My Playlist: Jackson Browne

“…The Pretender, These Days, For Every Man, I’m Alive, Fountain of Sorrow, Running On Empty, For a Dancer, Before the Deluge. Now, I know the Eagles got in first; but let’s face it it – and I think Don Henley would agree with me – these are the songs they wish they had written. I wish I had written them myself, along with Like a Rolling Stone and Satisfaction…”

The above words were spoken by Bruce Springsteen in 2004 as part of his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech for Jackson Browne. Springsteen also recalled when he first met Browne in New York City at The Bitter End, a storied Greenwich Village performance venue, he knew the singer-songwriter from California was “simply one of the best”. Coming from somebody who has written so many great songs himself and during that same speech also admitted to be “a little competitive”, I think these remarks speak volumes.

The first Jackson Browne record I listened to in its entirety was what I still consider a true ’70s gem: Running On Empty. If I recall it correctly, my brother-in-law had it on vinyl, and I initially copied it on music cassette. I was spending countless hours at the time taping music from records, CDs and certain radio programs. I still have hundreds of tapes floating around. While it’s safe to assume the quality of most is less than stellar at this time, I just cannot throw them out!

Back to Browne with whom I happen to share one fun fact: We were both born in Heidelberg, Germany, though close to 18 years apart. Browne’s dad was stationed in Germany, working for American military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Two of his three siblings were born there as well. In 1951 when Browne was three years old, his family relocated to Los Angeles.

During his teenage years, Browne started performing folk songs at local L.A. venues like The Ash Grove and The Troubador Club. After graduating from high school in 1966, he joined country rockers Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which would later record some of his songs. After a few months, Browne left and moved to New York City where he became a staff writer for Elektra Records’ publishing company Nina Music.

In 1967, Browne met and became romantically involved with singer Nico of The Velvet Underground. He became a significant contributor to her debut solo album Chelsea Girl. After they broke up in 1968, Browne returned to Los Angeles where he met Glenn Frey soon thereafter. Before he started recording his own songs, Browne’s music was recorded by other artists such as Tom Rush, Gregg Allman, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and of course the aforementioned Nico and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

In 1971, Browne finally managed to get a deal with Asylum Records, and in January 1972, he released his eponymous debut album. Thirteen additional studio records have since appeared, as well as seven compilation and live albums and more than 40 singles. And this brings us to the most fun part of the post: Some of Browne’s music he has released during his close to 50-year recording career.

I’d like to kick things off with Song for Adam from Brown’s above noted eponymous debut album. The mournful memory of Adam Saylor, a friend of Browne who died in 1968 – possibly by suicide – was covered by various other artists, including Gregg Allman, who included a moving rendition with Browne singing harmony vocals on his final studio album Southern Blood from September 2017.

By the time Browne recorded Take It Easy for his sophomore album For Everyman, which appeared in October 1973, the Eagles had released the tune as their first single in May 1972. It gave them their first hit peaking at no. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and one of their signature songs. Originally, Browne began writing the tune for his eponymous debut album. But he got stuck with it, so played it to his friend Glenn Frey, who ended up finishing it. When Browne finally recorded the song, he also released it as a single, but it didn’t chart – perhaps it sounds pretty similar to the Eagles‘ version.

Fountain of Sorrow is a great track from Browne’s third studio Late for the Sky. Released in September 1974, it was his first top 20 record in the U.S., climbing to no. 14 on the Billboard 200. Like Take It Easy, the tune also appeared separately as a single but did not chart either.

In November 1976, Browne released The Pretender, his fourth studio album. It was his first major album chart success, climbing to no. 5 on the Billboard 200, and marking his first record to chart in the U.K., where it reached no. 26. Here’s the title track, which also became the second single. It did moderately well, reaching no. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100 – love that tune!

Next is the album that started my Jackson Browne journey: The amazing Running on Empty from December 1977. Frankly, I could list each tune on that record, so let’s go with one that is a less obvious choice: The Road, written by American singer-songwriter Danny O’Keefe. Themed around life on the road as a touring musician, Running on Empty was an unusual record featuring live recordings on stage and in other locations associated with touring, such as hotel rooms, tour buses or backstage. The first 2:28 minutes of The Road were captured in a hotel room in Columbia, Md., while the remainder was recorded live at Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., which nowadays is known as PNC Bank Arts Center and a venue where I’ve seen many great shows.

In June 1980, Browne released Hold Out, his sixth studio album. While the record received poor reviews from music critics, ironically, it became his only no. 1 album in the U.S. It also was Browne’s second record to chart in the U.K. Here’s Of Missing Persons, a beautiful tribute to Little Feat co-founder Lowell George, a collaborator and longtime friend of Browne’s who had passed away the year before. The tune was specifically written for George’s then six-year-old daughter Inara George who since became a music artist as well.

For many years, Jackson Browne has been a political activist, e.g., speaking up against the use of nuclear power and supporting environmental causes. But it wasn’t until the ’80s that political themes starting to play a more dominant role in Browne’s lyrics. The album that comes to my mind first in that context is Lives in the Balance, which came out in February 1986. Here’s the catchy opener For America. It also became the lead single and reached no. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100.

For the next tune, I’m jumping to the ’90s, specifically to February 1996 and Browne’s 11th studio album Looking East. Like many of his previous records, it featured various notable guests, such as Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, Ry Cooder and Mike Campbell. Here is Baby How Long, for which Cooder provided a great slide guitar part and Raitt sang harmony vocals, together with Australian singer Renée Geyer.

Let’s do two more from the current millennium. First up: The title track from The Naked Ride Home, Browne’s 12th studio album from September 2002, which my streaming music provider served up as a listening suggestion that in turn triggered the idea to do this post.

The final song I’d like to highlight is from Browne’s most recent 14th studio album Standing in the Breach, which was released in October 2014. Here is the nice opener The Birds of St. Marks. Originally, Browne wrote that tune in 1967 after his breakup with Nico and return from New York to California. While first released on his 2005 live album Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1., it wasn’t until this 2014 studio album that Browne properly recorded the tune. “This is a song I always heard as a Byrds song, and that was even part of the writing of the song,” Brown told Rolling Stone in an August 2014 interview. Standing in the Breach became a remarkable late-stage career chart success, reaching no. 15 on the Billboard 200 and no. 31 in the U.K.

Earlier this year, in the wake of testing positive for COVID-19 (though luckily with relatively light symptoms), Browne released A Little Soon to Say, a song from his next studio album scheduled for October 9, which I featured in this previous Best of What’s New installment. To date Browne has sold more than 18 million albums in the U.S. alone. Apart from the above mentioned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, Browne has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2007. He is ranked at no. 37 in Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Little Feat/Waiting For Columbus

Band’s 1978 double LP is one of the best live gems

Little Feat is one of the many bands whose names I’ve known for a long time but for some reason never got around to listen to. When I recently asked a dear friend who is also a huge fan of the band which album he’d recommend to start me off, he half-jokingly said all of them. Then he noted some box set. But he quickly realized none of these recommendations would be, well, exactly a little feat, for a guy with a family and a full-time job, so he mentioned Waiting For Columbus. Let’s just say, he has a pretty good idea what makes me tick!

I’ve now listened to this album for a few times and pretty much dig it from the first to the last bar. The caliber of the musicians around co-founder, songwriter, lead vocalist and guitarist Lowell George is simply outstanding. Together with the fantastic backing horn section Tower Of Power, this double LP from February 1978 truly makes for a compelling listening experience. In fact, I would go as far as calling it one of the very best live albums I’ve come across to date, and for what it’s worth, I’ve definitely listened to many over last 40 years.

With that being said, it’s hard to decide where to even start. How about the beginning? The album, which captures recordings from seven different shows that took place in London and Washington, D.C. in August 1977, kicks off with a nice short acappella version of Join The Band, a traditional, followed by Fat Man In The Bathtub. Written by George, like the majority of the band’s tunes until his death in June 1979, the song is from their third studio album Dixie Chicken.

All That You Dream is a track from The Last Record Album, the band’s fifth studio release from November 1975. It is one of the few tunes that doesn’t include George in the writing credits. Instead, it was created by Paul Barrere, who joined Little Feat in 1972 as a guitarist, and band co-founder and keyboarder Bill Payne. With a nice funky groove driven by a cool guitar riff and strong harmony vocals, it’s got the key ingredients that make for a great tune.

Oh Atlanta is from Little Feat’s fourth studio album Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, released in August 1974. The song was written by Payne, who also sang lead. I guess this explains the cool honky tonk style piano that draws you in immediately, along with the nice harmony vocals and a groove that makes you move – my kind of music!

Dixie Chicken is the title track from Little Feat’s aforementioned 1973 album. Wikipedia and AllMusic call this record the band’s signature release. While I haven’t listened enough to their music to make such a definitive statement, I know good music when I hear it, and this track definitely makes my list! It was co-written by George and Martin Kibbee (credited as Fred Martin), a collaborator with whom George initially had played in a garage punk band after high school, according to American Songwriter. Like other tunes on Waiting For Columbus, this is an extended version – again, it’s the honky tonk piano I love and the horns, which give the song a nice New Orleans feel.

Rocket In My Pocket is another I tune I’d like to call out, though I find it really hard to choose one track over the other. Also composed by George, the song is from Little Feat’s sixth studio record Time Loves A Hero, which came out in May 1977. If I see this correctly, it’s the band’s last studio album that was released during George’s lifetime.

Spanish Moon is another track from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. To me it’s again the groove that stands out on this George tune. I love the intro with the conga and the bass, and how the track picks up from there. The horn accents give it a seductive soul touch – just awesome!

Willin’ appears on Little Feat’s second studio album Sailin’ Shoes, released in May 1972. According to Wikipedia, it’s a reworked version of a song George had written that made Frank Zappa fire him from The Mothers Of Invention in May 1969. However, there is some dispute about the exact circumstances. George had joined Zappa’s backing band in November 1968 as rhythm guitarist and vocalist.

As I noted above, I could easily go on forever about this record, but as George Harrison once wisely sang, “all things must pass.” The last track I’d like to highlight is another co-write by George and Martin called Rock & Roll Doctor, the opener from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. 

In addition to George, Barrere and Payne, Little Feat’s line-up at the time of Waiting For Columbus included Sam Clayton (congas, vocals), Kenny Gradney (bass) and Richard Hayward (drums, vocals). There were also two prominent guests: Ace guitarist Mick Taylor (yep, that Mick Taylor from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Rolling Stones!) played lead and slide guitar on A Apolitical Blues. Doobie Brothers vocalists Michael McDonald and Patrick Simmons provided backing vocals on Red Streamliner. The Tower Of Power horn section included Emilio Castillo (tenor saxophone), Greg Adams (trumpet), Lenny Pickett (alto and tenor saxophone, clarinet on Dixie Chicken), Stephen “Doc” Kupka (baritone saxophone) and Mic Gillette (trombone, trumpet).

In April 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Waiting For Columbus at no. 49 on their list of 50 Greatest Live Albums Of All Time. While I may have rated this recorded higher, it certainly is in mighty company with other artists and records like James Brown (Live At The Apollo, 1963; no. 1), The Allman Brothers Band (At Fillmore East, 1971; no. 2), The Who (Live At Leeds, 1970; no. 4), The Rolling Stones (Get Ya Ya-Ya’s Out, 1970; no. 17), Jimi Hendrix (Jimi Plays Monterey, 1986; no. 18), Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band (Live/1975-85, 1986; no. 20), Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band (Live Bullet, 1976; no. 26) and U2 (Under A Bloody Red Sky, 1983; no. 44), to name some.

Following George’s death and the release of the band’s seventh studio album Down On The Farm in November 1979, Little Feat called it quits. In 1987, the band’s surviving members Barrere, Clayton, Gradney, Hayward and Payne reunited, and added songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Craig Fuller and Fred Tackett (guitar, mandolin, trumpet) to the line-up. Little Feat has since released nine additional studio records, as well as various live and compilation albums. They remain active to this day, with Barrere, Clayton, Payne and Tackett still being part of the mix. Their official website lists multiple shows for this year, mostly featuring different members of the band.

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, American Songwriter, Rolling Stone, Little Feat official website, YouTube