Michael and I were still just a couple of singer/songwriters signed to the same publishing company. Our writing room was not very professional by anyone’s standards. Michael had a long, walk-in closet with a piece of a telephone pole or log in the center. It was the perfect height and diameter for two hippies, sitting crosslegged on the floor, to face one another, play guitar, burn incense, and smoke weed. What more could a young songwriter ask for?
As I made my way from folk music to Hollywood, I had read The Tolkien Trilogy. One of our earliest songs was called “Keeper Of The Keys.” As I look back on it, Tolkien’s story felt like a metaphor for what I was doing. Traveling through unknown places, camping in the woods, and on indigenous lands. Sometimes I felt I could have been Bilbo Baggins on my way to Mordor. So the lyrics “Could we possibly see, the keeper of all the keys. One key to rule them he keeps in the great hall. Under the dark tower we call.” Eventually, it was recorded by the group HP Lovecraft, a band that was fittingly into the darker side of the mystic.
Somewhere down the line Michael and I both started to feel the desire to perform again. The time had come to start playing some of the open mic nights that were popping up all over. The first was, of course, the Troubadour. As I remember, it cost $1 to get in and, if you got to play, you got your dollar back.
At that point, Brewer and Shipley were a songwriting team that was beginning to perform at open mic nights around Southern California. Now I realize I should have been an agent. If I was loaded with reams of contracts and spent time at the open mic nights, I could have been the richest guy in Hollywood. Playing for free were the people that made up the stars of the late 1960s and into the 70s. I remember the Paradox Club in Orange County. Some nights it would be the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Pat Paulson, Jackson Browne, and a host of others that later became the famous performers of the 1970s. One night Jackson sang a new song “These Days.” It had a line “Don’t confront me with my failures, I’ve not forgotten them.” I remember talking to Jackson after his set asking “Jackson. You’re sixteen years old. How many failures have you had?”
And Brewer and Shipley were getting a break. It was the Ice House. There was one in Pasadena and one in Glendale. Our old friends from the folk days, The Dillards, were doing great and we opened for them at those clubs, which was enough to get the ball rolling. We hadn’t written enough songs for a full set but we knew people who had. We also had a lot of material from our old folk repertoires so there was enough to get started as a performing duo.
Even that was hard. All of the folks at the open mic nights were trying to do the same. Some were doing pretty well and some, like Linda Ronstadt And The Stone Poneys were starting to make a name for themselves in southern California. And clubs like The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach were starting to hire them.
The biggest thing about getting a song published is getting someone to record it. That’s where the demo comes in. Michael and I would go into the studio, rehearse with the band, and hope the producer knew what he was doing. Our first producer, a “suit,” didn’t. He sure didn’t understand guys like us. On that first session, Michael and I lit some incense so the vibe would be akin to the closet where we had been writing. The producer asked, “who’s burning the punk.” Enough said.
Eventually, we had recorded a bunch of demos but had few covers. Our music was highly stylized and not written for anybody but Brewer and Shipley. A&M records came to us and said that we were already recording demos so let’s just continue on and do an album. It sounded good to us. They even did our first promo picture…in the weeds.
The first couple of sessions were the beginning of a whole new adventure. The producer had brought in some real studio musicians. The Wrecking Crew. These were the guys that played on everybody’s hits. Jimmy Gordon and Hal Blain on drums. Joe Osborn on bass. Milt Holland on percussion and the list went on. And the first producer gave up on us and brought in a real producer. A very talented guy who was a musician and recording artist himself. Jerry Riopelle. And he understood exactly who we were.
Eventually, Jerry took us up to record at a house in the Canyon owned by Leon Russell. Various rooms were used for recording and the control room had no window so the producer and engineer couldn’t see what was happening with the artists. Leon played keyboard on those sessions but, being his house, he had to put the cat out before he sat down at the piano. On one of our last sessions, we had a song that required a pipe organ. Leon took us to a studio that had been a church with a full-blown pipe organ. Leon, sitting at the console of that huge organ was a sight to see. For a few minutes Leon, with his large plume of hair, was Phantom of the Opera.
As I write this I have to laugh. While the album “Down In LA” had a very limited release when it was finished in1967, a couple of years ago it was released in Great Britain with a 14-page booklet full of pictures and the story about the sessions. And, after more than 50 years, I’m finally getting royalties for Down In LA. I guess that’s show business.