When I go deep diving for “lost classics” in my collection of 1,800 vinyl albums and CDs, I often lean more toward the uptempo rock music I favored much of the time. Just as important to me, though, were the acoustic strains of the early ’70s singer-songwriter era, a time when I was learning to play guitar so I could perform them at parties and school variety shows.
I certainly didn’t learn how to play all of them, but the songs of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens and others will always have a soft spot in my heart. They wrote such lovely melodies and piercing lyrics that speak so tenderly of the human condition we all must navigate.
For this week’s post on the blog, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on songs from that genre and that period. The forgotten deep tracks from these artists’ albums were great then and are just as mesmerizing now as I’m helping you rediscover them. Crank up the Spotify playlist and pay attention as these tunes gently wash over you.
“One Man Parade,” James Taylor, 1972
Both his “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim” albums had been recorded in L.A. studios, but for his next effort, “One Man Dog,” he decided to record in his new homemade studio in a barn next to his homemade house on Martha’s Vineyard. He had written a dozen or so short songs, intending to tie them together in an “Abbey Road”-like manner, and the result was compelling, but he also had a couple of standard-length tunes that might get Top 40 radio play. Sure enough, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” reached #12 on the charts, but the follow-up single, “One Man Parade,” inexplicably died on the vine at #67. It’s one of Taylor’s most carefree tunes, with a charming melody and lyrics about how his dog is exactly the kind of friend he’s looking for — loyal, easygoing, enjoying life’s simple pleasures.
“To Each His Own,” America, 1972
Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley comprised America, a talented trio of singer-songwriters who had great success on the charts in the early ’70s — “A Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” “Lonely People,” “Sister Golden Hair.” The albums these songs came from were chock full of more acoustic melodies and CSN-like harmonies that have pretty much been forgotten over the years. On their second LP “Homecoming,” you can find the amazing John Martin song “Head and Heart” and Peek’s minor hit “California Revisited” and country-inflected “Don’t Cross the River,” but my favorite is the simple melody of “To Each His Own,” Beckley’s song of a romance that is ending even though the love endures.
“The Lonely One,” Dave Mason, 1973
As one of the founders of the British folk-jazz-rock group Traffic, Mason was quickly overshadowed by Steve Winwood and decided to head out on his own instead. His solo debut LP “Alone Together” is considered one of the finer albums of 1970, but Mason found himself mired in a struggle with his foundering label Blue Thumb, losing career momentum in the process. When he signed with Columbia and released “It’s Like You Never Left” in 1973, he began a run of six successful albums and nearly non-stop touring throughout the ’70s, peaking with the platinum “Let It Flow” LP and Top Ten single “We Just Disagree” in 1977. At least a dozen Mason tracks qualify as lost classics, and this go-around, I’ve picked the acoustic gem “The Lonely One” from the 1973 album. Dig Stevie Wonder’s excellent harmonica here!
“Barangrill,” Joni Mitchell, 1972
In every discussion of Mitchell’s repertoire, everyone focuses on her confessional masterpiece “Blue” from 1971 or her pop-jazz pinnacle “Court and Spark” from 1974. Me, I’ve always been partial to the album in between these two, 1972’s “For the Roses,” mostly because I discovered it during an emotional time when I was able to absorb her music non-stop through headphones. Again, I could have selected any of nine of the 12 tunes on this amazing record (“Banquet,” “For the Roses,” “See You Sometime”), but I was moved to go with “Barangrill,” a perceptive study of the regulars and employees at the nation’s truck-stop diners.
“Where Do the Children Play?”, Cat Stevens, 1970
So many of my generation were instantly captivated by the music of Cat Stevens when his “Tea for the Tillerman” album arrived in late 1970, sparked by the hit single “Wild World.” Stevens (who later embraced Islam and changed his name to Yusef) had released three earlier albums that were ignored in the U.S., but that changed in a hurry with “Tillerman.” “Father and Son” emerged as an underground favorite, and pretty much every song here qualifies as a lost classic. My candidate would have to be “Where Do the Children Play?”, one of the first songs I remember hearing that decried the spoiling of the planet and our environment.
“One Of These Things First,” Nick Drake, 1971
Drake’s tragic story of sublime talent tortured by stage fright and clinical depression wasn’t well known during his short life, which ended in suicide in 1974. He made just three albums, all critically acclaimed, but he wasn’t appreciated more deeply until the new millennium. Like many folks, I discovered Drake from the use of his song “Pink Moon” in a TV commercial ten years ago, and consequently picked up a wonderful anthology CD featuring a robust cross-section of his repertoire. The song that grabbed me instantly, originally found on his “Bryter Later” album, is “One of These Things First,” a beautiful piano-and-guitar melody carried by Drake’s feather-light voice. If you’re not familiar with Drake’s work, here’s a great place to start.
“Peace Like a River,” Paul Simon, 1972
As a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel, I was very disappointed when Simon chose to give his partner the heave-ho and go solo following the stratospheric success of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Their friendship endured in an on-again-off-again way, but Simon was far more interested in exploring the rhythms and musical textures of other lands than Garfunkel was. The reggae feel of “Mother and Child Reunion” and the peppy Latino beat of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” are the two most notable examples to be found on the “Paul Simon” solo debut LP. Buried on side 2 is “Peace Like a River,” which sounded to me like the album track that would have fit quite nicely on any S&G album.
“Minstrel Of the Dawn,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1970
The acoustic guitar work, strong vocals and delightful songwriting that have marked Lightfoot’s lengthy career as a recording artist were at their most simple and direct on his breakthrough LP, “If You Could Read My Mind.” That album’s title tune reached #5 and made a fan out of me, but there were another 4-5 songs on the LP that I found just as engaging. One is “Minstrel of the Dawn,” a lovely piece that describes the life of a traveling troubadour, offering a lively string arrangement that augments Lightfoot’s dextrous finger-picking and strong baritone vocals.
“Johnny’s Garden,” Manassas, 1972
Critics called Stephen Stills’ band’s double LP “a sprawling masterpiece,” with an impressive diversity of rock, folk, country, blues, Latin and bluegrass music. Side 3 of “Manassas” focuses on folk and folk rock, and the centerpiece is the lost classic “Johnny’s Garden,” written by Stills in honor of the gardener who tended to the extensive grounds at the English manor Stills once owned. The song is perhaps the simplest on the album, with an arrangement limited to Stills’ guitar, Fuzzy Samuels’ bass and some light drums from Dallas Taylor. It’s one of Stills’ most engaging songs, harking back to the tunes he was writing when with Crosby, Nash and Young.
“Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974
Known far and wide as a straightforward British rock band, Bad Company hit a home run with their debut LP in 1974, which topped the charts in the U.S. and spawned three singles. Buried amidst the solid rock and roll of “Can’t Get Enough,” “Ready for Love” and “Movin’ On” is an evocative track called “Seagull” that features vocalist Paul Rodgers humming and singing along to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment. I always wondered if Rodgers might have had any more songs like this tucked up his sleeve that were never recorded… A tip of the hat to my friend Ray for turning me on to this fine song when he sang it often around the campfire.
“Bitter With the Sweet,” Carole King, 1972
King’s “Tapestry” LP was the early ’70s biggest success story, selling 20 million copies and reigning supreme on the charts for most of 1971. The two albums that followed — “Music” and “Rhymes and Reasons” — carried on in the same vein as “Tapestry,” with similar heartfelt lyrics and easygoing piano-based melodies. The singles “Sweet Seasons” and “Been to Canaan” did well, and the albums reached #1 and #2 respectively, but how often do you hear Carole King any more, besides “It’s Too Late”? Such a treasure trove of fine tunes on these albums. I’ve always been fond of “Bitter With the Sweet,” carried by Charles Larkey’s bouncing bass line and Bobbye Hall’s spritely bongos, congas and tambourine. King’s lyrics tell of the importance of learning how to accept the bad with the good that life has to offer.
“Warmth of Your Eyes,” Lazarus, 1971
Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary was on tour in 1971 supporting his solo debut LP when a struggling singer-songwriter named Bill Hughes approached him after a gig and invited him to his home nearby. Yarrow agreed and was then exposed to a demo tape of Hughes’ music, performed by his three-piece group Lazarus. “I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the songs — music and lyrics — and the stunning harmonies,” said Yarrow, who helped the group secure a recording contract. Sadly, inexplicably, Lazarus never did break through, throwing in the towel after only two albums, but I’m here to tell you their music is superb, and well worth your time. I could have selected any of a half-dozen tracks from their debut LP, but I’m going with “Warmth of Your Eyes” for its gentle, spiritual vibe and gorgeous harmonies.