Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: An Early 1970s Two-Fer
My sister is spending a lot of time away from home lately. My mom says it’s that new job of hers, my dad isn’t so sure. I don’t care – today I was able to snap up two of her records, both by California music dudes who might have been pretty well-known back in the 1970s but are virtually forgotten today.
The first record is Bright Sun Is Shining, by Barry “The Fish” Melton. This one is from 1970, and it was the first solo album by the guitarist from Country Joe and the Fish. Melton was only 21 when he cut this album, which consists entirely of covers of blues and soul classics of the era. He cut the blues covers in Chicago with sidemen including a young Donny Hathaway; Phil Upchurch, who was then the Chess House Band guitarist and was recording with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters; and Chess regular Gerald Sims, who worked with people like Little Milton, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Mary Wells. The other half of Bright Sun Is Shining includes soul music covers recorded in New York with members of the Wilson Pickett Band and Joe Newman, the great trumpeter from Count Basie’s band.
You can hear the production (by Sam Charters, who also did the Country Joe & the Fish records) is pretty straightforward, with little of the studio tricks of the era. That gives Bright Sun a timeless feel, and Melton’s voice is not bad – he is a credible blues/soul grunter as well as a fine guitarist. The Fish was Barry’s time in the spotlight, apparently; although he kicked around the music business for a while Melton found another career. He has been a criminal defense lawyer since the 1980s, although he retired last year to devote more time to music. Melton often plays with Peter Albin and David Getz (both of Big Brother & the Holding Company), remains a key figure in the San Francisco music scene and on his official website, he promises a new album for 2010.
The other obscure treasure I dug up was Terry Melcher, the 1974 album by the famous producer and Hollywood figure. Melcher, the son of movie actress Doris Day, made a name for himself in the 1960s producing hit records by the Byrds (including “Turn, Turn, Turn”) and others including the Mamas and the Papas, Glen Campbell and Paul Revere & the Raiders. As a performer, he was part of the vocal duet Bruce and Terry (that’s Bruce Johnston, of the Beach Boys) and both were in the Rip Chords, which had a Top 10 hit in 1964 with “Hey Little Cobra,” sung and co-written by Terry Melcher.
Bruce Johnston helps Melcher with production duties on Terry Melcher, and just about everyone who was anyone in the L.A. recording scene of the era shows up to play. The guest list includes drummers Jim Keltner and Hal Blaine, Ry Cooder on guitar, and Larry Knechtel and Spooner Oldham on piano. Clarence White, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke of the Byrds play on the album, so does “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers and, singing backup on at least one song, Doris Day. The album itself is pretty standard country rock of the time: “Beverly Hills” could be an anthem, “Just A Season” is sweetened by Jimmie Haskell’s strings and “Dr. Horowitz” is a mildly successful rocker.
Melcher throws in a number of cover versions: on “Stagger Lee” and “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” he sounds completely lost, and even worse is the medley including two Dylan songs, “Positively 4th Street” and “Like A Rolling Stone.” Another cover, “These Days,” was written by up and coming songwriter Jackson Browne and features backup singer Doris Day. Terry Melcher the record hasn’t aged very well – it’s certainly a record for and of its time.
Terry Melcher the person has a legacy of being a fascinating behind-the-scenes figure of 1960s-1970s Hollywood: he added background vocals to the Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds and is credited with introducing Brian Wilson to lyricist Van Dyke Parks. Melcher was also a producer of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
Melcher is perhaps best known as the least-known central figure in the horrific Tate-LaBianca murders at the hands of Charles Manson’s family. Manson was apparently an aspiring folk singer and songwriter, and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson was his buddy. Wilson introduced Manson to Melcher, who expressed interest in producing some of Manson’s music. That never happened, and many people theorize that nutcase Manson sent his minions to a house to kill Melcher and his then-girlfriend Candice Bergen in revenge; but by that time Melcher had moved out and Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate moved in.
Whew – after that Melcher was so spooked he could barely function. He produced the Byrds in their later years, he produced Doris Day’s TV show on CBS and produced the Beach Boys last (horrible) studio album, Summer In Paradise from 1992, the first album produced digitally on ProTools. He also co-wrote the Beach Boys’ last hit, “Kokomo” (along with John Phillips, Scott McKenzie and Mike Love) Melcher died in 2004 after a long battle with melanoma. Surely a fascinating footnote figure from music history.