It goes on and on, watching the river run

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.

gtr_plyr_1977_smIn 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.

unnamed-2As 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

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Buffalo Springfield in 1968:  Dewey Martin, Jim Messina, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

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.”

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Poco in 1970:  Rusty Young, George Grantham, Timothy B. Schmidt, Richie Furay, Jim Messina

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.”

51NVG15ASRLMessina 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.

660af44b8b8ad4110597e12963625557Loggins 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.”

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“Mother Lode” (1974)

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.

LogginsMessinaNewPubcA 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.

a1274309676_10He 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.

IMG_2489“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.”

 

 

 

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The Wichita lineman is still on the line

The Beach Boys were in a bind.

It was late 1964, nearly three years into their incredible run as Southern California’s favorite sons, providing the soundtrack to the fun-in-the-sun image adored from coast to coast.   The fivesome was in the middle of a major tour to capitalize on the strength of their latest #1 single, “I Get Around.”  But Brian Wilson — their tenor singer, bass player, chief songwriter, arranger and producer — was a fragile soul, and he had begun to crack under the pressure of all the responsibility.  He wanted to withdraw from touring, and concentrate on studio work.  What to do?

There was one clear answer:  Glen Campbell.

_89779590_78442333As a member of the loose group of L.A. session musicians who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew, Campbell had been the guy playing guitar in the recording sessions for “I Get Around,” “Dance, Dance, Dance” and other Beach Boys’ classic records, so he knew the material inside out.  He also had a clean-cut look similar to the rest of the group, so he would fit in well on stage.  He jumped at the offer and found himself a bonafide Beach Boy for a successful three-month stint.

beachboysAfter an extraordinarily public six-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Campbell died August 9th at age 81.  He was widely admired as a dexterous guitarist, a delightful singer, and a hell of a nice guy, and although his star shone brightest in the country music community, his many appearances on the pop charts with iconic songs and on important rock music records certainly qualifies him to be lauded here on Hack’s Back Pages.

Wilson, who had lobbied for Campbell to replace him on that tour fifty-odd years ago, had this to say last week:  “Glen was an incredible musician, and an even better person.  I’m at a loss.  Love and mercy.”
Campbell’s rags-to-riches story is fairly remarkable.  He was born in small-town Arkansas in 1936, the seventh son of a dozen children born to John Wesley and Carol Campbell, who barely scraped by farming corn, potatoes and cotton.  Glen toiled in the fields throughout his youth, but he idolized his Uncle Boo, who gave him a cheap guitar for Christmas when Glen was five.  “Back home, everybody sang along, while somebody played guitar or fiddle or what have you,” Campbell recalled in a 1994 interview.

He practiced guitar relentlessly, listening to radio and records, particularly in awe of the stylings of French-born jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, a sensation in the 1940s and ’50s.  Campbell sang in gospel choirs and played church picnics and county fairs, and by the time he turned 17, he headed for Albuquerque, where he joined his uncle’s band for a spell before forming his own band, The Western Wranglers, playing country-western tunes seven nights a week.

jb_glencampbell_studioBy 1960, he set his sights on California, settling in Los Angeles just as the recording scene there was catching fire as the new hotbed of rock and roll.  He landed a job cutting demos and trying his hand at songwriting for a publishing firm, and his fine guitar work on those demos caught the ear of producers looking for session musicians.

It didn’t take long for Campbell and his guitar to start showing up on recordings by some of pop and rock music’s most widely revered artists of the era:  Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Wayne Newton, Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Jan & Dean, Merle Haggard, The Righteous Brothers, The Monkees.  Campbell’s assignment was to blend into the arrangement, not grab the spotlight, so you have to listen pretty closely sometimes to hear his contributions, but he’s there on such big hits as “Surf City,” “Danke Schoen,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Hello Mary Lou,” Presley’s cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Strangers in the Night” and The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and “Mary Mary.”  Quite a portfolio.

150619175824-03-glen-campbell-restricted-super-169Not bad, not bad at all.  Then, in 1965, Capitol Records heard him sing on a few demos, and signed him as a solo artist.  Campbell had grown up on country music and was seen as a potential star in that market.  After a couple false starts (anybody heard of “Turn Around, Look at Me” or “”Too Late to Worry”?), they paired him with producer Al DeLory in 1967, who encouraged him to record John Hartford’s song “Gentle On My Mind.”

Although the record stalled at only #30 on the country charts, it would eventually end up winning Grammys for Best Country-Western Recording and Vocal Performance.  Meantime, DeLory hurried Campbell back into the studio to record Jimmy Webb’s classic “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which not only reached #2 on the country charts but managed #26 on the pop charts.  Campbell took many by surprise at those same 1968  Grammys by winning not only Best Male Vocal Performance but also the coveted Album of the Year prize.

This earned him high-profile spots on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the hip variety show 150619175650-02-glen-campbell-restricted-super-169that followed it on CBS’s Sunday night schedule, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”  Response to his appearances there was so good that CBS offered him a slot as the Smothers Brothers’ summer replacement with “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” which stuck around on the full prime-time schedule for three more seasons.

There’s an interesting story behind what is considered perhaps Campbell’s finest record, the stunning “Wichita Lineman,” which peaked at #3.  DeLory was under pressure to finish Campbell’s next LP and needed another song in a hurry, so they called Webb and asked him to submit “a song about something geographical” by the end of the day.  The GLEN_CAMPBELL_WICHITA+LINEMAN++WHERES+THE+PLAYGROUND+SUZIE?-604037previous afternoon, Webb had driven across Kansas and seen a lone telephone lineman working atop a pole in the middle of nowhere, and the image stuck with him.  He came up with two verses and the chorus but ran out of time before he could finish it.  Nevertheless, Campbell recorded it, using a six-string bass to play the melody line as a solo in place of the missing third verse.  It turned out to be one of the song’s most distinctive moments.

“Galveston” was another Top Five hit, but then things leveled off for a few years, even though he enjoyed success on the country charts.  Then in the mid-’70s, Campbell was back on top in a big way with two #1s, “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975) and “Southern Nights” (1977), neither of which appealed to me personally, but they made him a big draw again in concert and on TV, where he often wowed the crowds with phenomenal, quicksilver picking to complement the expected hits.

150619180217-06-glen-campbell-restricted-super-169Over the years, Campbell has done a stellar job doing polished covers of great songs of the period, even if they weren’t recognized on the charts:  “After the Glitter Fades” (Stevie Nicks), “Reason to Believe” (Tim Hardin, Rod Stewart and others), and “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” (Jimmy Webb, Judy Collins).  Also, other artists were eager to record duets with Campbell over the years as well, from Bobbie Gentry in the ’60s to Tanya Tucker in the ’80s, as well as Cher, Anne Murray, Stevie Wonder, Mel Tillis, Johnny Cash, Lee Greenwood, Juice Newton and Emmylou Harris.

Make no mistake about this:  I am not much of a fan of Campbell’s repertoire, but I’m not part of his demographic, really.  Still, I admire his ability to straddle the line between country and pop at a time when that was rarely done.  I admire his longevity that made him an exalted country music icon, looked up to by younger generations in the country music arena.  And most of all, frankly, I admire “Wichita Lineman.”  What a fantastic record.

merlin-to-scoop-125744615-44006-master768The 1980s weren’t so kind to Campbell.  The albums and singles he released were met mostly with indifference, even among his base of country fans, and he found himself struggling with alcohol and drug problems for a while.  Once he shook that, he re-emerged in the 1990s and 2000s with an array of gospel and Christmas LPs that did modestly well.  But clearly, his best days were behind him.

Once he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, Campbell insisted on publicly announcing it and then embarking on one last “Goodbye” tour.  Even though the disease had begun to take its toll, as evidenced by erratic stage behavior and forgotten lyrics, the press and the public praised him for soldiering on, as a way to increase awareness about the disease’s debilitating effects.

Two songs released in Campbell’s twilight years exemplify, in a very poignant way, how the man became a shadow of his former self.  First was the 2011 song “Ghost on the Canvas,” a haunting piece that resonates even more now that he has died:

“I know a place between life and death for you and me, let’s take hold on the threshold of eternity, and see the ghost on the canvas, people don’t see us, a ghost on the canvas, people don’t know when they’re looking at souls…”

182191988_1502227650Even as Campbell was nearing the end, he collaborated with friend/producer Julian Raymond in 2014 to write and record an extraordinary song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which was duly noted in the Grammy nominations that year.   Its lyrics speak tragically of how, in most cases, the afflicted will ultimately not remember anything or anybody, even cherished loved ones:

“I’m still here, but yet I’m gone, I don’t play guitar or sing my songs, they never defined who I am, the man that loves you ’til the end, you’re the last person I will love,  you’re the last face I will recall, and best of all, I’m not gonna miss you…”

Beach Boy Mike Love said he felt a kinship with Campbell, saying he was underrated:  “He may not have been a figurehead in rock music, but he made a huge impact in country and pop music, and he is widely revered by axemen everywhere for his virtuoso guitar work, on acoustic and electric alike.”

Rock guitarists from Carlos Santana and Peter Frampton to John Mayer and James Taylor spoke highly of his musical skills as a guitarist and singer.  Keith Urban, Vince Gill, Mark Knopfler and George Benson all recall walking away from guitar duels with Campbell, saying, “Whoa!  That guy is unbelievable.”

Brad Paisley offered these heartfelt remarks:  “Thank you for the artistry, grace and class you brought to country music.  You were a shining light in so many ways.”

Tim McGraw added this succinct summary:  “In a world of good stuff, his was great.  In a world of great stuff, his was special.”