Today is Independence Day, July 4th! Amongst the good and bad, today we’re proud to welcome back our monthly special guest blogger, John Walker Ross! As most of you know John is the host and creator of our favorite Music Blog https://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/ The Round Place In The Middle We always enjoy john’s unique take, insights and memories of the greatest decade of music and beyond! We’re certain you will too! AND NOW!
“I wanted to be able to write and sing my own music and I didn’t know that you couldn’t do it.” – Jackie DeShannon (Interviewed in 2001)
Reviewing Jackie DeShannon’s 1970 LP To Be Free, Robert Christgau referred to her as a “minor pop aristocrat.” Then he gave the album a B-. Growing up in the 70s, I used to take cues from people like Christgau, mostly because there wasn’t much else to go on. Circa 1979 or ’80, when I read that review, the only other way I could get a read on somebody like Jackie DeShannon was to somehow find her records. Reviews like that, and to the extent there were any, it was typical, didn’t exactly set my soul on fire. A couple of years earlier, though, I had helped a friend on a high school test. He was going to be grounded (grounded I say, in our senior year!) if he failed Algebra II. In lieu of studying, he had decided to offer me, the TA who would be marking the papers, a box of his sister’s 45s (he swore she had abandoned them when she left for college…I chose to believe him) in return for changing a couple of minuses to pluses if he needed it. Which it turned out he did. Long story short: I managed to change one. He needed two. He was grounded. But he gave me the 45s anyway. Looking back, he might have felt a little guilty.
It didn’t take me long, in the late spring of 1978, to get through all those 45s. Maybe a dozen rated a join with my “real” record collection. Maybe half of those really grabbed me. The one that grabbed me the hardest was “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
It’s why I wasn’t quite prepared to accept Robert Christgau’s dismissal. Still, it wasn’t easy scoring Jackie DeShannon records in the Florida Panhandle in the New Dark Ages. I found a collection of her hits. Then, at some point, I started noticing her name on other people’s records. I even realized she was the one who wrote “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe” one of my favorite tracks on the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. Then, at some point, I dug out that old collection of hits and “discovered” “I Can Make It With You.” How I missed it the first time I’ll never know.
Around the same time, I saw a clip of DeShannon on Hollywood A-Go-Go singing her original version of “When You Walk in the Room” (How you ask? In those pre-Enlightenment days, there was Goldmine Magazine and its long lists of bootleg videos—say no more.) To hell with Christgau. I was a goner. I’ve been one ever since. Having gotten my hands on—and ears around—nearly everything she recorded, I kept asking myself what every Jackie DeShannon fan has asked from 1963 forward. Why wasn’t this great singer, great songwriter, great scenester, lovely-to-look-at, woman a superstar? Is it possible all that worked against her? It’s possible. But it’s also possible she was just out of step with the times. Mostly ahead of them.
Sometimes a forward-sounding artist is greeted with open arms. Sometimes the world says “wait,” when what it really means is “wait forever.” Looking back, she has acquired a kind of spectral aura, her era’s greatest might-have-been, but with a twist: where she went the world followed, mostly without assigning her proper credit. I can only imagine what it was like for her…to have fame but not necessarily fortune, stardom but not superstardom. To have remained just far enough in the shadows to be dismissed as a “minor pop aristocrat” when what you really were was a minor genius. And then to know that there’s no such thing as a minor genius. You either are or you aren’t.
The former Sharon Lee Myers was enough of a genius to have paired with Sharon Sheeley in the early 60s to form the only big league all-female songwriting team—in the Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building sense of the phrase—in the history of American music, and to have done it without the support system available to those who actually worked in Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building. She was enough of a genius to have worked with Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche to nail all the elements of “folk rock”—the orchestral sound, the ringing guitars, the yearning lyricism, the keening vocals—in place two years before the Byrds offered up their version as the American response to the British Invasion that had occurred in the interim.
Whether it was a coincidence that DeShannon had gone to a Bob Dylan concert in Greenwich Village with her friends Peter, Paul and Mary a year earlier and come back to the west coast determined to record an album of Dylan’s songs is unclear, but in any case she never got much credit for being ahead of the curve. Her record company nixed the Dylan album (she still managed to be the first rock and roll act to record one of his songs). Her visionary records sold well in Los Angeles but were only modest hits nationally. When she appeared on television, which was often, she was presented in the exact same manner as the era’s other “girl” singers—a role for which she was hardly unsuited, nobody being more telegenic, but it didn’t exactly make her stand out.
When her record company, for once, was enough on the ball to book her on a Beatles tour, the LP they released to celebrate the event had nothing to do with the Beatles except its Teen Beat title, Breakin’ It Up on the Beatles Tour! One of the singles released was a version of the gospel sing-along “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” like every other Jackie release a fine record, and about as relevant to the pop vibe of 1964 as “Kissin’ Cousins,” which at least had Elvis’s promotional muscle behind it. (If anyone wants to run with my theory that “one artist” Colonel Tom Parker secretly managed Jackie on the side and turn it into your entry in the Things Too Obvious To Not Be True essay contest, feel free.)
She finally had a big hit with Bacharach and David’s lovely “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” but it was a bit atypical and one of those records that would have been all but impossible to follow anyway. She settled into the role of “singer’s singer” and “songwriter’s songwriter” a distinction rarely held by the same person, and never by one who received so little public acclaim for it. As the 60s played out, she began releasing semi-confessional albums for which, like “When You Walk In the Room” and “Needles and Pins,” there was no proper name as yet, and wouldn’t be until the 60s turned into the 70s and James Taylor and Carole King began selling millions of albums and forced some marketing department to come up with—wait for it!—“Singer Songwriter.” I hope nobody got paid overtime for that one.
In one sense life wasn’t entirely unfair. She got to work with the best—Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Van Morrison—if often on records that went unpublicized or even unreleased. She finally scored big with a song of her own, the era-defining anthem that found its way into my friend’s sister’s box of 45s that I really hope she did abandon when she left for college. Later on, she recorded a magnificent double-album with Atlantic which should have done for her what Dusty In Memphis did for Dusty Springfield and given her that one album that shows up on everybody’s list of essentials. Instead, the label kept it to one disc, called it Jackie! (again with the overtime), and ho-hummed the marketing. It took a decades-on CD reissue to give it its proper due.
After that she only had time to write “Bette Davis Eyes,” which became one of the biggest hits of the rock and roll era…for Kim Carnes.
Kim was just the latest member of that special club consisting of those who had learned a thing or two from Jackie DeShannon. Not very many people know that Kim Carnes’ smash hit was a cover of a song, written by an even more brilliant and innovative songwriter, that went almost entirely unnoticed only seven years before. I don’t know if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will ever come calling. I do know that if and when it does, quite a few of those already in there might not have gotten through the door if it weren’t for her influence.