Archive | Personal Tales

John Rhys/John Braheny chat about the late Joe South etc.

When I heard recently that The great Joe South ( Games People Play, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Hush, etc) had recently passed away I remembered that my friend John Rhys (Eddins  if you know him by that last name) had told me about the first time he’d met Joe in Atlanta in the early ‘60s. – a life changing event for him. John is a hit producer/songwriter and proprietor of my favorite blues website, bluepower.com. We got together over his kitchen table and reminisced.

As it often happens, we don’t realize at the time, how a single conversation or event could alter our lives. This is approximately 12 minutes of conversation about that and other stuff. Enjoy!

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The “December Dream” Saga

This was the body of a letter I sent to Ben Edmonds who was writing a story about the reclusive writer/artist Fred Neil for Mojo Magazine (Feb. 2000) after the EMI  release of a CD collection, The Many Sides of Fred Neil, in 1999, which included unreleased masters including my song which was uncredited on the album. The re-release producers apparently assuming Fred wrote it.

Richie Unterberger, in his liner notes, wrote: “The undoubted highlight of this batch of previously unreleased tracks is “December’s Dream,” with its gorgeous melody (which somewhat resembles Dino Valente’s classic”Get Together” in the verses.) and seductive, languorous sadness. It’s difficult to fathom why this went unused; it would have made a particularly appropriate addition to the Fred Neil album, assuming that it was cut around that era. The ending finds bohemian, goof-off Fred in an uncommonly serious and direct frame of mind as he solemnly croons — with the authority of one who has lived the lyrics  — “Love for any time at all is worth the price you pay to fall.” Truer words were never sung.”

Writing “December Dream” (They called it “December’s Dream” on Fred’s “The Many Sides of Fred Neil” CD) was a pivotal event in my life for many reasons. In about 1964 I was living in Cambridge Massachusetts , working days at Fanny Farmer Candy Company and singing in Boston’s Charles St. clubs at night. During that time I met Pete Childs, a great guitar player and singer who was also working the folk clubs there. I was mostly singing traditional folk music but had just started writing songs. December Dream was the second song I had ever written. I was going through a rough time after a breakup with my girlfriend who had had a fling with another guy that just destroyed me. I put it all into this song. That year there was an event in Cambridge, the first annual Freedom Folk Festival. As part of the event they held a songwriting competition that I entered and won, after which “December Dream,” as part of the prize, was published in SingOut Magazine. Ironically, one of the judges, Len Chandler, was to become, in 1971, my partner for 23 years in founding and running the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase.

Sometime in 1965, I believe, I sublet Pete Childs’ apartment in Cambridge when he went on the road but prior to that, I had taught him the song because he really liked it. Now we fast forward to 1967 after I had gone back to Vancouver, BC where I had lived on and off previous to moving to Cambridge. That year I had gotten off the road as a folksinger and joined a blues band, The Fantastic Sensations, playing in front of acid crazed audiences and light shows. Later that year I got a letter via my parents in Elgin Illinois, from a music publisher (Third Story Music) who said that a group called the Stone Poneys, featuring Linda Ronstadt (who I had never heard of) had recorded “December Dream” on their Evergreen #2 album. Enclosed was a contract and a $200 advance. As a result, I signed the contract and moved to L.A., figuring it would be a good idea to follow up on this success. It WAS a good idea. Changed my life. I recorded the song myself later on Pete Records, an indie label I signed with about a year later.

My understanding of how the song got recorded, from what producer (the late) Nik Venet told me, was that they needed more songs on the Stone Ponies sessions at Capitol and asked the musicians on the session, including Pete Childs, if they had any songs. Pete played them “December Dream,” they liked it and cut it. Pete had also played on the Fred Neil sessions and taught him the song too. When I met Venet later he told me about it and even later, Howard Solomon, who had been Freddy’s manager, came to the songwriters Showcase one night at Gios on Sunset and presented me with three different takes of Freddy singing my song. Major thrill! After singing Freddy’s “That’s The Bag I’m In.” and “The Other Side of This Life” for years in my solo folk gigs and even with the Fantastic Sensations, I was honored that he’d want to record a song of mine.

I have no idea why they picked that particular take for the unreleased songs on this new compilation. Howard and I also liked the one that ended right after the last line but they used the one in which he continued to play guitar. Since I loved his voice and style so much, it really didn’t matter that much to me. It also didn’t matter that he took some liberties with the melody.

I think I actually met Freddy only once (I have a vague recollection though, that I may have attended one of his recording sessions in L.A.). Bruce Langhorne, Bruce’s then girlfriend Noreen Eck and I drove down from White Plains NY to Coconut Grove where Bruce had a gig playing guitar for Odetta (I think at the Gaslight South). This was at least two years before he cut my song and I don’t even know if he remembered or put the name together later. He was gigging occasionally down there, sometimes with Vince Martin. He was a longtime legend down there. I think I first heard about him from David Crosby back in ’62. At that time David taught me a song he had learned from Freddy, a sweet bluesy ballad called “Willie Jean.” David and I met in Omaha when he, his brother Chip and (I think) Mike Clough, were headed out to the West Coast to join the Les Baxter Balladeers. My time might be off on that because I also remember him from the Chicago scene. Anyway, David spent a lot of time on that Coconut Grove scene and was a friend of Freddy’s.

In retrospect. In my incarnations as songwriting teacher, music publisher etc., I never would have given the song a shot at being recorded. No real hook, no “commercial” structure, no repeated chorus, a title that doesn’t show up in the song, not even a bridge. Sometimes emotional honesty, sincerity, a little poetry and a pretty melody win. Who knew?

We’re fortunate to have Fred’s recordings as a reminder of his spirit and that great voice and I’m honored that he chose to record my song.

John Braheny

john@johnbraheny.com

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Letter To My Father

30 years ago, my late father, William Barry Braheny, retired from the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific Railroad. I thought I’d bring back an old letter I’d written to him on that occasion to let him know how his job, and trains in general, had impacted my life. After he’d passed away in ’93, my mother told me he’d always cherished that letter. Though re-reading it made me say “I could write that better today,” I resisted a re-write. It was the thought that counted so I thought I’d post it in his honor this Fathers Day. If you’re fortunate enough to have a father who has impacted your life in a positive way, take this occasion to let him know and don’t let the lack of writing skills stand in your way.
John

Dear Dad,                           1979
The momentous occasion of your retirement got me reminiscing about some of the ways that your working on the railroad has affected and shaped my life as well as added to an abundant fund of pleasant memories.

At my birthday party this year, I was telling my friend, Gary White, (who wrote Linda Ronstadt’s hit “Long, Long Time”) that you were retiring from the railroad soon. He said he was a passionate train freak and had a house full of model trains, etc. We got to exchange train stories and it really set me off for the next week remembering my railroad times.

Some early recollections: New Albin IA – along with the sound of an infinite field of crickets, the sound I miss most was the sound of the train whistle and the chug-chug-chugs echoing off the hills and bluffs. For some reason, it was always a safe and reassuring, secure kind of sound, maybe because it was regular and always there every day, no matter what other joys or tragedies happened. The train was always there. The engineers and brakemen watched for us like their own families and we’d all run down to the road to wave.

Mason City, IA – when we lived below the Norquists and you were overseas, it was also a constant. It constantly drove mom crazy, trying to keep Dan and me away from the tracks and thank God she did.

I don’t remember exactly where it was, but I think it was in Mason City where you took me to see an engine that had been derailed. I was very young, but it was nearly a trauma to me to see this enormous, invincible, powerful machine all broken and twisted. It was an early lesson that nothing is permanent.
Ronnie Zellar’s alcoholic grandpa (was it ‘Scratchy’?) used to be an outrageous, jolly and embarrassing Santa Claus but it was always an adventure to look forward to at the Railroad Union Christmas party.

Trips – some of the best memories and ones that I believe had a great effect on my life and personality, were the vacation trips. I realize now how lucky we were that we had those passes. We’d never have been able to take a whole family across country like that without them. As an educational experience, to see all those historical places like Boston and New York & Chicago and Seattle was the ultimate field trip. It contributed immeasurably to my feeling of being at home in the world, to my total lack of fear of travel, to my total love of it, to my great curiosity about seeing new places and meeting new people. Even the saying goodby was a part I never liked but learned to accept. Another valuable lesson. Obviously, all that helped me to prepare in some important ways, for me to be a folk singer. I know neither you nor mom were very excited about that but it was an experience shared by very few in this world and it too was full of life lessons. If I could live my life over, I’d do it just the same. I don’t regret any of it.

Moves – I remember that the move to Sioux City was a trauma for all of us. I mean I had just fallen in love for the first time with Beverly Moline from Holy Family and it was the worst possible time (isn’t it always?). However, in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. Though it took me over a year to recover, Heelan and SC gave me an education and experiences I may never had had in Mason City. I had lots of opportunity to develop my music, acting, and what little talent I had as an athlete. Isn’t it great how, no matter how tragic, inopportune, traumatic, mind bending and heart rending an experience was, you can always look back and see how it was a good thing after all. Forcing you to look at yourself in a new way and bring something out in you that you never realized you had. Those kinds of experiences have all served to make me totally optimistic about my life and future. No matter what happens to me, I’ll learn and grown from it, and feel confident about trying something new.

It’s been a good thing to learn. Your move to Elgin, IL was also good for me. It made me have to rely on myself, obviously one of the best lessons to be learned.

Work – Another thing I’ll always thank you for is getting me my first job on the railroad. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember the section gang foreman’s name but I think it was George Pappas. It was truly a milestone in my life, a step up from mowing lawns and shoveling snow. I worked hard to prove myself on that job and it did fantastic things for my self-image, my body, my wallet and my sense of self-reliance, all of which I needed at that time. It also set me up with the experience I needed to get other jobs, railroad and construction, that helped put me through college. I know you would have been happy to pay for my college but helping me to get those jobs was a much more valuable way for me.

A lot of memories stick with me – riding out in the country on the motorcar early in the morning – sore and painfully growing muscles – the smell of breakfast pancakes and cornbread and learning to play guitar in the bunk cars of the C&NW bridge crew – college and r.r. wino friends I made and total exhaustion on Bill Shipley’s steel gangs – riding the commuter tram – and many, many more that come to me unexpectedly when I see a section gang working or hear a tram whistle, though they never quite sound as exciting as the old steam engines.

When I was in college, having your pass to ride back and forth to Sioux City was very important to me. It let me go home to visit and in the summers, it let me go back to S.C. to see my friends and girlfriends.

Here we are back in the present again and you’re looking at your last railroad days and undoubtedly a whole bunch of your own railroad memories. I hope you feel those years have all been worthwhile. They certainly have been for me. I’ve always been proud that you were a railroad man and, in case I never told you, one of the most important things to me is that you were a constant, a solid foundation. My dad always had a job. I never worried that I’d be hungry or not have something I needed, and we always had good times. Those are the things that are easily taken for granted when they’re there and I know I’ve been guilty of that. As I get older and get a little more perspective, I realize how difficult it would be for me to do what you’ve done and I truly appreciate it, Dad. It’s a lot of years to wake up that early and deal with corporate games.

We all pray that the rest of your years will be rewarding and interesting. We hope that you’ll have a good time and find something stimulating to occupy your mind and keep you in good physical shape. We also hope we’ll get to see you more often. Lots of love and gratitude from me, Dad.

As Always,
John

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My Carribbean Adventure

or “How I almost made an early exit from the planet”

Those of you who saw my short Facebook post about 3 weeks ago and were interested in knowing what happened on my highly anticipated seminar in Jamaica, the first gig I ever missed. I said I’d record the story so I wouldn’t have to tell it again and again and again.

So here it is. It’s about half an hour (in 2 parts). Pretty harrowing.

Part one

cayman-adventure-part-one1.mp3

Part two

cayman-adventure-part-two.mp3
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Mike Bloomfield and Me at the Fickle Pickle

– The late great guitarist Mike Bloomfield used to tell me, “Man you’re the only REAL folksinger I know.” I took it with a grain of salt since I knew a lot of “real folksingers” myself and held many of them in awe at the time. But I fit his romantic image of the folksinger because I didn’t have a car and hitchhiked all over the U.S. and Canada with a sleeping bag and guitar and always had road adventures to tell him about. In addition, I was, at that time, playing a repertoire of mostly traditional songs from old English ballads to blues. Mike was managing a club on Rush Street in Chicago called the Fickle Pickle and booked me to play there several times during the mid 60s. He once booked me as a headliner with Big Joe Williams as my opening act. I said ” Man I’m embarrassed to have Joe open for me. The guy’s a legend. I should open for HIM!” He explained that he was dedicated to keeping Joe working and he couldn’t book him as a headliner all the time so he needed somebody else from out of town to headline.

At the time, along with being a sponge for the styles of the local blues artists, like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and others he was also booking those artists all over town. I really liked Mike. He was always enthusiastic and acted like life was racing ahead of him too quickly to catch it. He always seemed like he was in hyper-drive. In fact, whenever I asked him to show me some blues lick on the guitar he seemed incapable of slowing it down enough for me to follow him. I finally gave up. But it was still always a kick to hang with him because he invariably had something new he wanted to turn me on to. Sitting in his apartment one night he turned me on to a comedy album that would become a classic. HOW TO SPEAK HIP with the brilliant Del Close and John Brent of Second City made us laugh til we cried. The record is out of circulation but I hope you get a chance to hear it someday.

His then wife, Susan, and I had become friends during that time (no romance, just mutually supportive friends) and after their divorce I stayed with her for a couple of days after my own breakup with the girl who inspired one of my first songs. I wrote it in her apartment and it was later recorded by Linda Ronstadt/ Stone Poneys and the late Fred Neil.

I lost touch with Mike after that as he joined Electric Flag, played with Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited and the Newport Folk Festival and moved to San Francisco, but his searching spirit and the fun we shared still lives warmly in my memory.

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Stefan Szemler’s Stradivarius and Me

Sometime around 1952 in a galaxy far, far away called Sioux City, Iowa, I found a violin teacher. I had been playing since I was about 10. Let’s go back to the beginning.

My mother asked me, “Johnny (She was the only one who called me that.), what’s the most beautiful musical instrument you’ve ever heard?”

I answered, “The violin, mom.”
She said “Okay, let’s find you a violin and a teacher.”

I’ve got to hand it to mom. That was an inspired approach. My first teacher was Sister Paulette at St Joseph’s elementary school in Mason City, Iowa, who, at the time, didn’t seem much bigger than me and I was a shrimp. She loved to play and she should be canonized as a saint for having to listen to all that screeching. Learning to play the violin is NOT a pretty thing to be a part of and teaching it requires a tremendous amount of patience. Mom had found me a 3/4-sized violin and every week I had a lesson. Occasionally, I actually practiced in between. Continue Reading →

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Stefan Szemler’s Stradivarius and Me

Sometime around 1952 in a galaxy far, far away called Sioux City, Iowa, I found a violin teacher. I had been playing since I was about 10. Let’s go back to the beginning.

My mother asked me, “Johnny (She was the only one who called me that.), what’s the most beautiful musical instrument you’ve ever heard?”

I answered, “The violin, mom.”
She said “Okay, let’s find you a violin and a teacher.”

I’ve got to hand it to mom. That was an inspired approach. My first teacher was Sister Paulette at St Joseph’s elementary school in Mason City, Iowa, who, at the time, didn’t seem much bigger than me and I was a shrimp. She loved to play and she should be canonized as a saint for having to listen to all that screeching. Learning to play the violin is NOT a pretty thing to be a part of and teaching it requires a tremendous amount of patience. Mom had found me a 3/4-sized violin and every week I had a lesson. Occasionally, I actually practiced in between. Continue Reading →

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Music Horror Stories

The following is a chapter I wrote for my friend Janet Fisher’s book, MUSIC HORROR STORIES, (A Collection of Gruesome True Tales as Told By Actual Innocent Victims Seeking a Career in The Music Business) a fascinating, delightful and often instructive collection of experiences of musicians, songwriters and music biz folks about memorable or ugly events on their paths to, umm, fame and fortune. There are 55 stories submitted from all over the world. The book is available on Amazon.com as well as at Janet’s website where you can sign up for Janet’s excellent free music industry newsletter, The Goodnight Kiss Music News. (Goodnight Kiss is the name of her publishing company). She includes pitching opportunities in the newsletter along with great industry info for both beginners and pros. Go to www.goodnightkiss.com for more info about her successful company and projects. While I’m at it, just a few more words about Janet Fisher. I know a handful of indie publishers /entrepreneurs who are as talented, creative, resourceful, aggressive and hard working and fewer with her generosity of spirit. Amen.

Part Kingston Trio, Part Moose Head And The Ghost Of A Gibson LG-1

John Braheny Continue Reading →

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My Personal Music Horror Story

The following is a chapter I wrote for my friend Janet Fisher’s book, MUSIC HORROR STORIES, (A Collection of Gruesome True Tales as Told By Actual Innocent Victims Seeking a Career in The Music Business). The book is a fascinating, delightful and often instructive collection of experiences of musicians, songwriters and music biz folks about memorable or ugly events on their paths to, umm, fame and fortune.

There are 55 stories submitted from all over the world. The book is available on Amazon.com as well as at www.musichorrorstories.com where you can sign up for Janet’s excellent free music industry newsletter, The Goodnight Kiss Music News. (Goodnight Kiss is the name of her publishing company). She includes pitching opportunities in the newsletter along with great industry info for both beginners and pros.

Go to www.goodnightkiss.com for more info about her successful company and projects. While I’m at it, just a few more words about Janet Fisher. I know a handful of indie publishers /entrepreneurs who are as talented, creative, resourceful, aggressive and hard working and fewer with her generosity of spirit. Amen.

“Part Kingston Trio, Part Moose Head
And The Ghost Of A Gibson LG-1”

It was 1960 to the best of my recollection. I’d been working on a bridge repair crew for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad and living with the crew in railroad bunk cars on a siding in a little town in central Illinois called Manlius.

I got bored with getting drunk in the only bar in town and asked my mother to loan me her old Sears Roebuck guitar, got a Mel Bay book of chords and taught myself to play. When I started getting good enough and knew a few folk songs I saved my money and bought the new Gibson LG-1 I was lusting for.

It was a big year for folk music and I’d really gotten into researching old Appalachian ballads etc.

I had worked up enough nerve to go to Chicago’s Old Town district to perform on my first “hootenany,” the equivalent of today’s “open mike.” I can’t remember the name of the club but it either Mother Blue’s on Wells St. or whatever it was called before that.

With some trepidation I signed up and waited. The place was packed. The stage was up against the long wall on the right. On the left was a stairway that went to a bar upstairs that also offered a view of the stage below. I patiently waited through several performers until the host began to introduce me.

My heart was pounding. As he launched into my introduction he stopped in mid sentence when a commotion started by the door. He said “Hey Bob – ladies and gentlemen, Bob Shane from the Kingston Trio just came in. Bob, come on up and sing a couple!”

Bob Shane was drunk, and hilarious for a good ten minutes, sang “Scotch and Soda” and left.

I had to follow him. The host was sympathetic, and gave me a nice intro explaining to the audience what a bad spot he’d put this new kid in.

It only made me feel a little less terrified. I gave it everything I had with a rousing up-tempo song. Then I sang a beautiful Irish ballad called “Youth Of The Heart.” By now I was starting to feel okay. As I got into the second verse my eyes were opened by a loud crash and screams as the moose head on the side of the stairs opposite the stage dropped, annihilating the table beneath it with glass and patrons flying everywhere.

I stood there stunned for an eternity deciding what to do. When it quieted down I finished the song and left the stage. Sweet host, “Wasn’t he cool you guys, first time too, I’m really sorry man!”

I felt shaken but they made me feel like a hero who had just gone through an amazing intimidation ritual and come out a winner. I put away my guitar and took it upstairs to the bar. I sat it against the wall where I cold keep an eye on it and checked it every couple of minutes. Hey, now I was hangin’ and having a little Guinness with my heroes: Bob Gibson, George McElvey, Johnny Brown and the rest of the Chicago folk aristocracy.

Very cool, ’til I turned to check on my new guitar again… GONE!

Heart stopping panic! Everybody helped – ran into the street – into the back yard – nobody saw it – ever again.

Afterwards, I thought “If I had half a brain I’d recognize this as a sign that God didn’t want me to do this.” Now, I’m glad I didn’t listen to myself. If I had, I’d most likely would never have had a life this wonderful.

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John Braheny continued his career as a solo folk performer for seven years throughout the U.S. and Canada, before he got a deal as a writer/recording artist, started The L.A. Songwriters Showcase with Len Chandler and wrote his best-selling book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. But those are other stories.

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