1970 Singer-Songwriters, part 2

In part 1 of this article series we covered a few albums by singer-songwriters that hit the mark both artistically and commercially. In this article we cover a number of albums that I love for the great songwriting and performances, although they did not find a significant audience at the time of release.

In 1970 Tim Buckley released two albums that marked a drastic stylistic shift from his previous records. He found inspiration in a wide variety of musical and cultural sources, all miles apart from the folk and pop esthetics he excelled at in the late 1960s. He listened to jazz and avant garde, including artists such as John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk. In addition, he added modern classical music to his listening routine. Guitarist Lee Underwood, who played on all of Buckley’s albums since his debut in 1966, recalls: “I was into electronic music, and introduced Tim to several modern composers, including Penderecki and especially Luciano Berio and his wife Cathy Berberian. When Tim listened to Luciano and Cathy, he said the electronics did not touch his heart, but he loved Cathy Berberian’s singing. She did not sing words at all, but utilized her voice completely as a sonic instrument—bleeps, squeaks, tongue-twirling, whoops, cries, etc. ‘In Cathy Berberian,’ he said, ‘I have found a friend.’”

Tim Buckley. Photo credit: Joel Brodsky

A 1971 Downbeat review of Starsailor, the second of his albums released in 1970, focused on Buckley’s new vocal technique: “Where at first Buckley offered only a somewhat pleasant high-pitched croon, now he has proven himself a consummate vocal technician, from shimmering coos on Song to a Siren to primitive wailing on Jungle Fire to distorted chanting on the title cut — and far too few (if any) pop artists exhibit such expressive control of the resonance and general tone of the voice as does Buckley, though no less limited in range to a ceiling tenor and falsetto than before.” The review gave the album the highest rating of five stars.

Buckley was also reading the works of authors Kafka, Sartre and Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who inspired the title of his first album in 1970, Lorca. He said of the music on that album: “We were getting real tired of writing songs that adhered to the verse, verse, chorus things.” In 1969, as he was writing and recording the material for the album, he had a vision of the direction he was taking: “I can see where I’m really headed, and it will probably get farther and farther from what people expect of me.”

Listeners who bought the album in 1970 got a taste of Tim Buckley’s radical new sound immediately on the opening track. Lee Underwood stated: “He regarded the title cut of Lorca to be his debut as an identity, as a unique singer, as an original force.” Elektra Records, happy to have him on its roster of artists and expecting a similar fare to his previous albums, were less than happy with the results. They reluctantly released it, recognizing that “this is something he wanted to do and something he had to get out”, as label president Jac Holzman said.

“We never had any music to read from,” bassist John Balkin remembers. “We just noodled through and went for it, just finding the right note or coming off a note and making it right.”

Tim Buckley – 12-string acoustic guitar, vocals

Lee Underwood – electric guitar, electric piano

John Balkin – upright bass, Fender bass, pipe organ

Carter Collins – congas

Lee Underwood summarized the album: “I see Lorca as a seminal album, a conceptual steppingstone to Starsailor. Lorca did not work especially well if viewed as an isolated recording; it was Tim’s first adventurous foray into new compositional and vocal areas. Tim regarded it as the birth of his authentic personal and musical identity, particularly on the songs ‘Lorca’ and ‘Anonymous Proposition.’ That album was a major leap for him, an admirable effort that was only the beginning of what eventually became Starsailor.”

The recording sessions in September of 1969 that yielded Lorca were extremely productive for Tim Buckley. During the same month he recorded enough material for a follow up album, released in November of 1970. Starsailor is considered as one of his masterpieces, taking the new raw approach to music performance introduced in Lorca and perfecting it within shorter pieces of music.

Lee Underwood discussed at length the significance of Starsailor not only in Tim Buckley’s discography, but in the music world in general: “When Starsailor came out, it was a remarkable departure from mainstream pop music (say, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who). It used none of the blues clichés of the day, and Tim’s singing stood head and shoulders above anybody else — not only the astonishing beauty of his voice, but the amazing ways in which he utilized his voice as a musical instrument. The music itself was conceptually rooted in avant-garde jazz and modern classical music, and vocally innovative — Tim often sang none-verbal sounds, swooping, yodelling, yelping and cooing. Mainstream audiences of that day simply did not know what to make of it.”

As you might expect, neither Lorca not Starsailor made a dent in the albums chart. Jac Holzman, a record executive with an ear to new and interesting sounds who as head of Elektra Records signed artists such as Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Love, The Doors and MC5, understood the artist but identified the difficulty of finding a market for Tim Buckley’s recent albums: “The direction in which he did go with Starsailor made more sense live than it did on record. You could get involved much more with Tim on stage because you saw that he was so taken with his own music and you had to respect that. But recording is another reality.”

Tim Buckley 1969. Photo credit: Joe Sia

Tim Buckley considered Starsailor as his masterpiece. I concur for a number of reasons, one of them the song ‘Song to the Siren’, featuring wonderful lyrics by Larry Beckett who collaborated with Buckley in the late 1960s:

Long afloat on shipless oceans

I did all my best to smile

‘Til your singing eyes and fingers

Drew me loving to your isle

Beckett on the song: “Tim was eating breakfast when I dropped off the lyric. He glanced at it, pushed it aside, finished eating and reached for his guitar. Looking at the words again, he started singing, and bar minor changes, that’s what you hear now. He had this incredible gift for matching melody to language. It’s the way the melody falls and lifts, like the images, and repeating a figure as he’s making a plea. Meanwhile, the bass line is dropping and eroding as if the sea is eroding his plea.” The song was famously covered by Elizabeth Fraser on the album It’ll End in Tears by 4AD label’s project This Mortal Coil in 1984.

Another artist who took a new direction in 1970 was Tom Rapp, leader of the group Pearls Before Swine. Their album ‘The Use of Ashes’, released in August that year, was the result of living in Europe the year before: “I went to Holland with my wife, Elisabeth, who I married in 1968. She was from Holland originally and we lived near Hilversum in a little house. It was way off in the woods and there was a pond and an old fifteenth century bridge and rose bushes around. We would be sleeping in there and the swans would come up from the river, poke their heads in through the window and wake us up.” The idyllic surrounding was only disturbed by the presence of a Nazi bunker across the field, left untouched with barbed wire and swastikas. Rapp: “It was an interesting juxtaposition, that feeling which I tried to get across in the album.”

Tom Rapp

All the songs on ‘The Use of Ashes ‘ were written in Holland, making up what Tom Rapp called his favorite album. Upon his return to the US, he traveled to Nashville to record the album accompanied by a group of musicians known as Area Code 615. The fantastic ensemble had their modest claim to fame with the instrumental ‘Stone Fox Chase’, which was later used as the theme to the BBC music program ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’. Rapp remembers the recordings led by legendary Nashville session man Charlie McCoy: “The sessions went fast. Run through the song for Charlie’s guys, do a take, do a second take and we were very often done. They contributed ideas immensely helpful.”

The album includes two favorite songs by Rapp, the first written on the night of the moon landing in 1969. Rapp was inspired by a story called ‘The Rocket Man’, included in Ray Bradbury’s 1951 book ‘The Illustrated Man’. Rapp, fascinated with space as a young boy, read the book when he was twelve years old. The song takes the viewpoint of a child who doesn’t know what happened to his astronaut father. A few years later the song title inspired Bernie Taupin to write the lyrics to a different song of the same name, this time told from the viewpoint of the astronaut. With Elton John’s fine composition and performance, it became a big hit in 1972.

My favorite track on the album is its opener, The Jeweler. A line from the song lyrics gave the album its title ‘The Use of Ashes’. This fantastic and melancholic song was written after Tom Rapp was watching his wife cleaning jewelry with a paste made from ashes. The sleeve notes on the CD release read: “It’s one of the most mainstream tracks that they’d cut so far, with a fine string quartet arrangement and soupcon of pedal steel sweetening added. A wonderful, splendidly evocative track, that positively yearns from the speakers, and fine entrée to an equally engrossing album.” Agreed. Interestingly the 4AD project This Mortal Coil covered this song as well on their 1986 album Filigree & Shadow, sang by Dominic Appleton of the band Breathless.

Album credits:

Tom Rapp: Vocals, Guitar

Elisabeth: Vocals

Charlie McCoy: Dobro, Guitar, Bass, Harmonica

Norbert Putnam: Bass

Kenneth Buttrey: Drums

Buddy Spicher: Violin, Cello, Viola

Mac Gayden: Guitars

David Briggs: Piano, Harpsichord

John Duke: Oboe, Flute

Hutch Davie: Keyboard

Bill Pippin: Oboe, Flute

We remain in Nashville and the debut album by Kris Kristofferson, simply titled Kristofferson. In 1969 the singer-songwriter was sharing his time between musical activities in Nashville and flying workers to and from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. During his army service in the early 1960s he became a helicopter pilot after receiving flight training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. He used that skill to earn money he was not yet making in the music business. He used the time during these flights productively, writing new songs.

Just before one of his trips to New Orleans for another week of helicopter flying, Kristofferson got a new assignment from Fred Foster, manager of Combine Music, Kristofferson’s songwriting label. Foster asked him to write a song with the title ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. What Foster had in mind is a secretary of another songwriter on his roster, Boudleaux Bryant. Her name was Bobbie McKee, but Kris Kristofferson heard it differently, and thus was born his biggest hit. He concocted marvelous sets of road trip imagery, throwing in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Kentucky, Salinas and a plot inspired by Federico Fellini’s movie La Strada. He later recalled: “Anthony Quinn is travelling around with Giulietta Masina. He leaves her by the road. She’s kind of half-witted, and he’s getting tired of taking care of her and he leaves her there.”

The song had a long digestion period, taking a couple of months to finish. Kristofferson vividly remembers how he completed it: “I was driving to the Airport in New Orleans, and the windshield wipers were going into the line about ‘the windshield wipers slappin’ time and Bobby clappin’ hands’ and it finished the song for me.” When he was back in Nashville he quickly cut a demo of the song and played it to Fred Foster. The manager, who also owned Monument Records, the label that recorded and released Kristofferson’s debut album, loved the song and had only one comment: “Bobby McGee is a she!”

Kris Kristofferson, 1970. Photo credit: Jack Robinson

The song was famously covered by Janis Joplin on her 1971 album Pearl, released posthumously after her death in October 1970. The single of that version climbed to the top of the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. It became a popular standard covered by many, including Roger Miller, Gordon Lightfoot, Charley Pride and Jerry Lee Lewis. Joplin’s version did only good for Kris Kristofferson’s debut, which sold poorly on its release. In September of 1971, after Monument records signed a distribution deal with Columbia Records, the album was released again, retitled, what else, Me and Bobby McGee. The result: an immediate gold certified record.

Kris Kristofferson’s debut, released in April 1970, was not a commercial success on its release. But it included songs that others had success with before and after the album came out, proving Kristofferson’s songwriting talent. Those included ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ (Covered by Sammi Smith in 1970),  ‘For The Good Times (#1 for Ray Price in 1970) and ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’ (#1 for Ray Stevens in 1969).

Another well-known song on that album was born during Kristofferson’s trips to New Orleans. ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ was covered numerous times by artists including Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Joan Baez, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Ray Stevens, Willie Nelson and many others. Kristofferson remembers the circumstances surrounding the writing of the song: “I was sitting on an oil platform fifty miles south of New Orleans, out on the water. I had my helicopter tied down on top of the deck, and I would sit up there with my guitar by myself. I had an old twelve-string at the time.” What came to his mind were these lines: “Take the ribbon from my hair / Shake it loose and let it fall / Lay it soft upon my skin / Like the shadows on the wall.”

He said this about the lyrics to the song: “Probably just what a guy thinks about when he’s out there on Alcatraz. No wine, women or song out there on those oil platforms.” And the song name? “I think I got the title from something I read that Frank Sinatra said one time. He said he would take a bottle or a broad to get it through the night.”

Album credits:

Kris Kristofferson – guitar, vocals

Chip Young, Jerry Kennedy, Jerry Shook – guitar

Norbert Putnam – bass

Kenny Buttrey – drums

Charlie McCoy – harmonica

The A Strings – strings

Bergen White – string arrangements


Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered, by Lee Underwood

Tom Rapp Terrascope interview

More Songwriters on Songwriting, by Paul Zollo

Categories: A Year in Music

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2 replies »

  1. Scratch singer off every one of these clowns. Time Buckley’s first album was OK. Kriostofferson never made a grid record, and no one cares about Tom Rapp. A minor musician if there ever was one.

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