Why do the background singers and songwriters of long-forgotten tunes make me want to tell their tales? This is getting ridiculous. While notable superstars go without representation, I dwell on these castaways who might be heard by any one of you only once in your entire life on the oldies station, and then only heard in the background. Perhaps the reason why these folks interest me so is the fact that they escaped. They got their names on a couple of tunes as the songwriter and are pulling in a royalty check which supports at least a moderate lifestyle. Then they had the courage and the good sense to fade away. After all, Souther admits that he never smiled on his album covers because he did not want to encourage strangers to approach him. "I want to sound like what I am -– elusive and hard to find." As for residual royalties, he readily admits that the 24 million-plus sales for The Eagles Greatest Hits album was "very gratifying."
It seems that the ones I am most attracted to are the laid back Southern California folk rockers. It may be because they all sound like they wanted to be Vince Gill in a future they could only imagine, and wind up shagging Amy Grant or someone just like her. I do not own one Vince Gill album nor have I ever heard more than half a dozen songs by Vince Gill, but somehow I know that Vince Gill is the evolutionary product of all these folks I treasure in my memory banks. Vince Gill is what it all came to. He's the bird borne by the years of the California tarpit of songwriter/singer dinosaurs. You only need to listen to his duet with his now-wife Amy Grant Gill on The House of Love to understand how this all culminated right then, right there, in so many more ways than one. And, by the way, "culminated" means it's over.
My favorite product by J.D. (John David) Souther (who was born a Yankee but was raised in Texas, so "Souther" fits just fine) is his duet with James Taylor on "(It Used to Be) Her Town, Too" in 1981. The songwriting credits here are Mr. Taylor, Mr. Souther and Waddy Wachtel. This is a song that will tell you all you ever wanted to know about failed relationships and how it affects your circle of friends. It's 39 episodes of Friends boiled down into four minutes and thirty-four seconds. This tune took Sweet Baby James to a Number 11 on the Pop charts, Number 5 on the stodgily named Adult Contemporary charts, and turned out to be his biggest pop hit since Handy Man and his biggest non-cover hit since his first, Fire And Rain, in 1970.
She's been afraid to go out.
She's afraid of the knock on her door.
There's always a shade of a doubt;
She can never be sure
Who comes to call;
Maybe the friend of a friend of a friend.
Anyone at all.
Anything but nothing again.
It used to be her town.
It used to be her town, too.
That is one sad motherfucker of a tune. Some famous songs he's written all by himself might be familiar to you. Faithless Love (1976 on his Black Rose album) has been covered by so many folks it would be hard to list them all. You're Only Lonely (1979 on the album by the same name) was his one radio hit which he sings himself. He wrote it at least seven years before it was ever recorded. He was staying in a cabin owned by Stephen Stills and a girl (Linda Ronstadt) was visiting. She was so angsty and loud about it that he kept thinking, "It's not about you all the time." And he wrote the song that weekend. It would be hard to overlook the irony of the title and the resemblance to Roy Orbison's sound here. Orbison's song was Only the Lonely which was full of despair. Souther's seems to offer some solace to the heartbroken. "Just call out my name, when you're only lonely." Souther got to perform with Orbison in the now-famous Black and White Night concert in LA. After that, they got together and wrote some songs together, two of which appear on Orbison's last album recorded just before his death and released afterwards.
As with most anyone of his generation, Bob Dylan's name keeps popping up when discussing heroes. My favorite quote of his concerning Dylan is this: "I felt like he was one of the first writers that by example, showed us that songs are not just rhymes and music, that they're important stories and they involve ways of living and characters that are not being judged in the usual senses."
He was born November 2, 1945, in Detroit but raised in Amarillo, Texas. He took the smart decision and moved to LA where he ran into Glenn Frey. Frey was also born in Detroit, but I can't find whether they knew each other there or met in LA. Nevertheless, Souther and Frey wound up sharing a rent house together. An outfit called Amos Records paid for the two of them to record an album under the name "Longbranch Pennywhistle." Is that some tree-hugging hippie crap or what? (You should see some of the photos from the period when he and Jackson Browne were dressed up like old west cowboys. Just sad.) Anyway, the Pennywhistle deal went nowhere fast, but just knowing Frey turned out to be Souther's ticket to early retirement when he collaborated on some of the hits for The Eagles. "(I'm Giving You the) Best of My Love" and "(There's Gonna Be a) Heartache Tonight" were a couple of those collaborations. It is rumored that Souther could have been in The Eagles if he'd accepted the offer, but declined. Frey had worked with Linda Ronstadt before joining The Eagles and this little rock and roll networking led Souther to some more collaborations with Rondstadt which would pad that early retirement paycheck. As I implied earlier, the overly talkative Ronstadt was also Souther's girlfriend for a time. She needed a backup band to go on the road with her. He was not interested, but he talked Frey and their mutual friend Don Henley into getting a group together to help her out. That's the group that became The Eagles
In a more recent time and place, he helped Don Henley write The Heart of the Matter. When asked about the circumstances of that song, he tells a tale about how they both just broke up with ladies they were quite serious about. They had a few too many drinks and the song was born. As he says, concerning the concept of baggage, "The idea of writing is to open those suitcases and get rid of it."
Another one of my favorite quotes is this, when asked why he wrote with so many different folks when he was perfectly capable of writing on his own. "A good collaborator serves the highest purpose of the song, which is to finish it."
His only group experience was in the 1970s with The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, an experience he disliked so much that he actively sabotaged it by being an asshole and "taking charge" when no one asked him to do so. "I’m not a great team player under those circumstances,” Souther admits. This band was the then-budding entrepreneur David Geffen's plan for a country-rock "supergroup," putting Souther, one of his original Asylum Records artists, together with Southern California music legends Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. "No band should have to rehearse with people from the press coming to watch their rehearsals."
In the late 1980s he was offered a small continuing role in the television series "Thirtysomething," then a cameo as a singer in Steven Spielberg's romantic fable Always and a small support role in Postcards From The Edge. After a more sizeable part in the schmaltzy My Girl 2, Souther has concentrated on a string of low-budget films that have never been released.
It seems a bit hard to imagine that a guy would turn to acting as a second career when he's openly admitted, "I can exude confidence but I don’t necessarily have it."
Some of the quotes here are from an interview
Souther had with Debbie Kruger in October of 1997.