By John Cody
[See also Mass was the first 'Christian rock' album]
The Electric Prunes were one of the first acts to mix rock and religion, but there was more to come.
In 1969, the British rock quintet Spooky Tooth teamed with French electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry for Ceremony (An Electronic Mass).
The band was rooted in blues-based rock, with two well-received albums to their credit, but change was in the air. Progressive rock was in its formative stage – Vanilla Fudge and the Nice were already taking on the classics – and the same year brought debut releases from Yes, Genesis and King Crimson.
With the future up for grabs, the group took on the daunting task of mixing three wholly disparate fields: rock ‘n’ roll, musique concrète – a relatively new, almost avant-garde form which electronically modified sounds to a radical degree – and the Catholic Mass.
It seemed like a good idea at the time – and it’s certainly of its time; yet even considering the openness of the era, this was definitely one of the more outside releases of the year.
The half dozen songs – all based around the concept of ‘An Electronic Mass’ – were written by Gary Wright, the sole American member of the group.
Wright had a longstanding interest in celestial matters, and would eventually embrace the teachings of the Indian yogi Paramahansa Yoganada, attaining fame – and hit records – with ‘Dream Weaver’ and other songs informed by his beliefs during the latter half of the seventies.
Here, however, the content is strictly biblical.
Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell would bring a modernized, pop-friendly gospel message soon after, generating hits like ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ and ‘Day By Day’ that would be covered by literally hundreds of artists.
Ceremony was never going to go down that road. It’s hardly a feel-good, Up With People-style approach.
Outside of opener ‘Have Mercy,’ – with its plaintive plea: ‘Lord have mercy/Christ have mercy’ – it’s all single word titles; ‘Jubilation,’ Confession,’ Prayer,’[a/k/a ‘The Lord’s Prayer],’ ‘Offering’ and ‘Hosanna.’
The lyrics are frequently dark, but theologically straight down the line, taken directly from a mass, and not modernized or updated in any way.
‘Jubilation’ is typical; ‘I believe in God almighty father/maker of heaven and earth and all things/I believe in Christ the begotten son/born of the father before time began…”
Reverent and atmospheric, with a solid rock and blues base, there was every reason to believe the album would boost the group into the upper echelons of rock’s big leagues. uring with a band comprised entirely – outside of the drummer – of synth players.
At least, the album as it was delivered to the record company by the band. Then, things went sideways.
The tapes were handed over to Henry, who proceeded to add electronic noise, sound effects, blips, gurgles, and chants, radically altering the group’s original recordings in the process.
It was collaboration only in the sketchiest sense. At times it sounds as if the band was an afterthought; and it could be argued that’s exacting the case: Henry never even met with the group before contributing his radical treatments.
More’s the pity. A wild guitar solo by Luther Grosvenor that closes things out comes closest to group’s earlier repertoire, and leaves one wishing there was a separate mix – much like the David Axelrod/Electric Prunes deluxe release that offers the albums with and without vocals – of the band alone, before Henry took over.
From a musical standpoint, there’s no questioning Axelrod’s influence on the Prunes was entirely positive. In the case of Henry and Spooky Tooth, it could be argued that in the case of the final results, the reverse was true.
The band was furious. They had been on an upward trajectory until then, but after reviews started coming in – most of which were extremely negative – Cermony failed to equal previous album sales.
Wright became frustrated to the point of leaving the group.
There was one bastion of positive press; in France, Henry was already well respected composer – having pioneered work in the musique concrète form, and scored for modern ballet – the work was greeted with reverence.
Considering its reputation, Ceremony is hardly the disaster some describe it as. Ambitious, gothic, and utterly original, at the very least, it’s a compelling work.
The years have been kind, and it could be argued that it was simply before it’s time, The work has influenced – and been echoed – by experimental groups over the subsequent decades, from Soft Machine and Roxy Music to current acts like Moby and Radiohead.
Wright would return to Spooky Tooth in 1973, before embarking on a successful solo career. While he would never again record under such peculiar circumstances, he was hardly a traditionalist; in the 70s, he would pioneer the use of synthesizers in the pop format, when he toured with a band comprised entirely – outside of the drummer – of synth players.
Ceremony was relegated to the delete bins almost as soon as it was released. After decades in obscurity – original copies are almost impossible to locate – Esoteric/Cherry Red have taken great care to present the album in the best possible light. A pristine transfer, period reviews and photos show serious attention to detail – and full marks to the label for employing what was available – but it would still be nice to hear those tapes before Mr. Henry got hold of them.
© John Cody 201007.1.10
By John Cody
The latter half of the 1960s were years open to almost anything, except what had come before.
In the music scene, Eastern philosophy was being preached by everyone from Country Joe & the Fish to the Young Rascals, and traditional Judeo-Christian values were invariably mocked. Be it Phil Ochs’ ‘Cannons of Christianity,’ or peace-and-love troubadour Donovan’s rare foray into anger, ‘Poke At the Pope,’ combining rock and religion in a less than accusatory manner was rare.
There were, however, a handful of mainstream recordings that succeeded in bridging the gap.
By late 1967, the Electric Prunes had two hit singles under their belt: the garage band classics ‘I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night’ and ‘Get Me To The World On Time.’
The L.A. quintet’s debut LP included both songs, but after their second album failed to deliver a follow-up hit, manager Lenny Poncher and producer Dave Hassinger – who together owned the rights to the band’s name – decided to change to formula.
While hardly a household name, Axelrod was a prolific presence during the era, working with everyone from Stan Kenton and Cannonball Adderley to Lou Rawls and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. star David McCallum.
Having just completed gospel legend Clara Ward’s Soul and Inspiration, and already slated to produce The Bible, a collection of sacred film themes for composer David Rose, Axelrod was no stranger to incorporating the two seemingly exclusive domains.
After his one stipulation – that the mass be sung entirely in Latin – was agreed upon, he went to work. As a staff producer on loan from Capitol Records (The Prunes recorded for Reprise) he was allotted precisely one week away from the company.
He spent the first few days writing, which left three nights to record the entire album.
Three hours into the initial session, Hassinger banished most of the Prunes from the studio.
Contrary to popular myth, they did perform on the disc –and the belatedly-released Stockholm ’67 shows them to be first-rate live act – but Axelrod had brought sophisticated music charts, and there wasn’t sufficient time available to teach them the intricate arrangements.
Instead, the Wrecking Crew – a loose conglomerate of musicians heard on hundreds of records during the era (‘ringers’ as Axelrod calls them) – played on the majority of the album.
Augmented by four cellos and as many French horns, the sound was absolutely unique; ethereal, atmospheric, and clearly reverent.
Despite the decidedly crass, sales-centric beginnings, Axelrod transformed the project into something genuine and heartfelt.
Released in January, 1968, it’s arguably the first ever ‘Christian rock album.’
The song titles alone – ‘Gloria,’ ‘Credo,’ Sanctus,’ ‘Benedictus,’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ – made clear where the focus lay, and the liner notes were straightforward and unequivocal: “Christian worship has forms as many as the creative energies of Man. The Mass in F Minor is one of these.”
Despite such transparency, the album was ignored by the church. ‘Kyrie Eleison’ – the only track to include the entire Prunes band – would find a massive audience the following year, when it was featured in Easy Rider, one of the biggest films of the decade.
The nascent Rolling Stone – already a bastion of all that was hip – hated the record, stating: “a falsetto-tinged, off-tuned, weak-voiced, entirely repugnant howl emanates from the group…like tone-deaf monks…[who] almost make it worth owning as an unintended joke.”
Time magazine was more impressed, describing it as “One of the most venturesome of recent rock recordings.”
Based on the Kol Nidre, a sacred prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kipper (the holiest day in the Jewish calendar), Release of An Oath is every bit the equal of its predecessor.
Tracks like ‘Holy Are You’ and ‘The Adoration’ balance devotion with stellar musicianship. If Mass was the first Christian rock album, this might be considered the first Jewish rock album.
The entire work clocks in at just 24 minutes, but it feels complete – like a self-contained worship service.
Both albums have been reissued domestically, but the UK-only double-disc set The Warner/Reprise Sessions: The Electric Prunes & Pride is the one to seek out.
Each album is included in both its original form, and with the vocals stripped, showcasing the arrangements in an entirely different light.
The set also includes the self-titled 1970 LP from Pride. In this case, there was no band to begin with; Pride never existed. It was nothing more than a record deal that management had negotiated with Reprise.
Axelrod dutifully put pen to paper, wrote an LP’s worth of tunes, and rounded up the usual suspects. Songs like ‘The Truth,’ ‘In the Wilderness,’ and ‘Worthless Pleasures,’ are as weighty as ever, but for this one, the lyrics were written by his son, Michael.
A third Axelrod/Prunes album was okayed for January 1969. Based on Goethe’s Faust, Axelrod composed the piece, and got as far as recording basic tracks before a falling out between Hassinger and the label caused it to be abandoned before completion.
The project was thought lost until 1999, when an acetate was located. Axelrod had forgotten it even existed, and had no recollection of the original lyrics. Rather than attempting to rewrite, he decided to add strings to the acetates. The result is every bit in keeping with his previous works, and comes across as fully realized in spite of the lack of vocals.
Fittingly, the album was released under the straightforward title David Axelrod by MoWax in 2001.
In all but name, Mass In F Minor and Release Of An Oath were Axelrod solo albums, something Capitol was well aware of. Chuffed at one of their own receiving kudos for product released by the competition, they offered him a solo contract immediately after Time ran its review.
His first two efforts – 1968’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (1969), were based on the poems of William Blake. 1970’s Earth Rot dealt with environmental issues, and included verses from Isaiah. David Axelrod’s Rock Interpretation of Handel’s Messiah came out the following year. All are well worth seeking out.
Later releases were sporadic, but 1993’s Requiem: The Holocaust showed he was still dealing with serious subject matter.
Axelrod’s sound was considered bold and contemporary at the time, and the ensuing decades have done nothing to challenge that notion. These days, his work is reaching a whole new audience, with the likes of Fat Boy Slim, DJ Premier, De La Soul, U.N.K.L.E., Dr. Dre, the Beatnuts, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def and Josh Davis a/k/a DJ Shadow all sampling from his formidable catalogue.
[See also How prog rock met avant garde in church ]
© John Cody 201006.1.10
By John Cody
It’s hard to overestimate Elvis Presley’s influence on 1950s culture. Arriving at a time when Perry Como and Mitch Miller ruled the charts, he brought a sense of vitality – and danger – to the staid world of pop music.
To the kids, if felt like a clarion call. Bob Dylan famously commented; “Hearing Elvis for the first time was like busting out of jail.”
Like earlier icons, from Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby to Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra, Elvis was far more than a simple entertainer; his amalgam of honky tonk country, black R & B and gospel transcended racial and cultural boundaries.
In addition to a staggering 151 pop hits, he charted 35 times on the R & B charts – and almost triple that on the Country & Western charts.
More than half a century later, no one has come close to equaling his impact.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Presley’s birth, and Legacy Records has released a variety of packages to commemorate the event.
There’s a long line of reissues stretching back to well before his death; so at this point, finding anything interesting in the catalogue can be a challenge. For the most part, each of the new titles consists of previously released material – but to the label’s credit, they’re still well worth exploring.
At 100 songs, Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight is the obvious place to start.
Presley meant different things to different people, and that’s exactly what the box offers; Elvis for everyone.
From the rebel who sang ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Hound Dog,’ to the socially conscious troubadour of ‘If I Can Dream,’ and ‘In the Ghetto,’ and the romantic balladeer of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love,’ it’s all here.
The inoffensive popster – ‘(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,’ ‘Pocketful of Rainbows’ – spiritually sensitive crooner – ‘(There’ll Be) Peace In the Valley (For Me),’ ‘Crying In the Chapel,’ – patriot (‘An American Trilogy’) – even movie star Elvis – ‘King Creole,’ and ‘Viva Las Vegas’ – each gets a hearing.
Later on, the comeback king of ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Kentucky Rain’ leads into the seventies, with hits like ‘Burning Love’ and ‘Always On My Mind.’
As if to show just how timeless the catalogue really is, proceedings close with 2002’s ‘A Little Less Conversation (JXL Radio Remix Edit),’ which took Presley back to the top of the charts via a 34 year old recording.
The box starts almost before the beginning, with a July 1953 acetate of ‘My Happiness’ that Presley paid $4 to record as a gift to his mother. Not surprisingly, it sounds tentative, but even at that point, the voice was distinctive.
Exactly a year later, he would return to record for real.
The set-up was minimal; just guitar and stand-up bass, but the performance – a cover of Mississippi blues guitarist Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ – is just under two minutes of barely-contained energy; ground zero for rock ‘n’ roll.
The record’s flipside, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ was a raucous take on Bill Monroe’s bluegrass standard.
Together, they illustrate just how divergent his sources could be. But it’s what he added that was truly remarkable; a total reinvention, taking the songs far from their origins.
There’s no better example of the evolution from wild and untamed to the post-Army years than ‘It’s Now Or Never.’ Based on an Italian Neapolitan song (‘O Sole Mio’) made famous by operatic stalwarts Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza, the song was perfect for the newly mature crooner.
Recorded just a month after his return from overseas duty, it topped the charts for five weeks in the summer of 1960.
Thankfully, he never quite abandoned his roots; that very same session brought ‘Dirty, Dirty Feeling’ and ‘Fever,’ but there’s no denying he had returned – for better or worse – a more professional entertainer.
The inclusion of material from each and every era makes for an honest representation, but underscores the mid-sixties slump. While the Beatles and Stones were rewriting the rules, Elvis appeared to be hopelessly out of step, relegated to drive-in movie star status.
The voice was still there, but– due to manager Colonel Tom Parker’s machinations – material was now taken from a decreasing pool of writers; in order to maximize profit, Parker insisted they own a piece of the song publishing.
On the occasions where he was allowed something decent – such as a 1966 cover of Dylan’s ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ – it comes as a shock. But those opportunities were few and far between.
By 1968, Presley was written off by all but is most fervent fans. That December, he surprised everyone by returning with a vengeance. His legendary NBC Comeback Special signaled the beginning of an incredible third act.
The special was followed by a return to the charts, and a lengthy run in Las Vegas. Opening night, July 31st, 1969, a lean, mean, revitalized Elvis took the stage. It was his first performance before a live audience in eight years, and the shows were a
Guitar ace James Burton headed up a powerful backing band, while The Imperials – who first worked with him on How Great Thou Art- sang backup, augmented by the Sweet Inspirations, a black female gospel group.
On Stage couples two live albums from the comeback years. The earlier set, recorded in August 1969, came out just two months later, as part of a double album, From Memphis To Vegas – From Vegas To Memphis, while On Stage February 1970 was released the following June.
Brand new songs like ‘Suspicious Minds,’ and ‘In The Ghetto’ sat along with earlier material, plus a few choice covers, forming a cohesive set.
The second album’s track selection was frustrating; after a powerful opening with ‘See See Rider,’ On Stage goes directly into Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Release Me,’ followed by Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline.’ Thankfully, the new set’s ten bonus tracks – including ‘Kentucky Rain’ and ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ – are far better than some of the original inclusions.
The law of diminishing returns – within a few years he was incorporating karate kicks and punches into the act – means this is the place to start when exploring Elvis’ live recordings.
Presley boasted of knowing “practically every religious song that’s ever been written.” That might be a bit of a stretch, but there’s no denying gospel was the music closest to him.
He was raised in the Assembly of God Church, where raucous services were the norm, and was singing at revival services and all night gospel meetings by his teens.
The Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet were prime influences, and it was only after an unsuccessful attempt to make it as a gospel singer – a failed 1954 audition with the Songfellows, an offshoot of the Blackwood Brothers – that his spectacular ascent as the King of rock truly began.
In a sense, he never left the music; it remained an essential part of his vocabulary and influenced all that came after.
His very first sessions with vocal backing – for RCA in January 1956 – included members of the Speer Family; and soon after, the Jordanaires became his de facto back-up group, appearing on almost every session for the next dozen years. Even on mainstream hits like ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ the group’s gospel-flavored vocals are right out of the church.
In 1967, the already formidable back up was augmented with a second gospel act: the Imperials, a new group led by tenor Jake Hess, formerly of the Statesmen Quartet. From 1971 until Presley’s death in 1977, J. D. Sumner – a renowned bass singer formerly with the Blackwood Brothers – and his group the Stamps were used for all studio and live dates.
It was Presley’s idea to record entire albums of gospel music; the label was less than encouraged, and treated the idea as a necessary indulgence of their top star. Sales figures proved there was a bigger audience than anyone had imagined, and in all, the LPs received a total of 5 Grammys – the only such awards Elvis received during his lifetime.
The majority of songs came from the southern gospel tradition, but black gospel was certainly not ignored. Presley had grown up around both, frequently sneaking into black churches to hear the music during his teens; and even had a chance to sing with the Golden Gate Quartet, a legendary black American gospel group that sang in the Jubilee style, while on furlough in 1959.
I Believe: The Gospel Masters is the fourth official anthology of Presley’s gospel recordings. To varying degrees, a single disc, double disc, and triple disc – not to mention a slew of budget releases – have already compiled the original gospel LPs, plus other relevant recordings.
Now comes this deluxe four disc set. What can be added? As it turns out, not a lot. The set runs 19 tracks fewer than the triple disc, and only 13 tracks more than the double disc, so it’s not a case of more is better. Packaging is certainly improved; this is the first to get a box treatment, and liner notes help put this vital area of his catalogue in context.
The first three discs compile all Presley’s ‘non-secular’ masters in chronological order; while the 4th disc pulls together stray material from live shows, soundtracks and rehearsals.
For the most part, the essentials are included. 1957’s Peace In The Valley EP, and the gospel albums – His Hand In Mine (1960), How Great Thou Art (1967), and He Touched Me (1971) – are included in their entirety.
For the most part, Elvis stuck to the standard gospel repertoire, with occasional forays into more recent songs. Thankfully, the gospel material never declined as the film music had.
There were a few exceptions – notably ‘Let Us Pray,’ which begins with a grunt. It comes from Change of Habit – in which Elvis falls for a nun, played by Mary Tyler Moore.
The song comes from the same team that gave us such classics as ‘Signs of the Zodiac,’ ‘Do The Clam,’ and ‘He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad.’ Suffice to say, it’s not about to join anyone’s list of sacred classics.
There’s one track unique to this collection; ‘I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago.’ The song originally appearing on 1970’s Elvis Country – but somehow didn’t meet the criteria for past gospel anthologies. Its previous absence is puzzling, as the number – covered by the Golden Gate Quartet, among others – is rife with Biblical characters.
Together, these three sets offer an excellent, well-rounded introduction, but there’s still much to explore. Presley recorded a total of 711 master recordings; in a testament to his commercial longevity, nearly everything remains in print and easily available.
© John Cody 201005.1.10
by John Cody
She’s had over 100 hits on the country music charts – including 25 number ones – and more than 40 top ten albums. As a writer, musician, actress, and author, her body of work encompasses everything from the mountain music she grew up around, to Broadway shows.
Yet, for some potential listeners, Dolly Parton’s brash, larger-than-life personality and amply-endowed figure – she’s described her look as a combination of Mother Goose, Cinderella and the local hooker – makes it hard to appreciate the big picture.
Truth is, she’s an astute performer; behind the artifice lies an uncommonly honest individual. As she once pointed out, “There’s a heart beneath the boobs, and a brain beneath the wig.”
It’s a rags-to-riches story that reads like a dime store novel.
Born in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee in 1946, Parton was the fourth of a dozen children. Depending on the source, her cash-strapped sharecropper parents paid for her delivery with either a pig or cornmeal. Both sides of the family were musical, and she grew up singing at home and in church. Her maternal grandfather was a fiddle playing preacher, and she’s described her grandmother as the “prayingest, singingest, shoutingest resident of Tater Ridge, Tennessee.”
The area is rich with musical history; folklorists were venturing into the region well into the last century, collecting old English folk songs.
Parton was playing guitar and writing songs at five years old, and appearing regularly on local radio and TV by the time she was ten. The day after graduating from high school – the first in her family to do so – she boarded a Greyhound bus to Nashville, intent on making a name for herself.
She succeeded, and then some.
As an overview of Parton’s career, the recently released Dolly is first rate. The four-disc box set – which collects 99 songs and spans five decades – starts even before Nashville, with her debut single from 1959; a pair of tunes she wrote with one uncle, and recorded at another uncle’s studio in Louisiana. ‘Puppy Love;’ in particular, is fascinating; a minute and 41 seconds of rockabilly that brings to mind a pipsqueak version of Wanda Jackson.
The early recordings are a bit a pop potpourri; one track sounds like a forgotten girl group classic, another in the style of Skeeter Davis. Initially, Parton was pushed in a pop direction, even appearing on American Bandstand at one point. It was only after Bill Phillips took her ‘Put It Off Until Tomorrow’ into the Country top ten in 1966 – and scored again with a second Parton cover – that she succeeded in convincing her record label that she should be recording country instead of pop.
It’s worth noting that – regardless of genre – she was first and foremost a writer. Her canny gift for melodic and lyrical turns of phrase had much in common with the Brill Building writers of the day. Dolly was obviously aware of the hit factory to the north; she recorded an obscure Carole King/Gerry Goffin song; ‘I’ve Known You All My Life,’ in 1965, and when she did cross over to pop for real – on her own terms, almost a decade later – the single that broke her; ‘Here You Come Again’ came from the Brill Building team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
Her own songs – narratives, stories of murder, death, betrayal, redemption and faith – came right out of the folk tradition she grew up with.
A prostitute laments leaving her home and first love for the big city In ‘My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.’ The protagonist in ‘Gypsy, Joe and Me’ contemplates suicide after her dog and the man she loves (“The flower of my soul”) both meet with an early demise.
The grieving parents in ‘Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark’ honour their only child’s request to leave a nightlight on, despite the fact she has died. Deserted by the father, an unwed girl in 1969′s ‘Down From Dover’ delivers a stillborn daughter; “She knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her.”
Out of context, these songs might appear morbid and maudlin, yet each is written and sung with genuine empathy.
Parton was a pioneer at addressing politically sensitive issues: 1967′s ‘Just Because I’m A Woman,’ and 1969′s ‘Just The Way I Am’ tackled female empowerment and double standards years before the nascent woman’s liberation movement hit critical mass.
She describes ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ as the song that means the most to her. The tale of a girl mocked by schoolmates for wearing clothing fashioned from discarded fabric is based on real events. Rather than feeling shame, she cherishes her mother’s handiwork – and ability to face poverty with dignity; “as she sewed she told a story from the Bible she had read / About a coat of many colors Joseph wore…”
In addition to the country hits, Dolly’s songs began to cross over to the pop charts starting in 1974. She went all the way to #1 in 1981, with the title song from her film debut, 9 to 5. The role came after a chance meeting with Jane Fonda, who was convinced Dolly would be a natural in front of the cameras. The film’s success led to additional roles in Steel Magnolias, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, and Street Talk.
Film increased her renown, and in 1986, she opened Dollywood, a theme park that celebrates life in the Appalachian Mountains. Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, the park remains the most popular ticketed tourist attraction in Tennessee, attracting millions of visitors each year.
The box stops in the early nineties, but that’s not to imply things were slowing down. Parton enjoyed a creative and critical renaissance by returning to her roots, recording a string of straight-ahead bluegrass efforts starting with 1999′s The Grass Is Blue.
Typically, she was not above bending the rules, even in the most traditional of forms; a bluegrass remake of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ won kudos from both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
This month brings an unofficial companion to the box. Letter To Heaven: Songs of Faith And Inspiration includes her 1971 gospel effort Golden Streets Of Glory in it’s entirely, along with seven additional recordings from same period.
The majority of tracks were written by Dolly herself, including ‘Would You Know Him (If You Saw Him),’ a previously unreleased original from the Streets sessions.
It could be argued that gospel is the music closest to Parton’s heart. She readily identifies herself as a Christian, and the music has been a constant since the very beginning.
At five years old, she wrote her first spiritual; ‘Life Doesn’t Mean That Much To Me’; and she’s covered dozens of traditional gospel numbers over the years, as well as a few CCM classic like Don Francisco’s ‘He’s Alive.’
Last year saw her induction into the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame. Her sacred songs – like the rest of her catalogue – are far from formulaic. From the pastoral beauty of ‘God’s Coloring Book,’ to the weightier ‘God Won’t Get You’ (sung from the perspective of a believer struggling to understand why God would allow them fall in love with another’s spouse) to ‘The Seeker,’ Parton looks at faith from a variety of perspectives.
Much like the character she played in Steel Magnolias – who declared; “Honey, God don’t care which church you go, long as you show up” – Dolly has never publically aligned with a specific denomination, and doesn’t hesitate to question the status quo. She simply calls it like she sees it.
Her latest studio effort, Backwoods Barbie contains a pair of bonafide classics, ‘Better Get To Livin’ and ‘Jesus And Gravity” that work as mini-sermons, offering up advice both practical and theologically correct. Both are featured on Live From London, a new CD/DVD set taken from recent U.K. shows that touch on every part of her career. Like Barbie, Live is released on her own imprint, Dolly Records.
After 75 albums and over 3,000 songs – she’s written as many as twenty in a single day – Parton continues to take on new challenges.
Her first theatrical work, 9 To 5: The Musical opened on Broadway last year, with 16 songs composed specifically for the production.
It wasn’t her idea; she’d never attempted anything on this scale, but when the producers approached, she was game: “I was just dumb enough to say yes.”
The production will tour America later this year, and she’s already at work on a second musical.
© John Cody 201004.1.10
By John Cody
“I’ve no time for religion, maybe doubt is a modern disease / then I look at you and here’s what I do. I wear holes in both my knees.”
So begins ‘God Watch Over You,’ from Wendy Matthews’ The Witness Tree.
Back when I used to compile year-end best-of lists, that album was my favourite release of 1994. Matthews’ self described “non-traditional gospel album” boasted a formidable song selection – of which that song, along with similar-themed ‘Ride,’ were highlights.
Both came from the pen of Paddy McAloon, best known as leader of Prefab Sprout. That group never quite cracked America; but in their heyday, they were favourites in their English homeland. Their 1984 debut album, Swoon served notice of remarkable talent. Thanks to intelligent, emotionally astute lyrics – not to mention a formidable wit and memorable sense of melody – McAloon has been hailed as one of the great composers of his generation, garnering favorable comparisons to everyone from Bacharach, Sondheim and Cole Porter to Lennon and McCartney.
1990′s Jordan: The Comeback, a 19-song concept album addressing – among other subjects – faith and celebrity, was one of their most popular releases. In spite of healthy sales, the eagerly awaited follow-up was conspicuous in its absence.
It was another seven years until Andromeda Heights arrived. As it turns out, there was an entire album in between. Originally slated for release in 1992, Let’s Change the World With Music was a bold concept, even by McAloon’s standards.
Completely concerned with the nature of God, and the function music serves, McAloon knew his subject well; he had trained as a Catholic priest before deciding to pursue music as a vocation. Perhaps the most transparent, and heartfelt undertaking of his career, the album got as far as the demo stage before the record company nixed the project, claiming the subject matter was simply too contentious.
Now, free from major label ties, and almost two decades on, Let’s Change The World is finally available.
Writing about music can be a fruitless endeavor. Despite numerous books and documentaries purporting to explain exactly why we’re susceptible to a good song, exactly what happens and why remains a mystery. For all the self-styled experts, maybe it takes someone like McAloon, who, rather than dissect, is willing to let the mystery remain.
He employs religious imagery throughout, and begins at the beginning: “From the start this world was violent / man asked ‘why?’ but the sky was silent / God was moved / He made a choice / He said ‘let music be my voice.’”
God heals and reveals through song; “you shall hear my story / you will glimpse my glory, and find a refuge from the trouble that you see / Let there be music! Music will be / And if your burden grieves you, your baby ups and leaves you / I’ll be your blues if you should choose to lean on me.”
McAloon’s creator is present, and not silent. There is compassion for his creation: ‘I am always near you, so don’t think I can’t hear you / I am present, I am calling in the sound when rain is falling / I wear the thin disguise of a lover’s sobs and sighs.”
He cites Graham Greene’s response regarding his return to Catholicism later in life: “I began to doubt doubt,” as indicative of where he’s at these days. “For me, a similar thing goes on when I read [books like Richard Dawkins'] God Delusion or whatever. I can agree with almost everything in them. But something in me – well, I’m a reasonable guy, and I’m cynical, and I’m rational. But I have no reason to believe that my reason is telling me everything. I think the songs sometimes come from that place.”
He admits to an inherent distrust of “happy-clappy records,” that impose rigid world views on the audience. “As a writer you’ve got to distance yourself even from things you might be prone to believe in, otherwise it might just seem that you’re selling certainty: ‘this worked for me, so I’m going to foist it on you." I don’t find that very attractive.’” Instead, he attempts to create what he describes as “an opening for the listener.”
In many ways, the album brings to mind Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis’ autobiographical work – in which he recounted life before he accepted that “God was God.”
Upon glimpsing the transcendent – what he referred to as joy – he would attempt to recreate the experience. It can occur in any number of ways. Sports, nature, family, sex, community: under the right circumstances, each can lead to a heightened sense of the divine.
Music is simply one of the most effective methods. From rousing national anthems – witness the recent Winter Olympics – to human rights groups sharing songs of solidarity, to church congregations offering praise, the power is undeniable; the listener is transported in an instant to a better place.
Lewis would likely be quick to point out that the experience itself is simply an echo of God’s love; he invariably met with failure when trying to recreate specific circumstances. It was only later he realized they were simply reflections – through a glass darkly – of the creator.
McAloon returns to the gospel story repeatedly. ‘Ride’ reveals a keen awareness: ‘I look around me and I see folks leading more constructive lives than me / They don’t do this for reward, they are walking in the footsteps of their lord.”
Later, ‘Sweet Gospel Music’ offers a testimony of sorts: “My poor heart was heavy, my poor heart was stone / then I heard them, they were angels / and they were singing ‘you’re not alone, there is a peace (peace) you’ve never known.’”
‘Earth: The Story So Far’ does double duty, serving as the title track to another equally ambitious concept album: an as-yet-unreleased 30-song history of our planet.
The lyrics fit perfectly: “There was a baby in a stable, some say it was the lord / Why, if it’s no more than a fable, should it strike so deep a chord?”
The song goes on to address the supposed struggle between higher education and faith: “Science broke the news, the only absolute is light / Wasn’t that the message of the star on Christmas night?”
As the plug was pulled before the full band could begin recording, these are the original demos. That’s hardly a concern; in spite of dated production values, the album stands on its own; fully-realized and more enduring than the vast majority of music released today.
While they’ve never officially broken up, Prefab Sprout eventually became less of a going concern. In hindsight, it was clear McAloon was cheerfully waving goodbye to fame and the pressures of commercial success.
The last decade has brought what he refers to as a “double whammy” of health problems: tinnitus – a severe hearing impairment that left him unable to sing without experiencing intense pain – and a degenerative eye condition that has to a large degree since been remedied.
Ever the pragmatist, he began listening to CB radio and call-in talk shows after losing his sight, which inspired his first solo disc, 2003′s I Trawl The Megahirtz, a fascinatingly unique effort. The disc includes a lyric he obviously took to heart; “I’ll grow a long and silver beard and let it reach my knees.”
Aside from the health issues, the married father of three appears content with his lot, composing daily, and rarely looking back. Despite a formidable catalogue of unreleased work (over a dozen projects written, recorded and subsequently abandoned) he’s more interested in the creative process, as he explained recently in an interview with The Independent: “When I finish something I listen to it intensively for a short period, then never look at it again. And I’m not really that interested. But when I heard this I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is good.’"
© John Cody 201003.1.10
By John Cody
AT A TIME when a black man resides in the White House, it’s sobering to recall the not so distant past – when overt racism was accepted throughout most of America.
For the better part of the last century, blacks were relegated to the back of the bus, with beatings, and even legalized lynching imposed on those that challenged the status quo.
When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in 1955, it set in motion a sea change. Alabama’s policy of segregated seating on public transit was outlawed the following year; but the decision was met with derision, and sparked violent reprisals. Snipers fired on buses, and the home of Baptist Pastor Ralph Abernathy – one of the Civil Rights movement’s key leaders – was bombed.
While it would be folly to pretend racism has been eradicated, there’s no denying the massive strides made over the last century.
Let Freedom Sing, a new film and separately available 3-CD box set, explores the songs that inspired the movement. No other political faction valued and incorporated such a wide variety of music. Songwriters documented the struggle, and offered much needed emotional support for those in the trenches.
It’s hard to underestimate the role music played. In the film, Freedom Riders tell of being jailed, deprived of food, water and even toilets. Their only recourse was to sing. The music brought a sense of empowerment; as one Rider explains – the music could somehow make you a better person.
When a white supremacist threatened to extinguish his cigarette on her face, a black woman recalls the song ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ echoing in her mind, giving her strength and courage to stand her ground – courage the supremacist picked up on, and subsequently left her alone.
Spanning 1939 to present day, the variety of music is astounding; jazz, rock, funk, rap, reggae, blues and more, sharing the same message. There are anthems; from Mahalia Jackson singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ to Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up Stand Up’; songs that hit the top 10 pop charts by Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Isley Brothers; all the way to the underground, with songs rarely, if ever, heard on radio.
The box begins (‘Go Down Moses’) and ends (‘Free At Last’ by the Blind Boys of Alabama) with straight ahead gospel; and there’s plenty more – the Jubilee Hummingbirds, Staple Singers, Harmonizing Four, the Mighty Clouds of Joy – in between.
That should come as no surprise, as the Civil Rights movement was birthed and nurtured in the church. Leaders invariably came out of the church; and in the south especially, the story of the Israelite slaves leaving Egypt for the Promised Land was easy to relate to.
The movement would eventually expand to the masses, but the teachings of non-violence and equality remained integral. As with all folk traditions, songs would occasionally receive updated lyrics specific to the cause. More often than not, the roots remained, and the gospel message came across even in pop hits like ‘People Get Ready.’ Many, like The Golden Gate Quartet’s ‘No Restrictions Signs In Heaven,’ Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘When Do I Get To Be Called A Man?’ and Curtis Mayfield’s ‘We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue,’ pack an emotional wallop. Others – Ray Scott’s ‘The Prayer’ (“Oh Lord, let the Governor have a 17 car accident with a gasoline truck that’s been hit by a match wagon over the Grand Canyon”) and Oscar Brown Jr.’s ‘Forty Acres and a Mule’ use humor to make their point.
Some seethe with anger and indignation. Nina Simone wrote ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ in response to a Sunday morning church bombing in Birmingham that left four young girls dead. Billie Holiday’s harrowing ‘Strange Fruit,’ came out on a small independent label after Columbia, her regular record label, refused to release it. Nat King Cole’s ‘We Are Americans Too’ was deemed unacceptable as well.
Recorded in May, 1956, a month after he was assaulted on stage while performing before a Whites Only audience in Alabama, Capitol Records simply refused to put it out. The recording finally became available a half century later.
More recent material is conspicuous in its absence. Of the 58 tracks, just 3 come from the 80s-90s. There are five tracks included from the last decade, but it’s more of a look back; in all but one case the players have been recording for half a century, the other is a choir.
Maybe that’s a good thing; conditions had improved to the point where artists were addressing other issues – which is a sad irony. When conditions were at their worst, the music was inspired. Thankfully, it’s a genre that is becoming more and more obsolete.
The Civil Rights movement brought together people of all colors and walks of life, and the music was just as diverse. That diversity guarantees – unlike some compilations dedicated to a single theme – that listening to this release never becomes a chore. The quality stands strictly on musical merit.
COMPRISING TWO separate-but-related releases, Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement 1963-1982 employs a similar approach to Let Freedom Sing. In this case, with a two-CD set, and a 12 x 12 hardbound book showcasing LP artwork.
The timeline – twenty years – is more concise, as is the music itself. The majority comes from the seventies, and according to the compilers, the focus is on the avant-garde/free jazz sound birthed in the sixties. But that’s just a starting point; in some ways, the description is misleading, and could potentially turn off listeners leery of the term.
Rather than self-indulgent meanderings, these are tight, melodic and invariably powerful examples of a vibrant movement.
The mandate included economic and – just as importantly – musical independence. Initially, inspiration came from Rev Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. After both leaders were assassinated, the radicalized Black Power movement – which emphasized self-reliance in all areas – grew in popularity.
That Afro-centric world view is front and centre on tracks like Oliver Lake’s ‘Africa,’ ‘The African Look,’ and ‘Black Survival,’ but gospel roots are just as evident.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s take on ‘Old Time Religion’ shows just how close the ties to the church could be, and ‘Yes Lord,’ (by Gato Barbieri and Dollar Brand), and Michael White’s ‘The Blessing Song’ reference the gospel story to varying degrees.
‘Peyote Song No. III’ and ‘Big Spliff’ allude to drug use. Contrary to what came later -and tore the community apart – some drugs were viewed as mind expanding, with spiritual qualities. That hardly implied blanket acceptance; from Charlie Parker on, heroin had taken out some of the best and brightest players, and many in the movement preached abstinence. As ‘The Drinking Song’ by Gary Bartz Ntu Troop, admonishes; “never will be a revolution while you’re drinking wine/never will see a revelation while you’re drinking wine.”
Archie Shepp’s ‘Attica Blues’ addressed specific political issues, as does Sun Ra’s ‘Nuclear War,’ with the simple truth;”If they push that button, you can kiss your ass goodbye.”
In spite of the demands for change and equality, the jazz scene remained one of the last bastions of traditional male-domination. By the early 70s, the women’s movement was making great strides, yet, tellingly, of the 23 acts here, only two are fronted by women.
Mary Lou Williams had already secured her reputation through working with heavyweights like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie. After a self-imposed religious sabbatical, she returned to compose a number of works that addressed spiritual issues. ‘Miss D.D.’ from her groundbreaking 1963 release Black Christ Of the Andes is typical, with a unique sound bordering on exotica.
Amina Claudine Myers came up in gospel groups, and offers a swinging workout on organ that – like so much here -leaves the listener hungry for more.
The handful of names already mentioned might ring a bell, but for the most part, this was truly an underground movement; one with zero commercial potential. Foreshadowing the D.I.Y. ethos almost a decade before the punk movement, the majority of music came out independently, pressed and sold via labels set up by the musicians themselves.
That’s where the book really shines. The description, “Radical Art For Radical Music,” is right on the money. With full size graphics, the artwork – which reflected the ethos of the movement – is presented in the best possible light. Running almost 200 pages, the length and format allows for a generous sampling.
By the eighties, the scene was pretty much dead, and jazz was once again mainstream. Major labels were happy to sign the new traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis, who offered regressive – and far safer – product.
More’s the pity. Decades on, this music; creative, vibrant, and with a tangible sense of joy, stands on its own, in stark contrast to what came after.
For anyone interested, a first rate sampler of a scene ignored by most the first time round.
© John Cody 201002.1.10
Church had undeniable influence on rock pioneers
By John Cody
A few years ago, while on tour in Europe, I had the opportunity to visit a number of renowned cathedrals.
Many took centuries to build, with generations of artisans spending their entire lives crafting every nook and cranny.
Repeatedly, I was struck with conflicting feelings; these magnificent structures were awe-inspiring; dedicated to the glory of God; the miracles that occurred within the walls too abundant to comprehend.
At the same time, it was impossible to ignore the negative connotations; the vainglorious, darker side of church history, one rife with greed and corruption.
That same sense of contradiction surfaced while watching the Concert for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame recently.
The music that set a generation free has been twisted and manipulated to the point it’s hardly recognizable at times. By it’s very nature, rock ‘n’ roll is confrontational – breaking rules and thumbing it’s nose at convention.
The whole notion of honouring such a rebellious art form reeks of industry politics. Putting a tuxedo on the practitioners just doesn’t make sense.
Yet there they were; elder statesmen and women of rock, plugged in and parading across the hallowed stage of Madison Square Garden. Sadly, the majority came across like oldies acts – extremely talented oldies acts, mind you, but hardly life-changing.
As a relatively junior member of the Baby Boomer generation, I was lucky enough to experience the golden age of rock while it was still happening, and long before it had become respectable.
The rare occasion when a band actually made it to television – usually The Ed Sullivan Show, sandwiched between vaudeville acts, jugglers and dancing chimps – was like manna from heaven.
When it came to music, TV was geared towards the older set, with middle-aged pop singers and big band vets like Benny Goodman and Count Basie showing up week after week. Next to the Beatles, Stones and Byrds, they seemed embarrassingly quaint and hopelessly out of touch.
Eventually, I realized that I was the one who was small-minded. Goodman’s famed Carnegie Hall Concert of 1938, for instance –with Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and the rest – sparked a fire hard to equal in any genre.
But it took years – and most importantly – a return to the source, for me to understand what all the fuss had been about.
Anyone born after rock came of age might well question why any of this matters. Few performers featured on the Hall Of Fame concert come across like the vibrant scene shakers they once were, and many – having survived legendary tales of excess – have not aged gracefully.
That’s not to say that the show was a disaster – not by a long shot. There were numerous highs to offset the lows. And let’s be clear: when discussing music, it’s entirely subjective; the same performance can have a decidedly different effect on individual listeners.
Bono addressed the enigma directly; “Here in rock ‘n roll’s great cathedral that is Madison Square Garden, thinking in this moment about all the pilgrims, all the pioneers that got us all here. The saints and the heretics, the poets and the punks, that now make up the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a dangerous thing, this business of building idols, but at least rock ‘n’ roll is not – at it’s best – about worshipping sacred cows. It’s about the thousands of voices gathered in one great, unwashed congregation; like tonight. For a lot of us here, rock ‘n’ roll just means one word: liberation. Political, sexual, spiritual; liberation.”
Music industry pundit Bob Lefsetz weighed in on U2’s portion of the show in his influential Lefsetz Letter: “And then Bono starts to sing like he means it. They’re his words, not the rhymes of some hack in a back room. He was feeling it, and as a result we felt it too.
“Everything I thought I knew was wrong. Not only soft music could work on TV, U2 was killing it! Unlike what had come before, this was not nostalgia, but alive and kicking. This was rock and roll!”
The band’s truncated set was, typically, made up of songs of faith, including ‘Magnificent,’ from their latest album. The song, which speaks directly to the Christian experience, was singled out by Lefsetz, who does not share the band’s faith.
“…I couldn’t speak. My eyes were glued to the tube. I remembered what made me a believer. From there it was downhill…But it’s "Magnificent" that stuck with me. Because it encapsulated exactly Bono’s description of rock and roll. Liberation!”
That was hardly but the case when the band brought on Mick Jagger and Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie for a perfunctory take on ‘Gimme Shelter.’ At it’s best, rock ‘n’ roll takes risks and challenges the status quo. This was the polar opposite. Any danger inherent in song was long gone, as Jagger – without the rest of the Stones – came across almost cartoonish, and Fergie (covering Merry Clayton’s memorable vocal part) offering a serviceable if shallow reading that exuded a generic, cookie-cutter sexuality. It was one of many points during the evening where the spirit appeared forced.
In U2’s 2005 acceptance speech into the Hall of Fame, The Edge alluded to that elusive spirit; “In spite of all the clichés – which do exist – rock ‘n’ roll, when it is great, it is amazing. It changes your life. It changed our lives…
“You can break it down, you can study it all you want, but you cannot just dial it up. It doesn’t work like that. And as far as U2 goes, I’ve stopped trying to figure out how, or more importantly, when our best moments are going to come along, but I think that’s why we’re still awake, and that’s why we’re still paying attention, and we know in the end, we know that it is magic”
© John Cody 201011.1.09
By John Cody
As U.S. head of the Beatles’ Apple Records, Ken Mansfield had a ringside seat to one of the greatest shows on earth.
That position alone would qualify for a lifetime worth of anecdotes, but there’s far more. As performer, club owner, artist manager, producer, roadie, songwriter and label executive, Mansfield has had first-hand experience in pretty much every facet of the music business.
Over the course of three books – including the just released Between Wyomings – he’s told his story. In addition to the pertinent musical exploits, each details an equally fascinating personal journey; as an adherent to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy, following a worldly Indian Guru, and an eventual whole-hearted embracement of Biblical Christianity.
It all started in Lewiston, which he describes as a “small, smelly town in Northern Idaho.” As far back as he can remember, records were in his blood.
“We had a little record store that I would go into from the country. They would get just so many records a week, and if a record with a guitar came in, he would set them aside, and I would buy ‘em automatically. I was just in love with the guitar; I was a guitar nut. The first record I ever bought was a Chet Atkins record: ‘Crazy Rhythm’ – the back side was ‘Hybrid Corn’ on that one. The second was Les Paul’s ‘How High the Moon.’”
Initially, his purchases were restricted to country music. “Where I grew up, there was nothing but country. It was in the night clubs and on the radio. You never heard anything except Roy Acuff and Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizell. That’s all you heard.”
By the time he started high school, listening habits had broadened considerably, and country took a backseat to more sophisticated fare. “Our rebellion music was jazz. For us teenagers, as we grew up in the ‘50s, that was our music.”
As exciting as big band, swing and be-bop might be, when rock ‘n’ roll burst onto scene in the middle of the decade, even jazz seem tame by comparison. “I graduated in ’55, and the music and the song that actually broke us loose and freed us – was just everything – was Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock Around the Clock.’”
The song topped the charts for eight weeks the spring/summer of ’55. “That was as stunning as anything; we had never heard anything like that.”
He was determined to leave home as soon as possible, and there was only one destination in mind: Southern California.”It was those pictures you’d see of the surf and the sand and the pretty girls; everything just seemed so sunny and happy and warm. I grew up just below the Canadian border, so the idea of being some place warm really appealed to me.”
There were few options as to how to get there. “For me to escape – and this is the way most of us escaped out of there – is we joined the service. So, 17 years old, I joined the Navy, and I got put on an airplane in Spokane, Washington. I was wearing this big heavy wool clothing and it was eight below zero.
“I got off the plane in San Diego, and it was 78 degrees. I see all these people in shorts and tank tops, and I go, ‘Whoa!’ I got off the plane, and I’d say within eight blocks, I was a Californian. I was there forever.”
After being discharged from the Navy, Mansfield attended San Diego State University, earning a Bachelor of Science in Marketing.
He put together a vocal quartet, the Town Criers, with fellow students in 1962. It was his first taste of the entertainment business up close. They quickly gained a following, and even released an obscure single on Fred Astaire’s record label, before an ill-fated performance brought about the group’s demise.
“We were supposed to replace the Limelighters at RCA, and we blew the audition. What had happened was the Limelighters were breaking up, and so RCA wanted to plug a group into that spot. We were really hot on the west coast at the time, and they had heard about us. Whoever had seen us locally had arranged for us to come into the Troubadour and do a set, and they flew in everybody from New York. It was a pretty big deal to replace the Limelighters; they brought in all the executives for that.”
The Town Criers were in the middle of a road trip at the time. “We were doing a big tour with Hal Ziegler [Hal Ziegler’s 1963 Hootenany Tour] and we were up in Salt Lake City the night before. We flew in from Salt Lake City, and the lead singer got a cold and his ears plugged up. We sang kind of like the Four Freshman or the Modern Folk Quartet – four part harmonies, that kind of a thing, and Tom’s having trouble hitting his notes and singing his lead parts, because he has the high part in the group.”
To make matters worse, there were serious technical difficulties. “We got on stage – we worked off four mikes – and two of the mikes were dead. But they were live in the stage monitors. We thought we were singing well, because we were hearing ourselves. But the audience was only hearing two of the four voices. About two songs in, nobody’s liking what we are doing. We just can’t figure it out, so then we start fading apart. When we got done, we looked out and all the people – the [William] Morris agents -just got up and walked out the door. They didn’t even come up, or say ‘nice to meet you.’ Not even saying ‘good-bye.’ At that point we were so disenchanted,” Mansfield laughs, “we ended up breaking up. But that’s the music business.”
Weathered and wizened, he decided to switch gears, and opened a night club back in San Diego. The Land of Oden became a popular stop for folk and blues acts, and led indirectly to his next opportunity.
With experience on both sides of the stage – plus a degree in Marketing – he was offered a position in the promotions department of Capitol Records, one of the biggest labels in the business.
From legends like Judy Garland, Bobby Darin, Al Martino, Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson and Glen Campbell, to Peter & Gordon, the Beach Boys, and the Seekers, plus later acts like The Band, Bob Seger, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Steve Miller, Mansfield worked with pretty much every major act on the label.
When it comes to the label’s storied roster, he was a fan first. “Oh, Stan Kenton, George Shearing, Peggy Lee; think about it, man; our record company had the Four Preps, the Four Freshman…we basically had them all at that point.”
In addition to working full-time for the label, there were frequent side projects; a common industry practice at the time. “Everybody was just doing everything. We were all scrabbling. Denny Bond, who was Harry Nilsson and Paul Williams’ manager, he and I had a separate office on Hollywood Blvd. and we were managing an RCA group.
“Denny and I knew we were going to be famous,” Mansfield jokes, “because we took Hedda Hopper’s suite on Hollywood Blvd. when she died. Jerry Lewis had just redecorated his office, and we got his carpet. So we started out with Hedda Hopper’s suite with Jerry Lewis’s carpet – we knew we were on our way.”
One of his pet projects was the Deep Six, a sextet he discovered back in San Diego. They scored a regional hit with an independently-released single, yet Capitol declined to sign the act. “I was on the side promoting and producing the Deep Six. I was a Capitol Records promotion man, yet they wouldn’t take them. I don’t care how hard I tried.”
He secured the group a deal with Liberty Records, but after a promising start, the end came without warning – a scenario he was becoming all too familiar with.
“On New Year’s Eve, one of the guys in the band had been approached by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. All he did was meet with them. He really had no intention of leaving; it just kind of made his ego feel good to have another name group that wanted him.
“Well, the girl singer heard about this before the show that night, and she decided ‘this sucks; we’ve been together so long, and here’s Tony betraying us.’ In the middle of the second set, she turned to the bass player – who was her boyfriend – kissed him good bye, and walked off the stage. That was the end of the group.”
While traveling with Capitol artist Bobbie [‘Ode To Billie Joe’] Gentry In 1967, Mansfield was introduced to Objectivism, a philosophy developed by Ayn Rand. Gentry’s ‘aw shucks’ hayseed image might appear in stark contrast, but she embraced the philosophy wholeheartedly.
“Oh boy, she did – absolutely. Here was this supposedly sleepy-eyed southern belle who was a simple person and all that,” Mansfield recalls, “and this woman was sharp. She was focused. She knew what was going to happen in her life; this lady was going to be wealthy and rich and famous. She ended up marrying Bill Harrah [owner of Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe], and it was a matter of her whole Ayn Rand Objectivist philosophy.”
As he escorted her on a lengthy promotional tour, Mansfield became more and more curious about the books Gentry was reading. “You hear about people converting somebody in the back seat of a car or something; she basically converted me to objectivism on a flight between Chicago and St. Louis, or someplace like that.”
He became enamored with the philosophy. “It was perfect, because I was totally self-centered and selfish, and thought everything revolved around me. The theme of it is I am not my brother’s keeper, and what is good for me, is good. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else, just as long as I took care of myself; that was the main thing. So boy, I loved that.”
There was no desire to preach it’s attributes to others. “You didn’t promote it too much, because you had an advantage, and why encourage it? We weren’t exactly people who wanted to spread or share the wealth. We were drawn to each other; It was almost like Scientologists; you could sense each other, and when you found somebody else [who] was into Ayn Rand and Nathanial Brandon – those were people you really migrated to.”
Meanwhile, as Capitol’s District Promotion Manager – West Coast, his star continued to ascend. “Unfortunately, or fortunately – because I was becoming a success – I had the tools, so I had everything I needed for that philosophy to work. I didn’t have to think about anyone else but what I wanted.
“The interesting thing is, that first period was probably one of the best periods of my life, from an earthly sense. When everything centers around you, and you have all the tools? Man, there is nothing in your way. You can just accomplish everything, and it’s incredible.
“But one day it falls apart, and it’s not based on a very good idea; because when you’re living that on the way up – and you start coming down – there’s nobody there for you. And that was really part of my downfall. There was nobody there when you were on your way up, because you didn’t care.”
The biggest selling act in Capitol’s history – or any label for that matter – was the Beatles.
Mansfield first met them in 1965. They hit it off right away. ”This is maybe hard to comprehend – but when they were coming up and trying to make their bones, they were just like me in Idaho.
“Everything they saw was Hollywood. The surf, the sand, the beach; the music – all these artists that were coming out of there – the convertibles, and the girls in the bikinis.
“So when they met me: I’m a 20-something guy, I’ve got the suntan, I’ve got the convertible, I’ve got the big house with the pool in the hills, and my friends were all the people they were fascinated with. So I was as intriguing to them as they were to me.
“In those days, we didn’t have that exchange with other cultures like we do now. I was just fascinated with the way they talked, the phrases they used, and how funny and different things were in London – and Mulholland Dr., Grauman’s Chinese Theater and all these things were just fascinating to them. So we were a doorway to each other in a way, to these worlds.
When the Beatles created Apple Records in 1968, they requested Ken as U.S. manager.
“Everybody from Apple stayed at my house. George stored his guitars in one bedroom; and I’d be sleeping on the couch sometimes in this big house, because I’d have so many people from London staying.”
Having known them up close, personally and professionally, he has nothing but praise.
“They changed society entirely. We had Kennedy being assassinated, the Vietnam War, all these hard times, these troubles – and what they did is they freed the youth to get out from underneath all that was going on. They led this rebellion though their music, and through their persona, and growing their hair long.
“They changed hair, they changed clothes, they changed music; they changed everything. They were the Pied Pipers to the world’s youth, and they set us all free. Funny, because while I’m talking, I can go right back into what I felt like then; they set us free. Well, Christ set me free later on.”
Mansfield laughs, and observes: “If you were a Lutheran pastor interviewing me right now, you would have hung up a long time ago.”
Until an offhand comment by Ringo made it clear he had permission, Mansfield had refrained from documenting his years with the group. “I never took advantage of my position with the Beatles, which paid off. Never had my picture taken with them, never asked them to sign something, never asked them for anything – and they would have done it. I’d always said I was going to save up a favor someday, and that was it.”
Of the literally thousands of titles devoted to the Beatles, only two books have ever been approved by the band; their own Beatles Anthology, and Mansfield’s The Beatles, The Bible and Bodega Bay.
“This is pretty amazing; when I started putting the book together, I had all these pictures that I thought I had a right to.” It wasn’t just photos that were a problem. “John Lennon wrote me a letter. It’s a letter from John thanking me, and he drew a picture on it. It was a letter from John to me; my letter.” Not so, according to the lawyers. “I didn’t have rights to it. John’s estate had rights to it, because it was a creative effort.
“All the lyrics in the songs, and all these pictures that I thought were mine, were actually owned by Apple. And all of a sudden I’m in this mess, where I’ve got this book and I realize I’m not in control. Well, fortunately for me, Bruce Grackal – who was my attorney – was also Ringo’s attorney.
“Ringo and I go back to 1965. We had a long, good friendship, so the first thing I had to do was go to Bruce and say ‘Bruce, you’re on the board of directors of Apple, and you’re Ringo’s attorney; can you represent me? Is this going to be a conflict of interest?’ He said, ‘Give me the manuscripts. I’m flying over to London for meetings with Apple, and I’ll read it on the plane and tell you what I think I can do.’
Grackal’s reaction was not what he had expected. “Bruce was just a hardcore attorney, nothing to do with Christ or anything like that, and he read the book and came back – and Bruce always talked hard and rough – and he said, ‘Ken; I want to tell you, I read the book on the plane’ and his voice was breaking up, and he said ‘uh, you know the Beatles stories? Fine. That’s what I do all day long, that’s semi-interesting to me. But I was really touched by your spiritual stories.’
“He said, ‘Yeah. I can do this.’ So, there’s the start. So Bruce goes directly to Ringo, and Ringo gives the book his blessing. Now the flood gates are open. So it’s; ‘Hey George; Ringo has already said it’s okay, and Bruce is representing it, and it’s Ken, and dada dada da.’
“George signs off, then it was Paul, and then Yoko. Then [Apple CEO] Neil [Aspinall] and everybody. They just fell in order, one by one. I didn’t realize it, but Grakal told me later it was the first time that everybody had signed off.”
It certainly got the attention of his fellow writers. “I had all these other writers that had written Beatles books that said ‘how did you get these pictures? How did you get this approval? We can’t even get an answer at Apple Records; nobody will even talk to us. We’ve never gotten any approval.’ So that was pretty neat.”
Mansfield manages to cover his career and spiritual journey in equal measure, without coming across as the least bit manipulative. It’s simply his story.
“It really was, and Bruce told me one of the reasons the guys approved the book, was ‘because the book is about you – it’s not a Beatles book. It’s your story, and they’re in it.’ They liked that.”
As the sixties unfolded, there was little interest or sense of Christianity within the contemporary music community. It simply wasn’t relevant to most people. “It wasn’t even on the table. A lot of people ask me if I ever witnessed to the Beatles, and I say I can’t remember the subject even coming up. And if it did come up, we probably brushed it aside so quick it never had a chance.”
The spiritual realm was by no means ignored during the era. From psychedelics to Eastern thought, all manner of experimentation was taking place. Mansfield’s own interests broadened considerably during the seventies. “I was a New Ager for ten years, and I was very, very deep into it. I was a teacher of meditation, of all the advanced meditations. I did crystal healings and astral projections. I was a favorite of a national guru [Gururaj Ananda Yogi – founder and leader of the International Foundation of Spiritual Unfoldment].
In Wyomings, he says he paid dearly for those years of resisting God. When he was resisting, did he believe in the God of the Bible? “I didn’t believe in Him for real. I believed in ‘god,’ but I believed in the god of my own shape. I liked the other ones better; they were more fun. Oh my gosh, you could get high and have sex and talk nasty, you know, you could do whatever you wanted to do.”
He describes New Age spirituality as ‘Chinese restaurant religion;’ where the practitioner may indulge in whatever practices are desired, including drugs and alcohol. “Absolutely, if I felt like it.”
That was certainly the case during his encounters with Gururaj. “In fact, when we used to go on retreats, go away and get spiritual, he used to make us drive down out of the mountains and find him a liquor store. It was late one night and we couldn’t find anything but beer and wine, and we brought it back and he was really mad at us. He wanted hard stuff; he didn’t want beer, he didn’t want wine.” Mansfield chuckles at the incongruity; “Here we are, these devotees in the dark up in northern California trying to find a little town with a liquor store in it.”
There was also the uncomfortable issue of the Guru’s sexual proclivities. “That too; we were all surprised, all the pretty girls were his special assistants.”
When Allen Klein took over Apple in 1969, he cleaned house, dismissing almost the entire staff. Curiously, he offered to triple Mansfield’s salary if he would stay on. Understandably weary of the notorious businessman, he passed, taking a position with MGM Records instead. During his tenure at the label he oversaw acts like Eric Burdon & War and Roy Orbison, the latter becoming a life-long friend in the process.
From MGM, he went on to run Barnaby Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Records owned by Andy Williams. The label’s biggest act was Ray Stevens, who topped the charts with ‘Everything Is Beautiful’ in 1970.
Sensing that the burgeoning Outlaw country movement was about to take off, Mansfield pushed to sign more country acts in the early seventies. When his suggestions were vetoed, he resigned, starting Homemade Productions, under the aegis of which he would produce hits for Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter (including her #1 ‘I’m Not Lisa’) and Tompall Glaser.
In spite of leaving Apple and switching genres, the Beatles connection continued. “They were all fans of Roy Orbison, and I was producing Waylon, and Ringo was a big Waylon fan – all these things – so we just kind of started mixing with each other.”
Mansfield produced ‘We Had It All’ for Jennings’ 1973 breakthrough, Honky Tonk Heroes. The project was ostensibly a collection of Billie Joe Shaver songs, excepting the one last minute addition. How did the song – not written by Billie Joe – end up on the album?
“You know, I just don’t understand it to this day – because that was a very definite concept album. It made no sense to put that song on there. I didn’t think it fit. It was out of character with the rest of the album. But Waylon went right over to the record company and told them he wanted that for his next single, and wanted it on the album. I don’t know. I still can’t figure it out to this day.”
One theory holds that Waylon – concerned Shaver would receive too much credit – added a song by another writer. It’s an idea new to Mansfield.
“That doesn’t make any sense to me, because that was Waylon’s idea to do that as a concept.” He stops, and reassess; “But Waylon did have a problem with the people he got associated with. If they started getting fame, he really backed off, and backed away from them, and boy, now that I just contradicted you, I’m going; ‘Wow – that sounds like Waylon.’ This is a brand new thought for me. That is typical, and that is why he wanted that for his single. Wow. Very typical for Waylon to do that.”
He found himself in a similar position, with his name absent from various producer credits, including one of Jennings’ biggest hits; “That’s why my name is not on [1979’s] ‘Amanda,’ you know. And there are some other songs and things.”
For five years, the two were especially close; at one point Waylon asked if he could list Mansfield as next of kin on a hospital visit. In the end, a volatile combination of drugs, inflated egos and a healthy dose of paranoia soured the relationship.
The party came to a crashing halt soon after. Homemade Productions went belly up, and music-related opportunities dwindled to the point where he was forced to take a job working menial construction. With few prospects, Mansfield moved from California to Nashville in 1984. All that remained of the glory years was stuffed into a half dozen boxes and suitcases. He began working his way back up, moving gear at a local venue – occasionally, for the same acts he had once advised.
Demoralized and financially devastated, Objectivism no longer held it’s appeal. Which begs the question; if material success had continued; would he have adhered to the philosophy? “I always say if I would have maintained the level of success I had, I would have never turned to God – because I never would have needed Him. And I just praise God every day of my life for the circumstances that did bring me to him; the crash and fall from a very high point, down to a bottom, to where I realized in my Objectivist philosophies, that it was all about self, doing everything yourself, and my own bad self wasn’t doing so good.
“And so, a strange thing I realized one day; I grew up dirt poor up in Idaho, and if I would have ended up like I did when I bottomed out – without going to the heights I had – I wouldn’t have even noticed. If I would have gone straight across, I would have had no motivation to seek God from where I’d always been if I hadn’t sought Him already. Going up to such a pinnacle and then dropping back down was really an extreme thing, so I really missed – I wanted something.”
He experienced a similar revelation when he finally stood up to his Guru. “That was a mammoth one. I can picture being on the phone, and him saying, ‘But Ken; how is your inner life?’ Because he just knew, after all these years of his deep teachings, that I would have to say; ‘Well yes, I have inner peace,’ and all that.”
Instead, his reply was the polar opposite of what was expected. “I took the phone away, and almost looked at it. He was in South Africa and I’m in Nashville. And I said ‘You know what? My life sucks. How’s my life? My life sucks!’And it was like, bam! That was it. I didn’t even discuss it. I said that ‘my life sucks,’ and I hung up, and I’ve never talked to him again.”
Nashville was where he met the women who would become his wife, and bring him to Christian faith. But not without a few bumps along the way.
“My life was in the toilet when she brought me to the Lord. But we had this problem. The thing about it was, God brought us together. There was no question that we were brought together. I had moved to Nashville, that’s where I met her, and we fell so deeply in love.”
“She’s taking me to Christian rock concerts, taking me to see Mylon LeFevre, we’re going to coffee house places to see Rich Mullens and Noel Paul Stookey, and taking me to the churches that had all the really great musicians in them. So she was doing everything; she was praying over me and preaching to me, but she couldn’t break [through]. She just could not do it.”
There remained – for her, at least – a fundamental doctrinal difference that couldn’t be bridged.
”I couldn’t understand why we had such a problem. Because I totally accepted her Jesus. In fact, I said ‘He’s one of the really better ones!’ I agreed, he is the path to the Father; he’s one of the really good paths, but he wasn’t the only path. There were other paths. I accepted her Jesus; why couldn’t she accept my way, my guru way? And she was so bullheaded and closed off. My gosh, lady! I told her I’d change gurus if you don’t like my guru, so come off the Jesus thing. It was a little bit, ‘let’s meet some place in the middle.’ And there was no middle for her.
“And so she did come to a conclusion. She came to me, she just said ‘I have to make a decision here, because I know where we’re heading.’ And she said ‘I can’t go there. We’d be unequally yoked, and so I have to make a choice, and I have to make it now.’ And she said ‘I need to choose between you and Jesus, and I choose Jesus.’”
It wasn’t the compromise he was expecting. “I went, ‘Whoa!’ I was stunned, because I knew how much in love we were. I knew how hard that was for her. To be completely in love, and then have to say, ‘Hey look it; I love you this much, but I’ve got to go.’ And so I realized how much that meant to her.”
It brought about a radical change in his perspective. “In all honesty, I wanted what she did. Instead of talking the talk, she walked the walk. And what she did, she showed me something that meant so much to her, she would give up anything for it. And I wanted to want something as much as she wanted that. And that’s how she brought me to the Lord.”
He discovered his years of Eastern meditation held an unexpected benefit. “I was very sincere in my practices, and when I became a Christian, it was just automatic, because I was so used to getting up in the morning and doing my chanting and meditations. It was like and athlete that had learned how to throw a baseball and then they became a football player; they had a strong arm already. So, when I became a Christian and I woke up in the morning, I read my Bible and said my prayers, and I understood.”
The mechanics were already in place. “And even as bad as it may sound, through my guru I had learned where to put my focus. Then, my focus was on him. But I found out what the true focus was, and everything was in place for me. It was almost like I’d been practicing a game, and then when it came time for the real thing, I was plugged in.”
Some practices that he witnessed during his years with the Guru – including levitation – are perceived in an entirely different light. “Back then, I just thought it was totally ethereal and so incredible, but really it was demons; that’s all it was. The devil has the ability to do miracles, too; and that’s all demon-possessed stuff, because it’s just manipulation to bring you into his kingdom. We’re human beings, we’re easily impressed some times; just show us – even a semi-miracle – and we bite for it.”
He believes God used his years with the Guru for good. “He’s the greatest economist of all time, I tell ya. You know, I say in my speaking engagements, no matter how long, bad or shameful and wretched you’ve been, he will turn to good what Satan meant for evil. Once you bring it to Him, it’s His.”
Mansfield claims to write “like a Christian on acid.” It’s a fascinating phrase, and one that has confused a few readers.
“In fact, I had to explain that quite a bit to the publisher to get him to let that fly. Well, it’s true; I’m a sold out Christian, I have been since 1985.
“But there’s still this spatial thing that’s left over from the ‘60s and ‘70s – and so, when I get to writing, it’s like when you’re stoned and on all these different kinds of trips and creative things. When I write, it’s almost like it’s surrounded by that.
“And what it does for me – and I hope this doesn’t sound too far out – but it allows me to just kind of really see Jesus and everything it describes in the Bible in a really real sense. Which,” he adds, “is a real kind of out there sense too.”
The era brought a profound societal shift not easily dismissed. “When you talk about peace and love – which Jesus talks about – you almost get a feeling [with] the peace and love generation of what he’s talking about; how nice we were to each other at one time.”
Mansfield writes of his mother praying ceaselessly over the years, refusing to give in, and eventually seeing both of her sons come to faith. “My brother and I are about as different as two people can be. We’re five years apart in age and we almost don’t know each other. Not because one of us doesn’t agree with the other, it’s just we’re different. He more or less stayed in the country, and never really wanted much else. I was the big brother that went away and had all the glitter. So it was a totally different thing for him. He was probably just off the trail a bit, where I was actually falling off the airplane.”
He believes a parents’ impact on a child – even later in life – cannot be underestimated. “Totally. Because I realized that she lived out her Christianity her whole life. I just didn’t recognize it when she was alive. I talk like my mother was a saint now; I realized she was a saint. She never once would criticize us.
“I’ll give you a perfect example; my daughter ran away when I was living in Hollywood. My sixteen year old daughter ran away with this guy, and they drove up to Canada. She had no reason to run away, it was just this guy talked her into it, and da-da-da. They were up in Canada, above Idaho, and I finally tracked her down and talked her into coming back home. She said ‘We’re out of money,’ and I said ‘do you have enough money to get to Lewiston?’ I wired money up to my Mom and Dad’s place so that they could carry on from there, and I talked to my Mom, and said ‘Mom, I want you to let her know what she’s done. How much she’s hurt all of us; I want you to set her straight.’ And she said ‘I’m just going to love her, that’s all I’m going to do.’ She wasn’t going to criticize her. She wasn’t going to put her down. She was going to love her granddaughter while she was there.
“And that was my Mom. Faithful prayer is the reason she never let up, and I honestly believe to this day that she would have died long ago, but not until she knew her boys were home. I totally believe that. Because, the life she had the last ten years; she was in total pain. She was so sick she should have died. I just really believe that; she wasn’t going nowhere.”
He finds himself in a similar position today, waiting on a prodigal, no matter how long it takes. “Right now I’ve got a 43 year son who has been a heroin addict for 25 years. He’s serving hard time in prison for armed robbery, and I’m praying for this kid, I tell ya, I wouldn’t hang in there, but my Mom did, and it worked.” He believes, as his mother did, that giving up is not an option. “Absolutely; that’s our witness.”
He’s also acutely aware of the damage a disingenuous witness can cause. “We have to be careful around people, we have to be careful what we say and do, because you can turn a person off eternally, or you can save them eternally.
“I’ll tell you how easy that is. When my son was trying to [get straight], he came down to live with me in Nashville. I was trying to bring him to the Lord and trying to break him off of his drug habits, and so I got him to work with this Christian rock band and this Christian producer, and boy, pretty soon he’s carrying a Bible, and he’s going out on their dates with them and stuff like that, and so I went ‘wow this is so great.’ Well, turns out the producer was a shyster and my son saw it, caught the deal, and saw that this guy was jiving, that he was using the Christian thing to screw people, and I haven’t been able to get him back since.”
Between Wyomings documents a road trip that includes a metaphorical journey to the Apple rooftop, where the Beatles gave their final public performance. Mansfield was one of a handful of firsthand witnesses to the historic event.
“I wrote how much the roof had meant – that whole Beatles thing – what I had done with it, and how it affected me. I realized that that was a pinnacle in my life, and I let it define me, and then I lived off of it. And it was just one of my conversations with God.”
Considering all the Beatles-related stories and anecdotes that occur throughout his books, it could appear disingenuous when Mansfield declares how little they mean to him nowadays. He’s well aware of the seeming dichotomy. “Well, I’m going to go crass on you here. It turned out I’m an evangelist, and the Beatles are a platform for me to where I have credibility – I have street cred with rockers and people out in the world. They go ‘wow the Beatles were incredible, and if this guy was with the Beatles and he says blue is red, then blue is red.’ And I just have this door open with people.
“I honestly believe in my heart, that the whole reason I was with the Beatles was not because I was so sharp and was such a neat guy and all these things. That was just a tiny part of the whole thing. It’s that God – He just put that so later on I could glorify Him and bring people into the kingdom.
“I say from the stage sometimes, ‘You know what? Forty years of being in the business and being with the Beatles, every plane I ever got on, every book I’ve ever written, every prayer I’ve ever said – the first time Ringo fell of a bicycle or whatever – it all was for one purpose; for me standing here in Des Moines to reach one person. That God saw this person that long ago, and that’s how he decided to get him in. I have a feeling I may go home tonight and God’s going to call and say, ‘Okay Ken, you can go off the road now, that’s the person I wanted you to reach.’
The fact he’s on the road at all is a bit of a miracle.
In 1996, Mansfield was diagnosed with Waldenstrom macroglobulenimia, a rare, incurable form of bone marrow cancer, and given one to three years to live. A combination of experimental treatment and prayer has prolonged the inevitable.
He’s well aware he’s living on borrowed time. “It’s incurable, so it’s not going away. I’ve had people all over the world praying for me, and I think God’s just set it aside for a while. Rick Warren and I have become friends, and he told me that he thought God was going to set the cancer aside for a period of time, because God had a purpose for me. And he was writing a little book called The Purpose Driven Life at the time.”
Understandably, the initial diagnosis threw him for a loop. “When I couldn’t figure out what my future was anymore – when you take all of tomorrow out – it really screwed me up for a while. We are earth bound, so you go ‘Next year we’re going to get a vacation here,’ and ‘If I plant this now, it’s going to grow, and in two years that tree’s going to be nice.’ I didn’t realize it at first – that that’s what was confusing me so much. And yet, I’ve got scripture right there. You don’t say ‘I’m going to do this tomorrow.’ You say, ‘If the Lord’s willing…”
Mansfield’s speaking engagements are invariably well-attended, and draw from well beyond the traditional church walls. “We average about 40% visitors, or people that don’t go to the church I’m speaking at. So if I’m speaking at a church of two thousand people, I’ve got 800 people there.
“To give an example of how this has worked, I was speaking at a big Baptist church in Indianapolis College Park, and these two beer drinking buddies that were hanging out in the sports bar that were Beatle fans heard there was a guy from the Beatles speaking at the church, so they left the bar and came over, because they wanted to hear a Beatles guy. And they got touched, and they went home and told their wives about it, and they brought their wives back. The Pastor called me about a month later; both men and their wives had come to the Lord, and their kids were now in the Sunday School. Two complete families. And he said a couple of kids brought their friends the other day.
“Okay; now tell me God says you’ve got to be perfect all the time.” Like a celestial record rep delivering the hits, it’s clear he believes in his product. “I’m a street fighter, I’m not a closer, so I can’t take credit for these things, but I’ve seen so many people come to the Lord.”
© John Cody 200910.1.09
By John Cody
In the early 1960s, Los Angeles was not exactly a bastion of rock ‘n’ roll. Home to Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin and a host of other old school vocalists, the most contemporary sound – ironically – was coming from the folk revival, with acts like Bud & Travis, The Modern Folk Quartet and Joe & Eddie singing traditional songs to the college crowd.
Surfing groups and studio-concocted novelty songs like ‘Alley Oop’ were strictly for the teenagers, an audience rarely taken seriously by the powers that be. There were a few notable exceptions: Phil Spector – the first tycoon of teen – employed a bevy of session musicians to create his legendary Wall of Sound productions; and in 1962 a teenaged Brian Wilson mixed sophisticated Four Freshman-style vocals with Fender guitars to create an entirely new style that resonated right across the country.
After a dozen singles, ‘I Get Around,’ took Wilson’s group, the Beach Boys to the top of the charts in 1964, but by then, all bets were off.
Wilson – like seemingly every other musician in L. A. – was forever changed by the arrival of the Beatles in February 1964. The shake-up brought about a musical renaissance for the city, and a golden age for radio. For four glorious years, the Sunset Strip was the epicenter of all that was cool.
Clocking in at over five hours, Rhino Records’ comprehensive Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 makes it abundantly clear that while the Beatles may have been the spark that lit the creative fires, there’s far more at work here than simple cause and effect; from the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield to Captain Beefheart and Tim Buckley, this was music that mattered.
Henry Diltz of the Modern Folk Quartet recalls the evening the Beatles first performed on prime time television. “We were on the road. And instead of driving all night, we made sure we had a motel room early enough to watch Ed Sullivan. And we were mesmerized.
“I mean, we had sort of heard of the Beatles, and maybe had heard one song on the radio. You’d think, ‘wow, that’s really something.’ But to see them standing there, these four guys, playing their instruments, making that music… It was the joyfulness that got everybody; really infectious and joyful music.”
Even on a technical level, the quartet’s sound was a revelation; “On a recording, you can overdub all kinds of things; but they could just stand there and make that sound. And here we are plodding along,” Diltz laughs, “at least it seemed like that in comparison. So everyone said, ‘that’s what I want to do.’”
The rules had been irrevocably changed. “It was overnight. We said, ‘Well look, they’ve got a drummer, they’ve got an electric bass, electric guitars, so we’ve got to do that.’ And every folk group said that. And that’s when you got the Buffalo Springfields and the Byrds and those groups.”
For many, it came down to a choice; plugging in, or getting left behind. “It was just people saying, ‘Man I’m through with just plain ordinary generic folk music. I want to move on and do this thing that’s a step above.’ It seemed a lot more accessible.”
Ken Mansfield –who would later run the Beatles’ Apple Records in America – was managing a popular club called The Land of Oden when the Fab Four arrived.
“On the West Coast in those days it was the hungry i in San Francisco, the Troubadour in LA, and the Land of Oden in San Diego. Those were the three clubs where Bud & Travis and Joe & Eddie, the original guys out of the Association…these were the clubs they played. That first time the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan on a Sunday night, it was me and my waitresses, and maybe two people that didn’t know who the Beatles were in the audience. So the next time that they were going to be on, we put in our flyer [that at] 8:00, the entertainment would stop, and we put a TV up on the stage and the people would watch the Beatles, and then we went back to entertainment.”
Mansfield believes that the folk roots were solid – and adaptable enough – to withstand the upheaval. “The transition out of folk, especially if you look at the Byrds, it never went away; it just morphed into something else. Joni Mitchell, singers like Bob Lind and all these people; that didn’t go away real fast, they did a transition.”
Some groups never reached a consensus, and split right down the middle. Such was the case with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers; “They used to play my club, and basically, half the group wanted to go electric, and half of them didn’t. So they did the split – the half that wanted to rock was the Byrds, and the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers stayed on their way. So it really did morph into this.”
Chris Hillman went from playing mandolin in the Squirrel Barkers to electric bass in the Byrds.
In his case, folk was as foreign as rock ‘n’ roll; “I was more of a bluegrass guy, and I cut my teeth playing down in the suburbs of Los Angles in hillbilly bars. I was playing mandolin with these guys that were like 30 years old. I was 18 and had a fake I.D. That was so completely different than what most of the people listened to, even [fellow Byrds] Roger [McGuinn] and David Crosby and Gene Clark. I was coming out of straight traditional roots music.”
Regardless of what had come before, every musician was impacted by the Beatles. “Oh God, everybody started plugging in,” Hillman laughs. “We started plugging in. We played the Troubadour Hoot night as the Byrds, and in front of all our friends – our folk music pals – we got hooted off the stage, and then we came roaring back, and we showed them, anyway.”
Modern Folk Quartet bassist Chip Douglas was in the audience for those early shows. ”The Byrds were just getting started. Crosby and McGuinn and Gene Clark would sit around in there on Monday nights. They’d do some Beatles songs, things like ‘I Should Have Known Better,’ and they were doing Beatles-sounding things. I had never heard ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ but I always heard them doing [sings]: ‘You showed me what you do/exactly what you do…’”
A few years later, Douglas, now producing the Turtles, remembered the tune. “I used to hear it at the Troubadour bar all the time. I just knew how it went from hearing it live so many times.” His 1968 production of McGuinn and Clark’s ‘You Showed Me’ netted the Turtles their fifth top 10 hit.
Part of the record’s appeal is Douglas’ sublime string arrangement, which was inspired by yet another L.A. single; “Around that time [Bobbie Gentry’s] ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ had been a hit. I loved those string parts on there, so I wrote some string parts for it. I was going for the ‘Ode to Bille Joe’ feel.”
The Turtles’ roots were far removed from the folk scene. As the Crossfires, they specialized in honkin’ surf instrumentals. By the time the British Invasion was in full swing, they had secured a house gig at the Revelaire Club in Redondo Beach, recalls singer Howard Kaylan. “Mark [Volman] and I had put down our saxophones, realized that we had a lot more future using our vocal talents, and were aping the hits of the day. So we were doing the Dave Clark Five, the Beatles…all the English Invasion bands.”
As the Byrds’ debut headed to the top of the charts, Kaylan, Volman and company were paying close attention. “We’d gone to see those guys, because we hung out on Sunset Boulevard, too. We saw them just as the record was coming out. Literally two weeks before, we went to see them at Ciro’s.”
They immediately added the song to their own repertoire. The very next week, a pair of record scouts showed up. “The two guys said; ‘We loved your set. We especially loved the way you did ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’”
The scouts offered to pay for a recording session – two originals as well as an electrified cover of a Dylan song – and insisted on a name change to something more contemporary. “I think we had ten days. In the ten days we had to rehearse the songs, change our name, and sign the contract.”
As the Turtles, their version of Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ was on the charts and heading for the top ten before ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ had even finished it’s run.
The group’s transition was hardly unique. Surfers, like those in the folk scene, were faced with changing styles or appearing hopelessly out of step; as the Crossfires morphed into the Turtles, so the Fender IV begat the Sons of Adam. The curiously-named Fapardokly was in fact Merrell Fankhauser, late of the Impacts, and The Everpresent Fullness featured surf guitar legend Paul Johnson.
Then there were those with little or no previous experience.
After seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, Jim Pons, a self-taught bass player who would go on to work with the Turtles, Frank Zappa, and Flo & Eddie, decided to put his own band together. Hand-picking each member – “guys that looked good” – to play frat parties while attending Cal State Northridge in the San Fernando Valley, their first-ever gig – as the Rockwells – was a double bill with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
After finishing classes, they’d head out to catch the action along the Sunset Strip. When they Byrds left their regular slot at Ciro’s to tour behind ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ Pons got an audition for his group – by now calling themselves The Leaves – and secured the house gig.
Wholesome 50s rocker Pat Boone signed them to his production company. They never broke nationwide, but the band scored a number of regional successes. Most significantly, they were the first group to record ‘Hey Joe,’ which would go on to become a garage band staple covered by literally hundreds of acts, from Jimi Hendrix to Medeski, Martin and Wood.
“I don’t know why the Byrds hadn’t recorded it,” Pons notes. “It had been part of their stage act for months before we did it. Love was doing it on stage as well. I guess it must’ve fallen between the cracks of their scheduled studio times and release dates. And we recorded it three times before we had the hit!”
Encompassing everyone from Pat Boone to Jim Morrison, the scene in L.A. was the very definition of eclectic, with paths crossing constantly. In fact, according to Pons, the King of Clean very nearly aligned himself with the Lizard King.
Boone had asked him for a heads up on potential acts he could add to the roster. “I took him to the Climax Club on Santa Monica Boulevard one night to see the Doors. He was interested in expanding his management company and wanted to make an offer to Jim Morrison.” The meeting did not go well. “Morrison was drunk and disrespectful that night,” Pons recalls, “and nothing came of it.”
Boone was likely the only individual who would have identified himself as a Christian at the time.
Over the years, a number of others from the scene would come embrace the faith. Pons and Mansfield are both longtime believers; Mansfield has written three books dealing with his years in the business and journey to faith. In Beyond The Garage Sean Bonniwell, leader of the Music Machine, documents his path from astrology to born again Christianity.
Paul Johnson of the Everpresent Fullness and Barry McGuire went on to lengthy careers in the Christian music scene. Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay and Thee Midnighter’s Little Willie G are both pastors, while Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman from the Byrds, Love’s Bryan MacLean, and four members of the Turtles would all identify themselves as believers in later decades.
Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970 was Rhino’s first box in the Nuggets series dedicated to a specific region, and easily one of the reissues of 2007. Where The Action Is! maintains the level of quality, and is arguably an even more enjoyable listening experience.
San Francisco players tended to treat their L.A. counterparts with disdain, labeling much of music ‘plastic,’ and claiming the city’s bands were contrived and designed to sell product. While the Monkees certainly fell into the category – they were created as a TV show, after all – there’s no question that even in their case, the music stands on it’s own merits; 1967’s ‘Daily Nightly’ – which features the very first Moog synthesizer on a pop record – sounds positively futuristic. In fact, as good as it is, much of the music produced in San Francisco during the same era comes across far more dated than the material included here.
The earliest track – a 1964 Byrds demo – captures the former folkies doing their best to emulate the Fab Four. By the time they released their debut single – a fully-realized, electric treatment of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ – the Byrds were leading the way, and even the Beatles were paying attention.
There were obvious advantages to being based in the film capitol of the world. ABC TV’s daily after-school program Where The Action Is, Shindig!, Hollywood A Go Go, Shebang! and more short-lived efforts like Malibu U broadcast local acts right across the continent.
A guide to local nightclubs underscores their importance in cultivating the scene. In June ’65, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors authorized the opening of clubs catering specifically to the under–21 crowd. Age limits were lowered to 15, with many venues refraining for selling alcohol entirely.
Booking policies were varied, but no club was more adventurous than the Ash Grove, which had opened back in 1958. “Within a two mile radius in Hollywood was the Ash Grove, and up the street was the Troubadour,” Chris Hillman remembers, “and it was worlds apart in the folk music period, prior to the Beatles. So at the Troubadour, you would hear the Modern Folk Quartet or a Kingston Trio-type band, down at the Ash Grove you’d hear – and I did see – the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Mance Lipscomb and Lightning Hopkins.”
For the audience, it was a crash course in roots music. Many would go on to notable careers themselves. Hillman met Clarence White at the club while both were still in high school. “It would be Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Herb Peterson… people that were more roots-orientated.”
The Ash Grove’s liberal booking policy impacted players far and wide. The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ – universally hailed as the first-ever psychedelic single – was influenced in equal parts by Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane, both of whom appeared at the club shortly before the song was recorded.
Due to heavy-handed licensing restrictions, only a handful of clubs were still catering to teens by the fall of ’66. Police had begun enforcing a 10 PM curfew for anyone under the age of 18, and in November, a crowd assembled outside of Pandora’s Box, one of the few clubs still allowing younger audiences. While tame by today’s standards, the incident was played up in the press as the ‘Riot on Sunset Strip.’
The following week, the L.A. City Council voted to review all remaining dance permits. After more than 1,000 teens protested, 400 members of the police and sheriff’s department showed up, arresting 43 kids. All youth dance permits were subsequently abolished, and anyone under 21 was forbidden from dancing.
Once the clubs were gone, the County Public Welfare Commission allowed venues that had lost their dance permits to feature topless entertainment and nudity. Somehow, hard liquor and nudity was deemed less offensive than non-alcoholic venues catering to teens.
A benefit for victims of the riots was held in February ’67, with The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Doors performing. Four months later, the organizers took on a far more significant endeavor by staging the Monterey Pop Festival. While the festival took place well outside L.A., the genesis and preparation all took place in the city. From the Association opening proceedings to the Mamas & Papas closing, L.A. bands were heard throughout the weekend.
The festival’s mandate to expose the best of the new music from around the world was a resounding success, with Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin)and the Who – all gaining significant exposure.
Monterey has long been considered the ultimate gathering of the tribes. Hillman, who appeared with the Byrds, concurs: “The Monterey Pop Festival was the best rock festival. I don’t want to hear about Woodstock or the Isle Of Wight. Monterey was the best one. That’s when the companies realized ‘There is money to be made here.’”
Up until that point, the music industry was in the dark about just how popular the new music actually was. When the labels first got on board, they were happy to support the musicians, and simply make sure the records got to the stores. “It was really a little cottage industry, and it was run by music people. All these guys, from Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic to Mo Ostin at Warners, all these guys were music-oriented guys, and if you got signed – if you were lucky enough to be signed on a label deal back then – they’d keep you around for four or five albums.”
It was also a time when drug experimentation was considered a positive, hopefully mind-expanding experience. Tracks like ‘Take A Giant Step,’ ‘Pulsating Dreams,’ and ‘Tripmaker’ come across with an almost evangelistic glee.
The Leaves’ ‘Dr. Stone,’ from spring ’65 is described as “a bluesy ode to their favorite chemist.” Despite the connotations – and the fact LSD was still legal in California at the time – Pons says it wasn’t about acid at all: “The doctor I had in mind did not dispense LSD, only uppers and downers for us to take on the road. Most of our drug experimentation was mild by today’s standards… pot… uppers and downers [pep pills and sleeping pills]. Cocaine began creeping into the picture in the early to mid ‘70s, but by then I was on my way out of the music business.”
On first glance, there are a few inclusions that might appear out of place; Rick Nelson, Jan & Dean, Lee Hazlewood and Del Shannon were all from an earlier era, but it’s a testament to the spirit of the times; older acts were attempting to reinvent themselves, often with spectacular results.
Moving on from singing about cars and surfing, Brian Wilson was exploring the studio with what he referred to as ‘pocket symphonies.’ ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’ (an outtake is included here) were a world away from his trusty 409.
Wilson’s ornate orchestration was an obvious influence on the Full Treatment, the Yellow Balloon, and especially Curt Boettcher, who shows up twice, on ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ (credited to the Ballroom) and the even more obscure ‘Don’t Say No’ by The Oracle. As Sagittarius, former Wilson co-writer Gary Usher tackled the metaphysical with ‘The Truth Is Not Real.’
The set’s one ostensible throwback; ‘Back Seat ’38 Dodge’ by Opus 1, turns out to be nothing of the sort. Inspired by the notorious Ed Kienholz sculpture of the same name, the lyric ‘What goes on/I really want to know’ refers to a race that has little to do with cheater slicks or hemi power.
In stark contrast to the sophisticated studio-laden acts, The Standells, transplanted Texans the Bobby Fuller Four, the Music Machine and a myriad of other garage rockers kept things simple and direct. Thee Midnighters – described as ‘undisputed kings of Chicano rock’ – offer a gritty Tex-Mex punk, which would influence Los Lobos twenty years later.
There are excursions into areas never again explored, as on Randy Newman’s fuzz-guitar-laden version of ‘Last Night I Had a Dream,’ and Harry Nilsson’s sole foray into psychedelia, ‘Sister Marie.’
At times, the debt to other acts is transparent. The Doors – who show up with ‘Take It As It Comes’ from their debut LP – were an obvious influence on Pasternak Progress, whose ‘Flower Eyes’ sounds like an outtake from Strange Days, and the Merry Go Round’s ‘Listen, Listen’ sounds like a lost Beatles track sung by John Lennon.
Hearts And Flowers’ ‘Tin Angel (Will You Ever Come Down),’ is intriguing. The group – including future Eagle Bernie Leadon – were pioneers in bringing country music into the mix, yet this rare single comes across like the Moody Blues at their trippiest, or conversely, something the Jayhawks would attempt today.
Three previously unreleased tracks – Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills and Richie Furay singing ‘Sit Down I Think I Love You,’ a Tim Buckley outtake, and Boyce & Hart’s demo for ‘Words,’ a 1967 hit for the Monkees – are genuine finds, and worthy additions to each artist’s catalogue.
Radio stations invariably supported local acts. The Top 40 format was birthed in the city during the period, and while chart placement hardly counts for inclusion – many tracks never made it to the bottom of the top 200, and a sizable percentage have been unavailable since their original 45 release – it’s telling just how much of an impact the scene had nationwide.
After producing exactly one Billboard chart topper apiece for 1963 and 1964, L.A. acts increased their presence more than tenfold in 1965. The Byrds hit twice, with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘Turn, Turn, Turn,’ and along with the Beach Boys, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Sonny & Cher and Barry McGuire collectively accumulated a total of 12 weeks at the top.
1966 proved even more impressive, with the Association, Beach Boys (their third successive year), Johnny Rivers, Nancy Sinatra, and the Mamas & Papas totaling 17 weeks.
1967 was the peak, with the Turtles, Bobbie Gentry, the Association, the Doors, Nancy Sinatra (two times – one a duet with her dad), and the Monkees (twice again – at this point they were the biggest selling act in the world) sharing between them an all-time high of 22 weeks in the top spot.
Due to a variety of factors, 1968 brought the end of Top 40 chart domination. Buffalo Springfield, Love, and the Mamas & Papas all called it a day, and the Association, Monkees and Beach Boys had begun to fall out of favor with the record buying public.
The newly popular FM radio format meant bands no longer had to adhere to a 3 or 4 minute maximum, and local acts like Steppenwolf and Crosby, Stills & Nash thrived in the new environment. Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadd-Da-Vida – with it’s side long title track – became the first LP to go platinum.
L.A. continued to produce great music, but there’s no denying that 1965-1968 was a truly golden era for the city, and music fans everywhere. Where The Action Is! offers 101 reasons why.
With it’s close proximity to the Sunset Strip, Laurel Canyon was, as Van Dyke Parks once put it; ‘the seat of the beat.’ There’s an ongoing fascination with the locale; Harvey Kubernik’s oral and visual history, Canyon Of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (Sterling) is the third – and best – book in as many years to tell the story.
Kubernik traces the area’s history, going back to the 1930s when Singing Cowboys like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter rode the range, through the fifties, as the cool school of West Coast jazz players took to the hills, and on to more recent times, as acts like Guns & Roses took up residence.
The heart of the book lies solidly in the sixties and seventies, when the elite of the rock community were based in the Canyon.
The list is impressive: The Byrds, Canned Heat, Sonny & Cher, The Doors, The Turtles, Monkees, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Eagles and Carole King are just the beginning of a veritable who’s who of Canyon dwellers.
Kubernik, a long-time resident and chronicler of all things L.A., has known many of the players for decades, and gets the stories others have missed. Former residents, including members of many of the aforementioned bands, reflect on what made the place and time so special.
Music was the glue that held everything together, and from the clubs, radio stations and record companies to band dynamics and who played with who, it’s all covered.
There’s a personal slant to many of the interviews, including Lou Adler and Michelle Phillips sharing stories from their experience on the Monterey Pop Festival’s planning committee, and the three surviving Doors discussing the ups and downs of their all-too-brief career.
Henry Diltz – who in addition to singing in the Modern Folk Quartet is arguably rock music’s greatest photographer – lived there during the glory years, and supplies numerous previously unseen photos. The book’s generous coffee table size allows Diltz’s shots to be seen at their best.
For anyone interested in the L.A. music scene, Canyon of Dreams is required reading.
© John Cody 2009