Early Years

Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III on November 5, 1946 in Waycross, Georgia. His mother was heir to the noted Snively orange groves in Florida. At a very young age, Ingram was very interested in rock n roll, and particular the early country-influenced stars of the 1950s - Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and foremost Elvis Presley. When he was 9, Elvis came to Waycross and performed. Ingram got his autograph, and spent weeks afterwards lip syncing to Elvis records for his friends. 1958 marked a personal tragedy in Connor's life, when his father shot and killed himself in December.

His mother married again, this time to a man named Bob Parsons, and Ingram had his name legally changed to Gram Parsons. The family moved to Winter Haven, Florida, where Gram's mother's family lived, but Gram did not get along very well with Bob, and spent most of his hours out with his friends. At the age of 14 he formed his first band, the Pacers. They were mostly a country rock cover band, with Elvis standing out as a particular favorite of Gram's. Soon, Gram was involved in musical projects throughout the Winter Haven area, playing in The Legends, The Rumors, and The Village Vanguards, mostly on keyboards. By the time he was 16, he had become addicted to sleeping pills, and he failed his junior year of high school. To save him, his parents sent him to Bolles Preparatory School in Greenville, South Carolina, but he didn't feel comfortable there, either. In 1963, he was given a job as a local judge for a television talent show, and he quit school for a year.

One night he met a group called The Shilos. Parsons really liked their sound - a folksy roots rock combination driven by harmony - and asked to join the band. The Shilos gave him a quick audition, and he was in. When The Shilos won the on-air talent show a week later, nobody seemed to mind. The Shilos headed to New York City where they played several gigs with their idols, the Journeymen. It is believed Parsons recorded some tracks with Dick Weissman, but if he did, the tapes are lost forever. The group tried to get a record contract, but none of them were old enough to sign one, so they returned to Greenville, where they recorded an LP at Bob Jones University's radio station. By 1964, Beatlemania had driven the Shilos' folk style off the radio, and interest in the group plunged.

In June of 1965, Parsons graduated from high school, though the day was marked with bitterness - his mother passed away after a long hospitalization due to alcohol poisoning. She had been embroiled in a long struggle over the Snively family fortunes, and it had taken a heavy and ultimately fatal toll on her. Gram's stepfather married his 21-year-old babysitter, putting a considerable strain on his relationship with the 19-year-old Gram. Still, Bob pulled some strings with friends to get Gram deferred from the Vietnam draft (Gram pulled a 4F). That same year, Gram pulled off an even more amazing feat: he got accepted into Harvard. How did he get in with such a poor academic record? In Gram's own words, "I guess they figured they had enough class presidents and maybe they needed a few beatniks."

A New World

Arriving at Cambridge in the fall of 1965, Parsons immediately went searching for a new band to join. He started with a band called The Like, but the other members' tastes clashed with Gram's. Eventually he ran into John Nuese, a member of the local band The Trolls. Nuese was very savvy in the ways of old country music, which Gram had never heard. John introduced the young Parsons to Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and Chet Atkins. Gram and John re-formed The Like and played country, R&B, and folk music. By April of 1966, the band had moved to New York City, and Gram had dropped out of Harvard. Parson's trust fund helped house the band, which was rechristened the International Submarine Band. They released their first single on Ascot Records, a cheesy instrumental called "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming", but it didn't make a big splash. Another single, "Sum Up Broke", was released on Columbia Records, but it, too, failed to impact the charts.

In November, Parsons took a trip to Los Angeles to visit Brandon de Wilde, a friend he had recorded with in New York City. While there, he met Nancy Ross, then the girlfriend of David Crosby. He stole her from Crosby, returned to the Bronx, and convinced the ISB that Los Angeles was the place to be. They made the move in January of 1967, settling in Laurel Canyon. Eventually, Parson's networking led him to the actor Peter Fonda, who took a liking to Parsons. The band was hired to perform in the Roger Corman psychedelic film The Trip. However, the scene wasn't considered titillating enough, and the band was overdubbed with a song by The Electric Flag. Later that year, Fonda recorded a Parsons song, "November Nights," on Chisa Records, but nothing came of it.

The band played off and on, but the other members had grown restless. When Parsons said he wanted to drop the R&B and rock sides of the band, all but Nuese quit the band. Just one week later, an LHI Records A&R woman heard a song by the ISB and signed them. Now Nuese and Parsons needed a new band. The band released two singles and finally recorded their debut album, Safe At Home, in December of 1967. But before its release, Parsons made a dramatic career move: he joined Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman in the new incarnation of The Byrds.

The Big Break

The Byrds had just struggled through the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and in the end had fired David Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke before its completion. They had added a new drummer, but were looking for a fourth person to fill out their harmony-driven folk sound. McGuinn had always wanted a jazzy keyboardist; Parsons faked enough bluesy riffs to pass the audition. The band began talking about large ambitions: a sweeping double album covering the history of rock music, from folk and bluegrass to country and then rock n roll, culminating in a spacy psychedelic instrumental. However, only days into the formation, Hillman and Parsons threw themselves wholeheartedly into redefining country music. Soon McGuinn was onboard, too, and after a famous appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, the Byrds released Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, one of the defining pieces of rock n roll and country music history.

The success of the album brought them prominence and gigs with other important bands, including the Rolling Stones. Upon meeting Keith Richards, Gram Parsons knew he had made a lifelong friend. They talked for hours about music, drugs, and politics. Richards told Parsons about the time the Stones had refused to play South Africa due to apartheid. This struck Parsons as particularly bold and forthcoming. In July of 1968, the Byrds were scheduled to play South Africa. Parsons announced the day before their flight he wouldn't go due to the racial policies in the country. In response, McGuinn kicked Parsons out of the band. Many reasons have been given for Parsons' statement: that he was afraid of flying, that he preferred hanging with the Stones, and that he wanted more control of the band. Whatever the reason, Parsons was out of the job, but only just beginning to make the scene.

A Fresh Start

In August of 1968, Nancy Ross gave birth to Gram's first child, a daughter named Polly. Parsons planned a wedding, but eventually he and Nancy had a falling out, and they lost touch. Parsons remained with the Rolling Stones in England, even traveling with them to Los Angeles for their mixing of Beggar's Banquet. There he, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards stayed up late into the night learning the songs of George Jones, Merle Haggard, and other country greats. Soon Parsons was itching to get back in the scene as an active player. He decided he would form a band to play, as he coined it, "cosmic American music." Thus was born the Flying Burrito Brothers.

The Flying Burrito Brothers had existed before Gram Parsons: it had served as a pseudonym for an ever-rotating cast of the California country icons. David Crosby, Ian Dunlop, Chris Hillman, and Gene Parsons (no relation) had all taken part in the group at one time or another. With the help of ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, Parsons revived the group (with Chris Ethridge on bass and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on steel guitar) in late 1968. They quickly earned a contract with A&M Records, and released The Gilded Palace of Sin in early 1969. It won critical acclaim, but peaked at #164 on the charts. They recorded another album, Burrito Deluxe, in 1970, but Parsons again was more interested in hanging out with other bands - including Bob Dylan and The Band - than in writing new material. In late 1970, while riding his beat-up Harley, Parsons severely injured his back and arm. Unable to tour, the band simply withered into nothing. They recorded several more songs which made it onto compilations and retrospectives, but their catalog is dismally lacking in quantity. Although the Flying Burrito Brothers are considered one of the most influential underground country rock bands in history, they lasted a mere year and a half.

Aiming For Steady Ground

In early September of 1970, Parsons began working with a friend Terry Melcher (a producer of The Byrds) on his solo album. Gram recorded ten tracks, mostly covers, with bandmates Ry Cooder, Clarence White, and Ed Ball. However, Gram's cocaine and alcohol abuse slowed the process down considerably, and Melcher eventually abandoned the project. One day in October, Gram signed out the master tapes of the session: they have never been seen or heard of since. Parsons moved to England to again hang with Keith Richards and the Stones. Eventually both became hooked on heroin.

In 1971, the Stones became tax refugees, moving to the Riviera. Parsons moved into the basement of Richards's new place NellcĂ´te. A recording studio was set up there, and the entire album Exile On Main Street was recorded there that summer. Richards and Mick Jagger both credit Gram with providing the onus for the country feel to the album. Meanwhile, Parsons was trying to convince Richards to produce his solo album, but by now Gram's addictions had become more trouble than they were worth. Keith asked him to leave his house in July, and Gram returned to the States, still no closer to his own album. He married his long-time girlfriend Gretchen Burrell later that month, in a small ceremony at his step-father's estate in New Orleans. When Chris Hillman gave Parsons a phone call later that year, asking him to come check out a club singer, Parsons was skeptical, but agreed to come along. After hearing her first set, Parsons was so excited that he got on stage to accompany her for her second. That was the first meeting between Parsons and a then-unknown Emmylou Harris.

Parsons continued to try to get his solo album produced: he convinced Mo Ostin of Reprise Records to sign him to a contract by telling him he would have Merle Haggard produce his album. Although Haggard agreed in principle, he and Parsons couldn't come to terms with most of the production issues, and Parsons instead fell back on Hugh Davies, Merle Haggard's chief engineer. For his backing band, he called on some old childhood heroes - the Las Vegas TCB Band, who served as the backup to none other than Elvis Presley himself. September of 1972 saw the bulk of recording, with Emmylou providing beautiful harmonies behind the tight playing of the TCB Band and Parson's intricate vocals. GP finally saw release in January of 1973, and it was a tremendous critical success. Once again Parson's critical acclaim didn't translate into commercial success: GP failed to chart. Determined to make a splash, Parsons began arranging what is now famously known as the Fallen Angels tour.

One Last Ride

With Harris and a bunch of his old-time friends playing backup, Parsons went on a 30-city tour the lasted the whole summer of 1973. Although at first they had a rocky time dealing with drugs and cries of amateurism, by the end of the tour, they had captivated an entire scene with their graceful harmonies and soulful music. Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt both made repeat appearances with the band on the tour. They also did a live in-studio performance at New York City's WLIR (now captured on the LP Live 1973). The whole time, Gretchen Parsons grew increasingly jealous of Harris's relationship with Gram; eventually she was sent home by Gram's manager, who felt she gave the entire tour a bad vibe. It is often speculated, but never confirmed, that Harris and Parsons were having an affair.

After the tour ended, Parsons and his wife went on vacation with his step-father and step-mother. There, Bob Parsons dropped a bombshell on Gram: despite Avis's hospitalization due to alcohol abuse, Bob had slipped alcohol to her every day in the hospital, including the day she had died. Gram was shocked. He began having unexplained seizures at night, and occasionally would pass out. His alcohol abuse worsened, and he became more of a recluse, avoiding his friends for days at a time. In late July of 1973, his Laurel Canyon home burned down, although he escaped with minor smoke inhalation injuries. He and Gretchen separated shortly after, and Gram moved in with manager Phil Kaufman to begin recording Grievous Angel. Harris and the TCB Band again joined Parsons, and the results were even better than GP: capturing their live sound from the Fallen Angels tour perfectly, Parsons created some of his best music, and the covers chosen were as appropriate as any he had done in the past. The album was a joyous triumph, and a large tour was prepared to promote its release.

The End

On September 19, 1973, Parsons and some friends visited Joshua Tree National Monument. While there, Parsons took what was believed to be bad heroin. He passed out, but was revived. He then said he needed some sleep. He laid down, and one of the girls with him stayed by his side to make sure he was okay. However, he soon passed from normal breathing into labored breathing. Panicking, and not knowing CPR, she tried as best she could. Sadly, it was not enough. Rushed to the hospital, Gram Parsons was pronounced dead on arrival. He was only 26.

Yet even after his death his legend and mystery only grows. While his coffin waited at Los Angeles International Airport to be flown to Louisiana for burial, his road manager Phil Kaufman and friend Michael Martin borrowed a hearse and convinced an airport shipping clerk they were there to pick up the body. They took the body out to the The Joshua Tree Desert, poured gasoline inside the coffin, and lit Gram's body ablaze. A week later the two were arrested and fined for burning the coffin (not the body, which was not against the law.) The partially destroyed remains were laid to rest in New Orleans on September 29, 1973.

Gram Parsons serves as one of the lost cult legends of rock n roll: his work never received commercial acclaim, and he spent most of his time in other people's shadows, a guiding influence in the early days of country rock. He will always be remembered for his work in the Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds, his lasting hand on The Rolling Stones' finest work, and his sudden passing and the strange occurrences afterward. Yet he'll be remembered best as the lonely Georgia boy who wanted to be - like his idol Elvis - the king of rock and roll.

Sources

  • http://www.gramparsons.com - the official homepage
  • http://ebni.com/byrds/memgrp1.html

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