Pour myself a cup of ambition

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the 50-year career of a woman who has managed to shine in multiple disciplines:  songwriting, singing, recording, films, television, entertainment businesses and philanthropic endeavors — Dolly Parton.


“I’ve never been offended by all the dumb blonde jokes people tell about me.  You know why?  It’s because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know I’m not blonde.”

SDEEUR3US434LJWCR55D3OUGBEThis famous Dolly Parton quote succinctly captures her essence:  Keen self-awareness.  Honest humility.  Positive attitude.  A wonderful sense of humor.

If you’re looking for proof that Dolly Parton is not a “dim bulb,” as she might put it, there’s a revealing story about what happened — or what could have happened but didn’t — with one of her most famous songs.

In 1973, Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” which was meant as a fond tribute to her friend and singing partner, Porter Wagoner, with whom she was amicably ending a seven-year professional collaboration.  Dolly recorded it herself, and then watched as it soared to #1 on the Hot Country charts (although it didn’t even make the Pop charts).

Elvis Presley let it be known that he loved the song and wanted to do his own version.  He was all set to record it when Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told Parton that it was customary for songwriters to give up half of the publishing rights to Presley for any song he recorded.  While others had gladly relented just to have Elvis sing their song, Parton politely declined.

Dolly recalls, “I said, ‘I’m really sorry, I just can’t do it,’ and I cried all night.  I mean, it was like the worst thing.  You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Elvis Presley.’  And other people were saying, ‘You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley.’  But I said, ‘I just can’t do that.’ Something in my heart said, ‘Don’t do that.’  And I just didn’t do it… Of course, he would MV5BOGIwZmIyOTctOWU1Mi00NzYwLWI4ZjQtNjAwZGQzZjBhZmU4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQ5MDYzMTk@._V1_have done a killer rendition…but anyway, so he didn’t.  Then, when Whitney Houston’s version came out years later, I made so much money from it, I could’ve bought Graceland!”

Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” released in 1992 on the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard,” spent an incredible 14 weeks at #1 on the Pop charts, bringing the song to an exponentially wider mainstream audience than Parton’s original had achieved.  It played a large part in turning her into one of the wealthiest songwriters in music history (current estimates put her in the $500 million range).

And that’s merely the most famous of more than 3,000 (!) songs she has written since breaking into show business in 1967, earning her a much-deserved spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  “Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts,” Parton has said.  “Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about. I think my head would explode if I didn’t get some of that stuff out.”

Full confession:  I’ve never been much of a country music fan myself.  Consequently, my knowledge of and appreciation for Parton’s recorded catalog has until recently been limited to her most well-known songs, particularly 1977’s “Here You Come Again” (the engaging Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil tune that marked her first appearance in the mainstream Top Ten), her perky 1981 #1 international hit “9 to 5” from the hit film comedy, and “Islands in the Stream,” the frankly icky 1983 chart-topping duet with Kenny Rogers.

71-+fobEsRL._SX355_Now that my two daughters have become big fans of country artists, I’ve been compelled, somewhat grudgingly, to give the genre more attention.  Although I suspect I’ll always be a rock and roll guy at heart, I have broadened my horizons to examine and eventually embrace many country songs, including several of Dolly’s.

It was only last year that I first heard “Jolene,” an irresistible 1973 tune she wrote about a gorgeous woman who had been making eyes at her new husband.  “Please don’t take him just because you can,” the lyrics implore, and that sentiment rang true with millions of country fans who sent it to #1 on the country charts.  Even Rolling Stone ranked “Jolene” #214 on its list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Beyond her voluminous recorded catalog of more than 50 solo albums and another dozen LPs with Wagoner, Parton has also impressed me with her film appearances, especially her hilarious debut in “9 to 5” and her award-winning turn as the madam in the-best-little-whorehouse-in-texas“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  As in nearly every television performance or interview you can find on YouTube, Parton absolutely lights ups the screen with her affable, cheery disposition.

No essay about Parton can omit mention of the breathtaking real estate Parton displays between her neck and her navel.  Even the normally discreet Johnny Carson was once moved to say to her, “I’d give up a year’s salary for one peek under your blouse!”

True to her self-deprecating nature, she has always taken such comments in stride, and now tells jokes of her own about her “substantial bosom,” as she calls it.  “I was one of the first women to burn my bra.  It took the fire department four days to put it out!”

Just like in the rock music business, the country music industry has many dozens of examples of singers whose light shone brightly for a few years and then petered out.  Parton is one of only a handful of country artists whose careers have lasted more than half a century.

While her biggest years of commercial success came in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she has been no slouch in the years since.  Since 1990, she has released 18 albums, all of which reached the Top Twenty on the country charts, and three of those — 1993’s “Slow Dancing With the Moon,” 2008’s “Backwoods Barbie” and 2014’s “Blue Smoke” — made the Top Ten on the Pop charts as well.

61st Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show

Katy Perry (left) and Kacey Musgraves with Parton at the 2019 Grammy Awards

Just last week, Parton was named the MusiCares Person of the Year, the first country artist to be so honored, and the Grammy Awards also paid tribute to her, with rousing performances by current stars Kacey Musgraves, Katy Perry and Maren Morris, and Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus, and by Parton herself.

Still relevant today?  Damn right she is.

What a remarkable ride she has had — “from the back hills of Tennessee to the Hollywood Hills,” as she put it at the MusiCares ceremony.  She was one of 12 children born in a one-room cabin near the hardscrabble hamlet of Pittman Center in eastern Tennessee, where her father worked the land and her mother struggled to raise the


Avie Lee, Dolly, and Robert Parton

family while instilling in Dolly her love of music and folklore.  Raised in the Church of God where her grandfather pastored, Parton first sang in church at age 6 and started playing guitar and writing songs at age 8.

Appearances on local radio and TV programs eventually caught the eye of industry folks, and upon graduation from high school, she moved to Nashville and signed with Combine Publishing.  Several of her earliest compositions (“Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “Fuel to the Flame”) became Top Ten country hits, and still others were recorded by major country names like Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr.

Parton has always been reverential about these artists who so influenced her at an early age.  “Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us now.  She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business.  In addition to being a wonderful asset to country music, she was a wonderful woman.”

When Monument Records signed Dolly as a recording artist at age 20, it was initially as a bubblegum pop singer, but when that didn’t pan out, and her country songs achieved notoriety as covered by others, she was given the chance to record “Hello, I’m Dolly,” her debut as a country singer.  It didn’t take long for Wagoner, an established country star 170px-Porter_Wagoner_and_Dolly_Parton_1969with multiple #1 hits to his credit, to offer her a regular spot on his weekly syndicated TV gig “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which at its peak was reaching three million viewers in 100 markets.

As she and Wagoner scored big with a dozen collaboration albums during this period, Dolly aimed her ambitions higher, persevering in the face of reluctant record company people to record solo albums and establish a name for herself outside of her association with Wagoner.  To his credit, Wagoner supported her efforts, both financially and as a friend.

Her hard work paid off.  Between 1971 and 1991, Dolly Parton racked up a staggering total of 40 Top Ten country singles, including an incredible 22 chart-toppers!

Beginning in the 1990s, country music evolved from its purist roots to embrace a newer, more contemporary sound, one that utilized more rock arrangements, tempos and shutterstock_6498011a-46699850-e065-4bdb-a88c-afeaec0403cbinstruments.  Artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus packed the arenas and topped the charts while more traditional artists like Parton were left by the wayside, at least for a while.

Rock music fans should take note that Parton has occasionally stuck her toe into non-country music genres, with varying degrees of success.  Her well-received collaborative albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999) with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris included tracks like Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” and she has also recorded startling covers of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself,” Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”  On the other hand, you might want to steer clear of her train-wreck renditions of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” and Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” and (shudder) a bluegrass arrangement of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Beginning in the late ’80s, Parton began focusing most of her attentions on establishing Dollywood, the amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and the Dollywood Foundation, which supports and raises millions of dollars to help with educational and health-related charities, particularly in her home state of Tennessee.  “I always thought that if I became successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something dollyparton-bookcharity-480x270that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” she said.

Particularly notable has been her literacy awareness program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, sparked by her devotion to her father, who couldn’t read nor write.  The program seeks to instill a love for books and a yearn to learn how to read at a young age by donating one book every month to each enrolled child.  The Imagination Library was recently honored by the Library of Congress for donating its 100 millionth book.

“Everywhere I go these days, the kids call me ‘the book lady,'” Parton said.  “The older I get, the more appreciative I am of the ‘book lady’ title.  It makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer.  It makes me feel like I’ve done something really worthwhile with my life and with my success.”

Dolly-Parton-Husband-1Parton and her husband of 52 years, Carl Dean, have never had children.  “I’ve never been fortunate enough to get pregnant, so I just feel God didn’t mean for me to have kids,” said Parton.  “So I guess I just look at everybody else’s children as mine, and I reach out to help kids in every way I can.”

Meanwhile, this glitzy, big-haired, 73-year-old ball of fun and enthusiasm (“I’m just a Backwoods Barbie in a pushup bra and heels”) intends to keep at it, on stage and in the studio.  “I don’t think I’ve ever been a natural beauty, so I try to make the best of everything.”  She knows people kid her about her cosmetic surgery, but she just doesn’t care.  “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked!”

636689053099642487-kns-DollywoodExpansion-BP-13People say to her, “Why don’t you retire?” Her reply:  “And do what?  What does that even mean?  I always count my blessings more than I count my money.  For me, it’s about the art.  I love the job.  I love to work.”

Her voice has always been marked by a funny little wavering quality, and that vibrato has perhaps become more pronounced with age, at least in her lower vocal register (check out the songs on the recent “Dumplin'” soundtrack).  Nevertheless, she continues to command the respect and admiration of just about everyone who comes in contact with her.  Including me, apparently.

No doubt about it.  The woman is a living legend.






What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?

Most of my savvy readers have heard of the great Al Kooper, and they know he bears no relation to shock rocker Alice Cooper.

Kooper had a hand in many significant musical moments of the ’60s and ’70s.  He co-wrote “This Diamond Ring,” a huge hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1963.  He played the Hammond organ on Bob Dylan’s milestone 1965 anthem, “Like a Rolling Stone.”  He formed Blood, Sweat & Tears and sang and played on their influential 1968 debut LP “Child is Father to the Man.”  He jammed first with blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield and then with the great Stephen Stills, resulting in the landmark 1968 LP “Super Session.”  He discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1972 and produced their first three LPs.  He produced the 1975 debut album by The Tubes.  And on and on.

And in 1968, when Kooper was working as an A&R man with Columbia Records, he persuaded label head Clive Davis to release an album by a group that had already disbanded.  The album was “Odessey & Oracle,” and the group was The Zombies.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Kooper was right to lobby on the group’s behalf.  Although


The Zombies (from left):  Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone, Paul Atkinson, Chris White and Rod Argent

the album has never sold or charted all that well, “Odessey and Oracle” is often mentioned as one of the great overlooked masterpieces of Sixties rock, and it includes the (dare I say it?) timeless classic “Time of the Season.”

And now here we are in 2019, and The Zombies are about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Unlike many of the hundreds of hopeful but lame groups in England and the U.S. who came along in the wake of The Beatles’ dramatic debut of 1963-1964, The Zombies actually brought some talent to the table.

Rod Argent, Chris White and Colin Blunstone were three musically inclined students from St. Albans, a small town 20 miles north of London.  They’d excelled in a boys choir and in music theory, showing promise as both singers and songwriters.  In 1962, they formed a band called The Mustangs, with Blunstone on vocals, Argent on keyboards, White on bass, Paul Atkinson on guitar and Hugh Grundy on drums.  Upon hearing of other groups with the same name, they decided instead to call themselves The Zombies “because we were pretty sure no one else would ever call themselves that,” reflected Argent years later.

Decca Records, who had infamously passed on The Beatles but had already signed The Rolling Stones, decided to give The Zombies a contract as well.  During sessions for the group’s first LP, “Begin Here,” Argent came to producer Ken Jones with the outline of a tune he was working on based on a John Lee Hooker song called “No One Told Me.”  He was encouraged to complete it, using a key favorable to the silky smooth voice of lead singer Blunstone.  The result was “She’s Not There,” an enormous hit that established the band in the UK (#12) and in the U.S. (#2), where it edged out The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and The Stones’ “Time is On My Side” in December 1964.

(“She’s Not There” saw new life in 1977 when Santana covered it on their “Moonflower” album, and it reached #27 and #11 in the U.S. and the U.K.)

The Zombies made only two albums, both of which performed poorly on the charts, but 3008797listening to them now, I find the bulk of their material refreshing and engaging.  And I’m not alone in this assessment.  Here’s what Critic Mark Deming, writing for AllMusic, had to say:  “Given the wealth of fine original tunes that the Zombies released on various non-LP singles and EPs during this period, it’s a shame that so much of their ‘Begin Here’ album was given over to covers.  It’s still a fine album, and certainly better than what most of their peers had to offer in 1965, but what could have been an achievement on a par with The Kinks’ ‘Face to Face’ or even the Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ ended up being something quite good instead of an unqualified triumph.”

Forty and fifty years after its release, The Zombies’ song “The Way I Feel Inside” from “Begin Here” ended up on the soundtrack of director Wes Anderson’s 2004 cult favorite “The Life Aquatic” as well as in the celebrated 2016 animated film “Sing.”  Also worthy of your attention are Argent originals “I Remember When I Loved Her” and “Woman” as well as killer covers of the Gershwin classic “Summertime” and The Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” where Blunstone’s vocals really shine.

Argent’s inventive use of a Hohner Pianet for the keyboard parts distinguished The Zombies’ jazz-inflected stylings, especially on their second big hit “Tell Her No,” another Argent original which reached #6 in April 1965 (although it stalled at #42 in England).  Rock historian Maury Dean described “Tell Her No” as “a precursor to jazz fusion for the way the song moves in fits and starts, and for its polyrhythms.”

On the strength of these two big hits, The Zombies made their first visit to the States, and zombiesbriefcsang both songs on the first episode of the new NBC prime-time music show “Hullabaloo” in the fall of 1965, where teenage girls screamed their heads off at Blunstone’s matinee-idol good looks and mesmerizing voice.

Not much happened for the band in 1966, but in the summer of 1967 they entered EMI’s Abbey Road studios to record the dozen tracks that would comprise “Odessey and Oracle.”  The Zombies were fortunate to use not only the same space The Beatles had used for their milestone “Sgt. Pepper” tracks but also the participation of their engineer, Geoff Emerick, and even John Lennon’s Mellotron, the then-revolutionary, electro-mechanical tape replay keyboard heard on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and other monumental recordings of the time.

Sadly, the band was no longer getting any live gigs, which brought about tensions within the lineup, and the disconsolate group chose to disband at year’s end, even before their final work saw the light of day.

An interesting side note:  An early Zombies song called simply “I Love You,” which went R-1973068-1255988049-1.jpegunnoticed upon release, was re-recorded in 1968 by a San Jose-based group called People!, and their version sold a million copies, climbing the U.S. charts to #14 and reaching #1 in Canada and four other countries.

The Zombies, at this point, were a non-entity, but there was still this diamond-in-the-rough album sitting on the shelves.  “Odessey and Oracle” (the word “odyssey” was misspelled by cover design artist Terry Quirk, a mistake the band later claimed was intentional) was finally released in England in April 1968 to little fanfare.  But Al Kooper heard it, and led the charge for its U.S. release a few months later.  While it managed only #95 on the album charts here, it included “Time of the Season,” a prime example of a ‘sleeper hit’ that flopped upon release but gathered steam, and found itself a million-selling #3 hit in the U.S. nine months later.

(How sturdy a song is “Time of the Season”?  We need look no further than its inclusion on Dave Matthews Band’s 1997 “Live at Red Rocks” album, where it received a resounding ovation.)

Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” published in 2003, ranks “Odessy and Oracle” as #100 on that list, and I wholeheartedly concur with this kind of praise.  I thezombiesodesseyorastrongly urge you to check out the wealth of stone great tunes here, including  “The Butcher’s Tale,” “A Rose for Emily,” “This Will Be Our Year,” “Card of Cell 44,” “Beechwood Park” and “Hung Up on a Dream.”

Jeff Gold, author of the 2012 book “101 Essential Rock Records:  The Golden Age of Vinyl from The Beatles to The Sex Pistols,” positively gushed about the album.  “Few albums conceived in the heat of the post-“Sgt. Pepper” passion hold up as well as ‘Odessy and Oracle,’ which balances demanding artistic aspiration with typically tasteful, understated arrangements and performances.  In terms of delivering a consistent, seamlessly textured slate of first-rate pop songs, it rightly deserves comparisons to the universally praised Beach Boys LP ‘Pet Sounds.’  Rod Argent, Colin Blunstone and their compatriots were never anything less than one of rock’s most tuneful aggregations.  Hugely influential to this day, The Zombies can point with pride to a crowning achievement that New Musical Express labeled ‘British psychedelia with a kaleidoscopic vision that rivals even The Beatles.'”

The legacy of The Zombies lived on into the next decade.  By 1970, Argent and White had big_rod-argentjoined forces with guitarist Russ Ballard and future Kinks members Jim Rodford (bass) and Bob Henrit (drums) to form the band Argent.  They churned out a half-dozen albums of commendable rock music and garnered some attention, first when Three Dog Night made a hit out of their Ballard-penned song “Liar” in 1970.  Most notable, of course, was their 1972 LP “All Together Now,” highlighted by the organ-dominated “Hold Your Head Up,” a #5 monster hit that summer.  Keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman has called Argent’s instrumental work on this track “the greatest organ solo ever.”  Cover versions of this classic rock standard abound, including those by Steppenwolf, Marc Tanner Band, Uriah Heep and Phish.

Meanwhile, Blunstone embarked on a solo career that, while pretty much nonexistent to Pinkpop-Colin-Blunstone.Netherlands-1974American audiences, saw modest success in the British market, where six LPs made the charts in the Seventies.  Blunstone’s warmly powerful voice drew the attention of the visionary producer/musician Alan Parsons, who invited Blunstone to participate on several tracks for The Alan Parsons Project, such as “The Eagle Will Rise Again” and “Dancing on a High Wire.”  One of those — “Old and Wise” from the million-selling “Eye in the Sky” album — reached #22 in the U.S in 1982.

When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was created, and the more famous British Invasion bands were being inducted in the late ’80s and early ’90s, The Zombies seemed destined for the “Whatever became of…” dustbin.  Then in the late ’90s, various re-releases and anthologies began appearing, most notably the 120-track “Zombie Heaven” in 1997.  This new attention prompted Argent and Blunstone to reunite a few times in the early 2000s for the occasional one-off concert in England, which set the stage for an American tour the next year and, eventually, several new studio LPs (“Breathe Out, Breathe In” in 2011 and “Still Got That Hunger” in 2015).  You can tell from checking out the tracks I’ve selected on the attached Spotify playlist that they are a far cry from the filler so often associated with bands who regroup well past their prime.

10025785-largeAs “Odessey and Oracle” started being mentioned in the same breath with other classic Sixties LPs, Argent and Blunstone have amped up their presence with more appearances and concert CDs and DVDs, culminating in this year’s 50th Anniversary of “Odessey and Oracle”‘s release and, at last, their induction into the Rock Hall.

Truth be told, although I was as much a fan of The Zombies’ big hits as the next guy, I was puzzled enough by their nomination and selection to spend a little time researching their catalog on Spotify to see if they were truly worthy of the designation.  What a delight to find so many worthwhile old tracks featuring Argent’s and White’s fine songs and Blunstone’s ringing vocals.  A copy of “Odessey and Oracle” is now in my permanent collection, and I am reminding the greater public, through this blog and elsewhere, that The Zombies are well worth our time and effort.