There are so many fascinating stories from the ’60s and ’70s about how and why bands were formed and broke up, who wrote which songs, who appeared on which albums, who paired off with whom, who produced the albums, which acts became famous and which didn’t.
And it’s such a gas to be lucky enough to hear these stories from someone who was there, right in the thick of it.
In the burgeoning Los Angeles music scene at the time, folk artists and rock musicians were combining forces to create the genre that became known as folk rock. Soon thereafter, those who appreciated elements of country music added their talents to the mix, and the result was (what else?) country rock.
In the middle of all of this creative mixing of styles and influences, one name kept popping up: Jim Messina.
Most rock music aficionados recognize his name as one half of the popular ’70s duo Loggins and Messina. Although, truth be told, most folks are probably more aware of Kenny Loggins, but are only marginally familiar with Messina and his accomplishments. And that’s a shame.
In my opinion, and in the view of many knowledgeable observers, Messina is the greater talent. In fact, without him, it’s likely no one would have ever heard of Loggins, as we shall see. Messina’s contributions, meanwhile, have sometimes been behind the scenes and therefore less in the limelight.
As Messina and his current band came through town last week on the California leg of their concert tour, he graciously agreed to sit down with Hack’s Back Pages for a chat. Let’s start this story at the beginning, which would be in 1965 when Messina, who grew up in the Riverside/San Bernardino area east of L.A., relocated to Hollywood at age 17 to pursue a career in music.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize I wasn’t going to find much work as a musician because everybody I came across was so damn good, so I started apprenticing as a recording engineer,” he recalled. “I learned how to build studios, and had the chance to work on a home studio for Joe Osborn, one of the all-time great session bass players. I loved the way he played, so I agreed to work for free if he would give me a few bass lessons.”
Messina’s ever-growing knowledge in engineering and recording soon brought him to Sunset Sound Recorders in 1967, a hotbed of rock music activity. One of his first assignments as an engineer there was to set up mics for a simple guitar-and-voice session for a new artist. He was awed by the gentle beauty of her voice and the delicate melodies she sang. “What’s her name?” he asked, and was told, “Joni Mitchell.”
His next project, thanks to Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, was as an engineer on the second album by Buffalo Springfield, the seminal rock/folk/country band that featured the formidable talents of Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay. “I had heard Stills’ song ‘Bluebird’ on the radio, not knowing who it was, so I was pleased to learn that was their song, and looked forward to working with them based on that,” Messina said.
In early 1968, when the band was set to record its third album, Messina was asked to be its producer, unaware of the inner turmoil that was threatening the group’s future. “They’d seen what I was doing and trusted me, I guess, so I quickly accepted. I had no
idea of the issues that were going on. I soon saw I could never get these guys to come work in the studio at the same time. Stephen would show up but Neil wouldn’t, and vice versa. Or (drummer) Dewey (Martin) would be so stoned he couldn’t sit on his stool.
“Then (bassist) Bruce Palmer got arrested and deported back to Canada, so they were without a bass player. I could play guitar, and I’d been practicing on bass, and I was very familiar with their sound, of course. So I raised my hand and offered to play the bass parts. Stephen was blown away with how it sounded, so just like that, I was in the band. There were some live dates coming up, so I joined them for those too.”
Messina contributed his song “Carefree Country Day” and played bass on tracks like Furay’s classic “Kind Woman,” all the while serving as producer of what turned out to be the Springfield’s final product (the 1968 LP “Last Time Around”), trying to give continuity to what would have otherwise been a fragmented mess, as the group was disintegrating. Many observers feel the album never would have been released if not for Messina’s efforts.
So as Young embarked on a solo career, and Stills headed off to collaborate with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Messina considered his options. “Richie and I had become friends,” he said. “He and I were both pretty straight, not really into the party lifestyle, and I loved his songs. So we agreed we ought to team up.”
Furay and Messina were impressed with the pedal steel playing of Rusty Young, who was brought in on the final Springfield sessions, and he was pleased to join the new band. They held auditions for a bass player, taking a look at both Gram Parsons (??) and a young Gregg Allman (??!!) before eventually bringing Randy Meisner into the fold. With drummer George Grantham completing the quintet, they chose to call themselves Pogo, named after the Walt Kelly cartoon character. “Kelly didn’t like that and threatened to sue,” Messina recalled. “We were doing our first set of shows at The Troubadour, so our road manager had the idea of just changing the G to a C on the marquis, and we became Poco that night.”
Their 1969 debut LP, entitled “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (the pieces of Buffalo Springfield — get it?), is now widely regarded as one of the first important country rock albums. Messina again produced, and played guitar and sang, and most of the songs were written by Furay. Meisner recorded his parts but then had a falling out with Furay and soon left, eventually joining The Eagles and riding that rocket to stardom. Poco replaced him with bassist/singer Timothy B. Schmidt, and this lineup released the fine “Poco” album in 1970, included Messina’s minor hit “You Better Think Twice” and the fabulous 18-minute jam, “Nobody’s Fool/El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa.” It should’ve been a huge hit, in most critics’ opinion, but the general public was still apparently not enthused, and even the FM album-oriented rock radio stations weren’t playing it.
Poco had a loyal following, and the band toured relentlessly, but the albums just didn’t sell, which Messina said was a source of great frustration to Furay, who watched with envy while his former bandmates Stills and Young became superstars. “He was angry,” Messina noted, “in ways that started affecting our friendship, and it reached the point when I decided I needed to leave.” He agreed to help groom his successor, guitarist Paul Cotton (who remained with the group for decades), and finished producing the Poco live album “Deliverin'” in early 1971 before signing a six-record deal with Columbia as an independent producer.
Curiously, the first artist Columbia paired him with was easy listening crooner Andy Williams. “I turned them down,” Messina said. “He was a very sophisticated singer who typically worked with orchestras, and I told them there were other people better suited to the job.”
The next attempted pairing was with newcomer Dan Fogelberg. “I loved his voice, and he had some pretty good songs, but when I asked him why he came to me out of all the choices he had, he said, ‘I’m a big Poco fan, and I want to make a Poco record.’ I had to tell him, ‘Well, I just spent two years making Poco records, and we were told by radio programmers that we were too country for rock stations, and too rock for country stations.’ I didn’t want any more of that frustration, so I passed.”
Then along came Kenny Loggins. Said Messina, “I liked him, and I liked his songs, especially ‘Danny’s Song” and “House at Pooh Corner.’ I agreed to produce him, but I knew we had a lot of work to do. He was basically a folk singer, and some of the stuff he brought wasn’t really what we needed. We had to make the kind of album that a solo artist would need to be successful in that arena. People like Dave Mason, Delaney and Bonnie, and Crosby, Stills & Nash were out already, doing sophisticated types of songs, and I needed to bring Kenny up to that level. He’d never had a band, didn’t even own a guitar, had no manager, no agent.”
Messina worked with him to assemble a talented band of players — drummer Merle Bregante, bassist Larry Sims, multi-instrumentalists Al Garth and Jon Clarke, and keyboardist Michael Omartian — with whom they rehearsed and recorded Loggins’ songs, plus several more Messina contributed (“Peace of Mind,” “Listen to a Country Song,” “Rock and Roll Mood” and “Trilogy”). “My mindset was we needed to get Kenny out on the road quickly, right after the album was released, to help promote the album and get his name out there, and it needed to be with this same group of musicians.”
Messina had made such a significant contribution to the finished product (and because Messina had more name recognition than Loggins at that point) that Columbia chose to title the album “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In.” The marketing strategy seemed to work; while it peaked at only #70 on the Top 200 album charts, “Sittin’ In” spent 113 weeks there (more than two years), and they sold a lot of concert tickets because of it.
Loggins the solo artist had now morphed into Loggins and Messina the duo, and the eponymous follow-up LP, which reached #16, included the tour-de-force “Angry Eyes,” Messina’s catchy “Thinkin’ of You” and the Top Five single “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” which became their signature song (although neither Loggins nor Messina thought much of it).
They remained a formidable recording and live act for another five years and six albums. “Full Sail” (1973), “On Stage” (1974) and “Mother Lode” (1974) all reached the Top 10, followed by “So Fine” (1975), “Native Sons” (1976) and another live album, “Finale” (1977). Loggins then finally began the solo career he’d been seeking, while Messina, meanwhile, continued producing, also recording a few solo albums of quality material.
When asked about the craft of songwriting, he said, “Remember, I’d been engineering and producing for some damn good songwriters from early on. Intuitively, even then I knew what I needed to do, which was to grow and become a better musician, and a better singer. I saw what was necessary for a song to be successful, and learned a lot from that period.”
Indeed. If you aren’t familiar with specific songs in Messina’s composing portfolio, let me introduce you to his best. In addition to the tunes already mentioned, check out these: “Watching the River Run,” “Traveling Blues” and “Pathway to Glory” from “Full Sail”; “Be Free,” “Changes,” “Lately My Love,” “Move On” and “Keep Me in Mind” from the superb “Mother Lode”; “Sweet Marie,” “Pretty Princess” and “When I Was a Child” from “Native Sons”; “A New and Different Way” and “Seeing You For the First Time” from his first solo LP, “Oasis” (1979); and “Whispering Waters” and “Child of My Dreams” from 1981’s “Messina.”
Poco, meanwhile, had soldiered on with and without Furay, with nothing resembling a hit single or album until 1979, when “Legend” became a Top 20 LP on the strength of Rusty Young’s “Crazy Love” and Cotton’s “Heart of the Night,” both Top 20 singles. Ten years later, in 1989, Poco’s original lineup of Furay-Messina-Young-Meisner-Grantham reunited for the “Legacy” LP, which included two Messina-penned tracks, “Follow Your Dreams” and “Lovin’ You Every Minute,” and a Top 20 single, “Call It Love,” co-written by Messina. The fivesome toured behind labelmate rocker Richard Marx before disbanding again.
A much-discussed Loggins and Messina reunion finally occurred in 2005 with a lucrative tour and a live CD, “Live: Sittin’ In Again at the Santa Barbara Bowl,” and then another tour in 2009. On his own, Messina released “Under a Mojito Moon,” which features Cuban and Spanish-inflected melodies and Messina’s flamenco guitar work. More recently, he and his band released “Jim Messina Live at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts,” a venue near San Luis Obispo, in 2012.
At 70, Messina is still plenty busy. He runs The Songwriters’ Performance Workshop, a six-day program for aspiring artists he conducts at resorts and hotels around the country, and he stays active producing and engineering as a recording studio owner.
He is currently on the road promoting “In the Groove,” recorded live in 2015 with Rusty Young making a guest appearance. This release is available on vinyl and, in a new innovation, as a USB card, which includes not only mp3 files of the songs but also files of lyrics, video footage and more.
“It’s pretty cool,” Messina said, “You can pop it into your laptop and play or download whatever you want. I’m told this is the wave of the future as far as physical music delivery systems are concerned.”