, to the feeling I had when I wrote it. That’s rare, after playing something maybe 1500 times.

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On Henry Diltz & Sweet Baby James

•February 10, 2015 • 1 Comment

Henry Diltz & Sweet Baby James.

Inside an Icon 

By PAUL ZOLLO

"Sweet Baby James," the famous cover by Henry Diltz.

There comes a time in your teenage years when image is everything. You’re searching for someone to emulate – you’re looking for a hero. Your parents aren’t heroic anymore – quite the contrary —  so you’re spending a lot of time alone in your bedroom. When I was a teenager, in the early 70s, there was no computer in the bedroom, no cell phone, no Internet, no TV, no video games. What you had were your records. LPs. And those LPs came with big pictures on the cover, pictures you could scrutinize and obsess over for hours, while reading the lyrics and absorbing the music.

And then there was JT. James Taylor. Sweet Baby James. And there was the blue-green hue of that iconic portrait taken by Henry Diltz. And inside the album, the lyrics were printed on a big double-spread, on the back of which was another beautiful portrait taken by Mr. Diltz. A portrait, like the cover shot, that showed James gazing gently at the photographer, not in some cold studio, but outside, in the natural splendor of nature, as natural as his earthy, captivating voice.

At that time, the image of James, to me, was everything. He was a hero, and that picture captured all his shining heroic greatness. He was the essence of cool; cooler than any big brother, cooler than the coolest teacher or pro athlete. He was, like they said about Clark Gable in his day, the kind of man women swoon over, and men want to be. Not only was he tall and movie-star handsome, but he had a voice like the earth itself, a voice resplendent in its resonance. And he wrote songs that sounded like heaven. Songs of sadness – like “Fire and Rain,” songs of that natural splendor, like “Blossom” and “Anywhere Like Heaven,” songs that rocked with the blues, like “Steamroller Blues,” and songs that told mythic cowboy tales, like “Sweet Baby James.” To be a kid in the suburbs of Chicago and hear him sing about a “young cowboy who lives on the plains,” and whose “horse and cattle are his only companions,” was more beautiful and thrilling and soul-nourishing that anything we had before; it was more thrilling than “Twilight Zone,” than Ed Sullivan,  than baseball, than the Marx Brothers, than Superman, Batman and the Green Lantern all combined.

And it was all represented by those photos, taken by a guy whose name I knew well from all those years of scrutinizing album covers. Henry Diltz. The name to me became as mythic as the music it accompanied. A name I saw on the LPs of so many of the great heroes of that time. But this one – Sweet Baby James – will always resound in my life, because it intersected with my soul at that exact moment – that incredibly impressionable moment of awakening youth – when the whole world is just starting to unfold in all its beautiful, romantic and mysterious glory. It was a world in which, instead of becoming a businessman like most of our fathers, one could become a man like JT. A man who strode like Lincoln with a guitar. A man who hung out and romanced genuine goddesses, like Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

Like so many people my age, I took that middle-spread Diltzian portrait of JT out of the album, and taped it up in my bedroom. Over my desk. So I could look into his eyes every day – in the morning when I got up, in the long after-school afternoon when I would make that happy leap directly into the heart of his music, and in the night, when I’d go to sleep. I’d look into those eyes that were smiling – a confident, knowing smile –smiling precisely because they were looking into the lens of Henry Diltz. There was Henry, behind the photo, behind his camera, this magical and mysterious man of the famous name and even more famous photos, whose own face was always hidden, never revealed, only reflected in the beamish repose of those he photographed.

This photo was cropped perfectly, so that all the emphasis of was on the face itself – that face of ambition, of preternatural wisdom – that face of romance, of possibility, of promise. It was all captured by the gifted Mr. Diltz, whose own face I imagined – way back then, many decades ago now – to be even older than it is now. I reasoned that anyone taking photos of that caliber, and hanging out with all these artists – these artists from California of all fantastic places, the exotic Golden State – these artists who painted our very lives with their powerfully intimate voices and songs and guitars – anyone who could do all that had to have been doing it a long time to reach this plateau of greatness.

I assumed, wrongly, that Henry was an old guy. I figured he must be a very seasoned pro who had been around the music world for decades so as to be granted access to my heroes. For some reason I pictured him then not unlike the way he looks now – an old hippie. Not a young one, but still with a sparkle in his eyes and a pony-tail.

But little did I know at the time that Henry was actually one of their peers. A musician himself. A denizen of that same Laurel Canyon from which so much of this special magic emanated. But, as I later discovered, it was because Henry himself possessed that very magic – he played music, he hung with goddesses, he laughed and partied alongside JT and Cros and all the coolest of the cool heroes – that he and he alone could translate that magic at this unique juncture in human history, at this farthest western edge of the continent, and he could embody in his photographs this unique, unprecedented fusion of Americana with poetry, myth, folk music, rock and roll, art, literature, drugs, electricity, budding awareness, blossoming enlightenment, audacious aspiration, rebellion, revolution, book smarts, street wisdom, spirituality, real romance, sexual fire, beauty, and euphoria,  and he could do it in a way that was elegant, imbued with grace, and as timeless as those songs are timeless.

I also assumed, wrongly, that the photo was taken in James’ native Massachusetts. I never thought about this aspect much, it’s just something I figured neatly into the equation. It was a bit of a revelation when, years later, Henry told me he actually shot it in Burbank! Over at what is now the Oakwood Apartments, where Zevon and others came to sometimes reside. Back then it was a farm with an old weathered barn that Henry loved to use for shoots.

Henry Diltz, in his visual expedition into the heart of the music,  preserved for all of us the magical genius of that time, the inspirational glory that was expressed in those classic songs, in the words and music of James Taylor and the rest. And though JT himself, and all of us, have aged, the music is untouched by time, the spirit perseveres, and those great photos by Henry Diltz remain; their power is undiminished by the crass commercialism of modern times. Those great photos remain great because it was a great time, and great artists were connected directly to the electric bloodstream of the people, and their music was our music, and their visionary hopes for a better world were our hopes, and their romance was our romance. And one man captured it all. And it turns out, remarkably, that he’s one of the sweetest humans ever. His name is Henry Diltz.

STORY BEHIND THE SONG: Loretta Lynn, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

•January 21, 2015 • 1 Comment

STORY BEHIND THE SONG

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Loretta Lynn
The Truth about “Coal Miner’s Daughter”

By PAUL ZOLLO

“You can call me anytime,” she said over the phone from her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. It’s the second time I’ve been lucky enough to talk to Miss Loretta, which is how everyone refers to her, and each time it’s a joy. Unlike other living legends, she goes out of her way to find out about the guy asking the questions, and ends our conversations with promises of more to come.

Born in 1932 in Butcher’s Holler, Kentucky, she wrote about the real facts of her life, and turned it into classic song. Songwriters struggle everyday with the old quandary of wanting to write about specifics, but maybe not so specific as to lose your audience. And so some choose to write intentionally vague songs, so as not to exclude or alienate any listener.

But time and time again we learn the same lesson. Which is that the most universal songs are the most specific ones. The beauty and undying strength of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” lies in the truth. Every line is true. And there was more, as she related in this story behind the classic song.

Yet even those of us who have never been to Butcher’s Holler – or any holler for that matter – can experience the world of her childhood. It’s all there. That is, except the parts she cut out, as related during our talk on the origins of this remarkable song.

LORETTA LYNN: “I wrote it on a little $17 guitar.  It didn’t stay in tune. And $17 was a lot of money, cause at the time we didn’t have any money. But then Gibson gave me a guitar, and I wrote all the others on that one.

Every word is true. My daddy would work all night in the coal mine. During the day he would work in the cornfields. There were ten of us. He had to make a living for us. Eight kids. I was second, so I would take care of the kids while Mommy did the sewing and the cleaning and everything else. I think that’s why I sing. I’d rock the babies to sleep and sing to them.

The song says Mommy’s fingers were bleeding. I’d seen them bleed many times. In the wintertime we had these old clothes-lines made out of wire. It would be so cold that her fingers would stick to that wire. She’d pull them loose and I’d see the hide come off of those fingers. I would hide and cry. Monday was wash day. She’d scrub on those washboards all day and her fingers would bleed. But she didn’t complain.

My Mommy, to me, was beautiful. I’d see everything she’d do, whether it was crying or laughing. She would rock the babies by the coal oil light, like in the song. That was our light. We didn’t have much light. Butcher Holler, Kentucky was dark at night. You go up a long holler, and there’s trees everywhere and it’s very dark.

We had a well. I would help my daddy a lot and bring the water in at night when I wasn’t being lazy.

[The song] says we’d go without shoes in the summer. We would wear our shoes out before it would be warm enough to be without shoes. We’d have holes in our shoes, and put paste-board in our shoes. But halfway to school the paste-board would come out. One time my daddy found me by the creek with my shoes off, just crying, cause it was so cold from those shoes with holes. And Daddy picked me up and carried me home. And Daddy only weighed 117 pounds. I don’t know how he did it, but he did.

You know, you hear about poor people in other countries. There are a lot of poor people in our country if you go to the right places. There are a lot of hollers, not just Butcher Holler. I’ve seen them. I guarantee you there’s kids right to this day in the Kentucky hills that don’t have shoes.

There’s the line “Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere.” Parents do what they have to do. Daddy would usually try to get two hogs, one to raise and one to sell. So the other hog would pay for itself. We had a rough life. It was a hard life. Mommy would raise a garden in the summer, and we’d help her. She would can, and I would pick wild blackberries. I would go and pick from morning till night. And Mommy would pack up 100 quarts of blackberries.

The song doesn’t tell half of it. If I told the whole story nobody would believe it now anyway.

[Producer] Owen Bradley heard me writing it. It had about ten verses, and he said it was too long. He said, “There’s already been an ‘El Paso,’ there didn’t need to be another one.” He knew it was about my life, and he didn’t care about my life and figured nobody else would. So I cut out, I think, four verses. And I cried the whole time. And I have lost those verses, I do not remember them. I wish I did.

We cut it in Owen’s studio in his barn. It was my arrangement. I told him exactly how I wanted it, whether I wanted the steel to start it, or the fiddle. Then I sang the song to the band, and said, “This is what we’re gonna do now.” And I sang it live with the band. Just sang, I didn’t play guitar. Just a couple takes at the most. I never did many takes of anything. The more I sing, the worse I get. I like to make it fresh.

It was my husband Doo’s idea to put a banjo on it after. He was right. It added so much to the song. None of us could believe it.

It was a fun session. I stopped at the store before going to the barn. I’d get a half a roll of bologna cut up, and cheese, bread, onion, potato chips. We made everything fun. I didn’t have a drink but whoever had a drink had a drink. A hillbilly party. I didn’t want my sessions not to be fun. Because if you go into a recording studio and you think you’re a better singer than the boys that’s gonna play behind you, then you better not go.  It’s a thing you are feeling and you can sense, and I know the musicians can sense it.

 

Miss Loretta in Nashville, photo by Stephanie Chernikowski/Morrison Hotel Gallery.

Miss Loretta in Nashville, photo by Stephanie Chernikowski/Morrison Hotel Gallery.

 
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