Linda Ronstadt: ‘I grew up thinking I was a boy soprano’

From the book I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews


After my initial conversation with Linda Ronstadt, for the 1996 Emmylou Harris story, I always looked forward to speaking with her. She was frank, she was funny, and she seemed to me incapable of telling a falsehood. She was never really “pushing product,” it seemed to me. She just liked to talk. When she and Harris made the record Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions in 1999, I conducted a joint interview with both of them. Trio II had come out by then, with Dolly Parton’s original vocal tracks restored, and she and Linda had made some kind of peace.

For this story, written for in Goldmine in 2003, we were ostensibly on the phone to plug a new Best Of Ronstadt anthology Rhino Records had put out. But that didn’t interest her – or me – at all. So I just turned on the recorder and off we went.


There are many things about her career that Linda Ronstadt wishes she’d done differently. Still, the most successful female singer of the rock ‘n’ roll era is happily 56 years old, raising two young children, and working only when she wants to.

“All musicians, if they say they’re doing it for the audience, they’re probably bullshitting,” Ronstadt says. “Music is a biological necessity. It’s a way that we all have of processing our feelings.

“Everybody really should do music. And once in a while, when you’re doing your music and you’re processing your feelings, you strike a resonant chord with other people. And that’s a wonderful feeling, and it can be very good in that you can make a living. Otherwise you have to get another job, and then you get to do your music in your spare time.”

The doe-eyed Arizona native left Tucson for Los Angeles in 1964 with no particular goal, other than to sing. It took a few years of stumbling, bumbling and feeling her way along, but she finally fell in with the right people, finally made the connection with listeners. “Everybody has their own level of doing their music,” she says. “Mine just happened to resonate over the years, in one way and another, with a significant enough number of people so that I could do it professionally.”

Her career has been a series of happy accidents: She started off as a folksinger, then spent a while marrying country and rock, and for most of the 1970s everything she did – everything – hit big with the rock ‘n’ roll audience.

Her dissatisfaction with it all led to excursions into Broadway, grand opera, orchestrated standards, traditional Mexican music and straight-ahead country.

“Your musical soul is like facets of a jewel, and you stick out one facet at a time,” she says. “I tend to work real hard on whatever it is I do, to get it up to speed, up to a professional level. I tend to bury myself in one thing for years at a time.”

She is grateful for her fans, but has no qualms about letting them know she didn’t like too many of her records. “There’s a famous story where a fan is talking to this famous guitar player – I think Ry Cooder told this story – and the fan is saying oh, you were great tonight, this and that, and the famous guitar player turns to Ry and says ‘Gosh, I was just trying not to suck.’

“That’s what you do. You just try really hard not to suck. And when you record, you try to take out the stuff that’s really embarrassing and just leave all that’s really good, or maybe what you think you got away with, or doesn’t suck.”

Ronstadt’s father was of Mexican-German descent, and he was the first in the family line who didn’t operate a cattle ranch – he ran the Tucson hardware store. Linda and her two siblings – her brother was a boy soprano – grew up listening to Dad crooning Mexican songs. Mom preferred opera.

Linda’s California sojourn began with Kenny Edwards and Bob Kimmel, as the Stone Poneys. The trio was a regular act at the Troubadour on Sunset Strip.

“I wanted to do traditional music, which would include Mexican music,” Ronstadt explains. “I tried to talk them into doing certain Mexican songs. They liked it, but they didn’t really understand the rhythms and how to play it.

“I kept trying to get back to traditional stuff with a lot of harmony, which is what I loved. I remember I had learned ‘Different Drum’ off a Greenbriar Boys record, and I knew it as a bluegrass approach. We recorded it that way, but the producer at Capitol didn’t like it.

“Came back the next day, and there was an orchestra there. So I recorded with an orchestra, because that’s what they told me to do. I never liked it, but it was a big hit.”

“Different Drum” (from Evergreen, Vol. 2, the second of the Poneys’ albums on Capitol) was actually a minor hit, and when the trio split, Ronstadt naturally assumed the recording contract. Three solo albums for the label, all musically rambling and badly produced, garnered some attention from the hippie crowd but failed to turn a profit.

“Long Long Time,” a weepy country ballad from her second solo release, was a Top 30 single in the fall of 1970, but the money wasn’t exactly rolling in. “The immediate problem,” says Ronstadt, “was getting onstage at the Insomniac or wherever your gig was that weekend, or that night. We got paid $300 a week, and we could live on that.

“It was always, let’s try to get better. Can we get a better drummer, or get drums when we didn’t have them before? Or can you find that magical bass player? Or you find some new songs, because you went to New York and you met Gary White or Jerry Jeff Walker, or somebody told you about the McGarrigle Sisters? You don’t think about that other thing. As long as you’re eating, you’re just playing your next gig. And trying to get through it.”

In 1972 David Geffen negotiated her out of the Capitol deal and signed her to his Asylum label. Ronstadt had a cult following, and it was no secret to anyone that, given the right material, the right producer and the right push, she was going to be huge.

For her, it was always about the music.

“I would have a manager that would say to me, ‘You don’t want to do that country shit. It’s too corny.’ And he also managed the Mothers. He wasn’t a musician, he didn’t really know anything about music. I would go to him and say ‘I have this song written by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and it’s really beautiful. I’d like to record it.’ It was ‘Heart Like a Wheel.’ He’d say ‘It’s too corny.’ We struggled along with somebody that Capitol had, Nick Venet … we were never any of us on the same page. I was trying to do one thing, they were trying to do another.”

While recording Don’t Cry Now with producers John Boyland and (then boyfriend) J.D. Souther, Ronstadt met the person who would, very quickly, end her career water-treading and send things into overdrive. His name was Peter Asher.

“I don’t think I would’ve got anywhere without Peter,” Ronstadt recalls. “He walked into the Bitter End with his wife one night, and we were doing a lot of Cajun stuff. I don’t know if my band was very good. I honestly can’t remember who was in it.”

At the time, Asher – a Londoner who’d had enough of fame and fortune as half of the ’60s pop duo Peter and Gordon – was managing and producing James Taylor, and making quite a good wage. He was eager to expand his stable.

“Peter was very cordial, and he was interested,” Ronstadt says. “When we got back to L.A., we had some various little meetings and he said he was interested in managing me – but as it turned out, he already managed Kate Taylor, James’ sister.”

That was, Asher explains, one female singer too many. He liked to give his artists his full attention.

“Bless Kate’s heart, she decided about a year later that a career in music really wasn’t for her,” Ronstadt recalls. “I was with her one night, backstage at a show, and she said ‘You know, you really ought to ask Peter again, because I don’t really think I’m going to be doing this.’”

Asher and Ronstadt met again, and something clicked. “I loved everything Linda was doing,” Asher says. “At that point, it was country rock, for lack of a better term, and I felt the songs were wonderful and she was wonderful. My main aim was to bring it to a wider audience. And to make the best possible record that I thought she could make.”

He came in at the tail end of her first Asylum album Don’t Cry Now, and to fully produce Heart Like a Wheel, her contract-ender with Capitol. Ronstadt: “When I sang ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ for him, he thought it was a wonderful song. He didn’t think it was corny or stupid. So at least we were on the same page musically about more things than I ever was with anybody.”

Asher didn’t think much of the way Ronstadt’s records had been produced. His idea was to focus them, to bring in the very best musicians available and to provide his singer with the best possible showcase for her instrument.

“It’s easy to talk in terms of master plans,” he says. “And of course one does have plans, but in general when you fall in love with an artist and their music, the plan is a fairly simple one. The plan is to make the whole thing as good as it can be. And get people to go and see them, and to make a record that you think properly presents their music to the public – and some of which you can get on the radio.

“I’ve had the good fortune to work with some terrific singers, and they tend to be the kind of singers whose voices are pretty unique, in all different ways. In each case, I’ve tried to have their voices be as well-recorded, as clear and as distinctive as it is in reality.”

His first order of business, as her manager, was to put her in front of as many people as possible. Ronstadt was the opening act for Neil Young’s Time Fades Away tour in early 1973. “So I went from being a club act to playing at Madison Square Garden overnight, which was pretty intimidating,” she says. “But I loved Neil’s music, and I watched every single show. Neil was using a lot of the same musical elements that I’d used. So it was real reinforcing for me to see somebody doing that so well.

“So I got a lot of exposure to people. Apparently they like the way I sang, because even in the coliseums they still listened. It was all completely over my head, I didn’t know what I was doing. We were just making it up as we went along.”

Released in the fall, Don’t Cry Now became Ronstadt’s first Top 50 album, but it wasn’t much different, sonically, from its predecessors (owing, perhaps, to its multiple producers, each of whom had different ideas about how Linda should be presented).

Heart Like a Wheel, however, was all Asher’s baby, and immediately after its appearance in late ’74 it rolled into the Top Ten, making No. 1 in December.

Within a month or two, “You’re No Good” (the old Betty Everett song) and “When Will I Be Loved” (from the Everly Brothers) had risen to No. 1 and 2, respectively.

“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” hit No. 2 on the country chart. A duet with Ronstadt and her new best friend Emmylou Harris, the song brought Ronstadt her first Grammy, for Best Country Vocal Performance.

Asher had taken the best things about country rock – the tight, focused harmonies – and applied them to pop songs, with precise and compelling performances from the backing musicians.

And there out in front, her voice sounding big and yet still vulnerable, was little Linda, barefoot in the middle of the stage.

“The oldies,” says Ronstadt, “were because I was a club act, or I had a concert that I had to pace, and they were just things that we could do. They were songs that maybe I liked, or I had some quirky interest in, but basically I sang ballad after ballad after ballad.

“Songs that I was really passionate about were songs like ‘Heart Like a Wheel,’ so there I was with all these ballads. I had to have some way to structure shows. It’s always been a problem for me.”

Between 1975 and ’80, Ronstadt placed 13 songs in the American Top 40, seven of them in the Top 10. Several of her biggest singles were oldies – from Roy Orbison (“Blue Bayou”) to Chuck Berry (“Back in the U.S.A”) to the Vandellas (“Heat Wave”) to Buddy Holly (“That’ll Be the Day,” “It’s So Easy”).

No matter that the programming on her albums was as eclectic as ever – she covered Warren Zevon, Neil Young, James Taylor, Little Feat, the McGarrigles and Randy Newman – the singles were almost uniformly old rock or R&B songs done up in the Asher style.

Still, her albums went multi-platinum out of the box, she was a star of the highest magnitude, and you’d do well not to argue with success.

“When you’re struggling, one is always grateful for a hit,” Ronstadt says. “But I’d go ‘Why that one, and why not this other one? I like this one better.’ It was just that way, and I got stuck.

“Eventually I just had to turn away from a lot of those songs because I outgrew them. And they don’t speak for me any more, and sometimes they just flat out bored me until I was crosseyed.”


It’s so easy

As she toured incessantly, as her fame grew and her bank account swelled, she began to question the validity – for her – of the songs she was putting out there. “They all have their time and their place,” she explains. “I mean, if Martha Reeves were singing ‘Heat Wave’ tomorrow I’d listen, it’s a neat piece of material. But it wasn’t something that spoke for me. You have to use music to speak for you, and to speak for what your feelings are, and it just wasn’t who I was after a while. A song like ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ isn’t ever not who you are. It’s a song that grows with you; it’s not a song that’s locked into one age.

“I just remember waxing my floor, after my boyfriend and I had broken up, and singing ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.’ I just wanted to sing that for two weeks. Or when I learned ‘Willing,’ you know, when Lowell George taught me how to play it, I just wanted to play it and play it. I just loved it.”

Concurrent with the mega-success was a gnawing distaste for public performing, of the sports stadiums with their awful acoustics, and of the superstar grind, with its inherent lack of privacy.

On the road, Ronstadt was literally the only woman in a dysfunctional traveling circus full of men – her manager, her band, her crew. And although she sometimes got involved romantically with one of the boys, she was a reluctant center of attention. “It felt uncomfortable and awkward and unbalanced,” she recalls. “My first cousin Alisa was in the first female class they admitted to Yale, and I used to think about her a lot. I thought it was very comparable what she and I went through.

“The pressure, of course, is to adopt their swagger and their speech mannerisms, which I did. I just swore like a sailor. I adopted all the slang and everything, which you do. And it was very, very hard to clean up my language, especially when I have children in the house.”

And then … “I gotta tell you about drugs. I’m not gonna say I didn’t inhale, because I inhaled, I snorted, I this, I that. I didn’t inject. But I have some kind of a liver that just doesn’t metabolize drugs. It just won’t. I mean, I can’t take prescription drugs or drink coffee.

“So I have to say I tried most everything and didn’t like much of anything. But it was so much a part of the scene. I can’t drink at all; I never drank. Some people drink and say ‘I got a great buzz going, I feel really good’ and they get really mellow. I just throw up. And I have to go to bed for a long time. It’s like getting a bad case of the flu.

“I felt the same way about smoking pot. I just didn’t like it. After 20 minutes I’d feel like I wanted to peel my skin off with a knife.”

Her private life, too, was the subject of public scrutiny. After Souther, Ronstadt lived with writer/actor Albert Brooks, and was involved later with California governor Jerry Brown and Star Wars wizard George Lucas.

Reading about herself on the band bus, Ronstadt laughed all the time. “It was just so made up,” she says. “First of all, most of us didn’t have lives. We were on the road all the time. In the beginning of the book Heart of Darkness, he talks about how provincial sailors are. And we were just incredibly provincial.

“We’d get into these tight group dynamics. There’s some kind of a neuro-transmitter that’s released in your brain that’s incredibly pleasurable when you’re experiencing shared labor or shared endeavors. It really is fun and great. So we’d get into this tight little thing and it would kind of be ‘us against them.’ It increased paranoia and gave you this sort of strange fish-in-a-barrel mentality, and I don’t think it’s very healthy.”

In the 1970s, Ronstadt’s image was just as famous as her music. She was not only a great singer, she was a hot chick, and her album covers drove home the point again and again.

“I photographed OK from one angle,” she shrugs. “Those photographs are culled from thousands.”

Ronstadt offers no apologies. “Am I going to say I didn’t like it when someone thought I was cute? I was never beautiful, I was cute, and for some reason men liked me. I didn’t have a great figure and I didn’t have whatever you had to have to be like a model.

“People believe what they want to believe. When you’re trying to sell records, and the record company says ‘this picture doesn’t really look like you, but it will sell records,’ you say sure. Put a picture of a fire engine on the cover if you think it’ll sell records.

“Do I think it’s unfortunate that this culture forces that on women? Yes. We are taught that that’s what will sell. We aim to please. And I think it’s a shame.”

She drew the line when Rolling Stone photographer Annie Liebowitz “tricked” her into posing in nothing more than a skimpy red slip. Liebowitz, Ronstadt said, had shot her against red wallpaper – and the slip photo, depicting the singer lying submissively on a bed, her red underpants exposed – was taken during a break.

A week later, Liebowitz returned to Ronstadt’s home. “She brought the projector over and very politely showed us the pictures,” Ronstadt said. “We said ‘oh, we can’t use those,’ and she said ‘I didn’t say that you could choose them, I just said I could let you see them.’ At which point Peter unceremoniously threw her out of the house.”

So much for Rolling Stone. “I never had any respect for the magazine,” Ronstadt said. “I just thought I could respect her work.”

For her 1980 release, Mad Love, Ronstadt recorded a selection of edgy songs from Mark Goldenberg of the Cretones, and Elvis Costello. Less a conscious move into trendy “new wave” music than a reflection of the contemporary material she and the band were listening to on their long bus rides, Mad Love nevertheless sold considerably less than its predecessors.

“It’s just that she likes good music,” Asher points out. “And recognized how good punk was. And that isn’t the same thing as trying to jump on a bandwagon. I think it’s a genuine question of her excellent musical taste.”

The combination of boredom with her career and the desire to avoid repeating herself came to a head when Ronstadt accepted an invitation from producer Joseph Papp to co-star in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway in 1981.

“When I was a little child, I knew all of the Gilbert and Sullivan songs,” she says. “And I really wanted to play only in a theater, only as a concert artist. I didn’t want to play in sporting arenas. They were clearly inappropriate places for music. And anybody that thinks otherwise is a fool.

“Those settings changed the music so profoundly, because all you can hear are those high, arching, ringing guitar solos. You don’t have a chance for subtlety. You’re not working with anything that’s real. You’re hearing echoes of echoes and ghosts of ghosts.”

She loved the 14-hour days of constant rehearsal, staying in one place and ordering out for lunch. It was so very different from what she’d been doing for 10 years.

“I grew up thinking I was a boy soprano, so I wanted to use my high voice. I never really got to it early enough. It’s a shame in a way, because had I over-developed the bottom part of my voice so much that it was really hard to get into that other voice.”

She followed the Pirates production with a film version, which she despises, and a “return to form” album called Get Closer – which, aside from its title song being turned into a toothpaste commercial, was not a success. Which was fine with Linda Ronstadt.


It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

In the old days, Ronstadt and Souther used to sit up late at night, after she’d returned home from her Troubadour gigs, and put on the Frank Sinatra album Only the Lonely. A collection of intimate and heartbreaking popular songs from the 1940s and ’50s, it was (and still is) considered the vocal record by which all vocal records are measured. Nelson Riddle’s aching orchestral arrangements were constructed around Sinatra’s impeccable phrasing.

Once Get Closer and the Pirates movie tanked, Ronstadt started thinking about what to do next. “After I went to Broadway, I was really dying to not have to sing rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “What I wanted to do was work on my phrasing, and to get my musicianship cranked up a couple more notches.

“So I did what I always do – I go ‘What was before this? What’s this built on? Whose shoulders is this standing on?’” Her search led her back to Nelson Riddle, George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. “There were people that I knew but I hadn’t really studied. So I started to study them, and the songs are so sophisticated, they’re complex.

“It’s like a Brian Wilson song – if you can sing it, you can really sing it. Because it’s written for a singer. So even though they’re kind of quote-unquote hard, if you can do it they’re easier than singing something that has a two-note range. Because you can get more out of it.”

She wouldn’t be the first rock singer to attempt the old standards, nor would she be the last. Still, she was determined to give it a try, and the first step, she knew, was to get Nelson Riddle in her corner.

“I think he was just dying to work,” Ronstadt remembers. “He didn’t particularly know who I was. I think he may have heard of me vaguely, but he didn’t know my work – nor much care, I don’t think. He liked some rock ‘n’ roll, but not very much of it. He wasn’t against it. To go from as complex an art form as he practiced to as simple an art form as that … he was a musician, so he liked and appreciated good music.”

Riddle pored over the enthusiastic Ronstadt’s suggested song titles, putting aside the ones he didn’t think she – or the orchestra – was capable of. “When he met me and heard me sing, he knew that I could sing,” Ronstadt says. “And he told me so. I didn’t create these songs in their original settings like Billie Holiday did, or Ella Fitzgerald, but I felt like they were really open to me for my interpretations, from my time, to tell my story. Which resonates with a lot of other people’s stories.”

Recorded with full orchestra, What’s New was released in November 1983, and its resonance was heard all across America: The album reached No. 2 in Billboard, sold multi–platinum and spawned two nearly-as-successful sequels. Ronstadt had re-invented herself once more.

Peter Asher, being practical as ever, had wondered aloud about making a standards album, let alone three. He considered the likes of Gershwin and Porter “elevator music, a lot of old boring songs from shows.”

Still he provided immaculate production on What’s New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons. “I was on the side of the people going ‘This is a big mistake; it probably won’t sell,’” Asher recalls. “Which isn’t the same thing as saying ‘Don’t do it.’

“I did say that I thought the record company were right in their pessimistic view of whether anyone would buy it. And of course I and the record company were 100 percent completely and absolutely wrong.”

In the winter of 1984, Ronstadt appeared as Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme, the grandest of Grand Operas, at New York’s Public Theatre. “I was just following music that I loved,” she says. “I was just chasing the things that I heard when I was little.

“I could’ve made a different choice when I was 14. I could’ve made a choice to become an opera singer, and then I would’ve only sung things like Boheme. I don’t know whether I would’ve become successful as an opera singer, although I have a big voice and a big range, and I’m musical so I suppose I would’ve had as good a shot as anybody going into that.”

Ronstadt, Harris and chum Dolly Parton had tried in the ’70s to make an acoustic country record based around their three-part fireside harmonies; Trio appeared in 1987, put three singles into the Country Top Five and climbed to No. 6 on the album charts.

The union was short-lived, however, and Trio II (1997) would have a long gestation period – due essentially to a falling out between Ronstadt and Parton.

For Sentimental Reasons was originally to have been a double album, but Nelson Riddle’s death in 1985 cut things short. Ronstadt and Riddle had planned to record in Brazil and Cuba with the maestro’s old friend Antonio Carlos Jobim (the Afro-Caribbean sound would permeate Frenesi, her third Spanish language album, in 1992).

With the success of the Riddle and Trio records, Ronstadt realized she never had to sing “Heat Wave” again if she didn’t want to. And she really, really didn’t want to.

“People think you’re sitting back thinking ‘well, what direction do I put my career next?’ And it really isn’t like that at all. It’s ‘I kind of like this song.’ It’s just like following lights in the swamp – I go ‘Ohhhhh. That.’”

Canciones De Mi Padre, a collection of traditional Mexican songs she’d learned at her father’s knee back in Arizona, appeared in 1988. “The Mexican stuff, I wanted to do from the beginning,” Ronstadt says. “But in the ’60s and ’70s, when I said ‘I want to make a Mexican record,’ they’d say well, Joan Baez cut a Spanish record and it didn’t sell.’ Oh. I got dead silence.

“So I’d cut a few songs in Spanish, but they weren’t the songs I wanted to do. I wanted to do traditional Mexican music. And you can’t just do one of those and put it on a pop record, because it just doesn’t fit.”

She says she knew the time was right “as soon as I got a chance to meet the guys that could play it really right, really authentic Mexican musicians … which I never had the chance to because they never went out of Mexico! And I was always on the road, playing in a hockey rink in Cleveland or something.”

Canciones De Mi Padre and its followup, Mas Canciones (1991) did not tear up the charts the way the Riddle records had, but Ronstadt didn’t care a whit. She had enough fame and enough money, thank you, and was pursuing whatever musical direction she felt like.

In 1989, following a performance in New Orleans, she and some friends went out to hear the Neville Brothers in a club, and Aaron Neville invited her onto the stage. They sang “Ave Maria” – it was the only song they seemed to know in common – and a friendship developed.

Less than a year later, the Ronstadt/Neville duet “Don’t Know Much” reached No. 2 on the pop charts. Her Cry Like a Rainstorm – Howl Like the Wind album, featuring four duets with Neville, made it into the Top 10.

With no interest in “momentum” after so many years, Ronstadt next turned out Mas Canciones and Frenesi. In 1993, she co–produced (with George Massenburg) Jimmy Webb’s album Suspending Disbelief.

She’s made a few more pop albums since, and in 1999 collaborated with Harris on Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions.

Her friendship with Harris, Ronstadt said, had been partially responsible for her shift away from country rock in the mid ’70s. “She was chasing what I was trying to do, and she was doing it so well. I’m not saying that it made me record differently, but I surrendered a little bit more willingly to going more toward rock ‘n’ roll.

“But it doesn’t matter, you know? Because to me, that was a profound moment, because it made me aware of the kinds of informed choices I was going to make for the rest of my life. It made me know that a certain amount of my values, and the things that I was trained and brought up with, were firm in me. And one of them was that if you see something you admire, you can destroy your own admiration of it by feeling jealous or competitive, or you can just love it. And I made that choice. And I have continued to do so.”

She’s sung with Pavarotti, Jagger and Kermit the Frog. She sang with Sinatra. On an early ’70s TV variety show, she even sang with Neil Diamond (Ronstadt does not remember this, but the author saw it).

Her children, ages 8 and 11, are her favorite collaborators these days. Ronstadt performs when she wants to – she does orchestra shows and Mexican shows, for the most part – but at the end of the day, she’s only seeking approval from two people.

“My son got hold of this new Best Of CD that came out,” she said. “They’d sent me a box of them, and they were in the basement.

He came running upstairs and said ‘Mommy, you sing oldies!’ And I said ‘Get that out of there!’ It just ruins my day if I have to listen to it. I just can’t bear it.”

Waylon Jennings: ‘I’m allergic to bullshit’

There it was in the news, like a welcome blast from a long-ago past: Waylon Jennings Walks Off CBS Talk Show. For an instant, it was the ’70s again, when Waylon refused to play on the CMA broadcast because they wanted him to shorten his song; it was the ’80s, when Waylon stomped out of the We Are the World recording session because Michael Jackson had asked him to sing in Swahili.

Stubbornness and insubordination, any old decade – hell, it has to be Waylon, a man who’s made a career out of speaking his mind, of not taking any guff, of doing things whichever way he pleased. Today, when its artists come stamped from a cookie cutter, smiling and kissing babies on command, country music sure could use a rugged individualist like Waylon, one of Nashville’s first “outlaws,” and subsequently the first to dare wonder out loud, “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?”

Like Jones, Haggard, Cash and the rest of the grizzled old guard, however, Waylon is considered old news in Nashville. Those who have written him off, however, probably haven’t heard Closing In On the Fire, his latest album on the independent Ark 21 label, or Old Dogs, his sublimely stupid collection of country comedy bits with Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed, Shel Silverstein and Mel Tillis.

Waylon Jennings is 61 years old, and although he’s starting to slow down, the life ain’t been squeezed out of him yet. Hell, just ask Tom Snyder.

BDY: OK, why did you walk off the Tom Snyder show?

Waylon Jennings: I had turned that show down twice because there were two guests on it. If you count the commercials and everything, there’s about 40 minutes of the entire thing. Well, they said ‘She’ll do six to eight minutes,’ the lady psychiatrist or whatever she was, ‘we’ll go to a break and then we’ll come back with you.’ That was the agreement I had with them.

I got there, and 30 minutes into the show I’m still sitting there. And that’s when I told them, you got 10 more minutes and then I’m leaving. I told everybody in the room to be ready, and 10 more minutes, it still didn’t look anything was gonna happen. And so I left.

You know, if I had it to do over, I’d do it again. It kind of turned into Keystone Cops there for a little bit, they were trying to get me back. They even demanded I be brought back by the driver. He said ‘They’ve ordered me back,’ and I said you think about the here and now, not about what’s gonna happen later. Because if you turn this car around, something’s gonna happen here.


It reminded me of ‘We Are the World.’ You walked out of that, too.

I got tired of everybody pattin’ everybody on the back. And here they come in with all these ideas, wantin’ to sing part of it in Swahili. I just got tired of all the bullshit, and I’m allergic to bullshit, so I left.

It was the same thing with Tom Snyder. I shouldn’t have been on the Tom Snyder show anyway, because we have nothing whatsoever in common.


Whose idea was the Old Dogs project?

That was Bobby Bare’s idea. Him and Shel Silverstein got together. Bobby’s the guy who kept callin’ Chet Atkins years ago, until he signed me. Chet signed me without even knowing what I looked like.


Maybe he wouldn’t have signed you if he knew.

Shit, no! Ugly is ugly. Anyway, I’ve known Shel for 30 years … but I was really sick at the time we started that project. The way we did the songs, every once in a while I’d call and say ‘Look, I guess I can come in and see if I can do a track.’ I could do maybe half a track, then go in and do the rest of it later.


Did you have the flu, or what?

I had a stroke. Some plaque came off in my bloodstream, and it went into my brain. Anybody could’ve had it.

But I went ahead and did it because Bobby asked me, and he’s a dear friend. For him to ask me, I’ll do it.


Are you feeling all right now?

I feel great now. I completely recovered from all of that. I went into congestive heart failure. I went out to Arizona for a while and kind of just worked at gettin’ back on my feet. And I did.

I had actually run into the wall, though, traveling and touring, so I’ve been off for about a year and a half. So I’m doin’ better now.


You said at one point you had thought about quitting, because radio was ignoring artists such as yourself. Had you really considered it?

You know what, I did. But then all of a sudden I started writing again, and I picked up the guitar and started tryin’ to play again. So as long as I feel like playing, as long as I like it, as long as I’m having a good time with it, then I’ll do it.

But they’re not going to dictate to me when I quit. Or how long I can stay in this business. The business is not going to dictate that to me.

I just read your new album reached Number One on the Americana chart. And then I heard it was your 72nd! How does that make you feel?

You know what? I don’t keep score. I appreciate anything good that happens to an album, but I think I’ll know when I’m over the hill. I can still sing, and I can still write good. And as long as that happens, as long as there are people out there who want to hear it, I’ll probably do something.


Is it frustrating to not get on the radio any more?

With the music that’s on the radio now, I do not want to be mixed up with that. I want nothing to do with that, and I don’t want to be known to be from this era. These tight Levis and these hats … I’ll tell you who are wonderful, and that’s the girls. The girls are gettin’ better material, and they’re workin’ harder at it. And I think they’re cuttin’ better records than the men.


I wonder if you ever regretted coming out clean on your drug problems?

No, I don’t worry about that. Because somebody might see it and maybe it’ll help ’em. That’s not a good thing. I did it, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. I wish I hadn’t. It’s just part of my life—if you take me, you have to take that too.

@1998 Bill DeYoung

Passports and planes: South Florida and the Beatles in 1964

Story written for the Stuart/Port St. Lucie News (on Florida’s “Treasure Coast”) in February, 2004, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America.

I had asked readers with any connection to that momentous event, however tenuous, to call me and share their memories.

These were the responses I got. The big surprise came a day or two after this story was published … I’ve included it at the very end.


Stuart resident George Lowe isn’t a Beatles fan, and never was, but during his tenure as a vice counsel at the American embassy in Paris in January 1964, he got closer to them than many fans ever would.

Just before their trip to New York and the Ed Sullivan shows, the Beatles were playing a two-week stand at Paris’ Olympia Theatre. Manager Brian Epstein arranged for the quartet to get their H1-H2 visas, which would allow them to work in America.

“Normally they would’ve had to go back to their hometown in Liverpool to get their work visa,” says the 75-year-old Lowe, a resident of Stuart. “But their manager didn’t want them to go back to England; they’d lose money. It was just time and a problem.

“I think they asked somebody in the embassy, probably our boss, for a waiver for the Beatles. They were give the exception and didn’t have to go back to Liverpool.”

As a visa agent, it fell to George Lowe to interview the Beatles before giving them clearance to work abroad.

“They came all together with their agent, and they joked around in the outer lobby,” Lowe says. People were laughing because they had to wait. They put their names in, and they went through the same system as everybody else. We got little cards on them, and the cards said ‘Don’t ask them any hard questions, they’re OK.’ In other words, they’re pre-approved by somebody.”

There were two agents in the office, and the four Beatles were split between them.

“I don’t remember which two I had,” says Lowe. “They were young and they were very pleasant. They had those haircuts and those Cockney accents.”

The brief questions asked were routine – were they returning to England? Did they have permanent places of residence?

“They said yeah, they were coming back,” Lowe says with a chuckle. “And I remember them saying they hoped they’d make money.”

One of the original jet pilots for Pan Am, Dean Postlewaite often took the big birds from London to New York.

On Feb. 7, 1964, Postlewaite – who has spent the last 20 winters on Hutchinson Island with his wife Betty – flew into history. He had the Beatles on his plane, on their way to America for the very first time.

“He didn’t even know who they were, although they had told him in London,” says Betty Postlewaite (at her husband’s request, she told his story for this article). “They told him these characters were getting on the plane, but it didn’t mean anything to him. He didn’t know who the Beatles were.”

The pilot had no interaction with his passengers, and didn’t think much about it – until the end of the flight.

“When they got to the airport in New York, there was this big mob there,” Betty Postlewaite explains. More than 3,000 teenagers were there to greet the plane. “He came home and told us and, of course, our three kids got all excited.”

Dean, now 87, retired in 1976.

“When I think of all the others that he’s done – he had John F. Kennedy on his plane once – everybody seems to think the Beatles were the most historic,” says Betty.

“He doesn’t like to talk about it – he’s pretty quiet – but it was his claim to fame. We’ve always joked about it.”

For Lovedy Lytle of Port St. Lucie, talking about the Beatles brings back bittersweet memories.

Lytle’s late husband, Hub, was a saxophone, clarinet and flute player for Ed Sullivan’s orchestra in New York City. IN 1964, not long after the couple had retired to Florida, Hub got an offer to do “pickup” work as part of he studio band for the Beatles’ second Sullivan appearance, which was to be broadcast, live, from the Beauville Hotel on Miami Beach.

“He was hired for the gig because they knew he was down here,” Lytle says.

“When he got this call about them, he said ‘Who the hell are the Beatles?’” Lytle says with a laugh. “He was far from a teenager.”

Still, he got the job, and during rehearsal on the morning of Feb. 16, he came out through the hotel lobby and handed his wife three tickets.

“So my daughter and her boyfriend were privileged to see the Beatles at the Deauville,” Lytle says. “And in their age group, of course, that was a big thing.”

For her part, Lovedy Lytle was a jazz fan and none too impressed. “Well, the kids enjoyed it,” she says.

Hub spent the next six years as a member of Jackie Gleason’s Miami-based TV orchestra. He died in 1992.

Stuart resident Pamela Hurst Bachmann was at the Deauville that cold Sunday in 1964. She was 15 years old and living with her parents in Hollywood when a man for whom she baby-sat offered her four tickets to the Ed Sullivan broadcast; he couldn’t go. She was already a huge Beatles fan and couldn’t believe her good fortune.

Along with her boyfriend and her parents, Bachmann waited for hours in the Deauville lobby to get inside the ballroom. Her father wanted to go because singing starlet Mitzi Gaynor was also on the show that day.

“We had pretty decent seats,” Bachmann recalls. “But when the Beatles came on there was so much screaming and noise, because it was not a large place, with a low ceiling.”

It was hard, she says, to discern which songs the group was performing, because of the screams around her. “And I was actually doing my fair share.”

Published in the Stuart News Feb. 7, 2004.

And then there was this …

Paul Cole, of the Barefoot Bay community (near Vero Beach) respondent to my request just after the above story had been published. I told him it was too late, but I wanted to hear his Beatles story anyway.

It blew me way.

Shortly after I published Mr. Cole’s incredible tale, I was contacted by several British newspapers, asking how to get in touch with him. They didn’t get it from me, but they soon found him, and made him very briefly famous.

@2004 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers

You want to talk about being in the right place at the right time?

Paul Cole, a retired salesman on Florida’s Treasure Coast, is in one of the most beloved, most reproduced and most iconic photographs of the past 35 years.

Get out your copy of Abbey Road, the final Beatles album, and still the best-selling record of their illustrious career. You’ll see the four Beatles walking single-file on the crosswalk in front of their recording studio, which just happened to be on Abbey Road in north London.

In the background, just behind John Lennon, is Paul Cole.

The picture was taken on the morning of Aug. 8, 1969. Photographer Iain McMillan brought the four Beatles outside, had them walk back and forth a few times, shot for 15 minutes and called it a day.

The picture everybody liked found the Beatles stepping symmetrically.

At that very moment, Cole – on vacation from Deerfield Beach – had opted out of entering a museum on Abbey Road with his wife.

“I told her ‘I’ve seen enough museums. You go on in, take your time and look around and so on, and I’ll just stay out here and see what’s going on outside,'” says the 93–year-old Cole, who was in his 50s at the time.

Parked just outside was a black police vehicle.

“I like to just start talking with people,” Cole says. “I walked out, and that cop was sitting there in that police car. I just started carrying on a conversation with him. I was asking him about all kinds of things, about the city of London and the traffic control, things like that. Passing the time of day.

“I don’t know why he was sitting there for so long; maybe he knew that was coming, I don’t know. But he showed no evidence of it at all.”

Cole and the police van are visible in several of McMillan’s available alternate shots, all taken from the same spot (atop a stepladder in the middle of the street).

“I just happened to look up, and I saw those guys walking across the street like a line of ducks,” he recalls. “A bunch of kooks, I called them, because they were rather radical-looking at that time. You didn’t walk around in London barefoot.”

About a year later, Cole first noticed the Abbey Road album on top of the family record player (with Paul McCartney sans shoes). He did a double-take when he eyeballed McMillan’s photo.

“I had a new sportcoat on, and I had just gotten new shell–rimmed glasses before I left,” he says. “I had to convince the kids that that was me for a while. I told them ‘Get the magnifying glass out, kids, and you’ll see it’s me.

“And they saw it, and they went ‘Oh, boy!’ We had a laugh about it.”

Wayne Kramer, the proto-punk

July 2012: Soon-to-be controversial director Randall Miller is in Savannah making the godawful film CBGB (another story for another day).

In walks American punk legend Wayne Kramer (RIP Wayne 2024).

SAVANNAH, GA. – In the United States, the punk “movement” began in the urban areas in the mid 1960s. Rock ‘n’ roll was growing, not necessarily up but in all sorts of lateral directions.

Ferocious, loud and snotty, punk came out of the cities, crafted by kids who were fed up with wearing matching stage uniforms and playing polite Beatles and Stones covers, kids who wanted to express the rebellion they were feeling at home, in society, in the political system, as their world dramatically changed.

The point can be (and is) argued, but the MC5 are generally considered the first true “punk” band signed to a major record label. The Detroit quintet (the initials stand for Motor City Five) arrived via Elektra Records (then lighting America’s fire with its star act, the Doors) in 1969 with Kick Out the Jams, a blistering collection of fast and furious songs with decidedly political lyrics.

(The early MC5 were managed by John Sinclair, Michigan’s most anarchic left–wing rabble–rouser, founder of the radical White Panther Party.)

Even with the politics toned down on subsequent releases, such as the brilliant Back in the USA, the band never really connected with a mainstream audience. By comparison, the MC5’s Detroit pals, the Stooges, became history’s poster boys for punkish musical rebellion.

Wayne Kramer was the MC5’s incendiary guitar god (Rolling Stone has enshrined him on its list of history’s Top 100 guitarists). The band effectively broke up in the early 1970Ss, when Kramer was convicted of drug charges and sent to prison, but he’s a survivor.

In fact, the legendary guitarist, 64, was in town this week and toured the Meddin Studios set of CBGB, a reproduction of a place he’d played many, many times.

He and his wife work with the prison assistance program Jail Guitar Doors — named for a Clash song that begins with a verse about Kramer himself — and he earns a living by composing music for movies and television, most notably the HBO series Eastbound and Down.

Why are you in Savannah?

Wayne Kramer: We’ve been talking with the writer and director about the possibility of me scoring the film. We haven’t agreed on anything yet, but I love the story, I really like the writer and the director and all the people involved in the film. I think it’s a story that I’m uniquely positioned to be able to add the musical dimension to. At least, it’s my hope.

The set is terrific. The only thing missing is the smell!

Did the MC5 ever play CBGB?


Wayne Kramer: No, the MC5 actually ended, officially, in 1972. And during the peak of the CBGB era I was actually in prison. But I came back in ’78, and I moved to New York in ’79, so I was part of that scene from ’79 to ’89. I played there.

Set the scene for me … New York punk at the turn of the decade.

Wayne Kramer: The music scene in New York in the early ‘80s was pretty exciting. There was a lot going on. There were a lot of places to play, there were a lot of bands, people were really trying to make something happen. It wasn’t as if the first wave of punk had ended — it just kind of continued to roll for a while. There was a lot of input coming from England at the time. It was a time when the record industry concluded that  “punk rock” was too dangerous, and so they called it “new wave.”

After what the MC5 had done, it must have been somewhat gratifying to see that, all those years later, the flame was still being passed around.

Wayne Kramer: It’s always nice to be recognized for your work. I think the MC5 represents a kind of uncompromising stance that is locked in amber. It’s locked in time, you know? The MC5 never went on to be big, famous, multi–millionaire international celebrities, so the concept of the band is locked. It’s like James Dean — he’ll always be that beautiful young man, or Marilyn Monroe will always be that beautiful, luscious blonde. We never get to know any of these people as old and bald, overweight and cranky.

And so I think that when music fans start to connect the dots back, when they find a band they like … they like the Clash, and so they say “Who influenced the Clash?” And then they read the Clash or the Ramones like the MC5. And they go back to the MC5.

I put together a new version of the MC5, and we toured around the world. And to be able to play the MC5’s music for a whole new generation of rock fans — who knew the music better than they did the first time around, and would sing along with the songs — was really exciting. And something I’d never anticipated, or actually ever thought would happen.

You and Fred Smith started the band around 1964. How did it become what it became?

Wayne Kramer: I’ll give you the capsule synopsis. I wanted to start a band, so I looked around at school for other kids that wanted to be in a band with me. I found this guy Fred Smith, who I heard played bongos. And I figured a band could use a bongo player.

Then I found out Fred could play the guitar a little bit, so I tutored him. We started a band together, and we played in a lot of separate bands. Because this was a time in America where everything was booming. In Detroit, there were good union jobs, a family could be supported on one paycheck, and they could afford to buy kids an electric guitar. So there were a lot of bands, and there was a lot going on.

We met up with Rob Tyner, we ultimately finished out the band with Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis. In the beginning, we were really trying to learn how to play instrumentals. Ventures, Johnny & the Hurricanes, that kind of thing.

Of course, you can’t grow up in Detroit without a huge influence of rhythm ‘n’ blues. I always gravitated to rhythm ‘n’ blues music. The groove was stronger. And so we started covering James Brown songs, songs that we could play to make the crowd dance. We were always interested in motivating people to dance.

Ultimately, we decided that the best bet would be for us to learn how to write our own songs. And that was really where the concept of the MC5 emerged.

How did it end up getting so hard, and loud, and sped up?

Wayne Kramer: A couple things. One was the frustration that we felt in the world at large. We knew everything was wrong, but we didn’t quite know what to say about it, except to play harder and faster. We were frustrated city kids, working class kids, and it was all we knew. We ultimately became able to articulate that in the failure of our great institutions, religion and politics. And that our parents’ generation were carrying everything in the wrong direction, and we were convinced that we could do something about it.

The other influence was, of course, the music of the free jazz movement. The music of Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra, and John Coltrane. When I combined the best Chuck Berry I could play with Albert Ayler, I said “I know where I want my band to go.”

What was it like when Elektra Records came around and said “Hey, want a record deal?” Did that surprise you?

Wayne Kramer: No, we worked pretty hard at it, we were very focused. The band wasn’t a temporary thing with me, or the other fellas. We were totally committed to what we were trying to do. I think the significance of the MC5 is that we spoke directly to the audience. We didn’t talk around them, we didn’t talk at them. We talked to them, and with them, about the things that they really cared about. It wasn’t about “I’m a great blues guitar player” or my clothes or anything. It was about things that people were upset about — the war, racism, police brutality.

Elektra signed us, and they asked me if there were any other bands around like the MC5. I said “There’s no other bands like the MC5, but we have a ‘brother band’ that you should hear. They’re called the Psychedelic Stooges.” And when the Elektra talent agent, Danny Fields, heard the Stooges he said “Great, we’re gonna offer them a contract, too.” So I got them their deal! Which they well deserved. They would’ve got it anyway.

Michael died earlier this year. Were you guys still playing together?

Wayne Kramer: We played our last concert together last summer in France. And he was very ill. He was still very excited about playing. He had been ill for a long time. In the world of music, and in general, in everybody’s life nowadays, there’s the possibility of abusing substances. Drugs and alcohol. And the MC5, we championed substance abuse to a great degree.

But some of us go too far with it. Drug addiction and alcoholism are fatal diseases. You can’t cure them, but you can treat them successfully. They can be arrested. And three of the MC5 members died as a result of drug and alcohol abuse.

Tell me about your program Jail Guitar Doors.

Wayne Kramer: It’s a simple idea. I’m an ex–offender, and I went to prison. And I wondered for a long time what happened to me. How did that change me? It didn’t change me for the better, and I don’t believe prison changes anyone for the better. And I wondered, what could I do about it? What we do is we find people that work in prisons, that are willing to use music as a tool for rehabilitation. And we donate guitars to the prison for the use of rehabilitation.

Playing music in prison is a life raft. It’s a way to escape prison — you can get out of prison for the hour or two that you spend playing music. It also teaches you to focus your concentration. It gives someone a new way to express themselves, and process their problems non–confrontationally.

We’ve been in operation for three years now. We’ve delivered guitars to prisons in New York, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, California.

I believe in safe streets, and I believe in the rule of law. I believe in accountability. But I think the punishment should fit the crime. To lock up someone for decades for marijuana? I think that’s unjust and un–American.

Considering everything, are you amazed that you’re still here?

Wayne Kramer: Yeah, sometimes I have occasion to think back on some of the unbelievably stupid stuff I’ve done. And how could I have gotten myself into those positions? I used to think I was smart. I don’t think I’m so smart any more. If I was so smart, I wouldn’t have done all those things.

I wish I could take credit for it. I fell in with a group of people that showed me how to live where drinking and drugging wasn’t necessary. Listen, I wanted to change. I wanted to get sober. And I did. And help is available for anyone else that wants to get sober. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to change.

@2012 Connect Savannah

Hey, Bo Diddley! The final conversation

Bo lived in the country, not far from the Gainesville city limits. I first met him in the early ‘80s, and over the years, I’d check in with him to write this or that story for the newspaper. He was always surrounded by family, but I always had the feeling that he was lonely, like the neighbor kid who’d beg you to stay and play just a little bit longer. He loved to show off his electronic equipment out in the barn – he was usually hot-wiring some amplifier, soldering a guitar body or overdubbing a rhythm track with an old tape machine. He’d say “Check this out,” and grab a handy microphone, hit the playback button and rap over the track. Live. Smiling the whole time. He was always demonstrating something new.

I did this career-spanning story for Goldmine in 2003. I wanted to cover it all, for posterity, and as it turned out, this was the last time I ever spoke with him. He died, at home, five years later.

At age 74, Bo Diddley may not be a spring chicken, exactly, but he’s hardly courting the rocking chair. Although Bo and his wife Sylvia live a relatively quiet life on 80 acres in Central Florida, six nights a month you’ll find the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer on a stage somewhere in America, wailing on his rectangular guitar, pounding out the most intoxicating of primitive rhythms, and singing with all the energy and fervor of a man half his age.

Bo Diddley, he’s a man. Spelled M-A-N.

He’d rather be retired, casting for bass or tinkering with an old car engine, but this is how he makes his living. He receives no publishing royalties, having sold his great songs many years ago to clear up some debts. The terms of the record contracts he signed in the 1950s afford him very little money – if he didn’t perform today, he says, he wouldn’t have any steady income.

He’s been an entertainer all his life, though, and nothing gives him more pleasure than making an audience happy.

And those audiences, they know who he is. He likes that.

“I was first, man,” Diddley said. “Wasn’t nobody doing nothin’ until I thought of it. I was about a year and a half before Elvis Presley. And I don’t like it when they jump up and say Elvis started rock ‘n’ roll. That’s a lie. He didn’t do it. He was really good, a fantastic entertainer, but he didn’t do it.”

Bo Diddley’s great contribution to rock ‘n’ roll was as an innovator. He did things with rhythms that nobody in blues or country & western music had thought of. He figured out how to snake in and out of the breathy rhythm of a tremelo guitar. He introduced a toughness, a pride, into rock ‘n’ roll during its infancy, stitching in the naked, howling urgency of urban blues. Songs spoke volumes with just one chord. The rest – swagger, humor, lust and cool – was all Bo Diddley.

He likes to refer to himself as The Originator. “I think all the time,” Diddley explained. “I’m always sitting somewhere trying to put something together that somebody else ain’t did.”

In his 70s, he’s still as sharp and straightforward as that skinny, nearsighted cat in the checkered jacket and bow tie, crowing about a stripper named Mona, trading musical jibes with a rubber-faced dude named Jerome, or asking a woman named Arline, flat out, who do you love? “I’m just 23 and I don’t mind dyin’,” he boasted.

He still writes music, although he doesn’t realistically expect Snoop Dogg or Eminem to call him for advice. “They’re not breaking down any doors to get cats my age,” Diddley said. “They think that I’m finished. And I’m a tricky son of a bitch. I’m not finished, I just learned what to do.”

He was born Ellas Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, a black Creole, in the southern Mississippi delta land between McComb and Magnolia. Just about everyone in the extended family picked cotton for a living. His teenaged mother wasn’t able to raise a child in that impoverished climate, so at age eight months Ellas went to live with his mother’s first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, and her husband, Robert.

“That’s the way things was in those days,” Diddley recalled. “Everybody raised everybody else’s kids. I knew it as uncles and cousins and all that kind of stuff. There was quite a few of us. We shared everything.

“It ain’t like it is today. If your parents were next door and you didn’t happen to be a relative, if your parents had run out of some cornmeal or flour or bacon or whatever, if your mother was trying to cook, all she had to do was go across the field and ask Miss So-and-So could she borrow something? No problem.”

Robert McDaniel’s death in 1934 meant Gussie had to look for better work; she decided to join the flood of emigrants heading north.

So at age 7, Ellas relocated, with Gussie and her own kids, to the South Side of Chicago. His name became, legally, Ellas Bates McDaniel. They rented a house at 4746 Langley Avenue and joined the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

He loved the urbanity of his new digs and he fit right in. In Chicago, “treatment of black people was better. In the South, things were really screwed up. It didn’t have to be that way, but I guess that’s the way it was.”

It was here, in grammar school, he got his lifelong nickname. “The kids there started calling me Bo Diddley,” he said. “I still don’t know what the hell it means … but I know what it means in German!” (It’s a vulgarity.)

Initially, the kids had called him “Mac,” because of his surname.

Young Ellas announced he wanted to learn to play violin with the Ebenezer Sunday School Band. “I wanted to do what I’d seen some dudes doing, with a stick draggin’ across some strings and makin’ music,” Diddley said. “The church took up a collection, and the violin cost $29 at that time. And they bought me one. The lessons was like 50 cents a lesson. Are you ready for that? You can’t even talk to nobody on the phone for that today.”

He took lessons from Rev. O.W. Frederick – squinting at the dots on the page through his Coke-bottle glasses – and was soon proficient enough to play his instrument in church. He also sang in the choir.

One December five years later, Ellas was out shopping with his sister (technically, his first cousin) Lucille. “We went to this music store to buy some candy,” he recalled. “And they had the ol’ raggedy guitar hangin’ up in there. And I looked at it, and I told my sister ‘I want one of them.’

“I remember her saying ‘You want everything you see.’ I’m the same way today, man, if I see something that looks weird, I want to try that dude out.

“She bought it for me. It cost $29 or $30, almost the same thing with the violin. It was a old Kay guitar with two strings on it.”

Frustrated at trying to play blues and jive music on his violin – he never got it to sound quite right – Ellas was immediately comfortable around the guitar. “When I liked what I heard John Lee Hooker doing, I said if this cat can play guitar, I know I can learn,” he said.

“I tried to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ running up and down them two strings. And I finally got enough pop bottle money. Strings were like 12 cents apiece. You’d buy one string at a time, until you got all of ’em.”

Bo Diddley never learned how to properly tune the guitar; to this day, he still doesn’t know the names of the strings or their proper pitch.

“I tuned it by accident,” he said. “I liked what I heard. I tuned the thing, didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was said that Lonnie Johnson used to tune his guitar that way. I said ‘Who in the heck is Lonnie Johnson?’

“This was before my time. I was a kid, a youngster, dealing with the same things that kids are dealing with today.”

In 1940s Chicago, you had to learn how to fight. “We had a little neighborhood thing; we called ourselves the Golden Gloves,” Diddley recalled. “We beat up on each other, you know? But I wasn’t really what you’d call a boxer. I was what I would call a slugger, something like Mike Tyson.

“Mike’ll hurt you, if he ever gets ahold of you. So the smart thing is to stay away from him. Because the cat is so powerful, he could break something on you real easy. And that’s the way I was. As long as I kept you away from my head, I had it made.”

Briefly, he considered training to become a professional boxer. “I didn’t want to get into it,” he said. “That was just to protect myself from gangs and all the stuff I grew up with. I never ran with a gang. I think a gang of boys jumpin’ on one person is a very cowardly action.”

Around the neighborhood, Ellas was known as the Fix-It Kid, because he could take virtually anything apart and put it back together again, good as new. He attended a vocational school and briefly thought about a career as an auto mechanic.

Music, however, was in his blood. “I started doing this and everybody thought I was the misfit in the family,” he said. “There isn’t anybody else doing it. I’m the only one that’s got any musical background.

“My brother started in the ministry, but he could have played in some big-name baseball teams. They were after him. And he also has a talent for spreading the gospel.” (Bo’s half-brother is Reverend Kenneth Haynes of Biloxi, Miss.)

Ellas was constantly told that music – especially the “Devil’s music” that he so enjoyed – would lead him down a path of destruction.

“I had to find out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had no idea I was gonna end up Bo Diddley.”

Along with guitarist Jody Wilson, harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold and school chum Roosevelt Jackson – playing a washboard bass that Ellas himself constructed – he started playing the three or four songs he knew on street corners, the way blues musicians did, to get coins out of passers-by. They played them over and over again, and made new songs out of schoolyard rhymes.

At first they were called the Hipsters, then the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. “We did that and passed the hat,” Diddley said. “I was too chickenshit to steal.

“I did it because my mother didn’t have nothing. And everything that I wanted as I was growing up … it meant ‘let me work so I can earn some money, so I can buy a pair of shoes, buy a pair of socks. A handkerchief to go in my shirt.'”

The origin of the famous Bo Diddley beat has been in contention for years; it incorporates elements of the old “shave and a haircut” rhythm, the early ’50s shuck-and-jive hit “Hambone,” Chicago blues and the open-tuning, hard-hitting guitar chords of Bo himself – heavy on the tremelo, once Bo got off streetcorners and went electric. “They didn’t have no electric guitars down there,” Diddley said. “I made my first electric guitar. I built the first tremelo – I actually did it. I built it with some points out of an old Plymouth distributor, and a big wind–up clock. I sat down and I put it all together to make the music go whop/whop/whop/whop/whop. Because every time they made contact, you’d get a sound.

“I figured out how to do this, and a company was building one at the same time. I never went to Toledo, Ohio in my life, but somebody there was doin’ one.”

Then, as now, he was always tinkering. “I used to play by tapping into the audio tube in the back of a big radio. Got shocked a few times before I figured out which of the plugs on the back was the one.”

By the time Ellas was 15, he and the guys were playing 20 street corners every Friday night, after school let out. “People would say ‘There’s them three dudes again,'” he recalled.

“We did something worthwhile, man; we didn’t go out robbing people and all that. The police would sometimes take our little tip money, because they said it was illegal for us to try and make a living to buy bread.”

Ellas left home, and school, at 16 and briefly went to vocational college. He married and divorced a young girl named Louise inside of a year. “She wanted to juke me around,” he recalled. “All she wanted to do was get away from home.”

Eventually the group came to include Jerome Green on maracas and vocals. Jerome would become Bo’s onstage foil during the hit years, and an important part of the sound.

“I met Jerome when I was with my second wife, Ethel Smith,” Diddley said. “I met Jerome when I used to go over to her house to see her. He came up the back stairs with a tuba wrapped around his head, from school. They let him bring it home.

“I talked him into going with us on the street corners. He said ‘Man, I ain’t goin’ out there,’ and I said, ‘Come on man, we’re gonna pay you the same. We’re gonna split up the money.’

“I stole my mother’s cake bowl, and went out there and filled it up (with money). We came back with $15 apiece, for three of us. And the next weekend, Jerome was looking for me: ‘Hey man, are we goin’ back on the corner again?'”

Once the boys had turned 18, they left the street and getting booked into clubs. The next step was to get on record.

“I had an old Webco recorder,” Diddley recalled. “And we made a dub, and I took it to Vee-Jay Records first. They looked at me and said ‘What kind of crap is that?’ I said I don’t know, I just play it.

“They said ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with it,’ because they was strictly into blues. John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed and all that kind of stuff.

“Nobody inspired me. I just wanted to be me. That’s what I wanted to do, me.”

“I figured I had something good enough to make a record. ‘Cause the people on the streetcorner, they was jumpin’ and clappin’ their hands. I said ‘Hey …. I’m making ’em jump.’ So I figured this must be it.”

In early 1955, Bo Diddley was signed by Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chicago’s Chess Records (Bo was to record for the subsidiary label, Checker).

The idea of being on the same label as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and the rest of his heroes from the Chicago club scene “didn’t excite me. It’s just that I knew I was different from the rest of ’em. I was different from the other bands that I heard.

“I played a different type of music, and people were trying to figure out what the hell was I doing? Because I sounded like 10 people, rather than just three.”

Momma Gussie and the others did not approve. “They said that I was playing for the Devil,” Diddley remembered. “My aunts and uncles, everybody said ‘Why don’t you put that talent of yours to good use and play in the church? I said well, why do you all tell me to do that, and then you tell me I’m God-gifted?

“I said, you all can’t pay me the money that I make in clubs, for playing in the church, no. I’m not gonna do it. I’m just doing it to try and make a living. I’m not hanging in clubs, getting drunk and fighting and cutting up people and cussing. I don’t do no drugs, never have, never will. I’m scared of what the doctor gives me. I have no idea what the hell it is. I’m just what you call chickenshit.”

“Bo Diddley/I’m a Man” was released in the spring and reached the top spot on the national R&B charts. The A side introduced the Bo Diddley beat to the world, syncopated in a blustery onslaught with Jerome’s maracas and tribal tom-toms from drummer Clifton James.

Diddley’s original version of the song went “Uncle John’s got corn ain’t never been shucked/Uncle John’s got daughters ain’t never been … to school.”

At Leonard Chess’ suggestion, he re-wrote the lyrics as a song about himself … about this character he’d created. Bo Diddley. Bo’s legend would become a recurring theme.

“I’m a Man” was another ballgame altogether. Here, Diddley dealt a straight hand of Chicago blues, punctuated by Billy Boy’s wailing harmonica.

“Muddy Waters came up with ‘I’m a Rolling Stone,’ or ‘I’m a King Bee,’ one of those songs, saying ‘when I was 26 years old,'” Diddley recalls. “And I said well, if you’re a rolling stone, I’m a man. You understand? Willie Dixon wrote those – and I thought if he’s that bad, I’m a man.”

Not long after, “Muddy copied it and wrote ‘Mannish Boy.’ There’s only one word in ‘Mannish Boy’ that I never understood. He uses the line ‘woe be.’ I ain’t never figured out what ‘woe be’ means.”

The record was like nothing heard before. There were no complex changes, just gut-busting emotion on “I’m a Man” and shuffling energy on “Bo Diddley.”

The success of the single meant live appearances, and Diddley’s group hit the road, getting farther from Chicago with every performance. On Aug. 20, he played the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York City. “And destroyed it,” he recalled. “People was trying to figure out, how is three dudes makin’ all that noise?”

In those days, Diddley said, the national speed limit was 45 MPH. “I mostly drove with my band. I had a 1941 DeSoto station wagon; they called it a Stagecoach. It had a rack on the top, and we used to tie all our stuff up on top of it. And away we went.”

In November, the band returned to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. This story has become an integral part of the Bo Diddley legend; this is the artist’s own version:

“Ed Sullivan heard us in the dressing room practicing ‘Sixteen Tons,’ Tennessee Ernie’s song. He said ‘Can you guys play that on the show?’ and I said ‘Yeah, we can play it our way.’ But I was there to do ‘Bo Diddley’ by Bo Diddley. So I did two songs, and he got pissed.

“But it was their mistake, the way that they had the program written up. I did it the way that the program said: Bo Diddley and ‘Sixteen Tons.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s the name of the song – and, ‘Sixteen Tons.’

“Ed Sullivan said I was the first colored boy that ever double-crossed him on a song, or something. And I started to get on him, just to tell this old man the truth, right in his fuckin’ face. Because I hadn’t ever been said nothin’ to like that, and I didn’t double cross him. They made the mistake, and I lived with it for a lot of years.

“He said I would never work again. And I got 48 years of rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not happy that he’s dead, you know, but I had something that I perfected. And I did my best. And I think that’s the reason why I’m still here.”

History always seems to contrast Diddley with his Chess labelmate Chuck Berry – the two even issued a patched-together duet album in the early ’60s – but Bo Diddley sees this as an apples-and-oranges thing. “We were writing different,” he said. “He was writing about school days and stuff like that, which was very interesting. And I wrote comical-type tunes. He couldn’t be funny; I could. I could make you laugh.”

Berry also crossed over to a white audience in those heavily segregated days, something Diddley never really managed. Although he made a respectable showing on the R&B charts, only one of his singles, 1959’s “Say Man,” made a dent on the pop side.

“Say Man” was a series of good-natured back and forth insults between Bo and Jerome, what they used to call “signifying” back on the streets in Chicago.

He considers “Who Do You Love,” first released in the summer of 1956, a “funny” song. “Well, it was serious and funny at the same time,” he said. For the record, there never was a woman named Arlene in his life. He just made it up.

As his fortunes faded in the United States, as Presley, Berry, Holly and so many others brought rock ‘n’ roll to an insatiable audience, Bo Diddley struggled. “Say Man,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Road Runner” were major hits, but by the early ’60s, it just wasn’t happening.

The live show continued to generate excitement. Guitarist Norma Jean Wofford joined his band in 1961 (following a short stint by another woman stringbender, Peggy Jones). Wofford became known as The Duchess; it was whispered that she was Bo Diddley’s sister.

“We told that lie so much that it started sticking,” Diddley said. “But we’re actually no kin. I had started adding different people to the group. It was just guys at first, and I said ‘I need some glamor on the stage,’ so I started putting the girls in the group.”

Novelty had always been important for Diddley – his classic 1960 album, Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger was inspired by the movie The Magnificent Seven and had a Western theme – and his act had always included a little comedy, a little dancing. “Didn’t none of us stand still,” he recalled.

Diddley was surprised to learn, during a 1963 trip to Great Britain, that he was held in high regard by the young, rhythm ‘n’ blues worshiping musician crowd. The Rolling Stones, one of the tour’s opening acts, dropped all Diddley covers from their set as an act of respect.

The young Stones viewed Bo Diddley with awe; Brian Jones, Diddley remembered, had an insatiable curiosity about the rhythm and the blues. And “Mick (Jagger) is like a loner; he stays by himself all the time. And you don’t impose on a person like that – if that’s his way, that’s his way. I don’t fault him for it.”

Diddley’s relationship with the Stones continued over time – in the ’80s, Diddley and guitarist Ron Wood toured Japan together, and Bo joined the band onstage in Miami on the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour.

In 1965, he appeared in the legendary TAMI Show, and four years later played the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival, on a bill with the Plastic Ono Band. Diddley can be seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Sweet Toronto.

Overall, though, the ’60s were rough. Diddley continued to record and perform, but his records had little impact. The British Invasion, followed by the psychedelic and hippie movements, left little room for the pioneering rock ‘n’ rollers.

Diddley watched attitudes and fashions change all around him. “My generation wasn’t into that shit,” he laughed. “So I’m sitting outside going what the hell’s going on? I’m starving in my own world, my music world. But I found out something: If you can’t beat ’em, you gotta join ’em” (see the Chess albums The Black Gladiator; Another Dimension).

Strapped for cash because of an investment scheme gone wrong, Diddley sold his publishing in this period.

And like many artists who rode in on the first wave in the ’50s, he got paid a ridiculous royalty rate. He was never a math whiz, so he signed whatever contract had been put in front of him. “The Chess Brothers were very secluded about telling an artist,” he said. “It looked like to me that they were afraid somebody would step out of place and start asking for more money. I was just interested in playin’ for the people. I had no idea about the business, how it worked and all this.

“They were beginning to set up little things here and there that would elude you from the right things – in other words, while you sleep, we’ll figure out how we can not pay you something.”

The winter of Diddley’s discontent began in the glory days and has yet to blow over. He remembers precisely when he first realized he’d been short-changed:

“When I started to asking about royalty checks and all this kind of stuff, my stuff started getting played less and less,” he said. “And I didn’t understand. And after a while it looked like it was set before me so that I could plainly see it, that I was becoming a troublemaker because I started asking about royalty checks. This meant that I was going to cause problems. And the easiest way to shut you up was to pull your records off the airwaves. It’s called blackball.

“When the people buy your stuff and make you earn the name ‘So-and-so is really great.’ But when your record company don’t acknowledge that you got a contract with ’em, and so much revenue come in that they’re supposed to give you this and that … this didn’t happen with me. Instead, they put the money in their pocket. I guess because I was a little country black boy in Chicago, I got ripped off. Because they figured I didn’t know what time it was.”

Then, as now, the only real money that came Bo Diddley’s way was from live shows. And if somebody’s making money off those classic records, it’s not him. “I ain’t seen shit,” he said.

And so he works, flying hundreds, thousands of miles, equipped with only a guitar and a suitcase. Although he has a semi-regular group for big shows, he does most gigs with a pickup band, hired by the local promoter in each town he plays.

After Chicago, he lived in Washington, D.C. (the Gunslinger album was recorded on a two-track Presto machine in his basement), then Los Angeles and, ultimately, Florida (he spent a year or two in Las Lunas, N.M., too, where he was deputized and walked a sheriff’s beat). He was married to Georgia native Kay Reynolds for 20 years, and bought his first Florida property from her dentist.

Every few years, some music business sharpie with a few bucks in his wallet signs him up for an album; without fail, they make little or no commercial impact.

Diddley cares very little for the 1973 The London Bo Diddley Sessions, which paired him with a contingent of hip young English rock players. “When you turn your back, they do whatever they feel like doing,” he said. Since the end of Chess in the mid ’70s, he’s drifted from label to label.

In 1996, producer Mike Vernon put out the Bo Diddley album A Man Amongst Men, which featured “collaborations” from the likes of Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Richie Sambora.

Trouble was, Vernon assembled the tracks from pieces; Bo was rarely in the same room with his guest stars. “It just never occurred to them that maybe Bo doesn’t want it that way, you know?” Diddley said. “So it would be my mistake if I fucked up. But they fucked up, and I still bear the cross of them messing up. And the public don’t know that I had nothing to do with it.”

He has a handful of bedrock songs that continue to reverberate today (“Who Do You Love,” “I’m a Man,” “Before You Accuse Me,” “Mona”), and the “Bo Diddley Beat” is a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll (see “Not Fade Away,” “I Want Candy,” “She’s the One”).

His 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll of Fame was logical – and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bo Diddley took it with a grain of salt.

“The way I look at it, the attention is really great,” he said. “But the reward in what I have done is not a plaque sitting on my wall, because I can’t do anything with it. They’re worth a lot of money to a collector, but to me they’re not worth anything.

“It doesn’t really mean anything to me. It don’t pay none of my bills. Take the actors who got the Oscars and the Emmys, they don’t mean nothin.’ It’s just that people can come to your house and see ’em and go ‘Wow, you got an Oscar.’ What does it mean? Is it worth a thousand dollars? $400? $200? Or worth a million dollars?

“What is it worth in dollar bills, because this is what you need to survive. Not a medal with your name on it.”

Back surgery slowed him down in the ’90s – he had to sit in a chair onstage for a while – and a recurring bout with high blood pressure caused him to cancel a few dates in 2002.

Otherwise, hell, he ain’t slowing down.

“I figure I got 15 or 20 years, maybe longer than that,” he said. “If I take care of myself. But it’s winding down. I might as well face it. I don’t look to kick off, but when you get to my age you start getting’ scared and you start realizing that the day is coming, and that’s a guarantee. We’re all gonna leave out of here.

“As you get older, things become more clear to you about everyday existence. Am I going to be able to wake up in the morning? Am I going to sleep and … you don’t know that you’re gone? That’s the way I feel.

“That is the most scary thing in the world. You take me, traveling on the road by myself, and getting a hotel room. Go to bed, go to sleep, and I don’t know if I’m gonna get up and go catch the plane in the morning. I used to not worry about that.”

This story appears in the book I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews (St. Petersburg Press).


Wild tales and then some: Talking with Graham Nash (2008)

The ever-recalcitrant Neil Young was not at the session that produced this photo, used as the cover of the 1988 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion album “American Dream.” Young’s image was added later. Atlantic Records.


With the release of Reflections, a triple–CD anthology of music ranging from the ridiculously famous to the never–before–released, Graham Nash is a satisfied man.

“I’ve had an incredible life,” says the 66–year–old singer, songwriter and longtime least likely to implode member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “I’m probably one of the luckiest people you’ll ever know. And the soundtrack to that life is on this box set.”

At 64 tracks, Reflections spans over 40 years of music — from the Hollies, started in 1963 by Nash and his boyhood chum Allan Clarke, to the big Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally Young) tunes, the duo work with David Crosby, and from Nash’s stop–and–start solo career.

Over the years, Nash has become the official keeper of the key to the vast CSNY archive; he’s currently assembling five other CD projects, including a Stephen Stills box set, a Crosby, Stills & Nash demo collection and — at the specific request of Neil Young — a live album from CSNY’s first “reunion” tour, in 1974.

Professionally and personally, it’s been quite the tug o’ war, with Nash often the referee in a game of cocaine–fueled cross–purposes and bullying self-interest.

“Money, stardom and ego are a deadly combination if not handled well,” he says, and he should know.

Older and wiser — well, certainly older — Crosby, Stills and Nash have just begun a series of studio sessions for their first album in 15 years. Working with ace producer Rick Rubin, they’re covering songs from their favorite writers. It’s an all–acoustic project, with the focus back where it was in the beginning — on the amazing harmonic blend of their three voices.

They made a wish list of 20 or 30 songs. “My criteria was this: “It has to have a great melody, and it has to say something great,” Nash explains. “And most importantly, we have to own that song — we have to make it feel like we’d written it, and that’s us singing it.”

For this interview, I told Nash, I wanted to avoid re–hashing stuff everybody knows already — about Woodstock and “Wooden Ships,” pot–smoking and politics — and pull questions from somewhere deeper. Things the serious fan might have always wondered about.

“Go ahead,” he responded. “Ask whatever the fuck you want.”

So I did.

Bill DeYoung: I’ve always wondered about the culture shock that you, a hard–working British pop star, must have experienced when you fell in with those California hippie musicians.

Graham Nash: The Hollies were five kids from the North of England who managed to escape doing what their dad did, and what their grandfather did. Which was expected of us: ‘Go down the mine, or go to the mill — if it was good enough for your dad, it’s good enough for you, lad.’ Music was the escape mechanism. We were in a certain kind of culture there.

When we moved to London and started making records — hit records — that was another, incredible, culture. By the time I got to the end of my time with the Hollies, when they refused to record some of my songs, and I’d kind of lost my grip on the reigns of that horse, I’d met Cass Elliot and she’d introduced me to Crosby. He’d been in England with the Byrds. The promoter there was touting them as ‘America’s Answer to the Beatles,’ which pissed off a lot of people in England, so it was kind of a funky tour.

But Crosby came and stayed with me for a while during that tour.

Valentine’s Day, 1968: When the Hollies played L.A.’s famous Whisky A Go–Go, Crosby — at Cass’ urging — brought his new best friend, Stills. “We kind of blew a lot of people away; we were fucking great,” Nash remembers.

Crosby had just been sacked from the Byrds, and Stills knew Buffalo Springfield’s time was short — although there were some touring commitments to honor, Neil Young wanted a solo career and had already served notice. So together they’d made some demos, calling themselves the Frozen Noses (that’s a cocaine reference, folks, and a harbinger of things to come) and trying to make something happen.

Nash: I fell in love with Stephen and David’s music, and with them as people, because they were free, and sunny, and devoid of all the ‘Well, if you don’t know John and Paul, yer fookin’ no one, are ya?’ kind of vibe that was present in England at the time.

They were working together, but I’m not sure they had a plan. I think they felt instinctively that there was something missing. And when they came and saw the Hollies live, they realized that the missing part of the plan was me. And I think that Cass Elliot, God bless her soul, had instinctively realized, vocally, what that sound would be. She realized that what David and Stephen were doing was good, but it could be better.

The Hollies had tried a bit of string-soaked psychedelia, with Nash’s “King Midas in Reverse,” and the single had flopped. One after another, his next songs — “Lady of the Island,” “Right Between the Eyes,” “Sleep Song” and even “Marrakesh Express” — were deemed “too weird” for the Hollies to record.

Nash: I was starting to doubt myself as a writer. I thought ‘Well, fuck, I guess they’re not that great.’ That’s when Crosby came along and said ‘No, no, no, no, wait a second. Let’s get real here. These are really fine songs. Don’t be put off, just keep writing.’ And in a way, he saved my life.

The Hollies had found a formula for writing pop songs. They didn’t want to change. They were great pop songs, but they weren’t very deep.

And then I see David and Stephen, who are writing “Long Time Gone,” “Guinevere” and “For What it’s Worth” and “Helplessly Hoping,” and I’m going ‘Holy shit! Now I get it.’

They just re–enforced the feeling I got when I started listening to Bob Dylan, and later Beatles stuff. There was more to making music than just getting a hit record. There was information, and emotions, to impart. There were feelings to be discussed. You could put your heart into a song, and turn it into a fine record.

It’s a famous story. At Cass’ house (or maybe it was Joni Mitchell’s) the Frozen Noses were impressing everybody, running through Stills’ new tune “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Nash listened carefully, then asked them to sing it again, and on the third go–round added a high harmony — and just like that, organically, a brilliant new sound was born.

Nash: I swear to God, in the middle of singing “You Don’t Have to Cry,” we all had to stop and start laughing. Because it was instant! That CSN sound happened instantly. Without any rehearsal or working on it for months. It happened within the space of half a song.

So I knew that I would have to spend years with these guys. I heard that sound. I wanted that sound. It was different that anything I’d heard before, and the Hollies and the Springfield and the Byrds were good harmony bands. But this was different.

So the decision to leave my home, and my first wife (we were getting divorced at the time), and my bank account and my band, it was a no–brainer for me. I knew in my soul that this could make incredible music.

Nash’s sprightly “Marrakesh Express” was the first single released from Crosby, Stills & Nash — rejected by the Hollies, it was the world’s introduction to the new trio’s acoustic–based, harmony–intensive hippie music. The album sold a bajillion copies, turned FM radio on its electronic ear, won a Grammy and inadvertently helped the “countercultural revolution” start turning a profit.

And you know the rest.

DeYoung: Were you the one who didn’t want to add Neil Young to Crosby, Stills & Nash?

Nash: I was. We had just discovered this vocal sound, and just made this great record. Obviously, we would have to go out and play it live, and although David and I are very decent rhythm guitar players, Stephen was used to being challenged by another lead guitarist. Because he’d spent years with the Springfield. After many discussions, after it was decided that Neil should be invited to join, I didn’t like the idea at first. Because I didn’t want to disturb that vocal sound. We were intimately linked, and we knew where we had to go with any particular piece of music. And that would all have to change with the addition of another voice.

I loved Neil; when the Hollies toured Canada, I’d brought a small record player with me, and the Buffalo Springfield Again album. I’d constantly play “Expecting to Fly” — it was one of the best records I’d ever heard in my life. I loved his voice, but I didn’t know how it would fit in with this three–part that was so strong in my soul.

And so I went to breakfast with Neil on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. And I swear to God, after that breakfast I’d have made him president. The guy was incredibly funny and very, very dry. I already knew his songwriting ability and sensibility. And after that, there was no doubt that he should join us.

Next came Woodstock, “Woodstock,” Big Sur, Déjà vu and Nash’s sunny singalong “Teach Your Children.” They were rock royalty; fans and the music press hung on their every word (they had become, in effect, “America’s Answer to the Beatles”).

The “Teach Your Children/Carry On” single was climbing the charts in June, 1970, when CSNY rush–released “Ohio,” Young’s spontaneously written and recorded reaction to the murder of four Kent State students by National Guardsmen.

“It was on the street 12 days after it was recorded,” Nash says proudly. “We killed our own single. We didn’t give a fuck. We love upsetting apple carts.”

Just a Song Before I Go

Nash and Joni Mitchell had linked up in ’68, before the first CSN album was in the can. For more than a year, they lived an idyllic artists’ life, and wrote songs about how happy they were. Nash’s “Our House,” with its comfy–cozy, two–cats–in–the–yard scenario, was all about Joni.

Then, on her Ladies of the Canyon album, Mitchell described the relationship — and why it was doomed to failure — from her perspective. The song took Graham’s nickname — “Willy” — for its title.

Nash: Every word is true. It’s a heartbreaking song for me. To be in love with Joni Mitchell, and have that love come back at you, even to the point of marriage — to lose that was devastating for me. I’m old enough now to realize it was a long, long time ago and I can admit that I was heartbroken.

Joni’s grandmother had always wanted to be a creative person. But in those days, you had to be a wife and a mother, and you had to bake and take care of the kids. You had to stay home while your old man went to work. She had never been given the chance to express herself artistically.

And Joni recounted to me that she remembered the story of her grandmother kicking the door viciously, out of frustration. Joni, I believe, saw that as one of the downfalls of marriage.

I also believe that somewhere in Joni’s mind she thought that I would demand that of her. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, ‘Why don’t you just cook?’

So even though we talked about marriage, I think the reality of it — from Joni’s point of view — was very scary.

To have had the love of that woman was such an incredible feeling for me. I was flying. I was on cloud nine — no, I was on cloud 10! I felt insanely lucky. Many people have said ‘You know, when you and Joni walked into a room, the whole room lit up.’

Nash’s first solo album, Songs For Beginners, arrived, unannounced, in May of 1971.

Nash: Those songs were written with CSN or CSNY in mind. I’ve always been more comfortable being a member of a band. It’s just the way I grew up.

By that time, Stephen and David were making their solo records. There were no plans to record, but I had these songs. So what the fuck do you do with them? I started out to make a very simple record; almost a record of demos. I just kept writing, and recording, and then I thought fuck, I guess I’m in the middle of my first solo record.

Perhaps because of his relationship with Mitchell — which had just skidded to a painful halt — Nash’s lyrics on Songs For Beginners were much more personal than ever before. “I’ve saved millions of dollars in psychiatry bills because I talk to myself constantly,” he says. “It’s my way of exorcising my demons.”

Oh — the world didn’t know it, but as a group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had already ceased to exist. It wasn’t pretty.

Crosby’s ’71 solo tune “Cowboy Movie” detailed the break, using violent Wild West imagery: Eli the Gunner (that’s Stills) comes to blows with the Duke (Nash) over the affections of an Indian maiden (this turns out to be session singer Rita Coolidge).

Fat Albert and Young Billy (Crosby and Young) can only watch and hold on tight; the outlaw gang will never be the same.

DeYoung: “Cowboy Movie.” How true is that?

Nash: It’s very true. The relationship between the four of us was a very strange one. We were a band, and yet we were four incredibly strong individuals with our own way of thinking about things. When you fuel that with cocaine, and you fuel that with fame and money, and people thinking that every decision you make is brilliant, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Stephen and I met Rita Coolidge on the very same night, when we recorded “Love the One You’re With.” I fell for Rita, and so did Stephen. I’ve always been a shy person, so I didn’t make the move that I wanted to on Rita. But Stephen did. And they were together for a few months.

That line in “Better Days” — ‘Though you say you’re where you want to be, you’re not where you belong’ — was about Rita. I always wanted to be with her.

One day I found out from Rita that she also wanted to be with me. And I said ‘We have a problem here, because you’re Stephen’s girlfriend right now, and there’s no way we can be together, with a good heart, unless we face Stephen and tell him ourselves.’

So we went to Stephen, and told him that we wanted to see each other. Stephen wasn’t very happy. Actually, he tried to spit on me.

That’s basically what “Cowboy Movie” was about.

Stills, meanwhile, had casually referred to Nash and Crosby as ‘My backup singers’ in a Rolling Stone article, keeping the wound open. This led, indirectly, to the album Graham Nash/David Crosby, and the launch of a creatively and commercially lucrative second career for the duo — Nash’s “Immigration Man” and “Southbound Train” became hit singles.

Nash: One profound reason why I love David is his sense of musicianship. He’s a completely unique individual, and I’ve always known that my simplicity and his strangeness would make an interesting combination. It remains true to this day.

DeYoung: Tell me about the single “War Song” you made in ’72 with Neil, the George McGovern election song.

Nash: I’m in my house in San Francisco, I’m getting’ high, phone rings. HEY WILLY. I GOT THIS SONG, MAN, I THINK I NEED YOU FOR THIS SONG. WOULD YOU DRIVE DOWN HERE?

So I drive the hour or so to his ranch, and there he is. He plays “War Song” for me and goes What d’you think, Willy? I said fuck, that’s a great song. ‘You think you can do it?’ I said fuck, get out the way!

It’s a really fine piece of music. I loved him for including me so equally in that. He could have said ‘Neil Young’ — but he didn’t, it was a ‘Neil Young & Graham Nash’ record.

Barrels of Pain

DeYoung: The four of you tried to re-convene in 1973. What happened?

Nash: Same old shit. I remember at one point, Stephen was so high — in my home studio, we were working on one of his songs called “My Angel” — and he asked me to sing a major melody through a minor set of chords. Instinctively, my body wouldn’t do it. I’m very good at what I do, but I couldn’t do it. I kept getting halfway through the phrase, and it just sounded so horrible to me that I had to stop. I did that two or three times, and I said ‘Stephen, I just can’t do this.’

Well, we ended up having a flaming row. He actually found the master of “Wind on the Water” and cut it in half with a razor blade.

I called a friend of mine, who lived next door, to throw Stephen out of my house.

By 1974, the quartet hadn’t been seen together in public for four years. The pressure was intense. That summer, they became the first rock act to play exclusively in stadiums, for big crowds, for big money.

Things had changed since the days of the Frozen Noses. After the massive success of his Harvest album, Young had become the superstar and the major draw — and his manager, Elliot Roberts, took control of the proceedings early on.

And Crosby, Stills and Nash didn’t have a lot of say in the matter.

Nash: Elliot had dollar signs in his eyes, and persuaded us to throw away our whole production team and go with Bill Graham. So everything kind of changed.

Then Neil didn’t want to travel with us, and drove himself across America in his own little tour thing. He was kind of isolated from us.

There was too much cocaine around.

Even in the blizzard of lies, as I call it, we were pretty good. I’m going through all the two–tracks right now, but I can hear the drugs screaming off the tape. There are some good things, and I’m sure I’ll be able to find a good record … but it makes me so uneasy to listen. It makes me crazy to listen to it. It’s part of why I wrote “Wasted on the Way.” We wasted a lot of time and a lot of music behind ego and drugs.

At tour’s end, another attempt at a studio reunion failed, and the four again went their separate ways. Stills recorded and toured with his new wife, French vocalist Veronique Sanson, while Young took off on an extended road trip with his trusty backup band, Crazy Horse.

Crosby and Nash made Wind on the Water, their second album together. “We thought, we have all these songs, and if Stephen and Neil aren’t into them, fuck ’em, we’ll do them ourselves.

“We fell back on a situation that was much more controllable, and much more sane.”

Wind on the Water was a critical and commercial success in 1975. As Crosby and Nash were in San Francisco working on the followup, Whistling Down the Wire, Stills and Young were hunkered down together at Miami’s Criteria Studios, making a project of their own.

Young turned up unannounced at Nash’s door with a cassette of four songs — including “Midnight on the Bay” and “Long May You Run” — he and Stills had roughed out for their first-ever duo project. Why not fly down, he said, and make this a full–blown CSNY record?

Nash: David agreed that they were great songs, and we knew we had good songs, since we were in the middle of a record. So we went to Miami to sing with Stephen and Neil. We completed the record — it was done. We sang on every single track. And then we went back to finish Whistling Down the Wire.

Well, they decided to take me and David’s voices off, and put it out as a Stills/Young record. Because they needed a piece of product to promote on the Stills/Young tour, which they’d already booked.

And to this day I can’t get an answer out of Neil’s camp as to whether the tapes with our voices even exist. It was 16–track then, and I know they would’ve needed the tracks to complete a Stills/Young record. But they must have made safeties.

I was so pissed. Because the chances to makes a CSNY record are few and far between, the vocal blend between us all was fabulous. And there was no reason that it shouldn’t have been a CSNY record, except for greed.

It’s been such a sore point that we have never talked about it with Stephen and Neil. We have never brought it up.

DeYoung: A year later you were back in Miami with Stills, making the CSN album. How could you look him in the eye?

Nash: Because it’s music, and that’s what we live for. When you’re pissed at Stephen, and he plays you a song that breaks your fuckin’ heart, you’ve got to forget it. If you cling on to negative stuff, you won’t get anywhere. Especially not in this combination of people.

I remember very clearly working on the final mix of “Shadow Captain.” And it was a fabulous piece of music. One of the engineers comes in and says ‘Hey, there’s some old man pissin’ in the bushes outside!’ And it was Neil. Now what the fuck he was doing in Miami, and taking a piss in the bushes outside of Criteria, I have no idea.

But he came in and he listened, and he realized that CSN was still a force to be reckoned with.

The next Crosby, Stills & Nash album, 1982’s Daylight Again, arrived in the middle of Crosby’s notorious love affair with the crack pipe. “We did that whole record, with me and Stephen, and Michael Finnegan doing the third part,” Nash says. “We handed it in to Atlantic — they said ‘It’s really good, but for marketing purposes, we need Crosby. Where is he?'”

Although he was bloated and glassy–eyed, Crosby could still sing, when he worked at it. “But he didn’t want to work at it,” Nash says. “He was much more interested in smoking.”

And it wasn’t just Crosby and Nash’s professional relationship that suffered.

Nash: I had been calling David’s house. I called 37 times, to be told that he was at the beach. Now, I’m a patient man … but I began to realize there was no fuckin’ beach. Maybe he had a beach in his closet. I realized that the drugs had totally taken over his life.

But we were faced with a problem. So Stephen and I made the decision to undo the entire album and fit Crosby in where we could. David’s voice sucked at the time. It was fucked.

We did they best we could with it. Somehow we managed to disguise it as a Crosby, Stills and Nash record — but it really, really wasn’t.

DeYoung: I remember Crosby saying that music gave him something to live for.

Nash: Oh yeah, he’d be dead. To give him credit, even though he was forced to do it, when he walked barefoot into the FBI office in Miami, that was him saying ‘I thought I could control this thing, but it’s controlling me and I’d better do something about it.” With all due respect, I think jail saved his life. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true.

Wasted on the Way

Ever since the early ’70s, when Young’s star ascended rapidly past those of Crosby, Stills and Nash, he’s called the shots. Whenever there’s been a “reunion” album, tour or one–off benefit performance, it’s been because Neil wanted it, and wanted it on his terms only. When he says jump, they ask how high.

DeYoung: That’s got to suck.

Nash: Yeah, but you either walk away from it and never play that music again, or you just deal with it. Neil is, by far, the most selfish person — in certain aspects — that I’ve ever known. He is a complete slave to the muse of music, and I have great admiration for him for doing that.

However … He can be seen by some people as being so selfish that he doesn’t give a fuck about anybody else’s feelings. For example, he’ll say to Crazy Horse, ‘Yeah, we’re going to England in six weeks.’ Then the week before he’ll say ‘No man, I just don’t feel like it. The music’s not talking to me.’

When you’re a musician and you have finances and kids to send to school and bills to pay, and you make a certain amount of money because you’re in Neil Young’s band — and then it gets canceled the week before, with no compensation, that sucks. And that has happened a lot in Neil’s life.

And he only calls us when he needs us for something. He has very rarely called me as a friend.

It’s not a friendship. I have great, un-ending admiration and respect for Neil Young, and I think he respects the hell out of me too.

DeYoung: After Crosby got out of prison, clean and sober, the four of you made the album American Dream. As the saying goes, the world waited with baited breath. It’s just an awful record, Graham. Nobody I know likes it.

Nash: Neither do we. I think it didn’t work for a couple of reasons. We actually had a great time making it. They were some good songs on it. We may have over-harmonized some of them. We kind of over–compensated.

My feeling — and I think David agrees with me — is that Neil over-indulged Stephen on that record. He put a couple of Stephen tracks on there that should not have been on there at all. And left out a version of CSN doing “Climber,” that was written by David, that was just stunningly beautiful.

It was decided to take that off and put on “Driving Thunder,” which to me is a piece of shit. In an effort to please Stephen, I think Neil made some wrong choices.

There’s a small story you should know about this. The shot on the album cover was actually a shot of me, David and Stephen, with Neil photo–shopped in. There were two versions — in one, Neil’s wearing a white hat, and in the other he’s wearing a black hat.

And that is exactly why American Dream didn’t work.

Young did another “Come to Jesus” in 2006. He’d done his anti–Bush Living With War album, and, realizing that the songs would play to more people if Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were singing them, he organized another “reunion” tour, giving it the umbrella title “Freedom of Speech.” It’s chronicled in the 2008 film CSNY: Déjà vu, which Young himself directed.

Nash: It was a great idea. Neil did a brilliant job of staying on message. He realized that some of the songs we’d written in the past — “Military Madness” “Déjà vu,” “For What It’s Worth” — were hits, but were relevant to what he wanted to say right then.

We are slaves to our hits. We’ve tried to do the dance of balancing brand new songs with “Teach Your Children,” that we’ve been playing for 40 years. It’s always been a prison, and we try and escape our shackles as much as possible.

But here was an opportunity to only play a couple of those hits.

DeYoung: What about Stills? You two seem to have weathered a lot of storms, yet you’re still working together.

Nash: There’s always been a part of me that really loves Stephen. I recognize his genius, and I recognize his difficulties. And in my relationship with Stephen I’ve always tried to amplify and concentrate on the good parts rather than the fucked parts.

This last tour (summer/fall 2008) was one of the most fun tours I’ve had with Crosby, Stills & Nash in probably 20 years. A couple of things: He is clean, and he has a hearing aid. And it makes an incredible difference, because now he’s part of the conversation. He isn’t paranoid that me and David are talking about him. We’d be saying ‘Do you see that pretty girl in the front row?’ and Stephen would come over and say ‘You’re talking about me, aren’t you?’

He’s singing better in tune. He’s singing on his guitar instead of just playing the stock solo that Stills would normally play. He was much better this tour than in the last 20 years, and I think if you talked to David, David would agree.

I’ve always known that Stephen showed glimpses of genius. I think he’s always been in Neil’s shadow.

He suffered from an upbringing that from all accounts was fucking horrific — his father leaving home, Stephen being tormented by the women in his family — his mother and his sister — because their father left. Military upbringing. The poor kid never stood a chance. And I completely understand that once he got a sense of his musical power, he would run like fuck to escape all that.

At the end of the day, always, there’s Crosby; with the exception of that ugly crack pipe period, he and Nash have been virtually joined at the hip for more than four decades.

DeYoung: Why has this relationship succeeded so consistently?

Nash: The combination of our voices and our songwriting is insane to me. I love it dearly.

You must understand something. I know everywhere David’s going to go, musically. When I stand next to him onstage, the entire side of my body that’s facing him is open. Every pore is open.

I know him so well that many times I know that he’s going to make a mistake on the next line, and I make the same mistake with him so the audience doesn’t think there was a mistake made. That’s how intimate I am with David.

Working with Crosby, what a thrill. I’m a musician, for God’s sake, and I get to make music with him? This is fantastic.

Seals & Crofts: We May Never Pass This Way Again

In the pre-Internet days, out of curiosity I used to go out of my way to write in-depth biographical stories about artists that I liked; in the case of Seals and Crofts, who’d been huge in the ‘70s but had subsequently been all but forgotten, I found precious little that talked about more than the duo’s early successes with songs like “Summer Breeze” and “Diamond Girl.” I had loved so many of their deep album tracks. I’d seen them live and stuck around for the after-show “fireside,” about their deeply-held Baha’I beliefs. I also remembered the career-stalling “Unborn Child” controversy, and their regrettable disco record, and … well, I wanted to hear what they had to say – about all of it – in retrospect. So I called them up. This story appeared in Goldmine in 1992.

When the 1960s turned into the 70s, and the flood of longhaired, acoustic guitar carrying singer-songwriters began, sensitive and poetic and wearing their hearts on their sleeves, Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts had already been through the star-making machinery. With the Champs, the pair jumped on the pop music merry-go-round, grabbed the brass ring and, not thinking too much of the experience, got off again.

But as Seals and Crofts, they forged a career their own way, playing by their rules and making records that said exactly what they were feeling inside. What set them apart from the other early turn–of–the–decade pop folkies was their commitment to God and their deep religious beliefs, which dominated and ultimately illuminated their songwriting. Over the course of a 10-year recording career, Seals and Crofts never wavered in their pledge to declare and advance the Baha’i faith through their music.

Even so, they wound up with a bunch of hits.

Jimmy Seals was born October 17, 1941 in Sidney, a dusty Central Texas oil town where the family picked up musical instruments to amuse itself, simply because there wasn’t much else to do. Jimmy’s father Wayland Seals was a driller who played guitar in a local swing group called the Tom Cats.

One day, Jimmy recalls, his dad’s musician friends came home for supper – young Jimmy was about 6 – and the bunch of them wound up entertaining the family in the living room. Jimmy was enthralled by the violin player, who could turn a mean western rag, and that night he asked his parents for an instrument of his own.

Eventually, he got one, and by the time he was nine, Jimmy Seals was good enough to complete in the Texas State Fiddle Championship. He remembers that he played “Sally Good’n” and “Listen To The Mockingbird,” and that when he won the state contest he beat out fiddlers from all age groups, including grown-up musicians with many years’ experience under their worn rawhide belts.

About 25 miles to the northwest of Sidney, in slightly larger Cisco, Texas, Dash Crofts was waffling between a future in music and a future in baseball. Four years older than Seals, he’d begun playing piano at the age of five, and had some lessons, before switching to drums at 10 or 11. When they met, Seals was in the eighth grade and just learning the saxophone, and Crofts was a high school senior drumming in a moderately popular local swing and country dance band, having given up his dreams of the ballpark.

(Crofts’ given first name is Darrell; he has a twin sister, Dorothy, and when they were tots, their mother entered them in a “beautiful baby” contest in Cisco, thinking they’d be ever so cute as Dot and Dash. The nicknames stuck.)

Teenaged Seals had joined Dean Beard and the Crew Cuts, a swing band that was working its way into rock ‘n’ roll, courtesy of Seals’ honking tenor sax and Beard’s boogie-woogie piano. When the Crew Cuts lost their drummer, Seals suggested his Cisco buddy Dash Crofts, and the group carried on.

Beard and his band were managed by Slim Willet, an entrepreneur and early Texas TV star who’d written and recorded the hit “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” in 1952. Willet led the Crew Cuts through their paces at West Texas teen dances and the occasional nightclub, but only on weekends so the 13–year old Seals could be home for school on Monday mornings. Through Willet, Jimmy Seals cut a pair of instrumental singles in 1958 on the Winston label.

Beard, who bragged he “knew Elvis” and believed he was himself destined for stardom, had hit moderately with a couple of singles for Edmore and Atlantic, and he and his group had backed a number of performers cutting demos in Texas studios, among them Charlie Walker and LaVern Baker.

And this is where the story of Seals and Crofts really begins. The Champs, from Los Angeles, three months into their chart–busting success with “Tequila,” were on the road when a dispute began over ownership of the group name – did it belong to guitarist Dave Burgess or saxophonist Chuck Rio?

When the smoke cleared, Rio and drummer Gene Alden were back in Los Angeles, and Burgess and company were in the middle of a tour with only half a band. “Dave Burgess called somehow and got a hold of Slim Willet,” recalls Jimmy Seals. “They said they were looking for a saxophone player and a drummer. They were looking for somebody who wasn’t married, who could be kind of groomed for the part.”

“Jimmy said to me, ‘Would you like to tour through Texas and be Big Time?’” Crofts says with a laugh. “So I went with them.”

Seals: “They settled on me and Dash, but Slim told them the only way they could have us was if they took Dean, because Dean had a record out on his own.”

Says Crofts, “They said, ‘We don’t need a piano player,’ and then he said, ‘Well, then you can’t have ‘em.’ We didn’t know anything about this.” But the Champs took Dean Beard anyway. “They found out later that he was stealing from them,” Crofts recall, “so they fired him and kept us.” The three erstwhile Crew Cuts joined the Champs tour in Baton Rouge, the fans none the wiser for the sudden change. The musicians had their clothes torn off at the very first gig. Someone called in a bomb scare too.

Seals, who was by then 14, was having trouble at home. His parents had divorced, younger brother Danny going off to live with mom while Jimmy stayed in Sidney with Wayland. When Burgess invited Seals and Crofts to move to Los Angeles to record as full–time Champs, Jimmy had no trouble saying yes.

“I said, ‘Look there’s nothing out here in West Texas at this time but tumbleweeds and jackrabbits,” he remembers. “If I’m gonna do music, I’ve got to go where it’s being done.’” So the teenage Texans moved to California, where they spent the next six years recording and touring with the Champs (Crofts was drafted in 1962 and spent two years with the Army in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; he was replaced, and his replacement was in turn fired upon Crofts’ discharge from the service).

Because “Tequila” was an instrumental record, the Champs were an instrumental group, which Seals and Crofts began to find increasingly claustrophobic. They loved to sing, and so did Dave Burgess, but Champs records were just not vocal records. That was that.

“For me, it was very frustrating,” Seals recalls. “We were starting to write songs and when we’d come back from touring we’d beg them to do some records vocally. They never really got into it. We formed another group with Dave Burgess, called the Chimes. The three of us did a couple of records with that group on the side; they just didn’t want to put the Champs’ name out there with it.” (The Challenge Records discography lists the artists on these 1962 records, “Desire” and “Peg O’ My Heart,” as the Trophies. Both Seals and Crofts say they were recorded as the Chimes, and they’d always thought they were released under that name, but Burgess most likely changed the moniker at the last minute.)

Crofts remembers the Chimes only too well. “Dave Burgess wrote a couple of songs and wanted us to sing background on them. We’d go: ‘Bong…BING…Bong…’ That was our big debut as vocalists, and we said, ‘This is not happening too much. We’d like to get into something a little more creative.’”

Challenge Records continued to refuse, even though Champs guitarist Glen Campbell wanted to sing on records too. Of Burgess, Crofts says, “We found out later that he owned the name the Champs. So he brought in all the dough and gave us salary. He was making money hand over foot. Then he decided that he would stay home and run the record company and send us out on the road, like work horses. And that’s what he did.”

Still, they were turning a profit. “It was a pretty good salary for those days, $500–$600 a week,” Crofts says “Pretty good for us, because we were irresponsible teenagers. We’d buy shirts and throw them away and buy others instead of taking them to the cleaners.”

“Too Much Tequila” in 1960 had been the Champs’ last Top 30 single; still they slogged on. In 1965, after nearly seven years as a Champ (he’d had four singles released under his own name on Challenge, too, and they all bombed), Jimmy Seals had had enough.

When the band was booked for a tour of the Orient, with dates in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, Seals announced he would not be going.

Crofts recalls that Seals was terrified of getting drafted, and thought that he ought to stay low, staying off international airplanes and out of the newspapers. And – according to Crofts – Seals married a woman he didn’t really love, simply to reduce the risk of being called up. The two actually argued their way into a fistfight, and Crofts, hurt by what he saw as abandonment by his old friend, left for the Far East with a chip on his shoulder.

When the Champs returned, he too, resigned. His heart was no longer in it. The band dissolved for good soon afterward. Both Seals and Crofts spent the next year or two as Los Angeles session musicians, and eventually they patched up the friendship.

Seals, who’d started messing around with the guitar and was writing songs prodigiously, was particularly affected by the end of the Champs. “To live through the decline of the group was very depressing,” he says, “although the group was progressing musically to where we were doing Blood, Sweat and Tears or Chicago–type material at the end of the run.”

Crofts went back to Texas, while Seals “collected pop bottles” in California, taking session work when he could get it. In 1966, Seals hooked up with guitarist Louie Shelton and bassist Joe Bogan to form a cover band dubbed, among other things, the Mushrooms (Seals says they changed the name regularly to get re–booked into places that otherwise wouldn’t invite them back). Crofts was persuaded to return west and take the drummer’s chair. The Mushrooms played rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country, any kind of music that was needed to bring in jobs, Crofts says.

One night, the group was playing at a Los Angeles bowling alley, the Hollywood Bowl, when they were approached by three sisters; Billie, Donnie and Lana Day. The Day sisters, who were quite taken with the young musicians, introduced themselves as singers.

Right away, the gears started turning. “We thought ‘We’ll gang up together, go up to Vegas and make some big bucks,’” Crofts recalls. “We were making a living, but figured that if we added three girls and went to Vegas, we could make a bigger salary.”

The new group was dubbed the Dawnbreakers. The girls’ mother, Marcia Day, was an agent for a couple of Hollywood actors, and she lived in a gray, three–story house on Sunset Boulevard with her family and sometimes dozens of “friends.” Day became the Dawnbreakers’ manager, and it was she who got them a “fill–in gig” in Las Vegas, fitting them out with matching stage suits. Back in L.A., Dash Crofts started dating Billie Lee Day, and the boys in the band were invited to move into what was affectionately known as Marcia’s Place.

Soon, Seals, Crofts, Shelton and Bogan started regularly attending the Friday night meetings, or “firesides,” Day held in her home to discuss with many friends her belief in the Baha’i religion, based around the teachings of the 19th Century Persian prophet Baha’u’llah. During his subsequent imprisonment he wrote hundreds of letters and books that became the principal Scriptures of the faith.

Seals and Crofts, dissatisfied with many things in their lives, began to listen. “It gave us a lot of food for thought,” says Crofts. “Our priorities began to change. When you get into music, your goal is to become as famous and rich as you can become. It’s an ego trip. When we came across the Baha’i faith, it talked about things like oneness of god, the oneness of mankind, the oneness of religion, equality of men and women, elimination of prejudices of all kinds. And we thought, ‘Wow, this is really lofty stuff.’

“Probably too lofty for us, but it interested us. And so, we started looking into it.”

Crofts, because he was romantically involved with Billie Lee Day, was the first to convert to the Baha’i. Seals considered himself at a spiritual dead end. His marriage was over and his career was going nowhere fast. Still, he resisted at first. “Because we were working together, they didn’t want to make me feel like they were pushing religion or anything on me,” Seals relates. “So what it boiled down to was, no one really told me directly what the faith was all about. Finally, one day Dash started trying to tell me about it. We were driving down Hollywood Boulevard, and he got so frustrated because he just wasn’t getting through to me. He pulled over to the side of the road, slammed the brakes, and told me what Baha’u’llah’s claim was, that he was the promised one of all ages.”

In the Baha’i Scriptures, Seals found answers to the questions he’d been asking all his life. When you stripped away the conventions of each of the major religions, all the prophets were saying essentially the same thing: love one another. The basic tenets of the Baha’i faith – love, tolerance, absolute equality of all sex or race and worldwide unity – appealed to the young Texan.

“From that point on, I just started ripping books apart,” he says, adding that the words of Bah’u’llah “became the foundation for the writing that we did with Seals and Crofts.” (“I’ve been trying to find a loophole now for 26 years,” says Crofts, who married Billie Lee Day in 1969. “And I haven’t found it yet. I was really skeptical.”)

Shelton and Bogan married the other two Day sisters, and Seals became involved with Ruby Jean Anderson, another “friend” who’d stopped by to sit in on the Friday night firesides at Marcia’s Place and stayed a while. One night when no one else was home, Seals and Anderson were thrown together, helping a young woman who’d overdosed on drugs on the Day doorstep, then tending to the victims of a car crash down the block. They wound up sitting over coffee and talking all night, excitedly sharing their feelings about life, love and spirituality. They were married in 1970.

The Dawnbreakers actually cut a couple of sides for Dunhill in 1968, produced by Richard Perry. However, Crofts says with a laugh, Perry crossed paths with Tiny Tim during this period and “we got dropped like a hot potato.” Perry hit the top with “Tiptoe Thru The Tulips” and the Dawnbreakers’ wax never materialized.

Meanwhile, Louie Shelton, who was making tons of dough as a session player while starving with the Dawnbreakers, decided to leave the group to work as a session guitarist and producer. Bogan went with him.

“Louie started moving into producing and Joey started moving into engineering … it just kind of naturally broke up, but we were all still together, in an indirect way,” recalls Crofts. After all, he says, “Three marriages came out of that group.”

But he and Seals had already done some hard thinking about something new. “In the Champs and the Mushrooms, and in the Dawnbreakers, we were playing a harder kind of music,” Crofts says, “and we were kind of sick of that. So for therapy we would go into a room and write these little, pleasant soft songs, like wandering troubadour kind of music. And we didn’t play it for anybody. We’d just go play it for ourselves, just a therapy. And then we got to where we thought we’d try it out in between sets – at the breaks, when everybody took a break, Jimmy and I would sit there and play these little tunes. And we saw that people liked them.”

Crofts wanted an instrument to complement Seals’ acoustic guitar; drums simply wouldn’t do. So he borrowed a cheap mandolin from his brother – who kept it on the walls as an ornament – and taught himself to play. “I just plunked it and it sounded really good,” he remembers. (Eventually, Crofts wandered into Barney Kessel’s Music Store in Los Angeles and bought a vintage Gibson mandolin for $125, an incredible price even in 1969. He played the instrument on “Summer Breeze,” “Diamond Girl,” all the big Seals and Crofts records, and he still has it.)

Seals: “We worked out counterparts on the mandolin and guitar, and also on the vocals, and then we tried to work it out sometimes where we would sing two parts, and play the other two harmony parts on the instruments. Being from a small band, we were trying to make it sound as big as we could.”

Seals and Crofts played their first show as a duo at the Ice House in Pasadena, California, in 1969. Next, they signed on to perform at the legendary Hoot Night at Los Angeles’ Troubadour club. Seals recalls that he had to borrow the $2 the club required as a guarantee they’d show up.

“We went on between two hard rock bands,” he says. “And we only had four songs. We played those, and the whole house stood up and just went crazy. So we sat down and played them again. And we told them, ‘We’re sorry, we’ll have to come back when we write more.”

And so the teenage prodigies from Texas abandoned rock ‘n’ roll and the big beat more or less forever, and found their “true calling” in folksy, acoustic music, dedicating their work – as they did their lives – to the teachings of a Persian religious leader who had been dead for almost 100 years.

Day got them a record contract in 1970, with Talent Associates (TA), a low–budget subsidiary of Bell. Two albums were released that year, Seals and Crofts and Down Home, both largely self–written collections of “wandering troubadour music.” They were sweet, simple and folksy, and despite the release of two singles from each album, there were no sales to speak of.

Still, Seals and Crofts’ performance following grew progressively larger, and in early 1971 they were signed to Warner Brothers Records, then on a roll with James Taylor and on the lookout for more introspective singer–songwriters to bankroll.

Seals and Crofts’ sound, a vaguely medieval blend of acoustic guitar and mandolin, was mannered and polite, courtly even, and their lyrics – almost always penned by Seals alone – were radiant and positive, talking of a kind of love that could have been about the opposite sex or about God, depending on how you read them. The songs were full of love, faith, peace and talk of “the truth.” And that, not to put too fine a point on it, was the sort of thing that was selling in 1971.

To produce their first Warners album, Seals and Crofts brought in their old Dawnbreaker chum Louis Shelton (suddenly they could afford him). To further keep it in the family, Joe Bogan became their engineer. Crofts, Shelton and Bogan were at the time happily married to the three Day sisters. “We had been drawing 3,500 to 4,000 people a night for like two years without a record,” Seals recalls. “So we felt like, if we ever got a record that would appeal to the masses, we would be able to draw more people and have a career.”

Year Of Sunday was released on Warner Brothers in the waning days of 1971. A vast improvement, sonically, over the TA albums, it also featured sharper and more pointed songwriting. One particular ballad, “Antoinette,” was an exquisite blend of harmony vocal, acoustic guitar and mandolin soloing.

The Baha’i influences were everywhere if you looked. “When I Meet Them,” the first single, was a plea for universal brotherhood, as was the R&B–flavored “Sudan Village.” The title track, in fact was based around the Baha’i belief in “progressive revelation,” that is, the teachings of the prophets, in succession, forming a sort of map for mankind to follow. “We all live in a year of Sunday,” then, meant that every day was like a church day, with something to be learned. Heady stuff was for the pop charts, to be sure, but expertly put across. Despite a massive promotional push by the label, however, Year Of Sunday did not light the world on fire.

Those were the days when record companies actually believed in their artists, and instead of getting the hook for their poor sales showing, Seals and Crofts were encouraged to try again. “This was all an experiment,” Seals says. “We never dreamed we’d be heard on the air. Some of it sounds like shopping cart music. Nobody knew what they were doing.”

In the summer of 1972, the duo signed on as opening act on a national tour by the supergroup Chicago. The exposure was priceless, as their second Warner Bros. album Summer Breeze was to be released in July. Summer Breeze is, arguably, the definitive Seals and Crofts album. All the elements were in place, including top–notch songs and deft performances by the twosome and a band of friends and studio acquaintances (bassist Bobby Lichtig, who played with Seals and Crofts for most of the ’70s, made his debut here, and the widely–seen Chicago tour featured just him backing Seals and Crofts). Here, they found the ideal commercial formula.

Again, Seals wrote most of the lyrics, and he and Crofts collaborated on the melodies. On Summer Breeze, they came up with mystical–sounding ballads (“East of Ginger Trees” and “Hummingbird,” both of which included verbatim quotes from the Baha’i Scriptures), a finger–snapping, bluesy acoustic ballad that was literally about faith (“The Euphrates”), a couple of socially relevant “pop” songs (“Funny Little Man,” “Yellow Dirt”), a beautiful if obtuse folk ballad (“Advance Guards”) and an excuse for Seals to take his hoedown violin out of mothballs (“Fiddle In The Sky”). He played a little sax on “The Euphrates,” too.

Then there was the title song, a simple celebration of home and hearth. With its catchy chorus (“Summer Breeze makes me feel fine/Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind”) and unforgettable signature “riff” (played in unison on Crofts’ mandolin and Lichtig’s bass), “Summer Breeze” became a classic “soft rock” single overnight.

The single reached No. 6 in September, and the album went gold, spending 100 weeks on the Billboard chart. Seals and Crofts appeared on every television show that showed an interest, and began a touring schedule that would hardly abate for eight years.

“We were ready to be disc jockeys, roadies, sound mixers or whatever, just so we could be in and around music,” Seals explains. “Because that was all we had known. We didn’t have any grand delusions about what might happen; we just took the next step when it came. If the door opened, we went.”

“Hummingbird,” the second single, made it to  No. 21 in January 1973. By then, Seals and Crofts were almost finished with their fifth album, the one that would ultimately prove to be their biggest seller, and, as each of them would come to realize years later, the beginning of the end. The album was Diamond Girl, and it too went gold soon after its release in May. The title song – jazzy, with some complex changes – was released as a single, and like “Summer Breeze,” climbed to No. 6.

There were no simple acoustic duets on the album – Seals and Crofts had acquired a band. A rather large band. Seals: “After Summer Breeze hit, somewhere in between there and the recording of Diamond Girl, we realized that we could not progress any further… we were very limited as to the kind of music we could play. But there was no way that we could play anything any harder. If you’re playing with a band, all of a sudden you’re in competition with 10,000 other bands. The band has got to really cook; and it’s got to have an identity. And for the crowd that we were playing, it had to be hard rock. I feel like we lost a little bit of uniqueness in what we were doing, because we started leaning more and more on the band.”

Once again, the words and teaching of Baha’u’llah were prominently displayed, in such songs as “Intone My Servant” (“Intone my servant/the verses of your Lord”) and “Nine Houses,” a symphonic “suite” that paid homage to the nine major organized religions of the world. Then there was “We May Never Pass This Way (Again),” which retold the story of the fabled “year of Sunday”: learn all you can in this lifetime; it may be your only chance. This was the second Diamond Girl single, released in September and slightly edited from the album version. It climbed to 21 on the charts.

Seals honked his tenor sax on the jazzy instrumental track “Wisdom,” and the duo tossed out a humorous cowboy song, “Dust On My Saddle,” that would become an in-concert staple.

Another highlight of the album was “Ruby Jean and Billie Lee,” which Seals and Crofts wrote together as a love letter to their wives. “We kept it a total secret at the time we were doing it,” Crofts says. “We wanted to give them a gift that would last for a while. So Jimmy started writing the song about Ruby, and I said, ‘You can’t write one for her without me!’ So we decided you write a verse, I’ll write a verse, and we’ll put the kids in the middle. We had one kid apiece, Joshua and Lua. The funny part about it was, they’d show up at the studio and we’d start calling it ‘R&B Waltz,’ instead of ‘Ruby Jean and Billie Lee,’ so they wouldn’t know what it was. That was the code name.”

Seals and Crofts put perhaps the best signing of their careers on this one recording. “Finally, the day came for us to spring it on them. They came down to the studio, and there was like four or five Warner Brothers executives there with big cigars in their mouths and all that; we started playing it for them and they started crying, and then the executives started crying, big tears in their eyes. It turned out to be really neat. We said, ‘This is specifically for you guys. We’re not even going to release it as a single, we’re just gonna give it to you, and you can have it.’” It never was released as a single, but it was included on the duo’s Greatest Hits album two years later.

By now, Seals and Crofts were a major touring act, a top grosser, with a private plane for Seals and Crofts themselves, another for the band, and another for the crew. Still burning with the fervor of the newly–converted, they devised a way to “tell” their fans about their Baha’i beliefs without, they hoped, coming off like pushy religious zealots. After each concert – about 20 minutes after the house lights had gone up – the duo would return to the stage and chat, sans microphones, with anyone in the crowd who wanted to hear about it. These little post–concert rap sessions, announced at the beginning of each show, were called firesides, just as they had been on those long–ago Friday nights at Marcia’s Place.

“We tried to take our art and use it toward something that would further civilization in some way,” Crofts says. “Yeah, we were successful and we got hit records and we started making bigger money, but what we did was hire more people and try to make it a better show. But we decided at the same time to put in our contract that every place we have the alternative to talk about the Baha’i faith. We never incorporated it into the show itself. We always said that they came to hear music, and that’s what they’re gonna hear. And afterwards, if somebody wants to hear about the Baha’i faith, we’ll come back and tell them about it. We’re not evangelists.”

Seals put a lot of stock in these discussions. “It was something we felt was like a great responsibility, because you don’t want to be like parrots out on the street, telling everybody that comes along this, that and the other,” he says. “And the other thing is, you’re having to try to live it. You can call yourself whatever you want, but how you live your life is your religion.

“It was at a time when it was very important that the faith become known in this country, because there wasn’t enough Baha’i at that time, and because they can’t take donations from outside, and they can’t proselytize, the only way you can do it is through an interview, or if you have firesides.

“You also can’t have people come listen to music and then force religion on them. So it was a strange setup. If people know that you’re gonna talk about something that is religious, or that’s your faith, if they’re attracted to that and want to stay and listen to it, I don’t think you can hurt yourself.”

The year was 1973. Richard Nixon was looking at another 12 months in the White House, tops, the Vietnam War was raging away … and Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States, had just been handed down.

“I think you can ruin your career, as we almost did, by taking a concept and trying to put it into a record,” Seals says, “where it becomes sucked into the political scheme of things.”

Lana Day Bogan, wife of the group’s recording engineer and longtime crony Joe Bogan, had seen a television documentary on abortion and was moved to write a poem, from the point of view of the unborn child.

Seals, at Lana’s suggestion, put it to music.

“Oh, little baby, if you only knew.

Just what your momma was planning to do…”

This was “Unborn Child,” Seals and Crofts’ follow–up to the sweet and singable pop hits “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” and “Diamond Girl.” The album likewise, was called Unborn Child.

Crofts: “Warner Brothers warned us against it. They said, ‘This is a highly controversial subject, we advise that you don’t do this.’ And we said, ‘But you’re in the business to make money; we’re doing it to save lives. We don’t care about the money.”

Both Seals and Crofts insist the song’s message was, simply “don’t take life too lightly,” to stop and think before going through with an abortion. But the critics tore the record to pieces, and Seals and Crofts with it, deriding it as not only a bad record, but lousy poetry. The single was a commercial disaster; the album shipped gold, but the retail returns were serious.

“It was a double–edged sword,” Crofts says of the Unborn Child controversy. “It hurt us in one way, and helped us in another. It turns over fans, is what it does. If you’re against something, you lose those fans. But if you’re for it, you gain some fans. And that’s kind of what happened.”

“I don’t know whether people knew what was in there or not,” Seals recalls, “but some of the pro–abortionists called up the radio stations and demanded equal time. Well, that killed the airplay on it. What we had done is we had taken a single issue. Before, we were dealing with the general concept of things. I think everybody in the world, regardless of whether they’ve previously been a racist, or an atheist or whatever, can accept, without getting too upset, the fact that mankind is one family. We’re all here on one dot and we need each other. It’s obvious. But when you pull it down and start taking the different really hot issues, if a person is not looking at the overview that you are, then they’re not gonna connect the parts together. They just see one thing.”

This one thing got Seals and Crofts picketed all across the country. “I think we got more good results out of it than bad,” says Crofts, “because a lot of people called us and said, ‘We’re naming our children after you, because you helped us decide to save their lives with that song.’ That was very fulfilling to us.”

“I thought either it would be very much accepted, on the strength of the song itself, or that it would be the biggest bomb that we ever had,” Seals explains. “But it was incidental by that point, because the music was gone. I was out of gas already. When you get in that position, you really don’t know what to do. It happens without a lot of different artists, and I admire those people who have not let that happen to them. We started with a classical–oriented instrumentation, mandolin and guitar, and trying to find ways to use that – and to not use it – with two people was very difficult.

“If you had one person with the freedom of adlib kind of singing, of being able to move through different phrases of music, it’s much easier for one person to do it than two. Duos had never been my cup of tea, to start with. Outside of a few records, I don’t like ‘em. A group, and a single artist, are much easier to manage and to record.”

“Unborn Child” hurt Seals and Crofts’ reputation – it was as if they had crossed that thin line, that sacrosanct divider that separated their music from their religious beliefs. The single never made it higher than No. 66 in Billboard, and the follow–up, “King Of Nothing” (with Crofts on lead vocal), only went to 60. They toured for much of 1974 with the issue hanging over their heads. Often, their concerts were picketed by pro–choice groups.

In April of 1975, damage control began with a new single and album; both titled I’ll Play For You. As a response to the fires stirred up by the “Unborn Child” single, this one was an innocent, somewhat innocuous pop song, the most neutral thing the duo had ever recorded. “I’ll Play For You” squeezed into the Top 20, but the follow–up, “Castles In The Sand,” failed to chart at all.

For Christmas that year, Seals And Crofts Greatest Hits was issued. It had both of the I’ll Play For You singles, and “King Of Nothing,” but “Unborn Child” was conspicuous in its absence. Buoyed by the plethora of songs from the glory days of Summer Breeze and Diamond Girl, the album sold well.

Still, Seals says, he could read the writing on the wall. “After Unborn Child and I’ll Play For You, the music just started getting more and more watered down, less identity and this, that and the other,” he explains.

“I remember the night it happened. I was in the dressing room, I think it was down in Mobile, Alabama, and I just knew. I said, ‘The spirit is gone.’ You sense it. I sensed the same finality that I had sensed with the Champs, except it was our music. And it really made me kind of sick.

“But at some point like that, you can’t go backwards. And also, if you’re a hard rock group, you can get softer, you can go to a softer song, or a softer style, and you can find your way to peace in your soul, or whatever you want to express and you can get away with it. But if you’re a soft rock group, you cannot do a hard song and get away with it. Very seldom, at least in those days, was it acceptable.”

Still they plugged on, pretending nothing was wrong. Ironically, when they tried a “hard song,” it gave them their biggest–selling single ever. “Get Closer,” which Seals had written as a Bill Withers–type ballad, was recorded as an uptempo R&B single, with a trio of lead vocalists – Seals, Crofts and R&B singer Carolyn Willis, who’d been a member of the trio Honey Cone (“Want Ads”). “Get Closer” reached No. 6 in April of 1976.

“I always felt like Carolyn Willis’ voice was too high for ours,” Seals laments, “because she would be singing at the bottom of her range, and us at the top, in order to get three parts.” Nevertheless, Seals and Crofts hit the road in support of the gold Get Closer album, with a huge band, Willis and background singer in tow.

They both knew it was all wrong. “I tried several times to get him to go out with just the two of us again, after we had been successful,” Crofts explains. “The problem with touring, in those days, was the expenses were astronomical. You had to ask promoters for a fortune just so you could make some money. And the farther along it got, the higher the expenses got. I think that’s what caused the decline.

“And Jimmy was his own worst critic. He was very critical of himself, and was very hard on himself. Sometime I’d say ‘Jimmy, when are you gonna just let go and enjoy this?’ He was pretty much of a perfectionist, but Jimmy took it so seriously that sometimes he would badger his own self.”

The reason he took up mandolin, Crofts says, was to be able to travel without “a bunch of stuff to carry around. I ended up with like three 18–wheeler trucks to carry the stuff that goes with the mandolin.

“It got really insane at one point, and I finally said, you know, this is unbelievable. We’ve got four pilots, three truck drivers, a road manager, an assistant road manager, a business manager, a creative manager, a band and about 12 roadies. We were taking 30 people on the road. It was like an army.”

Warner Brothers tried valiantly to keep the Get Closer momentum going with Sudan Village, released in the fall. It was a live album, of relatively obscure songs from the Seals and Crofts archives, and the first recording of Seals’ “fiddle breakdown,” a highlight of their live shows for years.

“We were touring so much that we didn’t have time to go in and do a legitimate album,” Crofts remembers, adding the album was (badly) recorded over a three–night stint in Las Vegas. “I think it was a pretty lame idea, myself. But there wasn’t too much we could do about it, because we were so busy.” The album was a stiff, although the single culled from it, “Baby I’ll Give It To You” (another trio with Willis) actually charted slightly higher than “Unborn Child.”

“We felt like, after the Sudan Village album, that we were forcing ourselves to come up with material,” Crofts says. “Because, basically, we had said everything we wanted to say already. Our hearts weren’t into it, because we’d already made our statement. It puts you under such pressure. The pressure is once you’ve got a hit, trying to stay in the flow.”

By ‘77, they were flying blind. A friend of the duo’s, television writer Charles Fox, talked them into singing a collection of songs he’d written (with lyricist Paul Williams) for the soundtrack of the Robby Benson basketball movie One On One. Fox also produced the film, which was not a major success. The single from this project, “My Fair Share,” made it to No. 28. They didn’t write it, and they didn’t like it.

In 1978 came the album Takin’ It Easy. The uptempo single, “You’re The Love,” was out-and-out disco, a full 180 from the “wandering troubadour music” of their heyday. Warner Brothers even issued it as a commercial, 12-inch dancefloor single, extended to six minutes in length for maximum boogie-ing down. “You’re the Love” was Seals and Crofts’ last time in the Top 20, reaching No. 18 in April.

Around the same time, they also cut the theme to the popular television drama The Paper Chase. Although it was heard each week by millions of people, “The First Years” never appeared as a full song on a record.

The next year, Seals and Crofts accepted $60,000 each to lay down a vocal for a McDonalds’ radio commercial. Crofts: “In those days, it wasn’t cool to do a commercial: ‘Oh, you’re selling out.’ Now everybody’s begging for commercials. They’re killing each other to get a commercial. We kind of did it with a grain of salt. We had offers from Kodak, and Johnson’s Baby Powder, and things like that. They were offering us really big bucks.”

The end finally came in 1980. Overtly jazz-inflected, The Longest Road was to be their last album. “The best part of The Longest Road was, for me, working with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke,” Crofts reports. “They didn’t have to do the session with us, but they did it out of sheer respect.

“But I think what we were doing there was just grabbing for straws. We had material, but we knew that the material was not up to par. But we had a contract with Warner Brothers; we were supposed to put out two albums a year. And so we threw an album together – that’s basically what The Longest Road was.”

The album, and the single “First Love,” got nowhere near the charts. The Longest Road was outsold by K–Tel’s The Seals And Crofts Collection, which was released around the same time. Looking forward wasn’t doing anyone any good; it was time to look back.

Warner Brothers dropped them.

“After that, we decided, ‘What the hell are we doing here?” Crofts says. “We’re trying to force material, and stay up with the standard we’ve already established. And why prostitute ourselves? Why don’t we just stop?’”

“We just didn’t have the material,” explains Seals. “And I think Warner Brothers probably looked at their past artists and said, ‘How many more have these guys got?’”

Don’t hold them to it, but Seals and Crofts have no intention of returning. “Even today, there’s not one been able to make a comeback and sustain it,” says Seals. “Maybe one album. In those days, a group was good for one, maybe two or three albums. They’d reach a high point, and the rest of it was greatest hits albums; milk it for all you can.”

RIP Jim Seals

Billy Joel: Words and music … and no more words

(The Gainesville Sun, 1996)

Like everyone else in New York, Billy Joel is sick of the cold, sick of the snow. Fortunately, leaving it all behind for a week in Florida is an option he can afford. Millionaire rock stars get to do things like that.

Joel checks into Gainesville’s Center for the Performing Arts Thursday on his four-date whistlestop tour of the Sunshine State (the first show is tonight in Melbourne). Billed as An Evening of Questions and Answers … and a Little Music, it’s not exactly a concert. He’s coming, he explains, to talk to music students, aspiring songwriters and would-be Billy Joels. He’ll use an onstage grand piano to help illustrate his points.

“This isn’t a lecture, per se,” Joel says by phone from his home on Long Island’s East End. “It’s more of a dialogue. I hate to use the word ‘interactive,’ ‘cause that’s been beaten to death. But it’s an opportunity for people to ask questions, regarding different aspects of the job that I do. I know that there’s curiosity about it.”

A born talker, the Log Island native has been explaining himself on college campuses since the mid ‘70s, when “Just the Way You Are,” The Stranger and “My Life” were making him a household name.

“The first time I did it, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it,” Joel says. “At one time, I had harbored notions of being a teacher. A good teacher made a big difference in my life: There was a music teacher, when I was in high school, who advised me to actually go in the music business. Which was sort of unheard-of at that time.

“Maybe that was the one thing I needed to seriously go ahead and do it, because I always wanted to. It’s just that everybody told me I was crazy.”

At 46, Joel can look back on an astounding 32 years in the music business (he joined his first semi-pro band, the Echoes, while in high school). He had taken classical piano lessons since age 4, but the band experience kindled a passion for rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm ‘n’ blues, that all but extinguished his classical dreams.

“When I was starting out, there was nobody to ask about this particular job,” Joel reflects. “I admired the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles, but you could never talk to those guys. You sent ‘em a letter and you asked ‘em all these questions, and they sent you back fan mail stuff.

“I’ll never forget, one time I wrote the Beatles this impassioned letter about how important they were to me, and why did they write this, and I got back a pamphlet about lipstick and dolls … I got kind of disheartened. And I thought to myself ‘Look, if I ever get in the position where I can advise people, or be some kind of counselor to people, I’d like to do it.”

He was offered the opportunity by Paul Simon’s brother Eddie, who invited Joel to speak at one of the classes he taught at New York’s New School.

Since then, he’s taken his show on the road to Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and just about all points in between (he even did one at Oxford). Of course the way he made a few albums (including his most recent to date, 1993’s River of Dreams.

An Evening of Questions and Answers, Joel explains, “re-focuses what I really do. It’s all based on being a musician, and the art of music, and the craft of music.

“It makes for an entertaining evening. I find that he people who go to these things enjoy them as much as, or maybe more than, concerts. The concerts after a while become rote. You can only really deviate to a certain extent – people want to hear their favorites, and after a while it gets little tiring.”

He has, for example, retired “Just the Way You Are” from his in-concert set list; he hasn’t played it for a decade and doesn’t miss it a bit.

“This is different every night,” he says, referring to his Q&A event. “It depends on the questions that are asked – the audience sets the tone.”

Joel’s reputation as a scrapper is legendary – he’s sued and been sued by several former managers, one of them his ex-wife, and only recently settled a $3 million suit against his former lawyer and business advisor. Add to that his messy (and very public) divorce from his second wife, model Christie Brinkley, and you have an artist who’s no stranger to conflict.

“I have a lot of information that I don’t get asked about by journalists,” Joel says. “Usually, a lot of that stuff is more celebrity-oriented. The questions you get at these situations are more technical. I get asked why I write songs in certain keys, why do I make certain chord changes. How do you work with record companies? How do you avoid getting ripped off? Those kinds of things.

So he’s still thinking about being a teacher. “Look, I’ve made every mistake in the book. So learn from me! I’m the perfect example of how much can go wrong with a musical career – but also, how much can go right.”

Since he charted with “Piano Man” in 1974, Billy Joel has been a constant presence on the pop music scene. He is a delicate songsmith, a craftsman, capable of turning out profound ballads (“She’s Always a Woman,” “She’s Got a Way”), catchy and anthemic rock (“You May Be Right,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire”) and deeply-felt socio-political songs (“Allentown,” “The Downeaster Alexa”) with equal precision. He has been in virtually a class by himself for 20 years.

He’s also one heck of a piano player, as he demonstrated on his recent 18-month coheadlining tour with Elton John.

“I was pre-disposed,” Joel relates, “to thinking ‘Well, he’s Elton John, he’s English, and he’s going to be a sissy.’ Well, he’s not a sissy. He is a professional, he’s a much better piano player than I thought he was. He didn’t throw any little sissy fits. He was always on time.

“He was kickin’ my butt playing the piano. A couple of times, we’d be jamming, and I’d have to keep up: ‘Man, this guy’s good!’”

Joel says he and his British counterpart developed a deep friendship. “He was a good human being – a really decent, kind, considerate man. I was going through a rough time, going through a divorce and all that, and he went out of his way to do kind things for me. And I always appreciated that.”

Joel says he hooked up with Elton John to have an adventure, to see what would happen, and to take some of the pressure off of his solo career. “Bands break up because they start hating each other’s guts. What does a solo artist do – I can’t break up! So all I can do is join something.”

After so many years, he explains, a recording artist – even a successful one – can find himself on a treadmill. “You have to re-invent yourself constantly. This Billy Joel guy, I’m not impressed with him. I start an album at Ground Zero – I don’t start at the end of the last album. I start from scratch, and I do it purely for my own entertainment and my own intellectual stimulation. I don’t really do it for an audience, or for critics or radio stations. I do it just for me.”

He lives alone on Long Island, playing the piano and watching the boats go by. He has no idea what his next musical project will be. “I’m always trying to change and do something different,” he says. “I have an attention span of about 10 seconds, and I just can’t stand doing the same thing over and over again.

“Some people will write ‘Gee, I loved your last album but I hate your new one.’ Well, sorry about that, but I’m not gonna keep doing the same album just because you liked it. What about me?”

He hasn’t written a pop song since “Famous Last Words,” the final cut on his last album. “I’m not writing the same way I was 20 years ago,” Joel explains. “I’m not writing the same way I was five years ago! Right now, lately, I’ve been writing classical music, piano sonatas. I’m writing a piano concerto. I haven’t written lyrics. I find words are sometimes not adequate to express what I want to express. And classical music does.”

Since day one, he’s written music first, lyrics second. “Sometimes I ask myself what I’m writing lyrics for – the music is evocative enough already. Sometimes I resent the tyranny of the lyrics.

“And then, on top of that, I gotta make a video to explain even more.”

Once a song is done, recorded and in the stores, it can lose its meaning for the artist. “Just the Way You Are,” Joel explains, was written by a different person in a different situation.

He still plays “Piano Man,” though. “You have to balance them,” he says. “People go through all kinds of crap to hear a concert. They gotta drive through a traffic jam, they gotta hassle to get the tickets, sometimes they gotta pay scalpers stupid money, and then they sit next to some guy who’s throwing up on them … and they don’t like their seats. It’s a drag.

“And then you read: ‘He didn’t challenge the audience.’ Like they’re not challenged enough just getting there!”

He illustrates with a favorite anecdote. “I went to see Led Zeppelin once, and I was dying to see all my favorite Zeppelin songs. And they didn’t do any song I knew – they just did these blues jams. And I’m yelling out ‘Whole Lotta Love! Dazed and Confused!’ And they didn’t do none of it.”

OK, so what does Billy Joel say to those fans who went through hell on the highway to see and hear him play “Just the Way You Are”?

“Well, the artist chuckles, a little sheepishly. “You can’t please everybody.”













Steve Earle on Townes Van Zandt

©2009 Connect Savannah


Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that. (Steve Earle, 1995)

On his current cross–country tour, Steve Earle is performing solo, just his voice and acoustic guitar, the way his hero and mentor always did it.

Townes Van Zandt was at the epicenter of a loosely–knit group of Texan singer/songwriters who came together periodically in the mid 1970s — usually at Guy Clark’s house in Nashville — to drink, smoke, tell tales and try out their latest compositions, into the wee hours.

Clark and Van Zandt, old friends from the Lone Star folk–club circuit, were the veterans in the gang. Earle was the “kid,” and he idolized Van Zandt, who’d been making records (albeit without commercial success) for several years, and was considered by many to be the consummate songwriter — his oeuvre included “Pancho and Lefty,” “To Live is To Fly,” “If I Needed You,” “White Freightliner Blues” and dozens more.

Earle was still a decade away from “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road” and the songs that would make him an alt/country superstar.

A lot of water has gone under Steve Earle’s bridge, not all of it pure and sparkling. These days, he’s clean, sober and happily married to singer Allison Moorer, and his two most recent albums (The Revolution Starts Now and Washington Square Serenade) won Grammy Awards in the Contemporary Folk/Americana category.

Out now is Townes, a collection of mostly solo covers of Van Zandt songs.

It is a loving tribute to Van Zandt, who’s become quite the legend since he pretty much drank himself to death in 1997.

Earle’s performance will consist of a number of songs from Townes, “but it’ll be mostly my songs,” he says. “Townes is in most of my songs. Especially when I play ’em solo.”

Bill DeYoung: For all the praise everybody heaps on him, Townes — especially as a singer — was something of an acquired taste. Many of his songs were dark and inscrutable. Sometimes, particularly in his final years, it was hard to figure what all the fuss was about.

Steve Earle: Everybody’s kind of known what Townes was like at his peak by hearing me, and Guy, and a lot of other people — we were members of a cult, Hoss. We’re cult members — in truth, that word’s misused, but we were members of a cult.

As listening experiences, Townes’ recordings weren’t nearly as enjoyable — or as successful — as Guy’s, for example. Or yours. That commercial thing just didn’t happen for him.

It was his fault. Look, he didn’t make great records. And even at the peak of his power his records are really spotty. There are moments in ’em that are brilliant.

Record–making and songwriting are two different things. Townes, I know for a fact, was only interested in writing songs. For whatever reason.

I don’t think Townes was a misunderstood genius and a victim, I don’t buy that. I think he shot himself in the foot every single fucking chance he got. Even the people he associated with were part of the ammunition he used in taking these potshots at his feet, fucking constantly.

Townes was an alcoholic, and there was lots of other stuff going on. He was also brilliant, really smart, and one of the best songwriters that ever lived. And those are all separate things — they aren’t rolled up together into this big package. It’s real easy for people to sit around and talk about that shit…

They talk about how combustible he was…

The truth of the matter is, I’m pretty fucking good, and one of the main reasons I’m as good as I am is that I met him when I was 17 years old. And I saw someone that was making art at this incredibly high level — and did not give a fuck whether he ever made any money. And that’s what I aspired to. That part of it I kept, and I keep to this day.

Now, as to the rest of it. I had the same disease Townes had. I had one of ’em. And I, for some reason, survived it. I managed to get sober. And I still think I write pretty good songs. But nobody can answer that question, and where we get lost, I think, in trying to sort out what and who Townes and people like Townes were, is when we get too … all of us were caught up in the romance of it when it was going on.

But Townes is literally legendary. And Townes is getting more famous the longer he’s gone; that’s real–life legendary shit. But the fact of the matter is, there’s kind of a handful of us that saw it. And we’re all not going to be around forever, either.

I wanted to make a record based on what I saw. It’s not based on Townes’ records. It’s based on my recollection — to the best of my ability — of Townes performing these songs, solo, when I first met him in 1972.

Keep in mind, we were all alcoholics and addicts. Because my fuse was a little longer than Townes’, it took a lot longer for my life to blow up. But I’m definitely guilty of saying “Well, I’m OK because I’m better than he is,” when it came to the way that we behaved. But I always knew that he was a better songwriter than I was.

I heard that he was tough to get approval out of, when everybody was sitting around playing their new songs.

Townes either paid attention to you or he didn’t. Guy would say “That’s a great song.” I don’t think Townes ever said that to me. The only thing Townes ever said to me about one of my songs was, when I wrote “The Devil’s Right Hand” in ’77, he’d become concerned about my fascination with guns, which he didn’t have any room to talk about. He just remarked “Hell, he’s even writin’ songs about guns.” That’s the only comment that Townes ever made about any song that I ever wrote.

But Townes knew who was good and who wasn’t. I knew when I impressed Townes and when I didn’t. He didn’t say it, but I knew how to gauge his reaction to my songs and incorporate that at times — or not incorporate it — into how I proceeded.

Did Townes know how good he was?

Oh yeah. Look, I know Bruce Springsteen fairly well, I know Bob Dylan as well as you can know Bob Dylan — he’s a hard guy to know — but the one thing that impresses me about those two guys when you meet ’em … Bruce knows he’s Bruce Springsteen, Bob knows he’s Bob Dylan. But by the time I met them I’d seen that before: Townes Van Zandt knew he was Townes Van Zandt. And he knew how good he was.

How could he not? He didn’t do anything else! He didn’t put any energy into anything else except for making songs. Everything else was just killing time. I think there is some truth to the idea of Townes being a little Vincent-esque, in that he maybe was not quite wired for this world, in a lot of ways. I think Kurt Cobain was that way, I think Vincent Van Gogh was that way. That’s very romantic to look at, but it’s really not anything but sad. It probably wasn’t a lot of fun to live. And we all suffer for it when it happens. It took Townes a lot longer to die than Kurt, and a fair amount longer than Vincent.

I have to be nothing but thankful that it didn’t happen to me that way. There’s a lot of survivor guilt in this record, Hoss. I don’t know why I’m here and he’s not. Why did I get sober, and why he never even fuckin’ try? He wasn’t interested.

From a songwriters’ point of view, why was he great?

He was a post-Bob Dylan songwriter who took it to heart that songwriting had been elevated once and for all as an art form, and he approached it as art. And he did it at this incredibly high level. He didn’t say “I’m gonna give myself three years at this, and if it doesn’t work out I’m gonna get a job,” he burned the bridges and the boats.

What’s easy to misinterpret with Townes is to think that alcoholism and – well, just say it – mental illness, were part of that. They were not part of that decision. That’s coincidence. And that’s what everybody misses.

When I was 17 I met this guy who was making art at this incredible level. That’s why songwriters are in awe of him. Bob Dylan didn’t hear about Townes Van Zandt from me! He already knew about Townes before I said what I said, trust me. When I was touring with Dylan in ’88, he played “Pancho and Lefty” the second night of the tour, just to let me know that he heard what I said and that he knew who Townes Van Zandt was.

I remember asking Townes why Lefty had double–crossed Pancho, and he shut me down with “I don’t think there’s any evidence that Pancho and Lefty even knew each other.” So, you tell me — what is that song about?

You’re thinking it’s about Pancho Villa and Lefty Frizzell?

No, oh no. I always thought it was about an outlaw who betrayed another outlaw, then spent his blood money until he was destitute and miserable in Ohio: “Where he got the bread to go, ain’t nobody knows.”

He got to the point where he’d set up the song by saying “It’s about so–and–so and so–and–so,” and he’d change it every time. My favorite was Billy Graham and Guru Maharaj Ji.

It’s about Townes. They’re both Townes. That’s my theory. More than any other songwriter or artist you’ll ever meet, Townes’ stuff is about Townes. And it takes an incredible level of artistry — it could be incredibly self–centered and hard to listen to if he wasn’t as good as he was. But he does it so well; he always finds what we relate to in his experience. He’s looking inward and describing what he sees in such detail that he can’t help but come up with stuff that we all have in us. And I don’t know any other way to describe it.

He was so funny. I play a little bit, and I sometimes will tell some of those same jokes and one–liners Townes used in his onstage patter.

I was there, opening for Townes, the night he played at the Texas A&M University coffeehouse. He walked onstage and the first thing out of his mouth was “So, I hear y’all want to be called Agro–Americans now.” And one guy laughed, besides me.

I liked the version of “Tecumseh Valley” you did on your acoustic album Train a Comin.’

I had never even considered recording a cover, except for a few live things and stuff for movies. I had just gotten out of jail; I had written some songs, and some of ’em I wanted to save for a rock record. The covers I recorded were one Townes Van Zandt song, one Beatles song and “The Rivers of Babylon.” And then some older songs of mine that I had written before I started making records: “Tom Ames’ Prayer” and “Ben McCulloch” were both written when I was 19 or 20. They’d just never gotten recorded. “Mercenary Song” was the same thing.

Was it important to you that this be a solo acoustic tour?

Solo, I think, is the way to tour with this record. There isn’t any doubt about it. I wouldn’t have known what to tell a band to do with this stuff, either in the studio or onstage. It’s really weird — I didn’t write a note, but this might be the most personal record I’ve ever made.