Waiting there like hidden treasure

When you mention the ’70s, you end up thinking mostly of singer-songwriter pop, and disco.  But the ’70s had many many excellent songs that didn’t get much radio play but were still well known to people who bought a lot of albums.

In other words, DEEP TRACKS.

Here are another dozen such tunes, chronicled on a Spotify list at the end.

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08b418b7151c1b985d8c091ef5e311a1“Thunder Island,” Jay Ferguson, 1977

Jay Ferguson was a founder and key player of the wonderful ’60s San Francisco group Spirit, who had FM radio exposure with “I Got a Line on You,” “Fresh Garbage,” “Mr. Skin” and “Nature’s Way.”   Ferguson then fronted a pop band called Jo Jo Gunne, who had a sort of “one hit wonder” success with “Run Run Run” in 1971.  In 1977, Ferguson went solo and hit the Top Twenty with the great “Thunder Island,” carried by the guitar work of Joe Walsh.

cover_1738121322010“Holdin’ on to Yesterday,” Ambrosia, 1975

The L.A.-based group Ambrosia is known mostly for its three hit singles in the 1978-1980 period: “How Much I Feel,” “You’re the Only Woman” and “Biggest Part of Me.”  But the 1975 debut LP had a much more progressive rock feel to it, and two tracks from it got a lot of FM radio play:  “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” (with lyrics by novelist Kurt Vonnegut) and the excellent track “Holdin’ On to Yesterday.”  This is an excellent album…

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“Your Nashville Sneakers,” The Guess Who, 1972

Once Randy Bachman left in 1970 and went off to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive, The Guess Who was left in the capable hands of Burton Cummings, the amazing singer/songwriter/keyboardist responsible for songs like “Rain Dance,” “Albert Flasher,” “Heartbroken Bopper,” “Dancing Fool,” “Running Back to Saskatoon” and “Star Baby.”  On the overlooked 1972 “Rockin'” LP, there’s a fabulous jazz piano track called “Your Nashville Sneakers” that ranks right up there among the best of The Guess Who’s impressive repertoire.

jefferson_starship-red_octopus“Fast Buck Freddie,” Jefferson Starship, 1975

When the Jefferson Airplane crashed and burned in 1972, guitarist Paul Kantner took the Jefferson Starship science-fiction concept he’d used in his 1970 solo project “Blows Against the Empire” and officially launched a new lineup on the 1974 LP “Dragonfly.”  In 1975, the second Starship LP “Red Octopus” ended up at #1, thanks to Marty Balin’s sublime “Miracles” single.  Much better was the rocking leadoff track, “Fast Buck Freddie,” which features the great Grace Slick on vocals.

led_zeppelin_-_led_zeppelin_II-front“What Is and What Shall Never Be,” Led Zeppelin, 1969

Heavy blues rock made up the bulk of Led Zeppelin’s catalog, but each album included songs that showed a mellower acoustic side.  On “Led Zeppelin II,” perhaps the group’s heaviest album, there was “What Is and What Should Never Be,” which has both quiet and bombastic sections. So much great Plant vocals and Page guitar here!  Such an amazing album…

PaulSimon-Front“Duncan,” Paul Simon, 1972

“Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” got all the airplay from Paul Simon’s 1972 solo debut, but I think “Duncan” is the overlooked gem of the album.  It’s one of Simon’s most whimsical songs, with lyrics that tell the story of a guy enjoying sexual exploits (“And just like a dog, I was befriended…”). and (“I was playing my guitar, lyin’ underneath the stars, just thankin’ the Lord for my fingers…”)

c7037252efc583f0b576c82c92dd97bd“Real Man,” Todd Rundren, 1975

Rundgren was a mastermind — producer, songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist — who had a strong solo career (“Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light”) and also spearheaded a band called Utopia.  In 1975, Rundgren’s solo LP “Initiation” included the wonderful “Real Man,” which became a favorite live choice.  He is such an amazing talent, although not necessarily commercially regarded…

images-17“The Witch’s Promise,” Jethro Tull, 1970

Before “Aqualung” made Jethro Tull a hugely successful recording/live act in 1971, the group released three excellent LPs:  “This Was,” “Stand Up” and “Benefit,” all of which showcased Ian Anderson’s flute and vocals and Martin Barre’s sizzling electric guitar.  “The Witch’s Promise” was a single in the UK but didn’t show up in the US until the 1972 #3 LP “Living in the Past,” a collection of great songs which came out in the wake of the extraordinary #1 LP “Thick as a Brick.”

220px-Bob_Dylan_-_Nashville_Skyline“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” Bob Dylan, 1969

Dylan’s early albums were all recorded in New York, but beginning with “Blonde on Blonde” in 1966, Dylan recorded in Nashville, using some of the city’s finest session musicians like Charlie McCoy, Pete Drake, Charlie Daniels and Kenny Buttrey.  1969’s LP “Nashville Skyline” was Dylan’s most “country” album, including the #3 hit “Lay Lady Lay” and the wonderful “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.”

The_Alan_Parsons_Project_Eve-Front“Damned If I Do,” Alan Parsons Project, 1979

Parsons was an engineer/producer at the Abbey Road studios, playing a key role in the recording of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” before teaming up with songwriter Eric Woolfson to form The Alan Parsons Project in 1976.  Using multiple vocalists and session musicians, the “group” ended up scoring a couple Top Ten albums (“I Robot” in 1977 and “Eye in the Sky” in 1982), and several Top 20 singles (“I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You, 1977; “Damned If I Do,” 1979; “Games People Play,” 1980; “Time,” 1980; “Eye in the Sky,” 1982;  “Don’t Answer Me,” 1984).  Lenny Zakatek, one of five featured singers, was the voice of “Damned If I Do.”

A_Fool's_Paradise_-_Lazarus_album_cover_artwork“Ladyfriends I,” Lazarus, 1973

Bill Hughes was the songwriter, voice and guitar behind a little known but tragically overlooked trio called Lazarus, who released two gorgeous albums in 1971 and 1973 under the tutelage of Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary.  The second Lazarus LP “A Fool’s Paradise” included two songs, “Ladyfriends II” and “Ladyfriends I,” that both should have been big hits, in my opinion.  Hughes’ song “Walking on a Chinese Wall” was the title track to the 1984 Top Ten album by Philip Bailey (which included the #1 hit “Easy Lover”).   Later, Hughes’ tune “Welcome to the Edge” was the Emmy-nominated theme song for the “Santa Barbara” 1990s ABC soap opera.

220px-Relay_cover“Relay,” The Who, 1972

After “Tommy,” Pete Townshend wrote and recorded demos of many songs in 1971-72 for another rock opera called “Life House” that was never completed, but the bulk of it became the songs for the iconic “Who’s Next” LP in 1971.  Other tracks, like “Join Together” and “Relay,” ended up as modestly successful singles in 1972.  “Relay,” in particular, was a favorite of the band and often played in concert during that period leading up to the amazing “Quadrophenia” LP in late 1973.

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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.”

LogginsMessina-MotherLodeAlbumCover

“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.”