1970 Singer-Songwriters, part 1

The roots of the singer-songwriter genre began in the 1960s with folk mixed with Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building song craft sensibilities. In the early 1970s it evolved into a golden age for many of its staple artists. As such, 1970 is in many ways ground zero for the genre, with many classic albums of mostly acoustic, intimate, personal songs and above all – great songwriting. We start the first article in this series at the top, with the number 1 single of 1970.

In January 1970 Simon and Garfunkel released their last studio album, Bridge over Troubled Water. It was by far their most successful album, topping the charts in the US, UK and many countries around the world. Lots had been written about the rift between the two musicians during the making that album, with Garfunkel being absent for months on end as he started to focus on his acting career. We’ll give this story a rest and focus on the unique musical achievements of that classic album.

Paul Simon told Dick Cavett in 1970 how he wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water. It started with the same Bach chorale from St Matthew Passion that became American Tune on Paul Simon’s 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. After composing the first part of the melody he was stuck, but then he listened to the gospel group The Swan Silvertones and that style gave him the inspiration to continue. He lifted a line from that group’s 1959 song ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’, where lead singer Claude Jeter sings ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.’

Simon knew he had a classic in his hands the moment he completed writing the song. He later recalled: “It was better than I usually write. Even in terms of the chord structure, I was using chords that I didn’t usually use, diminished chords and the length of the melody is 14 notes. That’s kind of a long phrase.”

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

The songwriting alone was enough to ensure the song’s place in the pantheon of popular music, but the cherry on top was the fantastic musicianship and production work in the studio. The recording session took place at CBS Columbia Square studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and included some of the city’s finest.

The original version of Bridge Over Troubled Water had two verses. In the Studio Art Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee went after a bombastic, lengthy, wall-of-sound-ish esthetic. They needed a longer song that builds in intensity from one verse to the next, ending in a climax. Paul Simon complied and added a third verse (“Sail on silver girl”). They remembered the Righteous Brothers’ song Ol’ Man River, where Phil Spector holds back his production until the last line. Art Garfunkel: “What a neat thing, to save it, save it, save it, then give ’em the kitchen sink.” The kitchen sink included two bass parts, vibraphone, a string arrangement and a huge drum beat.

Drummer Hal Blaine recalls: “The image I got when I heard the song was a black man in a chain gang. So I went out to my car, got my chains from my snow tires, and overdubbed the ending section. I was on my knees in front of the snare, pulling the tire chains across the head, and slapping them down on two and four. It created a cool after-beat.”

Larry Knechtel

The most prominent contribution, though, is by multi-instrumentalist Larry Knechtel, who plays the piano on the track. Paul Simon intended the accompaniment to be played on a guitar, but he quickly realized the emotional impact of the song and told Knechtel: “I want this to be on piano. It’s going to be just you and Artie most of the way through.” He then asked the pianist to come up with an introduction: “I want this to be gospel. Not white gospel, black gospel.” Knechtel, who amassed thousands of studio hours by that point, was never asked to play a gospel tune regardless of color. But he connected with Garfunkel’s angelic voice and delivered a piano introduction for the ages.

Knechtel’s contribution to the song was so significant that he got a rare credit on the single release of the song as the keyboard player, next to Paul Simon’s songwriting credit. Simon barely participates in the recording of the song. He sings a little bit of harmony on the last verse and does not play guitar on it.

The single won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Contemporary Song, and Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals in the Grammy Awards of 1971. It spent 6 weeks at No. 1 in the US and topped the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1970.

The album Bridge Over Troubled Water was released in January 1970 and turned to be Simon and Garfunkel’s last studio album. It produced four singles: the title track, the duo’s take on the Peruvian song El Condor Pasa (If I Could), Cecilia, and another song for the ages – The Boxer.

Paul Simon wrote the lyrics for the song, detailing the struggles of a boxing fighter, onboard a flight. He talked about the various sources that inspired him: “I read a lot, and I’ll come across something and think, ‘That’s a good line. I should remember that.’ Some of the lines in ‘The Boxer’ come from the Bible. Lines like ‘workingman’s wages’ and ‘seeking out the poorer quarters.’ I could have easily been in a hotel room somewhere when I saw them.” While the specific details of the song are not autobiographical, Simon admitted to connect with the song’s emotions: “I don’t recall thinking I went through years of struggle. I was never poor, and I had a family that loved me. But I have to say singing ‘his anger and his shame’ still makes me feel uncomfortable, so there must have been some anger and shame. I think some of the feelings in the song started when I was a kid; it wasn’t a traumatic injury you can point to, but there was something.”

Roy Halee with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in the control room of Columbia’s New York studio

Compared to the poetic lyrics in the verses, the song’s chorus is much simpler: “lie-la-lie”. That’s it. As many songwriters do when they do not yet have the finished product, they make up syllables that fit the song’s melody so they can practice or demo the song, planning to complete the lyrics at a future time. That was the intent here, as Simon reveals: “I didn’t have any words! Then people said it was ‘lie’ but I didn’t really mean that it was a lie. But, it’s not a failure of songwriting, because people like that and they put enough meaning into it, and the rest of the song has enough power and emotion, I guess, to make it go, so it’s all right. But for me, every time I sing that part, I’m a little embarrassed.”

The song features again a brilliant production, courtesy of Roy Halee: “When Paul sang it for me, I got chills. And then I thought about the challenge we all faced. What can we do in the studio to bring out all the emotion and character? We spent a lot of time trying to get it right, but each step was a thrill.”

Fred Carter Jr.

Some of the song’s most prominent features are the multiple guitar parts, played by Paul Simon and Nashville session musician Fred Carter Jr. The gifted guitarist played multiple guitars on the song plus a Dobro. He remembers the meticulous attention to details in the studio: “On my guitar, they had me miked with about seven mics. They had a near mic, a distant mic, a neck mic, a mic on the hole. They miked the guitar in back. They even miked my breathing.  I was breathin’, I guess, pretty heavy in rhythm. And they wanted to take out that noise, and they took it out and said, ‘Naw, we gotta leave that in.’ Roy Halee was a genius at getting around.”

The work everyone put into the recording session paid off. Carter remembers his delight when he heard the final result: “I never heard the total record until I heard it on the air. I thought: That’s the greatest record I heard in my life, especially after the scrutiny and after all the time they spent on it and breakin’ it apart musically and sound wise and all of it. There was some magic in the studio that day, and Roy Halee captured it. Paul and I had a really nice groove.”

Hal Blaine

Another staple of the song is the huge, bombastic drum sound that Hal Blaine got when he played the beat during the chorus. The legendary drummer also had a vivid memory of the recording session, when he was placed with his drum set next to the elevator: “There we were with all these mic cables, my drums, and a set of headphones. When the chorus came around—the ‘lie-la-lie’ bit—Roy had me come down on my snare drum as hard as I could. In that hallway, by the elevator shaft, it sounded like a cannon shot! Which was just the kind of sound we were after.”

Album credits:

Paul Simon – lead vocals, acoustic guitar, percussion

Art Garfunkel – lead vocals, percussion

Los Incas – Peruvian instruments

Joe Osborn – bass guitar

Larry Knechtel – piano

Fred Carter Jr. – guitar

Pete Drake – Dobro, pedal steel guitar

Hal Blaine – drums

Jimmie Haskell and Ernie Freeman – strings

Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff and Alan Rubin – Brass

Only a week after Bridge Over Troubled Water was released, another classic singer-songwriter album hit the shelves. After the release of his self-titled debut album on the Beatles Apple label, James Taylor went through a difficult period of treatments and hospitalizations, trying to kick off his drug habit. He returned to California in the later part of 1969 and recorded his second album, the now-classic ‘Sweet Baby James’. The album included the song Taylor is best known for, Fire and Rain, its story worth telling.

While recording his debut album in London, James Taylor’s friend Suzanne Schnerr committed suicide. His friends kept the tragic news from him for a few months until he completed the recording of the album and was in the process of mixing it. Taylor started writing a new song: “I wrote the first verse and chorus and played it for my drummer Joel O’Brien in London. He said, ‘Oh, man, that’s going to be an important song for you.’”

Taylor kept working on the song when he was institutionalized at Austen Riggs Center in Massachusetts, where he was admitted in 1968 for drug addiction after returning from London: “I wrote the second two verses there. They put me in a little room, and I wrote a lot of songs there. It was very productive. I was getting my strength back, I was getting my nervous system back. Writing a lot of stuff.”

The three verses of the song are quite different from each other. Taylor spoke at length about the lyrics: “It details three different episodes of hard times. The first one learning of Suzanne’s death, the second one coming back to the United States sick and strung out, physically exhausted, undernourished and addicted. And then the third one is, I think, hopeful. It’s much more general, about remembering one’s life, thinking back to my band The Flying Machine. Like a postcard from the loony bin before going back out into the world and reengaging.”

Joel O’Brien did not only recognize the importance of the song when he heard the demo version in London, he also gave James Taylor a sound advice: “Be careful how you record this one. Make sure you do a good job of it.” When Sweet Baby James was recorded in December 1969 at Sunset Sound studio, Taylor enlisted the best in the trade to help him record the song. The first was to become a lifelong friend and musical partner of his: “I was living at Peter [Asher]’s house on Olympic, down in the flats. Carole [King] came over, and I played it for her then. I taught her the song at Peter Asher’s piano. She has this energy about how she plays. She’s a lively player. She and I share a common language. We were definitely on the same page musically. She is so good at getting the feel of what I was doing.”

James Taylor with Carole King

Bass player on that session was Bobby West, a Los Angeles studio musician versatile in playing many genres of music. By that point he had already played on sessions with many jazz musicians as well as Frank Zappa, Buffalo Springfield and Dr. John. Taylor remembers: “Bobby West was on upright bass, just nailing down the bass part. He bowed the last verse, which built a lot of tension, that arco bass.” 

And last but not least, drummer Russ Kunkel who went on to become a celebrated studio musician playing with, well everybody. He was at the beginning of his career at the time he recorded with James Taylor, accompanying some of LA’s best artists. He talked in length about the recording session of Fire and Rain: “I went to a rehearsal at Peter’s house. James sat in a chair, and Carole King was at the piano. I set up my drums, and we rehearsed some of the songs. Because Peter lived in this residential area down by Larchmont, I really couldn’t play with sticks. There was no amplification, no monitors, so I did the four rehearsals with brushes, playing them like sticks. I fully intended to try to use sticks on some of the songs, which I did, but when it came to Fire and Rain they said, ‘You know what? Maybe… what did you play at the rehearsal?’ I said, ‘I was playing on brushes.’ And they said, ‘Try that.’ And that’s why I used. That’s why it sounds the way it does.” James Taylor complimented the drum work on the song: “Russell Kunkel on drums, a remarkably versatile and powerful drummer. I hadn’t heard anybody play like that. His tom fills, playing with brushes but lively, with passion.”

Russ Kunkel

Fire and Rain included the line ‘I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend’, sparking in Carole King’s creative mind an idea for a new song. On her classic album Tapestry, released 12 months later, she performed the song ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, a sort of an answer song to ‘Fire and Rain’. Taylor wasted no time performing his version of the song on his second album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon the same year.

We stay in the west coast and the second album by Randy Newman, released in April 1970. After recording his self-titled debut album in 1968, Newman changed direction musically and moved from the highly orchestrated arrangements of that album to a more intimate setting. Recording engineer Lee Herschberg remembers: “It was more like a demo session than a record session. He would come in and sit at the piano and play a song, and the musicians would start to add parts as they heard them. But mostly, we were recording piano and vocal demos, which became the core of the record.”

Producer Lenny Waronker played an important role on this album, guiding the sessions in an effort to get the best performance for each of the songs. He later commented: “The approach to ‘12 songs’ was totally different from the one we’d taken with Randy Neman’s debut. Each one of those songs was an idea, and it can take time to bring an abstraction to fruition, to flesh it out in a concise way. A lot of time was spent thinking about those songs.”

The album featured a song that like many of Newman’s songs, was covered by other artists. The first recording of the song was by Eric Burdon & The Animals back in 1966. ‘Mama Told Me Not to Come’ tells a humoristic tale of an inexperienced man at a wild 1960s party. There are hidden references to drugs and the whole experience overwhelms the narrator:

The radio is blastin’, someone’s knockin’ at the door

I’m lookin’ at my girlfriend, she’s passed out on the floor

I seen so many things I ain’t never seen before

Don’t know what it is, I don’t wanna see no more

Newman said of that song: “The first line ‘Will you have whiskey with your water/or sugar with your tea’ was a vague connection to acid. I don’t remember being thrown off by that stuff then. If I was that unsophisticated – which is possible – I wouldn’t admit it.”

Randy Newman, 1972

Ry Cooder shines on slide guitar here, marking the beginning of a productive musical partnership with Randy Newman for the rest of the 1970s.

The song was covered by the band Three Dog Night and released as a single just a month after Randy Newman’s album. With a more radio-friendly production, that performance of the song easily climbed to the top of the US Billboard chart and was certified gold two months after it release. Randy Newman later said of that cover: “At first I didn’t like the way they did the song. But then the royalty checks started drifting in, I figured they might be able to send my son to Harvard.”

Musicians on the album:

Randy Newman – vocals, piano

Clarence White – lead guitar

Ron Elliott – rhythm guitar

Ry Cooder – slide guitar

Lyle Ritz – bass guitar, double bass

Jim Gordon, Gene Parsons – drums

Roy Harte, Milt Holland – percussion

Al McKibbon – double bass


Paul Simon – The Life, by Robert Hilburn

Categories: A Year in Music

Tagged as: , ,

Leave a Reply