In Honor of the 80th Birthday of a Great Songwriter, Poet & Friend, Stephen Kalinich

Featuring Stevie’s own remembrances of writing the beloved Beach Boys’ song “Little Bird” with Dennis Wilson

By PAUL ZOLLO
Photos by Paul Zollo/Tremolo Ghost


Happy Stevie Day! Today, remarkably, is the 80th birthday of the great songwriter-poet-painter-pacifist-visionary-mensch Stephen Kalinich. AKA “Stevie” to his friends, of which there are multitudes. I am proud to be a lifetime member of the FOS (Friends of Stevie), which is an expansive coalition of artists, musicians, poets, actors, writers and also civilians: those who love artists, musicians, poets, actors, writers and all they bring to our world

Happy Stevie Day! Today, remarkably, is the 80th birthday of the great songwriter-poet-painter-pacifist-visionary-mensch Stephen Kalinich. AKA “Stevie” to his friends, of which there are multitudes. I am proud to be a lifetime member of the FOS (Friends of Stevie), which is an expansive coalition of artists, musicians, poets, actors, writers and also civilians: those who love artists, musicians, poets, actors, writers and all they bring to our world


He was the closest and most trusted friend of the late great songwriter P.F. Sloan, known as Phil to his friends, of which I was one. It was Phil who first introduced me to Stevie, and let me know – without words – that Stevie could be trusted. That he was one of the good ones. Real good.

But it was at Phil’s funeral at the South Pasadena library that Stevie and I bonded. I gave the eulogy and Stevie read his beautiful poem, “If You Knew.” And I knew. This is a man of real-time heart and soul. A man of peace, as was Phil, in a world of war. A man of poetry and song in a world of dissonance and fury. A man of love in this sorrowful war-torn world. A man of hope and light always, even through these long seasons of darkness and despair.

He’s the rare poet who has always reflected the joy of life and art. He loves words, and he knows all the traditional structures and frames. He also knows truth. But what matters most, as we learn from his art, is the human connection. His message is to feel the joy. Don’t worry about life. Love the journey. And remind others just how finite and fleeting it is, so don’t get too distracted by the shiny things, or the darkness. Better to light your own light, and with it to illuminate the pathways for others hoping to make it through.

He is, as one friend said, someone “who will always show up.” Whether physically or with spirit, Stevie is well-known for letting others feel his love, and know they are not alone.

Happy Stevie Kalinich Day! - American Songwriter
Stevie Kalinich at Book Soup, 2020.
Photo by Zollo.



Often he does beautiful, magical things for his friends. He does these usually in semi-secret, so as to deliver the joy without any hint of self-glory. No doubt most of these remain unknown, but one recent one surfaced, and stands as a great symbol of Stevie’s tender heart and gentle benevolence:

When our friend Zak Nilsson, the son of Harry, was fighting a long and devastating battle with the cancer that took his life in March, 2021, Stevie reached out to a famous friend to let him know what Zak was going through, and maybe inspire a few words from him. That friend was Paul McCartney. (Paul sang on the beautiful “A Friend Like You,” which Stevie wrote with Brian Wilson.)

McCartney immediately sent off a letter of love to Zak. Zak, in turn, moved by McCartney’s expression and also his identification of the man who triggered it, posted a message about it online:

“I got this letter from Paul McCartney the other day,” wrote Zak. “He heard I had cancer and sent me this note. I was very touched that Harry’s friendship meant this much to Paul.”

In the letter, Paul wrote this:

“Paul McCartney here. Steven Kalinich wrote to me to let me know that you are about to have chemo, so I am sending you this note to encourage you to be strong and positive.I was privileged to know your Dad whom I knew as a lovely guy and a great talent. I wish you the very best of luck with the treatment. My wife, Nancy, went through it years ago and stuck with it even though she hated it. She is now better and well, except for the fact she is married to me!!

Sending the very best vibrations to you. Be well. Love Paul.”

Paul McCartney’s letter to Zak Nilsson, requested by Stevie, February 4, 2019.


Stevie has long embodied the beautiful symbol in his most beloved song, “Little Bird,” which he co-wrote with Dennis Wilson. It’s on the Beach Boys’ 1968 album Friends,  and was produced by Brian Wilson. Brian also wrote the music for the bridge section, though chose to be uncredited for it, perhaps to shine more light on his brother Dennis, and also Stevie.

“`Little Bird’ blew my mind,” said Brian Wilson, “because it was so full of spiritualness.

It is a magical, wonderful song. It’s not as famous as the big hits, which seems right, as the subject is delicate and small, yet makes a timeless impact, because it is genuine. Stevie always wrote from his heart, informed by his unbound love of language and poetry and song, and sweetened by love itself: for life, for Dennis , for art, music and beauty.

“It’s something people don’t talk about much, or even ask about,” Stevie said, “but I was in love when I wrote that song. Love shaped “Little Bird” more than anything.,

In honor of Stevie’s 80th birthday – and the fact that Stevie at 80 remains one of the youngest, most exultant, sweet , brilliant and funny people there is – we are happy to celebrate him here with this journey into the origins of “Little Bird.”  I

t began, as he told us, with a poem he wrote inspired by seeing a little robin outside of Dennis Wilson’s home. 

Stephen Kalinich, “Dennis”
A Poem for Dennis Wilson
Video by Paul Zollo

STEPHEN KALINICH: There was a little bird who gave me the poem, these words. The bird gave me the poem. It was a little bird, a robin with kind of a rough breast. And that bird, for me, was God’s messenger. His messenger of life for me. That is what I believe.

“Little Bird”was a miracle song for me. I felt so good about it. And my truth is I never thought of it becoming a hit. I never thought of money. I wanted to pour this kind of feeling into the world. 

Remember Jay Ward who did “Bullwinkle”? In 1966 I met a guy that worked with him at the Hollywood YMCA and he loved my poems.

Stevie with his Art
Photo by Paul Zollo

He said, “I’m good friends with Jay Ward and I’m friends with Brian Wilson.” So I would go down to Jay’s studio on Sunset there and I would sing him my folk chants that are now on the World of Peace album. I got to be friends with them and he set up meetings to go and see Brian Wilson. 

Brian was playing at the Smothers Brothers Theater on Sunset in Hollywood. The first time I met him., The Beach Boys were rehearsing there. 

Brian and I hit it off. He loved me and we just hit it off. Then the next thing I know, I had a contract with the Beach Boys as a writer and as a performer. The name of my group was Zarasthustra & Thelebeus.  It was with Mark Lindsey Buckingham, who is  not the one from Fleetwood Mac.  He was a singer/songwriter and 12-string guitar player. He and I got signed, both of us, to Brother Records as publishers and performers.

Stephen John Kalinich | Light In The Attic Records
Brian Wilson & Stevie Kalinich

Brian drew up the contracts. Nick Grillo was the one who actually had us sign the contract. I had no attorneys so it was not the fairest deal.

So then they introduced me to Dennis, and we got together to write a song. The first song we wrote was “Little Bird.” I went to his house at 14400 Sunset Boulevard. He was renting Will Rodgers’ old house.

“Little Bird” was done in that house. Dennis had a tree hut in the front of his property; a little house about 30 feet up. He and I would go up there. And that was the “Little Bird” time.

I was sitting at his piano, looking out the window, and I saw a bird up in the tree. And it’s almost like God or grace: The sun was shining. It was mid-afternoon. It was still light in the day and there was a little sunshine.

I wrote the words to “Little Bird.” I left it on his piano. He was upstairs doing something. He called me that night at midnight and had the melody done. He didn’t like one word: “stripe.” So he went right off my lyric. In fact, all my early songs with him, I did the words first. Like “Be Still.” I did the words first and then he did the music. I never wrote off a track with him.

Brian did have a hand in this but never claimed credit. He wrote the bridge part of the music: “Where’s my pretty bird? He must have flown away.”

I wrote the poem, the lyric, when I was sitting at the piano. Brian was not there, only me and Dennis. I wrote the lyric first and then in less than an hour, Dennis found it and was inspired with music. It was as if the words and melody were in him. Brian added his part in the studio.

The Beach Boys, “Little Bird”
By Stephen Kalinich & Dennis Wilson. Produced by Brian Wilson. From the Beach Boys’ album Friends, 1968.

That was our first song and six weeks later it was out all over the world.

 When I said, “the little bird up in a tree looked down and sang a song to me of how it began,” I wanted to repeat the words “how it began.” It was a lesson that the bird was giving me of life.

The little bird’s phrase was about all the secrets of all the universe, and of every song that’s ever been written, and every possible creative act. Because it all comes from the sea of divine love, or energy, if you want to call it that, if you’re a physicist. Or you can call it God, the universal music. The Sufi’s call it the one vibration where all music emanates in the stillness.

It’s also in the Bible, “Be still and know that I am God.”

All this was in “Little Bird.” Later, “Be Still” became a song of its own, but it was already in “Little Bird.” That’s why you can see out of that, the first one, how it began. And then he says, “How it began.” Which meant how all matter began.

Donovan and Stevie.
Photo by Zollo.

It’s about what Einstein wrote about: the all-encompassing universe. “Little Bird” was a microcosm of matter and energy; the creation of the solar system. And I thought all that then when I wrote it. That’s why on the next refrain, the trout in the shiny brook gave a warm and loving look. To say that you don’t need to worry about us. That’s what he said.

So I’m saying by that reflection to you out there listening: “Don’t worry about your life. Here’s all the answers. It’s in the trout. It’s in the little bird. It’s in the flowers in the meadow. ” That theme is running through a lot of my work then. Little bird might drop me a seed for a tree to grow…

It’s so magical, like a Zen moment.

A lot of people misheard the lyric, and got it wrong – and it is even printed wrong often. The real lyric is “the trout in a shiny brook gave a warm and loving look.” But often people think the trout “gave the worm another hook.”

If people sing it that way, fine. But the original thing is that instead of the hook, he gave a warm and loving look and said, “Don’t worry about your life.”

Stevie with Quincy Jones
Photo by Paul Zollo

Other writers borrowed words from other people. I tried to do it from the pure Zen of the experience with simple words that everyone could understand. It was the fashion then to be abstract. But instead of being abstract, I tried to put it in plain words. I wanted to be an effective communicator, and I hope I have become that in some areas.

`Little Bird’ was one of the greatest experiences in my life. The grace of the universe was involved and it has blessed me my whole life.”

“Little Bird”
By STEPHEN KALINICH & DENNIS WILSON

Little bird up in a tree
Looked down and sang a song to me
Of how it began

Na na na na na na
Na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

The trout in the shiny brook
Gave a warm and loving look
And told me not to worry
About my life

Na na na na na na
Na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

Tree in my own backyard
Stands all alone
Bears fruit for me
And it tastes so good

Where’s my pretty bird?
He must have flown away
If I keep singing
He’ll come back someday

Dawn, bird’s still gone
Guess I’ll go mow the lawn

What a day, what a day
Oooo, what a beautiful day this is
Ooooooooo

Little bird up in a tree
Looked down a sang a song to me
The trout in a shiny brook
Gave a warm and loving look
And told me not to worry about my life

Little bird looked down
And sang a song to me
Little bird looked down
And sang a song to me
Little bird looked down
And sang a song to me

6 thoughts on “In Honor of the 80th Birthday of a Great Songwriter, Poet & Friend, Stephen Kalinich

  1. Well said Paul, fantastic tribute Stevie and I trade encouragement and love as well. It’s the glue of the universe that holds us together. Love. Happy Birthday Stevie!!!!!!🙏🏼♥️🙏🏼♥️🙏🏼♥️🙏🏼♥️🎼🎼🎼🎼🎼🎼🎼🎼❤️

  2. Happy Birthday Steve.
    Always enjoyed our annual time to do your taxes. Usually a work of art. At 80 you are still young to me at 86. All the best. Love, Stan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s