November 22, 2021

FTV: Right Place, Right Time

The old saw, ‘there are no accidents,’ came from . . . whom?  We all seem to use this phrase but have you ever wondered where it came from?  Famous quotes tend to get corrupted, rearranged, and jumbled all the time (see Yogi Bera) with no apologies offered to whomever originated them.  Oddly enough, the full quote, “There is no such thing as accident;  it is fate misnamed,” is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821).  As students of history remember, his life certainly had its share of ‘fate(s) misnamed.’  In more recent times, nowhere is this phrase more evident than the music industry.  Many a hit song, album, or career has been made (or not) when  the stars align in what I frequently call (with my apologies to Napoleon) ‘happy accidents.’ 

     Los Angeles, one hub of the west coast music world in the late 1960s and 70s, was much like the Large Hadron Collider.  The LHC was created to slam atoms or parts of atoms together to see what new exotic particles might be discovered.  Some of the things created were new and some were previously observed entities, but many were so short-lived they were difficult to label.  In the LA scene, the music industry was the machine doing the slamming and the particles were the singers, songwriters, and musicians.  Like the particles uncovered by the LHC, some of LA’s byproducts were ‘flash in the pan’, ‘here today, gone today’, fragments of the larger musical environment.  Others would go on to alter the musical landscape for decades to come.  Author David Hepworth’s book, Never A Dull Moment – 1971 – The Year That Rock Exploded (2016 – St. Martin’s Press) gives us a glimpse behind this very fertile period of ‘happy accidents’ centered on Ted Templeman’s career.  One might not be familiar with Templeman’s name, but the list of his Large Hadron Collider-like particles, discoveries, and creations will certainly be recognizable.

     Ted Templeman began his career in music as the drummer in The Tikis and later a guitar player in the light weight pop band, Harpers Bizarre (The 59th Street Bridgesong being pretty much their one hit entry into the charts).  Session ace Jim Gordon handled the drums on their 1967 cover of Paul Simon’s tune and working with other pros like Leon Russell (who arranged 59th Street and also played piano on the track), Glen Campbell (on guitar), and session bassist Carol Kaye provided Templeman with a solid background in how to make hit records.  When Harpers Bizarre broke up, Templeman found work at Warner Brothers records as a seventy-five dollar per week “tape auditioner.”  It was the lowest rung one could find on the recording industry ladder, but it put him in position to observe sessions for artists like Sinatra and Elvis.  As Ted sponged up knowledge about how records were made, he decided he knew how to produce records and make bands sound better using techniques he borrowed from others or invented himself. 

     Templeman’s first effort producing a record for a band hailing from the other California hub of music, San Francisco, flopped when released in April 1971.  His work with this biker band called Pud was cheap enough (as in ‘inexpensive to produce’ not ‘flimsy’) that Warner Brothers gave him another shot:  the impossible job of producing the irascible Van Morrison.  Morrison ended up in the Bay area after recording His Band and Street Choir album in Woodstock, NY.  Like Bob Dylan, Morrison and his wife Janet Planet (the more ‘worldly’ name she adopted after shunning her original ‘Janet Rigsbee’ handle) found Woodstock to be overrun with tourists.  As a result, they transplanted themselves to Marin County, CA.  As Van’s hit single Domino climbed the record charts, Templeman hunkered down with Morrison to record the Tupelo Honey LP which would put another hit on the radio and charts, Wild Night.

     Morrison had little patience for recording too many takes.  Templeman learned to work around the problem by getting the vocals down before Morrison lost interest.  With Morrison retired to his farm (replete with a horse named Moondance), Ted took the template sound of the Street Choir album and turned what Hepworth calls, “that Irish show band lineup with horns” into a hit making formula.  

     Other musicians, like a young New Jersey boy named Bruce Springsteen, took notice and imitators were soon following the sound template Ted had created with Morrison.  After Templeman spent two days doing the final mix of the album, he found out Morrison had rushed forward and released an earlier rough mix (which he later admitted to Ted was “a mistake.”)  Templeman later said, “I would never work with Van Morrison again as long as I live.  He is a marvelous talent, but he’s fired everyone who’s ever worked with him, he understands nothing about the recording process.”  There were some hard lessons learned in 1971, but Templeman would find them useful in the future.  It seems the entire industry followed his lead.

     For Templeman, one take-away from the Tupelo Honey record was an introduction to studio guitarist Ronnie Montrose.  The signature ‘Montrose pop metal’ sound they put on vinyl for his first album (Montrose) would surface again when Ted worked with Van Halen.  The second album he did with Pud (newly rechristened The Doobie Brothers) also drank deep from Templeman’s well.  Again, Hepworth’s assessment is to the point:  “[The Doobie Brother’s second album] started off with a song called Listen to the Music, the first in a string of Templeman productions that would go on to enjoy a seemingly eternal commercial life.  It was formula music but done in the best possible taste.”  FM radio and the TV concert shows could not get enough of the Doobies and the hits kept coming for them well into the ‘70s.  They remain a staple of classic rock stations to this day and are valiantly trying to tour again (like many other bands) in these COVID-19 times.

     Warner Brothers was attracting artists via the artist friendly approach producers like Templeman employed.  The ‘artist friendly’ approach inspired former William Morris agent David Geffin to launch Asylum records.  Geffin had made a fortune managing the likes of Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young.  When Geffin complained about not being able to get any label to bite on his newest young artist, Jackson Browne, he followed the sage advice of Ahmet Ertegun:  “start your own label.”  He named it ‘Asylum’ because it was supposed to be a “shelter away from the depredations of the majors (big record labels).”  Geffen became one of the first music publishers to add ‘record company boss’ to his already crowded letterhead (next to ‘artist manager’), a move that would eventually add another definition of ‘asylum’ to the mix.  

     With a stable of artists now including Browne, Joni Mitchell, John David Souther, Jo Jo Gunne, Linda Ronstadt, and an ‘as-yet unnamed group’ featuring Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley, Geffen was sitting on the musical equivalent of the golden egg.  Ill health would force Geffin out of the game and this cozy arrangement between the label and the artists would end.  The wheels would fall off Geffen’s wagon in the future, but in 1971, the intertwining of all these talents could not help but create some memorable music.  Ironically, Asylum was eventually bought by Warner Brothers and later merged with Elektra Records to become Elektra/Asylum Records.

     Browne began recording with James Taylor’s engineer (Taylor being the top male solo act at the time) using the same band that recorded Carole King’s mega hit album from 1971, Tapestry.  It was on a break during these sessions that Browne took a Jeep trip through Arizona and Utah to clear his mind.  He came back with  a kernel of a song, “Well I’m runnin’ down the road, trying to loosen my load,” which he showed to his neighbor, Glenn Frey.  Frey begged Browne to let him finish it for his new group, now named Eagles.  It came out on their first album and it is safe to say both Browne and the Eagles did pretty well from that point on.

     Meanwhile, back at Warner Brothers, they had matters to attend to despite losing a couple of their artists to the upstart Geffen label.  They even took a flyer on an album by Gram Parsons who had been given the soft boot from Keith Richards’ rented home at Nellcote because he was distracting Keith.  The truth be told, Parsons drinking and drugging with Keith was more like a bad buddy movie.  After his ouster from the Stones exile in France, Parsons landed in New Orleans.  It was there he received a call from Chris Hillman who was in the middle of a tour with his post Byrds band, the Flying Burrito Brothers.  Parsons joined Hillman to record Last of the Red Hot Burritos and was then asked to join them on a few dates in Maryland.  While in Maryland, and again at Hillman’s suggestion, Parsons and his wife Gretchen tracked down a folk singer Chris had seen at a club earlier in the week.  It would be the first meeting between Gram and Emmylou Harris.  It would also be the break she needed as an artist.  No one then could foresee Parsons’ untimely death or that Harris would become the designated ‘keeper of the flame’ when it came to his all too short career and amazing catalog of songs.

     One of the most tangled webs of ‘being in the right place at the right time’ involves a whole host of troubadours meeting other troubadours.  It is best if I let Hepworth explain the complex deal as it is beyond me to try and keep it all straight:  “Kris Kristofferson was on a flight to Chicago when he met the sixties balladeer Paul Anka, who told him he had recorded one of his songs.  Once in Chicago, Kristofferson went to see Anka’s show in the lounge of an expensive hotel.  In return Anka came to see Kristofferson at a club date, where he was being supported by a local songwriter named Steve Goodman.  Anka was impressed by Goodman’s own City of New Orleans and a song about a returning Vietnam veteran called Sam Stone, which was written by Goodman’s friend.  Goodman took Anka and Kristofferson to another club where the friend, a mailman named John Prine, was having a nap between sets.  As a result of that encounter, both men got recording deals.”  Interestingly enough, both John Prine and Steve Goodman were names I had heard but neither’s music was in my wheelhouse in 1971.  Hearing Prine live in Marquette in the mid 1970s and Arlo Guthrie’s version of Goodman’s City of New Orleans live in Calumet  years later were experiences I do not think I would have appreciated when they were newly discovered.

     Future star Linda Ronstad also benefited from some 1971 ‘happy accidents’, but they would not boost her career until the mid to late 1970s.  A contemporary of Prine’s, folksinger Loudon Wainwright III, happened to be married to Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, of the McGarrigle Sisters.  The other sister, Anna, had written a song called Heart Like a Wheel which she performed at the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival.  In attendance that day was Texan singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker.  Although he only partially remembered the tune when he sang a snippet for Ronstad, she immediately remembered the song and decided she needed to record it.  The album bearing the same name was released in 1974 and became her biggest seller.

     One of the most unlikely stars to emerge from 1971 was Don McLean.  Like Lou Reed, McLean tended to not advertise that he grew up in comfortable postwar prosperity, in his case in New Rochelle, New York.  McLean’s family wasn’t as well off as some, but as he recognized he was well enough off, stating, “I knew a lot of kids who were born on third base and thought they hit a triple.”  Using his prolonged absences from school due to various illnesses, McLean  became proficient on guitar.  He also took opera lessons (paid for by his sister) and used swimming underwater as a means of learning breath control.  Don was only fifteen when his father died and he began venturing into New York City to pick the brains of artists playing the folk circuit.  Though he dropped out of college in 1963, he still pursued a degree in business administration during the six years he spent playing at every folk club that would hire him.

     McLean’s first album was, like Carole King’s, also called Tapestry.  Released in 1970 on the small Mediarts Records label, it would eventually top out on the charts at No. 111.  Don joined the United Artists stable when they bought Mediarts, just in time for the release of his second LP.  This album’s title track first debuted on March 14, 1971 when McLean was opening for Laura Nyro in Philadelphia.  It didn’t click with everyone, at least not right away.  Don played this tune and other new songs for a producer at his new label.  The suits from the label inquired why there was no obvious ‘single’ among his songs.  According to Hepworth, McLean told the producer and money guys, “Not only was American Pie going to be the single, it was going to be the title track.  He was so confident that he’d already taken the cover photographs in which a star and stripes was painted on his outstretched thumb.”

     After producer Ed Freeman had McClean and his band work on the arrangement for two weeks, he brought in piano player Paul Griffin on the day of the recording session.  Griffin had previously made notable contributions to other records (Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By and Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone as prime examples) so one would not consider him just another studio hack.  Hepworth further describes the eight minute long single as, “notable for riddling words and a hooky chorus . . . [it was] Griffin’s rippling, almost facile piano that prevented American Pie from collapsing under the weight of its determination to be the Great American Song and makes it one of the first great pop records that is about great pop records.”  The single was released in November, shot up the charts and spent five weeks at number one on earth in 1972.  The length necessitated it being mastered at half-speed and split over both sides of the 45 RPM record.  

     American Pie is one of the few songs to become widely known, even to those who were not rabid consumers of records.  Everybody was soon familiar with the line, “the day the music died” and volumes have been written analysing the song and who some of the characters referenced in the cryptic lyrics might actually be.  Mike Mills, who would later be a founding member of R.E.M. heard the song and thought, “This is how you can write a song.”  The release of American Pie also seems to have acted as another salvo in a mood of musical nostalgia that began to build in 1971.  The Village Voice claimed this nostalgia movement had already reached ‘epidemic proportions’ and McLean’s iconic song certainly poured gas on the fire.  McLean wrote more memorable music, but AP was a meal ticket with no sell-by date.  He auctioned off the song’s original manuscript for more than a million dollars in April of 2015.

     As Hepworth pointed out in the Epilog of Never A Dull Moment, most consider the release of Rock Around The Clock in 1954 to be the birth of the rock and roll era.  This means rock was only 17 when it hit the momentous year of 1971.  If you can guess who else was also 17 in 1971, then you can probably figure out why both rock music and the year 1971 are still with me after all these years.  Like many of the artists who produced the memorable music released in 1971, I was in the right place at the right time to be greatly influenced as a music lover and performer by this pivotal year.

Top Piece Video:  So many referenced songs to choose from so we will go with Pud…I mean The Doobie Brothers and a live version of Listen to the Music….After all, this is exactly what 1971 has compelled us all to do!