James Taylor: The Warner Bros. Albums 1970-1976
Linda Ronsdadt 1969-1974
Chris Darrow The Real-To-Reel
By Harvey Kubernik © 2019
On July 19th, music journalists, record reviewers, writers, online bloggers, influencers, radio programmers and deejays started touting and
praising the 50th anniversary of James Taylor’s landmark Sweet Baby James album that is housed with five other Taylor titles as both 6-CD and 180-gram, 6-LP sets, as well as digitally. The Warner Bros. Albums: 1970-1976.
Potential chroniclers and targeted consumers for this Taylor package that implements Sweet Baby James, nominated for two Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, should know additional information and regional facts pertaining to this landmark SBJ disc, the nascent Southern California folk and country-rock genre, and Linda Ronstadt’s 1969-1974 touring and album repertoire multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow unselfishly helped establish and develop.
I recently glanced at James Taylor: Long Ago and Far Away, the first definitive biography of the singer-songwriter by Timothy White published in 2001. A writer and critically acclaimed author, White was editor-in-chief of Billboard magazine from 1991 until 2002.
I was miffed that noted songwriter Chris Darrow, a co-founder in 1966 of the influential eclectic psychedelic world beat band Kaleidoscope and a contributing force in creating the 1968-1972 SoCal folk and country rock/soft rock sound in Sweet Baby James mentioned only as “a nifty fiddle player.”
Darrow’s numerous pre-production connections and functions in service for Taylor’s Sweet Baby James were totally ignored and White’s description of Chris totally diminished his participation in the planning and creation of it.
He didn’t even list Chris Darrow’s name in the index.
White, was a music journalist whose research and scholarly writing I enjoyed and respected, but failed in reporting and citing Darrow’s fingerprints on the epic Taylor long player.
At least author Mark Ribowsky in his 2016 book Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: The Life and Music of James Taylor devoted a paragraph to Darrow’s role in Sweet Baby James.
With the Sweet Baby James 50-year milestone celebration I thought it was timely to ask team player and Inland Empire-based A&R man Chris Darrow, the backstory behind the glory of Sweet Baby James.
Darrow recommended the recording studio in Hollywood, Sunset Sound and engineer Bill Lazerus. Chris had recorded at Sunset Sound earlier in 1969.
Fiddler Darrow also enlisted bassist Randy Meisner, a future Eagle, an old friend from the band the Poor, who were on Epic Records at the same time as Kaleidoscope, they shared the same producer, Barry Friedman, aka Frazer Mohawk, bass player John London, who he was with the Corvettes in, as well as drummer Russ Kunkel into the project. Darrow also telephoned Red Rhodes, the respected pedal steel guitar player who was added.
“The opening act when I saw Cream at the Whisky A-Go-Go, Things to Come, was a local group from Long Beach,” recalled Chris. “Their drummer, Russ Kunkel, was married to Cass Elliot’s sister, Leah. He and the bass player, Bryan Garofalo, were in John Stewart’s band when I joined his group in the late sixties.”
It was Russ Kunkel’s first album session and in Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band drummer’s Max Weinberg’s book, The Big Beat, Kunkel cites Darrow’s effort in jumpstarting his career.
I discussed this circumstance with Russ in 2010 when I worked as the Consulting Producer on director Morgan Neville’s Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriters which showcased the careers of Carole King and James Taylor. Kunkel went out of his way to insist I said a warm hello to Chris and to thank him again for that first paid session job.
Perhaps Australian-based writer and music historian Michael Macdonald captured Darrow best when he stated in a 2019 email to me, “Chris Darrow will never run with the pack simply because he’s always so far ahead of it. A genuine eclectic with a working knowledge of music that is encyclopedic, his only rival would have been Doug Sahm.
“Country, Cajun, world beat, bluegrass, folk, rockabilly, blues, Hawaiian rhythms, surf and flat-out rock ‘n’ roll are some of the many musical forms Darrow has explored in his forty year plus career. Can also add that Chris Darrow was Alt-country and Americana long before those terms were minted.”
Michael Macdonald for years has been in a correspondence with musician Mabron McKinney, original bassist with the Hourglass, later recorded with Hearts and Flowers and played bass on the debut Linda Ronstadt album.
In a 2019 email, Macdonald presented a seminal moment in rock ‘n’ roll history that Chris Darrow arranged which still pays dividends for many people.
“As you’ll read, Mabron knows the deal-but I never knew Mabron was part of Hearts and Flowers. As he runs it down, the Hearts and Flowers connection got him an in with Linda Ronstadt’s deal.
“The way Mabron tells it, Darrow hooked up Glenn Frey and Don Henley with Bernie Leadon. Easy to work out what came next – translates that Chris was THE man who helped draft the Eagles – Mark 1!
“After I left the Hour Glass, I played with a Folk-Rock group called Hearts and Flowers for a short period of time before it was time for me to leave and come back to Alabama and start my long and diverse college education… anyway, I was there the day Bernie Leadon pulled up in his old VW Bus direct from Daytona to take Rick Cunha’s place on guitar.
“We didn’t even have a drummer, it was just Larry Murray lead singer and acoustic guitar, David Dawson back-up vocal and auto-harp, and me on bass and back-up vocals; even though, I am not mentioned on their web site, but that ain’t the first time I’ve gotten short-changed and screwed in the many reviews written about bands I’ve played with…!
“Anyway I was asked to play bass on the first Linda Ronstadt album (that Nik Venet produced) as their scheduled bass player couldn’t make it that night. Larry set it up and late the next evening Larry, Bernie and myself went down to the famous, round, 12-story Capitol building (that looked like a stack of albums).
“We went in through the sloping basement entrance, then on in to one of the studios for the session which I’m sure Chris was a part of. It was there that Chris met Bernie and it was through Chris that Bernie was introduced to Glenn Frey and Don Henley. In fact, when I left to start college, Bernie also left and teamed up with Glenn and Don to form the Eagles…!”
“Mabron ran it down beautifully,” expressed Macdonald.
“CD pointed Bernie Leadon to Henley & Frey and we all know what came out of that hook-up,” Michael reinforced. “Having Bernie in the Eagles gave Henley & Frey the instrumental cachet they both needed.
“Same deal with the Sweet Baby James – CD very much assembled the studio band for Taylor and, in many ways, it’s the why the album still holds up. The blueprint for the Southern California country rock singer/songwriters,” summarized Michael.
“Here in Oz back in the day, nearly every girl in my high school class went out and grabbed a copy of Sweet Baby James – my teenage crush Lee McDonald alternated between SBJ and Carole King’s Tapestry and she later marveled: ‘Just love the spare sound on both records because it doesn’t trample over the singer and lets the songs breathe.’
“Chris Darrow was really the architect behind Sweet Baby James’ warm sound where acoustic guitars worked in and around pedal steels, Cajun fiddles and a subtle rhythm section. Had Chris not recommended several players, the studio and engineer, the album could have been a sonic wipe-out. Says it all really.
“One of Chris’ many positives is his total lack of elitism. It’s this trait that Darrow can understand why a true primitive like Jimmy Reed can share the table with sophisticates like Duke Ellington. It’s only Darrow who can groove to Bing Crosby and Nat Cole while being fully hip to why Nirvana and Oasis came to be. Chris Darrow-a man whose personal six degrees of separation are linked to Pat Boone, Helen Reddy, Leonard Cohen, Gene Vincent, Larry Williams, and Johnny Guitar Watson.
“Darrow will neither burn out nor rust. Tomorrow he could write the Dixie Chicks next chart hit and the following week immerse himself in a project working with the most exotic of Middle East grooves. As rich as he is in musical pedigree he is equally the same in humanity: This man’s time will truly come,” Macdonald concluded.
Unlike many of today’s popular acts and recording artists, Chris Darrow established a reputation and telegenic connection to viewers, the music community and print media in the late sixties and early seventies long before the MTV world.
Chris was even quoted with Duke Ellington in Playboy magazine for their 1968 Jazz and Pop Poll issue story by writer Nat Hentoff.
Darrow was all over the US TV screen 1966-1972.
One week he’d be on The Steve Allen Show with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and author Gore Vidal, then The John Davidson Show with comic Avery Shriver and Lenny Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr. Three appearances on Playboy After Dark with Linda Ronstadt, John Stewart and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and a Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, sharing the bill with writer Truman Capote and comic Red Buttons.
Then on the TV tube again on The Everly Brothers TV program with Ronstadt and Molly Bee, veering back to a Tempo show with Nancy Sinatra, Donovan and a very juiced out actor, George Jessel, hosted by Stan Boorman. J.D. Souther was on the program playing drums with Bobby Doyle.
Darrow’s mid and late sixties television credits go on forever: American Bandstand, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, Boss City, Groovy, and one of his best bookings, a memorable Hollywood teen music dance show, Ninth Street West, with hosts Sam Riddle and Kam Nelson where Chris and Steven Darrow guested with Brenton Wood and his son Tremail, and Canned Heat’s Bob Hite and his parents.
He also appeared on a long forgotten L.A. area psychedelic/pop music TV program that current Yoko Ono publicist Elliot Mintz hosted, Head Shop with actor David Carradine and his girlfriend, the actress Barbara Hershey.
“While playing on the Woody Woodberry Show on TV I got a chance to sit in with the house band on violin,” enthused Chris. “I was a big fan of the great jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt and his violin playing compatriot, Stephane Grappelli. Joe Pass, the guitarist, was the greatest, living exponent of Django’s style. Ray Brown was the bass player, Earl Palmer, the drummer and Mike Melvoin was the pianist with the group.
“It was a thrill to just be in the room with these great musicians, let alone get asked to sit in. Later on after everyone but the technicians had left, James Brown was to film a segment for a forthcoming show. He had a 12-piece band with strings and two drummers. I sat in the audience bleachers and watched a full, half-hour James Brown set, complete with an interview. It was an experience I will always cherish.” Darrow gushed.
I have interviewed Chris Darrow many times over the last 42 years.
I first saw Chris and photographer Henry Diltz in 1967 at a Love-In in Los Angeles at Elysian Park. Diltz eventually took the cover photo of Sweet Baby James.
One of the most rewarding conversations was learning that in 1967, Chris and fellow band members in the Kaleidoscope, Chester aka Max Buda and David Lindley, were asked by Cohen to play and support him in his John Hammond, John Simon and Bob Johnston produced debut LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The initial vinyl pressings of the album didn’t list the musicians in the credits. Decades later they were corrected in the first compact disc configuration package text.
Darrow is the bassist on “So Long Marianne” and “Teachers” from those 1967 recordings.
Other original masters culled from the Bob Johnston-produced Cohen/Kaleidoscope sessions “Sisters of Mercy,” “Winter Lady” and “The Stranger Song,” were later utilized in director Robert Altman’s film McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
“I don’t have any reservations about anything I do,” Leonard Cohen stressed to me in a 1975 interview I conducted with him for the now defunct Melody Maker.
“I always played music. When I was 17, I was in a country music group called the Buckskin Boys. Writing came later, after music. I put my guitar away for a few years, but I always made up songs. I never wanted my work to get too far away from music.”
Three authors who penned books on Leonard Cohen this century contacted me to source my findings and subsequently interview Darrow about his once-hidden Cohen studio history.
In 2001 poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen looked up from a local Claremont, Calif., Greek restaurant, Yianni’s, and saw a familiar face from 34 years ago. Chris Darrow.
At the time Leonard was on a break from his nearby Buddhist retreat Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Darrow’s neighborhood.
“Boy, you guys really saved me when I did my first album in New York,” happily confessed Cohen. “Chris,” asked Leonard, “what have you been doing?”
“When I first encountered Leonard Cohen the Kaleidoscope were slated to play Steve Paul’s the Scene at 301 W. 46th Street, downtown and the Café Au-Go-Go,” recollected Darrow.
“The Scene was a very trendy hang out, where the elite meet. It was a below street level, basement club that gave a Parisian, Left Bank vibe to the place. The host for the club was Tiny Tim, who announced all the acts and would play a song or two as well. We were opening for Nico, who I had met in L.A. and she was playing as a solo act…. just her and a Hammond B3 organ.
“Opening night was very crowded and Zappa and members of the Mothers of Invention showed up to show their support. There were very few west coast groups that had played in the east yet, and we ‘long haired hippies’ were the antithesis of the New York vibe at the time. Warhol and his minions showed up, The Cyrcle was there, the Chambers Brothers, Jim Fielder, Leonard Cohen and David Clayton-Thomas, pre – Blood Sweat and Tears were all hanging out.
“The house band at the Scene was led by Rick Derringer and they had a jam session every Thursday night. That’s where I hung out with David Clayton- Thomas and was thrilled to see one of my favorite guys, Sir Monti Rock III, who later became Disco Tex and the Sex-O-lettes, do a few songs.
“On opening night, Leonard Cohen came up to me in the bar light,” Darrow reminisced.
“He was the palest guy I had ever seen and was wearing a black leather suit coat and carrying a black leather briefcase. He loved our band and was wondering if we would be interested in playing on his forthcoming album. I didn’t know who he was at the time and told him to talk with our managers who were at the bar.
“The next day, we were in his apartment, trying to play some of his songs. He was having trouble finding musicians that could play his stuff. Since he wasn’t a great guitar player, it was hard for some people to figure his music out. David, Chester and I played on some tracks that became Leonard Cohen’s first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen.”
In a 1970’s issue of the UK periodical Zig-Zag, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page called Kaleidoscope “his favorite band of all time. My ideal band – absolutely brilliant. I saw them one time [in San Francisco] and they played all the numbers off Beacon From Mars, all that Moroccan stuff and having a whale of a time they were. They had such good roots and such a grip on their music.”
One of Chris’ compositions from the Kaleidoscope, “Keep Your Mind Open” is on the official list of top psychedelic songs at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in Ohio. The UK MOJO magazine also rated the same Darrow tune, an anti-war composition, in their psychedelic music issue.
In a later edition of MOJO, Robert Plant, the fan, picked his 10 favorite musical trips, including the song “Taxim” from Kaleidoscope’s A Beacon from Mars LP. “I heard it in the Band of Joy (his pre-Led Zeppelin group). This indicated the lean towards fusing Middle Eastern music and underground rock.”
Do we now have a better understanding of Chis Darrow and his musical accomplishments 1966-1970 before the Peter Asher-produced Sweet Baby James was shipped from Warner Bros. Records to radio, press, distributors and rack jobbers on February 1, 1970?
In 2019 I emailed Darrow to comment on his pivotal and game-changing work with Linda Ronsdadt during 1969-1974.
“Jeff Hanna and I left the Dirt Band to start our own country-based band, which we called the Corvettes,” Chris reflected.
“John Ware, an old friend from college, became the drummer and John London, from Lewis and Clarke Expedition, played bass. London was Mike Nesmith’s best friend and this led us into a record deal for the legendary Dot Records label with Mike Nesmith as producer. We did two singles that failed to chart and our future was uncertain.
“Linda Ronstadt had just had a hit with Mike’s version of Different Drum, which had come from a Greenbrier Boys record with John Herald on vocals. She needed a band pronto and asked if we would back her up. We asked to keep our identity and we performed a song per set as the Corvettes.
“Jeff decided after a while that he wanted to return to the Dirt Band and we replaced him with Bernie Leadon. This was a great band and really set the tone for the country rock period of Linda’s career.
“My first meeting with Linda Ronstadt and her then producer, Nik Venet, came while doing Dick Clark’s American Bandstand with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. She was singing her follow up to Different Drum, John Herald’s High Muddy Water. I fell in love with her deal immediately and, little did I know, that I would work with them both later on in the future.
“My stint with the Corvettes eventually led us to become Linda Ronstadt’s band,” Darrow underscored. “This was after poor sales on our Dot Record singles that were produced by former Monkee, Mike Nesmith. Linda needed a band, we needed jobs. I had always been in my own bands before. Suddenly, for the first time, I was an instant sideman for an established artist. John Stewart saw me with her and asked me to go on the road with him as well. So I was touring with both of them at the same time.
“While in New York in 1969 and staying at the Chelsea Hotel, I saw Peter Asher checking into the hotel. He had just left Apple records and was in transit to take over the role of A&R director at MGM records.
“I asked him to come to the Bitter End and see the show. It turned out he was a real Ronstadt fan and loved the show and the band.
“He asked if he could produce the Corvettes for MGM. We were stoked, but by the end of our stint in New York, Bernie had been asked to join the Flying Burrito Brothers, and John and John were recruited by Mike Nesmith for his First National Band. I was left to eventually become a solo artist and soon signed with Fantasy Records.
“While working with Linda Ronstadt I had been spotted by John Stewart, who wanted a multi-instrumentalist for his band. With Linda, I was performing a Cajun tune called ‘Alligator Man,’ which was always a crowd pleaser. I continued to perform this song with John, which led me to my meeting with Doug Kershaw.
“John was performing at Doug Weston’s Troubadour and the band was Russ Kunkel, drums, Arnie Moore, bass, Loren Newkirk, piano and myself on guitar, slide, dobro, mandolin and fiddle. One night Kershaw came into the club. John called Doug up on stage to sing with us. He did ‘Louisiana Man’ and I instantly fell into his brother’s Rusty harmony part. He kept looking over at me and wondering how I knew the song.
“My mother Nadine was a big Kershaw fan and was in the audience a different night. I was going over to my mother’s table to watch the show with her, when Doug called me up on stage.
“He handed me his fiddle and picked up his accordion and said, ‘Let’s play.’ I was stunned and excited at the same time and we played an impromptu fiddle and accordion duet, which rocked the house. It was probably the proudest moment of my mother’s life,” exclaimed Chris.
In 1970, Darrow was asked by John Stewart to introduce him to Peter Asher, who then produced Stewart’s Willard album.
As a songwriter, bandleader, record producer, and fan, Chris Darrow gets excited by a good tune.
“I’m a song guy, by that I mean I love good songs and try like mad to search them out,” he muses. “I feel that much of my contribution to the various musical aggregations I have been with was the songs that I brought to the table. Much of the Kaleidoscope and Dirt Band stuff came from my record collection or my pen.
“In 1970 while playing with Linda Ronstadt, she and I went on a song search for her next record. John Boylan was her producer and boyfriend at the time. We spent a couple of days in Woodstock at the Mill Stream Inn, looking for material.
“One evening Maria Muldaur came by and sang a song that just nailed both of us. It was a song written by Anna McGarrigle of the McGarrigle sisters. The song was ‘Heart Like a Wheel.’
“My band the Floggs had done our own versions of Betty Everett’s ‘You’re No Good’ and Smokey Robinson’s, ‘Tracks of My Tears,’ two songs that I dearly loved. We added those to the list and I couldn’t resist suggesting ‘Dark End of the Street,’ the classic James Carr song of adulterous love and the first collaboration of Dan Penn and Chips Moman. It might be my favorite song.
“When we returned from our New York sojourn, neither of us could wait to suggest these songs to Boylan. He didn’t like any of the ideas that we had come up with, so I exited. Too many cooks in the kitchen, I guess.
“However, I did continue to play for Linda. In wasn’t until 1974 that she finally got to record these songs and all but one was on the same album, Heart Like a Wheel. ‘Tracks of My Tears’ was on the follow up record, Prisoner in Disguise. Peter Asher had become her producer and the rest is history.”
There’s a new documentary Linda Ronsdadt: The Sound of My Voice, produced by James Keach, directed by Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein that premiered in 2018 at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018 and released theatrically in September 2019.
Chris Darrow wasn’t asked to be interviewed for this movie.
“Honor the incarnation” as Ran Dass suggests.
Darrow is heard on the spring, 2004 CD reissue Moogy Klingman assembled on Moogy Music, Take Your Place in the Freak Parade, a re-release of the 1969 Music from Free Creek sessions that included Keith Emerson, Dr. John, Linda Ronsdadt, Mitch Mitchell and Chris Wood. Chris is on the Ronstadt’s tracks “He Darked The Sun” and “Living Like a Fool” with Bernie Leadon and Red Rhodes.
2007 brought out the release of two musical anthology CDs that feature songs from Darrow’s past. The first, Creative Outlaws: US Underground 1962-1970, includes a Darrow original, Keep Your Mind Open, by the Kaleidoscope. It includes Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe and the Fish, the Fugs, Canned Heat, and Tiny Tim.
The second, Country and West Coast: The Birth of Country Rock, houses another Darrow-penned tune, “Beware of Time,” by the Corvettes. This CD spotlights the Everly Bros., the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Bros., Gram Parsons and Gene Cark among others.
“The last gig I did with the Dirt Band before we broke up was with the original Poco, then called Pogo, at the Troubadour in Hollywood,” recalled Darrow. “I had always loved Richie Furay’s voice in the Buffalo Springfield and Randy Meisner from back in the Poor days. But it was George Grantham, the drummer who held that band together with his tight style and high harmony singing. Jim Messina and the fabulous Rusty Young rounded out the early lineup.
“I later was asked to audition for the Loggins Messina Band after Richard Greene left the group later on in the seventies.
“This period led me to play with many artists, both on stage and in the studio. I did this until I got my first record deal as a solo artist. Arnie Moore, the bassist in John Stewart’s band, was also touring with Hoyt Axton and suggested that I become the replacement for Hoyt’s guitarist, the legendary Bruce Langhorne, who was leaving the band to devote himself to movie sound track work.
“So, I joined up with Hoyt Axton during the recording of the Joy to the World album. The record featured ‘Joy to the World,’ the title song, ‘Never Been to Spain,’ both covered by Three Dog Night, and ‘The Pusher,’ made famous by John Kay and Steppenwolf.
“One of the peripheral benefits of being a traveling musician is not only the scenery and travel itself, but also the chance to hang out with some great people and fabulous musicians,” observed Darrow.
“Often you become roommates with your traveling buddies and a real camaraderie can develop. It seems like I got to room with a lot of great drummers…. Russ Kunkel, David Kemper, Mickey McGee and the great Jerry Allison drummer for the Crickets and the husband and co-writer of ‘Peggy Sue.’
“Buddy Holly had been a huge influence on me musically and, like JFK’s death, I know exactly where I was when I heard of Buddy’s death. So getting to hang out with a hero of mine and getting to know ‘JI,’ as he is called by his friends (stands for Jerry Ivan), was a great thrill for me.
“I learned a lot about how the Crickets recorded and got a few stories here and there about the old days, but it was Jerry himself who was so cool. In addition to being a great drummer, he’s also a great songwriter and a wonderful singer.
“One of my favorite memories was when JI and I were on the road with John Stewart. He and I got together after the gig to play music in our motel room, with Jerry playing guitar and singing and me playing lead. We started with Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ and evolved into a string of Cricket and Buddy Holly songs including ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘Every Day.’ I still have a cassette tape that I made that night,” rhapsodized Darrow.
“While working on an album by Sammy Walker, produced by former John Stewart producer, Nik Venet, I met a great guitar player named Billy Walker. He had just moved out to L.A. after being a successful Nashville session man.
“Billy liked my playing a lot and suggested that I work on a project that his friend Keith Allison was working on. Keith, the bass player for Paul Revere and the Raiders, was scoring a new Peter Seller’s 1972 film directed by Rod Amateau, Where Does It Hurt. Rod directed the television programs The Bob Cummings Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The New Phil Silvers Show.
“The band for the movie was Keith, Billy, Glen D. Hardin, Sonny Curtis, me and …..Jerry Allison! I was playing with the Crickets on a movie soundtrack. I just couldn’t believe it. What a thrill and a chance of a lifetime for a guy like me. The movie was not a very successful, but once in a while I see it on cable TV.
“Jerry had once taken me backstage at an Elvis concert while he was performing in Chicago. That’s where I first met Glen D. Hardin, who was Elvis’ piano player. Never got to meet Elvis, however, I was in the band room; he was just on the other side of the door!
“Around the same time I got to know Gram Parsons a little bit,” revealed Chris. “He and Bernie Leadon would come out to my house and visit. The Burritos even did a concert right across the street from my house; I designed the poster for the gig. Gram had a mentor from the East Coast who was teaching in Claremont at Pomona College,” disclosed Darrow. “His name was Jett Thomas.”
“I think that country rock was a West Coast phenomenon and that the bands were the originators, not the individuals. The East Coast solo artist was a different breed from the West Coast collaborative unit. Most of the situations that arose in the West Coast were band situations and whether there was strife or not, the element of the band usually prevailed. Guys like Gram Parsons were much more self-directed and solo oriented than most of the West Coast personalities that worked with him. Chris Hillman has always been a good team player. Bluegrass training!
“What I’m saying is that country rock did not sprout out of the head of Gram Parsons and everybody else followed. He was a talented guy but I am one who refuses to put a single name to the father of this genre.
“The fomenting of this music started early in all our heads and each opportunity to express it was taken. A steel guitar is not the only criteria for country rock music. Clarence White invented a device to play the electric guitar like a steel guitar. He and Gene Parsons developed the Parsons/White Pull-String, eventually called the StringBender, and then renamed the B-Bender, which bends the second string in the same manner as a steel guitar.
“It is a hard style to play and only a handful of musicians have mastered this technique. I had a chance to play in his band at the Ash Grove a month before his untimely death,” Darrow sighed.
“In 1971 after I did my debut solo album Artist Proof for Fantasy Records produced by Denny Bruce in Hollywood at Crystal Sound Studios, I went to England in 1972 to record my second album, Chris Darrow, for United Artists Records. In finding musicians of like minds, I was drawn to the Fairport Convention and was very happy to have Dave Pegg and Dave Mattocks as a rhythm section for a couple of my tunes.
“Gus Dudgeon, then producer of Elton John, was very helpful in us getting to record at one of the world’s finest recording studios, Trident Studios. We were very fortunate to have David Hentschel as an engineer, who had done great work for Elton John. The band Hookfoot, with Roger Pope, on drums, and guitarist Caleb Quaye, provided the R&B and rock roots that I was looking for. Clive Chaman, bass player from the Jeff Beck Group, rounded out that rhythm section.”
In the March 2018 issue of MOJO magazine, the Chris Darrow album was the subject of a feature article penned by Andrew Male with the headline banner “This Month’s Rediscovered Talisman; A Melancholic US/UK Country Rock Gem.”
Darrow, who mentored Ben Harper and is hailed by Steve Turner of Mudhoney remains a very active musician and songwriter.
In re-examining the West Coast singer/songwriter world of the late sixties and early seventies, it’s important to acknowledge John Stewart.
In 2019 I asked actor/musician Bill Mumy, a sixty year veteran of Hollywood film and television roles about Stewart and James Taylor.
Mumy has released a slew of solo albums and has worked with the pop group America on and off for over thirty years, composing, producing and performing with the band.
Bill’s most recent music project is Angels Hear, the debut album of a new album featuring Bill, Vicki Peterson of the Bangles and John Cowsill of the Beach Boys and the Cowsills.
“It’s difficult for me to be objective about this,” Mumy emailed me. “As a pre-teen and a beginner guitarist, I absolutely idolized the Kingston Trio. I met them at one of their Farewell concerts in 1967 and got to spend a bit of time with my personal musical heroes. I was not disappointed.
“After that, John Stewart stayed in communication with me. He visited me on the set of Lost in Space and a few years later when I was sixteen and in an acoustic trio named Redwood, John became our mentor.
“He guru’d us in dynamics and taught us certain strums and lectured us on song composition, collaborated on a few tunes and gave us advice and guidance that upped our level of professionalism quickly. Within a few months under John’s tutelage, Redwood was opening act for him whenever he played Southern California at venues like The Ice House, McCabe’s Guitar Shop and The Troubadour. It was great.
“John was riding pretty high on the release of his California Bloodlines album. That project had garnered rave reviews but it didn’t quite make the commercial splash that Capital Records had expected it to. Still, John was a very respected artist. His years in the Kingston Trio were not forgotten by Capital and music publishers and labels understood the fact that he’d written ‘Daydream Believer’ for the Monkees not long before and that was a huge record.
“John was given continued bigtime music biz support. His follow up album to California Bloodlines, which had been recorded in Nashville, was to be produced by Peter Asher and recorded in Hollywood.
“Peter was definitely on a roll. The success of James Taylor’s second album, Sweet Baby James which he had produced was phenomenal. That album continues to resonate as one of the all-time great singer songwriter albums of all time.
“As things turned out, in 1970 James was in Los Angeles writing songs and starting to record his third album, Mud Slide Slim (and the Blue Horizon) and he was staying with Peter and Peter’s wife Betsy, at their large house on Highland Avenue just north of Olympic Boulevard.
“John Stewart and his wife/muse Buffy Ford Stewart were also staying at Peter’s house while prepping and recording the album that would become Willard. And, fortunately for me and my Redwood band mates, Paul Gordon and Gary David, John was producing a demo and arranging gigs and auditions for us at this time, so we were also at Peter’s Highland home often.
“The first recording session Redwood ever had was produced by John Stewart at Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood with the great Russ Kunkel and Bryan Garafalo on drums and bass. Russel and Bryan were John’s rhythm section then and Henry Diltz was playing banjo in John’s band at the time. Henry was drafted to shoot promo photos of Redwood.
“The Willard album was recorded at Crystal Sound studios in Hollywood on Vine Street. I was there for almost every session. It was a magical time. I clearly remember the day Paul McCartney’s first solo album was released and everyone in the studio stopped to listen to it on the big speakers. John was blown away by it. We all were. Carole King was on the sessions playing piano. Russ, Bryan, Peter and James all played on the album.
“One of the musical highlights of my life back then was playing and singing on that album. I happen to be the very first thing you hear on it. I played cowbell on the opening track, ‘Big Joe.’ The track was cut live and my seat was right next to James Taylor’s who played the very cool finger picked acoustic guitar on his iconic Gibson J 50. John played rhythm on his Martin D45 and sang isolated in the vocal booth. It had a glass wall so we all could make eye contact as the track was laid down. It was really a thrill for me. I shared a joint with James Taylor while cutting that track. Still makes me grin.
“Redwood contributed some background vocals on the album and we had a blast. James and Peter continued on their hit making groove and soon Mud Slide Slim was completed and was another success for them both.
“Willard, however, proved to be something of a commercial disappointment and it would be John Stewart’s final album for Capitol. He switched labels to Warner’s and continued making great music that didn’t quite connect with the masses until many years later, when joined by Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, John had a top ten hit of his own with the single, ‘Gold.’ (a song he never particularly cared for).
“Sweet Baby James and Willard and Redwood and 1970 are all far behind in the rear view mirror of life now. John has been dead for over a decade. James continues to tour and play the oldies. Peter is still out there performing as well, sharing his tales of the Golden Age of pop.
“Luckily for us all, the music of that time is preserved and continues to inspire and bring pleasure.
“I was very fortunate to have such a ringside seat for it and contribute to it a little bit.”
(Harvey Kubernik is an award winning author of 15 books. His literary music anthology Inside Cave Hollywood: The Harvey Kubernik Music InnerViews and InterViews Collection Vol. 1, was published in December 2017, by Cave Hollywood. Kubernik’s The Doors Summer’s Gone was published by Other World Cottage Industries in February 2018.
Harvey’s The Doors: Summer’s Gone has been nominated for the 2019 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.
During November 2018, Sterling/Barnes and Noble published Kubernik’s The Story of The Band From Big Pink to the Last Waltz.
Harvey Kubernik’s 1995 interview, Berry Gordy: A Conversation With Mr. Motown, that initially was published in 1995 in Goldmine and HITS magazines will be included in The Pop, Rock & Soul Reader edited by David Brackett to be published in 2019 by Oxford University Press.
This century Harvey penned the liner note booklets to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special and The Ramones’ End of the Century.
In November 2006, Kubernik was a featured speaker discussing audiotape preservation and archiving at special hearings called by The Library of Congress and held in Hollywood, California).